fireball carole lombard

Paradise Missed

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Dakota Fanning as Beverly Aadland and Kevin Kline as Errol Flynn in the fanciful and largely unseen “The Last of Robin Hood.”

I finally got around to watching The Last of Robin Hood, the 2013 curio made by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer and starring a powerhouse threesome of Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, and Dakota Fanning. When word of this production got out, fans of the late Errol Flynn asked: If you want to make a picture about Flynn, why focus on the last two miserable years of his life? Why not tell the story of Errol in his heyday? Well, it’s obvious that…

Actually there’s nothing obvious about why this film was made; I sat as it unspooled wondering who invested money in this production, and how the stars were convinced to participate, and who was expected to go see it, and why. It couldn’t get a distribution deal for the longest time and then when it did, release was limited. The very fact that I wrote two books about Flynn yet it took me a couple years beyond release to bother to see it says something about the desirability of the product, well, in this house, anyway.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

The real Beverly Aadland soon after Errol’s death. She was a natural beauty and by all accounts a sweet soul. And I have to ask: Does she look 17 years old to you? Maybe a tad bit older?

In a nutshell, the plot centers around a Hollywood hopeful named Beverly Aadland toiling away at Warner Bros. in 1957, when she is spotted by Errol Flynn. He’s back on the lot where he was once a contract star, this time playing near-death John Barrymore and way past his prime. Errol arranges to meet Beverly, has sex with her against her will (assuming as he does that she like all other females wants to feel the sword of the master). Then she falls for him and the romance of their lives ensues. But there’s a catch: he’s 48. She’s 15. She swears she’s legal but she isn’t; her stage mother Flo had arranged for a fake birth certificate to back up the fact that this girl looked much older than her years. Really she did. When the real Beverly was 13, she already looked like a full-fledged adult.

There are things to like about The Last of Robin Hood. The production design has a nice 1950s feel, with icily muted color tones. The screenplay has a cheeky vibe for the first 45 minutes. The stars are perfect. These are Academy Award performers letting it all hang out and they nail it—down to Kevin Kline’s rendition of Flynn’s odd Aussie/Tasmanian/English accent. Dakota Fanning is Beverly Aadland—we get that she feels Beverly at a soul-to-soul level. Beverly’s mother, Florence Aadland, could only ever wish she were the babe-version portrayed by Susan Sarandon, a basically good-hearted mom (or is she?) who can’t resist the lure of Hollywood. Flo has no idea how overmatched she is by people like Errol Flynn.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In a scene vividly and accurately capturing reality, Fanning as Aadland is ambushed by reporters in the wake of Flynn’s death by heart attack.

As for Kevin Kline as Flynn, I (and many others) always thought he would make a perfect Errol from the days of The Pirates of Penzance. But the years passed and it kept not happening. He absolutely nails it in Last, as in, he depicts the guy his fans always imagined Errol Flynn should be at age 48, this elegant, dashing, aging-but-dignified movie star back to conquer Hollywood one last time.

At one point early on Beverly sees Flynn’s jaggy question mark stitched into some garment he’s wearing and asks what it means. And he says it means he questions things, but this throwaway moment had the potential to represent a theme in the picture: The jaggy question mark represented his cynicism about those people who were out to get him, people like the reporters who went after Flynn for living with an underage lover. How hard would it have been for the writers/directors to have tied the question mark into the scenes of “poor” Beverly collapsing as the press mobbed her at the airport after Errol’s sudden death from a heart attack?

Oh, sorry. Spoiler alert.

A disclaimer at the beginning of the picture would have helped: Any resemblance between this Errol Flynn and the real one is entirely coincidental. In truth, you didn’t want to spend an evening with the real Flynn by this point in his life. He was so debauched people didn’t recognize him—not even his frequent co-star and past love, Olivia de Havilland. He was by now the sum of thousands of bad decisions in his life, including washing down hard drugs with a fifth of vodka a day to ease the pain of having no money and few prospects. And he was a mean man, as described by Earl Conrad in Errol Flynn: A Memoir. Only an enabler would say that Errol Flynn was screwed over by life; Errol screwed himself over with all those bad decisions, one of them being to chase teenaged girls around.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Sorry folks, but this is the real Flynn in 1959. Paunchy, boozy, miserable. Bev looks awesome, though, and check out the caption where it says she’s 22.

Which leads me to the most perplexing thing about The Last of Robin Hood. Why in the world did the filmmakers choose this story about a man nearing 50 but looking older (cue the creepiness factor) having a sexual relationship with a girl who ages from 15 to 17? In our politically correct world, are you kidding?? We can’t feel sympathy for the predatory male, or for the girl who’s date-raped but stays with her attacker, or for the mother who wants her daughter to be a good girl on the one hand but play the Hollywood game on the other. It’s a fact that Flynn and Aadland had a close relationship, and a successful one—proving once again that you fall in love with who you fall in love with, and after a certain point, if the love is grand enough, it’s up to the world to deal with it. Flynn-Aadland was a salacious story when Flo Aadland sold it in The Big Love, a sleazy paperback published shortly after Flynn’s death. In our more enlightened age—actually I don’t think it’s more enlightened at all; I think it’s a more judgmental age and just as morally uptight—the Flynn-Aadland story simply couldn’t have succeeded in feature motion picture form as anything other than somebody’s tax write-off. It’s just a shame the three leads were wasted in this sanitized, superficial little fantasy version of complex, real-life happenings.

Earl Conrad got to know Flynn when Errol came down with writer’s block as he was drafting his memoirs; his publisher, Putnam, called Conrad in to save the day as Flynn’s ghostwriter. It’s interesting that the writing of My Wicked, Wicked Ways wasn’t interwoven into the plot of Last because this ultimate project of Flynn’s life engaged him just as much as Beverly did. In fact there’s your movie—why the hell didn’t they make this one: Flynn, the writer of two previous books and numerous pieces for major magazines, is now incapable of writing his greatest book of all. And as he works with Conrad, whom he despises, Flynn the actor and man comes face to face with a lifetime of demons, until, grudgingly, he begins to accept Conrad’s help, and then genuinely comes to admire and rely on him. I understand this story well because I knew Earl Conrad and we talked about it often, and a compelling drama it was as Flynn found redemption and then, finally, his missing words, with Earl’s guidance. I think a lot of people might have paid money to sit down and watch that one, with Kevin Kline as Flynn, Dakota Fanning as Beverly, and you name the Conrad. Matt Damon, maybe. I’d have been first in line and cried a river.

bev6

Beverly had a difficult time of it after Errol’s death, as this caption attests. Depicted with the coroner and police lieutenant is, wait, not Susan Sarandon, but the real Florence Aadland.

Everything’s Relative

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

GoodKnight Books first look at the cover design for Mission, release date October 24, 2016.

As you may know, it snowed here in the Northeast. Actually it’s still snowing, so I got up this morning and decided to shovel the driveway. This is always something of an exercise because the driveway is very wide here at the top by the two-car garage and then narrows for the 216-foot descent to the road. Usually I just shovel the wide part near the house and a couple of tracks down the driveway, but this morning was different. Why? Because I’ve reached the stage on my new book where I’m confronting every word by reading it aloud (more on that later). So I went out to shovel the driveway at 7:30 this morning knowing that afterward, I had to come in here and confront. I kept shoveling, and shoveling, and then I decided, in a bizarre sort of work avoidance, to shovel the whole 216 feet because it was less strenuous than sitting here doing all that confronting. In 35 years of living here I had never shoveled the whole thing, you know, the whole width of the driveway from top to bottom; about three-fourths of the way through it, the sweat was in my eyes and the hair was frozen on my head since it was still snowing and it was accumulating up above my brain.

This was a very old-school experience, with a shovel, not a snow blower or a plow. I’m pretty sure the neighbors think I’m a lunatic but I wouldn’t know because I don’t know my neighbors (me being me). So anyway, I pretty much wrote this column in my head as I was shoveling all the way down the driveway to the road, eight inches of snow (and counting), thinking what I was doing was a lot easier than plowing through Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe aloud.

OK, why read Mission aloud, you ask? Well, back when I was writing Fireball, at a certain point I learned it would be an audiobook and I started thinking about how my good friend Tavia Gilbert, a nationally known, award-winning audiobook performer, would read it, which forced me to read Fireball aloud myself to hear what it would sound like as an audiobook. It was a highly worthwhile experience because confronting every word helped to iron out problems and strengthen the narrative. I heard the clinkers, realized what words I’d used too often, got reminded of things I forgot to include, and enjoyed one final opportunity to cut sections that didn’t hold up. This is the time to make a book sing. I highly recommend this step for anyone who writes anything about anything. Fiction, nonfiction, a letter to a client—whatever. Read it aloud to hear how it sounds.

Angelique when she's really into a chapter.

Angelique when she’s really into a chapter.

I’m up to chapter 36 on Mission and am pleased to report that I’ve given myself goosebumps in many places and made myself cry twice. There’s been only one chapter so far where I went, “This doesn’t sparkle.” Oddly, it was a chapter about one of Stewart’s missions over Germany, but it didn’t sparkle and still doesn’t, and I was alerted to this fact when I read it aloud. Actually, Angelique, our little peanut of a cat, was looking at me oddly when I was reading that chapter as she lounged on her perch beside my desk half asleep. She just wasn’t feeling that one, so I knew it needed more work and I flagged it for some final reconstruction at the very end of the process.

It only took about a year and a half to write Fireball, and it’s taken about that long to write Mission. I learned a great deal from Morticia Addams, who said one time on The Addams Family, “All work and no play gets books done.” It was an episode from around 1965 when Morticia decided to be a writer and Gomez found her in the dungeon or somewhere writing away and said what was she doing. That’s when she said, “All work and no play gets books done,” and that sentiment really got to me, to the extent that for years I had it posted in front of me here in the office in 60-pt type. For the past year and a half I’ve been all work and no play to the extent I don’t watch TV, and only hear about the local sports teams on the news the next day. Day job, night job, day job, night job, that’s the routine. Most of the weekend it’s the night job. The words pile up that way (like snow during a storm), with the goal being 1,000 an evening most evenings, and they don’t have to be good words, just bulk words to be sanded and polished later. Sometimes, when I was writing the stories of the actual missions, I’d listen to music. A little Von Suppe’s Light Cavalry here, some Elmer Bernstein movie music there, a little Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance for martial spice. You know how well Richard Wagner worked for Apocalypse Now—symphonic really works for B-24 missions over Europe, and for the German viewpoint fighting the bombers as well.

So this morning I shoveled all the way down the 216 feet of driveway, a seven-foot-wide path, and at the road had to make my way through the big pile left by the borough snow plows going past. I was terribly pleased with myself. Ha! Take that, neighbors. I had avoided work for 90 minutes or whatever it was, and I trudged back up the cleared driveway only to realize, Oh shit! It’s still snowing, and the top is covered in snow, and I HAVE TO START ALL OVER AGAIN. I had avoided my work a little too well.

There’s your little slice of life from Snowmageddon 2016 here in Pennsylvania.

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

View from the top after I was “done,” with snow covering everything all over again. Oh well, I avoided it as long as I could–time to get to work.

Those Damn Peaks

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

Carole Lombard and dignitaries just off the east steps of the Indiana State House in Indianapolis on January 15, 1942. As of now, she had less than 36 hours to live.

If you’ve read Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, you know the significance of January 16; a year ago, since the date coincided with the fall of weekdays culminating in Friday January 16, I conducted a Twitter campaign to take you minute by minute through Carole Lombard’s last hectic 36 hours of life in real-time. That exercise taught me just how fast she careened toward her own death. It’s 11:30, she’s here; it’s 12:15, she’s there; 2:05, time for a wardrobe change to be here at 2:15. She had spent Thursday January 15, 1942 dashing and appearing. Make a speech, sell bonds, dash a few blocks to raise a flag, change clothes, go to a tea, change clothes, go to dinner uptown, then motorcade to the evening “gala.”

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

Mary Anna Johnson was a young federal researcher when she saw Carole Lombard board TWA Flight 3 in Indianapolis. Mary would be bumped from Flight 3 before it crashed, and tell me all about the experience 70 years later.

Last year’s Twitter recreation of the timeline for today, January 16, took a more linear turn. Imagine you’re flying west on a TWA red-eye, and it’s the middle of the night and you stop in lonely Indianapolis. Modern air travelers have no frame of reference for what a DC-3 interior was like. Basically you sat in the equivalent of a big tin can, sloped uphill, in terrific noise. You can’t imagine the noise of two commercial transport engines on either side of you, so if you got on the plane at LaGuardia or Newark and hopped your way west, by the time you reached Indianapolis, you were bushed. Sleep, when it came at all, was fleeting and fitful. Then as you sit in the silence of a darkened tarmac (the tinnitus of those engines still in your ears), your flight attendant, known then as an “air hostess,” announces that a VIP is boarding and please respect her privacy. Onto the plane steps Carole Lombard, her mother, and their PR man, with Lombard still wired from all she had experienced in the last 18 hours, from her first appearance in Indianapolis on.

As I write this I guess she’s somewhere over Missouri and now she’s sleeping fitfully and fleetingly while flying beside and in front of two passengers who are spitting mad at her for making them travel by air at all. Spitting mad. This is one of many aspects of the story that people don’t quite get because there are no photographs to depict it and few eyewitnesses spoke of it, but this party was Unhappy with a capital Un. Carole’s mother, whom she knew as “Petey” sometimes and “Tots” most of the time, would go to her fiery death furious at her daughter. PR man Otto Winkler would spend his last day trapped on the tin can and anticipating an air disaster because he had dreamed it would happen. So here he is right now over Missouri, expecting the worst after he had expended all his energy in Indianapolis and then hadn’t slept all night. Imagine, just imagine…

Stop after stop followed as the TWA’s transcontinental Flight 3 hedge-hopped west, stopping to pick up and drop off passengers and mailbags and to top off the tanks for the next leg. Then there’s another aspect of the thousand aspects to the story: the Army Air Corps guys. They had gotten onto the plane in dribs and drabs and by the last stop, the unscheduled stop in Las Vegas, there were 15 of these fliers on the plane as passengers, and only four civilians. One of the reasons I decided to write the manuscript I’m finishing today, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, is because of the affinity I feel for the Air Corps boys after writing Fireball. Newspapers reporting the crash of the plane gave the impression these young men were all pilots, but they weren’t. They were also co-pilots, navigators, radio men, and engineers. They were parts of flight crews in the Ferrying Command who took medium and heavy bombers east to the war, then snagged commercial flights back to California and did it over again. In the coming months these young guys were expecting transfer to American bases where they would train Air Corps conscripts because experienced Air Corps fliers were in short supply. Then after promotions they’d head to Europe or the Pacific as senior-level officers or non-coms.

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

A TWA DC-3 transcontinental Sky Club of the kind that crashed on this date in 1942 killing the flight crew, 15 Army Air Corps fliers, and four civilians, including Carole Lombard.

The life of an army aviator wasn’t easy because their ships were reliable and yet not at all reliable. We were then just out of the era of the biplane and still figuring out multi-engine aviation. Here’s something else to think about: When TWA Flight 3 took off into the Las Vegas darkness on this night, January 16, the 15 fliers sat there in the noise analyzing climb rate and engine performance. They could feel the overweight ship laboring to reach altitude because this is what they did for a living—they flew multi-engine planes. And since they were flying out of McCarran, an army airfield, they all knew Vegas and the dangers of the surrounding mountains and must have been wondering where those damn peaks were. But some of them also knew the pilot, Capt. Wayne Williams, because he had been teaching classes for the Army in multi-engine flying so they’d figure, with Capt. Williams up there, we’re OK.

They weren’t OK. A whole bunch of little things happened along the way that conspired to put Mt. Potosi in the way of Flight 3 as she power-climbed to altitude. The result: fireball—the image in my mind for years as I’d fly through Vegas and look over at Potosi and imagine what the people of Las Vegas witnessed in the western sky this night at about 7:30 local time. From 30 miles off they saw a little pinpoint of light that represented 22 humans going up in flames. I’m very fond of, and feel close to, all of them, not just Carole, Petey, and Otto, and on this January 16, with the trees barren and the sky appropriately gray, I’ll look at my watch and think about where they were and what they were doing on this, the last day of their lives.

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

Mt. Potosi, Nevada. Imagine TWA Flight 3 coming into view from the right and power climbing toward the distant peaks. At just about dead center in the photo she hit the rock cliff walls just below the peak in the dark at 185 miles per hour.

Silent Night, Creepy Night

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

When The Bishop’s Wife didn’t generate sufficient box office, Goldwyn and RKO altered the title to suggest shenanigans.

There’s a tremendous distinction between Christmas and the day after Christmas. Ever since I was a kid the day after Christmas was cast in black and white; a drab, depressing, downer of a day. I say this because most of you will be reading this after the Big Day and the impact will be lessened, but Christmas morning is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and contribute to my own column of late, so, here we are.

I’ve tried to get in the spirit this year, really I have, but it’s been no-go. I sampled the usual holiday pictures, those touchstones that help us orient ourselves in time-of-year. I wanted to watch It’s a Wonderful Life the other night on NBC because it’s so key to the plot of my almost-completed book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, but I walked in after it had begun and endured 5 minutes of commercials, at which point I bailed. I did sit through The Bishop’s Wife last evening, which is a picture I used to love but which, over the years, began to produce creepy feelings in me, and now I watch it the same way I do Silent Night, Evil Night, just to feel my skin crawl.

It’s been a while since you’ve been mad at me, so I think it’s time I reveal my feelings for this beloved holiday classic. For those of you who have never seen Samuel Goldwyn’s Christmas story, The Bishop’s Wife, you really owe it to yourself to spend two hours with Cary Grant as an angel sent to earth to guide the bishop, played by David Niven, his wife Loretta Young, and curmudgeon professor Monty Woolley. I now would like to go on record to describe these actors portraying these characters as creepy, creepy, creepy, and creepy.

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

The three stars, Cary Grant, David Niven, and Loretta Young.

First the no-brainer. Monty Woolley is supposed to be playing a charming old curmudgeon but somewhere in his backstory I feel like there’s a molestation or two. Everything about him is a little too dark, from his hoarder apartment to his writer’s block to his drinking problem. But then I’m not now and never was a Monty Woolley fan. To give you a comparison, if you were to offer me the choice of an hour with Woolley or with Thomas Mitchell (see previous columns), I’ll take Mitchell every time.

Loretta Young by this point in her career had acquired a hard, stretched, unnatural look that belies her tender age of 34. I never thought about it but she screams plastic surgery in this picture and her very appearance and particularly that hideous hat she dons in reel two and forces us to endure through the end of the picture make this woman utterly unappealing to at least one heterosexual male.

David Niven as a bishop?? Come on, need I say more. Errol Flynn’s drunken pal David Niven, playing 1000-percent against type as a man of God is just too much for me. What denomination are you again, your holiness? And what is it exactly you need help from an angel for, anyway? You are trying to build a church of some sort, and there isn’t enough money…or something? That’s the murkiest part for me, trying to figure out why the angel has come to earth. Because the reverend isn’t paying enough attention to his wife? Because he’s not building his temple? Or is it just because he’s depressed at the holidays? If that’s the case, I’d think there were better candidates for angelic visitation than a guy with a job, a big house, a wife, kid, servants, and dog.

And here’s where I speak genuine heresy. I find Cary Grant as Dudley the angel to be the creepiest thing of all about The Bishop’s Wife. Let’s compare him to Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life for just a moment. Clarence is an innocent. He’s ingenuous, earnest, and so lovable we want him to earn those wings. Dudley skulks, comes around corners to startle people, has a seductiveness about him that drives the maid wild, and all but seduces the bishop’s wife. I mean, really, when he finally propositions her it’s anti-climactic because of all that’s come before. He’s an angel who seems to me like he’d be much more comfortable in Kevin Smith’s Dogma than he is in a 1947 Goldwyn picture.

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

Is it just me or do you prefer your angels just a little less lustful than Cary Grant’s Dudley, who seems to be eyeing up the bishop’s wife like a Thanksgiving turkey.

Now, all this is on the one hand. On the other hand, there are classic moments as well, thanks mostly to the character actors populating The Bishop’s Wife. James Gleason does his usual thing as a cab driver who is unnecessary to the plot, but character actors have to eat like everybody else. Elsa Lanchester is gently wonderful as the maid in love with Dudley. Regis Toomey should have played the bishop because he’s such a good guy by nature and that energy always shows through onscreen. Don’t you want Regis Toomey to overcome whatever obstacle he’s facing in whatever picture? There’s not a creepy bone in Regis Toomey’s body.

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

The darkest aspect of all: that hideous hat, which I’ll be seeing in my nightmares.

Then there’s Gladys Cooper, who steals the show as Mrs. Hamilton, the bitchy old rich lady who hamstrings the bishop with demands for recognition in exchange for her money to build whatever church it is the plot centers around. The scene where Dudley unlocks the awful secret tainting Mrs. Hamilton’s heart is beautifully played by Cary Grant and Gladys Cooper, but once again I get a little uneasy because the secret involves a wild love affair between the lady and a composer who died young. She’s still carrying a torch for the guy 45 years later and never loved her rich, dead husband—although she married him anyway and did all right for herself. I’m all for love, don’t get me wrong, and torch-carrying, but there’s something oppressive about this storyline in this instance for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on.

Sex, greed, and death; yes sir, I always want these in my 1940s holiday classics. I find my own favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard, to be much less ambiguous than The Bishop’s Wife, but that’s just me. Isn’t it funny that three of our enduring holiday pictures, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop’s Wife were all made within two years of the end of WWII? And it’s no coincidence that all three have their dark aspects as a result.

There, I’ve had these feelings about The Bishop’s Wife locked up inside for too long and now I feel better for having revealed them, just like Mrs. Hamilton. Now maybe I’ll be nice too. Unlikely, but possible, in which case Dudley will have saved another one. Am I the only one who feels this way about this picture? Are there other holiday classics that everyone around you loves while you just don’t get it?

For those of you who happen to wander in within the next week, Happy Holidays! I have a feeling, a very strong feeling, that 2016 will be an exciting time, and I hope it will be a grand, healthy, successful year for each and every one of you.

HIGH HOPES AND A BATTLE

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

British Airborne troops flash the V-for-Victory sign and give thumbs up on the way to their drop zone near Arnhem.

Once upon a time, all-star films were all the rage. I was trying to figure out when it started and I’m sure you know better than I. Was it The Story of Mankind? That pre-dates Around the World in 80 Days, right? Then the all-star game found war pictures and The Longest Day was born, which I consider the go-to look at D-Day even though it was G-rated and the real thing was For Adults Only. No, really, the real thing wasn’t for anyone, it was so brutal. I’m always struck by the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan, a picture I despised otherwise, when the gate of the landing craft went down in the surf near the beach, and we saw a glimpse of what the guys really went through.

Darryl Zanuck had the vision for The Longest Day, and it worked in spite of its lumbering, all-star self. Next came The Great Escape, probably the most successful of the all-star service pictures. Then Zanuck tried it again with Tora, Tora, Tora! about Pearl Harbor, and his all-star cast wasn’t quite so stellar for budgetary reasons, but the picture still succeeded, I think because the stars weren’t so big they demanded their own vignettes. It became an ensemble of very good but not overwhelming players—exactly the feel achieved in The Great Escape.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

One-sheet movie poster for A Bridge too Far, released in 1977.

Midway was a last gasp at the traditional, all-star war picture told with old-time apple-pie sensibilities, even though we then lived in the post-MASH, post-Catch-22 world of revisionism, a world that had already seen The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes, which overlaid modern sensibilities on World War II. I saw Midway in a big theater on first release in 1976 and thought it was OK at best. A veteran of the war in the South Pacific who also saw it was laughing afterward at the mismatched stock footage and wrongly placed vintage aircraft depicted; by this time the pickings of available fighter-bombers was already pretty slim. Really, Midway had the ambition but not the budget and needed the gimmick of the day, sub-woofer Sensurround, to try to put derrieres into seats.

In the wake of Midway, there was one great World War II historical novel by Cornelius Ryan hanging out there that hadn’t been brought to the screen, A Bridge Too Far, about a well-meaning, wrong-headed plan called Operation Market Garden that sought to bring World War II to a rapid close in September 1944. Producer Joseph E. Levine envisioned A Bridge Too Far as an all-star service picture with a script by William Goldman that made no bones about bludgeoning the audience with Monday morning quarterbacking and an “Isn’t this ironic?” attitude.

I’m not going to critique the resulting picture. Either you like it or you don’t. What I will say is it’s quite a setup for actually visiting Arnhem, where the action took place, and the history is heavy there in those streets where British paratroopers went up against a ferocious last-stand German defense. In a nutshell, a large force of British paratroopers were dropped near the Dutch city of Arnhem behind German lines to capture a key bridge over the Rhine as part of a larger plan involving a sudden Allied push north through Holland to cut the German front in two. We drop you up here, we slice north from down here, we meet up in Arnhem, war over. Simple. Dismissed, see you at the surrender ceremony.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Artwork in the British Airborne Museum in Arnhem shows the battle for the bridge, with Tommies who were unequipped to fight tanks holding off advancing German armor.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Roughly the same view in November 2015 at sunset.

The plan was complicated by only one wee little factor: German forces fleeing the Allied advance through France after D-Day were ordered to regroup at none other than Arnhem. I mean, at just about the time the paratroopers were climbing aboard their aircraft in England, the Germans just happened to be stopping in Arnhem. Many didn’t even have weapons—they had turned them in because they were about to board trains back to Berlin for refitting. They were just there, weary and shell-shocked after the Allied invasion, thinking they were about to see home. Then here come these poor British paratroopers dropping all around, guys who thought they would be fighting a few Nazi-sympathizer Dutch home guard troops. Instead, a couple divisions of SS Panzers and what was left of the real German army got the surprise of their lives as British paratroopers floated to earth, and then the Germans regrouped, outnumbered the Tommies, and took care of business. The dreamed-of liberation of Arnhem’s besieged population became a bloodbath for British soldiers, first at the Arnhem Bridge and then in the city center where the paratroopers retreated.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

The overwhelming sight of graves for all the British and Polish paratroopers who died in the Battle of Arnhem.

Two weeks ago I was in Arnhem to get a feel for the Dutch people—to get their vibe for the portions of Mission that take place in Holland. They drive on the right side of the road in Holland, thank God, so tooling around the countryside was a lot of fun, but did you know they don’t have windmills anymore? Only one traditional windmill, ONE, was seen in hundreds of miles of Holland. All they’ve got these days are wind turbines, giant, cold, silent wind turbines like you can find anywhere. I had to wonder what Don Quixote would think of this unfortunate turn of events.

So anyway, back to the Richard Attenborough-directed picture, A Bridge Too Far. All right, I will critique it. There was a whole lot to explain and too many times the explanations weren’t clear or clever enough so it just seemed like a lotta explosions. We don’t get a sense of the ultimate irony that the Germans just happened to be regrouping here of all places, which makes the parachute drop so heartbreaking for these brave, well-meaning Tommies who expected to win the war in a week and ended up in a Custer’s Last Stand scenario in downtown Arnhem.

No, I take that back. The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is Ryan O’Neal, who at 36 was just clueless portraying a real-life general of roughly the same age. If you watch the picture you have to wonder what the real actors around him were thinking as he so cluelessly recited his lines.

No, I take that back. The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is Gene Hackman’s Polish accent. He seemed to know he couldn’t get it right, but he soldiered on anyway. That’s bravery, in the actor sense of bravery, which isn’t quite the paratrooper sense of it.

No! The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is the Americans. Yes, that’s it, the Americans. Because it was an all-star picture and U.S. box office meant everything, the American stars had to have big parts. A-number-1 big star of the day, Robert Redford, got a 15-minute vignette as an Airborne major ordered to get his men across a river in poor-quality rowboats; B-number-2 star of the day, James Caan, got 10 solid minutes as a sergeant trying to save an officer’s life; C-number-3 star of the day, Elliott Gould, negotiated for 15 minutes of screen time to build a Bailey bridge. Yes the American 82nd and 101st Airborne mattered to the plot, just not enough to justify all the close-ups. This is a British story—just let it be a British story.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Anthony Hopkins as Col. John Frost, leading his confident men into battle after a successful parachute drop near Arnhem.

Then there’s the best thing about A Bridge Too Far, Anthony Hopkins as Col. John Frost trying to take and hold Arnhem Bridge, and then continuing the fight until his ammo and food ran out. He earned his way onto my Mt. Rushmore of great screen characterizations of all time with his take on the quintessential, stiff-upper-lip British officer in a hopeless situation. In this picture, Anthony Hopkins is simply, how can I say this … perfect. It’s worth it for anyone to slog through A Bridge Too Far to get to the Hopkins moments because they are magical. He is all those British boys rolled into one. He is every corpuscle of every man who fought and died on those streets in 1944.

Walking across the now-called John Frostbrug (John Frost Bridge) in Arnhem was a chilling experience knowing what happened there. Visiting the Airborne Cemetery had me in tears the instant I saw all those smart formations of headstones, each representing a brave Tommy or Pole who paid the ultimate price. I wasn’t prepared for the emotion of that moment, especially with plaques at the gates of the cemetery in multiple languages that included photos of the Airborne guys in the planes on the way over the North Sea flashing V-for-victory signs, all smiles as they flew with their high hopes and noble intentions only to die in a hail of machine gun fire on the streets of Arnhem, a city that had been spared the nastiness of war until those brutal, unexpected days of September 1944 when British Airborne met the SS and their Panzers.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Two British paratroopers holed up in a house in Oosterbeek (next to Arnhem) fought to the last and recorded their kills by date in September 1944 on the wallpaper. Their strident message reflects the thoughts of my friend Clem, contributor to Mission, who flew with Jimmy Stewart and was shot down over Holland. “There’s no glory in war,” said Clem. “War is crazy.”

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Morning dew kisses three cut roses placed on a monument honoring Allied war dead. The Dutch people fell in love with their would-be liberators the British Airborne, and that love is undiminished 71 years later.

On a Mission for ‘Mission’

 

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Jimmy Stewart risks his crisp uniform walking the muddy track at Tibenham in front of crew quarters.

It’s been more than 18,000 miles since I last updated this blog. First came a business trip from Pittsburgh to Portland and back, followed almost immediately by a nine-day excursion to Europe as background research for Mission, the Jimmy Stewart book now under construction.

As you know if you know me, I don’t believe an author can write about a physical place significant to a story without having been there. I consider the locations to be characters because of their importance to the narrative, and I didn’t feel qualified to write about, for instance, Mt. Potosi, Nevada, where TWA Flight 3 crashed, until I had climbed it. In the same way, I can’t in good faith describe the 1943-44 U.S. Army air base in Tibenham, England, without visiting the runways where Stewart and so many other fliers took off, many never to return.

Remaining Tibenham air base crew quarters as explored just last week.

Remaining Tibenham air base crew quarters as explored just last week.

Stewart was a four-engine-rated Army pilot when he first landed at Tibenham November 25, 1943. He spent four months there during his heaviest run of combat missions. My November 23 and 24 (last week) were boots on the ground in Tibenham, where I experienced what the Americans did upon touching down: cold, damp, muddy weather, unrelenting, with very low overcast. By 4:20 P.M. on the days I visited, it was dark in Tibenham, which, until the Americans arrived, and after they left, was nothing more than a meandering village located along even more meandering roads wide enough for one ox cart of ye olden days, but not for motor vehicles.

As for my visit, you probably know that cars drive on the left in UK, which seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but with the deck stacked by rain and country roads with nothing over there called a “shoulder,” it becomes a big deal, especially with trucks barreling toward me—on the right no less. And there are lots of trucks driving around over there, careening around the hairpin turns. Then there’s that thing the English call a roundabout—every town has one or more. I’m pretty sure the Brits designed roundabouts to thin the herd of visiting Americans trying to navigate from the left while at the same time figuring out when to yield, when to proceed, and when to turn, always at high speed. But enough of my whining.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Rare is the idiot, er, scholar, who would fly across an ocean, bypass London, and head straight for a rainy field near Norwich where once an air base stood. Here is runway 0-3, the big one at Tibenham. From here the 445th Bomb Group took off almost daily, weather permitting, on several-hours-long bombing missions. Crews felt very lucky to touch back down here later in the day. Hundreds of fliers who lifted off in the morning never did.

Tibenham’s landing strips were returned to the RAF after hostilities ceased, and the base saw some service in the Cold War before a glider club took over; the gliders still operate there. The club historian, a pilot himself, is Eric Ratcliffe, and Eric graciously spent his afternoon showing me around what was once the air base. Precious few buildings remain from the small city that once held 3,000 American airmen, but I saw what was where and got the lay of the land, including the barracks where Stewart stayed (some of those quarters are still standing), and the primary local point of reference, the All Saints Tibenham Church, built in the sixteenth century. Its high tower and the north-south railway nearby served as vital landmarks to American pilots returning at dusk to nearly identical bases in the endless rolling farm country of East Anglia. So many air bases in fact, that mid-air collisions of heavy bombers taking off for morning missions in the overcast were a common occurrence in 1943 and 44, with great loss of life. Local lore includes very specific references to what body parts of American fliers rained down where around the railway station after a particular mid-air collision of B-24s.

I learned a lot during my two days of visits to Tibenham, and I know it will lend command and authenticity to my recounting of the 445th Bomb Group and Stewart’s squadron, the 703, as I describe his role in the war and his missions. But I also flip the story around and describe the experiences of others who crossed paths with Stewart and the daily bomber stream, civilians in Holland and Germany, and those in the Luftwaffe up against these great flying armadas. To many, Jimmy Stewart was a hero; to others he was one of the “terror fliers” of World War II. One of my colleagues in this enterprise dubbed the approach a “360-degree look at the war,” and that’s exactly what I’m going for.

The tower of All Saints Tibenham Church was a welcome sight that let pilots know they were home.

The high tower of All Saints Tibenham Church was visible for miles and served as a welcome sight to pilots struggling toward home.

Stewart’s a complex character and one I can identify with in some ways given that he and I both grew up in sister small western Pennsylvania college towns in coal country. But he’s also an enigma, a closed book of a human who hid a nervous stomach and waves of self-doubt about his looks, his attractiveness, and his talent behind a slow-thinking, slow-talking persona. Then there’s the most perplexing question of all: Why did Stewart so willingly step away from a Hollywood career that included the great triumph of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and then an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story to sign up for service when there wasn’t even a war to go fight? The obvious answer is that Jimmy Stewart was a flag-waving American patriot. Hooray for Jimmy! But the reality is quite different and something I look forward to sharing with you when Mission goes to press at the end of 2016.

For now, may I just say I’m home after four days of domestic and nine days of European travel and ready to get back to work and finish my book. It’s a story with a great main star and terrific supporting cast, and it’s so crazy in so many ways that it simply has to be true.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

World War II expert Eric Ratcliffe (left), my guide, poses with me at the 445th Bomb Group Memorial in the fading light of a raw November day. I like to believe the spirits of all those airmen of the 445th are posed around us and wishing me happy landings for telling their stories. Many thanks to Eric for his time, patience, and expertise that day.

At Home Wherever

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

With Tyrone Power in The Black Swan. Unleashing the Technicolor redhead.

Maureen O’Hara started out with Charles Laughton in Jamaica Inn in 1938 and Hunchback of Notre Dame a year later, then went on to a long and successful career as a Fox leading lady. She acted with Ty, Errol, and Duke and was in all those John Ford pictures. You never heard a hint of scandal about her and she lived to 95, but now she too is gone like Joan Leslie is gone. Well into her 80s MoH looked like a million bucks and gave me hope of immortality, and she wrote a sassy memoir like we wish more of the great ones had written. Now she’s left us; we keep losing them until there aren’t any left to connect us as humans to a Golden Age that’s now passed into history. We can no longer share memories with those who are living and have them tell us what the old stars were “really like” and walk the lots and describe their dressing rooms and provide anecdotes about directors and what happened on what soundstage; we can only look back and study printed words and recordings of those people. What they said is cast in concrete now; they aren’t saying anything new.

I’m reminded of a visit to the Warner Bros. lot somewhere around 2009. I asked around if anyone knew where Errol Flynn’s dressing room was and guess what: Nobody did. That information had died with Flynn and the other veteran studio employees now long gone. The “old timers,” volunteers at the gift shop, were from well after Flynn’s day, so the studio history of where Flynn’s or Bogart’s dressing rooms were no longer existed because nobody bothered to capture it. As it happens, I was able to piece together the exact location in case anybody wants to know—Jack Warner kept Flynn in the corner dressing room right outside the top man’s second-story window, literally under J.L.’s nose, where Flynn could be kept track of. But I digress.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

With John Payne and Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street for Fox.

I liked Maureen O’Hara well enough without classifying her a personal favorite. In hindsight, I took her for granted and when I stop to think about it, she participated in some of my favorite pictures, including How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Long Gray Line. She was great with the Duke in pictures like Rio Grande and The Quiet Man, and she was tough enough that the abusive John Ford couldn’t reduce her to tears. If somebody gave it to Maureen, Maureen was capable of giving it right back–the very definition of a fiery redhead.

Thinking about it, though, I did find it charming when her natural Irish accent would sneak through her scrupulous American/English. Thought would come out taught. Thank you would be tank you. Mostly, though, you’d never guess she wasn’t from middle America and it must have taken quite a bit of effort to pull that accent off in picture after picture.

O’Hara’s muscular, square shoulders allowed her to credibly use a sword in adventure films like At Sword’s Point, where she played the daughter of a musketeer, and Against All Flags, where she played a Caribbean pirate. She also took pride in doing a lot of her own stunt work in physical pictures like McLintock. Basically, she did whatever kept her working in a run that lasted into the 1970s, with a later highlight being her role of the mother of twins in Disney’s The Parent Trap. The last thing I can remember seeing her in was Big Jake in 1971, looking as good as ever, bringing all that history and backstory with Duke to bear playing his ex-wife in what amounted to a glorified cameo in the first reel. By this time they had such chemistry that even as a kid I could feel the gravitas of their scenes together.

I had hoped to post this piece a week ago, but I got behind. I don’t mind putting it up now because after a flurry of goodbyes in newspapers and blogs, the stars seem to be laid to rest and rarely revisited. So instead of being just another in a clot of retrospectives, here I am more than a week later with my look back at a sassy Irish lass who was a beautiful leading lady and an important Fox contract player from Hollywood’s Golden Age, a versatile talent just as at home in a Welsh mining town as on the Spanish Main, a cavalry outpost, or 34th Street.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

Leather and lace: O’Hara with Errol Flynn in Against All Flags. Best not to mess with either one.

Time Bombs

Here’s a thing I’ve known all my life but never really thought about: Hollywood lost five of its greatest, most famous leading men one a year for five successive years. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Five legends gone. All died of “natural causes” but the eldest of the five was just 60. And the thing is, nobody seems to have flinched when Bogie, Ty, Errol, Clark, and Coop passed. It’s just the way things were in the 1950s and 60s, the era of big booze, chain smoking, and meat-and-potatoes diets.

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

I’m going to guess it was difficult not to smoke around Humphrey Bogart, who here helps fourth wife Lauren Bacall light up.

Humphrey Bogart was the first to go in 1957 after years battling throat cancer. He had always been an unorthodox fellow with a cantankerous lifestyle that included long pouting sessions aboard his yacht Santana, a brawling third marriage to Mayo Methot, and a cradle-robbing fourth to Lauren Bacall. Bogie drank up a storm and smoked like, well we all know what he smoked like because we see it in many of his pictures, most famously Casablanca. Seeing the way Bogart aged on screen might have made it possible to take his passing in stride in January 1957 when he succumbed at age 57—the only one of our five matinee idols to have been born prior to 1900.

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

Tyrone Power becomes ill shooting this scene in Solomon and Sheba and dies within hours.

Tyrone Power died next at just 44 years of age. Ty’s personal life included passionate and highly publicized relationships with a pair of stunning-looking actresses, Annabella and Linda Christian. It’s also said that Ty’s sexuality was ambiguous, and many gay and bisexual actors in Hollywood lived a tortured existence to keep any such knowledge secret for fear of box office poisoning. I never researched Power so I don’t know about his personal demons, but I always liked his onscreen self in pictures like The Mark of Zorro, The Black Swan, Captain from Castille, and The Long Gray Line. Each of these and many others in his career called for strenuous physical work, and it was on a movie set fighting George Sanders in a duel with swords that Ty, who had served as a Marine pilot in the Pacific in WWII, collapsed and died in November 1958.

Then came the demise of Errol Flynn. Everybody who knew Errol expressed surprise when he dropped dead of a heart attack at age 50—surprise that he had managed to last so long! Imagine that your lifestyle included drinking a bottle of vodka, smoking three packs of unfiltered cigarettes, and injecting yourself with cocaine and other opiates every single day. That, my friends, is a tortured soul seeking release. It’s a wonder Flynn had any time at all for the two arts at which he excelled—the art of motion pictures and the art of seduction. I could write a book about Flynn’s unhappy existence. Oh wait, I did write one. No, I wrote two. So there went another leading man in October 1959.

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

Errol Flynn parties with 18-year-old Brigitte Bardot in Cannes in 1953.

Unlucky (or would he say lucky?) number four was Clark Gable, one-time King of Hollywood who had managed to keep his reputation as a heartthrob long past the dissipation of his looks from years of smoking, drinking, and grief over the loss of his love, Carole Lombard. Gable had eased from square-shouldered leading man in pictures like The Tall Men in 1955 to paunchy, self-deprecating comedian in Teacher’s Pet in 1958 and But Not for Me in 1959. He had always been so very careful to protect his brand that I find it endearing the way he poked fun at himself in these later pictures. Then came The Misfits in 1960 and location work in the Nevada desert that was tough not just due to heat but mostly because this pro’s pro was forced to endure the shenanigans of royally messed-up Marilyn Monroe. Sitting around patiently waiting for your co-star to show up and then waiting some more so she could get her lines right can be stressful, and it’s no coincidence that Gable went down at his ranch from a heart attack days after completing production. He lasted a number of days in the hospital and then had another attack that ended him in November 1960.

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

Four aging Hollywood stars party. From left: Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart (subject of my next book and sans toupee). Clark would be gone in less than a year, and Coop soon after.

Last was tall and quiet Gary Cooper, by all accounts one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people in all Hollywood. Coop hadn’t looked young since the early 1930s but somehow he managed to play young in pictures like Pride of the Yankees when he was already past 40. He followed his contemporaries into westerns and hit pay dirt with High Noon, his last iconic role, but continued to work actively in pictures he knew were average and tried to hang on via cosmetic surgery toward the end. He had been so active as a sportsman that he’d suffered multiple hernias and thought that explained the pain he was experiencing, but it turned out to be prostate cancer and it had spread through his body. Cancer claimed him in May 1961 at the age of 60, the only one of the five to make it to the big six-oh.

These Hollywood greats would have stared blankly as you preached the evils of beef, bacon, transfats, and gluten. Theirs was a time when you went about your business, enjoying the high life and consuming what you wanted right up until the day you dropped. Three went fast and two lingered, but I can’t imagine another reality where these guys endured into their seventies or eighties. They were all men of their age, and that age was passing. In their cases, passing fast.

If Only

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenThere should be a law that Hollywood stars who are going to die young should only make first-rate pictures. Take Audrey Hepburn, for example. There was only so much Audrey to go around. She reached her zenith in looks and glamour around the time of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, then did Charade and My Fair Lady, and before and after there were some stinkers. I’ll grant you Roman Holiday’s a fine, original picture, Funny Face has its moments, and The Nun’s Story is, well, awesome, but War and Peace, Green Mansions, Paris When It Sizzles, How to Steal a Million—I wish to heck since Audrey had a limited shelf life and moved on to humanitarian work that she had made better career choices.

Marilyn Monroe’s another one. I want more of the Marilyn of Niagara, How to Marry a Millionaire, and The Seven Year Itch—I’m not as big a fan of Some Like It Hot as others are—but boy she completed her trajectory fast. I don’t care much about seeing MM play a psycho in Don’t Bother to Knock. River of No Return? Eh. Bus Stop—not to my taste. The Misfits depresses me. I think she looks great in The Prince and the Showgirl and it has some moments, but it’s also a test of the kidneys. And the perfect torture for your worst enemy: tie him or her to a chair and force consumption of Let’s Make Love in its lethal entirety. She’s the perfect example of how limits of even tremendous Hollywood stars can be tested by forcing them into pictures that were just plain bad ideas.

I’m not your biggest fan of Jean Harlow (although I have nothing against her), but the other week Saratoga was on and I tried to sit and enjoy it. I decided that even if Harlow had lived to film every scene in the script, Saratoga would still have been a dog, just like Personal Property had been a dog. It makes me wonder if Harlow wouldn’t have followed Joan Crawford into the MGM doghouse with another bad picture or two the likes of Saratoga.

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

So let me see if I have this straight, Mr. Montand. I’m Marilyn Monroe, and you’re getting more screen time than me in this picture?

Carole Lombard made some pictures that are hard to watch, particularly earlier in her career, but Fools for Scandal, Vigil in the Night, and They Knew What They Wanted? Ouch.

Do you ever do that? Do you ever sit consuming a bad picture by a big Hollywood star and wish for better? Errol Flynn was the perfect screen swashbuckler but made very few good ones. I watch him forced to go through the paces saddled with that hellacious Against All Flags script and before long I’m ranting at the screen. Earlier today I caught a few moments of his Civil War western Santa Fe Trail and it was a few moments too many. Some time back I went through all the production notes on this one and even as he toiled on it day by day, Flynn knew it stank. He was a cranky man making Santa Fe Trail and for good reason.

It’s the flip side of Golden Age Hollywood: stars needed vehicles, needed to have their faces out there with three, four new pictures a year, many or most of them forgettable and some downright painful because there just weren’t enough good scripts and good directors to go around.

Clark Gable may have been the King of Hollywood back in the day, but take away It Happened One Night and Gone With the Wind, and what do you have? Some decent pictures and many more iffy ones.

We think of Cary Grant as a hit maker but man did he foul off lots of pitches in the 1950s. For every To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest there was a Crisis, Room for One More, Kiss Them for Me, and The Pride and the Passion. I mean, he’s Cary Grant for crying out loud! Give him better material!

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

The movie posters for The Pride and the Passion should have been warning enough.

My beloved Marx Brothers may be the best example of all. After five stout Paramount comedies in as many years, the boys moved to MGM and died a lingering death. Somehow their funny bones never got packed and stayed back in the soundstages on Melrose. What a tragedy! Such great talent wasted as they ran out of motivation in the face of flop after flop and suddenly were too old and didn’t care anymore.

Am I the only one who wishes that all those unique talents living in their unique times had been better taken care of?

Survivor

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

The couple at their Encino ranch in spring 1939.

I’ve been thinking about Clark Gable lately, since he got all that attention for “date raping” Loretta Young on a train in 1935. Even though they weren’t on a date. Even though no evidence exists that there was any sort of rape at all. Mark Alan Vieira wrote an excellent open letter on the subject that I am hoping you will read and share. To my mind it stabilizes the poisonous atmosphere around the memory of Clark Gable.

All this got me to thinking about how Gable survived the loss of his wife of less than three years and companion for six, Carole Lombard. It’s a central theme in Fireball—you expect your partner home any minute but she doesn’t come home, ever, and how do you deal with that? How do you cope when the love of your life leaves you? No goodbye, no legal papers, no separation, no divorce. Just. Gone. Of course every partner in every relationship is unique, but what about if you’re married to vivacious, mile-a-minute, down-to-earth, beautiful, sexy, over-caffeinated and over-nicotined Carole Lombard? How do you survive the loss of that? Of a person you know is smarter than you? Of a force of nature, a dynamo with too much energy, a challenge and a handful every minute of the day? A person you loved body and soul and fought with like there was no tomorrow?

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

The irony and sadness of the story is captured in this photo and caption from the Indy Star. (Thank you, Marina Gray)

The fact is, he did survive it. He didn’t want to survive and tried not to but he did anyway. He endured that Las Vegas weekend and the funerals the next week. He endured life on the profoundly quiet ranch in Encino and on the Culver City MGM soundstages Lombard once visited to be near her husband.

He survived. What strikes me about his survival is the grace I saw at every turn looking back through first-person accounts of Clark Gable’s struggle to keep going. He never lashed out, never once that anyone saw. He just kept moving, for a long time as a facsimile of Gable the movie star, hollow-eyed and emaciated but ramrod straight, going through the motions, staring at nothing, not hearing what was said to him, and then he decided something in an agreement with himself, something that reconciled this with that. He seems to have accepted that she was gone and never coming back. After that, he reappeared as something resembling his old self and also as a prophet of Carole Lombard’s life and legacy, spreading the good word about her, telling stories about her antics, her good deeds, her studio smarts, the gags she pulled, the fights they had, most of these stories beginning with the words, “Remember the time…”

This Clark Gable, the one buried next to Carole Lombard at Forest Lawn Glendale, is not a predator. I can’t say one way or the other what he was in 1935, but I know what he was in 1942 and 1943, and that’s a guy struggling to survive and doing it with a dignity I admire. I’ve always said frankly that I didn’t start out liking Clark Gable but grew to admire him, and I stick by that because he did endure that weekend and went on to finish his career and his life without the girl, with other women in his life but most decidedly without the girl. It speaks to the character of a survivor, which also may explain his approach to that child he sired by Loretta Young: little Judy Lewis threatened his survival, and nothing must be allowed to do that. So there are the two sides of the sword, the dignity of a survivor and the ruthlessness of a survivor. Whatever you want to say about Clark Gable, he was human, complete with his fair share of human failings but also dignity among other qualities. And he survived.