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The first book to bring together these interviews of master moviemakers from the American Film Institute’s renowned seminars, Conversations with the Great Moviemakers offers an unmatched history of American cinema in the words of its greatest practitioners.
Here are the incomparable directors Frank Capra, Elia Kazan, King Vidor, David Lean, Fritz Lang (“I learned only from bad films”), William Wyler, and George Stevens; renowned producers and cinematographers; celebrated screenwriters Ray Bradbury and Ernest Lehman; as well as the immortal Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini (“Making a movie is a mathematical operation. It’s absolutely impossible to improvise”). Taken together, these conversations offer uniquely intimate access to the thinking, the wisdom, and the genius of cinema’s most talented pioneers.
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George Stevens, Jr., is an award-winning writer, director, and producer, and founder of the American Film Institute. He has received eleven Emmys, two Peabody Awards, and seven Writers Guild of America Awards for his television productions, including the annual Kennedy Center Honors, The Murder of Mary Phagan, and Separate but Equal. His production The Thin Red Line was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture. He worked with his father, acclaimed director George Stevens, on his productions of Shane, Giant, and The Diary of Anne Frank and in 1962 was named head of the United States Information Agency's motion picture division by Edward R. Murrow. Stevens was director of the AFI from 1967 until 1980, before returning to film and television production. He lives in Washington, D.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It sounds like bragging, but we didn’t borrow from the bank. We kept a certain amount of money aside and financed our own pictures. In a way we gambled a little heavier than some people do at Las Vegas, but we always got away with it.
(Born in Burchard, Nebraska, 1893—Died 1971)
There are few more fondly remembered screen images than the young man with horn-rimmed glasses desperately clinging to the hand of a clock high over Los Angeles. That young man was seventy-six years old the night he joined twenty aspiring filmmakers who had earlier seen a thirty-five-millimeter print of Kid Brother in the old library of the Doheny estate in Beverly Hills. For most of them this was their first look at Harold Lloyd, a comic genius whose screen triumphs four decades earlier had made him one of the world’s most famous faces, an international star who produced his films and took responsibility for every detail. He never took director credit, but he was the guiding light of his comedies.
Lloyd owned his films and preserved them, but kept such a tight grip on them that he missed the opportunity for the kind of revivals enjoyed by his contemporary rivals, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In fact, most filmgoers remember him only for the famous clock scene in Safety Last! because it is seen so often in film history compilations. But in the 1920s audiences crowded into theaters and howled at Lloyd’s antics in Grandma’s Boy, Girl Shy, The Freshman, The Kid Brother and Speedy—which were always accompanied by a live orchestra. I remember Lloyd insisting that a piano was all right for two-reelers, but you had to have a big orchestra for features.
He was slight at five foot nine, optimistic and genial. When he arrived at AFI he seemed more like someone’s happy uncle than a man whose success had enabled him to build a forty-four-room house in Beverly Hills with a hundred-foot waterfall, a nine-hole golf course and a staff of sixteen full-time gardeners.
Lloyd gave the world thrills and laughs. His era was the magical time of grand movie palaces, huge audiences and shared laughter, and his legacy includes some of the finest comedies ever made. It’s just as well that Lloyd, a perfectionist who died two years after his AFI seminar, didn’t live to see the postage-stamp screens of the modern shopping mall.
I invited him to be AFI’s first speaker because I felt it important to establish this series with a pioneer who went back to the roots of American filmmaking, a pioneer who understood the importance of AFI’s goal of preserving our motion picture heritage.
Lloyd’s friend and colleague King Vidor joined the fellows in the questioning.
September 23, 1969
May I just say that being a guest here tonight, I feel highly honored being in on the initial shove-off, as it were, of the AFI Conservatory. Certainly I’m sure that everyone here, every guest you have, is rooting that it’s going to go tremendous places. I’m happy to say that I have the honor also of being one of the original men on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and to tell the truth, I don’t believe it was as big as this when we started. I was on the original board that elected Doug Fairbanks, Sr., president, and it has gone quite a ways, so I’d say that if your institute here gathers momentum and keeps going, you may well outdistance the Academy Awards. I hope that takes place.
This picture that you’ve just seen, Kid Brother, well, we had a little problem with that one. It is what I call a “character comedy.” I made two different types of pictures. I made what we call “gag pictures,” for instance Safety Last!, where I climbed a building and hung on a clock. But Kid Brother is more what I call a character comedy because we start slow, we plant the character, we very carefully try and let it grow, letting the picture gain momentum as it goes on through to the end. I think we accomplished that. Now, where we took quite a chance with Kid Brother was in putting a fast-moving half-hour composite at the front of it with mostly comedy business and gags. After you’ve gone that length of time and then stop—and start a picture from scratch to build your character—you are taking quite a chance.
I used to hear stories about how adroit you and the cameramen were at slowing down right in the middle of a scene. Did you have the same cameraman with you all the time?
Yes, Walter Lundin. He was with me for years and years.
These were all done with hand-cranked cameras?
I was amazed at the scene with the bus running through what seemed to be normal traffic. They must have had everything else on the street move at a snail’s pace.
No, that was done right down here in the streets. I mean, we had our own traffic. We did that in New York, too. In fact there was a picture called Speedy where I had two horses pulling a horse cart down the thing, and we’d block off about three blocks. We looked like we had the whole police force there with us. We had our own traffic. It wasn’t cheating. Of course, we had a terrible time on that one. One of our own cars got in the way of the horses, and to keep from running into the car, the man had to pull the horse and go down the subway. It didn’t hurt the horse, I’m happy to say, but we never used him again. He was a little shy after that. But these scenes you saw here were shot with our own traffic and generally with the car in front or in back with the camera. The camera was taking every bit as much of a chance.
The bus was going very much faster than anything else?
We had that bus on a cantilever and the bus tipped itself, so as we’d go around the corner we’d tip it and over you’d go. One thing you had to watch was when you’re hanging over the edge—which I was—that you didn’t get your leg caught in between the tip. But we actually did all that stuff. You see, you can’t slow your camera down too much because the pedestrians look jerky. In fact in the film they might be jerky, but we didn’t want them to look that way.
What speeds did the cameras run at?
I’d say they were down around fourteen frames per second, except in some places they might drop it even more. As you were saying, the cameramen in those days had a certain technique and an ability to really keep that crank going. The majority of the audience think we cranked that way, they think we wanted it to go exceptionally fast, and they accept that as the way we made it. Of course, everyone here knows it’s not true, but no matter how many times you tell people it was cranked at a much different speed, and that you had to get a much smaller number of frames through the camera than you do now and therefore it’s got to go much faster, they don’t hear you at all. As much as it’s been repeated, I don’t think the majority of people have any idea about speed. They don’t care, really. I guess if they did care, your picture wouldn’t be worth a damn. But the students here would know the difference.
Now, a picture that I was always afraid of was Safety Last! because I had several scenes in there and they moved pretty fast. But I put it in front of an audience, and it didn’t seem to spoil the laughs any. I showed it recently to a group of high school students at Hollywood High and it went as well as it ever did with the crowd I first made it for. So why am I worrying about speed?
Do you think audiences today like the film because of the fast pace?
In some cases they might, and in other places, no. But I think if your comedy is basic enough and they’re with you—they’re laughing with you as well as at you—I really don’t think it makes too much difference.
There’s a thematic element in The Kid Brother, and I’m curious about how it evolved and how you feel about it now.
Basically the theme is “brains over brawn.” In the film I have two older brothers who are behemoths, and I’m the puny little fellow, the boy who thinks and in the end outwits those people who just use their muscles. In a lot of the pictures—especially the character comedies—we tried to have some kind of hidden theme in there. I guess if you boil it down to “be yourself” that would be about the shortest you could make it.
But when it comes to the theme of a picture, we’re supposed to be comics, and the audience came to get a chuckle or two. I’d go back to another picture we made that Hal Roach and I had a little contention on, and we were both right, in a way. Hal Roach and I made Grandma’s Boy and we previewed it, and it kind of lay there, to a certain degree. The film had a fine theme in it, that of “mind over matter.” The boy’s a terrific coward and his grandmother recognizes that. To help him out she gives him a talisman that she says his grandfather had owned. His grandfather had been more cowardly than he, but with this talisman he [the boy] just can’t fail, and he becomes a great hero. Of course, at the end he finds out that the talisman was just a handle to her umbrella. He finally realized he’d accomplished these things himself. But we didn’t put enough comedy in it, so the audience didn’t laugh as much as they should have.
Did you ever preview any of your pictures?
I think we were one of the very first, even back in the old one-reel days, to start previews. We used to go out here to Glendale. I can remember the old gentleman who was manager of the theater. His name was Howard and he would always put on tails to come out to explain to the audience what was going on, that this picture had never been shown before and that we expected to do a lot more work on it. He made it clear that the audience was the judge and so forth. After the preview of Grandma’s Boy we went back and Hal said, “Harold, you’re a comic, you’ve got to get laughs. Let’s go back to work.” So we went back and worked for months putting comedy-business gags all over the place. The second time we previewed it, it blossomed. It was fine and it’s been fine ever since. In fact, the picture probably did as much for us as anything because it was the first feature picture we made. We didn’t intend for it to be a feature—we started it as a two-reeler. In fact, our group—Hal and myself, our staff—we were thoroughly entrenched in making two-reel pictures and doing pretty well with them. But this had such a nice theme that it just kept growing, and we let it grow. It grew into a five-reel picture. When it came to getting more money for it, the exhibitors were a little loathe to pay us more than they had been paying us for two-reelers. They were perfectly happy with the two-reelers, so we couldn’t go anyplace with this longer film. Eventually they offered us a little more, but not so much. So we went down to Broadway and we took a third-run house that was showing newsreels and we put the picture in there. They thought we were off our rocker, but the picture ran nineteen weeks. It established a tremendous record, and from then on we had no trouble.
We ran into the same thing on Safety Last! Sometimes you had to take the film to Chicago, which was tied up with various circuits: Lubliner and Trinz, Balaban and Katz, one or the other. We felt that we had something a little out of the ordinary with Safety Last! because it had the thrill in it that audiences were reacting to very strongly in those days. We could get nowhere with the circuits, so we took a house on Michigan Boulevard called Orchestral Hall and established a fine record there, and had no trouble with Lubliner and Trinz, and Balaban and Katz after that.
Are you planning to rerelease Grandma’s Boy?
Here’s the way I look at it. If I thought there was a demand with the public for the pictures, I would love to release a great many of them, but I feel very loathe to release them unless I feel they’re really wanted and desired. What I mean by that is, even though I have stayed off the screen for many years and I think I’m quite well known with the nostalgia group, I’m known very little, if at all, with a great many cinemagoers. Now, what’s the use of releasing pictures in the theaters if audiences don’t know who they’re going to see? The general public is different today. That’s my situation, and it’s the reason I took it to Hollywood High down here. Somebody presented the opportunity to me, and I went down there and found that this generation is more “hip,” I think, than the generation I made them for. They’ve seen more television. Their whole response was tremendous because they didn’t miss a gag, even things that were a little subtle. They got them right away. I went around and did a symposium with about eleven universities. They had a student congress and the picture went about as well there as I’ve seen it.
What about showing the films on television?
I could go on television very easily if I wanted to; I’ve had many offers. My price is a little high. I don’t mind telling you what I’m asking. They’ve come up close to it, but they haven’t come up. I want three hundred thousand dollars for myself for two showings. That’s a high price, but if I don’t get it, I’m not going to show it. That’s it.
How did it happen that you kept control of your films?
Well, that was kind of fortunate. I know because Buster Keaton was a very good friend of mine, and I knew Laurel very well, and Hardy, and they got into situations where they weren’t able to retain control of their pictures. At first I made pictures for Roach, and Roach had complete control. Later on he came to me and said, “Harold, you don’t need me anymore. I’ve got so many pictures of my own to do, we might as well just go our own way.” Which we did, and it was I think the most amicable way that any two people could have parted.
From that time on I produced and financed my own pictures. It sounds like bragging, but we didn’t borrow from the bank. We kept a certain amount of money aside and financed our own pictures. In a way we gambled a little heavier than some people do at Las Vegas, but we always got away with it. In one picture we put in close to a million dollars. No one wants to lose that much, which you can very easily in the picture business. But by doing that I was able to control my own pictures. Pathé, who owns so many of my Roach films, turned them over to me, and I bought a number of them from Roach. So I either own or control practically all of them.
Back then it seemed to be a time when the people who were making films finished a film and then forgot it, and that’s why so many have been lost. You seem to have a respect for what you did.
Well, we’re going through the throes right now of trying to keep a lot of one-reelers from being lost. Nitrate, as you all know, is a very dangerous form of film and very tricky. It turns into jelly. Of all the pictures ever made on nitrate negatives, more than half have been lost. I lost an awful lot of films. They were stored in New Jersey, in a place called Bonbrook. Everybody stored them there, and they had a tremendous fire and all of ours were lost. And I had a fire at my house with nitrate. Fortunately, I didn’t keep the ones that I treasure the most there. Nitrate film, for no reason at all, just explodes sometimes. They’re such nasty fires because of the fumes and everything. That’s why a great many films have been lost, and a lot of others have been lost because no one preserved them. They just didn’t think they were valuable.
You once said that comedies have a better chance than dramatic pictures today. Why do you think that?
We didn’t make a local type of humor. We were smart enough to realize that they had to be understood...
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