Roger Ebert discusses old movies with Studs Terkel ; part 1
BROADCAST: Dec. 3, 1996 | DURATION: 00:52:24
Chicago Sun-Times film critic and author Roger Ebert discusses his book "Roger Ebert's Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, The Finest Writing From A Century of Film" (published by Norton); reads passages from his book; interview with Buster Keaton is played at 35:18.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel [music] Hearing that I'm sure everyone who is -- Hears that theme, "The Third Man" theme played on the zither, immediately an image comes to mind. And it's only films that can capture something that no other form can. And that's one of the early opening passages in Roger Ebert's new book. The book is called "Roger Ebert's Book of Film" -- This is the most encyclopedic work I know on movies it's "From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing From a Century of Film" and writing by directors, actors, observers, critics, producers, all-around watchers of the scene. I'm thinking, Roger, as we're talking, there will be music throughout, certain pieces of music from our two-hour conversation of being two parts because the book is so all-encompassing. That idea of a piece of music all of a sudden evokes an image of a film.
Roger Ebert You know, Studs, David O. Selznick, who produced the film, almost prevented that music from ever being heard. Sir Carol Reed walked into a beer garden --
Studs Terkel Carol Reed, the director?
Roger Ebert In Vienna, yes, the director of "The Third Man", and he heard Anton Karas, who at that point was an impoverished zither player, playing over the beer drinkers, and he said, "That's the sound we need for 'The Third Man'." Now, what Selznick wanted was an ordinary orchestral score. He also wanted Noel Coward instead of Orson Welles, and he wanted a happy ending. And Graham Greene, who wrote the book and the screenplay wanted a happy ending, too, but Carol Reed stood fast and he got the zither and he got Orson Welles and he got that wonderful ending where the girl just keeps on walking out of frame and Joseph Cotten throws his cigarette away.
Studs Terkel Because in a sense, it's about betrayal.
Studs Terkel His friend was a horrendous person. What was his friend?
Roger Ebert Well, Harry Lime diluted penicillin and sold it back on the black market in postwar Vienna and it led to the to the maiming and crippling of countless children. So he was a very bad guy. But of course, Holly Martin's his friend, played by Joseph Cotton, there's an American innocent. He's he writes pulp Westerns. He sees everything in terms of black and white, good and evi,l and so when he gets to Vienna he's way in over his head going to meet his friend Harry Lime, who of course, is being buried just as he arrives in town, so he thinks.
Studs Terkel So he says, it turns out differently, but the idea is that piece of music suddenly evokes your memory. And for me in almost every aspect of my life one day or another brings forth a certain film. You have, we'll come back to "Third Man", when you quote Walker Evans from his movie -- His Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Moviegoer."
Roger Ebert What page are you on?
Studs Terkel On page 40, the very bottom of the page, the last six lines or so. "Other people."
Roger Ebert This is one of the most famous passages.
Studs Terkel Why don't you read that? "Other people."
Roger Ebert He says, this is the moviegoer speaking, he says, "The fact is, I'm quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I, too, once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in 'Stagecoach' and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in 'The Third Man.'"
Studs Terkel It is that last, that last part of the sentence that gets me, the other one, too. That one does because, again we'll jump around and about, this is part of a quote from writings about, you later on, you have comments of directors, Kurosawa, the great Japanese director, explaining the lights, why he sought lights in "Rashomon", the idea, a certain, the work finding a certain kind of light. I wake up in the morning. Invariably on a spring day, especially, or a summer day, you wake up in the morning through the window you see the leaves and the waving and it was a slight breeze in the air and yet the sun is just peeping through. I thought of "Rashomon."
Roger Ebert You think of that trail through the medieval Japanese forest with the sun breaking through the trees.
Studs Terkel As the wood cutter is going through, but you see the movie is what brings the reality to me.
Roger Ebert Well.
Studs Terkel In heightened form.
Roger Ebert What movies do, movies condense the external world into memorable little pieces of time. That's what Orson Welles called movies, "pieces of time", and once one of those pieces of time gets into your memory, you refer to it in terms of your own experience. One thing that I found in editing this book, and this is a book of the treasures, really, of a lifetime of reading about the movies, it's an anthology and I introduce every piece, but there are all kinds of different writers, is when you read these many different writers you find that all of them were really touched by the movies. They remember when they saw a movie for the first time or they remember when they saw a star for the first time. They remember the emotions that were evoked by that --
Studs Terkel [Unintelligible] Going to say that so many thoughts come to mind and we call upon different aspects of Roger Ebert's book. The first one, some of the first star for the first -- I remember the first time I saw the first bad boy as a hero. No, the bad boy as a -- Not a hero, a protagonist, of course it was Jimmy Cagney before "Public Enemy." He was in a movie, there was a -- He was a supporting actor for an old-time actress named Lucille La Verne.
Roger Ebert Yeah.
Studs Terkel Star in "Sun Up" and it had another name called "Penny Arcade." That was the movie. Pre-"Public Enemy" and in it is this younger son who was no -- rotten, he's no good, but he becomes a figure haunts you. No one -- Never before in movies did I see this bad kid as the center. And it was Jimmy Cagney.
Roger Ebert He was the first anti-hero.
Studs Terkel First and he was the first anti-hero I ever saw by far. And then came "Public Enemy" and we'll talk about that later gangster film.
Roger Ebert Speaking of the gangster films, there's a passage in the book, I quote a lot from Ben Hecht, the great Chicago newspaperman who became the great Hollywood screenwriter. There's a very funny passage in here where Capone's boys come to call on him because they don't like the sound of this "Scarface" and it's just amazing how Ben Hecht explains to them that nobody could possibly think that Scarface and Al Capone were the same person. Now, Al Capone was known as "Scarface." The movie is called "Scarface." The hero of the movie is "Scarface" and Ben Hecht explains, "No, that's not the same guy."
Studs Terkel Five fifty-six.
Roger Ebert Five fifty-six? What are you --
Studs Terkel Five fifty-six. That's worth reading, I think. This is the imagery, you know. These are tough gangsters, they're killers, but this is something gets them. And somewhere along the line, is it there? They come to see him.
Roger Ebert Well, that's Ben Hecht. Let's see.
Studs Terkel Under what? "Scarface" it's 5, oh, I'm sorry, it's five sixty-three.
Roger Ebert Five sixty-three, yeah. "They had a copy.
Roger Ebert Five sixty-three. "They had a copy. They entered the room as ominously" --
Studs Terkel Why don't you, why don't you read Ben Hecht, and I'll do Al, I'll do the voice.
Roger Ebert Okay.
Studs Terkel The bottom of page
Roger Ebert -- You start out, "These guys."
Studs Terkel Page five sixty-three.
Roger Ebert It says, "They entered the room as ominously as any pair of movie gangsters, their faces set in scowls and guns and bulging their coats. They had a copy of my 'Scarface' script in their hands. Their dialogue belonged in it."
Studs Terkel "You the guy who wrote this?"
Roger Ebert "I inquired how they liked it."
Studs Terkel "We want to ask you some questions."
Roger Ebert "I invited them to go ahead."
Studs Terkel "Is this stuff about Al Capone?"
Roger Ebert "God, no. I don't even know Al."
Studs Terkel "Never met him, uh?"
Roger Ebert "I pointed out that I left Chicago just as Al was coming into prominence. I knew Jim Colosimo pretty well, I said."
Roger Ebert "Yeah, I also knew Mossy Enright and Pete Gentleman."
Studs Terkel "That so. Did you know Deanie?"
Roger Ebert "Deanie O'Banion? Sure. I used to ride around with him in his flivver. I also knew Barney."
Roger Ebert "Barney Grogan, 18th Ward."
Studs Terkel "OK then. We'll tell Al the stuff you wrote about is about them other guys."
Roger Ebert "They started out and halted in the doorway, worried again."
Roger Ebert "If this stuff, wait a mi -- If this stuff ain't about Al Capone, why are you calling it 'Scarface'? Everybody'll think it's him."
Roger Ebert "That's the reason. Al is one of the most famous and fascinating men of our time. If we call the movie 'Scarface', everybody will want to see it, figuring it's about Al. That's part of the racket we call showmanship." My visitors pondered this and one of them finally said,"
Studs Terkel "I'll tell Al. Who is this fella Howard Hughes?"
Roger Ebert "He's got nothing to do with anything," I said, speaking truthfully at last. "He's the, he's the sucker with the money."
Studs Terkel "OK, the hell with him."
Roger Ebert "My visitors left."
Studs Terkel That is a great scene because that also is, not only because the gangsters themselves feel, you said, you, or rather Ben Hecht said, "Well, he's a very fascinating guy." [Unintelligible.] "Oh, is that so?" Yeah, then being known, being cele --
Roger Ebert Because he could be, he could be in big trouble if Capone thought that he was portrayed. You know, at the beginning of this Ben Hecht piece, I have one of my little notes here. I introduce every piece and it's that famous story, Studs, you've heard this a thousand times. Herman Mankiewicz, the man who later wrote "Citizen Kane", was a newspaperman, too. And of course when talkies came in, suddenly they needed dialogue. They panicked. They sent east for newspaper guys, for playwrights, for anyone who could write dialogues. So Mankiewicz goes out to the coast and he cables his old newspaper pal Ben Hecht and he says in a telegram, "Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures, all expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here, and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."
Studs Terkel Yeah. On the point, we'll wander back and forth on a book, we'll come back to Kurosawa in a moment. But you mentioned producers and Selznick and the idea he had that would have killed the idea of "The Third Man", he wanted a different name for the movie, didn't like "The Third Man", Hecht himself speaks of producers. Their job is to kill ideas, basically, their job is to kill originality, as he put it.
Roger Ebert Their job is to have another idea, you see. So you start out with the creative people, whether they be the writers, director, the actors. They come up with an idea for the movie. Now the producer basically has one function that is necessary and that is, he has to come up with the money and he has to kind of grease the skids to get everything going. Locations, arrangements, but a lot of producers seem to feel that some gift of God made them into the ultimate authority on movies and so, often they would second-guess and this still goes on today. This still goes on today.
Studs Terkel But back to Kurosawa.
Roger Ebert Yeah.
Studs Terkel We mentioned seeking the light and how it affected my life when I wake up in the morning. My favorite film of his is not the most famous, is "Ikiru", you know.
Roger Ebert That's a fabulous film. I just reviewed that in the "Sun-Times." [sic, "The Chicago Sun-Times"] I have this new series called "The Great Movies", every other Sunday. People have always said to me, "Well, why don't you go back and review some of the old films?" And my answer has always been, "There were too many new films coming out. I don't have time." But I decided every other week go back and review a classic, and "Ikiru" was the second one I did after "Casablanca." That is a great film. You know, in Japanese, it's "Ikiru", the English translation:
Studs Terkel And it's about important and the reason I brought that up is because again the effect on me. See, back and forth me a moviegoer. In fact, there's a certain song in it, he sings an old Japanese folk song I discovered later on, and find an old Japanese friend of mine or a young Japanese friend, sang it about 20 years ago for me after "Ikiru", and this song is called "Uta No Gondola" [sic, it should be Gondola no Uta], it's a song the hero, that wonderful Japanese actor, sings. It -- But I suppose very quickly -- We know the plot, but to tell the audi -- It's about an ordinary bureaucrat, small-time, he's dying of cancer and in his life is nothing but shuffling papers and he wants something to be remembered for, and there's a Japanese mafia who want a piece of land they gonna they gotta drag, but he wants that land for the poor people's kids, a playground and that's the -- He becomes, he defies everything.
Roger Ebert He becomes a maniac. At first he tries -- When he finds out he's dying, at first he gets drunk and he goes to the geisha --
Roger Ebert And so forth. Then he realizes nothing to be found that way. He becomes determined to do one thing. He's been pushing paper for 30 years at City Hall, has never achieved anything.
Studs Terkel And at the very end he dies, but he because of his tenacity in everything, at the end you see him, the old cop, young cop remembers him last, he's in a swing as the playground opens, and he's singing this song about the fading of life and the fading of youth. And this is the way it sounds: [Song in Japanese]. As we hear that song, again you see the effect on me.
Roger Ebert Yeah.
Studs Terkel I speak only of myself, I'm sure thousands who've seen that film, that song, that sound, has everything that Kurosawa do -- We knew but himself envisioned, the visual aspects, but the sound is there, too.
Roger Ebert That is one of the greatest films ever made.
Studs Terkel Yeah. I feel that.
Roger Ebert And there were so many, you know. We are so lucky to be at the end of the first century of cinema instead of at the beginning, although even at the beginning, you know, Tolstoy. I have a piece in the book, Tolstoy saw the movies right at the beginning, right at the turn of the century, and he was so envious, he said, "It's so much easier to make a movie than write a novel. You just go 'Psst!' like this and you can change a scene, change a locale." He said, "It's going to be the greatest art form."
Studs Terkel He did, and you quote him and you quote --
Roger Ebert Gorky.
Studs Terkel Maxim Gorky as well. And speaking of the challenge of something revolutionary, indeed. Here, this is -- Was this, yeah, Tolstoy."You will see that this little clicking contraption," quoting Tolstoy, "with a revolving handle will make a revolution in our life - in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought of that and I can feel what is coming." And that was when, 19-something.
Studs Terkel 1910 or something.
Studs Terkel Oh, then this is, yeah, he died in 19 --
Roger Ebert He really died before Griffith's greatest works. He was seeing very primitive films and or early films, but he says --
Studs Terkel Like "The Great Train Robbery" --
Roger Ebert In another sentence he says, "The films! They are wonderful! Drr! and a scene is ready! Drr! and we have another! We have the sea, the coast, the city, the palace - and in the palace there is tragedy (there is always tragedy in palaces)," he says.
Studs Terkel Yeah. "Roger Ebert's Book of Film From Tolstoy to Tara--" -- It's encyclopedic, and we'll come to all the other aspects of it, too, "From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing From a Century of Film." The writing in all forms, whether it be F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon" or James Agee's "A Death in the Family", we'll come to that in a moment. Norton the publishers. So resuming for the second, the second reel, we'll call this reels, for the second reel with Roger Ebert and his book, book of film. You have a sequence, I remember using this on the radio about 20 years ago, reading from James Agee's "A Death in the Family." And there's this wonderful sequence at the beginning when young young kid is about six years old, Rufus in Nashville --
Roger Ebert Yeah.
Studs Terkel And his father takes him, his father who was killed in the auto accident, death [unintelligible], he takes him to see a movie and it's a Charlie Chaplin movie. At the very beginning, I [unintelligible] scene Charlie and it's that scene what that page would that be on? Let's see. We're
Studs Terkel on? Let's see. Well, let's see. We're on page 17.
Roger Ebert 17,
Studs Terkel yeah. Page 17. At first. Just a touch that is worth reading. They walked to the theater. Let's see; the way his face looked, they're lookin' at Charlie. Maybe, top of page 18.
Roger Ebert Top of page 18. OK.
Studs Terkel "There's Charlie, and."
Roger Ebert "Charlie stole a whole bag of eggs and when a cop came along he hid them in the seat of his pants. Then he caught sight of a pretty woman and he began to squat and twirl his cane and make silly faces. She tossed her head and walked away with her chin up high and her dark mouth as small as she could make it. And he followed her very busily doing all sorts of things with his cane that made everybody laugh, but she paid no attention. Finally she stopped at a corner to wait for a streetcar turning her back to him pretending he wasn't even there and after trying to get her attention for a while and not succeeding, he looked out at the audience, shrugged his shoulders and acted as if she wasn't there." Read on, Studs.
Studs Terkel And it goes on in that vein, it's funny. And then they're laughing. He's got some eggs. He has a bag. I think he has a bag of eggs
Studs Terkel In his pocket, in his pants, he stole some eggs, the 'Little Tramp' did, and somehow he's pushed and he falls and he falls down on his fanny and suddenly remembered those eggs and suddenly you remembered them, too. And here's the part "Where his face looked with a lip wrinkled off the teeth and the sickly little smile he made you feel just the way those broken eggs must feel against your seat. Remember the 5, 6-year-old kid remembering it now as queer and awful as that time in that white pique suit when it ran down the pants leg and showed up all over your stockings." This is the little kid thinkin' --
Roger Ebert Yeah.
Studs Terkel And he had to walk home all the way, people laugh -- looking and Rufus's father, that's the guy who took 'im to the movie, nearly tore his head off laughing. But it's Charlie and a contagion laughter and he laughed, too. And then we think of Charlie because we naturally have to think of someone who is sui generis, all on his own. He made the whole thing: wrote, directed, distributed -- That's why they hated him, too, aside from this political --
Roger Ebert Well, you know he was the first great star, and it has been said that previous to the invention of the movies, the most famous people in the world were Charles Dickens and Mark Twain because they were lecturers, famous lecturers. They traveled all over the world and maybe in a lifetime they appeared before hundreds of thousands of people. Charlie Chaplin, in a moment, appeared before millions, and within a year he had been seen by more different people than any other human being in the entire history of the race.
Studs Terkel I think the names he had, "Charlot" in French, the Eskimos had a name for him, "Magic Lantern", it was, screen whatever it was, and they said "Little Tramp" in Africa, way up north, Asia, everywhere. Charlie was the -- He was -- The name -- When we think of a great movie, you mentioned "Ikiru", or naturally "City Lights", among others. [Unintelligible].
Roger Ebert And, you know, those movies went everywhere and since the invention of sound was like the building of the Tower of Babel, because the moment you add sound, national boundaries went up. Before sound, Garbo could make a movie in Sweden, or you could have a movie from Japan, or from South America, Germany, Italy, the United States. It didn't matter. Those movies could go anywhere and be played anywhere. The great early influence on the Japanese cinema was Griffith. But the moment that you add sound, you couldn't understand what they were saying.
Studs Terkel So if something happened with sound and we'll come to that, too, in a -- Staying with Charlie, for a moment.
Studs Terkel "City Lights", 'cause you have sequences of all sorts of discussion of Charlie aside from James Agee, others.
Roger Ebert Well, I have a little bit from Charlie's autobiography in the book, too. I saw, you know, in 1972 at the Venice Film Festival, they showed the complete works of Charlie Chaplin, his own prints, that he kept in Switzerland, and on the closing night of the festival they put up a giant screen in Piazza San Marco and they showed "City Lights." Remember the little blind girl.
Roger Ebert They had thousands of people in the Piazza San Marco and this movie playing and they all sitting totally silent watching it. Then when it was over, the -- every light in the square was turned out, it was totally black and there was one spotlight that picked out a balcony overlooking the piazza. And Charlie came out on that balcony, and they stood up, the entire audience, with a roar, and I'll never forget that. That's one of the greatest memories I have as a movie critic, being there that night.
Studs Terkel You know, it's so funny, just as a personal note, Charlie was blacklisted in this country and he left, a persona non grata to live in Switzerland. And his name was -- And at the time I had a rough time, so I wrote him a letter to Vevey, Switzerland and it got there. The letter was to the effect that, well, there had been -- At the time he owned his own feature films, the big ones, and he forbade being shown anywhere. And I said, "Wouldn't it be great if there were -- There's a theater named after Warners, after Loews, after Fox. No theater for the greatest man in the history of film, Chaplin Theater, in which you could play all the feature films that you have, 'City Lights', 'Modern Times', 'The Circus' or 'Gold Rush.' It would be fantastic for those young who hadn't." And I got back a letter saying it was his -- Like he typed -- Because he -- All sorts of -- Let things were crossed out -- My name was an, I remember an anathema. He added the and. My name was an anathema. "You sound like a pretty nice person. Forget about me." It was a good, it was, it was a good kiss-off, but it was done. He was very bitter. But I remember that letter. I lost the letter.
Roger Ebert You lost the letter! Studs.
Roger Ebert Yeah, I lost the letter. Studs.
Studs Terkel But coming back to Charlie and "City Lights" as you described it. We know there's a scene there like no other scene in my memory when the recognition scene, when she touches his face she envisions a handsome young guy in top hat who was someone who paid money to get her sight back. Little Tramp who she passes by, who passed her flower shop, and recognize it as he. That moment. Like nothin'. And I would think suppose we hear "The Violet Song", the song of the flower girl.
Roger Ebert That would be nice.
Studs Terkel [Instrumental music from "City Lights"] Just a touch again, you see, just even hearing that seemingly very sweet saccharine song. There was a song before Charlie wrote that, but he -- By the way, he did everything.
Roger Ebert Yeah.
Studs Terkel He wrote the music, he directed, produced it, acted in it, did everything.
Roger Ebert And wrote a lot of the songs.
Studs Terkel And wrote a lot of the songs. And so when you think of Chaplin, we'll come to Keaton in a moment. When we think of W.C. Fields --
Roger Ebert W.C. Fields, now I just showed a couple of W.C. Fields films last Wednesday night to my film class at the University of Chicago. You know, in the '60s, Fields had a big revival and everybody quoted all of his dialogue and they had posters of W.C. Fields on their college room walls and today I think he's out of fashion again. But I think he'll come back. He had that unmistakeable personality --
Roger Ebert Hostility toward the world as a mask for incredible insecurity and shakiness.
Studs Terkel Here's someone who found enemies in inanimate objects.
Roger Ebert Everything was against him. The entire -- He would look -- gaze accusingly at a staircase. I mean, the staircase was out to get him.
Studs Terkel The staircase. He had many fights with picket fences.
Studs Terkel But also with hatracks.
Studs Terkel But the biggest fight, against babies.
Roger Ebert Oh, he hated -- H,e said he would never make a movie with a baby, a dog, or a woman with a low neckline because everybody would look at that instead of at him. And especially, Baby LeRoy, who --
Studs Terkel Now we come to Baby LeRoy.
Roger Ebert We have a little passage here --
Studs Terkel Why don't you read that passage?
Roger Ebert Well, he's making a movie, he's making a movie with Baby LeRoy.
Studs Terkel Baby LeRoy was in several films with him.
Roger Ebert Yeah. Baby LeRoy I think -- Never grew up, or they kept trying to keep him as a baby.
Studs Terkel Now he's about 3 years old.
Roger Ebert Yeah.
Studs Terkel Something like 2 or 3 years old. The enemy of W.C. Fields.
Roger Ebert Well, they had to stop shooting in order to give the infant his orange juice, it says here. So when the others busied themselves with scripts, Fields approached the child's nurse and said -- You wanna do Fields?
Studs Terkel I'll do Fields. What -- Where is that? What page?
Roger Ebert I'm on page 83, halfway down.
Roger Ebert I'll read the parts that aren't in quotes.
Roger Ebert You read Fields. "Fields approached the child's nurse and said" --
Studs Terkel "Why don't you take a breather? I'll give the little nipper his juice."
Roger Ebert "She nodded gratefully and left the set. With a solicitous air, Fields shook the bottle and removed its nipple. Then he drew a flask from his pocket and strengthened the citrus with a generous noggin of gin. Baby LeRoy, a popular warm-hearted youngster, showed his appreciation by gulping down the dynamite with a minimum of the caterwauling that distinguishes the orange juice hour in so many homes. But when the shooting was ready to commence, he was in a state of inoperative bliss. Taurog and the others, including the returned nurse, inspected the tot with real concern. 'I don't believe he's just sleepy,' said the nurse. 'He had a good night's rest.' 'Jiggle him some more,' suggested Taurog. 'We're running a little bit behind time.' Several assistants broke into cries of, 'Hold it!' 'Stand by with number seven!' 'Make up! LeRoy's lost his color!'"
Studs Terkel "Walk 'im around, walk 'im around."
Roger Ebert "Was Fields' hoarse and baffling comment from a secluded corner."
Studs Terkel "And then the child was restored to consciousness. But in the scene that followed, Taurog, the director, complained of his lack of animation, the child's lack of animation. Despite the most urgent measures to revive him, he remained glassy-eyed and in partial coma. For some inexplicable reason, Fields seemed jubilant. 'He's no trouper! The kid's no trouper! Send him home!' And then several years later, when Baby LeRoy was grown to manhood, to boyhood, Fields heard he was re-entering films. 'The kid's no trouper! He'll never make a comeback!'" Well, that's Fields. The other thing I remember of Fields, it was a two-reeler, it was called "The Fatal Glass of Beer."
Studs Terkel "The Fatal Glass" -- and his -- I forget his wife was a favorite actress -- I remember her name, isn't that funny, Rosemary Theby. And they live in, way up in Alaska somewhere, north pole, and they have elks that they milk, elks. And a boy comes home, and he's a forlorn-looking guy, their son comes home from the big city and he tells them a story. Once he was bad, and he reformed, and he found about a half a million dollars belonged to the bank, and then Fields and his wife, "What did you do with that money you found, son?" He says, "I returned it to the bank, and it felt so good." So they just grabbed him and took him, the mother and father took the son by the head and heels and they tossed him out into the snow and at the end he's "I think I'll go milk the elk."
Roger Ebert You know, the thing I remember about "The Fatal Glass of Beer" is that every time Fields looks out the door of his cabin, a prop man throws a handful of snow in his face, and it doesn't look like a snowstorm at all, it looks like somebody throwing a handful of snow in his face, and at one point the guy throws a little bit too hard and Fields gives a hard look off camera at the prop man.
Studs Terkel This is, so we think if -- you think he's coming back. This is interesting how fashions are.
Studs Terkel Is - Was Chaplin out of fashion? For a time?
Roger Ebert Well, you know, the problem is, not only Chaplin and Fields and Keaton out of fashion, there are people who haven't seen a movie made ten years ago. It's a little shocking to -- For example, when I started as a movie critic, "Casablanca" was 25 years old. Today, "Bonnie and Clyde" is 28 years old. So time passes and movies that we think of as contemporary are thought of as ancient history by some of the younger viewers. I think it's great, though, that television and the movie channels on television show a lot of the older movies so people can catch up with them.
Studs Terkel See, as you're saying this, this is interesting, how it -- What an analogy it is to everything else. The absence of history, it was a big battle, I mean, at least to me there is, that history in so many aspects is being forgotten, neglected, and overwhelmed by that which is new and as a result many of the young are deprived of past in every way, whether it be about the Depression, about politics, or about films, is almost the most vivid way of indicating this change or the loss of something too.
Roger Ebert I really think that the invention of home video has been great for the reason that people do rent films and take them home, or they watch them on cable, or they watch them on television. So those who are interested do go back.
Studs Terkel You do have a regular column on that, don't you?
Roger Ebert Yeah.
Studs Terkel On videos in the "Sun-Times" [sic], you know Roger Ebert is the film critic of "The Chicago Sun-Times" but you're carried elsewhere, too, are you not? Aside from the television show.
Roger Ebert Syndicated, yeah, my written work is syndicated around the country and it also appears on CompuServe and on the worldwide web. And there's a CD-ROM called "Cinemania." So, you know, I spend, Studs, you know when we met each other, I was a newspaper man, and that's where I really have spent most of the time during the last 29 years of our friendship. I spent 80, 80 percent of my time probably, writing. And that's my, that's my real focus, I'm very happy to do the television show, but Friday --
Studs Terkel You and Gene Siskel, of course, have that -- I imagine that's by far the most widely seen program on films by far.
Roger Ebert I guess so, yeah, yeah.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Roger Ebert about his book that is encyclopedic, that's why it'll be on two consecutive nights. "Roger Ebert's Book of Film", it's called, and the subtitle, and it's literal, too, "From Tolstoy to Tarantino: The Finest Writing From a Century of Film" and it's Norton the publishers. And so for reel number 3 Buster Keaton. Now the first reaction to Buster Keaton, we think of him, we bracket him generally with Chaplin --
Roger Ebert Yes.
Studs Terkel Same time, two different approaches, this is two of the great film clowns of cinematic history.
Roger Ebert Keaton never had the box office success that Chaplin had, and in fact eventually he lost his studio and had to go work for MGM and he wound up making about five sound pictures in the early '30s. You know, Chaplin was able to hold off sound for many years, continued to be the only person continuing to make silent films after the talkies came in. But Keaton in many of his films didn't find an audience at first. For example, today most people think "The General" is his greatest film, that picture about the railroad engineer during the Civil War. When it came out it was not a great success. And now later on, it's of course got -- Come into its own.
Studs Terkel Thinking of Keaton, just on Page 382 of Roger's book. This is Keaton's, this is someone -- who was writing about --
Roger Ebert John Gillet and James Blue interviewed him at Venice just six months before he died, they had a tribute to him at the Venice Film Festival --
Studs Terkel He worked with his father, he was a rough-and-tumble kid from babyhood on, and yet props and characters, his props become characters and everything he looked for simple things to go wrong, for simple things to go wrong. Now here's the time I met Keaton; obviously, he didn't have much money. See, this is after, long after his prime, way back. This is in 1950-something, he's on the summer circuit, "Three Men on a Horse", he plays Erwin, horribly miscast, he's not made for that. However, it didn't matter. He invented scenes. He's in the bedroom, "Three Men on a Horse" is about a young guy, a guy who is a neb, sort of, but who is able to pick horses well, and so he's kidnapped by three touts and I was one of the three in this summer stock company, Charlie, Patsy and I forget who -- Frankie, and I was the middle guy, Charlie, and, so Keaton is this guy who's kidnapped, he's in a bedroom, he's kept -- Patsy's the leader of the three guys, and Shirley Booth created the role of this girl who guards him and he's in bed and he has trouble with his sheet. He invented this. We saw him do this. The most astonishing 15-minute scene of his fight with a sheet. And what happened to it. So here's Keaton's voice, when I asked him, "What about the 30 films of himself and Chaplin?" It was about a contest. Who would need less subtitles. Who could show more without any words. This is him talking now. I remember you once told me something about ten years ago about you and Charlie Chaplin having friendly contests of who could do the feature film with the least amount of subtitles.
Buster Keaton I think Chaplin won that. He got down one of his pictures something like 21 titles and I had 23.
Studs Terkel This is for an hour and a half film, something like that.
Buster Keaton Yeah. Seven-reel picture. We started off with our features were only five reelers, but I think around, say, about twenty-five were in seven reels. Became a standard length for all feature pictures.
Studs Terkel Thinking about --
Buster Keaton But another thing, too, you've got to call attention to, is the average picture used 240 titles. That was about the average.
Studs Terkel 240 was the average.
Buster Keaton Yes, and the most I ever used was 56.
Studs Terkel 56, and at one time you used 20, 23. So, again we think of you saying something to -- at this theater, at this movie house, there were young kids, couples who weren't even born, perhaps their parents weren't born at the time these films were made, yet they were laughing, they were howling and it gives me the impression that this humor is eternal. That there seems to be a hunger for it, now, too, there's so little of it today. So I was wondering about your feelings as you watch TV. You notice some of the gags are repeated, aren't they? On different --
Buster Keaton They have to. You can't dig material up that fast. I refuse to do a weekly show because it's the fastest way to a sanitarium that I know of. Drive you absolutely out of your mind trying to dig up -- Well, I always try to dig up new material and it's just impossible.
Studs Terkel Well, back in days of the silents --
Roger Ebert Wow, that's so interesting, Studs, to hear that. Buster Keaton and Studs Terkel.
Studs Terkel Now I'm thinking about that matter of himself using no words, no words, now he and Chaplin, and somehow because of the screen, the "magic lantern", this is what Tolstoy was talking about, too, I imagine, what got him so much about that.
Roger Ebert You know, what's interesting when you think of Buster Keaton and compare him to somebody else who I have as a contributor to this book, David Mamet, the great Chicago dramatist and playwright, Chicago-originated, anyway, and Mamet says he has a -- I have a selection in the book where he -- His advice to actors: "Do nothing. Perform the physical action." He repeats -- you know, Mamet, in a Mamet play, the characters say the same thing in six different ways. He writes the same way. "Perform the physical action. Walk down the hallway. Turn the knob. Go through the door. What do I do? Walk down the door. What do I do? Turn the knob. What do I do? Walk through the door. How should I walk down the hallway? Walk down the hallway. How should I turn the knob? Turn the knob. How should I go through the door? Go through the door. What should I show on my face? Show nothing on your face." And I think of Keaton, the "Great Stone Face." Keaton allowed, Keaton did what Mamet wants his actors to do, he allowed the story to supply the emotion so the audience would know how the actor was feeling without the actor having to show.
Studs Terkel Funny you should say that, that's very funny because Keaton at the time was in a short film by Samuel Beckett --
Studs Terkel "Film!" As you were quoting Mamet, that was Beckett. You see, the same -- details, you do the gesture, whatever it -- That which we take for granted doesn't matter, but it becomes something. When you see -- I remember I saw a documentary about a hospital and a guy is wheeling an older guy in a wheelchair toward the water fountain. The difficulty of gettin' to that water fountain was like "End Game." The difficulty, that thing we take for granted, that little gesture, now Mamet with a sense was taking off on Beckett.
Studs Terkel It all revolved around Buster Keaton.
Roger Ebert Same idea. Same idea. Mamet says, "How do you walk thoughtfully?" I don't know how you walk thoughtfully. I think you just walk.
Studs Terkel So we're talking about the mystery of films, that the genius behind it and we come still with silent films, you mentioned about no words, and of course we think of Garbo, don't we?
Roger Ebert Oh, yes. And then finally she spoke.
Studs Terkel And Garbo's mystery, several write about Garbo in your book, you quote various essays and pieces on Garbo --
Roger Ebert Including Stark Young, who said, "She was somebody we felt we knew." Which is strange, because I don't know if I would agree with that. She always seemed more mysterious to me. Now I'm looking it up here. Let's see if I can find it.
Studs Terkel Garbo on one-sixty-two, there's one.
Roger Ebert One sixty-two, okay.
Studs Terkel That has Garbo talking with Marilyn Monroe, it's very funny, she thinks Marilyn Monroe would have been a wonderful Ophelia.
Roger Ebert Here's Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote. They've gone to a funeral.
Studs Terkel That's a very funny scene.
Roger Ebert And then they go out of the church and they're walking along and I guess Capote here is quoting Constance Collier who was the English-born actress.
Studs Terkel She was the teacher, one of the teachers.
Roger Ebert She died and who was one of Marilyn's teachers, and she tells Capote, "There is something there; she is a beautiful child." She thinks Monroe has talent. Then she says -- Do you want to read it? "I was talking to Greta"?
Studs Terkel Well, some of the stuff we can't --
Roger Ebert Part of it we're not going to read, I know.
Studs Terkel But it's a very funny scene between Capote and and Marilyn Monroe, who were two kind of lost souls, in a way, it's a very funny sequence at the at the chapel involved with the idea of the very end he says of her, as Constance Collier said --
Roger Ebert Marilyn Monroe -- because they've walked all over New York and they've had this talk and it's been scandalous. And it's also been sentimental, and finally at the end she says to Capote, "Remember," says Marilyn, "I said if anybody ever asked you what I was like, what Marilyn Monroe was really like, well how would you answer them? I bet you'd tell them I was a slob, a banana split." Capote says, "Of course, but I'd also say --" and she says, "I can't hear you." And he says, "I'd say you are a beautiful child."
Studs Terkel And that's the phrase used about her. But back -- see, Garbo sensed something in her so let's come back to Garbo with Stark Young or someone spoke of a certain concentration she had and that concentration caught you. I remember, we're going to hear her voice in a moment. I remember seeing her in "Camille" with a stick of an actor, Robert Taylor.
Roger Ebert Yeah.
Studs Terkel Just a stick of wood.
Roger Ebert Right.
Studs Terkel And there she was and somehow you had a feeling, this may have been Stark Young who said it. She had a feeling that she had worked with her hands on the farm all her life before she became the courtesan and she's with this woman who is her old friend and nurse and she's out and picking apples or something in the orchard and suddenly you realize she's a farm girl. She was a farm girl. You knew it. And but here's when she speaks for the first -- We always say, "Garbo. I want to go home." But the first words she used in sound movies was, "I vant visky." She did "Anna Christie", O'Neill's play, and she was cast and this is a scene, this is a scene early in the movie with the great Marie Dressler as the old, old woman who lives with her father whom she's looking for. She's a Scandinavian girl comes from Saint Paul, from Minneapolis, to Chicago -- to New York to the waterfront to look for her father and she and this old woman are talking and here's Garbo's voice as she speaks of her search.
Greta Garbo "I gotta meet someone, too. My old man. I haven't seen him since I was a kid. I don't even know what he looks like. I just got a letter now and then. This was always the only address he gave me for writing back. He used to be a sailor and I was thinking, seeing he ain't done a thing for me in my life, he might be willing to stake me the room and eats 'til I get rested up. But I ain't expecting much from him. Give you a kick when you're down, that's what all men do. [Unintelligible] Maybe you know --"
Marie Dressler "It isn't old Chris, is it?"
Marie Dressler Chris?" "Yeah, Chris Christopherson, that's his full name."
Greta Garbo "That's him. Anna Christopherson is my real name."
Studs Terkel She's talking about being betrayed by men, but that -- She was made for this part, you see. Again, there was that concentration.
Roger Ebert So now, when you mentioned Garbo, I was reminded of a piece that I have in the book by Nestor Almendros, the great Cuban-born cinematographer, and who writes, he has a whole article here about photographing women and he says, "When taking close-ups in a color picture there is too much visual information in the background which tends to draw attention away from the face. That is why the faces of the actresses in the old black and white pictures are so vividly remembered. Even now, movie fans nostalgically recall Dietrich, Garbo, Lamarr, filmed in black and white. Those figures looked as if they were lit from within." And I feel the same way, Studs. I -- You know, the truly great stars were formed in black and white pictures. When we think today we tend to go back to black and white images. We don't think of the -- In the same way about stars that we've seen in color films because they don't have the same dreamlike or mysterious quality to it.
Studs Terkel You said dream-like, it's interesting you quote Scorsese. Later on, earlier you spoke of someone "pieces of life", who said that?
Studs Terkel Orson Welles, "pieces of time", Martin Scorsese, perhaps the finest American director today, spoke of dream as he worked on "Taxi" [sic]. Everything is dreamlike. And so we come back to these faces in black and white.
Roger Ebert Yes.
Studs Terkel And of course, I'm of a certain age, naturally I remember the others vividly far more than I do almost faceless ones, very good actors today, some of them, but not quite as three-dimensional --
Roger Ebert Oh, the black and white --
Roger Ebert Last night I had the television on, and they were showing "Night of the Iguana" by John Houston. Ava Gardner, Richard Burton --
Studs Terkel Isn't that funny, by John Huston, "Night of the Iguana", Tennessee Williams by John Huston, but you are the movie man thought of Huston
Roger Ebert Oh, well, I was thinking
Studs Terkel The filmmaker.
Roger Ebert Of Huston because I'm thinking of that black and white --
Studs Terkel Of course, yeah --
Roger Ebert The black and white.
Studs Terkel I know, but's it's interesting. See, but -- so you saw that in black and white.
Roger Ebert Oh yeah. It's just -- it's when you're flipping the dial don't you find when you hit a black and white movie you want to stop and see what it is?
Studs Terkel Well, I always --
Roger Ebert You're asking the wrong guy.
Studs Terkel For me the answer is easy, of course. But talking to Roger Ebert, I have one more reel to go for this first sequence. This is a two-part program because of the nature of the book, the all-encompassing nature of the book. "Roger Ebert's Book on Film" and it's Norton and we have to come to perhaps end the first part with "Citizen Kane." And so we come to the film that generally considered, Roger, generally considered the finest of all and that's of course Orson Welles' production with associates of "Citizen Kane" and that is, suppose we hear, just to set the scene, as the 'march of time' guy is talking at the beginning, we assume people hearing the program have seen "Citizen Kane" at one time or another, and it's -- The great tycoon is dead. "Citizen Kane", who we know is William Randolph Hearst, who some say was Orson Welles, we'll come to that theme, too. The movie. So there's his estate, the Xanadu, modeled after after Hearst's estate, San Simeon. And here's the music we hear that sets it up. [Music from "Citizen Kane"] Now we know someone big is on the scene. His life is recreated. Now we come to the story of this film, don't we?
Roger Ebert Well, this was a great film, and of course,, Bernard Hermann's score was such an important part of it. It was like a bringing together of wonderful talents. All of the Mercury players came out of radio and --
Studs Terkel That was Welles' theater company.
Roger Ebert Yes, Orson Welles had a theater company on the radio, "The Mercury Theatre of the Air", with Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Edward Everett Sloane [sic - his name was Everett H. Sloane], wonderful Collins --
Roger Ebert Ray Collins, Joseph Cotton, and what they did apart from anything else in "Citizen Kane" they made one of the most elaborate soundtracks. They used overlapping dialogue. They used various kinds of sound, newsreel sound, radio sound, dialogue sound, and it's just a great movie to listen to and a great movie to see.
Studs Terkel But also it's about a larger-than-life figure. Doing a film about a larger-than-life figure.
Roger Ebert So many people at the time felt that "Citizen Kane" was based on William Randolph Hearst and of course he was, but Hearst, you know, was not very happy with the film and neither was Hedda Hopper, who was the columnist for the Hearst newspapers, and Welles at one point, Studs, I don't know if you know this, he actually had the effrontery to claim that the movie was really about Samuel Insull, the Chicago utilities tycoon, because Insull, of course, did build the Civic Opera House --
Studs Terkel And he did have a mistress --
Roger Ebert Who sang there. Yes.
Studs Terkel The name is irrelevant now. But it was Mary McCormack, as a matter of fact. It's gone -- matters, it's not gossip now because it's long long ago, and that was the parallel, but aside from that it was obviously Hearst.
Roger Ebert Just that one scene where where Citizen Kane builds an opera house and puts his his mistress into it. Apart from that, everything else was obviously Hearst and --
Studs Terkel But the thing that's so fantastic was that it took a larger-than-life, an outsized figure, to make a film about an outsized figure and Truffaut was an admirer of him and he spoke -- it was really about Welles.
Roger Ebert Well, Truffaut has a book called "The Films of My Life", and I have some selections from his book in my book, and he says, "When I saw -" Are you looking on page 121?
Studs Terkel Yeah, page 121, 22. "He just --."
Roger Ebert "He was filled with, overcome with admiration for the film's main character", now, that's funny because I'm not sure that we're supposed to admire Kane. Maybe sympathize with him, or understand him.
Roger Ebert But he says, "I thought he was marvelous, splendid, and I linked Orson Welles and Charles Foster Kane with the same idolatry. I thought the film was a panegyric to (What is that, panegyric?) panegyric to ambition and power. When I saw it again after I'd become a critic, accustomed to analyzing my enjoyment, I discovered its true critical point of view, which was satire. I understood then that we're supposed to sympathize with the character Jedediah Leland, who was played by Joseph Cotten."
Studs Terkel You know, if we could, if you read the last, on page 122 to close this hour, page 122 the middle of it, "What we already found in "Citizen Kane." It's a tribute to Welles, and I think that's a beautiful tribute that --
Roger Ebert "What we have", this is Truffaut writing, "What we have already found in "Citizen Kane" we will find better expressed in other of Welles's work, is a world view which is personal, generous, and noble. There is no vulgarity, no meanness in this film. Only the satirical, imbued by a fresh and imaginative anti-bourgeois morality, a lecture on how to behave, what to do, what not to do."
Studs Terkel I think that's a beautiful tribute. That's the way he felt about Welles, which I happen to agree with. And this is Roger Ebert my guest, and we'll continue. This will be tomorrow night's program, part two of his just conversations, reflections on his book with music goin' along with it. "Roger Ebert's Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Writing From a Century of Film" [sic], Norton the publishers, and we'll pick it up tomorrow, and thanks for this moment.