Leonard Maltin on Classic Movies

by Scott Holleran (@ScottHolleran)

With the publication of the third edition of Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide: From the Silent Era Through 1965 (Plume, 2015), presented by Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I interviewed the film historian, university instructor, critic and author at his home in the San Fernando Valley about the new book, his podcast, working with TCM, favorite artists, and classic movies. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Scott Holleran: What is the basic value proposition of the Classic Movie Guide for someone who’s new to classic movies?

Leonard Maltin: Well, we’ve tried to make a user-friendly guide. There are plenty of sites online where you can go and get heaps of information. We don’t give you heaps of information; we try to give you [only] the most essential, useful information in capsulized form. That’s the idea and always has been the idea of our movie guides. And, so, if it’s of someone’s film debut, we note that. If there’s somebody who later became famous who’s in a tiny role, we note that. If it’s based on a Broadway play or a bestselling novel, we note that. We try to pack as much as we can into our tight little paragraphs so you don’t have to go searching to accumulate that information. It’s all there.

Scott Holleran: What’s the driving editorial decision? Is it that you want the reader to get a sense of whether the movie’s worth the time or is it a more definitive, scholarly approach?

Leonard Maltin: No, I don’t think it’s scholarly. It’s well-informed, I think, and it’s—as you know, Scott, when all else is said and done, it’s an opinion. We do give a rating and a review, and it’s our collective opinion, the editors’ and mine. And you may disagree. I’m always hesitant to say, “You should see this,” or, “You can skip that.” We do give an opinion, and, sometimes, we’ll say we think it’s terrible. But, you know, then I’ll get mail from people saying, “I loved it.”

Scott Holleran: What are the additions to this third edition of the Classic Movie Guide?

Leonard Maltin: Well, we did a lot of amending to the existing book, which means fixing mistakes, embellishing reviews, adding information, clarifying synopses, adding cast members that we had omitted who deserved to be included. Just tweaking the book, trying to make it more thorough—more accurate in every possible way, as well as adding more than 300 new reviews.

Scott Holleran: Such as?

Leonard Maltin: A lot of silent films, a number of foreign language films, and a lot of B movies. Our criterion was whether it is available for people to see. Is it on cable television? Is it on DVD or Blu-Ray? Is it downloadable? There are a lot of films — many, many more than we could list — that exist in archives and museums, but outside of visiting that archive, you can’t get to see it. So, this, again, is supposed to be a user guide, and that’s the particular purpose of this book. I mean, for instance—the great find in New Zealand five or six years ago of John Ford’s long-lost movie Upstream from 1927, a staggering find for a film that no one had seen since 1927 that actually is good. Just because you find the film doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be worthwhile or live up to your expectations, but this is a delightful movie, a comedy, kind of a backstage comedy and really entertaining. And it’s now on DVD as part of the National Film Preservation Foundation series. So, you can see it. That’s why it’s in the book.

Scott Holleran: Is there an example of a film that had a more nuanced assessment that gets a more positive review in this edition?

Leonard Maltin: [Pauses] Naughty Marietta, the first Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald movie, had gotten kind of a blah review, and I had seen it as a young person but not in decades. I revisited it a year or two ago, and it’s a delightful movie. It’s really good. And I said, “Well, we haven’t been fair to this movie.” So, I rewrote it and improved its rating.

Scott Holleran: I know that, sometimes, I’ll think I see why I liked a movie when it came out, but it doesn’t hold up well, or vice versa; that there’s more to this than I remembered liking about it. Does that happen with you?

Leonard Maltin: Yeah, I mean, it cuts both ways. Sometimes, its better than I remember, and sometimes, it doesn’t live up to my memory of it. And in an ideal world or in an idealized world, I would re-view all 10,000 movies and reassess them because some of the change of opinion has to do with changing times. We don’t live in a vacuum, none of us, and the world changes. It changes our view of things. New movies come along that change our perspective on older movies. So, you can’t write anything in concrete when you’re writing about film, I don’t think. So, I try to stay open-minded to that.

Scott Holleran: Sometimes, I’ll notice that a movie becomes available, then goes away.

Leonard Maltin: Yeah. But that’s been true on DVD for years. And before that, on VHS, something would go out of print just like a book sometimes goes out of print, which is why we never take that symbol out of the book. If it was ever available, we indicate it because you could maybe hunt for it and find it.

Scott Holleran: What is a common response you get from past editions that differentiates from the regular, now retired Leonard Maltin movie guide?

Leonard Maltin: The angriest reaction we get is if there’s an actor we’ve left out of the actor index in the back. It’s a very selective star index in the back that people like having, so they can have an easy reference to looking up the films of Humphrey Bogart or the films of Loretta Young, and if I’ve left out one of their favorite stars, they’re very peeved. Very peeved. And, you know, if we did a thorough index, it would be almost as thick as the book itself. Mostly, some people can’t agree to disagree.

And I’m not trying to force my opinion on anybody. Obviously, it’s my book. My name is on the book. I’m offering my opinion. But I’m not insisting you agree with it. When people say they like me as a critic, what they mean is they tend to agree with me. I found that out years ago. And so, if you know my work, you know how to assess my reviews. You know that I tend not to like gory horror films. So, if you know that going in, you can better judge my review of a horror film. And I don’t hide my prejudices or my taste or my likes and dislikes. So, I think think that’s the value of having a known quantity as a critic as opposed to just some anonymous person online. It may be very intelligent and a very well reasoned opinion, but you don’t know that. You don’t have a history with that person.

Scott Holleran: Silent films seem to be receiving something of a renaissance right now.

Leonard Maltin: Yes. In fact, I dare say that there are more silent film showings than vintage talking film showings around the country, which is just great. And that means that more people are being exposed to silent films on a theater screen with live music, and that’s the way they really ought to be seen.

Scott Holleran: They’re getting re-scored and remastered. Why?

Leonard Maltin: People continue to discover the magic of silent films. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival every spring is a wonderful event that often sells out the Castro Theatre up there. It’s just heartwarming to see. And it’s not alone; there are many showings around the country.

Scott Holleran: What else will you be doing, if anything, with Turner Classic Movies?

Leonard Maltin: I’m continuing to host their Disney evenings. I’m very lucky to have had that evening last night with Ben [Mankiewicz] and I’m delighted to be doing the Disney series for them. I usually participate in their Classic Film Festival every April.

Scott Holleran: The idea of classic movies has changed in terms of how people think of them. On TCM, they’ll show B horror movies. Sometimes, I’ll think, “Really? This is not a classic movie.”

Leonard Maltin: Well, not everything old is classic. Just because it’s old doesn’t make it a classic. But TCM has been very canny in broadening its horizons and showing a wider variety of films, including tacky stuff from recent vintage and newer films coming up through the decades that have staying power. Look, the seventies, which is an era that many people regard so highly in American filmmaking and writing, and rightly so, that’s 40 years ago. Forty years is a long time.

Scott Holleran: Do you think that this approach dilutes or diminishes how people should properly regard what constitutes a classic movie?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t want to be uptight. We call this a Classic Movie Guide, and we have a lot of stinkers in here, too. So, it’s another way of saying “vintage,” I guess. Not just old. I’m trying to be careful with my terminology, but—let’s face it. It’s a broad-based term for older films. I accept that. There are some films that are thought of as classics that I may not necessarily love.

Scott Holleran: Such as?

Leonard Maltin: A Place in the Sun. I’m not a great fan of A Place in the Sun. Some people think highly of it. Many people think highly of it. I’m not one of them. It has some great moments. So, my opinion may be the minority view in that case.

Scott Holleran: So you do look at the movie as a whole movie.

Leonard Maltin: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. The greatest irony is the decade of the 1950s. So many of the films of the 1950s that were Oscar winners and critical favorites back then were big, important movies with a capital I. And those, Around the World in Eighty Days or Ben-Hur, those are not necessarily the movies that fans and movie buffs enjoy the most now. The Searchers, which was dismissed on its release in 1956, is now one of the most treasured films in all of American cinema. As are many other westerns and science fiction films and thrillers and genre pieces that were considered almost program movies or inconsequential movies in that same period. You’ll get more people talking about Invasion of the Body Snatchers than you will Around the World in Eighty Days.

Scott Holleran: That goes to what you’re saying about changing times and mores—

Leonard Maltin: Yes.

Scott Holleran: And ethics, that we look back on Invasion of the Body Snatchers and see it as a metaphor for conformity—

Leonard Maltin: —Yes.

Scott Holleran: And The Searchers, we are more enlightened about racism, for instance. I’m not sure that people viewed the John Wayne character as villainous when they went to see it in theaters back then, or as having a dark side.

Leonard Maltin: Right. No. I mean, if you read some of the reviews, it’s astonishing. “Just another John Wayne western,” you know. Really? What film did you see?

Scott Holleran: Speaking of a couple of your favorites: Bad Day at Black Rock from the Fifties. Why is that one of your favorites?

Leonard Maltin: It’s a great film. I mean, some of its ideas have been echoed in subsequent movies, but it’s still a great concept and beautifully executed. Spencer Tracy is so solid in that film. The supporting cast is exceptional. The use of location up near Lone Pine.

Scott Holleran: And the editing, the concision.

Leonard Maltin: Oh, yes. Everything. Everything about it, everything about it just clicks. And it’s a tough movie, too. It’s a very hardboiled film.

And, of course, the other genre I should have mentioned before is film noir. That is so endearingly popular today I think because of its cynicism. We live in a more cynical world. So I find, dealing with my students at USC, they can more easily accept cynicism than they can accept sweetness, light, and innocence in older movies. They’ve grown up in a harder, harsher world. A post-9/11 world.

Scott Holleran: Was Bad Day at Black Rock a commercial and critical success in 1955?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it was a hit, but I think it was well received. It still has the element of surprise to it.

Scott Holleran: You mentioned your students at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Can you think of a movie or couple of movies consistently over the years that students come back to with high praise—

Leonard Maltin: Well, I don’t teach a film history class. I teach a contemporary film class. But what I do is I sneak in short subjects at the beginning of class, old shorts, cartoons and shorts, to get a taste of film history. And, I showed them Betty Boop last week, and Popeye, a Max Fleischer cycle, and those cartoons from the 1930s need no apology, no explanation, they just play to an audience. They play beautifully, as if they were made this morning. And to an audience that’s used to seeing postmodern cartoons, self-referential humor, a lot of things that you don’t find in the older, animated shorts. Yet, they responded as any audience would.

Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide is available on Amazon.

~

Former Box Office Mojo editor and partner Scott Holleran writes scripts and teaches media and storytelling workshops and courses in LA. He posts movie reviews on his blog, where he writes about news, culture, and ideas.

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