In the haste of preparing reminiscences of the many people who passed away last week, some things slipped my mind. Before they disappear entirely I thought I’d share them with you. When I inherited a long-standing class at USC in 1998, where new movies are screened every week, with one or more of the filmmakers in attendance, I quickly learned that my students didn’t have much—if any—knowledge of film history. That’s when I decided to show an old movie on the final night of class, with a guest from that film. And in the spring of 1998 I knew exactly who I wanted to ask: my friend Gloria Stuart. Everyone in the class had seen her in Titanic and followed her “comeback” publicity, including her Oscar nomination. But I doubted if any of them had seen her in her heyday. I called Universal Pictures and found, to my delight, that they had just—
—restored a beautiful print of John Ford’s little-seen 1932 movie Airmail. (Come to think of it, it’s still not well known—and it’s never been released on home video, let alone DVD.)
Gloria was happy to attend, but I think she threw my students for a loop. How could this vivacious and articulate woman sitting in front of them in April of 1998 be the same woman they’d just seen on screen, sixty-six years earlier? Finally one student asked what she thought of her own performance. She was typically self-deprecating, and said that this was one of her first films and she still hadn’t learned to relate to the camera. Having studied at the Pasadena Playhouse, she was preparing to act on stage and didn’t have a clue about movie technique. “Let’s face it,” she said in summation, “They just hired me because I was pretty.”
I doubt those students had ever encountered anyone from Hollywood’s golden age, let alone someone so frank. Let’s just say she made a big impression.
In discussing the career of announcer Art Gilmore I somehow forgot to mention his work narrating the Joe McDoakes comedies for Warner Bros. Duh! These are some of my favorite comedy shorts, and there is one in particular that transforms Art from narrator to active participant: it’s an ingenious spoof of film noirs like The Big Sleep, written by David Swift, called So You Want to be a Detective. In a parody of Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake and its use of first-person camerawork, director Richard L. Bare uses his narrator as the “first person” witness of the events in the short. It’s a lot of fun, and it played well when I ran it at the Turner Classic Movies festival in Hollywood this past spring. It’s also available on DVD, in the Joe McDoakes boxed set from warnerarchive.com and also as a bonus feature on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Someone also alerted me to a trailer I’d never seen before, in which Art makes a rare on-camera appearance: it’s the preview for The Big Clock, presented as a tie-in with CBS’ popular radio series Suspense. Oddly enough, Art didn’t work on that show—but he was such a familiar voice, both on radio and in movie trailers, that I doubt if anyone complained. Check it out by clicking HERE.