NEVER underrate the influence of a conscientious teacher. An impressive case in point is the emergence of Ronald Haver, director of film programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as the author of the recently published "David O. Selznick's Hollywood," at $85 the most splendid of oversized and extravagant movie books.
Haver says the idea for the five-year project came in a high-school term paper he wrote in 1954 on the subject of a new-found passion, the Selznick production of "Gone With the Wind," which had been reissued that year.
Haver was a sophomore at San Leandro (Calif.) High School. When "Gone With the Wind" opened in San Francisco, he recalls that "I cut school to journey across the Bay and sat all day in Loew's Warfield on Market Street, seeing the picture twice. It had a profound effect on me. To a movie-struck kid it was like dying and going to a Technicolor heaven."
His paper, which compared "The Birth of a Nation" and "Gone With the Wind," was submitted to his teacher, Virginia Grey. (I later attended the same high school and shared the encouraging satisfaction of taking sophomore English from Mrs. Grey.)
She received the paper appreciatively, but pointed out a couple of problems. "I never forgot those criticisms," Haver said during a recent visit to Washington. "The first was particularly embarrassing: "I gather from your description that you're talking about "Gone With the Wind," but don't you think you ought to mention the title at least once?'" He had also omitted to mention why the film was important. "I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to say that the book is an elaborate final draft of that term paper. It took me a while, but I've tried to make up for the mistakes she was kind enough to call to my attention."
"Gone With the Wind" used to be revived by MGM at seven-year intervals, but since the reissue of 1968 it's remained in theatrical release on a fairly consistent basis, though often in miserable wide-screen blowups that crop the original compositions and diminish the color even more drastically than the ordinary fading processes in modern 35mm prints. Since 1976 the film has also become an annual event on network television, and fans in the Washington area could overindulge the movie lavishly in the next few days.
A two-part telecast begins today at 8 p.m. on CBS, concluding Tuesday at 9 p.m. The movie can also be found in an open-ended revival at the K-B MacArthur. The Smithsonian Resident Associates host a showing today at 4 p.m. in Carmichael Auditorium, and the Capitol Hill Cinema has a one-week revival scheduled for the second week of April.
Given the leading contenders for the 1980 Academy Awards, who wouldn't prefer to suspend disbelief with "Gone With the Wind" for the umpteenth time? And browsing through the "Gone With the Wind" chapter of Haver's book can be a particularly satisfying way of inspiring fresh incentive to revisit an enduring favorite.
Haver has certainly made amends for his failure to mention the title in that original term paper. The cover is illustrated by boldly colored illustration, derived from a 1940 press campaign book prepared by MGM, of the mob scene outside the Loew's Grand in Atlanta on the night "Gone With the Wind" had its world premiere showing. The back cover features a huge black-and-white photo of Selznick posed in front of a towering oil painting of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara.
"I love program notes and production history," Haver said, "and I wanted to recapture the feeling of what it was like to make movies then, when you knew what to contend with every day and everyone would pitch in to solve the problems created by systematic film production. Selznick seemed the ideal subject for this kind of large-scale pictorial survey. If you concentrate on what he learned as he learned it, his career discloses the history of movie-making in Hollywood's golden age."
"George Cukor doesn't like that approach," Haver added with a smile. "When I talked to him, he said at one point, 'I find it a little distasteful, this elevation of the producer. David was talented certainly. But we were not just dust under his chariot wheels.'"
While Haver portrays Selznick as the ultimate authority on the films he produced, the book conveys a vivid sense of the multitude of skills and wiles necessary to put to successful movie on the screen. Consider the professional problems of production manager Ray Klune preparing the first night of shooting on "Gone With the Wind" -- the burning of the Atlanta munitions warehouses as Rhett and Scarlett flee the city with Melanie, her newborn baby and Prissy:
"They would have to catch the fire from every conceivable angle, using as many cameras as possible. Since Technicolor had only seven cameras at the time, the work would have to be scheduled for a day when all of them were available . . . Klune wanted as much control as possible over every aspect of the scene; he knew how dubious David was about the whole idea, and he was determined that every detail of the potentially hazardous venture would be gone over minutely to minimize the chance of the operation becoming a useless fiasco. . . . The Culver City Fire Department had been alerted, but they had only two pieces of equipment, and Klune wanted the whole area ringed with fire trucks. . . . The cooperation of the Los Angeles Fire Department was enlisted, and they promised 34 pieces of equipment for the night. . . . Klune was still concerned about the length of time needed to move each camera from one position to the next, set it up, and start photography, all of which would be going on while the fire raged; and it could rage for so long.
"He began trying to find some way to control the actual fire, so that it would perform on demand. To achieve this, he brought in Lee Zavits, [who] devised an ingenious and unprecedented method of solving the problem. Behind the false fronts of each of the sets, they constructed an intricate double network of pipes, one of which would carry a mixture of kerosene and coal oil, and the other, larger one, water. The two would be force-fed from two main pumps set off to one inside, each manned by two men." And it worked: Klune got 90 minutes worth of fire when he had originally expected 40, successfully dousing and rekindling the blaze six or seven times.
Published last Christmas, "David O. Selznick's Hollywood" is a hefty literary luxury item: 400 magnificently illustrated pages, weighing in at 7 1/2 pounds and measuring 11 1/4 by 14 1/4 inches. A more satisying super-production than most of the overproduced movies one encounters these days, it cost $1 million to complete. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be well-advised to give it a special Oscar, since it does more to glorify Hollywood than contemporary Hollywood seems to be doing.
Haver himself put $90,000 into the project -- his $50,000 advance, a $10,000 loan from his mother and a $30,000 loan from a credit union. He also agreed to a reduction of royalty income from 10 to 6 percent. Half the profits, if any, will go to the Selznic estate and MGM, whose cooperation made the documentary richness to the book possible in the first place. "I got an education in deal-making," Haver said of the contract. "I'm not so proud of that, but when I look at the book . . . well, the results are worth it."