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Vincent Sherman

Robert Altman      Here's my favorite movie trivia question: what living film director can claim the earliest extant film? The answer: Portugal's Manoel de Olivieira, born in 1908 and, remarkably, still directing, made a silent documentary, Working on the Douro River, in 1931,.75 years ago! In second place: ex-MIT filmmaking head, Richard Leacock, born in 1921, made Canary Islands Bananas in 1935, when he was a 14-year-old fledgling documentarian. But what about a Hollywood feature?

            The answer has just changed, because Vincent Sherman, a prolific Warner Brothers contract director, died June 16 at the Motion Picture &Television Fund Hospital. He was a month short of his 100 th birthday. It was Sherman behind the camera for the dreadful 1939   horror movie, The Return of Dr.X, with Humphrey Bogart ludicrously cast as a vampire. Never mind. Who else could brag of a Hollywood flick in the 1930s? Sherman was a craftsman, smoothly guiding big Hollywood stars through B-level movies, such as Joan Crawford in Harriet Craig (1950), Paul Newman in The Young Philadelphians (1959).

             In a 28-year career, Sherman never once got an Academy Award. What he did do, according to his spill-some 1996 autobiography, Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director, is bed his leading ladies, and with the consent of Hedda, his wife. How do you get to be 99 plus? Sleep with Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworh, Bette Davis.

            So who's the new Hollywood champion, with Sherman passed on? (And also recently deceased, the unknown Joseph M. Newman, who made Northwest Rangers in 1942, and, far more famous, Robert Wise, who made Curse of the Cat People in 1944.) I'm betting on Stanley Donen, born in 1924, most famous for co-directing, with the late Gene Kelly, Singin' in the Rain (1952),. He began his career in 1949, with the MGM musical, On the Town, likewise co-directed by Kelly. Is any studio movie earlier, dear readers? I'm happy to announce a better answer in a future Film Culture column.

(July, 2006)


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