The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
Critic/historian/scholar/podcaster and Ebertfest favorite Leonard Maltin first began writing about film as a teenager. He has a deep understanding of film, with unmatched expertise in categories ranging from Disney films to B-movies, unsung character actors, and even the contracts and pay ranges of the studio system. He is, most of all, an unabashed fan, and so there has never been a more apt title that that of his latest book, Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom, a collection of his work that goes back to the interviews he did as a teenager with pre-code and Busby Berkeley star Joan Blondell, Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor Burgess Meredith, Cecil B. DeMille’s right-hand-man Henry Wilcoxon, Oscar-winning actor Ralph Bellamy, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” author Anita Loos, director Mitchell Leisen, and a look at “the forgotten studio,” RKO.
In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Maltin talked about how he was able to research the details of film history and production in the early days before blogs and IMDb, and which actors he thinks qualify both as actors and movie stars.
Explain for those who are too young to remember—what were zines, where your earliest work appeared?
Long before the Internet, there were amateur publications known as fanzines, on all sorts of topics (science-fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs, et al). I was already publishing one called Profile, using an old mimeograph machine, when I read about Film Fan Monthly, based in Vancouver, and offered my services, at age 13. Two years later I took over the magazine and graduated to using a neighborhood printer. That meant being able to illustrate my articles with movie stills. A big step for me.
Who were your subscribers and did you get feedback from them?
I received a lot of feedback from my readers. Some of them became pen-pals, and no one was shy about pointing out mistakes if I committed any errors. It was a very personal form of publishing and that was what made it so much fun.
What was your first published movie review?
I didn’t review a current movie until I joined the staff of the daily newspaper at NYU, and I can’t remember what it was for the life of me!
I was very impressed with your early work. Even as a teenager and young man, you wrote very professionally, graceful sentences, evocative language, exceptionally well-organized. Who were your influences as a writer?
Thanks for the compliment on my writing. I was an avid reader, and I suppose everything I took had some effect on me. John McCabe’s dual bio Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy is beautifully written, and I repeatedly checked it out of my public library. I also read Bosley Crowther’s movie reviews in the New York Times, and while he’s widely dismissed these days he was certainly a good journalist.
In the pre-IMDb, pre-Netflix, pre-Wikipedia, and even pre-Maltin’s Movie Guide days, what resources did you use to learn so much about the behind-the-scenes actors, directors, composers, and others who worked on films, and even how much they got paid?
In my youth I was a sponge. I soaked up everything I could to learn about movie history. I read McCabe’s book when it was new, as well as Rudi Blesh’s landmark biography of Buster Keaton. Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By... was revelatory. (It’s now celebrating its 50th anniversary). For specific projects I would visit my home away from home, the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library, which had vast clipping files and complete runs of vintage trade magazines. I couldn’t get enough. I also started building a reference library of my own; the first book I purchased was Theodore Huff’s milestone biography of Charlie Chaplin, which was in a local library book sale for ten cents … just my speed.
Attending Bill Everson’s screenings at the Theodore Huff Film Society and The New School was like a post-graduate education, and he wrote very informative program notes (which are now online via NYU).
How did you prepare for interviews with actors and filmmakers with decades of work to cover?
I did my best to prepare for interviews with Hollywood veterans. I read whatever was available, and scanned the local TV listings to see if any of their movies were coming up. I also became friendly with a number of 16mm film collectors who were kind enough to let me borrow prints. And I arrived with a checklist of their films and notes on who I might want to ask about, be it a director, co-star, or producer. I had to compile those filmographies the old-fashioned way, by going through the indispensable Film Daily Yearbook, year by year, and building my lists.
I share your affection for character actors. Do you have favorites or ones you think have been unfairly overlooked?
It’s hard to pick favorites among the many character actors I met. Billy Gilbert was the first, and he couldn’t have been sweeter. He’d had a stroke, so sometimes his memory failed him, but his wife Ella remembered everything he didn’t. I also learned a valuable lesson during that afternoon. I grew up watching him on a children’s show called “Andy’s Gang,” hosted by Andy Devine. That show resonated with me and left a lasting impression … but it turned out that Billy shot all his sequences for a season in one day, so it was just a speck in the sands of his career.
People who love film tend to write about success, but I especially enjoyed your chapter on what went wrong in making the film version of the Broadway hit, On Your Toes. (SPOILER ALERT: Everything)
I am a great admirer of Rodgers and Hart, and it piqued my curiosity why the film version of their Broadway show On Your Toes was so obscure and rarely mentioned in surveys of Hollywood musicals. That’s what sent me into the Warner Bros. Archives to find the answers.
Did you ever want to write or direct a film?
I made home movies with my friends in junior high school, using my father’s 8mm camera. Back in those Cro-Magnon days we didn’t have video; in the baby boom years every family had 8mm equipment, so we had no sound and three-minute rolls of film. My problem was that I couldn’t scale my thinking to these parameters (I won’t call them limitations … ). I envisioned Hollywood-type movies and the results always came up short, though they were fun to do. Many years later a friend who taught screenwriting convinced me to collaborate with him on some screenplay treatments. We had several meetings with fairly high-level executives in Hollywood, but they led nowhere and I bailed. I’d come from freelance writing, where every meeting had a conclusion: “Yes, we’ll publish that article. We need 500 words by next Thursday and we’ll pay you XXX dollars,” or “No, we’ll pass on that idea.” In Hollywood there were highly-paid personnel whose job was to fill up their days with meetings; they were just spinning their wheels. I couldn’t deal with that but it taught me an important lesson and gave me newfound respect for writers and directors who can endure that process because they care so much about getting their movie made.
I loved your discovery of the performances of some of the silent film stars in the early days of television, including Lillian Gish and Buster Keaton. Is it possible to see any of those performances outside of a museum?
Fortunately for fans (not to mention researchers) many TV episodes are available on YouTube. It has become an essential source for anyone tracing an actor’s career.
There is so much film history in the book; why do you call it “a lifetime of film fandom,” which seems to suggest a more superficial perspective?
Somehow the word “fan” has acquired a negative connotation, which I think is undeserved. I am a critic and historian but I’ve never stopped being a fan. That’s why I chose that subtitle.
I’m going to pose a question to you that you asked Peggy Webber—which Hollywood performers are both actors AND stars?
There are dozens of examples from every era of film history. I would say Humphrey Bogart (a personal favorite) was both an actor of considerable skill and a bonafide movie star … but the same applies to John Barrymore, Fredric March, Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and many, many more. Cary Grant and John Wayne were underrated and accused of always “playing themselves,” which is nonsense. Yes, they often relied on their familiar screen personas but they were exceptional actors who did what all great artists achieved: they made it look easy.
To purchase your copy of Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom, click here
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