Movie directors get all the credit. But what of the many film-industry workers who toil away behind the scenes, creating memorable cinematic worlds? Documentarian Daniel Raim certainly deserves accolades for rescuing two unsung Hollywood heroes from obscurity in “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story.”
Chances are you’ve never heard of its subjects — storyboard artist and production designer Harold Michelson and his film-researcher wife Lillian — even though they worked on some big movies, including “The Birds,” “The Apartment,” “Scarface,” “Spaceballs” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” to name just a few. Also listed among their impressive accomplishments is a marriage that lasted 60 years.
Their contributions are everywhere. As “Spaceballs” director Mel Brooks explains, those ridiculous spherical helmets — among other “little goodies” from the film — were all Harold’s idea. Old storyboard drawings also reveal that it was Harold who came up with the famous shot in “The Graduate” that framed Dustin Hoffman beneath a close-up of Ann Bancroft’s bent knee.
Lillian, meanwhile, was insatiably curious, almost traveling to South America with a drug kingpin to research “Scarface” — before Harold talked her out of it. Her research library, which moved locations a few times, was a hot spot where Tom Waits and other boldfaced names liked to hang out. The film is filled with delightful historical tidbits, such as the story about Harold visiting Dalton Trumbo, sketching beside the bathtub where the screenwriter was known to soak and type.
But the film’s subjects are just as engaging. Lillian, an orphan, was surprisingly progressive for someone born in 1928. When Harold asked her to take a train from Florida and move to Los Angeles to marry him, she suggested that they live together first, to make sure they really liked each other. Harold talked her out of that, too.
The movie works both as a heartwarming celebration of two extremely likable people and as an illuminating glimpse behind the curtain at the contribution of storyboard artists. When Harold’s sketches for “The Ten Commandments,” for instance, are compared to the film’s finished scenes, the similarities are unmistakable.
In a sweetly appropriate flourish, much of the story — told by Harold (who died in 2007) and Lillian themselves — is rendered as animated drawings, some of which are accompanied by actors reading letters and poems the couple exchanged: “I love you so much I can’t even draw right,” Harold wrote in one.
“Harold and Lillian” won’t break any cinematic ground. The story it tells is conventional, chronological and straightforward. And that’s enough. With a story this charming, who needs bells and whistles?
Unrated. At Avalon and Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains nothing objectionable. 100 minutes.
The Cinema Arts Theatre will host Q&As with MaryAnne Anderson, a friend and former colleague of Lillian Michelson, following Saturday’s 4 and 7 p.m. shows and Sunday’s noon show.