By Rudy Behlmer (Scarecrow Press)
From the moment he published his unforgettable tome Memo from David O. Selznick to the present day, Rudy Behlmer has earned the gratitude of film buffs everywhere through his writing, meticulous research, knowledgeable interviews for various documentaries and commentaries on a number of vintage Hollywood DVDs. Now we have reason to thank Rudy again, for publishing a series of conversations he conducted with longtime assistant director Reggie Callow in the 1970s. Callow’s career spanned six decades, from Hell’s Angels to The Sound of Music. He provides a candid insider’s view of Hollywood at work, and he seems to have had a near-photographic memory, recalling (for instance) the names of stunt pilots who worked for Howard Hughes on his aviation epic in the late 1920s!
An assistant director has a unique view of the filmmaking process. He makes up the daily call sheets and assigns the actors their call times. (On Plymouth Adventure, none of his three stars wanted to—
—be the first on the set in the morning.) He is a link between the director and the studio front office. He sees the biggest stars, directors, and executives at their worst and sometimes at their best.
Callow tries not to be rude but he calls ‘em as he sees ‘em, and tells interesting stories about everyone from excitable director Michael Curtiz to good-sport Grace Kelly. He suffered a sock in the head from Humphrey Bogart’s jealous and excitable wife Mayo Methot, and teased Elizabeth Taylor by squirting her with seltzer (after she spent an entire shoot pouring cups of water down everyone’s back). He was there when Alec Guinness complained about the heat of the lights during production of The Swan, whereupon cinematographer Robert Surtees offered a solution: he turned off just the lights that illuminated the actor’s face!
Asked about the various relatives of top executives who worked at MGM, he recalls that people remarked, “Blood is thicker than ability.”
Callow certainly covered a lot of ground during his years on the job. He worked with directors Victor Fleming and Sam Wood on Gone With the Wind and Alfred Hitchcock on Rebecca. He assisted Anthony Mann on his memorable film noirs of the late 1940s, then followed him to MGM and, years later, toiled on the memorable land-rush sequence in Cimarron. He spent endless months on the troubled remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, stood aside as George Stevens pondered his every move on The Greatest Story Ever Told, then became a trusted associate of Robert Wise on such films as The Sound of Music.
I hadn’t read, or heard, most of these stories before, and I gobbled up this book like a bowl of m&ms. Rudy Behlmer knows the right questions to ask, and there is a genuine sense of give-and-take in these transcribed talks. My only complaint is that there isn’t more.
To that end, I must add a caveat: this slender, 157-page paperback volume sells for a somewhat outlandish $50, not unusual for Scarecrow Press. But if you love stories of old Hollywood as much as I do, you may agree that this book gives you your money’s worth.