Interviews

INTERVIEW: TCM’S BEN MANKIEWICZ

By • Apr 24th, 2011 •

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FIR writer Glenn Andreiev and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz.

If you love movies, having Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in your cable package is like being a kid locked overnight in a candy store; only it’s much, much healthier! TCM has kicked off 2011 with THE ROAD TO HOLLYWOOD, their second annual nationwide tour where they screen, in ten various US cities, free to the public, classic films such as THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, RIO BRAVO and ELMER GANTRY. At each screening, one of TCM’s film-history-knowledgeable hosts – Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz – precede the film with a Q and A session with the audience, accompanied by one of the stars of the films. Chatting with audiences were screen legends such as Angela Lansbury, Eva Marie Saint, Ernest Borgnine and Burt Reynolds. For a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful THE BIRDS, TCM came to Huntington, Long Island’s Cinema Arts Centre. Tippi Hedren, the film’s star, and a charming raconteur, was there.

I got to speak with Ben Mankiewicz, telling him that Films In Review is the country’s oldest film publication, founded in 1909.

Ben Mankiewicz. (Ben) Back then did they write: “These new young fellows, D. W Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, do they have what it takes to make it in Hollywood?”

Glenn Andreiev (GA) In the 1970’s, the very few television channels out there often showed older films. With cable and home video venues popping up in the 1980’s, the older films were buried behind newer and better-publicized programming. Now, thanks to TCM, young audiences can become more familiar with people like Cagney.

(Ben) …and Lacey! I think what pleased so many of us at TCM at our last film festival were how many young people like film students, and friends of film students attended. We were impressed how many young viewers were of the age of film students, and how many families came, were bringing kids twelve and thirteen years old. And, you’re running the risk of kids dragging their feet to classic films saying (mimic kid) “I can’t believe you’re making me watch something in black and white!” But these kids were excited! They wanted to go to movie after movie. Then you had the serious film students who had the actors and directors that mattered to them. A whole world of classic films is opening up to a new generation.

(GA) You’re so knowledgeable about classic films. Do any films come up on TCM where you say “what is that?”

(Ben) Oh, all the time! I see new stuff on a regular basis! I can still pick a movie I don’t know, or don’t remember well, you see it for a second time, but now in a different light, because maybe you learned something new about the people in it. I think you can be as big an expert in film as possible, but the volume is so enormous, that there is always something rich you can take from a second viewing. We often get movies that are not great, they are not bad, like movies of today, but they may have something great in them.

Adolph Menjou and Joan Blondell in a CONVENTION CITY publicity still.

(GA) For example, TCM showed one morning a “routine” Joe E. Brown comedy from 1931 titled BROADMINDED. It had in a supporting role a pre-DRACULA, Bela Lugosi, who was the comic foil, like Laurel and Hardy’s Edgar Kennedy. Lugosi was genuinely funny in it. I simply had to watch, and it made me late for work.

(Ben) Lugosi could be very funny! So TCM was preventing you from going to work? It’s like those old stories of great radio that kept in you in your car listening in the parking lot! Pre-Code films are just great.

(GA) I enjoyed when you ran TCM Employees favorite films.

(Ben) Robert Osborne, my co-host, has an encyclopedic recall on film that few people have. But I had to ask Robert do you ever have to look up the info for some of these films?

(GA) The employees picked some really obscure stuff. One employee, I forget who it was, picked SAFE IN HELL, a wild jaw-dropper of a melodrama directed by William Wellman in 1931. I was blown away at how great and frank this rare film was.

(Ben) Some of those William Wellman Pre-Code films really pushed the racy elements more than any other director!

(GA) Does TCM have any Holy Grails, the lost films or the films you can’t get your hands on?

Adolph Menjou and Joan Blondell in a CONVENTION CITY publicity still.

(Ben) Most things we can get, even if it’s just temporarily. My closest friend is the head of programming and he does such a great job getting the films. Some films may be owned by the families (of cast members or directors) and it could get tricky there, or some other studio owns it. At the festivals, viewers put in requests and I write them in this little black book (shows me a small black book) so by the end of the festival I have four pages of requests! I take the list to my friend Charlie, saying “Here is what the people want!” and Charlie says “Oh, we have like half of these films, and we showed some of them.”

(GA) What about a lost film, where there is no known physical print or copy in existence?

(Ben) Do you have a film in mind?

(GA) Yes! CONVENTION CITY. (A 1933 racy and raunchy Warner Brothers comedy with Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert and Adolph Menjou. It supposedly has near nudity and a running gag involving a drunk man trying to coax a goat into his hotel room! After the Production Code started in 1934, the censors deemed CONVENTION CITY unsuitable for re-release, and in the 1940’s the film’s negative and many prints were purposely burned. Film collectors have searched in vain worldwide for a print, even contacting the descendants of the stars to see if they have a print in the attic.)

(Ben) So, why do they have to burn the films? Why set fire to it? Just put it in a safe, man! I once went on a tour of Warner Brothers studio with a tour guide.

They really weren’t tour guides, they were Warner Brothers archivist experts. I mean, you’d want to spend twelve days there in their vaults, digging!

(GA) Does TCM show certain films because they represent a time period, like the time period they were produced. An example that comes to mind is another William Wellman film from the depression – WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (A gritty and powerful film about homeless depression-era children)

(Ben) I guess that means what perspective you have of that era, what the depression meant to you personally. My mother was a child back then, and she never stopped talking about the depression. She always talked about how she and her friends during the depression ate black tar because they could not afford chewing gum.

(GA) Tar? You mean like road tar?

(Ben) Yeah. I mean skip the tar. To my mother, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, where they showed the hard life during those times, was the depression. My father grew up in Hollywood, but he saw the depression. My father than moved from Hollywood to Washington, so I didn’t know the influence my family had on Hollywood until I was older. (Note: Ben Mankiewicz is directly descended from Herman J. Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplays for DUCK SOUP, PRIDE OF THE YANKEES and co-wrote CITIZEN KANE, and Joseph Mankiewicz, who directed ALL ABOUT EVE, CLEOPATRA and SLEUTH) My mother always talked about THE GRAPES OF WRATH, so it made an imprint with me as to what was life during the depression.

Coming up – my conversation, and the Cinema Arts Centre’s conversation, with Tippi Hedren.

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