fireball robert matzen

Santa Claus and the Cold Hand of Death

Fox poster art for the June release dismissed the Christmas angle, which was known to be bad box office.

On Thanksgiving morning I was watching a bit of New York City’s Macy’s parade on television, which inspired me to revisit one of my favorite seasonal touchstones, Miracle on 34th Street. I try to watch it every year, but this time what really hit home was the scene when the woman brings the adopted Dutch girl to see Santa. Lately, I’ve been deep-diving into all things Netherlands—the language, the culture, and especially the history of life in Holland during the Nazi occupation of 1940 to 1945.

If you were living in the Netherlands when the Germans marched in on a pleasant May morning, there was a decent chance you would not be living when they were driven out in 1945. If you happened to live in Rotterdam, you could have died in the German bombing of the central city that forced the Dutch surrender four days after the invasion. If you were a Jew, you would have been given a one-way ticket to a concentration camp. If you were deemed an enemy of the state, you might have been shot. If you got caught up in the combat of 1944 and 1945 when the Allies came in, well, either side could have gotten you. If you made it as far as the Hunger Winter just before war’s end, you might have starved. And if you happened to be standing under an Eighth Air Force bomber, well, duck, cover, and pray.

When Miracle on 34th Street was released in June 1947, its audience knew all too well the horrors that Holland had weathered. So, when the Dutch girl’s adoptive mother explains to Santa that the girl comes from an orphanage in Rotterdam, it would have sent chills through many. The girl’s parents clearly had died in the war, and the child is emotionally scarred as a result. She has only one wish, and that’s to connect with Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas who each November sails by ship from Spain and lands in some obscure part of the Netherlands with his sidekick, Zwarte Piet the Moor, who lugs a sack full of presents and candy for the good children. After stepping ashore like MacArthur in the Philippines, Sinter sets out on a white steed to make his way through the lowlands while poor Piet goes afoot. In many Dutch households, Sinterklaas knocks at the door and comes in for a December 5 sit-down that amounts to a performance review for the children living there. If you’re good, well, you don’t have to fear the bearded man with the lethal staff, scary mitre, and lurking strong-arm man. You get gifts and candy in your wooden shoes placed neatly under the Christmas tree. If you happened to be a bad kid, however—and this is where it gets a little weird—Zwarte Piet manhandles you into the sack and carries you back to Spain.

The forlorn look of a refugee from the world’s darkest days.

I always loved the Miracle on 34th Street scene between Santa and the Dutch girl for the elemental conflict presented. Her poor caretaker doesn’t want to expose this little war orphan to a department-store Santa who can’t possibly understand her language or needs. I always understood her culture shock at being in New York, U.S.A. What only became clear on this viewing after my Nederland immersion is the aura of death surrounding the child and what motivated her forlorn look when she first interacts with the Macy’s Santa. The girl, who seems to be about seven years old judging by the missing front teeth, lights up when Santa suddenly begins speaking to her in Dutch and she gets the confirmation she needs: He really is Sinterklaas.

I have to hand it to Edmund Gwenn for doing as well as he does with what is truly a tough language to learn, even if it’s only a few lines. Marlene Lydon does as well with her Dutch impression as any seven-year-old California girl with missing front teeth possibly could. And at plot point one, when Natalie Wood as little Susan watches the interaction between Santa and the orphan and begins to suspect that Santa is more than a department-store stand-in, it’s the best moment of all—her jaw drops and she experiences real magic for the first time in her very sensible life.

In my experience, horses don’t do the roof any good, but there is Sinterklaas on his white steed, while poor Zwarte Piet ends up with the short end of the stick. In modern appearances Piet is usually played by a Caucasian in blackface, and there has been a formidable social backlash in the Netherlands.

There are so many things to love about Miracle on 34th Street (the original–I refuse to accept more recent substitutes). I’m not the biggest Maureen O’Hara fan, but as Mrs. Walker she underplays beautifully throughout, like when she tries to tell Susan that Santa isn’t real even though, as Susan points out, he can speak Dutch. “I speak French,” Walker reasons, “but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”

O’Hara, Wood, and Gwenn, part of a perfect cast in a perfect film.

I’m not breaking new ground here when I go on and on about this perfect film, a triple Oscar winner, I don’t have to tell you, one for Gwenn and two for the writing. I just wanted to take a moment to call out that scene and the all-new effect it had on me after a lifetime of viewings. And if I don’t get another column up in the next little while, Happy Holidays, one and all, from the Netherlands salt mines where I toil, pretty much night and day.

P.S. Don’t forget to order Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, which has proven to be the perfect holiday gift for active-duty service members, veterans, armchair generals, and lovers of everything Hollywood.

Lost and Found

I always understood the cult of Somewhere in Time without ever considering myself to be a part of it. I first saw this picture on its HBO release, probably in 1981, because of course no one saw it in theaters on wide release, where it bombed because Christopher Reeve’s star was already descending, and because an actors’ strike kept the two main players from hitting the road to talk up their new release.

Anyone who has ever loved and lost can relate to Somewhere in Time and the blackness, the despair of going on alone. There’s a desperation for happiness among the characters, a happiness so fragile every minute. I have to pause here and thank Matt of MattsRadShow on Youtube for his video that I stumbled upon stream of consciousness-like the other day, because Somewhere in Time was, right then, somewhere near the last thing in the entire world on my mind. I ‘got’ Matt instantly and wondered if we were twins separated at birth the way he and his wife, Ashley, traveled to Mackinac Island to track down and record key shooting locations—cleverly so!—and produce a video that I’d argue is as haunting as the picture it honors. [My aside to Ashley: I know you’re long-suffering because I have a better half who has similarly endured wild, improbable adventures in support of her man. Well played, my friend.]

I didn’t mess with superlatives for Jane Seymour in this column, but, boy, she gives the role of Elise depth beyond the words on the pages of the screenplay.

So inspired by Matt’s work was I that I headed for OnDemand on a Saturday night and consumed this picture for the first time in decades. I loved it. Truly savored it. My reservations are still my reservations, but Somewhere in Time has three things going for it that simply overwhelm its drawbacks. The assets are, in no particular order, Jane Seymour, Mackinac Island locations, and John Barry’s score, which went through my head all night and is still there now. In fact, what the hell, let’s play it in the background while I write this.

Nice. Very nice.

Cutting to the chase, speaking just for me, Christopher Reeve almost ruined this picture. I was never a fan. I tried my best to like his Superman and succeeded for a while because the press kept telling me he was good. But OMG is he not good. He thought he was an actor but was simply too quirky, too unaware of how he was coming off, and proved it in picture after picture. Yes, he had his good moments here and there. But too many bad ones. I like to think if he had remained healthy, he would have gotten the right coach and really developed the talent that was inside him.

That said, I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news he had suffered a catastrophic injury during an equestrian event. It shook me up; I never got over it. I’m still not over it. For a vital, successful young person to endure such a fate… The agony of Chris Reeve adds a layer of pathos to Matt’s video transposing Reeve at Mackinac locations with those locations today. It tears your heart out knowing what happened later on. I have to wonder if Reeve’s spirit doesn’t live on at Mackinac, so effective is Matt’s technique.

Somewhere in Time begins with young drama student Richard Collier being visited by an elderly lady who puts a pocket watch into his hands and pleads with him out of the blue, “Come back to me.” He stands there stunned, having never seen her before, and has no perspective on what’s happened. He goes on with his life and eight years later, as a successful playwright suffering writer’s block, gets out of his native Chicago and heads for a getaway on Mackinac Island, off the coast of Michigan. At plot point 1 he finds, and falls in love with, the portrait of a young actress on the wall at the majestic Grand Hotel. He learns her name, Elise McKenna, and that this photograph of such timeless quality was taken 68 years earlier, in 1912. Library research reveals “the last photograph taken of Elise McKenna” and it’s the old woman who had put the pocket watch into his hands eight years earlier!

Academy Award-winning actress Teresa Wright only has one meaty scene, but it’s a honey as the nurse of elder Elise who helps Richard Collier begin the journey into his future…in the past.

OK, you’ve got me. A perfect first half hour of cinema. Now just don’t blow it. Reeve borders on being pretty good in this first half hour. He’s got all these fidgety, self-conscious mannerisms he thought people needed to see, but he largely keeps them in check during the set-up.

The way he gets back in time is preeeeeeeeeetty iffy. Not Reeve’s fault at all—it’s the device of the novel, Bid Time Return, by Richard Matheson. But eventually he does get back there and his meeting with young Elise on the beach by some trees is one of the sweetest, most effective scenes I’ve ever experienced. That location, that music, that woman, the intrigue of that moment and of his struggle to get to the bottom of the mystery but more importantly to get close to this face he’s fallen in love with. Reeve’s uncharacteristic, unbreathing stillness on the dolly approach helps the scene along as well.

In case you were wondering.

Yadda yadda, they spend time together despite her pill of a manager (there has to be a bad guy) and it’s 45 minutes of standard romance with an obligatory sexual coupling before his iffy time-travel device comes a cropper, and he’s catapulted back into 1980 as she screams his name and witnesses his dematerialization.

I hated the ending 36 years ago and I hated it last night. It’s almost as if, “Welp, we’re outta money, folks, so let’s go home.” Red River comes to mind—90% of a winner of a picture with many touches of brilliance poisoned by an erring final plot twist. But as I murmured while experiencing the last 60 seconds of Somewhere in Time at 11:30 last night, James Cameron must have been one huge fan because he ripped it off down to single genomes for the ending of Titanic. I simply never put 2 and 2 together. Yikes.

Granted my misgivings, I’m urging you to set your disbelief on a shelf and spend 104 minutes on the journey of Elise and Richard. In fact, watch Matt’s rad video first and then consume Somewhere in Time. This world crumbling around us needs more romance, more lush scenery, and more pretty music. Somewhere in Time has all three, and my shout-out goes to Matt: Thanks dude for helping me re-find a lost treasure.

Jane Seymour returns to Mackinac Island for the traditional “Somewhere in Time Weekend” in 2015.

Curves and Straightaways

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

I know I’m not the first to make this realization, but while scanning 1950s articles about Hollywood the other day, I stumbled across a piece comparing and contrasting two stars on the rise in 1953, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.

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

As the evil Rose in Niagara, Marilyn was dressed in several outfits to show off her feminine curves, and director Henry Hathaway gave her long, lingering walking-away shots to leave the boys in the audience panting.

It had never occurred to me that this dichotomous pair, arguably the two most iconic, recognizable, still-relevant Hollywood stars ever, burst upon the scene within months of each other. Yes, Marilyn had already appeared in many pictures as a supporting player from 1947 through 1952, but it was her role as the would-be husband killer in Niagara (released in February 1953) followed in quick succession by the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (August) and comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (November) that launched her to superstardom.

Hepburn on the other hand had found Hollywood via Broadway, where she’d earned raves for Gigi in 1952. Just to show how stars are born, Marilyn clawed and scraped her way up the ladder, while Audrey lucked into break after break. A couple of bit parts had earned Hepburn a pair of supporting roles in European pictures. While making one of these, the playwright Collette stumbled upon Hepburn in a Monte Carlo hotel lobby and knew instantly that this was the girl to play her title character, Gigi.

Faster than you can say Air France, Hepburn was jetting to Broadway in 1952 and earning press that made Hollywood a logical next step. And who should snap her up but William Wyler at Paramount for Roman Holiday, a picture tailor made for a pretty, young European unknown with a mostly British accent. In other words, it had taken Marilyn six years, many nude modeling assignments, and by my count 20 motion pictures and however many casting couches to get where Audrey Hepburn found herself overnight in September 1953.

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

This is a face that had stared into the face of war. Despite no formal training, the life she’d lived gave Audrey tremendous depth as she starred in Roman Holiday at age 24

What struck me about the late-1953 article taking a first look at Monroe and Hepburn was its question posed to the American public: Which do you prefer: curves or straightaways? Marilyn was already well known for bombshell curves the likes of which Hollywood had rarely seen. She was like a crazy-deluxe combination of Mae West and Lana Turner. Then out of nowhere comes this Hepburn girl from Holland by way of London and New York. Hepburn was described out of the gate as “boyish” and “elfin.” Wyler even called her a strange combination of “pretty and ugly.” In retrospect this seems outlandish but in context, Audrey had lived through World War II and spent months emaciated from lack of food. After the war, she grew chubby from overeating. And all the while her face was transitioning from nothing special to drop-dead arresting. When she hit Broadway and then Hollywood, nobody had seen anything quite like her before, and that which has become a modern standard for beauty took consumers in the United States some getting used to.

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

Publicity shots at this stage of Marilyn’s career sold sex, sex, and more sex.

It’s amazing to me that IMDB lists 33 film and TV credits for Marilyn Monroe and 34 for Audrey Hepburn. Neither had a long career for vastly different reasons, and both left us wanting much more. As humans, they couldn’t have been any more different. Insecure Monroe became a super-sad super diva, while Hepburn retired from the screen for her two sons and for Unicef. Monroe coveted accolades as an actress and studied under Lee Strasburg; Hepburn spent her later years feeling she was never an actress and kept apologizing for it. Monroe was notorious for missing her call times by hours and half-days and Hepburn never showed up anywhere late even by a single minute. Yet today, given that Marilyn died 55 years ago and Audrey 24, they are the most famous of Hollywood icons, these two who hit the bigtime in 1953, one famous for curves, and the other for straightaways.

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

Audrey spent most of her career covered up. She always considered herself a ballet dancer and not an actress, but her lack of curves could be traced back to the war and long stretches of hunger.

Turnover

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

If you happened to be at the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California, this past weekend, I want to be in touch with you because I wonder if you heard a kuh-thump sound. That would have been Carole Lombard turning over in her grave, because at the Heritage auction house in Dallas, Texas, a movie poster from one of her films auctioned today for $107,550. The reason she turned would have done the old flip-a-roo is that the poster represented Supernatural, her least favorite picture in a career spanning almost 80 screen appearances over 20 years.

As some of you may know, I’ve been involved with movie posters since high school, and to me there’s nothing so evocative as the smell of a stack of old lobby cards or other carefully aged, 80-year-old paper. I saw the Supernatural one sheet on a wall in Hollywood somewhere around 1985—the one that sold for $107K may have been the same copy for all I know. I believed it would go high because it’s rare (only a few survived) and scarce (many people want the few that exist) and stunning to look at. Lombard’s mesmerizing eyes follow you from all angles—it’s one of those posters, the spooky kind, as CL clutches a glowing crystal ball in her hands.

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

Roma Courtney, now possessed by the spirit of Ruth Rogen, who recently went to the chair for murder.

As recounted in Fireball, Supernatural is Carole’s only horror film, made in 1933 by the Halperin Brothers¾Victor, who directed, and Edward, who produced. Their reputation on poverty row preceded them to Paramount Pictures, where Lombard was then under contract and forced to make this tale of a dead murderess whose spirit drifts around possessing people, including at one point Roma Courtney as portrayed by our gal. The Halperins had just hit pay dirt creating one of Bela Lugosi’s signature features, White Zombie, great-great-great granddaddy of today’s endless stream of derivatives, including a series I just can’t stand called The Walking Dead.

Give me Supernatural any day. It’s a tons-of-fun sexy pre-code feature that moves at a mile a minute. The cast is solid led by Carole, Randolph Scott, H.B. Warner (relevant to today’s general viewer for It’s a Wonderful Life and Sunset Boulevard, although he goes way back in the silents), and Vivienne Osborne as the crazed, dead-then-undead killer. Everyone takes the proceedings oh so seriously, where today with something like this there’d be lots of winks and nods at the camera. Why Lombard was so exasperated making Supernatural I really don’t understand, because she was way into all things paranormal, cavorted with psychics and palmists, and should have seen the benefits of making a picture that was truly different from what was frankly a lot of crap that Paramount kept putting her in—mindless melodramas that induce migraines today. But exasperated she was, to such an extent that at one point during production she threw her arms open wide and screamed to the heavens, “Who do I have to screw to get off this picture?!”

Well, Carole, Supernatural lives on. Brother does it. Your mug made the cover of the Heritage auction catalog and the fact that the Supernatural one sheet, complete with your staring eyes and a pair of glowing, shadowy brow ridges that would make any gorilla proud, will hit the news in collecting circles for the fact that this poster cracked a hundred-grand and comfortably so. You might as well grin and bear it, baby. You have made the news in 2017.

Kuh-thump.

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

Make It Personal

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

Months ago I was invited to appear at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Georgia near Savannah to talk about my book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. My presentation took place the evening of May 16 before a wonderful and enthusiastic dinner crowd.

This particular museum is all about the experience of the men of the U.S. Eighth Air Force based in England who slugged it out with their German counterparts for three bloody years in the skies over northern Europe. I got uncomfortably close to this story writing Mission, and now understand how horrifying was their job and how scarred they returned in 1945. And make no mistake, Stewart was scarred like the rest of them. As much as any other group, including those who stormed the Normandy beaches, these men won World War II.

I came away from my experience at the museum unsettled. After my presentation there was a lively Q&A and the best set of questions I’ve been asked yet. One of these was, “In your experience, how can we get the 12-year-olds of today interested in this story?” It was a question I hadn’t prepared for and I made a joke at the moment, but then really got to thinking about it because this is the challenge of any facility that wants to remain vital after all the veterans have passed on and their stories have been set in marble. It’s the challenge of any museum anywhere, say a museum about Hollywood history, as learning styles change.

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

The Memorial Garden with its statues and tablets dedicated to individuals, air crews, squadrons, and bomb and fighter groups moved me to tears.

Before my flight back to Pittsburgh the following day, I took an hour to drift through the museum and its haunting Memorial Garden by myself with the attendee’s question firmly in my mind. I find the museum to be very well laid out and full of items that tell the story of the fliers and their planes, down to uniforms, radio sets, control panels, bombsights, machine guns—the whole nine yards. There’s even a room that was built around a complete B-17 Flying Fortress.

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

History under glass. For WWII buffs, no problem. For school-age groups? Bring those items out from under the glass or create replicas and let the kids experience up close.

Groups of school children troop through daily—there were two large groups there while I wandered around, and a volunteer was talking to them about the whats and whys of the air war against Germany. The place is staffed by dedicated, articulate people volunteering their time to keep the history alive, and they want so badly to engage young people and let them in on this incredible story.

And I couldn’t help but think as a fly on the wall listening to the volunteer and watching the fidgety kids that the would-be educators are shoveling sand against the tide of time, and now here comes this latest generation for whom Hitler is some weird guy and yeah yeah yeah when can I get back to my texting? I worry that history under glass and docent lectures don’t work anymore, not with this and succeeding generations of ever shorter-attention-spanned generations. Maybe history under glass can be step 2, but heading into a difficult future, step 1 has to be to somehow, some way engage the imaginations of the 12 year olds who walk in the door expecting boredom and worse, torture.

In this particular case, the conclusion I came to in answer to the attendees question was that the kids have to walk a mile in the fliers’ boots. And I mean that literally. Ask for one of the students to come up for a demonstration. Get them to acknowledge that what they’re wearing now is the equivalent of the uniform shirt and pants of an Army flier—the first layer of a flying outfit. OK, now…

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

Visitors examine the bust of Jimmy Stewart in the museum rotunda.

Have him or her struggle into a “blue bunny” heated flying suit. Do you know why it’s heated? Because it’s going to be 30 below when you’re at 20,000 feet, which is almost 4 miles up. Think about that…30 degrees below zero, 4 miles above the earth. And oh by the way there are open windows in the plane and the wind really gets to howling inside at 200 miles per hour.

Now strap on your parachute harness. “Wait, what’s this for?” Well when the Germans shoot your plane full of holes and it’s not going to fly anymore, you have to jump out of it. The parachute straps onto this harness.

Now here’s your Mae West. “My what?” If you land in water, you need something to help you float.

Don’t forget your oxygen mask. “What the…” At 4 miles up and 30 below, without oxygen you will pass out in about a minute and die a few minutes after that.

And here’s your sidearm. “Why do I need a gun if I’m in an airplane full of machine guns?” Because if you manage to hit the ground alive after you’ve jumped out of your airplane, there are people who will want to kill you, and you may need to defend yourself.

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

The B-17, roped off in the name of preservation. Instead of signs that read, PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH, maybe the approach should be, BY ALL MEANS, TOUCH!

You’ll need your escape kit. “What’s an escape kit?” It’s got a map, coins, medicine, fake travel documents, a translation card, and other things you’ll need while you are running for your life in enemy territory.

Here’s your flak jacket and steel pot helmet. “Jeez, so heavy!” Yes, you need sturdy armor to protect you a little from the flying bullets and shrapnel—but just a little.

And here’s your flying helmet with headset, and goggles. And your sheepskin boots and gauntlets because every inch of skin has to be covered to prevent frostbite. And, oh, let’s strap on your parachute.

And with every question comes an answer that makes this story personal for these kids.

Pretty soon your volunteer is unrecognizable under 40 pounds of stuff and having trouble even standing there. You say, OK, now you’re ready to climb into the airplane!

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

The 1942 Jimmy Stewart short recruiting film Winning Your Wings plays nonstop on a monitor under the wing of the B-17. As related in Mission, Stewart initially refused to participate but then relented to create one of the most important tools for recruiting in the war.

What you’ve done is set the stage for life or death in German airspace. You’ve invested 20 minutes of the tour to make these kids think about the mortal danger of every flier from a personal perspective—fliers that weren’t much older than the school children themselves.

Pass around a .50 machine gun shell, which looks like a bullet on steroids and weighs a pound. Then show them a belt loaded with these shells and imagine a) how heavy and b) how devastating was that gun!

Pull a B-17 or B-24 fuselage out of mothballs or build a new one and outfit it, and let school groups roam around inside, from the nose to the cockpit to the waist and the turrets. Then rev up the noise and shake that fuselage until their teeth are rattling—and tell them this is what they’ll hear and feel for the next six or eight hours, which was the length of a mission. If, that is, they don’t get shot down first.

Create a simulation that lets them look through a bombsight over a target and maybe let them release some sort of bomb to see how they do as a bombardier. Or figure out a way to let them shoot a virtual-reality machine gun.

Maybe some of these ideas are already practice at the museum because I didn’t follow a student group from beginning to end.

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

The Chapel of the Fallen Eagles is a replica of the kind of English country church located near all the bomber and fighter bases. Behind it rest some veterans of the Eighth Air Force who chose to be buried at this focal point of their history.

I came away from my experience at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth with a deepened appreciation of what Jim Stewart and the other flyboys did and with admiration for the mission and staff of this wonderful facility. After spending two years with the young men of the Eighth as I was researching and writing their story for Mission, I needed no context for the museum and its goals. I already know what the boys went through and what they sacrificed. The challenge for any American-based WWII museum is that there’s no battlefield here, so World War II can’t be interpreted in the United States the way the Civil War can be at Gettysburg or Antietam. No, the volunteers show up every day fighting ever-increasing odds to keep the heartbeats going for men who fought in foreign lands more than 70 years ago. I salute this noble effort and strongly urge that these outstanding young fliers were humans and that the human experience will never change. Therefore, find ways to connect the youth of today with the youth of 1943 so that when your school-age visitors walk back out into the light of a Georgia afternoon, they appreciate these brave men so much that maybe they take an extra couple of minutes thinking about it…before they remember to reach for their cell phones.

And maybe, just maybe, a precious few will catch the history bug, and become the volunteers of tomorrow.

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

I didn’t expect to see a memorial dedicated to Stewart–he’s in good company in the rotunda with statues of the founding generals of the Eighth Air Force.

More Than Mrs. Robinson

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

The best scene in The Graduate: Mrs. Robinson, pressed to talk and not just have sex, reveals the disappointments in her life and lack of respect for her lover and herself.

I can’t say I ever appreciated The Graduate—not until last evening, and I’m trying to figure out what changed to “let me in” to understand the brilliance of this picture. I’m pretty sure it’s because now I view it through the lens of World War II, which is the way I look at everything going on around me anymore, and WWII, the Big One, provided context I’d been lacking.

For the two of you out there who haven’t seen it, not-quite-21-year-old Benjamin Braddock comes home from college contemplating his life; he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it and he’s already drifting. The night of his big coming-home party, one of his parents’ friends, the enigmatic, married Mrs. Robinson, makes a pass at Benjamin and soon they begin a torrid love affair. By the midpoint of the picture Benjamin has grown weary of the assignations and quite by accident falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, which proves problematic.

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

This is the view of the adults in The Graduate: boorish clowns who are far from the romanticized Greatest Generation of Tom Brokaw. Why, they don’t even have the depth to understand the problems of a baby boomer coming of age.

What hit me over the head last night was the depiction of the ruling generation of 1967, the year of release. They’re bizarre, vacuous people, all of them, rich and white and shallow to a man and woman. This surprises me given that Buck Henry was in his mid-30s when he wrote the screenplay for The Graduate, and Mike Nichols was about the same age when he directed it. They were a pair of pre-War babies telling a story from the perspective of the boomers now reaching maturity. Both hold the aging Greatest Generation up for ridicule and condemnation for what they’ve become: smug, self-satisfied, deeply unhappy elites who are drifting through life like Benjamin, but while he does it symbolically in a sun-drenched swimming pool, their drifting takes place down a river of booze.

There’s never a hint of the backstory of, say, Mr. Braddock hitting the beaches of Normandy or Mr. Robinson in the South Pacific. I think back to my own pilots in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, kids of 20 and 22—highly competent hotshots with their lives in front of them and possibilities as endless as the horizon … if only they can survive the war.

But the fathers we see 20 years after the end of WWII are not the hotshots extrapolated 20 years. They’re bloated, self-important, brooding, superficial has-beens. Maybe PTSD accounts for their addle-headed behavior. That’s not even hinted at; they’re just boors.

Dustin Hoffman was already nearly 30 when he played Benjamin Braddock, and the extraordinary opening credits show Hoffman riding a people mover before a white wall through LAX in a crazy-long dolly shot that symbolizes the blank slate of Benjamin’s character as he embarks on the storyline of The Graduate.

The shallow people awaiting him at home, the pre-war people as white as that wall in the airport, see him as a success-in-the-making at whatever he sets out to do. They’re in “the club” and he’s about to join it, and as we see him resent them and struggle to keep his distance, I wondered if young men in 1940 went through similar existential meltdowns. I just don’t know the answer to that, culturally speaking. There were still elites in 1940, the sons of old money, and I guess that at 20 they didn’t know if they wanted to turn into dad or escape to Tahiti to paint sunsets. But mostly they had just come through the Depression and knew they had to work damn hard just to survive. And that’s not Benjamin’s mindset by 1967.

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

Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

The heart and soul of The Graduate is Mrs. Robinson, the sultry, cynical, unhappy 40-something who latches onto Benjamin so she can infuse her alcoholic life with physical sensation and ego gratification. When they meet for sex, she doesn’t want to talk. Benjamin is there for one purpose. And when he can’t take the endless sex for sex’s sake anymore and demands that they talk, wow, what a sequence for Anne Bancroft, then 35 and playing older. I’m shocked she didn’t win the Oscar for this performance (she was nominated), especially for the moment when Benjamin confesses to Elaine that he’s been sleeping with her mother. It’s an incredible cinematic jolt, and Bancroft plays it silently, her face taut and tortured.

The Graduate was born in an era when the Production Code still meant something and it slid through mostly with innuendo. But its depiction of adultery, rampant in American society then as now because of the mythos and failure or monogamy as the norm, is knowing, sophisticated, and European, and it titillated viewers in first run. The entire picture plays rather gently now, especially considering how ugly things were about to get in the turbulent 1960s. It also plays sexy thanks to Anne Bancroft, who would go through the remainder of her career resentful of the fact that she couldn’t help but stand in the shadow of this one dynamic, brilliantly drawn and acted character.

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

This Italian poster hangs in the dining room, because even before I got The Graduate, I got her.

So of course The Graduate is the boomer generation firing a shot across the bow of its elders. I’m not breaking any ground when I tell you that. All I’m saying is that I finally get it (I can be a little slow sometimes). I finally appreciate all that this picture was trying to say, not just the naughty parts, which I always got and appreciated. I now savor the irony of this depiction of the coming of age of the first of the boomers, so young and so disenchanted  and full of themselves back then, and look at the boomers 50 years later in retirement or close to it. Once the rebels and now the establishment. Once the ones hiding in their bedrooms to avoid adults and now the ones yelling out the window for the kids to get off their lawn.

And how about that last shot, when Benjamin and Elaine have fended off the vicious adults and escaped? They sit at the back of a bus silently, breathlessly, and in their faces we see not two triumphant heroes but two kids who suddenly realize they have no idea what to do next. They’ve beaten the adults, but to what end? That’s real life for you, as drawn by two people (director Nichols and writer Henry) in their mid-30s and just beginning to come to grips with the fact that adults don’t really have any answers. They just have an escalating number of questions, and a whole lot of “I don’t know.” In real life, adults, particularly young ones, rarely have any idea what to do next. Benjamin didn’t have a plan at the beginning of the movie, and he doesn’t have a plan at the end. He just has a girl, and I couldn’t help but wonder as credits rolled how long Benjamin and Elaine stayed together. I have a feeling it was far, far less than a lifetime. I give them three years of happiness, 15 of growing isolation, and then a fresh start for each with a new partner. Actually, I think there was a sequel: Kramer vs. Kramer.  Then again, that’s a jaded baby boomer talking.

My Mind’s Eye

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

A mile from where I’m sitting: site of the world’s first armored car heist in March 1927.

Early in March 1927, 500 pounds of black powder was stolen from a mining company south of Pittsburgh. A few days later, an armored car proceeding through my community on Brightwood Road, then a dirt path, was blown into the air and flipped over by an IED constructed from that black powder. Although neither guard was killed, rifling of the armored car netted the notorious Flathead Gang $103,834.38 in cash and coin, and off they sped in a blue Sterns Knight.

This event occurred about one mile (as the crow flies) to the northeast of where I’m sitting, and every time I drive over that stretch of roadway I think of the overturned armored car and the ingenious killer Paul Jawarski and his Flathead Gang.

About two miles in the other direction is the site of a plane crash. A TWA DC-2 airliner that had taken off from Newark was on final approach to Allegheny County Airport when apparent ice buildup on the wings forced it down in a patch of land off McMurray Road near Route 19 on March 25, 1937. All 13 on board (10 passengers and a crew of 3) died on impact. Every time I go past that spot I glance down and imagine the wreck as it was first reported—nose buried in the swampy earth and bodies littering the landscape.

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

Two miles from where I’m sitting: site of the crash of TWA Flight 15A in March 1937.

In a world of short attentions spans, political upheaval, and of course zombies, I can’t help but live in the past because history is everywhere, all around us, and I am there as much as I can manage. My brain isn’t sapped by reality television or hour dramas and particularly not by what passes today for “sitcoms.” I spend my evenings lost in World War II, learning about the rise and rule of Hitler, or in movies made before I was born. To me the past is endlessly fascinating; it’s the present that exasperates me.

One of my best friends emailed me this week concerned because I haven’t written anything on my blog of late and wondering if I was suffering from post-partum depression following the release of Mission. His message reached my body in Pittsburgh, although my brain has been wandering around 1944 Europe for a few months now as I’ve been conducting research for my next book. I assured him that I haven’t written anything recently not because of depression; rather my one-track mind is consumed by this new project, the third and final installment of my Hollywood in World War II trilogy. As much as I love Mission for its slam-bang excitement and as much as I love Fireball for its stoicism and romance, this next one already has me hooked and I haven’t yet written a word. It’s my tried and true process, learning more and more and more as the story builds and builds in my head until it comes spilling out night after night in marathon writing sessions.

When I go to Holland this June, I will be armed with enough preliminary research that my mind’s eye will see a landscape not as it exists today but rather what stood during the war when Nazis ruled. That spot over there? Well, you can’t see it but a three-story hotel occupies that corner lot. It was the nicest in town until the S.S. took it over as its local headquarters. A P-47 Thunderbolt saw the red S.S. flag on the front of the hotel and blew it up with rockets in April 1945, but in my mind’s eye it’s still standing as handsome as ever. And over there? Well, that was a sturdy cut-stone bank building that the Wehrmacht converted into a jail to imprison subversives—that is, those subversives they didn’t shoot outright. It was razed in 1972 for an office complex, but in my mind there is no modern building, only the old bank.

I do that a lot, and I do it everywhere. I suspect I’m not alone, because you wouldn’t be reading my books or this column if you didn’t love history. If you go that far, then you probably use your imagination to picture things as they once were.

As for the Flathead Gang and what became known as America’s first armored-car robbery, well, unfortunately for them, one of the guards got their license number, and they were rounded up after a manhunt. Gang leader Paul Jawarski led police to $38,000 hidden in milk containers and buried on a nearby farm, but the other $65,800+? Well, Jawarski promptly busted out of jail and remained on the lam for another two years, so maybe he retrieved that loot, or maybe it’s still buried within a mile or two of my house. Who knows, but I’d much rather spend my driving-around time thinking about the romance of the 60-foot hole blown in Brightwood Road, that lost treasure, and those Roaring Twenties bandits than anything labeled news and entertainment in 2017.

The Texan

I have no interest in bucket lists because I’m not a faddist. If I were to maintain a bucket list, jumping out of an airplane would not be on it. So when I decided to go up in a single-engine AT-6 Texan built by North American Aviation in 1943, it was with some mixed feelings that I was strapped into a parachute by veteran pilot Dan Fordice of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

I sat in the back seat of the Texan as Dan strapped me into the parachute, and then pretty much stapled me onto the back seat of the plane by four straps. I was mighty harnessed at this time. The basics as he described them were that a 74-year-old plane sometimes breaks down, and “a crash landing is preferable to a bailout,” and we’d only bail out if the engine was on fire.

He explained the steps of a bailout to me, and I listened attentively because my life could sort of depend on it in another few minutes.

To take a step back, the AT-6—AT standing for advanced trainer—is a plane dear to my heart because it appears in chapter one of Fireball, and also in Mission as the plane that 2nd Lt. Jim Stewart landed at Moffett Field to confront director Owen Crump of Warner Bros. in a story detailing just how much Stewart did not want to participate in filmmaking during his military service. If you look at the Warner Bros. short subject Winning Your Wings, the first thing you see is an AT-6 sputtering to life and then Stewart tooling around in one and coming in for a landing. It’s a powerful airplane known as the “pilot maker” because every pilot in the war effort, tens of thousands of them flying everything from Warhawks to Liberators, mastered the Texan or washed out.

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

2nd Lt. Jim Stewart with an AT-6 backdrop in Winning Your Wings.

My ride in a Texan was a thank you by Patty Mekus, Dan Fordice, and the Southern Heritage Air Foundation for a series of successful and well-attended appearances I made talking about Mission in Tallulah, Louisiana, last week. I learned firsthand the definition of “Southern Hospitality” from residents of both Louisiana and Mississippi ,and now here I sat in the Texan as Dan drawled, “If you hear me call ‘bail out’ three times, the second two are echoes because I’ll already be gone.”

Sobering. During the briefing he related the procedure for bailing out as follows:

  • Roll open and lock the canopy
  • Release your shoulder harness
  • Climb onto the seat and stand up
  • Aim for the trailing edge of the left wing
  • Jump
  • Grab the ring on the parachute and pull it straight out

“The earth will be below,” said Dan in his Deep South accent. “You can’t miss it.” He gave the harnesses one last tug and said confidently, “Let’s go fly!”

It’s a terrific thrill to ride in an aircraft like this. Compared to the Cessnas and other small planes I’ve spent time in over the years, the Texan is a real beast. Dan took off and zoomed into a left bank and we headed for downtown Vicksburg at about 150 knots and 1,500 feet. He wore a headset and so did I, and communication was fine even above the roar of the 600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine. He said something about a “strafing run” and suddenly he banked hard and we were zooming earthward and then leveling off above the deck of the Mississippi Delta and I heard myself say the first of several “oh shit”s as the G-forces took over and I surrendered to the fates.

Wait, what was that bailout procedure again? Roll open and lock the canopy…

I realized that at 1,500 feet, if the engine suddenly flamed, even if I did manage to roll open and lock the canopy, unlatch the safety harness (which has four straps BTW), waddle up onto the seat and into the slipstream at something like 150 knots, and even if I did manage to aim for the trailing edge and jump into the heavens with the pilot long gone and flames licking about me, I’d only be a few hundred feet above the ground by that time and when my parachute opened, I’d be bug guts on somebody’s windshield or the pavement of a Vicksburg street. There’s something liberating about such knowledge. It allowed me to enjoy the rest of a terrific flight. Suddenly Dan climbed to about 3,500, and we punched through the cottony cloud deck and he did some fancy flying that included an aileron roll, my first—although I knew and appreciated the fact he was taking it easy on me.

In a little while we were back on the ground where we had started, and I’d had the thrill of riding in a vintage warbird far different from the heavy bombers I knew from past experiences, a warbird that had served as a living, breathing character in not one but two of my books, and a plane that was vital to the winning of World War II.

I unlatched the harness of my parachute and thought to myself that whenever I’d next be in one, I planned not to have to use it. To hell with bucket lists.

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

Bob Sauls of Houston, Texas, and I did a lot of work for NASA together in the old days. On Saturday March 25 Bob drove up to surprise me in central Louisiana during my last appearance in Tallulah. Here we are in front of the Texan I rode in Friday and he rode in Saturday.

Pass the Graw-VAY

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

Flashback Sunday.

Wait….whut? All right, let’s say Sump-pump Sunday.

The time is autumn 1937 and the place is Warner Bros. studios in sunny Burbank, California. The major focus of the studio is Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is shooting on multiple soundstages, and another A production in progress is the comedy Food for Scandal starring Carole Lombard, fresh off seven years as a contract player with Paramount Pictures, acclaim as the “screwball queen” of Hollywood, an Academy Award nomination for My Man Godfrey a year earlier, and big box office for Selznick with Nothing Sacred.

Free-agent Carole has been lured to Warner Bros. to give that studio, known primarily for gangster pictures, Busby Berkeley Gold Diggers musicals, and the adventures of Errol Flynn, with a hit in the general category of Comedy.

Paired with sure-fire Lombard is Belgian import Fernand Gravet (pronounced Graw-VAY), who had been signed after scoring hits in France and brought to the U.S., much as Flynn had been signed in England and brought to Hollywood and gone on to be a Warner cash cow. Graw-VAY had made one picture at Warner Bros. to date, The King and the Chorus Girl with always dependable leading lady Joan Blon-DELL, and now Carole Lombard would be Fernand’s second co-star.

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

A Frenchman, a sexy girl, and some comedy. What could go wrong?

The problem was, given Gaw-VAY’s significant accent and limited range in English-language pictures, the only thing it made sense for him to play was a European Prince or European something, but that was OK with the concept of Food for Scandal: down-and-out Frenchman becomes enamored of American movie star and through a twist of fate becomes her chef, to the chagrin of her fiancé. A scandal ensues. Hence the title Food (because he’s her chef) for Scandal. But the title hadn’t tested very well, and Warner Bros. always second-guessed itself with comedies and titles of comedies, so pretty soon the picture would be called Fools for Scandal (even though there’s a musical number in the middle of the thing called “Food for Scandal”).

I bring to your attention to this on-set photo as evidence that life in 1930s Hollywood wasn’t all fun, games, sex, and stardom. I came across this vintage little jewel on some website or other and bought the original still stamped Dell Publishing. It shows our scowling gal Carole pointing at something in the script with frazzled director Mervyn LeRoy, as some nattily attired youngster looks on. I couldn’t identify said youngster so I turned to Rudy Behlmer, author of Inside Warner Bros. and commentator on DVDs of studio hits of that time, including Robin Hood. Between Rudy and his better half Stacey (of Herrick Library fame), soon Irv Brecher had been identified as the third face in this photo. Brecher, then the stunning age of 23, had been hired to do a little script doctoring on a picture in trouble, even though if there’s anyone who doesn’t look like a comedy writer it’s this guy. As it happens, Brecher would go on to write scripts for two Marx Bros. MGM titles, At the Circus and Go West, which represents, on the one hand, two significant credits for the Writers Guild and, on the other hand, a hint that said writer maybe wasn’t so funny after all. But then the Marx Bros. marriage to MGM was doomed by much more than the writing on their later pictures.

Why is Carole scowling? What prompted a standby cameraman to pull the trigger on this photo, which was then forwarded to the fan magazine circuit for republication? I have no answers but to tell you that Fools for Scandal became the BOMB of Carole Lombard’s career, along with her only invitation to Warner Bros. After this she would make four dramas in a row for Selznick Pictures and RKO, but see no profits in drama and suffer a career crisis as a result.

Just a little Sunday something on the verge of spring.

Grandest of All

“Man is destroying the forests, poisoning the oceans, poisoning the very air we breathe. The oceans, the forests, the races of animals, [and] mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven at its roots, and the tree will wither and die. The stars will go out, and heaven will be destroyed.

These words weren’t written yesterday or a year ago. They were uttered in 1958 by a character in a film based on the novel The Roots of Heaven written in 1956 by French author Romain Gary about a character named Morel who Robin Hood-like goes on a crusade with a band of not-so-merry men to stop the killing of elephants in Africa.

Moviemakers John Huston and Darryl Zanuck both fell in love with the novel and Huston bought the film rights only to be trumped by Zanuck, who at the time held Huston’s contract and so they became a production team to bring the story to the big screen.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you very much about the movie The Roots of Heaven except to say it’s a Cinemascope gem that’s turned up in 2012 on Blu-ray, according to Greenbriar’s John McElwee, although my viewing was on the Fox Movie Channel. The picture was critically panned on release, lost a fortune, and was looked upon with disdain by Huston, who directed it. “Even as I made the picture I knew it wasn’t going to be any good,” said Huston. “You kid yourself, try to buoy yourself up, but eventually you just have to face it.”

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

The band of elephant protectors on location in Africa, including, L to R, Peer Qvist (Friedrich von Ledebur), Morel (Leslie Howard), the Baron (Olivier Hussenot), Forsythe (Errol Flynn), and Minna (Juliette Greco).

The book and film are both populated with people scarred by World War II: Morel, the former German prison camp inmate who goes mad and sees visions of elephants; Minna, the French girl forced into prostitution in a German “doll house” and then “liberated” (her term for repeatedly raped) by Russians, Brits, Americans, and Frenchmen; Forsythe, the British officer-turned-traitor for the Nazis to save his own hide; Waitari, the African nationalist out to exploit Morel; Abe Fields, the ingenuous American photojournalist who had stormed the beaches of Anzio and Normandy and now braves gun battles to follow Morel’s exploits; Peer Qvist, the aged naturalist who utters the statement heading this column (beautifully done by Austrian actor Friedrich von Ledebur); and many others.

Trevor Howard as Morel is an odd choice but the casting against type works and he’s very good. It was to be William Holden’s role, but Paramount wouldn’t let him do it. Errol Flynn agreed to let John Huston direct him and when Flynn arrived on the set, according to Huston, “It was the first meeting since that bloody night long ago at Selznick’s house.” [For more on this 1945 encounter, see my three-part series of earlier columns.]

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

Juliette Greco. Be still, my heart.

Flynn is his late-career drunken self in The Roots of Heaven but looks at some points sharp as a tack as an actor (for him) and dies a heroic death in a running gun battle with elephant hunters. Eddie Albert plays the hell out of the photojournalist, and Herbert Lom is a standard stereotypical bad guy. Paul Lukas is Saint-Denis, who is a major character in the book and much less so in the movie, but Lukas is always so smooth and world weary that he wins you over. Orson Welles shows up to play Orson Welles playing an American TV journalist with a nasal Amurrican accent. French nightclub singer Juliette Greco does in The Roots of Heaven what she always does to me—she makes me think impure boy-thoughts. She made Zanuck think them too; he insisted on having an affair with her, and since he had the power to give her top billing in this and other big Fox pictures, she didn’t say no. Huston said in his memoirs that Juliette treated DZ badly, though, and made fun of him behind his back.

The five-month African location shoot has become the stuff of legend. Cast and crew called off a record 960 days with heatstroke, malaria, dehydration, animal bites, and everything else you can imagine. Huston made it through and so did Flynn, who kept up his strict hydration regimen of a bottle of vodka a day, but they were the only two to remain upright despite days that reached 130 degrees and nights that settled in at a mere 100.

I don’t mean to bury the lead here; the headline for me is elephants. As Trevor Howard’s Morel says with such sweet sadness at one point of the hunters rampant in Africa killing his elephants, “They aim at the soft spot between the eye and the ear, just because they’re big, free, and beautiful.” Morel fought for the elephants back then, and I weep for the elephants now because they are so grand, so intelligent, and the jeopardy they faced in 1956 when Gary wrote his novel was nothing compared to their near-extinction today. Huston’s The Roots of Heaven features great thundering Cinemascope herds of majestic elephants in their native habitat, crushing everything in their path. Huston called Gary’s The Roots of Heaven “a prophetic book, anticipating the concerns of today’s environmentalists.” Which is what brought me to my recent viewing–the Greenpeace nature of Morel’s mission and the correctness of a cause that rings true today louder and clearer than ever. Full disclosure: I have never cared for hunters and hunting. It was never “sport” and only could be “sport” if the prey were armed and proficient in weaponry to make it a fair fight.

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

Greco as Minna emerges from the river after a bath. Flynn as Forsythe touches her ankle, as in, “Let’s do it.” She doesn’t even consider the idea, which is richly ironic since Errol Flynn was probably the most prolific lover of the 20th century (if combining on- and off-screen exploits). He was now, officially, a character actor.

Hearing Morel’s impassioned speeches for the elephants made me look up the African Wildlife Foundation, with its mission to save our grandest creatures. I have just today set up a monthly donation to help with their work—the AWF is accredited by the Better Business Bureau and states that 88 percent of donation amounts go to programs and only 3 percent to administration. Romain Gary through a 61-year-old novel and Trevor Howard through an authentic and heartfelt performance inspired me to help the noble elephant; now maybe I can inspire you to take the same small step in helping these innocent creatures that yet manage to inhabit our planet gone mad.

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

Well worth saving.