A couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite filmmakers, Whit Stillman, published an annotated list of “Five Essential Books About Hollywood”. Hearing anything from Stillman these days is a treat/rarity, even more so when it has to do with film, so I thought it was worth sharing. Numbers 3-5 struck me as particularly interesting. They are:
3. When the Shooting Stops . . . the Cutting Begins, By Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen. Viking, 1979
The dourest of men, Ralph Rosenblum was the editorial genius behind many of the great modern film comedies, including the first films of Woody Allen, Herb Gardiner and Mel Brooks. Rosenblum’s account of the editing-room transformation of “The Producers,” “Take the Money and Run” and “Annie Hall” is a film education in itself and a counterweight to the usual debate over the primacy of either script or direction. Rosenblum’s bête noire is the cult of the film director. In his memoir only three directors — Allen, Gardiner and Sidney Lumet (the first two also writers and so more tolerably “auteurs”) — come off well. “The myth that the director is the sole creator of his film is a burden on almost everyone in the movie business, including the director,” he and co-author Robert Karen write. Particularly revealing is Rosenblum’s description of how the beautiful ending to “Annie Hall” — when Allen, as Alvy Singer, muses on the absurdity and necessity of romantic love — was concocted in a taxi and recorded in a sound booth barely an hour before a key audience screening.
4. Between Flops, By James Curtis. Harcourt, 1982
Film directors are generally duds as biographical subjects, but the great exception is Preston Sturges. As James Curtis relates in “Between Flops,” Sturges was a wastrel of an inventor and man about many towns when he wrote his first play out of pique at an actress girlfriend. His second play, “Strictly Dishonorable” (his reply to a young woman who questioned his intentions), became a major Broadway hit of the 1920s. Later, as a screenwriter at Paramount, he found a sympathetic studio executive in William LeBaron. Sturges offered to sell the studio his script for “The Great McGinty” for a dollar — he was then getting upwards of $30,000 — if they would allow him to direct it. The result was one of the great winning streaks in film comedy, including such classics as “The Lady Eve” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” But LeBaron was followed as production head by songwriter-producer B.G. “Buddy” DeSylva — “a small, abrasive Italian with a production sense limited primarily to musicals,” Curtis writes — who proceeded to drive out the studio’s most valuable asset.
5. Hitchcock, By François Truffaut. Simon & Schuster, 1967
The encounter between the Anglo-American master of one movie generation and the Continental leader of another became film history’s most remarkable dialogue. Both men propagate the “visual fallacy” in filmmaking, the overvaluing as “cinematic” the purely visual, while giving short shrift to the aural — sound, music and dialogue. But a great film could have been made of their exchanges alone. “I saw ‘Spellbound’ again recently and I must admit that I didn’t care very much for the scenario,” Truffaut comments. “Well, it’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis,” Hitchcock replies. The back-and-forth continues, until Truffaut says: “I hope you won’t be offended, but I must say I found the picture something of a disappointment.” “Not at all,” the master responds, taking control: “The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.”
I’m especially excited to read that last one. I vaguely recall seeing a copy on my father’s bookshelf when I was a kid… And though I’ve tried to get into Preston Sturges a couple times – mainly because everyone says Stillman is so influenced by him – I’ve never gotten hooked. Maybe “Sullivan’s Travels” isn’t the place to start? Or maybe Sturges was one of those directors whose work never quite measured up to the force of their personality and charm (a la Werner Herzog)?