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THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE

If someone submitted this story as a piece of fiction, no one would believe it. The notion that a popular baseball catcher had a superior intellect and wound up spying for the U.S. government is simply too outlandish…but it’s true, and that one-line summary doesn’t begin to tell the tale. Moe Berg was the son of Jewish immigrants and loved baseball almost as much as he did studying. He held degrees from Princeton, Columbia Law School, and the Sorbonne. He spoke many languages—including Sanskrit—and wrote erudite essays for The Atlantic and other literary journals. He also traveled to Japan in the 1930s with an all-star team of players including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and took home movies which later figured in his espionage activities. He…

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THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

The gifted Quebecois writer-director Denys Arcand has only himself to blame for the slight feeling of disappointment that his new film engenders. The man who gave us such provocative films as Jesus of Montreal, The Decline of the American Empire, Stardom, and the beguiling Oscar-winner The Barbarian Invasions has nothing to apologize for. The worst thing I can say about his new release The Fall of the American Empire is that it feels inconsequential alongside his other work. But then, as the great Ernst Lubitsch once remarked, it can be said of a mediocre talent that he always lives up to his potential. Not that The Fall of the American Empire is mediocre; far from it. In fact, it’s an entertaining, surprisingly lighthearted satire that illustrates the power that money has to…

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ROCKETMAN

First, the good news: Taron Egerton gives a breathtakingly good performance in Rocketman. He even accomplishes the near-impossible: making you forget you’re not watching the real Elton John. The musical numbers that punctuate the movie are propulsive and imaginatively staged. I can’t picture anyone not being swept up by their vitality and sheer likability. I wish I could say the same for the overall film. The story is told in flashback as the flamboyantly costumed star attends his first AA meeting and begins a series of confessions. This takes us back to his childhood, where we see how the precocious 5-year-old Reginald Dwight started picking out tunes on the piano and revealing his innate talent. Rocketman is at its best in this early portion. We see how…

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CAROLE LOMBARD DIRECTS ALFRED HITCHCOCK—AND MORE

More than forty years ago, while doing research at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library, I came upon an item in a trade magazine about a short-subject which featured footage of Carole Lombard directing Alfred Hitchcock in his cameo appearance for their 1941 comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I’ve been looking for that footage ever since. In fact, I’ve been looking for any prints of the series where it appeared: Picture People. I have canvassed private collectors and archives alike with shockingly little success.     There were 26 shorts released between 1940 and 1942 and in all that time I have managed to acquire just one 16mm print. The Library of Congress has the same episode I have, Palm Springs Weekend, plus one more, Hollywood…

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HIGHLIGHTS OF MALTINFEST

My family and I love film festivals, but I never dreamed of staging one myself. That idea emanated from my daughter Jessie, who found a perfect partner in Stacy Howard. Together with Alice and me, they crafted a “dream weekend” for movie lovers, the kind of event we’d want to attend ourselves. We screened movies we wanted to bring to an audience that might have missed them the first time around. Thus was born MaltinFest. We were fortunate to get great press coverage here in Los Angeles and the event was a success in every way. All through the weekend people came up to me asking, “How did I never know about this film before?” On opening night, the audience embraced John Carney’s Sing Street as one,…

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REMEMBERING DORIS DAY

I’m convinced that Doris Day was put on this earth to make us happy. When our daughter Jessie was four, my wife and I introduced her to Calamity Jane, and it was love at first sight. We followed it with The Pajama Game. Believe me, it was no chore for us to watch those 1950s musicals over and over again (as kids oblige parents to do) because they were so entertaining and Day was so good in them. When you see her face, when you hear her voice—you can’t help but smile. How many people have that effect on the public decade after decade? She was a natural talent who made everything she did look easy. Moreover, she was one of just a handful of…

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THE RETURN OF DROODLES

When I was a boy my ambition was to be a cartoonist. I wrote fan letters to some of my heroes and got wonderful, encouraging replies from the likes of Charles M. Schulz, Chic Young, Jules Feiffer, and even Rube Goldberg, whom I interviewed in his Manhattan studio one memorable afternoon. But the only one I got to know was Roger Price, who was famous for his ingeniously captioned drawings called Droodles. I avidly collected his books, including a volume of humorous prose titled In One Head and Out the Other. Roger had many careers: as a radio actor, nightclub performer, and TV personality, among others. For a time he was one of Bob Hope’s writers, and in years to come created Mad Libs with his friend Leonard…

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