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Movie Beginnings: First Came the Words

December 01, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

A udiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.

--William Holden, playing a screenwriter in "Sunset Boulevard," written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D. M. Marshman Jr.

When that line was delivered by William Holden in the 1950 classic, screenwriters probably did worry about actors taking credit for their work. Today, directors take most of the bows.

People in the business know better, but just in case there is sudden amnesia among the producers and distribution companies with whom the Writers Guild of America is about to begin contract negotiations, a nonprofit arm of the union has produced "Words," a 13-minute theatrical reminder.

I made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

--Marlon Brando, "The Godfather," written by Mario Puzo.

"Words," edited by Oscar-winning film maker Chuck Workman, features scenes and lines of dialogue from more than 200 movies and TV shows. It is now playing with "Whales of August" in the Westside Pavilion, with more venues to be added.

Like "Precious Images," the 6-minute short Workman made last year on the eve of the Directors Guild of America's contract negotiations, "Words" serves the dual purpose of entertainment and propaganda.

"We saw 'Precious Images,' sure," said Melville Shavelson, president of the sponsoring nonprofit Writers Guild Foundation. "That was great for directors, but they're not the only ones who make films. . . . We don't want to hit people over the head with it, but we want to remind people that somebody wrote these things."

Indeed they have, and do. It is axiomatic in Hollywood that no great movie ever gets made from a bad script, yet how easily writers are forgotten.

Here's looking at you, kid.

--Humphrey Bogart, "Casablanca," written by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, from an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.

At this year's Academy Awards show, Steven Spielberg put it all in perspective. The source was ironic, but the sentiments correct:

"In all the romance with technology and our excitement in exploring all the possibilities of film and video, I think we partially lost something that we now have to reclaim. I think it's time to renew our romance with the word."

What a dump!

--Bette Davis, "Beyond the Forest," written by Lenore Coffee, from a novel by Stuart Engstrandt.

What a dump!

--Elizabeth Taylor, quoting Bette Davis in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," written by Ernest Lehman, from the play by Edward Albee.

Workman, who won his Oscar last year for "Precious Images," is turning film compilation into a fraternal art. He followed "Precious Images" with a 20-minute short celebrating the 75th anniversary of Paramount Pictures and will next do a 3-minute piece called "Great Moments in Movies" for an attraction at Walt Disney World in Florida.

For "Words," Workman said he started by compiling lists that included his own favorite lines of movie dialogue as well as films that won Oscar, guild and other awards for their writers. He then began culling through the 700 films on his list.

Workman said "Words" was much harder to do than "Precious Images," despite being twice as long. He said "Precious Images" was done in virtual strobe-like fashion--he used twice as many scenes in half as much time--to give audiences a sense of the joy of movies. "Words" has to communicate a sense of creation.

"I was trying to keep the length short and at the same time build emotional colors. . . . The shots had to be four or five seconds even in the short sections to give you a feeling of what they're saying."

Is this the end of Rico?

--Edward G. Robinson in "Little Caesar," written by Francis Faragoh and Robert E. Lee, from the novel by W. R. Burnett.

"Words" is bound to create some hearty debate among movie buffs, who will bemoan the absence of their own favorite lines and criticize the format that Workman chose. There are the obvious one-liners--Clint Eastwood's "Make my day," Oliver Hardy's "Here's another fine mess you've gotten us into"--but few complete set-ups and replies.

There is one nice 1-minute stretch where Workman had a narrator read descriptive prose from such scripts as "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Godfather" and "MASH" while the actual scenes appear on the screen.

But without that segment, and the periodic presence of typewriters being pounded, audiences might still believe the actors--or directors--made it up as they went along.

You ever been in love?

No, I've been a bartender all my life.

--Exchange between Henry Fonda, as Wyatt Earp, and J. Farrell MacDonald, as Mac the Bartender, in "My Darling Clementine," written by Samuel Engel and Winston Miller, from Stuart Lake's novel "Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall."

There is also the frustration for friends of the written word where merely the last line--sometimes the last word--of wonderfully written scenes are used. They are reminders of great scenes, rather than great writing.

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