Stanley Crouch on Classic Cinema: A Conversation with Paul Devlin

(Thanks to Paul Devlin for this worthy addition to Crouch lore, which shows how lucid Stanley could be even quite late in the game. I am honored to host this on DTM. — ei)

This is a fragment of a conversation on classic cinema that Stanley Crouch (1945-2020) and I had on January 1, 2018 at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, where he had then been a patient for several days. Stanley and I used to talk about old movies for hours – something he did with many people. (We had been friends for nearly fourteen years at that point.) As Stanley’s health declined from the mid-2010s onward he seemed to withdraw into a black-and-white or technicolor world, watching Turner Classic Movies in many of his waking hours. Soon, Stanley would have to move into a nursing home. A year and a half later, in summer 2019, the poet and memoirist Garrett Hongo, who had been Stanley’s student in the 1970s, visited him and was inspired to write a poem called “Watching Turner Classic Movies with Stanley Crouch at the Hebrew Home, Riverdale.” Those who knew Stanley best in his later years may recall similar experiences. (Hongo’s poem was published online in mid-2020 and then removed ahead of forthcoming publication elsewhere.)

Years before that, Stanley and I would often talk about John Ford or John Huston or Sam Peckinpah or Anthony Mann or Orson Welles or Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock over dinner. Perhaps the first time I noticed myself kind of watching-someone-else-watch-a-movie was with Stanley at a special screening of The Wild Bunch (1969) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a decade earlier, circa July 2006. If you knew Stanley and know the movie (which he had seen many times), his reactions to its over-the-top, shoot-’em-up absurdities were as animated as you might imagine, adding considerable fun to the viewing experience. Several people have told me how enjoyable it was to go to the movies with him and how pertinent, insightful, unexpected, and downright hilarious his comments often were. We went once to a private screening of The Lives of Others (2006), but that wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. The only other movie we looked at in a theater was True Grit (2010) by the Coen Brothers, which he then encouraged me to write about after our discussion of it, and I did. (He insisted on saying one “looked at” a movie rather than “watched” a movie.) We also looked at a few on DVD together as well, including the John Wayne vehicle Hatari! (1962), with a Henry Mancini score that Stanley appreciated and called “hip,” and John Huston’s poignant In This Our Life (1942). Stanley should have been hired to do DVD commentaries. 

Circa 2015, he had a notion that I should edit a volume of his writings on film, which included a wide variety of uncollected material, from his reviews in the mid-2000s for the “DVD Extras” series at Slate, to 2010s essays for Film Comment, to uncollected pieces from the Village Voice in the 1980s. We had discussions with an interested publisher, and I made a preliminary bibliography. But the project fizzled. Stanley’s interest seemed to drift, and I soon let it go, being busy with other things. A friend suggested he was probably being encouraged (or implored) to focus on the second volume of his biography of Charlie Parker, which he ended up being too unwell to write. Yet we talked about the book idea on and off, now and again – kind of like how one sometimes talks to a friend about a prospective reunion that both parties know might never happen. (This fall, Liveright will publish a volume of Stanley’s uncollected writings, edited by Glenn Mott, with an introduction by Jelani Cobb and an afterword by Wynton Marsalis.)

I had no idea what kind of medical state Stanley would be in when I arrived to visit him in what seemed a particularly sleepy Beth Israel in the gloomy twilight of what had been a grey New Year’s Day. I was thrilled that he seemed reasonably well – awake, alert, eager to talk, and apparently comfortable in a spiffy, newly renovated private room. If I had been told he was the room’s first patient, I would not have doubted it. As a gift, for the holidays or whatever – for something to read in the hospital or just because – I brought him a copy of the letters of Groucho Marx (from which, later that evening, he read aloud from Groucho’s entertaining letters to Peter Lorre and T.S. Eliot).

Almost as soon as I sat down, Stanley launched into a lively description of Mervyn LeRoy’s Two Seconds (1932). It was as if he had looked at it recently and had been waiting for someone to talk to about it. (This is why, toward the end of the conversation, when he brings Two Seconds up in another context, he refers to it as “this movie we’re talking about.”) Upon hearing him talk about Two Seconds with such verve, I knew it was going to be a rollicking discussion. After a few minutes, I told him I wanted to tape it. Perhaps, I thought and mentioned, we could, if it turned out interesting, put it in an appendix to the book. We both knew that the book was not likely to happen at that point, but it was fun to think/pretend we still might do it. This fragment begins with Stanley telling me about Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939). I had seen it, but it took me a few minutes to figure out that it was the movie he was describing. 

 -Paul Devlin, March 2022

Stanley Crouch:  She [Greta Garbo as Ninotchka] says, do you have the intention of going to bed with me? He says, why, is it horrible? She says because in the capitalist world, all y’all think about is sex. Sex is just a biological situation. It’s like, need it to perpetuate the species. That’s all it’s there for. It’s for you to do what you’re trying to do to me right now. 

Paul Devlin:  Wait, does she deliver that in like, her deadpan….

SC:  Oh, she smokes it. And then a guy brings in a bottle of champagne, and she says oh, father, how are you? He says I’m doing well. She says you look overworked to me – and exploited [laughs]. He says, I feel OK. She says that’s the problem with capitalism. You take men like this, who actually possess some kind of nobility you could not ever understand, because you don’t understand people, you don’t understand things. Then at some point she says don’t worry father, someday we’ll overthrow this whole mess. And the guy says oh, thank you thank you, puts the tray down, and Melvyn Douglas goes to leave out the door and he says, is this woman insane? [laughs] Aw man, you’ll…

PD:  This is not the one where she’s a Russian agent?

SC:  Oh yes. No, no! She’s not an agent. She’s not an agent; she works for the Russian government. 

PD:  This is Ninotchka?

SC:  Yeah! 

PD:  OK.

SC:  Yeah, that’s the one. I always forget the title of it. 

PD:  I love the scene when they’re in the coffee shop, and the guy is trying to tell her American jokes. 

SC:  Right! And falls on the chair and everybody laughs! Well see, that begins their romance. See that’s the interesting thing to me about Lubitsch. Everything that the guy is trying to get her interested in him – 

[nurse enters, serves dinner entrée, banter between Crouch and nurse, unclear remarks]

PD:  So, you’re saying they made a response to that movie, with Hedy Lamarr? 

SC:  It’s called uh, ‘Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr’ [laughs]. I don’t know what the name of it was [Comrade X (1940)]. But Hedy Lamarr is a super-communist in the film, and so…

PD:  I gotta see that. 

SC:  So Clark Gable…

[nurse unveils dinner – salmon over rice] 

PD:  This [dinner] looks good!

SC:  Yeah, man! 

[nurse banter, getting set up for dinner, etc.]

So, she plays a Marxist automaton who drives a street car, right. So Clark Gable goes to talk to her when she’s over this street car. And so, one thing leads to another. Her father works in the hotel where Clark Gable is staying. They’re in there and Clark Gable says to her at one point, ‘you know your father is kind of uh, he’s kind of out of his mind.’ So she says, ‘he may be, because he said, I should leave Russia and go to New York.’ So Clark Gable says, ‘I would love to take you to New York.’ She says ‘yes, but the idea of me going to New York with you is horrible.’

And then [there’s] that thing that Gable has – movie after movie – being the actual masculine authority that he brings off in film after film. Cause in one with uh, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy about wildcatting. [Boom Town (1940). This also features Hedy Lamarr, not Myrna Loy.] He’s working in one of these Yukon towns; he runs an expensive rigging, and he says hey shorty, how you doing?! And Spencer Tracy says, the name is John. Oh, well you know what, says Gable? My name is John too, so I’ll be Tall John, and you’ll be Short John! [loud laughter]

PD:  Oh, that’s good. 

SC:  Yeah, it’s funny. 

PD:  There’s a great Hedy Lamarr movie with Paul Henreid.

SC:  Oh yeah.

PD:  You know that one? [The Conspirators (1944)] It’s kind of like Casablanca

SC:  Yeah. 

PD:  They’re trying to escape out of Lisbon during World War II. 

SC:  Right, I have it. 

PD:  She was something else. 

SC:  The kind of stuff they’ve discovered now, that no one had any idea of when she was alive. 

PD:  Her work as an inventor and stuff like that?

SC:  Yeah! 

PD:  That’s crazy, right?

SC:  It was very important to the Navy, cause she had actually figured out how to avoid the Nazi radar system. She could see you right… Right where you want to go? You get right there

PD:  We use it today in Wi-Fi and the internet. Whatever thing that she figured out is the basis of Wi-Fi. 

Ever seen the 1962 Billy Budd?

SC:  Yeah.

PD:  With Robert Ryan as – 

SC:  Right. Yeah, I like that. Ustinov was good too! 

PD:  Oh, brilliant, brilliant as the captain. You know, he wrote the screenplay too – 

SC:  Right!

PD:  And directed it. 

SC:  Yeah but see…[pause]

PD:  You brought up Tracy; that made me think of Robert Ryan because of Bad Day at Black Rock.

SC:  Well see, if you’ve ever seen Ernest Borgnine talking about that film – he lays it out so well, but see he…

PD:  What is there, an interview or something where he discusses it?

SC:  No. On Turner Classics, where he talks about Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch; he talks about Robert Ryan in Bad Day at Black Rock, and he says, Bob was always a very powerful actor. Right? He’s got scenes with Spencer Tracy playing a man who lost his arm during World War II, and they’re sitting down. He said it always fascinated me to watch it because you’re watching these two other actors, right, and you’re seeing how they talk to each other. So, he says, when Spencer Tracy sits down, he never looks at Robert Ryan! [laughs] 

PD:  You mean the scene with the telegram?

SC:  No, no! It’s where Ryan is outside to get some gas for his jeep or whatever whatever.

PD:  And Spencer Tracy is sitting down at the little bench in the gas station. Oh, and they have that back and forth. Ryan says something like ‘I wish they would just leave us alone!’ And Tracy says, ‘leave you alone to do what?’

SC:  HA! HA! HA! Oh man. Yeah, that’s a smoker. 

PD:  Smoker. 

SC:  But to me also, in that film – Lee Marvin – he sends you exactly what a redneck is. He didn’t get hysterical. He just does what they like to do: just fuck you up and leave

PD:  When Ryan pins the star on him and he starts immediately talking like a sheriff? 

SC:  Right! 

PD:  Like as if he’s always been preparing for that role. 

SC:  Right! Well the other thing was he was so startled by Tracy in the bar. 

PD:  Mm hmm. Right, he would have been expecting – I mean, Reno [Ryan’s character] would have been expecting to end the whole thing in the bar, not expecting that Tracy was gonna hurt Borgnine so bad. 

SC:  Yes, because, the first thing is, the most startling thing about any aspect of martial arts is it was always intended to surprise people.

PD:  Ha! I never thought of that! Right. 

SC:  And it’s an important part of The Barbarian and the Geisha.

PD:  Oh, I don’t know that. 

SC:  Oh, well, John Wayne plays this guy who went to Japan in the 1850s or something like that. And he wants to have a wrestling match with this Japanese guy. You go right out there and we’ll have a young man for you to deal with, and when it’s over you’ll know that he knows something you don’t know. And the kid just picked him up and threw him down, and John Wayne said ‘well, that’s enough for me!’ [laughter] He says, ‘how long have you all been doing this?’ ‘6, 7, 800 years.’

PD:  I’m gonna have to add that one to the list too. 

SC:  To me, anything with John Wayne in a certain period of his career is important. Well, this is a good dinner.

PD:  It looks good! I’m glad you have an appetite. 

SC:  You’re not alone! 

PD:  How long have you been in here?

SC:  Two or three days. 

The thing that’s fascinating to me is that Bellow, Ellison, Murray – they didn’t know anything about film. 

PD:  Well, at least they didn’t really speak about it or write about it. 

SC:  We know they didn’t know much.

PD:  Well, Bellow has this section in Humboldt’s Gift on Preston Sturges – 

SC:  Right!

PD:  Well, the plot of that crazy movie that was inspired by Preston Sturges. [The “gift” in Humboldt’s Gift is a zany screenplay, which the narrator compares to one by Preston Sturges.] So, he didn’t know much about it if you were to speak to him in person?

SC:  He could have known more or as much as anybody else, but he was very disturbed by Susan Sontag’s position on the New York intellectual grid. I was talking to him once on the telephone and he was like, he was dismissing her for some reason because she would’ve done more with her abilities if she hadn’t spent so much fucking time in the movies! HA! [laughter] Looking at movies by Godard and this one and that one. See because, she had to convince all these people in New York to go see Our Hitler. [Hitler, a Film from Germany by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Sontag’s review appears in the February 21, 1980 issue of The New York Review of Books.] You dig? She had written about it in the New York Review of Books, and so people thought that they had to go see it, because Sontag said see it. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it! It was so…Have you ever seen it?

PD:  No. 

SC:  Everything about it is obvious. [pause]

PD:  What kind of film did Bellow like?

SC:  Well see the thing is, I don’t really know! Well see, for instance, if he ever had to deal with Billy Wilder, he would have come up with something, because Billy Wilder first of all is European, and never tried to pretend he was anything else. He came to America and learned the English language from the comic books. 

PD:  Did he? Yeah?

SC:  That’s how he learned to speak English. ‘Billy, why are you always looking at these dumb comic books?’ Said, ‘that’s the American language!’ This is the way Americans actually talk to each other. All these characters are moving around in the comics, but the way they related to each other and deflect each other and deceive each other – he said that will take somebody who lived most of his life speaking German, will take you off guard. Because the first thing is, you have to do something that is not even basic to the literature and the language – you will have to be very direct, which is why there were certain kinds of novels that were written in Germany, right, because it’s the ability to make nuanced points by not directly saying ‘this is what happened.’ Because the way German sentences and stuff are constructed is SO FUCKED UP, you know, because they almost are backwards, you know. You won’t understand what that is until you see this. WHAT?! Right? But the idea to me, again, which just proves once again how great Mark Twain was, because he wouldn’t have had any problem understanding what Billy Wilder was talking about.

PD:  When you think about it, The Apartment could be a comic book.

SC:  [pondering, then half-heartedly] Yeah, it could. Well you see, Jack Lemmon was good in some of Wilder’s movies, but there’s something about him [?] [SC walks away to restroom and talks from the restroom. Inaudible.]

PD:  OK, I see what you mean. It’s like Wilder has him play a goofier version of what he could be playing. 

SC:  Yeah but part of what Wilder is after is sending up, as they used to love to say, the American scene. But see, if you don’t have somebody like William Holden…Now, what William Holden could do? When he’s in Sabrina? Perfect! Sunset Boulevard? Perfect! The movie is a commentary on the whole Hollywood writing scene. 

When people realize that Billy Wilder had two films in which Erich von Stroheim plays major roles – one is Five Graves to Cairo and the other, when he plays Rommel? In Five Graves to Cairo? Because Rommel, as we know, was forced to commit suicide because Hitler was jealous of him. We also realize that Hitler didn’t know where the American invasion was coming from. So, Hitler assumed everything that the Americans had done to fool anybody, to lead him that they were coming in another way?

PD:  Like North Africa? Italy?

SC:  Yeah, yeah. But you know, that great movie with Donald Sutherland [Eye of the Needle (1981)], where he ends up going around taking pictures of things, which are like these fake tank set ups, and then he begins to realize – he realizes he has to get the actual information back to Germany. He realizes that Hitler and the German heads of government were totally incorrect about the invasion! And so then of course he gets involved with this British woman, who ends up murdering, but not murdering… People don’t understand the movie. I saw it with Sally Helgesen. I said Sally, what is this movie saying? She said well, it’s simple – ‘Good looking German guy who has deceived everybody and got caught in the underground of his British girlfriend and end up with his throat cut.’ He was taking photographs all through the film. It’s a great film.

PD:  Donald Sutherland is one actor that I have a hard time watching for whatever reason. 

SC:  I couldn’t stand him for years! 

PD:  Really? 

SC:  He didn’t come alive to me until he made this movie with Jane Fonda: Klute. Everything else I saw, Dirty Dozen – garbage. He just would do dumb stuff. 

PD:  I’ve been thinking lately about Orson Welles and how he was one of the first great directors who would have grown up with the movies – 

SC:  Right.

PD:  In a way that John Ford… Well, let me rephrase that. Orson Welles would have grown up from, let’s say, the age of five or seven or whatever, seeing sophisticated techniques in the movies in a way that an earlier director, born like, in the 1890s or between 1900 and 1910 would not have. 

SC:  I don’t know if that’s true. For instance, for one thing, see when you see this movie we’re talking about, Two Seconds – it was made in something like 1932 or 33. So Mervyn LeRoy and Edward G. Robinson had figured this much out about film and set up so much following in modern American film. What was on both of their minds was how they were going to actually knock over the position in European cinema that Peter Lorre had made for himself in M. But when you see this? You can just imagine Mervyn LeRoy saying you know, Edward G., people are not going to be ready for you to play this guy who has killed his best friend, and his wife, and her boyfriend.

PD:  Why do you think that Ellison and Murray didn’t – why didn’t they care so much about the movies? 

SC:  I don’t know!

PD:  It seems to me that Ellison probably cared less than Murray, even though he made Bliss [character in the novel fragments Juneteenth (1999) and Three Days Before the Shooting. . . (2010)] into a movie producer but – 

SC:  Right, but the thing is I don’t believe that they actually had to read [had read?] first class film criticism – 

PD:  I mean, there wouldn’t have been much being written when they were – 

SC:  Oh, no. Well you know, from the guy in the 30s. There have always been guys around doing something far beyond the mediocre or the average, but you have to go on and find them. But I think that they – for one thing, I don’t think that either Ellison nor Murray thought much of that Jewish writer who was – I don’t think that either of them were aware, through Miss Lonelyhearts, of what film could do because some of the best film criticism is in that novel itself! [In light of the following sentence, I think it is likely that Crouch was thinking of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, which has more in it about movies than Miss Lonelyhearts.] Because just the way he describes how people think about movies, how they get together and look at movies, and how the camera can actually focus on certain – there are so many things in the novel. 

PD:  Well, West was a screenwriter too, wasn’t he?

SC:  Yeah, he did it! The basic thing is HE WAS JUST A BAD MOTHERFUCKER! 

Paul Devlin website.

Iverson interview of Stanley Crouch for DTM.

Iverson obit of Crouch for NPR.