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What do 'The Birds,' 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,' 'Marnie,' 'The Graduate' have in common? Harold and Lillian Michelson.

DOC NYC Review: ‘Harold and Lillian, A Hollywood Love Story’ with Danny De Vito

Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story, Daniel Raim, concept illustration, Harold Michelson, West Side Story
Concept Illustration rendered by Harold Michelson for ‘West Side Story’ from ‘Harold and Lillian, A Hollywood Love Story’ by Daniel Raim. Photo from the film.

Once upon a time during the Hollywood Studio system there was an enchanting couple thought to be “The Heart of Hollywood.” You probably never heard of Harold and Lillian Michelson. However, if you are a film aficionado, you know about or have seen the films they worked on for Columbia, Paramount, MGM, Universal, and other studios. It is no coincidence that more often than not, their films turned out to be some of Hollywood’s finest.

Harold and Lillian performed their magic behind-the-scenes, enjoyed their craft, and avoided the spotlight. Harold was a storyboard artist, production designer, and concept illustrator. Lillian complemented him working as a researcher in some of the studios best libraries. What they accomplished was to make the filmmakers and the films fabulous. They were geniuses at their craft, acknowledged by those they mentored and the directors they worked for during their six decades in Hollywood. Their work largely uncredited, was unknown to the general public until now. Harold and Lillian, A Hollywood Love Story, is a tribute to this dynamic duo that filmmakers scrambled to hire, knowing that the end result would be nothing short of superb.

Lillian Michelson, Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story, Daniel Raim
Lillian Michelson in ‘Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story,’ directed by Daniel Raim. Photo from the film.

Working in Hollywood during the studio system and remaining there even after it collapsed, both were legends in their field, a synergistic creative team who inspired each other. They began as “employees-for hire” in the Hollywood factory town. Raim affirms that theirs was an amazing partnership that lasted despite the typical fate of couples who were chewed up by the film industry. This was because they evolved at their craft and shared a love of film-making. Their efforts enhanced films they worked on to the extent that more than a few ended up on “100 Greatest Films” lists.

Director Daniel Raim with the help of a close friend of the couple, Executive-Producer Danny De Vito, relates the inspiring story of Harold and Lillian. Raim culls examples of appropriate archival footage and adds video clips of interviews and commentary by Harold, Lillian, and many others to frame anecdotes that reveal the arc of their careers and personal lives. In addition to past and recent commentary by Harold and Lillian and narration by Lillian throughout, Raim includes still photographs, film clips of Harold’s story boarded compositions with his story boards, personal family films, work samples, Harold’s and Lillian’s letters to each other, and Harold’s humorous occasion poems and cards to Lillian. Throughout, Raim intersperses appropriate observations from production designers (i.e. Norm Newberry-Avatar, Jim Bissell-E.T.), art directors (i.e. Rick Carter-Lincoln), and directors (Mel Brooks, Danny De Vito, Francis Ford Coppola), who knew and appreciated their genius.

Mel Brooks, Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story
Mel Brooks comments on the gems Harold gave him in ‘Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story.’ Photo from the film.

In telling their story, Raim opens the door of discovery and propels us on a crash course in aspects of art direction and production design. As he interviews experts in the field familiar with Harold’s and Lillian’s brilliance, he exposes the audience to the fascinating world of film-craft and the prodigious research Lillian employed to make the films authentic and real. We come to have a better understanding of why this couple was so great at their craft, having a combined input into hundreds and hundreds of films. It is an illumination which allows us to fully appreciate their skillfulness.

Harold’s talent of pre-visualizing was unique: he conceptualized the story action with irresistible drawings that astounded directors and encapsulated ideas for them. Lillian’s in depth research of a film’s history, time, place, personal items, artifacts, costumes, building architecture, cars, building interiors, etc., was audacious perfection. She did the research which informed Harold’s sketches (Harold gives as an example a locomotive factory). Producer Stuart Cornfeld refers to them as “secret weapons no one talked about but everyone tried to get.” Indeed, directors were compelled to hire Harold for his story boarded frame by frame shot compositions and concept illustrations because they were so good. And Lillian made sure that the items that he drew were authentic and real to time and place.

Harold Michelson, Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story, Daniel Raim
Harold Michelson at work. ‘Harold and Lillian, a Hollywood Love Story.’ Photo from the film.

Harold was an exceptional visualist who created beautiful drawings. Raim uses the opportunity to show his storyboards that were used in iconic films (i.e. The Ten Commandments, The Graduate, Ben-Hur, The Birds, Spartacus, Winter Kills, West Side Story), so that we understand how he guided the director with ingenious ideas. Harold’s medium essentially was a combination of charcoal and ink. He sketched the panels that depicted a film’s flow of action consecutively with still shots of important scene changes.

For example, one of his first jobs was with Columbia Pictures, The Ten Commandments; his story board of Moses, his back to the audience, arms outstretched, waves cresting high on each side of Moses exemplifies the glory of the parting of the Red Sea. These boards guided Cecil B. De Mille to picture how amazing that scene could look. Though he didn’t work with Cecile B. De Mille face-to-face, Raim shows actual film footage so that we see how Harold’s story board was employed by the art director and production designer.

Intimately aware of the frame he was working within and the limits and opportunities of the camera lens, he sketched superb angles and perspectives to elucidate and promote ideas to perfect the directors’ vision. For example, Harold story boarded the memorable scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin is framed in the triangle of Mrs. Robinson’s shapely leg. With this iconic visual, the sexual seduction is spot on and becomes a vital theme. We understand through this amazing image that Benjamin is encapsulated and mesmerized by Mrs. Robinson. According to Norm Newberry (Art Director-Polar Express), Harold’s talent was “in his bones;” it was an innate one-of-a-kind gift to “see what the camera saw.”

Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story, concept illustration, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock, Harold Michelson
Concept illustration for ‘The Birds,’ by Harold Michelson in ‘Harold and Lillian, a Hollywood Love Story.’ Photo from the film.

Harold knew how to achieve the visuals to create a maximum of suspense which Raim shows he did in Hitchcock’s The Birds.‘ Harold framed the scenes of the birds accumulating to attack behind Tippi Hedren sitting on a bench waiting for the children to come out of the school. He story boarded the panels where the birds are swarming and flying at the children as they run terrified from the schoolhouse. Raim also shows his story boards of the heightened scene compositions cutting back and forth from Hedren’s horrified reactions to a man lighting a cigarette at a gas station, a seagull intentionally crashing into the man who drops the gasoline hose, the gasoline flowing on the ground, the cigarette dropping into the pool of gas incinerating the man, the car and the gas station in an explosion of flames. Harold’s visuals codified the film’s action and pictured the most suspenseful possibilities. He could accomplish this because he understood Hitchcock’s mission, the film’s tone, the atmosphere of tension and horror and objects to use to achieve it.

Story board by Harold Michelson for 'The Birds' in 'Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story.' Photo from the film.
Story board by Harold Michelson for ‘The Birds’ in ‘Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story.’ Photo from the film.

When Lillian was hired for The Birds, she was asked to research birds’ flight patterns (crows, seagulls), their actions and interactions with each other. For Rosemary’s Baby she did extensive research on witchcraft and the occult and found it extremely interesting. When Stanley Kubrick hired her to work on Full Metal Jacket, she had to research everything about the military from uniforms, to weapons, to vehicles, the personal items the men used, etc. For Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, director Mike Nichols had Lillian research the house, the grounds the clothing and everything from cars to living room couches and tables which were intimate objects that referenced the arena of war between the couples. If one goes back to view these items used as the backdrop for the actors, the irony of the themes is clarified. But viewing the film for the first time, one most likely doesn’t notice such things, though they are there and are the gems which make the film sparkle and infuse it with rich meaning.

Lillian Michelson, Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story
Lillian Michelson in ‘Harold and Lillian a Hollywood Love Story.’ Photo from the film.

Harold and Lillian is an expertly organized and edited film. Raim cuts and intercuts back and forth chronicling how their careers intertwined with their relationship. He frames the beginning and the ending of his documentary with commentary by Lillian (she is alive; Harold has passed away). He painstakingly selects the most informing clips from various stages of their lives in an intriguing almost nonlinear revelation. He also spices up their life journey with cartoon illustrations (created by Patrick Mate), of the couple in a stylistic graphic novel form to express the changes they experienced along their adventures together. By adding telling commentary from directors Mel Brooks-Spaceballs, Danny De Vito-Throw Mama From the Train, Francis Ford Coppola-Apocalypse Now, The Godfather II, unique perspectives about the creative process, and how Harold innovated and spun out his golden craft captivate us.

Raim’s revelation of their lives and careers, an overwhelming task, is clarified after a brief exposition of who they are and how their teamwork provided energy for the films they worked on. After this exposition, Raim digs deeper and unveils the forces in their backgrounds that shaped them (i.e. Lillian an orphan was an independent-feminist type, Harold was raised traditionally and was staid and more conservative). After the set up, Raim employs a chronology through the decades to examine how their personal lives and careers encircled them in an ebb and flow of vitality.

Raim has accomplished a sterling work about these two individuals whose indelible impact on film has finally been brought into the spotlight. When one sees the sheer number in the hundreds of great films that were shaped by their efforts, it is truly amazing. The documentary is not only a testimony of a loving relationship which exemplifies their strength and beauty, it is also reveals the best of what Hollywood could offer. This couple helped to effect creative, expert craftsmanship and innovation in the midst of the glamour, sturm und drang, hell and heartbreak of film-factory-fantasy-land. Indeed, their story is a poignant reminder of why all of us love and enjoy the intricate artistry of moving visual images. Daniel Raim has done a very fine job of reminding us why the greatest of Hollywood films will last: the amazing behind-the-scenes efforts of artists like Harold and Lillian Michelson.

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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' ( 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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