by Gary Meyer
In my mid-teens I read about a small fanzine on classic movies called Profile that merged with Film Fan Monthly. I anxiously awaited the small envelope from Teaneck, New Jersey. The editor seemed to know a lot about “Golden Age” actors and directors. I wrote to compliment him and we started a correspondence. I thought he certainly must be in his 50s or older to know so much.
I went off to college and we lost touch until 1969 when I spotted a book called the TV Movie Guide – by my pen pal – Leonard Maltin. I wrote him and found out that that he too had gone off to college at NYU. He was two years younger than me— at 18 he had edited and published this incredible book with reviews of thousands of films.
We have stayed friends. Our wives and kids too. And we are all film fans.
The 2015 edition of his annual Movie Guide was the last, but luckily a new edition of Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide has just been published and to celebrate he will introduce a selection of rarely seen films on Turner Classic Movies on September 28th.
The first thing I look for in a new edition is Leonard’s chatty and informative introduction. It feels like he’s writing a note to me. And he does want it to feel personal. I also appreciate the resource listings of where to find both popular and rare movies. And then it is always enjoyable to learn about the team of cinema buffs who contribute reviews.
We thought it would be fun to ask some questions that have been on our mind.
EDF: When the very first TV Movies was published in 1969, how many films did you review yourself?
Leonard Maltin: We had 8,000 movies in that edition and I can’t honestly remember how many I personally wrote up. I have a feeling it was close to half, a proportion I maintained in all the years since.
EDF: What made you, a teenager, feel you could pull this off? How did you gather a team and organize the project?
LM: Sometimes I marvel at my own confidence—or was it cockiness?—when I was a teenager. I hired some people to help me put the book together and we all worked very hard. But my editor knew that the real test was hiring the right people to proofread our material, and that’s where the book improved. After that I set up a system where several pairs of eyes passed over every review.
EDF: Were there reviews or reviewers you especially admired as a teen starting to write?
LM: Like many other people I was strongly influenced by Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968, even though I didn’t understand the reasoning behind his opinions of certain directors and disagreed with others. What mattered was that he made me think, as no one had before.
EDF: I don’t remember anything quite like TV Movies at the time but several copycats appeared over the next few years. Only yours survived —–for 45 years! You offered the most variety, unique features such as providing overviews on series and you made a point of being as accurate as possible. Did your reviewers use a stopwatch to assure correct running times?
LM: We never used stopwatches, but once films became available on VHS and DVD we often double-checked running times that way. I don’t know how we managed before then, except I knew to rely on Todd McCarthy’s writeups in Variety (he’s since moved to the Hollywood Reporter) because HE used a stopwatch at every screening he attended!
EDF: In that first edition you actually listed your home address for readers to send suggestions, corrections and comments. Were any of them especially memorable or embarrassing?
LM: When the first edition of the book came out all I could see were its errors and shortcomings. I can’t remember the embarrassing ones at this late date. The greatest satisfaction I derived from the book having a long life, and eventually becoming an annual, was the ability to fix mistakes and errors of omission. I knew that with every edition we became more accurate.
Readers started sending corrections and additions, which I eagerly incorporated into the expanded paperback. This was long before personal computers came along, and we did everything by hand. My wife and I cut out every one of the 8,000 reviews in the first book and glued them onto individual sheets of paper. (I remember Alice repeatedly running out to Woolworth’s on Broadway and 79th Street to buy more glue sticks—we kept using them up.) Then I used a ball-point pen to mark additions and changes in the margins, adding an actor’s name, correcting a spelling, changing a running time, etc. Believe it or not, we never completely abandoned this technique: it may seem primitive but it’s simple and effective.
EDF: Before the Internet as a source of both right and wrong facts you must have had quite a task tracking down the information. What unusual places did you look?
LM: I used old trade magazines and called on friends who had 16mm film collections. I also tried to cultivate contacts at each of the studios and distributors — people who actually cared about the kind of details we needed. I spoke to one fellow at United Artists years ago and asked him how he determined precise running times for their films. Did he inspect the prints or talk to someone in their post-production department. “Uh…” he replied “We use your book.” It was flattering but not very useful!
EDF: Did you include fake movies in the Guide?
LM: We planted one phony film in the first edition of the Guide to be sure that no one ever copied us wholesale. Very few people have spotted it over these many decades and I’m not about to reveal it now!
EDF: Has it appeared mentioned in any other books?
EDF: Any examples of surprising or memorable reactions from readers to your reviews?
LM: Years ago, a guy stopped me on the street in Manhattan and said he liked my book but doubled my ratings in order to assess whether he’d agree with my opinion or not. Within days, someone else buttonholed me and said, “You know how I know if I’m going to agree with your reviews? I cut the ratings in half.”
EDF: How did you decide when a review needed to change to reflect a new opinion?
LM: This usually was by chance. If I happened upon a film on cable TV and watched it again I sometimes found myself thinking, “This isn’t as good as I remember it being,” or “Why was I so harsh on this movie? It’s awfully good.” I did that for a number of musicals, Marx Brothers movies, Hitchcock films, etc. I was seeing so many mediocre new movies that these vintage films seemed brilliant by comparison.
EDF: Some people have kept every edition because each has material that is new but has also replaced reviews that can only be found in previous editions. In 2005 you brought out the Classic Movie Guide to include thousands of older films from the silent era through 1965. What inspired this bonus for film fans?
LM: The answer is simple: we ran out of room in the Annual guide. By creating a separate volume we had room to grow. That meant we could restore many entries we had dropped and add hundreds of “new” titles we’d never had a chance to cover before.
EDF: How did you decide the cutoff date of 1965?
LM: In our first Classic Guide the cut-off was 1960; by the time of the second edition we moved it up to 1965 so I could drop more titles from the Annual with a clear conscience.
EDF: When the 2015 edition of the Movie Guide was published your introduction was bluntly honest about the fact that this would be the last one. Why did it have to end?
LM: Our sales declined so sharply that we couldn’t afford to keep the machinery of the Guide intact. It required a lot of hard work by a team of people, and we all deserved to get paid for our efforts. Alas, many people aren’t willing to pay for the kind of information and reviews we offered when they can get something like it for free online. We like to think we offered user-friendly, curated information that you CAN’T find elsewhere…but not enough people were willing to pay for it.
EDF: To our surprise and pleasure a third edition of the Classic Movie Guide just arrives in stores about the time the Movie Guide used to come, late September. The cover states the same “more than 10,000 movies” as the previous version five years ago. Does this mean you had to drop classic films to make room for the many vintage movies showing up for the first time on Turner Classic Movies plus the DVD and online on-demand offerings from the amazing Warner Archive, Criterion, Olive and so many other distributors?
LM: We haven’t dropped a thing. In fact, there are more than 300 new entries in this edition—for just the reasons you cited.
EDF: The new Classic Movie Guide has Turner Classic Movies on the cover. A perfect marriage? Your reviews have been appearing increasingly on the TCM website which is a natural and allows you to add films as you discover them.
You have also been hosting films on the TCM cable network. On Monday, September 28th you will introduce seven long unseen discoveries that appear in the book for the first time. What are some stories about how they came to you?
LM: A friend sent me a home-burned copy of Stolen Identity (1953) that he copied off the air some years ago. I sought out Among the Living (1934) when Sony made it available on DVD as part of their Movies on Demand program.
Warner Archive released the long-unseen Colleen Moore vehicle Why Be Good? (1929) after it was recently restored.
Some of the other titles were always in the TCM library, like Five and Ten (1931) with Marion Davies, Reducing (1931) with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran, A Very Honorable Guy (1934) with Joe E. Brown and Three Faces East (1930) with Constance Bennett and Erich von Stroheim.
You might say they’ve been hiding in plain sight and simply needed to be pointed out.
EDF: Are there some other titles that appear in the book for the first time that you highly recommend people seek out?
LM: The ones I’m showing on TCM are among my favorites — even though none of them would be classified as “great.” If a film has a provocative idea, a great performance, unusual sets or camerawork, or some other aspect that appeals to me, I’m glad I saw it. There’s a grade-B RKO musical called To Beat the Band (1935) that features a score by young Johnny Mercer, who also appears on camera as a vocalist, and has a dance number near the end that’s an absolute knockout. The movie as a whole is nothing to shout about but I’d recommend it to any hard-core musical buff.
Leonard has more to say here about his TCM picks on Monday.
NEXT WEEK- Leonard Maltin tells of some of his favorite movies, talks about truly lost films and his most memorable celebrity meeting as we continue with Part Two.Leonard Maltin has been watching movies and writing about them since he was a kid in Teaneck, New Jersey. In addition to the Movie Guides that have become the “go to” film reference books for anybody who likes the movies, Maltin has written a dozen books including The Great American Broadcast: A Celebration of Radio’s Golden Age, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Selected Short Subjects, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia, and Leonard Maltin’s Family Film Guide and (as coauthor) The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang. He has also been the editor and a contributor to many other books, magazines and publications.
His books can be found at your local bookstore or through our affiliate relationships with Amazon or Indiebound.
He has written, produced and hosted documentaries and television specials about the movies with a partculair focus on animation and comedy. Maltin was the movie host on Entertainment Tonight, has lectured extensively and teaches at the Univeristy of Southern California.
The Walt Disney Treasures collectible DVD series was a favorite project he spearheaded to bring many rarely seen features and shorts to fans with his savvy introductions.
Maltin is always on top of new media with his unique blog “Movie Crazy” featuring reviews of new and old movies, interviews, books, video and sometimes his thoughts on favorite pastimes jazz and classic radio. The occasional You Tube channel, regular apearances on Reelz Channel and new Podcasts with Baron Vaughn every Wednesday, “Maltin on Movies” also keep him busy.
The many Maltin enterprises are a family affair with his wife Alice and daughter Jessie an essential part of the many projects he juggles.Gary Meyer started his first theater in the family barn when he was twelve-years-old. He directed a monster movie there and wanted to show it on the set. It became The Above-the-Ground Theatre where over 250 films were screened along with live productions, workshops and the publication of a literary/arts/satire zine, “Nort!” and a film newsletter, “Ciné.” After film school at SFSU he calls his first job as a booker for United Artists Theatres “grad school” that prepared him to co-found Landmark Theatres in 1975. It was the first national arthouse chain in the U.S. focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on many projects including Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas, created the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games, and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007-2014. He founded the online magazine, EatDrinkFilms.com in April 2014, and is preparing the EatDrinkFilms Festival for Summer, 2016 with a national tour to follow. A day of food films will be presented as part of Food Day on October 24 in San Francisco.