Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Musings on the Movies


Igrew up loving the movies. Thanks to there being several reissue houses in L.A. when I was at my most impressionable age, I grew up mainly a fan of the movies produced in the 30s and early to mid-40s.

By the time the 60s rolled around, I still loved the movies, but mainly those produced in the 30s and early to mid-40s. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed a great many films made over the past 50 or 60 years, but most of the stars don’t measure up, in my estimation, to the likes of Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Spencer Tracy, Jean Arthur, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Jimmy Cagney.

These days, just about the only people who can lure me to a movie theater are Helen Mirren, Jeffrey Rush, Emma Thompson and Colin Firth.

Some of the people that diminished the pleasure I derived from films were the graduates of the Actors Studio who flooded Hollywood in the 50s and 60s, most notably Marlon Brando, James Dean, Vic Morrow and Rod Steiger, who brought with them the Golden Age of the Mumblebum. Because they were essentially unintelligible, you were left to assume their furrowed brows and odd mutterings suggested emotions far beyond the ability of human speech to convey.

The fact that, thanks to TV, the old studio system broke up, leaving actors and ego-driven directors in charge didn’t help things. Not that the old moguls could always be trusted to know what was best. For instance, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer insisted that “Somewhere over the Rainbow” be deleted from “The Wizard of Oz,” until the composer and lyricist, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, either threatened his life or offered up their first-born before he’d change his mind.

Some years later, Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin had to resort to equally drastic measures to get Columbia’s Harry Cohn to relent and allow “The Man That Got Away” to remain in “A Star is Born.”

Judy Garland was very fortunate that Harold Arlen was as persuasive as he was or she’d have spent her last 30 years just singing “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song.”

Of all the actors I ever interviewed, two of the rudest were Robert Mitchum and George C. Scott. I had met Mitchum at a party hosted by our mutual friend, George Kennedy. I requested an interview, he agreed and we settled on a time and place.

The place was his office on Sunset Blvd. I arrived on time and his secretary led me into his inner sanctum. He didn’t look up. He didn’t greet me. Instead, he sat reading Daily Variety. I considered getting up and leaving. But my curiosity kept me planted on his couch, wondering how long he would pretend that, unlike everyone else in Hollywood, he was a rebel who didn’t give a fig about publicity.

It took about five minutes, but he finally acknowledged my presence. I must admit I was surprised I was as courteous as I was. I had, after all, seriously considered asking him if, after 30 years in the movies, he ever got tired of sucking in his stomach and sticking out his chest.

I was less polite with George C. Scott, but he was an even bigger phony. I had been sent to Spain to interview him shortly after he’d been Oscar-nominated for “Patton.” He was over there to shoot a trifle called “The Last Run” with Tony Musante, Trish Van Devere and his wife, Colleen Dewhurst.

As I arrived, Ms. Dewhurst, her part completed, was just flying back to New York. That proved to be the signal for Scott to move Ms. Van Devere into his bungalow. Claiming illness, Scott didn’t work for the next five or six days. I don’t know what excuse the studio gave the insurance company for Van Devere’s absence, unless it so happened she was both an actress and a registered nurse.

In the meantime, I walked around the Costa del Sol, bored to tears. A note to travelers: If you ever find yourself in southern Spain for any length of time, bring your own reading material. There are no English-language books, magazines or newspapers, to be found. So unless you’re shacked up with Trish Van Devere, you’re plumb out of luck.

Finally, Scott came up for air. I was given about half an hour for the interview, so I wasted no time. Scott, you should understand, had garnered headlines from announcing that if he won the Oscar for “Patton,” he would not accept it because he didn’t believe in competition between actors.

I didn’t laugh in his face, but I did point out that he had already been nominated on two previous occasions for Oscars as Best Actor in a Supporting Role, for “Anatomy of a Murder” and “The Hustler,” and he hadn’t spewed any malarkey about competition on those occasions. But he also hadn’t won.

I suggested that inasmuch as he had not only won a Tony Award for his work on Broadway but had even taken part in bestowing them on other occasions, he obviously wasn’t opposed to competition between actors. The only difference between the two awards, I pointed out, was that people outside Manhattan actually paid attention to the Academy Awards.

On top of that, everyone knows that actors don’t win Oscars, roles do; and that, off the top of my head, I could easily name ten other actors who would have been nominated for “Patton.” The real competition wasn't for awards, but for particular roles. Otherwise, as I told Scott, the very same people would be nominated year after year.

In conclusion, I told him that all he had really done was to cover his bets. If he lost, it would be because he had announced that he wouldn’t accept the Oscar; but if he won, it would mean that he was so magnificent that even after saying he wouldn’t accept the Oscar, they had no option but to force it on him.

I seriously thought he might slug me, as he was notorious for getting into drunken brawls. Fortunately, he was sober, so I didn’t get punched. But I also didn’t win a million dollar lawsuit. Scott did win the Oscar. He also divorced Colleen Dewhurst and married Ms. Van Devere.

Recently, someone asked me why they ever began using big name stars to provide the voices in animated features. That was an easy one. It’s not because anyone actually goes to see these movies because Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Mike Myers, Ray Romano, Tom Hanks, Anne Hathaway or Tim Allen, are giving voice to cartoons or because people who work for a lot less money can’t do the job as well. Rather it’s because when people ask the folks who produce these movies whom they’re working with, they don’t want to be stuck mentioning a bunch of anonymous artists; they want to be able to drop names that people recognize.

Finally, if you’re curious why I liked old movies so much, most of it had to do with the plots, the dialogue and the reasonable running times, but some of it, I suspect, was that I could identify with the leading men. For instance, Brian Donlevy and John Garfield were 5’7”; Eddie G. Robinson, Claude Rains and Jimmy Cagney were 5’6”; Alan Ladd was 5’5” and Mickey Rooney was 5’2”.

Just the other night, I saw an oldie on TV in which the victim of a mugging was asked to describe his assailant and said: “He was tall.” “How tall,” the cop asked him. “Oh, about 5-foot-6.”

What’s not to love?

©2015 Burt Prelutsky. Comments? BurtPrelutsky@aol.com.


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