Mission Jimmy Stewart

Death for Wacky Donald

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Clem Leone, age 18, graduates gunnery school.

My friend Walt Powell reminded me that 75 years ago today—today, mind you—the most amazing thing happened that I’ve ever been even remotely connected to. On February 24, 1944, my friend Clement Leone escaped out the top hatch of a burning B-24 Liberator named Wacky Donald 20,000 feet above the frozen Netherlands. The formation of B-24s in which Clem was flying had been jumped by German fighters and an FW-190 hit Wacky Donald aft with incendiary rockets. The fire blazed forward toward wing tanks still nearly full as Clem clutched the barrels of the top turret machine gun in a 200-mile-per hour slipstream. Then his impossible situation was resolved in a flash; the wing tanks caught and the ship exploded.

The blast knocked Technical Sgt. Leone out cold and blew him clear of the ship to begin a free-fall to earth. He fell maybe 10,000 feet while unconscious, and it’s a miracle he didn’t just keep on going to hit the earth at terminal velocity. Not feisty Clem. Clem came to with a face wet from blood and managed to keep his wits, locate an orange metal ring on his chest, and give it a yank. His parachute opened and he managed a controlled descent that ended with fractured ribs on impact.

You’d think that was enough adventure for a lifetime let alone one February morning, but it was just the beginning. Dutch people ran to him from the surrounding countryside, and he drew his .45 thinking they were Germans and would kill him. Instead they fed him and helped dress his wounded face and ribs. Then a member of the Nazi Green Police tried to arrest Clem, the Dutch intervened, and he took off into woodlands under the protection of the Dutch Resistance.

For historical context, Sgt. Leone was a participant in Operation Argument, which the flyboys dubbed “Big Week.” From February 20–26, 1944, the Eighth Air Force concentrated on bombing aviation-related targets in Germany. They had to take out the German Air Force before D-Day could be staged. That February week, spectacular aerial battles took place across Dutch and German skies, the Luftwaffe launching maximum effort to repel the American maximum effort bomber stream. I’ll let you read Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe to find out what happened next to Clem, but it just kept getting more incredible. The man was simply meant to survive and make it home to marry his sweetheart, raise four children, become a major in the Maryland National Guard, and shape thousands of young minds as a schoolteacher.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Clem (lower left) with his crew. Top center is Lt. Robert Blomberg, an up and comer with the 445th Bomb Group who died at the controls when his ship blew up. Others in the crew were also KIA. Notable in this team photo is the small man next to Blomberg, Lt. Donald Widmark, co-pilot and brother of future actor Richard Widmark. The co-pilot would grab a parachute and leave Blomberg behind 75 years ago today. Clem’s personal rule was to stay with the ship as long as the officers did, but when he saw Widmark bail out, he said, “It was time for this guy to go.”

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The ring on his parachute became a wall decoration for Clem.

I met Clem in 2014 when he was a spring chicken of 90 and spent many hours on the phone and in his living room learning about the air war, B-24s, combat missions in the European Theater, his time with Jimmy Stewart in the 445th Bomb Group, and his adventures with the Dutch and Germans. In November 2016, Clem and I played a double bill in his hometown of Gettysburg, PA—before a packed house I lectured about Stewart and introduced Clem, who with humor and humility told his story. Afterward, we sat and autographed books side by side for an hour and a half, and I doubt either of us ever had a better time.

So let’s take a moment to thank Clement Francis Leone for his service, and marvel at an incredible life that barrels full steam ahead toward birthday number 95. Another wacky thing: B-24s were always catching fire, and Clem had bailed out of another one on a training mission in England and broken his leg. It hadn’t even healed before he was bailing out again, this time over Holland. So 70 years later his daughters decided it would be fun to buy their dad a ride in a vintage B-24 that was touring in an air show. When he heard about it, he said, “I had to bail out of two of the damn things when they were new! I’m sure as hell not getting into one that’s 70 years old!”

That, my friends, is the working mind of a survivor.

And oh, by the way, without Clem Leone, there would be no Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, because it was while following Clem’s trail south from the Dutch town of Gramsbergen that I made a stop in Arnhem, and the rest is history. So, thank you for the gift of Dutch Girl, Clem. If I ever grow up, I want to be just like you.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

We each signed more than a book a minute for 90 minutes as Gettysburg paid tribute to its hero.

FLASH: AMERICA IS AT WAR.

It’s difficult to imagine a moment like that, when those words are heard. Wait, no it isn’t, not if you lived through 9/11 and the chaos, fires, and heartbreak of that day and the days that followed. But December 1941 was a more innocent time. We got our news from daily papers and radio, without benefit of TV or the internet. By 2001 we had been desensitized by all sorts of horrors over the decades brought into our homes mostly courtesy of television, but in the run-up to the holidays 1941, no one could conceive of a sneak attack by another nation on an American naval base where young men and women were stumbling out of their bunks in the utter quiet of a Hawaiian Sunday morning and wiping the sleep out of their eyes, guard down.

Pearl Harbor? Where the heck is that? We have a naval base way out there? There was so much we didn’t know that day and struggled to find out. It all unfolded so painfully slowly. First a bulletin after 2 in the afternoon on the East Coast, and phones ringing off the hook in D.C. Families told families until the news had rippled across the nation. All gathered around living room radio sets and stayed there through the evening to pick up shards of information that came through not in today’s explosion of information and misinformation but as facts crawling in one at a time, in single file.

We know now, from the hindsight of 75 years, what happened 75 years ago this morning. Hours of hell on earth. Bombs, exploding ships, blood in the water, death. We know how and why the Japanese attacked, the damage they inflicted, and the gross miscalculation of picking a fight with a “sleeping giant” and filling it with a “terrible resolve.” But on the evening of December 7, 1941, nobody in the United States enjoyed any sort of historical context. Instead, all wondered what would happen next because the Japanese hadn’t just attacked Pearl; they had swept across the South Pacific in a multi-pronged invasion that most believed would bring landing craft to Washington or Oregon or California. Air raids were feared and blackouts went into effect at once.

As ships burned at Pearl Harbor, America entered a new reality, just as we did on September 11, 2001, when buildings burned. Everyone knew nothing would be the same again and they were right. The world was plunging into a blackness that would claim tens of millions of lives. Parents would no longer sleep at night because they worried their children would be sent off to fight. Austerity became a way of life as everything of value was rationed for the common goal of defending liberty.

I’m not a big fan of war because it so rarely settles anything and only causes other problems. But 75 years ago today the United States entered a just war against terrible foes. After tremendous sacrifice over nearly four years, good defeated evil. I’m pausing this morning to think about the thousands of innocent kids who woke up at peace on the ships of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and ended the day as battle-tested warriors. And I’m especially remembering the 2,300 who fell in that attack, many of them entombed on the U.S.S. Arizona. Theirs are the first names on the honor rolls of World War II and I say to each one: Thank you. We will never forget.

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

In 1962, a memorial was built over the sunken U.S.S. Arizona, where hundreds of American sailors and Marines remain entombed. Arizona crewmen who survived the battle of Pearl Harbor are given the option by the National Park Service of being interred there after death.

The Mission

I stood in high Pennsylvania winds last Sunday morning on what is ground zero to the core story of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. At my back was Gettysburg’s infamous Wheatfield, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the second day’s battle. A half mile at my front rose Little Round Top. And staring me in the face was a granite monument to the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, the regiment commanded by Col. Samuel M. Jackson. In murderous fighting on July 2, 1863, the 11th Pennsylvania—part of Fisher’s Brigade of the Fifth Corps—was part of a charge down the slope of Little Round Top that checked Longstreet’s ambitious maneuver to hit the federal left flank. Afterward, a Union commanding general rode up to Jackson hat in hand and exclaimed, “Colonel Jackson, you have saved the day. Your regiment is worth its weight in gold; its weight in gold, sir!”

Thanks to men like Col. Sam Jackson, the Union was preserved.

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

The monument of the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, with Little Round Top in the background. This ground was carpeted with the dead and dying on July 2, 1863, but Sam Jackson remained upright. It was here that union Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford praised Jackson for saving the day.

Why is this ground zero to Mission? Sam Jackson was Jimmy Stewart’s grandfather, his mother’s father. Jackson’s regiment had been positioned at the foot of Little Round Top and received orders to hold against the Confederate advance at all cost. This his regiment did, and advanced probably no more than 1,500 yards that day, but hard-fought and bloody real estate it was. Standing amidst the monuments to so many regiments intermingled there and representing both Union and Confederate units, this hallowed acreage, I was hit by what Jackson had done, and how much it influenced James Maitland Stewart, the laid-back star of stage and screen.

Except Stewart wasn’t laid back at all. Stewart was high-strung and possessed a compulsion to serve—his Mission of the book title—that was born of his two grandfathers, Sam Jackson and James Maitland Stewart, Jim’s father’s father and a sergeant in the Army Signal Corps. Sergeant Stewart had fought his way through many Civil War battles, the last being Appomattox, where he then witnessed the surrender of Lee to Grant that ended the war. The estimable Jackson had died just before Jim was born in 1908, but old J.M. lived into the 1930s and Jim learned about service and sacrifice from this man above all others, one who had lived through America’s bloodiest war.

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

The Pennsylvania Memorial at Gettysburg, where S.M. Jackson gets top billing.

This past Sunday, November 20, I lectured at the Gettysburg Heritage Center, which includes an ambitious multi-media museum designed to entertain and educate even today’s short-attention-span learners. When I described Jackson’s advance and his connection to Jim to a packed Heritage Center house, there was a collective gasp. People just don’t realize what a giant shadow Jim’s grandfathers cast on his life. In effect, Jim was poured into a military mold and had no choice but to end up a soldier. It’s the reason he gleefully reported for induction after being drafted nine months before Pearl Harbor. With this action he turned his back on Hollywood luxury, a thriving avocation as a sexual athlete, and an Academy Award career with a giant, goofy grin and pulled an army private’s uniform onto his six-foot-four, 139-pound frame. After he was fingerprinted and sworn in before a throng of reporters and cameraman, Jim refused to talk to or work with the press for the next five years so he could concentrate on being the best soldier he could be. It’s unprecedented what he did and the way he did it.

Speaking of soldiers, I shared the microphone last Sunday with Clem Leone, 92-year-old veteran of the air war over Europe. Clem knew and flew with Stewart as described in Mission, and was shot down over Gotha, Germany, on February 24, 1944. I’ve never experienced anything quite like this stretch of two hours, sharing the stage and then sitting and signing books with my own hero who had lived history. It’s one of many things I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving 2016.

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

With Clem Leone at the Gettysburg Heritage Center event. Amidst an outpouring of love for Clem, who is a local celebrity, 97 books sold in 90 minutes.

Inside the Reptile

There is an affectionate term for the planes that helped win the fight against Hitler: warbirds. Mary and I saw all the warbirds of World War II in our recent visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe was launched the evening of October 27.

This Veterans Day it’s easy to think about the boys who stormed Normandy’s beaches 72 years and 5 months ago because they’ve been memorialized in the neat and tidy The Longest Day and in the stunningly realistic Saving Private Ryan, and as one who sees and hears and feels and smells and tastes history, I don’t know how they did what they did that day. You know how you blanch when facing headwinds and slanting rain and the natural sense is to squint from it and recoil and run for cover? Well imagine the raindrops are eight-ounce parcels of lead coming at you like slanting rain. We’re all waterproof so the rain can’t really hurt us, although we act as if it could. None of us are bulletproof and for thousands of those guys that day, the rainstorm ended in instant death or worse.

Where do the warbirds fit in this story? Well, I didn’t know before writing Mission exactly how the war had played out up to the point that the LSTs hit the beaches of France. I knew there was an air war and a ground war in Europe, but it didn’t sink in that the air war came first and made the ground war possible, which means that for Americans over a two-year period, the front lines in the war for Europe were manned by flyers of the U.S. Army Air Forces. They climbed into their warbirds every morning not knowing if they’d ever walk the earth again. They’d give a thumbs-up and take off not into a glorious sunrise but into pea soup because, after all, this was England and the English weather is usually dreary.

And the warbirds themselves? Yikes. Sure, you had your sleek and nasty fighter planes, your Warhawks and Thunderbolts and Mustangs, and the kids who climbed into them fought like the glamorous swashbucklers they were. Theirs was the grave responsibility of guarding and defending the most unglamorous of warbirds, the heavy bombers. And that is the core story of Mission.

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

The B-24 Liberator, mocked as “the packing crate the B-17 came in,” but beloved by the men who flew inside.

Two heavy bombers flew for America in WWII, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. The relative beauty of the 17 and its lethal firepower made it the media darling of the war. Think Memphis Belle. The 24 was described as “the packing crate the B-17 came in.” It was boxy; it was decidedly unglamorous. Imagine this as a verbal portrait of your airplane: “On the ground it looks like a slab-sided prehistoric monster wading through swamps.”

But the boys assigned to the B-24 Liberators loved their airplanes. They cared for each as if it were a hotrod, as if the thing wasn’t a flying death trap. The Liberators Jim Stewart flew exclusively in the war had real problems, like controls that required muscle at all times and leaks in the fuel lines that would, all of a sudden, cause them to blow up in the air, usually on ascent when loaded with gas and bombs. Ka-BOOM! Ten men obliterated over friendly skies because of spark meeting fuel leak: pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, engineer, waist gunners, ball turret gunner, tail gunner, all gone. This happened to Lt. Earle Metcalf and crew of Stewart’s squadron one morning during a relatively “easy” mission to bomb German rocket emplacements near the coast of France. There one moment and vanished the next, with no trace ever found.

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

This Veterans Day I am saluting the flyers of the Eighth Air Force, with a special shout-out to this crew: (kneeling, L to R) engineer Don Dewey, gunner Stan Treusch, gunner Bill Timmons, radioman Phil Bronstein, gunner Earl Doggett; (standing) engineer Jim Crawford, navigator Paul Fischer, copilot John Lercari, pilot Earle Metcalf, and bombardier Ernie Hutton. Of the men in this photo, only ground crew chief Eugene Peterson, kneeling at far right, lived past Feb. 2, 1944 when the Lib they were in, Billie Babe, blew up without warning in English airspace. These men were under Jim Stewart’s command in the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bomb Group, and their deaths hit him hard.

On each mission to Germany, missions sent up every possible day, hundreds of planes would take off from a cluster of bases each five miles from the next in eastern England into that pea soup I described earlier featuring low cloud cover. If the pilot didn’t fly precisely in that cloud cover, as in, fly straight for 47 seconds after takeoff while climbing to 5,000 feet at an air speed of 150 and then on the 48th second turn right to a precise compass heading, ka-BOOM! Two bombers both flying blind would collide—loaded with gas and bombs—and not 10 but 20 men would be erased from the roster. That happened more than once on missions Jim commanded. He would hear the deafening explosion close by, muscle the controls as the shock wave hit his plane, and know that a score of fine flyers alive five seconds ago were now dead. Young men he had just seen and eaten breakfast with.

Dear readers, we haven’t even left friendly airspace yet! This was the easy part before hitting an enemy coastline that featured hundreds of anti-aircraft batteries aimed at Forts and Libs lumbering straight and level across the sky as if targets in a carnival shooting gallery. Each plane held 10 males somewhere between 19 and 26, except for Jim, the old man of 35. They were kids, so very young, so very brave, so very skilled, who died by the hundreds and thousands for the two years leading up to D-Day in an ongoing effort to smash Hitler’s ability to manufacture weapons of war. Not until they had succeeded in the task of fighting and fighting and fighting on endless brutal missions to knock out enough of the German air fleet did D-Day even become possible.

I spend a great deal of time in Mission driving home the point that, yes, Jim was a hero, but the band of brothers he flew with every day were people who lived and breathed. Each represented the best the United States had to offer. On the morning of a mission they rode out to their slab-sided reptile of an airplane, a beast that might turn around and bite them at any moment. They struggled inside it while loaded down with flying gear. They held their breath through a lumbering takeoff, each focused on all the tasks essential to keeping that plane in the air for a flight to and from Germany. For many, too many, something would go wrong and they would fly on to glory.

I am writing about the men of the Eighth Air Force today, but I think of them every day. They inspire me to be an American worthy of their bravery and sacrifice.

 

To learn more about Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Flight to Europe, visit the publisher’s website.

Icons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question of Character(s)

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert MatzenI have a new book coming out in two weeks, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, published by GoodKnight Books. I wrote it because Stewart in World War II represents one of the last great untold stories of Hollywood. Jim never talked about what he did in the war, and so there was a vacuum of information about it. I also wrote Mission because I love a challenge, and his commitment to remain mum meant there were no quotes from him about his experiences in combat, so I was starting with nothing, but had to end up with everything or the concept wouldn’t be valid.

In a nutshell, what I knew going in was that James Stewart flew heavy bombers over Germany as a member of the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force. I discovered in my research over the next 18 months that this was no tin soldier. Stewart was smack-dab in the middle of WWII, the most horrific nightmare in human history, and writing about something of that magnitude posed not one but a series of cascading challenges. How much can I assume the reader knows going in? How much do I have to set the stage? I can’t provide the whole history of the Great War and Hindenburg and Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party but they’re all relevant to why the United States (and Jim Stewart) went to war, just as is the global Great Depression, the oppression of the Jews, and Germany’s aggressions against Poland and other countries. The reader also needs to have a basic understanding of the United States military before and during the war. In other words, Mission is supposed to be about Jimmy Stewart but it called for a whole lot of context.

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

Nineteen-year-old T. Sgt. Clem Leone graduates gunnery school and will soon meet up with Capt. J.M. Stewart.

I grant you that my biographical model is unorthodox: I always try to craft interesting stories rather than just tell you, the reader, “Jim did this, then Jim did that,” I decided to present readers with the German side through three supporting characters, Dolfo Galland, the ace German fighter pilot; Selma Lesser, the German Jew hiding in Berlin; and Gertrud Siepmann, the daughter of a German naval engineer. To let you see the American side I didn’t just feature Jim; I also told the story of Clem Leone, a young B-24 radioman from Baltimore. They’re all real people who lived during the war (I interviewed two of the three extensively), and through their eyes I was able to access a great deal of critical background in relatively few words.

So what happened was, I wrote the manuscript for Mission and gave it to some smarter people than me to review—two were experts on the Eighth Air Force and three were experts on classic Hollywood. All were expecting a straight bio of our boy Jimmy and what they got was a cast of characters led by Jim and supported by these others.

I had braced myself for a strong reaction to my unorthodox model and Whoa, Nellie, did I get it! To me, these other sets of eyes and experiences deepened our understanding of Stewart, his world, and what he faced. Two of the Hollywood experts had major objections, and passionate ones at that. They advised that these other characters had to GO because they got in the way and would put readers off who were expecting a book on Jimmy Stewart, although one of the two offered a solution: If I felt I must keep these characters, the best place for them was in an appendix at the back of the book where they’d be safely out of the way.

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

Gertrud Siepmann and her sister Anne in Eppstein, Germany during the war. Today Gertrud goes by the name Trudy McVicker and lives near Chicago.

Well, what a pickle, because I have tremendous respect for all my reviewers, and they cared enough to level with me that I had a big problem on my hands. The trouble was, I had constructed my story in a particular way and to lose the other characters meant ripping the frame out and starting over.

My editor supported my concept because Fireball, my telling of the Carole Lombard story, had been a big success and was just as unorthodox a biography. It was my call, and what a tough one to make.

My solution was to drop Selma the German Jew, and cut back the narrative of the other supporting characters to lean, hard-hitting snapshots of these lives lived in parallel to, and then intersecting with, Jim’s. I didn’t want to lose Selma; I had discovered her diary-style letter to family, 22 pages of single-spaced German text written just after the end of the war, and I had had the letter translated with care. What a story it tells—all the brutality of the Nazi regime and the death and suffering of the war wrapped up in one woman who lost everything, with the coup de grace a bombing mission by Jim and the boys over Berlin that destroys even her place of hiding. I will detail her story in a future column because Selma Lesser’s is a voice that must live on.

I’m glad I kept my other characters; when Publishers Weekly reviewed Mission a couple of weeks ago they singled out Clem and Gertrud, and I felt such relief that these people were seen as assets to the narrative about Stewart.

I’ll have a lot more to say about Mission in coming weeks, so stay tuned. In the meantime, please visit the GoodKnight Books website to learn more. (Imagine what a great Christmas gift Mission‘ll make.)

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

Brute Men

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

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

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

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

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

Rondo Hatton in high school.

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

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

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

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

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

Svengoolie aka Rich Koz

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

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

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