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The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story

The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story
Home Vision Entertainment
1996 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 126 min. / Street Date June 22, 2004 / 24.95
Starring Al Hirschfeld, Dolly Haas, Nina Hirschfeld West
Cinematography Richard Blofson, Jeffrey Grunther
Film Editor Angelo Corrao
Written, Produced and Directed by Susan Warms Dryfoos

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The best documentaries are often ones that concentrate on one remarkable person, such as 1978's From Mao to Mozart. Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld makes for a very entertaining experience as his life's story covers most of the 20th century and takes in a lot of musical theater history. His distinctive drawings graced the arts pages of The New York Times seemingly forever. He stars in this biography about himself and his very special career and turns out to be just as charming as the placid, bearded gentleman of his own cartoon self-portraits.

Al Hirschfeld spent a lifetime covering glamourous Broadway plays, capturing the essence of the century's performers so well that for some of them his pictures became defining images. He quickly gave up political cartooning to concentrate on illustrations from the theater, where he met with a success that was never to abandon him. While producers and directors were rehearsing their shows and trying to mold something distinctive, Hirshfeld would be sitting in an orchestra seat doing the same thing, sketching quietly. Almost without fail, his opening-day newspaper illustration would capture the essence of a play or a star performer - often before the public or even the show people understood just what that essence might be.

Hirschfeld was there for it all, the friend of stars and producers. He was always a great fan of the theater and only tried writing a play once, an experience that sent him back to doing what got the most approval. He contributed caricature illustrations to the New York Times for seventy years, with a brief break only once when the paper changed to photos.

The fun thing about the show is what a pleasant guy Hirschfeld seems to be. He's on camera narrating his story, but we have plenty of testimony from others about his special qualities. He married a German movie star in the early 30s and had a long and successful marriage. Although there were plenty of fancy theater nights, the show stresses that most of his time was spent quietly constructing images alone in his studio. There's a sojurn to Tahiti and Bali that finally ends when a visiting Charlie Chaplin buys enough of his paintings to afford him boat passage back to New York.  1 The home movies show a devoted dad who dances with his beloved daughter, Nina. As he gets older and his bushy beard turns white Al becomes almost a caricature of himself, a bowlegged but jaunty man-about-town who drives the streets of New York in a big sedan.

Besides seeing a lot of his art, we get video and audio taped reactions from the stars. Katherine Hepburn talks about having one of "those" faces that Hirschfeld was able to exaggerate to extremes; Carol Channing claims that a single Hirschfeld image started her career. Even Colleen Dewhurst laughs while wondering if "her jaw is really that pronounced." Everybody seems to have been flattered by the drawings, no matter how weird-looking they turned out. Everyone, that is, except Allen Funt of Candid Camera, who complained that Hirschfeld's pictures made him look like an ape. The artist replied that "God did that, not me."

A clever sidelight is the story of the "Ninas." After Hirschfeld had his daughter, he started hiding her name in the details of his drawings, often in hair or folds of clothing. The game got to be such an expected part of his work that he would put a number alongside his signature to indicate how many Ninas were hidden. The personal expression became a spectator sport, with the artist's fans working to find all the hidden words.

Eventually the show becomes an affectionate look at a charmed life. Hirschfeld's talent quietly kept him happy for most of the 20th century, and he was appreciated and rewarded. His memories and reminiscences haven't a drop of irony or regret. There's a short section near the end where he visits the Disney studios to see how his style was adapted for the animated cartoon Aladdin. He's treated like a god by the 60-odd artists who used his swooping lines as a model. Interestingly, he cannot account for his success and gives a familiar warning that dedicating ones' self to art is a sure way not to make a living. He's the obvious exception.

Filmmaker Susan Warms Dryfoos is of the New York Times family, which explains the film's unfettered access to hundreds of Hirschfeld illustrations. The budget must have been enormous, just to cover the licensing fees for dozens of snippets of famous Broadway musical songs and even brief filmed glimpses behind the scenes of several plays. She's made a very good illustrated biography that is consistently entertaining.

Home Vision's DVD of The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story is an excellent encoding of the documentary. Colors are sharp and the picture never goes soft; little scenes like Hirschfeld's home movies of Thai dancers (later used to help design The King and I) are beautifully transferred.

There's a gallery of famous Hirschfeld portrait caricatures, and a fat booklet with Richard F. Shepard's essay-obit for the artist from the New York times. There's also a an extra with film footage of Hirschfeld drawing Paul Newman at age 99, Hirschfeld, that is.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: gallery of Hirschfeld art
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 23, 2004


1. The connections are made ... the Chaplin/Bali story might sound like a fib, if we hadn't seen Charlie Chaplin's home movies of Bali in the The Chaplin Collection Volume 2. Chaplin took a vacation to the South Seas just when Hirshfeld says he did.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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