Friday, May 24, 2013

Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics Blu-Ray Review

Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics Blu-Ray 
On Sale May, 21 2013
Buy on:
Barnes & Noble
Best Buy
Warner Bros.

The Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics Blu-Ray boxed set went on sale this week. There is also a Contemporary version of the same set with 4 different movies. The Classics set includes four of the best original gangster movies including Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936) and White Heat (1949).

Thanks to Warner Bros. I got a chance to review this set. I've had a Blu-Ray player for quite a while but haven't really been upgrading to Blu-Rays quite yet since so many classics are still only available on DVD. I was happy to get this on Blu-Ray because I love the quality even with black and white films.

This set comes with four Blu-Ray discs, each with one of the movies  Each Blu-Ray has some extras including commentary, an intro by Leonard Maltin, a newsreel, a short, a trailer and a featurette. I don't believe these extras are anything new and were most likely available in the previous editions of these films on DVD.

I had a Twitter conversation with some folks about DVD and Blu-Ray extras. Some folks didn't care about extras and others thought really good extras could make or break a set. I liked what Laura from Laura's Miscellaneous Musings had to say. She says the best DVDs or Blu-Rays with extras are like a "film school in a box". The extras add to your knowledge of the film and that time period. I agree with her. Those types of extras really add big value to a set. I wouldn't say that this Blu-Ray set is a "film school in a box" however it's a nice introductory set for people who like the gangster movie genre but didn't know much about these films to begin with. Perhaps a "gangster film intro class in a box".

The Blu-Ray set also comes with a Bonus DVD (note it's a DVD not a Blu-Ray) which has the feature-length documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film. The documentary has interviews with notable film experts. I noticed that almost all of the talking heads were men except for Molly Haskell. I found the documentary a bit repetitive and I lost interest in it. I do think it has value perhaps for someone who is learning about these films for the first time. I'm definitely going to give the documentary another shot!

The set also comes with a 32 page 2-color booklet (black and white with gold) which includes some information about the time period, the gangster movie genre and the specific films. I'm always happy to see booklets in DVD or Blu-Ray sets because I think they add nice value to the set.

I would recommend this Blu-Ray set as a gift to someone who you think would appreciate early gangster movies. This would make a great Father's Day gift especially since that's right around the corner. However, I think women would enjoy this set too because I know I love gangster films and can't get enough of them! Also, if you are a classic film enthusiast looking to encourage someone to watch more old movies, I think this would be a great way to convert them. The real value of this set is as a gift or as a collector's item.

I loved revisiting Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and The Petrified Forest (1936). I was especially moved by The Petrified Forest and I connected with the film on this viewing in a way I hadn't done so before. The message of personal freedom and independence of spirit really struck me. White Heat (1949) is one of those films I always thought I had seen but really had not. It comes pretty late in the era of gangster movies and is famous for the last scene with James Cagney saying "made it Ma, top of the world!". I enjoyed White Heat immensely. I love Cagney and one of my favorite actors Edmond O'Brien plays opposite him. There are a lot of O'Brien haters out there. I know a particular blogger who found the worst picture of him she muster up to demonstrate how gross he was. Pshaw! Just watch O'Brien in White Heat and you'll learn to appreciate him. White Heat is such a fantastic film and I'm glad I got a chance to see it. And with this set you get three of the best actors at the top of their game playing the gangster roles: Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.

Thank you to Warner Bros. for sending me a copy of this set to review!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

TCM Classic Film Festival - It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

Cinerama Dome's Honeycomb Ceiling

On Sunday April 28th, 2013, I attended a special screening of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. Even though this film is played regularly on TCM and I have had many chances to see it, this was my first time I had watched the movie. It had never really interested me and I have heard many classic film fans say they didn't understand it or enjoy it. I really wanted to go anyways because I wanted to see the Q&A with the actors and watch the film in 70mm at the Cinerama Dome.

I didn't realize beforehand the importance of this event. The Cinerama Dome was built in 1963 for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It was built in 16 weeks and the cast of the film got to help break the ground for construction. 2013 is the 50th anniversary of both the film and the theatre. It was mentioned that the film premiered the same month JFK was assassinated and screened for 2 years straight at the Cinerama Dome. It was credited for helping heal a hurting nation with the medicine of laughter. It was really special to be at the Cinerama Dome for the film and to see the guests on stage.  I had to leave during the intermission which made me very sad. 

I wanted to stay for the whole thing given the significance of it all and the fact that I hadn't seen the film before and enjoyed what I had seen. 

Before the screening, TCM's Tom Brown introduced the special guests to the stage. They included actor Marvin Kaplan, the director Stanley Kramer's widow Karen Sharpe Kramer, actress Barrie Chase and actor Mickey Rooney. Carl Reiner was scheduled to appear but couldn't make it. Also actor Jonathan Winters was supposed to be there but he passed away shortly before the screening. They left an open chair for him which I thought was nice and showed a tribute on the screen before the film started.

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I won't go through the entire interview but I'll share some highlights.

Director/Producer Stanley Kramer had been known for doing dramas so filming a 4 hour comedy was a new venture for him. Karen Sharpe Kramer shared an anecdote about this. A well-known critic who adored Stanley Kramer told him he could never do a comedy. Kramer took that as a challenge and set out to make "the biggest, extravaganza comedy of all time."

Tom Brown pointed out that every top-name comedian at the time was in that movie. Mickey Rooney went on to gush about comedians being wonderful people and had nothing but nice things to say about Stanley Kramer whom he had admired.

After Barrie Chase had seen the first screening of the film, actor Dick Shawn (who plays her boyfriend and Ethel Merman's son in the film) said to Chase that he was knocking himself out in his scene with her but no one will notice him because they'll all be staring at Chase's legs. Barrie Chase still has fantastic gams 50 years later!

Marvin Kaplan shared some anecdotes about the famous gas station scene with Jonathan Winters, Arnold Stang and himself. Kaplan was a replacement for Jackie Mason who was the original choice for the part and Kaplan had been up for the part that was eventually played by Doodles Weaver. Kaplan was sent the script which he said read like a Manhattan phone book. He was worried about being thrown through glass windows and drive heavy machinery. Kaplan was reassured by the fact that Arnold Stang, whom he called one of the biggest cowards in the world, had to do everything he had to do. Both Stang and Kaplan were hoping ex-Marine Jonathan Winters would get hurt so they would have to add stuntmen to protect them all. Winters hurt his back during rehearsal so they had added stuntmen. He notes that finding a stuntman for Arnold Stang was tricky considering he was very scrawny and had no chin . They gave Stang some shoulder padding so he would look a bit bigger.

Marvin Kaplan said that his real job in the movie was not an actor but being a babysitter to Jonathan Winters. They were filming in 107 degree heat and the only place that was cool was an air-conditioned trailer. Kaplan and Winters would play improv games with each other in the trailer to pass the time.

The film was edited down from 5 hours to a little under 4 hours with intermission.

John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy were all supposed to go to the premiere and the grand opening of both the film and the Cinerama Dome but ended up having to go to Dallas. And we all know what happened there. Ted Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy came in their place.

Karen Sharpe Kramer shared her favorite parts of the movie: Ernest Gold's score, the stunts and the illustrated credits by Saul Bass. She says that those credits were copied after the movie. I think she is forgetting a few films from before 1963 that have illustrated credits. The one that comes to mind for me is If a Man Answers (1962).

Stanley Kramer discovered Jonathan Winters when he saw him on the Jack Paar show. Kramer offered Winters a part in the film. Winters had never been in a movie before and told Kramer that he was certifiably insane and had been institutionalized. Kramer replied that every actor he had ever worked with was certifiably insane so Winters would do just fine.

Marvin Kaplan said he worked with two geniuses in his time: Charlie Chaplin and Jonathan Winters.

Tom Brown had a huge crush on Barrie Chase and expressed that fact during the interview. I thought that was very sweet! Chase said the film hadn't done much for her career but people share their love of the film which she appreciates.

The interview ended with Mickey Rooney wanting to say thank you to any soldiers in the audience and a roaring applause from the audience. This was a great experience and I only regret that Jonathan Winters couldn't have been there and that I had left so early. I'm really glad I went and I think everyone else in the audience felt the same way.

Monday, May 13, 2013

France Nuyen and Mitzi Gaynor at the Screening of South Pacific (1958)

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On Thursday April 25th, 2013, I attended a special screening of South Pacific (1958) at the pool of the historial Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. It began right after the opening night party and I got to hang out with Jessica of Comet Over Hollywood and Kaci. There were drinks and hors d'oeuvres and we got plastic leis before the screening. There were some seats in front of the screen but we opted to sit on the comfy lounge chairs by the pool.

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The event started with Polynesian dancers who performed with leaves and with fire. It was a great way to set the mood.

Ben Mankiewicz  was the host.

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France Nuyen was the first to be interviewed and this was done separately from Mitzi Gaynor. This was a wise decision on the part of the event planners. Nuyen is very soft-spoken and calm and Gaynor is a firecracker and I could see how Nuyen might have been overshadowed in conversation.

France Nuyen was born in France and came to the United States wanting to pursue her modeling career. Nuyen was a stunning young woman and she still looks beautiful today at the age of 73. In fact, Ben Mankiewicz pointed out that she was one of the most beautiful women in the world. Even with stunning looks, there wasn't much demand for her 5'4" frame and dark complexion in the States. Nevertheless, she had some professional shots of her taken and those photographs got her a meeting with Rodgers, Hammerstein and director Joshua Logan. They were looking for someone to play Liat in the film adaptation of South Pacific. Nuyen stated that went to that meeting and walked out of it with a 7 year contract. She told us that the only thing she had to do for that audition was to take off her shoes and run around a desk.

The studio paid for three weeks of Berlitz English lessons for Nuyen and then sent her off to Hollywood. She was very new to the area and didn't realize that Hollywood was part of Los Angeles. She asked a cab driver to take her to Hollywood and ended up spending $19 which was a lot in 1957. Mankiewicz joked that it would be $1,000 today.

On the set, France Nuyen wanted to look high fashion with full make-up. However, Director Joshua Logan wanted none of that and they took her to the bathroom to wash her face. Nuyen started crying because she thought she would be ugly without her make-up and she says she was lucky that master camera man Leon Shamroy was there to make her look beautiful. Nuyen is seemed really humble. She went on to say that she thought Mitzi Gaynor did a wonderful job as Nellie and called her "marvelous" and is in awe every time she sees the film.

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Ben Mankiewicz introduced Mitzi Gaynor very sarcastically saying that Gaynor was dull and nobody wants to hear from her. But he supposes he should introduce her anyways. I really enjoyed Mankiewicz' humor during various interviews. It lightened the mood for sure.

The back and forth between Mankiewicz and Gaynor was hilarious mostly because you could tell that the fiery and energetic Gaynor was more than Mankiewicz could handle. Although I'll have to commend it for doing the best he could to keep the interview on track!

The first thing Mitzi Gaynor was insist that Mankiewicz show the audience his newborn child which he did so reluctantly.

Then Mankiewicz went through a list of all the actresses that were considered for the part of Nellie in South Pacific: Lana Turner, Jeanne Crain, Deborah Kerr, Jane Powell, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Dinah Shore, Rosemary Clooney, Virginia Mayo, June Allyson, Shirley Jones, Susan Hayward and Doris Day. But Gaynor beat them all. Gaynor added that Elizabeth Taylor was also considered. Mankiewicz said he had heard that Taylor was too nervous to perform in front of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Gaynor said that she didn't know about that but did know Taylor was very busy getting married and all that. (At this point Gaynor starts rocking in her chair suggestively which Mankiewicz points out to the audience members who might have missed it.)

Gaynor had a really good chance at the role because she could sing and dance well, she looked the part and was young enough at 24. Some of the other actresses considered were much older. Gaynor related that she really wanted to do Sayonara (1957) which was also being directed by Joshua Logan. She thought she could get away with playing an Asian character because of her naturally slanted eyes she got from her Hungarian ancestry. However, Marlon Brando, who was also in the film, demanded that the role go to someone of Asian descent. She notes that Ricardo Montalban got a role in the film. Gaynor then sarcastically pointed out that he's definitely Asian and proclaimed to the audience "That Bitch!". To that Ben Mankiewicz responded to the audience "And then Mitzi Gaynor called Ricardo Montalban a bitch" and there was a roar of laughter.

At this point during the interview, I thought to myself how wonderful it would be to hang out with Mitzi Gaynor. She is just so hilarious and isn't afraid of shocking people.

Mankiewicz asked Nuyen if Gaynor was like this on the set and Nuyen pointed out that she didn't speak English so how would she have known. Gaynor made fun of Nuyen's English, saying it's worse now than it was back then, but quickly followed it up by gushing about Nuyen. Oaynor went on to relate the story of when she first saw Nuyen. She said Nuyen was an exquisite girl, with long dark hair, beautiful skin and gorgeous eyelashes. Then she pointed out that Nuyen is still beautiful and that she hasn't changed at all except that her hair grew in blonde. (See what I mean about having Nuyen come out first being a good idea?).

Gaynor relayed the story about how she got the part  of Nellie. She had meeting with director Joshua Logan and her agent husband Jack Bean. They chatted for three hours and it was planned that she would meet Rodgers. Gaynor went onto inform a confused Mankiewicz that Rodgers' wife invented the Johnny Mop. She had left the meeting and went back to work with Frank Sinatra on the film The Joker is Wild (1957). She got a call that she was going to sing for Oscar Hammerstein on a Wednesday but Gaynor was busy trying to film an important scene in the movie with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra noticed her crying and arranged it that they would work around Gaynor's important scene so that she had the opportunity to audition for Hammerstein.

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Gaynor performed for Hammerstein who responded to her audition with a "thanks so much you've been a wonderful sport". Not the most encouraging response. Gaynor related Hammerstein's response to Director Joshua Logan. She went on to do the film Les Girls (1957) with Gene Kelly. Gaynor was tired and worn out from all the dancing. She received a call from her husband Jack who asked her if she would feel better spending August in Hawaii because she got the role in South Pacific!

Mankiewicz then asks Mitzi Gaynor about her handsome co-star Rossano Brazzi. Gaynor said she didn't speak very good Italian, restaurant Italian she calls it. She told Rossano Brazzi that he was the most beautiful man and the most wonderful actor in the whole world. Brazzi responded saying "Mitzi Gaynor-i, I know" and grabbed his crotch. Gaynor demonstrated this to the audience in the back and the front to make sure we all saw it. I cracked up laughing this was so funny!

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Mankiewicz asked Gaynor what her favorite musical number was in South Pacific. She said "I Think I'm In Love with a Wonderful Guy". Gaynor noted that it was a difficult film to do but Joshua Logan was wonderful and she had fun with that number. Nuyen chimed in saying that she had a lot more to do with the character of Liat in the film than on stage because of the advantage of filming on location and not being limited to a theater.

Mankiewicz asked Nuyen about her memorable love scene with John Kerr. Director Joshua Logan wanted to film that scene with Kerr with his shirt on then his shirt off later which would be a visual clue that they had just made love. A compromise  was made for the censors and Kerr would start the scene with his shirt off. Nuyen said that she was the luckiest girl in the world because she got to act with one of the most handsome men in Hollywood. She said that Kerr was glorious and that she misses him very much (John Kerr died a couple months before this interview. It would have been great to have him there alongside Nuyen and Gaynor!).

Mankiewicz points out that while it's a wonderful musical with lots of happy numbers, which the audience will see if Mitzi Gaynor ever shuts up (his words not mine!), that is also explores interracial relationships in a very serious way. Nuyen said that the filmmakers had to fight to be able to keep that plot line in. Gaynor mentioned that Oscar Hammerstein wouldn't have stood for that being changed. She also points out that the Bloody Mary character is selling her daughter like one would peddle dope. Nuyen steps in and says that Bloody Mary dreams of having a white son-in-law,guards her child until she finds the man for her, and that what she was really selling was matrimony. Two very interesting perspectives.

The event finished off with Mankiewicz making a joke about the Clairol commercial "I Want to Wash That Gray Right Out of My Hair", a spoof on the song from South Pacific and introduces the movie. 

This was my first time watching South Pacific (1958) and I enjoyed it. It became less than enjoyable when I started to get chills from the cold night time air and being poolside. We eventually moved inside where the film was showing on a small screen inside Club TCM. I'm forever grateful to TCM for doing that and for hosting such a wonderful event!

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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Leonard Maltin interviews Stanley Rubin at the screening of River of No Return (1954)

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On Friday April 26th, 2013, Carlos and I attended a special screening of River of No Return (1954) at the Chinese Multiplex in Hollywood. You can see both of us in the photograph above (note TCM marked this photo as being a shot of the audience of Voyage to Italy but it was indeed River of No Return. Neither of us went to the Voyage to Italy screening and I even remember those 3 young adults in the row in front of us recording something for a video podcast at the River of No Return screening).

This experience was probably the most emotional one for me during my time at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Every time I revisit this I get really emotional. Here is what I wrote in my Recap post for that day:

River of No Return (1954) is the second Robert Mitchum film I ever saw with Out of the Past (1947) being the first. And as most of you know, Robert Mitchum is my favorite actor. I have always been a fan of Marilyn Monroe too and have seen almost all of her films. Also, I've been to the river in the film. The movie was shot on the Athabasca River in Alberta, Canada and I have very happy memories visiting the river and the Rocky Mountain town Jasper which is situated alongside the river. River of No Return isn't a perfect film but it's one I have loved for as long as I have been a classic film fan. It has a special place in my heart and to see the producer of the film up on stage talking about the movie, sharing his stories and talking about Mitchum and Monroe was truly an honor.  Not only that, Rubin stayed to watch the film with us. 
Then it hit me. This is truly amazing. Truly fucking amazing. And then the tears just flowed. Wow.

We had to leave this screening early to attend another event which was some distance aways. This bothered me immensely. I feel like I didn't get closure with this experience because I didn't see it all the way through. While the following event was great, I don't think it was worth leaving this one early to go to that one. Carlos had never seen the film before and even though I had, I think it would have been best for both of us to had stayed through the whole thing. I felt so bad, that when I got home from the festival I immediately purchased the Blu-Ray of the film so we can watch it at home together (I had a bad DVD copy of it so I felt upgrading was worth it). If I go to the festival again, I want to make sure never to leave anything before it ends. It's just not worth it.

Before the screening, Leonard Maltin interviewed River of No Return's producer Stanley Rubin and Rubin's wife, actress Kathleen Hughes.

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I will do my best to transcribe the interview. It's not word-for-word and I use a lot of paraphrasing.

Leonard Maltin asked the audience how many of them had seen River of No Return (1954) on the big screen. Very few hands went up. I had never seen it before on the big screen, just the little one.

Maltin: Stanley Rubin started as a screenwriter in the 1940s and worked his way up the ladder. He was promoted from screenwriter to producer in the early 1950s. River of No Return was his biggest assignment to date. Rubin was accompanied by his wife Kathleen Hughes. Folks might recognize Hughes from It Came From Outer Space (1953). You can date the marriage of Rubin and Hughes from this film (they've been married since 1954).

While Rubin and Hughes are making their way to the stage, he notes that Hughes' image is very iconic and linked to 1950s Sci-Fi genre.

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Rubin notes that he's incapable of remembering to speak into the microphone. His wife and Maltin help him several times during the interview.

Maltin: Maltin hadn't seen Rubin in a while and noted that it was nice to meet up with a fellow college graduate and let's Rubin explain.

Rubin: Rubin entered UCLA in 1933 and got his degree in 2005. He had other business to accomplish in between but he was very happy to go back. Rubin had very dear memories of UCLA where he was the editor of the Daily Bruin.

Maltin: Maltin asks Hughes about her first date with Rubin.

Hughes: They were both under contract for Fox. Rubin kept asking her out and she kept turning him down for months and months. Then one day he invited her to have dinner with him and see a print of The River of No Return. She thought that sounded like a picture that she would enjoy. So they went to dinner and to the screening, Hughes enjoyed the movie very much. Then two months later they were married. (awww)

Rubin: He's glad that relationship still exists.

Maltin: At this point he notes they can date their relationship to River of No Return and that's very special. (I agree!)

Maltin: Maltin notes that Rubin had already produced a couple of pictures before River of No Return, including The Narrow Margin (1952) which was also being screened at the festival. River of No Return was a much bigger picture though than Rubin had tackled before. There were challenges. Rubin was off on location in Canada, with a large crew, a rather imperious director Otto Preminger, a strong-willed leading man Robert Mitchum and a sometimes difficult leading lady Marilyn Monroe. He asks Rub, what were your biggest challenges?

Rubin: Preminger and Monroe didn't hit it off very well. Monroe took that as an open door to establish a relationship with Rubin. That helped Rubin a great deal because they became really good friends. Rubin clarifies that Monroe and he were good friends not Preminger and him.

Maltin: Did you lock horns with Otto Preminger?

Rubin: Not really. They got along. Preminger was a diplomat from the word "go".

Maltin: What was the toughest sequence to get on film?

Rubin: The toughest sequence was getting Monroe onto the raft. Because the first day she tried she slipped on a rock and fell into the river. Despite all the help that they had there, they had safety boats, safety swimmers, but Monroe still slipped right off the rock into the fast-flowing river. (Interjection: The Athabasca River is no measly little stream. It is one strong river and you don't want to mess with it!). That accident taught them a big lesson instantly.

Maltin: Did you manage to proceed on time and on schedule? Did things get held up at all?

Rubin: Rubin jokes - Because Marilyn fell into the river? (Audiences laughs at this point.) Rubin doesn't want to dissemble or make things seem rosier than it was. They worked very hard and sometimes they would slip off of schedule. But in the end they made it up and they were on schedule.

Maltin: Maltin notes that they were far away from the studio 20th Century Fox and the boss Darryl F. Zanuck when filming. Did the studio keep a close eye on what was going on?

Rubin: No, there was a grace period and they took advantage of it. Zanuck was a surprisingly friendly and good-natured and accommodating boss.

Maltin: Zanuck definitely understood story-telling.

Rubin: Yes he did and had a long background in it. Even before he became the head of the studio. And that background was at Warner Bros.

Maltin: People are fascinated all these years laters with Marilyn Monroe. How would you describe her?

Rubin: They became good friends because of Monroe's issues with Preminger. Rubin and Monroe became very warm and very friendly. Rubin had turned down Monroe before. She had come in on an audition, a year or two before River of No Return. Rubin was nervous on meeting her for this movie because he turned her down the first time they met. He remembers wondering how friendly she would be after being rejected by him or whether she would bring up what happened before. But she never did. She was a perfect lady.

Hughes: Hughes reminds Rubin that he turned Monroe down because he didn't think she had enough experience. But it was just a couple of years later, that Rubin was begging Zanuck for Monroe to be in one of their films.

Rubin: Rubin says, what a difference a couple of years make!

Maltin: Robert Mitchum liked to give the impression that he didn't really care that much about acting and that it was just a job. That seems to have not been the case because he was a very dedicated professional. How would Rubin assess that?

Rubin: Rubin agrees with Maltin. Mitchum cared a great deal but hid that because that wouldn't keep him cool. Rubin found out later that Mitchum had done a lot of questioning and probing about what was going on behind the scenes of the film to see how good the preparation was. Mitchum was totally dedicated on everything he did to conceal the fact that he wanted it to go well.

Maltin: Did Mitchum and Monroe hit it off okay?

Rubin: They became very good friends. But that was it. A very pleasant, good, cool relationship.

Maltin: That makes for a great team to make a great movie. And now we get to see the results.

Rubin: Rubin said he hopes everyone likes it.

Maltin: Maltin asked Rubin if he'll stay to watch it again.

Rubin: Rubin said yes and remarked that he hadn't seen it in years and was very interested in seeing it again.

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Out of all the interviewers at the festival, I have to say I think Leonard Maltin was my favorite. Osborne  and Mankiewicz were great too but I think Maltin asked the best questions that solicited really great responses. Stanley Rubin was struggling to remember things and Maltin was very patient and asked a lot of good questions which helped move along the interview. Maltin was very gentle with Rubin and I think that helped quite a bit.

This is by far my favorite out of all the screenings at the festival just because of the emotional connection I have with the movie and how grateful I was to have the chance to hear Stanley Rubin talk about it. It was a great experience and River of No Return (1954) will now forever hold a special place in my heart.

Friday, May 10, 2013

TCM Classic Film Festival - Press Conference with Charles Tabesh and Genevieve McGillicuddy

This is the third of my transcripts for the Press Conference that happened on Wednesday April 24th, 2013 at the TCM Classic Film Festival. This was a Q&A with Charles Tabesh, Senior VP of Programming, and Genevieve McGillicuddy, Managing Director of the festival. I tried to be as thorough as possible but there is some paraphrasing along with some quoting. It's not word-for-word but as close as I can get to it. Note that various people asked questions at the press conference. Enjoy!

Question: How does TCM come up with programming ideas?

Charles Tabesh: Tabesh says they get lots of ideas from fans of TCM who write in with suggestions. If it's something they did somewhat recently but there is still demand for it, they might keep it mind for the future but they don't want to be too repetitive. They go through message boards for ideas too. TCM tries to be open to ideas and they evaluate to see what would work and what would not.

Question: What do you think is the appeal of Film Noir? It was mentioned that several noirs are being shown at the festival.

Charles Tabesh: Last year's festival theme was style and noir fit in perfectly with that. They got a lot of great feedback and wanted to make sure that noirs were featured in this year's festival too. People love seeing film noir on the big screen, the mood is so rich in those films and resonates well with audiences.

Question: How did TCM react to Jonathan Winters, from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) passing away before the festival started? (He was scheduled to appear at the screening) What is the cutoff date for a film to be considered classic?

Genevieve McGillicuddy: TCM was very sad to hear about the passing of Jonathan Winters and planned to do a tribute to him at the It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World screening.

Charles Tabesh: TCM had to do a last minute adjustment and it was emotional for them. In reference to the second question, the way that TCM defines what is a classic is all about the context. An example of something that was done recently was Katherine Hepburn as Star of the Month on TCM. They wanted to play every film from her career that they could, from the films she did in the early 1930s all the way until her last film Love Affair (1994). Love Affair was not a very good movie, not considered a classic, but in context with Katherine Hepburn's career they thought it was important to show her last performance. Tabesh makes it clear that there is no time cutoff date for TCM. He says that they are all about the history of movies and part of that history is newer films too. Part of TCM's mission is to branch out and be a little more adventurous from time to time.

Question: How did you come up with the sub-themes in Cinematic Journeys like River as a Road? Would you consider doing an LGBT special on TCM?

Charles Tabesh: TCM brainstorms on the sub-themes. Sometimes they worked around a title in particular. For example, this year they premiered a restoration of The General (1926) and because a train is prominent in that film they decided it was logical to include other films featuring trains as a form of travel. Also, the sub-themes help to put together newer and older films, the more well-known and the more obscure. There is no hard rule, they just do what feels right. As for the second question, they did do a series a few years ago called Screened Out: Gay Images in Film and they'd love to explore that again. In terms of the festival, they would love include it depending on what their broader theme is. They don't know what their theme is for next year's festival.

Question: The diversity of programming on the different TCMs around the world are very different. The other international TCMs don't have as much variety. Is there any way that TCM could help out those other ones to diversify their programming?

Genevieve McGillicuddy: They are in communication with the TCMs around the world and try to collaborate with them when they can. There are TCMs in Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc. The different TCMs have different goals and different branding. There are certain things TCM shares with the others. Programming varies from region to region.

Charles Tabesh: Each TCM programs differently and one of the reasons is rights. Some of the films in the library that TCM in the US has available to them may have been sold to other channels in other territories and the TCMs there might not have access to them. There is no way for them to have an exact match in programming with the other TCMs. Also, the business models are different. Some just have different sensibilities. TCM Spain likes more edgy and more contemporary classics. TCM is lucky that they've been able to give these other territories some broad access to their library. They have been able to negotiate deals when they've been able to go deep and get better access to films.

Question: How do you chose which films should be screened at certain times on the channel?

Charles Tabesh: TCM doesn't edit the films they show so they are careful when they place them on air. That's rare on basic cable because a lot of channels show edited versions of films but TCM won't do that. If there are a lot of bad words or nudity, they will play it later at night. They usually save those films for after 10 PM West Coast time. Thankfully DVRs are becoming more prevalent so it helps TCM with this issue of having to play these films at inaccessible hours.

If it's an older film without any content issues they try to play it once during prime time hours and might play it again much later in the evening so as to give both West and East coast better access to the film.

Question: Any chance of some more Fredric March in the future? [Bonus points if you guess the blogger who asked this question.]

Genevieve McGillicuddy: Turns out Genevieve is a fan!

Charles Tabesh: Yes, of course. March was Star of the Month a couple of years ago but they are open to playing more of his films in the future.

Question: There are more films this year presented digitally at the festival than there were at the first festival in 2010. Are you particular or not particular about format?

Genevieve McGillicuddy: When TCM started this festival, it was important to them to screen the films the way they were mean to be seen. They try to stay true to original aspect ratio, no editing, no censoring, etc. And they want to show the films in the best possible format they could. Sometimes that's 35mm which is great because that's the way those films were originally shown. However, there have been some challenges that have come up. Internally, the team has paid close attention to that world premiere restorations such as the ones they are having at the festival are being produced in a digital format. TCM thinks they look fantastic and are really happy to be able to present those films. For the time being, the festival will always be a combination of digital and film. They take this so seriously that 20% of the festival budget goes to projection and technical support. TCM works very closely with the venues screening the films to make sure they can do 35mm but sometimes they have to bring in all that equipment to make it happen (for the Chinese Multiplexes in particular). McGillicuddy points out how they were able to work the Cinerama Dome, El Capitan and the Egyptian who all screen at multiple formats. What's important to them is to show the best possible version of a film they can. For example, they had been working very hard to track down the best possible print of The Ladykillers (1955). In fact, they found one and it was delivered just in time for the festival. Ultimately, it's all about the best possible presentation of a film.

Charles Tabesh: Sometimes the decision comes down to choosing between a very poor film print and a good digital restoration. Industry restorations are more digital these days.

Question: Can you talk about the importance of the venues at the festival? How do you decide which films go to which venues and is this a decision based on theme? Also, where do the prints come from and how do you find them?

Charles Tabesh: As far as thematic programming at venues, there isn't much to tie in together. Cinerama Dome is one example though because of 70mm and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) (I would later find out that the Cinerama Dome was built with that movie in mind). Other than that it's based on size of venue and how popular the film is going to be. How do they gauge that? It's a guess. Sometimes they'll get talent that's already scheduled for one of the smaller venues and they don't confirm until the last minute and that's just the way it goes. They just know that certain films like The Great Escape (1963) will draw a huge crowd. This is all combined with format and how the different venues are set up for different formats.

Question: How often do you rely on film archives for the festival and for the channel in general?

Genevieve McGillicuddy: It is crucial that they have ongoing relationships with the Library of Congress, Film Foundation, the Academy, UCLA, the list goes on, otherwise they would not be able to obtain some of the prints they have screened.

Charles Tabesh: And the studios as well. Some studios are much more willing to lend out whatever prints they have. If the studio doesn't have a good print of something, TCM will go around asking the archives to see if they have one. TCM has great relationships with a lot of studios and archives. Sometimes they are not able to find good prints and will have to work programming around that.

Question:  How many people are involved in the selection process of the festival and how ugly does it get?

Charles Tabesh: There is a core team of about three or four people that meets regularly really early on and they talk through ideas and plans. The same goes with the channel where there is a programming department. There is collaboration in terms of talking but certain individuals make decisions. Collaborating is important but personal vision is important too.

(Interjection: This was kind of difficult to understand but it seems like a few key people make decisions and they are given leeway to do so. I think Tabesh was trying to be careful answering this question.)

Question: About the channel, how concerned is TCM about ratings?

Charles Tabesh: Zero. TCM doesn't get any ratings. Tabesh doesn't even think they are allowed to get ratings. When AMC added commercials to their programming some years ago, cable service providers became concerned because they started getting a lot of complaints from subscribers. Those providers wanted to make sure that TCM never went that route. It's written into contracts they have with providers that they are not allowed to have ratings or commercials. They try to show what they think would be popular but they also try to show a good mix every month of the bigger better known films and everything else. TCM wants to have variety. They are not trying to maximize any certain demographic or target anything.

Genevieve McGillicuddy: It is crucial that they remain, from a business perspective, commercial-free. That's really the core of the TCM brand. Being commercial-free is important to the fans as well as to TCM and they are proud to have stuck to that vision of what they wanted their channel to be.

Question: What role does TCM play in major film restorations that were premiered at the festival? Was it at TCM's suggestion? Did TCM contribute financially?

Charles Tabesh: There is some back-and-forth with studios but for the most part they don't fund restorations. For example, TCM did not help fund the restoration for Funny Girl (1968) but they did do some funding for I am Suzanne! (1933). For the most part, the studios take care of those big restorations. About a year before the festival, Tabesh would solicit the studios for information about any restoration projects they had in the works to get a feel for what might work for programming. Tabesh and McGillicuddy discuss to see if that restoration has an important anniversary or would fit the programming for that particular festival. The restorations are mostly handled solely by the studios who do them in preparation for a Blu-Ray release.

Tabesh also notes that the restoration will also be shown on TCM around the time of the DVD or Blu-Ray release. This is almost like an ad for the studio because people watch it on TCM then want to buy it.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Leonard Maltin Interviews Norman Lloyd at The Lady Vanishes (1938) Screening

On Saturday April 27th, 2013 I attended a screening of the Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes (1938). Leonard Maltin hosted and started off with asking the audience if any of us had never seen the film before. I was one of the people who raised their hands. This film has been on my to-be-seen list for as long as I can remember and I'm so glad that my first time watching it was at this screening.

Maltin noted that many Hitchcock fans tend to focus on his later American films but his sentimental favorites are Hitchcock's British films from the 1930s. Maltin introduced Norman Lloyd calling him a "rare individual", one of the few people who can speak about a long working relationship with notable figures including Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Martin Scorcese, cast and crew of St. Elsewhere and Alfred Hitchcock. Maltin said Lloyd was one of the producers of the long running Alfred Hitchcock TV series. He also noted that the only unfortunate thing about Norman Lloyd being there that day was that he was missing his daily tennis match. Maltin referred to him as the "ever eternally young, 98 year old Norman Lloyd".

As I had said before in a previous post, Norman Lloyd was one of the oldest guests at the TCM Classic Film Festival but he was in the best shape. Several stars required wheelchairs or assistance walking. Lloyd at 98 years old needed no help whatsoever and seemed the epitome of health. God bless that man!

Lloyd was greeted with a standing ovation. Maltin joked that he would have to work hard to bring Lloyd out of his shell because he is very shy. Lloyd was by the far the most entertaining guest I saw interviewed at the festival.

I will do my best to transcribe the interview. It's not word-for-word and I use a lot of paraphrasing.

Maltin kicked off the interview by asking Lloyd by noting Hitchcock was able to blend the thrilling and suspenseful elements of film with humor.

Maltin - Tell us about Hitchcock's sense of humor.

Lloyd - Hitchcock said about his humor that the moment he got a new script, he threw out all logic. Lloyd notes that Hitchcock was the one who made famous the term "MacGuffin". When asked for a definition of the MacGuffin, Hitchcock would say that it was a plot point that has nothing to do with the plot. The MacGuffin was used to hunt lions in the Scottish Highlands. So Lloyd replied, but there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands! And Hitchcock replied, there's no MacGuffin. When asked to define it, Hitchcock said it's what the actors talk about at great length and has nothing to do with the story. He notes that it propels the story but no one knows what it is. Maybe that's accounts for how movies achieve their fame.

Maltin - One of the examples of Hitchcock's sense of humor, something Lloyd had a lot to do with, were the introductions to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show. Hitchcock became well-known to many generations visually and through his droll wit. Hitchcock always said something snide about the commercial sponsor. How did you, the producer and Hitchcock arrive at the idea and executing Hitchcock's intros and interruptions.

Lloyd - Lloyd notes that he wasn't there on the show when Lew Wasserman got the idea to have Hitchcock appear in that manner. Even having a television show with Hitchcock was an extraordinary coup for the agency MCA because Hitchcock was only connected with films. (Interjection: I read that Hitchcock was very reluctant to do the TV show at all because he wasn't sure it would work). Comedy writer James Allerdice found in Hitchcock a vessel for Allerdice to voice his views about the world and a ready collaborator. Joan Harrison was the producer of the show, was once Hitchcock's secretary and Lloyd remembers her fondly. James Allerdice's imagination ran wild so much so that he'd put Hitch in a bottle, in golf knickers (Lloyd notes "that's quite a sight!"), have him play his own brother with a mustache, etc. Allerdice would send in the intro ideas to Lloyd and the producer and Lloyd would think, Hitch would never do that! But Hitch always did. Lloyd shares an anecdote of how Allerdice once had a lion sent in for an intro and the lion had his head in Hitch's lap and Hitch kept talking the whole time. Hitchcock did every intro Allerdice wrote and Lloyd notes that it was an amazing collaboration that went on for 10 years. Hitchcock became a real star, a world-wide figure. Hitch particularly loved that they showed the program in Japan especially because the captions were perpendicular and that seemed to amuse Hitch. Hitchcock would come up to Lloyd in the morning and would say "You sent for me?". Lloyd would reply, no no! Hitch was the boss, you don't send for the boss. Hitch loved that surprise element that caught people off their guard.
Lloyd remembers cameraman Joe Valentine on the set of Saboteur (1942) laying out a whole shot and asking Hitch if he wanted to look at it. Hitch responded "oh no, I've looked through a camera before."

Maltin - At this point, Maltin informs the audience that Norman Lloyd was in Saboteur (1942) and he's the one hanging off of the Statue of Liberty in that famous scene. So if you weren't impressed before...

Maltin - He asks Lloyd whether he remembers Hitchcock talking about his British films.

Lloyd - Lloyd says that Hitchcock never talked about The Lady Vanishes and 39 Steps, which Lloyd refers to as "two perfect films" which helped Hitchcock become the most famous director in England. Lloyd goes on to say that Hitchcock never topped the perfection of these two films in his opinion. The Lady Vanishes was made under the most difficult conditions. The stage was only 90 feet long and everything was happening on that set. All the trains you see in the film were toy ones. Lloyd asked Hitchcock, didn't that worry him about the trains being fake. Hitchcock replied that it didn't matter. He knew in telling his story that he could convince the audience otherwise.

Maltin - Maltin notes that because the story is so good that audiences tend to forgive rear projection and miniatures. He then brings up the two amusing Greek chorus characters Caldecott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) which became so popular that they appeared in future films, even ones that Hitchcock wasn't involved with.

Lloyd - Lloyd says that this was an example of Hitchcock's humor. Wayne and Radford were straight actors and not comics. Hitchcock was the one that put them together and made a comedy team out of them.

Maltin - What do you think is the appeal of The Lady Vanishes and Hitchcock's other British films?

Lloyd - There was a technical mastery in these films. If you want to know how to shoot a film, Lloyd advises watching the 39 Steps. Every shot, every camera set, every movement is perfection. Hitch had a saying "camera logic", when asked about what that meant Hitch said the camera logic is when the camera is exactly where it should be to tell the story. Lloyd shared an anecdote of a particularly difficult shot that Hitchcock was filming in Saboteur. Hitchcock believed that the shot had to tell a story and every close-up should move the story along. Lloyd was on a balcony, standing on a railing and Hitchcock asked him if he would do a backflip over the railing (Lloyd notes he was much younger then and would do anything for art). Lloyd did the backflip in lieu of a stunt double because Hitchcock was shooting it as a close-up and didn't want to go right with Lloyd as he did the flip. With a stunt double the camera would have had to move away and back and away and back so as to hide the stuntman. But Hitchcock thought it crucial for storytelling and wanted to maintain the close-up. Hitchcock knew how to tell a story. Hitchcock once said, if you can tell a story you can shoot it, if you cannot tell it, you cannot shoot it.

This was such an amazing event. I'm very grateful to Norman Lloyd, Leonard Maltin and the folks at TCM for putting this together! And I enjoyed The Lady Vanishes (1938) very much and was glad to see it on the big screen alongside other grateful festival attendees and Norman Lloyd himself. Even Marvin Kaplan was there to watch the film!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

TCM Classic Film Festival - Press Conference with Ben Mankiewicz

This is the second of my transcripts for the Press Conference that happened on Wednesday April 24th, 2013 at the TCM Classic Film Festival. I tried to be as thorough as possible but there is some paraphrasing along with some quoting. It's not word-for-word but as close as I can get to it. Note that various people asked questions at the press conference. Enjoy!

Question: TCM has worked with a lot of diversity this past year will there be more of that?

Mankiewicz:  After some fumbling, Mankiewicz proudly announces he's wearing his first pocket square ever. Ha! Mankiewicz has had the opportunity working for TCM for the past ten years to meet a lot of people. He notes that he's learned more from Lawrence Carter-Long, who participated in the Projected Image: A History of Disability on Film special, than anyone else he's ever met. Mankiewicz expects that we will see more diversity and that Carter-Long is a resource that TCM has depended on since that special aired and he's glad that the special made the impact that it did.

Question: How was the theme Cinematic Journeys chosen for the festival this year and what are your favorite films that fall into that category?

Mankiewicz: This is more of a question for Charles Tabesh. Mankiewicz thinks it's a logical choice and the travel theme opens so many movies to us. He mentions Guilt Trip (2012) with Barbra Streisand, a contemporary movie Mankiewicz thoroughly enjoyed. Which isn't at the festival but he points it out anyways. Mankiewicz was looking forward to The Great Escape (1963) and Airplane! (1980) (Mankiewicz jokes that the film looks to be filmed with a budget of $4.95). He thinks the fashion theme of last year and the journey theme for this year made for really great programming.

Question: Film Noir Foundation asks if Mankiewicz has any Film Noir favorites and any Film Noirs he'd like to see programmed in the future.

Mankiewicz:  Mankiewicz mentioned that there are a lot of noirs he'd like to see programmed at the festival. He points out that Eddie Muller has been a great resource for TCM and will be a Friday night guest programmer on the channel. That special has already been filmed and will be coming up soon with about 20-24 films featured. Mankiewicz mentions three John Dahl contemporary noirs that he'd like to see programmed. Now that he's thought of it, Mankiewicz is going to make that suggestion.

Question: TCM is moving more into the 1970s. How much are we going to see of more contemporary films that are influenced by the past?

Mankiewicz: TCM is very open-minded about what makes a classic movie and doesn't distinguish them by years removed. It's not as if in 2027 we can start showing stuff from 1999. The movies have to have some emotional connection to the audience. TCM has a lot of viewers under the age of 49 and they realized that most of them had not seen a lot of the films TCM is showing when they were released or any time close to when they were released. So how did these classic films become important to contemporary viewers? Usually through some connection with a more contemporary movie or from being shown the film by a parent, grandparent, etc. As we get better perspective on films, and that does come with time, then those titles become more available to TCM for programming ideas. You'll see newer movies on TCM but nothing will stop them from showing those classics that people have some to love. Mankiewicz uses an example that if a 30 something loves Preston Sturges now, what's to say another 30-something twenty years from now can't love Preston Sturges too? Mankiewicz says there are better films and filmmakers in the 1970s than the 1980s.

Question: Who determines who hosts which screening? Does Mankiewicz ever get a say and is he ever disappointed?

Mankiewicz: He jokes that he arm wrestles with Robert Osborne and Osborne always wins. Charles Tabesh and Genevieve McGillicuddy know Mankiewicz well and usually place him where he wants to be. (At one point Mankiewicz says he's regretted some and I'm sure now after the festival the Mitzi Gaynor interview might be one of them). There are disappointments and the biggest one for Mankiewicz at the festival is missing out on interviewing Max von Sydow for Three Days of the Condor (1975) because it's one of Mankiewicz's favorite films that he can quote almost line-by-line. Sometimes it's the way the schedule works. While it's a disappointment, he still gets to talk to Max von Sydow about The Seventh Seal (1957) and possibly learn something in the process.

Question: Twitter and Tumblr are all abuzz with Classic Film. #TCMParty on Twitter is mentioned. Has Mankiewicz noticed this kind of internet attention and buzz for TCM?

Mankiewicz: Mankiewicz has participated in #TCMParty on Twitter and thinks it's an incredibly rewarding thing. It's a clue into what makes the festival such a success. The shared experience of classic movies online is amplified when people get together at the festival and share that enthusiasm with each other face-to-face. And on top of that they get to see stars like Max von Sydow and Ann Blyth talk. This is all a reminder that TCM has the ability to touch people in a very special way. This is something that no other television channel can claim. Mankiewicz uses the example of ESPN. He's a big sports fan and watches ESPN but he doesn't care about the channel. People genuinely care about TCM. The folks at the channel feel an obligation towards their fans that they take very seriously and there is a special bond that exists between TCM and their viewers that is virtually unheard of. It doesn't exist anywhere else and it never will.

Comment: Someone noted that Ben Mankiewicz shaved off his goatee and now dresses a bit differently.  What's with the makeover?

Mankiewicz: Item #1 on Mankiewicz's contract with TCM, before money or anything else, stated "Artist must keep and maintain goatee. Failure to keep and maintain goatee will be considered breach of contract". (This is hilarious!) Years later, he eventually asked about it and they didn't believe that it was in the contract at all. In the beginning of his days at TCM, he had conversations about whether he could wear a prosthetic goatee. As far as his clothes and set design go, there was a change of management hence the makeover. Osborne and Mankiewicz are very particular about the way they dress and always want to look good on screen. Mankiewicz says his brother is a news correspondent and always makes the top 10 best dressed people on TV lists.

Question: Why are Pre-Code films so popular these days? Especially in the past few years.

Mankiewicz: At TCM, there has always been an interest in Pre-Code films. He didn't realize there was a recent boom. Mankiewicz says one of the reasons may be availability now that so many of these Pre-Code films are available on DVD. They are so shocking. Even though the Hays Code existed at that point, it was more of an enforcement issue until the Fatty Arbuckle trial (for which he was acquitted but in the end that didn't really matter). It's a matter of watching these films and seeing things you didn't expect to see. Everything is the same as it appears Post-Code (or Post-Enforcement of the Code) but they are so much more honest. This should tell us a little bit how films could have been without the code. He notes that some people romanticize the elements used to mean other things (like a horse rearing meaning people are having sex). While you wouldn't want to change anything about Hollywood history but it would have been interesting if things were different. It would have been interesting to go forward in the 1940s and 1950s with movies without any restrictions. Mankiewicz thinks it would have been better. (Interjection: if you read my transcript of Osborne's portion of the press conference you'll see that he disagrees with Mankiewicz on this point).

Question: Question about why Coming Home (1978) is not as available as Harold & Maude (1971)?

Mankiewicz: Mankiewicz is not sure but it might be a rights issue more so than a stigma. He notes that Jane Fonda and Jon Voigt are both at the festival and they were the stars of Coming Home.

Question: What does Mankiewicz think about movie fans staying home more, watching TCM and Netflix, participating in #TCMParty, etc. instead of going out to see more films in the theatres?

Mankiewicz: He thinks it's always better to watch movies in a theater with a lot of people.There are reasonable arguments to have that watching films at home, on your iPad, on a small screen, is not the way the director intended the film to be seen. Ultimately, it's best to watch them at the theater. To see how many people have developed friendships on #TCMParty, that's not to be dismissed. Mankiewicz jokes that the #TCMParty folks are shut-ins. He's had some emotional moments with #TCMParty even if he doesn't participate very much. Mankiewicz doesn't think people realized the power of those online connections. Progress is not a straight line, sometimes it jumps around but it's still progress. We are losing that theater experience but he doesn't foresee that everyone will be watching films exclusively on their phones. Fight for which size is important to you. Mankiewicz says he's seen a lot of great movies on his iPad mini. Not ideal, but he's had a chance to watch films he might not have otherwise and he's grateful for that. We don't quite realize how important those Twitter connections and those connections are not empty ones.

(Interjection: I don't attend #TCMParty myself but I think it's wonderful for the people who do participate. I do however connect with a lot of fans on Twitter so I'm happy to see Ben Mankiewicz acknowledge that online classic film community.)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ben Mankiewicz interviews Walter Mirisch at the screening of The Great Escape (1963)

A 50th anniversary restoration of The Great Escape (1963) was premiered at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre (TCL Chinese) on Friday April 26th, 2013. Before the screening even started, I headed to the bathroom and saw a bunch of TCM staffers surrounding this older gentleman and heard one of them refer to him as "Walter". It was cool that I got to see Walter Mirisch before the event even started.

I'll do my best to transcribe the interview. It's not all word-for-word and I use a lot of paraphrasing.

Ben Mankiewicz hosted and noted that James Garner and Steve McQueen were the stars of the film but were not the stars Mirisch wanted. Walter Mirisch won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Mankiewicz introduced him as one of the best film producers in Hollywood.

Mankiewicz - Holy crap you have produced a lot of great movies. (Ben actually did say that!) . Ben starts with the biggest hit Mirisch had before The Great Escape which was The Magnificent Seven (1960). How did The Magnificent Seven getting The Great Escape done? Did it have a big impact on casting?

Mirisch - John Sturges and Mirisch had met before The Magnificent Seven and became friendly and decided they wanted to work together. Mirisch always had in mind trying to find a property they could do together. The availability of The Seven Samurai seemed to present a good opportunity. Mirisch thought it would be perfect for Sturges. They watched The Seven Samurai in a projection room and spitballed how it would work as a Western.

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz sarcastically joked that none of us wished we'd been in that room. It sounds like a dull conversation. He then asks when Mirisch thought of Steve McQueen for that movie.

Mirisch - Steve McQueen was a star on the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive prior to the film The Magnificent Seven. He was well received in that film but hadn't received star status yet even after the film released. After The Magnificent Seven, Mirisch and Sturges looked around for another project they could do together. The idea for The Great Escape came up. The story had been on the screen before possibly by the British. But no one could understand those accents so it didn't matter. There was a little resistance (possibly to it being previously released) but both Mirisch and Sturges eventually got very excited about doing the movie. The book written by Paul Brickhill. Brickill was a flyer in the British Airforce and a prisoner and the book is about his own experience. Unfortunately, the book is a factual one and not a novel. All the personal stories were made up for the movie and this presented a lot of writing difficulties.

Mankiewicz - Who was Mirisch looking at for those two principal characters played by James Garner and Steve McQueen?

Mirisch - A decision was made that they would tailor the film so that there were two principal characters to carry the story. A few years before, Sturges had made Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall (1957) with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. So when Sturges and Mirisch were working on developing the script, they had Douglas and Lancaster in mind for the two title roles. It got to the point where they realized that Douglas and Lancaster would cost a lot for the picture. They were having problems getting the budget for the picture approved.

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz mentioned that he read that the budget was $4 Million

Mirisch - Mirisch says it was somewhat more than that. Anyone who has ever made a movie has heard "you gotta cut the budget if you want to get this made". Back then, Mirisch suggested that two relatively inexpensive younger, up-and-coming actors, James Garner and Steve McQueen, might be possible for those two parts. They saved $2 million with that one decision.

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz says , "do you realize when you say that that you are a genius?" and notes that it would have been a very different movie with Douglas and Lancaster.

Mirisch - Mirisch had gotten to know McQueen while filming The Magnificent Seven, was very fond of him and thought he had an incredible on-screen personality. He also liked the idea of a younger actor for that part. Prior to The Great Escape, Mirisch had made the film The Children's Hour (1961) with James Garner. Mirisch notes he was more comfortable with the idea of making a film with Garner and McQueen than with Douglas and Lancaster.

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz mentions that McQueen wasn't a star yet when he made The Great Escape.

Mirisch - Mirisch says it's because he hadn't jumped over that fence with that motorcycle yet!

Mankiewicz - We all cherish McQueen because he had that fierce independence along with an enormous chip on his shoulder but was still filled with self-doubt that so many of us are plagued with. This all made him Steve McQueen the star but also made him a bit of a handful for the folks who worked with him.

Mirisch - McQueen had that quality, je ne sais quoi. I don't know what but he's got it and radiated it on screen.

Mankiewicz - McQueen left the set for sometime after some disagreements and some competition with James Garner. As a producer, how did you deal with a great but difficult star and still manage the picture?

Mirisch - McQueen always felt there were too many words. Mirisch came to trust that because he learned that McQueen was able to convey a great deal by his very expression. Mirisch was open to cutting down McQueen's dialogue and to allow him to convey things with his eyes. Sturges was also well aware of that and they both collaborated on that particular issue. McQueen had a good sense of story and when something bothered him, Mirisch took McQueen's thoughts into consideration as there might be something that was missing that could be worked on. There is a famous incident in which McQueen got upset and left the set for a while but that was overcome by re-writing. Mirisch showed McQueen the rewrites and McQueen said "I'll be back to work tomorrow."

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz interjects and tells the audience that those rewrites include the famous motorcycle sequences and the baseball scenes.

Mirisch - McQueen conveys more about the independence of spirit and courage just by throwing that baseball against that wall than some do with long speeches. Mirisch calls McQueen brilliant and says to the audience that you'll see it all again when you watch the film in case you don't remember.

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz throws out a trivia bit that McQueen plays one of the Nazi officers chasing McQueen during the motorcycle chase while also playing his own character.

Mirisch - Mirisch interjects and says "you know, you are not supposed to tell all the secrets!"). He also notes that the restoration will be available on Blu-Ray on May 7th. This is funny because Mankiewicz had promised to bring it up and forgot. Ha!

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Genius of the System by Thomas Schatz

The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era
by Thomas Schatz
University of Minnesota Press
Edition: March 2010
528 pages

Find the book on
Barnes and Noble

 Some of us are satisfied with enjoying films for what they are, entertainment and we are perfectly happy to leave it at that. But when we start asking questions, especially the hows and the whys, we need to evolve from being just an observer of movies to become well-versed and knowledgable film buffs.

The Genius of the System was originally published in 1988 and has since been revised with the latest edition released in 2010. Thomas Schatz takes a look at film history with two major constraints. First Schtaz focuses on the business of the studio system as it existed from 1920s through to the beginning of its demise in the early 1950s. Secondly, Schatz narrows his study to some of the major studios including Universal, MGM, Warner Bros. and Selznick's various collaborations with studios plus his own Selznick International Pictures.

The book is organized in chronological order, each section is devoted to one time period and each chapter within each section is devoted to one studio in particular. Schatz delivers an overwhelming amount of information about the studio system, an important time in film history .and I think it's crucial that the book be well-organized, orderly and clearly written. That structure and clarity helps keep the book tidy and makes it a lot easier to follow.

In this book, you'll learn about budgets, business decisions, the roles different people had in the script development, casting, filming, production and distribution. Different studios had different ways of doing things. For example, Warner Bros. was strict about typecasting and were reluctant to loan out their stars which proved stifling for many including Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart.  Other studios and independent contractors depended highly on loan outs from big studios in order to boost their films with big names. Sometimes the movie business worked like a well-oiled machine: efficient and fast. Other times it dragged along and was plagued by excess and poor decisions. Deals, contracts and economic shifts changed how studios utilized their big stars and their small players as well. The Great Depression, World War II, the advent of TV and the HUAC all affected how the studios worked.

I learned a lot of interesting things about the business of filmmaking during the studio era. I learned that Universal focused on making horror pictures because they could be made with low budgets, partial sets, they could hide things with smoke and fog and they didn't need major stars. The focus of these movies were the monsters and in the end these films were cheap to make and proved to be both profitable and popular. That wasn't to say that Universal didn't have any big names. Deanna Durbin provided Universal with one box office hit after another and helped keep them afloat during a difficult time in American history. MGM's early history could be divided into Thalberg and post-Thalberg years. There are a couple chapters in the book devoted to the collaboration between Selznick and Hitchcock and it's very interesting to see how it evolved and how it came to an end.

While Schatz tries to keep the focus on the studio during a particular era, he sometimes stops to focus on a film in particular especially if it's story is a complex or important one and demonstrates the workings of that studio. Films spotlighted include Gone with the Wind (1939), Wizard of Oz (1939), Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946), Key Largo (1948) and others.There are some plot spoilers but not many because the real focus is on the business side of filmmaking and not about the stories themselves.

It took me quite a long time to read this book because I really wanted to take in and reflect on the information I was acquiring by reading it. I highly suggest not reading this from cover to cover but taking it one section or one chapter at a time.

The Genius of the System  is a wealth of information and an absolute must-have for any film buff who wants to know more about the mechanics of the studio system and how that business influenced how and why certain movies were made. This book can prove to be a challenging read but if you are committed to learning about the history of film then this books is not to be missed.

Thank you to the University of Minnesota Press for sending me a copy of The Genius of the System to review.

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