The Exemplary Rudy Behlmer.Posted: November 28, 2008
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 so 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 notes 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.