Friday, March 17, 2017

What is a Clipping File?

Newspaper clippings and magazine articles are one of many sources historians, scholars and authors rely on for digging into our pop culture past. Often times this involves spending hundreds of hours in archives across the country. One short cut at our disposal are "clipping files," compilations of newspaper clippings and magazine articles highlighting the work of musical groups, actors, actresses, directors and other performing artists. Numerous libraries across the country have clipping files available for researchers. For the historian, clarifying which articles are fluff pieces scripted by a publicity department and which ones have meat and potatoes pose just one of many challenges. But the fact that a clipping file could contain hundreds of vintage articles on a particular subject, gathered in one location, makes such a research trip necessary.

A clipping file is exactly what you think it is. Manilla envelopes and file folders containing anywhere from a few newspaper clippings to hundreds of magazine articles. They could be zeroed copies of old articles or the actual clippings, aged and yellowed. A clipping file on Frank Sinatra, for example, could include dozens of magazine articles about his radio appearances, marriages, movie reviews, and so on.

Before the days of the Internet researchers had to travel out of state to such institutions as the Billy Rose Theater Collection in Lincoln Center in New York City, to browse such clipping files. Flipping through a card catalog listing names of stage plays, motion-pictures, radio and television programs, actors, actresses, directors and playwrights, all one had to do was find the catalog number and request a librarian to pull the files from storage. With a few dollars you could have the contents copied on a photocopier. I remember going through a clipping file on Duffy's Tavern, the radio program, and coming cross a clipping from a New York City newspaper reviewing a stage play with the radio cast reprising their roles. Up to that time a stage play based on the radio program was news to me and this provided enough leads for me to dig further elsewhere. 

Funny story: I remember paying a visit to a library once and a friend was sitting across from me at the table, reading each and every clipping, trying to determine if there was any value to having it photocopied. By the time he got to the third clipping I grabbed the file, shut it closed and handed it to him. "Go copy everything," I told him. Budget be damned. By the end of the day we had a stack of photocopies the size of two telephone books. I could take the copies home and review them on my own time. For $40 in copy fees we saved three days of reading and reviewing, and $40 was far cheaper than two additional nights in a hotel room.   

Thanks to the Internet libraries are now giving serious consideration to scanning the contents of their clipping files and posting PDFs on their websites. This would save researchers considerable expense because the costs involved are many: gas, tolls, hotel and food expenses. Libraries have been slow, however, because red tape is preventing the digitization process from going public. As it was explained to me, one library is concerned about copyright violations. Should a researcher make use of the information in a clipping file online without proper attribution, could the newspaper or magazine that retains copyright of the article file a lawsuit against the library? Another library hesitates posting clipping files on the Internet because they fear it gives patrons another reason why they should not visit the brick and mortar building. Why stay operational if no one is walking through the front doors? A third librarian explained their concern is online piracy. Who is to stop someone from downloading the PDF files and posting them on their own web page rather than provide a link to the library's website?

I know of at least a dozen libraries that have clipping files. To date, a researcher still has to travel to those libraries to browse the files (or pay someone in the local area to visit the library and copy the contents of the files). On the plus side, two archives of clipping files are housed with private collectors/historians and not state and county-funded institutions. Sadly, one of these collectors passed away last year and bestowed his mammoth collection to me. I made two trips to his widow's house (five hours travel each direction) to fetch the collection. Systematically -- and with slow progression -- I am having all of these clipping files scanned into PDF files. And to ensure they are preserved, the files are backed up on an external hard drive and a dropbox account. By the end of this calendar year the entire collection should be scanned into PDF files by subject matter (Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Musical Steelmakers, Sky King, etc.) including my own personal collection of clipping files and those of another old-time radio historian who recently "cleaned house."

This blog entry was designed for two purposes: anyone researching vintage movies, stage plays, radio or television programs may want to consider searching clipping files for additional leads. (I know of authors/historians who did not know what a clipping file was until I told them.) Second, while the scanning process at libraries has yet to commence, legal red tape starting to be regarded as a minor deterrent so we may have something cool to look forward to in the future. In the meantime, here are links for two clipping files for your amusement.

Agnes Moorehead Clipping File

Edward R. Murrow Clipping File

Friday, March 10, 2017

HAVE GUN-WILL TRAVEL Acknowledged by Oscar

Two weeks ago the Motion Picture Academy presented the 89th annual Academy Awards and for a few minutes, on national television, they honored four individuals by bestowing them with Honorary Awards for their lifetime achievements. The awards were given out during an awards dinner on November 12 but the acknowledgment on national television during the Oscars was traditional. Present in the audience to be acknowledged were the award winners: actor Jackie Chan, film editor Anne V. Coates, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman and casting director Lynn Stalmaster. The latter of whom made history.

Lynn Stalmaster, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, went to Hollywood in 1950 to seek out a career as an actor. He played all-too-brief roles in two movies, The Steel Helmet and Flying Leathernecks, while attending UCLA, then pursued a career as a production assistant at Gross-Krasne. When the studio system restructured as a result of the growing television industry, Stalmaster, along with his wife Marion Dougherty, opened their own casting office.

Among his first projects was casting supporting roles and guest spots for television’s Gunsmoke, The Lone Wolf and Official Detective. Over the next five decades Lynn Stalmaster handled casting for more than 200 feature films and dozens of weekly television programs. In case you are wondering what a casting director does in the entertainment industry… Lynn Stalmaster was basically the man that producers turned to and said, “find me a cast for my movie” or “find me four extras who play henchmen in next week’s television episode.”

Stalmaster is credited for the careers of Richard Dreyfus, John Travolta, Christopher Reeve, Jill Clayburgh, Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson and Jon Voight, among others. He was responsible for casting such films as In the Heat of the Night, Tootsie, The Graduate, Inherit the Wind, Pork Chop Hill, Deliverance, The Right Stuff and many others.

Casting directors, believe it or not, is the only position in Hollywood that appears during the opening credits of motion-pictures and has yet to receive acknowledgement by the Academy with an Oscar category of its own. So for Lynn Stalmaster this award meant something more.

As a fan of television’s Have Gun- Will Travel I found it amusing that, among Stalmaster’s achievements featured in a brief montage on the screen during the Oscar ceremony, was the television Western by name. Amusing when you consider the fact that the Motion Picture Academy honors motion-pictures, not television.

So for fans of a television Western that premiered almost sixty years ago and never conceived of the notion that it would – even for a brief glimpse – be acknowledged during the annual Oscar awards… well, it happened!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

It is Official: "Cinema is Dead"

It is now official. The era of real cinematic film-making is at a close. So says film director Martin Scorsese in a recent interview last month. 

Martin Scorsese
“Cinema is gone. The cinema I grew up with and that I’m making is gone. The theatre will always be there for that communal experience, there’s no doubt. But what kind of experience is it going to be?” he questioned. “Is it always going to be a theme-park movie? I sound like an old man, which I am. The big screen for us in the ’50s, you go from Westerns to Lawrence of Arabia to the special experience of 2001 in 1968. The experience of seeing Vertigo and The Searchers in VistaVision.”

Well, we all agree that as technology evolves over the years, so will the craft of story-telling. Big blockbusters involve special effects, invasions from outer space, superheroes battling costumed villains and explosions that are so far fetched they could never happen in real life. There are few filmmakers today that know how to truly direct a motion-picture: Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalon, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. These men respect the classic movies of the 1930s through the 1950s and, inspired by the way movies were directed during the height of Hollywood's Golden Years, often mimic the proper use of telling a story through the lens. Sadly, most of today's directors come from an era of video tape which means liberal use a hand-held camera and quick cuts during editing. Someone needs to remind today's film students that a using a hand-held camera is not direction. In fact, if the camera moves about too much I get motion sickness and I know I am not the only person who suffers from this.

To me, there is something special to watching a Hopalong Cassidy Western on Saturday morning or a Mary Pickford silent on a snowy winter evening. Of course my wife and I still watch the latest movies that appeal to our inner preference, but last year's motion-pictures featured more duds than hits. Oddly, 2015 gave the appearance that Hollywood finally figured out the recipe for making an entertaining movie. In 2016, Hollywood did the exact opposite. Ghost Busters, for example, was poorly edited and a disaster from the viewpoint of Screenwriting 101. But when the movie came out on DVD with scenes not seen in the theatrical release, the entire film worked perfectly. (Why they did not release the DVD version in the theaters I will not know.) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad also suffered from bad editing. Regrettably, the DVD releases of those movies did not do them justice.

Jungle Book and The Legend of Tarzan were surprisingly better than I expected and neither featured ghosts, monsters, demigods, exploding buildings, car wrecks or costumed characters. Let's be frank: it's all about demographics these days. The majority of ticket buyers in this country are under the age of 30. Scorsese points to the proliferation of images and the over-reliance on superficial techniques as trends that have diminished the power of cinema to younger audiences. “It should matter to your life,” Scorsese says. “Unfortunately the latest generations don’t know that it mattered so much.”

Which brings me to the social commentary of the week. Last month I met a man much older than myself who lodged a complaint: "They don't make good movies these days. It's all about superheroes and zombies and car chases. Even the superheroes are looking younger with each movie. Hollywood isn't what it used to be." 

So I asked him what was the last movie he saw in the theaters. His response? "Oh, I haven't been to the theaters in twenty years."

And that is why they don't make the kind of movies he wishes they would make.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Sitting on the Fence with La La Land

Next weekend the Motion Picture Academy will present their Oscar awards and many are predicting the big winner to be La La Land, the story of an aspiring actress and an aspiring jazz musician who meet, fall in love and perform musical dance numbers in a world of semi-fantasy. Is La La Land the best movie of the year, worthy of the "Best Picture" Oscar? I do not believe so. But there is brilliance sprinkled through a film that, given a mediocre budget and moments of amateur filmmaking, not to mention flawless performances by the two leads, that puts me on the fence. My complaint is that all of the brilliance does not exceed or assist the story in any way. I could spot visual references to Hedy Lamarr, Singing' in the Rain (1952), Casablanca (1942), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and other tips of the hat to screen legends. It is a known fact that Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. Some of the best are Sunset Boulevard (1950), Sullivan's Travels (1941) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1998). And that may be the sole reason why La La Land may be the big winner at this year's Oscars.

I am not a fan of musicals but I did enjoy The Sound of Music (1964), Singing' in the Rain (1952), The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Chicago (2002) are those films were deserving of what awards they received. But a good musical, such as the movies I just referenced, requires the musical sequences to tell the story. You can tell a bad musical when you remove all the musical numbers and the story can still be told without the music. La La Land is a hybrid of the two. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, whose love for jazz is established by three separate musical numbers. Mia, the aspiring actress who is repeatedly rejected following one screen test after another, has no purpose for breaking out in song and dance -- her musical numbers are practically wasted during the movie.

The opening number, "Another Day of Sun," in which dozens of people trapped in traffic congestion get out of their vehicles and break out in sing and dance is cute and clever (especially when you observe the entire sequence was one long shot without a cut from the editor's knife). You could tell the entire sequence was dance-choreographed and more remarkable when you realize how the entire sequence was shot during an actual traffic jam on the Los Angeles freeway. But remove that musical number and you quickly realize the movie would not be better or worse without "Another Day of Sun." Clever means nothing if you do not live in Los Angeles and have had to fight with the Los Angeles Freeway. Clever means nothing if it has no reason to be in the movie.

Ryan Gosling certainly has charisma that benefits the camera. Here he proves he can play a piano, flip a hat as smooth as Frank Sinatra on the Santa Monica Pier, and sing as well as the professionals. But talent will only take an actor so far when they have no range -- Gosling is Gosling in every movie and La La Land is no exception. The standout performance is Emma Stone, playing the role of Mia, who delivers depth and range when performing in front of the cameras for multiple screen tests.

La La Land was nominated for a record-breaking 14 Oscars, tied with All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997). Whether the movie will sweep the awards or face aggressive competition (the latter of has happened at recent Oscar awards) is anyone's guess. There are moments each year when I leave the movie theater and accurately predict whether the film won Best Musical Score or Best Cinematography. I find myself sitting on the fence with this one.

But La La Land gives the appearance the film was shot with low budget on location in California, directed by an amateur filmmaker. (It is as if the director watched dozens of vintage movies and said, "I want to film a sequence inspired by that movie" and filmed one scene after another with different costumes, color tints, and so on.) It is the editing and special effects that gave polish to the finished product much like an amateur writer who relies on the editor of a magazine to tweak his piece to provide the illusion of English Major 101. Even with bright color schemes and three superb songs that are worth adding to your YouTube Playlist, La La Land makes me wonder if this is one of those years when popularity gives rise to awards. 

Will La La Land bring about a resurgence of Hollywood musicals? I doubt it. But if La La Land is the latest motivation then we have to hope today's filmmakers look back at the days of when musicals actually told a story. La La Land is no prime real estate as an Oscar contender. Perhaps the movie stands out because the other contenders are so artsy that, as a friend of mine aptly put it the other day, "I never heard of them." 

Me? Give me Bette Davis in All About Eve any day of the week.