Spectator: Talk about Movies and Plays with the People Who Make Themby Studs Terkel, Garry Wills
Few of Terkel's millions of readers around the world know that over the last forty-five years, as part of his nationally syndicated radio show, Terkel has interviewed some of the greatest luminaries of film and theater. The Spectator collects those interviews in print for the first time. In these pages, Buster Keaton explains the wonders of unscripted/i>
Few of Terkel's millions of readers around the world know that over the last forty-five years, as part of his nationally syndicated radio show, Terkel has interviewed some of the greatest luminaries of film and theater. The Spectator collects those interviews in print for the first time. In these pages, Buster Keaton explains the wonders of unscripted silent comedy. Federico Fellini reflects on honesty in art. Carol Channing reveals that she is far more serious than she lets on. Marlon Brando turns the tables and wants to interview Studs.
The Spectator gives us a firsthand look at the actors, directors, playwrights, dancers, lyricists, and others who have created the dramatic arts of the past half-century.
- New Press, The
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IN THE WINGS
1949. It was a summer stock production of Three Men on a Horse. The successful Broadway farce had become a perennial favorite at summer theaters. Buster Keaton is disentangling himself from the contrary bedsheet. He is not fighting it as much as trying to understand it. The linen is not an adversary; it is a puzzle to be solved.
W. C. Fields would have dealt with this circumstance in a somewhat different fashion. Consider his hard times with the hat rack and the picket fence. And Baby Leroy. They were there as antagonists, by nature ordained. Or by some dark conspiracy. He, besieged human, elbowed, poked, shouldered, juggled his way through these ordeals, abetted, now and then, by a surreptitious kick. His bumptious dignity was somewhat diminished (if only for a moment) by these malign forces of nature.
For Charlie Chaplin, there'd be no challenge at all, nor a puzzle. The sheet was simply there; not to be ignored, of course; to be embraced, perhaps; to be worn as a robe by a Martha Graham dancer. Yet, ballet was his forte, not the modern dance. There would be a pirouette, segueing into a pas de deux with his compliant partner, the sheet: a touch of Nijinsky's dalliance with that scandalous scarf in The Afternoon of a Faun.
FLASH FORWARD. During some troubled times, in the early 1950s, I had difficulty holding on to jobs. A thoughtful acquaintance, who owned an art movie house, engaged me as its manager. I hadn't a clue-about bookings andmatters of that sort. I made a mess of it; a total disaster. During that month, I had one ideaa letter to Charlie Chaplin.
Charlie had experienced some troubles, too. He had left the United States and settled in Switzerland. Until some years later, he forbade the showing of his feature films in this country, classics such as The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times.
My letter suggested renaming the movie house I was managing as the Chaplin Theatre. After all, I reasoned, there were established houses, Warner's, Loew's, Fox, Goldwynnamed after commercial producers. If they were so honored, why not the artist who above all others helped create our most popular entertainment? It was his face, his walk, his first name, Charlie, that had become the most renowned in the world. Whether it be among the Inuits of the frozen north or the pygmies of Africa's Ituri Forest, as well as among the sophisticates, the Little Tramp's appearance from the magic lantern said it all. "Charlie" had become the eponym for the moving picture. James Agee had said it better, but I figured this would do. Further, I added, it would be an irreparable loss, indeed a shame, if the younger generation that had never seen his classics be denied this delight. If he granted me permission to show these films at the Chaplin Theatre, it would enrich their lives as well as ours.
I addressed the letter: Charles Chaplin, Vevey, Switzerland. About three weeks or a month later, I received a reply. Unfortunately, in my slovenly way, I have misplaced the letter that had lain in my desk for a couple of years and have had no luck in recovering it. However, I do remember certain passages. I have no doubt that he typed it himself because there were typographical errors that no seasoned typist would commit. He was deeply appreciative, he wrote. However, for my sake, because he took me to be a decent man, he would not allow me to be hurt. Anyone living in the United States at this time would become something of a pariah if associated with Charles Chaplin. There is one sentence that I will never forget: "My name is an anathema in the United States." The article "an" was inserted.
It was the loveliest rejection I had ever received. Duke Ellington could not have been more elegant. Duke, in firing Charlie Mingus from his band, sang his praise, suggesting that he was too creative to be just a sideman, that he was a natural-born leader and should have a group of his own. Mingus felt great until it occurred to him that he had just been sacked. I simply felt great. And moved.
For Buster Keaton, the bedsheet was a wholly different matter. With the silent perseverance of a microbe hunter, searching out a cure for a plague, he transforms the sheet into something else. His was the spirit of the alchemist transmuting dross into gold. If only to get out of the jam he was in.
In the bed, he twists, turns one way, then another. No soap. The sheet ravels itself around him even more tightly. He stands up. It is a toga. He is a solemn Roman senator, surveying with fixed gaze something out there. Once more, stone-faced though perplexed, he tries to free himself. The sheet is maddeningly enveloping him. Another movenothing desperate, simply a move. It becomes a flowing robe, the caftan of an Arabian sheik.
Again, he is at it. A winding sheet! We catch our breath. It has become the white shroud of the three dead little sons returning to haunt The Wife of Usher's Well.
It is not a moment of fright we are experiencing, as much as antic anxiety. Our unsettlement is not unlike that of the little children in Truffaut's 400 Blows, caught by the violence of Punch and Judy, yet delighting in their terror.
* * *
He is the French film director, on an American tour, promoting 400 Blows. He is twenty-eight.
How did I capture that moment? The faces of those children watching Punch and Judy, the terror? Very simple. The camera was hidden under the puppets. The operator had loaded his camera. I was standing in front of him with a newspaper. When the show began, I would lower the paper and we simply shot the scene. It was filmed during a festival.
The idea was to show that, contrary to what people ordinarily believed, a puppet show does not relax children or amuse them. On the contrary, it makes them tense and fills them with all sorts of anxieties. That's what we intended to show. Yes, I had something of a documentary in mind.
During this puppet show, the two characters who had taken the little girl to see the puppets were coolly discussing their plans to steal a typewriter, while the other children were sitting there watching Punch and Judy.
I meant it as a sort of farewell to childhood, a loss of innocence, the passing from petty misdemeanors to real theft. In the puppet show, everything revolved around the concept of good and evil; the blows that are inflicted and the ones received. This particular scene is the turning point, the focal point of the film; the point at which everything is going to change and take shape.
It's a difficult world. The phrase, 400 blows, does not refer to Punch and Judy. In France, doing the 400 blows means leading the unruly life, in which you commit misdemeanors that lead into major delinquency. The young woman, the mother of the boy, did her 400 blows before she got married.
To begin with, the boy has no admiration for his parents. When she's being kind to him, she's playing a role. The boy knows this. At no time is she natural. It's about separation of parents from child. This is the age that the child discovers that the world is not absolutely just. It's the time for hunger for independence, without parents, without teachers, without being told what to do by adults.
This life creates that solitude. That's it. It would have sounded a false note to have a cheerful or a pessimistic ending. At the edge of the water, I had this child come forward, look straight into the eyes of the public and, in effect, say, "Well, here I am. The story's over." There's a refusal to judge.
* * *
Buster is a prisoner with no apparent means of escape. Does this call for Houdini? Pause. He makes another, somewhat acrobatic turn, and he is free. He gets out of bed, puts on his clothes, and that's it. End of scene.
Three Men on a Horse concerned a timorous writer of greeting cards, who was kidnapped by three racetrack touts because he had a clairvoyant's knack of picking winners. I was one of the touts. Buster Keaton was, of course, the gate attraction as the kidnapee. That it was not his ideal vehicle was beside the point.
Standing in the wings, awaiting my cue, I was enthralled, watching a master. During each of those moments, there was an ever-so-slight improvisatory riff, as though he were doing it for the first time. He was Casals playing Bach, as though discovering him that moment. Even more remarkable, I missed my entrance cue only twice.
The production was mercifully reviewed as "adequate," a gentle critic's most damning report. I remember nothing of those forgettable two weeks, other than Buster's ten-minute scene. It had nothing to do with the play, but did that matter? Fifty years later, I remember Buster and the bedsheet.
When recalling the Brutus of Tyrone Power, Sr., it is Buster I see in the Roman toga. As Rudolph Valentino carries Agnes Ayres into the tent, it is Buster, rather, in the caftan. As I hear Alfred Deller sing of the haunted mother and the dead little sons, it is Buster in the winding sheet.
He was once more on tour; this time, promoting a movie, When Comedy Was King. It was an assemblage of two-reelers, featuring the clowns of the silent past, the great ones: a piece of Chaplin, a piece of Langdon, a piece of Keaton.... It was eleven years since I had seen him perform magic in that less-than-magical summer stock production.
No words were spoken. Subtitles said it all?
Your lips moved. You spoke. In the cutting room, you'd simply run the film through your fingers down to where you got your mouth open. On the second syllable, you'd cut, slap in your subtitles. Then you'd come back to pick it up just as your mouth is about to close.
We eliminated subtitles just as fast as we could if we could possibly tell it in action. Charlie Chaplin and I would have a friendly contest: who could do the feature film with the least subtitles? Charlie won that. He had this picture down to something like twenty-one titles. I had twenty-three. The average picture had 240 titles. The most I ever used was fifty-six.
In the movie I saw the other night, you gummed up a big police parade. You didn't mean to, but somehow you did. They were chasing you, thousands of cops. It became something out of a bad dream.
I tried to cut through the parade, but couldn't do it, so I joined it before they could stop me. I was in a wagon, a moving man. Some anarchist on top of the building threw a bomb down and it lit in my wagon. So when it went off, the whole police force was after me.
Thousands chasing this one man, never quite catching him. The way you moved, your acrobatics, knocked me out. How much was planned, how much improvised?
Oh, no, it was just a hit-or-miss routine, just ducking cops in all directions. Just a common, ordinary chase sequence. We never did repeat gags. About fifty percent you have in your mind before you start the picture and the rest you develop as you're making it.
James Agee wrote: "Keaton's face ranked with Lincoln's as an early American archetype. It was hauntingly handsome, almost beautiful. Yet it was irreducibly funny. He improved matters by topping it off with a deadly horizontal hat, as flat and thin as a phonograph record. One can never forget Keaton wearing it, standing erect at the prow, as the little boat is being launched. The boat goes grandly down the skids and just as grandly straight onto the bottom. Keaton never budges. The last you see of him, the water lifts the hat off the stoic head and it floats away. The hat."
That's called The Boat. I had a similar hat on the stage before I went into pictures. I was twenty-one. That's in the spring of 1917. My family was all on the stage. I was born with the Keaton/Houdini Medicine Show Company on a one-night stand in Kansas. They tell me that Harry Houdini gave me the name of Buster.
My old man was an eccentric comic. As soon as I was able to get on my feet, he had slap shoes on me and big baggy pants. And just started doing gags with me, especially kicking me clean across the stage or taking me by the back of the neck and throwing me. By the time I got to about seven or eight, we were called the roughest act in the history of the stage. I always played it deadpan as if it was the most natural thing in the world. If I laughed at what I did, the audience didn't. The more seriously I took my work, the better laughs I got. It was just automatic, mechanical.
You've been called the master of the mechanical gag. Iris Berry said: "Buster Keaton gazes with frozen bewilderment at the nightmare reality: inventions and contrivances with deck chairs and rail engines seem animate. They seem alive to him in the same measure that human beings become impersonal. He's like the inhabitant of another planet."
I get my best material working with something like that. I guess I was one of those original do-it-yourself fellas. I may not know how to do a carpenter's job, but I set up to build a house. Everybody knows you're going to get into trouble when you start that.
FLASHBACK. The late '20s. Willie West & McGinty was a headline act in the top-flight vaudeville houses. They were Irish brick masons, blithely working on a house, fortified with a touch of the water of life. They were having some difficulty; the more the shambles, the more we howled. It was pure Keaton.
I liked dream sequences. Some of those two-reelers were full of dreams. That cop chase was one. We went wild and crazy in them. We lost all that when we started making feature pictures. We had to stop doing the impossible gags, what we called cartoon gags. They had to be believable or your story wouldn't hold up.
For instance, I'm the fellow who got up on a high-diving platform at a country club and did a swan dive off of it and missed the pool and went through the ground. And the scene faded out. And the title comes on and says, "Years Later." And it faded back into the country club. And the pool was empty and the grass growing onto it and the whole place neglected and nobody around. And I came up out of the hole with a Chinese wife and two kids. That was the fade-out of a two-reeler. We wouldn't have dared use that in a feature picture.
You'd just sit around, talk for quite a while before starting the picture. And then take advantage of anything that happens. Neither Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, nor myself ever had a script. That sounds impossible to anybody in the picture business today. We never thought of writing a script. Somebody would always come up with a start. We'd say, "That's funny. That's a good start." All right, we want to know the finish, right then and there. There's nothing to work toward but the finish. If we can't round out something we like, we throw it away and start on a new one.
When we get the start and the right finish, we've got it, because the middle we can always take care of. That's easy. We're all set. My prop man knows what props to get, the wardrobe man, the same. The guy who builds the sets knows what it's all about. I help him design them. There's no need for a script. We all know what we're going to do. Gags that don't work, we throw out, and the accidental ones come.
Another thing we didn't do in those days that they do today: we didn't rehearse a scene to perfection. In our big roughhouse scenes, there's a lot of falls and people hit each other. We never rehearsed those. We just sat down and said, "He drops that chair, then you come through the door and come through fast. This person here throws up their hands, you come through and just about hit him. If you miss, get her, the girl." That's how we laid those scenes out. If you did those roughhouse scenes, invariably somebody skinned an elbow or bumped a knee, so now they'll shy away from it on the next take or they'll favor it. So you seldom get a scene that good the second time. You generally got 'em on the first one. Anybody in the scene is free to do as he pleases, as long as he keeps the action going. Even your extras can use their imagination.
Hank Mann was a newcomer. Mack Sennett never heard of him. He got in as an extra during one of those cop chase scenes. A building had caught fire. The police and fire department are there. Mann came out of the burning building, put a cigarette in his mouth, lit it off the burning building and walked off. He hadn't the slightest idea he'd do it till the last minute. In the projection room, Sennett saw it and said, "Who's that so-and-so?" I says, "One of the extra guys." He says, "He's all right. We'll keep him here for a while."
In the Mack Sennett two-reelers, I always remember authority being comically challenged: the befuddled cop, the confused boss.... The snowball thrown at the top hat....
Oh, sure, like throwing pies. But you got to be careful. There are certain characters you don't hit with a pie. Hit the wrong person, the audience gets mad at you.
You hit girls with pies, lots of them.
Oh, that they didn't mind. I remember a lot of people wanting to hit Lillian Gish because she was always so sweet and innocent.
FLASHBACK. The '30s. Clayton, Jackson, and Durante at the Palace Theatre, Chicago. Jimmy, in an indignant peroration, sees "an ol' man hittin' a little boy wit' his umbrella. I walks up to 'im an' says, `Why ya hittin' dat cute little boy wit' yer umbrella?' He says, `Dat's why I'm hittin' 'im, 'cause he's so cute.'"
Now, in television, about eight years ago, Milton Berle got Ed Sullivan with a pie. The audience froze up. And Milton didn't get another laugh while he was on that stage. There's just some people you don't hit with a pie and that's all there's to it. Ed Sullivan was one of them.
If I had a grand dame who was dogging it and putting it on, she was gray-haired but she was overbearing, the audience would like to hit her. Then you could hit her with a pie and they would laugh their heads off. But if she was a legitimate old lady, a sincere character, you wouldn't dare hit her. If she's a phony, that's different. The same thing goes with a man.
There are certain set rules when it comes to getting a laugh?
You bet. I did a silent called The Camera Man. I was a newsreel photographer. I got into a tong war in Chinatown. They didn't want me to take the picture, so they started chasing me. This was going to be a big laugh picture. I'm down to the last reel. At the finish, they're chasing me down fire escapes and over rooftops and I was doing everything to get away. We thought it was great.
We previewed it and in that last reel, it took a nose dive. We finally figured that one out. I had deserted the camera and the audience didn't like it. I had left the camera when the Chinamen started chasing me. So we went back and retook the sequence. The camera followed me all the way and it was all right. They took our stories seriously and we had to always remember that. (A touch wistful.) Some of those routines we did forty years ago, we can't do today.
Yet Chaplin's Limelight was not that long ago: his bouquet to his English music-hall days. You and Chester Conklin and Charlie did a routine in which you bounced around like rubber balls....
Oh, I can still turn over as far as that goes. I guess some of us are lucky we can still move fast.
When we first met that summer, some eleven years ago, you spoke of Charlie Chaplin as a director and you specifically mentioned A Woman of Paris.
Charlie was one of the best ever in the picture business. Edna Purviance was the girl. She had been his leading lady and he made this a high-society drama. It was suggestion all through. It was the first time ever this approach was usedsomething that had to be explained and not something head-on. Every director in the business went to see this picture.
Chaplin wanted the audience to know that Adolphe Menjou paid for the apartment she was living in, that he was keeping her. Nobody had to explain it. Menjou calls on her one evening to take her out. He looks in the mirror, sees a little spot on his collar. He takes the collar off, went over to the bureau and got a clean one. That told the whole situation, no diagram needed. He respected the audience. He left it up to them to figure it out.
Roscoe Arbuckle didn't feel that way. His pictures were the first ones I appeared in. I was with him a short time when he said, "The average mind of the motion picture fan is twelve years old." I'll never forget that. I was with him for only a few months when I said to him, "Roscoe, something tells me that those who make pictures for twelve-year-old minds ain't gonna be with us very long." It was only a couple of years later that the scene in Chaplin's movie proved it. The minds jumped faster than we were making pictures.
I always tried to challenge the imagination of my audience. I always challenged them to outguess me and then I'd double-cross them.
As far as laughter goes, we'd go into a movie house where our picture was playing and we'd hear those people laugh out loud at what they saw on the screen. No prompting. The canned laughter we hear on television today is absolutely no good at all. There is a false note all the way. It saddens me to hear it.
I'll never forget your encounter with that bedsheet in Three Men on a Horse. Eleven years ago ...
Ah, well. It was there, you use it. Don't fight itand that's it.
The quintessential heroine of D. W. Griffith films: frail, vulnerable and fair-skinned. She starred in, among others, Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Broken Blossoms.
At the time of this conversation, she was appearing in Passage to India, a dramatic adaptation of E. M. Forster's novel. She had, at one time, played Ophelia to John Gielgud's Hamlet.
I was in the theater when I was five years of age, playing children. That was about 1902, 1903. When I was eleven, twelve, I got to be awfully long-legged and long-armed. A tall child found it difficult getting roles. There were few demands for lanky children. Leading ladies in those days were short.
In the films at that time, they needed young faces. So they dressed up the young ones in long skirts and they played heroines until they were eighteen. Then they were too old and went into character roles. An old hag of eighteen was passé as a heroine. The photography was so cruel and so prying. Their liability was an asset to me.
Before I could read, I was taught my lines on the stage. I never knew anything else. I never had the choice of saying, "I want to be that." Acting was all I knew. I would love to have been a librarian, because I like to read.
I was very envious of all my cousins, who went through universities, and I used to have a great inferiority complex. But I soon learned they couldn't hold their own on many subjects that I knew about. I had been educated in films and in theater, on the spot, and my knowledge was quite different from theirs. I didn't know arithmetic and geometry, but I knew lots of other things they didn't know.
Think of the education of Intolerance. That was the greatest film ever made. All the different centuries of struggle. Mr. Griffith was sympathetic to the sufferings of the poor and all the injustices throughout history. So we had to know all about Babylon and all about the Crucifixion. When I visited the Holy Land, I thought, "Griffith built this." Everything about it was so familiar that I expected him to call "camera!" any minute.
When we came up to the French period, the Eve of St. Bartholomew, we had to know that. And then the modern period, the battle between capital and labor. So each film was an education. When we did the fifteenth-century Florentine time, we had to know not only the history of Florence and Italy, but the word around it. So this used to be a great education.
We were immersed in all those periods. You went around with those little books and if you had a minute, you were reading. You worked seven days a week. You never stayed at home because after all, it wasn't as interesting. There was no social life whatsoever.
There were no scriptwriters. Griffith did everything. Very often he changed his name. He would use a nom de plume because, he said, people wouldn't like it if they thought you did everything. He had the courage of his ideas and was very strong on the side of the working man against the boss.
We worked for a medium we believed in. A lot of us took personal responsibility for what we said in the films. We were told we were much more influential than the press, the printed word. It weighed heavily on our conscience.
What Griffith had was the way of telling a story. He invented the form. He knew it had to be different from the stage. On the stage, we see people walk on stage and off. Everything was literal. He saw that the film can move as your mind moves. The camera has no proscenium arch. The sun, the moon, and the stars are the proscenium arch. There is no limit to the camera. So we had to learn a new form of acting.
When Charles Laughton took on the job of directing The Night of the HunterJames Agee was doing the screenplay from Davis Grubb's novelhe spent a great deal of his time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Do you know why? He was running all the old Griffith films.
He called me one day and asked me over for tea. He said pictures today have lost the excitement they used to have. A certain spirit. That's why he was studying these old Griffith films. He had them sent to the coast so he could study them again, while making his movie.
Charles was so frightened of directing. You would try to help. If you had a suggestion, he would say, "Oh, you don't like what I'm doing." "Oh, that isn't good." He was like a scared kid.
We ended up by putting props under him, just saying, "Everything is wonderful, Charles." He was so unsure. It was that he had such enormous respect for Griffith, the man he was trying to imitate. The Russians did quite well imitating him. Look at Eisenstein.
Perhaps the most celebrated shot in Birth of a Nation is that of a sad sentry, a droopy-faced Union soldier leaning against his gun.
He was a sailor out of work. He came to work as an extra in films. His name was Freeman. He helped carry our costumes, they were heavy. They were doing a scene at hospital, and this man, Freeman, was just tired, leaning against his gun. Griffith said to Billy Bitzer, his cameraman, "Look at that face, Billy. Get a picture of that." That's how pictures were made in those days. We improvised on the set. If we as actors had an idea, we were allowed to put it in. We were a creative people.
Author's note: At one moment, I casually mentioned the overt racism of Birth of a Nation. She was clearly unsettled. "He was from the South, you know."
A film director, notably in the 1920s and 1930s. His World War I movie The Big Parade was his most celebrated work. His films have been, in my life, benchmarks. When I've seen a King Vidor film I remember the time and place because my memory of it has been so indelible. He was visiting Chicago during a midwest film festival sponsored by a local college.
You're celebrated for a number of films but I'm thinking at this moment of Our Daily Bread, a movie of the Great Depression.
I think it was '34. Milk trucks were being overturned and people were selling apples on street corners and they had the Hoovertowns. Farms were being sold, mortgages were being sold for a small amount of money. And I read a thing in Reader's Digest, where some fellow at Duke University said that the only solution to this was to exchange services and know-how. That was the way to overcome the economic depression. That's all I needed to put the whole thing together. It was a commune. A man who knew how to lay bricks, he exchanged with a plumber, or a tailor who knew how to press pants. They exchanged their abilities and goods. In a time of depression, life becomes too complicated, the middleman, the wholesaler, and all the people that get a cut out of everything. So you think of people living together, sharing their work, and all pitching in. It was sort of a natural sequence to solve depressing times. It just came about naturally. People always ask me was I trying to do socialist or communist propaganda. I was called pinko quite a few times. When Our Daily Bread opened in Los Angeles, we had a full-page ad in the Examiner. Just before the picture opened, they threw the whole page out. It was the Hearst press, and the reason they gave was that it was pinko propaganda. A month or so later, a Russian delegation came over to Hollywood to present awards from the Moscow Film Festival. I got second prize for Our Daily Bread. They said, "We would have given you the first prize except we considered it capitalistic propaganda." [Laughs]
You got it both ways! You can't win. You did not use celebrated stars. You deliberately sought people not known, anonymous ones.
Exactly. Somebody would cast John Gilbert, or James Cagney, or Gable. I thought they were identified with some set image. And I was looking for a fellow that didn't have an established image. It's a feeling I had very much in those days. I believed the character, and I believed the story. You can't take a Gable or a Tracy and make him an average man.
They call it neorealism, I guess. The Italian director Vittorio De Sica always gave my The Crowd credit for starting his career. He always said it inspired him more than anything. The result was his The Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine, The Roof, and Umberto D. De Sica always told me it inspired him. He said it up until he died.
The Bicycle Thief is one of my favorite films of all time. The fact that De Sica said your film, The Crowd, played a role in his becoming a director does not surprise me at all. You made The Crowd in 1928, just before the Crash. The actor you used was James Murray, an unknown. Do you know how that happened? You're familiar with The Big Parade. At the time of The Big Parade, I wanted to take an ordinary G.I., an ordinary guy, and let him walk through and observe and react to what he saw. He didn't cause the war and he wasn't parading against it. That was my feeling, and that was the way I directed John Gilbert. He said, "Oh, now we're in a French village. Oh, there's a pretty girl." And then one day, they said "Now you're going up to the Front." This is the way most American G.I.'s, ordinary men, go through a war.
I imagine it can go over today because it deals with the real horrors of war. I wanted to make a war picture from the G.I.'s viewpoint. The war pictures always had been from the officers' viewpoint. They caused the warthe generals, the colonels. And I wanted to make one from the G.I.'s viewpointwhere he got dirty in a sloppy uniform and bloodied and killed. And you know, we weren't just satisfied to make a little thing, just a little psychological thing. It had form. It builds up to an exciting climax just before intermission. You come back, there's a big orchestra playing, you got your money's worth.
Afterwards, Irving Thalberg, who was running MGM, said to me, "This is such a success, what are you going to do next?" And I said, "There must be other things that a fellow can walk through and observe." And he said, "What, for example?" And I said, "Life." And he said, "That sounds like a good idea. Why didn't you mention that before?" I said, "I never thought of it before." And he says, "You got a title for it?" And I said, "One of The Mob." He says, "That's good." He says, "Might sound like a gangster mob." So we changed it to The Crowd.
It was the guy walking through life and observing life. You know, he was born, his father died, and he had to go to work and he's just one of the mob. And then he meets a girl and he gets married and he has a baby. The baby gets into an accident and dies. So he's just observing life ... the ordinary man observing life. He's not causing situations; he's not bringing them about. It's the carrying out of the idea of The Big Parade. Our Daily Bread is still carrying out that theme, a subjective theme of a man observing his world.
The character Pierre of War and Peace appealed to me because he was trying to find out what his world was, going to the battlefront. My feeling is that when I look at me, I have one thought about it; when I look at you, I have the same kind of thought. You're just as important to me as when I look down and see me. A psychiatrist friend of mine refers to it as "my you." There's an old saying, "You can't love anybody else until you love yourself." There's a certain divinity about each individual. I look upon everybody just the same as I look upon myself.
I don't like the word director. Filmmaker is more general. If he can discover himself, something is going to rub off in whatever he does. Examples are Hitchcock and Frank Capra, DeMille and Griffith. Their individuality dominated everything, or rubbed off. That's what's lacking in pictures today. A fellow will make one kind of picture and the next time make another kind of picture. Certainly, with Fellini, the individuality is right there every time. And with Bergman. It's right there. And I'm waiting for the young American directors to establish some individual quality that will rub off on everything they do.
I was influenced by Griffith a lot, in the form of the film, but it still has to come from the insides. When I see a Fellini film, I think, instead of going to a psychoanalyst, he's doing films. The same thing with Bergman. You see the religious life of his early training, Bergman coming out. Give the man enough rein for him to discover himself.
I'm also a film fan. When I hear a new Fellini film is coming out, I don't have to know the story or anything. I just look forward to seeing a new Fellini film. I look forward to any Fellini film because I know it's going to interest me. It doesn't have to be sensational. I was standing in line once and I turned around and said, "Why are you here?" And he said, "It's a Fellini film." A film. That's what I wait for. I think of many of the films of today, the technique is great, but something's missing: feeling.
I was at Dartmouth in October, showing The Champ, one of my films. Remember when the door opens and Jackie Cooper's mother is standing there, and he looks at her and says, "Mother"? From the students, yak, yak, yak, big laughter. Afterwards, I said, "That's a funny reaction." One of the professors said, "When the freshman comes in here he wants to be accepted and he thinks he's supposed to laugh at everything that has any sort of mother or feeling about it, and he's supposed to brush it off; he wants to let the seniors know that he's laughing at the feeling."
This fear is interesting. Recently, there was a showing of the New Deal documentaries, The Plough that Broke the Plains and The River. A young friend of mine says some of the students who saw it started laughing. They thought it was corny. The people fighting to save the land, cooperating, together. It's this looking inward, this sinister fear of feeling.
It's an interesting change. Interesting to see what we can find in it.
I remember a Vidor movie with an entirely black cast. It was called Hallelujah, I saw it at the Castle Theatre, across the street from the Boston Store, corner of Madison and State. It was known as the busiest corner in the world. [Laughs]
We could not get a booking in the big theaters. Balaban and Katz controlled the theaters. They would not book it, although it was an MGM film....
The MGM sales department said, "You go to Chicago, get the critics to see the film, get the reviews written, and maybe some theater owner will read it and say it must be important." Which we did. Ran the film. Got the reviews. No theater yet. And this place that you saw it, I'm glad to hear the name.
The banker who really ran the company, Nick Schenck, was saying no. I said, "I'll put my money in with yours." My salary. Those were some of the obstacles we had with making an all-black film at that time. He booked the film, had a black-tie opening, and we packed the theater for Schenck for a while. And then the big theaters Balaban and Katz Theaters they took it over and it had a pretty good run. It took me three or four years, but I finally persuaded MGM to make it. Recently, a friend of mine went to MGM with a story and they said, "Haven't you got a story that features black people? That's what we're looking for right now. It'll make money." [Laughs]
By some of today's standards, Hallelujah is full of stereotypes. But at the time, it was quite explosive.
Yes, yes. At the time, you must remember there were no black players in major league football, major league baseball. I realize it was not a story about what the blacks have accomplished. Of course, I wouldn't make that picture today, but it was a true record of scenes that I had seen in my boyhood, rural southern America. I was born and raised in Texas. And I'd seen all these people milling around in a church, revival, ecstasy, inside a church, as a boy, a young man in Arkansas. I reproduced exactly what I saw. There was no opposition on the part of the black actors. They were there, they lived there, they ad-libbed a lot of the dialogue. Some are out of the stage in New York, and some are off the streets of Chicago, and we went to churches, black churches here, and walked the streets and picked up people, took them to Memphis. Some were right out of Memphisboys dancing, right out of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.
I was thinking of what happened to Jimmy Murray. You said he's the actor, an unknown actor, who was the star of The Crowd. What happened to his moment of celebrityhood, his moment of recognition?
I got a letter of how he died in New York, as a bum. I started putting the whole story together. He becomes an alcoholic. I won't talk too much about it. But it's a good basic theme, isn't it?
VITTORIO DE SICA
Rome. He is seated in his office. His classic face betrays weariness. I observe we're within hailing distance of the balcony from which Mussolini addressed multitudes. He smiles. He quotes Baudelaire on Napoleon. "`A dictator is not as dangerous alive as when he lives on after death.' You had your sorry period, McCarthyism. We had a bad one after the war." Closet fascists had given him a hard time. They were high in the circles of government.
Once a matinee idol, De Sica still acts in films, too many of them bad ones. Reason: He must raise much of his own money to finance the ones he directs. It is better now, but in the beginning the government was intransigent. They abhorred his chosen themes.
Following the fall of Mussolini and the end of World War Two, a group of Italian film makers brought forth a style known as neorealism. It portrayed the lives of working people in cities and villages, and their day-to-day survival in postwar Italy.
After the ruins of the war, everybody, every artist in the cinema in Italy needed to tell the story, to say the story with sincerity, with truth.
To be courageous. To tell the truth. Because to tell the truth is very difficult. Finally, after twenty years of fascism, we have perceived this possibility to be free. Every artist is fighting for this freedom. My first picture, Shoeshine, is a small stone in the rebuilding of Italy. It's about two small shoeshine boys. A small story, of ruined lives maimed by the war. For everybody, the war was horrible. I felt the necessity to say something about these boys. Absolutely no actors, boys in the streets. One now is a great, a good actor. He was one of the boys. I find him in a street. All the others are real shoeshine, real shoeshine.
The father of the boy in The Bicycle Thief, Lamberto Maggioranni, was a workman who sent me his boy, to show me his boy to be in the film. I find this man who had the face, the face that I need in this moment for the father.
This story of the father and son was so emotional for me, so sincere, so true. I give them, these characters, my love, my conviction, and I have already half of the role with the face. The other half for me is very easy because of the feeling I have for their daily problems.
The idea of making The Roof came to Zavattini and me together. Passing by these villages of huts, these hundreds of huts that were springing up around the big cities, around Rome, in this particular case. The fact that they had to be covered with a roof within one night hit particularly Zavattini's and my imagination. You know that if the hut was built and roofed within a night they could keep it on the ground, otherwise it would have been taken down.
If the roof can be set up before nightfall, the house belongs to them, even though they're squatting. Which made for suspense of the film.
The fact that these villages were a product of the war, were part of the social situation of Italy after the war, was very interesting for us. Therefore, we made this little story.
We hear talk these days about the day of neorealism being over, you know. There's a poetic style coming into the Italian film industry. To me what you did is poetic.
Neorealism is not absolutely realism, it's realism figuratively. Miracle in Milan, for instance, is a fable. Reality as a fable.
It was a different style than your other works. Miracle in Milan dealt with this boy who was almost saintly, this boy where the poor people lived in their jungle. I'll never forget the humor when the freezing men are trying to get into that sun. And they're pushing each other around. This is not a realistic thing, yet it could be.
A fable, a wonderful period of my career, this of Miracle in Milan. The idea was from a book by Zavattini for children. I told him I would like to translate this book in the picture, Miracle in Milan. We come back again with the story of the truth with Umberto D and The Roof.
The way you make children behave like children and not like midgets. Bruno Ricci, the little kid in The Bicycle Thief or the boys in Shoeshine. How do you make them be children?
I am so enthusiastic over you because you remember the name of my characters.
I saw it twelve times.
I am so grateful to you because it's very emotional for me that an American would remember the name of a little boy like Bruno Ricci. Bruno Ricci, I find him after four months. I heard many boys, many boys. Always they give me nice sweet boys. I don't like. I would like a boy with eyes very human eyes and a strange faceI begin the picture without the boy, without Bruno Ricci. Because I could not find the one exactly how I prefer. I begin the picture, and at a certain moment, I see a boy near me just standing around in the street watching as we shoot the movie. A miracle. Because there was Bruno Ricci near me. I said, "Como, how, you are here?" He says, "I am here; I am enthusiastic to see a picture." "What is your name?" Enzo Staiola is his name. "How old are you?" "Five years." "Would you like to make a picture with me?" "Yes." "All right. Go." He begins his role, and this is the miracle of Bruno Ricci. It is fortune, a miracle for me.
In Italy, nobody wish to make this picture. In France, in London, nobody.... Only an American producer, Selznick, offered me, because he was interested in this picture, but he would like to put an American actor for the father. I didn't like to make an actor for the role of the father. Simple people, poor people, I can't make this role a bourgeois. Impossible. Our actors are all bourgeois. In this role it is impossible to put a bourgeois actor.
We had many problems at the beginning in our career. Now very easy to find producer because now a producer trusts the new ideas. But after the war, after a period of old-fashioned comedy, it was very difficult to suggest new ideas. For me, for everybody it was very difficult to find money. At certain moments I spend my own money to make this picture. I was an actor, and took the money I made as an actor and put it in the film I was directing. The Roof, for example. My money. What a pity. It was not commercial. I lost all my money. But I am glad to lose my money, to have my story, my life, the souvenir of a picture like Bicycle Thief and Umberto D and The Roof. There is always a marriage between humor and tragedy because life is always so tragic and so funny.
My films always had a social impact. How can artists be insensitive to these problems, to social injustice? Through the small stories of small people, they expressed these big problems. So it is Miracle in Milan, the dreams of the poor people. The Bicycle Thief, the problem of unemployment. Umberto D, the problem of the old, retired civil servant, old age. The Roof, the problem of housing. These small stories about small people, with their poetry, they always, always have a social meaning.
Now it's different, because the audience prefers this kind of picture. It is a necessity to resolve certain conditions of human beings. Everybody feels this. Now everybody is interested in this problem of poetry, misery, and social unjustice.
This is very revealing of you, Mr. De Sica. Even though you knew at that time that some of those films would lose, you wanted to make those films for yourself. You had to make them.
When I made Umberto D, I was sure to lose my money. I made this picture because I needed absolutely to make this picture in favor of an old man. In this period we read in the newspapers about many, many, many suicides of old people. It's a horrible, horrible story. Because if a young man makes a suicide, it's desperate, crazy. But the suicide of an old man is even more tragic. Because it's a maximum desperation. I made this picture, I was sure to lose completely my money.
The plight of old age must be recognized. The character was irritating, this civil servant who might turn down a begger himself, if he had money. Yet we felt the plight of old age. The story was also about me. A producer wanted to make this picture with a great actor, an aristocratic actor, and I refused. I needed an absolutely real old man, because the real old men are not sympathetic. No sentimentality. No self-pity. Real old men are always so angry with people, with society. And I find this professor of the University of Florence. A professor of languages. I find him in the street. He was my real Umberto D. I take this man who, for me, was perfect in his role because he was not sympathetic, but a real, old, un-acting man.
Not many people saw Umberto D because there was a strong, resentment by the government, the official authorities, against this film. It emphasized, put in clear light, the problem of the old civil servant, of the people who were living on a pension. It was not said, not open, but there was a strong ostracism against this picture. So not all Italians had the chance to see Umberto D.
Certain moments, after the war, the Italian audience wished to see American pictures, because after twenty years without American pictures, you understand, it's true, it's sincere. Myself, I want to see American pictures because I admire very much Hollywood pictures. Many actors, many directors like King Vidor, I admire very much. So the Italian people don't want to see the daily misery. This is the reason I lost my money, because the audience refused to go to see these pictures. I had a very unhappy life with the government; it was against my pictures. I fight. I continue to make my pictures. And now the government accepts my pictures but it was a sorry, very unhappy period. This period, fortunately, is finished, and now our lives are a little more free. We can make our pictures without too much trouble. Before, no. Before, for me it's been a very unhappy career, because every, every picture I made was considered antigovernment. A heritage of fascism. Baudelaire was right then and he's right now.
A certain resistance to freedom was still alive in Italy after the war, among certain groups of people. They did not want to discuss certain problems, especially with the cinema. They said we shouldn't put on the screen these problems. They still had the fascist mentality, that everything was all right. During the fascist times, there were no suicides in Italy, they said. Everything was all right. There were no poor people, they said. Everything was beautiful, it was new, it was great. This mentality is still in many, many people.
After the man is gone, Mussolini is gone, hanged by his feet, there are still the remnants of his rule. When I first read Children of Sanchez, about this Mexican family, the actual words of these people, this father and four children, and I heard that you were going to be the director, it seemed the most natural thing in the world.
I am unemployed now, because the government, the Mexican government was against this. Here it is again. The artist as a rebel, as a questioner. It is always so, no?
Meet the Author
Studs Terkel (1912–2008) was an award-winning author and radio broadcaster. He is the author of Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession; Division Street: America, Coming of Age: Growing Up in the Twentieth Century; Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times; “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II; Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do; The Studs Terkel Reader: My American Century; American Dreams: Lost and Found; The Studs Terkel Interviews: Film and Theater; Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression; Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith; Giants of Jazz; Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times; And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey; Touch and Go: A Memoir; P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening; and Studs Terkel’s Chicago, all published by The New Press. He was a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of a Presidential National Humanities Medal, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a George Polk Career Award, and the National Book Critics Circle 2003 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.
- Date of Birth:
- May 16, 1912
- Date of Death:
- October 31, 2008
- Place of Birth:
- New York, NY
- Place of Death:
- Chicago, IL
- J.D., University of Chicago, 1934
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