Start Spreading the News: The Frank Sinatra Centennial Comes to Park Ridge!

WHAT: On the Town (1949) on DCP **Frank Sinatra Centennial Event**
WHEN: December 10, 2015  7:30 PM (Doors open at 6:45 PM)
WHERE: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
WHAT ELSE: Organist Jay Warren will perform prelude music from 7:15-7:30 PM.
Radio Host Steve Darnall will be our guest to discuss the music of Frank Sinatra.
We will have a prize drawing for the new Sinatra documentary, All Or Nothing At All.
Also screening: Warner Bros. cartoon “Swooner Crooner” (1944)
HOW MUCH: $10/$7 seniors, $8/$6 (advance tickets at main box office or online)

“We did try to make it, in a sense, somewhat more realistic than other musicals. It had a freer form to it, and it had the energy and youthfulness of the sailors in New York… Also, I think it had more musical numbers that came out of situations in the story than was usually the case.” ~ director Stanley Donen

Doing away with much of Leonard Bernstein’s original score, MGM’s movie version of the hit stage show still offers energetc Betty Comden/Adolph Green songs and the joyous “New York, New York.” For their first full directorial assignment, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly take it to the streets in this (unheard of in its day), on-location musical. Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin are three sailors yearning to see every sight, especially those in skirts, while on a twenty-four hour leave in New York City. Kelly is smitten by the subway’s “Miss Turnstiles” (Vera Ellen), Ann Miller gets Munshin, and Betty Garrett’s man-hungry hack carries away Sinatra– literally!

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Elvis Night at the Pickwick!

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Thank you to everyone who came out to our “Elvis Night” on November 12. We had another fun time at the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series!

Movie Hostess Allison with Program Host Matthew
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The winner of our Elvis gift basket, Colleen!
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Abbott & Costello Break Attendance Record!

“Hope all of you enjoy the screening of this A&C classic, by far the cult film of all their movies. Wish I could be here with you to see it on the big screen, but will be there in spirit… Keep the laughter flowing, and thank you for keeping the A&C legacy alive. Enjoy the film, and Happy Halloween. Chris Costello and the entire Costello family.”

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This past Thursday night (10/29/15), Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein set a new attendance record for the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series. Nearly 800 people (782) attended our screening, breaking the old record of 735 held by last season’s showing of Gone With the Wind. We are extremely grateful to all those who attended this Halloween event, especially the dozens of kids who came in costume.

Special thanks to Chris Costello, Lou Costello’s daughter, for the special introduction she sent us, our guest organist David Drazin, and our costume contest judges: Allison, Allie, and Elizabeth.

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The largest crowd we’ve ever seen came out for the antics of Bud and Lou…
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Parade of the ghouls…
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Starting the costume contest…
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Our First Place winner, Connor…
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Ringmaster Matthew with Movie Hostess Allison/Marilyn
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Morticia (Elizabeth)
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Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein at the Pickwick Theatre

WHAT: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) on DCP
WHEN: October 29, 2015   7:30 PM
WHERE: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
WHAT ELSE: “Shiver Me Timbers!” (Popeye, 1934)
Musician Dave Drazin will be performing pre-show music on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ beginning at 7:00 PM.
We will have a costume contest (with prizes) for kids 12 and under.
HOW MUCH: $10/$7 seniors 60+ ($8/$6 advance tickets)

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“Frankenstein gave the Monster eternal life by shooting it full of electricity. Some people claim it is not dead even now– just dormant.”

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Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) are two baggage handlers who receive crates containing the remains of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). A stranger by the name of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) tries unsuccessfully by phone to warn Chick and Wilbur of the danger they are in. The crates are transported to McDougal’s House of Horrors where they are unloaded. The contents, however, are far from dead. Dracula and the Monster escape from the museum with the Count planning to restore the Monster. With the aid of Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert), Dracula intends to give Frankenstein’s creation a new, pliable brain so that the Monster can be more easily controlled. The unsuspecting brain donor, however, is Wilbur. With the help of Talbot, the boys try to stop Dracula’s evil scheme.

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Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is simply the greatest horror-comedy of all time. Besides being a top-notch comedy, it also works as a legitimate horror film with some genuinely chilling moments. It is this quality that separates it from other “spoofs” like Young Frankenstein. Besides being one of Abbott & Costello’s finest films, Meet Frankenstein serves as a wonderful homage to the great Universal monsters of the 1930s and 1940s.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is a film that remains an audience favorite. Comedy is a genre that works best when seen in a theatre; the crowd’s reactions to the movie are a good barometer of its strengths. Meet Frankenstein plays extremely well at theatrical screenings and always gets appropriate laughs from all ages. The film shows just how well Abbott & Costello performed in the horror genre. Who can forget Lou’s gasping terror, which only baffles Bud.

“What we need today is young blood– and brains.”
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The irony is that, for all its success, then and now, Meet Frankenstein was a film that Lou Costello did not want to make. Although Abbott & Costello had considered doing a Broadway show in the early 1940s using the Universal monster characters, Lou wanted no part of the film and was unhappy with the script, originally called The Brain of Frankenstein. Lou was eventually convinced to do it, however, by the fact that they would be working with their favorite director, Charles Barton.

Barton’s career in movies went back to the days of silent cinema where he performed as an actor at the age of 15. In later years, he worked as an assistant director for Paramount on such films as Island of Lost Souls and Monkey Business starring the Marx Brothers. Barton was no stranger to horror and comedy. By 1948, he had already directed Bud and Lou in The Time of Their Lives, Buck Privates Come Home, and The Noose Hangs High. His films stand out considerably from those of Charles Lamont, who directed most of the other Abbott & Costello films at Universal. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein features some of the most atmospheric lighting and camerawork (by cinematographer Charles Van Enger) ever seen in an Abbott & Costello film. (One early example is the mobile camera evident in the first scene at McDougal’s House of Horrors.) Perhaps the greatest benefit of Barton’s collaboration with A&C is that he got them to try things they wouldn’t have done for any other director.

Charles Barton: “Do you remember that pantomime scene where Lou sat in the Monster’s lap, and he got his hands mixed up with the Monster’s? Well, Lou didn’t want to do that. I had worked with (screenwriter) John Grant on that bit and when Lou read it he said, ‘What the hell is this?’ I said, ‘Well, if you just listen and try it, you’ll find out that it is beautiful.’ At first Lou didn’t understand it, but he finally became very enthusiastic. He just loved it. Well, we began shooting the scene and right in the middle of it, Glenn Strange started to laugh. And by God he couldn’t stop!” ~ Abbott & Costello in Hollywood (1991) by Bob Furmanek & Ron Palumbo

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Meet Frankenstein‘s cinematic qualities certainly add to its classic status, but the film is primarily remembered for its great cast. This was only Bela Lugosi’s second appearance as Dracula–he only got the part at the last minute by the insistence of his agent– yet he dominates with the old magic that had captivated audiences 17 years before in Dracula. Bela is commanding, and his delivery of his lines are some of the best moments. (It’s unfortunate that this would be his last film for a major studio.) Lon Chaney, Jr., reprises his role of the Wolf Man for the fifth and final time onscreen, once again projecting those qualities of anguish and torment associated with Lawrence Talbot, cinema’s patron saint of lycanthropy. Glenn Strange returns as the Frankenstein Monster, which he had played in the earlier House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. This time, Strange wore a more efficient makeup designed by Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan, which replaced the time-consuming process of the great Jack Pierce. And finally, for Abbott and Costello, this was their comeback film which restored them as box office champions.

Bud Abbott, the greatest straight man, and Lou Costello were experts at what they did, whether it was those methodical word games or the timing of their lines. Their appeal rested in the stage routines where it didn’t matter who the director was. They came from the burlesque tradition on stage and quickly became stars in radio and on film. They were the most popular comedy team until post-war America sought uninhibited, unhinged, and juvenile behavior in their entertainers. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein downplays the Abbott & Costello routines, and as a result, the two comics blend in more seamlessly with the plot. The film does feature the “moving candle” gag, which was a routine they had developed in vaudeville and used later in 1941’s Hold That Ghost– the first A&C film to combine comedy with horror.

Lenore Aubert, the film’s femme fatale, with the hypnotic Bela Lugosi.
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Lon Chaney, Jr. believed, in the years after the film’s release, that Abbott and Costello killed the horror genre. For Chaney, the sympathy that audiences had developed for these monsters was now gone. But time has proven otherwise. The quality of movies like House of Dracula did more to kill off the monsters than anything else. These later monster movies, made during the latter part of World War II, were B-movies cranked out mechanically and remembered today mainly out of nostalgia. By contrast, Meet Frankenstein is genuinely inspired and features a climax far more exciting than anything in either of the House pictures. Most importantly, the monsters play their roles straight and retain their dignity to the very end.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is the final curtain for the Universal monsters. It benefits from a great script, solid direction, atmospheric sets, a wonderful score by Frank Skinner, and a stellar cast of horror greats with two comics captured at their best. There are so many details and nuances that make this a rewarding film.

When this famous monster rally comes to the Pickwick Theatre on October 29, we’ll be presenting a film which has touched so many people at so many age levels. Its legacy, like the monsters themselves, is eternal and will go on for as long as movies exist.


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Record Turnout for Season 3 Opener!

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Minutes before the show started, the line continued to stretch down the block!
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Nearly 600 people (598) attended our season opener last Thursday! It was a rainy weekday night, so we are very grateful to all those who came out to see North By Northwest!

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We were not featured in any newspaper– not even listed in the local papers– but thanks to our volunteers like Lena and Angelo (pictured) we had a tremendous turnout!
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Happy faces!
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Ever wonder what Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette” might sound like on a Mighty Wurlitzer? (pictured: Jay Warren)
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Reminding fans to pick up their advance tickets before the next show.
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Program Host Matthew Hoffman with Movie Hostess Allison
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North By Northwest (1959) at the Pickwick Theatre

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WHAT: North By Northwest (1959) screening on DCP
WHEN: September 17, 2015    7:30 PM
WHERE: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL
HOW MUCH: $10/$7 seniors 60+ ($8/$6 advance tickets at box office or online
WHAT ELSE: Organist Jay Warren performs prelude music at 7:00 PM

Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill, a Madison Avenue ad-man who is mistaken for a mysterious government agent named George Kaplan. A group of spies, headed by Vandamm (James Mason), want Kaplan out of the way. What follows is one prolonged chase with Thornhill pursued by Vandamm’s henchmen (Martin Landau, Adam Williams) as well as by the police, who believe he is the killer of a United Nations delegate. While onboard a train bound for Chicago, Thornhill meets Eve (Eva Marie Saint), an alluring blonde who is not what she appears to be. From the opening strains of the Bernard Herrmann score to the famous cropduster scene to the chase atop Mount Rushmore, North By Northwest is the most exciting adventure Hitchcock ever directed. Made with sophistication and wit, the film became an influence on the later James Bond films of the 1960s.

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North By Northwest (1959) is, in the words of its screenwriter, “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” It’s the quintessential Hitchcock thriller with many elements seen from his earlier films. In fact, he once referred to the film as “the American 39 Steps.” North By Northwest is one of the greatest films of all time, earning its place in the National Film Registry as well as on the AFI’s greatest movies list.

North By Northwest is the first Alfred Hitchcock film we’ve screened at the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series. It’s also the first Hitchcock film I’ve ever presented. That might sound surprising, but when I programmed for the LaSalle Bank Theatre in the early 2000s, I concentrated mostly on lesser-known films and obscure directors. (It’s a tradition that continues at the Park Ridge Public Library Classic Film Series.) But in this day you can’t take it for granted that people have seen the classics. In fact, many younger viewers, many I’ve observed in Park Ridge, have never seen an Alfred Hitchcock film. Now is that rare opportunity to see the “Master of Suspense” on the big-screen.

It would be difficult to say something of this film’s production that hasn’t already been recorded elsewhere. Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) is a good place to start for an appreciation of this monumental filmmaker and his work. Instead, I thought I’d add a few words of a more subjective nature about what it means to see Hitchcock on the screen and why I selected this particular title for our Opening Night.

One of the most iconic images in all of cinema…
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There are some films that leave an indelible imprint when you see them at a young age– films so gripping they shape how you view the medium itself. As a kid I was introduced to Hitchcock the personality through reruns of the 1950s murder-mystery series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The first time I saw a Hitchcock film in a theatre was a 1984 re-release of Rear Window. It was Thanksgiving, and I was with my dad and my older brother. I believe it was the Mercury Theatre on North and Harlem where my dad took us, but I’m less vague about the impact it had on me. Seeing it in a theatre made the difference in how I would remember it. I couldn’t forget the suspense I felt seeing beautiful Grace Kelly surreptitiously enter Raymond Burr’s apartment while a wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart sat helpless across the courtyard. Though Hitchcock only appeared onscreen momentarily in Rear Window, I sensed his hand at work in the suspense that played out in front of me.

Since that time, I’ve seen more of Hitchcock in film school and in revival theatres, experiencing films like Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers On a Train, Psycho, and others. I did not watch them on a television set or, even worse, on Youtube. Instead of allowing the film to control you as it does in a theatre, a new generation controls the film and how it is presented. Entertainment now comes to us directly, downloaded or streamed, and people watch their movies on their iPhones and iPads or whatever toy is in fashion. But the movie experience itself is about making that effort to come out to the show; the reward of seeing something like North By Northwest is always worth that effort.

James Mason, Eva Marie Saint, and Cary Grant on location. North By Northwest is the second time in three years we’ve opened a season with James Mason.
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In the history of cinema classes there are (or should be) references to North By Northwest‘s cropduster sequence– the point in the story in which Roger Thornhill gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere to meet a man who could reveal the answers he seeks. Instead, he is ambushed by a biplane. It’s one of the most brilliantly-edited moments in all of cinema, and perhaps the one sequence– aside from the shower killing in Psycho— that Hitchcock is best-known for. The geographical perspective and the spatial relationship between Thornhill and his environment simply can’t be duplicated anywhere else except on a widescreen. How amazing will it be then to see that plane diving on one of the largest screens in the suburbs.

To open our third season of classic movies at the Pickwick Theatre, I chose a Hitchcock film that has universal appeal. Kids will enjoy the action while adults will appreciate the sly innuendo and comic repartee in Ernest Lehman’s original screenplay. It’s not as dark as the film Hitchcock made previously (Vertigo) or the one that would follow (Psycho). In fact, there is a great deal of humor in North By Northwest which is attributable to the persona of Cary Grant.

Great films shape our lives and take us in directions we might not otherwise have travelled. The most memorable vacation I recall was when my aunt and uncle took me to South Dakota to see the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Besides the fact that I would be seeing a revered monument in one of the most beautiful locales of the United States, I would also be at an Alfred Hitchcock movie location. Granted, only three scenes in the film were shot in Keystone, South Dakota, but for me, to be there was more exciting than Disney World. I wanted to soak up the atmosphere and see the visitor’s center and the cafeteria where Thornhill was “shot” by Eve. And though I knew, even then, that the filming of the climactic chase on Mount Rushmore was staged on a movie set and not atop the Presidents’ heads, it was still a great thrill to simply be there in the vicinity. Ultimately, North By Northwest made me appreciate the monument and its history even more. For those who have seen Mount Rushmore, North By Northwest is certainly a must-see.

For more about the drama behind the filming of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest at Mount Rushmore, Click Here!


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Twelve O’Clock High: Maximum Effort

A near-capacity crowd came out for our World War II event at the library.
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The following is a transcript from our introduction of Twelve O’Clock High on August 6, 2015. We had 82 patrons attend this special event at the Park Ridge Public Library. We were honored to have two World War II veterans with us. In addition, a 17-minute slideshow accompanied the presentation. We have dedicated this screening to George E. Schatz, who passed away five days before the event.

Our screening tonight is more than a tribute to a great film, it’s a salute to all those Americans who served during the Second World War. To honor The Spirit of ’45—the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II— and to keep the history alive, we are screening Twelve O’Clock High. Released four years after the war had ended, the film deals with the daylight bombing missions of the Eighth Air Force, which was stationed in England. Though we are unable to honor all the branches of the military, Twelve O’Clock High reflects the stress and danger that all servicemen face in times of conflict; it shows the human cost of war.

Twelve O’Clock High has an integrity that is on every page of its outstanding screenplay. It transcends the macho clichés of the genre by presenting a picture of war rooted in fact. It accurately reflects what the pilots of the Eighth Air Force had to suffer. Those who have served our country recognize more keenly the realities and truths depicted in Twelve O’Clock High. Like the flashback that opens the film, I’d like to reflect back and explain how I discovered this movie and why I selected it.

About fourteen years ago I was planning a film screening of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon at the LaSalle Theatre in Chicago. Ronald Colman, the film’s star, has always been my favorite actor, so I contacted a gentleman from Highland Park who I knew was a Colman scholar. In fact, he had created a group with other historians called the Ronald Colman Appreciation Society. His name is George E. Schatz and he provided me with a written introduction to my screening. I got to know George, and when I visited him at his home he had a museum in honor of Colman and Lost Horizon— from theatrical posters to movie still albums the size of Chicago phonebooks. It was a passion of his that went back to the film’s release in 1937.

But there was another facet of George Schatz that I learned about. He was a veteran of World War II. He had been a bombardier on a B-17 Flying Fortress, having flown 32 missions as part of the 600th Squadron. There were various artifacts from his war years on display, including an apparatus that was part of a bombsight from his plane. There it was in his basement, over a half century since the last bomb had dropped– a silent reminder of the harrowing experiences he had survived. George recorded some of those experiences for the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association. It was entitled, “The Ken Elwood Crew: A Bombardier Remembers…” Ken Elwood was the pilot of George’s B-17. I’d like to read an excerpt from this in which George talks about Ken’s outstanding skills. The full text can be found as part of the Veterans History at

George E. Schatz, front row, second from left.
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“In February of 1944 while on a practice bombing mission in South Dakota, a fire in the bomb bay door motor had me and the engineer trying to turn the doors back up with the manual handle, and then we lost each of our four engines on our B-17 in turn from carburetor icing. By this time we were too low to jump and our whole crew went into our practiced toboggan mode in William Hanna’s radio room.

“Meanwhile Ken Elwood and co-pilot John Hutchison attempted to make a ‘wheels up’ landing on the belly of our B-17 ‘Flying Fortress.’ Elwood made such a perfect, smooth landing on a snow-covered wheat field that we neither bounced nor even suffered a hangnail. After our crew quickly exited the plane, saw that there was no fire, two men trudged towards a farmhouse to phone. It was my duty to go back into the eerie quiet hollows of our slumbering aluminum giant and rescue the then ‘top secret’ Norden Bombsight. The four ambulances sent out by the base to ‘rescue’ us proved to be a more harrowing trip than Elwood’s landing but our entire crew was then treated by the Colonel to “The best steaks in South Dakota.’ Elwood’s belly landing had been so gentle, that after fixing the props, and lifting it, Col. Hunter flew that B-17 out of the wheat field on a metal-grid runway.”

There were many dangerous missions for George and his crew. He once told me that on his second mission over Berlin, “when fighters hit the ‘composite’ Group in front of us (which partially contained B-17s from our own 398th Bomb Group) and parts of bodies and planes ‘floated’ past us, my navigator and I wondered why we weren’t ‘sickened’ (as our pilot was) and we decided it was so awful that our ‘minds’ could only grasp it as somehow ‘unreal’– like a movie!”

On another occasion over Merseburg, Germany, flak came through the nose of the plane and knocked Plexiglas into George’s left eye. Their last mission, on August 8, 1944, took them over the English Channel in a low altitude run in support of General Montgomery’s men. The group bombardiers had to distinguish between the Allied lines and the Nazis, so there was no room for error. Flak hit the windshield and flew into Elwood’s eyes. Then later on the same mission, there was a near collision upon landing with another plane coming in underneath them. They survived that last run, and Ken Elwood recovered, but the celebration was short-lived.

George writes, “The fourth bright, shining morning after our crew’s final mission, I was hanging some freshly washed socks and handkerchiefs out to dry on a fence railing near our hut, happy and relaxed as a clam. Then some officer walked down towards us, probably from our 398th’s Headquarters, and seeing me, came over and told me that the crew that had taken over our plane, plane #191, were all killed when it exploded while it was circling around on its climb up to assembly over England! I have an old small Kodak photo of Charlie Searl and Leo Walsh on which I had written on the back, in pencil: ‘Played ball with these two boys yesterday; today they are dead! Lost over England in our #191 plane.’ There were no survivors of that Searl Crew on that morning of August 12, 1944.”

Had the Ken Elwood crew been pro-rated to fly 33 missions instead of 32, George Schatz’s life would have been cut short like so many of the Bomber Boys who had perished. When I visited George, I remembered seeing amidst his collection various items from Twelve O’Clock High including original posters. The book and film had made an impression on him. To George, it was the “truest” Air Force film.

A B-17 flying through flak.
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Twelve O’Clock High opens in the years after the war, with an American officer visiting an abandoned airfield in the English countryside. The officer is played by Dean Jagger, who would win an Academy Award for his performance as Major Harvey Stovall. His story leads into a flashback to 1942. These are the early days of the war when America and England were suffering heavy losses. The story follows a “hard luck” Bomber Group in the Army’s Eighth Air Force. They are responsible for the daylight precision bombing missions over Nazi Germany. However, the pilots suffer from poor morale as a result of increasing casualties. The men are led by Col. Davenport, as portrayed by Gary Merrill. He has become too protective of his men, and as a result of this over-identification, he can no longer effectively lead them. He is replaced by General Savage, played by Gregory Peck. Savage brings leadership rooted in discipline. The least competent men he re-assigns to a unit known as the “Leper Colony,” headed by Col. Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe), who had previously shirked his duties. Savage must turn the group around and change their defeatist attitude. Ultimately, that change must come from within the men.

Twelve O’Clock High is based on a 1948 novel by Beirne Lay, Jr. and Sy Bartlett, both of whom wrote the film’s screenplay as well. The two were combat men who had served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War 2. The film is based on their experiences. Lay had been an intelligence officer in the 8th Bomber Command. Bartlett had worked in Hollywood at 20th Century Fox before Lay brought him into the intelligence unit. Later, Bartlett would pitch Lay on his story idea about the 306th Bomb Group. To sell Lay on the idea, Bartlett said, “You know, when the war ends, people are going to forget what happened here. They won’t care anymore. To prevent that from happening, you and I are going to write a novel about the Air Corps.” Though the names in the book are fictional, the characters they created are based on real people they had known.

Frank Savage, for instance, is based of the life of General Frank A. Armstrong, a legendary figure in the history of the Eighth Air Force. During the war, Armstrong took over the command of the 97th Bomb Group and led the first daylight bombing raid over Europe. He later reorganized the 306th Bomb Group—rebuilding its discipline and training– and then leading their first mission to bomb Germany. For the novel, the authors created the 918th Group by simply multiplying 306 by 3.

“Consider yourselves already dead. Once you accept that idea, it won’t be so tough.” ~ Gregory Peck as General Savage, Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
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Gregory Peck, who was nominated for Best Actor for his performance, thoughtfully conveys to the audience the burden of commanding men. Savage must exert his authority, but it is never done to assert a self-importance. The fundamental drive is his commitment to the men. The task is to instill flying discipline and group integrity. New leaders will emerge as a result. In fact, Twelve O’Clock High is often used as an example of the principles of leadership, both in the military and corporate worlds. Gregory Peck’s character shows what it takes to be a leader with a clear sense of purpose and methodology. The film has been screened from Air Forces bases to executive management classes.

During the war there were many films that simply offered action and flag-waving heroics. These films had more propagandistic objectives, but after the war, filmmakers were able to explore the subject on a deeper level. Twelve O’Clock High is about the psychology of war. The emphasis is on the human drama rather than the mechanics of warfare. The theme that runs throughout is the mental breakdown. Everything leads to that. Though no U.S. general suffered the kind of paralysis seen in the film, the writers of Twelve O’Clock High merely extrapolated on the idea and wrote about something that could have happened given the circumstances.

Films made during and immediately after the war radiate an authenticity that contemporary war films lack; they carry with them the voice of experience. Filmmakers back then did not play soldier. They lived it. There is a mistaken perception today that if somehow a film presents a hyper-sense of reality—a depiction of combat complete with hand-held cameras and graphic make-up effects—it is somehow truer to the horror of war. There are no depictions of men being blown up in front of our eyes in Twelve O’Clock High, yet the film has an honesty few films today attain. The great war directors like Ford, Capra, Huston, Wyler, and others did not have to shock an audience or manipulate them with sentiment.

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Twelve O’Clock High is a film told with authority by those who knew that time in history. It is true to the situations it depicts. This has been recognized by veterans who have served and who understand the trials. Many of the people connected to Twelve O’Clock High had been involved in the war themselves. In addition to the screenwriters, director Henry King, who was already in his fifties when the war began, was the deputy commander of the Civil Air Patrol having attained the rank of captain. He had years of flying experience in the private sector. Before the war, King had taught movie legend Tyrone Power how to fly. Twelve O’Clock High also featured an actor with real-life aircrew experience, Robert Patten, who plays Lt. Bishop.

The film was personally supervised by Daryl F. Zanuck who took over as producer. Having purchased the rights to the story for $100,000, he helped develop the screenplay. One of Zanuck’s contributions included removing an unnecessary romantic element from the novel. Twelve O’Clock High was originally planned for Technicolor, but instead was shot in black and white so as to incorporate actual war footage of planes in distress taken by both the Allies and the Luftwaffe. This footage was seamlessly integrated into the film by editor Barbara McLean.

Twelve O’Clock High opens with one of the most memorable moments in the movie–that of a B-17 crash landing. This scene was performed by ace stunt pilot Paul Mantz. He had to guide a 38,000 pound plane 1200 feet while traveling at 110 mph. This was reportedly the only time a B-17 took off and was flown with only one crewman onboard. The spectacular sequence recalls the landing George Schatz and his crew experienced in the wheat fields of South Dakota. However, the incident in the film is actually inspired by the heroics of real-life Medal of Honor recipients such as John Morgan, a B-17 flight officer who, during a 1943 mission over Germany, had to fight off a disoriented and severely injured pilot in order to bring the plane in safely. In the film, this character is portrayed by the fictional Lt. Bishop. However, the actual landing of the B-17, as depicted in the film, recalls the heroics of other real-life airmen such as Chicago native Edward S. Michael. In April of 1944 Michael and the members of the 364th Bomb Squadron were flying a mission over Germany when their B-17 was singled out by enemy fire. The plane was heavily damaged and caught on fire. Michael’s official Medal of Honor citation reads in part:

“With a full load of incendiaries in the bomb bay and a considerable gas load in the tanks, the danger of fire enveloping the plane and the tanks exploding seemed imminent. When the emergency release lever failed to function, 1st Lt. Michael at once gave the order to bail out and 7 of the crew left the plane. Seeing the bombardier firing the navigator’s gun at the enemy planes, 1st Lt. Michael ordered him to bail out as the plane was liable to explode any minute. When the bombardier looked for his parachute he found that it had been riddled with 20mm. fragments and was useless. 1st Lt. Michael, seeing the ruined parachute, realized that if the plane was abandoned the bombardier would perish and decided that the only chance would be a crash landing. Completely disregarding his own painful and profusely bleeding wounds, but thinking only of the safety of the remaining crewmembers, he gallantly evaded the enemy, using violent evasive action despite the battered condition of his plane. After the plane had been under sustained enemy attack for fully 45 minutes, 1st Lt. Michael finally lost the persistent fighters in a cloud bank. Upon emerging, an accurate barrage of flak caused him to come down to treetop level where flak towers poured a continuous rain of fire on the plane. He continued into France, realizing that at any moment a crash landing might have to be attempted, but trying to get as far as possible to increase the escape possibilities if a safe landing could be achieved. 1st Lt. Michael flew the plane until he became exhausted from the loss of blood, which had formed on the floor in pools, and he lost consciousness. The copilot succeeded in reaching England and sighted an RAF field near the coast. 1st Lt. Michael finally regained consciousness and insisted upon taking over the controls to land the plane. The undercarriage was useless, the bomb bay doors were jammed open; the hydraulic system and altimeter were shot out. In addition, there was no airspeed indicator, the ball turret was jammed with the guns pointing downward, and the flaps would not respond. Despite these apparently insurmountable obstacles, he landed the plane without mishap.”

Edward Michael, who grew up in the Norwood Park neighborhood, died in 1994 at the age of 76.

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Twelve O’Clock High reflects the bravery and courage of those who fought for the cause of freedom. Its vivid recreation of air warfare and its depiction of men giving the maximum effort in defeating the enemies of democracy is an inspiration for all time. In today’s increasingly narcissistic society—where everything is “all about me”—a society that is also losing its sense of history and perspective, it is critical that we remember a generation that knew the meaning of collective sacrifice. They were our greatest generation, and to them this screening is dedicated.

I would like to thank George E. Schatz for his support and encouragement of tonight’s screening. George passed away this past Saturday, August 1st, at the age of 96. He died, like the High Lama in Lost Horizon, peacefully. In many ways, George was a national treasure. It is now up to us to carry on his legacy and keep the Spirit of ’45 alive.


Program Host Matthew Hoffman
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Mr. Bill McNabola, WWII veteran
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Mr. Nelson Campbell, WWII veteran
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Slideshow presentation (featuring many rare behind-the-scenes photos from Twelve O’Clock High).
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George E. Schatz, 2015
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The Spirit of ’45 at the PRPL

On August 6, 2015–  coincidentally, the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima– we will honor “The Spirit of ’45” at the Park Ridge Public Library with a screening of Twelve O’Clock High (1949). We will also present a fascinating documentary on the history of the B-17 bomber.

Doors will open at 6 PM. Our presentation begins in the first floor meeting room at 6:30 PM. The feature begins promptly at 7 PM. Seating is limited to 90.

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Robert Ryan Event

We are grateful to J.R. Jones, author of The Lives of Robert Ryan, for asking Park Ridge Classic Film to be involved in his Robert Ryan Event on May 31, 2015, at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Matthew C. Hoffman moderated a Q&A between author J.R. Jones and Lisa Ryan, daughter of actor Robert Ryan. The discussion followed a noon screening of the film noir classic The Set-Up. Just under 200 people attended this screening/book-signing.

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The curtain rises…
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Moderator Matthew C. Hoffman
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Author J.R. Jones
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With Lisa Ryan
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Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Rye.

Robert Ryan in The Set-Up (1949)

On May 31, 2015, the Music Box Theatre in Chicago will be presenting a screening of The Set-Up (1949) starring Robert Ryan. Lisa Ryan, the late actor’s daughter, will be a special guest. In addition, author J.R. Jones will be discussing his new book, The Lives of Robert Ryan (2015). I’ve been asked to moderate a Q&A with both guests.

My own association with Lisa Ryan began in the spring of 2009 when I contacted her about a screening of The Set-Up I was doing for the Park Ridge Public Library. This was a series on Film Noir– my first program since leaving the LaSalle Bank Theatre revival house in 2004.

The following is a partial transcript of my introduction to The Set-Up on April 23, 2009. Though she was not able to join us in person, Lisa Ryan was generous enough to share some of her memories of her father. (NOTE: Like the flashback within a flashback within a flashback of the film noir The Locket (1946), this written account has me addressing a library audience and reading a letter from Lisa, who writes about her letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, which in turn includes a letter from her father.)


Tonight’s film is one I had screened when I operated the LaSalle Bank Theatre. It was part of a 6-month program called Son of Noir. But my first experience seeing it was on the late late movie on WLS Channel 7, which would often run the B-movies and programmers from the RKO studio. RKO was very much the “House of Noir” as so many of the great low-budget film noirs came out of that studio. A strong case could be made that The Set-Up is the best of the bunch in our current series. It was directed by Robert Wise, who was a terrific visual storyteller. For this presentation, however, I would like to put the emphasis on its star, Robert Ryan, who plays an over-the-hill boxer “one punch away” from the big time.

Chicago-born Robert Ryan was a terrific actor– one of the most underrated in American cinema. He was also one of the heroes of noir because of his portrayals of some truly nasty characters. No one could be meaner gritting his teeth than Ryan, but in The Set-Up, he has a sympathetic role as fighter Stoker Thompson. His career included such classics as Crossfire, Act of Violence, Caught, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, Clash By Night, Beware, My Lovely, Odds Against Tomorrow— and those are just the film noirs. Some of his other films include The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock, God’s Little Acre, The Professionals, The Wild Bunch, and The Iceman Cometh. Best remembered for playing racially intolerant or psychologically intense characters, Ryan was very much the antithesis off-screen. He was quiet and soft-spoken and a very socially-conscious man– a “solid citizen,” as director Robert Wise described him.

In recent months, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting Lisa Ryan, who is Robert Ryan’s only daughter. Though she lives in San Francisco and could not be here with us tonight, she is very much aware of our series and appreciates this screening of her father’s favorite film. Regarding the popularity of film noir in general, Lisa has said her father “would be amazed that Film Noir is such a big deal… sixty years later. I think he’d be totally baffled! My mother told me a hilarious story about being in Paris with my Dad in the early 70’s… and being approached by a group of kids who turned out to be film students. They got down on their knees, on the sidewalk, in front of my Dad, bowing down to him as if he were some religious figure. I don’t know if there are rules about language here, so I’ll just say that my Dad’s comment reportedly was: ‘What the f*** is WRONG with these French people? Are they all INSANE?’… I don’t think he even knew what ‘Film Noir’ was… he took the parts that RKO wanted him to play… and happily for us, some of them were pretty amazing!”

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And one of the most amazing parts was in The Set-Up. Robert Ryan was perfectly cast as a small-time boxer since he had been the intercollegiate heavyweight boxing champion at Dartmouth College. As Stoker Thompson, he is a heroic figure– the common man– fighting in a world of corruption peopled by those hungry for sensation. Far removed from the boxing world of Madison Square Garden, Paradise City, where the story takes place, embodies the perfect pulp world. It is a place of cheap motels, penny arcades, and shady deals. You can almost smell the sweat and cigar smoke. Here, it seems everyone is down on their luck. But unlike the others, Ryan maintains a quiet nobility. He is reaching the end of the road and he knows it, but he’s got one last chance to prove himself.

The Set-Up was based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March. The original character of that version was an African-American named Candy Jones. Art Cohn, who had been a sportswriter in San Francisco, wrote the very cynical and unsentimental screenplay. Many of his own personal observations about going to the fights found their way into his script, such as the blind man who follows the action of the fight with the aid of a friend.

Robert Wise directed the film in real time. In other words, the movie is 72 minutes long and the action of the story unfolds within 72 minutes of real time in the lives of these characters. The film is beautiful in black and white, but for us, it would look even more remarkable shown in 35mm. Many people refuse to watch a black and white film, and that’s a sad mentality to have when films like The Set-Up are so stunning to watch.

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It’s also a perfect example of how to edit a film. Modern filmmakers have lost sight of this in their attempts to jolt an audience with fast POV shots and sensory overkill. At 72 minutes, The Set-Up is tough and lean– like a fighter, as Martin Scorsese pointed out in his praise of it. Robert Wise knew when to cut and when not to. He knew something about putting a film together having edited Citizen Kane.

Like the ringside audience, we see the fight as it would naturally unfold without the gimmicky camerawork. Robert Ryan, with boxer/trainer John Indrisano, helped choreograph the fight scenes. There’s a realism to it– none of the slow motion close-ups in contemporary boxing films where you see a mouth piece flying through the air after a punch. The fight scenes are very visceral and primal. In The Set-Up, when a character hits the dust of the canvas, you feel as though you are in that ring. The entire film is very realistic, though Martin Scorsese has suggested it’s a heightened reality, like a painter’s view of reality.

The Set-Up is visually a very stark film photographed by Milton Krasner, who had been the cinematographer on last week’s movie, A Double Life. You can see how fluid his camera is and how it captures a sense of place and a sense of the people in just the opening minutes with shifting points of view.

Having viewed it again recently, another thing that struck me was the use of sound in The Set-Up. There is no grand, orchestral underscoring. You hear the ring bell instead of any title music. Sound plays an important role in the film as it sets the mood. It’s one of those movies where everything fits together so well, where every image and sound has a reason for being there.

The film was shot in about 19 days and received excellent reviews when released. It had originally premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949 where Robert Ryan received a Best Actor award. Besides being Ryan’s favorite picture, The Set-Up would be Robert Wise’s as well. That’s saying something considering he had made such classics as The Body Snatcher, Curse of the Cat People and, after leaving RKO, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

No doubt if The Set-Up had been a foreign film it would probably have been hailed a masterpiece. But the general perception was that it was simply a great B movie. Only in recent decades, with the rise in popularity and appreciation for film noir has The Set-Up been recognized as an American masterpiece. It is one of the best films ever made about the sport of boxing.

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Just the other night, Lisa Ryan sent me this email which I would like to share with all of you… Lisa writes…



This is also probably not useful… but there’s been an ongoing exchange of letters to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle about inappropriate laughter during screenings of classic Noir films at the last big Noir festival here. It’s turned into quite a hot debate– so I thought I’d add my 2 cents– here’s the letter I wrote (so far not published):

Yet another opinion about ‘disrespectful laughter’


Some years back I attended a screening of the classic boxing noir film “The Set-Up” at the Castro Theatre.

I’d only seen it on TV and was looking forward to seeing it on the big screen because A) it’s a great movie, and B) the central character in the story– Stoker Thompson– was played by my father, Robert Ryan.

The end of the film is totally heartbreaking, as a battered and broken Thompson, calling to his wife, staggers out of an alley behind the boxing arena and collapses in the street. His wife (played by the fabulous Audrey Totter) rushes to his side and comforts him as he gazes up at her and says: “Julie, I won tonight. I won!”

It never would have occurred to me– until I saw it at the Castro– that “The Set-Up” was a rollicking comedy. Who knew?

The inappropriate laughter throughout the movie reminded me of a story my father told me about performing ‘Othello’ at a matinee for elementary school children in England in 1967. He told me the story in a letter he sent me from the Nottingham Repertory Theatre:

“We had the last of the school matiness yesterday, thank God. They are a local institution whereby the local schools get a free performance of the current classic– in this case, of course, ‘Othello.’ Shakespeare naturally is sacrosanct, so 6 year old moppets are allowed to watch a play about murder, sexual jealousy, and foul conniving. The results are what you’d expect: we played The Big O to a constant storm of laughter which reached a crescendo in the bedroom scene. My killing of the lady was evidently funnier than the Three Stooges. We did 6 of these horrendous things and I feel that I have paid for all my sins in this world.”

–Lisa Ryan
San Francisco

Gee– I wonder why the Chronicle hasn’t printed my letter? It’s only 10 PAGES LONG!

Anyway, I suspect your Chicago audience will demonstrate a lot more class…

About my dad and boxing… it was something he loved that stayed with him his entire life. Wherever we lived he always had a punching bag set-up, and worked out on it every day that I can remember. When we lived in New York he’d go running in Central Park wearing ancient wool sweatpants from his days as a boxing champ at Dartmouth. When I was in high school the sight of my 50-something dad running backwards around Central Park Reservoir, shadow boxing in his 1928 sweatpants was both hilarious and excruciatingly embarrassing.

He always carried a framed photo of the lightweight boxing champ “Baby Joe” Gans with him wherever he went. When I was growing up, Joe Gans always occupied a position of prominence in our living room, hanging over the fireplace. I never really thought about Joe Gans until years after my dad died, and when I finally did some research on him I was really surprised to learn that he’d died in 1910!

In the 1960’s my dad added a framed portrait of Muhammad Ali to his boxing shrine.

OK– that’s all I can think of– maybe you can use some of this– have fun!


NOTE: Lisa’s letter was published on May 3, 2009 by the SF Chronicle, though heavily edited.

For more about Robert Ryan, refer to J.R. Jones’ The Actor’s Letter, originally published in The Chicago Reader in the fall of 2009.

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