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Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story
★★★★☆
First run Theater cinema

Daniel Raim’s Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is an enchanting, surprisingly layered dual biography of two unsung cinematic craftsmen. Harold Michelson was a storyboard artist who entered the film business in the 1940s and worked for many studios on a variety of major motion pictures.  His feisty, independent life partner Lillian followed him to Hollywood so they could marry (though she was still a teenager and barely knew him) and eventually became one of the industry’s most highly prized film librarians and researchers. The two had a rare show-biz marriage that lasted for 60 years. Theirs was a life marked by great love and affection, incredible artistic success, and no small amount of pain and sadness in their family life.

Raim’s unembellished approach (talking head interviews, film clips, and letters read by actors accompanied by storyboard-style illustrations) is a beautiful example of the power of simple, straightforward documentary storytelling. The filmmaker’s hand invisibly weaves the various threads together, making the narrative feel organic and anecdotal, while also managing to cover a tremendous amount of thematic and historical ground.

The primary interview subject is Lillian, now in her ‘80s, the surviving member of the couple, but Harold is well represented in a number of archival interviews. More glowing testimony comes from film-world luminaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Mel Brooks, and long-time buddy Danny DeVito. The movie beautifully explains the critical role storyboard artists and film researchers played in the Hollywood of yesteryear, and why Harold and Lillian were among the most respected practitioners of their respective arts.  Harold’s career is especially impressive because he was an integral part of so many classic films. 

Raim puts forth the thesis that the artistic contributions of studio storyboard artists have long been kept under wraps so that directors, producers, and cinematographers could steal their ideas or claim the concepts of these visionary illustrators as their own.  Certainly when we discover the work Harold did to shape the imagery, cutting, and marketing of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) this conclusion is undeniable. But I feel it necessary to cast a little shade on all the praise lavished on these unsung behind-the-scenes storyboard artists, because so many of the examples included here (the Graduate excepted) represent Hollywood directing in its most stiff and two-dimensional. One of Harold’s biggest jobs was designing the scenes for Cecil B. de Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), and watching that film is about as close as any moviegoer can get to the experience of watching static paintings on a silver screen, rather than live action. And while the two Hitchcock pictures for which Harold was most responsible, The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), represent some of the great director’s most colorful and striking visuals, the movies themselves are among the most artificial, inelastic, and studio-bound of Hitchcock’s work

The true magic of this documentary lays in its depiction of joyful collaboration—both the collaboration of studio filmmakers to make movies and the collaboration required for a long and successful marriage. Much of the documentary’s best moments are when it hints at the darker, unhappier aspects of Harold and Lillian’s lives; painting a full picture through subtle implication rather than dwelling on melodramatic episodes. We come away from this movie not with a warts-and-all exposé but with a rich understanding of who these two individuals were, the important role they played in many great works of cinema, and how this extraordinary Hollywood marriage worked.

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#HaroldAndLillianAHollywoodLoveStory (’17) ★★★★ Captivates with charming, fascinating subjects and simple, straightforward storytelling

Directed by Daniel Raim
Produced by Daniel Raim and Jennifer Raim

Written by Daniel Raim

With: Lillian Michelson, Harold Michelson, Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Gene Allen, James D. Bissell, Rick Carter, Stuart Cornfeld, Gabriel Hardman, the voices of Will Vought, and Tish Hicks

Cinematography: Daniel Raim and Battiste Fenwick
Editing: Daniel Raim and Jennifer Raim
Music: David Lebolt

Runtime: 94 min
Release Date: 28 April 2017
Aspect Ratio: 1.78 : 1
Color