Leonard Maltin, a highly respected film critic and historian, loves movies. So much so that he’s been writing about them since he was barely a teenager. In his new book, Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom, Maltin anthologizes a collection of articles he’s written and interviews he’s conducted throughout his life as a movie lover. Maltin recently spoke to Scoop about the book’s content, his goals for the project, what drives him to research and study film, and he shares some anecdotes from his career.
Scoop: I’ve really been enjoying the book. I’m a movie buff so learning about this important period in film history has been very interesting.
Leonard Maltin (LM): It represents a learning experience for me, from my teenage years on to the present day. So if somebody reacted the way you just described it couldn’t make me happier.
Scoop: What specifically draws you to the early years of film?
LM: I got swept up by all of that because I’m a child of the first TV generation. In the 1950s and ’60s, television was a living museum of movies. You didn’t have to go seeking out old movies, they were everywhere. What did they show for children’s entertainment every day, as well as every Saturday? Old cartoons, old comedy shorts. That was the fodder. I found myself inexorably drawn to them. Added to that, was the fact that Walt Disney was hosting his own weekly TV show then, which he did for 11 years. So here was an actual person representing the history of animation, for sure, and so much more. He took us behind the scenes, which satisfied my curiosity about how they did that, when did they do that. I responded to all of that with great enthusiasm.
Scoop: Is that your favorite film era?
LM: Well, most of what I was watching – Laurel and Hardy, The Little Rascals – everyday were from the 1930s, so I got steeped in that and then also got hooked on silent movies. In those days I collected silent movies in the 8mm movie format. So that would be my go-to for birthday presents and the like. I would save my money to buy more of that kind of thing. People who thought it was unusual, I used to say, “Well some kids get hooked on a sport and they can memorize and recite for you stats of baseball players or football players. This is what I do.”
Scoop: Do you still have those silent films on 8mm?
LM: Yes, I do. I’m a bit of a pack rat. I can’t justify saving them for any reason but sentimental value.
Scoop: What was your goal for this book while you were putting it together?
LM: I wanted to share some of these articles and interviews that I’d never anthologized before, that people hadn’t seen. Unless you’re old enough to have been a subscriber to my fanzine back in the ’60s and ’70s. I do meet friends and acquaintances who are. But unless you were around back then, they vanished into the ether. I thought that some of this stuff was still relevant.
Scoop: How did you decide what to include in the book?
LM: First, things that I hadn’t used before in other compilations and then the pieces I thought that still held up. I discussed, briefly, why I didn’t include my first film interview, which was with a popular comedic leading man named Eddie Bracken from the ’40s. He was my first in person celebrity interview. He starred in two immortal Preston Sturges comedies – Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. I waited at the stage door of the Broadway show that he was appearing in to try to meet him – and I did. He couldn’t have been nicer, but it’s not a very good interview. Partly because I was young and inexperienced, I have to take the hit there. I only had a few days to prepare and I’d seen just a couple of his movies. You have to remember – this makes me sound so old – but this was before IMDB and before the internet. So whatever research I was doing, I had to do on my own with no access to the actual films or prints. All the lists, all the filmographies, I had to build myself, from scratch. That was the way it was. And I didn’t know how to ask follow-up questions. In a way, reading these pieces chronologically, which is how must of the interviews are organized, is a key to my education.
Scoop: What are some of the important things you’ve learned about how to conduct good interviews?
LM: The biggest favor anyone ever did for me, I think, professionally, I didn’t see as a favor at first. I was a great fan of a local popular New York radio station named WNAW. They played what today would be considered middle of the road pop. They had very entertaining personalities. They weren’t just disc jockeys. They played music but they also spieled and told stories and had guests in the studio. I was a big fan of the station and I wrote to their PR director who couldn’t have been nicer. I was 13 and he opened the door for me as if I was a professional, working journalist. I’ve met an awful lot of kind people, and he was one of them.
So, he let me and my partner at the time spend a whole day at the station. He let me interview their various personalities and see how everything operated. I read the bio of one of their afternoon guys and it said that he collected 16mm films. So, when it came time to interview him, we turned on our little tape recorder, and I started babbling. I said, “I see that you collect 16mm.” He said yes. I said, “That’s funny because I collect 8mm films, I hope to move to 16mm at some time. It’s too expensive right now, but I hope to get there because I know the quality is better.” I was prattling on and he said, not rudely, but he said to me pointedly, “Is this interview about you or me?” Well, it kind of stung when he said it. He did me a lifelong favor. I’ve never forgotten that it’s not about me, it’s about them. I’ve done a lot of moderating of panels and Q&As and I’ve seen other people do it. I’ve seen far too many who could learn that lesson.
Scoop: It’s an important one to know.
LM: It really is. [laughs] Sometimes it gets embarrassing when you listen to someone else and they’re going on and on.
Scoop: Content in this book goes back to when you were a teenager. How did you start learning more information about movies when you were that age?
LM: My big ally then was local television. I was fortunate to live just outside Manhattan, so I had access to the revival theaters there ‒ there were several full-time revival theaters. They were great. I would spend almost every weekend there, including at the Museum of Modern Art, which had daily film screenings. Also, local TV, at least in the New York area, was packed with old movies – night and day. The better stations didn’t cut them to smithereens, they showed them fairly intact. It’s not the ideal way to watch a movie, but a way to have access at a time that was long before home video and certainly longer before the internet. When I was in junior high school and high school there were nights that I would force myself to go to sleep early and set the alarm for 2:15 AM and try to wake up and watch a movie I couldn’t see otherwise. Then I’d try to get back to sleep to be at least, somewhat, coherent at school the next day. Those were the extremes and it wasn’t just me, a lot of friends were the same. This is what you had to do, you had very few options. There was no such thing as TCM in those days.
Scoop: We are definitely spoiled these days with the accessibility of movies.
LM: Yes, and I don’t think some people realize how lucky they are, as opposed to earlier generations who had to just wait on the off chance that a film might show up in a local theater or revival house.
Scoop: What drives you to research all the facets of filmmaking and examine the behind the scenes events and processes?
LM: I just got interested. I guess I had higher than normal curiosity about what made movies tick. The first book I ever took out of my local public library, there weren’t that many books to go to – again all of this makes me sound old [laughs] – but the first book I took out was Mack Sennett’s autobiography called King of Comedy. He was the man who discovered Charlie Chaplin, who invented the Keystone Cops, who practically invented silent film comedy. I read the book, and fell in love with it, and took it out again and read it again. I couldn’t get enough. I later learned that he was somewhat of a fanciful storyteller. You couldn’t take everything he said literally, some you couldn’t take seriously at all. What he did do is capture the spirit of the era and the way things worked in the broadest sense, the impromptu nature of silent comedy, in LA, especially. It was very romantic too. It’s about his all-time love affair with his leading lady Mable Normand. They later turned that into a Broadway musical called Mack and Mabel, which I saw and which they tried to improve several times over the decades since it played on Broadway. They never get the book just right. The songs are wonderful, but I keep thinking, go back to the book – it’s all there. He was passionate about her, but he was also serially unfaithful – it was a bad combination. But, it makes for good drama, good storytelling. There’s been talk of a movie in the past, but no one has ever quite done it. But that became my all-time favorite book. I got to learn that it was not to be taken at surface value. That made me curious to know more about the silent movie era. I read everything I could about Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton. As some of these books were coming out, I was seeing them as they were new. When my library acquired them, I’d be first in line to take them home and then I play by the rules, I’d return them and then once I had legitimately returned them, I would take them out again so I could read them once more. It’s all about curiosity.
Scoop: We’re you tempted to edit material for the book to accommodate your current expertise?
LM: No, I pretty much left them alone. I made a few factual corrections – there weren’t too many, thank goodness, but there were a few that had to be made. I put a new introductory paragraph in front of each one just to give it some sort of modern day context and explain how the interview came about.
Scoop: You took over publishing Film Fan Monthly when you were 15. Was it a daunting task?
LM: It didn’t seem that way to me. It was the most exciting thing I could be doing. School suddenly became kind of a nuisance that got in the way. [laughs] It was all I ate, slept, and breathed every day. I had to be careful because teachers would, sometimes, catch me doodling in my notebook instead of paying attention to math and science ‒ which didn’t interest me at all and which I reckoned wouldn’t be a part of my life at all. I wasn’t wrong there.
Scoop: Casablanca is such a great movie, so I was excited to see an article on it in the book. Did learning all the intricacies of the soundtrack and how it came to be cloud your appreciation of the movie or enhance it?
LM: It enhances it. It’s not like dissecting a frog and killing it in the process, which is how somebody once described analyzing comedy. I don’t feel that way, I feel that it makes it more interesting. I’ve seen that film so many times and yet I never thought about all the music I was hearing. If I could make that discovery after so many viewings of the film, I thought that was worth pursuing. So, I did. I was learning and so I hope the reader learns along with me.
Scoop: One of the subjects in the book is on movie remakes. Modern audiences often complain that remakes are due to a lack of new ideas, but in your book, you wrote about a ton of remakes done in early film. What was the attitude about remakes like back then?
LM: I don’t know what the attitude was, that’s a good question. I think they were taken on a case by case basis. As soon as talkies came in, silent films were kind of thought of as antiques. This could’ve been just three years ago, but an awful lot of people remade their own films and sometimes made other people’s films, just because they could do it now with dialogue and reach, presumably, a new audience. I think the overall answer is that it was accepted to the point where looking back now, in some cases, we know the talkie better than the silent or the silent might not even exist.
Scoop: How surreal was it hanging out with these Hollywood legends when you were a teenager?
LM: Oh well, it’s hard to put into words. One of the tricks, if you want to call it a trick, is to act cool [laughs] to not let it show that you’re impressed or overwhelmed. I make it clear that I’m a fan and sometimes someone will say to me, “How do you know this stuff?” and I say, “Well as I told you I’m really into this, this is serious stuff to me.” They don’t always believe it until you sort of prove yourself. Obviously, I was nervous and intimidated on many occasions and there were other people that were so warm and welcoming that they take that out of the equation.
Scoop: Are there any interviews that standout either because you were so excited to talk to the person or for their answers?
LM: What I found, oddly, I interviewed some stars, but I found that often the costars, character actors, people on the sidelines in some cases, had more interesting stories and more interesting perspective because the spotlight was not on them. They had a different vantage point. When I interviewed Burgess Meredith, I was very young when I talked to him, barely 20. It turns out he was more than an actor, he was producer, occasional director, intelligent and inquisitive man who had a lot to say. He was also very involved in theater, he had a broad perspective. And he loved to talk – what a blessing.
Scoop: I imagine it was really fun talking to Burgess Meredith.
LM: Oh, he was great.
Scoop: Since the material in this book is an anthology from across your career does it feel like a bit of a professional memoir?
LM: I guess it is. I guess it is. I don’t reveal very much about me, personally, that’s a good term a professional memoir. From the time I was both a kid and an amateur to more recent days when I can call myself a professional.
Scoop: With other material that hasn’t seen print yet, would you consider doing another book like this with articles and interviews from your fanzine and website?
LM: I think there’s some stuff that if demand is such we can produce a sequel – to use a movie term.
Scoop: Hooked on Hollywood Part II.
LM: [laughs] It’s too early to think of titles.
Scoop: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk to me about the book and your experiences.
LM: My pleasure. I’m a fan of Scoop. I look forward to it every week.
To read a review of Hooked on Hollywood, check out our In the Limelight section of Scoop.