Mission Robert Matzen

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.

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.

Requiem for a Saint

I have a little more time on my hands now that Mission is off to galleys. Time enough to think, and it’s only occurring to me now after all these years how badly I wanted to be the Saint. The Saint, as in Simon Templar (initials ST, Saint, get it?), square-shouldered, impeccably dressed playboy adventurer who drove around England righting wrongs. He had no past to speak of, no hometown or parents or ex-wife. His ex-girlfriends only showed up when the plot dictated, and they were usually ne’er-do-wells who had stolen money or diamonds and fled some country or other leaving Simon behind, and now they were in trouble and needed his help.

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

The Saint’s calling card struck fear in the hearts of the bad guys.

Since I write for more of a movie audience than a pop culture audience, I mention the Saint and you think George Sanders and that’s fine. George Sanders made a terrific everything, including an entertaining feature-picture Saint, but George was hampered by the constraints of RKO production in the 1940s, and so his Saint was what he was, a formula programmer guy operating under the Production Code.

I always wanted to be the Swinging ’60s Roger Moore Saint from the British-produced ITC series. I’ll grant you that Roger Moore made a mediocre James Bond. He was little more than a placeholder as Bond, and many would say he was no George Lazenby let alone a Sean Connery. I guess I could sit here and count the reasons why he didn’t work as Bond, and they’re the same reasons he did work as the Saint.

Despite the bon mots tossed off by Connery’s Bond (“She’s just dead” … “I guess he got the point” … “Shocking”), there was gravity behind every movement, gesture, punch, and gunshot. Connery was a thinking-man’s Bond with the fate of the free world in his hands. Moore was the playful Bond, a big kid in a global candy store, reflecting Roger Moore’s off-screen mischievous self, a force that could never be contained. I remember Bond producer Cubby Broccoli at one point decades ago commenting on “those damned eyebrows” of Roger Moore, eyebrows that would shoot up out of nowhere and puncture otherwise dramatic moments in the Bond pictures. The basic question is, how can someone who’s “licensed to kill” have all that mirth inside him? Roger Moore as James Bond just came off as M’s bad hiring decision.

But as Simon Templar, Roger Moore was unbound. In an early Saint book, author Leslie Charteris described ST this way: “The Saint always looked so respectable that he could at any time have walked into an ecclesiastical conference without even being asked for his ticket. His shirtfront was of a pure and beautiful white that should have argued a beautiful soul. His tuxedo, even under the poor illumination of a street lamp, was cut with such a dazzling perfection, and worn moreover with such a staggering elegance, that no tailor with a pride in his profession could have gazed unmoved upon such stupendous apotheosis of his art.”

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

When Simon gives the halo a glance, it’s time for the opening credits.

Thirty-plus years after Charteris wrote that description, Roger Moore brought the Saint to life on TV in just such sartorial fashion, a smirking, self-satisfied force of nature, light hearted but deadly when he needed to be. He would drive up in his little white sports car to serve as a dashing instrument of justice that in mere moments from the beginning of each episode would come between evildoers and those they had oppressed. He brought his looks, wits, brains, style, and athleticism to bear on any situation and without the need for licenses, possessing an ambiguous morality that made him capable of straying outside the law as needed. The prologue would always culminate with someone growling something to the effect that “the infamous Simon Templar” had just arrived, and he would look up at the halo that suddenly appeared over his head, which would cue the theme music. In fact, and particularly in the early years (the show ran 1962–69), Moore wouldn’t just bump into the fourth wall but he’d rip it down, addressing camera about where he was and what was going on around him with such easy charm that you just bought it. If you want to see me truly happy, just put on an episode of The Saint and leave the room. I’ll be babysat for the next 55 minutes.

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

Years before Moore’s Bond had secretarial byplay with Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny, they worked together on The Saint. (As a 10-year-old boy I was gonzo for Moneypenny. I’d sit in the theater screaming in my own brain, “OH MY GOD, HOW CAN YOU RESIST HER??”)

Moore was 35 years old when he began his run as the Saint; Roger was ex-military and an ex-clothes model who had been signed to a contract by MGM toward the end of the studio era. He never made any claim to being Olivier; he didn’t have a lot of range, but as Simon Templar he didn’t need it. He was charming and unafraid to take chances in front of the camera. He was also the perfect age to play the Saint from the beginning of the run to the end, finishing at age 42. By the time he shot his first Bond in 1973 he was already 46, and seven pictures later when he ended his run as 007, he was 58 and looked older than that and not very interested in what was going on. And by then, thanks to the aforementioned Broccoli, the human James Bond facing human crises had long ago been replaced by special effects James Bond with gadgets and explosions and existence in a world where gravity didn’t apply. All the while Moore kept aging and the Bond girls kept being 20 or 25 and it got kind of weird—that Gary Cooper-Audrey Hepburn kind of weird. Or Humphrey Bogart-Audrey Hepburn weird. At some point, for Roger Moore, it all stopped working.

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

Another Bond girl to come the Saint’s way–Goldfinger victim Shirley Eaton.

After another successful book or two, you know where you’ll find me, in a tux driving around London in my white sports car righting wrongs, or on the Riviera playing baccarat with a brunette on each arm and a halo over my head, talking to the camera, knocking out bad guys, stealing from the evil rich, keeping what I need, and giving what’s left to the oppressed poor, just the way Leslie Charteris wrote it all those years ago.

Or, at the very least, they’ll drape a shawl around my shoulders and plunk me in front of the TV to watch Roger do it, taking comfort in the knowledge that I won’t be likely to wander away from the facility and into the woods to be found face-down in some ditch. At least not for the next 55 minutes.

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

The one, the only Roger Moore as a smirking Saint, dressed to the nines (I could never keep the bow tie on a tux straight) and out to destroy that irritating fourth wall.

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.