General Hollywood History

A Wonderful time for IAWL

World War II magazine, on newsstands now.

I first noticed the trend with a Google Alert December 2 for a Closer magazine article about Kelly Stewart Harcourt’s Christmas memories; holidays in the Stewart household included an annual viewing of her father’s most memorable picture, It’s a Wonderful Life.

On December 6, another ping from Google Alerts pointed me to a Looper piece on Jim’s crying scene in IAWL and its motivation. And four days after that, two pings, the first another story about Kelly Harcourt and Christmas in the Stewart house, and the second a Showbiz Cheat Sheet look at the make-or-break nature of IAWL for Jim and the fact this could have been his last picture.

What interested me most (of course) was that my 2016 book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe turned up in every piece as journalists investigated the magic of IAWL and the stark and ravaged nature of the Stewart performance. Then journalist Rachael Scott of CNN.com interviewed me for what turned out to be an excellent look at Jim’s experiences in war and its impact on his performance in IAWL.

Then The Federalist took a look at Jim the war hero and his return to make IAWL and again, there was Mission. And World War II magazine released a solid piece of work by David Kindy, who has interviewed me a few times over the years. That feature is The Dark Place and explains how Jim’s mind-altering 20 combat missions influenced the second half of his acting career.

At this point a producer from MSNBC’s Morning Joe contacted me to come on-air along with my favorite historical biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, to discuss Jim’s military career and return for IAWL. Hosts Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, and Willie Guest asked insightful questions, and the resulting 10 minutes of television blew up Amazon’s orderly inventory system and Mission went out of stock. (Twitter blew up as well with often-hilarious criticism of the room in which my Skype interview took place, but that’s another story.)

Doris offered wonderful insight on Morning Joe about why IAWL resonates with such power this year—George Bailey considered himself to be “stuck” in Bedford Falls just as all of us have been “stuck” at home through the pandemic. George’s life is such a dark place and the walls press in on him until he’s nearly crushed, and who among us hasn’t felt that way in 2020? When I described Jim’s combat career and its inevitable impact on his brain and his acting style, wasn’t I also describing the impact of Covid on the psyche of people worldwide as the germ wages war on all of us? Jim experienced combat fatigue; we are getting a taste of Covid fatigue. The Germans aren’t shooting at us at 20,000 feet, but the strain is real and ongoing.

As per the plot of IAWL, just in time for Christmas, George Bailey experiences redemption and realizes he’s living, after all is said and done, a wonderful life. It’s the kind of miracle comeback we all want to experience after such a bleak time in the history of our still-pretty-new century.

I can only wonder if playing George Bailey made Jimmy Stewart see himself as one lucky guy. The former playboy settled down after the war, married a mature divorcee with two sons, saw the addition of twin girls, and lived on. He survived the war when so many of his “boys” hadn’t. He lost many fliers from his squadron and bomb group in combat and took personal responsibility for this fact—it was one of the wartime memories he kept locked inside, and one of the reasons he would sit in quiet solitude at times and just stare at nothing, as Kelly Harcourt described to me.

Stewart’s beloved classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, was already a crazy-complicated picture, so warm and bright at times, so dark and unsettling at others. This year you may find watching it to be a deeper and more rewarding experience, and if true, we must give a nod to director Frank Capra, who sought, against conventional wisdom, to bring this story to the screen. In 1946 Capra was considered too sentimental and old school for a cynical post-war Hollywood. Now, I admire his vision as never before. It’s as if he foresaw our 2020 reality and brewed up what vaccine he could, and that’s why this year in particular the world is riveted by It’s a Wonderful Life as never before.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen
Heartfelt salutations from both Jim and George.

P.S. After this column went live, MSN’s The Wrap published a trivia slideshow with Mission content.

The War About the War

Olivia returns to the Loew’s Grand in Atlanta in 1961 for the re-premiere of her favorite picture.

All my life, the film version of Gone With the Wind was a big deal. In my wonder years, my mother adored Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Huge crush. And I remember being dragged to see a reissue in a Pittsburgh movie palace where, as a red-blooded boy, I waited impatiently for Civil War battle scenes that never materialized. Just endless talk of war and a bunch of girl stuff. The closest I got to interest was a scene showing the aftermath of a battlefield, but for my four-hour forced investment, I was left embittered.

Some years later I became interested in Hollywood history and ultimately made a career of it, and GWTW became a different animal to me—a cornerstone of that history and a turning point in motion picture production.

So, yes, Gone With the Wind has been a big deal. While researching my book Errol & Olivia in 2009, I came across some photos of the 1961 Civil War Centennial re-release of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta with festivities that mirrored the 1939 premiere, including a relaunch at the Loew’s Grand Theatre, which had been the focus of all in December 1939. Selznick came back for the series of events, along with Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Evelyn Keyes, Victor Jory, and some others, and they relived the glory of that December 1939 moment when the world turned to Atlanta and audiences finally, officially, got to see Selznick’s version of Margaret Mitchell’s vision flickering in the dark.

For 76 years of her life, Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a spotlight for being central to the Gone With the Wind experience. More than any other topic, even Errol Flynn, people wanted to talk about GWTW and her Academy Award-nominated performance as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, and she was always delighted to oblige.

Then in June 2015, New York Post entertainment columnist Lou Lumenick posed a then-shocking question: Wasn’t it time to send Gone With the Wind “the way of the Confederate flag?” Oh, the uproar among lovers of Old Hollywood. I can only surmise now how firmly Lou’s tongue was planted in his cheek as he asked the question because he knew it would stir up a hornet’s nest. More than that, it earned him late-career multimedia headlines.

Since then, for some, GWTW has transitioned from pleasure to guilty pleasure as consciousnesses have been raised to issues of racism in society worldwide, including and especially in the U.S. Deep South, and Lumenick has been revealed as a visionary for his question and its context.

Full disclosure: At first I thought Lou’s argument to be silly, just as I found the uproar over Confederate statues to be nonsense. Now I think, yes, let’s learn, grow, and move on. We shouldn’t be defending the politics that found it necessary to glorify the post-war Southern cause with monument after monument. In the Declaration of Independence, written four-score prior to the Civil War, all men were granted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If anything is the American way, this is it. And we should be honoring that concept at the expense of pieces of bronze or granite.

As an historian, I view Gone With the Wind, both the book and the film it inspired, as artifacts of their day—snapshots of early 20th century Southern perspectives on race as written by reclusive Margaret Mitchell, a product of her culture and times. Selznick’s picture based on the Mitchell manuscript drowned box offices in cash nationwide. To hold a 1935 fictional book billed as a “romance” to 2020 social and historical standards seems to me to compare apples and vacuum cleaners. And banning it screams fascism—sometimes the Left extends so far left that it ends up on the Right.

Why not just let the legion of GWTW fans enjoy Selznick’s picture for the fantasy it is? To me Rhett Butler represents the devil’s advocate and conscience of the South; never does he take “the Cause” seriously. I would love it if the fans of this picture could acknowledge the goings-on as fantasy and acknowledge the institutionalized racism that has been embedded in our society since long before the Civil War. Racism that endures to present day.

Of course Gone With the Wind is a racist tome; it has to be, based on subject matter that views the Antebellum South as Camelot burned to the ground by damn Yankees.

My point is, OdeH lived so extraordinarily long a life that she got to see her greatest accomplishment tarnished black. When she turned 100 and proclaimed that she planned to live to 110 and then reevaluate, of course I believed her. I had seen her iron will on display both from afar and up close. But then two things happened, either of which may have made her question her extended longevity plan. In 2018 the courts ruled against her lawsuit with the makers of the TV series Feud. Such a bitter pill for the victor of the de Havilland Decision to be forced to swallow. She was just as right this time as that time—one may not defame living people—but the ruling went against her. To be blunt, the grand dame took big business’s sucker punch.

When George Floyd was murdered, the nation quaked, and the shock waves hit her beloved Gone With the Wind full force. I can only wonder if she then reasoned, It’s time for me to go. Who knows?

I still don’t love Gone With the Wind the movie, but I admire the filmmaking and the drama of its production and release. Recounting the epic months on Hollywood soundstages as seen through the eyes of OdeH rates among my favorite aspects of researching and writing Errol & Olivia. And I feel sad that the fallout over racism as it applies to Gone With the Wind occurred in the final reel of the life of Olivia de Havilland, the last titan of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

Author’s note: I wrote this piece seven weeks ago but due to various factors am only posting it now. Aside from a broken bone, the issue is completion of my next book, which I’ll be discussing soon.

Complicated

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

My favorite image of Olivia de Havilland, taken in 1942. Though she be but little, she is fierce.

It’s pretty weird living in a world that doesn’t have Olivia de Havilland in it. Columnists and bloggers have been singing Olivia’s praises since her passing a week ago, justifiably so of course. She was the last major star of Hollywood’s Golden Era. In taking OdeH for granted as one does since she’s been around all our lives (unless you happen to be age 105 and up), I was awestruck last Sunday to scroll through Facebook and see tribute after tribute in an unbroken string that went on and on. Even the latest from the White House couldn’t crack the de Havilland hit parade.

That’s on the one hand. The day after her passing I was contacted by Barnett Parker from a FOX TV affiliate in California and put on alert to appear on-air via Zoom to speak about OdeH. Then an hour later the idea was nixed because the 40-year-old news editor had never heard of Olivia de Havilland, and so obviously her passing wasn’t newsworthy. That is the other hand; time has marched on.

I go back to 1986 with OdeH. Like every other growing boy who came into contact with the Errol Flynn picture The Adventures of Robin Hood, I fell in love with Olivia as Maid Marian. Heck, what was not to love? She received bins of mash notes from smitten men written in care of her easily accessed Paris address, and mine was just another. She responded politely and girlishly because she knew that’s what her legion of admirers needed her to do. There was also, even then, an author inside of me, and so I started asking her questions getting at the story behind the filmmaking she had experienced, and our occasional correspondence continued.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

To promote Captain Blood in 1935, Warner Bros. dressed its newest starlet in short-shorts and leather boots for a series of  publicity pinups. By the late 1930s Olivia chafed at such exploitation and refused to participate.

Flash forward to 2009 after Michael Mazzone and I had co-written the surprise hit Errol Flynn Slept HereErrol Flynn Slept Here—a forensic look at Flynn’s life through the mountaintop playpen he had built at the height of his fame. Research conducted then suggested his life with OdeH onscreen and off warranted a separate volume and that led to Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood. During the writing of that one I got back in touch with my old pal Olivia who, it turned out, was a fan of Errol Flynn Slept Here. I told her about E&O and asked for an interview and a phone number—basically asked respectfully for what any author needs from a subject-matter expert.

(You can’t see it, but I’m sitting here looking out the window rubbing my whiskers trying to find words for the process of corresponding with OdeH.) The words I’m coming up with are “glacial.” “Tectonic.” Maybe if I had jumped in the DeLorean and gone back 10 years and written the letter in 1999, she’d have been ready to help me in 2009. But I knew she had an assistant and a particular way of handling the volume of mail she received. I also knew this is the gal who would invite people to Paris to meet with her, and tell them to give her a call at an appointed time after they’d arrived, and when they called she would say, oh, was that today? Well, let’s make it the same time next week. Which is perfectly within her rights as a legendary multiple Academy Award winner in her 90s. But over here in the real world, where there are author contracts and deadlines, her science of time didn’t really match mine. I tried violating protocol by calling and I left a couple of messages to no avail.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

In 1940, Olivia turned the tables and posed for this series of shots as if to say, You don’t own me, Jack Warner. I’m my own woman.

Also while writing E&O, I contacted Olivia’s sister Joan Fontaine (Olivia + Joan = the second or third most famous feud in Hollywood history) for an interview to talk about  her sister and Errol Flynn. Joan had jaunted into Hollywood in the later 1930s and won an Oscar under the nose of her hard-working sister, before her hard-working sister had won one, which only deepened a rivalry that went back to their childhood. The very idea of speaking about this subject for the record appalled Joan, who told me in that caramel voice of hers, “If I spoke to you about Olivia, it would be like an atomic bomb going off.” Maybe in 1969 that would have been true, or 1979, but this was 2009 when only we dedicated few movie lovers remembered the Joan Fontaine of Rebecca and Suspicion—and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, for that matter. That’s OK, Joan, I was still able to cover your crazy relationship with Olivia in a no-holds-barred section entitled Twisted Sisters.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Olivia de Havilland was a live-by-her-own-rules firebrand, the same woman who had beaten Jack Warner’s blacklist of 1941 through ’45 in court and earned the de Havilland Decision that really was an atomic bomb going off in the middle of Hollywood. This little woman of 5’4″ brought down the studio system stubbornly and single-handedly and then carried that victory into a string of three Academy Award nominations and two wins in four years. After she had proved everything there was to prove, she left Hollywood and settled in Paris, wrote a terrific book about it, and spent the remainder of her life sipping champagne and living life on her own terms. Not my terms, certainly. Her terms.

When Errol & Olivia was published, I sent her a copy just to say, look, a coffee table book about you and Errol. It’s a beautiful volume with a couple hundred photos; I bet many she’d never seen before and I bet they brought back memories. I did this with some trepidation because I wrote something in there based on all my research that I knew she wouldn’t like—that evidence suggested she and Errol had been more than friends around the time of Santa Fe Trail when they were a couple of lonely and restless souls. The narrative nailed her as exactly what she was: a loner, a workaholic, an accomplisher, depressive and isolated her whole life. The silence coming out of Rue Benouville was deafening. She sure wasn’t that silent a couple years ago when she went after the producers of Feud for the way Catherine Zeta-Jones had portrayed her, as a cold and gossipy bitch—which was not OdeH at all. OdeH was a charmer and the soul of discretion at all times, which is, I believe, why she couldn’t deliver the memoir she’d promised to her publisher, Dutton, at the end of 1980.

Oh, that’s another story. So when she continued to miss her deadlines, and after I’d had a couple of books published, I asked if maybe I could help her get over the hump and finish her memoir and get the manuscript safely off. Well! The nerve of this whippersnapper! She told me this was quite impossible because “Every word has to be my own.” I tried, friends, but as it stands, she took every word to her grave, which is the ultimate evidence that Feud got her all wrong.

This is my long-winded way of saying, I love you, Olivia. I admired the time you gave me, and every challenge and every complication that went with it. You lived life your way and enjoyed a champagne diet past age 104. I can only hope you and Errol have had a chance to catch up—there must have been plenty to say since you outlived him by, oh, a mere 61 years.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

 

a + b = c, anyone?

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Once in a while people ask me for recommendations for good WWII pictures. Obviously, Casablanca stands as the masterpiece of war-era romance and intrigue, but another Warner picture released exactly a year after Casablanca made an all-new impression on me when I watched it just last night.

I’d seen it before, but this time I cried at Edge of Darkness. I mean really cried in several scenes—which is funny because it had never affected me like that. In a nutshell, it’s autumn 1942 and Errol Flynn is the local resistance leader in a Nazi-occupied Norwegian fishing village of 800 as the Germans in charge ratchet up the pressure. They take food from the village and ship it off to Germany. They impose punitive sanctions against the citizenry, and the situation escalates to the point that all the resistance leaders in town are condemned and ordered to dig their own graves before they’re shot by firing squad.

For most of my life the story in Edge of Darkness seemed like just your usual wartime plot; a backdrop for Errol Flynn and crew to perform some onscreen heroics. Then I wrote Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (now in paperback–get your copy today!) which involved many trips to the Netherlands to learn about a town under Nazi occupation. I was able to see the building that served as SS headquarters—the place where locals were tortured to reveal information. I walked streets once German-held. I met many people who lived under German rule, including the children of Dutch resistance leaders. These are the people depicted in Edge of Darkness, and boy, do they now ring true. The resistance leader who resents German presence. His girlfriend who is raped by a German soldier. Her father the doctor who doesn’t favor fighting the Germans and her mother the dim and detached hausfrau. Many realistic characters are portrayed and they have one connecting purpose: They are ready to fight the Germans and they know that to do so, “We must be like steel.”

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

After the rape of Gunnar’s girlfriend Karen by a German soldier, Norwegian resistance leaders must decide when and how to strike. Soon the decision will be taken out of their hands.

I cried because I now know people like this. I cried because I know their story, what they suffered with spirits unbroken, and how they fought the oppressor day by day, week by week as the war dragged on and their lives became ever more unbearable.

Edge of Darkness begins at the end of the story—a German patrol plane spies a Norwegian flag flying above a town inhabited only by masses of dead soldiers and civilians in what a German investigator arriving on scene assumes was a battle of annihilation for both sides. Then we flash back to witness the series of events that led to massacre. The picture unspools like a macabre whodunit, tension increasing with very little in the way of comic relief. The resistance movement solidifies under German oppression just as it did in the Dutch village of Velp that I investigated for Dutch Girl. The restrictions imposed on the Norwegian village of Trollnes were exactly the same as those imposed on the Dutch village of Velp. The reaction of locals—death over cooperation with the Nazis—mirrors what happened in Velp; in fact, Audrey was among those who participated in Dutch resistance activities, just as did pretty much everyone in the village portrayed in Edge of Darkness. And when the resistance leaders of Trollnes are seen digging their own graves, well, chills ran down my spine because of a key episode described in Dutch Girl involving a member of Audrey’s own family.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Villagers advance toward the final, probably fatal confrontation with occupying German troops.

There’s a subplot involving a Norwegian woman who falls in love with a German soldier, but given the film’s release date of 1943, she of course fights the urge because he’s an occupier. The only good German in 1943 was a dead German, and there are scores of them before long in Edge of Darkness.

I’ll leave it to others to talk about the crazy-strong cast and their performances. As directed by Hollywood veteran Lewis Milestone, Ukrainian-born and fluent in German, the climactic battle sequence pulls no punches for 1943. The Norwegians attack German machine gun nests with suicidal fury to match the ruthlessness of the oppressors. The body count is shockingly high on both sides and I can only wonder how those trying to escape wartime reality by going to an Errol Flynn picture—you know, the guy from Robin Hood—reacted at a story even grimmer than the day’s headlines.

I’d love to hear from people who a) read Dutch Girl and as a result b) cried at the courage and sacrifice in Edge of Darkness. If a + b were to equal c for any of you, that would make my day.

The Actor’s Dream

the-killers2

The killers.

Imagine the world is the old world—the world before March. Imagine you work in an office with a bunch of other people. Imagine you step out for lunch without really saying goodbye to the people, because it feels like you’re always there, and always will be.

A-soon-to-be-dead-workmate

A girlfriend and workmate, soon to be dead.

You come back and they’re all dead, murdered in grisly fashion. Blood still drips off the ceiling and runs down the walls. Your brain can’t process what’s happened or what you should do next. Are the killers still here? Do you report it to the police? Do you run?

That’s the premise of one of the creepier pictures I saw in the 1970s, Three Days of the Condor. I saw it either first run or soon thereafter, I can’t remember, but for me it was a nightmare scenario that I proceeded to live many times in the predawn darkness. Just writing this I had to go order a 1974 hardcover of the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, which I never read. For me the film version was grueling enough, but now I’m curious.

I’m not writing about this picture as a picture. If I were, I’d tell you I loved it then and still love it now. I’d talk about how plausible it was and how much I thought of Robert Redford in the lead and Faye Dunaway, an actress I never cared for but found appealing here. What’s creepiest about the picture is you never know who the evil is or where the evil comes from, and it turns out the evil listens to classical music and paints in meticulous detail lead soldiers from past eras. And that, my friends, is the subject of my piece.

Swedish actor Max von Sydow passed on to his reward March 8, 2020. Max had been the Exorcist back in the day and Jesus before that. I remember spending a lifetime one afternoon watching The Greatest Story Ever Told at the Hollywood Theater in my hometown as a young boy, back when my parents tried the populist method of teaching me religion. (It didn’t work.) As an adult I’ve watched this picture and thought it wasn’t that bad, and that von Sydow had an impossible task in playing Jesus. Really, I ask you, who the hell can play Jesus? Any actor would love the chance, sure, but it becomes a cautionary tale because Jesus will never be able to be played in a motion picture. And you can quote me.

I remember maybe 10 years ago I read something about Max von Sydow and I thought, WHAT? He’s still alive?? You just assume that because Father Marin was 70 when (spoiler alert) he didn’t make it through The Exorcist, he can’t possibly be alive 40 years later, in 2010. The math doesn’t add up. But, bulletin: Max von Sydow was freakin’ 43 when he played the old priest! Really, 43! Now that, my frienda, is acting.

condor-1

Circling back to Three Days of the Condor, released in 1975, von Sydow played the head assassin as a charming gentleman who wouldn’t hurt a fly. For me this was definitive; it defined Max von Sydow and the role I will always think of when he is mentioned. In the last reel he has Robert Redford dead to rights. He can kill him any second, but (another spoiler alert) it turns out he no longer has a contract out for Joe Turner (Redford’s character), so he offers him a lift! He’s so beautifully calm about it, just so masterful in his performance, that you want to go home with the assassin and look at his toy soldiers!

I’ve met many Hollywood stars over the years, but I never met Max von Sydow, and I’m sorry I didn’t. Of course he has a tremendous body of work that includes Bergman pictures and The Exorcist and another personal favorite, Flash Gordon, when he played Ming the Merciless. But when I finally do see Max von Sydow, I’ll say to him, “Bravo, sir, for Three Days of the Condor. You gave me nightmares.” I know he’ll appreciate hearing that. It’s an actor’s dream.

Day of Infamy

It’s December 7, a momentous date in history. I think back to what this date meant to a U.S. civilian population rocked by the Japanese surprise attack, and I think about those already serving in the military on Dec. 7, and what a declaration of war meant to them. As you know, the draft had begun, and thousands of 12-month draftees knew as soon as bombs fell at Pearl that their number was truly up, and they wouldn’t get out after just a year. But they would soon be joined by millions of enlistees outraged by what happened to the Pacific fleet and by Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States.

Mission_Cover_webHollywood’s beloved boy-next-door movie star Jimmy Stewart was one of those draftees and had entered the service in February 1941. As described in my book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he was, as of Dec. 7, Corporal James Stewart, and in less that a month he would earn his wings as an Army flier with the rank of second lieutenant. (If you’re a WWII history lover, please explore this January 18 auction of an incredible military aviation collection in Plymouth, MA, which includes a complete Norden bombsight, pilot’s wings, very pistols, uniforms, plane parts, books, and so much more.)

The Mission hardcover gets a fair amount of attention at this time of year. Right now it’s being featured in all Barnes & Noble locations across the U.S., face out in the Military History section. Mission describes all 20 combat missions flown by Stewart, some of them “milk runs” over the coast of France, but many others harrowing, seven- and eight-hour flights that took Jim deep into Germany for strikes at the industrial heart of the Reich on the run-up to D-Day.

Of course there’s another reason why a book about Jimmy Stewart and the war does well at the holidays; the first picture he made after the war, while still suffering PTSD from all those missions, was It’s a Wonderful Life. When he began making this one in the spring of 1946, life wasn’t so wonderful for James Maitland Stewart. He’d left the holy crusade against Hitler, which had been Jim’s great purpose in life. His mind had been shattered by a few missions too many and the relentless strain of command, necessitating visits to the “flak farm” to de-stress. He’d aged in the service and no longer felt he could land a job as a romantic idol. And in fact no studios came calling except Frank Capra with his risky idea for a picture about a suicidal man and an angel.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Turning darkness into gold.

Suffering nightmares and flashbacks, his hands shaking, his diet shot from anxiety and confidence gone due to the years-long break from moviemaking, Jim stepped onto RKO soundstages to begin this crazy picture with Capra. And the director, who had been a king of 1930s Hollywood, was battling his own demons. He’d been away doing war work too, and now a grittier Hollywood had emerged that rejected his notions about crafting sentimental pictures. There was this film noir thing that now suited a shell-shocked, post-war America. Nobody welcomed Capra back just like nobody had welcomed Stewart—“welcomed” as in offered work. The men were desperate, as noted by IAWL leading lady Donna Reed, who described Capra and Stewart on the set as tense second-guessers; it wasn’t the happy shoot you’d imagine as these two giants of pre-war cinema set about trying to reestablish themselves in a younger, reborn Hollywood that had passed them by.

I was neutral on Stewart when I began writing Mission, and he’s a tough character to know because he closed himself off in some regards. But he showed remarkable bravery in the war, and even more guts in the peace that followed, because he did nothing short of win the battle of Hollywood; this 38 year old with the shakes who looked 50 began a second career when the wags called him washed up. First, he used the darkness of war in his characters, many of whom were now haunted or seeking revenge. Second, he urged producers to gamble on him as he gambled on himself—he’d take a smaller salary upfront in exchange for a percentage of the profits on each picture.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is called “the richest man in town” for having friends. But in the 10 years after the war, Jim Stewart became the richest man in town for picking good pictures and banking a fortune in profit participation. By any measure this was a hero, and it’s fitting that every year we get around to celebrating him and the post-war venture of two down-and-out war veterans, which happened to become the most beloved movie in Hollywood history.

It-s-A-Wonderful-Life-its-a-wonderful-life-32920354-1920-1081.jpg

… Forever

I caught part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade here in the U.S. on television this morning. Featured were the usual assortment of giant aerial balloons to enchant the kiddies—the Grinch, Spider-Man, Pikachu—all the usual suspects. But then my friend Eric tipped me off to a past Thanksgiving parade that featured a disturbing sight for any child.

pinocchio 1937

No, I’m not talking about the horrifying Pinocchio that terrorized New York beginning in 1937. If you lie, Junior, your fate will be an excruciating, inflamed erection on your face!!

As scary as that no doubt was, I’m speaking of the guy below, who was promoting Hammer’s then-new Frankenstein monster as portrayed by Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein. The new and improved version of Frankie appeared in 1957, a dramatic reboot by the British Hammer Studios of Universal’s creaking old black-and-white series that had begun in 1931.

THANKSGIVINGFRANKIE

THANKSGIVINGFRANKIE2

Imagine you’re an 8-year-old minding your own business in front of Macy’s flagship Manhattan store at the holidays 1957 and this guy comes floating into view.

The tag line of the picture was, The Curse of Frankenstein…will haunt you forever! I think maybe I just explained a generation of vivisectionists who patrolled the streets of New York City in the 1960s and 70s.

Happy Holidays.

Blind Date

Wherever I go to talk about Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (which by the way makes an outstanding present at the holidays), I’m asked what I’ll write about next. It’s a natural question for people to ask, and a difficult one for me to answer. I always say, “Audrey’s a tough act to follow,” and I mean that. I’m inclined to write a book about Mickey Simpson, the mountain of an actor who usually played a bad guy in Westerns of the 1940s and 50s but also showed up in pictures as diverse as Flynn’s Adventures of Don Juan, a Weissmuller Tarzan, a Three Stooges short, and the Adventures of Superman. Life must have been a blast for Mickey Simpson because he was always working! Always at a different location in and around Hollywood, hanging out with all sorts of famous actors and always up to some kind of crazy no-good. He did 13 episodes of The Lone Ranger alone. He was a rare actor who at 6-foot-6 could stand eye to eye with Clint Walker’s Cheyenne Bodie—he appeared nine times on Cheyenne, always as a henchman. That was his specialty, serving as loyal muscle for the brains of the operation, never the one coming up with evil plans. It’s easy for me to have a soft spot for Mickey Simpson.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

As usual, Clint Walker gets the drop on Mickey Simpson. On Cheyenne Mickey was 0 for 9 going up against Bodie.

Only problem is, how many people want to read a book about Mickey Simpson? I wish someone would write one because I’d buy it in a minute, but that author won’t be me; I need a topic that has commercial potential. And something that hasn’t been done. And in an area where I already have an audience. In other words, this ain’t easy.

There’s another problem I’ve run up against lately. I thought I had a topic in a Hollywood personality from the 1930s and 40s (I won’t say who it is because I still might do it sometime). But this prospect had a personality disorder—could have been borderline, or bipolar, or narcissistic—and after spending three years with Audrey Hepburn—I’m sorry, a fatally disordered mind isn’t for me.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Years earlier Mickey (left) went after Tarzan. Also unsuccessful. You’ll have to indulge me because this is the closest to a Mickey Simpson biography I’m going to get.

My colleague Scott Eyman hilariously described his time spent writing a superb biography of director John Ford as “like being locked in a telephone booth with 12 Eugene O’Neill characters, and they’re all mean.” In other words, Ford wasn’t a warm guy, but as Scott also noted, “Talent doesn’t care who it happens to.” Many brilliant people are deeply troubled—in some cases their disorder contributes to the talent. For me, though, at this stage of my career, I want to enjoy the required two or three years locked away with my subject.

Writing a biography can be like going on a blind date. I always thought Olivia de Havilland was both beautiful and pleasant, but after deep research dives for Errol & Olivia I discovered the driven, complex, and meticulous loner underneath. Jim Stewart was nothing like I thought he’d be—certainly nothing like the character who would show up to bumble his way through appearances with Johnny Carson. You just never know what you’re going to get when you start down the path and get to know your subject.

As of this writing I may have my answer. A good friend suggested it, and at first I said what I always say (being something of a skeptic and also something of a pessimist): “I can’t do that!” But then I thought about it and asked for opinions here and there and maybe it can be done. I’m not yet near the go/no-go point, where you either keep fishing or cut bait. First comes foundational research and then requests for the holdings of specific archives. If it’s there, then we’re a ‘go.’ If not, well, damn. I’m nowhere.

I’ve been blurting out my friend’s idea, and I’ve decided I need to stop that because if this thing is a no-go after all, I’ll be wiping egg off my face. For the time being let’s just say, it’s possible there’s a book in my future that’s every bit the story of Fireball, Mission, and Dutch Girl.

Maybe.

The Dark Horizon

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Look out! The Germans—I mean, the Spanish—are about to invade, warns Errol Flynn as Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk. A few months after this photo was taken, the battle of Britain commenced.

Errol Flynn and his home studio of Warner Bros. made a picture in 1940 that’s highly regarded as one of his best—well, by many devotees of classic cinema if not by me. I’ll readily acknowledge some brilliant moments, but I have too many nits to pick with The Sea Hawk to love it. One of my chief complaints is the script, and the funny thing is, The Sea Hawk didn’t make any sense to me until yesterday when I finally had a huge and hilarious aha moment. Compounding my problem is that way back in college I had first seen the 1947 reissue print of this picture, multiple times in fact, and that memory had stuck with me. The reissue print had more than 20 rather key minutes removed, including the opening strategic speech by King Philip II of Spain and the closing strategic speech by Queen Elizabeth I of England.

In the past 30 years, the missing footage was reconnected into a full 126-minute print of The Sea Hawk, and I only ever applied my brain to that print yesterday when it played on TCM/U.S. I realized just yesterday that the only way the absurd, confusing plot of The Sea Hawk can be comprehended is to substitute the word Germany every time you hear the word Spain. Any time they say the word Philip, insert the word Hitler. Then and only then does any of the nonsense make sense.

Guess what: It’s history time!

The Sea Hawk went into production at the end of January 1940 after delays of a few weeks while Flynn rested up following the exhausting production of wild and wooly Virginia City, chronicled previously on these pages.

CUT TO: King Philip of Spain’s opening speech: “The riches of the new world are limitless, and the new world is ours, with our ships carrying the Spanish flag to the seven seas; our armies sweeping over Africa, the Near East and the Far West. Invincible everywhere but on our own doorstep. Only northern Europe holds out against us? Why? The reason is a puny rock-bound island as barren and treacherous as her queen, who secretly gives aid to our enemies while her pirates plunder our commerce. We cannot keep northern Europe in submission until we have had a reckoning with England.”

He goes on at great length to say how short his lifetime is and how he must fulfill his destiny (Hitler had said this time and again). Then Philip stands beside a massive, and I mean 20-foot high, 30-foot wide, world map, and in silhouette, his finger pointing directly at Germany, recaps the global spread of Nazism—er, Spanish domination—concluding, “One day, before my death, we shall sit here and gaze at this map upon the wall. It will cease to be a map of the world. It will be Spain!”

As actor Montagu Love recited his lines on a Warner soundstage, Hitler had conquered Poland just four months earlier, completing the first round of European real estate acquisition—Austria, the Sudetenland, then the remainder of Czechoslovakia, and now Poland. Cameras rolled on The Sea Hawk during the time period known later as the Sitzkrieg, when it became quiet. Too quiet, and Hitler was apparently making Western Europe guess what he would do next. In reality, little Germany was trying to recover from war with Poland because what seemed to be a rollover was anything but, and the Poles had packed more of a punch than Hitler would allow in public. Germany always stretched its limited resources to the max any time it made an attack; history has lost sight of the fact that the Germans only had so many guys, weapons, fuel, and food to go around, which is why gobbling up territory became so important—to replenish all these things.

I can’t imagine that any kid in the audience, and there had to be scads of them because this was an Errol Flynn pirate picture, had any clue what all the speechifying was about, but their parents got an earful about the looming threat of Nazism and the inevitability of war. Warner Bros. was at the forefront of spreading the word after drawing a line in the pavement with production of Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939—it was a picture that pissed Hitler off and he said so. But pounding the message home was a gamble for the studio because the United States was still an isolationist nation determined to let the Europeans work out their problems.

It never made any sense to me why in this movie English pirate ships captained by “sea hawks” were allowed to raid Spanish shipping in time of peace. But careful listening reveals the British admiral in charge explaining to the queen, “Our privateers have made substantial contributions for the very purpose of providing a navy.”

And only Errol Flynn’s Geoffrey Thorpe, coolest of the “sea hawk” captains, has the guts to proclaim in the queen’s court: “Spain is at war with the world.”

There, the “puny, rock-bound island” needs defenses from the looming threat, and German—er, Spanish—ships deserve to be attacked because of the ruthless ambitions of Hitler—er, Philip.

The last half of the 1930s in European history is covered concisely during two hours of plot time in The Sea Hawk, courtesy of a hasty rewrite of the original script by Warner screenwriter Howard Koch. There’s the expansionism of Germany, the attempted appeasement by the British Chamberlain regime, and most important, the imminent threat of a German invasion of England as exposed in communications intended for the chief Nazi—er Spanish—agent working near the queen but intercepted by Thorpe in the last reel.

The picture concludes with a grim speech by the queen that was cut from reissue prints: “A grave duty confronts us all: to prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have tried by all means in our power to avert this war. We have no quarrel with the people of Spain or of any other country. But when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist.” And she goes on from there with even more flag-waving.

No kidding, this is how a major motion picture ended in 1940, with a political speech! But Warner Bros. wasn’t run by fools, and the U.S. print faded to The End right after the queen knights her favorite sea hawk and before she holds her political rally. Only the British print contained the full Elizabethan address.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Queen Elizabeth, played by Flora Robson, knights Geoffrey Thorpe, and the U.S. version of The Sea Hawk fades out. In the British edition, Elizabeth goes on to inspire attendees with a speech about the world war dead ahead.

Upon the picture’s splashy release at the end of August, 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging, and wise ones in the audience knew the “great armada” of Spain, whose use had been threatened throughout the picture, wasn’t seaborne but rather airborne in the form of hundreds of German bombers and their fighter escorts.

I imagine little boys walked out of the theater wondering what the hell, but there had been enough action, pirates, and ships and cannon, to hold their interest. Who knew or cared about Nazi spies?

It would be another 16 months until the United States entered the war, and the conflict would indeed become a nightmare. The queen’s speech, shot at the beginning of February 1940, became prophetic about ruthless ambitions engulfing the world, and many in the audience who watched The Sea Hawk would die in the conflagration ahead. Then followed long decades and re-releases of edited prints of what would become just another pirate movie, if a revered one, with a plot that made no sense. At least to me. Until yesterday.

 

Outcasts

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The Marx Bros. smuggle themselves into the port of New York in Monkey Business (1931).

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately for just about everything from my youth. It’s funny the things that make us who we are. I bleed nitrate after most of a lifetime in classic film that began with a sudden and deep love of the Marx Bros. toward the end of 1973. I can’t remember how it started, but I jumped on the Marx bandwagon as a youngster during their college campus resurgence and enjoyed the hell out of many Marx double-bills with my dad at the Guild Theatre in Squirrel Hill, near the University of Pittsburgh.

My pal, Greenbriar’s John McElwee, asked not long ago if the Marxes could possibly play to college audiences today—I wonder the same thing. Imagine a 300-seat theater as the Guild was then, shoehorning in kids aged 18-21, and here I was, much younger than that. The double-bills paired The Cocoanuts and Monkey Business, Horsefeathers and Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, At the Circus and The Big Store, and A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy. I know I’ve never laughed as hard as I did in the Guild in the dark, a lot of that the sharing of the experience with so many others so eager to laugh. I remember one particular Friday evening with a blue haze hanging in the air and the smell of pot so thick I choked on it. But son of a gun if the boys weren’t funniest of all on that occasion.

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The Marxes made my scrapbook of 1970s memories. They even played a week at a suburban walk-in–can you imagine that happening today?

America needed a laugh back then, mired as the nation was in nightly reports of carpet bombing and dead soldiers, but that was life coming out of the turbulent ’60s. Now let’s do some math. In 1972, Horsefeathers—the story of Professor Wagstaff at Huxley College—was just entering middle age at a tender 40. Now let’s think of what was popular 40 years ago right now, way back in 1979, and that was the dead spot between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; the year of Alien and Apocalypse Now. Those pictures hold up well today, but can you believe that in 1972, college kids were happy to watch black-and-white prints full of splices and sprocket damage representing pictures that reached back not only to the depths of the Great Depression but to Prohibition as well?

Do you even know who I’m talking about with the Marx Bros.? I imagine some of my younger visitors have never seen a Marx picture. There was cynical, wise-cracking Groucho, ingenuous and silent Harpo, loyal and good-hearted Chico, and up through 1933, handsome young straight man Zeppo. They resonated in the late ’60s and early ’70s as iconoclasts, challengers of authority, afraid of nothing and contemptuous of strait-laced society. Maybe audiences understood that off-screen the brothers were just the same—what you saw was what you got out of this collection of Jewish boys from New York City’s mean streets. No airs or pretentiousness with these guys. Chico was “a restless Aries who lived so fast he could hardly keep up with himself” (said biographer Joe Adamson); Harpo an onscreen imp who was IRL an intellectual who loved children and with his wife Susan adopted several and retired to a grapefruit farm; Groucho a serious thinker by nature who could rustle up any number of reasons not to do what he was supposed to do; and Zeppo a shrewd businessman who became Hollywood’s top talent agent.

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Chico, Zeppo, Groucho, and Harpo. Only the two in the middle would live to see their counterculture renaissance.

They started in the wild west of pre-Code Hollywood and landed at Paramount, where they ruled a roost that turned out to be crooked—their studio was cooking the books and not paying them. The ornery brothers then moved to MGM where production chief Irving Thalberg thought they needed a makeover and it killed them. They retired a mere four years later and made only one real Marx picture after that, in 1946 for UA. Now it’s 86 years since the end of their Paramount heyday and the boys have slipped into obscurity. They didn’t fit in 1933 and they don’t fit in 2019, except to a small and loyal legion that includes yours truly. I will always love these guys for the experiences they gave me with my dad, and for the way they introduced me to classic Hollywood.

The Marx Bros. and their admirers had it best in those crazy counterculture days, after Chico and Harpo had passed on and Groucho was in his dotage selling out one-man shows all over the place, including Carnegie Hall—and with that one, Groucho the contrarian had the last laugh: He got there without practicing.