Big Hollywood Visits Hillsdale College: The Films of 1939, Part IV


Just a few steps outside my room at Hillsdale’s Dow Hotel & Leadership Center hangs this wonderful portrait of George Washington.

Hillsdale Feels a Lot Like Yeshiva

Growing up in Brooklyn, I attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush, an Orthodox elementary school. Every morning, we solemnly recited the Pledge of Allegiance and then sang the Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, thus affirming our loyalty to America and our love of Zion.

At Hillsdale College, before every lunch and dinner, I am delighted to report, we recite the Pledge of Allegiance and then a student leads us in a prayer.

Hillsdale is a non-denominational college, but the spirit of Judeo Christianity is alive and well.

I am more than comfortable here at Hillsdale, I feet right at home.

And the films of 1939 that are screened, though I have seen every one of the films many times, take on a new meaning for me, aided immeasurably by the fine lectures delivered by David Thomson, Dan Ford, Scott Eyman and Peter Bogdanovich.


Ernst Lubitsch.

Lubitsch Touches Me

Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, and directed by Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) is, for my money, the best and most effective anti-Communist film ever made. The reason is simple: Lubitsch was far more concerned with making breezy entertainment than mind bending propaganda.

Working from a pitch perfect script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, the anti-Communist zingers come fast and furious. It’s a wonderful sleight of hand, pointing out that Communism is, literally, a genocidal machine, but doing it with wit and elegance.

For example.

Ninotchka: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

Scott Eyman, the distinguished film historian and author of the excellent, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, explains that Ninotchka was not really a film Lubitsch wanted to make. But he agreed to direct the Garbo vehicle if MGM would allow him to direct The Shop Around the Corner. In short, for Lubitsch, Ninotchka was primarily a bargaining chip.

The Shop Around the Corner is a lovely and touching film, but it’s a bit too precious for my taste. We can be thankful that L.B. Mayer practically forced Lubitsch into Ninotchka. Though Lubitsch was one of the most commercial of directors, even he didn’t always realize which material was best suited to his talents.

Early in my career, actually before I had a career, and before I wrote Body Double for Brian De Palma, the great screenwriter and frequent Lubitsch collaborator, Samson Raphaelson offered to read one of my spec scripts and give me his feedback.

Excited and frightened at meeting the legendary screenwriter, I sat in Raphaelson’s New York apartment and waited for his notes. He was, at the time, quite old, but his mind was exceptionally sharp and before discussing my script Raphaelson told me a bit about working with Lubitsch.

Said Raphaelson, “The Lubitch touch is all about what you don’t show, what you leave to the imagination. It’s about restraint.”

Finally, Raphaelson handed me my script. Great blocks of dialogue and description were thickly crossed out. And one word was repeatedly scribbled in the margins: “Too much!”

As Eyman beautifully summarizes, a Lubitsch film is the equivalent of Cartier jewelry or a Faberge egg.

A Definite Rabbi Vibe

I’m scheduled to interview Dr. Larry P. Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, for about ten, fifteen minutes, but something clicks and we end up shmoozing for about an hour.


Larry P. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, is a leading authority on Winston Churchill, having served as director of research for Churchill’s biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, now an adjunct professor at Hillsdale.

Dr. Arnn is charming and brilliant, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with his intellect. He smiles a lot, laughs easily, and even when he’s quoting Dewey or Hegel, he does it in such a way that yours truly does not feel like a complete moron.

But more than brilliant, Arnn is wise, and when describing Dr. Arnn to my wife Karen, I say: “He’s got that definite Rabbi vibe.”

Primarily, I want to know what happened to American education. At what point did American universities turn into petri dishes for radical leftist thought and action.

Dr. Arnn has obviously given this matter a great deal of thought and he launches into a discussion of German political philosophy–why am I not surprised?–and its belief in the State over the individual, redistribution of wealth, and the use of government to control all aspects of society. Under the influence of European style statists, Dr. Arnn explains, American intellectuals of the left and their home universities are no longer satisfied with learning and understanding, but determined to undertake the role of creators, inventing political models that are in direct conflict with the Constitution and American values.

We move from German philosophy to the movies.

“What’s your favorite movie,” asks Dr. Arnn.

The Seven Samurai,” I immediately reply, “it’s the perfect action movie and a moral fable that is eternally relevant.”

I ask Dr. Arnn about film programs at Hillsdale and he tells me that it’s something he’s been thinking about establishing for quite a while.

“It’s important, ” I say with fanatic/lunatic conviction, “Movies are the most powerful propaganda tool in the history of the world. In fact, if Hollywood does not support an American war, well, you can be sure America will lose that war. Most important, movies–even the dumbest horror film–is a moral landscape and Hillsdale students must be given the proper tools so they can go to Hollywood and make an impact.”

“Where should we start?” Asks Dr. Arnn.

“In the beginning was the word, isn’t that in the Christian bible? You start with the script, everything flows from the screenplay.”

And before I know it, I agree, at some future date, and depending upon availability, to conduct an advanced screenwriting workshop at Hillsdale.

Did I mention that Dr. Arnn is most persuasive?

Peter Bogdanovich Isn’t Interested in Blue People

The final film in the Hillsdale program is, quite appropriately, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a classic fable of American ideals in conflict with political corruption.

The great American director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich–The Last Picture Show, (1971) Paper Moon, (1973) and They All Laughed (1981) are masterpieces–delivers a sublime lecture on The Art of Frank Capra.


Frank Capra, 1897-1991.

Bogdanovich loves the movies and his affection for classic Hollywood is infectious. Bogdanovich started out as an actor, but “when I realized that I could never be a big star, I switched to writing and then directing.”

Over his long career as film journalist and director the 71-year old Bogdanovich knew and interviewed almost every important Hollywood star and director. He was close with Hitchcock and his imitation of the droll master of suspense is, well, masterful.

On directing: Capra told that Bogdanovich that the essence of directing is making decisions. “Half the time you’ll be wrong, but the important thing is to make the decision.”

On pacing: Capra explained that for some mysterious reason film has a tendency to slow things down. So to make action in a film appear normal, it’s necessary to pick up the pace.

It Happened One Night, 1934, the film that catapulted Capra, and Columbia Pictures into the Hollywood stratosphere, is where the fast Capra pace works in perfect harmony with the story. The scenes between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert crackle with energy and sexual tension. The lightning fast exchanges feel absolutely natural, but there’s nothing normal about the pace. It’s total artifice and it works.

Like Bogdanovich, I prefer It Happened One Night and It’s a Wonderful Life to Capra’s more socially conscious movies. There’s something quite pure about these two movies. Capra does not hammer you over the head with a message. Instead, he probes life, love and the quirks of his very human characters.

In the question and answer period–he’s a great raconteur–Bogdanovich admits that he’s not interested in special effects, CGI, or movies about blue people.

“That stuff bores me silly,” he says.

The Hillsdale audience applauds.

A few years ago, Ellen Burstyn asked me to write Within These Walls a television movie in which she would star.

On location, I told the Oscar winning actress the first time I ever saw her was in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show.

“You were brilliant,” I said. “Totally knocked me out.”

Ellen, generous as well as hugely talented, said: “Yeah, well, Peter’s a pretty great director.”

Indeed, Peter Bogdanovich will go down in the history books as not only a very great director, but one of our most important and perceptive film historians.

Marieke van der Vaart, a Hillsdale student, interviewed Bogdanovich.

Against the Grain

In my last dinner at Hillsdale, a young woman, a student, sits next to me and we fall into easy conversation.

“What prompted you to come to Hillsdale,” I ask.

“The funny thing is, I wanted to go to a big University in Chicago, but a friend told me about Hillsdale and I came here for a visit. Pretty soon, I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted, out of college, out of life. It became clear to me that Hillsdale was the place where I could discover the truth.”

“You do realize that Hillsdale goes against the grain of contemporary intellectual fashion?” I say.

The young student, just a freshman, smiles and says: “Not only do I realize it, but I’m proud of it.”


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