Q2 2020

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68 C I N E M O N T A G E T A I L P O P By Elizabeth Green A s a pre-teen, to escape a stress- ful family life, I retreated into t h e w o r l d o f o l d m o v i e s b y watching a triple-feature on TV every Saturday afternoon. When I was 13, my family moved to within walking dis- tance of my grandmother's apartment, which became my favorite new place to spend Saturday afternoons. She taught me to play Scrabble and drink Sherry ( just a little, she always laughed, as she poured herself a Scotch) as we talked about books, politics, theater and mov- ies. But the most amazing revelation for me was to be found in the old gray metal filing cabinet in the den of her two-bed- room apartment. My grandfather, Howard J. Green, was a screenwriter from the 1920s through the 1940's and here in this crammed metal depository, I discovered a treasure trove of screenplays that started a decid- edly un-teenage hobby — reading scripts. Though I thought it had a dumb title (I was 13 and already a critic), my favorite was a dark, stunning story of a WWI vet who's wrongly convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to hard time on a Deep South chain gang. I was allowed to carry home only four scripts at a time, but I read these over and over, learning stage direction, dialogue, story, and structure. As a young teen, I reveled in the Gold- en Age of Hollywood nostalgia, adulation and horror in the remembrances my grandmother would share of both the lovely and god-awful people they had known. I walked into one of my first film classes at UCLA flabbergasted to see that the wonderful story with the title I didn't like and had yet to ever see — "I Am a Fu- gitive from a Chain Gang" — was on the syllabus. I sat quietly in the lecture hall, privately thrilled as the movie screened. I was impressed with its dark realism but even more memorable was the professor telling us that this movie is a seminal piece of film history, which helped usher in an entire genre of social justice movies. I remember the feeling of pride as clearly as I remember the last line in the film: Wrongly-convicted-now-escaped felon James Allen (Paul Muni) comes to say a final farewell to the woman he loves. She asks desperately, "But how do you live?" "I steal," Muni whispers, as he disap- pears back into the shadows. In the movie, World War I vet Allen returns from war unsettled and sinks into poverty and depression. He gets caught up in a robbery and is sentenced HOW A 1930S CLASSIC INSPIRED A YOUNG FILM LOVER On the 'Chain Gang' to 10 years on a chain gang. Though no studio wanted to make such a somber movie during the Great Depression, the gravitas of the true and brutal narrative convinced Warner Brothers to take a chance. The film would be nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. After its release, Robert Burns (the real Georgia prisoner on whom the story was based) appealed his convic- tion, and his sentence was commuted to time served. "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" launched public outrage and real prison reform. It's melodramatic and dated now, but who among us at 85 wouldn't be? My grandfather was one of the found- ers -- and the first president -- of the Screenwriters Guild. In the early 1950's, in good part because of being labeled a union troublemaker, he was "Gray-list" from the studios. In his 70s, after giving a speech for the ACLU, he went backstage, sat down, and died. When I was able to join the Motion Picture Editors Guild as a story analyst, (where watching movies, reading scripts and books, and writing about them is what I'm lucky enough to do every day), I did, and still do, fully ap- preciate everything for which he fought. I still think of my grandfather often. He's been my role model, the man who, through his character and his characters, taught me to stand up for what I believe, and the idea that a truly good movie can entertain and enlighten at the same time. Elizabeth Green is a Story Analyst who has spent most of her career special- izing in covering books for Dreamworks/ Amblin. Among her favorite projects have been "A Beautiful Mind," "The Kite Runner," "The Hundred-Foot Jour- ney," and "The Girl on the Train." ■ Paul Muni in "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang." P H O T O : P H O T O F E S T

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