When You First Knew Them by Name

As a small boy, years ago, three decades removed from the impending 21st century, I began to nurture my love for film in ways that far exceeded simply watching movies.  I read about movies, I studied published scripts, I analyzed the careers of actors and writers and directors and, yes, watched as many classic films as I could find on late night television and PBS.   And when you develop along such familiar cinephilia lines, it’s common to engage in all the big stuff first:  The movies called the greatest on all the polls and in all the film books, the movies so popular they became a part of our collective memory and the trendsetters in Hollywood history.  But after that first spasm of taking it all in, you begin to recognize things that the books aren’t telling you and you begin to notice actors that haven’t won any Oscars and you take pride in it.  Eventually, you begin to collect the names of cinema artists you appreciate that you think no one else does.  They’re your first “discoveries” and like a budding John Hammond, you begin to introduce them to anyone who will listen.

Of course, they’re all famous and appreciated but you felt like you came to them first.  That happened to me with Michael Curtiz.  Sure, he’s as famous as they come in classic Hollywood but in my day, film books never mentioned him except in passing as the director of Casablanca.    Sometimes I’d also see his name in a chapter on Elvis movies (King Creole, 1958) but that was about it.  So when I discovered he’d co-directed The Adventures of Robin Hood and solely directed Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk I started seeking him out any chance I got.   It wasn’t long before I found Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum along with the classics Yankee Doodle Dandy and Mildred Pierce.  Holy cow, I thought, what couldn’t this guy do?!  How come no film books gave him any real mention?  I spent years telling people my favorite director was Michael Curtiz (he wasn’t, although he is definitely a favorite) just so I could hear them ask, “Who?” and then I’d roll off an answer that mentioned as many different genres and classics as possible so they’d be just as impressed with him as I was.

Years later, my early obsession with Curtiz proved it had become hard-wired into my neural network when my wife and I flipped on the tv and The Kennel Murder Case was playing.  Neither of us had ever seen it nor did we know what we were watching.  The movie was more than halfway through when we came in, we watched a few minutes, saw the quick edits and swing-around camera moves and I said, “boy this movie really has a quick pace for what looks like the early thirties.  Almost like Michael Curtiz directed it.”  It didn’t take long to pick up that William Powell was playing Philo Vance and only a little longer to look it up and discover, yep, it was directed by Michael Curtiz. Now I’ve seen it a few times and even own the DVD.  I don’t much mention Curtiz anymore but I still love his movies and his quick and efficient storytelling.   And speaking of Michael Curtiz…

When I first discovered Glenda Farrell it was like meeting the coolest, fastest talking dame you ever did know and she was all yours because no one else had ever heard of her.   Like all my other “discoveries,” she was already mega-famous in classic circles but what did I know?  Again, she hadn’t been mentioned in those film books (boy, those film books of mine were pretty useless, huh?) so when I saw her in The Mystery of the Wax Museum it was a revelation.   Who was she and how could I see her other movies?  Well, it turns out, I had seen her in other movies but she wasn’t fast-talking dame Glenda Farrell in those movies, she was dull, serious-actress Glenda Farrell.  To wit, I had seen and loved I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang more than once before I saw The Mystery of the Wax Museum and long before seeing any of her amazing Torchy Blaine portrayals but that Glenda Farrell wasn’t particularly memorable.   She wasn’t used according to her real talents which were, essentially, completely dominating the screen.  Pushing Glenda into the background with a bland part was like making Elvis sing backup to Andy Williams:  He’d be fine but you’d be missing out on what he could really do.  The fast-talking Farrell, on the other hand, was an amazing find.  I still love and tout her to the uninitiated any chance I get.

But that’s directors and actors, what about writers?  All the famous ones were in the books (Ben Hecht, Nunnally Johnson, Paddy Chayefsky) but when I watched The Lost Weekend and Ninotchka and noticed the same writing names on both, I became intrigued.  Everyone knew Billy Wilder but who was this Charles Brackett?  He not only co-wrote so many great movies with Wilder, he wrote a few more on his own, including the terrific dark thriller, Niagara.  If I saw Brackett’s name on the credits, I knew the movie would be good.

It’s odd, in a way, but film history deals with the directors, actors and writers first, usually in that order, just as I’ve done here.  Odd because film is a visual medium and we usually pay less attention to the person who shoots the film than the other artists involved.  And so it should come as no surprise that despite all the great camera work done in the classic era of Hollywood by such greats as Gregg Tolland, James Wong Howe and Stanley Cortez, it wasn’t until movies of the seventies that I really started noticing and following certain names of cinematographers.    One of the first was Conrad Hall.  Early on in my film education I saw In Cold Blood.  It was (ahem) more current than classic when I first saw it on commercial television in the late seventies (yes, back in the day, watching an edited, commercially interrupted version of a movie was sometimes your only method of ever seeing it) but I’d already heard tons about it.  I watched it for true crime story and got the name “Conrad Hall” from it as well.  I still think the framing of the rain reflection on Robert Blake’s face is incredibly moving.

I began to see his name more often as I saw Cool Hand Luke, Marathon Man and Day of the Locust, a movie I love and have written up here at the Morlocks.  Pretty soon, Conrad Hall was a name I sought out and knew even if I didn’t like the movie, it would be framed perfectly.  Take one of my favorite films of all time, Fat City.  It’s the perfect example of how Hall, such a master of composition, never let photographic beauty dominate the story or characters.   Fat City is about losers and lowlifes, people living on the fringe and barely surviving.  As a result, Hall’s photography frames each shot in a direct and ordinary way that somehow evokes a beauty in its hopeless desolation.   The story demanded the photography be non-glamorous and non-showy and Hall obliged but still gave it a look that took you inside the characters’ worlds like few other cinematographers could do.

There are plenty of other artists in the movies whose names I got to know, from editors to costumers, but was happy to simply know the name and possess the ability to rattle off a list of their credits should the opportunity arise rather than feel a need to follow their work.  The artists listed above, on the other hand, inspired me not just to seek out new movies to fill in my classic movie viewing gaps but to seek out new individual artists and let their credits lead me to even more movies, many of which were unknown to me until Michael or Glenda or Charles or Conrad led the way.   Like all things important to the soul, it led to a deeper understanding of both the cinema and myself and for that I will always be grateful.  And it all happened when I first noticed, and then remembered, a name.

28 Responses When You First Knew Them by Name
Posted By triptych : November 7, 2012 9:43 am

I started something like that too. My first love was music and r’n'r of course, but soon after came cinema, actresses and actors. One of the first movies I saw as a small child was the Boris karloff and Bela Lugosi movies (stemming for my love of Shelley and Stoker at school:)), then all the way thru to Tom Hanks today. My fave actress of all time is still Natalie Wood (RIP:(:() esp in the r’n'r movie Rebel without a Cause…….the rest is all history:)

Posted By triptych : November 7, 2012 9:43 am

I started something like that too. My first love was music and r’n'r of course, but soon after came cinema, actresses and actors. One of the first movies I saw as a small child was the Boris karloff and Bela Lugosi movies (stemming for my love of Shelley and Stoker at school:)), then all the way thru to Tom Hanks today. My fave actress of all time is still Natalie Wood (RIP:(:() esp in the r’n'r movie Rebel without a Cause…….the rest is all history:)

Posted By Bunny Moreno : November 7, 2012 11:00 am

Great post! Nice to know I am not alone when it comes to feeling like a film or actor is your first discovery heheh xox

Posted By Bunny Moreno : November 7, 2012 11:00 am

Great post! Nice to know I am not alone when it comes to feeling like a film or actor is your first discovery heheh xox

Posted By Emgee : November 7, 2012 11:45 am

I’m sure you know Glenda was also in Little Caesar, were she showed more guts than her beau Douglas Fairbanks (jr, that is).
I have the idea that, like Joan Blondell, she was too feisty ,too much her own woman for the Production Code era, and her career really suffered after 1934.

Michael Curtiz was the ideal director for the studio era. Give him a script and he’ll make a great movie on time and within budget, in any genre imaginable. Which is exactly why film books tend to ingnore him: he doesn’t fit the Auteur Theory so beloved by many film critics.

Posted By Emgee : November 7, 2012 11:45 am

I’m sure you know Glenda was also in Little Caesar, were she showed more guts than her beau Douglas Fairbanks (jr, that is).
I have the idea that, like Joan Blondell, she was too feisty ,too much her own woman for the Production Code era, and her career really suffered after 1934.

Michael Curtiz was the ideal director for the studio era. Give him a script and he’ll make a great movie on time and within budget, in any genre imaginable. Which is exactly why film books tend to ingnore him: he doesn’t fit the Auteur Theory so beloved by many film critics.

Posted By Jason : November 7, 2012 12:41 pm

Good to see some love for Michael Curtiz. I’m continually amazed at the number of times his name comes up in the credits on movies that I record off TCM. Really among the most versatile of directors – even for the Golden Age era.

I also love fast-talking Glenda Farrell. Just caught The Mystery of the Wax Museum this October off TCM. First time I’ve ever seen her in color (if only two strip technicolor).

Posted By Jason : November 7, 2012 12:41 pm

Good to see some love for Michael Curtiz. I’m continually amazed at the number of times his name comes up in the credits on movies that I record off TCM. Really among the most versatile of directors – even for the Golden Age era.

I also love fast-talking Glenda Farrell. Just caught The Mystery of the Wax Museum this October off TCM. First time I’ve ever seen her in color (if only two strip technicolor).

Posted By Paris : November 7, 2012 1:36 pm

László Kovács
That’s the name you should have remembered from Five Easy Pieces.
I was quite certain that Conrad Hall wasn’t the cinematographer of the movie. It is the great Laszlo Kovacs. Checked imdb to see if i was right (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065724/fullcredits#cast).
Nevertheless, the movie is excquisitely shot. Check the No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos (2008)documentary for one of the greatest DPs of the ’70s. Among the best of the with some classics in his resume. Not quite as great as Hall’s but up there with the best of them.

Posted By Paris : November 7, 2012 1:36 pm

László Kovács
That’s the name you should have remembered from Five Easy Pieces.
I was quite certain that Conrad Hall wasn’t the cinematographer of the movie. It is the great Laszlo Kovacs. Checked imdb to see if i was right (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065724/fullcredits#cast).
Nevertheless, the movie is excquisitely shot. Check the No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos (2008)documentary for one of the greatest DPs of the ’70s. Among the best of the with some classics in his resume. Not quite as great as Hall’s but up there with the best of them.

Posted By swac44 : November 8, 2012 10:11 am

I too learned about Curtiz at an early age, thanks to CBC TV, which ran a late night package of Warner Bros. “greatest hits” over and over for a number of years, and introduced me to my first viewings of Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood (and all the other Curtiz/Flynn films), Angels With Dirty Faces and so on. I eventually learned that he was the man who helmed Elvis’s best film, King Creole, and could do wonders with a full-blown musical as well, like Yankee Doodle Dandy or White Christmas.

I’ve only discovered his pre-code titles more recently, aside from Mystery of the Wax Museum, which I first saw in the days of laserdisc, and in the past few months have marvelled at his deft handling of Spencer Tracy in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing and the steamy South Pacific drama Mandalay. I can’t get enough of them, I only hope titles like Private Detective 62 or The Mad Genius (with an uncredited Boris Karloff!) show up in TCM’s rotation soon.

Posted By swac44 : November 8, 2012 10:11 am

I too learned about Curtiz at an early age, thanks to CBC TV, which ran a late night package of Warner Bros. “greatest hits” over and over for a number of years, and introduced me to my first viewings of Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood (and all the other Curtiz/Flynn films), Angels With Dirty Faces and so on. I eventually learned that he was the man who helmed Elvis’s best film, King Creole, and could do wonders with a full-blown musical as well, like Yankee Doodle Dandy or White Christmas.

I’ve only discovered his pre-code titles more recently, aside from Mystery of the Wax Museum, which I first saw in the days of laserdisc, and in the past few months have marvelled at his deft handling of Spencer Tracy in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing and the steamy South Pacific drama Mandalay. I can’t get enough of them, I only hope titles like Private Detective 62 or The Mad Genius (with an uncredited Boris Karloff!) show up in TCM’s rotation soon.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 9, 2012 9:05 am

Paris, you caught me (and corrected me, thank goodness) in a massive brain fart. The whole inspiration for this post was the documentary Something’s Gonna Live which includes Conrad Hall and after I watched it I thought about writing something like this up. Then, somewhere between there and here, my brain shut down.

However, I do absolutely love Lazlo Kovacs too! But since I didn’t come to him in the way I meant for Hall, I have corrected the post (with the scene from In Cold Blood, NOT Five Easy Pieces).

Thank you again.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 9, 2012 9:05 am

Paris, you caught me (and corrected me, thank goodness) in a massive brain fart. The whole inspiration for this post was the documentary Something’s Gonna Live which includes Conrad Hall and after I watched it I thought about writing something like this up. Then, somewhere between there and here, my brain shut down.

However, I do absolutely love Lazlo Kovacs too! But since I didn’t come to him in the way I meant for Hall, I have corrected the post (with the scene from In Cold Blood, NOT Five Easy Pieces).

Thank you again.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 9, 2012 9:11 am

I’m glad so many others love and appreciate Michael Curtiz as well. He really was a jack-of-all-genres. And Emgee, it just goes to show how cherry-picking the auteur theorists can be because Curtiz is, technically, exactly the kind of director the auteur theory celebrates. The theory basically states that a true auteur puts his signature on a studio work he’s been handed. Because the studio controls the writing, casting, etc. the auteur has to leave his mark and the true auteur does. The fact that I recognized The Kennel Murder Case as being him without knowing it would also lend support to the case for him as an auteur but for whatever reason he’s just not as well-liked by the theorists as others.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 9, 2012 9:11 am

I’m glad so many others love and appreciate Michael Curtiz as well. He really was a jack-of-all-genres. And Emgee, it just goes to show how cherry-picking the auteur theorists can be because Curtiz is, technically, exactly the kind of director the auteur theory celebrates. The theory basically states that a true auteur puts his signature on a studio work he’s been handed. Because the studio controls the writing, casting, etc. the auteur has to leave his mark and the true auteur does. The fact that I recognized The Kennel Murder Case as being him without knowing it would also lend support to the case for him as an auteur but for whatever reason he’s just not as well-liked by the theorists as others.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 9, 2012 9:12 am

And with Glenda Farrell, it’s really too bad but I think the sentiment here is right, that she was too brassy and bold for Hollywood to know what to do with her except stick in her a serial for matinee showings. Of course, I got no beef because I love the Torchy Blaine movies but still.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 9, 2012 9:12 am

And with Glenda Farrell, it’s really too bad but I think the sentiment here is right, that she was too brassy and bold for Hollywood to know what to do with her except stick in her a serial for matinee showings. Of course, I got no beef because I love the Torchy Blaine movies but still.

Posted By Emgee : November 9, 2012 4:35 pm

Curtiz was probably the jack-of-too-many-trades to suit the theorists. Plus they probably consider his movies as “mere” well-made entertainment. Where’s the psychological depth?
Can you theorise about Dr X or Casablanca being full of Angst or other weighty matters? Any Freudian issues in Robin Hood? Am i giving some academic ideas for a thesis?

Posted By Emgee : November 9, 2012 4:35 pm

Curtiz was probably the jack-of-too-many-trades to suit the theorists. Plus they probably consider his movies as “mere” well-made entertainment. Where’s the psychological depth?
Can you theorise about Dr X or Casablanca being full of Angst or other weighty matters? Any Freudian issues in Robin Hood? Am i giving some academic ideas for a thesis?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 10, 2012 11:15 am

I’d love to see a student thesis on Freudian issues in Robin Hood. He fights against the landed gentry in support of an exiled royal and falls for a spoiled rich girl. There’s a lot going on with that dude we don’t know about.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 10, 2012 11:15 am

I’d love to see a student thesis on Freudian issues in Robin Hood. He fights against the landed gentry in support of an exiled royal and falls for a spoiled rich girl. There’s a lot going on with that dude we don’t know about.

Posted By Jenni : November 11, 2012 5:11 pm

The BBC television series Robin Hood, still on Netflix streaming, had a bunch of hidden secrets about Robin’s parents that would only add to the Freudian issues you alude to.
I remember seeing Ida Lupino for the first time, I was a teen, and she was a poor, shy farm girl, who accidentally stumbles upon an escaped convict and agrees to help him hide out in the barn, falls in love with the guy, he with her, that story really touched me and especially did Lupino’s characterization of the girl. That film was Deep Valley, directed by Jean Negulsco. After that, I knew if I saw a film with Lupino’s name in the cast, she could be depended upon to do a great job, even if in a stinker like The Devil’s Rain!

Posted By Jenni : November 11, 2012 5:11 pm

The BBC television series Robin Hood, still on Netflix streaming, had a bunch of hidden secrets about Robin’s parents that would only add to the Freudian issues you alude to.
I remember seeing Ida Lupino for the first time, I was a teen, and she was a poor, shy farm girl, who accidentally stumbles upon an escaped convict and agrees to help him hide out in the barn, falls in love with the guy, he with her, that story really touched me and especially did Lupino’s characterization of the girl. That film was Deep Valley, directed by Jean Negulsco. After that, I knew if I saw a film with Lupino’s name in the cast, she could be depended upon to do a great job, even if in a stinker like The Devil’s Rain!

Posted By Emgee : November 11, 2012 5:28 pm

The Devil’s Rain was recently discussed in a blog on this very site, and some people really love it just because of its afwfulness.

The mere mention of Ida Lupino brings up so many fond movie memories: the fantastic Road House, also by Negulesco.
Private Hell 36, recently released on Blu-ray. Out of the Fog, the Sea Wolf…..and of course she directed the seriously scary Hitch-Hiker. But i’m probably preaching to a convert!

Posted By Emgee : November 11, 2012 5:28 pm

The Devil’s Rain was recently discussed in a blog on this very site, and some people really love it just because of its afwfulness.

The mere mention of Ida Lupino brings up so many fond movie memories: the fantastic Road House, also by Negulesco.
Private Hell 36, recently released on Blu-ray. Out of the Fog, the Sea Wolf…..and of course she directed the seriously scary Hitch-Hiker. But i’m probably preaching to a convert!

Posted By Juana Maria : November 11, 2012 7:05 pm

“Cool Hand Luke” is one of my favorites! I have seen it about a hundred billion times! We are fond of exaggerating numbers in my family. Many a time I have quoted that movie while doing manual work!”What we got here is failure to communicate.” Never gets old…nor does Paul Newman looking great in every scene!

Posted By Juana Maria : November 11, 2012 7:05 pm

“Cool Hand Luke” is one of my favorites! I have seen it about a hundred billion times! We are fond of exaggerating numbers in my family. Many a time I have quoted that movie while doing manual work!”What we got here is failure to communicate.” Never gets old…nor does Paul Newman looking great in every scene!

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