Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Dad

     My father - Irving Miller - passed away on July 23d at 90 years of age.  I’ll miss him. He loved movies, and his passion for them was infectious and inspiring. Even as he neared the end, I could distract him with conversations about great pictures we’d seen together. Among his favorites were LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, early Brando films and anything in which James Cagney appeared.

     I never tired of hearing about Cagney entertaining GIs aboard the ship on which dad -- a World War II vet -- sailed to Europe after enlisting in the army.  The great star sang, danced and palled around with the troops, keeping spirits high and creating lasting memories. One afternoon, shortly after I started working in the industry, I saw Mr. Cagney walking to a screening room at Technicolor Laboratories to watch dailies of his cameo performance in RAGTIME. Lab employees lined the hallway to applaud the legend and I welled up, recalling my father’s stories; I couldn’t wait to tell him about my star sighting.     

     But mostly I enjoyed his anecdotes. In addition to tales of James Cagney, there were yarns from childhood about whole days spent in grand movie palaces under the “el” in Jamaica, Queens.  These spectacular theatres -- the Loew’s Valencia, the RKO Alden, the Merrick – had twinkling stars in the ceilings, ornate balconies, eye-popping chandeliers. Dad would arrive early with a cousin or a friend to watch, one after the other, a stage show, a newsreel, a B feature, promotional events for local businesses, “previews of coming attractions” and, finally, the A feature. Occasionally, he’d repeat the cycle.

     During my own childhood, holidays were marked by movies on television: YANKEE DOODLE DANDY on July 4th and MIRACLE ON THIRTY-FOURTH STREET after Macys’ Thanksgiving parade. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was standard fare for Christmas, EASTER PARADE for its day.

     Of course, there were non-holiday favorites as well.  Among them was DEAD END, which reminded my father of the Broadway play on which it was based. The production meant a lot to him because, like William Wyler’s film adaptation, it featured his Jamaica neighbor Billy Halop, along with other “Dead End Kids” Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall.  (Michael Curtiz’ ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES hit a casting trifecta for my family: Billy Halop, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.)

     But my father loved stage actors who became Hollywood celebrities even if they weren’t from the neighborhood.  I had thought Busby Berkley’s THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL, featuring the Dead End Kids and John Garfield, was in dad’s pantheon because of Halop.  But as we watched BODY AND SOUL or THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, he would speak, lovingly and with awe, about seeing Garfield in a Group Theatre production of Clifford Odets’ AWAKE AND SING. He was only twelve at the time and the actor was then known as Julius Garfinkle; watching the play made him a fan for life.

     Dad also liked seeing stars in person, offstage.  I took my parents to The Russian Tea Room for dinner once, and we sat next to Joan Fontaine.  As good as the food and pepper-flavored vodka tasted, seeing Ms. Fontaine was the high point of our meal.  Afterwards, we laughed about how her dancing in DAMSEL IN DISTRESS was not up to the standard set by Ginger Rogers for co-star Fred Astaire, and we all agreed that her Oscar-winning performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA was perfect.

     Hitchcock was one of the Miller family’s favorite directors. While my father had no interest in abstractions such as Andrew Sarris’s “auteur theory” he was, practically speaking, an “auteurist.”  He wouldn’t miss a film by Hitch and chatted enthusiastically about such great ones as THE LADY VANISHES, THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, DIAL M FOR MURDER, REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO, even as we watched them on tv.  Dad pointed out the director’s use “The Merry Widow Waltz” when SHADOW OF A DOUBT aired, and suggested, as LIFEBOAT unspooled, that the Tallulah Bankhead/William Bendix kiss was the best in all of cinema.  (Talking while movies played in our living room was perfectly acceptable; the assumption was that I’d see the good ones again and again. No wonder that viewing a film many times, as editors must, always seemed normal to me!)

     Dad also saw Hitchcock pictures on the big screen. I was too young to be taken to see PSYCHO and the film was (correctly) believed to be “too gruesome” for mom, but I vaguely remember my father coming home, both shaken and enthralled, after seeing it at the Parsons Theatre in Kew Garden Hills, Queens.  A couple of years later, he saw THE BIRDS at the same venue and was affected the same way.

     But Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t the only auteur my father liked.  Michael Curtiz was another, even if dad didn’t know his name.  Curtiz’ YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES and CASABLANCA were all “must watch” movies when they aired.  Dad would grin ear to ear during Cagney’s dance numbers and well up during Bogey’s “hill of beans” speech – every time.

     William Wyler made his mark in our home with DEAD END, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and BEN-HUR.  Elia Kazan’s GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, ON THE WATERFRONT, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, A FACE IN THE CROWD and SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS were greatly admired as well.

     While unaware that Sarris considered The Marx Brothers auteurs even though they didn’t direct (and probably unaware of Sarris himself), my dad was a big fan of theirs as well. His favorite set piece in any movie was the stateroom scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.  And what a brilliant bit it is, with Groucho, Harpo and Chico at their best and staging on which Buster Keaton consulted!

      Another fond memory of that film, for me, is “Alone,” a romantic duet sung by Kitty Carlyle and Alan Jones as the Marx Brothers’ ship sets sail.  Later in the movie, Harpo reprises the song with his magical mixture of grace and comedy.  And dad used to play it on the piano!  My cousin Barbara told me recently that at age 5 she’d sit at her Uncle Irv’s feet and ask him to play a piece he’d written, over and over and over.  (Yes, this dry cleaning supplies salesman wrote a very sweet song!)  The number I requested repeatedly was “Alone.”

     Dad’s love of music was as infectious and inspiring as his love of cinema. While his refusal to listen to anything recorded after the 1940’s could be maddening, his passion for opera, swing and show tunes affected me deeply as a moviegoer and as a filmmaker.  The emotional wallop packed by the intermezzo from “Cavaleria Rusticana” in RAGING BULL was magnified tenfold because I associated it with my father.  So, too, with “Rhapsody in Blue” and the entire soundtrack of MANHATTAN, as well as all the great songs in SWING KIDS!

     Most moving to me, though, was this: despite the fact that my dad didn’t listen to new music, he did go to see new movies, and he never missed one of mine.  Even when driving to the cinema became an ordeal, as it is for any nonagenarian, he’d go opening weekend. And he always had kind words to say – often out of proportion to the actual quality of the work. So… as I said earlier, I’ll miss him.