William K. Everson Interview

Talking film, what else?

by Alice Black, Sandra Gallant Volume 6, Issue 2 / February 2002 34 minutes (8286 words)

Interview Conducted in Montreal, June 1993

A.B : I guess we just want to start with some background. To begin, how did you start watching films?. I’ve read somewhere that you lived outside London.

W.K : It was actually in Hays, which is the area where London airport is now so it is about 15 miles outside London. A fairly big town but there were only one or two theatres. I started seeing films there – the first one I know I saw was when I was about 2 1/2 or 3 years old. Of course I didn’t understand dialogue then, I was just seeing for the sake of seeing the movement and the excitement. Luckily my mother was a great movie fan, my father was not but my mother was so she took me quite regularly.

A.B : Do you remember what the first film you saw was?

W.K.: The first film I saw don’t remember. The first one I remember seeing was a British film musical called the MAID IN THE MOUNTAINS, which is a 1932 film. A terrible film, but at the time it impressed me because somehow I knew that it was British, probably my mother told me and I knew that it was about Italy. It was about mountains and it had a kind of unreality to it which was not English and it impressed me with the possibilities and the magic of what movies could do. I saw it again only about fifteen years ago – a dreadful film – but I can see why I liked it as a kid. The film that I think was important to me was John Ford’s THE WHOLE TOWN IS TALKING in 1935. Not only did it have Edward G. Robinson in a dual role which sort of again reinforced the idea of magic of movies, but I had not seen that kind of thing before. I suddenly realized in that film that I was understanding dialogue and reacting to it. It was a whole new dimension opening up to me. So that was a very key film for me. From that point on I tended to be a little more selective with what I saw.

S.G. : A lot of people I talk to tend to have this one film that made them want to study film. Would that film be the one?

Everson with a certain Marilyn Monroe

W.K. : No, I would say that was a film that sort of turned the light on for me. I think the key film for me was OF MICE AND MEN, in 1939. It was the first film that ever made me cry. I was very moved by it even though it was a plot that I could not really relate to any of my experiences, and it was not as though I was understanding it fully or the predicaments it presented but it did move me very much. It also turned me on to reading more of the novels and stories that the films I saw were based on. Also I realised that it was directed by Lewis Milestone, and I knew he had directed THE FRONT PAGE which I had seen earlier in the thirties and which I’d always liked. So I began to be aware that there was a connection between good films and good directors. Also 1939 was the year of STAGECOACH which impressed me a lot because I always liked westerns, and still do, but at that time this was the first big western I’d seen for a long while, for there weren’t many in the thirties.

S.G. : Were you also aware that John Ford had directed STAGECOACH?

W.K. : Well, I think I was because at that time I was reading film magazines and reviews, although elementary ones. I don’t think Ford meant that much to me then because I had not really at that point seen a lot of his earlier classic stuff. I mean I’d seen the more recent John Ford films, like probably the first one I’d seen in the course of its release was the PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND and then things like SUBMARINE PATROL after that. I did not get around to seeing the INFORMER until much later. So I don’t think Ford himself made that much of an impression on me at that time. Of course it wasn’t long before the great ones like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY came along so I was very quickly aware of Ford then.

A.B.: Did you then immigrate to the U.S. when you were 21?

W.K.: Actually I was still twenty, I was 21 when I got here.

A.B.: Why did you decide to come?

W.K.: Well, a number of reasons. One, I had been in the film business before I went into the army and when I came out a couple of very good friends of mine had come over to America. They came over in 1946 or so and they are still very good friends of mine. One is working with Gene Autry the other one is a producer and they did fairly well over here. So I wanted to join them because they were very close friends and, secondly, I was very bored right after the war. It [England] was not a very pleasant place to live, which wouldn’t have bothered me except there was virtually no activity in the way of old films. I mean, outside of the British Film Institute or little film societies, there was no way to see and study old film. I ran a little film society and very quickly exhausted all the things I wanted to see just by booking them. And I tried to get into writing about film, probably just as well that I didn’t because I couldn’t have been a very good writer in those days, and I did a little column for my local newspaper which was very opinionated but fun to do. I tried to write for magazines like Sight and Sound and one or two others but they were very selective and really didn’t care at all about film history but just wanted appraisals of British films or great Soviet films. Hollywood history didn’t interest them at all. So there was just nothing going on in that field. Even the industry itself wasn’t very exciting. I mean, all the people I knew who had jobs in the industry with me at that time, I’m talking now about 1947-48, pretty much stayed in those jobs in the intervening four years. I mean they got the raise every year but they never made much progress. In the British business unless you were absolutely the top and had your own money to invest in something, which could be very dangerous because you could lose it very easily, you just stayed in a little niche there with no room to branch out and move around. Kevin Brownlow has done it but he’s the only one I know of, and of course it took him a long time to do it. So, I was frankly getting quite bored over there and my mother had died so I didn’t have the strong ties with her to keep me there. If she had lived I would have probably stayed there for a while longer. But I came to the States and was lucky fairly quickly. I started work for Allied Artists doing publicity about a month after I got here.

S.G.: Working for these studios was when you first had a chance to get films of your own?

W.K.: Only indirectly. When I first came here I met a lot of people, some people from Warner Bros., Bob Youngson who made all those documentaries, first shorts – the Golden Age of comedy films, Laurel and Hardy – I met a lot of people like that who had their own collections and I had not realized until then that it was possible to do that on my sort of level. I thought you had to be a millionaire or a movie mogul to do it. So I started collecting in a very small way. Actually when I went to work with Allied Artists I could have easily walked away with their entire film vault because I was in charge of it. I did take two or three things when I left that I knew they would never need again and then to my chagrin after I left they just junked everything. I could have walked out with five hundred prints and they would have been delighted to get rid of them. However, I went on collecting through the years, gradually building up connections with European archives and they traded material with me. Then I did jobs, like for Paramount I worked on a film called the LOVE GODDESSES which was a documentary. Through that I was able to print up a lot of items that I wanted, ostensibly research for the film, but films I needed myself. Doing work for Janus Films, I’d write catalogues and they would pay me off in prints that they didn’t need rather than cash. It helped them and it helped me. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of money on film but I’ve also been very lucky in getting caches of film like that. As the years went by I sort of got to be known as somebody who was a clearing house for this kind of material, people died and they would will collections to me, which sometimes got to be a bit of a nuisance because you would suddenly be confronted with a thousand films which had not been catalogued which would take up a tremendous amount of time. But I usually try to field these in different directions. Some would go to New York University, some to my own collection, some an archive in Europe, so they were all well placed.

S.G.: Your personal collection would number how many films?

W.K.: I’m not sure exactly because I’m constantly changing and adjusting it but it’s about 5000 features and about as many shorts.

S.G.: Where do you keep these films?

W.K.: Well, I’ve got a very big apartment, fortunately. All the closets are full of film, I don’t have a clothes closet, its all film. I’ve taken a vault downtown, a good percentage of my stuff is stored in the vault and there’s always a lot of material out on loan, and down at N.Y.U. So, it is never in one place at the same time.

A.B.: Do you distribute some of the films in your collection?

W.K.: I don’t distribute at all because, a) I don’t have the rights to the films and b) these days even with so much of the material not in distribution any more, if I just let it go out it would be shredded in no time by inept projectionists. So, I’m always happy to loan stuff to people I know like Peter Rist here, or the Pacific Film Archive, or the BFI – stuff goes out all the time – but if somebody calls me and says “we hear you have a print of so-and-so” I usually, unless I know them, say well yes but the print is out right now or something.

S.G.: Are your films catalogued?

W.K.: I’ve got a list in a sense, so that I know which box they are in and where they are filed, but I don’t have a list that I send around because it’s never up to date with changes always being made and secondly it’s kind of risky because there is a lot of stuff there that should not be there legally and an awful lot of lazy professors at N.Y.U. who see a list like that and would suddenly decide to build a whole course around material that’s there, rather than designing their course and then seeing what gaps are there and coming to me for the gaps. So I don’t have a complete list but I know what I’ve got. We just bought a computer which my wife is going to use – It is not because I’m just too old and too set in my ways to use a computer – but she’s going to put the whole collection on computer so there will be a record of what’s where.

A.B.: You show some of your prints at the New School?

W.K.: I have a film series at the New School on Friday nights. It’s useful because they give me a complete carte blanche. As long as the series makes money they don’t really care what I show and it is useful for me to show things there that really can’t fit into my classes at N.Y.U., so students come to the New School and see stuff there.

S.G.: So you do the screenings at the New School and you teach at N.Y.U. How many courses do you do a semester?

W.K.: It used to be three classes a semester but they’ve now changed it to three and two so that I’ll do three one semester and two the next.

S.G.: That must keep you quite busy.

W.K.: I’m still busy because I try to bring in new courses as often as I can.

A.B.: Do you often do things like special screenings at other institutions?

W.K.: Oh yes. Usually over the summer. It’s tough to break into the N.Y.U. schedule. They’d be willing to let me do it – once and a while I have to. I was doing a seminar in South Carolina last April and May right in the middle of the Easter break which wouldn’t interfere with N.Y.U. at all but that week they had a tremendous blizzard and everything was cancelled so they’ve rescheduled that for October. So there, it will be during school time but N.Y.U. will be prepared to do some alterations so I’ll prepare my class in advance and show films that particular week that don’t necessarily need my being there. I try to get to festivals occasionally. I’ve been going to Pordenone in Italy and I’d like to get there again. It’s at a very bad time, at the beginning of the school year which is why Peter Rist [film professor at Concordia University, ed.] has never been down and why I can’t go this year [ed. Rist has made it down to Pordenone since then, on several occasions]. I make a point of not teaching on Monday nights so I always have long weekends so I can get away to places like Harvard, Berkeley and Hollywood and do three or four day sessions with a lot of film screenings.

S.G.: Just continuing on festivals…we go to the Syracuse festival. Do you play an active part in that?

The Cinefest screening room

W.K.: Well, I play an active part with Phil Serling. The minute it is over, he begins to call wanting to know your opinion for the next year and so on. So he’s constantly on the phone. I recommend certain films that I get and usually he uses anything from five to ten of my films. And of course I do the catalogue notes for them [and some wonderful introductions, ed.]. Otherwise I’m not that actively involved. I just did the Columbus festival this year too, which I don’t normally do about two weeks back. This Saturday I’m leaving for Luxembourg to do a week of Hal Roach films at the Cinematheque.

A.B.: Are you working on any books right now?

W.K.: I had a book out at the end of last year which was an updated version of my Pictorial History of the Western which is twenty five years old so I brought it up to date, up as far as the DANCES WITH WOLVES. I didn’t get to the UNFORGIVEN. I’ve just finished a book on Screwball comedy and there are a couple of other ones in the works.

S.G.: What did you think of UNFORGIVEN?

W.K.: I was kind of annoyed at first, but I think I was more annoyed at the New York critics who were absolutely ecstatic and raving on about what a great film this was and how totally different it was from anything ever made before. I mean it was bigger but it wasn’t necessarily better or different and I really was kind of irked when I first saw the film, but then I realized I was really more annoyed at the critics than at the film. It’s a very good film, and I liked it, but it took me a little while to sort of settle down and regain my composure.

A.B.: Is there any particular kind of film that you think should be more recognized and should be taught more?

W.K.: Well, there are certain directors that have been totally under appreciated, I mean James Whale, his whole output could be done very easily in one semester, its just right for one semester. It is not easily accessible, I have most of them now and I’m missing about two films. There are certain directors, like James Whale, that I think should be promoted more. I think B films should be shown and appreciated. I mean, nobody really knows what B films are and they just sort of “shhlop” them off as being not worthy of attention. When they are shown often the films they show aren’t B films anyway. I like doing courses on B films or specializing in directors like Robert Flory who were particularly good at them. That’s an area that I would like to recommend be done more, but on the other hand the prints aren’t available so it’s sort of a vicious circle. I can do it because I have all the prints I need but it’s no good saying “why don’t you show B films?” because then they come to me for the prints.

S.G.: Just to return to the writing of books, why do you think it is so hard to write a good history of film because there are so many film history books….?

W.K.: Of course now the field is so vast you really almost have to specialize. Most of the surveys have been done. There are still one or two that have not been done. I’d love to see a good survey book on British comedy, one has not been done. Today, there is so much material, so many facilities available that weren’t before. You can get grants, you can get the Library of Congress and the Academy of Arts and Sciences to co-operate with you which they wouldn’t before. Anybody doing a book now has tremendous resources available which fifteen years ago you didn’t have. So, its not more difficult to write a book, its easier to write a book if anything. On the other hand it is difficult to find and convince a publisher that there is a market for it. Every time we suggest a book on some totally new subject they say “Well, why don’t you do another book on Cary Grant or another book on Bogart? It’ll sell”. And it probably will but there is no need for it. The one I’ve just done on Screwball comedy I don’t think anybody needed but the publishers came to me and said, would I do it and I said I’d much rather do something else and they said “well we’re going to do it anyway. So if you want to do it”. So, I figured, well, if I do it at least I can get in some films that aren’t normally covered. It’ll be fresh material even though the field is familiar. I’ve tried for a long while to get a good book on B films done, but publishers aren’t really interested, what they really want is nostalgia and fun. I’d love to get a book done on people like George Arliss, who were essentially theatre people who had a tremendous career making theatrical films. Arliss especially. Of course he did his autobiography but that was done many years ago. There are a lot of areas left that have to be tapped. Its tough getting publishers interested.

A.B.: Could you tell us, is there one particular film that you thought was the most important that you managed to find and bring into your collection?

W.K.: Well, I suppose the most important would be THE SOULS OF SATAN by Griffith because that was thought to be totally lost. It was supposedly destroyed and I found it quite by accident when I was working on LOVE GODDESSES for Paramount. They denied having it but I found the negative there and it was still in pristine shape. It was just about to decompose and we made a print very quickly and then the negative went. The Museum of Modern Art made a 35 mm print from it but they made it too late. So, my 16 mm has been the stud print for copying around the world. It’s not a great film but it does refute a lot of what was said about Griffith declining. It’s a very disciplined film, and a very interesting film for Griffith. Another one I’d say would be ONE MORE SPRING which I think we ran here. It’s a 1935 film about the depression and to me its one of the definitive depression films. Its an extremely interesting film directed by Henry King who was very much a specialist in Americana. So its important from a King point of view as well as an American. Because it was based on a book and Fox lost the rights to it they had no interest in preserving it. I got to the 35 mm print just as it was virtually on its last year, one more summer of heat would have destroyed it. I had my 16 reversal made then. It is only a reversal because obviously I can’t afford to pour money into 35 mm negatives, but at least it’s a preservation print that people can see. It doesn’t have the quality I would like but it is as good as you’re going to get.

A.B.: Is that often how the procedure works, to make a reversal print?

W.K.: Well, the procedure hopefully is to persuade somebody to make a 35 negative. I make the reversal usually so I can see what’s there and also so I can use the print in class. I wouldn’t do it with a film I didn’t know something about because its very expensive but if its got a director that I think is important, or if it’s on a theme I think is important I don’t necessarily look at it first, I’ll take a chance and finance the making of it. Usually it works out very well. As I mentioned the other day with regards THE VALIENT, if I had not done that, with the 35 print lost, we’d have nothing at all.

S.G.: These days how much does it cost?

W.K.: For 16 mm it depends entirely on the length of the job, its by the foot, but these days it works out to about $70 for 10 minutes. The average feature length film is about six reels so its 6 times 70 for a film like THE VALIENT. So, even that is quite expensive.

A.B.: Are there still films at the studios in vaults?

W.K.: Oh yes, there’s a lot of stuff there. They’ve copied all the stuff that in theory is important because of the film’s reputation or because of the director or whatever. But there are still films that they’ve probably never looked at because they don’t have the promised reputation or director and yet which might be absolutely stunning films. Now a film like HOT SATURDAY for example [a 1932 William Seiter film, ed.], although it is in no danger, that’s the kind of film that if it were on a list for preservation people probably wouldn’t bother to look at it initially because they go for the bigger names first.

S.G.: I remember reading an article about archives preserving film by putting them onto laser disks…

W.K.: I’m not sure about laser disks, that’s still relatively new. Its certainly better than video cassette because the laser disk quality is just stunning. I don’t know why they have not done more of putting films on video cassette because it is relatively cheap and then you can see what you’ve got and you can weigh one against the other and see where the damage is and what the importance of the film is. Video cassettes are an incredibly valuable tool in that sense, laser disks give much better quality. Of course neither of them have been proven to be of indefinite life yet and a lot of video tapes are already beginning to decompose.

A.B.: Is there any film in particular that you would like to find?

W.K.: Well, there are some obvious ones, but the fact that we’ve all been looking for them means there’s a slim chance of them showing up. Like THE DEVIL’S PASS KEY by Stroheim, FOUR DEVILS by Murnau, THE GREATEST THING IN LIFE by Griffith, THE ESCAPE by Griffith, HOLLYWOOD by James Cruze. There’s always the chance some projectionist might have kept one in his garage and he will suddenly die one day and his widow will discover it. But that’s about the only likelihood because most of the established sources and vaults have all been scoured by now.

S.G.: Along these lines, the story about the BFI catalogue of their hundred most wanted, you’ve got three I believe?

W.K.: I’ve got three of them, Kevin Brownlow has one and I know there is one other in circulation. The annoying thing about that catalogue is about 72 or 73 of the films are Warner Bros. films and about 25 years ago Warner Bros. offered all their collection to the BFI and the BFI wanted to select and Warner Bros said “no, take everything or nothing” and BFI said “fine, nothing” so they junked everything. The very least the BFI could have done was to have said “alright, we’ll take everything” and then themselves taken only what they could afford to keep. But there’s some tremendous stuff in there. At least half a dozen Michael Powell’s. The Warner Bros. films were very carefully made, they were not just made to comply with legal requirements. There was some first rate filmmaking in there. Many of them were remakes of American films. It’s extremely interesting to see an American Bette Davis vehicle suddenly transposed into a British rural milieu. It is completely changed but the basic plot remained.

A.B.: Those would have been for quota quickies?

W.K.: Yes, except that some of the Warner quota quickies ran as much as eight reels. They were good pictures and one or two of them were released over here, like MR.COHEN TAKES A WALK which is a charming film. Its an absolute tragedy that the B.F.I. could have had them all.

A.B.: When they junk them do they just throw them out?

W.K.: They destroy them in a way that retrieves the silver unless they are just so far decomposed that they will just burn them…carefully.

A.B.: Peter asked you to tell us some stories…what were they?

S.G.: …about your “night in jail” story.

W.K.: Oh, I wasn’t in jail…You can get most of this from The Parade’s Gone By, Kevin Brownlow’s book. Basically what happened was that when MGM opened the new BEN HUR it got absolutely rave reviews, but I thought it was such a dud, so dull and boring and I really resented the fact that the critics had been sort of brainwashed. It was a time when Metro was in trouble and it had to have a big money-maker and clearly all the critics in New York had been paid off, told to give good reviews. All of them were saying what a great film it was. So I decided just to show the silent one, just to my little film society to show them that even though the silent one wasn’t great, it was so much better than the talkie. So I showed it to my film society and unfortunately at the time there was a man called Raymond Rohauer whom you probably don’t know but he was the king of film thieves and pirating, he was always in trouble with people in the industry, always creating lawsuits and so on. He was in trouble with MGM and in order to show his goodwill he said “By the way Bill Everson is showing the old BEN HUR at the film society.” He tried to make himself out to be a good guy with MGM. They sent the FBI along, so the FBI sat in on the screening. I couldn’t deny I’d shown it. It was an old print and luckily it was a fairly small attendance, it was just my film society [The Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, ed.]. I wasn’t trying to bring in people from outside. I just wanted the occasion to show it, write programme notes, and give people the chance to compare one against the other. I was only charging $1 admission to cover costs. Luckily even before the show started I said, “This isn’t a very good print, so if anybody isn’t satisfied after the show I will happily give you your dollar back.” – which was useful. The FBI presented themselves afterwards and pointed out that it was an illegal showing which I knew full well and wanted my name and address and everything else. I was more concerned about them paying a visit to my home and seeing all the other illicit things I had. Although I didn’t really mind loosing BEN HUR if need be I didn’t want to loose all the Keaton stuff and all the Lillian Gish stuff. So I spent that night literally shuffling all over town getting my prints out of my apartment to friend’s houses which turned out to be totally unnecessary. I didn’t know until later that the FBI has to have a warrant for a specific film and that they can’t just come in and take things. They never did come back anyway, at least not to the apartment. But they did start a file on me and they threatened that there might be legal action. I turned the print over to them just to sort of keep them at bay in a sense, which they took and I never got it back although I did get a better print later. But in the meantime, a number of people I knew that had worked at MGM including, King Vidor and Lillian Gish, who were good friends, knew about it and wrote strong letters to MGM saying I was a good guy and that they should leave me alone, that I’d probably done more to help MGM than to hurt them. The whole thing was dropped. Rohauer was bragging that I’d been thrown in jail or that I’d been deported or that it was all his doing. But Kevin writes about it in the book The Parade’s Gone By almost as if Lillian Gish were riding through the night on a white horse to rescue me. It wasn’t quite like that.

S.G.: The other story was “King Kong at the Naval Base” during a bombing?

W.K.: Not during a bombing no. That was something else. No it was just that I had not seen KING KONG since 1934 and hardly remembered it and there was a sudden attempt or thought about reissuing it during the war, partly because new horror films were banned but they could reissue older ones. They arranged a sneak preview, a sneak showing at Chatham which is the naval base on the south east coast. They figured it would be the kind of film that the naval personal would all flock to and that they could tell right away if it was going to be a winner or not. There was no advertising about it but luckily a friend of mine who was in the navy and was stationed at Chatham let me know about it. This was just before the invasion when all the coastal areas were blocked off and you couldn’t get there without passes or special permission unless you sort of sneaked in at night. In order to see KING KONG I had to travel overnight on a milk train and get there about three or four in the morning and then wait around all day for the theatre to open. I saw it every performance and then came back the same way the next night on the same milk train. So I was away about three nights just for the sake of seeing the one film, which would have been worth it if it had not been reissued. It was such a huge success that they put it into general reissue quite quickly. But if I had not taken advantage of a particular situation like that there are a lot of old films I would never have seen. Of course now they are on television and you can buy cassettes, it’s so easy today. The other item, the one about the bombing was when I went to see THINGS TO COME, a 1936 film based on the H.G. Well’s novel predicting the future for the next thousand years starting in 1936. It predicts a very realistic World War II beginning in 1940 and going on for about fifty years. I went to see it, because I had never seen it before, right during a bombing raid in London. The theatre was reverberating while on the screen we were seeing this war going on for fifty years, with the theatre shaking. I think it was in that spring that I started smoking for the first time just to sort of have something to do with my hands.

A.B.: How many films do you think you see a year?

W.K.: Now, not so many. There was a time in the fifties when I was working at Allied Artists when every night I would see two new shows on my way home, two double bills. I would get out of work at 6:00, see one show from 6:00 until 9:00 and then one from 9:00 until 12:00 and then go home. In those days I was seeing about a thousand films a year. Now I see an awful lot at home, I have stuff coming through all the time. I run stuff for my classes, so I very rarely go out to the movies any more. I see things in previews occasionally, The National Board of Review screenings, press previews. However, there is very little I really want to see these days so I really see only the things I know, either they are remakes of things I’m showing in class and I want to be able make comparisons, or directors I know the students will be seeing. In New York particularly its unpleasant to go to the movies. Audiences talk too much and you can never be sure of good focus. That plus the fact that there are so few films I really want to see has really cut me down. Although of course video tape makes it much easier. I’m always picking up big blocks of tape to look at. So, I probably still see about 800 a year. But its almost all old material now.

A.B.: About the people that you’ve met, is there anybody in particular that was an eye-opening meeting?

With Lillian Gish

W.K.: I don’t think I would say eye-opening. Most of them turned out to be pretty much as I expected, Lillian Gish was wonderful as I expected her to be. There were people I didn’t expect to meet, that turned out to be very rewarding, Luis Trenker who was a German actor, director, producer made a lot of mountain films in the twenties and thirties and I’d grown up seeing his stuff in the thirties. I didn’t even know he was still alive but I suddenly had the idea that he would be great for the Telluride film festival, since it’s in the Colorado Rockies. I managed to contact him and he had been so forgotten over here that he just absolutely fell all over me because he was so grateful. He was still very big in Europe because his stuff is shown on television. He is still making documentaries and he still climbs mountains but he had been totally forgotten in American where he had been very big at one time. I think a lot of people thought he was a Nazi and that had worked against him. He was so pleased to come back in triumph that we became absolute comrades and he invited me back to his place in Switzerland, the Swiss Alps and I spent a few days with him. That was great. Then Betty Bronson, whom I sort of fell in love with when I saw PETER PAN, saw her silent films and again I didn’t know she was still alive. It was rather like Dana Andrew falling in love with Gene Tierney’s picture in LAURA. I heard she had been at a party in Pickfair so I had some friends in Hollywood who got in touch with her. She was very charming and she wrote back to me. I’d written about her a lot in Sight and Sound and other magazines. I thought she was quite exceptional. We got together and we started to do a book together, we did a lot of work on it, but she didn’t have a very exciting career. To me it was exciting but her actual career wasn’t that exciting. I was having a lot of trouble getting a good book out of her, but in the meantime we did a lot of things together. I took her down to Eastman house in Rochester to show her PETER PAN and some other films, and down to the Museum of Modern Art. We did a lot of things like that together, some television appearances and I worked on some television scripts for a show she was going to try and work out. Nothing really worked out except I got her back into some movies. I got her into a small part in the Sam Fuller movie NAKED KISS. She was in a lot of the Marcus Welby television shows. She did quite a lot of acting again, which she had not planned to do, mainly because working on the book got her interested in her career again. She died just about twenty years ago now. I never went ahead with the book because there really wasn’t enough there to make a book out of it. One director I really liked was Joseph H. Lewis because when I was a kid I saw his first film as director, a western with Bob Baker. As a kid I loved westerns and sort of sensed that there was something different about this one, the compositions were careful and the way of staging the action was different. I didn’t really know at the age of 8 what a director did but I knew he was in charge and I could see that Lewis was interesting. And as it happened I saw all his films as they came out, so I was very familiar with his work. And again when I was one of the directors of the Telluride festival I was able to invite him out to Telluride and we hit it off very well. We did a lot of touring together, we went to the archives in Europe, the BFI in London, Zurich, Geneva, Munich, Frankfurt. We still do a little of that but not as much because Lewis is getting on in years now – he’s in his mid-eighties. That was very rewarding because I had known his work for so long. It was not just an attempt to cash in on somebody who was good but unknown, but somebody I had respected for so many years. That kind of relationship I enjoyed very much. There have also been people like Budd Boetticher and Michael Powell. I got to be very friendly with Michael Powell in the last few years of his life. In fact it wound up at one time that his son almost married my daughter. It didn’t work out but it would have been very nice to have had Michael Powell as a father-in-law. A really wonderful man. It’s been very rewarding. I’ve been very very lucky all the way along the line. I’ve very rarely made any deliberate career decisions. I’ve sort of done things on instinct. I got out of working for Allied Artists as publicity manager in the mid-1950’s to go work with the Paul Kellier people with silent movies on television. It meant taking a big salary cut but doing what I wanted to do was well worth it. As it happens it was a good move because it led to a lot of other things, and Allied Artists went out of business a year or two later so I would have been out of job anyway. But virtually every move I’ve made has been made without any thought like that. Like when I got into teaching. I never really thought I’d make a good teacher. I went to N.Y.U. only under extreme pressure because they were desperate for somebody and I kept saying there are lots of better people that you can get, as there probably were, but they could not seem to find anybody so I went there sort of on trial for a semester and found that I liked it very much and learned a lot from the students. I probably wasn’t a very good teacher at first but at least I knew what I was talking about in terms of content. And that has worked out very well, I like teaching a lot. I’ve been extremely lucky. I haven’t had any bad breaks at all.

S.G.: Do you have any projects lined up?

W.K.: Not specifically. I’m sort of looking to the future now. My wife is much younger than I am and I want to get the collection really well organized so that eventually she can take it over. When I’m no longer around she will be able to run it and get something out of it, utilize it in the same way that it is utilized now but also for stock shots, library and other uses. She’s a documentary filmmaker too. She has not had much chance to do to much in that line. She made a horror film in Texas and has done some editing on documentaries in New York. She’s very good and when the collection is really well organized she will be able to pull on it to do work on her own. So that’s the main thing at the moment so that she can use it independently. I’ve slowed down a bit. I made a mistake when I climbed up the mountain, I wasn’t as agile as the last time I did it.

A.B.: What do you think the role of archives should be?

W.K.: I think they should definitely be showing films. There’s no point in keeping them if no one is going to see them. If Scorsese didn’t have the chance to see as many films as he did he wouldn’t be making the kind of films he’s making.

A.B.: It seems to be a problem we have in Canada?

W.K.: It’s not just Canada. The BFI has a tremendous amount of stuff that they have put aside for preservation that they won’t ever show. Infuriating.

S.G.: Are you active on any archival groups?

W.K.: Well, I’m on a couple of committees at the AFI and the Library of Congress but purely on an advisory capacity.

S.G.: Do you think they are severely underfunded or are they starting to get the kind of support they need?

W.K.: They had support at one time but they’ve lost a lot support because of the economy. The AFI has almost no money and because of that they have very poor staff and there is a tremendous turnover in staff so there is no continuity. It’s not a good situation at all. The AFI has put out some very valuable books on the decades the teens, the twenties, the thirties and they are not sure they can ever do any more because they haven’t the money yet. The last one, which I haven’t seen yet, was done under such disorganization that I have a great deal of trepidation as to how the final result is going to be. They borrowed about 20 prints from me which they wanted to see for the book and I said “I will gladly lend you the prints but it would be much easier if I just send you the information you want because they just wanted credits and the synopsis and sort of critical comments – not many critical comments. I didn’t want to get into that but they said no we’d like to have our staff do it so its consistent, which I can understand. So I sent them out about 20 or 30 prints which they later sent back. Then about nine months later I get a letter saying that they are wrapping up the book and they need to see these prints because its getting near their deadline! They had completely forgotten they’d already had them and if they’d made the notes they’d lost them. They did that with other people too. There seems to be a lot of duplication of work and expense and there will be a lot of mistakes creeping in. I pointed out a lot of titles in the list they gave me that were either Australian or British films that didn’t belong in the catalogue, but when I got the revised list back they were all still there.

S.G.: So you are here in Montreal to receive a honorary degree from Concordia. What does it mean to you?

W.K.: Well, I think mainly its a very nice gesture from Peter Rist because almost everybody in his department are people who have been my students at one time or another. I’m very grateful for it. Its a doctorate in law, I don’t know quite why? It is nice and I certainly appreciate it, I’m not down playing it. I’m only down playing it in a sense that I sat through one of them at N.Y.U. recently when they were opening up some new Irish House and giving awards to Geraldine Fitzgerald and Cyril Cusack and people like that and it was obvious that the people bestowing the awards knew absolutely nothing about what these people had done and they were just giving them awards because they were Irish and the tie-in would get them publicity in the papers. The President of N.Y.U. was sort of making sure his picture was behind everybody. It was just public relations. So in this particular case I have no great qualms about Concordia suddenly having become aware of me but I am grateful for the fact that Peter and his group are appreciative and have pushed it through. And it’ll probably give me a little more clout in other places.

S.G.: Are you enjoying your stay in Montreal?

W.K.: Yes. It is the first time I’ve been here in decent weather. They usually have me here in February. I’ve been coming here intermittently for about thirty years now. I came a lot in the early years of the Quebec Cinematheque, did some programmes on the Western and Laurel and Hardy for them. Somehow it always seemed like I came out here in the coldest month, never really had a chance to enjoy Montreal for what it was. But this is the first time I’ve been here in sunny weather to have a chance to relax here.

Volume 6, Issue 2 / February 2002 Festival Reports   Interviews