Jimmy Stewart Robert Matzen

Twilight

On this past rare Friday night alone I sought out the equivalent of cinematic comfort food: Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Don Juan. I wanted something I could completely relax to and enjoy after a tough week, and yet something that if I fell asleep, no big deal, I knew what was going to happen anyway.

Did you ever notice that when you watch a movie over and over, the same things happen? I mean, every single time. You can count on Mr. Takagi saying the wrong thing and Hans Gruber shooting him. You can count on Johnny to get fired from that place but come back for one last revenge dance. Hiller and Levinson survive reentry to earth against the odds every single time. It’s uncanny!

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Viveca Lindfors and a wistful Errol Flynn in one of their dynamic scenes in Adventures of Don Juan.

However, the thing I realized Friday evening is, as the years go by, the movies don’t change but my awareness about them does. Don Juan is presented in this picture as a diffident lover. We get the sense he has had a great number of adventures with women, but he’s bored and no longer into the challenge—and these are genuine babes that are falling all over him. What the Bros. Warner were doing, I’m sure, was making sure that Errol Flynn of all people wasn’t seen as taking advantage of the women. They were systematically taking advantage of him, and he was letting them. He was a very reluctant don juan. Then all of a sudden he falls in love and not just with anybody but with the queen of Spain. Yikes, the chemistry of Errol Flynn and Viveca Lindfors in this picture. Because he is Don Juan, he has a whopping arsenal of lines to lay on this woman he has genuinely fallen in love with, but she’s a sharp cookie and easily parries the obvious ones. In their early scenes together, it’s clear he’s trying to manipulate her, but pretty soon the tables are turned and he’s in over his head. When he lays his cards on the table, she of course thinks he’s just naughty boy Don Juan putting on the moves. The love scenes in Adventures of Don Juan are so intimate and so lyrical that I cry—that’s another given in repeated viewings of this picture.

Not too long ago I watched The Private Life of Don Juan with Douglas Fairbanks, a Korda picture made in 1934 with Fairbanks way past his prime and displaying that tenor voice that killed him in talkies (I have a tenor voice and it killed me in talkies too). I did not cry at this version. But the thing is, the Fairbanks Don Juan is a middle-aged guy (50 as cameras rolled) also going by the numbers, so obviously middle aged in fact that the ladies don’t fall for his attempts to be Don Juan. There’s some pretty good shtick in The Private Life of Don Juan, some recurring gags, as he always looks into a woman’s eyes and reveals, “You baffle me. Once again I’m just a frightened child. I could kill you for being so attractive.”

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In both pictures, Juan’s sidekick is wry and cynical Leporello—Melville Cooper in the Fairbanks version, Alan Hale in the Flynn. The plot for Fairbanks seems trivial—an imposter Don Juan is killed and the real one uses the death as a way to take some time off—because the Flynn version is a deadly serious story about very nasty men attempting to seize control of the Spanish crown. I can tell you that 38-year-old Flynn took his Don Juan more seriously than did Fairbanks, seeing it as a comeback picture that could hoist him back up to the kind of popularity he had enjoyed with The Adventures of Robin Hood a decade earlier. In fact, Flynn’s well-documented self-destruction six weeks after production was, I believe, America’s heartthrob buckling under the pressure to make a big comeback picture. Far from walking through the role, as some have alleged, he’s trying very, very hard, and for the most part he pulls it off. But owing to changing tastes among the public, his smash picture just didn’t come to pass.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Lloyd Bridges, Jose Ferrer, Beau Bridges, Cornel Wilde, and Alan Hale, Jr. on one last great adventure.

I made it a trilogy of stories about heroes in their twilight years by watching Olivia de Havilland’s last picture, The Fifth Musketeer, which had the working title Behind the Iron Mask when it went into production in Austria in 1976 on the heels of the popular Richard Lester Three and Four Musketeers. It was based on Dumas’ final “d’Artagnan romance,” Man in the Iron Mask, about the dissolution of the musketeers, who ended up feuding to the grave. When I first saw The Fifth Musketeer in 1979 I wasn’t impressed, but this time around the casting really got me. Cornel Wilde was the perfect d’Artagnan; in fact he had played d’Artagnan’s son in the 1952 Howard Hughes picture, Sons of the Musketeers. People, Cornel Wilde was born to play d’Artagnan. And Alan Hale, Jr. (yes, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island) had played the son of Porthos in the same picture, Sons of the Musketeers, which was mysteriously and stupidly retitled At Sword’s Point. What?! Hale’s father the original Alan had played Porthos in the 1939 version of The Man in the Iron Mask. Well, Hale the younger was back as Porthos in The Fifth Musketeer, with Jose Ferrer, one-time Cyrano de Bergerac, as Athos. Phenomenal casting! Lloyd Bridges made an OK Aramis but his lack of ties to previous costume pictures and his main claim to fame as skin diver Mike Nelson in Sea Hunt made him feel out of place for me. I’ll tell you—Cornel Wilde and Jose Ferrer were 64 at the time, and Bridges 63, and they strut about and handle the action sequences like men half their ages. Wilde had been a fencing champion and Ferrer had practiced his use of the blade through hundreds of Broadway performances as Cyrano. It’s just too bad that a number of things worked against their sincere attempts to pull this version off, like a miscast Beau Bridges as Philippe and Louis, like a terrible musical score, like a great deal of period-incorrect costuming, and like the use of plastic swords that I’m sure cut down on injuries but also any sense that deadly things were happening. Olivia shows up for two scenes and a handful of lines of dialogue dressed in a nun’s habit both times. It wasn’t much of a part and there wasn’t much she could do with it but bellow as directed by the script. Don’t get me wrong—hers is the role that reveals the Big Secret of the plot, but as the last theatrical role for a talent like hers, it was an anti-climax. Behind the Iron Mask got a European release in 1977 but barely made U.S. theaters in a terrible 1979 distribution deal under its alternate title, and died a quick, miserable death.

It’s nearing autumn in Pennsylvania, with the crickets, tree frogs, and locusts singing their sad songs, and watching these great stars in pictures about aging and the passing of legendary characters—for many of them their swan-song as actors in features—I mourned that their time had come and gone. Look! There’s Errol Flynn giving it his best! Over there, Cornel Wilde lunging and parrying! And Doug Sr. so charmingly self-deprecating in his final feature! All long gone now, but such treats they left us for a lonely Friday night.

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

Going All the Way

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

An interesting situation arose when I routed the manuscript for Mission for review to key subject matter experts who had helped in its development. Two are Hollywood historians, one is a WWII historian, and two are aviators who flew with Jim Stewart in the war. One of the fliers took umbrage with my depiction of Jim’s sexual exploits in pre-war Hollywood, and most stridently so. No spoilers here, not for a book still four months from release (and the embargo is still in effect), but suffice to say Jim was a far busier boy than you’d expect during his five-plus years in Hollywood prior to joining the military in 1941. The flier said, basically, that in his day you didn’t speak of such things, and he didn’t want Jim to be remembered that way.

I did some soul-searching after receiving this feedback because I greatly admire the man who delivered it, and I wondered if he was right that this type of information has no place in a book about Stewart’s military career. Here are the meanderings of my mind as I thought it through:

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

You’d never know it from the characters she played onscreen, but MGM contract star Ann Rutherford was another of the busy ones around town.

Sex wasn’t invented by the counter-culture of the 1960s. Sex was a favorite pastime of Hollywood citizens going back to the first days of hand-cranked cameras in the silent era. All roads in my research for Errol Flynn Slept Here, Errol & Olivia, and Fireball led to, well, sex. Errol Flynn was a big fan of indiscriminate sex. So was Clark Gable. Carole Lombard nurtured a healthy sexual appetite and did what came naturally and so did Jean Harlow. Even—dare I say it—Olivia de Havilland succumbed to pleasures of the flesh in an environment in which many of the world’s most beautiful, suddenly rich and famous people were crammed into a few square miles of exotic Southern California real estate, with no rules or chaperones. It became a matter of sport and ego to see who could bag whom, and Marlene Dietrich might be the prototype for sexual athletics as will be revealed in Mission when she looked at her lovers not as men or women or actors or people but as “conquests.”

If you’re a 30-year-old heterosexual guy and your day-job requires you to kiss Hedy Lamarr or Lana Turner—women whose every move is of interest to an entire movie-going world—what the heck are you going to be inclined to be thinking about but, My God this is a beautiful woman! If you’re a heterosexual woman known as a glamour queen and the script says today you will be romancing Flynn, Gable, or Doug Fairbanks Jr., and you’re looking into their eyes all day long, feeling their beating hearts, are you supposed to turn that off along with the soundstage lighting at 6 in the evening?

Olivia de Havilland tells a funny story about being in the clinches with Flynn shooting the love scene for Robin Hood over and over and “poor Errol had a problem with his tights.” You betcha. He was 28; she was 21. Nature was taking its course.

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

Why, Robin, I do believe you’re happy to see me.

There was a whole lot of nature going on in Hollywood by the 1930s when Jim Stewart reached his prime. Going into the Mission project I had heard that Stewart was known for having a “big stick” and I couldn’t even imagine it from this small-town product with a strong Presbyterian upbringing, but son of a gun, America’s boy next door had a side to him that reveals a lot about who he really was and what his psyche needed. “He had an ego, like all of them,” said a man who knew the older Jimmy Stewart well.

A picture started to emerge for me as I searched for the “real Jimmy Stewart,” not the lovable old guy on Johnny Carson, but the young one roaming Hollywood and then, seemingly inexplicably, running off with a big grin to join the Army nine months before shots were fired by Americans in what became WWII. And part of the story of who Stewart was, a significant part, involved his Hollywood love life, which meant that after all my soul searching, the juicy stuff stayed. I decided to go all the way … just like Jim.

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

Stewart once told his perturbed BFF Henry Fonda, “Hank, I don’t steal your dates. They steal me.”

 

Thunderbolts

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

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

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

A formation of P-47 Thunderbolts in their heyday.

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

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

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

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

Bill Gordon and Jacky’s Revenge.

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

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

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

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

Faces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louise never minded selling the sex angle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rendering in 3D

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

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

The poster on the barber shop wall.

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

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

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

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

Errol and some of the boys.

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.

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.