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With: Lillian Michelson, Harold Michelson, Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Gene Allen, James D. Bissell, Rick Carter, Stuart Cornfeld, Gabriel Hardman, Bill Krohn, Patrick Mate, Anahid Nazarian, Norman Newberry, Richard Sylbert, Thomas A. Walsh, Marc Wanamaker, Tish Hicks (voice), Will Vought (voice)
Written by: Daniel Raim
Directed by: Daniel Raim
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 94
Date: 07/21/2017

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2017)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Love Birds

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If you love movies and like hearing a good love story, then you'll most certainly enjoy Daniel Raim's documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story. It doesn't really have much of a theme other than getting to know these two lovely folks — and that their combined work on many classic films deserves more credit — but that's enough for a very nice time at the movies.

Harold Michelson, who passed away in 2007, was a storyboard artist in Hollywood. He fell in love with Lillian Farber while living in New York, and after serving in WWII, they both moved to California. Harold's sketches — perfected during the war — eventually won him jobs doing storyboards, and he soon became requested by certain filmmakers. Hitchcock used him for The Birds and Marnie, and Danny DeVito became close friends with Harold, using his work on Throw Momma from the Train and The War of the Roses.

Meanwhile, Lillian began working as a researcher, and ended up inheriting an entire library, which had to be moved from location to location throughout the decades. She became known as someone who could get you any kind of pictures or details about certain kinds of settings or eras. She was also famous for her large rolodex, and with a phone call obtain get even the most difficult information, including layouts of secret CIA locations and facts about drug lords.

The film tells those stories and more; Harold appears in archival clips, and Lillian herself is still alive and interviewed, and though she comes across as a bit modest, the stories speak for themselves. DeVito, Mel Brooks, and Francis Ford Coppola are also interviewed, along with several other storyboard guys and artists with their own impressive lists of credits. (Coppola housed Lillian's library for a time and gave her some of her only onscreen "researcher" credits.)

Lillian tells of the ups and downs in their long Hollywood relationship, including the time she visited the set of The Birds and was mistaken for a prostitute, and the time that Harold broke his leg and was out of commission for over a year. Another story concerns one of their three sons, who was born on the autism spectrum. At the time, no one knew what to make of this or how to deal with it, and the son was subjected to some rather cruel treatments. But they persisted.

Director Raim — who made the Oscar-nominated documentary short The Man on Lincoln's Nose (2000) — provides plenty of clips and artwork from the films the Michelsons worked on. Lillian says how interesting it was to research the occult for Rosemary's Baby, and the film argues that Harold came up with the most iconic shot in The Graduate, Benjamin viewed beneath the crook of Mrs. Robinson's knee.

Collectively, it's a great body of work, films ranging from the 1950s to the late 1980s and early 1990s, and indeed, Lillian only received credit for maybe a half-dozen films. Harold, on the other hand, eventually graduated to art director/production designer and earned two Oscar nominations, for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Terms of Endearment (1983). But credit is a complicated issue, and it seems to me that this documentary is better than any list of names and titles.

Raim fills out Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story with some lovely hand-drawn "storyboards" of Harold and Lillian's real-life trials and tribulations. Unfortunately, I spent the film mistakenly believing that Harold himself had drawn these, but they were contributed by Patrick Mate, a DreamWorks guy who worked on the Shrek films. That quibble aside, this is a sheerly enjoyable film that shed a little more light on how the movie biz works, as well as how the human heart works.

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release includes deleted scenes, "Lillian's Life Lessons," "Harold's Film School Seminar: Camera Angle Projection," a bonus short film: "Storyboarding The Graduate," a trailer, and optional subtitles. The liner notes booklet includes an interview with director Daniel Raim.

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