Last week we discussed author David C. Tucker’s new book: S. Sylvan Simon, Moviemaker – Adventures with Lucy, Red Skelton and Harry Cohn in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Have a look at that review here. Today I’m pleased to continue the discussion with an interview with Mr. Tucker….
JTL: In your preface you describe discovering S. Sylvan Simon's credits years ago as a fan of Lucille Ball and The Fuller Brush Girl. How did you come to explore the possibility that Simon might be a person whose career you'd like to learn more about and write about in a book?
DCT: In many of the books I’ve read about Lucille Ball, it seemed as if her prowess with physical comedy went completely unnoticed in Hollywood prior to I Love Lucy. As I said in my book, Jess Oppenheimer deserves a huge portion of credit for making My Favorite Husband a hit radio show, and giving her the showcase of a lifetime on TV. But when you look at films like Her Husband’s Affairs, Miss Grant Takes Richmond, and especially The Fuller Brush Girl, all of which Simon either produced or directed, and all of which preceded I Love Lucy, it’s abundantly clear that he recognized quite clearly what she did best. When you add to that the fact that he directed some of Red Skelton’s best films, and also collaborated with Abbott and Costello, this is someone whose mastery of comedy is undeniable. I initially started the project unsure whether I could uncover enough material to give Simon the tribute he deserved, since so much time had passed. But the material just kept coming, and it reinforced my belief that this was a story that should be told.
JTL: I admire the thoroughness of your research regarding the many details of his filmography and also the aspects of his career that are often given short shrift by entertainment biographers: regional theatre, radio, etc. I was very interested in reading about the collections of short plays he wrote for youngsters. What were the particular challenges of research on Simon and how did you meet them?
DCT: Thank you! I knew going in that it would be difficult to find people who had known him personally, nearly sixty years after his death. But I persisted, and was able to interview not only several former child actors who’d appeared in his movies, but also people like his 98-year-old nephew.
The single biggest break, of course, was when his family provided me access to the leather-bound scripts of the films he directed. They often had notes in the margins, pages showing dialogue changes, on-set photographs, and sometimes memorabilia. There was a hilarious series of notes from his friend Chuck Granucci, a prop master, making mock complaints about life on the set. I was also fortunate to be in touch with the daughters of character actor Arthur Space, and consult his extensive letters and diaries that talked about working with Simon, whom he had known since they were both affiliated with a theatrical troupe before their Hollywood days. Another lucky break was locating a man who had copies of the newsletters from a summer camp where Simon attended as a boy, and where he later worked as a faculty member.
JTL: It is fortunate that Simon's children are still connected in different ways to the film industry and contributed to your project. How did you approach them?
DCT: When I began seeking information on Mr. Simon, I quickly became aware that his daughter, Susan Granger, was a published movie reviewer, and that her brother, Stephen, had written a book about his own Hollywood experiences. That made it fairly easy to contact them both, and they agreed without hesitation to contribute to my project. With both of them so supportive, willing not only to give me interviews but point me toward other people, the project became much more feasible. I particularly admired the fact that Susan, with whom I worked the most, never tried to control what I published, but as a writer herself understood that I needed to go wherever my research led.
JTL: It must have been a great thrill to interview by phone Jane Powell, Margaret O'Brien, and Arlene Dahl. What was that experience like?
DCT: That was very exciting, as was interviewing Terry Moore, still a newcomer when she appeared in Simon’s film Son of Lassie. Margaret O’Brien has an amazing memory for those films she made as a little girl, and really made me feel as if I had been there when Bad Bascomb was filmed. She was later kind enough to tell me that she enjoyed the book, learned a good bit about Simon’s career, and intended to keep it in her personal library.
JTL: It was evidently a great loss to the film industry for Mr. Simon to have died suddenly so young at 41 years old. You movingly describe Frank Sinatra's and Lucille Ball's gratitude toward him for his contribution to their careers. Could you recount that here?
DCT: In the last few weeks of his life, Simon had James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, as a houseguest, working on adapting the book to the movie screen. Though he didn’t live to see it to fruition, Simon envisioned Sinatra as Maggio, and threatened to quit his job at Columbia when Harry Cohn overruled him. As most people know, Ava Gardner later took up the challenge of getting Sinatra the job, but he never forgot that it had been Simon’s idea, and expressed his gratitude to Stephen Simon years later. Similarly, Lucille Ball knew she owed a debt to Simon, who was not only a personal friend but truly a mentor in terms of encouraging and developing her flair for comedy. Even years after his death, she told people so, often getting teary when the subject came up.
JTL: Is there a particular pleasure for you in pursuing a topic not covered by other entertainment biographers, plowing new ground, so to speak, rather than covering more well-known subjects?
DCT: Absolutely. I’ve always liked Joan Crawford, for example, but there have already been so many books about her. As a fan, I’d buy a book expecting to get fresh information, not a rehash of what’s already out there. My publisher, McFarland and Company, has been very generous about supporting my wish to write about the topics that interest me most. And I enjoy doing original research, and bringing readers information they haven’t seen before.
JTL: Aline MacMahon is a favorite of mine and I was interested to learn in your book of her family connection to S. Sylvan Simon. Any plans to follow the thread and write a book on her?
DCT: It’s definitely something I’ve considered. She’s another one who becomes more difficult to research as time passes, but I was able to draw on letters she wrote to her husband, Clarence Stein, a well-known architect. Naturally I concentrated on the material pertaining to Sylvan Simon and the movie they made together, Tish. But she and Mr. Stein were often apart during their marriage, pursuing their individual careers, and they wrote to each other faithfully.
JTL: You write that Simon's family felt that the great stress of his work contributed to his early death. Can you speculate what his goals, and his legacy might have been had he had taken over Harry Cohn's position at Columbia?
DCT: When Simon became Cohn’s second-in-command at Columbia, the movie industry was running scared, feeling the looming threat of television becoming the dominant entertainment medium. Columbia’s long-profitable B-movie series and comedy shorts were falling by the wayside, and no one was entirely sure how to get viewers to leave the house and buy a movie ticket. I think Simon had a keen sense for how to do that, and would have kept the studio in the black while making some of the movies he wanted to make. Though Simon was quite capable of handling war movies, murder mysteries, and pretty much anything else, he did have an enduring love for comedy, and I think you would have seen that reflected in Columbia’s output.
Final thoughts from author David C. Tucker:
I love doing a project that combines library and archival research, genealogy, newspaper files, and personal interviews, but I also make it a point to view as much of the subject’s work as I can. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch another movie. Thanks to you, Jacqueline, and your readers for plowing through this!
S. Sylvan Simon, Moviemaker – Adventures with Lucy, Red Skelton and Harry Cohn in the Golden Age of Hollywood is available at the publisher’s website, McFarland, here. It is also available here at Amazon, as well as a variety of other online shops.
Have a look here for links to some of David C. Tucker’s previous books on movie and television notables:
Have a look here at David C. Tucker’s blog.