Hollywood Veterans in Arlington National Cemetery: Audie Murphy

Last weekend, filmmaker Brandon Brown and I set out to find six celebrities buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. The venture took four hours and more than five miles of walking. To put that into perspective, we were hunting for six graves out of more than 400,000 people buried in the 26 square mile cemetery with roughly an 8 mile trail running through it. This week, I am highlighting these people who either served in the military or were married to military personnel. 

Audie Murphy with the Medal of Honor.

Audie Murphy with the Medal of Honor.

After World War II, many men returned home from being a hero overseas to not having a difficult time finding work in the United States. Some, who didn’t know what else to do, turned to acting.

For example, after 10 years in the Navy, Ernest Borgnine’s mother suggested he become an actor because he was always “making a damn fool of his self in front of people anyways.”

Audie Murphy, the United States’s most-decorated soldier during World War II, was no exception. Unfortunately, his film career was not as stellar as Borgnine, Tony Curtis or James Arness who performed after fighting overseas.

It was another Hollywood actor and a World War I veteran, James Cagney, who saw Murphy on the cover of the July 16, 1945, LIFE magazine. Cagney was impressed by Murphy’s good looks and invited him to Hollywood, according to the Arlington National Cemetery’s biography on Murphy.

Audie Murphy on the cover of LIFE magazine.

Audie Murphy on the cover of LIFE magazine.

But the road to war hero and film stardom started when he sought to leave the life he had in Texas. Born to poor sharecroppers, his father left the family of 10, his mother died when Murphy was 16 and his brothers and sisters were being sent to orphanages or relatives. At age 17 in 1942, Murphy lied about his age to join the Marines, but they said he was too short and he was unable to join he paratroopers, according to Arlington National Cemetery.

Murphy first saw combat in 1943 while he was with the 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in North Africa, preparing to invade Sicily. His unit then trained for the southern France invasion, Operation Anvil-Dragoon, where his division had 4,500 casualties, according to Arlington National Cemetery.

The unit was in combat for a total of 543 days, about 150–Murphy served 390 of that– more than any other and Murphy was one of the few to survive. The unit had 1,100 officers and 21,000 enlisted men. Of that, 175 officers and 3,300 enlisted men were killed, said Hank Auld in an Oct.2, 1955, article, former commander of the 15th Regiment.

The act of heroism Murphy, now a lieutenant, is most known for occurred on Jan 26, 1945, near Holtzwihr in France. The Allies were up against six German Panzer tanks and 250 soldiers. Murphy got on an abandoned tank and fired on the advancing Germans; firing for approximately an hour. He was injured in the leg but continued on and killed 50 soldiers. It is said Murphy killed more than 200 Nazis during World War II. This was one of three injuries Murphy sustained, he had two in his legs and one in his hip.

“I expected to see the whole damn tank destroyer blow up under him any minute,” veteran Pfc. Anthony Abramski was quoted in a New York Times article. “For an hour he held off the enemy force single-handed, fighting against impossible odds. It was the greatest display of gut and courage I have ever seen.”

Murphy awarded for valor in 1945. Original caption: 1945-Europe: ANOTHER MEDAL FOR MOST DECORATED AMERICAN SOLDIER. General Alexander Patch of the U.S. 7th Army decorates Lt. Audie Murphy of Farmersville, Texas with the Medal of Honor.. Lt. Murphy is the most decorated American soldier, holder of every decoration for bravery save the legion of merit. He rose from the rank of private to become a company commander in 30 months of combat duty with the veteran third division.

Murphy awarded for valor in 1945.
Original caption: 1945-Europe: ANOTHER MEDAL FOR MOST DECORATED AMERICAN SOLDIER. General Alexander Patch of the U.S. 7th Army decorates Lt. Audie Murphy of Farmersville, Texas with the Medal of Honor.. Lt. Murphy is the most decorated American soldier, holder of every decoration for bravery save the legion of merit. He rose from the rank of private to become a company commander in 30 months of combat duty with the veteran third division.

Murphy was recognized with the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military honor, for this act. Along with the Medal of Honor, he was the highest decorated soldier during World War II with 28 medals, including recognition from France and Belgium. Other honors include the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and several Purple Hearts. In 2013, Murphy posthumously received the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor, after his sister Nadine Murphy Lokey campaigned for him to be recognized.

Despite his heroism, Murphy was very shy. He didn’t smoke and he didn’t drink, according to the June 2,1971, article “Reporter recalls conversation with Audie Murphy,” written by Associated Press reporter William Barnard, recalling when he met Murphy in 1945.

“They talk about bravery. Well, I’ll tell you what bravery really is,” Murphy told Barnard in 1945. “Bravery is just determination to do a job that you know has to be done. If you throw in discomforts and lack of sleep and anger, it is easier to be brave. Just wanting to be back in a country like this can make a man brave. I have seen many a doughfoot do many a brave thing because he wanted to get the war over with in a hurry. Many a guy who wanted to come home worse than anything else in the world will stay over here forever. They are the fellows I want the honors to go to, not me.”

When he returned home to Texas, officials chartered a plane to fly him to Dallas and a parade was held in his honor in Farmersville. However, Murphy changed all of the plans to ride with Barnard to see his family.

Murphy wanted to go to West Point but his injuries prevented him from passing the physical, according to a Jan. 1, 1967, Los Angeles Times article, “Excitement’s Gone for Murphy.”

Audie Murphy in "To Hell and Back" (1955), the dramatization of Murphy's memoirs.

Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back” (1955), the dramatization of Murphy’s memoirs.

In 1945, Murphy at 20 years old and went to Hollywood by Cagney’s suggestion. He also stayed in the military after the war by joining the Texas Army National Guard.

“It beats picking cotton, but that’s about all,” Murphy said about acting in 1967.

Cagney was organizing his own production company. Murphy was nervous and distraught when Cagney met him, and Cagney invited him to stay at his home and rest in Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills, according to “Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950” by Kevin Starr.

His war experiences plagued Murphy with nightmares, an upset stomach, headaches and he could only sleep with a pistol under his pillow. He eventually turned to sleeping pills to avoid the nightmares, according to Starr’s book.

Murphy later become one of the first veterans to discuss post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a 2013 Los Angeles Times article. The PTSD was the cause of his divorce from actress Wanda Hendrix, who he was married to from 1949 to 1950.

To help his acting, Murphy studied to lose his Texas accent, took dancing lessons and learned how to fence at the Actors Lab to prepare for acting. However, Cagney’s production company failed by 1947, and Murphy was staying at the health club on La Cienega Boulevard with other veterans, according to Starr’s book.

World War II veteran, actor Audie Murphy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

World War II veteran, actor Audie Murphy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Murphy’s first film was a small role in the western “Beyond Glory” (1948). Most of his film were westerns and many are sadly forgettable. His most famous film roles are “The Red Badge of Courage” (1951) and “To Hell and Back” (1955), where Murphy played himself in the film adapted from his 1949 memoirs.

After making 40 films from 1948 to 1969, Murphy left Hollywood. Murphy never felt he was much of an actor.

“I’ve made 40 pictures. I made the same western every time, but just with different horses,” Murphy is quoted in the Jan. 1, 1967, Los Angeles times article.

Murphy was just 47 and a father of two sons when he died in 1971. His plane crashed while flying in Virginia. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. His grave is one of the most visited, along with President John F. Kennedy’s, according to the Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1967 Murphy was asked how people survive a war.

“I don’t think they ever do,” he said.

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Hollywood Veterans in Arlington National Cemetery: Lee Marvin

Last weekend, filmmaker Brandon Brown and I set out to find six celebrities buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. The venture took four hours and more than five miles of walking. To put that into perspective, we were hunting for six graves out of more than 400,000 people buried in the 26 square mile cemetery with roughly an 8 mile trail running through it. This week, I am highlighting these people who either served in the military or were married to military personnel. 

Note: Johnny Carson once said Marvin fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima with Bob Keeshan, who played Capt. Kangaroo. This is incorrect. Marvin was in the Battle of Saipan and Keeshan did not see combat.

Portrait of Lee Marvin

Actor Lee Marvin in the 1960s.

Actor Lee Marvin, known for his premature silver hair, frequently played gruff and tough characters throughout his acting career that began in 1950 and ended in 1986. Off screen, he was known for crazy, reckless shenanigans but was a “team player” and worked to get the best from his co-stars on set. This could be due to his military background.

Like many post-war stars including Tony Curtis, Clint Eastwood and Ernest Borgnine, Marvin served in World War II.

“The war really had an effect on me,” Marvin said many years after the war, quoted in the book “Lee Marvin: Point Blank” by Dwayne Epstein.

In August 1942, Marvin, 18, enlisted in the Marines in New York. He trained at Parris Island in South Carolina and a base at New River, NC. His father, Lamont Marvin, who decorated in World War I, taught his sons how to handle a gun. Lamont, 51, also enlisted with his son. Lee’s father helped set up anti-aircraft gun emplacements in England, according to “Stars in the Corps: Movie Actors in the United States Marines” by James E. Wise and Anne Collier Rehill.

Lee Marvin during World War II (Photo submitted to LIFE magazine, 1968)

Lee Marvin during World War II (Photo submitted to LIFE magazine, 1968)

Marvin went to Quartermaster School in North Carolina and was promoted to corporal, then was ordered to Service Company, Marine Barracks at Camp Elliot in Sand Dieo, CA. But he was demoted to private after Marvin, known for being a troublemaker, caused some issues. Also due to his behavior, Marvin was on mess duty for a month, according to the Wise and Rehill book.

But in January 1944, Marvin was done with his mess duties and was shipped to the Marshall Islands. He was with D Company, 4th Tank Battallion (Scout-Snipers), Headquarters Battalion, 4th Marine Division, according to the Wise and Rehill book. Marvin was part of the 22d Marines, which would survey the area before the attack, specifically Kwajalein. Once the United States Marines had taken Eniwetok and Kwajalein, Marvin was sent to Hawaii for training and then he was sent to Saipan in June 1944, according to the Wise and Rehill book.

After witnessing various horrific acts during the war, Marvin was quoted in Epstein’s book saying, “This insanity, this raving inhumanity- it was then I suddenly knew: This is what war does to a man, what war means.”

In the invasion of Saipan, Marvin was one of six out of 247 men in his unit who wasn’t killed, according to a Sept. 27, 1968, LIFE magazine article.

“We went in on Yellow Beach Two. The first day…we clawed forward and hit the basic scrub of the beach…They (the Japanese) had us nicely pinpointed on a checker-board. They didn’t miss,” Marvin is quoted in the Wise and Rehill book. “The artillery got very bad, and all the bombing was coming down very heavy…We lost quite a few that night.”

Marvin was wounded in June 1944 at age 21 in Saipan’s “Death Valley.” He was blown off his stretcher and was on the beach during a counter attack, watching his fellow Marines die.

“I was on Saipan and got hit,” Marvin wrote a letter to his father “Pop” on July 3, 1944, quoted in Epstein’s book. “Not too bad but bad enough to hamper me if I stayed. I was hit in my left buttocks just below the belt line. You may think it’s funny to get hit in the can like that but at the time I was very lucky that is all I got. I was pinned down and could not move an inch and then a sniper started on me. His first shot hit my foot and his second just about three inches in front of my nose. It was a matter of time, as I knew I would get hit sooner or later. If I got up and ran, I would not be writing this letter so I just kept down.”

Marvin during World War II (Photo courtesy of LIFE, 1968)

Marvin during World War II (Photo courtesy of LIFE, 1968)

He was treated for 13 months in naval hospitals for a severed sciatic nerve and was awarded the Purple Heart in a hospital on Guadalcanal. He was nearly permanently paralyzed by his injury, according to Wise and Rehill’s book.

Marvin wanted to get back into combat but his injury kept him in the hospital preventing that. Not being able to return made him feel angry, frustrated and guilty, according Epstein’s book.

“It (the war) ruined him,” Marvin’s father is quoted in Epstein’s book. “He came home from that half dead, totally broken. He was never the same.”

Marvin was unable to reenlist due to his disability status that came with his injury.

Lee Marvin's grave at Arlington National Cemetery, located just below the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Lee Marvin’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, located just below the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Marvin worked odd jobs until he got into acting in New York. He was in off-Broadway plays from 1948 to 1950 until he started in television and films in 1950.

In 1968, Marvin returned to the Pacific for “Hell in the Pacific,” co-starring Toshirô Mifune, about an American pilot during World War II who is on a deserted uninhabited Pacific island with a Japanese Naval captain. During the war, Mifune was a Japanese officer.

“They (the islands) were all beautiful then, when you went in. That was a strange thing about it,” Marvin is quoted in LIFE magazine. “I remember what it looked like when we came in past the reef. The place had been bombed and shelled for weeks and the floor of the ocean was covered with brass casings that hadn’t deteriorated yet. Then the smell hit you- death and fire. You’d give a panic look to your buddy. ‘How did we get here?’”

Marvin wondered if returning to the island would return “old gung-ho feelings,” but he said he felt nothing; maybe if it had been three years after the war but not 23.

Marvin died in 1987 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Marvin rests in section 7A, just below the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This area is for distinguished veterans, which include World War II fighter pilot, Col. Pappy Boyington, boxer Joe Lewis and ABC reporter Frank Reynolds.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

Hollywood Military Wives in Arlington National Cemetery

Last weekend, filmmaker Brandon Brown and I set out to find six celebrities buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. The venture took four hours and more than five miles of walking. To put that into perspective, we were hunting for six graves out of more than 400,000 people buried in the 26 square mile cemetery with roughly an 8 mile trail running through it. This week, I am highlighting these people who either served in the military or were married to military personnel. 

Spouses and minor children of veterans are able to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. A few actresses are buried with their military husbands including Priscilla Lane, Constance Bennett and Phyllis Kirk.

Eligibility includes a widow or widower of an eligible member, including the widow(er) of a member of the Armed Forces who was lost or buried at sea or was determined missing in action. A surviving spouse who has re-married and whose remarriage is void, terminated by death, or dissolved by annulment or divorce by a court with basic authority to render such decrees regains eligibility for burial in Arlington National Cemetery unless it is determined that the decree of annulment or divorce was secured through fraud or collusion, according to Arlington National Cemetery’s guidelines.

Widows or widowers of service members who are interred in Arlington National Cemetery as part of a group burial may be interred in the same cemetery but not in the same grave.

Priscilla Lane and Joseph A. Howard

Actress Priscilla Lane in the late-1930s.

Actress Priscilla Lane in the late-1930s.

Actress Priscilla Lane, famous for her roles in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the “Four Daughters” trilogy and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Saboteur,” met Army Air Force Lt. Joseph A. Howard in 1942. They were married in May 1942, and Lane took a suspension from Warner Brothers so she could travel with Howard from base to base until he was shipped overseas to fight in World War II.

“At Warner’s it is said she requested the time off. But nothing has been said about her permanent retirement,” gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote in an Oct. 2, 1942 column.

Lane turned down several movie offers and said marriage was a 24 hour job.

“Priscilla has had plenty of offers to return to the movies but so far has passed them up. “Marriage is a 24 hour job,” she says,” quoted in an Oct. 24, 1943, column by Inga Arvad.

Priscilla Lane, her husband Joseph Howard and their children in 1958.

Priscilla Lane, her husband Joseph Howard and their children in 1958.

Lane did not return to films until 1947 for the Eddie Bracken film “Fun on a Weekend” (1947).

“War veterans aren’t the only ones returning to movie sets,” said a June 13,1946, article by Bob Thomas. “At least one war wife is coming back too—Priscilla Lane. Three and a half years ago, Priscilla…disappeared from the Hollywood scene after making ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’”

Lane was quoted in the article saying she found other things were more important after the war started.

After the war, the Howards moved to Van Nuys, CA, in 1946 where Joseph worked as a contractor, according to “The Women of Warner Brothers” by Daniel Bubbeo.

They later moved to lake front property in Massachusetts. Rumors got out that Lane was retiring from show business, which she denied.

“I love show business, but my first duty is to a wonderful husband and my two lovely children,” she said.

Howard and Lane had four children together: Joseph (1945), Hannah (1950), Judith (1953) and James (1955).

She still did some commercials and had a morning show in Boston called “The Priscilla Lane Show” where she interviewed guests and screened old films.

Also in her retirement, she was active with her garden, volunteered in hospitals, was a Girl Scout troop leader and directed school plays. Her son Joe said she was similar to her characters on screen; high spirited and always in the mood for a joke, according to Bubbeo’s book.

Joseph Howard died in 1976 and Priscilla Lane died in 1995. Both are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Joseph Howard died in 1976 and Priscilla Lane died in 1995. Both are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

The Howards moved to New Hampshire in 1972 to the Howard family farm in Deer, NH. On May 8, 1976, Howard passed away at the age of 61 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

“I’m still trying to pull myself together,” Lane said about her husband’s death a year later in a 1977 interview in the Boston Herald American.

Lane was diagnosed in 1994 with lung cancer and refused radiation or chemotherapy, according to Bubbeo’s book. She passed away in 1995 and was buried with her husband in Arlington.

Constance Bennett and Brig. Gen. John Theron Coulter

 To get to Bennett and Coulter’s grave we hiked up a steep hill…realizing there was a road once we got to the top. This was the most difficult to find of all the graves we visited.

Actress Constance Bennett at the height of her career in the 1930s.

Actress Constance Bennett at the height of her career in the 1930s.

Actress Constance Bennett, sister of Joan Bennett and most famous in the 1930s, met John Theron Coulter in 1941 when he was an Army Air Corp colonel. Originally from Mississippi, Coulter’s love of flying took him to Officer’s Candidate School and he was then stationed in Riverside, CA. When World War II broke out, his commanding officer asked if he wanted to stay in the United States or go overseas. His wife Martha was in the hospital recovering from a wreck so he stayed in the United States with her, according to “The Bennetts: An Acting Family” by Brian Kellow.

In the United States, Coulter served as the technical advisor on military pictures at Warner Brothers Studios; teaching combat tips to actors such as Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, according to Kellow’s book.

Bennett and Coulter met at a Warner Brothers party that he was at with his wife Martha. He soon divorced Martha for Bennett. However, in April 1941, Constance married actor Gilbert Roland, but once Roland was drafted after Pearl Harbor, her relationship with Coulter continued. The two married in 1946, two days after her divorce with Roland was finalized. This was Bennett’s fifth marriage.

Constance Bennett and John Theron Coulter on their 1946 wedding day.

Constance Bennett and John Theron Coulter on their 1946 wedding day.

In 1948, Coulter, now a general, joined the Berlin Airlift Task Force in December 1948, as group commander of the 60th Troop Carrier Group. He became Wing Commander of the 60th Troop Carrier Wing and commander of the Royal Air Force Station, at Fassberg, Germany. When the wing and base were deactivated after the airlift, Coulter was named assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, Headquarters, USAFE.

Morale was low on the Fassberg, Germany base and Bennett helped cheer people with her high spirits and kept the RAF wives entertained. She also attracted her Hollywood friends to come and entertain, according to “The Berlin Airlift” by Ann and John Tusa. Bennett would also work with the other wives distrusting coffee and cakes at Fassberg, according to “The Candy Bombers” by Wolfgang J. Huschke. Bennett also often greeted the pilots and ate with mechanics in the mess hall, according to “Daring Young Men” by Richard Reeves.

While stationed in Germany, Bennett also produced the play “John Loves Mary” for occupying forces starring father and daughter actors, Gene and June Lockhart.

Constance Bennett and John Coulter's grave at Arlington National Cemetery (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Constance Bennett and John Coulter’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

The Coulters moved to Washington, DC in 1952, where Bennett also produced plays in the area and occasionally had singing engagement. The couple lived on Northwest Thirtieth Street in Georgetown, according to a June 1953 Associated Press article.

In 1958, Coulter was named the commander of the 85th Air Division and the couple moved to Richard-Gebaur Air Force Base in Missouri, he was commander of the 20th Air Division. They also moved to Colorado, Paris and New Jersey.

Bennett died in 1965 of a cerebral brain hemorrhage. She was buried in Arlington National Cemetery due to her husband’s military involvement. After Bennett’s death, he married actress Virginia Pine in 1972. Coulter died in  1995 and is buried with Bennett in Arlington.

Phyllis Kirk and Warren Bush

Though I did not visit Kirk’s grave, I still wanted to note she was buried in Arlington.

Actress Phyllis Kirk in the early-1950s.

Actress Phyllis Kirk in the early-1950s.

Phyllis Kirk starred in 1950s films such as “Two Weeks with Love” and “House of Wax.” Towards the end of her Hollywood career, Kirk married CBS news producers Warren Bush in 1966. Bush was in the Army Air Force during World War II. Bush passed away in 1991 at age 65. Kirk died in 2006 and both are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

Hollywood Veterans in Arlington National Cemetery: Jackie Cooper

Last weekend, filmmaker Brandon Brown and I set out to find six celebrities buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. The venture took four hours and more than five miles of walking. To put that into perspective, we were hunting for six graves out of more than 400,000 people buried in the 26 square mile cemetery with roughly an 8 mile trail running through it. This week, I am highlighting these people who either served in the military or were married to military personnel. 

Jackie Cooper as a child star in the 1930s.

Jackie Cooper as a child star in the 1930s.

Known for his constant tears that rolled down chubby cheeks, Jackie Cooper was one of the top child actors of the 1930s.

But life changed for Cooper when he joined the Navy during World War II.

“I had gone into the Navy as a youth, and I came out as a man,” Cooper wrote in his 1981 autobiography, “Please Don’t Shoot My Dog.”

Cooper served in the Navy during World War II; going into the service in 1943 and was discharged in 1946.

“I think the only time I really regretted being recognizable was during the war,” he wrote.“It was tough on celebrities then. The officers wanted to show everybody they didn’t play favorites, so they were twice as hard as us. The men wanted to show us they were as good as we were, so they would go out of their way to pick fights, to prove they were our equals or betters….And yet for the duration, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.”

Cooper went to Notre Dame in 1943 to 1944 for military training, but left after a scandal of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A teenager got drunk in a group he was with, but Cooper was found innocent, according to his autobiography.

Jackie Cooper playing the drums during World War 2 with Claude Thornhill's band.

Jackie Cooper playing the drums during World War 2 with Claude Thornhill’s band.

Bandleader Claude Thornhill was overseas originally in a Navy band started by Artie Shaw. When the band broke up, Thornhill asked Vice-Admiral Calhoun if he could form another band that played a remote bases in the South Pacific. The band was called Thornhill’s Raiders. Cooper, who was a drummer outside of his acting career, had played with Thornhill previously in 1942, and he called Cooper asking to join the band, according to Cooper’s autobiography.

In 1944, Cooper was promoted to seaman third class and was performing at the Aiea Naval Hospital in Oahu. Starting in January 1945, the band performed for eight months over 28 islands across the Pacific via Navy Air Transport, according to his autobiography.

Singer Dennis Day was also in the band. Friction between Day and Thornhill caused Thornhill to leave and morale for the band went downhill.

 

Jackie Cooper when he was discharged in 1946.  Original caption: Joyously waving his discharge paper, movie actor Jackie Cooper prepares to depart for Hollywood after leaving Navy separation center at Terminal Island, Long Beach. Cooper served 26 months and was discharged with rank of Musician, 3rd class.

Jackie Cooper when he was discharged in 1946.
Original caption: Joyously waving his discharge paper, movie actor Jackie Cooper prepares to depart for Hollywood after leaving Navy separation center at Terminal Island, Long Beach. Cooper served 26 months and was discharged with rank of Musician, 3rd class.

“The war was just out there, and you could see what it did,” Cooper wrote. “You knew that the public was being fed pap (we saw the newspaper reports on Tarawa that 1,500 had been killed, and we had no trouble counting 5,500 graves), and you knew the war would last 10 years more, and you wondered if you were helping much by playing music. Yet, you also saw what happened to so many good guys—dead, dying, blinded, horribly mutilated…We (the band) often talked about it. Were we doing enough? Generally, we had to admit we weren’t.”

Cooper saw action once on Ulithi. The harbor had more than 5,550 ships of U.S. Navy carriers, gunboats and supply vessels and the Japanese Air Forces attacked. The Japanese had very little left to fight with, and one Kamikaze attempted to crash into a ship went right into the water, he wrote.

“Then one of the enemy crashed his plane into the fantail of the carrier USS Randolph; all the ammo aboard its aircraft blew up, and hundreds of sailors were killed,” Cooper wrote. “The day after, we went aboard what was left of the hangar deck of the Randolph and there were ankle-deep puddles of blood. From that moment on I recognized how artificial war movies are.”

Cooper was on the island New Caledonia when the war ended, and then went on a goodwill tour of New Zealand. Cooper was discharged in January 1946.

After returning from the war, Cooper returned to Hollywood but eventually turned to directing rather than acting.

Jackie Cooper's grave in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica Pickens)

Jackie Cooper’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica Pickens)

He joined the Navy again as a Naval Reserve in 1961 and remained remaining in the reserves until 1982. His rejoining started with Naval Reserve recruitment advertisements until the Navy urged him to join. Cooper was a lieutenant commander and was promoted to captain in 1973. During his time in the Navy, Cooper made training films and promotions, but declined promoting the Vietnam War, because he disagreed. In 1970, Cooper became an honorary Naval Aviator, an honor also bestowed to actor Bob Hope.

Upon Cooper’s retirement in 1982, he was decorated with the Legion of Merit by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. Other than James Stewart, no performer in his industry has achieved a higher uniformed rank in the US military, according to the U.S. Navy.

Cooper passed away in 2011 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

Hollywood Veterans in Arlington National Cemetery: Dashiell Hammett

Last weekend, filmmaker Brandon Brown and I set out to find six celebrities buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. The venture took four hours and more than five miles of walking. To put that into perspective, we were hunting for six graves out of more than 400,000 people buried in the 26 square mile cemetery with roughly an 8 mile trail running through it. This week, I am highlighting these people who either served in the military or were married to military personnel. 

Author Dashiell Hammett's grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica Pickens)

Author Dashiell Hammett’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica Pickens)

The man who invented Nick and Nora Charles in the 1934 book “The Thin Man,” is a United States Army veteran of World War I and II.

Author Samuel Dashiell Hammett, one of the most influential authors of hard-boiled detective novels, is famous for writing “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Thin Man” and “The Glass Key.”

He also wrote the screen plays for “Watch On the Rhine” (1943), “After the Thin Man” (1936), “The Glass Key” (1942) and “Shadow of the Thin Man” (1941)

But before his detective novel days, Hammett was a soldier.

Enlisting in the Army in 1918, Hammett was a sergeant in the Motor Ambulance Corp. While serving, he contracted tuberculosis; a disease that affected him for the rest of his life, according to the PBS American Masters series.

However, Hammett never got overseas during World War I. Frequent hospitals visits due to the flu and tuberculosis kept him stateside before he was discharged in May 1919, according to “Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers” in the Great War by Arlen J. Hansen.

Staff of the Adak Newspaper that Hammett edited. (Photo Courtesy of Anchorage Museum)

Staff of the Adak Newspaper that Hammett edited. (Photo Courtesy of Anchorage Museum)

But in World War II, Hammett’s military duties were more active. Hammett,48, picked up his military career in 1941, at the height of his fame. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army as a private and was honorably discharged as a sergeant three year later.

Hammett fought against the Japanese in Battle of Attu, islands located off of Alaska, which was part of the Aleutian Islands Campaign. This is the only World War II battle fought on incorporated United States territory. The battle lasted more than two weeks of hand-to-hand combat in arctic conditions.

Hammett during World War II.

Hammett during World War II.

“Modern armies had never fought before in any field that was like the Aleutians,” Hammett was quoted in “The Capture of Attu: A World War II Battle as Told by the Men who Fought There,” by Robert J. Mitchell, Sewell Tappan Tyng and Nelson L. Drummond. “We could borrow no knowledge from the past. We would have to learn as we went along, how to live and fight and win this land; the least known part of our America.”

Hammett also edited a post newspaper while serving on the Alaskan base, according to a 2009 article from the Alaska Dispatch News.

In between his service in the World Wars, Hammett established himself writing detective novels, creating detective character Sam Spade. Many of his novels were turned into popular Hollywood films, most notably “The Thin Man,” which became a series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, and “The Maltese Falcon,” starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and marking the screen debut of Sydney Greenstreet.

Hammett passed away in New York in 1961 but was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with military honors.

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Comet Over Hollywood celebrates fans

ATTENTION!

comet
This holiday season, I want to give back to all of you who help celebrate classic Hollywood every day.

What I’m doing: Each week of December, I will have a prize drawing for one of Comet Over Hollywood’s fans.

What I need you to do: Spread the word about Comet with your friends and help us get 2015 Facebook fans by January 1. Tweet about us, share us on Facebook, talk about Comet to complete strangers.

Let’s have some fun spreading the good word of classic film.

Happy holidays!

Jessica Pickens, the Hollywood Comet

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

Holy DVD Batman

I may not have been alive when the 1966 “Batman” television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward was originally aired, but it is my favorite adaptation of the caped crusader. Ward was even one of my first celebrity crushes.

Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin int he 1966 "Batman" TV show.

Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin int he 1966 “Batman” TV show.

 

This declaration frequently gets me in trouble. “It’s goofy. Batman isn’t supposed to be funny,” friends will retort. This is probably true. However, when life is too serious, hokey lines mixed with colorful word bubbles of “Bam!” and “Pow” popping up during fights can be balm for the soul.

I was first introduced to the television series when TVLand re-aired the show in 2001. I was 13 and starting to dig deeper into my classic film, television and music obsession that is still running strong today.

My mom remembered watching the show as a child and dressing up as Batman and Robin with her friends. She introduced me to the show, and like most nostalgic things my parents introduced me to, I was hooked.

The parody show ran originally from 1966 through 1968. Airing twice weekly for the first two seasons, each half hour show ended with a cliff hanger of Batman and Robin in peril with the announcer alluding that the “Worst was yet to come” and to be sure to tune in the “Same Bat time, Same Bat channel.”

The lines Batman said were delivered in the most serious manner but meant to be ridiculous and humorous. Robin’s character on the show is characterized by his exclamations of “Holy,” connected to what he and Batman were discussing.

Every night “Batman” aired, I would sit watching with what I called my “Holy List.” . And I tried to write down every single “holy” uttered during the show.

A sampling from my "Holy List'-- where I wrote down every "Holy" Robin said.

A sampling from my “Holy List’– where I wrote down every “Holy” Robin said.

I still have my “Holy List,” and it’s sitting beside me as I write this. Creased with fold marks and with faded pencil writing, my list ended up being nine pages, some front and back. Included on the list are some of the Riddler’s puzzles scrawled in the margins.

A few of my favorite Robin “Holy” quotations:

-Holy purple cannibal

-Holy here-we-go-again

-Holy reverse priority

-Holy missing relatives

-Holy Fourth Amendment

-Holy Rip Van Winkle

-Holy diversionary tactics

-Holy uncanny photographic mental process

-Holy squirrel cage

-Holy one-track-bat-computer-mind

The show was a favorite of some of Hollywood’s top celebrities including Natalie Wood, Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. All three wanted to guest star but were never able to be fit in.

The primary villains on the show were the Riddler, played by Frank Gorshwin; the Joker, played by Cesar Romero; the Penguin, played by Burgess Meredith; and Catwoman, played by Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether (in the film).

Lee Meriwether as Catwoman, Frank Gorshwin as the Riddler, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin and Cesar Romero as The Joker in the 1966 "Batman" film. Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt played Catwoman on the TV show.

Lee Meriwether as Catwoman, Frank Gorshwin as the Riddler, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin and Cesar Romero as The Joker in the 1966 “Batman” film. Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt played Catwoman on the TV show.

The show included celebrity guest stars who would play villains on the show including Tallulah Bankhead as the Blackwidow, Van Johnson as the Minstrel, Roddy McDowell as Bookworm, or Vincent Price as Egghead. Other times, stars like Jerry Lewis would appear when they were looking out the window as Batman and Robin scaled a wall.

Two other classic Hollywood stars appear on the show as regular. Neil Hamilton plays Commissioner Gordon. Hamilton was in several 1930s films, usually playing a cad who jilted a woman. Alan Napier plays Alfred the butler. Napier was a character actor in the 1930s through the 1970s, appearing in films such as “Lassie” (1943) or “The Uninvited” (1944).

Roddy McDowall guest starred as "The Bookworm."

Roddy McDowall guest starred as “The Bookworm.”

On the show, Batman also had the most impressive gadgets including shark repellent (in the 1966 Batman film) or Bat sleeping gas used to knock out bad guys and take them back to the Bat Cave. However, while fighting crime, Batman always reminded Robin that safety and responsibility had to come first- often telling him to put on his seatbelt in the BatMobile or to do his algebra homework.

For years, I waited for the series to be released on DVD. I happily watched as seasons of my other favorite classic television shows such as “My Three Sons,” “Emergency” and “Adam-12” were released, and constantly wondered, “But what about Batman?”

When the announcement came earlier in 2014 that the television series would be released by Warner Brothers this November, I was overjoyed. I guess sometimes it’s the simple, material things that keep us going. Complications with rights prevented the release of the television show.

Now owning the first season of “Batman” on DVD, I found it just as delightful as I did when I was 13. The color and picture on the DVD is vibrant and looks great. My only qualm is that it looks like rather than releasing the full second season on DVD, the seasons are being split up in two parts- similar to how Warner released “My Three Sons.”

Whether you find Adam West cheesy as Batman or not, there is no denying that the television show is a pleasant and fun way to spend a spare hour.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

The First Lady of Baseball: Laraine Day

She was a perfect mix of sophistication and fresh-faced beauty.

Laraine Day was an All-American girl next door, who played Nurse Mary Lamont in the “Doctor Kildare” film series while under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Day co-starred with top Hollywood stars such as John Wayne, Cary Grant, Lana Turner and was directed once by Alfred Hitchcock.

Day and Durocher smitten on the set of "Tycoon" in 1947.

Day and Durocher smitten on the set of “Tycoon” in 1947.

The sweet-as-pie actress married the baseball infielder and manager, Leo Durocher. Nicknamed “Leo the Lip,” Durocher was a controversial figure in the sport, known for being outspoken.

During their marriage, Day became known as “The First Lady of Baseball.”

Durocher’s professional baseball career began in 1925 playing with the New York Yankees and continued on with the Cincinnati Reds from 1930 to 1933, St. Louis Cardinals from 1933 to 1937 and the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1938 to 1941, 1943 and 1945.

Durocher managed the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Taiheiyo Club Lions.

Durocher was the manager of the New York Giants from 1948 to 1955 while he was married to Day.

Day served almost as a mascot and public relations manager for the team. She was friends with the ballplayers, their wives and the sportswriters and their wives. She was said to have polished the rough Durocher.

Day even hosted a “Day with the Giants,” which was a 15 minute television broadcast before each Giants home game. She also wrote the books about the teams called “Day with the Giants” (1952) and “The America We Love,” though the books are also said to be ghostwritten.

While they were married, she would watch nearly 77 games each year.

Day cheers for the Giants in 1948.

Day cheers for the Giants in 1948.

“It’s making a nervous wreck out of me. I don’t feel like an average fan,” she said in a 1954 Associated Press interview. “Winning and losing affects our lives. It’s our future.”

She even adjusted her film career around his career, only making one movie per year and doing the occasional television show.

During the season, Day would go to spring training and attend every home game but stayed home with the children when the team went on the road, according to the article.

“Before I married Leo, I wanted to win an Academy Award,” she said. “Now all I want is for us to win a pennant. My work is secondary.”

But before meeting Durocher, Day wasn’t a baseball fan. She didn’t even know who he was.

Day, then married to musician Ray Hendricks, met Durocher at the Stork Club in 1944.

Everyone applauded when he entered and Day asked a friend who he was. The friend told her Durocher played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Day apparently asked, “What’s a Dodger?,” according to the book “The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age” by  Robert Weintraub.

“I didn’t know who he was, but I certainly did dislike him,” she said in a 1954 Associated Press interview, “Laraine Day Now No. One Fan of Giants.”

But the ice melted two years later when Day met Durocher on a flight. She was on her way to Minneapolis and was delayed in Chicago. So was Durocher. By the time their flight left, Day was smitten, according to the book by Weintraub.

Durocher was a well-known ladies man, being seen on occasion with actresses Betty Hutton, Linda Darnell and Copacabana show girl Edna Ryan.

Hollywood’s nice girl started an affair with the rough baseball player, and eventually filed for divorce with Hendricks in 1946. She was granted an interlocutory divorce from Hendricks on Jan.  20, 1947, meaning she had to wait one year before remarrying, according to Weintraub.

However, on January 21, 1947, Day traveled to Mexico where she received a second divorce decree and joined Durocher in Texas to be married.

Leo Durocher and Laraine Day

Leo Durocher and Laraine Day

Day and Durocher were then surrounded by gossip and scandal, with Day being called an adulterer and bigamist.

It was deemed the Mexican divorce was not legal and her Texas marriage was illegal.

A year later, in February 1948, the two remarried and the Associated Press reported “Laraine Day, Leo Durocher to Wed Again.” Durocher was 42 and Day was 27, the Associated Press reported in the Feb. 14, 1948 article.

In 1955, Day found herself in another “scandal,” while she found herself in an unintentionally groundbreaking photo.

Center fielder Willie Mays played for Giants while Durocher was manager, and Day adored the ballplayer.

April 1955 Sports Illustrated cover with Willie Mays, Laraine Day and Leo Durocher. The cover sparked controversy in 1955.

April 1955 Sports Illustrated cover with Willie Mays, Laraine Day and Leo Durocher. The cover sparked controversy in 1955.

“While I interviewed many ballplayers, the favorite of all is Willie Mays, who suffers tortures in the air and yet wins the heart of everybody,” Day is quoted in “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend” by James S. Hirsch.

Mays, Day and Durocher were featured on the April 11, 1955, cover of “Sports Illustrated.” Day stands between the two men with her hands on both of their shoulders.

But in 1955, it was an outrage that a white woman would have her hand on a black man’s shoulder.

Letters were sent to the magazine, now only a year old, from outraged readers and others asking to cancel their subscriptions, according to Hirsch’s book.

After 13 years of marriage, Durocher and Day divorced in 1960.

After their divorce, Day said she was done with baseball, according her New York Times obituary.

“When our relationship was over, so was my relationship with baseball,” the obituary quoted Day.

However, Day did return to baseball once more in 1994.

Durocher, who passed away in 1991, was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

Day attended the ceremony in 1994 on her former husband’s behalf.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

Who are your neighbors?: 60 years of peeping through the “Rear Window”

Do you know your neighbors?
The family with the dog that barks all night, the child who rides through your yard on his bike or the woman who sends flowers when a relative dies?
Stuck in his wheelchair with a broken leg, James Stewart’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954) got acquainted with his neighbors through a telephoto lens.
In a New York flat, the injured photographer passes the hours watching other apartment dwellers who live around a courtyard.

courtyard
While spying through his zoom lens, L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies ( James Stewart) may have stumbled across a murder.  Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), who lives across the courtyard, had an invalid wife who suddenly no longer exists and Jeff wants to know why.
While James Stewart in his wheelchair and Grace Kelly in her Edith Head gowns take center stage-flanked by Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr- those being peeped upon are equally important in this “Is this woman dead?” story.
But who were these people? As “Rear Window” celebrates its 60th birthday, premiering on the big screen Aug. 1, 1954, let’s take a look at who “Miss Torso,” “Miss Lonelyheart” and the amorous newlyweds are.

The Neighbors:

Judith Evelyn plays Miss Lonelyheart. She prepares to go on a date.

Judith Evelyn plays Miss Lonelyheart. She prepares to go on a date.

-Miss Lonelyheart: Miss Lonelyheart is the middle aged woman in the courtyard who longs for love but has yet to find it. Jeff watches her pantomime that she is on a date and then cry that she doesn’t have a lover. When she finally has a date, the man aggressively tries to make love to her and she pushes him from the house and sobs.
Miss Lonelyheart is played by Judith Evelyn who also performed in the films “The Egyptian” (1954), “Giant” (1956) and “The Tingler” (1958). Evelyn had a career on Broadway in the plays “Craig’s Wife” as Mrs. Craig in the 1947 revival and “The Shrike” as Ann Downs in 1952. Evelyn won the Drama League’s Distinguished Performance Award in 1942.
Evelyn was married to Canadian radio performer Andrew Allan. Allan, Evelyn and her father were aboard the Athenia in 1939 and were traveling through the Irish Sea, the body of water that separates Ireland and Great Britain. The ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on Sept. 3, 1939, three days after the Germans invaded Poland. This was the first British passenger liner sunk by Germans. Six out of 85 passengers survived, including Allan and Evelyn, but her father died.

Ross Bagdasarian plays the "Songwriter," pictured here with Alfred Hitchcock in his signature cameo.

Ross Bagdasarian plays the “Songwriter,” pictured here with Alfred Hitchcock in his signature cameo.

-The Songwriter: The Songwriter has the lavish apartment with large windows. His piano music serenades the apartment courtyard for much of the film as he composes. It’s in the Songwriter’s apartment where director Alfred Hitchcock makes his cameo. The Songwriter’s composing stops Miss Lonelyheart from committing suicide…and distracts Lisa (Grace Kelly) from doing some investigative work.
The songwriter is played by Ross Bagdasarian, who actually was a composer. Bagdasarian is also known as “David Seville,” father and creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks. He wrote the “Chipmunk Song” (Christmas Don’t Be Late) in 1958, which he won a Grammy Award. Bagdasarian was also the voice of David Seville in the 1960s “Alvin and the Chipmunk” cartoon.
Along with the Chipmunks, Bagdasarian wrote songs including “Come On-A to My House” made famous by Rosemary Clooney and “Alfi and Harry,” which was the theme of the Hitchcock film “The Trouble With Harry” (1955).

Georgine Darcy plays the dancer "Miss Torso"

Georgine Darcy plays the dancer “Miss Torso”

-Miss Torso: Miss Torso is the sexy ballet dancer who lives directly across the way from Jeff. She dances her way through her morning routine, entertains men and is happy to see her military boyfriend at the end of the film.
The pretty blond dancer is played by Georgine Darcy, who studied with the New York City Ballet. Her mother, however, encouraged her to be a stripper to make a “fast buck,” according to her 2004 obituary.
When cast as Miss Torso, she didn’t know who director Alfred Hitchcock was. She was paid $350 for the role, and Hitchcock encouraged her to get an agent and study acting, but she didn’t. She was only in a handful of films and television appearances from 1954 to 1971. She was married to actor and singer Byron Palmer from 1974 until her death in 2004.

Sara Berner lowers their dog down into the courtyard. Frank Handy sits inside the apartment.

Sara Berner lowers their dog down into the courtyard. Frank Handy sits inside the apartment.

-The Couple on the Fire Escape: On hot summer evenings, this couple sleeps on a mattress on their fire escape. Each night, the wife lowers their small dog down into the courtyard in a basket and then lifts the dog back up in the basket. The dog serves as a turning point in the film.
The husband is played by Frank Cady, best known for his role as Sam Drucker on the TV shows “Petticoat Junction,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.”
Though best known for his television roles, Cady was also in several films including “Ace in the Hole” (1951) and “The Bad Seed” (1956).
The wife is played by Sara Berner, who was a voice actor in several Warner Brothers animated shorts from 1933 to 1946. Berner was the voice of Jerry the Mouse in “The Worry Song” when Tom danced with Gene Kelly in “Anchors Away” (1945).

Rand Harper and Havis Davenport play the newlyweds.

Rand Harper and Havis Davenport play the newlyweds.

-The Newlyweds: One of the first neighbors in the courtyard we are introduced to are the newlyweds. They are moving into their new apartment as the film starts. The landlord shows the couple the apartment, and the two keep trying to steal kisses as the landlord shows them from room to room. When he finally leaves, the husband carries his new bride through their threshold. The shade is drawn to their apartment for a great deal of the film, implying that they are….getting acquainted.
The husband is played by Rand Harper who played several bit parts in “Sabrina” (1954), “The FBI Story” (1959) and the TV show “Sea Hunt.”
The wife is played by Havis Davenport who played bit roles in film and TV such as “A Star is Born” (1954). She retired from acting in 1957.

Jesslyn Fax plays the sculpting neighbor.

Jesslyn Fax plays the sculpting neighbor.

-Sculpting Woman: The sculpting neighbor uses a hearing aid, appears to maybe be a bit of a busy body and is sculpting odd shapes in the courtyard. At the beginning she tries to say good morning to mysterious Thorwald (Burr) and he practically sneers at her.
The sculpting woman is played by Jesslyn Fax. This was not her only Alfred Hitchock project. Fax appeared in a bit role in “North by Northwest,” three “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episodes and two “Alfred Hitchcock Hour” episodes.
Fax appeared in several films and television shows including “Music Man” (1962), “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955), “An Affair to Remember” (1957), “The Best of Everything” (1959) and an episode of “I Love Lucy.”

 Added bonus: When James Stewart talks to his editor on the telephone, the voice is actor Gig Young.

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From song to screen: “Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)

On the third of June, Billie Joe McAllister committed suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Bobbie Gentry, Ode to Billie JoeBobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit song “Ode to Billie Joe” chronicles a family sitting around the dinner table and casually discussing the death of a local boy-not considering the feelings of the narrator who was dating Billie Joe.

One line in Gentry’s song discusses the narrator and Billie Joe throwing something off the bridge generated the most questions from fans: “What did she and Billie Joe throw off the bridge?”

Fans speculated LSD, a baby, a ring, flowers or a draft card were tossed into the muddy Mississippi waters.

“People are trying to read social comment into the song. I wrote it as a comment on human nature, not on society,” Gentry said in a 1967 Associated Press interview. “I don’t know what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The act itself was more symbolic than anything.”

But in 1976, a movie based on the song gave an answer to what was thrown off the bridge and why Billy Joe McAllister committed suicide: a homosexual experience.

“What the song didn’t tell you, the movie will” it advertised.

Set in 1953, the film version of “Ode to Billy Joe” (the spelling of Billy differs in the song and film) stars Glynnis O’Connor as Bobbie Lee Hartley, the 15-year old narrator, and Robby Benson as Billy Joe McAllister.

Fifteen-year-old Bobbie Lee is an adolescent young woman eager for gentlemen affections. In her frustrated state, she reads torrid romance magazines and says ridiculous lines such as, “I’m a body too with desires,” “Nothing has passed my lips except Pepsi Cola” and “I’m 15, and going on 34 – B cup.”

ode to billy joeBilly Joe confesses his love for Bobbie Lee, but her father says she is too young to date.

The budding romance is mainly a game of cat and mouse of Bobbie Lee pretending she doesn’t like Billy Joe.

One night, the town holds a jamboree with a make shift whorehouse in the back. Billy Joe is drunk and confused about it all and is missing for two days after the jamboree.

The reason for Billy Joe’s disappearance is the same reason as his suicide: at the jamboree he has sexual relations with a man. The man turns out to be his boss at the sawmill Dewey Barksdale, played by James Best.

Billy Joe shows up in tears, ashamed of what he did saying it is sin against nature and a sin against God.

“I don’t know how I want to be with you and do that,” he tells Bobbie Lee.

During their discussion, Billy Joe throws something off the bridge- Bobbie Lee’s childhood doll, Benjamin.

After Billy Joe’s death, the town is filled with rumors that Bobbie Lee is pregnant with his baby, though the two never had sex.

Bobbie Lee melodramatically decides to leave town and pretend that she has the baby and will return when the rumors die down. She meets Barksdale on the bridge, who is on his way to confess what he has done. Bobbie Lee gives a speech, saying telling the truth won’t do Barksdale or Billy Joe, any good.

“Billy Joe’s already on his way to becoming a legend. He made a desirable girl pregnant and then jumped off the bridge. We ought to leave him with that,” Bobbie Lee said.

The film ends with Barksdale carrying Bobbie Lee’s bag to the bus stop.

Gentry received movie offers after the song came out in 1967, but she held out for 10 years, she said in a 1976 article in the Nashua Telegraph written by Vernon Scott.

“I waited because I was afraid it would become an exploitation picture to capitalize off the record,” Gentry was quoted. “I didn’t want it done cheaply.”

“Ode to Billie Joe” was originally a short story written by Gentry, and then condensed into a song, she said in the 1976 interview.

Gentry wrote a song for Max Baer, Jr.’s film “Macon County Line.” Baer produced “Macon County Line” and directed “Ode to Billy Joe.” He is known for his role as Jethro on the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  She liked Baer’s work and she brought “Ode to Billie Joe” to him as a film idea, the Nashua Telegraph article said.

In the contract, Gentry had approval of characters and plot development. She also re-recorded the hit song for the film.

Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor in "Ode to Billy Joe" (1976)

Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor in “Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)

“Now that I know why Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, I almost wish I didn’t,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his July 7, 1976 film review. “Bobbie Gentry’s famous song, on which “Ode to Billy Joe” is based, found much of its haunting effect in its refusal to reveal why Billy Joe killed himself. His death was seen as sad, and long ago, and unnecessary, and the singer recalled it as a key event in an unhappy time. Gentry didn’t need to explain because she evoked.”

Ebert gave the movie 2.5 out of 3 stars in 1976, saying the dialogue is attractive, but that the movie goes astray after Billy Joe kills himself.

Personally, I found the dialogue hokey with several pointless scenes. “Did they really just say that?” was a reoccurring thought as I watched the hour and forty-five minute film.

The film doesn’t play scenes that are lyric-by-lyric of the song. This is probably a good thing. There isn’t a dinner table scene when Billy Joe’s death is discussed and Billy Joe doesn’t put a frog down Bobbie Lee’s back at the Carroll County picture show.

However, there is a preacher watching as the doll is thrown off the bridge, and Bobbie Lee’s father says, “Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.” This is said after an incident where some drunk Alabamians try to push his truck off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

While I may not have enjoyed this film, I do understand the message that was trying to be portrayed- Billy Joe’s senseless suicide because of societal beliefs. Billy Joe’s confusion, guilt and shame that leads him to kill himself is a relevant issue for 1953, 1976 and most likely today. Though as Gentry originally said, her song was not a social commentary.

Along with the ridiculous script and disliking Robby Benson, my main issue with the film is giving a reason to Billy Joe’s death.

The original purpose of the song is “unconscious cruelty”- the nonchalant way the narrator’s family discusses Billy Joe’s suicide, Gentry said in an interview when the song was released.

Even though Gentry agreed to the film, I feel giving a reason to the suicide takes away from the mournful tune of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

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