Harold and Lillian: The happy marriage of unsung Hollywood heroes

B+ Film history documentary
Directed by Daniel Raim

Harold Michelson was one of Hollywood’s top storyboard artists…until he became a top production designer. His wife, Lillian Michelson, ran a research library and helped filmmakers learn about the places and times in which their movies were set. Between them, they influenced an astonishingly large group of films, including Ben-Hur, The Birds, Scarface, The Graduate, The Apartment, Johnny Got His Gun, Reds, and Terms of Endearment. They rarely got their names on the credits.

Daniel Raim’s entertaining documentary, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, sets out to fix that oversight. To a large degree, he succeeds, bringing us into a long and mostly happy marriage while providing a good argument against the auteur theory.

Lillian Michelson, the surviving member of the couple, tells most of the story. Harold Michelson passed away in 2007 (he lived long enough to celebrate their 60th anniversary), but we hear some of his version of the stories through archival interviews.

Raim makes a strong case that storyboard artists are amongst the most important creatives working in the industry. (In case you’re not familiar with the word, a storyboard is a series of drawings – kind of like a comic book – that lays out the action and camera angles on paper before shooting begins.) According to Lillian and other interviewees, Harold had as much influence on the movies he worked on as had the directors and cinematographers. Storyboard artists rarely get screen credit, and most directors prefer it that way.

When Goldwyn Studios closed, Lillian inherited the research library. Over the decades, she moved the growing collection of photos and reference books from one location to another. She tells us of some difficult projects. When working on Fiddler on The Roof, she had to find out what kind of underwear poor, rural, Russian Jews wore in the early 20th century. No one took photos of that sort of thing back then.

Luckily for the documentary, Lillian proves to be a lively, witty, and engaging interviewee. She tells the story of their young romance. She delves into the difficult parts of life, including an autistic son at a time when such problems were blamed on bad mothering. And she tells funny stories. She got to know Tom Waits while working on One from the Heart; when he talked, she tells us, he always sounded “like a police confession.”

Harold has his own funny stories. After storyboarding The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and Spartacus, he joked that he forgot how to draw a man wearing a tie.

His drawing and drafting talents make Harold and Lillian much more visually interesting than the average film history documentary. Along with the interviews and clips from both professional films and home movies, we see many a storyboard, usually paired with an almost identical final shot from the final film.

Even better are the cartoons. Illustrator Patrick Mate turned the story of Harold and Lillian into a series of caricatures. In simple drawings, we see them traveling, worrying, and trying to talk at the kitchen table while their children yell. When I watched the movie, I assumed Harold had made the drawings; I was wrong. Mate created them for this documentary.

Documentaries about filmmakers generally concentrate on directors and actors – and maybe, just maybe, an occasional producer. It’s nice to see lesser-known artists getting the spotlight.