“While the books on films and filmmaking were fascinating, the film guides had the most immediate utility,” says K Narayanan. Exclusive
“While the books on films and filmmaking were fascinating, the film guides had the most immediate utility,” says K Narayanan.

A time when reviews were cinematic gold

Peter Harrison, Leonard Maltin, Leslie Halliwell and others — a look back at the history of film critics and guides
By K Narayanan
UPDATED ON JUL 17, 2021 01:12 PM IST

In 1903, a Turkish furnace stoker of Greek Origin named Petros Stallios left his ship when it docked in New York, made his way across the United States to California, and found a job as a projectionist at a nickelodeon there.

At the time, most motion picture patents were still held by Thomas Alva Edison and he was aggressive about their enforcement. And so American filmmakers had started settling in the newly created town of Hollywood on the West Coast. Edison was based on the East Coast and here at least, it was easier to evade the litigious inventor.

Stallios, now calling himself Peter Harrison, found himself in a bustling hub forming around a medium that he had by now fallen in love with. In 1919, he started a magazine dedicated to the movies. It contained reviews of films that were to be released each week. He called it Harrison’s Reports, and sold copies to independent theatres across America. Harrison wrote every review, for over 40 years. His weekly was, in many ways, the world’s first film guide.

THE NEW WORLD

In the 1980s, unless you were wealthy, there weren’t many ways to escape the Chennai summer. One of the few air-conditioned refuges was the British Council library. There, in one of the comfortable armchairs, I would pore through books on film — film history, collections of reviews, some that were nothing but lists of Oscar-winners. I was 15, and I was obsessed.

The highest-grossing English film in India up till that point was the star-studded but critically reviled Mackenna’s Gold. English movies that made it to Indian theatres at the time (this was 1985) were usually Bond films, martial-arts movies, and heavily censored soft porn. But in the books I found movies whose very names meant romance: Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Captain Blood, Stagecoach.

While the books on films and filmmaking were fascinating, the film guides had the most immediate utility. The most popular guide of this time was started in 1969, by an American teen just a little older than I was. Leonard Maltin started his fan magazine Film Fan Monthly, at 15. Three years later a teacher saw a copy and, impressed by his work, introduced him to an editor at Signet Books. At the time, Signet was looking to create a film guide. After listening to Maltin’s ideas, the editor hired the 17-year-old.

Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide used a star-based system, with four stars being the highest rating. Movies that rated below one and a half stars were designated “Bombs”. The guide was a hit. In 1978, it went bi-annual; by 1986, it was an annual publication, and an institution.

Maltin’s guide was still popular in the 1980s, but my film bible was written by a curmudgeonly Englishman named Leslie Halliwell. His Filmgoer’s Companion, containing brief biographies of actors, directors, producers and technicians, as well as short sections on aspects of movie-making, was first published in 1965 and soon established itself as one of the best sources of information on the industry. Twelve years later, he launched Halliwell’s Film Guide.

Where the average movie in Maltin’s guide got two to three stars, Halliwell was much more exacting. Most movies received no stars, and four-star films were incredibly rare.

Halliwell’s reviews were short and pungent. Of the film adaptation of Erich Segal’s Love Story, he wrote: “Love means never having to watch this trendy rubbish.” On the 1964 Sophia Loren-starrer The Fall of the Roman Empire: “…the hero is a priggish bore, the villain a crashing bore, the heroine a saintly bore, and the only interesting character is killed off early.”

END OF A GENRE

Halliwell died in 1989. His guide was continued by others, but their versions were a pale imitation. In 2014, Maltin, then 64, announced that that year’s version of the guide would be the last. “We were unable to find an effective way to monetize it on the Internet,” Maltin told Deadline.com’s Pete Hammond. Indeed, the efforts of one person, or a small group, could no longer match the resources of a crowdsourced website.

Still, in a time when ratings sites have become battlegrounds in culture wars, tainted by “review bombing” by rabid fans or raging commenters, I can’t help but miss the old guides, put together by people who loved and lived the medium. A tattered copy of Halliwell’s Film Guide (5th edition) still sits on a shelf at home, old markings in the margins against the films I needed to see.

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