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Rambling about Thanksgiving dinner

Every other year my in-laws are in town for Thanksgiving and we go to Jim Brown’s house in the Glendale hills for dinner.  He’s the uncle to my brother-in-law. And no, it’s not the Jim Brown you’re thinking of; this Jim Brown didn’t play football and it’s not the casual name for the legendary singer (obviously).  This is “Our Man In Hollywood” Jim Brown, the retired Hollywood reporter for the Today Show.

His home is a nice ranch style home with a million dollar view of Glendale and in the distance, springing magnificently out of endless strip mall sprawl, are the high-rises of LA.  Looking directly west off his back porch is the best sunset in the greater Los Angeles area, see the picture below.But the most interesting thing here isn’t the view and it isn’t the house. It’s the man inside and his brilliant library of Hollywood books and biographies, most of them signed. I stood in awe in his library, looking at a wall of books.  I didn’t know they were signed when I started thumbing through them but when I opened the Hitchcock Truffaut book, the epic book-length conversation between Hitchcock and Truffaut, I was surprised to see a large swooping autograph from Hitchcock complete with a simple sketch of the iconic Hitchcock silhouette. Then, tucked into the lower corner was a small note to Jim scribbled and signed by Truffaut in handwriting that is barely legible.  Amazing. And that wasn’t all.  The other prize gem in the collection was an autobiography of Orson Welles, again signed. But this one came with a story.

Jim was thrilled to interview Orson Welles, who was very open and congenial during the interview.  He agreed to sign the book and wanted to do a quick drawing of himself on the first page. The sketch was rough, but Jim liked it, and continued the interview.  As the interview came to an end Welles asked for the book back. Jim was reluctant to give him the book, he asked why. Welles wasn’t pleased with the drawing and wanted to have time to finish it, promised that he would send the book back to Jim if Jim would leave an address.  Jim left the book and the address assuming he’d never see the book again.  Over a month later the book arrived, with this odd drawing of Welles, done with in pen and then painted with what looked like water-colors – and it’s not the young Welles that we all remember. This the bearded, rotund Welles from F For Fake and the drawing is perfect.

During dinner Jim was tending to all the food.  He was very quiet, didn’t talk to many of the guests and at the table he sat at the head with his wife and didn’t participate in much of the conversation.  He gets around slowly now, looking uninterested in much of what is being said and just concentrated on make sure we all had enough food and wine. When I got up to hit the bathroom I passed again through the library and spotted a book written by an old professor of mine, Paul Seydor.  It was “Peckinpah: The Western Films.” I returned to the table and mentioned to Jim that Seydor was a professor of mine and Jim lit up.  He didn’t much care for Peckinpah, calling him “crazy ol’ Sam,” but this began a film conversation that went on long enough I’m sure it eventually bored everyone else at the table.  Jim went from quietly eating his dinner to telling tales about flying to England to meet with David Lean, having long-winded conversations with Roger Corman and how memorable Sam Fuller’s voice was in person.

Jim is the sober version of Mank. Hearing his stories reminded me of sitting in Tom Mankiewicz’s class. The only difference being that Mank loved the seedy stories of the underbelly of Hollywood while Jim liked the nostalgic, prettier stories of Hollywood. It’s the difference between a film directed by Frank Capra or some Sam Fuller noir picture.

But something else dawned on me during my dinner with Jim; my true knowledge of American films before the 70’s is lacking when compared to Jim’s.  I knew more about the European filmmakers than he did, and that’s when I became a little upset with my film education. Why had I spent so much time learning and watching the films from the French New Wave and from the film school brats of the 70’s and not the films that inspired them? In the Cahiers du Cinema conversation between the notebook’s founders they exalt the American directors for their work as they deride the directors and writers of their own country.

So, for “Our Man In Hollywood” Jim Brown I’m going to dedicate some time to revisit the American filmmakers of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. I haven’t seen the Lubitsch musicals or his To Be Or Not To Be with Carole Lombard and Jack Benny – nor have I seen the Golddigger musicals, but I will now.  I’m going to explore the noirs and westerns that Jim told me I cannot go another day without seeing and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Cheers to a wonderful Thanksgiving…

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