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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Eyewitness To A Premiere

A Future Historian Who Was There

What film historian names would we place in a 60/70’s honor roll? I mean those who pioneered writing and research for a digital generation that would have it far easier thanks to quick-reference sites like LANTERN and newspaper archives that proliferate. One that contributed much was Don Miller, whose two books, B Movies and Hollywood Corral, are still all you need to fully grasp those topics. Little is known of Miller outside the work, but he'd be prolific also for Focus On Film, the UK based journal that remains a best in its class (back issues, 37 total, turn up on E-Bay, all worth a buy if gotten for right enough price). I’ve wondered --- what was average circulation for serious film journals between the 60’s and 80’s? That seems to have been their peak period, but how many of each issue sold, to subscribers if not stores? Someone told me around 400. That seems small, so maybe I’m misinformed. There were scholars who simply quit and did something else (Kalton Lahue comes to mind). It isn’t as though film research bought groceries. Name one student of old movies who traded his/her knowledge for a Juguar or swimming pool. Pause … yes, I thought not.

I Googled to learn more of Don Miller. Crickets … except for another Donald Miller, a “Christian iconoclast” whose book is titled Blue Like Jazz. I don’t know for sure when our Don Miller died, but it was at least thirty years ago. How many pats on the head did film journal articles yield? They’d come, if at all, from letters to the editor, most with stingers in their tail (“Stranger On The Third Floor came out in April of 1940, not June,” or my favorite, “The author neglected to mention …”). You’d not persuade a best friend to read handiwork, unless they were movie nuts, and then they’d point up errors. Laboring for love. I’d like knowing what Focus On Film paid Don Miller for his articles, being assured it wasn’t a fraction of enough. His B Movies book grew out of a FoF piece. Leonard Maltin enabled publication, also of Hollwood Corral, a real service to film history. Maltin would reprint B Movies several times afterward. It remains in print today. Miller did his research the hardest way, leafing through Film Daily Yearbooks, dogged peer at trades, most of resource a number of subways from home. Such was determined route of ones who broke trail for later inquiries. We have it so good today. No, make that, we are spoiled rotten.

I lately re-read Don Miller’s coverage on “Private Eyes: From Sam Spade to J.J. Gittes” for Focus On Film #22 (over twenty pages, so much detail). It is a splendid job, but here’s what grabbed me: Don Miller was at New York’s RKO Palace “first-day, first performance” for Murder, My Sweet in February 1945, and shared his impressions from thirty-year-ago memory. Who of us can go back that far, let alone tell it so eloquent? “A wintry day,” said Miller, on which Dick Powell made a personal appearance with Murder, My Sweet, “his old, smiling, emcee self, all charm and teeth and wavy hair, wowing the ladies in the audience and joining in repartee with co-player Mike Mazurki for easy laughs.” I wish I could tell anecdotes so riveting as this, let alone write as nimbly. “He (Powell) topped it off with a rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In.” Miller captures too the surprise of “all charm and teeth” Powell’s segue to hard-bitten alter that was Murder, My Sweet. “On the screen, it wasn’t Powell, but a new actor, playing the Marlowe part perhaps a shade too emphatically in trying to prove to the boys he could hack it, but at times really digging deep, and in a few moments doing it better than anyone had a right to expect …”

As was customary, Miller had insights that would not have occurred to me. “He (Powell) knew how to use that trained voice too. Chandler had Marlowe fairly well educated, and Powell let it seep through the beefsteak. When Bogart played Marlowe, he had to tell the audience he went to college, and there’s a big difference. Maybe that’s why Chandler stamped his approval on the film.” I checked Variety to see if any of their reviewers were at the Murder, My Sweet opening and reviewed it. The trade would often cover presentation houses and evaluate stage and screen fare, but not this time, making Don Miller’s the only eyeball account of what came off on that historic night. Imagine Dick Powell doing live-act gags with Mike Mazurki, then yanked around by him minutes later in played-straight Murder, My Sweet. The mind reels. I wish Miller had left a diary account of all his moviegoing. He applies much personal touch to B Movies and Hollywood Corral. As mentioned, the first remains in print, the second, updated and expanded by Packy Smith’s Riverwood Press in 1993. Corral can be had used from Amazon for, at the moment, $19.95 and up. It is one of the crowning film books, not only for Don Miller’s original text, but essays done by latter-day experts Richard Bann, Karl Thiede, Sam Sherman, many others. Like all of Don Miller’s writing, it is well worth seeking out.


Blogger Boppa said...

If you’re ever in Staten Island, the Donald Miller Cinema Collection might be worth a look:

9:18 AM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

So pleased you've chosen to laud the great Don Miller, certainly a seminal figure in developing my own love and appreciation for vintage films. Bought "B Movies" and "Hollywood Corral" when they were new. And they remain treasured (and frequently consulted) sources of entertainment and enlightenment. Never met the man but will always consider him a dear departed friend. Also loved David Shipman's "Great Movie Stars" books("Golden Years" and "International Years). Works that somehow manage to be scholarly and chatty at the same time. Could say the same about Jeffrey Richards' wonderful "Swordsmen of the Screen". Doug McClelland and James Robert Parish were also prolific providers of marvelous movie related information and insights. When I was young I had a subscription to Leonard Maltin's Film Fan Monthly. Don't think I ever quite realized he was even younger than I was. A thank you to all of these guys - and to you, sir, who have joined their ranks as a congenial(and indispensable) guide to the movies so many of us will always love.

9:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Noted author and historian Scott Eyman e-mails with info on pay rate for articles in FOCUS ON FILM re 1970's:


I seem to recall that Focus on Film paid about $150 for a short piece, about $250 for a long piece such as my Bill Wellman career interview.
Years after the magazine bit the dust, I was lecturing at the NFT in London, when Allen Eyles, the editor of Focus on Film, came up and introduced himself. I’d written for him for years and we’d never met!


2:40 PM  
Blogger Emery Christoph said...

I had autographed copies of all of Miller's books, and just sold them three years ago in my move West. Was ripped off by the Strand, who took 'em for pennies. (Not that I had luck selling them to anyone else...)

Agree on Richards' Swordsmen of the Screen -- it may be my favorite film book.

I think we underestimate the work done by all these pre-Internet scholars. Chris Steinbrunner was like a second dad to me, and I well recall watching 16 mm reels with him while he took notes on large yellow legal pads. Good times.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Dick Powell in MURDER MY SWEET has always played second fiddle to Robert Mitchum in FAREWELL MY LOVELY for me. Now you've opened up my eyes to it so much that I am going to take it off the shelf this weekend.

I saw FAREWELL MY LOVELY in the cinema when it opened in Toronto. That was a thrill ride.

Will also pick up Miller's books.


7:08 AM  
Blogger JonCow said...

I had two of Kalton Lahue's book, the excellent "Cops and Custards," and his telling of the rise and fall of the Triangle Film Corporation, "Dreams for Sale." I always wondered why he never continued.

11:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts supplies further info via e-mail about Kalton Lahue:


Answering "Todbrowning"'s question about Kalton Lahue, Kal didn't continue writing film books because he discovered the unfortunate truth many film historians discover in that there is no money in writing serious film history books that aren't about stars the public actually remembers. He rather bitterly gave up on film books, moved to writing automotive tech manuals, books on photography, and editing girlie magazines, and made a much better living. He passed away in the mid-1990's.


9:08 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

POSTMODERN AUTEURS: Coppola, Lucas, De Palma, Spielberg, and Scorses

I'd have done better as an Uber Driver.

1:11 PM  

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