Books postsWednesday July 20, 2016
Famous Last Words: Fred Quimby
“Walt had gone to see Fred Quimby at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with the hope, at the very least, of getting a competing bid to put pressure on [early Disney distributor Charles] Mintz, but Quimby told him that 'Cartoons [were] on the wane' and said he was not interested.”
-- from Neal Gabler's biography “Walt Disney.” The above meeting took place in Feb. 1928. A few weeks later, Disney did the first sketch on the character below. This is like the Decca exec saying “Guitar groups are on the way out” to the Beatles in 1962. Better.
The Last Word on the Hollywood Blacklist*
Another Lillian Hellman quote from “Scoundrel Time.” She's writing about the moguls, the Eastern European Jewish men who came to power in Hollywood:
Certainly they had force and daring, but by the time of McCarthy they had grown older and wearier. Threats that might once have been laughed about over a gin rummy game now seemed dangerous to their fortunes. Movie producers knew full well that the Communists of Hollywood had never made a single Communist picture, but they were perfectly willing to act as dupes for those who pretended that was a danger.
That's the key, really. There were Communists in Hollywood, and many of them pushed to get their ideas into their screenplays (as every writer does), but they didn't come close to succeeding. You could argue that the most pro-Communist movie during this period was “Mission to Moscow,” directed by a non-communist, written by a non-communist, based on a memoir by a non-communist, and produced at virulently anti-communist Warner Bros. As for communists like John Howard Lawson? He wrote action movies for Humphrey Bogart. The blacklist was paranoia, or a power grab, or a pogrom.
* Not my last word, mind you.
The Bravery of the Staircase
Lillian Hellman stood up to HUAC better than most, and risked a lot (and lost a lot) in doing so. But in her 1976 memoir “Scoundrel Time” she felt she didn't risk/do enough. This is what she wished she'd said to HUAC committee members:
There is no Communist menace in this country and you know it. You have made cowards into liars, an ugly business, and you made me write a letter in which I acknowledged your power. I should have gone into your Committee room, given my name and address, and walked out.
Many people have said they liked what I did, but I don't much, and if I hadn't worried about rats in jail, and such. ... Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it's all over, the bravery of the staircase.
Lillian Hellman Sells the Farm
Recently read Lillian Hellman's 1976 memoir, “Scoundrel Time,” about her days being blacklisted and testifying before HUAC as an unfriendly witness. It's good but apparently not good enough to get its own Wikipedia page.
Blacklisted, and with her lover, Dashiell Hammett, also blacklisted, Hellman must sell her farm and move on:
I am angry that corrupt and unjust men made me sell the only place that was ever right for me, but that doesn't have much to do with anything anymore, because there have been other places and they do fine. If I had stayed on the farm I would have grown old faster in its service. There are not many places or periods or scenes that you can think back upon with no rip in the pleasure. The people who worked for us must feel the same way, because each Christmas we still send each other gifts, but we do not meet because all of us fear, I think, the sad talk of a good past. Benson, my farmer, is dead, but his wife lived to raise a good son, and whenever I talk to her I remember the picture of her fat, cheerful little boy sitting on the terrace steps with Hammett, a bitter ex-Catholic, who was taking the boy through his catechism and explaining with sympathy the meaning of the ceremony.
A moment of grace in a graceless time.
René Clair on Chaplin, Twice
Here are two excerpts from the book “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends” by Patrick McGilligan. Both quote French filmmaker René Clair, both are about Charlie Chaplin.
In the first, McGilligan asks Clair, in the mid-1970s, if films affect him, or audiences in general, the way they did when they first premiered:
No, never. Even among the great masters ... Chaplin, for example ... I'm old enough to have seen “The Gold Rush” at its premiere in Paris ... well, people were literally dying of laughter. I know, that, for myself, I couldn't look at the screen. I was sick with laughter! Since then, thirty or so years later, I have seen a very good reissue of “The Gold Rush,” and people were again laughing but it was not the same. Do you see? It was not the same.
Not sure about that “literally dying of laughter.” Is Clair saying “The Gold Rush” killed people? But the rest is interesting. Question: Do some films improve with age?
The other quote is about the similarities between Clair's “A Nous la Liberté” (1931) and Chaplin's “Modern Times” (1936):
If you could see the two films at the same time, at one sitting, well, you would be struck by the comparison. And the truth is that, of course, Chaplin never admitted it. The company for which I made “Ŕ Nous la Liberté” sued United Artists, which had made “Modern Times,” for plagiarism. And, of course, I was asked to take part in the suit and I always refused. I said I know that Chaplin has seen “Ŕ Nous la Liberté.” It is enough to look at his film.
I seem to recall this thought when I first saw “A Nous...” a few years back: Had Chaplin seen it? Now I need to see it again.