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Interview: Author Michael McClellan Talks New Book

There are many arguments made with regards to the greatest film year ever. Authors Stephen Farber and Michael McClellan are the latest to make the case that 1962 is one of the best film years. And it’s hard to disprove them considering the year gave us a treasure trove of classics, all of which you can learn about in their book, Cinema ’62: The Greatest Year at the Movies. McClellan took time out to talk to me about his new book, the process of selecting films, and what ones you should make time for as you hang out in self-isolation.

What enticed you and Stephen [Farber] to want to chart this year in film?

Michael McClellan: Would you like the long version or the short version?

I got time so feel free to go lengthy!

We met in 2001 and we were introduced by Bill Condon, a mutual friend, and he says that we have something in common. So we said, “Okay, what’s that?” I was a film buyer and he was a film critic so we already had movies in common. He said, “No, no, there’s something even more.” We started chatting about our favorite movies and we suddenly realized we both really, really loved movies from 1962 and thought we were kind of unique in that way. At that time, Steven was thinking about writing a book so I encouraged him. Then he and I mounted that film series at Landmark [Theatres] because I was working there at the time and it was very successful.

We had this film series in September of 2002, because of the 40th anniversary of 1962. We mounted it and Steven wrote an article for the New York Times and that was very successful and generated a lot of press. Then NPR called and they wanted to interview us, so we were on NPR in September of 2002. We were talking about mak[ing] a documentary because he was getting no interest for the book idea back in 2002, which was very unfortunate. The publishing world wasn’t that keen on film books at that time. So we decided to think about working on a documentary and pursued that for a while, but then we both got very busy in our careers and I became the head film buyer at landmark so I got very busy, and in the meantime I was watching movies all the time. We’re watching all the new movies but we love these films from ’62.

So fast forward to 2014 when I retired from Landmark. I took early retirement because I could! Then I said, “Steve, I think we should go back to this book idea you were pursuing” and he said, “Well, I couldn’t get any a nibbles.” I said, “Yeah, but the publishing world has changed” and now they were publishing more film books. So I said, “Let’s follow through” and he agreed. I said, “I’d love to write it with you because I have the time now.” I have a master’s degree in history but I always loved movies even as a child, so I was combining this history degree with a love of movies.

Plunged in over at the Margaret Herrick Library, and because I was a history major, and I’d written my thesis I was familiar with research (a little rusty, of course, because it was many years later). Our premise was [19]62 [and] there was this collection of really terrific movies and he [Stephen] had his own take on it. He said, “There were the Hollywood movies, obviously, but there were all these terrific international films” and that was his original take on it. A combination of the American movies and the international films [are] what made going to the movies so terrific in 1962. And that’s the key phrase, that’s why the subtitle of the book is “the greatest year at the movies.” The emphasis is at the movies because these are the movies people were watching in theaters in 1962. When you go back to ’62 every movie theater in the United States was still a single screen theater. There were no multiplexes yet.

I began to see themes, and Stephen did as well. There was more to 1962. The vast majority of movies in ’62 were adaptations from other media, mostly books – novels or nonfiction – a lot of plays, teleplays, even magazine articles and short stories. In fact, there was a headline in The Hollywood Reporter that year saying 85% of movies were now adaptations. That was a revelation because you look at the bones of what made these movies so good [and it] is because they were from literary sources and had good structure already. One thing about the movies of ’62 is the overwhelming majority are classic linear narrative structure unlike today where it’s jumping around and fractured, fragmented storytelling.

However, there were movies that were experimenting with structure, like Last Year at Marienbad, from France and La Notte, from Italy. They were more experimental with time and structure, but that didn’t catch on and Hollywood picked up on that later in the decade, like in [19]67. There was Two for the Road and Point Blank but it never really caught on widely until the 21st-century. Oh, and black and white artistry. That was the final year of the the overwhelming majority of the movies submitted for Oscars and then nominated, well over 60% were in black and white. In the early ’60s the TV industry got together with TV manufacturers and the network’s – there were only three major networks at the time: ABC, CBS and NBC – who were buying movies for their networks, and there was a lot of revenue in that. They told Hollywood they were converting to color and were going to broadcast in color by the mid-’60s so they better start making color movies. That’s why black and white went away. It has that much influence, not only on American films but internationally, globally.

Is there a theme you were particularly struck by?

There are several! [The] black and white certainly popped right out at me. The adaptations Steven noted. He felt there were more adaptations without actually knowing that and then I uncovered the anecdotal research. For me, the whole issue of the ageism. How they were treating the actresses of the era. The great Hollywood legends actresses, the Bette Davis’, the Joan Crawford’s, the Barbara Stanwyck’s, the Katharine Hepburn’s. They weren’t getting any really interesting roles. The only exception to that is Katharine Hepburn but she didn’t work. She took time off. Her last film was Suddenly Last Summer in [19]59. Then it was three more years until ’62, Long Day’s Journey in to Night, which is a terrific adaptation of a play. Then she didn’t work for another five years till Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Then, of course, there was Joan and Bette.

Barbara Stanwyck, she hadn’t worked for five years in a movie. She had gone to television because she wasn’t being offered any interesting roles, which is a big contrast to the men. The Hollywood legends of the men were still working; they were thriving; they were getting offered all kinds of interesting parts. That was very striking because these were the biggest stars in Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s. Were they women they were dominant in that era. And that all changed in the ’50s and by the ’60s, they were yesterday’s news.

The studio system collapsed three years after this, if memory serves?

Correct. It was the fading out of the studio and the star system. They weren’t cultivating stars. All the people they had signed on to were all signed on by the late-’50s. In fact, they were letting go of people in the early ’60s. We interviewed Shirley Knight and she wanted out of her contract at Warner Bros. because she was not being offered anything interesting. So this was happening to younger actresses, not just the older actors. You have the exception of Doris Day, who is the box office queen. She was the number one movie star overall, but she was the exception. She wasn’t the rule anymore. There was Marilyn Monroe but even in the early ’60s her roles were starting to change.

She would die in 1962.

Correct. She was this a symbol for what was happening. The fade out of the prominent actresses, the star system, and the studio system. She was the last great product of this star and studio system. The studios had lost a lot of their audience through television, as you know, so the old formulas weren’t working anymore. They stopped making the women’s pictures, the romances and the women’s melodramas; they all came to an end after the end of the ’50s. You still had some of the big examples like A Summer Place and Peyton Place, those films in the late ’50s. But by the early ’60s they had virtually stopped making those movies, too, because they weren’t working anymore.

And a number of actresses from the ’50s – who would would become big stars of the ’50s – like Eleanor Parker, Susan Hayward, and Lana Turner. They all made movies in ’62 and then they never had any decent roles after that. So, you forget that these were big stars in the ’50s and with a few exceptions they were not offered any big roles. They were in these mediocre movies and by the end of the ’60s their movie careers were over. Deborah Kerr is also in that grouping.

How did you break up the research and the writing process?

Since I revived the book idea I decided to plunge ahead because, as I said, Stephen was very busy. I watched all the movies and then, while doing research, I went to the primary sources in ’62. You can read the star biographies and the other histories but they’re all secondary sources. I decided to go to the primary sources, which would be trade journals and the magazines and newspapers of the day. I did heavy research with the New York Times and Variety, Hollywood Reporter, they were treasured sources of information. The staff [at Margaret Herrick] pointed out to me several publications that are no longer in existence called Cinema magazine, Show magazine, [and] Show Business Illustrated and they were also incredibly informative. I didn’t go to Photoplay because they were more fan magazines. I wanted something with a little more meat to it.

How did the two of you collaborate on the actual writing?

Well, Stephen had his interest, his themes, the International influence, so he wanted to pursue that. I didn’t really have a particular topic. So we decided to do it by movies. He had his list of movies he wanted to write about [and] movies I wanted to write about. What was fascinating was when we started to do it that way then, in my research, I uncovered all this about the, like he mentioned the adaptation. So I did more research on that. Then I uncovered that’s the end of the black and white and the aging actresses emerged from this as well.

So we began to split up the chapters, so within the chapters we start talking about different movies. Sometimes I’ll write about a movie but he wanted to contribute something to it and vice versa. So the book is an interesting blend of that. Some chapters are heavily me and some are heavily him, though within each chapter we both make contributions. The trick was to blend our styles because I had a different writing style than he did and because he’s a professional writer and I’m not he acted like my editor, which was immensely helpful. He made me a better writer as the process went along [and] our two styles began to merge. If you go through the book, I always like to posit this, I would challenge you to try to figure out who wrote what.

Are there certain films, either that you included or couldn’t, that people should definitely seek out?

For me it’s Billy Budd, the adaptation of the Herman Melville novella made by Peter Ustinov, who did everything in that film. He produced it; he directed it; he co-wrote it; he acted in it; he swept the editing floor. I mean, all of the above. And it’s got a terrific cast! Robert Ryan, one of his very best performances and Ryan was very proud of it. He lobbied for that part because he saw that there was a character he could really sink his teeth into and he’s great at it. Then there’s the emergence of Terence Stamp, and that was only his second film but it was a much more prominent jump than his debut which was a small British film. So this was really his world, day radio international debut and he got an Oscar nomination for it for Best Supporting Actor and Robert Ryan’s should have gotten one too, frankly.

One thing about this year is that there are so many terrific performances, so the 20 people who are nominated, you could have nominated another 20 people in those categories because there’s so much great work going on. That’s the one film I would point people to. It’s filmed in glorious black and white and it makes great use it. It’s the same cinematographer as The Third Man (1949). And that’s another theme that also emerged: the skilled cinematographers of that era worked equally well in both black and white and color. One of them, Russell Harlan, was nominated in both categories. He was nominated for Hatari in color and To Kill a Mockingbird in black and white. And there are a bunch of other films that people aren’t as familiar with anymore, like David and Lisa.

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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