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Monday, August 09, 2021

Be True To My School


Should They Have Just Thrown Me Out and Be Done With It?

Started Pinocchio the other night, left it after twenty minutes. Took that long to bring the puppet to life, to get anything like a story underway. I’m supposed to be of a stripe tolerant toward measured pacing, but Pinocchio saw me restless to be past a cricket, then a cat, then a fish, layers of bread between set-up and presumed meat that is the wood boy given speech. Kept thinking how this Disney favorite (but whose favorite in 2021?) would be itch powder for generations, several now, who want, insist upon, animation at warp speed. Occurred to me too that Pinocchio lacks giddyap even Snow White had, forward from its opening with the queen’s threat, resolve, to black out a fairer heir to her throne. Don’t know another Disney that so licked challenge movies share of engaging us right from starts. Pinocchio too seems pitched to children, Pleasure Island and then Monstro but partial rescue from that. There was a book, heavy as a church door, called The Art of Walt Disney, out the same year I was at USC (Southern California, not South Carolina). Ours was a class, given over summer 1975, where members spent two-three days of each week at Universal, learning how movies got made. Portals were all open to us, a real-life Pleasure Isle minus bad boys (like me, as things developed) taking on donkey features, even where donkey-behaving (me again).

Semester assignment was to make a film, content our choice, one classmate’s a fully animated cartoon, six minutes long, good as Hanna-Barbera if not Disney, but peppered with profanity to make it seem an encore to Fritz the Cat. Still we were astonished, no less so than “den mother” of our group, Mona Kantor, who with her husband Bernard, greased entry onto various Universal filming sites and brought us before many a crowned head among studio personnel (missed Steven Spielberg, whose Jaws was getting ready to open, because he was sick on our appointed day). Wish I could remember that student-animator’s name. No one doubted his future in the field. Bet he has directed any number of cartoon features over intervening forty-six years. Our class was filled with singular personalities. Some were offspring of industry notables. One boy I have thought of often, clairvoyant a better word for him, used to ask every guest speaker if Universal had plans, or would make plans, to do a big movie set in outer space. Got to where everyone snickered at his glue on the topic, a monorail alongside wider tracks the rest travelled. I do remember several guests advising him that science-fiction was a doubtful prospect “at this time.” Did they, any of us, recall his prescience two years later when sci-fi took a highest gross of all time? I speculate too as to what became of our soothsayer. Would he/did he become an industry power?

Universal was retro-conscious that summer, having lately done Gable and Lombard, W.C. Fields and Me, others trading on past days and no doubt lubed by success of The Sting. There was a parking space designated for “W.C. Fields,” sop to Method-fueled Rod Steiger, who through production insisted he was Fields, according to a U-employed observer. There were veterans busy on the lot, Hal Wallis, Don Siegel, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock … nature’s last preserve for wildlife grazing on thinned grass. Each had an office or suite of same. We were escorted, the fifteen or so in my class, to a morning shoot on Deceit, initial title of Hitchcock’s Family Plot, not just for moment-glimpse, but to stay several hours and observe the Master at work. I stood there knowing this was a high point of my life, and so recorded as much detail as memory might allow. It was a garage set, with a parked car, all indoors, the stage dark where we stood, lighted for that portion needed to film. Karen Black did a scene and waved at us afterward. Hitchcock sat somewhat at a distance, people approaching him to confer, then withdrawing to where cameras and action was. Edith Head walked over to show AH some costume drawings. We were closer to him than he was to scenes being shot, I mean close within feet. At one point, he turned and looked straight at me, not for any reason I could discern, me quiet as a little mouse. Hitchcock was low-key and spoke soft to all in his orbit. We were finally ushered out, having presumably learned how to be a movie director just like Alfred Hitchcock. USC had real juice to arrange field trips like this. I was about to discover, however, limits to studio and school hospitality, certainly willingness to let me buddy up with idols a la cart.

There was more-less free reign despite recommendation we stay with the group. Lunch was daily highlight, the food plenty good, plus familiar faces passing our table or terrace seating. Mona Kantor always sat with us to sort of maintain invisible fencing. One time I hopped up to join Jackie Cooper as he left lunch to rejoin the Mobile One crew, that series produced by Jack Webb (whose parked car was always identifiable for its “Mark VII” license plate). Cooper was nice to me as he, like seemingly everyone at Universal, was aware of USC presence and commitment to make us feel welcome. There was an ominous “Black Tower” (presumably still there) where biggest wigs planned projects, though some, like Wilder and Hitchcock, kept to more picturesque, free-standing bungalows. I found out Don Siegel and Hal Wallis were in the Tower, so was determined to meet them. I called Siegel’s office first and the secretary was taken right away by my Southern accent, which I saw quick as a way in. Approach to Siegel’s office, down a long-carpeted hallway, was spiked by a figure coming out the door who walked toward, then past me, Clint Eastwood and I the only persons in an otherwise empty, cavernous, space. He spoke, cordial if subdued, perhaps knowing I had no business there. Would Clint rat me to Mona Kantor? Doubtful, as he had larger fish to fry. Siegel was great, loaded me down with souvenirs from a recent Euro festival in his honor, signed all of it, along with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers one-sheet I brought along. He told me he was getting ready to do The Sentinel, a project Michael Winner ended up directing. Siegel, always a favorite, became more so for showing such kindness and generosity that day.

It Wasn't So Lavish As This When I Was There

Next was Wallis. I went over this and more of the USC/Universal adventure back in 2010, so won’t hash further, except to report it was Mr. Wallis who unknowingly got me caught by the Kantors. The class was having outdoor lunch a couple days after my off-limits Wallis visit. He happened to walk by with some of his people, glancing our way, noticing me, and saying, “Hello, John.” That was it. Mona did not speak, but she knew. There was surely a woodshed in my offing. Investigation bore fruit, Bernard the bearer of dire warning that I would be marched out, epaulets stripped, sent home ignominiously should I ever do such a thing again (this with but a week left of the semester). It was the first time I was took out of class and hall-berated since Wilkes Central High. But who cares, I got to visit Don Siegel and Hal Wallis! I’d do it all again this minute, so clearly did not learn my lesson. '75 was my most exciting summer then, certainly better than a couple year’s previous as a sawmill hand at $60 take-home per week, goal to gather $400 and have The Adventures of Robin Hood on 16mm. Leave that account, however, for another day …


Blogger MikeD said...

Great story!! Did you explore the Laramie waterfall or the Cleavers' Friends Lake? I would have spent time picking up spent shells over on western street.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

Wonderful piece from start to finish. Made me feel I was along with you for the adventure every step of the way. Love that you've maintained this online space,
giving us all the benefit of your endless expertise when it comes to sharing anecdotes and observations. This time out,among other things, you've given me one more reason to admire Don Siegel.

10:55 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for your kind words, Ken. Don Siegel was very forthcoming --- he realized I was just a fan, wasn't taking notes, so he opened up and kept me around for at least half an hour. I fact, I probably could have stayed longer because he seemed to enjoy the visit. All that stuff he gave me was brought in by his secretary, most of it tribute and festival related. Siegel had evidently been feted at several European events around this time. Anyway, he signed everything --- nice inscriptions --- without my having to ask. One person he could not stand --- Pauline Kael. I forget how her name came up, but he had NO use for her.

1:53 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

For my money "Pinocchio" has enough eye candy and light comedy to sustain those opening reels. "Snow White" does begin with stronger story, but I imagine a lot of kids fidgeted through the love songs waiting for the dwarfs and the laughs to arrive.

The most interesting observation I've read about "Pinocchio" is that the various villains aren't really defeated. Pinocchio merely escapes them. Stromboli will continue to be a greedy, violent bully with anyone he encounters. The fox and cat get away with everything, without punishment or even inconvenience. Most disturbingly, Pleasure Island will continue to turn kids into miserable overworked donkeys (Do the fox and cat continue to recruit bad boys for the coachman?). Sleep well, kiddies, and don't think too hard about it.

As for movies slow to "start", Hammer's "Curse of the Werewolf" stands out. We're elaborately introduced to characters who'll be dead when the title character is born, and who'll be totally unknown to anybody in the rest of the movie. For all the creepiness of that section of the movie, it doesn't really relate to the curse beyond unfortunate timing; you could open with the runaway pregnant girl and lose nothing, plotwise. "Ghost Breakers" and its remake "Scared Stiff" take their sweet time reaching the promised haunted house, busying themselves with largely unrelated gangster plots to put the heroes on a boat. I'm fine with stories that gradually approach a major event or character entrance, and even movies that hold off what we're all there for. The thing is, do they make the wait interesting? Harryhausen's "Mysterious Island" and "First Men in the Moon" don't hurry to the dynamation we came for, but we get sufficiently interesting characters and stories to keep us from the snack bar. And everything DOES relate to the set pieces.


Fascinating stuff about visiting Universal. Today I suspect such a tour would involve non-disclosure agreements and impounding of camera phones.

I had to be content to read about movies, lacking the gumption to earn enough for a 16mm projector or the will to commit to serious studies. I received that doorstop Disney book, and still have it except for the transparent dust jacket and Mickey's paint bucket. Checked "Hitchcock/Truffaut" out of the library multiple times. At UC Santa Cruz took some classes on the history of animation and silent comedy. I suspect that, if allowed within speaking distance of idols, I'd say stuff I'd still be regretting.

The mythology, going back to Keystone, was that anybody who got past a lone guard at a studio gate would inevitably be Discovered or otherwise admitted to The Industry. Did any of your classmates just happen to carry resumes or headshots?

2:15 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

PINOCCHIO is a powerful film. Having shown it to large audiences first in 16mm, then on DVD and now on BLU-RAY I know you are the exception not the rule.

As for the rest of this post underline WONDERFULL!!!! 3 times.

2:53 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

I never get tired of hearing about your exploits in Hollywoodland. To have watched Hitchcock in action is comparable to having seen Beethoven conducting an orchestra. What an honor!

7:55 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

And looking for the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA sound stage could be perilous.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I have fond memories of my first viewing of 'Pinocchio', on the big screen with hundreds of other 7 or 8 year olds.
It was the first animation I had ever seen on a big screen - in fact, it was the first time I had ever seen animation of any kind in color. I was very impressed.
I agree that the film is pitched for kids, specifically young boys; and Walt's instincts were dead on target when it came to this particular kid - I thought it was great, and I still like the way it's drawn, all these decades later.
As to whether or not kids today would sit still for it, I really haven't a clue, as color animation and "big screen entertainment" are no longer as rare an experience as they once were for small children; and it was the novelty of the presentation along with the movie itself that really made the impression on me, I think.
There just weren't that many animated features in existence back then. In fact, when I was a kid, it seemed like the only new animated features being made then were for college students who had never seen characters swear or talk about sex on screen before - that is to say, animated features which kids were not permitted to see at all.
Other than those, there was nothing animated in the theaters that I remember wanting to see, and there was certainly nothing that could measure up to 'Pinocchio' in quality. When I was a kid, quality animation did not exist in any easily accessible form. I believe that's changed, and for the better.

7:32 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I prefer. Pinnochio by far to all of the other Disney features because the story is actually stronger than all of the other fairytales, which were parodied (better) a lot in Warner cartoons even before the uncle produced his versions.

Your story at Universal is terrific. I only met celebrities, from Argentina, few times in person although some of them follow me in social media, which always feels unusual to me.

8:32 AM  
Blogger mmoaks14 said...

Enjoyed your Universal visit anecdotes, I am currently reading (and enjoying) Alan K. Rode's Michael Curtiz bio and Siegel and (to a larger extent certainly) Hal Wallis both have figured in the book so far.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Michael Johnson said...

I worked as a 'laborer' at Universal in 1976 when I was nineteen and did my best to worm my way into any other job I could. I walked into Hitchcock's bungalow, asking if they could use the services of a no-talent but eager teenager. They told me that Hitch was working on his next picture, 'The Short Night' but for some reason told me rather confidentially that it will never get made. I kept an 8x10 portrait of Hitch in my car in the hopes of meeting him and having the great one sign it, but the day I finally saw him he was engaged in a lengthy and private conversation near a soundstage and I didn't have the nerve to bother him. He was smaller than I expected. I used to explore everywhere on the lot, finding the fiberglass moulds of the 'Jaws' shark and even the bar that W.C. Fields tended in 'My Little Chickadee.' It was menial work but I loved every minute I was there. Verna Fields took me under her wing after I sat my projector on her desk and ran a Super 8 movie I'd made on the wall of her executive office. She'd just finished a meeting with Speilberg who I'd just missed. Verna ultimately got me an agent and a meeting with Robert Wise at the American Film Institute which I was accepted into but ultimately didn't attend. Boy do I miss my youth!

3:54 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers my Universal reception:

Your admittance to the inner precincts seemingly bent reality around you, but in truth it was a reward for an enthusiasm given expression through an innate courtesy, and, perhaps as well, that southern accent. The way you spoke suggested an authenticity too rare in a town that customarily smudges or erases such distinctions, and was in itself a matter of curiosity. They wanted to see you almost as much as you wanted to see them.

FROM JOHN: Sort of like an escapee from the freak tent they want to glimpse before it is recaptured and put down.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Took a look at PINNOCHIO. Holds up wonderfully for me.

10:21 AM  

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