By J Michael Kenyon
["Where I come from, men don't go around slappin' little boys." -- Hopalong Cassidy]
About the absolute worst thing ever to happen involving one of William Boyd's 66 fabulous Hopalong Cassidy films – and, for that matter, probably the worst thing ever to befall a crowded movie theater -- occurred at 5:17 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time, Friday, July 9, 1943.
Readers, herewith, I am giving you an opening volley from a "series" of trivial vignettes which will comprise "Reel History" in the immediate future. It's hard to say where it all ends, but given my propensity to equate worldly matters with my own life, the events of this first chapter will take place even as my sainted mother was screaming and bellowing during the last eight hours of the torturous labor (her story) which produced me, at 4:37 p.m., Pacific War Time, on the afternoon of Friday, July 9, 1943.
Before I forget, I was born in a year (1943) when the movies were so generally mediocre they wound up giving the Academy Award to Casablanca, actually released in 1942. Even more odd, that may well have been the most absorbing movie ever made.
[TRIVIAL ASIDE: The 1943 Oscars for the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories, for the first time, were full-sized statuettes instead of plaques. They went to Charles Coburn (The More the Merrier) and Katina Paxinou (For Whom the Bell Tolls).]
But, now, let us be serious and somber and concentrate on the horror that happened at the Whitehall Cinema in East Grinstead, Sussex, England, fully 4,823 miles removed from where my mother's labors were producing me at Swedish Hospital, Seattle, Wash., US of A.
What happened was this: 10 German aircraft crossed the Sussex coast at Hastings, en route to disgorging their supply of bombs on London. One of the pilots veered in a westerly direction, away from the main formation, and wound up flying over East Grinstead.
The customary air raid sirens already were blaring in the town, but the 184 people watching William Boyd (as Hopalong Cassidy) in Undercover Man, the day's first feature at the Whitehall, didn't pay too much attention, even though a warning flashed onto the screen. Everyone in the audience (comprised mostly of children just let out of school) knew the bombs were London-bound.
But the stray German pilot spotted a train pulling into the East Grinstead station and changed his game plan. He twice circled the town before dropping his bombs on the High Street. The biggest one, a 500-pounder, would make a direct hit on the Whitehall Cinema.
John Parsons, 13, described the scene to the East Grinstead Courier:
"I went to the cinema straight after school with a friend. We saw the news and while a cowboy film was showing the bombs fell. I was sitting in the front row -- in the 'tenpennies'. The first thing I knew was a sort of crackling which ran along the ceiling. The exit lights and the film went out at the same moment and the place was in complete darkness. Bits of debris started flying about. I got on the floor in less than a second. I crawled along in front of the seats, jumped up and ran to the exit. Just as I was going up the steps there was an explosion. Then I felt a pain in my face and found I had been cut. When I came out I heard machine-gun fire and I stepped back inside again. When the firing stopped I left the cinema."
Amid the chaos, 108 were dead or dying – two-thirds of them women and children -- and another 235 were bleeding from non-fatal wounds. In terms of lives lost, it would be the worst bombing in Sussex for the duration of the war.
The Courier's edition of July 17th tried to sort out further what happened:
"Bombs were dropped at different places. Two enemy bombers were brought down -- one near Caterham and one near Sittingbourne -- and both exploded, the crews being killed ...
"Suddenly the roar of a plane approaching (East Grinstead) from the north was heard. It swooped down out of the low-lying clouds and it was then that shoppers and other people realised that the twin-engined bomber was a German. It roared over the town, circled twice and then dropped several bombs. One made a direct hit on a cinema, another on an ironmonger's shop higher up the road, another on a builder's and ladies' outfitters and one fell near a factory.
"In the cinema was an audience of 184 -- the majority being children -- who were trapped when the bomb fell. Following the news(reel) came a cowboy film, during which the usual notice of an air raid being in progress was displayed, so that anybody who wished to leave might do so ...
"Suddenly there was a terrific crash, and to use the words of one survivor, the whole building seemed to collapse like a pack of cards, trapping most of the audience."
Undercover Man replaced the western Silver Queen and was opening that day. (The headline feature, which never made it to projector, was to have been I Married a Witch, starring Fredric March and Veronica Lake.)
[TRIVIAL ASIDE: The Whitehall's previous western co-feature, Silver Queen (1942) top-lined George Brent, Priscilla Lane and Bruce Cabot, with Eugene Pallette and Guinn (Big Boy) Williams in support. Like the Hopalong Cassidy pictures, it was produced by the shrewd Harry Sherman but, dissimilar to the Hoppy flicks, it was nominated for not just one, but two Academy Awards, for its musical score and art direction. It lost out, respectively, to Now, Voyager, and This Above All.]
The 42nd entry in the enduring series of Hopalong Cassidy films released between 1935 and 1948, Undercover Man never lacked for action. A mysterious gang of raiders, with its leader variously masquerading as Hoppy or as Don Tomas Gonzalez (Antonio Moreno), terrorizes both sides of the border. Gold mines are raided, cattle rustled and ranchos burned. But, inside a running time of 68 minutes, the sure-thinking, fast-shooting William Boyd once again restores law and order with his customary alacrity.
The action was filmed on the 500-acre Iverson Ranch in the Simi Hills on Santa Susana Pass above Chatsworth, north of Los Angeles. That producer Sherman splurged some is evidenced by the fact of fully 101 horses being required for the raiding and chase scenes. Those who watch it today and who are familiar with the TV westerns of the 1950s and '60s will recognize scenery made familiar in countless episodes of "The Lone Ranger," "The Roy Rogers Show," "The Gene Autry Show," "The Cisco Kid" and, later, "The Virginian," "Bonanza," and "Gunsmoke."
As many as 2,000 movies – and thousands more television shows – were filmed at the Iverson Ranch between 1912 and 1966. The latter year was when what is now known as the Ronald Reagan Freeway (California Route 118) was laid down, effectively splitting the property in half.
The grisly events of July 9, 1943, were recaptured and presented in the form of a play, "Matters of Chance," staged at Sackville School, East Grinstead, between Nov. 29 and Dec. 11, 2010. The play, described as "tender, poignant, funny and frightening by turns," was produced by the Claque Theatre.
This column will be about nothing if it isn't concerned with bringing everything full circle. All things tie together so it should come as no surprise to learn that, in attendance one night at Sackville School, that late fall of 2010, was my granddaughter, Ms. Charlotte Quinn.
Alas, the poor girl has yet to witness a Hopalong Cassidy movie ... something I intend to remedy for her.
As it happens, "The Hopalong Cassidy Six Shooter Collection" contains Undercover Man among its selections and is available, for $24, from the nice people at Amazon.com, which is headquartered – remember, all things tie together – in Seattle, Wash., US of A, a mere half-mile from the Swedish Hospital room in which my mother brought me – both of us screaming – into this wild and wacky world on that busy Friday, July 9, 1943.