If you love old film, Frank Thompson should be known to you. He is an acclaimed film historian and author with more than 40 books and hundreds of articles, interviews and reviews to his credit. He has also worked as a writer for television, contributed commentary to various DVDs, and has produced, written and/or directed several documentaries. Most recently, he can be seen in the documentary Wings: Grandeur in the Skies, included on the Blu-Ray release of the 2012 restoration of Wings (1927), the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar.
A few months ago, Thompson started a new venture – “The Commentary Track,” a weekly podcast featuring conversations with leading film historians, archivists, actors and filmmakers. These audio recordings, more casual conversation than scholarly report, are a film buff’s delight.
Each of Thompson’s freely available podcasts run a little more than an hour, and each make for great listening. In them, Thompson and his guests swap Hollywood stories and celebrate the great movies and movie makers of the 20th Century.
What comes across in the half-dozen podcasts posted so far is a love for early Hollywood. Thompson’s guests have included producer and distributor Thomas W. Holland, film historian Rudy Behlmer (author of Memo From David O. Selznick, Inside Warner Bros. and other books), George Stevens and Raoul Walsh biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, film historian and “cinema archeologist” John Bengtson, production artist Joseph Musso, and the Academy Award-winning film historian, author and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow (whose books include The Parade’s Gone By).
Future guests will include composer Carl Davis and writer and film historian Randy Skretvedt.
The Behlmer episode, for example, is of interest to those interested in the history of film exhibition. Behlmer (born 1926) speaks about having grown up in San Francisco, where he went to see movies at his neighborhood Balboa Theater as well as at the larger movie palaces which once lined The City’s main thoroughfare, Market Street. In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Behlmer also took in silent films, then rarely shown, at non-movie theater venues like the Palace of Fine Arts – they ran a Saturday matinee of silent films, and local Jewish Community Center. Behlmer also mentions having seen a Charlie Chaplin Festival on Treasure Island during the 1939 World’s Fair.
The Behlmer episode, like the others, is rich in anecdotal detail. Listen, and you will hear how Brownlow ended up with the Academy Award for Sunrise (1927). How Musso came to work with Alfred Hitchcock. Or how Bengtson, who is known as an “archeologist of early cinema,” managed to track down the locations where Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton made some of their best known films.
Thompson’s strength as host is that he knows his stuff. He is the author of a handful of books certain to appeal to those who love film history. They include Lost Films: Important Movies That Disappeared (Citadel), American Movie Classics’ Great Christmas Movies: Celebrating the Best Christmas Films of All Time (Taylor),and Robert Wise: a Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood). His The Star Film Ranch: Texas’ First Picture Show (Republic of Texas Press) tells the story of Gaston Melies, the older brother of cinema pioneer Georges Melies, who worked in Texas! Thompson also edited Henry King, Director – From Silents to ‘Scope (Directors Guild of America), and co-authored I Was That Masked Man (Taylor), by Clayton Moore.
Perhaps most significantly, Thompson also penned William Wellman (Scarecrow Press), the first book about the Academy Award winning director of Wings, Beggars of Life, The Public Enemy and A Star is Born, among other notable films. Thompson is, as well, the co-author with John Andrew Gallagher of a forthcoming book, Nothing Sacred: The Cinema of William A. Wellman.