'Magnificent Obsession' Book: Film Fans' 'Outrageous History' from Classic Hollywood Screenwriters to Gay Porn Actors

Magnificent Obsession book: Lloyd C. Douglas inspired title + film fans focusMagnificent Obsession book by Anthony Slide. Whereas Lloyd C. Douglas' 1929 Magnificent Obsession book dealt with a playboy's urge to restore the eyesight of the woman he had accidentally blinded, Anthony Slide's latest explores the lives and times of movie buffs. Now, are TwilightThe Dark Knight, and The Avengers fans as consumed with passion for their idols as, say, the warring members of the Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy fan clubs? As Slide explains, these had “members recording the number of close-ups each respective star received in each new film, and noting the amount of time given on screen to each star's singing.”

See previous post: “Movie Buff History: Magnificent Obsession Book Author Anthony Slide Discusses the Lives & Times of Film Fanatics.”

Eclectic array of gay movie buffs: From classic Hollywood screenwriters & porn actors to D.W. Griffith players & coal miner's sons

  • Reading your Magnificent Obsession book, it felt like a larger than expected percentage of the movie buff crowd has consisted of gay guys, ranging from classic Hollywood screenwriters (DeWitt Bodeen) and adult film actors (Larry Lee Holland, Rick Sandford) to coal miner's sons (Chaw Mank) and D.W. Griffith players (André Beranger/George Beranger). I know you haven't conducted a scientific study on the issue, but based on your own experiences/research, would you say that is true? If so, do you have a (layman's) view as to why?

There can be no question that an unproportionate number of film buffs are gay, and similarly an unproportionate number of film buffs are male.

Why? I don't know. I think it would take a psychologist to explain or at at least hypothesize.

Presumably, it has something to do with how a gay man thinks, his desire for the glamour that movies represent, a fascination with a past that he never experienced. You could suggest lots of things — and be remarkably patronizing in the process.

I really don't know if I should be saying this, but many readers of the book have commented to me that it is funny, but also that it is exceedingly sad. They are, of course, correct. But can one somehow say that many gay men are sad within their lives? One could, but it would be offensive and hurtful.

Can behind-the-scenes talent be target of movie buffs' 'magnificent obsession'?

  • In general, it seems that movie buffs have focused their attention on film stars and supporting players and/or filmmakers, no matter how obscure. But what about behind-the-scenes talent such as screenwriters, cinematographers, production designers, and film editors? Have they also been the target of movie buffs' passion?

In a word, “No.”

I don't think film buffs are that interested in behind-the-scenes talent. Those are not glamorous occupations.

I don't think that one looks at, say, Louis B. Mayer and finds him attractive. And that reminds me that many, many years ago, the notorious biographer Charles Higham wrote a biography of Louis B. Mayer. I mentioned to Charles that the MGM chief was not a handsome man. Charles indignantly responded that he found Mayer incredibly handsome and attractive. And then I realized that Mayer looked quite a bit like Higham.

So…. It is all in the eye of the beholder.

Destructive film fanatic

  • In your Magnificent Obsession book, you discuss movie buffs who have helped to preserve film history – e.g., Warner Bros. film librarian Merle Ray Harlin, who assisted in the restoration of George Cukor's 1954 version of A Star Is Born. Have there been cases of movie buffs who acted in the opposite manner; in other words, who were responsible for the destruction of historically significant movie-related materials?

The most obvious example of a film buff whose actions destroyed film is Alex Gordon, who would always boast of the number of films at 20th Century Fox that he preserved.

In fact, Alex was more interested in making 16mm prints for sale to collectors. If he came across a film that only survived in an incomplete print, he would make a 16mm copy for his friend William K. Everson and throw away the original. Tragic.

Thus, Frank Borzage's The River [1928] exists only in 16mm form, incomplete, and in a far from pristine copy. When I was at the AFI, I was able to borrow Everson's print and the Library of Congress did copy it. And so, at least, the incomplete film is preserved in a public institution.

Eventually, the studio found out what Alex was doing, and he was fired and permanently banned from the lot.

Alec Guinness Star Wars: How to deal with difficult + uncooperative knightAlec Guinness in Star Wars. According to Magnificent Obsession book author Anthony Slide, Best Actor Oscar winner Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957) “could be difficult and uncooperative.” So, when he needed to contact Guinness for information on veteran British actor Ernest Thesiger (The Old Dark House, Bride of Frankenstein), Slide made a point of addressing Guinness, CBE, as “Sir Alec,” while adding that he had read Guinness' autobiography, Blessings in Disguise – whose title at least in part refers to Star Wars, a project/movie the Obi-Wan Kenobi actor looked upon with derision but that earned him a steady income for the rest of his life.

The view from the pedestal + dealing with the 'difficult' Sir Alec

  • You've been friends with numerous film stars and filmmakers of decades past – e.g., Alice Terry, Mary Brian, Marsha Hunt, Jean Renoir, Jane Wyatt, Viola Dana, Rose Hobart, Esther Ralston. How did they feel about movie buffs? How did they feel about film historians? In their minds, was there a difference? And what were they like when they first met you?

Back in the last quarter of the 20th Century, there was not the same interest in silent players as there is today. There was not an endless parade of autograph hunters, there were not endless invitations to screenings, etc. So, often, when one approached the actor or actress for an interview, he or she was quite amenable.

I think you did have to be professional in one's approach. One did not, for example, ask for an autograph — that would change one's stature from historian to buff. And I have to confess it was somewhat frustrating not to be able to ask for an autograph.

I don't think the players actually would have stopped to consider if one was a historian or a buff. And often, it would depend on how one approached a performer. One had to agree with his or her politics, wrong as they might be, and one had to prove a general empathy with the actor or actress.

I recall once writing to Alec Guinness for information about Ernest Thesiger. I had heard that Guinness could be difficult and uncooperative. So I made a point of telling him that I had, of course, read his autobiography. I knew he was very proud of his knighthood. And so, instead of writing, “Dear Mr. Guinness,” I was careful to write, “Dear Sir Alec.” The correct form of address for a knight.

Generous film collector Herb Graff

  • What was your most pleasant or positive interaction with a movie buff?

I will always remember with affection visits from and with film collector Herb Graff. He was a wonderful raconteur. And he had a great film collection. He would always show up at our house to see films, accompanied by one celebrity or another, including [songwriter/playwright] Adolph Green and [composer/actor] Albert Hague.

At first, I was always suspicious as to if he really knew the celebrities whom he talked about, but he really did know them and they genuinely liked him. He once invited me to a New York club for lunch, and I found myself sitting at a table with Herb, [author/professor] Isaac Asimov, [author/newscaster] Lowell Thomas, and 1930s singer Lanny Ross. Lanny brought along a signed photograph for me — “Well, you do, don't you?”

Magnificent Obsession book: Rock Hudson Jane Wyman realize love + medical skills = eyesightMagnificent Obsession book to movies: Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in Douglas Sirk's 1954 version, which earned Wyman a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Anthony Slide's Magnificent Obsession book got its title from Lloyd C. Douglas' 1929 novel, which led to two popular movie adaptations. The story revolves around a playboy who accidentally causes a woman to lose her eyesight; consumed by guilt, he becomes obsessed with helping her to see again. At the movies, Robert Taylor (1935) and Rock Hudson (1954) played the obsessed hero; Irene Dunne and Jane Wyman were, respectively, the targets of their obsession.

Creepy movie buff: Charlton Heston director was the nastiest of them all

  • What about the most unpleasant/creepiest?

Coincidentally, the most unpleasant or creepiest of film buffs that I knew well was also a film collector. His name was David Bradley, who lived in Los Angeles and had the largest private collection of 16mm prints possibly in the world.

He was quite well-off and had been a film director, having made two student films starring Charlton HestonPeer Gynt [1941] and Julius Caesar [1950], and what was voted the worst film of all time, [the made-for-TV] They Saved Hitler's Brain [1968]. (David was quite proud of the honor bestowed on his film, and I recall his telephoning me the day it was announced in the trade papers, full of enthusiasm.)

David was an unabashed racist, frequently using the “N” word. He was also a bully and a loudmouth. Each New Year's Day, he would host a party at which various old-time celebrities would appear. Their names were placed on seats, and only those with named seats could sit. Everyone else had to stand. Guests might include [The Iron Horse actress] Madge Bellamy, [The Three Musketeers actress] Mary MacLaren, [The Phantom of the Opera actress] Mary Philbin, [opera singer and The Great Waltz actress] Miliza Korjus, or [Lost Horizon actor] Sam Jaffe.

David would film the event, making endless retakes, on 16mm film. He would then screen the film of last year's event, pointing out all those who had died in the intervening year. He would have a flashlight, and when someone living and present appeared on screen, he would shine the light in their face, announcing their presence at his house.

He would fly his mother in from Chicago to prepare the food — sandwiches — and I recall one year, when the exhausted old lady was sitting in the kitchen, chatting with a friend. David was visibly getting more and more angry at the background noise, and suddenly yelled at his mother, “Shut your mouth or I will smash your fucking teeth down your fucking throat.” Such charm.

He was a monster, and, happily, seems to be largely forgotten.

By the way, David left his film collection to Indiana University, and I believe many of the home movies of his New Year's party are available for viewing on Indiana's website.

'Star Wars' & 'Twilight' fans + Captain America & Batman nerds vs. the Jeanette MacDonald & Deanna Durbin crowd

  • Lastly, what would differentiate fans who worship at the altar of Jeanette MacDonald, Deanna Durbin, Lon Chaney, or Sal Mineo from early 21st-century moviegoers who go gaga over the Twilight franchise, Star Wars prequels and sequels, or Marvel/DC superhero flicks like The AvengersJustice League, and Wonder Woman?

I really can't answer this question.

I might say it is a lack of passion or enthusiasm visible among the fans of Marvel and DC superheroes. But I have to acknowledge an overwhelming passion among the Star Wars fans. (Check out my appearance in the documentary The People vs. George Lucas.)

I suppose I date myself by stating I can understand getting excited at Janet Gaynor's performance in A Star Is Born, but I cannot work up any enthusiasm to see Lady Gaga in the same role.


Magnificent Obsession book cover image: University Press of Mississippi.

Alec Guinness Star Wars image: 20th Century Fox.

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman Magnificent Obsession image: Universal Pictures.

Magnificent Obsession Book: Film Fans' 'Outrageous History' from Classic Hollywood Screenwriters to Gay Porn Actors” last updated in October 2018.

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