All writer-directors owe a tremendous debt to four visionary filmmakers: Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, John Huston and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. They were the men that successfully challenged the tired-even-at-the-time notion that writers were too passive (i.e. drunk and depressed) to direct, and directors were too impatient (i.e. crappy and brutish) to actually write. Happy Birthday, JLM.

Above is a very nice, rather longish documentary on writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz titled (what else?) "All About Mankiewicz". Having read (many times as a youth) Kenneth L. Geist's very good, somewhat bitchy bio of Mankiewicz, I should have watched the doc with a tad less interest than I did--I've heard most of the stories and the best lines. But the real reason I watched this with such avidity is to see the director's house, which at the time this was filmed was in Bedford, New York. It's a very goyishe set-up--there are horses, lawns, trees, red bricks, colonial furniture etc. Mankiewicz did, however, smoke a pipe so perhaps the setting was the natural extension of his writerly persona--he was a wit both on screen and off, the self-proclaimed 'oldest whore on the beat', the writer-director of the greatest film about the theater ever made (you know which) as well as the most boring epic ever made (next to 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' I suppose). As I write this, in fact, I'm sitting in my apartment across from Beverly Hills High School, behind which looms Century City, the development built on the land that was once the Fox Ranch and which was sold, in large part, due to the cost overruns on 'Cleopatra' (aforementioned most boring epic). As for Mankiewicz's other films, I wish the much admired (at the time) 'A Letter To Three Wives' held up better,  but it remains a masterful piece of screen construction and displays his dry wit to great effect (strangely, many of the best lines come out of the mouth of Kirk Douglas--who I never think of as possessing even a hint of wit). I much prefer 'The Barefoot Contessa' which was received lukewarmly at the time of its original release, the Bogie/Ava star power helping to keep the literary-soap opera conventions vibrant and still amusing. 'Sleuth', 'Suddenly Last Summer', 'Five Fingers'--all are still brilliantly watchable.

The studio-ranch thing has always been interesting to me. All the major studios maintained a large plot of acreage somewhere in Southern California on which they filmed the majority of their outdoors-heavy movies. The Paramount Ranch is in the Malibu hills and is still open--I recall it being the site of an annual Renaissance fair when I was growing up and apparently it's now a hiking trail, park, tourist attraction with some old standing sets still...er, standing. Click here for more info on it.. The Columbia Ranch was somewhere in North Hollywood--not sure where but I'm sure it's gone and I don't know where the MGM  one was. I'm pretty sure, though, that Fox was the only studio with its ranch in the same location as the studio. Which means that 'The Grapes Of Wrath' was filmed somewhere near the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Century Park East. Really.

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