J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 16, 2015

DOC NYC '15: Harold and Lillian

By now, nobody puts too much stock in Wikipedia and other online databases. This is especially true when it comes to the filmographies of Harold and Lillian Michelson. For years, their contributions to classic Hollywood productions as a story board artist and researcher have been vaguely credited or completely uncredited. They finally get their due in Daniel Raim’s Harold and Lillian: a Hollywood Love Story (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Unsung is maybe a slight exaggeration in Harold’s case, since he was able to graduate up to production designer gigs, earning two Oscar nominations (including one for Star Trek: the Motion Picture). Still, it is not like people out there are saying: “of course, Harold Michelson. He was the production designer on Johnny Got his Gun.” Credits for Lillian Michelson are even sketchier, but she enriched hundreds of pictures, often through research into period design details, but also into more specialized fields, such as occult imagery for the dream sequences in Rosemary’s Baby. Francis Ford Coppola thought so much of her, he ensconced her and her research library at his Zoetrope Studios, but unfortunately that did not last as long as he hoped.

Obviously, their Greatest Generation romance and six decades of marriage are of central importance to the film. It is quite endearing, but most viewers will be more interested in their contributions to classic cinema. Happily, one of the directors who comes off the best in their recollections is everyone’s favorite auteur, Alfred Hitchcock, who treated Harold like a genuine collaborator on The Birds and Marnie. Coppola and Mel Brooks also have plenty of nice things to say as does Harold’s old crony, executive producer Danny DeVito.

Sadly, Harold Michelson passed away in 2007, but Raim still has sufficient interview footage for him to be a consistent presence in the film. The poems in his handcrafted valentines and birthday cards to Lillian also provide an ironic running commentary on their lives. However, the surviving Lillian always gets the last word, not that that would concern her beloved Harold. She is absolutely lovely, but she can also dish like Hedda Hopper, which makes her reminiscences highly watchable.

The Michelsons’ work is way more interesting than you might think and they are quite charming to spend time with. It is a super nice film that will be catnip for regular TCM viewers. Warmly recommended, Harold and Lillian screens tomorrow (11/17) and Wednesday (11/18) at the IFC Center, as part of the 20105 DOC NYC.

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