The Amazing Adventures of Movie Mike

By Aaron Aradillas

Aaron:   What was the first moviegoing experience that you remember leaving a lasting impression on you?

Mike:   Well, I'm not one of those Boomers who went to 2001: A Space Odyssey at 16, 18, or 20 and suddenly saw God. I was in for the duration virtually as far back as I can recall. My probable first movie (and my mother once came close to confirming it) was Humphrey Bogart in 1950's Chain Lightning; I recall black-and-white shots of a jet or jets in a horizontal line across a drive-in movie screen. I also know that I saw Disney's Cinderella (1950), when I would have been three.

The first individual scene burned into my consciousness is the train wreck sequence from Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and I was gratified to read once--and I hope it's true--that this was also the first scene to make a huge impression on Steven Spielberg (six months my senior). As the last living DeMille fan, other than perhaps Martin Scorsese, I hate seeing Earth maligned as the single worst Oscar winner--though, yes, its win was a travesty in the year of The Quiet Man, High Noon, Singin' in the Rain, Limelight, and The Lusty Men, just to name five. But I would look at it ten more times before I would ever see Gladiator again. At least for pleasure.

But: Two "Mike epiphanies" occurred in close order in 1953, and these were the experiences that launched me. I saw Shane--certainly a movie for a child to identify with because you're seeing it through the eyes of a youngster. The other was Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis in The Caddy, source of That's Amore, to say nothing of Ben Hogan-Sam Snead cameos.

Now, this sounds like an eccentric choice--though Martin & Lewis were, for a decade, as big as Elvis and The Beatles became. They were my childhood favorites (much more on TV's Colgate Comedy Hour than in their movies), and at a very young age I picked up on the marvelous incompatibility of their personalities (which, in an odd way, still seemed to be frequently in synch). I was primed for The Caddy from their Sunday night network appearances on NBC, and this raises an important point: The much-maligned '50s no doubt were a terrible decade in which to be a grown-up, but what a backdrop for one's formative years. You had the birth of mass-market TV, rock and roll, and widescreen movies--all atop the prime of New York City baseball. If you were a kid paying attention, you had the entire show biz past and future at your disposal over four or five key years. On the one hand, TV variety shows gave you legendary old-timers when they still had something left: Jimmy Durante (with Eddie Jackson), Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn. But at the same time, growing up in Ohio, I was listening to Alan Freed out of Cleveland radio two years before he conquered New York, spinning the so-called "race" music that transformed pop. I was as much into pre-rock and rock as much as I was into the movies: Patti Page and Fats Domino. And forget Elvis on Ed Sullivan; I was glued to his first national TV appearances a year earlier with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey on Stage Show, then when he wiggled "Hound Dog" on Milton Berle's Tuesday-nighter, inspiring moral outrage.

So movies, music, and TV were all one big hybrid for me, but movies probably were No. 1. The High and the Mighty (1954) was a huge favorite. Other standout biggies for me were Mister Roberts, Rebel without a Cause, The Searchers, Giant, High Society, and The Ten Commandments. Roberts and Rebel I saw in a double feature at a neighborhood theater; I also once saw a pairing of Rear Window and On the Waterfront and (twice) Stalag 17 with A Place in the Sun. Those were the days. I was ahead of the times in seeing Touch of Evil when it came out (I already had, and had read, the lurid tie-in paperback), also Kubrick's Paths of Glory. I saw Psycho on opening day with three buddies after just turning 13, and my best friend had already read the Robert Bloch source novel. But I also had a fondness for B-movies and shaky "A's": Roy Rogers at Republic, Rory Calhoun at Universal-International, the Bowery Boys and, of course, the sci-fi creature features du jour.

Another key point: Born and living in a small town (Ashland, Ohio) until I was eight with the theater just down the street, I could go to the movies without parental accompaniment. And even after moving to capital-city Columbus, I was able to go with a buddy. Film criticism has been, until the past decade or two, a predominantly male profession, and so was repertory film programming. I think a big reason for this--though two decades of mass home viewing have since made this a non-issue--is that very few fathers in the '40s, '50s, and even '60s were going to let their grade-school daughters out without parental accompaniment (especially at night) to go to the movies. And with the movies, you have to start early because there are so damned many of them.

Aaron:   How did you get on The $64,000 Question? Do you remember the questions you were asked? What did you do with your winnings?

Mike:   My dad, who was one of the youngest Marine Corps drill sergeants in World War II and one of Cadillac's top salesmen in the Midwest, never wanted for confidence. After hearing me spout off movie minutiae (starting with my having memorized the acting-directing-picture Oscar winners out of the World Almanac), he brazenly wrote a letter to the show's producers sometime in 1957. After a long period of time (or what seemed like it), I got called to either Dayton or Cincinnati to meet with a regional rep who grilled me with movie questions. More time passed. On the day after Christmas, 1957--it was a Friday, late in the afternoon--my oldest pal Jim Freeman (the same one who'd read Psycho) and I were playing Monopoly, a Christmas gift. I answered the phone, they wanted me to come to New York the following Monday, and we were off to the races.

Mike Clark on the $64,000 Question

It was my first trip to NYC, also my first plane trip, and all very exciting. They hit me with a lot of questions up in the producer's office. One series involved giving me the bare-bones plots of movies and asking me to identify them, and when I aced Frank Sinatra's Suddenly (terrific for what it is but almost a B film), I think they were impressed. Host Hal March came by, asked me the three leads of It's Always Fair Weather (which he'd had a small role in), and I knew Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd. There were five hopefuls going for one slot on the show, and I got the call. I was on the next night: New Year's Eve.

People always want to know if I was fed the answers, but nothing was blatant. They basically knew what I knew--and the prodigious amount I didn't. They could have knocked me off in two seconds had they wanted to. They had asked me who my favorite actors were, and I said James Stewart and Humphrey Bogart. So my final 5-part question asked me to identify stills from Bogart movies (though not all were creampuffs; They Drive by Night and Action in the North Atlantic were two of them). The other thing is that once you got to a certain plateau, they handed you--right on the air--a couple books and told the nation that you should study them all week, the blatantly "duuuuhhhh" implication being that next week's questions would be somewhere in there. There was one (fairly early) question that I had to guess on: it was to identify Doris Day's first movie (Romance on the High Seas), which I thought might be Sam Fuller's Hell and High Water. But I figured Doris wouldn't cuss.

On the final show, the producers arranged for Zsa Zsa Gabor, in a low-cut white dress, to accompany me on the air as my "guest" because she was promoting Queen of Outer Space. This was after we schmoozed in her Plaza Hotel suite, and she plied me with cashews. All told, I won $16,000 (this was back when a new Caddy sold for $4000, so do the math), and it was put in a trust via the {Jackie} Coogan Law, to protect me. College was the only thing you could legally spend it on before age 21, but you could spend the interest, which got me a great '60 Olds with automatic headlights and power windows. The rest went for undergrad college (Ohio State undergrad, where I shared campus film reviewing duties with uproarious Bruce Vilanch--exactly as his public self is now) and later for NYU.

Mike Clark: 'Definitely looking like someone who'd be going to school in Greenwich Village in a dozen years.'

Aaron:   I read that you went to NYU Graduate School of Cinema. What was it like being in New York and Film School at the peak of the New Hollywood era?

Mike:   Well, I was there in 1970 and '71, so it was just at the beginning of that time. It was indeed a very exciting era, though I think my buddies and I realize it more now than we did then. A lot was happening on every level. I started in June of '70 a month after Kent State, when there had literally been military and, I think, even tanks just outside my two best friends' OSU apartment (I got tear-gassed once, just by virtue of being on campus). The NYU students had struck, as students did at so many schools, and NYU--which had closed down--was just now re-opening. The gay movement was just beginning (they had weekly gay dances in my dorm), and the feminist movement was embryonic, too.

I hated NYU and rarely had a good day there. I'm not crazy about cities--and especially not claustrophobic cities--and I was very enamored of the Colorado Rockies, to which I'd escaped in the late '60s from time to time when I just had to get away from the movies. With the major exception of certain key and wonderful individuals, the film school was the least fun group I ever spent time with.

But perversely, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I made a friend of a classmate (Burt Shapiro) who eventually got me to Washington, and also of Len Maltin, who asked me to work on his guide back when we weren't sure if there ever would be a second one. My best NYU gal-pal was Elizabeth Guider, who is now Deputy Editor at Variety and an extraordinary person. But beyond these human salvations, I could see all the movies I'd read about since childhood--especially the foreign ones that probably still have never played Columbus. The New Yorker and Thalia Theaters were still operating up on the West Side, and there was the Elgin on 23rd Street--all changing double bills daily or every other day. And, one of my professors was the late William K. Everson, who had one of the largest film collections in the world in his apartment! His every-Friday-night marathons, which were usually two-to-four films, were very democratic; the guests would vote for what they wanted to see. I remember one night that Shirley Temple in The Blue Bird (which Everson thought better than The Wizard of Oz, which he hated) beat John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright by one vote, and all the Ford fans were downtrodden. He had a lot of stuff that was tough to see--we saw both Scarface and Jet Pilot when the rights were tied up with Howard Hughes and 1933's once scandalous The Story of Temple Drake with super-sexy Miriam Hopkins--the first screen adaptation of William Faulkner's Sanctuary and a chief instigator of Hollywood's subsequent toughened-up Production Code. Even to this day, I don't think it's ever been televised because I would have taped it in a second if it had been.

Put this all together with the then-current film scene--Peckinpah, Altman, Eric Rohmer, Mike Nichols (despite the Catch-22 stumble) all rock-n-rolling--and it was an exciting time for film, as well as for re-discoveries. We practically lived at the Museum of Modern Art, which, while I was at NYU, had retrospectives on George Cukor, Elia Kazan and Claude Chabrol, to name three. Our actual classroom screenings, which included Sunday afternoon triple bills--were in a building called the Normandy Room, which was right next to the Fillmore East. But I was put off by how insular the place was and how insular the people were. Did you see the great but creepy documentary Cinemania? It wasn't too far from that.

Eventually, I had it and couldn't stand it any more. At the end of 1971's first two months (and, of course, February is just 28 days) I had already seen 102 movies--and this is when I was working a full time job during the day and going to classes at night. You'd have a fever of a hundred or 101, and something would be playing eight or 10 subway stops away for one day only, and you'd feel compelled, in those pre-video days, to see it because you might not get another shot. Meanwhile, the real world was more interesting. It seemed as if Dick Cavett had somebody interesting on every night, be it I.F. Stone or Daniel Ellsberg. I was consumed by the Ali-Joe Frazier fight, but there was no live broadcast on the radio and, as a starving grad student, I couldn't afford the pricey closed circuit theatrical broadcast. So every three minutes up at one of the West Side revival houses, I bolted up the aisle from Olivier's Henry V to the popcorn stand, so that I could hear the second-hand radio reportage after each round. I remember leaving a beautiful IB Technicolor print of Powell & Pressburger's Stairway to Heaven one night and getting incredulous looks--because what I really wanted to do was get the Times and read about the fall-out from Sy Hersh's My Lai reporting, which was just breaking.

I really wanted to be in Colorado away from the movies. What really tore New York for me once and for all was going to Racine, Wisconsin in June, 1971 to see a woman I had a huge crush on--a real outdoor nature type who, with her sister, took me on hikes with plenty of insects and cows and lots of greenery (and cannabis and beer). I came back from that--on my cab ride back to the apartment--to find New York in its latest strike-of-the-week and with two halves of a drawbridge jutting up in the air like dueling erections because (I guess) the person who controlled the bridge was on some kind of labor walkout. I said, "that's it," and immediately made plans to leave New York--with no future. And about a month later I did. I completed all the course work but didn't fulfill the French requirement, which is why I don't have my M.A.

Aaron:   Did you always want to be a film critic? Did you have other ideas of what you wanted to do after Film School?

Mike:   I knew from about age six that I would be involved with the movies in some capacity--whatever the specifics turned out to be. In fact, many of my friends knew early in elementary school what they wanted to do, and most of them ended up going out and getting it (usually in more reputable professions). I liked newspapers a lot when I was a kid, so becoming a film critic was never far from my mind. I wanted to write a film column in high school, but my journalism teacher (she was also faculty advisor for the school paper) was one of those traditional types who didn't think movies were a subject worthy of discourse. We butted heads a lot (she was also my English teacher and kicked me out of her class and into another teacher's after the first six-week grading period). What I got to write instead was a humor column, which was one component in my being voted high school class wit (by a monster margin, I might add). But my extremely smart-assed writings gooned on some of the teachers, and as an upshot of this the column got banned by the administration. I was blackballed and spent all of semester two my senior year licking postage and sending courtesy copies of the newspaper to other area schools.

My goal at Ohio State (which was only about 20 minutes away from my high school) was to become film critic there--I wanted a big school, and OSU had a student body of 45,000--to kind of rub my high school teacher's face in my success. Which to some extent happened; she even invited me back to speak to her class. The other thing that happened in college was working five years for WBNS-TV, the CBS affiliate in Columbus. I worked in the promotion department and in the film editing department determining where the commercials would be placed in the movies they ran; with 3,000 titles, the station had a bigger library than WCBS's in New York, and my boss was very good about loaning me prints, which we showed constantly at a friend's (at one New Year's Eve party, we had Double Indemnity, Strangers on a Train, and East of Eden).

Mike Clark: 'With Flippo in Columbus, 1973, just as I was moving to Washington.'I also did some live film reviewing on the air when the regular reviewer took vacation, but the most fun I had was "backgrounding" the afternoon movie host (irreverently wisecracking Flippo the Clown--the most revered personality in the history of Columbus television) on his daily title, so that he could tell viewers what distinguished this Audie Murphy Western from that (uh, not much). Flippo had a huge college and adult following, but he was still working in a kind of kiddie-show format. So it came as a surprise to him--and the show's director--the day he ran 1963's grade-Z Invasion of the Star Creatures, in which two sexy blondes show up on army base and introduce themselves as "Professor Puna" and "Dr Tanga." The other time he turned as pale through the makeup was when he, not particularly noted as a Latin scholar, actually said on the air that "Corpus Christi" sounded like a breakfast cereal: "Corpus Christi's, Corpus Christi's--put a little milk and sugar on your Corpus Christi's." The most lasting thing Flippo gave me, beyond some of my greatest memories, was to nickname me "Movie Mike," which has stuck for almost 40 years.

Then came the NYU experience--which was probably a good way not to get hired by a newspaper in those days. The best thing to come out of NYU was meeting a friend who in late 1972 recommended me for a job in Washington, D.C. helping compile The American Film Institute's Catalog of every feature film released in the U.S. in the '60s (actually, 1961-70). Now this was a thrill. First off, you were working in the Library of Congress, and you got a stack pass. Second, your daily job was to research all the bound copies of The New York Times, Variety, Boxoffice and so on. Third, it was the wildest array of characters I've ever worked with--and the smartest; stoners who knew movies as well as books, books as well as sports, sports as well as politics, politics as well as music and so on. They kept you up. Fourth, my two years there were 1973-74, and working on Capitol Hill during Watergate was the biggest thrill of my life. You'd be sitting with friends after work having a beer in a bar, and in would walk James St. Clair, who was Nixon's final lawyer.

After some bumps, the Catalog job led to my becoming the programmer for the AFI Theater in the Kennedy Center during the pre-video height of repertory cinema. We ran two shows a night 358 days a year and on weekends, two-to-four shows. Some of the programs were double features, and I got very proficient at coming up with double bills that were oddly compatible or at least were of the "You Won't See These Anywhere Else" variety. Usually, they made some kind of sense (The King of Comedy with Jerry Lewis's The Patsy), but sometimes they were plain old demented for demented's sake in (I hoped) a fun way. One night in a popular series about the "Idle Rich," I paired Rita Hayworth in William Dieterle's Salome with Roger Corman's Sorority Girl.

We had to run 16mm on some titles, but we showed a lot of 35mm studio prints, also 35's from the UCLA and Library of Congress archives. The three greatest looking prints I've ever seen, I ran: UCLA's nitrate of Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress and the Academy's nitrates of Black Narcissus and the '43 Phantom of the Opera (both Oscar winners for color cinematography). I am also probably the only programmer who ran Columbia's mint 35 (how could it not have been? who else would show it?) of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in Safe at Home!

I ran a lot of movies that were obscure or had iffy reps that I myself liked. And seeing them well received much of the time gave me a lot of confidence in my opinions. Other than the puny pay, I just loved the job, and (again) the AFI group was the most fun I've ever been involved with (our softball team was "The Sprockets"). I programmed for four years and then went to Detroit for nine months as film critic for the Free Press after a journalism school colleague tipped me off about the job opening. They hired me on the strength of my AFI program notes (which the Washington Post once called "tangy"), and my colleagues there were another fun crew. But the experience effectively put me in a long-distance romance with my future wife (back in Washington, a place I missed terribly under any circumstances). So I jumped at a chance to return to the theater for four more years--programming again, but this time in the top Theater Director job.

Mike Clark: 'With Cary Grant, which is cool enough--but a couple hours later, I was standing between him and Jimmy Stewart, wisely not even daring to open my mouth. Grant and I had both just seen Warren Beatty's *Reds*, though his screening was at the Reagan White House.'

Oh, the memories: I did a Cary Grant retrospective, and Grant (incredibly, I'd actually spent a Columbus morning with him in the late '60s) came in for a two-hour press conference before mosey-ing over to the Ford White House. But he didn't give us much warning, and I managed to be out of town--though I made up for this disappointment in 1981 when I got to be his official weekend chaperone when he got a Kennedy Center Honor. I did a James Stewart retrospective, and he came in for an evening in the KC's 3000-seat Eisenhower Theater showing Vertigo during that long period when you couldn't legally see it. Francois Truffaut came in for several days and did three nights of lectures, and I did the series based on his The Films of My Life book; my favorite show was an afternoon of Robert Aldrich's personal 35mm print of Kiss Me Deadly with The Honeymoon Killers. (Funny footnote: Washington got hit with its heaviest snowstorm since 1922, near-paralyzing the city. Truffaut used that as an excuse to avoid touring the monuments because he wanted to be in his hotel watching Stuart Heisler's The Glass Key on a televised local noon movie). Frank Sinatra gave us special permission to run The Manchurian Candidate back when it was withdrawn, and the legal permission letter came in from his lawyer with the notation up top: "OK per 'The Man.'" I did a Green Acres retrospective, and Eddie Albert came in; a full house sang the theme song along with every episode and stomped the floor with their feet. I did about 150 film series, and one on New Australian Cinema got me 12 embassy-sponsored days in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra to choose the titles--and with a Hawaii stop-off on the way back.

My programs made the front page of the Washington Post Sunday Arts section maybe half-a-dozen times, and the cover of the Sunday Post magazine once. You couldn't buy this kind of background as a basis in film reviewing--and certainly in covering home video (and later DVD) when that beat started to rock in the early '80s.

Aaron:   What was your first professional job as a movie critic? Do you remember the first film you reviewed?

Mike:   I reviewed some movies on live TV in Columbus in the 1960s--whenever the regular guy who did it (a station newscaster) went on vacation. I remember specifically doing a re-issue of The African Queen but can't for the life of me recall which current-to-the-time films I did.

In print, I'd done a lot of reviewing in college for the campus paper--but print/professionally we're talking the Detroit Free Press when I made my debut, and the first title was Luchino Visconti's swan song The Innocent. And the third one I did was Woody Allen's Manhattan, so you can see that I got out of the gate pretty fast. When you review in a regional market--though for perspective, the Free Press was one of the country's top 10 papers in circulation at the time--you also have to do a lot of interviews. The first Alien came out pretty early in my Detroit career, so I got about an hour with Sigourney Weaver for an interview. She was not yet a star but was obviously going to be when the movie came out--very friendly, and I liked her a lot. She is, of course, the daughter of legendary NBC Today and Tonight Show creator Sylvester "Pat" Weaver--and she told me a great story about original Today host Dave Garroway's chimp sidekick J. Fred Muggs stealing her little-girl Easter hat in the '50s and tossing it out the window of Rockefeller Center. The other big event early on was going to New York for the Apocalypse Now junket. I met and hung around with a young and intensely sharp film enthusiast working for someone (I forget), who later became Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman. And we never met again until we were working for our current publications.

  • Mike Clark, Part 2