Ah, Yes, They Recall It Well
In a race against time, Turner Classic Movies seeks out veterans of the golden age of movies.
By Hank Rosenfield, November 26, 2000, Los Angeles Times
A few old men in a Park Hyatt suite in Century City. They kibitz . . .
Yordan: We went to New York, Bernie.
Gordon: Where'd you stay? Your favorite place, the Automat?
Yordan: No, that place where they chain the ashtrays to the table. The Mildew Plaza.
What could be the opening of a new Neil Simon-something is a coupla screenwriters sitting around noshing, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. TCM has invited Bernard Gordon ("Krakatoa, East of Java," "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," etc.), Philip Yordan ("Johnny Guitar," "El Cid," etc.), Sidney Sheldon ("Easter Parade," "Annie Get Your Gun," etc.) and other figures from the golden age of Hollywood to sit for an oral history project.
"Child actresses, stunt guys, makeup people, composers, producers," reels off archive project leader Alexa Foreman. Her crew from TCM headquarters in Atlanta has more than 200 Hollywood survivors archived so far.
From June Allyson to Elmer Bernstein, Billy Barty to Shelley Winters, the interviews are employed as clips to tickle and teach viewers during TCM "film festivals." She says that Turner's vast film library includes everything from RKO, and all pre-1986 movies from MGM and pre-1948 from Warner Bros.
"These people are living history," says Tom Karsch, executive vice president and general manager of TCM. "I'd loved to have been able to pick George S. Kaufman's brain. Or Mark Twain's. There's nothing more enlightening than hearing it from somebody who was there."
"We create a relaxed environment for them," says Foreman in a Holly Hunter Southern accent that can immediately ease an octogenarian sitting for an hour under the lights. With the project since it began in 1994, she makes two trips a year to this hall of bedrooms on the 14th floor. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle, the way all these people connect. You see it when they run into each other. They bring their families too."
Indeed, Phil Yordan's wife, Faith, and daughters Phyllis and Julie are here, as is Bernie Gordon's daughter Ellen, sharing lunch on couches in the plush hotel. Forty years ago, they shared lives in Spain, where Yordan and Gordon wrote, as front and blacklisted screenwriter, respectively. Yordan calls Gordon "Bernie," Bernie calls Yordan "Yordan."
"I got $2,000 a week, two cars, a vacation in St. Moritz," Gordon reminisces.
"That was big money back then," Yordan says.
"Thus, the title of my book, 'Hollywood Exile: How I Learned to Love the Blacklist,' " Gordon plows ahead. "It's ironic but true, because when I escaped and went to Europe, I finally became a success."
Ahh, the times they had: Scenarists in Madrid! Drinking with [screenwriter] Paul Jarrico in Paris!
"My paperback is due out in December," Gordon wants us to know. "That will keep the cost down for students using it in their courses."
Yordan shows off a quote attributed to him on the back cover: "Everything Gordon writes about me is untrue, but I found the book fascinating."
A bunch of storytellers sitting around talking. What's better than that? "Makeup artists and costume designers often are the best storytellers," says TCM's Karsch. Like makeup man Ben Lane, now in his 80s and wearing a neat blue cardigan as he emerges from the bedroom-studio. The hotel towers over the 20th Century Fox lot, where gofers on bicycles dart between buildings down below. Looking out of the window, Lane says, "My first picture at Fox was 'Dawn's Early Light.'
"I was director of makeup at Columbia Pictures," he says by way of introducing himself to Gordon. He says he's done Cary Grant in "Gunga Din," all the "Guys and Dolls," the people in "Oklahoma!" and even "Annie." Gordon and Lane trade a Marlene Dietrich joke, something about how she came back after her 15 years away and told the makeup man, "How come I don't look the same?" And he said, "Miss Dietrich, I've aged 15 years."
Sidney Sheldon has laryngitis, but once he gets going, the best-selling novelist tells Foreman, "I'm yours till midnight." When he started, he says, he wrote "I can't even call them B pictures. They were Z pictures.
"Eventually I wrote a story called 'Suddenly It's Spring,' and David Selznick hired me to write the screenplay. One day he called me in and he said, 'I'm changing the title.' And I said, 'To what, sir?' He said, 'The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.' And because I knew so much about show business I said, 'Mr. Selznick, sir, nobody is going to pay to see a picture called 'The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.' So it opened at Radio City Music Hall, I got an Oscar and that's how much I know about show business."
Darcy Hettrich, director of talent for the project, has cleverly scheduled the interviews true to studio form: Makeup early in the morning, screenwriters around midday so they can eat lunch on the budget, with the producers rolling in around 3.
Gordon looks the venerable writer in corduroy jacket with patches, Reeboks, Dockers and hearing aid. TCM found him at Emory University in Atlanta, lecturing from his memoir. He now tells project interviewer Maureen Corley he came out to Los Angeles from the Bronx with 16 bucks in his pocket and got a job at Paramount as a script reader.
The camera stops rolling. They need to straighten three loose hairs on his head.
"I worked for the famous Jack Warner," Gordon picks up after the interruption. "He called writers 'schmucks with typewriters.' By the time they [the House Committee on Un-American Activities] got to me, it was sort of the bottom of the barrel of Hollywood. I was never called. They told me to stand by. Maybe I'm still standing by."
Unable to work, Gordon became what he calls "the world's worst plastics salesman" in downtown Los Angeles. His boss was his friend Ray Marcus. Gordon put "Raymond T. Marcus" on "Hellcats of the Navy" which starred Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy Davis in 1957, and on half a dozen other scripts. Gordon moved to Spain, where Yordan had a home, and together they created "The Day of the Triffids," "55 Days at Peking," "Circus World" and "Battle of the Bulge." Yordan, who was also a producer, wrote crime pictures and what later would be called film noir in the 1940s. His first big hit was "Dillinger," for Monogram Pictures, with more than 50 other features listed in his filmography.
"What made Yordan's scripts distinctive," writes author Eddie Muller in "Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir," 'was his sometimes subtle, sometimes subversive, way of twisting genre conventions to keep things lively and unpredictable. His screenplays for 'The Chase,' 'Johnny Guitar' and 'The Big Combo' are quirky to the point of outrageousness. If the premise was slight, you could trust Yordan to goose it with plenty of 'business.' "
Yordan won an Oscar for writing the story for "Broken Lance," a 1954 western with Spencer Tracy, but he tells archivist Foreman that he didn't want it. On "Johnny Guitar" that same year, he had to talk Joan Crawford into staying on the picture. "I asked her what would make her happy, and she said, 'I want to have a shootout with Mercedes McCambridge and kill her.' So I said, 'You got it.' "
"Glad you got to tell the Reagan story," Corley tells Gordon. "Hellcats of the Navy," allegedly President Reagan's favorite movie, "ran in the White House more than any other film," Gordon says with pride and mischief on his face. "Imagine: him making love to Nancy, speaking my words--I never had the heart to tell him that his favorite movie was written by a blacklisted writer."
When Reagan was president of SAG, he named members of his union before the House Un-American Activities Committee. "Bernie," Yordan gestures at him, "which billionaire do you like for president this year?"
"You," Gordon deadpans. "You know, the only reason to vote for Gore is Bush."
When a reporter tells them that there are now online chat rooms discussing their sci-fi cult hit "The Day of the Triffids," it doesn't quite register. Semi-savvy on the Internet, Gordon has been trying to get a 1984 release, "Fort Saganne," off a Web site database that attributes the French movie to them. "We didn't write it," he says, and then laughs. "I had a hard enough time getting my own credits, I don't want to take anybody else's."
Waiting for a camera to be repaired, talk turns to who got a new condominium and who's doing how good or bad after "the operation."
"We saw you being born," Gordon tells Yordan's daughter about one day in Madrid. "I was the bullfighter's baby," says Phyllis. "Me and ["55 Days at Peking" star] Ava Gardner split the bullfighter," jokes Faith Yordan.
When Gordon gets around to the time he made Yordan's son lick cornflakes off the floor in Beverly Hills, it's time for photos.
"This kind of family gathering is fun," Gordon says with a grin. "It's time I stood over him," he says about Yordan, in a mock writer versus producer jab. Smiling, he puts his arm around Yordan. "I don't know what he did to make me like him. But I did. I liked him." Hettrich cuts in to say TCM is doing a special festival of great screenwriters in February. "How come I'm not with the great screenwriters?" Gordon immediately digs. "We don't know yet!" she begs off, whirling past him to prepare the next behind-the-camera contender, producer Armand Deutsch.
Eighty-seven, Deutsch is wearing a sharp blue suit set off by gold eagle cuff links. He also has a book: "Me and Bogey." He came to Hollywood from Wall Street 60 years ago. "I'm thinking I could have a romance with Lana Turner and then back to New York," Deutsch happily tells the camera, in a gentlemanly cultured timbre that will play grandly to the classic movie crowd. "What does a producer do?" she asks him. "I don't know," Deutsch says. "But we're all here. A producer gets them all together. I was prepared to do every part of picture-making. Compared to today, it was kind of a snap."
The project's goal is to get every available witness to film's golden age, the period before the old studio system broke down. "There's a sense of urgency that this is the right thing to do," says TCM's Karsch. "We've already lost 33 of the 221 people." He models his oral archive after the Spielberg Foundation's Shoah Project. "Not to be morbid, but there's something rejoicing in both," he explains. "Here we have an opportunity to talk to people about one of the most exciting times in our country's history--from the silent period to the way movies are made today. Very vibrant people with great recall."
TCM keeps a digital beta copy in Atlanta, while the masters go to the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Center for Motion Picture Study in Beverly Hills, "in a climate-controlled vault," notes Corley. The Peabody Library at the University of Georgia also gets a copy.
Meanwhile, back at lunch, Gordon says he's on his way to the University of Wisconsin. "I am planning to donate my scripts and documents to them," he tells Yordan. "I'd like to get a script from you."
"Whatever you want Bernie," says Yordan. Gordon leans over Yordan's wheelchair. "It has tax advantages," he tells him. A reporter wants to know about their 1964 "Circus World," which had John Wayne as ringmaster Matt Masters. " 'Circus World'?" Yordan cranks his head around. "That's another hour!" Then he turns to Gordon. "Was that a disaster," he says to his partner. "Did you ever read the script that what's-his-name--Capra wrote?"
"I read it," is all Gordon says.
"But a perfect gentleman," Yordan adds.
At the end of the day, Yordan will be returned to La Jolla in a limo and Gordon heads just a few blocks to his house. TCM packs up another collection of archived memories of old men who will live forever, as classics.
Got time for one more before we take the elevator back down into our "real" lives? Here's Sheldon on Groucho Marx: "Groucho was probably my closest friend. He was also the godfather to my daughter. I'll tell you what people didn't realize about Groucho: He meant what he said. And people took it as a joke. I remember one night we had a dinner date. Four of us were going out. Both our wives were actresses, and they got a call to be on the set the next day. So I called Groucho and I said, 'It's just the two of us tonight.' And he said, 'How do you want me to dress?' I said, 'Well dress nicely, I don't want to be ashamed of you, we're going to a nice restaurant.'
"He said, 'OK,' and when I picked him up, he was wearing his wife's dress with a little hat, high-heeled shoes and smoking a cigar. He invited me in, we were having a drink, but what he forgot was that some people from CBS were coming over to talk to him about a show. So they walk in. I ran into one of the men a couple days later and I said, 'What did you think when you came in and saw Groucho in the dress?' And he said, 'If it had been anyone but Groucho, I would have been very worried.' He was unique and wonderful."
- - -copyright 2000
Hank Rosenfeld Is a Journalist and Humorist Who Also Works in Radio and Theater
Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Center for Motion Picture Study in Beverly Hills
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