Robert Matzen James Stewart

Curves and Straightaways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Time I Was a Legend

In the ninth grade I cut my fingertip off in shop class. It’s the ring finger of my left hand, and I was planing a piece of wood on a machine called a joiner and the plastic guard was off it for some reason and I was holding the wood carelessly. Mr. Russell the shop teacher watched my fingertip fly up in the air and I’m sure imagined his career flying beside it. Such a sound it made, the blade hitting my flesh, that whenever I hear a similar sound today all these years later a chill runs from the base of my spine down my legs. I just heard a version of that sound out the open window as someone in the neighborhood fed tree branches into a wood chipper.

Blood was everywhere. Mr. Russell kept his cool and wrapped my hand up so the principal could drive me to the doctor’s office. Now, I come from a small town and we had two doctors, both alcoholics. I remember the doctor I went to that day had an old portrait of himself as a navy officer in his office, so he must have been in his 50s, although at the time I thought he was ANCIENT. Or did he just look ancient because of the booze?

Anyway, as the principal parked along the street in front of the doctor’s office I watched my mother run into view and straight inside. She wasn’t exactly a graceful woman and definitely not an athlete but she had still managed to sprint about three-quarters of a mile and beat us there even though the principal was hurrying and only had to drive three blocks. In other words, Mom cared.

When the doctor removed Mr. Russell’s wrapping, my finger was sticking up at a perfect sightline between my eyes and Mom’s, and I watched her face turn chalk white at what a high-speed circular saw can do to human flesh. It looked like ground sirloin, except purple.

My fingertip looked like this, but purple.

My fingertip looked like this, but purple.

The doctor said there was nothing to sew so he didn’t sew it. He wrapped it in gauze and then cotton bandage and sent me home. Even then at—what was I, fourteen?—I thought to myself, shouldn’t you lubricate that, because things are going to congeal and it’ll be difficult to get the bandages off down the road?

I believe seven days ensued. In that time I became a high school legend as the ninth grader who cut off his finger in shop class. My school was a junior high, a decrepit old set of buildings long since torn down, while grades ten to twelve were jailed in a shiny new school out in the country. Aside from being a mediocre baseball player on championship teams, I had never achieved notoriety of any sort until now, unless you count the time I (along with at least 100 others) colored a picture of a clown flawlessly and won two free tickets to the circus, or the time I won a drawing in the fifth grade and got to take home the week-old jack-o-lantern at Halloween.

Now? Now I hit the bigtime as the ninth grader who lost a hand in shop class. None of the upper classes laid eyes on me, but when one loses an arm, you can imagine what the poor bastard must look like in all those bandages lying in a hospital room hooked up to IVs and monitors. That was the progression, as I found out later, with my condition worsening until a week had passed and I was hanging on by a thread in ICU.

The day came for me to go back to the alcoholic ex-navy man for a follow-up, and here I am just a kid kind of shaking my head thinking… Salve? Ointment? Something was supposed to go between my flesh and those bandages.

He started unwrapping and, son of a gun, the bandages were stuck. He said, no problem, let’s soak it. I can still remember the kidney-shaped metal dish that my hand, bandages attached, soaked in. He came back after a while and gave a tug. “YEEEEOWW!” I think I’m quoting myself accurately. I think it was, “YEEEEOWW!”

My doctor sort of looked like this while sober.

My doctor sort of looked like this while sober.

No problem, let’s soak it some more. We repeated the process. Same result. Finally he said, “Here, lie back,” as he must have said to many a wounded navy man back in the South Pacific, and I did as ordered and he said—I kid you not, he said, “This might hurt.”

I reached out with my right hand and found the metal stirrups that are used when ladies are examined. Just as I did, he gave it all he had and yanked the bandage off.

I don’t remember the next moment or two because the lights went out, but for years afterward my big sister Janet would ask me to tell the story of the time the doctor removed the bandages from my finger, and she would laugh and laugh.

What happened was that he knew he was going to have to pull hard, and I guess he was trying to make it go quick for me, but with the bandage when it separated from my hand went all the ground meat, plus what was left of my fingernail, and the cuticle, which was ripped clean up to the first joint. What a scar it made, and for ten, fifteen years the slightest bump would put me through the roof.

I was reminded of this incident while cutting my nails and facing again the result of that morning in shop class. The end of my finger grew back after a fashion, although there’s no fingerprint and the nail, which did grow back against all odds, is about half the size of its right-hand mate. The coolest thing in retrospect is that if you look closely, you can see where the cuticle was ripped in a blazing trail in the direction of his yank. I was actually pretty lucky when you think about the alternative, like my brother-in-law who was a meat cutter in adolescence and apparently not a very accurate one by what’s missing today.

I know what you’re thinking, what a lawsuit this must have made because of the missing guard on the table saw, but that wasn’t the cut of my father’s jib. Dad chalked it up to inherent Matzen clumsiness and we moved on, and the grateful school district rewarded me in the only way it really could, with an A in shop class.

Juicy 2: A Shot Across the Bow

 

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Olivia may seem to be at rest in this shot taken around the time of the Huston affair, but she never really was.

So where were we? Oh that’s right, in the middle of a love triangle between Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and John Huston. OdeH began it with Errol Flynn in 1941 after hot-blooded Frenchwoman Lili Damita had finally filed for divorce from in-like-Flynn. Livvie had told Errol point blank when he proposed to her in 1937 (big of him to propose while heavily married) that she wouldn’t do anything with him (think sex) while he was bound to Lili. Then nature took its course with Flynn and Damita over the next four years, leaving both Flynn and de Havilland at liberty during production of They Died with Their Boots On from July through September 1941. As much as Livvie would like you to believe that she and Errol didn’t do the horizontal tango, well, they were adults, beautiful, and known to be dating. She was going through a rough patch with her employer, Jack Warner, and Errol was an iconoclast and particularly supportive of her cause. Oh, and he had just seen completion of his bachelor pad up on Mulholland Drive, a place he had designed with pride as a sexual Mount Olympus. They were young, unattached co-workers who had been attracted to each other for years and now had their evenings free in a hideaway on top of a mountain. You do the math on that one.

Then something happened. Something bad. She found out something or he did something or she did something or she simply got too close and stared in the eye of the Flynn manbeast, but suddenly they were estranged at the beginning of 1942 as she began making her new picture with Bette Davis, In This Our Life. And then, as reported here last week, came the thunderbolt. Just after breaking up with Flynn she fell head over heels for John Huston and he for her. Well, no he didn’t. Huston was one of those bad boys you hear tell of. He loved ’em and left ’em, but by all accounts this guy could charm a gal right out of her panties and he did it all the time, right under the nose of his wife, Lesley. I’m telling you, John Huston, a not very handsome man with a nose that rambled all over his face, scored with the babes at all hours of the day. And who should be vulnerable rebound girl but OdeH when he began directing her in this new picture with Davis. (Note: As reported in Errol & Olivia, Livvie was a sucker for older authority figures, and Huston fit the bill to a T.)

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

John Huston went to war and distinguished himself as a combat journalist, but it was also convenient to get away and let things cool off on the home front.

Scandal ensued because Livvie and John were bangin’ here, there, and everywhere, but Huston being Huston, he began to get a little uncomfortable falling under the scrutiny of a serious, highly intelligent, kinda nuts, powerhouse human like de Havilland, who suddenly had the idea they were soon to be Mr. and Mrs. So what did he do? He joined the army and got as far away as he could think to go, to the Aleutian Islands past Alaska proper, where there were no telephones, to make a documentary about the war being fought up there between the Americans and the Japanese. “I’m sorry, baby, I can’t call for two months. There aren’t any phones.”

Olivia de Havilland was a stand-up woman in 1942, and remains one today, a titan among humans, smart, funny, multi-talented. Did you know she can imitate a dog’s bark so well that she can converse with other dogs? Did you know she can sketch like a pro? She used to entertain cast and crew alike with these sidelights while, oh by the way, making enduring classic motion pictures and earning Academy Award nominations and statues.

As things always went with Mr. Huston, this lover was traded in for the next lover. Livvie and John went their separate ways, and she got a nice tour of the fiery pits of hell pining away for John Huston while she was blackballed from the motion picture industry by Jack L. Warner and then almost died of viral pneumonia while entertaining the troops on Fiji Island in 1944. It was rough for Livvie, while Huston didn’t miss a beat.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Nora and Errol Flynn participate in the Victory ball not long after the memorable evening with John Huston.

CUT TO APRIL 29, 1945. There’s a party at the home of David and Irene Selznick, and Errol and wife Nora are invited, as is John Huston. Both Errol and John were three-fisted drinkers and half in the bag when they edged within earshot, and Flynn in his wisdom decided to fire a shot across Huston’s bow. Neither would ever dare repeat what he said at that critical moment, but the subject was whom-was-Livvie-with-and-when. I’m pulling my punches here, but Flynn didn’t when he stated it one drunk to another.

As reported in Errol & Olivia, Flynn’s shot-across-the-bow hit Huston right in the crotch, which is where John kept his ego. “That’s a lie,” he spat. “Even if it wasn’t a lie, only a sonofabitch would repeat it.”

I love Errol’s response. It’s so him: “Go fuck yourself.”

Bombed though they were, both knew not to wreck the home of David O. Selznick, so they took it outside to a gravel drive down at the bottom of Selznick’s garden, where two former real-life prizefighters practiced the sweet science on each other’s faces. Huston must have underestimated Flynn’s skill because with one straight left jab, Huston was down to his knees.

And here’s where we’ll leave the story until next time, when our little love triangle will reach its twelve-round conclusion.

 

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

Coming in October: Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, with more tales of real-life Hollywood in the golden age, when truth was stranger than fiction.

Dream Lovers

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

A toast to the lovers, Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier.

Raise your hand if you know what “pre-Code” means. Did you get a little hormonal surge reading that term? If so then you really know pre-Code and all it implies and promises.

In the late 1920s, when sound came into motion pictures, the Hollywood studios began feeling their oats and things got very naughty very fast. All of a sudden, hookers, drug addicts, gangsters, murderers, cheating husbands and wives, and—egads—gay people started showing up in movies, and things got so supercharged that the morally righteous enforced a Motion Picture Code beginning in 1934 and heavily censored movies thereafter. Heavily, heavily censored them. But for an all-too-brief five years, movies were heaven—or hell, depending on your point of view.

Personally, I think it was the be-all and end-all time of the Golden Age, and I can only imagine the result if the Code hadn’t come in to tame your vintage libertines like Harlow, Lombard, Rogers, and then Lana and Rita—not to mention Gable, Cagney, and Flynn. Alas, we’ll never know.

The other day I watched a 1929 musical called The Love Parade that had a strange effect on my red blood. It’s a dreamlike operetta about a rakish French nobleman, Count Renard, assigned to the court of Queen Louise of Sylvania, a verging-on-spinsterhood proper young lady who, upon introduction to Count Renard and the reading of a report about his scandalous reputation back home in France, tries to surrender her virginity as quickly as possible.

They’re married before the end of the first reel and then things get predictably complicated when the proud and still naughty Frenchman grows restless as, basically, the do-less “first husband” of the land. A happy ending can only be achieved after the count has asserted his authority and the queen has given herself freely into submission to her man. The basic theme here: bad boys are the way to go!

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

First impressions, lasting impressions for Queen Louise.

Even though this thing was made 87 years ago in fading black and white; even though they hadn’t really figured out sound recording yet and one sentence is over-modulated and the next is muffled, I think this picture is incendiary.

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

1930’s publicity photo

Jeanette MacDonald was 26 when she made her motion picture debut here after finding fame on Broadway. I can’t say I know much about early Jeanette pictures, and I hope my learned readership can enlighten me. Was she always this sexy before the Code came in? I heard myself say aloud, “She’s HOT!” while watching The Love Parade, and Mary said in her most doubtful voice, “Really?” Yes, really. Later on Jeanette would be teamed with Nelson Eddy, and together they’d take their operatic voices on an odyssey through many successful MGM musicals, all of them fine for family viewing, so this earlier incarnation of vine-ripening Ms. MacDonald was, to me, a pleasant surprise.

Maurice Chevalier was 15 years Jeanette’s senior and making his second American picture with The Love Parade. These two Paramount Players enjoyed chemistry together that would propel them into more pictures as a love team. From a distance, The Smiling Lieutenant, Love Me Tonight, One Night with You, and The Merry Widow seem to have been cut from the same bolt of cloth as The Love Parade—is that right? I’m pleading ignorance here because I’ve avoided early musicals studiously over the years and only knew Chevalier as the farcical grandfather guy from pictures of the 1960s. And the one the Marx Bros. tried to imitate in Monkey Business.

I also had no idea Chevalier was wounded in World War I and a POW for two years. Having some grasp of how the Germans felt about the French, I can’t imagine life in a prison camp from 1914 to 1916 was much in the way of fun, and maybe this gave Chevalier the joie de vivre that marked his screen persona—after you’ve seen hell, everything that followed had to be gravy, especially romping through a land of make-believe with Jeanette MacDonald.

Broadway entertainer Lillian Roth, then 19, took on the role of a maid in The Love Parade and spent her time as comic relief observing the torrid goings-on between the queen and count. I’ve got a glamor shot of Lillian on my wall that serves as testimony to my affection for the pre-I’ll Cry Tomorrow Roth, this being her memoir of addiction and recovery. Here she is at 47 interviewed by Mike Wallace about her life, saying at one point, “I’ve never felt … quite … adequate.” She describes a lifetime of not believing she was good enough, pretty enough, or talented enough (thanks to an abusive, perfectionistic stage mother)—all of which led Lillian Roth to the bottle for solace.

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

Lillian Roth shows some leg on a Paramount soundstage. At 19 she was more emotionally fragile than director Lubitsch realized.

The great Ernst Lubitsch directed The Love Parade, his first talking picture in a fantastic career that included crossing paths with two of my own biographical subjects, Carole Lombard (chronicled in Fireball) in To Be or Not to Be and James Stewart (covered in Mission) in The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch really did have quite the touch, a way of finding flesh-and-blood humanity, romance, and yes, deep sexuality in each and every picture. As detailed in Fireball, Gable referred to Lubitsch as “the horny Hun” and warned Mrs. Gable to stay away—you can imagine what sharp-tongued Lombard said to her husband in response. In I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Lillian Roth describes how the canny Lubitsch plucked her from the stage for Hollywood stardom in his first talkie with Chevalier, which led Lillian to assume she’d be the Frenchman’s love interest. But all along Lubitsch intended Roth and diminutive physical comedian Lupino Lane to play absurd counterpoint to MacDonald and Chevalier, and Lubitsch held fast to his vision even against Lillian’s tears and protests. The pain of this ego blow and its effect on her subsequent career comes through in the I’ll Cry Tomorrow narrative and served as one more factor in her descent into addiction.

The Love Parade was nominated for six Academy Awards, including an unlikely nod to the smug and self-satisfied Chevalier. Whatever, just watch and listen as Jeanette sings the haunting Dream Lover in that operatic voice and try to get it out of your head afterward. For good measure, here’s the instrumental waltz version. It’s a dreamy song for a picture about dreamy lovers.

Pardon me while I go panning for more pre-Code Hollywood gold. I’ve seen all the usual pre-Codes, but never thought to look under rocks labeled musical-comedy, where I shouted Eureka! upon discovery of The Love Parade.

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

MacDonald and Chevalier, reunited in another Lubitsch production in 1932, and still smoldering.

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.

HIGH HOPES AND A BATTLE

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

British Airborne troops flash the V-for-Victory sign and give thumbs up on the way to their drop zone near Arnhem.

Once upon a time, all-star films were all the rage. I was trying to figure out when it started and I’m sure you know better than I. Was it The Story of Mankind? That pre-dates Around the World in 80 Days, right? Then the all-star game found war pictures and The Longest Day was born, which I consider the go-to look at D-Day even though it was G-rated and the real thing was For Adults Only. No, really, the real thing wasn’t for anyone, it was so brutal. I’m always struck by the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan, a picture I despised otherwise, when the gate of the landing craft went down in the surf near the beach, and we saw a glimpse of what the guys really went through.

Darryl Zanuck had the vision for The Longest Day, and it worked in spite of its lumbering, all-star self. Next came The Great Escape, probably the most successful of the all-star service pictures. Then Zanuck tried it again with Tora, Tora, Tora! about Pearl Harbor, and his all-star cast wasn’t quite so stellar for budgetary reasons, but the picture still succeeded, I think because the stars weren’t so big they demanded their own vignettes. It became an ensemble of very good but not overwhelming players—exactly the feel achieved in The Great Escape.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

One-sheet movie poster for A Bridge too Far, released in 1977.

Midway was a last gasp at the traditional, all-star war picture told with old-time apple-pie sensibilities, even though we then lived in the post-MASH, post-Catch-22 world of revisionism, a world that had already seen The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes, which overlaid modern sensibilities on World War II. I saw Midway in a big theater on first release in 1976 and thought it was OK at best. A veteran of the war in the South Pacific who also saw it was laughing afterward at the mismatched stock footage and wrongly placed vintage aircraft depicted; by this time the pickings of available fighter-bombers was already pretty slim. Really, Midway had the ambition but not the budget and needed the gimmick of the day, sub-woofer Sensurround, to try to put derrieres into seats.

In the wake of Midway, there was one great World War II historical novel by Cornelius Ryan hanging out there that hadn’t been brought to the screen, A Bridge Too Far, about a well-meaning, wrong-headed plan called Operation Market Garden that sought to bring World War II to a rapid close in September 1944. Producer Joseph E. Levine envisioned A Bridge Too Far as an all-star service picture with a script by William Goldman that made no bones about bludgeoning the audience with Monday morning quarterbacking and an “Isn’t this ironic?” attitude.

I’m not going to critique the resulting picture. Either you like it or you don’t. What I will say is it’s quite a setup for actually visiting Arnhem, where the action took place, and the history is heavy there in those streets where British paratroopers went up against a ferocious last-stand German defense. In a nutshell, a large force of British paratroopers were dropped near the Dutch city of Arnhem behind German lines to capture a key bridge over the Rhine as part of a larger plan involving a sudden Allied push north through Holland to cut the German front in two. We drop you up here, we slice north from down here, we meet up in Arnhem, war over. Simple. Dismissed, see you at the surrender ceremony.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Artwork in the British Airborne Museum in Arnhem shows the battle for the bridge, with Tommies who were unequipped to fight tanks holding off advancing German armor.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Roughly the same view in November 2015 at sunset.

The plan was complicated by only one wee little factor: German forces fleeing the Allied advance through France after D-Day were ordered to regroup at none other than Arnhem. I mean, at just about the time the paratroopers were climbing aboard their aircraft in England, the Germans just happened to be stopping in Arnhem. Many didn’t even have weapons—they had turned them in because they were about to board trains back to Berlin for refitting. They were just there, weary and shell-shocked after the Allied invasion, thinking they were about to see home. Then here come these poor British paratroopers dropping all around, guys who thought they would be fighting a few Nazi-sympathizer Dutch home guard troops. Instead, a couple divisions of SS Panzers and what was left of the real German army got the surprise of their lives as British paratroopers floated to earth, and then the Germans regrouped, outnumbered the Tommies, and took care of business. The dreamed-of liberation of Arnhem’s besieged population became a bloodbath for British soldiers, first at the Arnhem Bridge and then in the city center where the paratroopers retreated.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

The overwhelming sight of graves for all the British and Polish paratroopers who died in the Battle of Arnhem.

Two weeks ago I was in Arnhem to get a feel for the Dutch people—to get their vibe for the portions of Mission that take place in Holland. They drive on the right side of the road in Holland, thank God, so tooling around the countryside was a lot of fun, but did you know they don’t have windmills anymore? Only one traditional windmill, ONE, was seen in hundreds of miles of Holland. All they’ve got these days are wind turbines, giant, cold, silent wind turbines like you can find anywhere. I had to wonder what Don Quixote would think of this unfortunate turn of events.

So anyway, back to the Richard Attenborough-directed picture, A Bridge Too Far. All right, I will critique it. It’s awfully cold overall, and too many characters are unlikable. Worst of all, we don’t get a sense at all of the ultimate irony that the Germans just happened to be regrouping here of all places, which makes the parachute drop so heartbreaking for these brave, well-meaning Tommies who expected to win the war in a week and ended up in a Custer’s Last Stand scenario in downtown Arnhem.

No, I take that back. The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is Ryan O’Neal, who at 36 was seen to be way too young to portray a WWII general, even though as discussed here previously the fighting men in WWII were very young and he was just right on that score. The problem was he just couldn’t act. If you watch the picture you have to wonder what the real actors around him were thinking as he so cluelessly recited his lines.

No, I take that back. The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is Gene Hackman’s Polish accent. He seemed to know he couldn’t get it right, but he soldiered on anyway. That’s bravery, in the actor sense of bravery, which isn’t quite the paratrooper sense of it.

No! The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is the Americans. Yes, that’s it, the Americans. Because it was an all-star picture and U.S. box office meant everything, the American stars had to have big parts. A-number-1 big star of the day, Robert Redford, got a 15-minute vignette as an Airborne major ordered to get his men across a river in poor-quality rowboats; B-number-2 star of the day, James Caan, got 10 solid minutes as a sergeant trying to save an officer’s life; C-number-3 star of the day, Elliott Gould, negotiated for 15 minutes of screen time to build a pontoon bridge. None of it mattered to the plot and I just skip those sequences when I watch A Bridge Too Far on DVD because it’s a British story—just let it be a British story.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Anthony Hopkins as Maj. John Frost, leading his confident men into battle after a successful parachute drop near Arnhem.

Then there’s the best thing about A Bridge Too Far, Anthony Hopkins as Maj. John Frost trying to take and hold Arnhem Bridge, and then continuing the fight until his ammo and food ran out. He earned his way onto my Mt. Rushmore of great screen characterizations of all time with his take on the quintessential, stiff-upper-lip British officer in a hopeless situation. In this picture, Anthony Hopkins is simply, how can I say this … perfect. It’s worth it for anyone to slog through A Bridge Too Far to get to the Hopkins moments because they are magical. He is all those British boys rolled into one. He is every corpuscle of every man who fought and died on those streets in 1944.

Walking across the now-called John Frostbrug (John Frost Bridge) in Arnhem was a chilling experience knowing what happened there. Visiting the Airborne Cemetery had me in tears the instant I saw all those smart formations of headstones, each representing a brave Tommy who paid the ultimate price. I wasn’t prepared for the emotion of that moment, especially with plaques at the gates of the cemetery in multiple languages that included photos of the Airborne guys in the planes on the way over flashing V-for-victory signs, all smiles as they flew with their high hopes and noble intentions across the English Channel only to die in a hail of machine gun fire on the streets of Arnhem, a city that had been spared the nastiness of war until those brutal, unexpected days of September 1944 when British Airborne met the SS and their Panzers.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Two British paratroopers holed up in a house in downtown Arnhem fought to the last and recorded their kills by date in September 1944 on the wallpaper. Their strident message reflects the thoughts of my friend Clem, contributor to “Mission,” who flew with Jimmy Stewart and was shot down over Holland. “There’s no glory in war,” said Clem. “War is crazy.”

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Morning dew kisses three cut roses placed on a monument honoring the Allied war dead. The Dutch people fell in love with their would-be liberators the British Airborne, and that love is undiminished 71 years later.

Dreams and Nightmares

World War II was big. It’s not something you can, say, take this arm and wrap around this way, and that arm and wrap around that way, so that your fingers entwine and suddenly you’ve wrapped your arms around World War II. This was way bigger than that. This was The Great War. As awful and staggering as World War I was in terms of human suffering and human stupidity, well, World War II raised the stakes and won the pot.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

Jim Stewart rises to the rank of 1st lt. in the Army Air Corps, July 1942.

I haven’t been around much lately and I apologize, but I’ve been learning a whole lot about WWII and the men who fought it. I know that women fought it as well, but I’ve interviewed only men, 90-plus in chronology. In particular, I’ve been working with three guys who a) were in Jimmy Stewart’s squadron of the 445th Bomb Group and with him from Boise, Idaho on; b) were shipped to UK with him; c) flew missions with him; d) were shot down over Germany; e) survived German prison camps as POWs; and f) likewise survived the Führer’s order to execute all POWs as Germany was about to lose the war. These guys live on today after enduring all that, with Jimmy Stewart (who wasn’t shot down and never parachuted out of a burning plane only to be roughed up by Germans on the ground) gone 18 years.

I think my next book could be called, How to Survive to a Ripe Old Age, and I could base it on these three fit and active, terrific guys who are full of wisdom after getting out of World War II in one piece and thriving for 70 years beyond.

I was just thinking today about the exercise of writing Fireball versus what it’s like to write the new one, which is called Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force. To me it feels like Fireball was a suit of clothes that I could wear in comfort—most of the time, except for the gut-wrenching parts. But the new one is confining and I can’t breathe because there’s so much to learn. There are the Nazi aggressions; there’s the Battle of Britain; there’s Pearl Harbor; there’s the war in the Pacific; there’s the air war over France and Germany; there’s the ground war in Africa, Italy, and Europe; there’s the Holocaust; there’s the ground war in the Pacific; there’s the battle for Berlin; and there’s the battle for Japan. How do you boil that down into one book, even when most of it’s background?

For the past week or so I’ve been writing the manuscript furiously and also looking around for topics for my blog. I toyed with the idea of republishing something from my old Errol & Olivia blog, but I couldn’t find anything suitable. I looked around for something from TCM to catch my eye and comment on. Again, nothing.

I’m stuck in 1944, people! You’ve gotta get me out of here! Actually, I have to get myself out of this one. I’m in the middle of rubble, starvation, heroism, and sacrifice on a global scale, and it brings me to tears sometimes. I don’t know how as a species we got where we got in 1944, but evidence says that, yes, humanity reached a low point, and a high point, right about then.

The interesting thing is, Jim Stewart and his colleagues of the Eighth Air Force fought a war to keep the U.S.A. safe and to liberate Europe. They fought the most righteous war ever, but the fact was, when you’re dropping bombs through cloud cover and your industrial target sits in the middle of a city, you’ll miss it often. Did you know that 70 years after the end of WWII, there are still people in Germany who call the Allies “terrorists” for the way they bombed German cities and civilians?

The goal of the British nighttime bombing was to exact revenge for the bombing of England in 1940. The goal of the American daytime bombing was to destroy German manufacturing, and also to break the will of the German people and cause the masses to turn on their government. This simply didn’t happen. In response to a terror campaign, the people in Germany in 1944 did the same thing the people in the United States did in 2001: They dug in their heels and said, You will not break us!

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

The B-24 Liberator, Jim’s ship in the Air Corps, described to me the other night by a pilot in Stewart’s squadron as “that goddamn airplane” and a “widow maker” because it was so difficult to fly.

I find the story of Jimmy Stewart in the Eighth Air Force so human, because he believed in what he was doing, and what he was doing was right. Hitler had to be stopped. And there were a whole lot of humans under his bombs who had done nothing wrong, and who didn’t believe in Hitler, and were trying to survive, but the bombs fell on them and all memory of their existence was erased when they were blown to dust.

How fragile we humans are, and how cavalier we once were with human life. That’s what I struggle with now on a daily basis—on the one hand, here are these great guys, heroes in every respect, going up to 20,000 feet at 40 below zero against a brutal enemy, facing fighters and flak to hit a target, and on the ground at the target, mixed in with Gestapo men and German infantry and devoted Nazis running factories are people who don’t support Hitler and never did, old men and women and children who dare not speak out against the government on penalty of death, along with forced laborers from conquered nations, and Jews in hiding, many living without running water and scavenging for food.

Bombs away.

It’s no wonder I have dreams and nightmares about this book I’m writing.

Time Machine

I imagine that time travel would be a pretty cool thing to experience. This past weekend I flirted a little with time travel at “World War II Weekend,” staged at the Reading Regional Airport in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. There, several hundred living historians (a.k.a. “reenactors”) got together to represent American G.I.s, German infantry, French resistance, and many other groups for the benefit of the history minded of this millennium. The authenticity was astonishing to the extent that the very sight of the “Krauts” in person and up close produced in me a chill—broken only when these 1940s apparitions, precise in every detail, tall, square shouldered, in gray-green uniforms and helmets, would sneak a peek at a smartphone.

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

U.S. paratroopers check an all-important equipment check before their jump.

What makes a guy enact a paratrooper jumping out of a plane at 1,500 feet to provide an audience of thousands a sense of what it was like to see a flock of C-47s overhead if you were in France in 1944? The sense I got from it was, these guys of the Airborne Demonstration Team love the history that much. I also realized that the 1944 fellas were up in the air for several minutes over enemy territory as they floated to earth and impersonated clay pigeons for marksmen on the ground. There’s bravery, and then there’s paratroopers.

You learn things by experiencing history up close that you wouldn’t or couldn’t from reading about it in a book or watching a movie. You know me: I don’t feel I can write about a physical location without being there; this time the physical location was inside a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, a 74-year-old heavy bomber of the type that pulverized Germany from 1943 to 1945. James Stewart and other characters in my new book flew in these growling monsters so I had to too. Thank God I’m not writing about those paratroopers.

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

The last flying B-24 Liberator, Diamond Lil, and crew wait on the tarmac.

It’s always sobering to fill out a form that asks for “next of kin” before one of these adventures, but the truth is these planes crashed when they were new, and Diamond Lil is the last of her kind, the final flying Liberator in America. I love to fly in vintage bombers. The cabins are unpressurized because of the gun ports, and the engines are louder than you can possibly imagine. It rides like a 20-ton bucket of bolts, just as it did through the war. It is magnificent!

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

For luck.

Which brings me to the topic for today, which is not Diamond Lil but another gal. It’s about a chance encounter, the kind where you glimpse someone and feel a primal rush and think to yourself, I’ve been waiting for you my whole life. Well, it happened right there on the runway during my pre-flight briefing as I stood by the wing of the B-24. I turned around and saw her and thought to myself, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m committed to Diamond Lil, because there she is.” Across the runway, a vintage gleaming silver DC-3 had just landed and taxied to a stop. Right. Over. There.

The conflict raged inside me as the captain of Diamond Lil went on with his safety briefing. Yah, yah, sure, skipper. Whatever you say. I was too busy replaying in my head a DC-3 landing in Las Vegas, weary passengers, a final takeoff and ascent. Eyewitnesses seeing and hearing a plane on an unusual heading…

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

Helloooo, beautiful! First glimpse of the Douglas DC-3 that had landed right behind me.

You’d be proud of me, people: I got my head together and wrung every minute out of my flight inside Diamond Lil, from engine run-up through an airborne exploration of the ship, from flight deck to tail gun and then a landing that felt like the worst pothole you ever hit in your car.

An hour later I was inside that DC-3, which was configured as a C-47—the design most used in helping to win World War II. But whether used for passengers or cargo, they were all stamped out the same and so stepping inside this 1945 model was exactly like stepping inside TWA Flight 3.

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

Looking forward from the tail of the Douglas DC-3/C-47.

Passengers had to be made of sterner stuff back then. Today, I grouse if an infant is on my flight on a 737 or Airbus—and I’m talking if an infant is anywhere inside the roomy cabin so its screaming little voice will bounce off the fuselage and disturb my experience. Well, not a problem in 1942. You’d never hear the little bastard with two 1200-horsepower engines five feet from you, one pressing in from the left, and one pressing in from the right. You wouldn’t hear anything in the unpressurized cabin but an urgent, purposeful growl at somewhere around 110 decibels. It’s not like Carole Lombard could chat with her afraid-to-fly mother during the trip west to offer consolation. Even screams from mouth to ear wouldn’t convey a message, so you sat there in a cabin smaller than your average trolley car, stuffed Kleenex in your ears, and took it.

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

Inside the DC-3 (here configured as a C-47 for cargo). For passenger travel there were three seats across, two on the left and one on the right, with an aisle between. Not exactly roomy. Folks, this is the entire cabin.

So, I went inside the DC-3, talked to the people, took some pictures, exited, came back again, took some video, walked all around it… I knew my followers would find the experience interesting so I tried to document to give you the best look you may ever have at the plane that hit the mountain. One of the many benefits of time travel.

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

Landing gear as it’s supposed to look.

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

Landing gear (right) with other pieces of DC-3 on Mt. Potosi in 2012.

Main Event

Tom Hodgins shared this photo with me, and suddenly a past bio subject confronted a future one. It’s Errol Flynn with wife Nora on one arm and her mother Madge on the other, all looking at James Stewart, who seems … tense. My question is, where the hell is this, and when?

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

James Stewart, Marge Eddington, Errol Flynn, and Nora Eddington Flynn, except, where, when, and why?

The backstory is that I co-authored Errol Flynn Slept Here with Mike Mazzone in 2009 and then wrote Errol & Olivia in 2010. My next book is tentatively titled Capt. Stewart, and details the exploits of James Stewart in the U.S. Army Air Corps air war in Europe. Jim dated Errol’s girl, Olivia de Havilland, or “Livvie,” in 1940. Errol was an insecure sort and didn’t like the fact that Jim was doing the nasty with Livvie. Didn’t like it one bit. Then Jim enlisted in the Air Corps in 1941 and soon thereafter, following Pearl Harbor (73 years ago today), Errol journeyed to D.C. and tried to enlist but was turned down because at 31 his health was shot with a capital S. All that hard living in hard conditions like the jungles of New Guinea had boiled his innards. Jim became a war hero and flew 19 missions in the air war in Europe, rose from private to lieutenant-colonel, and, as of the time of this photo, was a colonel in the Air Force Reserve. Errol, well, Errol fought World War II on the soundstages of Burbank, California, in pictures like Edge of Darkness and Objective, Burma! and always resented all the men who were able to go off and fight in the war while he was forced to ride the bench at home.

Here we are in 1948 (according to Tom) or 1950 (it seems like to me), and Jim is on the verge of becoming the most successful freelance actor in Hollywood, and Nora is on the arm of Errol while they are about to divorce or already are divorced. Flynn has had a drink or five, and Jim is stone-cold sober. One seems to be bombed and irritated; the other uncomfortable. The women are ecstatic, but why? My impression is that Jim is the center of attention, but again, why? Was Jim receiving some award or was he the guest of honor at some benefit? Why is Stewart in a suit and Errol in a tux?

Other clues: Is that snowflakes behind Stewart, making this holidays 1948? 1949? Knowing both these men as I do, it feels very much that they are unhappy to be in this scenario, but they both understand how to handle themselves before a camera—Stewart better than Flynn because at least Stewart is sober. Errol was 6-foot 2 and Stewart was 6-foot-3+. But both were lean and you’d have to classify them as middleweights. It would have made an interesting bout as these two settled whatever score there was.

The only thing I can figure is that this is the Photoplay Awards at the end of 1949, wherein Jim won for The Stratton Story. But that’s a shot in the dark. If anyone has any clues as to the date and occasion of this most interesting photo I have seen in quite a while, Tom and I would love to know.

**Note: Tom also points out that Rory Flynn is hosting an evening of five pictures starring her father on Tuesday December 9 on TCM/U.S. beginning at 8 P.M. Eastern time.