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Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story
Written and directed by Daniel Raim, and executive produced by Harold's longtime friend Danny DeVito (who also appears onscreen), the movie is pleasant and fitfully funny and touching, but never really leaves much of a lasting impression, at least on those you'd think would be its most receptive audience, film buffs.
The movie somewhat predictably tells parallel stories, alternating between the long careers and contributions to major films by the couple in their respective jobs, and Lillian recalling their courtship, marriage and personal ups and downs of her while raising three children (the first of which was autistic).
The personal half of the story incorporates the usual mix of new interviews, stock newsreel-type footage, home movies and photographs. Animator and character designer Patrick Mate created appealing original storyboards of Harold and Lillian, their cartoon aging reminiscent of pre-titles sequence to Up (2009). These scenes portray Lillian especially as an assertive, strong woman at least one generation ahead of her time.
After serving as a bomber navigator during World War II, Harold moved to Hollywood to work as an illustrator, Lillian following him there. He began at Columbia Studios in the 1950s but got his big break on Paramount's The Ten Commandments (1956). Director Cecil B. DeMille, a man Harold never met once, exactingly duplicated many of Harold's storyboard sketches. In that and many other films to follow, including The Birds, The Graduate, Rosemary's Baby, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the iconic images associated with those movies originated in Harold's charcoal and ink storyboards and conceptual drawings.
The implication, soft peddled in the documentary, is that some of these directors took credit for images Harold actually created, though Harold in interviews seems unconcerned about such matters. For instance, he has nothing but praise for Alfred Hitchcock, for whom he worked on Marnie as well as The Birds. The film never alludes to Saul Bass, who did claim credit for doing work very similar to Harold, on Psycho, Bass's claims variously acknowledged and dismissed. Maybe Bass had a bigger ego.
Book-loving Lillian, meanwhile, volunteered and eventually owned the research library of Samuel Goldwyn Studios, which moved all over town through the years, first to Paramount, then the American Film Institute, then Francis Coppola's ill-fated Zoetrope Studios, and finally DreamWorks. Over the years she became the go-to source for moviemakers looking to add authenticity, whether they needed early 20th century Russian-Jewish undergarments or a drug lord's landscaping tastes.
Beyond those who knew the Michaelsons personally or professionally, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is more likely to appeal to casual movie fans rather than film buffs. The latter will be totally unfamiliar with the couple's professions and surprised by just how important a role they played in successful movies. Film buffs, however, have seen side-by-side storyboard-to-film comparisons before, in scads of DVDs and Blu-ray special features content. Though the material concerning Harold's art is interesting and attractive, it's also not particularly revelatory, either. And while some of Lillian's stories are amusing (Tom Waits hanging out at the library during the making of One from the Heart, an invitation to a Bolivian drug kingpin's hideout during the making of Scarface) they're not much more than funny little anecdotes.
Considering everyone talks about Harold in the past tense and though given an almost equal amount of screentime via Raim's archival interviews, it's clear to anyone paying attention that Harold died before the film was made, and that Lillian has retired to an assisted living facility, at the Motion Picture Country Home. (Is that actress Connie Sawyer glimpsed in the activities room?) Lillian stops short in revealing certain details about her life, not that she's hiding anything scandalous, but viewers are left feeling the picture is more celebratory than probing. It's a nice, sweet story but not unique. Unit production manager and production secretary/writer Wally and Sue Worsley, to cite one example, were another Hollywood couple with similarly colorful careers, and they were more outspoken about their industry compared to the more diplomatic Michaelsons.
Video & Audio
Kino Lorber/Zeitgeist Video's Blu-ray, presented in 1080p and 1.78:1 widescreen, offers a fine transfer of this HD video production. The all-region disc has good 5.1 audio and optional English subtitles.
Supplements include deleted scenes, "Lillian's Life Lessons," Harold's Film School Seminar on Camera Angle Projection, a bonus short film on storyboarding The Graduate, a booklet interview with the director, and a trailer.
Enjoyable yet still lacking something to make it especially memorable, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is nonetheless Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.