I’ll admit it—I miss going to movie screenings and posting my reviews on this site. The last film I saw in a theater and reviewed was The Hunt which I saw on Tuesday, March 10.
During the lockdown I have watched a handful of older movies on cable: The Apartment, Valkyrie, Of Mice And Men, Mystery Men and a few more. This weekend I saw the new HBO movie Bad Education starring Hugh Jackman. It is excellent. I recommend it.
During my inside time I’ve read books including these that deal with movies and some of the people who make them.
You know Dr. Seuss (real name Ted Geisel) for his famous kids’ books. The 2019 biography Becoming Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel and The Making Of An American Imagination is filled with details of Ted Geisel’s work on movies during World War II. Working alongside Frank Capra and others in Hollywood, his focus was on propaganda efforts. His output included several Private Snafu cartoons, many of which can be seen on Youtube. A few were considered racy for their time but that was to get the attention of the young male troops.
He also made films informing American troops how to treat German citizens during U.S. occupation of that country. (Geisel’s family had emigrated to the U.S. from Germany and he had visited relatives there.) One film he worked on was repurposed for general release after the war. The War Department production was not copyrighted and did not contain individual credits. The reboot version did contain credits and those folks nabbed an Oscar for best documentary.
Geisel also created a strange movie called The 5000 Fingers Of Dr. T which was released in 1953. (He came up with the story, wrote the screenplay and wrote the music.) The film was plagued with production problems including budgeting issues and Geisel was not happy with the result. It soured him on his short-lived goal of becoming a screenwriter. The film has a decent 6.8 rating on IMDB but some of the user reviews note the film’s shortcomings.
The animated How The Grinch Stole Christmas premiered on TV in 1966 and has become an annual holiday tradition. Other movies based on his work were made after his death in 1991.
It’s interesting (to me, anyway) to note the parallels between Geisel and Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Each had newspaper roots: Geisel as an advertising and editorial cartoonist before WWII, Schultz with a daily comic strip. Each moved to California as their careers took off: Geisel to La Jolla near San Diego and Schulz to wine country just north of San Francisco. Both began affairs in California and, after divorcing their first wives, married their west coast paramours. And, while their legacies live on via the printed page, they also are best known to many for their classic TV shows. A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired a year before The Grinch debuted on the tube. (The 2007 book Schulz And Peanuts by David Michaelis is an entertaining bio.)
Among the tales I enjoyed in the Seuss book is the revelation that his publisher Bennett Cerf (yes, the old What’s My Line panelist) challenged Geisel to write a book using no more than fifty unique words. They made a $50 bet. The author delivered his 1960 classic Green Eggs And Ham and won the bet.
Last year at the St. Louis Book Fair I scored three books by screenwriter William Goldman and during the past few quarantine weeks I have read and enjoyed them.
Adventures In The Screen Trade, published in 1983, is dishy with many anecdotes about the films Goldman was involved in and the people he worked with. His biggest hit at that point was Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid which netted him his first Oscar. Goldman makes it clear that he admired Paul Newman as a person and Robert Redford as a star. Goldman also scripted All The President’s Men and Marathon Man and has recollections and opinions about the making of those films and his thoughts about the final products.
Goldman’s adventures include working with Joseph E. Levine and Richard Attenborough on the WWII film A Bridge Too Far, a film with many production challenges. Levine put up a huge chunk of his own money for the film and it was a decent sized hit.
The most important person in the making of a film, Goldman writes, is the studio head who says yes and authorizes a budget to start the filming effort. In this book and in his later book Which Lie Did I Tell he considers directors. His favorites are George Roy Hill, Clint Eastwood and Rob Reiner. Goldman feels that directors sometime get too much credit for elements of a movie that may be mainly attributable to production designers, cinematographers and, yes, screenwriters.
Which Lie Did I Tell? (More Adventures In The Screen Trade), published in 2000, has more of Goldman’s thoughts on screenwriting including tips on the structure of a film’s story. The book is not quite a screenwriting textbook but if one wanted to pursue that occupation, reading this book with a highlighter in hand would be a good place to start. He won his second Oscar for The Princess Bride and while he is proud of that movie, he also spills the tea on some of the movies he wrote that were not so successful.
Goldman analyzes movie scenes he had no involvement in, such as the zipper accident at the start of There’s Something About Mary. He is critical of Saving Private Ryan—the part after the bloody opening sequence. As in his 1983 book, Goldman is again candid with his thoughts and opinions.
Goldman’s book Hype And Glory came along in 1990. Two years earlier, Goldman had been invited to be a judge at the Cannes Film Festival in May and the Miss America pageant in late summer. This book recounts, via his chatty observations of those events, what goes on behind the scenes. His tales are revealing and often hilarious.
My copy of the Dr. Seuss book will be returned to the county library when it reopens. The trade paperback version of the book will be released May 26 and is available for preorder now. Click HERE for info.
When I am reading books that I’ve bought, I often think about who among my friends and associates might appreciate a particular book if I were to pass it along. As I was reading these Goldman books, though, I was thinking I’ll just hang on to them and read them again in a few years. Definitely worth a future re-read!