Mission: James Stewart and World War II by Robert Matzen

If Only

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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