The Exemplary Rudy Behlmer.

rudy-behlmer-sepia

Finding film history worth reading is like finding an economist with an accurate prediction — good luck with that. The trade seems to invite charlatans, writers who rely on secondary research, and writers who coast on a little research and a lot of received opinion and impressionistic “b.s.” Greeting card paper stock should be made of 100% recycled content; film history books shouldn’t be.

The books of Rudy Behlmer aren’t.

Behlmer’s books are content-rich, and written in a self-effacing style. But self-effacing style is not absence of style, and just because Behlmer gets out of the way of his subject matter doesn’t mean his writing lacks character. On the contrary, the clarity and grace of his style inspire confidence that what you are reading is true; and so his style is essential to the pleasure his books bring. You sense as you read him that you are in the presence of a writer who would be ashamed to tell you something he couldn’t substantiate, and equally ashamed to pad a paragraph with gossamer speculation.

Responsibility to that thing we call “the movies” is another value that emerges from a Behlmer book. The reader can hear him saying, “The only reason to write this book at all is to add, reliably, to film history; hell, the only reason for me to write the next word is to add reliably to film history.” He loves the movies too much to do anything else, just as he loves the movies too much to write less than well about them.

Behlmer — who had a career directing live television in the fifties, and then as a producer for the Leo Burnett advertising agency in the sixties through eighties — first made a broad national impact, book-wise, with Memo from David O. Selznick (1972). (Previously he had written several pieces, starting in 1961, for the magazine Films in Review and then co-authored, with Tony Thomas and Clifford McCarty, The Films of Errol Flynn. An article he wrote about Selznick for FIR, for which he interviewed Selznick, led indirectly to Memo after Selznick’s death.) Granted access by Selznick’s son to the legendary producer’s missives to those who worked for him, Behlmer pulled off an organizational tour de force, selecting and structuring somemo-from-david-o-selznick as to do what might have seemed impossible — create a compelling read from the contents of two thousand file boxes! We’re by Selznick’s side, taking his dictation, at the creation of 66 films, including such classics as Gone With the Wind, Rebecca and Spellbound. From the book’s nearly 500 pages of business directives, an engrossing narrative emerges, as well as a coherent sense of the man’s character. That is Behlmer’s work.

As if shaping these memos into a page-turner weren’t contribution enough to film scholarship, Behlmer’s “Editor’s Foreword” is an essential essay on Selznick and his working methods. Regarding the book as a whole, the Newsweek reviewer had this to say at the time: “I can’t imagine how a book on the American movie business could be more illuminating, more riveting or more fun to read than this collection of David Selznick’s memos.”

For Behlmer in his own words from start to finish, read America’s Favorite Movies: Behind the Scenes, a series of chapter-length essays on the creation of classic films like Gunga Din, Casablanca, and the 1938 Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood. The title could as easily have been Rudy’s Favorite Movies, because a number of them are; when he was a lad, Behlmer saw the three-strip Technicolor Robin Hood, and hasn’t been the same since.

Behlmer returned to the memo-well with two other books, Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox and Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951): The Battles, The Brainstorms, and the Bickering from the Files of Hollywood’s Greatest Studio. Both are must-reads, made so by Behlmer’s editorial inside-warner-brosnotes and structuring as much as by the invaluable nature of the primary source materials themselves.

In addition to these books (and others), Behlmer has written the liner notes for what must be dozens of essential film music releases (he has a particular interest in the work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklos Rozsa, and can hum on demand the themes from any number of notable film scores of the Golden Age). Today, he is on call with the major film studios to provide commentary tracks for their classic DVD releases; you can hear him accompanying Gone With the Wind, among many other films. His commentary tracks consistently receive appreciative mention on the various DVD-review websites, since they are as content-rich, and as interesting, as his books. You’ll also see him occasionally turn up in a behind-the-scenes documentary on a DVD or on Turner Classic Movies, and in July he programmed a month’s worth of “big bands in the movies” for the channel (the swing bands of his youth being another of his interests).

Since the 1980s he has been married to the lovely Stacey Behlmer, née Endres, a partner of Rudy’s in film scholarship since she is a staff member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Margaret Herrick Library.

I first knew Rudy in the late seventies, when he was assigned to produce a commercial I’d written at Leo Burnett. It is hard for me to remember another person with whom I hit it off so instantly. I knew who he was before this, having read (and loved) the Selznick book when it came out a few years before. In my late twenties at the time, I was quite excited to be collaborating on a commercial with the author of that book. I think Rudy enjoyed meeting and working with someone of the “hippie generation” who, first of all, knew who he was; and second of all, while not knowing a tenth of what he knew, at least knew what he was on about. (And someone who could hum some great Korngold and Rozsa themes back at him, in our own version of “Stump the Band.”) We have remained friends through visits and phone calls all the years since, and my wife and I are now looking forward eagerly to our next visit with Rudy and Stacey in Los Angeles, in January.

Rudy, you are more than (in the words of a director we both worked with, about someone else) “a legend in your own lunchtime.” You are an example of continued productivity that is a model for us all. I suspect it has been your hope that your work would be a resource for film scholars in all generations to come. I also suspect that, since you’ve always had a pretty clear-eyed view of things, you figured it would. Well, you’re right.

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20 Comments on “The Exemplary Rudy Behlmer.”

  1. Mats says:

    Mr. Naron,

    Thanks for your column about Rudy Behlmer. I discovered Mr.Behlmer’s work recently while watching and enjoying classic films on DVD. On Gone With the Wind, Singin in the Rain, The Adventures of Robin Hood and so on, Mr. Behlmer was always there with his interesting commentary on the commentary tracks or the background movies. And, perhaps most importantly, you could tell that Mr. Behlmer is a guy who really loves the movies! (That means a lot to me in these cynical postmodern times when a lot of film critics care more about appearing cool than about movies.)

    I have now bought the books Inside Warner Bros., The Films of Errol Flynn, Hollywood’s Hollywood, and Behind the Scenes. Very good, these books are goldmines of information. 🙂

    You also write: “Rudy enjoyed meeting and working with someone of the “hippie generation””. I am a member of what is probably called “Generation X” in America, and my 14 year old son, with whom I watch all these old movies, and who also enjoys Mr. Behlmer’s comments, is of the “Generation Y”. So I think you’re right, Mr.Behlmer’s work will be appreciated by film lovers for many, many years to come.

    Please send my Regards to Mr. Behlmer next time you meet him, from a film enthusiast in Sweden.

    Stockholm obviously can’t compare with Hollywood when it comes to film history, but you can take a Greta Garbo walk if you ever visit.

    http://www.garboforever.com/Stockholm_Tour.htm

    Regards,
    Mats

  2. Ted Naron says:

    Thanks for writing, Mats. I will be seeing Rudy soon and will show him your comment, which I know will gratify him greatly.

    A friend of mine who has traveled widely says that Stockholm is her favorite of all cities she has been to. I look forward to experiencing it for myself (and doing the Garbo tour) someday.

    Best,

    Ted

  3. paul lapidus says:

    If you remember, please also tell Mr. Behlmer he has a devoted fan in New Jersey U.S.A. Mr. Behlmer’s comments on the movies (such as Robin Hood with Doug Fairbanks, Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din and so many more) are worth the entire cost of the DVD itself. It is so interesting to hear the background on the movies, and you can tell right away this is a man who really has done some research, has taken time and done hard work to learn all these things. I also enjoyed very much the David O. Selznick memos book that Mr. Behlmer researched and compiled. Two great men indeed! I know he is an old guy now (I am not too far behind) and wish him many more years of success. If the word “national treasure” is a cliché, it is not for this man! rgds

  4. Ted Naron says:

    Thanks for your comment, Paul. I will definitely relay it to Rudy, who I know will appreciate it.

  5. Chiemiffels says:

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  6. […] to Rudy Behlmer, who supplies a commentary for the Universal DVD of the film, this detail was apparently a […]

  7. Kelly says:

    While I’m sure Mr. Behlmer is a great man, a great writer, etc., I thought his commentary on “Singin’ in the Rain” was somewhat a jumbled mess, going off on various tangents that had nothing to do with what we were watching on screen.

    Why they didn’t let director Stanley Donen do most of the commentary, since he no doubt had the answers to some of the questions Behlmer kept asking, is truly confounding.

  8. Ezra says:

    Thank you for this article on Rudy Behlmer. I was lucky enough to take a film history class that he taught back in the 1980s at California State University, Northridge. I still have my tattered copy of America’s Favorite Movies from that class. The class was excellent, as is the book.

  9. Joe Kenney says:

    Hello, just discovered this after a google search on Mr. Behlmer. If you are still in contact with him, please ask whatever happened to his book “Jungle Tales of the Cinema.” It appears to have never been released, however I found a Photon magazine essay from 1972 on the Criterion Collection site that quotes the book: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/427-dramatic-principles-in-stop-motion-a-discussion-of-animation-in-the-fantasy-film I’ve always been interested in Golden Age Hollywood’s “jungle” movies, and I would love to read Mr. Behlmer’s take on them. Thanks!

  10. Ted Naron says:

    I will ask him, Joe, and let you know what he says.

  11. I recently posted a lengthy audio interview with Rudy on my podcast “The Commentary Track” and part two of that interview is coming up in a few weeks. You can find it (for free) on iTunes or you can listen directly from the website: http://www.thecommentarytrack.com. Hope you’ll give it a listen. He’s delightful, as always.

  12. […] Here's a more detailed look at Behlmer's work from someone who knows him, Ted Naron at A Blog of My Own. […]

  13. Robert Owen says:

    Hi Mr. Naron. I wonder if you can answer a question about Rudy Behlmer for me. During the years when AMC (American Movie Classics) ran classic movies, did Mr. Behlmer do audio announcements for upcoming movie titles on their schedule? For example, between movies, the AMC logo would appear on screen and a voice would say something like, “Coming up next, Tarzan Triumphs with Johnny Weissmuller”. Was that Rudy Behlmer? It sounds like him, to me.
    bOb

  14. Ted Naron says:

    HI Bob. Not sure who the voice was, but it wasn’t Rudy. I wonder if you’re thinking of Bob Dorian, who also did the on-camera introductions for AMC’s films during that time?

  15. Peter Wood says:

    Rudy Behlmer is a true gentleman and such a kind man!! We met about 15 years ago or more at the Margaret Herrick Library where he inscribed all of his books for me which I carried all the way from New York. We had a long conversation about Warner Brothers and Hollywood. I will always remember our meeting.

  16. Douglas says:

    I’ll never forget Rudy when he taught ‘Movie History’ at Art Center College of Design…1972. His enthusiasm was electric and inspiring. He showed us a film one night and he told us how great it was…I was a bit naive then….”Citizen Kane”…Rudy was always on target when it came to movies and their history. He also showed us a compilation of Busby Berkeley dance numbers….wow..talk about too much ice cream. I remember the little private talk I had with him about Fellini. Tell Rudy how fondly he’s remembered.

  17. Lisa McCarty says:

    I remember Rudy with such fondness. I recall the times he visited our home and played the reel-to-reel film, The Adventures of Robin Hood — I don’t think I could ever watch that film too many times.

    Please send Rudy my love —

    Lisa McCarty
    daughter of Cliff McCarty

  18. Helen Nouguier Lazorisak says:

    I remember Rudy from the Lafayette Grammar School in San Francisco. From 1st through 6th grade he wrote in the then popular,” Big Little Books”, creating stories, doing the illustrations, but still managing to appear attentive to the teacher, It was apparent in the 1930’s that he was no ordinary classmate, but on a private creative journey. We met briefly at a high school reunion many years later. He was immediately recognizable because he had changed so little, and politely acted as though he remembered all who greeted him.


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