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Michael Young

Journalist, Lebanon

14/02/2009 | 1860-1944

About Harold and Emily Young

Consider these two bookends to my grandfather’s career in the cinema. The first is the photograph above, a shot distributed by Paramount to newspapers and magazines in 1936. It shows a man of 39, looking more like a jockey than the film director that he was, but in every sense someone whom the publicity department sought to depict (with little visible conviction on his part) as the stern commissar of a movie set.

The second is the entry on my grandfather in Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia, which, in a way, said it all. “He made an auspicious start as director with the excellent Korda costume thriller The Scarlet Pimpernel (1935), then returned to Hollywood, where he was assigned routine films by Paramount, Universal, and other studios. In the 40s he formed his own Harold Young Productions and gradually drifted into obscurity.”

Of my grandfather I remember relatively little—a few dedicatory sentences scratched with trembling hand in those children’s books he would send me; but it was my grandmother who filled in some of the blanks, and who turned their years together in Europe and Hollywood into anecdotes surrealistic or outlandish enough to be memorable to me.

For example, what of the time when my grandparents were invited to eat bouillabaisse with Marcel Pagnol, the French playwright who had worked with Alexander Korda (producer extraordinaire and my grandfather’s employer) on adaptations of his plays. As my grandmother described it, Pagnol’s bouillabaisse was a floating repository of fish debris—a shipwreck of bones, fish scales, fins, gills—all of them somehow supposed to give the soup that special Midi savor. As she leaned into her plate, she found herself above a lone fisheye. “It stared at me; I stared at it. Yuck”, was her reasoned recollection. Little more was said of Marcel.

Or that time when she found herself in a London taxi with Johnny Weissmuller, the Tarzan of his age, and to some of us of all ages. For no apparent reason (at least none she could remember), Johnny let loose with his loud Tarzan howl—the kind that immobilized lions and made chimps screech. I asked my grandmother why. She replied reluctantly, for Johnny had been a friend: “Well, Johnny wasn’t always very bright, you know.” For a time he was married to Lupe Velez, the “Mexican spitfire”, and my grandparents visited them down in Mexico where they played tennis. Allegedly, Lupe could rotate her breasts, but I learned about this after my grandmother died. Confirming the information was impossible.

For some reason, my grandmother also used to play poker with Clark Gable. I have little trouble imagining Gable being taken to the cleaners, the reason being that he had a brittle ego. I know this for a fact because after one of their games, my grandmother looked down at his shoes. His feet were enormous, peninsulas, and she told Gable so. For someone with oversized ears too, this came as a blow, one that Rhett (who plainly did give a damn) took badly. Little more was said of him either.

It was my grandfather who knew Walt Disney, for having directed the live action sequences in Disney’s Three Caballeros, one of the first (maybe the first) films that combined live scenes with cartoons. Recently, I opened a book that purported to be an encyclopedia of Disney lore. I turned to the relevant page on the film, and saw that the author had gotten the director wrong. My grandfather apparently still can’t shake off obscurity, but among the things my grandmother got out of the collaboration was a celluloid painting, a frame from the film Dumbo, autographed by Disney himself. He had wanted to give her a cell from a Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck picture, but she made her choice. Now it’s mine. Instead of spending my days looking at a talking mouse, I do so at a flying elephant.

One of my grandparents’ friends from the old Hollywood days was Jack Haley, whose wife Flo was my grandmother’s best friend—and landlord until the end. Jack was the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, with a young Judy Garland, while Flo had been a Ziegfeld girl in the 1920s. I still remember Jack from the 1970s, a big booming Irishman. Thanks to Jack I managed to eat at several Los Angeles spots that seemed to matter in those days, including the Friar’s Club and the Bel Air Club. Jack also autographed a copy of The Wizard of Oz book by L. Frank Baum that he sent me, as well as a large photograph of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, all evidently looking in the direction of Kansas, explaining the expression of horror on their faces.

Later, my grandmother asked Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow, to autograph a copy of the same photo, and he obliged. I never did get Bert Lahr, the Lion’s, signature, as he had died in 1967. I guess there were limits to what my grandmother could do. She withdrew from life’s movie set at the age of 92, outlasting her husband by some 18 years, and her son by 20.