The ordinary Jewish couple that made 60 years of movie magic
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'Essentially we were doing what Harold did best: Telling a story in a single frame'

The ordinary Jewish couple that made 60 years of movie magic

New film shines spotlight on unsung Hollywood heroes, storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his film researcher wife Lillian

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Lillian and Harold Michelson (Zeitgeist Films)
Lillian and Harold Michelson (Zeitgeist Films)

If you work in Hollywood, you’re either above “the line,” or you’re below it. The line is on a film’s budget, and it separates the individuals who receive public credit for their work from those who don’t.

Directors, actors, producers and cinematographers are above the line. Below it are the many immensely talented, creative people making movie magic happen, but who never become household names.

Married Jewish couple Harold and Lillian Michelson were below the line. He, a storyboard artist, and she, a film researcher, they left an indelible mark on more than 100 film classics, including “The Ten Commandments,” “The Apartment,” “The Birds,” “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Graduate,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Fiddler On The Roof,” and “Scarface.” Yet they and their 60-year careers together in Hollywood remained virtually unknown.

A new documentary film opening in New York on April 28, “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story,” shines a spotlight on the Michelsons’ unique personal and professional partnership. (Just the fact that their marriage lasted six decades— ending in Harold’s death in 2007 at age 87—made them stand out in La La Land.)

A fascination with unsung Hollywood heroes

 

American-Israeli filmmaker Daniel Raim is one of the few outside Hollywood familiar with Harold and Lillian Michelson. After his service in the Israel Defense Forces, he arrived in Los Angeles in 1997 when he met Harold through Robert Boyle, a legendary film art director and production designer who had collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock. Raim studied under Boyle at the American Film Institute, where Boyle had invited Harold to give a guest lecture.

Daniel Raim (Courtesy)
Daniel Raim (Courtesy)

“I remember it was a mind numbing, totally boring class on pre-digital techniques for projecting what the camera would see based on the camera angle, lens and height. Harold was a genius at this — probably because of sensibilities he developed by looking through bombing sites of planes during his World War II service,” Raim told The Times of Israel.

The mathematical technicalities were not riveting, but the legacies of Boyle, Harold and others who worked in the studio system during Hollywood’s golden era were captivating.

“I fell into this world by documenting the unsung heroes of Hollywood,” Raim said.

His first film, the short documentary “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose” about Boyle, was nominated for an Academy Award. Raim followed that with “Something’s Gonna Live,” a tribute to Boyle and his colleagues and friends: fellow Hollywood veteran production designers Henry Bumstead and Al Nozaki, cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall, and Harold Michelson, the storyboard artist.

Raim believed a film about Harold and Lillian, whom he had come to know well as he shot the two other films, was a natural next step. However he needed the cooperation of Lillian. Now 88, she is living at the Motion Picture and Television Fund, a retirement community in Los Angles for former industry employees.

‘Telling a story in a single frame’

Despite her effervescent personality, quick wit and expert comedic timing, Lillian claimed to be camera shy. However, she quickly overcame her reticence, humorously recounting memories — like the time she threatened to fly to South America in a drug lord’s plane for the sake of research, and another when she was mistaken for a prostitute on a film set.

She also speaks candidly in the film about her and Harold’s marital problems, and the challenges of raising their autistic son in an era when autism was not yet diagnosed and Freudian psychology blamed mothers for the condition.

While archival footage of interviews with Harold — shot by Raim and others — show that he, like his wife, had a self-deprecating sense of humor and ability to self reflect, it is Lillian, with her high-pitched voice and disarming manner, who indisputably anchors the film.

Storyboard by Patrick Mate from 'Harold and Lillian' (Zeitgeist Films)
Storyboard by Patrick Mate from ‘Harold and Lillian’ (Zeitgeist Films)

Raim tells the story of Harold and Lillian’s marriage and careers through interviews with the couple, as well as commentaries from A-list Hollywood figures, including Mel Brooks, Danny DeVito and Francis Ford Coppola, who relied on their expertise. Raim also uses archival footage, love letters, family photos and home movies.

However, the film’s most captivating narrative device are storyboards by Patrick Mate illustrating Harold and Lillian’s recollections.

“We needed to visualize events that took place in the past when we had few photos and archival materials. Using storyboards was an organic — and fun — way to visualize the narrative of their life story,” Raim said.

“Essentially we were doing what Harold did best: Telling a story in a single frame,” he said.

Extraordinary ‘ordinary’ lives

 

In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel, Lillian said she was “immensely happy” with how the film turned out, saying that Raim had made “a masterpiece out of our ordinary lives.”

Lillian and Harold Michelson (Zeitgeist Films)
Lillian and Harold Michelson (Zeitgeist Films)

Objectively, even as youth, Harold and Lillian’s lives were far from ordinary. Lillian was removed from what she hints in the film was an abusive home life and spent her childhood in a series of orphanages in Miami.

“This was the reason I didn’t have a Jewish upbringing. I was always moving from orphanage to orphanage. I was always the newest girl and trying to fit in. I remember that at one orphanage, which was Catholic, I crossed myself at grace time, even though the nun told me I didn’t have to because I was the little Jewish girl,” Lillian said.

Harold grew up in the Bronx and received a Jewish education. He went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah and played the violin, which was “a Jewish thing,” according to Lillian.

“But he fell away from it [Judaism], especially when he was drafted [in WWII]. We didn’t practice it as a family. At one point we tried to take our sons to Hebrew school, but it was too hard with our autistic son,” she said.

The couple met in Miami after the war and eloped to Los Angeles because Harold’s family felt the orphaned Lillian was an unsuitable match. In LA, Harold worked his way up through the Hollywood studio system ranks, eventually becoming art director on some films.

Storyboard by Patrick Mate from 'Harold and Lillian' (Zeitgeist Films)
Storyboard by Patrick Mate from ‘Harold and Lillian’ (Zeitgeist Films)

“For Harold, it wasn’t about the money or title. He did want to advance, but it was about wanting to get closer to the director, about being able to flesh out his ideas with the director. It was the biggest thing for him when Hitchcock summoned him to Bodega Bay [for the filming of “The Birds”]. He was bursting with joy,” Lillian said.

‘It was like going to a school just for me’

In 1961, once their three sons were school age, Lillian began working in film research as a volunteer at a studio library. Eventually she owned the best and most comprehensive research library in the film industry and became the go-to person for any and all questions.

Lillian, who had dropped out of college her freshman year, became educated through her library.

“It was like going to a school just for me. My education was spotty and unusual. I was learning all these arcane facts, but it was so interesting and I got to meet such interesting people through interviews I did,” she said.

The joy of research: Shtetl bloomers and porno flicks

Of all the movies she worked on, Lillian said she liked “Fiddler on the Roof” best, because through it she learned about her Jewish heritage.

Of all the movies she worked on, Lillian said she liked ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ best, because through it she learned about her Jewish heritage

She left no stone unturned in providing information requested by director Norman Jewison and his production team. For instance, the costumer needed to know what Tevye’s daughters’ bloomer underwear should look like when they were revealed as the girls leaned back on a bed during a dance scene.

“Well, they didn’t take pictures of Jewish girls in their underwear in the shtetl,” Lillian quips in “Harold in Lillian.”

So, Lillian planted herself on Fairfax Avenue, in the middle of LA’s Jewish neighborhood, and asked women walking by if they knew what kind of underwear Jewish girls wore in the old country. One elderly woman told Lillian to wait right there, ran home and cut out a sewing pattern for the knickers she remembered wearing as a girl. Hence the bloomers with scalloped edges in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Archival photo of Lillian Michelson in her film research library (Zeitgeist Films)
Archival photo of Lillian Michelson in her film research library (Zeitgeist Films)

Not all of Lillian’s research excursions were as successful. For one film, she was asked to research settings for pornographic films from the 1920s and 1930s.

“Like what kinds of drapes they had, what kind of linoleum was on the floor, what kind of light bulbs they used,” Lillian said.

So, while on a trip to San Francisco, she stopped into a shop in the ill-reputed Tenderloin district and picked up some videos.

“I asked the guy at the store whether the films showed backgrounds and he said they did. I didn’t watch them to check, which was my mistake,” she said.

When Lillian brought the films back to the studio, she and “a bunch of above-the-line guys” sat down in the dailies viewing room to watch them. As might be expected, the porno flicks were filled with close-up shots, and backgrounds were nowhere to be seen.

“It was the talk of the studio! I was so naïve. Boy, did that ever teach me a lesson to never trust anyone else again when it comes to research,” Lillian said.

“And I never did get those videos back. I had to eat their cost,” she said.

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