16. From the Silver Screen to the Eighth Air Force
After he got signed up by MGM, Clark Gable attracted attention for a powerful performance in his first starring role in The Painted Desert. He built upon that success, and when MGM paired him with established female stars such as Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, the combination steamed the screen and he became an insta-star. When America entered WWII, Gable had established himself as the silver screen’s biggest star and its greatest box office draw, and MGM’s most lucrative earner. He gave that up and took a break from Hollywood to go fight the Axis.
After his wife died in an air crash on her way back home from a war bonds tour, a devastated Gable decided to enlist. Despite MGM’s reluctance to let its most profitable star go, Gable enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in 1942, with the hope of becoming an aerial gunner. He was sent instead to OCS, which he completed in October 1942 and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. On personal orders from the USAAF’s chief, general Hap Arnold, Gable was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England, to make a combat recruitment film for aerial gunners titled Combat America.
Clark Gable needed combat footage for his recruitment film. So in 1943, he flew five combat missions as a B-17 gunner, one of which took him into Germany. His presence in the missions was for propaganda and PR purposes, but the dangers he ran were all too real. In one mission, Gable’s B-17 lost an engine and had its stabilizer damaged after it was hit by antiaircraft fire and was attacked by fighters. Over Germany, his B-17 had two crewmen wounded and another killed after their bomber was struck by flak, and shrapnel went through Gable’s boot and almost took off his head.
When MGM heard of its most valuable actor’s close brushes with death, it worked its connections to have him reassigned to noncombat duty. For his service in Europe, Gable was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal, and in late 1943, he was ordered back to the US to edit the film. He hoped for another shot at combat once he was done, but none came. By the summer of 1944, after the Normandy invasion came and went without a combat assignment, he finally gave up and requested to be relieved from active duty on grounds that he was forty three years old by then, and overage for combat. He stayed in the reserves until 1947, when he finally resigned his commission.
Mansfield was a New Yorker who had decided at an early age that she would become an actress. When she was fourteen-years-old, she got a role in a Broadway play, and took side gigs as a model for artists and a dancer in musicals. In 1917, she was signed up by one of the forerunners of what would become Warner Bros. Studios, and performed in three short movies. A year later, she appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies – a popular series of theatrical revue productions that ran on Broadway from 1907 to 1934, and combined music, dance, and sketches.
Martha Mansfield moved to California in 1919 to pursue a career as an actress. She caught her first big break a year later, when she was cast opposite superstar John Barrymore in 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By 1923, Mansfield was a rising star who had come a long way in a short time. On Thanksgiving Day that year, she was in San Antonio on the film set of her latest movie, the Civil War love story The Warrens of Virginia. At the end of the workday, she hung out with the rest of the cast, still in costume and clad in a frilly Southern belle period dress.
At some point, somebody lit a cigarette and tossed the match. It landed on Mansfield’s dress, which immediately caught fire and went up in a WHOOOSH! Her co-star threw his overcoat over her, which saved her face and neck, while her chauffer sustained severe hand burns as he ripped the flaming dress off of her. By then, however, she had suffered severe burns over much of her body. Mansfield was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio, but despite the doctors’ best efforts, the burns were too extensive, and she died the next day.
James “Jimmy” Stewart (1908 – 1997), one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, starred in many movies that became beloved classics. He was known for a down-to-earth mannerism that helped him excel in the depiction of middle class American men, diffident and resolute of character, as they struggled with crises. Notable among the more than eighty movies in which he appeared are his roles in the Christmas standby It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Vertigo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stewart was nominated for five Oscars, won one for Best Actor for his role in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, and was awarded another Oscar in 1985 for Lifetime Achievement.
Stewart kicked off his thespian career in shows with a drama group in Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1932. He then dove into acting, and by 1933, he had secured roles on Broadway. In 1935, he landed a contract with MGM and headed west to Hollywood. A year later, he had his first breakthrough as lead actor in a popular musical comedy, The Dancer. From there, he quickly established himself as one of Tinseltown’s premier actors. When the Second World War came along, Stewart took a break from Hollywood to go bomb the Nazis, then came back home and resumed his illustrious career.
11. The Hollywood Star Who Actually Wanted to Fight in WWII
By the time America joined WWII, Jimmy Stewart was an established star. It would have been easy for him, as others from Hollywood had done, to avoid service altogether – John, cough, Wayne. Alternatively, he could have readily secured a safe military gig that allowed him to be seen in uniform, yet stay away from danger – cough, cough, Reagan. But Stewart’s grandfather had fought against the South, and his father had fought against both Spain and Germany. So when war came along in Stewart’s generation, it was natural that he would go off to fight. He had been drafted by the Army in 1940, but was medically rejected because he was underweight.
However, Stewart was a flight enthusiast who had secured his pilot’s certificate in 1935, and had accumulated over 400 hours in the cockpit by the time America got into the war. He managed to get around the underweight bit and enlist in the US Army Air Forces in 1941. Upon his graduation from a pilot training program in 1942, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. Higher ups wanted to shunt him into PR and put his celebrity to use in bonds drives and rally appearances, but Stewart wanted a combat assignment. After many travails and clashes with commanders he managed a transfer into a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber group, which joined the US Eighth Air Force in Britain in the autumn of 1943.
10. The Hollywood Star Who Put Some Hurt on the Nazis
Jimmy Stewart flew his first combat mission on December 13th, 1943. He piloted the lead B-24 of his group’s high squadron as they bombed U-boat facilities in Kiel, Germany. A few days later, he flew lead bomber for the entire group as they bombed Bremen. By February, 1944, Stewart had been promoted to major, and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. A month later, he led an entire bomb wing on a raid that targeted Berlin. In late March, 1944, Stewart was assigned as operations officer for a newly formed bomb group. That assignment meant that he was not required to fly combat missions. However, Stewart wanted to inspire and encourage his new unit. So he personally piloted the lead B-24 on numerous raids deep into the Third Reich, and served as a crewman on other missions.
Such conduct earned Stewart a second Distinguished Flying Cross, a French Croix de Guerre, an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and other decorations. After the war, Stewart returned to Hollywood and resumed his career as an actor, but continued to serve in the US Air Force Reserves. He kept current with new bombers as they entered service, and was certified to pilot B-36 Peacemakers, B-47 Stratojets, and B-52 Stratofortresses. He was promoted to colonel in 1953, and was given reserve command of Dobbins Air Force base in Georgia. By 1959, Stewart had reached the rank of brigadier general. He retired from the military in 1968.
We take airplanes for granted nowadays, but in the early twentieth century, powered flight was still a new marvel. Back then, airplanes fascinated the public in a manner and to an extent that is difficult for us today, accustomed as we are to air travel as just another routine aspect of modern life, to grasp. Most people a century ago had never seen an airplane before, and crowds that numbered in the hundreds or even thousands shelled out money to watch the era’s pilots put on aerial displays for them. One such pioneer was Ormer Locklear (1891 – 1920), an aerial daredevil who learned how to fly with the US Army Air Service.
He went on tour as a barnstormer pilot, and put on aerobatic displays for crowds across the country. Locklear is believed to have been the first man to ever walk on the wing of an aircraft in flight – a stunt that became especially popular with air show audiences in the 1920s. It also had a practical angle: it allowed pilots to make repairs mid-flight. Other stunts pioneered by Locklear include jumping from one airplane to another mid-flight, and clambering aboard a low flying plane from a moving car. As seen below, such skills turned out to be in high demand in Hollywood.
8. The World’s Greatest Stunt Pilot Goes to Hollywood
By 1919, Ormer Locklear had established himself as the most famous daredevil pilot in the world. It did not take long before his fame attracted the attention of Hollywood. Universal Studios inked a contract to buy all his future air show dates, in order to get him to sign on to a two movie series. The first film, The Great Air Robbery, was a drama about air mail pilots, which showcased Locklear’s aerobatic antics. It received favorable reviews, and went on to become a commercial success at the box office.
Locklear followed up that success with The Skywayman, about an amnesiac shell shocked veteran’s return home from The Great War. Filming began in 1920, and from early on, there were numerous close brushes with the Grim Reaper. On numerous occasions, disaster was only avoided by the narrowest of margins. In one stunt, Locklear was supposed to knock over a church steeple with his airplane, only for it to almost end in a plane crash. Soon thereafter, he narrowly avoided death as the cameras filmed a scene in which he was to jump from an airplane on to a moving train. Locklear was extraordinary lucky, but as seen below, that luck eventually ran out.
7. A Hollywood Set Screwup That Got a Famous Pilot Killed
A final stunt on the set of The Skywayman called for a tailspin, known as a “suicide dive”, to be performed for a nighttime scene. As originally planned, the stunt was supposed to be performed in the daytime, and special camera filters were to be used in order to simulate nighttime. However, Locklear insisted that he be allowed to perform the stunt at night. The studio agreed, and as news leaked out of what Locklear planned, a crowd gathered on the night of August 2nd, 1920, to watch the suicide dive. Unfortunately, it lived up to its name.
Searchlights were to be focused on Locklear’s airplane to render it visible for the cameras in the dark as it entered its tailspin. The searchlights’ glare meant that Locklear would fly blind, without a clue about his altitude. So after the airplane descended to a specific height, the searchlights were supposed to get turned off to enable Locklear to see, and to let him know that it was time to pull out of the tailspin. Somebody screwed up somewhere, however, and the searchlights were not turned off. As horrified onlookers watched, Locklear’s floodlit airplane began its “suicide dive” – and remained brightly let within the searchlights’ glare, as it continued its dive straight into the ground. Locklear and a fellow pilot were instantly killed in the crash.
6. When America’s Favorite Teenager Began to Buck at the Restrictions Imposed Upon Her
Julia Jean Turner was fifteen-years-old when she skipped school one day in 1936 to buy a Coca-Cola at LA’s Sunset Boulevard. Her good looks attracted the attention of a Hollywood reporter, who asked if she was interested in becoming an actress. She replied: “I’ll have to ask my mother first“. Turner’s mother, ill and broke, jumped at the chance, and had her daughter sign up with Warner Bros. Studios. Within a few months the novice actress was given the screen name Lana Turner, and became a hit. The studio realized that it had struck gold with the teenager. So it went out of its way to protect Turner’s public image, and packaged and presented her as a wholesome, good American girl.
The new actress’ employers even hired chaperons to accompany her wherever she went. Unsurprisingly, the restrictions eventually began to chafe at the teenaged starlet, and she started to push back. Turner came to resent the bubble in which she was confined by MGM Studios, which took over her contract from Warner Bros. in 1938. As an escape, America’s favorite good girl began to party hard, and developed a taste for bad boys. As seen below, the degree of badness grew over the years, as Turner gradually worked her way from Hollywood tough guy poseurs to straight up mobsters.
Year after year, Hollywood studios tried to get Lana Turner to maintain a wholesome image in order to protect their investment in her. Year after year, she resisted. By the late 1950s, with her best acting years behind her, Turner no longer cared about whom she associated with or was seen next to. In 1958, she hooked up with a new boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, a mobster with close ties to LA’s foremost organized crime figure, Mickey Cohen. On the one hand, Stompanato, a WWII Marine veteran, was a handsome hunk. On the other hand, he was a violent psychopath who often beat the daylights out of Turner, starting with the first time she tried to break up with him.
It was an unhealthy and scandalous relationship. It finally ended with a major scandal that shocked even a jaded Hollywood that was seemingly impervious to scandals. Within the span of a single year, Turner and Stompanato carried on a stormy affair filled with violent arguments, physical abuse, frequent breakups, and just-as-frequent reconciliations. On at least one occasion, Turner claimed that her mobster boyfriend drugged and photographed her in the nude when she was passed out, in order to blackmail her if he ever wanted to. The affair came to an abrupt end when Stompanato was stabbed to death in Turner’s home – not by her, but by her fourteen-year-old daughter.
4. The Dramatic Conclusion of This Stormy Relationship Shocked Even a Jaded Hollywood
Lana Turner’s and mobster Johnny Stompanato’s stormy affair came to a dramatic end on the evening of April 4th, 1958. The hoodlum boyfriend arrived at Turner’s Beverly Hills home, and as was their wont, the duo began to argue. Turner’s fourteen-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane stood outside the bedroom and eavesdropped. When at some point Stompanato threatened to kill Turner, her daughter, and her mother, Cheryl ran to the kitchen and grabbed a knife. As Turner tried to push Stompanato out of her bedroom, Cheryl buried the knife in his stomach.
The resultant scandal became a media sensation. Hundreds of journalists crowded into a jury inquest over the mobster’s death. After four hours of testimony and twenty-five minutes of deliberations, the jury decided that it was a justifiable homicide. Cheryl was kept as a ward of the court for over two weeks. After a juvenile court judge expressed concern over the lack of “personal parental supervision”, Cheryl was released into the custody of her grandmother, with court-ordered visits to a psychiatrist alongside her parents.
3. The Deadliest Movie Set in the History of Hollywood?
They Died With Their Boots On, a fictionalized depiction of George Armstrong Custer’s life from when he first entered West Point to his death at Little Big Horn, was one of 1941’s biggest box office draws. It was also one of the deadliest and most injurious movie sets in the history of Hollywood. With a cast led by Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, who was reunited with Gone With the Wind’s fellow cast member Hattie McDaniel, the film won critical acclaim on top of its commercial success.
The movie was marred by significant tragedy, however, as three crew and cast members had died from various causes on set. The film appeared to have been jinxed from early on, and misfortune seemingly stalked the production. At some point Errol Flynn collapsed from exhaustion, and for a while, it was touch and go for the famous actor. In the early days of filming, which entailed scenes of massed cavalry charges and melees, eighty personnel were injured, and three perished.
2. Errol Flynn Was Badgered by His Buddy Until He Got Him a Gig as an Extra
The first fatality on the set of They Died With Their Boots On was a stuntman who had a massive coronary, and dropped dead on the set from a heart attack. Next to perish was an extra who had no prior horseback riding experience. It did not help that he was also reportedly drunk. The end result is that he fell off his steed as it galloped, and broke his neck. However, the best known of the set’s deaths was that of Jack Budlong (1913 – 1941), an experienced horseman and a personal friend of Errol Flynn.
The two often played polo together, and Budlong badgered his famous actor pal to get him on the set. Flynn relented, asked around and called in some favors, and eventually secured his buddy a role as an extra. It did not seem problematic at the time: Budlong was a great horseman, the movie was about a famous cavalryman, and it would have many scenes with people on horseback. However, Budlong got carried away by amateurish enthusiasm – or maybe simple stupidity – with tragic results.
In a scene that depicted a Civil War clash between Union and Confederate forces, Jack Budlong eschewed the use of a prop sword. Instead, he insisted on the use of a real saber while he led a rebel cavalry charge against Union artillery. As a coroner’s inquest described what happened next, Jack Budlong, dressed in a Confederate cavalryman’s costume, charged across the “battlefield”. He enthusiastically waved his saber like Yosemite Sam, while prop explosions went off all around to simulate enemy artillery rounds. Unfortunately, Budlong’s horse was not adequately trained to deal with the explosions and simulated battlefield chaos and noise.
The hose panicked and started to buck, and Budlong was thrown off the saddle fifteen to twenty feet in the air. He landed on and was impaled by his saber, which ran him clean through, pierced his abdomen and exited out his back. Budlong was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital, but his injuries were too severe and he succumbed to them. His demise brought to three the number of deaths in production, which made They Died With Their Boots On one of Hollywood’s deadlier film sets. The movie’s name was an apt descriptor of those who lost their lives as the cameras rolled: dressed up in military costumes when they met their ends, they had literally died with their boots on.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading