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Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Film

Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties

Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties

I was very impressed by Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him. Because his origins were so far away (Lithuania and Poland) and so long ago (1920s and 1930s), there were relatively few entries that resonated personally with me. Except it was sad to see so many fascinating people who, unknown today, died during the war under unknown circumstances.

This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the next few months, you will see a number of postings under the rubric “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best.

These Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties are not what you usually think of when you think of the movies, but that was about a hundred years ago. Film has been around for more than a century, and I have been  a film freak for almost half that time. It all started at Dartmouth College, where there were frequent free screenings at Fairbanks Hall. One afternoon in my freshman year, I saw Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), about witchcraft in seventeenth century Denmark. I was hooked.

Although my original intention was to become a professor of English, somewhere during my second or third year at college, I decided to switch to film. The Hopkins Center had just opened, and there was a large beautiful theater for screening films. The Dartmouth Film Society put on an ambitious year-long Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective, and my career choice began to waver. When, finally, Arthur L. Mayer, the author of Merely Colossal, came to teach a class in film history, my mind was made up.

Dartmouth had a long history of ties with the film industry. Its Baker Library was the home of the Irving Thalberg collection of Hollywood scripts. Graduates included such film luminaries as Joseph Losey, Robert Ryan, Budd Schulberg, David Picker, and Max Youngstein. Even before my senior year, I had decided to do my graduate work in film history and criticism. During the summer of 1965, I went with my parents to New York, mainly to see Haig P. Manoogian, who ran the film department at New York University. Mr. Manoogian was kind enough to see me, but not kind enough to encourage me—although he was a favorite of Martin Scorsese, who went to school there. I guess he was more interested in film production. (That summer, I also saw the New York World’s Fair of 1964-1965.)

That left the University of Southern California (USC) and UCLA. One of my Dartmouth classmates from the Class of 1965 had attended UCLA. When he came up to Dartmouth to visit, he discouraged me about USC, which he said was a slum and Smog Central.

So I came out to Southern California, where I still live. I attended graduate school at UCLA for several years until Professor Howard Suber put the kibosh on my budding career as a film professor. He was a lackadaisical academic who supposedly was working on a shot-by-shot analysis of Citizen Kane and who didn’t much like movies. I was about to write a thesis about the Westerns of John Ford with Robert Epstein as head of my thesis committee, but then Suber replaced him with himself. At that point, I knew I was finished, as there was little love lost between us. Years later, I joined a letter-writing campaign to have his tenure denied, calling him a cross between Mr. Pickwick and Caligula.

Although I’ve always loved film, I had by this time taught myself how to operate and program computers, and I got a job at System Development Corporation in Santa Monica. Curiously, the person I replaced at SDC was a young woman who had been murdered by a UCLA film student. So here I am today, a computer expert at a Westwood accounting firm, still in love with film, though greatly disappointed because all the great filmmakers I idolized are dead, and the quality of films now being produced has fallen markedly.