July 2004

Reel to Real: 25 Years of Celebrity Interviews From Vaudeville to Movies for TV
(Badger Books, 328 pages, $26.95)
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson

In the summer of 1978, a couple of movie-crazy kids just out of their Minnesota high school snagged their first interviews with Hollywood stars.  Over the next 25 years, David Fantle and Tom Johnson captured more than  200 performers and filmmakers on paper. Sixty of these interviews are now between the covers of Reel to Real.

Though interviewees range from vaudevillians and songwriters to stars of Golden Age movie musicals (a favorite category), directors are heard from loud and clear through the voices of Mel Brooks, Frank Capra, Vincente Minnelli, George Sidney, Charles Walters and Robert Wise.

The boys date and describe the settings of each meeting, offer takes on their subjects' personalities and weave biographical information within a conversational text that gets down to business (Capra and Walters also get Q&As).

Minnelli, who "fulfilled the standing MGM commandment: 'Do it big, do it right, and give it class,' " showed Fantle and Johnson a bulging scrapbook of library clippings chronicling 40 years of clothing modes and interior designs. " 'By referring to these cutouts,' " Minnelli explained, "     'I was able to bring some measure of authenticity to each of my movies; whether they be costume epics or more modern stories.' "

George Sidney (DGA President 1951-59; 1961-67) described himself in his nascent MGM years as " 'a quiet and polite what-makes-Sammy-run type.' " Of the studio's Our Gang comedies on which he cut his directing teeth, Sidney admitted that it " '...was impossible working with those kids,' " and talked about what is probably his most famous musical number: Gene Kelly's dance with Jerry, the little cartoon mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945). Running the sequence after it was put together, Sidney realized that while Kelly had a natural reflection that appeared on the floor, the mouse, being an animated cell laid onto the film, had none. " '... we had to go back and make 20,000 mouse drawing reflections.' "

Robert Wise (DGA President 1971-75) credited his early days as a film editor on two Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pictures at RKO for demystifying musicals, which helped him direct Oscar winners, West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). "Wise's high watermark as a film editor," the boys believe, "was reached when he worked on Citizen Kane (1941)." As to the controversy stirred by film critic Pauline Kael about "who was really responsible for the film's greatness: Orson or Herman Mankiewicz, his co-scriptwriter," Wise said that he " 'never saw Herman on the set. It's Orson's film, no question about it.' "

The most extensive and lively interview is with Frank Capra (DGA President 1939-41; 1960-61) with whom the boys spent an adventurous day when they sort of "kidnapped" him away from a film festival. " 'I believe one man, one film is the only way to make a movie,' " Capra said at one point. " 'The director is the only person with an overall conception of the film. It is he who will take the disjointed bits and pieces of film footage and interrelate them into a cohesive whole, the finished product.' " When Fantle and Johnson returned Capra to his hotel, the venerable director protected them from the festival coordinator's wrath. "Nearly a quarter of a century after his retirement from directing films, Capra remained true to his credo of standing up for the little guy(s)."

Review written by Lisa Mitchell


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