When summer was new and seemed to sprawl endlessly before me, I purchased a season pass to the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)’s “Oscar Noir” series. The pass was a great bargain at $30 for 15 Monday night films, and as summer began I intended to make it to at least ten. Due to traveling, book clubs, and other obligations, I will make it to about half of that, but has still been an excellent experience.
The Academy theatre is beautiful, with film-related art exhibits in the lobby to look at while the security personnel check your purse for contraband like gum or bottled water. The ushers wear actual uniforms–navy suits–and hand out four-color programs on glossy card-stock as you enter the theater, which boasts larger-than-human Oscar statues on either side of the stage.
The crowd, and I include myself in this, tends to be downright dowdy in contrast to the studied glamour of our surroundings, but still there is a certain festive feel to the proceedings. Each night they play music from a film score (that I must admit I rarely pay attention to, as I am watching the people enter and sit, eavesdropping on conversations of those around me, and such things that one does when visiting a public place on one’s own). This is followed by a chapter of the 12-part “Captain Marvel” Series. Each week the crowd claps when Billy Baxton utters “Shazam” and becomes Captain Marvel, and also claps at the first appearance of Betty, the ingenue.
“Captain Marvel” is followed by a cartoon, like Donald Duck, or a nominated animated short like “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Then the MC comes to the podium and says a few words, often introducing relatives of the actors or filmmakers of the evening’s presentation. The lights come up, and under pressure, these relatives stand up, and somehow I’m always a little surprised by how they look like normal people.
Then a screenwriter will take the stage to say a few words about film we are about to see, and then the feature presentation begins.
So far I think my favorite films from the series have been Shadow of a Doubt, for its depiction of a small town, and the little small town touches that I assume were added by Thornton Wilder, and The Blue Dahlia, because of the program notes and Wesley Strick’s comments both of which talked about Raymond Chandler’s process for writing the film. It was the only film he wrote “from scratch” as a screenplay, as opposed to being based on his fiction writing. Although this was only partly true, as apparently he cannibalized an unfinished attempt–the first 120 pages of a novel. Perhaps this is why the first half of the movie was not hard for Chandler to write, and the movie began production. Unfortunately, the shooting caught up with the writing, and it started to seem the script would not be finished on time before Alan Ladd would have to return to they Army. This made everyone nervous, including Chandler’s friend and in-house Paramount producer John Houseman. Here’s my favorite part of the program notes (produce by Randy Haberkamp):
Chandler, who was battling alcoholism, suggested to houseman that if h resumed drinking he would be able to finish the script on schedule. He would have to write at home rather than at the studio, and would require two limousines to be on hand at all times: to transport doctors for himself and for his wife, who was recovering from a broken foot; to take script pages to and from the studio; and to take their maid to the grocery store for supplies. He would also require six secretaries working in relay fashion in three teams of tow, for dictation and typing, and a direct phone line open at all times to Houseman’s office and the Paramount switchboard. Housman agreed to Chandler’s proosal, and the author began his at-home regimen of writing and drinking, with a doctor giving him nutritional injections twice daily. Within a day, Chandler had written three new pages and had determined the identity of the killer. According to Houseman, “During those last eight days of shooting,. Chandler did not draw one sober breath, nor did one speck of solid food pass his lips.”
Chandler finished on time, but he was never again able to climb completely back on the wagon. It’s such a weird story. You have to wonder if either Chandler or Houseman regretted the decision they made, that was so obviously putting Chandler’s health and future in jeopardy. And yet, I know, from my experiences of “putting on shows” how under the gun, with the spectre of so much time invested and money at stake, it feels near impossible to make any decision that would grind all of the gears to a halt. I’ve gone to work with colds and flus, understanding that I would likely infect others–and they would do the same, because the show must go on. That’s a small example, but just to point out the unhealthy behaviors we engage in. Certainly, in the 13th hour of projects, I have been the one to deliver gallons of caffeine, cigarettes, and artery clogging pizza. If I’d brought in a writer, and now I had the studio breathing down my neck and my reputation on the line, would I enable a decision like this?