They Made the Movies: Conversations With Great Filmmakers (Screen Classics)

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Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
The University Press of Kentucky
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“This book will appeal to film and television enthusiasts of all ages, provide a deep dive for film buffs and an entertaining revelation for others merely interested in movies as entertainment.”

Who but a film afficionado would be interested in a deep dive into movie directing? Well, plenty of readers seem interested in the art form as entertainment.

For decades, James Bawden and Ron Miller have bridged this gap through provocative interviews that have given film fans unmatched insights into the lives of Hollywood top talent. In their newest collection, the authors focus on film pioneers who lit up Tinseltown from the 1930s through the 1960s during a period when many European refugees fled to America.

They Made the Movies is a series of conversations with legendary directors who created all-time classics, such as Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946), Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954), Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, 1960), Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field, 1963), and Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, 1965). The authors reveal firsthand details, such as the fact that Mervyn LeRoy's first choice for The Wizard of Oz was Shirley Temple. “But Shirley couldn’t sing like Judy Garland.”

Many famed directors straddled the worlds of film and stage theater, no more so that Rouben Mamoulian who knew that “movies must move.” But talkies up to 1931 didn’t move and were mostly passive recordings of stage plays. Mamoulian’s Oscar–winning use of colored filters keyed to special make–up enabled him to show Fredrich March’s Jekyll–and–Hyde transformation on screen in real time.  

Among tidbits that readers learn: Greta Garbo “took direction like a doll.” Tyrone Power in Zorro was beautiful, “but not that athletic,” hence the need to bulk him up and use doubles. George Cukor hated being known as a “women’s director” despite his many successes with leading men of the day. Tallulah Bankhead “did not photograph well . . . and didn’t click with movie audiences.” The temperamental Judy Garland was “too talented; if every take wasn’t 100 percent terrific, she’d become down.”

Montgomery Clift came back from rehab with “the spark gone out of him” and could “barely move his face.” Like so many in the business, for John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate; Seven Days in May), “perhaps the best of the TV–trained film directors of his era,” drinking was his downfall. 

On a happier note we are privy to Billy Wilder’s insights on directing: “You have to be a sycophant, a sadist, a nurse, and a philosopher.” We learn how megaproducer Hal B. Wallis purchased an unproduced play titled Everybody Comes to Rick’s and transformed it into Casablanca. The authors likewise celebrate contributions of marginalized filmmakers such as Ida Lupino, James Wong Howe, Oscar Micheaux, and Luis Valdez, each of whom prevailed in Hollywood despite discrimination they faced throughout their careers.

The book’s format congenially reads as a series of engaged conversations rather than staid Q&A sessions. In addition to the rich memories of those who shared time with screen luminaries, readers are treated to a 58-page photo spread.

We read that Hitchcock was “The most instinctively savvy filmmaker there ever was . . . knew all the tricks to make movie audiences react exactly the way he wanted them to.” He preferred to film on a soundstage where he could control the entire environment.

Mervyn LeRoy never met a genre he couldn’t master: crime (Little Caesar, 1930); social realism (Fugitive from a Chain Gang); musicals (Golddiggers of 1933 and Gypsy, 1962); religious epic (Quo Vadis, 1951); romance (Waterloo Bridge); fantasy (The Wizard of Oz);  plus countless documentaries. He’d fight with Jack Warner who wanted films edited down to an hour or less so he could double-bill them and give audiences “their money’s worth.” But LeRoy felt Warner “was cutting all the juice out,” leaving no time for storytelling.

Photographing the double chins of Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, “became a problem and I finally put her on a diet, but she had bourbon hidden all over the soundstage.” LeRoy filmed Lana Turner walking down the street in a tight sweater and no bra. “The censor didn’t catch it until it was too late.” And for The Wizard of Oz he said, “Go out and get me a hundred pairs of midgets who can sing and dance.” Louie Mayer fumed at him, “That damned ‘Over the Rainbow’ number must go. I hate it, it slows down the picture. Out!” Yet LeRoy won that battle handily.

Billy Wider was perhaps the most successful of artists who fled the Nazis for America. In 1934 “my English vocabulary consisted of 28 words, eighteen of them unmentionable.” Yet he knew how to handle censors. Instead of “you son–of–a–bitch,” he invented lines such as “If you had a mother she’d bark.” His understatement in Double Indemnity is nothing short of electric. “The sexual tension between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurry is sizzling, but they never touch.”

Robert Wise was a later filmmaker who “could make just about any kind of movie—and do it better than most everybody else.” He won two Oscars for big-budget musicals—West Side Story, and The Sound of Music—but he was equally adept at film noir, horror (House on Telegraph Hill), and science fiction (Andromeda Strain, Star Trek). It was a point of pride “that he was never stuck in a groove.” As to his riveting Andromeda Strain, he said, “I wanted to show the science behind sci-fi. That meant no heroics, no special effects, just the drudgery of the process.”