Monday, April 13, 2015

Reign of Terror (1949) with Norman Lloyd and Eddie Muller

Press photo of Norman Lloyd and Eddie Muller
Norman Lloyd is a treasure. This is a sentiment echoed by many including Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation who was these same words at the end of his interview with Lloyd at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. Norman Lloyd is full of stories he can easily bring forth from his 100 year old brain. But it's not just the clarity of his mind that is a wonder; it's the way he can deliver a story from the distant past with wit, charm and a little bit of mischievousness.

Illeana Douglas introducing Reign of Terror (1949)

A packed house at the Chinese Multiplex had just been treated to a screening of Reign of Terror (1949), also known as The Black Book. Illeana Douglas introduced it as "Film Noir meets the French Revolution" and that's exactly what it was. The "Reign of Terror" was a time period of great violence during the French Revolution and is known for torture, executions and rival factions. The film representation of this era is suspenseful and dark but not without a good dose of humor. Art director William Cameron Menzies was not afraid to get the camera right up to the actor's faces creating some very dynamic shots. My favorite scene in the film is when Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings) meets Tallien (Norman Lloyd) for the first time. Lloyd is in the foreground with his back turned away from Cummings and he's methodically eating cherries one by one out of a jar. The scene is strikingly shot and quite erotic in how Lloyd is devouring those cherries without a care in the world.

Norman Lloyd coming down the 39 Steps (plus a few more)
After the film I got another glimpse at the man who just made me squirm in my seat as the great Norman Lloyd descended the stairs. My seat was in the front row at the far right which was terrible for viewing the movie but perfect for getting very close to the man himself. I was very grateful for this spot because when he left I had the opportunity to say "thank you" to him. And you know what happened? He looked me in the eyes and said "thank YOU". I almost fainted. But enough of that. Let's get to the interview.

Eddie Muller interviews Norman Lloyd

Eddie Muller sat down with Norman Lloyd and first asked him about working with Anthony Mann and William Cameron Menzies. Now let me stop for a moment and preface this by saying that all the interviewers at the TCM film festival always ask legends about other people. Sometimes the entire interview is about other people. I find this a shame. Why ask someone only about other legends when you have a legend right in front of you? But that's a discussion for another time.

About the film Norman Lloyd said:
 “The making of the film is very interesting. David Selznick who had made a picture called Joan of Arc [1948] with Ingrid Bergman... The sets that Selnick had built for the picture remained but the actors took off. Selznick being a very enterprising and smart fellow kept looking at these sets. There was working with Selznick, one of the great men in the history of pictures, as an art director William Cameron Menzies, and he proposed one day to David Selznick that they make use of these sets and just find a script for which we can use the sets. Now you talk about a creative project. Here was all this wood and canvas sitting around and someone had to accomodate it.” 
Norman Lloyd has us all enraptured with his fantastic stories.

Muller interjected to call Reign of Terror "a set-driven movie". This seemed to please Norman Lloyd because it encapsulated exactly what he was trying to say. Writer Aeneas MacKenzie was hired to write for the film and Lloyd pointed out that MacKenzie specialized in period pieces.

Lloyd continued:
"[MacKenzie] was hired to develop this story… And the story was put into the sets. So if any of you have ideas about crashing motion pictures and how you do it: build a good set. One is often asked “what is your impetus?” “what was your inspiration?”... You say to the “sets”. “I had an inspiration with the most beautiful piece of wood you have ever seen and the canvas is untouched." 
Someone banged out the idea that we should behead somebody. And they thought of the French Revolution… Very very brilliantly directed by Tony Mann. And one of my favorite actors Robert Cummings with whom I made Saboteur for Hitchcock. A gentleman if there ever was one. Wonderful fellow. They had a very interesting cast. Somehow I stumbled into it. We made the picture and Cameron Menzies’ perception was justified. The sets did work very well. I think the actors came off pretty well. And there was this picture."
Reign of Terror was cobbled together in bits and pieces in a way that only made sense for this era. What resulted was this curio of a film which is as entertaining as it is dark.

The conversation between Eddie Muller and Norman Lloyd drifted away from Reign of Terror and to other things. Lloyd told us about a writer who went up to Louis B. Mayer with an idea for a film. Lloyd recounts the story like this:
“LB I have an idea for a picture.” “And what is it?” “Gable, Tracy, Jeannette MacDonald, San Francisco, the Earthquake.” Mayer said “make it”. True story. Which no one believes.”
Norman Lloyd first worked with Anthony Mann on the very early TV movie The Streets of New York (1939). Yes, you read the year correctly. 1939!

You can tell Lloyd was having some fun telling this story:
“At your urging I shall share it. Though I’m very embarrassed. Which is just a big lie. If any of you are so moved, and I know none of you will be, you would attend the museum here in Beverly Hills of TV and Radio. Does anyone remember there was a thing called Radio? They have archives of various television shows and they made the big mistake of doing an archive of a television show that I was in that Tony Mann directed. It was based on the Dion Boucicault play “The Streets of New York”… When I got finished with it, it was over. And we made this in the days when they would keep a record of it called a “Kinny/Kine”; a Kinescope of what you shot on film... George Coulouris and Johnny Call and myself and actress named Phyllis Isley, she changed her name to Jennifer Jones. And we made this “thing.” All that exists is a 5 minute piece, that is the oldest piece of Kinescope on record of television. Five minutes of me. The worst piece of acting you have ever seen. It is so bad that it could be good. I mean there’s a reason for looking at it... because it’s so bad. I look at it with wonder. I think 'Norman you’ve gone the wrong way.' You try to give a good performances, okay. But you are that bad you are great! It’s there. I could give you one or two gestures from it.”  [He then proceeds to do those gestures.]
The audience was cracking up at Lloyd, the great storyteller, as he charmed us with wit and humor. One of the things I noticed while transcribing Lloyd's interview is that he never says "movie" or film"; he always calls them "pictures". Very old school.

Muller and Lloyd had been discussing Spartacus (1960) earlier in the green room. For those of you who are not aware, the world premiere restoration of Spartacus was to be a top event at this year's festival but it wasn't completed in time. Instead, we got a behind-the-scenes story about the picture.

Lloyd shared this story about Anthony Mann, Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier as told by Peter Ustinov:
“They were involved in rewrites. And they were sitting around a table for what they call, a latter day phrase, a table read... And a rewrite was brought in of a single page for Charles Laughton. Laughton reads aloud. Tony Mann at this point, if not him it would have been Stanley Kubrick who replaced him. Because Tony Mann had to resign. He resigned because he said “I can’t work with these actors they pay no attention to me.” 
But apparently Olivier used to assume the role of director. I hope I’m not telling tales out of school ... but I’ll tell it anyways! So Laughton read this page aloud that was to go into the script. And as I say this was a rehearsal. When he finished reading the page he said “I don’t understand. I just barely understand what this is all about.” He didn’t understand it. Olivier spoke up. He said “Charles, I think it is perfectly clear. Do you mind if I read it for you?” That’s like putting your head in a noose. Laughton said “by all means”. So Olivier read the speech. When he was finished Laughton said “if I just barely understood it before... I understand it not at all!” I’m giving you a behind-the-scenes. I don’t want you to think I make up these stories. This story was told to me by Peter Ustinov who had a great humor... Actors tend to be uncooperative.”
Bless Muller for sneaking in one last question before time ran out. In fact, time had already run out but everyone in the audience wanted to stretch the experience as far as it would go. Muller asked Lloyd who his favorite actors to work with were. Lloyd replied "Chaplin, an unbelievable genius", Pierre Fresnay who starred in Le Grand Illusion (1937) and Louis Calhern, who played King Lear in a production Lloyd was once in.

Norman Lloyd receiving a standing ovation
I've had the privilege of hearing Norman Lloyd speak on three different occasions, including a 90-minute interview with Ben Mankiewicz at the Montalban Theatre. I cannot express how much of an impact these events have had on me as a classic film fan and as a person. Norman Lloyd is a treasure.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the transcription and observations, it's top notch! Lloyd sounds hilarious, I'm sorry I missed him.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great observation: " Sometimes the entire interview is about other people. I find this a shame. Why ask someone only about other legends when you have a legend right in front of you? But that's a discussion for another time." And great post. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete

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