Mr. Stewart Goes to War

mission-cover02aI’m preparing a post now on Clara Bow’s career in talking pictures, a career that was longer and more estimable than posterity has given her credit for. Well, as so often happens here at Cinedrome, that post is growing and deepening as I work on it, and has been accordingly delayed. But it has to go on a back burner for now in any case, because my friend Robert Matzen is about to publish his latest book. It’s one that belongs on the bookshelf of every Cinedrome reader — and a lot of other bookshelves besides. This new book not only goes a long way to fill a decades-old gap in our knowledge of the life and times of one of America’s most beloved movie stars, it also adds significantly to our knowledge — at least it added to mine — of the rigors and terrors of aerial warfare during World War II.

This is the book: Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Robert Matzen, Cinedrome readers will recall, is the author of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Tragedy of Flight 3, a riveting page-turner about the death of Carole Lombard, who became the first celebrity casualty of World War II when her plane crashed on the way home from a war bond rally in Indiana. Mission tells us, in harrowing detail, how close James Stewart — Hollywood’s “boy next door” and an Oscar winner for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story — came to becoming another casualty of that same war. And not in a stateside bond tour, but in combat in the skies over Germany.

It’s common knowledge that James Stewart is one of the greatest stars in the history of Hollywood; in the American Film Institute’s 1999 list of the screen’s 50 greatest legends, he ranked third among men behind Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. Less commonly known is that he was the highest-ranking actor in military history (not counting Ronald Reagan’s two terms as Commander in Chief), retiring from the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a brigadier general in 1968. He always kept his screen and military careers carefully separate, especially during the war. There was a flurry of publicity when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1941 (nine months before Pearl Harbor), but that media circus led him to hold the press at arm’s length thereafter, and his military higher-ups generally cooperated by shielding him. Throughout the war, hopeful reporters were often reduced to filing pouty dispatches about how Lt. (later Capt., Maj., Lt. Col. and Col.) Stewart wouldn’t talk to them. And after the war, in the 52 years that remained to him, he spoke sparingly and in the most general terms about his war service. Of his experiences flying bombing missions over France and Germany — aside from a brief stint as a talking head on Thames Television’s documentary series The World at War, identified only as “James Stewart, Squadron Commander” — he spoke hardly at all.

b24Stewart may have virtually taken the story of his wartime service, and his 20 combat missions in B-17 and B-24 bombers, to his grave, but Robert Matzen has exhumed the bones of  the story from official military records and mission reports, and fleshed them out with the diaries, memoirs and recollections of the men who flew with Stewart and others like him, and with his own understanding of aeronautics born of ten years working in communications for NASA. He also gives us a keen insight into the tradition of military service that ran back generations in Jimmy Stewart’s family, something Stewart himself never elaborated on — perhaps because it would sound too much like bragging, perhaps because it was too internalized to bring to the surface.

Strictly speaking, Jimmy Stewart was actually James Maitland Stewart II (though his birth certificate didn’t put it that way). J.M. the First was his paternal grandfather, a Signal Corps sergeant during the Civil War who rode with Sheridan and Custer in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, saw action at Cedar Creek, Five Forks and Sailor’s Creek, and was present at Appomattox Court House as Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Fifty years later, he would regale young Jim with tales of seeing Lee, Grant, Sheridan, Custer and Lincoln all in the flesh. “This,” Matzen tells us succinctly, “wasn’t history in a book.” (Did young Jim reflect on this family lore in 1938, when he played a Union Army doctor receiving an audience with President Lincoln in Of Human Hearts? How could he not?) Sgt. Stewart also had a brother Archibald who didn’t survive the war, falling at Spotsylvania.

Then there was Jim’s maternal grandfather, Col. Samuel M. Jackson, who fought in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg and helped hold the Federal left on the second day, rising to the rank of general by war’s end. Gen. Jackson died before Jim was born, but his devotion to serving his country remained legendary in the family and mingled with that of Sgt. Stewart and his brother Archie.

And with that of Jim’s own father Alexander. He served briefly in the Spanish-American War but saw no action; he fell ill in Puerto Rico, and that “splendid little war” was over before he recovered. He didn’t give up; 20 years later, age 45 and married with children, he re-enlisted when America entered the Great War and served in France in the Ordnance Repair Dept.


A future in military service for James Stewart the Younger was a foregone conclusion, and he began preparing for it even as he was climbing the ladder to stardom in Hollywood (and, as a playboy bachelor, cutting a swath through Tinsel Town’s female population, amusingly recounted by Matzen). An early fascination with aviation (and hero-worship of Charles Lindbergh, whom he would later play in the movies) made him set his sights on the Army Air Corps, plunging into flying lessons as soon as he could afford them. (Fun Little-Known Fact: James Stewart got his commercial pilot’s license even before his first Oscar nomination.)

When Mission follows Capt. Stewart to combat duty in England, after a frustrating two years stateside training men to face the action he wanted to see, the book becomes an eye-opening chronicle of the nightmare of aerial combat. Robert Matzen puts us on the flight deck and in the bomb bays and gun turrets as vividly as Laura Hillenbrand put us in the saddle in her brilliant Seabiscuit. Reading Mission is as close as you’ll ever want to get to flying at 20,000 feet swaddled in a heated suit against the 40-below weather, icicles dangling from (and occasionally clogging) your oxygen mask, struggling to keep your behemoth plane in formation while anti-aircraft flak rips holes in your fuselage and hundreds of Luftwaffe fighters swarm around you like death-dealing wasps. Twenty times Oscar-winner Stewart went through it — eight, nine, ten hours in the air, never knowing which split-second might be his last. No wonder he never talked about it.

collage01As he did in Fireball, Matzen completes the picture he paints by recounting the experiences of others who lived through the air war over Europe from perspectives of their own. From top to bottom here:

Sgt. Clement Leone of Baltimore, a radio operator in Stewart’s combat wing, who was a senior in high school when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and whose fascination with airplanes, like Stewart’s, channeled him into the Air Corps once he turned 18. Leone’s exploits, especially after being blown out of his exploding plane over German territory, would make a book in themselves. (Non-spoiler alert: Leone survived, came home, and is today alive and well; he was a key source of Robert Matzen’s insight into life in a bomber crew.);

Gen. Adolf Galland (with the moustache) of the Luftwaffe’s fighter wing, who flew hundreds of missions against American bombers, and did not share Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s contempt for the Americans and their Flying Fortresses and Liberators; and

The Siepmann family of Wilhelmshaven, later Eppstein near Frankfurt. Papa Hans was a naval engineer working on U-boats. Mama Riele and their children lived through the Allied bombing campaign as civilians cowering in the shadow of those planes overhead; they didn’t share Göring’s contempt either. Their oldest child Gertrud (far left) later married an American G.I. and emigrated to America in 1956. Robert Matzen knew her for years as Trudy McVicker before learning of her childhood in Hitler’s Germany and coaxing her to contribute her memories to Mission.

Whether you’re interested in Jimmy Stewart, Hollywood, World War II, or all three, you want to read Mission. The official publication date is Monday, October 24. You can order the book here from Amazon. And you can learn more about the book here, about stops on the upcoming Mission National Book Tour here, and about Robert Matzen himself here.

Take my advice and don’t let any grass grow under your feet. I won’t be surprised if the first printing sells out. 

“Glamour Boys” Begins…

Today marks the beginning of my first work of new fiction here at Cinedrome; the title is Glamour Boys. Now here, I guess, if I was really good at this sort of thing, I’d launch into some tantalizing inside-flap-of-the-dust-jacket copy describing the story and the characters, hooking and reeling you in like an expert fisherman. But honestly, that’s not really my long suit; I think I’d rather just let Chapter I, and those that follow, speak for themselves. To begin reading, hover on Jim’s Fiction at the top and select the title.

Glamour Boys, I say again, is a work of fiction. The persons, firms and events portrayed therein are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. No identification with any real firms, or with any real persons living or dead, is intended, and none should be inferred.

That said, I hope it meets with your approval…

Grand Opening!

Welcome to the New! Improved! Cinedrome! As you can see, there’s a new look and a lot of new features. I’ll go over some of them with you now.

First, in the right column:

  • Recent Posts and Articles A – Z  You’ll find here first a list of the ten most recent posts, followed by a list of all Cinedrome posts, arranged alphabetically by the title of the post (and here’s a hint in case you haven’t noticed: Posts that begin with the articles “A” and “The” are listed in the A’s and T’s, respectively). You may find that you’d like to revisit a post on this or that movie or personality but can’t recall the title; in that case, you can use…
  • Search  If you’ve spent much time at all on line, I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of how this feature works. This replaces the old Cinedrome Index: NAMES and Cinedrome Index: TITLES, which were beginning to get pretty cumbersome.


And up top:

  • About the Author  A few brief words about Yours Truly.
  • Series  As longtime readers of Cinedrome no doubt know, I’ve often found occasion to post at length on a given subject. Under this heading you’ll find a number of these series (and the number will no doubt grow in the future), including my 14-part retrospective on the career of Shirley Temple; my award-winning history of the making and editing of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons; my histories of Cinerama and the screen versions of George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy; and my ongoing retrospective on the career of director Henry Hathaway (which I will soon be adding to with a post on one of Hathaway’s best pictures of the 1950s, one that is lamentably unavailable on video in the U.S.). Clicking on one of these series titles will take you to all of the series parts on a single page for your convenience. The series page does not include any comments that readers may have left; to read those, simply click on the title of any part and you’ll be taken to just that post, comments and all.
  • Jim’s Fiction  It’s true; I write fiction too. At present the only entry under this heading is my 2010 post “Items from the Scrapbook of Cosmo Brown” (yes, the cat’s out of the bag: I made that all up), but I’ll be adding to it from time to time. Some things will be movie-related, some won’t.


In addition to these, there’s my Links and Resources page, imported from before, and a Contact page for info on how to get in touch with me; it’s always a pleasure to hear from any and all of you.

I’m grateful to my good friend Jean Black at My Big Fat Sites for bringing all this to fruition. I hope you like the new Cinedrome; feel free to look around, make yourself comfortable, and come back often.

Coming up next – Clara Talks!

Cinevent 2016, Concluded

Sunday, the last day of Cinevent 2016, got off to a vivacious start with a double feature showcasing that most utterly, charmingly, irresistibly delightful of movie stars, Clara Bow. Only the persistent prejudice against silent movies keeps Clara Bow from her rightful place among the movies’ greatest stars — in the minds of the general public, that is; true movie buffs know her worth. Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, at the height of their careers, were never as popular or as sexy as Clara. But Greta and Marilyn are enshrined in the Temple of Screen Immortals, even to people who know them only by name, while the name of Clara Bow is something out of a quaint, distant, forgotten prehistory, like Nell Gwyn or Minnie Maddern Fiske.

This is unfair. To see Clara Bow at her best — in Mantrap (1926), or in It or Wings (both ’27) — is to see someone who is still as animated and as immediately alluring as she was the day she reported to the set. Everybody who ever worked with Clara spoke of her ever after with a wistful smile. More to the point, the camera loved her as it has loved few other women who ever stood in front of one.

She’s been the victim, perhaps, of the legend that her atrocious Brooklyn accent doomed her when sound came in. Not so. While it’s true that the microphone terrified her at first, she rolled with the punch and gamely soldiered on. In her 11-year career she appeared in 56 features, and 11 of them were talkies. There was nothing wrong with her voice, any more than there was with Jean Harlow’s (the two women’s careers overlapped by a few years). Clara’s sound pictures did reasonably well at the box office, though it’s true, not as well as her silents. But that’s not because Clara was talking now. The simple truth is that her day was passing, while Jean Harlow’s was coming on.

I’ll save any further thoughts for another day. For now, let’s turn to Clara’s Sunday double bill in Columbus.

Saturday Night Kid LC02First came The Saturday Night Kid (1929), based on Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em, a 1926 play by George Abbott and John V.A. Weaver. The play was filmed silent (also in ’26) under its original title (and screened at Cinevent in 2010), with Evelyn Brent and Louise Brooks playing Mame and Janie Walsh, two sisters who work together at a big department store. Mame is the older, more responsible one, forever mother-henning her hedonistic, troublemaking kid sister Janie. For this talkie remake, Clara played the slightly renamed Mayme and Jean Arthur was Janie (though she was in fact five years older than Clara). Janie is a hell-raiser and borderline sociopath, playing the ponies with the store empoyees’ charity fund, losing it, then blaming Mayme for the embezzlement — and even trying to steal Mayme’s boyfriend (James Hall). Clara wasn’t looking her best (she was, just this once, a trifle overweight and a bit frowzy), but the picture was a hit in 1929 and it still plays well; when Mayme finally got fed up and slapped Janie clear across their bedroom, applause rippled through the Cinevent audience.

Next, Kid Boots (1926) was one of those oddities, a silent movie based (albeit loosely) on a Broadway musical comedy produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld’s star Eddie Cantor made his screen debut here, playing a man hired to flirt with a rich man’s gold-digging wife and give the husband grounds for divorce. At a mountain resort, Eddie hits it off with the swimming instructor — but their romance proceeds awkwardly because every time she sees him he’s wooing somebody else. Since Eddie couldn’t resort to song-and-dance, he was teamed with Clara (as the swimming instructor) for box-office insurance. It was a felicitous pairing. The two got along famously; Eddie helped Clara with her comic timing and she helped him learn how to act for the camera, and their rapport and mutual affection still come through on the screen.

Parson of Panamint poster02aAfter lunch there was a new wrinkle this year. They called it the Audience Choice Picture: Earlier in the year, on the Cinevent Web site, those of us planning to attend were polled as to which of four titles we’d like to see screened in this slot. I can’t remember what the four choices were, nor which one I voted for, but we wound up with The Parson of Panamint (1941), from a story by Peter B. Kyne. Like Kyne’s perennially popular The Three Godfathers, the story was a parable. Charlie Ruggles (in a change-of-pace straight dramatic role) plays the mayor of the rough-and-tumble mining town of Panamint, California. The mayor goes to the big city of San Francisco to hire a preacher for his town’s new church, and that’s where he finds the Rev. Philip Pharo (Phillip Terry) — not in a church, but taking the mayor’s part in a saloon fight. The Rev. Mr. Pharo accepts the job and rides back with the mayor to his new congregation.
At first things go well between the parson and the townspeople. But as it becomes clear to them that he takes the Christian doctrine of “love thy neighbor” quite seriously, his innate goodness begins to make people uncomfortable — plus, his concern for the welfare of the town’s gold miners incurs the enmity of the self-styled leaders of the community, who set about stirring up public outrage against him. The script by Adrian Scott and Harold Shumate, and Kyne’s original story, bore obvious parallels to the life of Jesus (although — spoiler alert! — in the movie things work out rather better for the Parson of Panamint than they did for the Carpenter of Nazareth). The picture garnered good reviews but poor box office; today it’s an unusual little jewel of a movie, marred only by a too-bland performance by Phillip Terry as the parson. But Terry was more than compensated for by others in the cast, especially Ruggles and Ellen Drew as a local saloon girl (the movie’s equivalent of Mary Magdalene).
The Parson of Panamint was the final highlight of this year’s Cinevent, but the weekend didn’t exactly end with a whimper. The last two features were The Tomboy (1924), a rural romance starring the now-forgotten silent comedienne Dorothy Devore (just the kind of scheduling Cinevent excels at, spotlighting former stars for whom there’s no market on video but who deserve to be remembered); and King of Alcatraz (1938) a marvelously tight little Paramount B (running a lightning 68 min.) starring Lloyd Nolan and Robert Preston as frenemy wireless operators on a tramp steamer matching wits with an escaped crime kingpin (J. Carrol Naish) who hijacks their ship in mid-Pacific.
And so it was at 5:48 p.m. on Sunday, June 5, 2016, that the 48th Annual Cinevent Classic Movie Convention came to a close. I’ve posted on it in some detail, as I have in the past, because movie buffs everywhere should know about it and be encouraged to take it in. I haven’t even touched on the dealers’ rooms this year, though I once again acquired my share of books, videos, and memorabilia (some of which will no doubt find its way here from time to time).
As film festivals go, Cinevent is hard to beat. Financially, it’s just about the bargain of the century: a pass for the entire weekend goes for less than you’d pay for a single screening at some classic film festivals. But it’s more than that. Cinevent is a get-together of friends; historian and bestselling biographer Scott Eyman calls it “the most relaxed, friendly, unpretentious, accessible and enjoyable of the Cinephile Conventions.” I hope to see you all there one of these years. Be sure to say hello.


There are changes afoot here at Cinedrome. That’s why this series on Cinevent 2016 has taken longer than I would have liked: I’ve been working two blogs, in a way, putting together these posts on the one hand, while working on the other hand with my friend Jean at My Big Fat Sites to develop a new and (I hope) improved Cinedrome. This will be the last of my posts here on Blogspot, though I’ll update this afterword with my new Web address when it’s ready to be seen.
And oh yes, all previous posts will still be available (maybe, if plans work out, even more so) at Cinedrome’s new location.

Cinevent 2016, Part 4

Day 3

Another regular — and eagerly anticipated — feature of Cinevent is the Saturday morning cartoon program, compiled and curated by animation maven Stewart McKissick. This year the bill included a specimen from each of the major cartoon studios of the 1930s through ’50s — Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, Fleischer, UPA, etc. The clear highlight of the morning was MGM’s Magical Maestro (1952) by the great Tex Avery, in which a spurned vaudeville magician wreaks vengeance by disrupting an operatic recital by “the Great Poochini” (as the poster shows, the cartoon is populated by dogs). It’s a wild and zany ride that anticipates (may even have inspired) Chuck Jones’s Duck Amuck over at Warners the following year, and it’s better seen than described.

Fortunately, that can be arranged. Click here to see the cartoon complete from beginning to end — including a few fleeting (and fairly harmless) seconds of non-p.c. ethnic humor. It’s only six-and-a-half minutes, and worth the side trip. I’ll wait till you get back. (NOTE: The cartoon is on a Romanian-language Web site and is preceded by a commercial for one product or another. Look for a white “X” in the top right corner of the frame or the word “Inchide” [“skip”] in the bottom right; click on either of those and it’ll go directly to the cartoon.)

The cartoon program was followed by Houdini (1953), a purported biopic starring a youthful Tony Curtis and then-wife Janet Leigh as the legendary escapologist and his wife Bess. A big hit in 1953, the picture was a mainstay of Saturday afternoon kiddie matinees when I was going to them — I remember seeing it three or four times — and I’ve always had a soft spot for it. There was, of course, a magician and escape artist (born Erik Weisz) who billed himself as Harry Houdini, and his wife Wilhelmina Beatrice was known as Bess; aside from that, the movie is arrant fiction from first frame to last — but it’s as entertaining as it is made-up. Seeing it in Columbus this year — especially right after a whole slew of cartoons — made me feel seven years old again.

The afternoon was devoted to two silent programs: Douglas Fairbanks in His Picture in the Papers (1916), followed by a selection of rarely seen comedy shorts, also from 1916, consisting of The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, starring Doug Fairbanks again as a detective named (get this) Coke Ennyday (a spoof on the name of Craig Kennedy, a character created by Arthur B. Reeve in 1910 and popular in magazine fiction until Reeve’s death in 1936); An Angelic Attitude, directed by and starring Tom Mix, already seven years into his movie career and poised on the brink of superstardom; and A Scoundrel’s Toll, a Mack Sennett short starring Raymond Griffith. (Griffith would be a mid-level comedy star throughout the 1920s, but his badly damaged vocal cords would relegate him to behind-the-camera work writing and producing, and quite successfully, once talkies came in.)
x-defaultThis was followed by Tim McCoy in Law Beyond the Range (1935), an unpretentious and quite entertaining B western from Columbia. Tim McCoy was one of those interesting characters who sort of backed into movies because making movies was fun and he himself was fairly comfortable in front of  camera. Born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1891, he became fascinated with the Wild West as a student in college; he dropped out and resettled in Wyoming, where he became a ranch hand and expert horseman. After serving in World War I (he rose to the rank of colonel and later, in his movie career, was sometimes billed as Col. Tim McCoy), he was appointed adjutant general of the Wyoming National Guard. In that capacity he worked diplomatically and well with Wyoming’s native Arapaho and Shoshone tribes, and in 1922, when Paramount came to Wyoming to film their epic The Covered Wagon, McCoy served as liaison between the company and several hundred Indian extras. That gave him the bug. He resigned his commission and cried “Westward ho!” once again, settling in Hollywood, where he worked steadily through the 1940s, then tapered off into retirement, making his last appearance in Requiem for a Gunfighter in 1965.
In Law Beyond the Range McCoy played a Texas Ranger who leaves the force to take over an old friend and mentor’s crusading newspaper in a neighboring town. Arriving in town shortly after his editor friend’s death, he carries on the paper’s crusade against the crime boss who is running the town (Guy Usher). In the end he brings down the bad guy, but not because the pen is mightier than the sword; in fact it takes a blazing shootout that fills the local saloon with a dense cloud of gunsmoke, a rip-roaring climax that Col. Tim’s 1935 fans had no doubt been waiting for all along. At the final fadeout he has not only cleaned up the town but cleared an old friend (Robert Allen) of a bogus murder charge and won the heart of the late editor’s daughter (Billie Seward).
California-Straight-Ahead-WAfter dinner came of two of the highlights of the whole weekend — both, as it happened, from Universal. First was California Straight Ahead (1937). I here reproduce the title card from the movie’s credits, rather than a poster or lobby card, to make a point: It’s 1937, two years before Stagecoach, and John Wayne is billed above the title. And not in a B western from Monogram or Republic, but in one of six pictures he made at Universal (none of them westerns) before returning to the saddle at Republic. It’s still a B picture, of course; it would take John Ford to promote the Duke out of B’s once and for all. But California Straight Ahead has a better-than-B professional gloss to it; with Universal’s backlot and production infrastructure a few dollars could go a lot farther than they could on some location ranch up in the San Fernando Valley.
Wayne plays a partner in a struggling Chicago trucking firm, trying to make a go of his little two-truck operation against sometimes unscrupulous opposition from other truckers and railroads (he faces some unsporting competition for the affections of the fetching Louise Latimer too). The story climaxes in a cross-country race between Wayne’s convoy of big-rigs and an express train, both seeking to deliver a shipment of airplane parts to the Port of Los Angeles to be loaded on a ship and dispatched across the Pacific before a general strike closes the port. With a smart script by W. Scott Darling and lickety-split direction by Arthur Lubin, the picture makes for an enjoyable 67 minutes.


In his introduction to the screening, Wayne biographer Scott Eyman told us that Wayne regarded his six-picture foray at Universal as a mistake; it had failed to take him out of the “juvenile ghetto” of Saturday afternoon B westerns, and when it was over he found himself back at Square One in Republic horse operas — without his former momentum and unsure when, or if ever, he could work his way out of them. (He couldn’t know, of course, that his big break was just around the corner.) I quote Scott at length on California Straight Ahead and the Duke’s five other Universal B’s: “This is a good movie; they are all good, solid movies. They’re better, frankly, I think, than the Republic westerns he’d been making, because the technicians are a little bit better, the scripts are a little bit better, and the production schedules a little bit longer, and you can get more of where he’s not just riding and roping and slugging people. He actually gets a chance to do a little acting in these movies. And as you’ll see, he’s getting better and better. By 1937, and finishing up this series of pictures, he’s ready. He’s ready for John Ford, he’s ready for the Big Time.”

Crazy-House-poster01WAnd then came the deluge, again courtesy of Universal Pictures. The title of this onslaught was Crazy House, and the leading inmates of the loony bin were two slap-happy vaudevillians named Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. How do you describe these two to someone who’s never seen them? In my last post I called them the Monty Python of the 1940s, but the truth is, Olsen and Johnson made Monty Python look like a Sunday afternoon game of whist between Oscar Wilde and James MacNeill Whistler.
John Sigvard “Ole” Olsen and Harold Ogden “Chic” Johnson first teamed up in 1914 as members of a more or less straight musical vaudeville quartet. Their personalities and wacky senses of humor clicked, and they eventually morphed into a madcap improvisational comedy act, with neither of them playing the customary straight man. Eventually they wound up on radio in “The Padded Cell of the Air”, a segment of NBC’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, hosted by crooner Rudy Vallee. The rather stodgy Vallee evidently left Olsen and Johnson pretty much to their own devices, and the team’s wild act was free-wheeling and utterly unpredictable. They reached their apotheosis in 1938 with the Broadway musical comedy revue Hellzapoppin, whose title remains a byword for insanely corny, anything-for-a-laugh comedy. It was a show where nobody ever knew what was going to happen next. And I don’t mean just the audience — I mean the stagehands, the orchestra and the other performers. Hellzapoppin ran for over three years — 1,404 performances, and it was never the same experience twice.
In 1941 Universal induced Olsen and Johnson to put the show on film (as Hellzapoppin’, adding the apostrophe). It might have seemed like a fool’s errand, and Universal hedged their bets by forcing the insertion of a conventional romantic subplot, but the movie clicked. It was screened at last year’s Cinevent and stole the whole weekend, as hilarious as ever.
And so it was this year with Crazy House, Olsen and Johnson’s follow-up movie two years later. It begins with Olsen and Johnson staging their own triumphant return parade down Hollywood Boulevard, with the cry preceding them: “Olsen and Johnson are coming!”, while everyone from studio bigwigs to hairdressers and carpenters flies into a panic. (On one soundstage Basil Rathbone tells Nigel Bruce of the dire devastation in store for them all when the two comics arrive. “How do you know all that?” Bruce asks. “I’m Sherlock Holmes,” snaps Rathbone. “I know everything.”) The boys show up to find the Universal lot deserted and barricaded against them. Unfazed, they resolve to produce their next movie themselves.
Let’s leave it at that, shall we? Crazy House goes on in that vein for a lightning 80 minutes, throwing jokes so fast you miss every third one because you’re still laughing at the first two. Olsen and Johnson’s governing principle was that a joke not good enough to use once might be bad enough to use five times, and it still works; O&J’s influence can be seen not only in Monty Python but elsewhere, including Laugh-In in the 1960s and Jim Henson’s original Muppet Show 20 years after that.
After the boisterous delirium of Crazy House anything would have been an anticlimax, so 1927’s silent The Fighting Eagle started off at a disadvantage. Still, it was an engaging, slightly tongue-in-cheek swashbuckler with Rod La Rocque (such a perfectly Hollywood name, and yet it was his own) swaggering grandly as a braggart popinjay French soldier engaging in swordplay, intrigue and romance (with countess Phyllis Haver, the movies’ original Roxie Hart in Chicago) in the days of the Emperor Napoleon.
And finally, another midnight snack: The Monkey’s Paw, a low-budget 1948 British thriller with a good but uniformly unfamiliar cast, adapted from the classic short story by W.W. Jacobs. If you haven’t read the story, you should; give yourself a sleepless night or two. It concerns the eponymous, mummified simian extremity, a talisman with the power to grant three wishes. But this monkey’s paw is no rabbit’s foot; it’s the ultimate illustration of be-careful-what-you-wish-for: In a touch not in the original story but added for the movie, one woman wishes to be free of her boring, alcoholic husband; her freedom is granted to her when he shoots her dead.
Jacobs’s story is a vivid one, but short, and the
script by Barbara Toy and director Norman
Lee fills it out without diluting its sinister
spirit — as that flashback scene with the bored
wife makes clear. And so it was, at 2:00 that
Sunday morning, after the monkey’s paw had
wrought its dark magic on the hapless
Trelawne family (played by Milton Rosmer,
Megs Jenkins and Eric Micklewood), that
those hardy night owls among us were
finally trundled off to our rooms, our lights,
and the comforting drone of an all-night
To be concluded…