Bruce Crawford’s Unexpected Movie-Movie Life, Omahan Salutes Classic Hollywood Films with Panache: See Shirley Jones and ‘Carousel” May 24
If you’re a classic movie fan in and around Omaha then the closest thing to a Turner Classics Movie Film Festival in these parts are the twice-a-year revivals that Bruce Crawfort puts on for charities. His next is a May 24 screening of the 1956 movie musical Carousel starring Shirley Jones and the late Gordon MacRae with a special appearance by Jones, who will speak before the film and sign autographs afterwards. The 7 p.m. event is at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are are available at the customer service counter at Omaha Hy-Vee supermarkets.
Also on this blog is an exclusive interview I did with Shirley Jones. You can also find here previous stories I’ve done about Crawford and his film events and guests. The blog features many other film stories as well.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Magazine
When Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford introduces legendary stage-screen star Shirley Jones at a May 24 screening of Carousel it will mark the 32nd time he’s celebrated Hollywood royalty at one of his film events.
The 7 p.m. event will be at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall.
Jones feels the 1956 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Harmmerstein stage classic, Carousel, features some of the great composer-lyricist team’s finest work. She was under personal contract to R & M when she made the picture with co-star Gordon MacRae. “I think it’s the best score they ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful,” says Jones. “I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You’ and I close it with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel and I just think it’s magnificent.”
All the trappings
For 20-plus years now Crawford’s feted classic movies and the legends who made them. He does it in grand style, too. Attending a Crawford event has all the trappings of a Hollywood premiere, complete with red carpet, limos, searchlights, media, VIP guests, costumed reenactors and movie memorabilia displays.
Renowned celebrity pop artist Nicolosi creates original commissioned pieces for the events that the U.S Postal Service now uses to adorn commemorative envelopes and stamps.
Crawford’s programs always benefit a cause. This time it’s the Omaha Parks Foundation. Past beneficiaries included the Nebraska Kidney Association.
He counts Oscar winners among his acquaintances and friends. He particularly close to special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Crawford’s work in support of classic film has taken him around the country presenting programs around his first love – movie music. He’s been an invited participant for live programs and filmed documentaries honoring movie icons such as Harryhausen.
His Omaha events attract national media attention and his efforts earn endorsements from organizations like the American Film Institute. Radio documentaries he produced years ago on composers Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann still air worldwide.
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
A life devoted to film
Wherever he goes and whatever he does in service of film is an expression of the intense boyhood fascination with movies he grew up with in Nebraska City, Neb. and later cultivated as a young man.
“It’s been my therapy,” Crawford says of his work. “I would have to say it’s some strange destiny. I look back to when I was a kid and now I can see where it makes sense – I can connect the dots. But to be from a small town in this part of the country it’s so out of the norm, is so alien. It’s just an unusual life.
“And to have gone as far as it has and to be with these people and to have that recognition and reputation for these events is mind boggling. I never would have imagined it would have gone quite so far.”
What began as an avocation is now a career.
“The most meaningful part of it is that I’ve been able to have a career and make my full-time work honoring classic films. That’s been incredibly gratifying for me because I absolutely love doing this.”
Nicolosi, the Chicago-based celebrity portrait artist who’s lent his talents to Crawford events since 2008, says the Omahan’s enthusiasm for classic film is infectious.
“He has such a passion for what he does it’s literally palpable. In any business it all boils down to relationships and there’s a genuine warmth and authenticity about Bruce. He’s the real deal. He has that strong Midwest work ethic. Every event he does feels like a giant homecoming. He’s brilliantly fluent in film, too.
“All of that keeps drawing me back. Plus, I’ve fallen in love with Omaha.”
Ray Bradbury, Greg Bear, Forrest J. Ackerman, Bruce Crawford, Ray Harryhausen
Avocation to career
Crawford’s first event in 1992 paid tribute to Harryhausen. Getting Harryhausen to come for a double-feature of Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island at the Indian Hills was a coup but Crawford had an inside track to him.
“It was still tough to pull off but it wasn’t as tough because I had that rapport with him. There was a connection.”
A bigger coup was getting a week’s run of Ben-Hur for its 35th anniversary in 1993.
“Doing Ben-Hur was off the wall because I had no connection to that film. I knew nobody involved with that in any way. That is the real rosetta stone to this whole thing,” he says.
Crawford, who puts these events together with equal parts chutzpah and doggedness, contacted Ted Turner because the media czar owned the film’s rights. Much to Crawford’s surprise Turner ordered a new print struck of the 1959 classic and allowed Crawford first crack at it. Crawford also got the family of the film’s revered director, William Wyler, to come and secured the support of its star, Charlton Heston.
The success of the Ben-Hur run “set the stage” for what’s come since. His third program, a screening of The Longest Day for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, featured reenactors in military uniforms.
“That’s when the showmanship started,” he says.
For a screening of Psycho he brought star Janet Leigh. For King Kong he anchored a huge inflatable replica of the ape outside the Indian Hills and come show night featured dancing girls in grass skirts. The special guests included Harryhausen and author Ray Bradbury.
Subsequent events featured Patricia Neal (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) and John Landis (Animal House).
Some unexpected guests have arrived too. For last fall’s showing of American Graffiti acclaimed director George Lucas showed up unannounced, jetting in from a New York gig on his way back to the west coast. He was spotted by the the event’s official guest star, Cindy Williams, as well as several attendees. For the premiere of Ben-Hur Crawford recalls that Liza Minnelli, who was in town doing an Ak-Sar-Ben show, came incognito wearing sunglasses and a scarf.
Bruce Crawford with Debbie Reynolds
The shows go on
Pulling off these events means countless phone calls and emails getting the details just right. He must please the sponsors and charities he works with as well as cater to his special guests..
“But above everything else I feel a commitment to the audience. I want to make sure people enjoy themselves and have a good time. That’s my biggest goal.”
He hasn’t missed a beat yet.
“I’ve been lucky enough to get films and guests that always find a very sizable audience. The events just keep coming together, but I don’t take anything for granted.
Nicolosi’s come to appreciate Crawford’s imagination and tenacity.
“The secret to his success is his passion. He has such a clear vision and, in an endearing way, a stubbornness, which you need. Then nothing can get in your way.”
As soon as Carousel’s over Crawford, ever the showman, will be thinking what to do next and how to top what he’s done before.
Tickets for the May 24 event are $20 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee customer service counters.
Cindy Williams Interview: Film-television Atar to Appear at Nov. 2 Screening of ‘American Graffiti’ in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
FOR EVENT DETAILS, VISIT: http://www.omahafilmevent.com
Cindy Williams broke our hearts in American Graffiti and made us laugh in Laverne and Shirley and this ageless American Sweetheart is still plying her craft in film, television, and theater. She’s coming to Omaha for a 40th anniversay screening of the classic George Lucas coming-of-age movie, American Graffiti. The Friday, Nov. 2 event at 7 p.m. in the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is the latest revival by film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford. Williams will speak before the film to share some behind-the-scenes anecdotes from one of the most warmly regarded pictures of the last four decades. She spoke with me by phone from a bus transporting her and her fellow cast members after having just completed a performance of Nunsense Boulevard as part of a tour the musical comedy production is making on the East Coast and in the Southern states. The play is part of the Nunsense franchise by Dan Goggin. Williams appeared in Nunsense I and she calls the material “a lot of fun,” adding, “They’re happy musicals about a gaggle of nuns.”
LAB: In terms of your work on American Graffiti the first thing I’m curious about is what did you make of the young George Lucas?
CW: “He was just one of the gang, he was like one of us, he was our age. We knew he had directed at film at USC. There were rumblings he was a boy genius and his film THX-1138 was received so well. When Ron Howard and I went in to read for him, even before we had read it, he said, ‘Think of it as a musical.’ He told us that was because the music would never stop in the entire film except when the source of the music was gone, which would mean that the car was gone or the characters were out somewhere where they couldn’t hear a radio.
“I remember walking out of that meeting with Ron and saying, ‘A musical, incredible, that’s genius. Both of us agreed on that.”
LAB: So what kind of an experience did you have working on the film considering it was a low budget production all shot at night and you were among a cast of relative newcomers on a film that the studio (Universal) had little faith in?
CW: “It was like a very risque church camp experience.”
LAB: How is that?
CW: “We had one car, which was the prop car, that also was the car that took us to and from the hotel – the Holiday Inn we were staying at. Everybody had to ride together because he (the driver) wasn’t going to make anymore trips than he needed to because he was also the prop master. There was a Winnebago for the cast. There were no dressing rooms, there was no makeup, there was no place to go.
“We would start shooting at 6 at night and end at 6 in the morning with a guy from Universal there watching the clocl, making sure we didn’t go over schedule, and with one hand on the plug to the generator (to pull it and shut down filming if he had to). And so it was like fly-by-your-pants and we’ve-got-to-get-this-done and we’re-all-pulling-together.
“I don’t know if Ron had worked for Roger Corman yet but I had and I believe Harrison (Ford) had and a few others had. It was like Roger’s schedule. We were all young and anything he (Lucas) said we would just go with. Like the ending scene…Ron and I had been dismissed, it was over for us for the night, so we were in the Winnebago and he was in the boys section and I was in the girls section and we were waiting to get a ride from the prop car home. And all of a sudden the A.D. came in and said, ‘Put your wardrobe back on, we’re shooting the ending scene.’ And this was like 5 in the morning.
“Well, we had never rehearsed it, we weren’t prepared. I panicked and I said, ‘I can’t do this, I’ve read it like twice, we haven’t blocked it.’ We put our wardrobe on and ran out to George and said, ‘We’re not ready,’ and he said, ‘We’ve got to shoot it now because we’ve got to get the sun rising.’ We said, ‘Well, what do we do?’ and he said, ‘Improvise.’ And so we all got together and decided what we wer’e going to do. Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer, with a hand-held (camera)…The cars turned over, they started the car on fire, and Harrison and I figured out I’d be hitting him with my purse and then Ron was going to run up…We just talked about it as actors and we discussed it with George in about 30 seconds and he said, ‘Action!,’ and that was it, it was one take and it was over.”
LAB: Did you have a sense while making it that the picture was something special or did it surprise you because as you know little was expected of the film and yet it became a sensation?
CW: “That’s a tribute to the genius of George Lucas and to the beautiful photography of Haskell Wexler (one of three DPs on the film and officially credited as the film’s “visual consultant”). But, you know, the overriding factor is George Lucas had a vision and he shot the vision. And when he said it was a musical, when you think about the music in the film it’s another character in the film and it tells the story. It just leads everybody through this fabulous one night of coming-of-age.”
LAB: Do you regret that Lucas departed from this personal, humanist strain of movies to go on to do the Star Wars franchise?
CW: “That’s a very good question, no one’s ever asked me that. But here’s the thing: we wouldn’t have had Star Wars, there wouldn’t have been the phenomena of Star Wars. Yeah, you’d have to ask George, I can’t speak for George. In him, you have someone who can write the humanist story and who also can write the techno story and the fantasy futuristic story in brilliant terms. And let’s not forget it was written by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck and George.”
LAB: Anything more you’d care to add about Lucas?
CW: “He’s a great great person, he’s got a wonderful heart and he just happens to be a genius. He’s a computer-age genius along with being a humanist.”
LAB: Even though you were a relative unknown to most moviegoers then, you’d already done some films and a fair amount of television before Graffiti and you’d worked with some very good people. I’m thinking of Drive, He Said with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern and Travels with My Aunt with Maggie Smith and directed by George Cukor.
CW: “I don’t even know if I had a line in Drive, He Said. Travels with My Aunt – I had just come back from doing in Spain, and the next day they called me about American Graffiti and I said, ‘I cannot come in and meet anyone.’ I was jet-lagging so bad that I was sick, I just wanted to go to bed for like a month. They kept calling me and I went in and that was because of the casting director Fred Roos, who’s brilliant. He produced The Godfather. He cast American Graffiti. Fred Roos had cast Mayberry RFD and that’s why he thought of Ron to play the lead in American Graffiti.
“I went in and I met with George and I really liked George. After I read the script I said, ‘I’d like to play debbie, the Candy Clark character, or Carol, the Mackenzie Phillips character, and Fred Roos said, ‘No, we’ve cast those, we cant find the ingenue, Laurie,’ and I said, ‘Oh please don’t make me an ingenue who cries all night.’ I didn’t want to go and screen test becauae I was so tired. I didn’t think i could learn the dialogue. I’ve got ADD and Dyslexia anyway, so it was almost impossible. I needed two weeks and a fresh mind. Well, I went in and did screen test with Ron and they offered me the part, and I said, ‘I can’t,’ I was still jet-lagging. I know, it sounds crazy. So then my agent called and said, ‘I think this is going to be a great movie.’ But it wasn’t until Francis (Coppola, who produced the film) called (that she accepted the part).
“I hadn’t seen The Godfather but I had seen (his) You’re a Big Boy Now – it’s one of my top ten favorite movies of all time. I was just awe struck that Francis Coppola would call me. I was like hypnotized: Yes, evil master, I will do the film. I said, ‘Of course I will.’ And it wasn’t because of The Gofather, it was because of You’re a Big Boy Now.”
LAB: You went on to work with Coppola on The Conversation, which also reunited you with Harrison Ford.
CW: “I could tell you a whole bunch about that (film) and about the genius of Francis Coppola, and I’m talking about a double scoop of genius.”
LAB: A few years after Graffiti you played the character of Shirley Feeney on several Happy Days episodes before starring alongside Penny Marshall in the monster TV sitcom hit Laverne and Shirley and so I take it then that Graffiti had quite an impact on your career?
CW: “Oh, absolutely. People always ask me if it was because of American Graffiti that Happy Days happened. I think they had already shot the pilot for Happy Days and American Graffiti was shelved by Universal. They hated it (despite great test screenings). Yeah, it was shelved for a year and then Francis Coppola offered to buy it. You should look that up, it;s so interesting. And then it was because Elton John and a bunch of musicians had screenings for it and people went crazy and they loved it and it became a populist kind of thing. And then I guess Universal took another look.
“Well, you know Universal passed on Star Wars (too), so then Fox picked it up.”
LAB: And the rest is history. Star Wars helped usher in the blockbuster event motion picture but Graffiti became a huge hit in its own right, sparking the nostalgia craze, and it’s still one of the top money earned versus cost to make productions in movie history.
CW: “Who knew?”
LAB: Why do you feel it resonated so strongly with the public?
CW: “It was the music, the cars, the characters. It all took place in one night, it was coming-of-age. There was something for everybody in that film.”
LAB: It’s a beautiful observance of certain youth rituals in a particular place and time and yet there are universal themes of yearning and courtship it touches on, too.
CW: “That’s so true, Leo. It’s the basic goodness of those rituals and also, and I remember George saying this, the story took place before President Kennedy was assassinated and before we all went to just hell in a handbasket, before everything became cynical. It was like a delineation. It was an age of innocence in those cars and with that music. There was nothing diabolique or gruesome or shocking. It was just all this sweet mirth. They were happy times, and you go to Garry Marshall in creating Happy Days. It was really a lovely time. It was such a different time.
“I remember that line drawn where you’re happy one day and then the president is assassinated and the whole country is trying to figure it out and mourn and grieve, and then all this cynicism began.”
LAB: You obviously continue to feel very warmly about American Graffiti and what it represents.
CW: “I always will. That film, to be a part of it, is such a privilege and an honor. A happy happy time of my life.”
LAB: Are you still close to some of the cast and crew?
CW: “Oh yeah, I see Paul Le Mat all the time and Candy (Clark) and Bo Hopkins. Things were so uncanny about the film. Like my best friend Lynne Marie Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, she played Bobbie Tucker, who throws Richard Dryfuss out of her Volkswagon. Do you remember that scene? Well, Richard Dryfuss was her childhood friend – they went to elementary school together, and I knew Richard because of Lynne way before any of us started acting professionally. And so that was just like crazy that we all got cast in it, though Lynne and I went to theater school together. We knew Fred Roos together.
I haven’t seen Suzanne (Somers) and Ron (Howard) in a while. Richard, I’ve seen recently, and Harrison. But yeah everybody’s very friendly.”
LAB: Did you see any evidence of Howard’s interest in being a director?
CW: “Yes, he would get out of the car and he’d go and talk to Haskell and come and sit back in the car because we had no where else to do, and I’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, I’m just asking Haskell how he’s shooting this because I’d like to direct some day,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’”
LAB: I take it that you’re coming to Omaha for this revival screening because you enjoy celebrating the film with fans.
CW: “I’m happy to get up before the film and tell everybody this was shot in 28 nights for $750,000 and most of that went to the music rights. Tell them little stories about it because people who love it, that just makes them love it even more and it let’s them see it the way I see it. I kind of give them a from-the-inside out kind of view of it. So yeah it’s a happy thing, Leo, and how many of those are in the world right now?”
LAB: The whole night shooting aspect of it is pretty fascinating.
CW: “Twenty-eight nights. It all takes place at night except for one shot in the morning when Kurt (Dryfuss) takes off for college in the plane. If you look at the plane real close one of the engines catches on fire when it starts up.”
LAB: Just how tight the shooting schedule was boggles the mind. But then again working fast forces you to be inventive.
CW: “You know, when you don’t give people a chance to (over)think and they’re thinking on their feet sometimes you get the best stuff because people just work twice as hard and they just buckle down. It’s great. When I was in school and we’d have a scene due a week you just did it, you didn’t question anything, you didn’t say, ‘What’s my motivation?’ You figured it out in your mind and your body and your heart and your soul and you did it.”
LAB: Do you regret making the sequel to American Graffiti?
CW: “No, not at all.”
LAB: Even though it was very poorly received and is not well regarded today either?
CW: “I know but I don’t regret it at all. I wish George had given the director more time to shoot it.”
LAB: Where do you place American Graffiti in your career compared with other projects you’re most proud of?
CW: “They’re on a loop – American Graffiti, Laverne and Shirley and The Conversation.”
LAB: You’ve done some producing as your career’s gone on.
CW: “I did co-produce Father of the Bride and that’s a whole other ball of wax, which im happy to talk with you about some other time. It’s a good story.”
FOR EVENT DETAILS, VISIT: http://www.omahafilmevent.com
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Movie Maven Crawford Celebrates 20 Years of Classic Film Revivals that Bring Hollywood to Omaha, Special Guest Pat Boone to Appear at Screening of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’
One of my favorite movies as a kid was the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I’ve seen it all the way through perhaps a handful of times but always on television, which is why I’m looking forward to an upcoming big screen revival of the Jules Verne sci fi adventure in Omaha, Neb. courtesy of film impresario and historian Bruce Crawford. Omaha has had a spotty hisory when it comes to opportunities for seeing classic films on the big screen. Aside from the occasional studio re-releases of classics that come here there’s been sporadic commercial and nonprofit screenings of classics, and I was involved with some of these myself as a programmer from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. When the university, independent, and museum-based film series I worked with went by the wayside in the early 1990s, Crawford was there to pick up the slack. What he’s done over a 20-year period now is give film lovers the chance to see old movies the way they’re meant to be seen, namely on a big screen, but he also takes great pains to make these presentations special events by bringing in cast or crew from the pictures along with reenactors and staging Hollywood premiere-like settings, complete with red carpet and all the trappings. This, combined with the emergence of the downtown Omaha art cinema Film Streams and its regular repertory series of classics, has given the city a robust classic cinema scene.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine
When film impresario Bruce Crawford presents the 1959 big screen version of Journey to the Center of the Earth May 19 with star and special guest Pat Boone he’ll celebrate three milestones.
The 7 p.m. event at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall benefiting the Nebraska Kidney Association marks Crawford’s 20th year of classic film revivals and 30th screening. The program also pays homage to the centenary of the movie’s late great composer, Bernard Herrmann.
Growing up in Nebraska City Crawford developed such a strong affinity for movie music and special effects he cultivated friendships with idol Herrmann and stop motion master Ray Harryhausen. He says he never imagined his film passion “would by my life and career and take me all over the country and the world.”
Boone’s the latest in a long line of legends Crawford’s brought to Omaha, following Harryhausen, Patricia Neal, Janet Leigh and Debbie Reynolds. Crawford’s rep as a movie maven and historian finds him contributing to documentaries and hosting movie music concerts. He and Kim Novak hosted a program at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival in L.A. Always a showman, he puts on the dog at his Omaha events with red carpet, searchlights and reenactors. For Journey he’s arranged for bagpipers in quilts and steampunkers in period costumes and gear to set the mood for the Jules Verne Victorian science fiction tale.
Boone or bust
The ultra square pop singer Boone was under a seven-year 20th Century Fox contact when he refused doing a Marilyn Monroe picture on moral grounds. That’s when the studio compelled him to make Journey. He initially balked, preferring romantic comedies and musicals like his idol Bing Crosby. Besides, sic fi movies were usually cheap, B program fillers then. Under threat of suspension he acquiesced when Fox assured him they planned a big budget production with A-list cast (James Mason) and crew director Henry Levin), plus top billing and backend profits for him.
A script rewrite also gave him a love interest and several songs to perform.
Things worked out for Boone when the Cinemascope Deluxe Color film became a hit. It reportedly kept a struggling Fox solvent.
A production to remember
Making the epic with its giant sets, exotic locations and esteemed co-stars is well-impressed on Boone’s mind.
“For me working with James Mason and Arlene Dahl was not only a privilege and a highlight but it validated me as a movie actor. It was a tremendous experience but it was a very tough picture to make.”
Among other things, there were several nights shooting in the subterranean reaches of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Back at the studio he and his fellow players clung to a mock raft suspended on a soundstage that crew rocked and deluged with water to simulate a raging whirlpool scene. He says the look of panic on Dahl’s face is real.
In one shot Boone came close to being smothered on set when buried in an avalanche of gypsum crystals that covered his mouth and nose, pressing down on him with such weight he couldn’t move. As he struggled to breathe he says he heard director Henry Levin checking, one by one, with the four camera operators to see if they got the shot, but the crystals continued falling. Luckily, he says, someone on a catwalk saw he was in trouble and alerted Levin, who finally called cut, as crewmen rushed to get him out. Another time, Boone says he kicked what he thought was a paper mache rock that turned out to be real and broke his foot.
‘Journey’s’ place fixed, Boone’s Hollywood fling flags
The pains that went into making the film account for its enduring appeal. Crawford says, “The movie endures for several reasons – the music, the art direction, the whole way it was put together, the beautiful sets they created, the full use of the technologies of the time. It’s quite spectacular on the big screen and a lot of fun.”
Boone’s film career faded by the late ’60s. As censorship dissolved and new permissiveness emerged., he found fewer scripts conforming to his conservative Christian beliefs. He’s proud that Journey still holds up and entertains. He’ll speak before the film and sign memorabilia afterwards.
Tickets are $25 and available at area Hy-Vee stores.
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Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version ofJules Verne’s ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment
My guilty cinema pleasures include plenty of kitsch movies, though over time I have less and less patience and tolerance for these less than great films that enthralled me as a kid but do very little for me as an adult. The 1954 Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea certainly held my attention when I first saw it on television in the late 1960s. I have maybe seen it in one sitting a couple times since, but mostly it’s one I’ve caught in bits and pieces in the intervening years. Any film with Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre has to hold your attention for a minute or two, and then add in the action-adventure and fantasy aspects of the story and one can perhaps overlook its sometimes clunky specal effects. I missed what may have been my only opportunity to see it on a big screen when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford presented it a few years ago. He’s been reviving classics for more than two decades and he has a new program planned for May 19, the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, that falls in the same camp as 20,000 Leagues.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Sure, one can quibble with some of Bruce Crawford’s selections for his now semi-annual film revival events. The Omaha promoter’s picks are not all classics for one thing. Two of his last three screenings — the creaky 1960 The Time Machine and the 1997 bloater Titanic — don’t compare with the stellar, stand-the-test-of-time cinema of, say, West Side Story or The Misfits or The Searchers, all of which he’s presented in recent years. But, like all show people, Crawford has a nearly unerring sense for putting on the dog. His newest foray into extravaganza is a December 17 unreeling of the wide screen spectacle 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney’s 1954 film version of the speculative Jules Verne adventure yarn.
Working his Hollywood contacts as usual, Crawford’s secured a restored print of the Cinemascope and Technicolor film from the Disney vaults for the Omaha showing at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The film is the main attraction for another boffo Crawford program, beginning at 7 p.m., that in addition to the flick will feature reenactors in Victorian splendor, a live theater organ performance of music from the film and special guests.
The one-night only screening is a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation of Nebraska.
You won’t find 20,000 Leagues on any all-time Best list. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a richly entertaining romp. There’s enough going on to please all but the most discriminating viewer. For starters, the story imagines — from Verne’s amazingly visionary 19th century perspective — a host of technological advances. At the center of it all is the fictional submarine the Nautilus, whose limitless diving feats are fueled by a revolutionary power source that modern audiences can only interpret as nuclear-based. Mistaken for a leviathan serpent from the deep, it surfaces to wreak havoc on war ships at the bidding of its creator, Captain Nemo, an inventor turned militant political activist and seafaring terrorist.
With its cold metal hull and soft upholstered interior, Crawford said, the ship makes a striking visual contrast between the Victorian period’s harshness and plushiness. It even has a pipe organ on which Nemo, in scenes reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera, plays Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor.”
The vessel’s brilliant but bitter skipper, played by James Mason, is bent both on revenge and on a punitive mission to end the war-making ways of the world. Brooding Mason’s Nemo dominates the film and, in true mad scientist tradition, he’s a figure to be feared, revered and pitied all at once. The haunted Nemo’s rather sketchy back story is the impetus for his reign of terror, as we learn his family was killed by mercenary forces seeking the secrets behind the amazing energy that powers his futuristic submarine and underwater domain. Nemo, Crawford said, is “a tortured soul brilliantly realized by Mason.”
The post-World War II story opens with a U.S. naval expedition being launched to investigate reports of “a monster” attacking and sinking ships on the open sea. The expedition is led by a professor Arronax, his assistant Conseil and harpooner Ned Land, a survivor of a ship wrecked by the Nautilus. When the expedition team’s ship is rammed and sunk by what they at first believe to be the “monster,” Arronax, Conseil and Land are rescued by the Nautilus crew. The hostages soon learn they are aboard a man-made vessel, meet the mad genius behind it and witness the wonders of underwater voyaging, deep sea diving and ocean farming.
As Ned Land, virile Kirk Douglas hams it up as a singing, dancing, guitar-strumming mariner who plots to escape the sub. He’s the heroic, swashbuckling antithesis to Nemo’s ruthless radical. Bug-eyed Peter Lorre cracks wise as the comic relief Conseil. Earnest Paul Lukas is the idealistic Arronax in awe of Nemo. A pet sea dog, Esmeralda, steals scenes. Oscar-winning special effects and art direction bring the ocean floor to life, capture the destruction of ships targeted by Nemo and realize a climatic battle between the Nautilus and a giant squid. As if that’s not enough, anointing the action is the Disney studio’s seal of family approved entertainment.
Disney, still a newcomer then to live-action films, spared no expense bringing the 1870 Jules Verne novel to life. Originally conceived as another animation feature, company head Walt Disney was convinced by some of his studio artists and technicians that the film could work as a live-action project. To undertake a live-action film of such visionary scale, however, meant animation-based Disney had to out-source many human talents and resources, including renting 20th Century Fox’s back lot water tanks. Known for his demanding, meticulous attention to detail, Disney and his production chiefs assembled a veteran Hollywood crew and cast and gave them a long leash that he only occasionally felt compelled to rein in.
Using full-scale models, as well as miniatures, matte paintings, rear screen projection and animation, Disney threw everything into the making of 20,000 Leagues. The Nautilus seen in the film was built to scale — reaching 200 feet in length. The squid, constructed of rubber, springs, tubing and plastic, had tentacles 40 feet long. A crew of dozens worked the squid’s remote control movements.
According to Crawford, early footage of the squid’s duel with the Nautilus was a disaster Uncle Walt himself nixed. “It was horrifically bad. It looked like Ed Wood with a big budget. They filmed a sunset sequence in bright light. The squid was wrong. It just didn’t work. They wanted to keep it from being optical. Stop motion would have been perfect, but they wanted to make it full size. They were building Disneyland at the same time this film was being made and of course it became famous for its Animatronics, and that’s what they wanted to utilize,” Crawford said.
The final squid sequence, he said, “was filmed at night during a heavy storm. It works perfectly. It holds up just as good today as it did then. The squid was full size and all controlled through hydraulics and wires and such. It was clever of them to film it at night during a hurricane-like storm because it adds to the eeriness and the fear factor and, of course, it masks any possible flaws in the visuals.” For a purist like Crawford, the old-school special effects rule. “Well, they hold up, don’t they? It’s not CGI (computer generated images). It’s tactile. It’s organic. You can see it and touch it. I mean, two TV films (of 20,000 Leagues) were made. They bombed. You can’t remake a classic. It just doesn’t work, especially one like that. You can’t out-Disney Disney — even with today’s technology.”
Underwater and beach scenes were filmed off Jamaica and the Bahamas. When all was said and done, 20,000 Leagues supposedly owned the biggest production budget for any film up to that time. Matching the production values, Disney signed an “A” list cast. Douglas and Mason were at the height of their fame. Lukas and Lorre were top character players. After a string of highly-regarded “B” film noirs for RKO (Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery, The Narrow Margin), Richard Fleischer was commissioned to direct the picture and displayed a flair for the fantastic that he would brandish again with such later pics as The Vikings and Fantastic Voyage.
That Fleischer was entrusted with Disney’s first foray into Cinemascope, the super wide screen format that became the tail that wagged Hollywood’s dog in the ’50s, is interesting since his previous work had mainly been with back alley crime tales. But his effective use of small spaces and instinctive handling of suspense action may have been just what Disney was looking for, said Crawford. “Disney wanted to treat the film like a prison breakout story. It’s very clever. It works.”
Indeed, the film largely plays out on the Nautilus, whose mates, we learn, are former prisoners who broke out of bondage with Nemo, only to become hunted outlaws in his service. When Ned Land and company are taken as hostages, they see both the danger and the promise that Nemo and his new technology pose. When they try and fail to get him to end the attacks and to share his discoveries with the world, they hatch an escape plan. The drama then becomes a race against time. Will the hostages escape before the megalomaniacal Nemo self-destructs?
Crawford said what Hollywood producer-director George Pal did for H.G. Wells with his ’50s production of War of the Worlds, Walt Disney did for Jules Verne with 20,000 Leagues. The success of 20,000 Leagues “certainly was a breakthrough” in paving the way for future adaptations of Verne works, including Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mysterious Island, the film that first stirred Crawford’s passion for film.
“It set that template for the ones that successfully followed it,” he said. “It ranks at the very top in that genre because it was not only the first, but because Disney spent so much time and effort and money on it to make it the best. Disney wouldn’t settle for anything but the best.”
- 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA – Mondo Tees Poster Art (geektyrant.com)
- D23 and Turner Classic Movies Present 2 Disney Classic Movies (candoitmom.com)
- Journey 2: The Mysterious Island – Classics come together (thehindu.com)
- Great Leaps of Imagination: Jules Verne (makezine.com)
I go back with Bruce Crawford 30 years. We met for the first time when I was a film programmer/publicist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and he was a wide-eyed film enthusiast. He specifically approached me about wanting to share his passion for the great film composer Bernard Herrmann, whom he had struck up a correspondence with late in the composer’s life. I had a screening of Taxi Driver scheduled and Bruce asked if he could make a presentation about Herrmann and the composer’s scoring of that film. We didn’t normally have speakers as part of our campus film program but something about Bruce’s magnificent obsession and tenacity convinced me to agree. Flash forward about 15 years, when I was a fledgling freelance journalist and Bruce was first making a name for himself with the radio documentaries he did, including one on Herrmann, and with the revival screenings he staged of film classics.
The following is the first of many stories I’ve written about Bruce and his work as a film historian and impresario. It appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). He’s since put on dozens more film events.
King Crawford: Omaha’s Very Own Movie Mogul
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
There’s a bit of Elmer Gantry in Bruce Crawford, the dynamic Omaha film historian/promoter whose sold-out screening of the original 1933 classic King Kong unreels Saturday, May 30 at the Indian Hills Theater.
With his boyish good looks, magnetic presence and penchant for hyperbole he exudes the charisma of a consummate huckster and the passion of a confirmed zealot. An evangelist for that old time religion called the movies, he often describes his devotion in missionary terms and pays homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age through gala events and elaborate documentaries full of his characteristic verve and adoration.
And with its rich, delirious mix of mythology and metaphor, Kong is an apt choice for cinephile celebration and reverence. This ultimate escapist film combines still impressive visual effects with an outrageous Beauty and the Beast fable played out in a ripe Freudian landscape. Unlike, say, Godzilla, it taps our deepest fears and desires.
Crawford’s passion began in his native Nebraska City, where he had a born-again experience at the movies. It came when his parents took him as a child to see Mysterious Island, a 1961 Jules Verne-inspired fantasy adventure featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen.
“I loved the effects and the creatures and the fantastic Jules Verne story. But it was the music that hooked me more than anything else,” Crawford said from the movie memorabilia and art-filled northwest
Omaha apartment he shares with wife Tami. “I remember when the music hit me. It was the opening with the boiling ocean and the Victorian lettering rolling across the seascape. I can’t quite find the words for it, but something connected. t was almost like a diamond-tip bullet hit me between the eyes. This music…wow! I was so overwhelmed by its beauty and majesty. I wasn’t old enough to read yet, so I asked my parents where the music came from.”
When he found out it was by legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, he felt “a compulsion” to find out everything he could about the man and his work. He had a similarly dramatic reaction to hearing a cut of the love theme to Ben-Hur. Despite his unfamiliarity with the movie and the composer, Miklos Rozsa, he felt an affinity for each. “The music was sooooo beautiful. Even without knowing it was a Biblical story I felt the Judaism. I felt the ancient world. Like with Mysterious Island I felt another connecting link in my life. That this was part of my destiny. I said, ‘I’ve got to see what movie this music goes to.’”
He finally did see Ben-Hur Christmas night in 1970, and it proved a revelation. “It changed my life. I’ve never been so haunted and moved by something as I was by it. It was so profound, so literate, so poetic. I knew I’d seen a masterpiece. And somehow, on some psychic or intuitive or synchronistic level, a little boy in Nebraska City had this connection with these world-renowned musicians and filmmakers. I knew then I was meant to know these people and to do something with them.”
Amazingly, his life has intersected with the very objects of his devotion. As a precocious teen he began corresponding with the imposing Herrmann, the composer for such film classics as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and North By Northwest. Upon Herrmann’s death in ‘75 (after finishing the fever dream score to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) Crawford drew close to his family. By ‘88 he’d become an authority on the man and produced an acclaimed documentary on him which has since aired over many National Public Radio affiliate stations and over the BBC in Great Britain.
Crawford struck up a similar acquaintance with Rozsa and shortly before the composer’s death in ‘95 completed a documentary on him and his music that also garnered strong critical praise and wide air play.
Music has always spoken most strongly to Crawford. “My first and foremost love is great music, and for me film scores represent the 20th century’s answer to the great symphonies of the past 300 to 400 years. A film score is like a grand opera in a sense. It can tell what actors can’t say.”
Movie special effects also hold him enthralled. As a high school student he made an award winning short using the same kind of stop-motion animation techniques as Kong. He began networking with FX artists and those contacts led him to the dean of them all — Harryhausen. In ‘92 Crawford coaxed Harryhausen, fresh from receiving an honorary Oscar, to attend an Omaha tribute in his honor. The men are now close friends.
The tribute proved a hit and spurred subsequent film events. The biggest to date being the 35th anniversary showing of Ben-Hur, for which Crawford scored a coup by making Omaha the first stop on the restored film’s special reissue tour and by getting family members of the film’s legendary director, William Wyler, to attend.
At a screening of Gone with the Wind he brought co-star Ann Rutherford and added atmosphere with women in period hoop skirts. For the Hitchcock suspense classic Psycho he secured an appearance by star Janet Leigh. Family members of late-great director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and producer Darryl F. Zanuck (The Longest Day) came at Crawford’s invitation to Omaha revivals.
Many wonder how someone so far removed from the movie industry is able to gain entree to rarefied film circles, land interviews with top names (from Charlton Heston to Leonard Maltin), arrange celebrity guest appearances and enlist the aid of corporate sponsors. Crawford’s personal charm and genuine ardor for classic movies, and for the artists who made them, help explain how he does it.
Then too there’s the grand showmanlike way he exhibits old movies. “The way they’re meant to be, but so rarely, seen,” he said, meaning on the big screen — with all the puffery, ballyhoo and flourish of a Hollywood premiere. For his 65th anniversary showing of Kong, which has been fully restored, he plans searchlights, a 30-foot tall Kong balloon, limousine-driven guests, a pre-show and a post-autograph session.
“What I’m trying to do is recapture the magic of going to the movies I felt as a kid,” he said, “and add to it with the glitz and the glamour. You get your money’s worth at a Crawford show, don’t you think?”
Kong’s special guests will include Harryhausen, who’s flying in from his home in London, renowned science fiction author Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) and noted film historian Forrest Ackerman. The three grew up together in California and were equally enchanted by Kong.
Harryhausen, who later apprenticed under the film’s effects master, Willis O’Brien, on Mighty Joe Young, credits Kong for inspiring his life’s work. “I was 13 when I saw it, and I haven’t been the same since,” he said by phone from London. “It left me startled and dumbfounded. It started me on my career. That shows you how influential films can be.”
The Kong pre-show or “live prologue,” as Crawford calls it, will recreate the film’s native ceremonial ritual — complete with dancers in painted faces and grass skirts — performed for Kong’s original run at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.
On his Kong Web page Crawford promises an evening “in the Sid Grauman tradition.” Crawford is indeed a Grauman-type impresario with a flair for extravaganza. He also resembles the P.T. Barnum-like Carl Denham character in Kong who charters the ship and leads the expedition in search of the big ape. In an early scene the first mate asks the skipper about the irrepressible Denham, “Do you think he’s crazy?” “No,’ says the captain, “just enthusiastic.” Likewise, Crawford’s undaunted fanaticism is that of the true enthusiast. His fervor largely accounts for the warm reception he’s been accorded by Hollywood insiders.
“I’m delighted he takes it so seriously and takes the initiative to try and present pictures the way they were presented in the early days,” said Harryhausen. “What you need is somebody with enthusiasm for these types of things. Bruce has that, and it’s wonderful.”
Gerry Greeno, Omaha city manager for the Douglas Theater Co., whose Cinema Center hosted past Crawford events, said, “He has that exuberance that generates interest and gets people to go along with him…and he’s not bashful about it. For some it might wear a little thin, but he puts a lot of time and effort into these events. He loves doing it.”
Bob Coate, who co-produced the Herrmann-Rozsa documentaries at KIOS 91.5-FM, where he is program manager, said he fell under the Crawford spell when the promoter pitched him the idea. “I’d never produced anything like that before. He kind of got me excited about doing it. His enthusiasm is definitely infectious.” Coate, now part of the Crawford coterie, added, “He’s a driving force. I know these events are tons of work for him, and wear him out, but I think he gets energy from doing them.”
As Crawford tells it, “I try to get people to do things they might not normally do, which I’m told I do a lot of. It’s being persuasive. You have to have that extravagant enthusiasm…that charisma. Some people keep it subdued and withdrawn. I choose not to.”
Until Coate approved the Herrmann program, Crawford had run into dead-ends trying to get it off the ground. “I went to several public radio stations and they said, ‘It can’t be done.’ Of course that went in one ear and out the other. I was determined to do it come hell or high water. Fortunately, Bob (Coate) was a Herrmann fan.”
The pair collaborated for months. In typical Crawford style he pushed the envelope by making the finished product two and a half hours long. Upon hearing it, the feature most listeners remark on is the unusually long (often complete) musical passages from Herrmann’s radio, film and concert hall career and rather spare but informative narrative segments. The same approach is used with the Rozsa project.
“My programs are really audio musical biographies about the subject and his music,” Crawford said. “The thing that makes them stand out is that they’re 60 to 70 percent music and 30 to 40 percent discussion. There was no model I was aware. I didn’t know what the parameters were. And of course the rest is history.”
He refers to the favorable response the programs netted, especially the piece on Herrmann, who’s a cult figure. Crawford has heard from many famous admirers. “It’s considered the most extensive, the most comprehensive, the most successful documentary ever done on any composer of the 20th century,” he said. “That’s just not my opinion. That’s the opinion of Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, David Copperfield, Robert Zemeckis…”
Part of his charm is the wide-eyed, gee-whiz glee he takes in his own achievements. In the Wonderful World of Bruce Crawford, there are only “huge” successes; “amazing” feats; movie “masterpieces;” and his own “almost superhuman” energy. When he goes on a riff about the accolades and national media coverage, he punctuates his speech with a rhetorical “Isn’t that something?” or “Isn’t that incredible?”
Well, who can blame him? He’s been brazen enough to develop world-class film connections and visionary enough to use them in meaningful ways. He’s seen himself become a touchstone figure for film buffs who bask in the glow of his and his famous friends’ celebrity. He’s been commissioned to write articles for major film publications. His services as a documentary producer and event promoter are in much demand.
This self-styled movie mogul rules over a niche market in Omaha for the celebration and veneration of classic films. Call him King Crawford. Still, even he can’t believe his dreams have come true.
“My God, who would have ever thought this was attainable? I didn’t see it coming. I did have a desire, which was obviously intense, but I didn’t know where it would lead. And then to have these giants respond to me, and not only respond, but become pretty close friends — that just doesn’t happen, man. Yeah, syncronicity.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence then he and Tami live in Camelot Village.
“My life is like a strange sort of destiny.“ he added. “I don’t know how or why that is. That’s what serendipity is I guess. Amazing. Isn’t that wild?”
- Revival House: “We all go a little mad sometimes …” (popdose.com)
- Hitchcock’s Psycho At 50, The Sounds Of Violence (huffingtonpost.com)
- Revival House: Seven Great Rejected Film Scores (popdose.com)
- Listening to Taxi Driver. (slate.com)
- Hitchcock horror under the hammer (thejc.com)