Harold and Lillian eloped to Hollywood in 1947, where they became the film industry’s secret weapons. Nobody talked about them, but everybody wanted them. Theirs is the greatest story never told-until now.
“Harold and Lillian” documents the long marriage of Harold and Lillian Michelson, and their contributions to film; considering they were both married and in Hollywood for roughly sixty years, there’s a lot to cover. Harold worked as a storyboard artist and production designer, while Lillian managed the studio library (their on-hand resource for checking and finding accurate historical references, in order to lend verisimilitude to a picture). Their efforts earned them the gratitude and admiration of scores of Hollywood insiders, but lacked the sort of flash that could have made them household names. Their marriage had its problems, but was overall a soft-spoken triumph of love and fidelity. The documentary serves as both an affecting tribute to two people beloved by Hollywood insiders, and as an insightful reflection on the value of unsung work (and workers) in filmmaking.
The story reaches back before Harold and Lillian started their romance, with Harold in the Air Force during World War II, and Lillian escaping into books to forget her childhood in a Florida orphanage. After Harold returns from the war, he takes a shine to Lillian, and suggests they move together to Los Angeles, and marry. She hesitates (first suggesting that they move together and see if there are sparks, then suggesting that if they do marry, they can always divorce if it doesn’t work out; both options mortify Harold), but ultimately crosses the country to stay with him. Through persistence and talent, Harold becomes a sought-after storyboard artist, then graduates to becoming a production designer, where his work nets him two Academy Award nominations; Lillian starts out as a homemaker, but a chance to volunteer at a Hollywood research library culminates in her becoming a beloved asset for filmmakers researching their scripts.
“Harold and Lillian” uses a blend of archival footage, interviews, and animation to tell the story, which helps keep the movie from slipping into visual tediousness. The interviewees all have enviable film experience, though with the exception of a handful of subjects, the people interviewed aren’t household names – the documentary shies away from the glamour of movie magic, and gives due credit to the efforts of people out of the spotlight, whose creativity, intelligence, and studiousness provide the technical foundation that a film rests upon. In other words, this is a film for nerds, but not in a derogatory sense.
The number of films that were supplemented by Harold and/or Lillian is staggering – any list that captured everything they did would be vertiginously long. The couple worked with some of the most iconic figures in Hollywood at times, but they have a disarming lack of pretension. They loved their work for its own sake, not for its proximity to stardom. The film is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in Hollywood history or the art of filmmaking, as “Harold and Lillian” is replete with clips and behind-the-scenes footage from some of the most iconic movies ever produced. The story of Harold’s and Lillian’s marriage is less sensational than their careers, but it’s a compelling study of how loving someone, especially over such a long stretch of time, can be equally rewarding and challenging. It’s evident in the film that the couple loves what they’ve accomplished, but they cherish each other. Lillian shows off a scrapbook where she’s kept every handmade card Harold made her; whatever movie memorabilia they kept clearly pales in value to those cards.
“Harold and Lillian” might be prohibitive to people who are less interested in movies, or who want their love stories to be more flash than substance. That being said, it’s a terrific watch for anyone at all keen on filmmaking, and film history. The documentary is engrossing, insightful, and moving. It’s clear that the couple were beloved and admired by their peers, and the film succeeds in conveying that this affection was well deserved.
Oh, and according to Mel Brooks, Harold came up with the idea to have the “Spaceballs”’ helmets shaped like actual balls in “Spaceballs.” For that alone, the man should be a household name.
“Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story” premieres today at DOC NYC. For more information please visit www.haroldandlillian.com