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Ah, Yes, They Recall It Well

In a race against time, Turner Classic Movies seeks out veterans of the golden age of movies.

November 26, 2000|HANK ROSENFELD | Hank Rosenfeld is a journalist and humorist who also works in radio and theater

A few old men in a Park Hyatt suite in Century City. They kibitz . . .

Yordan: We went to New York, Bernie.

Gordon: Where'd you stay? Your favorite place, the Automat?

Yordan: No, that place where they chain the ashtrays to the table. The Mildew Plaza.

What could be the opening of a new Neil Simon-something is a coupla screenwriters sitting around noshing, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. TCM has invited Bernard Gordon ("Krakatoa, East of Java," "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," etc.), Philip Yordan ("Johnny Guitar," "El Cid," etc.), Sidney Sheldon ("Easter Parade," "Annie Get Your Gun," etc.) and other figures from the golden age of Hollywood to sit for an oral history project.

"Child actresses, stunt guys, makeup people, composers, producers," reels off archive project leader Alexa Foreman. Her crew from TCM headquarters in Atlanta has more than 200 Hollywood survivors archived so far.

From June Allyson to Elmer Bernstein, Billy Barty to Shelley Winters, the interviews are employed as clips to tickle and teach viewers during TCM "film festivals." She says that Turner's vast film library includes everything from RKO, and all pre-1986 movies from MGM and pre-1948 from Warner Bros.

"These people are living history," says Tom Karsch, executive vice president and general manager of TCM. "I'd loved to have been able to pick George S. Kaufman's brain. Or Mark Twain's. There's nothing more enlightening than hearing it from somebody who was there."

"We create a relaxed environment for them," says Foreman in a Holly Hunter Southern accent that can immediately ease an octogenarian sitting for an hour under the lights. With the project since it began in 1994, she makes two trips a year to this hall of bedrooms on the 14th floor. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle, the way all these people connect. You see it when they run into each other. They bring their families too."

Indeed, Phil Yordan's wife, Faith, and daughters Phyllis and Julie are here, as is Bernie Gordon's daughter Ellen, sharing lunch on couches in the plush hotel. Forty years ago, they shared lives in Spain, where Yordan and Gordon wrote, as front and blacklisted screenwriter, respectively. Yordan calls Gordon "Bernie," Bernie calls Yordan "Yordan."

"I got $2,000 a week, two cars, a vacation in St. Moritz," Gordon reminisces.

"That was big money back then," Yordan says.

"Thus, the title of my book, 'Hollywood Exile: How I Learned to Love the Blacklist,' " Gordon plows ahead. "It's ironic but true, because when I escaped and went to Europe, I finally became a success."

Ahh, the times they had: Scenarists in Madrid! Drinking with [screenwriter] Paul Jarrico in Paris!

"My paperback is due out in December," Gordon wants us to know. "That will keep the cost down for students using it in their courses."

Yordan shows off a quote attributed to him on the back cover: "Everything Gordon writes about me is untrue, but I found the book fascinating."

A bunch of storytellers sitting around talking. What's better than that? "Makeup artists and costume designers often are the best storytellers," says TCM's Karsch. Like makeup man Ben Lane, now in his 80s and wearing a neat blue cardigan as he emerges from the bedroom-studio. The hotel towers over the 20th Century Fox lot, where gofers on bicycles dart between buildings down below. Looking out of the window, Lane says, "My first picture at Fox was 'Dawn's Early Light.'

"I was director of makeup at Columbia Pictures," he says by way of introducing himself to Gordon. He says he's done Cary Grant in "Gunga Din," all the "Guys and Dolls," the people in "Oklahoma!" and even "Annie." Gordon and Lane trade a Marlene Dietrich joke, something about how she came back after her 15 years away and told the makeup man, "How come I don't look the same?" And he said, "Miss Dietrich, I've aged 15 years."

*

Sidney Sheldon has laryngitis, but once he gets going, the best-selling novelist tells Foreman, "I'm yours till midnight." When he started, he says, he wrote "I can't even call them B pictures. 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."

Darcy Hettrich, director of talent for the project, has cleverly scheduled the interviews true to studio form: Makeup early in the morning, screenwriters around midday so they can eat lunch on the budget, with the producers rolling in around 3.

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