Friday, January 05, 2007

Back When Saturday Night At the Movies Was Good

TV Ontario's Saturday Night At the Movies is one of those shows whose archives really should be made publicly available. Elwy Yost built up a huge collection of interviews, on film and in the studio; whenever he and the producers acquired a movie to show, they would find people involved with the film who were still alive, interview them, and show long uninterrupted chunks of those interviews. Yost's sycophancy was kind of a joke at the time, sort of like James Lipton's is now, but he asked good questions and let people talk. And he got everybody, whether it was stars like Jimmy Stewart and Joel McRea or creative people most of the audience had never heard of.

For example, the first episode I watched, and the only one I still have on tape, featured two Marx Brothers movies; the interviews section featured (apart from a studio interview with a critic) interviews with some of the Marx Brothers' writers, like Irving Brecher (At The Circus and Go West) and Nat Perrin (Duck Soup). For a Preston Sturges episode, Yost had Eddie Bracken in the studio and interviewed him at length; Bracken claimed to have directed one scene in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. The prints of the movies weren't always the best -- this was before it became acceptable to show widescreen movies letterboxed, so you got all the CinemaScope movies chopped in half -- but it was always worth it for the interviews.

After Yost left, and after the Ontario government cut the budget, the interview segments were reconfigured as part of a partnership with the film department at York University. Now the interviews would be less about the movies being shown and more about a particular theme (musicals, film noir, the role of a producer), and they would use much shorter interview clips from Yost's interviews as well as some newer interviews. These can still be good, but they're pretty standard combinations of movie clips and talking-head clips. The days when you would get old actors, writers and producers talking uninterrupted for several minutes -- those are gone, and I don't think we'll ever see them again. But TVO, or the Motion Picture Academy (Yost donated copies of the interviews to them) should really find some way of releasing some of these interviews; they're mostly going to waste now.

Here's an example from that Marx Brothers show: a segment with Nat Perrin, one of the writers on Duck Soup (he and his partner wrote "additional dialogue," and some other routines in the film were taken from a radio show they wrote for Groucho and Chico). Perrin, who later became writer-producer of The Addams Family, talks about the Duck Soup, and gives his contrarian opinions on the film -- he doesn't like it, thinks it was too disorganized and zany -- and on Leo McCarey -- he's not impressed, but he admits that the Marx Brothers respected him more than other directors they worked with. You may, as I do, think he's totally wrong about Duck Soup, McCarey and Marx Brothers humor. But the point is, he's a guy who wrote for that movie and he's earned the right to talk about it, and Yost lets him talk.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I used to catch Yost on a PBS series called The Moviemakers. Pleased that I'm not the only one who noticed his ridiculous qualities. Perrin is, of course completely wrong about Harpo's interpetation of his script. Probably why a lot more people have heard of Harpo Marx than Nat Perrin, but you're right, props for all his magnificent contributions to the culture.