From the early days of silent movies to the end of the ‘Studio System’, this collection of radio interviews from the BBC Archive uncovers the story of Hollywood movie-making’s formative years. Legendary actors and directors reveal in their own words how it felt to be a part of a ‘golden age’ of film production. Combining BBC radio broadcasts and unedited interviews (many available in full for the first time), BBC Archive go behind the scenes of Tinseltown and relive some of the greatest adventures of the silver screen.
- Frank Capra recalls his remarkable career. He talks candidly about his time at the studios on Gower Street, his relationship with Columbia boss Harry Cohn and the inner workings of the ‘studio system’.
- Alfred Hitchcock speaks to Anthony Friese-Greene about the use of music in his movies. The director discusses the ‘screaming violins’ that made ‘Psycho’ so memorable, the electronic sound-scapes he commissioned for ‘The Birds’ and Herbert Bath’s score for Hitchcock’s first sound picture, ‘Blackmail’.
- Charlie Chaplin answers questions about his career. Joining him for this discussion are film producer Michael Balcon, actor John Mills and critics Dilys Powell and Paul Holt. Chaplin refutes the claim that he is a ‘genius’, although the panellists insist that he probably is. He stresses the importance of music in film-making and laments the loss of magic in modern cinema.
- Boris Karloff pays tribute to the role that changed his life, the monster in James Whale’s 1931 version of ‘Frankenstein’.
- Orson Welles is quizzed about his forthcoming film, which is based on one of William Shakespeare’s plays. The interviewer, Nancy Wise, can be heard over the telephone.
- Howard Hawks, the director of ‘Scarface’ (1932) and ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953), talks about Marilyn Monroe, the role of producers and writers, and his working relationship with Samuel Goldwyn. He also shares his thoughts on the ‘studio system’, current cinema productions and the early days of Hollywood.
- Henry Fonda shares memories of his friend and one-time agent, Leland Hayward. He reveals the importance of the agent in negotiations and explains Hayward’s connections to many of the major players in the American movie industry, such as James Stewart, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
- Billy Wilder conversation covers many topics, including the rise of Hitler, the rate of film production during Hollywood’s peak, the ‘star system’, the advent of corporate-driven television and the state of the US economy. He goes into detail about the ‘tightly run fortresses’ of studio heads Louis B Mayer, Harry Cohn and Samuel Goldwyn and speculates on how the movie moguls would have coped with the lack of censorship visible in modern pictures.
- Joseph Mankiewicz speaks dismissively about modern movies. He goes on to talk about censorship in the early days of Hollywood, the difficulties he found in working with Darryl F Zanuck on ‘Cleopatra’ (1963) and who really has the last word on a picture’s final cut.
- William Wyler was the director of classics such as ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1939), ‘Mrs Miniver’ (1942) and ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959). In this unedited recording, he talks about a life in the movie business that started with an invitation from a distant cousin to visit the USA from his home in Alsace and would eventually see him nominated for a record 12 Academy Awards for Best Director. Wyler recalls working as an office boy at Universal’s New York headquarters, the two-reel silent Westerns on which he learnt his craft and his rise through the studios of Universal, Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B Mayer. He also discusses his relationships with both stars and producers over a unique, 45-year period of US movie history.
- John Huston talks about fighting with Errol Flynn, his preference for ‘stories to do with men’ and what the medium of film means to him. He also touches on his relationships with his father (the actor Walter Huston) and his own children, and recalls his time as a down-and-out living on the streets of London.
- Charlton Heston looks back on his career, with a specific focus on the 1950s and the end of the ‘studio system’. He mentions some of the directors he worked with during that time, including Cecil B DeMille, who cast him in ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (1952), George Stevens, William Wyler and Orson Welles, who worked both in front of and behind the camera in ‘Touch of Evil’ (1958).
- Miklos Rozsa’s music has been used in countless films and TV programmes, from the spiralling strings of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ (1945) to the melodramatic ‘Dum de dum dum’ sting of ‘Dragnet’ (1954). In this interview, he talks about some of the battles he faced in convincing directors of the importance of music, and shares his secrets for creating the perfect score.
- Joan Fontaine talks about parties, famous Hollywood producers and working with a reluctant Laurence Olivier on ‘Rebecca’ (1940).
- Jack Lemmon talks about catching the acting bug as a child, the films and directors he admires the most and how Walter Matthau is his favourite leading lady.
- Kirk Douglas discusses the strong influence of his father and his upbringing on his life and career. He also shares his views on women’s liberation, relates anecdotes about his son Michael and friend Marlene Dietrich, and highlights the significance of ‘Spartacus’ (1960) and ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975).
- Tony Curtis talks about his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, his string of affairs and marriages, and the pressures exerted by the ‘studio system’ on the stars. He also discusses his devastating slide into cocaine and alcohol addiction during the 1970s and the success of ‘The Persuaders!’, the TV crime drama series he made with Roger Moore in the UK in 1971.
For more visit: BBC Archive
An amateur color film shot on set by Chaplin’s brother, Sydney, during the making of The Great Dictator (1939/40). The silent footage was discovered in 2003 at the Chaplin villa in Switzerland.
It’s Chaplin’s famous anti-fascist speech from The Great Dictator, except it’s been played around with (yes, with auto-tuning) in a way that makes it an oddly compelling watch. The speech on its own is one of my favorite movie speeches of all time, but it’s also one that isn’t dated. It’s just as meaningful, inspiring and enlightening now as it was back in 1940, when it was released as Chaplin’s first all-talking, all-sound picture. Chaplin financed the entire film himself, and it was his biggest box office hit, grossing around $5 million.
A tiny bit of trivia: Adolf Hitler banned The Great Dictator from Germany, but curiosity eventually got the best of him and he snuck a copy into the country. He wound up watching it twice, but no one knows what he thought of it. Chaplin was one of his all-time favorite actors, and after learning Hitler watched the movie he said he’d give anything to know what he thought of it.
Hey, if anything maybe this will get kids to discover The Great Dictator, and then Chaplin. If so, start here: Watch The Great Dictator in its entirety on YouTube. After, read this: Chaplin’s The Gold Rush Is One of the Richest Films Ever Made, by David Ehrlich. —Erik Davis
Being published in 1978, this book is very rare now.
It’s only 32 pages long but Chaplin: Clown and Genius — A Tribute to Charlie is the finest tribute I have read about one of four of the greatest comedians the world has known. The other three kings of slapstick comedy, in my opinion, are Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Marx Brothers. Do I hear murmurs?
Published in 1978 by World Distributors (Manchester) Ltd, this little-long book contains only three chapters—The Early Years, Exit the Clown and The Final Curtain—and is interspersed with large, and some rare, black-and-white photographs that trace Chaplin’s hugely successful cinematic journey from pre-WWI to post-WWII.
The narrative under each chapter is insightful in that it provides the reader with more than a peep into Chaplin’s chequered, and often controversial, life from his birth in England in 1889 to his death in Switzerland in 1977, at the age of 88.
The Early Years chapter begins with these words, “If there was one thing that the vaudeville stage and the slapstick screen was not lacking in America in the years that led up to the First World War it was comedians. It was into this thickly populated business in 1913 that Charles Spencer Chaplin, aged 24, came from Britain.”
The book is full of little but meaningful anecdotes. For instance, of his curious makeup and wardrobe, Chaplin has said, “On the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants, the baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young but remembering (Mack) Sennett (American director of slapstick comedy) had expected a much older man, I added a small moustache…”
Perhaps, no other toothbrush-like moustache on the upper lip of a man has launched a career that has scaled to such stratospheric heights as Chaplin’s.
As the unknown writer of this tribute notes, “Chaplin’s choice of the baggy trousers, the bowler hat, moustache and cane was itself a stroke of genius, for it gave him eccentricity combined with a touch of realism. He was the universal man, battered but brave, whom everyone would recognise.” And none would forget for a long time.
The photographs from cover to cover are a visual treat and even more so if you are a Chaplin fan. Most of the pictures are stills from his vast repertory of films; a few show the clown white-haired and ageing yet full of life; still others portray Chaplin with his family, wife Oona and daughter Geraldine, or receiving an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1972.
Two photographs stand out. One is that of Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando in a scene from A Countess from Hong Kong, written and directed by Chaplin in 1967. It also starred his younger son Sydney Chaplin. The other is that of a Swiss police officer in a poignant moment, giving a last salute to Chaplin as his coffin is carried to a cemetery in Switzerland.
“The great man—the little man—died peacefully on Christmas Day, 1977. Perhaps, the finest tribute to him then was paid by a writer who, echoing the shock of his passing to a world made sadder for it, said: ‘He achieved greater, more widespread fame in his own lifetime than perhaps anyone else in the history of mankind.’ For a slum-born who once laid down his head on a bare mattress on an attic floor, with only a bowl of soup to keep him alive, it had certainly been an amazing lifetime,” the writer concludes his eulogy.
Postscript: Chaplin: Clown and Genius — A Tribute to Charlie appears to be out of stock. Amazon and eBay don’t have it. I do, picked it up for $1 from a roadside bookseller in Bombay, and it’s not for sale. One must hold on to the clowns and geniuses in one’s life.