When a major movie studio paid a young artist over $17 million for his movie about a slave who planned and led a bloody rebellion, actor, co-writer and director Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation became the talk of Hollywood. Epic, new dramatizations of American historical events are rare and Parker’s movie garnered serious attention, interest and praise.
That the film became controversial after Parker’s past became an issue—he had once been accused of rape and the accuser, it was later disclosed, committed suicide—overshadowed the rare, historical depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion.
History teacher Alexander Marriott, an instructor at Alvin Community College and Wiley College in Texas, recently offered an examination of the facts and the movie in this exclusive new interview about Nat Turner.
Scott Holleran: Is Nat Turner’s rebellion fundamental to the history of American slavery?
Alexander Marriott: That’s been debated by historians. Yes, in the sense that resistance to slavery is a fundamental part of that story and to Nat Turner’s rebellion. In terms of how many people were killed [during the insurrection], according to Thomas Gray, the lawyer who took Turner’s confessions, the death toll among the whites was 55—12 men, 18 women, 25 children—I do not see wide variations in any of the accounts for this figure and the breakdown. As for the number of people killed in the aftermath of the rebellion, this is open to some historical conjecture. According to the most recent monograph on the rebellion by Patrick Breen, the number of blacks killed and/or executed after Nat Turner’s rebellion has been overstated by previous historians. Instead of ranging from 100-200 in the Southampton area, Breen pegs the number of blacks killed without trial in the 30s; [Breen asserts that] 17 were tried and sentenced to death, including [Nat] Turner. Even the most inflationary accounts do not suggest women and children among the enslaved were lynched and hung. Breen makes a compelling case that their status as valuable property impelled authorities to quickly reign in any vengeful impulses of panicked Virginians to protect their slaves from annihilation. Turner’s is also the most spectacular form of rebellion. It’s the only one that came off that does target women, children and babies and, because slaves in Haiti had rebelled in 1790 and word of that had traveled, its nondiscriminatory nature realized the nightmares of American southerners of what a slave rebellion would look like.
Scott Holleran: Has there been a cinematic depiction before Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation?
Alexander Marriott: There could possibly be a French film, but as far as English-language cinema goes, I’m not aware of any dramatic film adaptation, which is too bad. It’s an intensely complicated story. At the time it happened in the early part of the 19th century after the 1790 slave rebellion in Haiti, Nat Turner’s rebellion certainly gave pause to white Southerners who had been speaking openly about white Southern society and how slavery could be integrated in the American South. Could a large population of former slaves live among their former slaveowners? The answer after the Haitian rebellion seemed to be No. Nat Turner’s rebellion did trigger a debate among Virginians about abolition.
Depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion
Scott Holleran: Did Nat Turner’s insurrection ultimately hurt or help the cause for abolition?
Alexander Marriott: If the cause is the immediate end of slavery then Turner’s rebellion probably did not do anything to that cause one way or the other. Turner’s rebellion fits into the failure of the American Revolution to eliminate slavery, which is part of the cause of the Civil War. Slavery was a contradiction to America’s founding. If you take [abolitionist] William Lloyd Garrison when news arrived about Southampton County in Boston, he pointed out that what Nat Turner had done was the inevitable consequence of slavery. It’s dark but illustrative. Among black abolitionists, Turner was not viewed as a villain. I’ve never come across any long remarks that Frederick Douglass produced on Nat Turner. Douglass certainly would not have morally condemned Turner.
Scott Holleran: Was Nat Turner a religious zealot, as the movie portrays?
Alexander Marriott: Everything we have to go on suggests that the answer is Yes, though no more so than other preachers in 1831. There were a lot of [Christian] revivals by both races for evangelism.
Scott Holleran: Is the scene in which slave preacher Nat Turner delivers baptism to a white man accurate?
Alexander Marriott: That did indeed occur and it was a controversial thing—even the most debased white person would not have [typically] come to a slave for baptism but Turner had built up a real reputation. Most whites would have been amused that a scoundrel [as depicted in the film] was being baptized by a slave preacher. The baptism contributed to the sense among Southampton County whites that Turner was not a particular threat. The sense was that he was specially marked. This was known by whites as well as slaves.
Scott Holleran: Is there evidence that rape as depicted in The Birth of a Nation occurred?
Alexander Marriott: Did rape occur under slavery? Yes. Was Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry, raped? No, according to historical records but if she had been there would have been no reason to note it and every reason to avoid noting it—with the exception of Nat Turner himself, who was literate—but Turner’s bible was not burned and he did write things down in the bible. As the rapes are portrayed in the movie, there’s nothing historically wrong with either of those portrayals. The notion that [rape] wasn’t happening all the time is not supported. Rape was not talked about—it was beautifully but horrifically portrayed in 12 Years a Slave that [slave] Patsy was being raped [by the slavemaster] and everyone knew it but didn’t talk about it. Thomas Jefferson’s mistress Sally Hemings is herself the product of Jefferson’s father-in-law. One of the other ways we know it happened is the color dynamics—darker field hands and lighter skinned house slaves—the evidence is everywhere around us.
Scott Holleran: How did his father’s escape from slavery impact Nat Turner and what happened to his father?
Alexander Marriott: We don’t know—we do know that Turner’s father ran away and was successful—and it’s hard to have records. The same is true with 12 Years a Slave author Solomon Northrup.
Scott Holleran: Is Parker’s portrayal of Nat Turner accurate?
Alexander Marriott: I don’t object to it in any formal way—there’s enough ambiguity and gap in the historical record that he can be a lot of things, which is why Nate Parker could make Nat Turner whatever he wanted. My own read on Turner is that Parker could have and should have focused a lot more on black preaching and how African Americans interacted with Christianity and [put more emphasis on the] gathering [of slaves in religious congregation] in the barn. Most of Turner’s [preaching] competition was not well read and Turner cut his teeth by listening to other black exhorters. Religion was not an attempt to repent in church on Sunday. So the black church would have been emotive and demonstrative and you don’t have any of that [in The Birth of a Nation] and [showing the demonstrativeness] would have made a lot more sense. Among themselves, certainly church was a very musical ceremony, which is an important part of blacks’ religious experience.
Scott Holleran: Did Turner’s rebellion target white women, children and babies?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. What makes the Turner rebellion so terrible and catastrophic is that it’s absolutely everything Southerners had always feared—it’s the worst-case scenario—an attack in which women and children were murdered. There’s no question that [Gabriel] Prosser’s [earlier slave rebellion] was a military style rebellion, so there were no attempts to terrorize and there’s no question that Turner was going to go on the Old Testament-style wrath as God’s sword, meaning killing babies and women and children. They killed the [slaveowning] Travis family in their beds and went back to kill the baby. In the movie, the only children seen killed on screen are blacks. But we know that a little [white] boy had his head chopped off while running away from a slave. In the movie, we see Turner himself kill [slavemaster] Sam Turner but [in fact] the only person I’m aware that Turner killed is a small [white] girl who was running away. He bludgeoned the child to death with a fence post.
Scott Holleran: Was Turner rational?
Alexander Marriott: Yes, to the extent that he knew his position in the world and that anyone who turns to evangelism can remain rational. The first date he originally planned for the rebellion was the Fourth of July—Turner became sick with anxiety and couldn’t do it—and that date could not have been randomly selected. His reputation was that he had always been planning things. He was coming up with plans to steal foods—he was the one to go to for plans and he’d established himself as a leader, not as a doer. And, apparently, the rebel slaves did not have a problem with Turner not doing the killing.
Scott Holleran: Was Nat Turner’s attention to detail captured in the movie?
Alexander Marriott: No. In the film, suddenly, there was a meeting in the woods—without Nat Turner vetting anyone who participated in the rebellion. You couldn’t regard The Birth of a Nation as a biopic because it leaves the history behind.
Scott Holleran: Is Nat Turner’s grandmother accurately depicted?
Alexander Marriott: She did exist and she was a direct captive from Africa. But we know so little about these slaves that writers can just create types. During the siege, Turner did skip [attacking] the plantation where [his wife] Cherry lived. Turner literally claimed that the ability to read and write came to him [from God]. After his unusual ability was discovered, he was given formal education though it was not as formal as portrayed in the movie. We know that he could read so he could have read whatever he got his hands on.
Scott Holleran: How do you regard Nat Turner’s confessions?
Alexander Marriott: One of the interesting questions anyone who studies Nat Turner has to grapple with is [historical documents]. In Nat Turner’s case, we get a long confession that gives insight into his thoughts. Thomas Gray was the lawyer [who interviewed Turner and elicited the confession] and he certainly did have an agenda—he could make money from the document or, as a white Southerner, he may have been tempted to downplay that, when asked if [slavemaster] Travis a good master, Nat Turner said Yes. So, if Travis was not a bad master, why [did Nat Turner] not spare him and his family? Not everyone who was killed was bad. So, when you read the confession document, you have to read it carefully. I tend to think [Gray] seems interested in trying to figure out what made Nat Turner tick. The Nat Turner that emerges from the confession document does come off as a possibly delusional, religious madman—does this mean that slavery is not that bad?—and Southerners could get some level of calm out of that. Some skeptical scholars might wonder why Turner doesn’t talk about all the horrors of slavery he’s seen. But the confession document is regarded as potentially useful document when it’s subjected to corroboration, not as a fraud. It’s also regarded as Turner’s confession filtered through a white man in Virginia in 1831. And, of course, Frederick Douglass did talk about these horrors of slavery. Turner would have seen really, really awful things done to him and to others, too. If you read 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup does not beat around the bush about [what happened to] Patsy. But he did it in a way it could be published.
Scott Holleran: Is the theme of The Birth of a Nation and/or Nat Turner’s rebellion that the ends justify the means?
Alexander Marriott: My impression is that Nate Parker thinks that resistance requires direct action, not sitting back and accepting what’s happening. From Nat Turner’s standpoint of the rebellion itself, he must have believed that this was an Old Testament-style [calling] and that he was delivering the wrath that God called for and that the system and deliverance from it required total annihilation, which is why he could [order a baby being killed] and why Turner never expressed remorse for it. Even Gray does not portray Nat Turner as meek or repentant.
Scott Holleran: Is it true that Nat Turner was hung, skinned and beheaded?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. Southerners made sure that no one would be coming to Nat Turner’s grave.
Scott Holleran: Rebel slaves are depicted killing with beheadings, too. Was this common practice?
Alexander Marriott: Remember the French Revolution. Beheading is a visceral way of warning [enemies] that this could happen. In England, it became the method for executing aristocrats. Going to public executions was common.
Scott Holleran: How should one regard slavery?
Alexander Marriott: Slavery is too easy to think of as endless fields of cotton for the South or as unending misery, toil and human squalor for the slaves. In some ways, it was worse and in some ways it was better and it wasn’t just the South—slavery was originally legal everywhere—it explains why the country has the heterogeneous racial quality it does, which is a strength, not a weakness. The United States had to overcome this problem and there’s a point at which Americans did start to get along reasonably well. We’re not all killing each other in the streets. Almost everyone gets that slavery is wrong. If you read Frederick Douglass, he wrote about his enslavement that the worst moments were when he was treated the best.
Scott Holleran: Is Frederick Douglass a good starting point for someone who takes slavery seriously while putting slavery in a proper American historical context?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. You couldn’t do any better. The one caveat to that is that Douglass is fairly unusual—he was not a Deep South slave, so he did not have the worst experiences as a slave. Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is a good way to get a different perspective from a slave in New Orleans. She writes about her life as an urban slave woman. For a perspective from a Deep South field slave read Solomon Northrup’s account of enslavement on sugar and cotton plantations in Louisiana in 12 Years a Slave. One of the great things about the abolition movement is that abolitionists went out and found people who could write. They left us with a body of literature.
Scott Holleran: What does The Birth of a Nation get wrong?
Alexander Marriott: The [depiction of the] rebellion itself is all wrong, which is sad because the silliest thing was the confrontation in Jerusalem [Virginia] when they end up having the big showdown—nothing like that ever occurred. The U.S. Army did not show up. The movie doesn’t show Turner’s time as a fugitive. It portrays that he gave himself up and that’s completely wrong. He did not surrender. It was happenstance that when he was found he was emaciated. It had been eight weeks. Also, Nat Turner was not beaten up by the townspeople as portrayed.
Scott Holleran: What does The Birth of a Nation get right?
Alexander Marriott: The first bit about Nat Turner [as a boy] with his grandmother and mother and their concern with his African heritage and what the bumps [on Turner’s] body mean—that they [thought the body bumps] meant he was going to be a leader—that was true. The plantation’s houseguest getting a slave to [have sex] with—that’s pretty accurate. And, if anyone comes away from this movie thinking that slavery was unpleasant and harsher than they thought, that’s good.
Architect Dion Neutra, who trained, studied and worked with his architect father, Richard Neutra, first spoke with me years ago when I was doing research for an article and we recently re-connected when I was writing about one of Richard Neutra’s signature buildings for a newspaper article. That report (read it here), in which I briefly interviewed Mr. Neutra, revived interest in conserving a Los Angeles landmark, and a full restoration is currently under review. However, the limited scope of our interview, combined with his age—he was 89—prompted me to accept Dion Neutra’s request for a deeper discussion and interview about his work, life and ideas.
We met at his home in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles on the eve of his 90th birthday, which we celebrated with friends and family a short time later at his office. During our exchange, Dion Neutra remembered his father, his childhood and his career with the 20th century’s great modern architect including his thoughts and remembrances of Richard Neutra’s architecture and relationships with Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand. Dion Neutra also spoke of his own plans and goals and his single proudest achievement.
This is an edited transcript.
Dion Neutra / Photo by Scott Holleran
Scott Holleran: Let me ask about restoring the Eagle Rock Clubhouse—
Dion Neutra: —This is the way we treated Eagle Rock in [Neutra: Then and Now]. You can see what a gorgeous shot that is by [architecture photographer Julius] Shulman, how this glass looks in that picture, and compare what it looks like now with the green.
Scott Holleran: Julius Shulman gave an oral history to the Ayn Rand Archives in which he talked about meeting your father and Ayn Rand at Rand’s house in the San Fernando Valley. Did you go with your dad—
Dion Neutra: —I did. I was there that day when they met. It was amazing. What’s funny is what my dad said to her, “You know, of course, who the referenced person is who was mentioned in The Fountainhead, right?” And she said, “Well”— She kind of laughed and said, “Look whose house you’re [sitting] in.” [laughs] [Looking at Shulman’s pictures of the meeting in Neutra: Complete Works] Here they are sitting in the patio.
Scott Holleran: Why was Ayn Rand’s house—known as the Josef von Sternberg house at 10000 Tampa Avenue—destroyed?
Dion Neutra: What had happened was that in the early 1970s, I got a phone call and the person said, “We owned the property. The house has been unoccupied for awhile. We don’t want to spend the time to fix it up, and we don’t want to pay for a full-time guard to keep out the homeless from camping out in this place. So, we’re thinking of tearing the house down unless you can come up with some solution and a suggestion or whatever.” I said, “Fine. Give me a chance. Let me check it out. I’ll go to the AIA—” At that time, there was no Cultural Heritage Commission or anybody like that. By the time I got back to them a week later, they said, “Oh, we already tore it down.” Gone. So we didn’t even have a chance to go out and photograph it as they were [destroying] it or record it or do anything. Thirty years later, I get an e-mail from a guy who said, “Guess what? I was a middle school student and I lived across the street of that house. I came back from school in the afternoon, noticed that they were messing with it, got my mother’s 8mm camera out, went over, and shot some footage of this which I would be willing to share with you.” So, he gave us these images of the house being torn down. That’s the only record of the actual, physical act of it being torn down. And that’s on the website, by the way. You can see footage of this tractor trying to work like crazy to pull this thing down and having trouble getting it to come down because it was so strong.
Scott Holleran: Who was the homeowner at that time?
Dion Neutra: I can’t remember who it was. Ayn Rand had owned it for awhile. She sold it to this person who bought it on spec because it was a bigger parcel, and they had in mind doing other things with the site. I guess they hadn’t quite decided what they were going to do with that. They never did call me. First thing I knew, they decided it was too much trouble to deal with it. I went out there one time, interestingly enough, on behest of the L.A. Times; somebody was doing an article. They wanted to go out there and look at the site and reminisce about what the situation was, what’s there now, and whatever. Could you rebuild it there now? So we went out there. And what had happened was, it became part of a tract which was entered from the east side of the tract. On the west side, which is on Tampa, they had built a wall. So you couldn’t even get in from that side. The address, when the house was new, was called 10000 Tampa. And the entrance came directly from Tampa into the house. So, we found our way through the back way to get to the site. It was right after the Northridge quake, maybe just a few months after that. Two houses that had been on the site where the house [was] originally had been so damaged from the quake that they had been demolished. So, amazingly, the site was vacant. So, theoretically, except that there wasn’t quite enough space, one could have rebuilt [Neutra’s von Sternberg house] on the original site! Chop the wall down and drive out to Tampa Avenue; you’d be back again to the way it was.
Scott Holleran: What’s at 10000 Tampa now?
Dion Neutra: Well, those two houses were rebuilt, and it’s just conventional houses. It was subdivided into a series of lots of which two happened to be roughly in the same location as the original house had been.
Scott Holleran: Your father designed the home. Of course, this predates even your professional involvement, I would assume—
Dion Neutra: —Right—
Scott Holleran: —in the mid-Thirties for Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich and von Sternberg commissioned your father to build the house, with privacy foremost in mind.
Dion Neutra: Right.
Scott Holleran: How did Richard Neutra regard the von Sternberg house?
Dion Neutra: He liked it a lot. He made an incredible number of drawings for it and worked really hard on it. He ran across a fabricator who was trying to introduce a system using metal panels as sort of a prefab kind of thing and got him interested. And so, that’s how he veered toward using these sections, both for walls and whatever, which they never were intended to be used for walls. I think it was called Palmer Construction or something like that. So, some of the plans that are still in the archives were made by Palmer for the purpose of building this house.
Scott Holleran: Who owns the blueprint for the von Sternberg house?
Dion Neutra: I own it.
Scott Holleran: So, theoretically, you could sell or license like the Wright estate has been doing.
Dion Neutra: Right, I could. In fact, I actually had a client who retained me for the purpose of doing exactly that.
Scott Holleran: For the von Sternberg house?
Dion Neutra: For the von Sternberg house. He had located a site, of all places, in Ojai. He never consulted me about it ahead of time. But, he made one mistake. He selected a site in an agricultural zone. You’re not allowed to build anything in an agricultural zone. So, he was going to buck the system to get [the government] to [let him] do that. Then, he lost interest. He stopped—he decided he wanted to built only unbuilt houses, not rebuilt houses. He backed away from [reconstructing Neutra’s von Sternberg house]; he hasn’t gone ahead with it. But, yes, it’s a possibility.
Scott Holleran: What was the impetus?
Dion Neutra: He was intrigued. He thought the house was incredible. He liked the Neutra name. and he thought that it would be good. I said to him, “What are you going to do with it when it’s built?” He didn’t really know. Meanwhile, what he did instead, though, he went to Napa Valley. And he found the designs for what Mies van der Rohe called a glass pavilion, simply a square box with big glass panels around the outside of it. So, he got the rights to use that design, and, actually, he’s building it there. I think it may be done by now, way out in the sticks somewhere, [out in] the far back country of Napa Valley, and I think it’s being used by a winery. In other words, it’s like the visitor’s center where you enter to see the wine and talk about buying cases of wine or something like that. I have not been there, but some other people have tried to drive out there and tell me that there is something happening. So eventually, there will be something there like that. By the way, I worked with [the client] on the restoration of [Neutra’s] Kun house. Kun is the one where Shulman first cut his teeth, the very first house he ever photographed, up on Hollywood—Fairfax and Hollywood Boulevard. That house was in need of restoration, so this guy bought it, commissioned me to work with him, and we worked on restoring that to its original—it was interesting because this guy was a real purist. He wanted to really get as close as possible to the original which meant tearing a bunch of stuff out that other people had done, some of which was not terrible. If anybody cared about cost, I wouldn’t have really advised this. I would have said, “OK. Let’s live with this; it’s not so terrible.” No, no, no, no. Everything had to be torn down. He put the original light fixtures back. I mean, it was incredible. He even reglazed the entire—all the glass was replaced with a special kind of glass that he found that would reduce noise transmission because a tremendous amount of very disturbing noise was coming into that site. But, with the casement windows that we had, you couldn’t tolerate double glass in that room. So, he found a single laminated glass that was not much thicker than the original, reglazed all those windows for $100,000 or something like that. It was unbelievable. He was very sharp. He also managed to get a consortium of people that were willing to spend the money to do this kind of thing. Where we parted company was, I told him, “Look. You’re on a perfect trajectory to reproduce a 1930s house. The refrigerator has got to be a 1930s refrigerator with a motor on the top and the whole box and everything.” He said, “I’m afraid that that’s where I draw the line. I can’t live with that.” So he built—we designed—a piece of cabinetry which is actually the refrigerator, but it looks like a cabinet. Anyway, it was interesting.
Scott Holleran: Is the Kun house still like that?
Dion Neutra: Yeah. It’s now been sold to somebody, as far as I know, with no restrictions, so the [new homeowner] could mess it up again. We have what’s called a conservation agreement program. If we’d put that on title, then he’d be safe. They wouldn’t be able to mess it up. He didn’t do that. It would not be too late to do it even now. [The new homeowner] should have no objection to having this on title. What it means is [that] if you want to change something, you’ve got to consult first. And you’ve got to make sure that whatever you do is appropriate. So, that was the purpose of it.
Scott Holleran: What was your impression of Ayn Rand when you met her?
Dion Neutra: She seemed [like an] ordinary [person], though somewhat eccentric. I don’t remember too much except that we had a cordial conversation, it was a nice visit and it didn’t last all that long, a couple hours. I think it might have been the only time my dad met Ayn Rand. For some reason, my dad had the prescience to invite [photographer] Shulman to come along.
Scott Holleran: Was architecture what you always wanted to do?
Dion Neutra: Actually, no. When I was eleven, my dad said, “You’re going into middle school now. Why don’t you come into the office and let me teach you how to draft because you might be handy in your life.” He never said, “Do you want to be an architect?” He said, “I’ll assign one of the draftsman to work with you, and you can have a table there in the office.” So I was an eleven-year-old sitting with all the grownups, paying attention. That’s kind of neat. So I thought, Yeah. Let me do that. I would spend time instead of playing like other kids did, I would sit there at the drafting table and do various projects: lettering guide, retracing details to learn how—I learned to draw with ink on linen really early on. So, of course, having done that, when I got a little bit older, there was a drafting class offered in school. In those days, they had many more choices. So, I took that and, of course, I got A’s because I was better than anybody else. I did the same thing in high school. You’ll drift to the ones that you know you can do well. Toward the end of high school, this was World War 2, I was going to be drafted in the Army unless I decided to elect one of the other services before my age turned eighteen. Well, I accelerated through school so I was actually only sixteen when I graduated from Marshall High. So, I had a year before I had to make that choice and decided to go to [University of Southern California] which was the only place that had been teaching architecture. So they said, “What do you want to study?” “Well, architecture, of course.” They took a look at my portfolio and said, “Wow. You don’t even have to take the first year. Just skip the first year. Go to the second year right away.” I took the second year. Two semesters. By the time that was over, I got to make my choice. So I did the research and found out that if I joined the Navy, they have a ten-month electricians’ program, an electronics program, and you go to school for ten months before you even do anything else. So, I thought that’s a great way to stay out of the shooting war for ten months; I’ll sign up with the Navy and take that class, and that’s what I did. By the end of the ten months, I shifted to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay which was a Navy base. I was about to come out of there, and they said, “Would you like to teach the class?” I said, “OK. Great.” So, I taught the class for three or four months. And then, for whatever reason, another change came and then, now, they’re starting to mothball the fleet at Alameda Naval Air Station, which is across the Bay from—So, I got transferred over there, and I worked for three months mothballing the fleet. And moving from one dock to the other, I thought I could get sea pay if I’d get on a ship and move from one dock to the other, but they said, “No. You’ve got to be three miles offshore before you get sea pay.” OK, so then, now it’s the end of my two-year shift, and I’m ready to leave. They come to me and they say, “Hey. We’ve got this great opportunity for you. We’ll give you an increase in rank, thirty-day paid leave, and you’ll get to go to Bikini and participate in the atomic test program. See another part of the world.” Wow. That sounds pretty great, right? I said, “You know what? I’ve had enough. I’m leaving. Thank you. No, thanks.” Everybody who went to Bikini got cancer because of the exposure to the radioactive waves. So, it’s interesting. I’m writing a book called Dion: My Life. That’s my autobiography. And, in that chapter, I’ve got brushes with death. Several things had happened during my life where I could have died. One of them happened when I was only five years old. I cover early sites for the Neutra practice. This is where the Neutra practice started. See if we can get to the first page here: the Schindler house on Kings Road.
Scott Holleran: This is the Then & Later book.
Dion Neutra: Yes, this is the Then & Later book. And then here, from 1930-’32, my dad set up shop in this little duplex here near Elysian Park. During that time is when he designed the VDL [Research] house, which was built in 1932. So, while I was living in this duplex, we were on the lower floor. The upper floor people were the Lamm family. And Jule Lamm was a kid that was about a couple years older than me who was upstairs. So of course, we met each other, and we would play and have fun. And one day, we decided to walk to Silver Lake from Echo Park to view the site where my dad was going to build a new house. We had obviously heard about it. So, we walked over there, and we looked at the site. And the site is right down the street here. And then, from there, it’s only a few blocks down to the river. So we thought, Let’s walk down to the river and see what going down at the river. So, in getting down to the river, somehow I got into the water, and I got into some quicksand. [I] [s]tarted to be sucked down by this quicksand. The water was already up to here, and I was going down. Jule was standing there on the shore, not knowing what to do. And the next minute, I would have been drowned. But, what happened was, a big log floated by with a big branch. And I grabbed the branch, and the force of the water pulled me out of the quicksand. And I was able to get out. But I could have been dead at age five. No question. So, that’s my first brush with death.
Scott Holleran: How much do you remember about that experience of being pulled down?
Dion Neutra: It was terrible. It was a hopeless feeling. I was wondering, What’s gonna happen? What can I do? And another interesting corollary to that was just last week. I got an e-mail. We have a museum down here. We’re putting up artists’ shows. You need to see that, by the way. So anyway, one of the artists wrote a note and said, “Guess what? My name is Wendy Lamm, and my father, Jule, who’s ninety-five now, remembers the time when you and he played over in Echo Park.” I said, “My God. I’ve got to see this guy one more time. Is he up for a visit?” And he’ll get a real kick out of this story because it’s memorialized in this book, Neutra: Complete Works.
Scott Holleran: But you were only five years old, so, where were your parents? Who was minding you?
Dion Neutra: In those days, it was different. They didn’t—
Scott Holleran: —Did your mother or father change parenting tactics after that traumatic event?
Dion Neutra: Gosh, I don’t remember even—I’m sure I told them about [almost drowning] but I don’t recall any change. Things were really different in those days. People were not [as] concerned about harm coming to kids. Kids were much more independent. I was only ten years old when they sent me, by myself, to—
Scott Holleran: You were eleven when you were a draftsman. [laughs]
Dion Neutra: Yeah. The first world’s fair in San Francisco was, I think, ’37 or something like that. I was sent on the daylight train by myself from L.A. up to San Francisco. I was met at the station by a friend, but they sent me [on] the entire trip without any supervision. Put the kid on the train, give him money for lunch, and that’s it. It was the same thing to me when they sent me to the Grand Canyon by myself two years later on a bus. I went for the weekend to look around and see what I wanted to see, and come back on the bus.
Scott Holleran: By yourself?
Dion Neutra: By myself! It was amazing! When I got there, the very first day I got there, I lost my bus ticket to return home. So, I had been all over the place trying to look around and everything. So, I retraced my steps the best I could, and in the middle of the rail yard where the train comes in from Flagstaff, on the tracks, was a piece of paper. There was my bus ticket. What are the chances of finding that?
Scott Holleran: Where did you stay?
Dion Neutra: In a sleeping bag, which I brought with me, somewhere on the ground. But it turned out that it rained that night. So then, I found a spot in the El Tovar Hotel, there was a couch, sitting catty corner to the corner. So, behind that was a triangular space [where] nobody knew what was going on behind there. I found that space and put my sleeping bag down there. I spent the night in the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel.
Scott Holleran: How old were you?
Dion Neutra: Twelve. And then, interestingly enough, fifty years later, I had scheduled a trip to go to Painted Desert, Arizona, which is where we did a big project. They had invited me to come and consult about some changes. I had some time to burn because I wanted to see my son, Greg, who lived in Albuquerque. I can’t remember quite the sequence, but it turned out that I had three days to burn, so to speak, before I went to this meeting. So I asked them, “Could you get me a good rate at the El Tovar Hotel?” Of course, it’s now a national monument. They had an inside track to the management there. So, they got me this second floor suite with a wonderful balcony overlooking the canyon and everything. And so, I’m thinking back fifty years earlier. I’m in the lobby downstairs. Now, I’m in this VIP suite with a gorgeous view.
Scott Holleran: Would you say you became organically interested in architecture?
Dion Neutra: Yeah. It was a very natural.
Scott Holleran: Your siblings—
Dion Neutra: The older brother was injured at birth and never really was able to function. He was in care facilities most of his life. My younger brother became a physician.
Scott Holleran: On the eve of your 90th birthday, how do you look at American art and culture? Has it gotten worse or better?
Dion Neutra: Well, I think that the one thing that sort of jumps out at me is the fact that with the technology getting more and more sophisticated, we’re able to create all these weird shapes and forms that we never could possibly do otherwise. And we’ve become obsessed about formalism, formism, where it’s like Frank Gehry starts out by wrinkling the paper and saying, “That’s going to be my form, and so, I’m going to fit the program into there regardless of whether it is suitable or not.” So, that’s kind of where a lot of architecture has gone, you know? It’s in that direction. And the publications jump on it because it sells. It’s showy. It looks interesting.
Scott Holleran: Tell me about your book STD for Neophytes, an adaptation or revised version of your father’s Survival Through Design?
Dion Neutra: I call it a compilation of the principal thoughts distilled down on a per-chapter basis—
Scott Holleran: —[reading from book jacket] “A son’s interpretation of his father’s 1954 erudite, seminal masterpiece Survival through Design.”
Dion Neutra: Correct.
Scott Holleran: So, it’s more streamlined?
Dion Neutra: It’s more streamlined and it’s a little easier and more accessible. He talked to me many times about this. He said, “I wish there were a way to get my thoughts across to people in a more understandable way for them. I’m sorry that my book is so hard to read, and I wish it were different.” So, this is kind of dedicated to him because this really is a fulfillment of his dream to try to communicate in a more accessible way.
Scott Holleran: And, as with Ayn Rand, English wasn’t Richard Neutra’s first language—
Dion Neutra: —Right. And so, he struggled mightily during the writing of the book. And even after all the editing was done, it still was a very difficult book.
Scott Holleran: What did he think of Frank Lloyd Wright?
Dion Neutra: He admired him a great deal.
Scott Holleran: Why was he with Wright for such a short time?
Dion Neutra: Because, what happened was, Wright was on his way to Tokyo at the time. He left Neutra in charge of working on one project or two. By the time that was done, Wright had not come back yet. And Neutra said, “You know what? I’m moving on. There’s not enough work to keep me going, anyway.” He could see that Wright didn’t have enough work, so he was trying to think of what he wanted to do. He decided to move on and join Schindler in L.A. So, that’s what happened.
Scott Holleran: Did he remain friends with Wright?
Dion Neutra: Yeah. They had a rocky relationship at first because Wright took umbrage at the fact that both Schindler and Neutra made reference to having worked with Wright and [were] sort of riding on his coattails, talked about their practice and how they were launching their new practice. Wright took umbrage at that. But later on, it cooled down. And toward the end of Wright’s life, they were very cordial. They didn’t see each other that often. But when you compare Wright’s work with our work, it’s just extremely far apart. Because when you’re in a Wright building, you feel like you’re in a cave. And you want to get a little glimpse of the outside through some slots here and there. It’s really not indoor outdoor living at all, so it’s a completely different approach. Plus, Wright is a formalist. It’s either triangles today, circles today, hexagons, or whatever. And [Wright’s approach was] ‘that’s what I’m going to do, and your project is going to fit in. You’re going to be a hexagon if that’s the way I feel today’. So, he was guilty of that to a large extent, I would say.
Scott Holleran: Did you get to know Frank Lloyd Wright?
Dion Neutra: I met him a few times. Yeah.
Scott Holleran: In one word, how would you describe him?
Dion Neutra: Well, he was officious. He was dismissive of the AIA, for example. He thought they were a bunch of fuddy-duddies. He was extremely self-assured [and thought] he didn’t need anybody else’s support.
Scott Holleran: Whereas your father was more collaborative, would you say?
Dion Neutra: Yeah. He was much less that way. He was much more collaborative.
Scott Holleran: Less imperious.
Dion Neutra: Yeah. My father was extremely accessible and related to clients no matter how lowly they were, if you want to use that term. The most pedestrian people you can imagine were clients of ours, and it never made any difference to him whether these people were wealthy or not. He had this tremendous range of clients. He would have liked to have had [more] wealthy clients, of course, with no budget problems. He would have enjoyed that, but it never seemed to work out that way. So no matter what the client was, he always had constraints to work within, and we did. We found ways to solve the problems.
Taliesin West (Scott Holleran)
Scott Holleran: Did he visit Taliesin and Taliesin West?
Dion Neutra: He did.
Scott Holleran: Did you accompany him or go separately?
Dion Neutra: I did not. I never did accompany him to either one of those places. I actually don’t think I ever have been, when you come right down to it.
Scott Holleran: You’ve talked about differences. What are the similarities between Wright’s architecture and your dad’s?
Dion Neutra: I think Wright likes to characterize himself as an organic architect, but I don’t know whether I understand what he means by that because I don’t see it. Maybe the fact that in some cases he tried to use materials that were found on the site. He would use the gravel or the materials that were on the site and then try to make the building blend in color-wise with the site. Things like that. Wright always found it necessary to ornament his work through stained glass or through hollyhock things pasted on the building or something like that. So, he always had some kind of reference like that which made the building much more rich, if you will, but were things that my dad never did.
Scott Holleran: But they did work together. What did your dad learn, if anything, from Frank Lloyd Wright?
Dion Neutra: [pause] I can’t really put my finger on it because, like I say, he was only there for six weeks. He did work on a project that involved driving cars up a ramp into a big sort of a mountain, and that was going to be some sort of a center. I forget whether it was a commercial center or whatever it was, but I think it was called Sugarloaf Mountain or something. Their sketches survive of that particular project. But it was kind of a strange thing because Wright left without much notice. I think within a few days of the time my dad arrived there, Wright was gone. And then, he was left alone on his own, and I’m not sure who else was there at the time.
Scott Holleran: Well, how did Wright come to hire Richard Neutra?
Hollyhock House (Scott Holleran)
Dion Neutra: My father and Schindler both admired the Wasmuth catalog of 1908, published in Germany, of Wright’s work. And they were students at the time. So they admired the work and sort of said it would be great to meet this guy somehow someday. Well, what happened was that Schindler actually graduated and was able to migrate to the United States in 1912, and then actually made contact with Wright and started to work for him as his L.A. person while he was doing all these houses at that time. He did a series of houses, Hollyhock House and various, four or five houses, were all done in that period here. So, Schindler was kind of his on-site person. Schindler said to my dad, “Come join me. Let’s work together.” But my dad got stuck in the war, World War I. He ended up being [in] the Cavalry for two years and this and that. So, it wasn’t until 1923 that he was able to come to New York, and then he worked his way to Chicago. And guess what? He met Wright at the funeral of Louis Sullivan in Chicago. Sullivan was buried at a cemetery on the outskirts of Chicago. He went to the funeral, and, of course, my dad recognized Wright right away, walked up to him, introduced himself, and that’s how they met. And then, immediately, he said, “I’ve always wanted to work with you. What are the chances?” So, Wright said, “Well, I never pay anybody for this. Would you work for nothing?” But he agreed to pay my dad $130 per month if he would come to work with him.
Scott Holleran: Had Wright seen your dad’s designs?
Dion Neutra: By that time, he showed some things, and he saw my dad’s things. I don’t think he had seen any publications. Or maybe he had because my dad had written a book by that time. So, Wright took him on, on very short notice. And, like you say, it only lasted a short time. It’s very much overblown. I don’t think you could say there’s a big influence or anything like that in six weeks or five weeks, especially with Wright not being present at the time.
Scott Holleran: How did you deal, as a kid, with the celebrity aspect of it?
Dion Neutra: I don’t remember it being that much of a factor. It just went over the top of my head. That’s one of the things I mention in [in a book] is that he would never get down on the carpet with me on my level. He was always talking down to me as a small adult. [That’s] [t]he kind of way it was. We would go for walks; that was our recreation together. And he would expound his latest thinking to me, and half of it went over my head because I couldn’t understand it. But he was paying attention to me, right? So, that’s good. So, that was my relationship to him. It was a cordial, friendly, I would say loving, but not on the level that I could really relate to. It was not his nature to do things like that for some reason. I’m not sure why. Even family meals were a rarity because somehow my father was always busy with something and he didn’t have time to sit down. He didn’t take a break and say, “OK, I’m going to sit there for an hour with the family.” There was always some emergency going on that he had to keep in touch with. My mother tried desperately to create a sense of family, but it was not too successful. I don’t have any resentment about it. That’s the way it was. I’ve kind of accepted it.
Scott Holleran: How did you do things differently, as a dad, with your own son?
Dion Neutra: I tended to be more hands-on with him and with doing stuff like going to school events, supporting them, and if they wanted to go to sports, do things like that. I’d try to be supportive. But unfortunately, as it turned out, my first marriage ended after ten years. My kids, by that time, were about five and seven. So, I kind of missed out at really important years. Right after that, as a person with partial visitation rights, you don’t really get that much to do. So, I didn’t have a chance to do as much as I would have liked to with those kids.
Scott Holleran: What is the greatest physical concretization of your work with your dad?
Dion Neutra: One of the greatest that I like to think about is the Gettysburg Cyclorama Center where there are so many wonderful ideas that my dad brought to the table. I was the project architect on that. I worked on that thing from inception. I was out there on the site many times.
Scott Holleran: The Gettysburg Cyclorama Center was conceived in what year and executed in what year?
Gettysburg Cyclorama Center design (NPS)
Dion Neutra: It was conceived in the late fifties and finished construction in 1962 and was dedicated by Eisenhower and received very favorably by the Park Service and everything like that. And I can’t believe that they would later have the chutzpah to say, “We know better than the people before us who commissioned this building. We know better that this should never have been built here.” [The center was demolished in 2013] And that’s the most terrible thing. My e-book on that is called The Worst Preservation Disaster of the 21st Century—that [the Gettysburg center] was allowed to be torn down. As a result of that, I came up with a book design for a table based on a shape that my dad came up with to solve a certain problem in the building. It was such an interesting—it looked like a shark’s nose, so I designed a coffee table using that as a shape. And if you go down to the museum, you’ll see an example of it.
Scott Holleran: What was the experience one would have in visiting Gettysburg, and what was the objection that the government parks people had to it?
Dion Neutra: Well, there were two things. One was that they made the unfortunate choice of choosing a superintendent who had no appreciation for modernist design and thought it was inappropriate; [the superintendent thought] that the styling of the building should have looked like a Pennsylvania barn instead of like it did. So, he announced at the very beginning [that] his purpose was to see [the Neutra] building removed. And that’s who they made in charge of the building.
Scott Holleran: Because of the aesthetic?
Dion Neutra: Yeah, mostly. And then he used the location as a [rationalization]. He really hated the design of the building and did everything to undercut it. And so my question is: They’re the [government] Park Service. They have all kinds of people they can choose to be in charge of a building. Why on Earth would they choose someone like that?
Scott Holleran: Was there an outcry among war memorial advocates?
Dion Neutra: Well, there were [Civil War] re-enactors who, of course, objected to the fact that there was something on the site where the [Battle of Gettysburg had] happened. Those people were the ones who said that the building should never have been there. But that was a very small minority of people. Twenty million people visited that building during its lifetime. We had 5,000 people writing letters, very touching letters, of their memories, [expressing] how important it was to them.
Scott Holleran: Coming back to the design and your role in it, why are you proudest of that achievement?
Dion Neutra: I took my dad’s rudimentary ideas and then actualized them in the building. Just to give you an example: the Park Service told us, “We want to handle up to 10,000 people in one day at the peak in July, when we have people visiting.” So, how do you handle 10,000 people and get them through this building somehow? So what we did, we came up with a ramp. And the idea was, it was a two-way ramp. You have people going up on one side and coming down the other side. You could have people moving for ten hours a day slowly, slowly moving through, and we actually calculated that we could get 10,000 people at a clip. So, we designed the program when you get to the top, where the painting [depicting the Battle of Gettysburg] was, we designed a program that was no a more than a 30-second announcement: “Look around. You’ll see the painting. This is what the artist saw at the moment of the battle. Thank you for coming.” And continuing down the ramp, around to the right. So, that was [the recorded narration] on the most crowded day. Then, on other days, when it was less crowded, we could stop for five minutes and have a five-minute program. Other days, we could have a ten-minute program. So, designing all the logistics of that is what I did. And there are many other details like that that I enjoyed working on trying to make things work the way Dad had in mind.
Scott Holleran: How many buildings did you work on with your dad?
Dion Neutra: I’ve never counted. Probably 200. What I’m trying to do is write nine more books covering 20 of our projects. We have 400 [total] executed projects. I’d like to deal with each one and talk about what happened, how it was originally and what happened to it later. I think it’s a fascinating record.
Scott Holleran: You’ve talked about Richard Neutra-designed buildings you’ve lost. What’s the greatest preservation success that you’ve had?
Dion Neutra: Well, the Kun House is one, very nicely done. Unfortunately, there are not too many. Most of the stories are not happy. I have these stories.
Scott Holleran: What’s the greatest commission that you never were able to finish or build?
Dion Neutra: Uunfortunately, for me, there are a number of those. A house I did in San Clemente, which would have been a spectacular house, but, at the moment we were ready to go, the market turned south and the value of the house that they were going to sell in order to pay for this other house plummeted and went to less than half of what they thought it was going to be. That canceled the whole project. I think it was the crash of 2008.
Scott Holleran: What is the quality you possess as an architect that you share with your dad?
Eagle Rock Clubhouse
Dion Neutra: Well, interestingly enough, an interest in details. But toward the end of his career, [Richard Neutra] became a little impatient because he said, “Look. You should be looking at the broader picture and not be so involved in details.” So he wanted me to have a broader look at stuff. And I would say things to him like, “Dad, you know, the reason these things are so great is that we do care about the details and we make sure everything is just right. So, forgive me if I don’t live quite up to your expectations.” And then, the other thing is, of course, the ability to take the program that is offered by the client and try to expand it to the max; ‘What’s the most that we can get out of this?’ Like Eagle Rock Clubhouse or like the von Sternberg house or like Gettysburg, all those projects displayed an ability to expand the program and bring a much richer result than the client ever asked for or would have thought of on their own.
Scott Holleran: And what quality are you most different or distinct or unique from your dad?
Dion Neutra: [pause] That’s a good question. [Long silence] My dad had one weakness, I think, when it came to services after the drawings were completed and during construction. He had aversion to being under contract during that period. So, the contract with the client ended when the drawings were handed over. And yet, we were interested in the results. So, there was a dichotomy there, and I pointed this out to him. I said, “This is a weird mixed signal that you’re sending out here. On the one hand, you’re saying we’re done. And on the other hand, you want to be involved or in construction. And, are they going to be paying for this time while you’re involved or in construction, or what’s the deal here?” He just was very ambivalent about that, and we never really clarified it. I tried to make it clearer. It costs money to be on call all the time. Depending on how well the contractor does, if he’s very excellent and does everything perfect, they won’t take that much time. But if he’s not, then we have to spend more time.
Scott Holleran: So you brought more clarity to the contracts?
Dion Neutra: I think so, yeah. That was one of the differences. I ended up some years ago adding a clause to my contract which was intended to provide an incentive for people not to quit once they took all of my time to get to this point. They were going to build a building, and suddenly, they decide they’re not going to do it. This happened too many times to me. And I felt that that was not fair, in a way. Because I’m using my time claiming they’re paying me, but I only have so many hours in my life. If I waste it on projects that are not built, nobody knows about them. Nobody cares. So, that’s not fair. So, I tried to build a clause in which said, “I’m going to work on a discount basis for you for the main part of this project, and I will continue to do that through construction. But if you decide to quit in midstream thorough no fault of mine, you’re going to end up paying at my full rate.”
Scott Holleran: What was the hardest thing for your dad when he looked at his whole career—what did he continue to find challenging?
Dion Neutra: It was his relationship with his staff and with his people that he worked with. I was so astounded to watch how much time and energy he had expended on that as the career developed. Because people are human beings, they have different ideas. People were coming and going all the time and having expectations and managing all that and trying to keep a calm atmosphere in the office occupied an incredible amount of his time. I was amazed that he got as much done as he did considering how much time he invested on that.
Scott Holleran: So Neutra’s greatest challenge was managerial, not architectural?
Dion Neutra: Managerial was really the most difficult. Of course, when he got into partnership with Alexander in the 1950s, that was a somewhat troubled relationship almost from the beginning. Alexander took issue with the fact that it was always Neutra [who] got mentioned and he was frequently forgotten, second class. So that’s why he quit. He finally decided ‘I’m not going to live this way anymore’. So, he quit. The press tends to try to make a star out of somebody. They don’t appreciate—This particular book [Neutra: Complete Works], for example. I said, “Look. This should be [titled] Richard and Dion Neutra. This shouldn’t be Richard Neutra. I’m involved with most of those projects. Why is it only Richard Neutra? And why does it stop at 1970? Why isn’t it a continuation?” This was published in 2000, [with] 30 years of more work since then. “Why are we cutting it off at that point?” I couldn’t sell [Taschen] on it. Even the cover of this thing, I said, “This looks like a crate from Home Depot, this cover. How can you publish a book about us and have it look like this?” Fortunately, on the smaller version that came out later, we did get the font changed to our font. That’s the one thing that I was able to do.
Scott Holleran: Do you make money from selling the Neutra-licensed numbers?
Dion Neutra: I do. You would be amazed how many thousands of those numbers are sold every year. And we make like a nickel on each one, or something, so it adds up. There’s a couple of thousand dollars a quarter. It’s astounding.
Scott Holleran: Was your dad happy?
Dion Neutra: I think so. He introduced his own level of urgency. He felt a tremendous sense of urgency in his life that he needed to get things done. He only had so much time to do it. I don’t know how to express it. He very seldom took time off to say, “Let’s just relax. Do nothing.” That was not his style at all. But, from his terms, I think he had a happy life. I think he was fulfilled. He probably felt there were things he could have done and didn’t get a chance to do. We never got really huge scale skyscrapers to design or things like that. I mean not that much of it. But in general, I think that he certainly kept busy. He never had periods of time where he just sat around waiting for something to happen. Either he was busy with things that came through the door, or he was writing books or doing lectures or whatever else he was doing that kept him occupied. He enjoyed travel. He enjoyed lecturing. [He made a] tremendous impact wherever he went. People tell me, “I met him in Sao Paulo in the mid-50s, and that was so impressive to me. I’ve never forgotten it.” Things like that, I hear those stories all the time. Frank Gehry is one of those who said he was impressed with Neutra when he first met him. Of course, everybody who has met my dad at some point recalls that as a high point in their careers.
Scott Holleran: What was Richard Neutra like?
Dion Neutra: Well, he was sort of a flamboyant kind of “starchitect”. I guess this is a good term for him because he stood out amongst the crowd. I think, in a way, he admired the thought that there could be an architect like Howard Roark. I don’t think he personally would have done the sort of thing [that Roark did in the novel]. Maybe he admired Roark for trying to do it. It’s a pretty idealistic view of an architect.
Scott Holleran: When did you read The Fountainhead?
Dion Neutra: Not too long after it came out [in 1943], I think. I remember seeing the [1949 Warner Bros.] movie with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. They did a great job. It was good.
Scott Holleran: What gives you a sense of wonder in today’s architecture?
Dion Neutra: Well, I don’t name them specifically, but when I look at the publications and I see things like Renzo Piano has done interesting things here and there. I see projects that he’s done that I admire. I admire his, for example, museum in San Francisco [California Academy of Sciences] where he has a green roof, natural landscape happening on the roof and things like that. So, those are the kinds of things that I admire when I see someone like that doing that kind of work. More so than that strict formalism of Frank Gehry, which—I admire it, and I met him in the lobby of the [Walt] Disney [Concert] Hall one time. And he said, “You actually come to this place?” I said, “Oh, yeah. I have a season ticket.” So, we’re cordial. He was very supportive of me when I did [an] exhibition. Frank Gehry was one of the sponsors.
Scott Holleran: What are your thoughts on Chicago’s Sears Tower, now the Willis Tower?
Dion Neutra: Looking down from there is pretty exciting.
Scott Holleran: What did you think of the Twin Towers before they were destroyed by Islamic terrorists?
Dion Neutra: I remember being up there on the 102nd floor and looking out at the view from the restaurant. So, I made a point of visiting it when I was there in New York at one point. I’m so astounded that the whole thing just collapsed so easily just because it was hit by an aircraft at some point at the top. Why did that all collapse so badly is just—I never really quite understood that although I guess it has been written up. I think that the fireproofing was shown to be inadequate, which was part of the problem. It heated the steel and caused a failure because of that. They’ve got a new tower there that’s even taller. So, how is that going to fare when the next 500 mile-per-hour plane flies through there? What’s going to prevent that?
Scott Holleran: Did your dad design a skyscraper?
Dion Neutra: No. I don’t think so. Not that I know of.
Scott Holleran: Do you think he would have liked to have built a skyscraper?
Dion Neutra: I’m sure he would have. One thing that he did do that was interesting, toward the end of his life, he thought of the idea that skyscrapers should have greenery. So, we actually experimented in the basement of the VDL House with lights and a hydroponic system where we had liquids flowing around. And we were testing to see whether we could pump nutrients from the basement up to the eightieth floor and sustain life, greenery, on these balconies. And so, I saw recently in a magazine a highrise that was completely green with all this greenery bursting out of all sides of the thing. I was thinking my dad would have loved that. It was exactly what his vision was. I’ve never seen it quite to that extent as this particular publication. And I don’t know where the building is that that was showing, but there were two buildings close to each other. Each of them were developed this way. They had somehow found a way to get this greenery to be lush, no matter what side of the building it was, on all sides of the building it was lush. Wow, that’s perfect. Because to be on the 80th floor and be cut away from nature and be out there with nothing is not natural for us. That’s not where we are. So, to be able to import that and have that feeling up there no matter where you are, you still have some nature around you, that would be the idea.
Scott Holleran: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
Dion Neutra: Yeah, I do.
Scott Holleran: Do you mean it as political activism or in the organic sense?
Dion Neutra: I just mean it in the sense that we have to be stewards of the planet.
Scott Holleran: Which is your favorite building in Manhattan?
Dion Neutra: I like the Ford Foundation Building. It’s not necessarily very tall, but I love the interior environment they created there.
Scott Holleran: Have you seen and done it everything you wanted?
Dion Neutra: No, I haven’t done it all. I know that would be fun to do. I’m not thinking about that. I’m still active. As far as traveling and visiting, that would be a nice assignment—what are the five things I would most like to see? The Burj thing in Dubai, the highest building in the world, would be one of them. Because I’m astounded by the fact that they actually got that built. I’ve been to Mount Rushmore. I have not been to see the Arch [in St. Louis]. That would be fun to see.
The Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Classic Film Festival breezed in and out of Hollywood for an eighth consecutive year last week. The unique four-day festival, like the cable television channel and brand, is a focused, choreographed affair which is strictly a showcase for movies. TCM can be merchandised and monetized and spread across multiple platforms for streaming, home entertainment, experiences, books, articles and wine (and it is) but, however it’s sold, promoted and presented, Turner Classic Movies exists to show movies.
Club TCM at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Photo by Scott Holleran © Copyright 2017 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
So does its Classic Film Festival, though TCM adds value by integrating scholars, movie stars (and those connected to them) and storytellers into the theatrical movie experience. TCM is, as General Manager Jennifer Dorian put it at the press conference, Hollywood’s “keeper of the flame”. That it is fueled by impeccable TV and classic movies professionals that appreciate classic motion pictures and their fans comes through. TCM’s fans and festival-goers, the passholders, are a hardy and uniquely American bunch; spending time with these people while waiting to watch movies and, then, watching the movies, is invigorating if you love movies (and probably boring if you don’t). This band of classic movie geeks, romanticists and individualists descend upon Hollywood Boulevard, walk purposefully to the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard or Musso and Frank for lunch or Club TCM for a drink. They think fast, talk smart and they know exactly what they want.
So they tend to get noticed for not acting as if they want to be noticed, especially by those who work in establishments along Hollywood Boulevard, who would spot my TCMFF badge, stop and ask about the festival with a sense of wonder and respect. TCM passholders also tend to know which movies they like and they can often tell you exactly why. They’re generally discriminating about how they watch movies, too. Unlike other film festival guests, they pride themselves on choosing and knowing which, not how many, films to see, based on certain standards. By my estimate, after four days of hearing their travel tales, festival feedback and thoughts on classic movies and the programming built around them, TCM passholders are generally neither jaded nor pretentious. Like the best movies, especially classic movies, they are sharp, not cutting.
Much of this year’s excitement emanated from new nitrate screenings, especially Laura (1944), and also The Lady in the Dark (1944), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Black Narcissus (1947), all shown in American Cinematheque’s recently renovated theater, Sid Grauman’s The Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard. The original nitrate print showings were well received, despite the fact that government regulators apparently forced the Egyptian’s concession stand to basically shut down during renovations. The nitrate screenings were made possible through the Academy Film Archive, George Eastman Museum and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The projection process for nitrate, which is potentially flammable and dangerous, was paid for by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Turner Classic Movies and The Film Foundation in partnership with the American Cinematheque and the Academy Film Archive.
Dana Gould as Dr. Zaius attends Citi’s poolside screening of ‘Planet of The Apes’ during the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 8, 2017 (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM)
Though a movie star or someone connected to a movie, historian or scholar attends each screening and appears at various events and tapings for TCM, passholders know that the TCM Classic Film Festival, more than other film festivals, revolves around the actual experience of seeing movies, not seeing who’s who, though inevitably there is some of that (predictably and mostly at the galas). TCM Classic Film Festival‘s exclusive founding partner, Delta Air Lines, is the official airline. Other sponsors include Citi, the official card (sponsoring poolside screenings, such as Planet of the Apes, which are fun) and Bonhams.
Screenings earning passholder enthusiasm this year include David Lean’s Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Jean Harlow’s biting Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Ernst Lubitsch’s One Hour With You (1932). The latter two pictures were screened a second time due to high demand, though, to my knowledge, no one was turned away from a screening as has happened at past festivals. Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) starring John Wayne, shown at the Egyptian, impressed those who’d never seen it. The same goes for Billy Wilder’s underappreciated Stalag 17 (1953) with William Holden. People also seemed to enjoy seeing Panique (1946), Cry, the Beloved Country (1951, with thoughts from film scholar Donald Bogle), The Palm Beach Story (1942, with an appearance from Joel McCrea‘s grandson, Wyatt McCrea) and, of course, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), with its references to Grauman’s Chinese Theater, screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which seemed to be the main point of attraction. I heard universal praise among passholders for actress and occasional TCM hostess Dana Delany’s thoughts and facts on Love Crazy (1941).
Photo by Scott Holleran © Copyright 2017 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
In fact, in the wake of the recent death of longtime host Robert Osborne, to whom TCM dedicated 2017’s Classic Film Festival, TCM’s on-air talent and heirs apparent was a top festival topic. Of course, fans fondly remembered Robert Osborne throughout the festival. A thoughtfully conceived wall for moviegoers to write thoughts on the distinguished host, journalist and former actor (to be shared with his surviving family) was a welcome addition. Upon reading fans’ posted notes and hearing from attendees, it becomes clear that Robert O. was highly valued for his wealth of knowledge, passion and accessibility about classic movies. Every other passholder made a point to tell me that they think this quality lacks among current TCM hosts. Passholders generally told me that they are fine with Ben Mankiewicz, whom they appear to regard as an innocuous stand-in or comic relief. Actress and sometime hostess Illeana Douglas, who, like Mankiewicz, is known and touted as being related by blood to a famous Hollywood talent, elicits both mild groans and sincere approval. Tiffany Vazquez, whom TCM hired last year to make weekend introductions and festival intros, is not popular among passholders, however, with most citing lack of inflection, engagement and passion. Part-time TCM hosts Alex Trebek, Leonard Maltin and Dana Delany all seasoned TV pros, earned higher praise among TCM’s most devoted fans.
Questions about Robert Osborne dominated the press conference, too, with journalists (including this journalist), asking about plans for programming, streaming and home entertainment of the host’s original movie introductions and his Private Screenings series. Programming boss Charlie Tabesh explained that airing the Private Screenings episodes is “very expensive” due to rights and he said that certain episode rights have unfortunately lapsed but that TCM’s goal is to bring them back. Turner Classic Movies’ General Manager Jennifer Dorian (who said she most admires Mary Tyler Moore in answer to a question about women in TV) announced a new online course, TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock, in association with Ball State. The six-week course on Alfred Hitchcock movies is free and runs in conjunction with TCM’s summer programming of Hitchcock movies. Dorian said that TCM is also giving a free, 30-day trial of its club membership for TCM Backlot and may explore other streaming options, such as iTunes, in addition to its proprietary streaming partnership with Criterion Collection, FilmStruck. TCM also has a new wine club, though I haven’t tasted the courtesy bottle of “deliciously spicy” Alfred Hitchcock Zinfandel.
The 50th Anniversary Screening of “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) Red Carpet & Opening Night at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival In Hollywood, California.
Movies screened during the festival include What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), So This is Paris (1926), America America (1963), The Awful Truth (1937) and The Great Dictator (1940). Three movies released in 1971—The Last Picture Show, Harold and Maude and Gene Wilder‘s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—were shown as well as Rear Window (1954) and the opening night picture, In the Heat of the Night (1967), which I’m told started over 30 minutes late due to tardy composer Quincy Jones, who joined producer Walter Mirisch, actress Lee Grant and director Norman Jewison for a discussion. The movie’s leading man, actor, producer and director Sidney Poitier (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), who is 90 years old, also appeared during opening night, though he did not participate in the exchange.
Other guest appearances included Michael Douglas (Streets of San Francisco, Wall Street, Falling Down) in the lead interview (last year’s guest was Faye Dunaway), talking about his career from acting on television to producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, recently, starring as Liberace. Dick Cavett entertained with tales about Muhammad Ali and others and interviewing Groucho Marx. Mel Brooks attended the 40th anniversary screening of his Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety (1977) and was congratulated by Albert Brooks and Billy Crystal. Other one on one exchanges featured Lee Grant, Peter Bogdanovich and Leonard Maltin. Father and son filmmakers Carl Reiner and Rob Reiner were recognized with a hand and footprint ceremony at the Chinese Theater forecourt. Actresses Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher were remembered at screenings of Stanley Donen’s Singin’ In The Rain (1952) and Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge (1990) with family members Todd Fisher and Billie Lourd in conversations at both screenings. Actor and screenwriter Buck Henry introduced a 50th anniversary restoration from Rialto Pictures of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967).
Photo by Scott Holleran © Copyright 2017 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
This year’s festival theme, “Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy In The Movies”, seemed incomplete without a single Buster Keaton movie (Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin scored just one movie each). The comedy theme also left out Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis and movies starring Bob Hope. To my knowledge, Richard Pryor’s only appearance was in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues.
Hollywood Boulevard is as dodgy as ever, and is probably more dangerous, with not a single cop seen patrolling pedestrian routes on bike or foot, despite the risk of sidewalk crime. A thief struck a Starbucks while I was there. I know of worse crimes, too, in recent years. Several merchants told me about slow police response times. Disney and other area businesses employ private security to protect customers from street thugs and hustlers, including those obstructing walkways with snakes wrapped around their necks.
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) presents movies, uncut and uninterrupted, from the world’s largest film libraries. TCM airs programming such as The Essentials, and annual themed movies, such as 31 Days of Oscar® in February and Summer Under the Stars in August. TCM also sponsors separate TCM Classic Film Tours in New York City and Los Angeles, produces books and DVDs about classic film, maintains a movie database at tcm.com, a mobile app to pair with one’s cable TV subscription, and other tie-ins such as Backlot, FilmStruck and an excellent monthly mini-magazine, Now Playing. It’s a division of Turner, a Time Warner company, which also owns CNN, TBS, TNT, truTV, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Turner Sports and is owned by the corporation that owns Time, Warner Bros., and Warner Home Video.
This year, the Spotlight Pass ($2,149) included gifts and privileges, priority entry to all screening events plus entry to the opening-night party following the red-carpet gala screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and more; an Essential Pass ($799) featured gifts, privileges and opening-night screening; the Classic Pass ($649) included access to all film programs except the opening-night screening and the Palace Pass ($299) gave the passholder access to all screenings and events excluding the opening-night screening. The venues were fine, as usual, with the ArcLight Hollywood, The Egyptian, Pig ‘N Whistle and host Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel being the most friendly, accommodating places.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he remade with superior results in 1956, is a solid, suspenseful thriller. I saw the picture at a screening in Sid Grauman’s recently renovated movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard, The Egyptian, on a nitrate print owned by David O. Selznick and featured at TCM’s Classic Film Festival. The British movie was introduced by director Martin Scorsese (Silence, Raging Bull, The Aviator).
A couple vacationing in Switzerland with their only child becomes ensnared in an intriguing assassination plot that leads to their daughter being kidnapped, a frantic attempt to get her back from the evil kidnappers in a London church and a volatile climax in which mother, father and daughter are potentially caught in the crossfire in a shootout between police and assassins. The black and white, 75-minute movie begins with a thrilling and elegant series of scenes in the Swiss Alps, establishing the efficacy of the mother (Edna Best), moving to police headquarters, a dentist’s office in London and a church cult in working class London where the freakish leader Abbott (Germany’s Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role since fleeing National Socialism) and his freakish female companion Agnes (Cicely Oates) lure and confront the heroic father (Leslie Banks, shining in the role). A tense scene at the Royal Albert Hall uses the same cymbal-themed music as the 1956 remake with Doris Day and James Stewart.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is a brisk, lucid and economic exercise in filmmaking and it is involving but at times it does feel like an exercise. By the time Best’s mother character does her mea culpa for having castigated the wayward daughter (Nova Pilbeam, the last surviving cast member until she died last summer) early in the movie, the gunfight has gone on too long and at the expense of the drama. The motherhood theme is nonetheless powerful, though her character emotionally pitches too soon at Albert Hall without a properly threaded and balanced exposition. Best aces the pivotal street scene, which elicited triumphant applause during the screening at the Egyptian, and Banks, too, in a chair-smashing scene at the Tabernacle of the Sun, is breathtaking. The most absorbing psychological progression, however, occurs between Agnes and Abbott during the showdown with London police.
This takes place after curiously engaging set-up scenes at church, where Banks’s father and Lorre’s child-robber go back and forth over the mind becoming blank, courtesy of a character named Clive (Hugh Wakefield) who functions here as a light comic relief. Clive, too, develops the plot-theme of redemption for authority after his passionate attempts to convince policemen are laughed off and rejected—he is dismissed as a kook or conspiracy theorist, as how could harm come to a child in church?—until police must face the deadly consequences of their denial.
Indeed, given how The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) ends, it plays as a serious reproach of London police, who literally miss the mark when it matters. Trust and count on no one (especially the government), both Hitchcock movie versions really say, above your own reasoning mind, judgment and skill. I prefer his Americanized 1956 version, which I agree with the master of suspense is the better movie. But the original is also extremely good.
With publication of the third edition of Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide: From the Silent Era Through 1965 (Plume, 2015), presented by Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I interviewed the film historian, university instructor, critic and author at his home in the San Fernando Valley about the new book, his podcast, working with TCM, favorite artists and classic movies.
This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Scott Holleran: Now, talking about the third edition of the Classic Movie Guide. Did you pick TCM or did they pick you?
Leonard Maltin: I approached them. They were very receptive, which pleased me no end. Which also pleased my publisher because they’re going to help promote the book. It’s a great marriage.
Scott Holleran: What is the basic value proposition of the Classic Movie Guide for someone who’s new to classic movies?
Leonard Maltin: Well, we’ve tried to make a user-friendly guide. There are plenty of sites online where you can go and get heaps of information. We don’t give you heaps of information; we try to give you [only] the most essential, useful information in capsulized form. That’s the idea and always has been the idea of our movie guides. And, so, if it’s of someone’s film debut, we note that. If there’s somebody who later became famous who’s in a tiny role, we note that. If it’s based on a Broadway play or a bestselling novel, we note that. We try to pack as much as we can into our tight little paragraphs so you don’t have to go searching to accumulate that information. It’s all there.
Scott Holleran: What’s the driving editorial decision: Is it that you want the reader to get a sense of whether the movie’s worth the time or is it a more definitive, scholarly approach?
Leonard Maltin: No, I don’t think it’s scholarly. It’s well-informed, I think, and it’s—as you know, Scott, when all else is said and done, it’s an opinion. We do give a rating and a review, and it’s our collective opinion, the editors’ and mine. And you may disagree. I’m always hesitant to say, “You should see this,” or, “You can skip that.” We do give an opinion, and, sometimes, we’ll say we think it’s terrible. But, you know, then I’ll get mail from people saying, “I loved it.”
Scott Holleran: How much debate goes on between you and the other writers?
Leonard Maltin: Well, I’m the editor-in-chief, so— [laughter]
Scott Holleran: —You get final say—
Leonard Maltin: —I have to have some perks to that job.
Scott Holleran: What are the additions to this third edition of the Classic Movie Guide?
Leonard Maltin: Well, we did a lot of amending to the existing book, which means fixing mistakes, embellishing reviews, adding information, clarifying synopses, adding cast members that we had omitted who deserved to be included, just tweaking the book, trying to make it more thorough—more accurate in every possible way, as well as adding more than 300 new reviews.
Scott Holleran: Such as?
Leonard Maltin: A lot of silent films, a number of foreign language films, and a lot of B movies. Our criterion was whether it is available for people to see; is it on cable television? Is it on DVD or Blu-Ray? Is it downloadable? There are a lot of films, many, many more than we could list that exist in archives and museums, but outside of visiting that archive, you can’t get to see it. So, this, again, is supposed to be a user guide, and that’s the particular purpose of this book. I mean, for instance—the great find in New Zealand five or six years ago of John Ford’s long-lost movie Upstream from 1927, a staggering find for a film that no one had seen since 1927 that actually is good. Just because you find the film doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be worthwhile or live up to your expectations, but this is a delightful movie, a comedy, kind of a backstage comedy and really entertaining. And it’s now on DVD as part of the National Film Preservation Foundation series. So, you can see it. That’s why it’s in the book.
Scott Holleran: What’s the most popular film to be added?
Leonard Maltin: No, most of the additions are—we already had most of the big, mainstream titles. So, these tend to be a little off the beaten path. There are some that I was surprised we hadn’t tackled before. On TCM last night we showed the Colleen Moore movie Why Be Good? a late silent movie with a Vitaphone soundtrack. It’s a wonderful—a really good movie starring one of the most popular leading ladies of the silent era. She was like the number onebrea box office star in the late Twenties. And, it’s a very interesting film that is now available on DVD from Warner Archive which we screened on TCM. Last night’s was its TCM debut. Now, five years ago that film wasn’t available to be seen. It’s another one that was missing in action for like 80 years, more than 80 years. So, it’s a treat to be able to include things like that.
Scott Holleran: Is there an example of a film that had a more nuanced assessment that gets a more positive assessment in this edition?
Leonard Maltin: There are some rewrites, and some changes of opinion. And you’re going to ask me for examples.
Scott Holleran: Any come to mind?
Leonard Maltin: [Pauses] Naughty Marietta, the first Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald movie, had gotten kind of a blah review, and I had seen it as a young person but not in decades. I revisited it a year or two ago, and it’s a delightful movie. It’s really good. And I said, “Well, we haven’t been fair to this movie.” So, I rewrote it and improved its rating.
Scott Holleran: I know that, sometimes, I’ll think, I see why I liked a movie when it came out, but it doesn’t hold up well, or vice versa; that there’s more to this than I remembered liking about it. Does that happen with you?
Leonard Maltin: Yeah, I mean, it cuts both ways. Sometimes, its better than I remember, and sometimes, it doesn’t live up to my memory of it. And in an ideal world or in an idealized world, I would re-view all 10,000 movies and reassess them because some of the change of opinion has to do with changing times. We don’t live in a vacuum. None of us, and the world changes. It changes our view of things. New movies come along that change our perspective on older movies. So, you can’t write anything in concrete when you’re writing about film, I don’t think. So, I try to stay open-minded to that.
Scott Holleran: I notice in reviews that sometimes a reviewer will overpraise a film because it’s clear that they really like the leading lady or the leading man or someone in the cast. Or, they have a favorable disposition to a director. Is there a common thread as you’re editing copy that you see over time, something that stands out as a common mistake you see in film assessments, reviews or critiques?
Leonard Maltin: That’s for other people to say, I think. I don’t know that I could identify it. We try to be fair. We try to be fair-minded, and we don’t indulge in hyperbole. We’re very stingy with our four-star ratings, for instance. Some people criticize me for that. But, I feel that if you praise everything or if you praise it too glibly or too lightly, then, when it comes time to really honor a film, it doesn’t have the same meaning or the same impact because you’ve been saying good things about so many movies that come along. We want those higher ratings to have real significance.
Scott Holleran: Are there any new features?
Leonard Maltin: The only really new item is sort of a gimmicky list I put together of some favorite performances from A to Z.
Scott Holleran: Your condensed favorites list?
Leonard Maltin: Yeah.
Scott Holleran: I would think that tracking down whether it is available would itself be heavily research intensive—
Leonard Maltin: —Well, yeah, that’s my video editor, Casey St. Charnez, who’s been doing that for decades for the video guides. And he and his wife run a video store, and have for years, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s their domain. I trust him implicitly on that. He does a very good job.
Scott Holleran: Sometimes, I’ll notice that a movie becomes available, then goes away.
Leonard Maltin: Yeah. But that’s been true on DVD for years. And before that, on VHS, something would go out of print just like a book sometimes goes out of print, which is why we never take that symbol out of the book. If it was ever available, we indicate it because you could maybe hunt for it and find it.
Scott Holleran: What is a common response you get from past editions that differentiates from the regular, now retired Leonard Maltin movie guide?
Leonard Maltin: The angriest reaction we get is if there’s an actor we’ve left out of the actor index in the back. It’s a very selective star index in the back that people like having, so they can have an easy reference to looking up the films of Humphrey Bogart or the films of Loretta Young, and if I’ve left out one of their favorite stars, they’re very peeved. Very peeved. And, you know, if we did a thorough index, it would be almost as thick as the book itself. Mostly, some people can’t agree to disagree. And I’m not trying to force my opinion on anybody. Obviously, it’s my book. My name is on the book. I’m offering my opinion. But I’m not insisting you agree with it. When people say they like me as a critic, what they mean is they tend to agree with me. I found that out years ago. And so, if you know my work, you know how to assess my reviews. You know that I tend not to like gory horror films. So, if you know that going in, you can better judge my review of a horror film. And, I don’t hide my prejudices or my taste or my likes and dislikes. So, I think think that’s the value of having a known quantity as a critic as opposed to just some anonymous person online position a review. It may be very intelligent and very well reasoned opinion, but you don’t know that. You don’t have a history with that person.
Scott Holleran: Do you think the Classic Movie Guide helps sustain film criticism?
Leonard Maltin: I don’t know. That’s a tall order. What we do is such a shorthand version of film criticism. I think it’s valid, but it’s still very—
Scott Holleran: It’s a starting point because it gets the reader thinking about a film?
Leonard Maltin: Yeah. I hope so. That’s a nice way to put it.
Scott Holleran: Silent films seem to be receiving something of a renaissance right now.
Leonard Maltin: Yes. In fact, I dare say that there are more silent film showings than vintage talking film showings around the country which is just great. And that means that more people are being exposed to silent films on a theater screen with live music, and that’s the way they really ought to be seen.
Scott Holleran: They’re getting re-scored and remastered. Why?
Leonard Maltin: People continue to discover the magic of silent films. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival every spring is a wonderful event that often sells out the Castro Theatre up there. It’s just heartwarming to see. And it’s not alone; there are many showings around the country.
Scott Holleran: What else will you be doing, if anything, with Turner Classic Movies?
Leonard Maltin: I’m continuing to host their Disney evenings. I’m very lucky to have had that evening last night with Ben [Mankiewicz] and I’m delighted to be doing the Disney series for them. I usually participate in their Classic Film Festival every April.
Scott Holleran: Can people see Leonard Maltin doing any original programming anywhere else?
Leonard Maltin: Well, I’m still working for Reelzchannel. I’m about to tape a new movie review special with my partner, Greg Drake, which we’re going to record next week and which will be airing in mid-October. Those are always fun to do. We tape those in Albuquerque, so that’s an adventure in itself. And I’m doing my weekly podcast, almost a full year’s worth so far.
Scott Holleran: Maltin on Movies?
Leonard Maltin: Right, on the Wolfpop network, part of Earwolf, and that’s available for free from iTunes. And there’s a link to it on the home page of my website.
Scott Holleran: And what’s the feedback you get there? How is it different?
Leonard Maltin: We hear from all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. It’s very interesting, very engaged audience. It’s fun.
Scott Holleran: So, you like podcasting?
Leonard Maltin: I do. I like the informality of it and the immediacy of it.
Scott Holleran: How does it differ from traditional radio broadcasting?
Leonard Maltin: It doesn’t have to be perfect. I had to learn that. At one time, I was having our engineer edit out all of my flubs and all of my, every time I stumble over a word or something like that. And then, he said to me, “It doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect.” I thought about it, and I listened to some other podcasts. I realized he was right. We can be casual, and it’s conversational. I think that’s the main difference. Also, it doesn’t have to be a particular length. It can go shorter or longer, and it doesn’t matter.
Scott Holleran: But you usually try to keep within a certain timeframe, right?
Leonard Maltin: We like it to be under an hour because those seem to be the ideal length for podcasts, I’m told. But some weeks it might be forty-four minutes. And other weeks, it might be fifty-two minutes. It doesn’t matter. I heard from an old friend in New York I hadn’t talked to in ages who said she listens to it while she exercises. [laughter] You know, it’s totally unpredictable.
Scott Holleran: Your daughter, Jessie, is getting more involved, right?
Leonard Maltin: Yes, she is. I enjoy it, and she enjoys it, too. When I was ill this summer, she Skyped in from the UK with my partner Baron Vaughn and filled in for me. That was wonderful.
Scott Holleran: Which 2015 films, in your view, will end up being regarded as classic movies?
Leonard Maltin: You know, that’s hard to say. I don’t know. Some of what grabs us right now is so of the moment, either in terms of topic or its approach, it’s hard to know how they’re going to wear over the years. I don’t know. I saw an early screening of Steve Jobs at Telluride, and it’s a very flashy film. And very good, I think. Will that approach stand up to the years? Will it seem overly flashy? I can’t know. We can’t know that. But I think Danny Boyle did a great job with Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, and Michael Fassbender is terrific. You can only judge for now. To me, the ultimate oxymoron, and it’s used a lot, is the term “instant classic”. Instant would-be classic or classic wannabe, I’ll accept those. But people don’t say that. They say “instant classic”. Well, we don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.
Scott Holleran: The idea of classic movies has changed in terms of how people think of it. On TCM, they’ll show B horror movies. Sometimes, I’ll think, Really? This is not a classic movie.
Leonard Maltin: Well, not everything old is classic. Just because it’s old doesn’t make it a classic. But TCM has been very canny in broadening its horizons and showing a wider variety of films, including tacky stuff from recent vintage and newer films coming up through the decades that have staying power. Look, the Seventies, which is an era that many people regard so highly in American filmmaking and writing, and rightly so, that’s 40 years ago. Forty years is a long time.
Scott Holleran: Do you think that this approach dilutes or diminishes how people should properly regard what constitutes a classic movie?
Leonard Maltin: I don’t want to be uptight. We call this a Classic Movie Guide, and we have a lot of stinkers in here, too. So, it’s another way of saying “vintage”, I guess. Not just old. I’m trying to be careful with my terminology, but—let’s face it. It’s a broad-based term for older films. I accept that. There are some films that are thought of as classics that I may not necessarily love.
Scott Holleran: Such as?
Leonard Maltin: A Place in the Sun. I’m not a great fan of A Place in the Sun. Some people revere it. That’s not the right word. Some people think highly of it. Many people think highly of it. I’m not one of them. It has some great moments. So, my opinion may be the minority view in that case.
Scott Holleran: So you do look at the movie as a whole movie.
Leonard Maltin: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. The greatest irony is the decade of the 1950s. So many of the films of the 1950s that were Oscar winners and critical favorites back then were big, important movies with a capital I. And those, Around the World in Eighty Days or Ben-Hur, those are not necessarily the movies that fans and movie buffs enjoy the most now. The Searchers, which was dismissed on its release in 1956, is now one of the most treasured films in all of American cinema. As are many other westerns and science fiction films and thrillers and genre pieces that were considered almost program movies or inconsequential movies in that same period. You’ll get more people talking about Invasion of the Body Snatchers than you will Around the World in Eighty Days.
Scott Holleran: That goes to what you’re saying about changing times and mores—
Leonard Maltin: Yes.
Scott Holleran: And ethics, that we look back on Invasion of the Body Snatchers and see it as a metaphor for conformity—
Leonard Maltin: —Yes.
Scott Holleran: And The Searchers, we are more enlightened about racism, for instance. I’m not sure that people viewed the John Wayne character as villainous when they went to see it in theaters back then, or as having a dark side.
Leonard Maltin: Right. No. I mean, if you read some of the reviews, it’s astonishing. “Just another John Wayne western”, you know. Really? What film did you see?
Scott Holleran: Speaking of a couple of your favorites: Bad Day at Black Rock from the Fifties. Why is that one of your favorites?
Leonard Maltin: It’s a great film. I mean, some of its ideas have been echoed in subsequent movies, but it’s still a great concept and beautifully executed. Spencer Tracy is so solid in that film. The supporting cast is exceptional. The use of location up near Lone Pine.
Scott Holleran: And the editing, the concision.
Leonard Maltin: Oh, yes. Everything. Everything about it, everything about it just clicks. And it’s a tough movie, too. It’s a very hardboiled film. And, of course, the other genre I should have mentioned before is film noir. That is so endearingly popular today I think because of its cynicism. We live in a more cynical world. So I find, dealing with my students at USC, they can more easily accept cynicism than they can accept sweetness, light and innocence in older movies. They’ve grown up in a harder, harsher world. A post-9/11 world.
Scott Holleran: Was Bad Day at Black Rock a commercial and critical success in 1955?
Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it was a hit, but I think it was well received. It still has the element of surprise to it.
Scott Holleran: The Furies, that was, if you can remember—
Leonard Maltin: Oh, yeah. That’s 1950. The Furies is a fascinating film—absolutely fascinating. Talk about dark. Judith Anderson is so good. Everyone is so strong in that film. And again, it’s an example of—people who think of old Hollywood films as being simplistic or all having happy endings and blue skies ought to take a look at The Furies. [laughter]
Scott Holleran: Or Bad Day at Black Rock.
Leonard Maltin: Or Bad Day at Black Rock. They may be in for a shock or something of a shock. And these films were all made by studios; these were made under the studio system. Strong-minded writers and directors and producers got films made that were complex and multilayered and not as sunny or simplistic as some people would have you believe of that period.
Scott Holleran: You mentioned your students at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Can you think of a movie or couple of movies consistently over the years that students come back to with high praise—
Leonard Maltin: Well, I don’t teach a film history class. I teach a contemporary film class. So, but what I do is I sneak in short subjects at the beginning of class, old shorts, cartoons and shorts, to get a taste of film history. And, I showed them Betty Boop last week, and Popeye, a Max Fleischer cycle, and those cartoons from the 1930s need no apology, no explanation, they just play to an audience. They play beautifully, as if they were made this morning. And to an audience that’s used to seeing postmodern cartoons, self-referential humor, a lot of things that you don’t find in the older, animated shorts. Yet, they responded as any audience would.
Scott Holleran: Is Song of the South in Classic Movie Guide?
Leonard Maltin: I think it has been from the beginning, yeah.
Scott Holleran: But that’s not available.
Leonard Maltin: Well, it is—
Scott Holleran: You made an exception?
Leonard Maltin: —if you look in the right places. Every rule—
Scott Holleran: Is made to be broken?
Leonard Maltin: —has its exceptions.
Scott Holleran: Should Disney release Song of the South on Blu-Ray?
Leonard Maltin: I think they should with appropriate introduction and commentary to put it into context.
Scott Holleran: I always thought Disney should consider inviting someone such as Sidney Poitier, who’s served on the Walt Disney Company’s board of directors, to introduce it and provide a wider context. Why haven’t they? Have you talked to Bob Iger about that?
Leonard Maltin: I’ve not personally had a conversation with him about this, no.
Scott Holleran: But you are regarded as a Disney historian and expert.
Leonard Maltin: Yeah, but he’s made his own assessment and opinion. And he’s asked about it every year at the shareholders’ meeting, and he’s been pretty emphatic about it. He hasn’t used the word “never”, but he’s pretty emphatic in his thinking about it. My feeling is that nothing is gained by sweeping something under the carpet. I think the problem for Disney is that Disney is such a big target. No one thinks of 20th Century Fox or Warner Bros. or Universal Pictures in the way they think of Disney. Disney has a bond with its audience and a reputation, so they’re more vulnerable. I understand their trepidation. I completely understand their trepidation.
Scott Holleran: Have you seen Song of the South?
Leonard Maltin: Yeah.
Scott Holleran: Is it a racist film?
Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it is. Uncle Remus is the hero of that movie and a lovable, beloved character. And that’s how I always saw it when I was a child when I first saw the movie, and I didn’t grow up to be a racist or think that all blacks were subservient or spoke in a dialect. I just took this as a particular story set at a particular time.
Scott Holleran: Who are some of the, in your view, looking back at the whole scope of classic movies from the silent era to 1965, some of the more underrated directors or directors who haven’t gotten their due.
Leonard Maltin: Well, I mentioned this name in an interview earlier this morning to someone who’d never heard of him. King Vidor—I think he is actually overlooked when the roster of great directors is cited. His first great success was The Big Parade, one of the greatest of all silent films. He then went on to make The Crowd, another milestone film about—and a very, a typical Hollywood product. He made a delightful comedy with Marion Davies called Show People in 1928. He left the studio system to make a very personal project called Our Daily Bread in the Thirties. He was constantly reaching and experimenting and trying new things. He made The Champ with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery in the early Thirties which was an enormous success. H.M. Pulham, Esq. is a film I like very much. Northwest Passage. He made many great films, and he had some misfires as well. But [he’s] not easily pigeonholed. One of the things I admire about him. And I showed one, one of my favorite under-appreciated films of his, at the TCM festival two years ago called The Stranger’s Return with Miriam Hopkins and Franchot Tone and Lionel Barrymore, which suddenly turned up on TCM. A really, really good movie, a very adult movie, from the early Thirties. Again, atypically sophisticated and adult for its time.
Scott Holleran: Who’s your favorite movie star from the era of silents to ’65?
Leonard Maltin: Bogart.
Scott Holleran: Is Casablanca one of your—
Leonard Maltin: That is my all-time favorite movie.
Scott Holleran: Is its director underrated?
Leonard Maltin: Yes, that’s a good one. Michael Curtiz is underrated. He was an incredible director with a dynamic visual sense. He hated ordinary shots. He put vitality into everything he did.
Scott Holleran: What are a few movies people should see by Michael Curtiz?
Leonard Maltin: The Kennel Murder Case, early Thirties . Yankee Doodle Dandy, of course.
Scott Holleran: Any others by Curtiz?
Leonard Maltin: Mildred Pierce.
Scott Holleran: What about producers?
Leonard Maltin: There were great producers in the Golden Age and the Golden Era who exerted great influence and who sometimes sat on the shoulders of directors and guided them in a positive way. Daryl F. Zanuck was a very gutsy producer, studio chief and producer. And sometimes his interference wasn’t welcomed, and sometimes it was. And he and John Ford had their bones of contention, but they also made some great films together. It was very bold of them to make The Grapes of Wrath. They had to make some concessions to censorship of the time, but they still managed to capture the essence of John Steinbeck’s book in what was almost certain to be a noncommercial venture. And Zanuck did that time and time again with The Ox-Bow Incident, with Gentleman’s Agreement, with Pinky. He was a very forthright guy who stuck to his guns when he believed in a property.
Scott Holleran: Is he one of the producers that you think of when you think of—again, silent to ’65—people who made movies better?
Leonard Maltin: Yes, absolutely. He did at Warner Bros., and he did when he started at 20th Century Fox. And Hal Wallis, who was the head of production at Warner Bros., did remarkable work. And the proof is in the surviving memos from Warner Bros. that Rudy Behlmer collected into a fascinating book called Inside Warner Bros. [Fireside, 1986], which reproduced all these unbelievable memoranda that showed just how savvy Hal Wallis was as production chief. It’s must reading for any classic movie fan, just endlessly fascinating to see how he micromanaged the films under his watch at Warner’s.
Scott Holleran: Is Kazan one of the great directors?
Leonard Maltin: Yes, absolutely. And his first films were made for Daryl Zanuck. I love his first film: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Scott Holleran: His last film, or one of his last films, The Arrangement: I know that’s after this era, but how do you regard that? Is that going to be a classic film?
Leonard Maltin: No. I don’t think so, but America, America, I think, is fantastic from his later period.
Scott Holleran: Who deserves credit for Gone with the Wind?
Leonard Maltin: That’s a collaborative film. I guess who deserves credit is David O. Selznick, primarily. But, not solely because he worked with so many directors and several screenwriters, not to mention William Cameron Menzies’ production design and Walter Plunkett’s costumes and Max Steiner’s music, etc., etc., etc. No film is made by a single person, but if there’s a single vision to that film, I think you’d have to say it’s Selznick’s.