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THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES


Ray Faiola
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Member Eric J. mentioned THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES in one of his blogs. This was my favorite documentary series, beautifully written by Richard Schickel (based on his book) and narrated with fine understatement by Cliff Robertson.  While a couple of these have been re-imaged (and re-narrated by the late Sydney Pollack), the originals are still the gold standard for me (I recently acquired a complete set of 16mm prints of this great series).

 

They did episodes on King Vidor, Vincent Minnelli, Alfred Hitchcock, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, George Cukor and - my favorite show - Frank Capra.

 

Do any other older-timers remember this PBS series?

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Yes, Ray, I recall, in particular, watching "the one eyed bandit," as Errol Flynn used to call him, Raoul Walsh talking to campus kids about his films and old time Hollywood. Walsh was always a bit of an embellisher with the truth. He loved to tell a good story, but he was a colourful guy, sitting there with a cowboy hat on and a patch over one eye, looking like one of the characters out of one of his own films. And he certainly worked with many of the legends.

 

I recorded the Walsh episode from the series when it played on TCM a few years ago, so took another look at it now (the channel showed a number of these Men Who Made the Movies episodes, including the tributes to Hawks and Hitchcock).

 

Walsh particularly interested me because he directed some of my very favourite Warners films during the '40s, starting with one Cagney film, The Roaring 20s and ending with another, White Heat, his masterpiece, in my opinion.

 

The documentary, narrated by Sydney Pollack, had plenty of clips from Walsh films, primarily his Warners efforts from the '40s.

 

The interviews with Walsh were clips from different interviews that he had had, at home on his ranch, in a large university auditorium, in a far more intimate setting with the director in a chair as students sat on the floor in front of him. But in all these settings Walsh was clearly in his element telling stories, and great anecdotes.

 

Of D. W. Griffith: "He was a gentle man, a kind man but he was a lonesome man."

 

Of Errol Flynn: "He was a terrific guy until they told him he was going to die and then he wanted to die."

 

Of James Cagney: The only thing he was afraid of was flying.

 

His favourite actresses with whom he worked - Virginia Mayo, Dietrich, Marion Davies, Ida Lupino - they all reminded him of people he had known before and they were sincere before the camera, never came in and posed.

 

The documentary ends with Walsh telling his legendary tale to campus kids of having taken John Barrymore's body from the mortuary to Errol Flynn's house as a practical joke. Walsh tells this tale with great relish, ending it with a final comic punchline. When he finally returned Barrymore's body to the morgue, the mortician asked him where he had taken it. When he said Flynn's home, the mortician replied, "Why the hell didn't you tell me? I'd have put a better suit on him."

 

Is the story actually true? Well, it's a part of the legend of hell raising Golden Hollywood, and Raoul Walsh always told the story, as fully documented on Men Who Made the Movies, like it was true. Flynn told the same story in his autobiography. But Flynn, like Walsh, liked to spin a tale.

 

According to Buster Wiles, a Flynn friend with him the night Barrymore died, it didn't happen. However, Wiles said, Walsh was still telling the story at Flynn's funeral, so by then, whether true or not, the director believed that it had happened.

 

And that's one of the reasons why I loved this documentary - capturing the real Walsh in full story telling mode in his later years, supplemented by clips showing his great story telling film style.

 

the_men_who_made_the_movies_raoul_walsh_

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Thank goodness my mother was a classic movie fan....because I saw the series first run on PBS as a teen. I'm sure it sparked my interest in classic film-soon to skip school to catch matinees at the Eastman House. I'm sure it was the turning point in my understanding someone "made" those movies.

 

As for embellishing stories; I think every single one of these great directors are "embellishers". You can't read Frank Capra's autobiography without realizing he's telling some tall tales-not just warping his personal perspective-but stretching the truth itself. Orson Welles was another big embellishing director/storyteller.

 

I think the very skills that make a director succeed is wild imagination, storytelling skills, understanding basic psychology and similar traits. When they are the performer, they are still entertaining the audience, they can't let you down by being a bore. They're just doing their job, right?

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