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It’s A Wonderful Communist Plot

Posted on 23 December 2013 by Rich Drees

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It has been hailed as an American classic and placed on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest American movies and the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, but would you believe that It’s A Wonderful Life was once considered communist propaganda? From 1947 to 1956, Frank Capra’s iconic film was under suspicion by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as being a ‘carrier of political propaganda.’

During post-World War Two years, a wave of paranoia swept across the country about possible communist infiltration into various aspects of American life, with Hollywood and the film industry falling into firmly into the crosshairs of such hysteria. People working in the film industry were investigated for possible communist affiliations, often based on the either a passing interest in the political philosophy from years or even decades earlier or on the unsubstantiated word of an informer. In 1947, the FBI undertook an analysis of several recent Hollywood films, It’s A Wonderful Life being one of them. (Also included in the study were the 1945 Academy Award nominated Pride Of The Marines, the 1946 seven-time Oscar winner The Best Years Of Our Lives and the 1947 Abbott and Costello comedy Buck Privates Come Home.) The results were compiled into a file titled Federal Bureau of Investigation file no. 100-HQ-138754 “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry” or COMPIC. From this file, the FBI has released 2008 pages, some heavily redacted, which can be viewed at the Internet Archive.

The portion regarding It’s A Wonderful Life can be found in Section IV: “Communist Influence in Motion Pictures,” under the subsection titled “Analysis of Motion Picture Disclosing Communist Propaganda Therein.”

According to the Informants [REDACTED] in this picture the screen credits again fail to reflect the Communist support given to the screen writer. According to [REDACTED] the writers Frances Goodrick and Albert Hackett were very close to known Communists and on one occasion in the recent past while these two writers were doing a picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Goodrick and Hackett practically lived with known Communists as Lester Cole, screen writer, and Earl Robinson, screen writer. Both of these individuals are identified in Section I of this memorandum as Communists.

With regard to the picture “It’s A Wonderful Life”, [REDACTED] stated in substance that the film represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.

In addition, [REDACTED] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [REDACTED] related that if he had made this picture portraying the banker, he wold have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiners in connection with making loans. Further, [REDACTED] stated that the scene woundn’t have “suffered at all” in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [REDACTED] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and “I would never have done it that way”.

The analysis noted one of their redacted informants trying to draw a parallel between the film and a Russian film from “approximately 15 years” titled The Letter in which a banker is also the villain. Perhaps the FBI could have benefited from the internet being in existence back then as I can find no trace of such a film on the IMDB or via a Google search.

Interestingly, one of the people who helped the FBI develop the standards by which they “analyzed” It’s A Wonderful Life and other films was none other than Ayn Rand, whose political-themed novel The Fountainhead was already starting to gain her notoriety. However, when Rand appeared in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in October 1947, she was considered an “expert witness” on Hollywood, based on the fact that she had done some work for the studios intermittently. Her testimony wasn’t about It’s A Wonderful Life, but instead concentrated on the 1944 war film Song of Russia, produced by MGM at the height of the United States wartime alliance with the Soviet country.

But not everyone who was hauled in front of HUAC saw the Red Menace in the film. Film critic and former screenwriter John Charles Moffitt (1944’s Passage To Marseille) also appeared before the committee in October 1947. A one-time member of the communist party, Moffitt went out of his way in his testimony to Chief Investigator Robert E. Stripling to dispel the notion that It’s A Wonderful Life contained any subtle communist messages.

MR. STRIPLING. The term “heavy” has been used here as a designation of the part in which the person is a villain. Would you say that the banker has been often cast as a heavy, or consistently cast as a heavy, in pictures in Hollywood?

MR. MOFFITT. Yes, sir. I think that due to Communist pressure he is overfrequently cast as a heavy. By that I do not mean that I think no picture should ever show a villainous banker. In fact, I would right now like to defend one picture that I think has been unjustly accused of communism. That picture is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The banker in that picture, played by Lionel Barrymore, was most certainly what we call a “dog heavy” in the business. He was a snarling, unsympathetic character. But the hero and his father, played by James Stewart and Samuel S. Hines, were businessmen, in the building and loan business, and they were shown as using money as a benevolent influence.

[Momentary interruption]

MR. MOFFITT.Well, to summarize, I think Mr. Capra’s picture, though it had a banker as villain, could not be properly called a Communist picture. It showed that the power of money can be used oppressively and it can be used benevolently. I think that picture was unjustly accused of communism.

It is not known if Moffitt’s testimony has any influence on the thinking of the FBI or the HUAC members, but it should be noted that the principal creators of It’s A Wonderful Life, director Capra and screenwriters Goodrick and Hackett, never were affected by the Black Listing that ruined the lives and livelihoods of other writers and directors during this period. It would be almost a decade from when It’s A Wonderful Life first came under suspicion until the Red Scare-generated Black List would start to crumble. Over the years, It’s A Wonderful Life would go on to become an American classic, an ironic fate for a film once considered to be “unAmerican.”

FBI Records via Aphelis.

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Lost Peter Sellers Short Films Redicovered

Posted on 16 December 2013 by Rich Drees

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Two short films starring Peter Sellar thought to have been lost have been rediscovered in Southend, England. The two, 30-minute films, Dearth Of A Salesman and Insomnia Is Good For You, are currently undergoing some restoration and will be screened at the local Southend Film Festival next May.

Sellers scholars believe that the comic actor produced the two short films in 1957 as a means to showcase his talents as he tried to move his career into the movies. Although he had some small television and film roles already to his credit, Sellers was still best known for being one-third of the cast of the highly popular and influential BBC radio series The Goon Show. The films themselves are parodies of government-produced information films.

The BBC is reporting that the film reels were originally discovered in a trash dumpster in 1996. Robert Farrow was overseeing the clearout of Park Lane Films’ former office in London ahead of an upcoming refurbishment when he took 21 film canisters home with the thought of using them to store his collection of Super 8 films. When he discovered that there were films in the canisters he put them in a closet in his own home until he recently reexamined the containers while cleaning out his own home.

As he told the BBC (via Deadline) –

It was then I realised they were two Sellers films including the negatives, titles, show prints, outtakes and the master print. It was amazing.

Although the existence of the films had been known, up until the discovery of the films there was little known about them with only a script for Insomnia is Good For You still remaining from their production.

According to Mark Cousins of the Peter Sellers Appreciation Society the discovery of the films leaves just one last piece of early work form the actor missing.

These early films, although they’re only shorts, are quite important because they were really made before he hit the big time… They are missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. [Sellers] is very well known for his later works such as Dr Strangelove and the Pink Panther films and these help to give people an appreciation of how he got there.

There has been no word yet as to if the short films will eventually become available via a home video or streaming release. But they have released a short clip from each film.

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MALTESE FALCON Statuette Brings $3.5 Million At Auction

Posted on 25 November 2013 by Rich Drees

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It was considered priceless by those who sought to posses it, but the stuff that dreams are made of has a price.

The screen used statuette used in the 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon which starred Humphrey Bogart fetched $3.5 million at an auction of Hollywood memorabilia today, not including a $585,000 buyers premium. It was estimated that the prop would earn $1.5 million.

Another Bogart-related prop, the 1940 Buick Phaeton used in the cliamctic airport scene in Casablanca went under the gavel for $380,000. Also up for sale were Casablanca producer Hal Wallis’s working copy of the shooting script for the film and the chair used in the office set of Bogart’s Maltese Falcon private eye Sam Spade.

Curated by Turner Classic Movies, the auction featured over 100 lots ranging across almost 100 years of film history from a joke file from W. C. Fields to Michael Keaton’s superhero costume from Batman and Harrison Ford’s whip from Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. Numerous costumes included in the auction spanned from the early days of talking pictures like a majorette jacket worn by Shirley Temple in 1936’s Poor Little Rich Girl to Oscar-winning gowns for Shakespeare In Love designed by Sandy Powell. Other pieces include a preliminary design maquette for the Terror Dogs from Ghostbusters to a diving helmet from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to animation cells for the cast titles to films such as The Sound Of Music and Hello Dolly. Below are pictures of a few props that were on display at Bonham’s Auction House in Manhattan this past weekend preceding today’s sale.

The falcon prop was one of two cast in lead statuettes by the prop department at Warner Brothers Studio for the film and the only one that can be verified as having appeared in the classic noir tale. It had been owned by a private collector who purchased it in the 1980s.

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Vintage Film Journals And Magazines Now Searchable Online

Posted on 21 October 2013 by Rich Drees

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If you’ve been looking to do some research by digging through early issue of such notable film publications like Variety, the Hollywood Reporter or Photoplay, you’re in luck. The holdings that are part of the Media History Digital Library are now available to be searched online through a new project called Lantern.

In addition to the publications named above, the database also includes issues of Moving Picture World, Picture Play, Film Daily, Hollywood Filmograph, Movie Classic and numerous fan magazines, all available to search and view as images and pdfs on the Lantern site.

Heck, even if you’re not researching right anything currently, the site is still good for just general poking around. I know that I just spent an hour on their just inputting various search topics and following where ever they may have lead me.

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Help Save GHOSTBUSTERS’s Ecto-1A!

Posted on 16 October 2013 by Rich Drees

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One of the most iconic cars in motion picture history is the retrofitted 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor ambulance from the Ghostbusters movies known by fans as the Ectomobile. Unveiled in the first movie with the moniker, Ecto 1, it received some upgrades for when Manhattan’s paranormal eliminators went back into business in Ghostbusters 2 and was rechristened Ecto 1A.

In reality, there were actually three cars that “played” Ecto-1 in the films. The first, the dilapidated old black car seen in one early scene of the first Ghostbusters, was a rental and never converted into the Ecto-1 that fans know. The second was used in both the first and second films, but when it broke down during production of Ghostbusters 2, a third car was brought in to complete filming. Universal studios restored the first Ecto 1 back in 2007, but the replacement Ecto 1A never got similar treatment reportedly due to budgetary issues. It was on public display at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida for a while, but now sits in a corner of Sony’s prop storage space, forgotten and in a sad state of disrepair. As you can see from the photo below (via Instagram user cheekybama) the car has a smashed windshield, a dented hood and its lightbar tossed unceremoniously on top. Additionally, the interior has had several parts stripped out, presumably by fans.

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But there may some hope for Ecto 1A. A group of Ghostbusters fans named, appropriately enough Ghostbuster Fans, have started a petition to buy the car and original parts at scrap value from Sony in order to restore it themselves. The group’s petition, which you can sign here, doesn’t state how the group will pay for the project, but I certainly do admire their spirit a (no pun intended) and their willingness to step up and save the car in the face of Sony’s disinterest.

While there are a couple of professionally built replicas of Ecto 1, one made for Universal’s “Spooktackular” stage show now owned by a collector in Tennessee while another replica currently is on display at the Historic Auto Attractions museum in Roscoe, Illinois, there are only two original, screen-used cars. Given the ongoing popularity of the films nearly a quarter of a century after the second one came out, it seems right that both of the cars are preserved for posterity.

Via Motor Authority.

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George Lucas’ Original Plan For The STAR WARS Prequel Trilogy

Posted on 07 October 2013 by Rich Drees

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Later this month comes the release of writer J W Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the final installment in his trilogy of books taking an in-depth look at the making of George Lucas’ epic trilogy.

As a bit of a tease for the book, we though we would share just a short bit in which Rinzler reveals how Lucas mentioned his at-the-time nebulous plans for what would become the Prequel Trilogy to Return of the Jedi director Richard Marquand, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and producer Howard Kazanjian –

“Well, anyway, Luke’s father gets subverted by the Emperor. He gets a little weird at home and his wife begins to figure out that things are going wrong and she confides in Ben, who is his mentor. On his missions through the galaxies, Anakin has been going off doing his Jedi thing and a lot of Jedi have been getting killed—and it’s because they turn their back on him and he cuts them down. The president is turning into an Emperor and Luke’s mother suspects that something has happened to her husband. She is pregnant. Anakin gets worse and worse, and finally Ben has to fight him and he throws him down into a volcano and Vader is all beat up.

Now, when he falls into the pit, his other arm goes and his leg and there is hardly anything left of him by the time the Emperor’s troops fish him out of the drink. Then when Ben finds out that Vader has been fished out and is in the hands of the Empire, he is worried about it. He goes back to Vader’s wife and explains that Anakin is the bad guy, the one killing all the Jedi.

When he goes back his wife, Mrs. Skywalker has had the kids, the twins, so she has these two little babies who are six months old or so. So everybody has to go into hiding. The Skywalker line is very strong with the Force, so Ben says, ‘I think we should protect the kids, because they may be able to help us right the wrong that your husband has created in the universe.’ And so Ben takes one and gives him to a couple out there on Tatooine and he gets his little hideout in the hills and he watches him grow. Ben can’t raise Luke himself, because he’s a wanted man. Leia and Luke’s mother go to Alderaan and are taken in by the king there, who is a friend of Ben’s. She dies shortly thereafter and Leia is brought up by her foster parents. She knows that her real mother died.”

As you can see, Lucas has had the broad strokes of the story already in mind, as he would need to as it is backstory for Jedi. In the run up to the release of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas had mentioned in many interview the bits about Vader and the volcano before, but because he obviously didn’t want to spoil Empire‘s big reveal, he didn’t mention the whole parentage angle of the story. This still doesn’t solve the mystery as to whether it was before or after Empire that Lucas decided that Luke and Leia would be twins.

And we can see that this is basically how things played out in Attack Of The Clones and Return Of The Sith, though it does have “Mrs. Skywalker” surviving past child birth which would play into Leia saying that she has vague memories of her mother in Return Of The Jedi. Interestingly, there is no mention of Anakin’s childhood and what would become the relatively unaddressed issue of his parentage, so if Lucas had any ideas about that at the time, he was keeping them to himself. And since they had no bearing on the backstories needed for Jedi, I see no reason for him to bring them up if he did have these story elements in mind.

The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi arrives in bookstores on October 22 or can be ordered from Amazon here.

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See An Alternate Look For Galactus For RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER

Posted on 01 October 2013 by Rich Drees

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There were a lot of things to be disappointed by in the 2007 comic book adaptation Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer and for some fans one of those things was the non-appearance of the interstellar entity known as Galactus. Although his herald, the Silver Surfer, was the main focus of the superhero sequel, many were hoping that the dreaded “Devourer of Worlds” would show up in the film for more than just the few tantalizing glimpses we got during the film’s finale.

It turns out that during the film’s development, there was much thought given to how much Galactus would be an active part in the film’s story. And to that end, some concept art was created by Daniel J. Cox to show how he could possibly be portrayed. As you can see below, Cox was working variations on a theme in which Galactus towers over a city, partly obscured by skyscrapers.

Personally, I always felt that director Tim Story was setting himself up to disappoint by choosing to attempt to do a story involving Galactus. The character is a great one for comics, but I am unsure as to how well it could ever be translated to a live action film. Would general audiences buy into a hundreds of feet tall guy in a purple skirt and a tuning fork for a hat as a credible menace? Of course, the direction that Story went in – having Galactus being just vaguely glimpsed through swirling clouds of energy – was bound to not only disappoint but anger fans.

Now Story has reportedly stated that the reason that they kept Galactus obscured so that he could be revealed in a planned spinoff film featuring the Silver Surfer. And that spinoff’s screenwriter, J. Michael Straczynski, had stated that Galactus would be featured prominently in the film and would be seen. But it strikes me that Story was more likely just kicking the problem down the road a bit, where it became moot in the wake of Rise Of The Silver Surfer‘s lackluster box office and critical reception.

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Via Film Sketchr.

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Recovered Lost Mary Pickford Short Film To Screen In New Hampshire Next Month

Posted on 30 September 2013 by Rich Drees

FirstMisunderstandingThe previously thought lost short film that marks the first onscreen credit silent film superstar Mary Pickford would receive will be screened in New Hampshire next week, the first time that the film has been seen by audiences in decades.

The short, the 1911 comedy-drama Their First Misunderstanding, was discovered in a New Hampshire barn seven years ago by a contractor who had been hired to tear down the decaying structure. Checking to see that it was empty before he started, the contractor discovered an ancient film projector and a stack of seven reels of highly volatile nitrate films that weren’t even stored in cans. Of those reels, four, including Their First Misunderstanding, were shorts previously thought to be lost to history. (Another one of those reels contained When Lincoln Paid (1913) directed by Francis Ford, the older brother of legendary director John Ford.)

Although she had become a star almost immediately for D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Co. when she was signed to the company in April of 1909, it was Biograph’s policy that they would not credit the names of their actors led the public to know her only as Little Mary an not Mary Pickford. At the end of 1910, Pickford left Biograph for independent producer Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Picture Co.

Their First Misunderstanding was Pickford’s first film for Laemmle, and not only did she co-star with her first husband, Owen Moore, she also also wrote the film’s scenario. Legendary director/producer Thomas Ince, who is thought to have directed the short, also makes a short appearance. Of the 39 films that Pickford made over the nine months she was at IMO, only 13 have survived.

The restored film will screen on October 11 at Keene State College in Keene, NH, with Pickford scholar Christel Schmidt on hand to introduce it. It was Keene State College film program founder Larry Benaquist who was contacted by the contractor who had discovered the abandoned films. Benaquist sent the films to a restoration lab where it was discovered that one of the reels was indeed the lost Pickford short. He then contacted Schmidt, and the film was then donated to the Library of Congress which oversaw a complete restoration of the material. reportedly there are a few moments missing from the short but the story is still easily followable.

Via LA Times, who have a short, 45 second clip from the movie that they don’t supply embed codes for.

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Hugh Jackman Reveals Wolverine Almost Cameoed In Raimi’s First SPIDER-MAN

Posted on 10 September 2013 by Rich Drees

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Marvel Studios has been very successful with their intertwined superhero franchises that make up their Marvel Cinematic Universe. But they were almost beaten to the punch in having their superhero franchises crossover with each other by a few years by Sony Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox.

According to the X-Men franchise’s Hugh Jackman, his mutant hero character Wolverine almost made an appearance in Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man. Speaking with the Huffington Post, Jackman explained –

In the first “Spider-Man” — Kevin Feige reminded me of this — we really tried to get me to come on and do something, whether it was a gag or just to walk through the shot or something. The problem was, we couldn’t find the suit. The suit was stuck in something. And so when they were in New York when I was there, we couldn’t get it together.

So, you know, I actually asked some high level people about it. Because the optimist in me goes, “Why not? Why can’t we do it? You know, a split cast or whatever?” And someone reminded that the amount of money Fox paid compared to the amount of money Disney paid is very different [laughs]. So how you split that pie up? God knows. But in the comic books, what’s great about it is they’re just mashing together all the time — and it’s awesome. And people are like, “Yeah, well, let’s get this one with that!” And, you know, I still think, one day, there may be an ability to do it.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. Sony would have their two superhero franchises cross over six years before Marvel Studios launched their Cinematic Universe with the first Iron Man film.

If this had come about, how would fans reacted? They most likely would have lost their collective minds, much like they did with Sam Jackman’s reveal in Iron Man‘s now famous post-credit scene. But with Spider-Man’s film rights owned by Sony Pictures and the X-Men owned by Twentieth Century Fox, any further links between the two series, including a proper Team-Up (pun intended) between them would probably be out of the question.

Today, though, there has been hints that the X-Men franchise may interact with Fox’s other superhero franchise, The Fantastic Four, once that series gets rebooted in 2015.

Of course, before Wolverine almost showed up in Spider-Man, the wallcrawler almost showed up in the first X-Men film, thanks to this on-set practical joke.

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Watch Some Rare Behind-The-Scenes Footage Of Jerry Lewis’s Unreleased Film THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED

Posted on 11 August 2013 by Rich Drees

Some people have called Jerry Lewis’s holocaust drama The Day The Clown Cried a lost film in that it has never been seen by the public. I suppose it is in a sense, but am reluctant to give it that tag as it has gone unseen more due to legal problems keeping it in a vault rather than through any casual neglect that resulted in no prints for the title in continued existence.

(You can read an in depth explanation of those legal problems, as well as a review of the film’s screenplay in our script review here.)

But one thing is for sure. The Day The Clown Cried is probably at the top of almost all serious film fans of unavailable titles that they would love to have a chance to see. And while a nearly complete version of the film lies tucked away in a safe in Jerry Lewis’s office, a sequence from an old Dutch television show on Lewis has surfaced on YouTube that shows the comic/director in the process of shooting the film. The sequences we do get to see are from early in the film, centering on Lewis’s German circus clown character Helmut Doork before he is caught making fun of Adolf Hilter and sent off to a concentration camp where he is forced to entertain children on their way to the gas chamber.

The clowning that we see Lewis do is fairly benign and out of context I can’t tell if it is supposed to portray Doork as just a middling talent or if Lewis is not actually bringing anything funny to the scene. I would imagine that there is a clue to be found though in a 1992 Spy magazine piece on the film titled “Jerry Goes To Death Camp!” Comedian Harry Shearer, through a series of fortuitous connections, was able to see the film explained what he saw thusly –

With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. “Oh My God!” – that’s all you can say… if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You’d just think ‘My God, wait a minute! It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly-held feeling.

Shearer elaborated on his experience with the view on the Howard Stern radio show in 1990s.

I am sure that Lewis started off on the project in 1971 with the intention of doing something he thought would highlight both his comedic and hitherto untapped dramatic abilities but vanity and ego blinded him to what a train wreck in the making the project was becoming. But it seems that over the years, Lewis has become more clearheaded about what the film that was made. While he ignores the legal aspect tying up the film’s release, he in the below excerpt from a public question and answer this past January, he is brutally honest about his own estimation of his work.

Via Bleeding Cool.

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