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If this were 1966 instead of 2016, you could go down any street and ask passersby if they knew who Clark Gable was, and be met by incredulity or outright anger. “Of course I know who Gable is! (…you idiot!)” Back then we were still attached to Hollywood’s golden age because the movies played on local and network TV and the glamorous movie stars showed up in series and variety and game shows. They existed in the fabric of our culture. If this were 1966, in just two more years would come yet another major revival of Gone With the Wind, this time updated in 70mm, and moviegoers would get another shot of Gable, Vivien Leigh, and crew to keep them fresh in our minds.

But that was a long, long time ago now. The old stars have passed on and their motion pictures no longer play on the late show. Instead those feature films have been relegated to that great Indian reservation for old cinema, Turner Classic Movies, where they can roam in free black-and-white isolation and not offend the youngsters. Here’s a great explanation of why classic film is not likely to endure in popular culture much longer.

Most of you come here to read my babble because you love classic Hollywood. And because you do know so much about it and have seen hundreds or thousands of vintage Hollywood movies and read dozens of books, you might not be aware how dramatically popular culture has changed around you. It’s no longer a slam dunk that some stranger will know even the name Clark Gable since his most famous picture hasn’t played network television in, what, a generation? Forget getting a glint of recognition about Ronald Colman or Norma Shearer. Joan Crawford is known only as the eyebrow lady who hated wire hangers—if she’s known at all. Astaire and Rogers; what’s that, a law firm? You get my point.

But there are a few old stars who still ring the bell all these decades later. One is John Wayne, subject of a definitive biography by Scott Eyman a couple of years ago that became a runaway hit and New York Times bestseller. The Duke is an American icon whether or not you’ve ever sat through one of his pictures. Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn are unquestionably still bigtime. And then there’s Jimmy Stewart.

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

Duke and Jim together in one of their best pictures, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

One thing that led to Stewart’s longevity is that after World War II, he reinvented himself and started looking for edgier roles. For a solid decade he made pictures you wouldn’t expect to find him in, usually with strong box office results. In other words, he didn’t play it safe and go out to pasture (move to television). He looked down his nose at television, skillfully played the system, and kept showing up on theater marquees well into the 1960s.

That’s not to say business acumen makes JS relevant in 2016. He died in 1997, about a generation ago. He stopped making public appearances long before that, and so for practical purposes he slipped from the “newsfeed” at the end of the 1980s. His last starring role in a feature film was way back in 1971. And oh by the way that picture bombed. Sure he left behind some wonderful films—Vivacious Lady, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Winchester ’73, Harvey, and Vertigo come to mind off the top of my head. He made his share of clunkers too, but my point is, if you’re under 40 and not a fan of old Hollywood, you belong to a vast majority that doesn’t know these pictures. Nor do you likely have any urge to see them. It’s very much a generational thing.

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

Jim in one of those pictures you wouldn’t expect, grinding Dan Duryea’s face into the bar in Winchester ’73.

But Stewart has something no other leading man has, and he’s not about to lose it. Stewart starred in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I could ask the person on the street, “Who’s Jimmy Stewart?”—even ask it of a 20-something—and I’ll get a smile and an enthusiastic, “I love Jimmy Stewart!” and that’s because of It’s a Wonderful Life, a picture I’m beginning to believe has become the most beloved in American popular culture. Parents pass it along to children who grow up and pass it along to children, and it keeps resonating because the concepts are universal. Do the right thing. Have honor. Don’t give up. Value your friends. Value your life.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read customer reviews of Fireball that said, “I didn’t know anything about Carole Lombard before I read this book,” and for good reason. Carole Lombard died almost 75 years ago! Why should the modern reader know about Carole Lombard?

Stewart is a different animal. Everybody thinks they know Jimmy Stewart because they know George Bailey. Know him very well, in fact, and figure Jim is George, but guess what? Jim isn’t George. Jim isn’t even Jimmy. Jim is a complex, almost impenetrable character, and for me the hook was Jim came home from war and made It’s a Wonderful Life. From the moment the dynamics of this formula hit me, horrors of war, beloved actor, beloved film, I started writing and didn’t look back for fear somebody else was out there banging out the same story in Peoria or Sioux Falls.

Luckily, nobody was, and in a short six days you can tell me if you really knew Jim and if you still love him, because in six days Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (GoodKnight Books) has its official release. In fact, why not plan to join me at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio for the launch event next Thursday, October 27 at 6:30 p.m.?

The Time I Was a Legend

In the ninth grade I cut my fingertip off in shop class. It’s the ring finger of my left hand, and I was planing a piece of wood on a machine called a joiner and the plastic guard was off it for some reason and I was holding the wood carelessly. Mr. Russell the shop teacher watched my fingertip fly up in the air and I’m sure imagined his career flying beside it. Such a sound it made, the blade hitting my flesh, that whenever I hear a similar sound today all these years later a chill runs from the base of my spine down my legs. I just heard a version of that sound out the open window as someone in the neighborhood fed tree branches into a wood chipper.

Blood was everywhere. Mr. Russell kept his cool and wrapped my hand up so the principal could drive me to the doctor’s office. Now, I come from a small town and we had two doctors, both alcoholics. I remember the doctor I went to that day had an old portrait of himself as a navy officer in his office, so he must have been in his 50s, although at the time I thought he was ANCIENT. Or did he just look ancient because of the booze?

Anyway, as the principal parked along the street in front of the doctor’s office I watched my mother run into view and straight inside. She wasn’t exactly a graceful woman and definitely not an athlete but she had still managed to sprint about three-quarters of a mile and beat us there even though the principal was hurrying and only had to drive three blocks. In other words, Mom cared.

When the doctor removed Mr. Russell’s wrapping, my finger was sticking up at a perfect sightline between my eyes and Mom’s, and I watched her face turn chalk white at what a high-speed circular saw can do to human flesh. It looked like ground sirloin, except purple.

My fingertip looked like this, but purple.

My fingertip looked like this, but purple.

The doctor said there was nothing to sew so he didn’t sew it. He wrapped it in gauze and then cotton bandage and sent me home. Even then at—what was I, fourteen?—I thought to myself, shouldn’t you lubricate that, because things are going to congeal and it’ll be difficult to get the bandages off down the road?

I believe seven days ensued. In that time I became a high school legend as the ninth grader who cut off his finger in shop class. My school was a junior high, a decrepit old set of buildings long since torn down, while grades ten to twelve were jailed in a shiny new school out in the country. Aside from being a mediocre baseball player on championship teams, I had never achieved notoriety of any sort until now, unless you count the time I (along with at least 100 others) colored a picture of a clown flawlessly and won two free tickets to the circus, or the time I won a drawing in the fifth grade and got to take home the week-old jack-o-lantern at Halloween.

Now? Now I hit the bigtime as the ninth grader who lost a hand in shop class. None of the upper classes laid eyes on me, but when one loses an arm, you can imagine what the poor bastard must look like in all those bandages lying in a hospital room hooked up to IVs and monitors. That was the progression, as I found out later, with my condition worsening until a week had passed and I was hanging on by a thread in ICU.

The day came for me to go back to the alcoholic ex-navy man for a follow-up, and here I am just a kid kind of shaking my head thinking… Salve? Ointment? Something was supposed to go between my flesh and those bandages.

He started unwrapping and, son of a gun, the bandages were stuck. He said, no problem, let’s soak it. I can still remember the kidney-shaped metal dish that my hand, bandages attached, soaked in. He came back after a while and gave a tug. “YEEEEOWW!” I think I’m quoting myself accurately. I think it was, “YEEEEOWW!”

My doctor sort of looked like this while sober.

My doctor sort of looked like this while sober.

No problem, let’s soak it some more. We repeated the process. Same result. Finally he said, “Here, lie back,” as he must have said to many a wounded navy man back in the South Pacific, and I did as ordered and he said—I kid you not, he said, “This might hurt.”

I reached out with my right hand and found the metal stirrups that are used when ladies are examined. Just as I did, he gave it all he had and yanked the bandage off.

I don’t remember the next moment or two because the lights went out, but for years afterward my big sister Janet would ask me to tell the story of the time the doctor removed the bandages from my finger, and she would laugh and laugh.

What happened was that he knew he was going to have to pull hard, and I guess he was trying to make it go quick for me, but with the bandage when it separated from my hand went all the ground meat, plus what was left of my fingernail, and the cuticle, which was ripped clean up to the first joint. What a scar it made, and for ten, fifteen years the slightest bump would put me through the roof.

I was reminded of this incident while cutting my nails and facing again the result of that morning in shop class. The end of my finger grew back after a fashion, although there’s no fingerprint and the nail, which did grow back against all odds, is about half the size of its right-hand mate. The coolest thing in retrospect is that if you look closely, you can see where the cuticle was ripped in a blazing trail in the direction of his yank. I was actually pretty lucky when you think about the alternative, like my brother-in-law who was a meat cutter in adolescence and apparently not a very accurate one by what’s missing today.

I know what you’re thinking, what a lawsuit this must have made because of the missing guard on the table saw, but that wasn’t the cut of my father’s jib. Dad chalked it up to inherent Matzen clumsiness and we moved on, and the grateful school district rewarded me in the only way it really could, with an A in shop class.

The Killer

From the beginning, crazy things have surrounded the project that became Fireball. In October 2012 when I climbed the killer mountain to the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3, which had occurred more than 70 years earlier, I wasn’t prepared for the experience of the people who had died there whispering to me. I had climbed 4,000 feet pretty much straight up to see the spot where Carole Lombard met her fate and to examine the wreckage of the plane still on the mountainside. The last thing I expected was for the others to make their presence known; don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that I heard voices, but I felt the people around me, including in my ears, and when I held a human bone in my hand that day I wasn’t creeped out, because I understood what it was: communication.

I don’t know if I inadvertently trod on 2nd Lt. Kenneth Donahue that autumn day four years ago because I don’t know exactly where they found him. Come to think of it, was it Donahue who took the time to hover around me? Who knows, but found he was, in April 2014, by people exploring the site as once I had explored it. There were twenty-two souls aboard Flight 3 when she hit that Nevada cliff at 180 miles per hour after dark on January 16, 1942—a flight crew of three, four civilians, and fifteen Army personnel. Three of those fifteen couldn’t be identified because of the horrific nature of the crash, and Donahue was one of them. When remains were found at the site last year, the coroner’s office sent out a team for recovery, and the starting point for DNA testing was that list of three lost men, which was obtained by reading Fireball. This being the coldest of cases, finding family members and securing DNA samples took more than a year, but finally a positive match confirmed that this was Second Lieutenant Donahue, a native of Stoughton, Massachusetts, and copilot of heavy bombers in the Army Ferrying Command.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

One of the 15 Army flyboys that perished aboard TWA Flight 3 was 2nd Lt. Kenneth Donahue, a co-pilot in the Army Ferrying Command.

Here’s the crazy part. The trade paperback edition of Fireball is about to go to press in time for the 75th anniversary of the crash, and I just barely have minutes to get Donahue’s story in there. It reminds me very much of dear Mary Johnson Savoie, the “human computer” who flew across the country with Carole Lombard and became a survivor of Flight 3 when she was forced off the plane in Albuquerque—so Kenneth Donahue and his mates could climb aboard. Through an improbable series of circumstances set in motion by my pal Tom Wilson, Mary popped up at age 92 in a retirement facility in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and I interviewed her at length and rushed her story into Fireball just before it went to press. Mary lived long enough for me to sit and read her every passage recounting her story, and then passed on two months later. Her story was meant to be told, and now Kenneth’s story is meant to be told and will be told in the expanded trade paper version of Fireball.

As Lieutenant Donahue’s niece Maureen Green told me last evening, “Kenneth hung out until the right person and the right technology came along and he could make it home. I think that’s how things work.” The right person was Clark County Coroner’s investigator Felicia Borla and a team of experts, whose part of the story was reported in Biddeford’s Journal Tribune. The right technology was DNA testing that confirmed a match from a simple cheek swab. Confirmation set into motion events that took the small casket containing Donahue’s remains from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas to Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, where Delta arranged an honor guard that transferred the lieutenant from one plane to another. Then he flew to Logan in Boston where another honor guard saw the casket safely into a hearse for one last commute to Biddeford, Maine.

No one alive today in the Donahue family remembers Kenneth, but his niece Maureen has always felt a special connection. Maureen’s mother Rita was Kenneth’s younger sister and Maureen heard stories of Kenneth’s life and death, and grew up with a portrait of the young serviceman in her home. Rita passed on in 1999, but the connection between Maureen and Kenneth remained strong, so strong that when the Clark County Coroner called in February 2015, she said, “I knew it was him.”

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Thirty-six hours after the crash of Flight 3, body recovery has begun.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The same place in 2012, still guarding its secrets.

As recounted in Fireball, in 1942 most of the crash victims were positively identified, but the coroner had parts of some bodies and these were cremated and divided into three urns for shipment home to the families of the Army fliers who couldn’t be identified. That’s what was buried in Biddeford’s St. Mary’s Cemetery in 1942, and Maureen’s mother used to talk about what a tough moment it was when they played “Taps” at the graveside.

Well, on August 12, Kenneth came home to a formal military graveside service that Maureen and her older sister Peggy found emotional. Then, a soldier in formal dress blues stood under a tree and began to play “Taps.” It was quite a moment for Maureen, who felt the connection to Kenneth, and to her mother and that story of a lone bugler in 1942. “I got it right then,” she said. “I understood.”

Juicy 2: A Shot Across the Bow

 

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Olivia may seem to be at rest in this shot taken around the time of the Huston affair, but she never really was.

So where were we? Oh that’s right, in the middle of a love triangle between Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and John Huston. OdeH began it with Errol Flynn in 1941 after hot-blooded Frenchwoman Lili Damita had finally filed for divorce from in-like-Flynn. Livvie had told Errol point blank when he proposed to her in 1937 (big of him to propose while heavily married) that she wouldn’t do anything with him (think sex) while he was bound to Lili. Then nature took its course with Flynn and Damita over the next four years, leaving both Flynn and de Havilland at liberty during production of They Died with Their Boots On from July through September 1941. As much as Livvie would like you to believe that she and Errol didn’t do the horizontal tango, well, they were adults, beautiful, and known to be dating. She was going through a rough patch with her employer, Jack Warner, and Errol was an iconoclast and particularly supportive of her cause. Oh, and he had just seen completion of his bachelor pad up on Mulholland Drive, a place he had designed with pride as a sexual Mount Olympus. They were young, unattached co-workers who had been attracted to each other for years and now had their evenings free in a hideaway on top of a mountain. You do the math on that one.

Then something happened. Something bad. She found out something or he did something or she did something or she simply got too close and stared in the eye of the Flynn manbeast, but suddenly they were estranged at the beginning of 1942 as she began making her new picture with Bette Davis, In This Our Life. And then, as reported here last week, came the thunderbolt. Just after breaking up with Flynn she fell head over heels for John Huston and he for her. Well, no he didn’t. Huston was one of those bad boys you hear tell of. He loved ’em and left ’em, but by all accounts this guy could charm a gal right out of her panties and he did it all the time, right under the nose of his wife, Lesley. I’m telling you, John Huston, a not very handsome man with a nose that rambled all over his face, scored with the babes at all hours of the day. And who should be vulnerable rebound girl but OdeH when he began directing her in this new picture with Davis. (Note: As reported in Errol & Olivia, Livvie was a sucker for older authority figures, and Huston fit the bill to a T.)

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

John Huston went to war and distinguished himself as a combat journalist, but it was also convenient to get away and let things cool off on the home front.

Scandal ensued because Livvie and John were bangin’ here, there, and everywhere, but Huston being Huston, he began to get a little uncomfortable falling under the scrutiny of a serious, highly intelligent, kinda nuts, powerhouse human like de Havilland, who suddenly had the idea they were soon to be Mr. and Mrs. So what did he do? He joined the army and got as far away as he could think to go, to the Aleutian Islands past Alaska proper, where there were no telephones, to make a documentary about the war being fought up there between the Americans and the Japanese. “I’m sorry, baby, I can’t call for two months. There aren’t any phones.”

Olivia de Havilland was a stand-up woman in 1942, and remains one today, a titan among humans, smart, funny, multi-talented. Did you know she can imitate a dog’s bark so well that she can converse with other dogs? Did you know she can sketch like a pro? She used to entertain cast and crew alike with these sidelights while, oh by the way, making enduring classic motion pictures and earning Academy Award nominations and statues.

As things always went with Mr. Huston, this lover was traded in for the next lover. Livvie and John went their separate ways, and she got a nice tour of the fiery pits of hell pining away for John Huston while she was blackballed from the motion picture industry by Jack L. Warner and then almost died of viral pneumonia while entertaining the troops on Fiji Island in 1944. It was rough for Livvie, while Huston didn’t miss a beat.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Nora and Errol Flynn participate in the Victory ball not long after the memorable evening with John Huston.

CUT TO APRIL 29, 1945. There’s a party at the home of David and Irene Selznick, and Errol and wife Nora are invited, as is John Huston. Both Errol and John were three-fisted drinkers and half in the bag when they edged within earshot, and Flynn in his wisdom decided to fire a shot across Huston’s bow. Neither would ever dare repeat what he said at that critical moment, but the subject was whom-was-Livvie-with-and-when. I’m pulling my punches here, but Flynn didn’t when he stated it one drunk to another.

As reported in Errol & Olivia, Flynn’s shot-across-the-bow hit Huston right in the crotch, which is where John kept his ego. “That’s a lie,” he spat. “Even if it wasn’t a lie, only a sonofabitch would repeat it.”

I love Errol’s response. It’s so him: “Go fuck yourself.”

Bombed though they were, both knew not to wreck the home of David O. Selznick, so they took it outside to a gravel drive down at the bottom of Selznick’s garden, where two former real-life prizefighters practiced the sweet science on each other’s faces. Huston must have underestimated Flynn’s skill because with one straight left jab, Huston was down to his knees.

And here’s where we’ll leave the story until next time, when our little love triangle will reach its twelve-round conclusion.

 

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

Coming in October: Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, with more tales of real-life Hollywood in the golden age, when truth was stranger than fiction.

Thunderbolts

I would like to tell you all about my new book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, but I can’t tell you because there’s an embargo until August on coverage of it, including in my own blog. I can’t even tell you why I can’t tell you, because of the embargo. But I’d like to talk about a news item that woke me up at 6 yesterday morning: an old single-engine airplane crash-landed in the Hudson River next to New York City Friday evening, and the pilot drowned.

When I saw this story on the news, it riveted my attention because the instantly recognizable plane was a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a plane as responsible as any other for winning World War II.

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

A formation of P-47 Thunderbolts in their heyday.

The P-47 is a main character in that which must not be named, a powerful, nimble single-seat fighter that could be fitted with bombs or rockets under its wings. Packs of these fighters, piloted by kids of 20, swooped above, below, and within the bomber stream of B-17s and B-24s that took off from England for bomb runs to Germany and France from 1943 through war’s end two years later. When I say kids, I mean kids who should have been pumping gas in filling stations or completing their sophomore year in college, but instead enlisted to become flyboys because there was no greater calling for this age group than to wear silver wings on your chest and enjoy every fringe benefit that went with being a fighter pilot. They fought for girls as much as for freedom, the freedom from Axis oppression and the freedom of being alone at 20,000 feet and commanding a 2,000-horsepower radial engine, with the devastating firepower of eight .50-caliber machine guns and wing-mounted rockets at your fingertips.

The German Luftwaffe didn’t like to see Thunderbolts coming. For ace German and American pilots going against each other, the Thunderbolt and the Bf-109 Messerschmidt or Fock-Wulfe 190 were evenly matched fighter planes in aerial combat, but as the war dragged on, the Luftwaffe ran out of aces and the Americans eventually ruled the skies in their Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs.

All of this flashed through my mind when I saw the news report yesterday morning, what a grand old bird had crashed in the Hudson, a distinguished veteran of service to our country piloted by a 56-year-expert pilot named Bill Gordon, an ace at acrobatics who took ships like this Thunderbolt, dubbed Jacky’s Revenge, across the country to thrill audiences at air shows and demonstrate what life was like in the fight for Europe. Engine failure brought Jacky’s Revenge down at about 7:30 Friday evening and even though photographs of the plane show Gordon did a tremendous job bringing her in with a kiss to the surface of the Hudson (nothing’s harder than a water landing), he couldn’t escape the cockpit and met his doom there.

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

Bill Gordon and Jacky’s Revenge.

On this Memorial Day, I’m saluting Bill Gordon, a guy with aviation in his blood who thrilled millions during his career by introducing the Thunderbolt and other World War II aircraft to new generations. And I’m saluting the Republic P-47 and the guys who flew her and lived and died in Europe and the Pacific during the darkest days of World War II. Their bravery and fearlessness bring tears to my eyes.

Note: For more on this topic, see the 1947 feature documentary Thunderbolt, with an introduction by Col. James Stewart, a man who appreciated this plane for saving his life many times over in combat over Germany.

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

A one-sheet for Thunderbolt, a Willie Wyler documentary about the ferocious flying machines that helped to win WWII. James Stewart provided a painfully short introduction.

Faces

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

I watched a Louise Brooks picture the other night, Diary of a Lost Girl, a 1929 German silent directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst. I’m not here to talk about Diary of a Lost Girl except to say, I didn’t get it. What happens happens slowly, and often without title screens, all in keeping with the New Objectivity of the time. As reflected in his pictures of the ’20s, G.W. Pabst’s world—Germany at the tail end of the Goldene Zwanziger, the Golden Twenties—was bleak and seedy, a socio-political vacuum that the National Socialists would soon be inhabiting. I’m sure many of you can give me a dozen reasons why Diary of a Lost Girl is good or great, but I can only speak for myself, and the slowly enveloping creepiness was a bit too much for me.

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

Louise Brooks in the late 1920s, sporting her distinctive and much-emulated hairstyle.

What held my attention was Louise Brooks. I sat mesmerized beginning to end looking at Louise Brooks in all manner of psychologically perilous situations. They called Helen of Troy “the face that launched a thousand ships,” and so Helen must have been Louise Brooks beautiful. If we were able to pull Louise Brooks off the spool of celluloid for Diary of a Lost Girl, she could be reinserted into any other filmstrip from any other time, and she would be just as arresting—and hopefully in better clothes.

I find all sorts of women to be beautiful for all sorts of reasons, outwardly and inwardly. You’re everywhere, you women, and I admire you all. And then there’s Louise Brooks. It does Brooks a disservice to say she’s sexy. She may be sexy in the traditional sense but it’s too symplistic term to be applied here. She grabs your attention when she appears and doesn’t let go. She’s got those big, dark, knowing, wide-set eyes and that severe dark hair framing her face and that wide mouth and flawless pale skin and wham, there’s nowhere else for your gaze to fall.

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

Louise never minded selling the sex angle.

Audrey Hepburn is another of those ship-launchers. There are a few out there who don’t get Audrey’s appeal. Maybe you’re one of them. As far as I’m concerned, Audrey could just stand there and not be a part of a plot or reciting lines or facing peril, just stand there, and I’d be watching that face with my mouth hanging open until she wasn’t there to look at anymore. I remember walking up a cobblestone street some months back in the ancient German town of Eppstein, this narrow little street with a few shops on it, and in one of the shop windows was an inexpensive little purse and my eye snagged on the purse because there was Audrey Hepburn’s face staring out from it. Time stood still. Five thousand miles from home, in Germany conducting research for a book on a dark 35-degree day in November, I didn’t know anything but, there’s Audrey. From one glimpse of that face applied to a commercial product.

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

Audrey Hepburn near the beginning of career, and toward the end of her life.

To my way of thinking, Audrey was as arresting near the end of her life as she was decades earlier in Roman Holiday, because, in her case, the beauty had deepened from all the living she had done and from decades of good deeds. There’s a sense of inner beauty from the face of a young Louise Brooks as well—she was by all accounts a smart, intuitive woman with a wicked sense of humor and strong independent streak.

My reading list is pretty long after finishing Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (Coming Soon from GoodKnight Books—put it on your Christmas list now!) and among those titles is Lulu in Hollywood, a collection of the writings of Louise Brooks. I can’t imagine that this face was launched in Kansas, but that’s where she was born and raised. Supposedly she was molested as a child, which shaped her sexuality and, presumably, pointed her toward frank film performances, as well as a number of nude portrait sittings and many incendiary affairs. She made only a couple dozen films in a career spanning 13 years, in part because she snubbed her home studio, Paramount Pictures, just as sound arrived in 1929, the year of Diary of a Lost Girl. Among her credits was a picture with Carole Lombard, It Pays to Advertise, in 1931 with Carole on her way up and Louise sinking fast. Her last picture would be in 1938 and she’d be done in movies at age 32 and not rediscovered as a motion picture icon for another generation. How that face slipped from the mainstream for a while I’ll never understand.

Today the face of Louise Brooks has reemerged and collectors eagerly pay thousands for original still photos and movie posters featuring her, and I think it’s high time I added such a piece to my own collection and my wall. Productivity will suffer, because I’ll be staring with my mouth open quite a lot, but I can live with that if you can.

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

Bangs or no bangs, it all worked for Louise Brooks.

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

Dream Lovers

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

A toast to the lovers, Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier.

Raise your hand if you know what “pre-Code” means. Did you get a little hormonal surge reading that term? If so then you really know pre-Code and all it implies and promises.

In the late 1920s, when sound came into motion pictures, the Hollywood studios began feeling their oats and things got very naughty very fast. All of a sudden, hookers, drug addicts, gangsters, murderers, cheating husbands and wives, and—egads—gay people started showing up in movies, and things got so supercharged that the morally righteous enforced a Motion Picture Code beginning in 1934 and heavily censored movies thereafter. Heavily, heavily censored them. But for an all-too-brief five years, movies were heaven—or hell, depending on your point of view.

Personally, I think it was the be-all and end-all time of the Golden Age, and I can only imagine the result if the Code hadn’t come in to tame your vintage libertines like Harlow, Lombard, Rogers, and then Lana and Rita—not to mention Gable, Cagney, and Flynn. Alas, we’ll never know.

The other day I watched a 1929 musical called The Love Parade that had a strange effect on my red blood. It’s a dreamlike operetta about a rakish French nobleman, Count Renard, assigned to the court of Queen Louise of Sylvania, a verging-on-spinsterhood proper young lady who, upon introduction to Count Renard and the reading of a report about his scandalous reputation back home in France, tries to surrender her virginity as quickly as possible.

They’re married before the end of the first reel and then things get predictably complicated when the proud and still naughty Frenchman grows restless as, basically, the do-less “first husband” of the land. A happy ending can only be achieved after the count has asserted his authority and the queen has given herself freely into submission to her man. The basic theme here: bad boys are the way to go!

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

First impressions, lasting impressions for Queen Louise.

Even though this thing was made 87 years ago in fading black and white; even though they hadn’t really figured out sound recording yet and one sentence is over-modulated and the next is muffled, I think this picture is incendiary.

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

1930’s publicity photo

Jeanette MacDonald was 26 when she made her motion picture debut here after finding fame on Broadway. I can’t say I know much about early Jeanette pictures, and I hope my learned readership can enlighten me. Was she always this sexy before the Code came in? I heard myself say aloud, “She’s HOT!” while watching The Love Parade, and Mary said in her most doubtful voice, “Really?” Yes, really. Later on Jeanette would be teamed with Nelson Eddy, and together they’d take their operatic voices on an odyssey through many successful MGM musicals, all of them fine for family viewing, so this earlier incarnation of vine-ripening Ms. MacDonald was, to me, a pleasant surprise.

Maurice Chevalier was 15 years Jeanette’s senior and making his second American picture with The Love Parade. These two Paramount Players enjoyed chemistry together that would propel them into more pictures as a love team. From a distance, The Smiling Lieutenant, Love Me Tonight, One Night with You, and The Merry Widow seem to have been cut from the same bolt of cloth as The Love Parade—is that right? I’m pleading ignorance here because I’ve avoided early musicals studiously over the years and only knew Chevalier as the farcical grandfather guy from pictures of the 1960s. And the one the Marx Bros. tried to imitate in Monkey Business.

I also had no idea Chevalier was wounded in World War I and a POW for two years. Having some grasp of how the Germans felt about the French, I can’t imagine life in a prison camp from 1914 to 1916 was much in the way of fun, and maybe this gave Chevalier the joie de vivre that marked his screen persona—after you’ve seen hell, everything that followed had to be gravy, especially romping through a land of make-believe with Jeanette MacDonald.

Broadway entertainer Lillian Roth, then 19, took on the role of a maid in The Love Parade and spent her time as comic relief observing the torrid goings-on between the queen and count. I’ve got a glamor shot of Lillian on my wall that serves as testimony to my affection for the pre-I’ll Cry Tomorrow Roth, this being her memoir of addiction and recovery. Here she is at 47 interviewed by Mike Wallace about her life, saying at one point, “I’ve never felt … quite … adequate.” She describes a lifetime of not believing she was good enough, pretty enough, or talented enough (thanks to an abusive, perfectionistic stage mother)—all of which led Lillian Roth to the bottle for solace.

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

Lillian Roth shows some leg on a Paramount soundstage. At 19 she was more emotionally fragile than director Lubitsch realized.

The great Ernst Lubitsch directed The Love Parade, his first talking picture in a fantastic career that included crossing paths with two of my own biographical subjects, Carole Lombard (chronicled in Fireball) in To Be or Not to Be and James Stewart (covered in Mission) in The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch really did have quite the touch, a way of finding flesh-and-blood humanity, romance, and yes, deep sexuality in each and every picture. As detailed in Fireball, Gable referred to Lubitsch as “the horny Hun” and warned Mrs. Gable to stay away—you can imagine what sharp-tongued Lombard said to her husband in response. In I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Lillian Roth describes how the canny Lubitsch plucked her from the stage for Hollywood stardom in his first talkie with Chevalier, which led Lillian to assume she’d be the Frenchman’s love interest. But all along Lubitsch intended Roth and diminutive physical comedian Lupino Lane to play absurd counterpoint to MacDonald and Chevalier, and Lubitsch held fast to his vision even against Lillian’s tears and protests. The pain of this ego blow and its effect on her subsequent career comes through in the I’ll Cry Tomorrow narrative and served as one more factor in her descent into addiction.

The Love Parade was nominated for six Academy Awards, including an unlikely nod to the smug and self-satisfied Chevalier. Whatever, just watch and listen as Jeanette sings the haunting Dream Lover in that operatic voice and try to get it out of your head afterward. For good measure, here’s the instrumental waltz version. It’s a dreamy song for a picture about dreamy lovers.

Pardon me while I go panning for more pre-Code Hollywood gold. I’ve seen all the usual pre-Codes, but never thought to look under rocks labeled musical-comedy, where I shouted Eureka! upon discovery of The Love Parade.

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

MacDonald and Chevalier, reunited in another Lubitsch production in 1932, and still smoldering.

Brute Men

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

The gate to the corral is open, and I’m free! Free, I tell you! I’ve let everyone and everything go to concentrate on the book (to my understanding friends I say, thank you) and now finally it’s gone and I can begin to live my life again.

Last night I was ready for bed and watching House of Horrors on Me-TV’s Svengoolie. I’ve spent my life catching glimpses of Rondo Hatton but never really thinking about Rondo Hatton until last night, thanks to Sven’s thoughtful summation of Rondo’s life and times. You know, I have to applaud Rich Koz, the brilliant one behind the brutish makeup of Svengoolie, because it’s clear Rich is one of us, with a deep passion for classic Hollywood that is bound to go way over the heads of some in his audience, as when he details the life of a Virginia Christine or a Robert Lowery.

OK, so let me back up yet another step. In the 1930s Universal studios made classic monster pictures like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man. These characters became cash cows and were recycled through the years of World War II until they became pretty terrible B-picture derivatives made on limited budgets, with few original ideas coming along. But House of Horrors, released in 1946 at the tail end of the Universal Horror cycle, was pretty good with its story of an impoverished sculptor, played by Martin Kosleck, who is about to drown himself in the river when instead he pulls a brutish man out of the water and nurses him back to health. Rondo Hatton is that rescued brute, who in his gratitude begins to murder art critics who had disparaged the sculptor’s work.

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

Rondo Hatton in high school.

I connected with Rondo last night like I never had before. In very few words he conveys gentle intelligence that goes against the grain of those looks. Hatton was born in 1894 to educated parents and grew up in Tampa, Florida. He was quite the dashing figure as a teen and joined the U.S. Army, serving in Mexico against Pancho Villa in 1916 and then in the Great War. It was here his health began to suffer due to a pituitary condition called acromegaly that causes an overproduction of hormones, with the result being deformity in soft tissue. Sven postulated that German mustard gas had triggered the condition, which may be borne out by the fact that Hatton was discharged from the Army for illness before his tour of duty was completed. In other words, whatever happened, happened pretty fast.

Hatton became a newspaper reporter for the Tampa Tribune, where his ever-more-unusual looks were noticed by director Henry King during production of Hell Harbor on location in Tampa. King gave Hatton a small part in the picture. By the later 1930s Hatton’s Acromegaly had progressed to grotesque deformity that made him a natural for more motion picture work, so off to Hollywood he went, landing bit parts as a bodyguard or henchman or pirate—wherever a rogue’s gallery was being presented. The more old movies you see, the more you go, “There’s Rondo Hatton.” You see him so often he just blends right in with the fabric of classic Hollywood.

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

Well, who doesn’t appear scary with the flashlight-up-the-face look? I like this pic for the Mona Lisa smile and a hint of, “It’s a living.” His acting style in both “House of Horrors” and “The Brute Man” make me want to sit down and have a drink with this Hollywood veteran. If only.

Finally, in 1944 he landed at the most natural place in the world, Universal Pictures, which saw him as a “monster without makeup” and cast him as the featured killer in its Sherlock Holmes picture, The Pearl of Death, starring Basil Rathbone. After that Rondo was on his way, with nice billing in pictures

Svengoolie aka Rich Koz

Svengoolie, aka Rich Koz, an appropriate name since he works so hard, furthering the cause of classic Hollywood.

including Jungle Captive, The Spider Woman Strikes Back, and then House of Horrors, where I rediscovered him last night. Here was Rondo at age 51 and in the last few months of his life. He would die of a heart attack resulting from his condition on February 2, 1946, six weeks prior to the film’s release. Another similar picture and his last, The Brute Man, would be released that October.

I just wanted to pause a moment to appreciate Rondo Hatton for making the most of his life and earning a spot in the Hollywood pantheon. He was given some nasty lemons at an early age, and made some terrific lemonade; we should all do so well. Appreciation also goes to Rich Koz for his ongoing gift to the world: hours of enjoyment while bearing the torch for classic chillers on Svengoolie.

Maltin at the Bat

I grew up with Leonard Maltin. I don’t mean we flipped baseball cards and caught tadpoles; I mean one of my go-to books when I became interested in classic Hollywood as a teenager was the first book he wrote, Movie Comedy Teams detailing the Three Stooges, L&H, the Ritz Brothers, and my faves, the Marxes. I haven’t opened that book in years, but I still remember the narrative and every photo and caption because I read that book over and over and over.

Maltin was a child prodigy in film and began writing for Film Fan Monthly at the age of 13, then took over that periodical (at age 16) and ran it for 9 years. From there he began releasing his movie guides and became an on-air critic for Entertainment Tonight. Is there anyone among my readers who hasn’t owned at least one edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and consulted it before watching a picture to see how many stars Leonard gave it and why? In those dark times before the internet, there was nowhere else to find a thumbnail description of even something as obscure as The Secret Mark of D’Artagnan without Maltin and his guide. Today there’s imdb and Wikipedia, but back then, there was Maltin. Period.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, Foreword by Leonard Maltin

Hollywood author and critic Leonard Maltin, now aboard the Mission team. (Photo by Jessie Maltin)

Leonard Maltin is a pop culture phenomenon, a guy who remains after all these years a big kid when it comes to movies, and I’m happy to report this particular phenom is writing the foreword for my just-completed book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. It occurred to me that I could really use Maltin’s insights into Stewart, the war, and subsequent effects on his career. Leonard said he might be interested in such an assignment, send along the manuscript; so I did. I guess what he read was OK, because he said yes.

I’ve been giving a final look to the narrative the past few days because soon it will go off for galleys and I want it to be right—you know, t’s crossed and i’s dotted and all that. It’s easy to get so lost in the process that I’ll be sitting there and it’ll occur to me, “Wait, did I write that? I don’t remember writing that.” It is becoming a descent into madness among 117,000 words. There are places that make me laugh, give me chills, and reduce me to tears, all of which I consider to be good signs because the same thing happened with Fireball. It’s a different kind of a book, though, a different story and a different protagonist. Lombard was sexy and vivacious, someone you wish you could have known or at least experienced once. Stewart was an aloof man who was there and not there at the same time, an introvert without much to say who kept his significant intensities on the inside, and a guy who, as he aged, hid behind the persona he had created for the Tonight Show and other public outlets. He became what people expected to see, and behind his blue eyes were 50,000 memories of the war that he kept locked away and never related to anyone. The reason Mission is necessary is specifically because he wouldn’t talk, and what I discovered was that in refusing to let Hollywood exploit his wartime service for publicity purposes, he turned out the spotlight on a terrific cast of characters surrounding him in the Second Combat Wing of the Second Bombardment Division of the Eighth Air Force. You’re about to meet some great guys in Mission, guys Stewart knew and commanded, guys who in talking about their lives in combat allow us to know what Jim Stewart did in the war, who he flew with and against, and who died beside him. He wouldn’t tell us, but others tell us. We have these guys and the combat records, and from a great number of sources, including survivors who flew with him, I was able to recreate the war as Stewart knew it. The result is an adventure more fantastic than anything he ever enacted on-screen. In fact, it’s an adventure that could only be recreated today in a CG universe, at which point you wouldn’t believe it really happened. I assure you, it did.

Into this mix of Hollywood and war is about to step Leonard Maltin to provide his thought-provoking perspective, and the coolest thing of all? I get to be the first to read it.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, Foreword by Leonard Maltin

Jim sports the Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded to all Eighth Air Force combat veterans at the end of the war. (Photo courtesy of the Jay Rubin Collection)

Rendering in 3D

I sat at the barber shop yesterday staring at a poster of the late Roberto Clemente framed on the wall. The shop is decorated with framed art of Pittsburgh sports heroes. The Clemente print showed various views of the one-time Pirates baseball star and I thought back to my youth sitting in the first row of the right-field bleachers watching Clemente up close. I know I’ve mentioned before that my sister would take me and Roberto knew her by name. Between innings when it was quiet he would talk to us in the stands and I remember this guy in brilliant, full-color 3D when he was more than a memory and a poster on a wall. Sitting there thinking about how long ago that was now made me both sad and nostalgic–we’re here on this earth for what really amounts to such a short time; it’s important to make each day count.

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

The poster on the barber shop wall.

Right now I’m busy trying to turn Capt. Jim Stewart back into a 3D human who flew in combat in World War II. The manuscript for Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe is now in final editing and I’m doing things like chapter notes, photo captions, and acknowledgments. I’m very happy with the book and think it will answer a lot of questions about Stewart’s service during the war. You want to talk about action and adventure; be sure to wear your safety harness and take your Dramamine because you’re in for quite a ride at 20,000 feet. Mission cleanup is why I’ve been so quiet this past month, because there’s a lot going on and not enough time. (Commercial plug: Look for the 400-page hardcover Mission, including 16 pages of rare photos, on Amazon and at a bookstore near you beginning October 24!)

For now I’d like to point you to an interesting Journeys in Classic Film think piece on Errol Flynn’s 1939 super-western, Dodge City. I also read this article at the barber shop (it was a long wait). I just loved being able to enjoy a fresh and thoughtful interpretation of this 77-year-old near masterpiece; it’s one of collections of words that makes me say, I wish I had written that. Actually, I wish I were smart enough to write that.

Enjoy, and I’ll be back soon with fresh material.

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

Errol and some of the boys.