Interview: Leonard Maltin on Classic Movies (2015)
By Scott Holleran
With 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: Now, talking about the third edition of the Classic Movie Guide. Did you pick TCM or did they pick you?
Leonard Maltin: I approached them. They were very receptive, which pleased me no end. Which also pleased my publisher because they’re going to help promote the book. It’s a great marriage.
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: How much debate goes on between you and the other writers?
Leonard Maltin: Well, I’m the editor-in-chief, so— [laughter]
Scott Holleran: —You get final say—
Leonard Maltin: —I have to have some perks to that job.
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: What’s the most popular film to be added?
Leonard Maltin: No, most of the additions are—we already had most of the big, mainstream titles. So, these tend to be a little off the beaten path. There are some that I was surprised we hadn’t tackled before. On TCM last night we showed the Colleen Moore movie Why Be Good? a late silent movie with a Vitaphone soundtrack. It’s a wonderful—a really good movie starring one of the most popular leading ladies of the silent era. She was like the number one box office star in the late Twenties. And, it’s a very interesting film that is now available on DVD from Warner Archive which we screened on TCM. Last night’s was its TCM debut. Now, five years ago that film wasn’t available to be seen. It’s another one that was missing in action for like 80 years, more than 80 years. So, it’s a treat to be able to include things like that.
Scott Holleran: Is there an example of a film that had a more nuanced assessment that gets a more positive assessment in this edition?
Leonard Maltin: There are some rewrites, and some changes of opinion. And you’re going to ask me for examples.
Scott Holleran: Any come to mind?
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: I notice in reviews that sometimes a reviewer will overpraise a film because it’s clear that they really like the leading lady or the leading man or someone in the cast. Or, they have a favorable disposition to a director. Is there a common thread as you’re editing copy that you see over time, something that stands out as a common mistake you see in film assessments, reviews or critiques?
Leonard Maltin: That’s for other people to say, I think. I don’t know that I could identify it. We try to be fair. We try to be fair-minded, and we don’t indulge in hyperbole. We’re very stingy with our four-star ratings, for instance. Some people criticize me for that. But, I feel that if you praise everything or if you praise it too glibly or too lightly, then, when it comes time to really honor a film, it doesn’t have the same meaning or the same impact because you’ve been saying good things about so many movies that come along. We want those higher ratings to have real significance.
Scott Holleran: Are there any new features?
Leonard Maltin: The only really new item is sort of a gimmicky list I put together of some favorite performances from A to Z.
Scott Holleran: Your condensed favorites list?
Leonard Maltin: Yeah.
Scott Holleran: I would think that tracking down whether it is available would itself be heavily research intensive—
Leonard Maltin: —Well, yeah, that’s my video editor, Casey St. Charnez, who’s been doing that for decades for the video guides. And he and his wife run a video store, and have for years, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s their domain. I trust him implicitly on that. He does a very good job.
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 position a review. It may be very intelligent and very well reasoned opinion, but you don’t know that. You don’t have a history with that person.
Scott Holleran: Do you think the Classic Movie Guide helps sustain film criticism?
Leonard Maltin: I don’t know. That’s a tall order. What we do is such a shorthand version of film criticism. I think it’s valid, but it’s still very—
Scott Holleran: It’s a starting point because it gets the reader thinking about a film?
Leonard Maltin: Yeah. I hope so. That’s a nice way to put it.
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: Can people see Leonard Maltin doing any original programming anywhere else?
Leonard Maltin: Well, I’m still working for Reelzchannel. I’m about to tape a new movie review special with my partner, Greg Drake, which we’re going to record next week and which will be airing in mid-October. Those are always fun to do. We tape those in Albuquerque, so that’s an adventure in itself. And I’m doing my weekly podcast, almost a full year’s worth so far.
Scott Holleran: Maltin on Movies?
Leonard Maltin: Right, on the Wolfpop network, part of Earwolf, and that’s available for free from iTunes. And there’s a link to it on the home page of my website.
Scott Holleran: And what’s the feedback you get there? How is it different?
Leonard Maltin: We hear from all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. It’s very interesting, very engaged audience. It’s fun.
Scott Holleran: So, you like podcasting?
Leonard Maltin: I do. I like the informality of it and the immediacy of it.
Scott Holleran: How does it differ from traditional radio broadcasting?
Leonard Maltin: It doesn’t have to be perfect. I had to learn that. At one time, I was having our engineer edit out all of my flubs and all of my, every time I stumble over a word or something like that. And then, he said to me, “It doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect.” I thought about it, and I listened to some other podcasts. I realized he was right. We can be casual, and it’s conversational. I think that’s the main difference. Also, it doesn’t have to be a particular length. It can go shorter or longer, and it doesn’t matter.
Scott Holleran: But you usually try to keep within a certain timeframe, right?
Leonard Maltin: We like it to be under an hour because those seem to be the ideal length for podcasts, I’m told. But some weeks it might be forty-four minutes. And other weeks, it might be fifty-two minutes. It doesn’t matter. I heard from an old friend in New York I hadn’t talked to in ages who said she listens to it while she exercises. [laughter] You know, it’s totally unpredictable.
Scott Holleran: Your daughter, Jessie, is getting more involved, right?
Leonard Maltin: Yes, she is. I enjoy it, and she enjoys it, too. When I was ill this summer, she Skyped in from the UK with my partner Baron Vaughn and filled in for me. That was wonderful.
Scott Holleran: Which 2015 films, in your view, will end up being regarded as classic movies?
Leonard Maltin: You know, that’s hard to say. I don’t know. Some of what grabs us right now is so of the moment, either in terms of topic or its approach, it’s hard to know how they’re going to wear over the years. I don’t know. I saw an early screening of Steve Jobs at Telluride, and it’s a very flashy film. And very good, I think. Will that approach stand up to the years? Will it seem overly flashy? I can’t know. We can’t know that. But I think Danny Boyle did a great job with Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, and Michael Fassbender is terrific. You can only judge for now. To me, the ultimate oxymoron, and it’s used a lot, is the term “instant classic”. Instant would-be classic or classic wannabe, I’ll accept those. But people don’t say that. They say “instant classic”. Well, we don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.
Scott Holleran: The idea of classic movies has changed in terms of how people think of it. 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 revere it. That’s not the right word. 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 Waynecharacter 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: The Furies, that was, if you can remember—
Leonard Maltin: Oh, yeah. That’s 1950. The Furies is a fascinating film—absolutely fascinating. Talk about dark. Judith Anderson is so good. Everyone is so strong in that film. And again, it’s an example of—people who think of old Hollywood films as being simplistic or all having happy endings and blue skies ought to take a look at The Furies. [laughter]
Scott Holleran: Or Bad Day at Black Rock.
Leonard Maltin: Or Bad Day at Black Rock. They may be in for a shock or something of a shock. And these films were all made by studios; these were made under the studio system. Strong-minded writers and directors and producers got films made that were complex and multilayered and not as sunny or simplistic as some people would have you believe of that period.
Scott Holleran: You mentioned your students at 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. So, 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.
Scott Holleran: Is Song of the South in Classic Movie Guide?
Leonard Maltin: I think it has been from the beginning, yeah.
Scott Holleran: But that’s not available.
Leonard Maltin: Well, it is—
Scott Holleran: You made an exception?
Leonard Maltin: —if you look in the right places. Every rule—
Scott Holleran: Is made to be broken?
Leonard Maltin: —has its exceptions.
Scott Holleran: Should Disney release Song of the South on Blu-Ray?
Leonard Maltin: I think they should with appropriate introduction and commentary to put it into context.
Scott Holleran: I always thought Disney should consider inviting someone such as Sidney Poitier, who’s served on the Walt Disney Company’s board of directors, to introduce it and provide a wider context. Why haven’t they? Have you talked to Bob Iger about that?
Leonard Maltin: I’ve not personally had a conversation with him about this, no.
Scott Holleran: But you are regarded as a Disney historian and expert.
Leonard Maltin: Yeah, but he’s made his own assessment and opinion. And he’s asked about it every year at the shareholders’ meeting, and he’s been pretty emphatic about it. He hasn’t used the word “never”, but he’s pretty emphatic in his thinking about it. My feeling is that nothing is gained by sweeping something under the carpet. I think the problem for Disney is that Disney is such a big target. No one thinks of 20th Century Fox or Warner Bros. or Universal Pictures in the way they think of Disney. Disney has a bond with its audience and a reputation, so they’re more vulnerable. I understand their trepidation. I completely understand their trepidation.
Scott Holleran: Have you seen Song of the South?
Leonard Maltin: Yeah.
Scott Holleran: Is it a racist film?
Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it is. Uncle Remus is the hero of that movie and a lovable, beloved character. And that’s how I always saw it when I was a child when I first saw the movie, and I didn’t grow up to be a racist or think that all blacks were subservient or spoke in a dialect. I just took this as a particular story set at a particular time.
Scott Holleran: Who are some of the, in your view, looking back at the whole scope of classic movies from the silent era to 1965, some of the more underrated directors or directors who haven’t gotten their due.
Leonard Maltin: Well, I mentioned this name in an interview earlier this morning to someone who’d never heard of him. King Vidor—I think he is actually overlooked when the roster of great directors is cited. His first great success was The Big Parade, one of the greatest of all silent films. He then went on to make The Crowd, another milestone film about—and a very, a typical Hollywood product. He made a delightful comedy with Marion Davies called Show People in 1928. He left the studio system to make a very personal project called Our Daily Bread in the Thirties. He was constantly reaching and experimenting and trying new things. He made The Champ with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery in the early Thirties which was an enormous success. H.M. Pulham, Esq. is a film I like very much. Northwest Passage. He made many great films, and he had some misfires as well. But [he’s] not easily pigeonholed. One of the things I admire about him. And I showed one, one of my favorite under-appreciated films of his, at the TCM festival two years ago called The Stranger’s Return with Miriam Hopkins and Franchot Tone and Lionel Barrymore, which suddenly turned up on TCM. A really, really good movie, a very adult movie, from the early Thirties. Again, atypically sophisticated and adult for its time.
Scott Holleran: Who’s your favorite movie star from the era of silents to ’65?
Leonard Maltin: Bogart.
Scott Holleran: Is Casablanca one of your—
Leonard Maltin: That is my all-time favorite movie.
Scott Holleran: Is its director underrated?
Leonard Maltin: Yes, that’s a good one. Michael Curtiz is underrated. He was an incredible director with a dynamic visual sense. He hated ordinary shots. He put vitality into everything he did.
Scott Holleran: What are a few movies people should see by Michael Curtiz?
Leonard Maltin: The Kennel Murder Case, early Thirties . Yankee Doodle Dandy, of course.
Scott Holleran: Any others by Curtiz?
Leonard Maltin: Mildred Pierce.
Scott Holleran: What about producers?
Leonard Maltin: There were great producers in the Golden Age and the Golden Era who exerted great influence and who sometimes sat on the shoulders of directors and guided them in a positive way. Daryl F. Zanuck was a very gutsy producer, studio chief and producer. And sometimes his interference wasn’t welcomed, and sometimes it was. And he and John Ford had their bones of contention, but they also made some great films together. It was very bold of them to make The Grapes of Wrath. They had to make some concessions to censorship of the time, but they still managed to capture the essence of John Steinbeck’s book in what was almost certain to be a noncommercial venture. And Zanuck did that time and time again with The Ox-Bow Incident, with Gentleman’s Agreement, with Pinky. He was a very forthright guy who stuck to his guns when he believed in a property.
Scott Holleran: Is he one of the producers that you think of when you think of—again, silent to ’65—people who made movies better?
Leonard Maltin: Yes, absolutely. He did at Warner Bros., and he did when he started at 20th Century Fox. And Hal Wallis, who was the head of production at Warner Bros., did remarkable work. And the proof is in the surviving memos from Warner Bros. that Rudy Behlmer collected into a fascinating book called Inside Warner Bros. [Fireside, 1986], which reproduced all these unbelievable memoranda that showed just how savvy Hal Wallis was as production chief. It’s must reading for any classic movie fan, just endlessly fascinating to see how he micromanaged the films under his watch at Warner’s.
Scott Holleran: Is Kazan one of the great directors?
Leonard Maltin: Yes, absolutely. And his first films were made for Daryl Zanuck. I love his first film: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Scott Holleran: His last film, or one of his last films, The Arrangement: I know that’s after this era, but how do you regard that? Is that going to be a classic film?
Leonard Maltin: No. I don’t think so, but America, America, I think, is fantastic from his later period.
Scott Holleran: Who deserves credit for Gone with the Wind?
Leonard Maltin: That’s a collaborative film. I guess who deserves credit is David O. Selznick, primarily. But, not solely because he worked with so many directors and several screenwriters, not to mention William Cameron Menzies’ production design and Walter Plunkett’s costumes and Max Steiner’s music, etc., etc., etc. No film is made by a single person, but if there’s a single vision to that film, I think you’d have to say it’s Selznick’s.