Catching Up

This is a momentous week for me: we’ve just finished the new edition of my annual paperback Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide—the 2011 Edition, to be specific. In this era of instant communication the process of writing, editing, and preparing a book seems quaint at best, and cumbersome at worst, but our book is still alive and well, and (I’m happy to say) has a healthy audience around the world. (I use the editorial “we” advisedly, since this has always been a team effort. Some of my collaborators have been working on this book for thirty years or more. If I didn’t have their input I’d be lost.)

Every spring becomes a high-stress period for me and my colleagues as we become mired in fact-checking details (the spelling of a Czech actor’s name, the running time of an unrated DVD version of a popular hit, etc.) and making sure someone on our team has seen every major new release. Then there are additions, corrections, and changes to the existing entries, which never end.

But when I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, sometime in early May, I start to breathe. I’ve actually—

—taken some time off over the last few weekends to relax and clear the cobwebs from my head.

My favorite form of relaxation is reading, and I haven’t been in the mood to read anything heavy, or work-related. So first, I picked up Andy Williams’ autobiography, Moon River and Me (Viking), which was published last fall. I’ve always enjoyed him as a performer and thought this might be an interesting show-business memoir—which it is. He has many interesting stories to tell, not the least being the saga of how his father set his sights on a career for his four sons and made them leave Wall Lake, Iowa to pursue it. He’s still going strong, at his home base in Branson, Missouri, and he’s written a charming and enjoyable memoir.

Last Sunday I cozied up with a paperback written by my friend Max Allan Collins, The First Quarry (Hard Case Crime), the “origin” story of his series about a Vietnam vet-turned-hired-killer series, set in 1970. Al writes all sorts of fiction, including true-crime novels, movie and TV novelizations, and graphic novels (including Road to Perdition). He’s also taken on the task of completing some unfinished work by his hero, Mickey Spillane, whose hard-boiled prose clearly inspired the Quarry series. It’s tough, sexy, profane, and great fun to read as pure escapism: just what the doctor ordered.

I also spent a happy morning paging through Craig Yoe’s latest labor of love, a beautifully produced, oversized volume called The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story (Yoebooks/IDW Publishing). When I was a kid I loved reading about the history of comic strips; that’s when I first encountered the work of Milt Gross, who made quite a splash with a series of newspaper features and best-selling books (like Nize Baby and the hilarious Hiawatta, Witt No Odder Poems) that turned Jewish dialect humor into a form of high art. Yoe not only chronicles Gross’ life and career but reprints the short-lived comic book series of the 1940s that bore its creator’s name. They’re lively, bracingly nutty, and completely original; Gross’ dynamic drawing style was as individual as his sense of humor.
It turns out there’s also a Hollywood connection, as the cartoonist moved to Los Angeles with his family in the 1920s and had many ties to the movie colony, including a friendship with Charlie Chaplin. MGM even attempted to turn one of his comics into a feature film. Family scrapbook photos help to capture Gross’ interesting life and times, and the book is handsomely produced, with a cover and spine that already show artificial signs of wear and tear. I love it.

For viewing, I pored over a stack of DVD screeners and chose a film I hadn’t seen in years: Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948), now available from My wife and I were struck by how fresh and vital it remains after all these years, a genuinely moving story of a Czech boy (Ivan Jandl) separated from his mother during World War Two and sent to a concentration camp. Now one of the thousands of displaced children wandering around Europe, he flees from the well-meaning care of a United Nations organization and hooks up with a U.S. Army engineer, well played by a young Montgomery Clift. (This was only his second film.) What a beautiful movie this is.

The minute it was over I went to my bookshelf to read what the director had to say about it in his book Fred Zinnemann: A Life in the Movies. Learning how the production was put together, and how he and a tiny Swiss crew managed to get their story on screen, made it all the more impressive. Zinnemann also reveals that Clift rewrote much of his dialogue. He is proud of the picture, although he thinks the second half is too sentimental. I respectfully disagree.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, I also checked out I Love Lucy: The Movie. This recent release from CBS/Paramount Home Video highlights an unreleased feature film (that was previously released on one of the chronological Lucy DVD sets) prepared for theatrical release but kept on the shelf when Lucy and Desi signed with MGM to make a bona fide starring feature, The Long, Long Trailer. This Desilu feature is comprised of three episodes from the TV comedy’s first season, linked together by footage of two ordinary folks (played by Ann Doran and Benny Baker) attending a filming of an I Love Lucy show. Desi welcomes the studio audience, introduced by longtime announcer Roy Rowan, then shows them how the cameras and microphones operate, and brings out each of his costars to take a bow, before segueing into the first episode. The other linking footage is brief and inconsequential, but it’s interesting to get a glimpse of the cast out of character and see the physical setup of the I Love Lucy stage.

Other features on this disc, produced by Gregg Oppenheimer (son of the show’s creator, Jess Oppenheimer), include a colorized episode of the only I Love Lucy show that was designed and prepared to be filmed in color (although those plans were scrapped at the last minute), Lucy Goes to Scotland; Lucy and Desi’s first joint television appearance, on The Ed Wynn Show in 1949; footage of the Emmy Awards telecast in 1954 featuring Lucy, Desi, and Vivian Vance; and an interesting sidebar about the Philip Morris commercials and introductions that were originally an integral part of I Love Lucy. Each piece is accompanied by informative program notes onscreen, and I found every one of these segments to be fascinating, whether it’s watching Lucy literally bounce up and down with delight when Vance’s name is read as the winner of the Best Supporting Actress award, or seeing Desi crack up at Ed Wynn’s ad libs, or spending a bit of quality time with Johnny Roventini, the diminutive bellhop spokesman for Philip Morris.

I look forward to doing more extracurricular reading, viewing, and listening over the summer months and sharing my thoughts with you. And I’ll be sure to trumpet the arrival of the new Movie Guide in late July.

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May 2024