Bill Everson: Terminal film buff

My previous post, in which I discussed the role played by William K. Everson and the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, spurred me to dig out this interview I did with Everson for an April 1973 issue of The New York Herald, a short-lived weekly newspaper. For more on Everson, check out the Wikepedia bio, my brief tribute for Animation World Magazine, Kevin Brownlow’s obit in The Independent, and more importantly the New York University’s William K. Everson Collection website, which includes scans of many of his program notes, among other wonderful items.

This article, which was published near the start of my writing career, shows me under the influence of The Wall Street Journal, whose delightful front page stories captured my attention. P.K., who wrote the postscript, was the paper’s arts editor whose name I have forgotten.

William K. EversonThe police had been staking out the third floor apartment on West 79th Street for several months. The constant flow of men in and out at all hours of the night had brought New York’s finest to one conclusion: this was a house of ill-repute — obviously!

One night, when two out-of-town businessmen wearily exited the building in the wee hours of the morning, the police accosted them. Under pressure, the men finally broke down and confessed: “We was only watching some old movies, Honest.”

And you know, they were telling the truth. For that third floor apartment was not a cathouse, but merely the residence of one William K. Everson, film historian, teacher and film collector par excellence.

Whether the above tale is true or not is besides the point, for it does tell much about Bill Everson’s character. His obsessive devotion to film and film history; his willingness, even his eagerness to share both his knowledge and his collection of 16mm prints (about 4,000 features, plus selected short subjects), has made him a sort of unofficial guru of New York’s community of film scholars.

The author of many popular books — The Western (with George Fenin), The Bad Guys, The Films of Laurel and Hardy etc. — he also runs the film program at the New School and the now legendary Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society. He teaches at the School of Visual Arts and is a professor at New York University. Everson is constantly loaning his films out for exhibition and aiding film archives with their programming. Right now He’s helping Rochester’s Eastman House with a British retrospective.

Born in Yeogil, in Somerset (“The center of the English cream cheese industry”), his father was an inspector in the aerospace industry. His mother an ex-teacher. From as far back as he can remember, Everson was always interested in movies. When his father took him along to an aerodrome, he would just jump into a handy plane and “read movie books all day long.”

His father thought this behavior somewhat abnormal, “Which I may have been,” Everson notes. And felt that his only child would never amount to anything.

Although he passed his elevens’ exam, Everson found secondary school too competitive. And when he was only 14, with his father’s blessing, he took a job in the British film industry as a publicity writer. This was during World War II and there was a manpower shortage. Besides, Everson passed himself off as being nearly 16. Around this time he also did some film criticism for a local paper. “They were the most opinionated things you ever saw. I shudder when I think back on them now. I was holding forth like Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice.”

In late 1950, realizing that there was little future for him in England, he came to the U.S.

In New York he landed a temporary job with a small producer-distributor who was, Everson claims, “an absolute nut.”

After that he landed a publicity job with the international division of Monogram Pictures (before it became Allied Artists). In 1955, like many other budding film historians of the day, he went to work for producer Paul Killiam. First working on the tail end of a 15-minute Movie Museum TV series, he then moved on to help develop and write the Silents Please show.

In the meantime, he became active in an informal film society that had been started by others, including Theodore Huff, the film historian who wrote the definitive book on Chaplin. It met once a month and specialized in silents and early talkies. Everson also began his film collection with the $90 purchase of Mal St. Clair’s delightful comedy, Are Parents People? (1925). (To buy it, he saved his money by going on a diet of peanut butter and bread.)

The film society, which had a membership of 20-30 lost its access to its original, free screening rooms and was forced to expand. Over a period of months it changed its locale often, once even screening (appropriately) in a psychiatric institution. In 1954, Ted Huff died and the society was named after him. But when a lawsuit for illegally showing Ecstacy (the Hedy Lamarr skin flick) forced the society to close down. The founding members were wary of trying to continue after the suit was settled, so Everson took charge and has been running it ever since.

But now, after 20 years, the Huff Society is in danger of closing up shop, or, as seems more likely, going back to the once a month screenings of earlier days (it currently screens weekly). Everson has just found the Huff too much of a burden. He also feels that it is not needed as much as it once was, seeing how the number of revival houses have proliferated. The last program before the fatal decision is made will feature Johnnie Walker in Captain Fly By Night (1923), directed by William K. Howard. (Everson’s real name is Keith William Everson and was changed around in honor of Mr. Howard.)

Everson characterizes the society’s hard core following as consisting of the serious film students, who will see almost anything from a masterpiece to an obscure footnote to film history. And a group which he loosely terms “losers.” These are the escapists “who sort of look back on the period in which they were themselves fairly happy and optimistic. It had been the best period of their lives. And they seem to relive that period through the films of that time.”

Among the visitors to the Huff there have been such varied personae as filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Radley Metzger, as well as every film historian in the area. Plus an assortment of old time film stars and directors who drop in to see their films.

Everson’s own opinions are not what would be considered to be in the main stream of critical thought. His taste is heavily weighted by an affection for the sentimental, for Westerns and for Musicals, all which is common among British critics. He also harbors a special liking for action-packed “B” films. If he had been born earlier, Everson confesses, he might have enjoyed working on such films during the 1930’s, when one could operate with considerable freedom within certain limits. However, he has no ambitions to make a personal statement.

Even as a child, he admits, he always had a liking for older movies. And unless it’s a film by a director he likes (e.g., John Ford or Hitchcock) Everson only sees new films he knows his students will surely see — like A Clockwork Orange.

“Of the new directors, I’m very fond of Truffaut because he veers more towards the older style of filmmaking. I just don’t like directors such as Godard who are totally self-indulgent[, who] don’t care whether they are using film as well as they should. They expect the audience to understand their films without giving them clues to work at.”

Today’s movie critics, he finds shockingly ignorant of film history. “They don’t seem to realize that almost anything in film builds on something that came 20 or 30 years before. In some cases it might be a tremendous improvement. In other cases it might be quite a letdown.”

Asked whether he had any pet peeves, Everson comments that there is a total lack of fun in moviegoing today. Theater personnel such as ushers and ticket sellers lack courtesy. Projection is often sloppy and the management does nothing to correct it. And the audiences, he adds, “are so attuned to watching films on TV at home, they behave the same way.” As he feels much of the enjoyment of going out to the movies is in the pleasure of being catered to, there just isn’t much fun left.

No wonder Bill Everson prefers his apartment on 79th Street — police surveillance and all.

As we go to press Bill Everson has decided to continue the Huff Society, through the summer, on a weekly basis. Meetings will be every Monday at 7:30 p.m. on the 18th floor of Academy Hall, 853 Broadway (at 14th Street). Beginning in the fall, meetings will be monthly. Seating is limited and there’s a contribution of $1.00. P. J.

Recovered Memories

His Girl FridayI have always been intrigued by what may be called the prehistory of cinema and animation studies. It is not uncommon to look back on the history of film criticism and history to look mainly at books and magazines, of which there were precious few dealing with film in the US through the 1950s. However, an active, if rather fugitive film culture did exist around the film society movement and, in animation, around festivals, as well as at archival/museum screenings. It is a culture which helped laid the groundwork for the establishment of cinema studies in the United States, heralded by the founding of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies in 1959.

I thought of this when I saw David Bordwell’s posting last month on Howard Hawks’  His Girl Friday (1940) (see above), which he considers a classic piece of filmmaking; while I’m not as enamored of this version of  Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play, The Front Page, but his description of how the film and Hawks’ reputation was snatched from obscurity did catch my attention. In it, he makes some rather reasonable claims, which I think need to be qualified.

For instance, Bordwell claims that,

Hawks the Artist is a creation of the 1960s. Before that, American film historians almost completely ignored him. Andrew Sarris often reminds us that he’s absent from Lewis Jacobs’ Rise of the American Film (1939), but he’s also missing from Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art (1957), the most popular survey history of its day. Apart from press releases and reviews of individual films, there were few discussions of Hawks in American newspapers and magazines. The most famous piece is probably Manny Farber’s “Underground Movies” of 1957, which treats Hawks along with other hard-boiled directors like Wellman and Mann.

From the start, Hawks was more appreciated in France. There film historians acknowledged A Girl in Every Port (1928), in part because of the presence of Louise Brooks, and they usually flagged Scarface (1932) as well, which they could see and Americans couldn’t.

He feels that Hawks’ modern reputation started with “Jacques Rivette’s ‘The Genius of Howard Hawks’ in Cahiers du cinéma in 1953.” That may very well be the case, but to say that Hawks was ignored by American film historians is only partly true. I say this not to contradict Bordwell’s review of Hawks literature in the United States, but to point out that he ignores the very real reputation Hawks had among the cadre of historians and film fans that centered around the all-important Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society in New York.

The Huff Society, where I started going to when I was in high school around 1956, was run by William K. (“Bill”) Everson, a British high school dropout who was already on his way to becoming one of America’s most important film collectors; he ended up a professor of Cinema Studies at New York University, wrote several popular books on film history, and was involved with preparing a number of silent films for TV broadcast.

The type of people who attended the Huff Society’s screenings was a mixed bag, ranging from the teenaged Leonard Maltin to intellectual-in-waiting Susan Sontag (often accompanied by film critic and historian Carlos Clarens), and sometimes even Andrew Sarris. The Society was part of small but active film society scene in New York that also included  Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16, Gideon Bachmann’s Group for Film Study (which published the pioneering Cinemages journal), and campus groups, such as one at Fordham University,  in addition to screenings at the Museum of Modern Art.

Though my collection of Huff Society program notes, which included occasional critical filmographies of directors such as Lewis Milestone (who made the first screen version of The Front Page), was lost some time ago, I am certain they included more than a few Hawks films. No, Everson did not screen Scarface, but the film was certainly admired by many in attendance, along with films such as The Dawn Patrol (1930), The Crowd Roars (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Only Angels Have Wings (1939) , some of which were occasionally screened. (Remember, the early 50s saw the wholesale release of Hollywood’s pre-1948 backlog to TV, which allowed Everson to program many of these films.)

It is understandable that Bordwell would overlook what might seem like fugitive contributions to film scholarship, but they were an important part of my cinematic education. And I think there are perhaps a few others who might also agree.

Malvin Wald

Slavko Vorkapitch and Malvin Wald at the University of Southern California, 1950Screenwriter Malvin Wald died last Thursday, March 6, in Sherman Oaks, California, at age 90. I first got to know him casually when I was a student at the University of Southern California’s Cinema Department, where he taught part time. (He is pictured at left in 1950 while visiting USC with the legendary Slavko Vorkapitch, who is seated.) I got to know him better when, in 1981, I did research for his screenplay for Hollywood Local, a documentary on the history of Hollywood trade unions, which unfortunately never got produced. (It did however form the basis of a traveling photo exhibit.)

He had gained fame for co-writing Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1949). which gained him an Oscar nomination, which spawned the whole genre of police procedurals, though most of his subsequent credits were for TV dramas; by the time I got to know him, he was heavily involved in documentaries, whose credits seem to be absent from his obituaries. As an active member of the Writers Guild of America, West, on whose board he served, Hollywood Local was right up his alley. As I was then getting involved in writing my history of early animation unions, I felt I had found a kindred spirit.

I later asked him to serve on my dissertation committee and he eagerly agreed. After I gave him a draft, he called to say that he had just finished reading the section on Dan Glass, an animation artist whose death from TB was a crucial event in leading up to the 1937 Fleischer strike. He was so taken with it that he wanted to work with me on a screenplay based on Glass’ story. I was flattered and protested that I wasn’t a scriptwriter; but after he pooh-poohed my claim, saying I was obviously a good writer and could easily write a script, I said yes.

Unfortunately, the project never went anywhere, and it turned out he was ineligible to serve on my dissertation committee, but we continued to keep in touch. Thus, when I was offered an option on a novel, I turned to him for advice; then, when script work started to dry up, he called me when he started writing magazine articles about film.

What I most remember about Malvin Wald was that he was a real mensch, whose passion for workers’ rights and whose commitment to help students like me was the real thing. I also fondly recall his good humor and lack of pretension. (An early memory was seeing him a USC banquet wearing a tux and his ubiquitous running shoes.) I’m sorry I lost touch with him later on, but his friendship is something I will always value.