The scene: Avenue of the Stars, Century City.
The characters: A few older men in a Park Hyatt suite.
The action: They kibbitz
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is here from Atlanta to interview Golden Age Hollywood figures for an oral history, the Turner Classic Movies Archive Project. TCM’s goal is to get all available witnesses to tell their cinematic stories. The project is modeled after the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
"Not to be morbid, but there’s something rejoicing in both projects," explained Tom Karsch, executive vice-president and general manager of TCM. "Here we have an opportunity to talk to people about one of the most exciting times in our country’s history — from the silent period to the way movies are made today."
Project leader Alexa Foreman has talked to everyone from June Allyson to Elmer Bernstein, Haskell Wexler to Shelley Winters. The interviews are employed as clips to tickle and teach viewers during TCM film festivals.
"Child actresses, stunt guys, make-up people, coaches, composers, producers," Foreman said, reeling off her subjects.
"There’s a sense of urgency that this is the right thing to do," added Karsch. "We’ve already lost over 40 of the 221 people," most recently Stanley Kramer and Gwen Verdon. Newest interviewees this spring include screenwriter Irving Brecher, who wrote two Marx Brothers films and "Bye Bye Birdie," and Haskell Wexler, cinematographer for "Coming Home," "Medium Cool," "In The Heat of the Night," "The Muse Concert: No Nukes" and other amazing features and documentaries.
Meanwhile, alive and kibbitzing today are screenwriters Bernard Gordon ("Krakatoa, East of Java"), Philip Yordan ("El Cid") and Sidney Sheldon ("Easter Parade"). A bunch of storytellers sitting around talking. What’s better than that? Forty years ago Gordon and Yordan shared lives in Spain where they wrote as front and blacklisted screenwriter. Gordon shows off a book out called "Hollywood Exile: How I Learned to Love the Blacklist."
"It’s ironic but true," he explains. "Because when I escaped and went to Europe, I finally became a success."
Then Yordan shows off a quote attributed to him on the back cover: "Everything Bernie writes about me is untrue, but I found the book fascinating."
Sidney Sheldon describes the films he first wrote. "I can’t even call them B pictures," he jokes. "They were Z pictures."
"Eventually I wrote a story called ‘Suddenly It’s Spring,’ and David Selznick hired me to write the screenplay. One day he called me in and he said, I’m changing the title. And I said, to what, sir? He said, ‘The Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer.’ And because I knew so much about show business, I said, Mr. Selznick, sir, nobody is going to pay to see a picture called ‘The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.’ So it opened at Radio City Music Hall, I got an Oscar and that’s how much I know about show business."
Gordon tells project interviewer Maureen Corley how he came out to L.A. from the Bronx with 16 bucks.
"I worked for the famous Jack Warner," he relates. "Warner called writers ‘schmucks with typewriters.’"
"By the time [the anti-Communist hearings] got to me," he explains, "it was sort of the bottom of the barrel of Hollywood. I was never called. They told me to stand by. Maybe I’m still standing by."
Unable to work, Gordon became what he calls, "the world’s worst plastics salesman" in downtown L.A. His boss was his friend, Ray Marcus. Gordon put "Raymond T. Marcus" on "Hellcats of the Navy" in 1957, and half a dozen other scripts.
Then he moved to Spain, where Yordan had a home, and together they created "The Day of the Triffids" (1962), "55 Days at Peking" (1963), "Circus World" (1964), and "Battle of the Bulge" (1965). Yordan also won an Oscar for writing "Broken Lance," a 1954 western with Spencer Tracy.
The next behind-the-camera contender is producer Armand Deutsch. A dapper 87, Deutsch is wearing a sharp blue suit set off by gold eagle cufflinks. He also carries his book "Me and Bogey."
"I’m thinking I could have a romance with Lana Turner and come back to New York," says Deutsch about why he came out from Wall Street to Hollywood 60 years ago. Deutsch regales interviewer Foreman with stories in a gentlemanly cultured timbre that will play grandly to the classic movie crowd.
"What does a producer do?" Foreman asks.
"I don’t know," Deutsch says. "But we’re all here. A producer gets them all together. I was prepared to do every part of picture making. Compared to today, it was kind of a snap."
Gordon says he’s on his way to the University of Wisconsin. "I am planning to donate my scripts and documents to them," he tells Yordan. "I’d like to get a script from you."
"Whatever you want Bernie," says his pal.
At the end of the day, Yordan will go back to La Jolla in a limo. Gordon lives near the hotel. And TCM packs up another collection of memories and old men whose work will live forever as classics.
"There’s nothing more enlightening than hearing it from somebody who was there," says Karsch. "These people are living history."
The interviews go to the Margaret Herrick Library at the Center for Motion Picture Study on South La Cienega, "in a climate-controlled vault," notes Corley. TCM and the Peabody Library at the University of Georgia also get copies.
Got time for one more? Here’s Sidney Sheldon on Groucho Marx:
"Groucho was probably my closest friend. Godfather to my daughter. I’ll tell you what people didn’t realize about Groucho: he meant what he said. And people took it as a joke. One night we had a dinner date. Both our wives were actresses, and they got a call to be on the set the next day. So I called Groucho and I said, it’s just the two of us, and he said, how do you want me to dress? I said, well, dress nicely, I don’t want to be ashamed of you. When I picked him up, he was wearing his wife’s dress with a little hat, high-heeled shoes and smoking a cigar. He invited me in, but what he forgot was that some people from CBS were coming over to talk to him about a show. So they walk in. I ran into one a couple days later and I said, what did you think? And he said if it had been anyone but Groucho, he would have been very worried. Groucho was unique and wonderful."
For the seventh consecutive year in March, Turner Classic Movies presents 31 Days of Oscar, a festival of 346 films that have won or been nominated for Academy Awards. TCM host and Oscar expert Robert Osborne and turnerclassicmovies. com ( left above) guide viewers through Oscar’s greatest moments.