I am often asked, “What is your favorite movie?” And my reply always is, “I can’t answer that. I don’t have one favorite movie.” For instance if I was asked, what is my favorite Bette Davis movie, I would answer, ALL ABOUT EVE, THE LITTLE FOXES and NOW, VOYAGER. You see, even there I can’t pin it down to one selection. Or what is my favorite Hitchcock movie? SHADOW OF A DOUBT, VERTIGO and PSYCHO. James Cagney? YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME and WHITE HEAT. Barbara Stanwyck? BABY FACE and STELLA DALLAS. Joan Crawford? POSSESSED (the second one), MILDRED PIERCE and A WOMAN’S FACE. Jean Harlow? DINNER AT EIGHT, RED-HEADED WOMAN, LIBELED LADY and BOMBSHELL. Frank Capra? MEET JOHN DOE and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Judy Garland? A STAR IS BORN, FOR ME AND MY GAL and I COULD GO ON SINGING. Billy Wilder? SUNSET BOULEVARD and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. William Wyler? Everything except THE CHILDREN’S HOUR. Get the picture?
Now I would have no difficulty responding to the question, “What movie has most affected your life?” That one’s easy. GONE WITH THE WIND. To explain we have to rewind to the spring of 1940. I was a sixteen year old junior in high school in Mason City, Iowa. I’m glad the word “nerd” had not yet been invented, because I have to admit, I probably was one. The report cards in my school did not grade the usual A, B, C, D. F. It graded by percentage. The highest grade attainable was 99, and that was the only grade I found acceptable. That junior year I was the editor, under the tutelage of my English teacher, Elizabeth Graves, of the weekly high school page in the Saturday edition of the Mason City Globe Gazette. Do I seem to be wandering off course? Bear with me. David O. Selznick’s GONE WITH THE WIND had been released on a road show basis the previous year. That spring it finally arrived in Mason City, and I stayed out of school one day to go with my mother to a matinee showing of the film. Somehow Miss Graves found out why I was absent from her class that day, and when the final report cards for the year came out, my grade for the last quarter in English was 95. After that it was good-bye Miss Graves and bye-bye to the editorship of the weekly school page. I told you I was a nerd.
Fast forward to the next year, my senior year in high school. Without the added activity of the editorship, I was at loose ends, and I wanted something to replace it. Tryouts for the senior class play, SEVEN SISTERS, were announced. I thought–why not! So I went to the tryouts. Now if this was the movies, I would have been cast in the leading role, had a rousing success, and that would have been the beginning of my theatrical aspirations. But this wasn’t the movies. This was midwest Iowa in the stone age. I didn’t get cast at all. But I was determined to be involved, so I became the assistant to the director, Myrtle Oulman. Miss Oulman was a petite blond who directed all of the plays at the high school in addition to teaching Psychology in the junior college. For the next few weeks I, pencil poised over a thick yellow tablet, sat next to Miss Oulman in the auditorium as she directed, never taking her eyes off the stage. If she saw something to be corrected, she quietly stated it, and it was my job to write it down; by the end of a rehearsal I would have voluminous pages of hastily, but carefully scrawled notes. Later on stage she would gather the cast around her, and I would read back those notes. She would then discuss the correction to be made with the involved actors, many times acting out the bit she was criticizing. She was meticulous; nothing escaped her notice. I was totally fascinated with the whole procedure. Oh, and by the way, as we neared the performance date, and I don’t remember why, she fired one of the boys in the cast, the one playing the slightly retarded servant. Guess who ended up playing that part?
The following year I enrolled in Mason City Junior College as a freshman. I was determined to continue my new attraction to theatre, so for a small token fee applied to my tuition, I became Miss Oulman’s assistant for ALL of the high school productions that year: the Junior class play, the Senior class play and the All School play. During this time I learned more about Miss Oulman. She told me that she was a graduate of Yale Drama School, that at the time of her graduation Dixie Willson, sister of Meredith Willson and a noted author herself, was impressed with Miss Oulman’s talent and wanted to take her to New York and help her launch a career as an actress on Broadway. But her father would not hear of that. “If you go to New York to be an actress, do not darken this doorstep again!” She said he actually said that. Broadway’s loss was my gain.
There was a dramatic club in the college, Wig and Masque, which I immediately joined. We met monthly and discussed plays or watched one-act plays performed by fellow members. By the spring of 1942 I was sufficiently emboldened to direct a production. What play did I select for my virgin effort — a one-acter, GLORIA MUNDI, a stark drama about a girl confined to an insane asylum. At the end of the play the girl discovers that she is not insane, it is the hospital staff that is insane. Upstage center there was a door covered by a curtain. She rushes upstage to escape, pulls aside the curtain to find a blank wall. There is no escape. Blackout! Just the kind of material an eighteen-year-old novice should attempt on his maiden voyage. The day after the presentation I remember standing in Miss Oulman’s classroom, just the two of us, and she said, “You could be a director.” My response: “Oh, I could never do that.”
At the end of the school year Miss Oulman left her job to get married, and I left for Coe College the following fall to pursue a music major. I joined the R.O.T.C. and six months later was called up for active duty. (World War II was being waged — remember?) And now it’s time for some fast forwarding. Twenty-eight months later I was in a Replacement Depot in Europe; the war was finally over, and I was waiting to be reassigned to an occupation unit in Germany. I remember one day sitting in the barracks with someone whose name I think was John, and he was talking about his family, farmers in Missouri. He knew they were expecting him to return after he was discharged to take over the running of the farm. His problem? That was not what he really wanted to do for the rest of his life. I, in the infinite wisdom of my twenty-two years said, “Then you shouldn’t do it. You have only one life to live. You have to decide what that life is going to be.” After our conversation was over, I remember lying on my bunk and thinking, “You’re awfully willing to give free advice; when are you going to start taking some of that advice yourself?” Six months later when I returned home after my discharge from the army, I announced to my parents I was going to apply under the G.I. bill for enrollment in the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre. And that’s what I did. And here I am. And I owe it all to Miss Graves and GONE WITH THE WIND.
The journey begins