BY PHIL SAVENICK
Clark Gable was making funny faces to my left; Frank Sinatra looked over his shoulder to my right; and young Judy Garland sprawled before me. Hollywood heaven? No, actually I was in the photo room of former DGA President George Sidney's old mansion in Beverly Hills, where he kept his million snapshots of a lifetime in show business. I was making a documentary on Sidney for one of his many film festival tributes. I was excited to meet him and hoped he'd let me ask a few questions. A decade later, he was still answering. I kept my mouth shut and my ears open as he recounted the glories and battle scars that come with directing more than 50 films.
Sidney was born into show business. The son of a vaudevillian and theater executive, he broke into the movies as a 5-year-old in Tom Mix's silent film The Littlest Cowboy in 1921. His child acting days ended at 14, when he petulantly refused to take Frank Capra's direction. Capra told him, prophetically, "then the only job for you is as a director." At 16, Sidney joined MGM, first as a messenger, then sound technician and assistant cutter. By the time he was 21 he was directing Our Gang comedies, wearing a suit and tie so the kids wouldn't know he was only a few years older than they were.
As our friendship developed, I'd bring videotapes to his house and we'd watch films he hadn't seen since he made them half a century earlier. He'd laugh and cry and light up like a little boy when talking about the old days. "The studio system," he would say, "was the land of Oz. You were given everything. You had 5,000 people at your disposal to make the best possible picture. You could try things because anything that didn't work would get reshot the next day."
Barely 20, the "boy wonder" was already directing second units, musical numbers, and screen tests. Moving into the director's chair, the self-described "Boom Jockey" guided the thousand pound Technicolor camera through 15 straight box-office hits during the golden age of Hollywood musicals. After choreographing camera moves for a week, he could shoot entire musical numbers such as Garland's "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe" from The Harvey Girls (1946) in two shots—one take each, no camera cuts.
Long before the days of the "director's cut," Sidney had a trick to make sure his vision made it to the screen. "Never make a shot you don't want in the picture," he told me. "When I was directing Annie Get Your Gun (1950), I had 750 horses and riders running in concentric circles. I'd stick my hand in front of the camera so that the cutter could only put it together the way I saw it. Then we'd raise the boom for the next shot. We sent everybody home before lunch."
Sidney was both a "studio man" and a union leader. During the difficult blacklist era, he emerged as a compromise candidate no one could dislike. At the age of 34, he became the youngest president of the Screen Directors Guild, serving from 1951-59, and then succeeded Capra as president from 1961-67. Enduring contributions during his tenure as president include obtaining health benefits and minimum wages, admitting television and radio directors, securing the right of the director's cut, establishing a New York office, and building a DGA headquarters on Sunset Boulevard with its own private theater.
Sidney was, as they used to say in Reader's Digest, "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Ever Met." Never having finished school, he was fascinated by everything. His love of science and technology led him to direct the first theatrical 3-D short, Murder in 3-D, in 1941. The same year, he won the first of two Oscars for short films for Quicker'n a Wink, which used strobe lights to showcase high-speed photography. He pioneered the combining of live action with animation, first depicting the battle of a hot dog and a scoop of ice cream in Alfalfa's grumbling stomach in Men in Fright (1938), then most famously when Gene Kelly dances with Jerry the Mouse in 1945's Anchors Aweigh.
After World War II, Sidney was asked by the Air Force to supervise the Atomic Energy Commission Film Program to document atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific. He could feel the shock wave five miles away as his team photographed the blast in variable speeds from every conceivable angle. Then he returned to making his trademark glossy musicals. One day while we were driving near the MGM lot (now Sony), Sidney pointed at the hills. "When we were prepping Show Boat," he said, "we couldn't find any working riverboats, so the art department said, 'We'll build you your own boat, Pops; you can have anything you want.' A couple months later we all gathered with a bottle of Dom Perignon and prayed our boat would fl oat when we filled the artificial lake we'd dug into the hills of Culver City [now a housing development]. It's a time that can never be again."
In 1953, Sidney directed Kiss Me Kate, in 3-D, using extreme color combinations and forced perspective to enhance the illusions of depth. And later his two lavish musicals with Esther Williams led to major advances in underwater photography. As MGM faded, Sidney became head of production at Columbia in the late '50s, directing classics such as Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and Pal Joey (1957), the latter reuniting him with Sinatra whom he had helped make a movie star in Anchors Aweigh more than a decade earlier. The film was shot in San Francisco, far away from any studio interference, except for one incident Sidney loved to retell. "Frank didn't like to rehearse or do multiple takes; he felt he lost spontaneity. But since Frank only liked to work the all-night shift, we fell three pages behind the first week. When Columbia execs complained, I sent them to Frank who promptly tore three pages out of the script and said, 'Now we're back on time.'"
The stories poured out of Sidney like the endless string of golden director's chairs from past DGA dinners that encircled his den. There, along with his three Oscars and Golden Globe, was the DGA Honorary Life Membership Award he received in 1959, the Robert B. Aldrich Award for his service to the Guild given to him in 1986, and the golden chair he received as the first recipient of the Guild's President's Award for leadership in 1998.
He had been an eyewitness to the rise and fall of Hollywood's studio system and a complete change in popular music. Rock 'n' roll was now king, and in 1964, Sidney was asked to rejuvenate the career of the biggest musical star of the era, Elvis Presley. "Viva Las Vegas was no big deal; we rewrote it over a weekend," Sidney said. I asked how he maintained directorial authority on the set. "I was quite a shock to Elvis. On the first day of production, I rode in on a huge Harley-Davidson; on the second day, I drove up in a racing Bentley. Then he found out I owned my own airplane. I had no trouble with Elvis, but it was the only time he would be forced to share billing. [Elvis' manager] Colonel Parker fought me and wouldn't put out a soundtrack album unless Ann- Margret's name was moved. I refused—that's why there was no record."
Sidney produced the 1964 Oscar telecast, but was already looking for new challenges. To everyone's surprise, at age 49 he retired, choosing instead to become his own version of a Renaissance man. He pursued his interests in paleontology, art history, and composing music. He flew his plane around the world and studied law at USC. He was bestowed an honorary doctorate for his physicians-only movie on cardiovascular surgery.
Sidney, who joined the Guild in 1939, was a fixture at Guild events through six decades. To those of us who knew him or worked with him at the Guild, we will always remember his advice, wisdom, and encouragement. He would entertain young filmmakers from all over the world, and tell them, "You can't teach directing. There are no rules in making pictures. It's just your particular instinctual feeling for what it is."