‘Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story’: Cannes Review

A low-budget but big-hearted tribute to a happy Hollywood marriage 

Documentarist Daniel Raim tells the story of storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his wife, film researcher Lillian Michelson, who worked on innumerable movies in Hollywood's golden age.

The late storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his wife, researcher Lillian Michelson, were a happily married couple who quietly improved dozens of films (including The Birds and The Graduate, among many others) and generally made the world a nicer place. Documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is a touching thank you letter addressed to them, sent from the heart by the doc's director, Daniel Raim, and some of the many people the Michelsons collaborated with, including Danny DeVito (who also executive produced this), Mel Brooks and Francis Ford Coppola. Even if, like real-world greeting cards, some might find the doc occasionally hyperbolic and a bit sappy, it nevertheless offers a compelling sideways view of the industry, and justly celebrates the work of below-the-line artists and craftspeople who are almost never given their due.

Securing a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival's Cannes Classics sidebar will inevitably improve this gentle work's chance of wider dissemination, but nevertheless the subject will appeal strictly to hardcore movie buffs. It's unlikely to travel much beyond repertory houses and further festivals before finding its specialist niche on auxiliary platforms.

Although the film is roughly chronologically structured, there are frequent narrative skips back and forth over the history covered that makes this feel pleasingly like a tale conversationally told — which, given the reliance on interviews with Lillian Michelson, is exactly what this is. Now a widowed resident (Harold died in 2007) of an assisted living facility for Hollywood veterans, the spry and still sharp-witted 86-year-old Michelson recollects for the camera how she and Harold met in Florida after WWII. They eloped to California where Harold worked his way up on the backlots doing storyboards on The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and Spartacus, as well as many others not involving swords or sandals like The Birds and Marnie, while Lillian raised their three sons. Particularly skilled at working out what would be in frame depending on the lens, Harold built a reputation as one of the industry's best storyboard artists. His compositions often served as templates for some of cinema's most iconic shots, like the view through Anne Bancroft's leg towards Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Although the film is too polite to point it out, it would seem that few directors or cinematographers were gracious enough to give Michelson full credit for his inspiration.

Later, after the boys were old enough, Lillian found work, at first as a volunteer, at a film research library that she would go on to own and run for many years until she retired. The doc explains how we have Lillian to thank for the design accuracy of many works since her research informed everything from the girls' underwear in Fiddler on the Roof and types of coffee tables in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the look of Coppola's films at Zoetrope where the library was based for a time.

Recollections from friends and colleagues, as well as excerpts from their love letters to each read by actors, all help to build the impression that this was an extremely happy marriage between to two very talented, really nice people. Watching their story might have easily been crushingly dull dramatically if not a little bit saccharine if they weren't so such engaging characters. Harold's salty humor comes through abundantly in the letters and the drawings seen here, while Lillian demonstrates an engaging wit throughout, like when she says of the famously gravelly voiced singer Tom Waits' that "everything that came out him sounded like it should be a police confession."

As a bonus, although it's something of a digression to the main story, she offers a frank and inspiring account of the challenges and triumphs they faced in raising an autistic child at a time when psychiatrists still erroneously blamed what they termed "refrigerator mothers" for the condition. But if the Michelson's personal history may be tangential to their achievements in the business, the more intimate details cast light on how they came to be so treasured and well-liked as colleagues.

It's clear from the low-grade of some of the digital camerawork and the lack of cleared clips that this was made on a tiny budget, and the editing could be a bit brisker, the questions a bit more probing, but any projection room it's shown in will immediately feel the love with which it's made.

Production companies: An Adama Films presentation
With: Harold Michelson, Lillian Michelson, Gene Allen, James D. Bissell, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Rich Carter, Danny DeVito, Gabriel Hardman, Bill Krohn, Patrick Mate, Anahid Nazarian, Norm Newberry, Richard Sylbert, Tom Walsh, Marc Wanamaker
Director/screenwriter: Daniel Raim
Producers: Daniel Raim, Jennifer Raim
Executive producer: Danny DeVito
Director of photography: Battiste Fenwick, Daniel Raim
Editors: Daniel Raim, Jennifer Raim
Composer: Dave Lebolt
Sales: Submarine Entertainment

No rating, 101 minutes