Con do: Bruce Goldstein, winner of the Mel Novikoff award at the San Francisco International May 3, brings a criminal lineup back to Film Forum. Pictured with SFIFF's Linda Blackaby, left, and Castro legend and multifaceted programmer Anita Monga, right.

Bruce Goldstein: From NY to SF to 'Con'

Judy Stone May 17, 2009

Whether it’s the low road of finding little girls to scream like Fay Wray at the sight of King Kong or the high road of promoting great French films, Bruce Goldstein is the indispensable man for all cinema seasons. There have been gimmicks galore and a soupcon of chutzpah as he picks and chooses anywhere from the Three Stooges to Last Year at Marienbad to show at New York’s fabulous repertory theater, the Film Forum. Along the way, Goldstein has won France’s Order of Arts and Letters medal and recently the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Mel Novikoff Award given to an individual or institution "whose work has enhanced the public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema."

It’s a little off that particular beaten track, but Goldstein’s latest timely challenge to the Cannes Film Festival is his current Con Film Festival at the Forum featuring the warden of Sing Sing Prison, who he brought in to introduce 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis. Among the 21 programs are such curiosities as Les Miserables, starring Fredric March as Jean Valjean, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni and Birdman of Alcatraz with Burt Lancaster. For Mother’s Day, there was White Heat with James Cagney as a vicious killer who plans his latest caper on his Mom’s lap. You can’t say that Goldstein doesn’t have a slightly wicked sense of humor!

"I remember the first movie I saw was Pal Joey with Frank Sinatra," he recalled. "And I’ll tell you how I got hooked up on the revival scene: seeing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) starring Catherine Deneuve. I later had a big hand in getting it restored. That was a defining moment as a repertory moment for me. . I didn’t distribute it, but I went to see Jacques Demy, the director. He was dying but he was so nice.

"Running a successful repertory theater," Goldstein says, "is promoting it in a classy way and sometimes in a ballyhoo kind of way." Along that way, he’s adopted a few tricks of director William Castle, a "schlockmeister who fancied himself a Hitchcock, but he didn’t have Hitchcock’s talent." Castle was most famous for gimmicks he used to promote his movies. Most famous of all was what he devised for his 1959 horror-thriller The Tingler (starring who else? Vincent Price) in which a docile creature that lives in the spinal cord is activated by fright and can only be destroyed by screaming. When the tingler in the film attacks, a viewer in the audience is supposed to think it’s at loose in the theater and buzzers attached to the underside of seats are activated as a voice encourages the real audience "to scream scream for your lives."

Goldstein sounds a little defensive talking about that Tingler caper, which he did in 1988 as one way of attracting young people to come to the movies. "I want you to understand this isn’t my main love. It’s sort of plaguing me because I did it 20 years ago and 10 years ago I did it in Tel Aviv and now I’ve been invited to do it at the Cinemateque Francaise in June. Well, enough of that. Actually I’m trying to live it down."

He’d rather talk about the Fay Wray "Scream Alike" contest. "We thought we should somehow mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary opening of King Kong in 1983. "Without calling first, I personally marched into the PR office of the Empire State Building and said, ‘Can I speak to the guy in charge? We’re doing the Fay Wray Scream Alike contest,’ and a guy came in with the gorilla costume and said, ‘Here, it’s worth 2,000 dollars. Bring it back next week.’ He trusted me and he gave me some passes for the Empire State Observatory. We publicized it and five or six little girls showed up for the screaming. We did it again for the 75th anniversary last year and we put the little girl whose screams won on the Today show."

He couldn’t say more in praise of Fay Wray. "She was wonderful. Bright. She always married writers. Her first husband, believe it or not, was John Monk Saunders." He wrote Wings,(1927) the first Academy Award winner and first silent film winner. Without a pause, Goldstein ticked off more about Wray. She had an affair with Clifford Odets and she was married for many years to Robert Riskin, the great screenwriter who wrote all of Capra’s great movies— It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds.

"Faye was a writer, too," Goldstein said. "She was very brilliant and beautiful until the day she died at 97. She had a wonderful mind and wrote a very good memoir with a great title: On the Other Hand. She also wrote a movie. She wasn’t the only actress of her generation who wrote novels. Mary Astor did and Ruth Chatterton."

When he had Wray as a guest at the Forum, he programmed Eric von Stroheim’s 1928 The Wedding March, starring the then 20-year-old actress and followed that up with a clip of her in a 1923 Charley Chase silent comedy. Somebody took a film of her watching it and asking, "Is that me?" She was great!"

Then there were the famous and the not-so-famous, the very nice ones and the not-so-nice he recalled with the zest of an inveterate movie fan. As a teenanger, he had fun masquerading as Groucho Marx. At 20, he hoped up on the stage where Fred Astaire was being interviewed by Dick Cavett and blurted out his admiration, recalling also a ride in the elevator with the dancer and his sister Adele. "He was very nice." And after he couldn’t get a ticket for a Charlie Chaplin event, he waited for him in the garage at Lincoln Center. When he arrived—wow! "It was like seeing Christ for crying out loud!"

As a rule, he didn’t like dealing with some "big, big stars because you have to get the limousine for them and they have a different sense of themselves." The worst ones were Tony Curtis, Danny Kaye and Lauren Bacall. His favorites were the musical comedy team of Bette Comden and Adolph Green.

"They were good friends and Adolph would call me up just to chat about silent movies. Every so often they’d call me up and say, ‘We’re thinking of writing a musical based on The Scoundrel. Can you find us a copy of the movie?’" It was written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, but it starred Noel Coward. Produced in 1935, it was hard to find, but Goldstein checked out his collector friends and found it. A film print is much harder to find than a video copy, he noted.

It took him a year to organize a complete Tutte Fellini retrospective in Rome and the great man was going to be there but the weekend it opened he died. "But what a better tribute that turned out to be!"

The hardest film print Goldstein ever had to unearth was for a Billy Wilder retrospective on the occasion of his 85th birthday. "I called it ’85 years of an Infant Terrible.’" Wilder had co-directed a film in France in 1933, Mauvaise Graine (The Bad Seed), which starred Danielle Darrieux when she was only 16. "So I had to find it. I discovered a collector in Los Angeles who had it, but he was completely insane. A lot of collectors are insane. No, I’m not a collector and I’m happy that way."

What made him really happy in his 20s was seeing San Francisco for the first time. "It’s like Utopia. [For] a movie buff, it was paradise. And then there was the Castro—a movie palace!—being used as a repertory theater! It was like I thought I’d died and went to heaven."

But there he was in 1991 producing a show at the Castro, featuring Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman with music supplied by Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. That just happened to give Goldstein a "sideline as a crooner." Now Giordano has a regular weekly gig at the Hotel Edison in New York and normally calls on Goldstein to sing a song or two.

"Two times in a row I was there with Michael Feinstein in the audience," he says with a rare touch of irritation, "and in the midst of my singing, he’s leaning over to the person next to him and whispering in his ear. It bugged the hell out of me. What the heck is he saying about my singing? It’s been bugging me ever since!"

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.