Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is a documentary about a Hollywood—we shouldn’t call them a “power couple,” because that descriptor would suggest that the town bowed to their whims—influence couple (that’s better) whose impact is evident on a half century of filmmaking. Harold Michelson was a storyboard artist and later art director on many of the most famous films of all time, and Lillian Michelson ran a peerless reference library that inspired and informed countless productions. They were never marquis names. They were behind-the-scenes craftspeople without whom Hollywood wouldn’t exist as it did or does.
The documentary tells their life story, picking up on the movies they influenced and interviewing directors, producers, and other behind-the-scenes talent who knew them best. Where there is archival footage, we see it, but where there isn’t, the documentary uses cartoons drawn like storyboard panels to illustrate the scene. Often these illustrations are humorous. It’s an entertaining touch.
The style of these cartoons is like that of Walt Disney’s Paperman short from a few years ago. This style is reminiscent of the 1950s, the period in which Harold and Lillian’s romance and careers were solidified. They are members of the Greatest Generation. To watch their story is to learn from the example of our elders. We have much to learn. Even their respective occupations are out of time with today – Harold’s storyboards are all hand-drawn, not computer animated; Lillian’s reference library isn’t digitized, and her filing system is idiosyncratic with a logic all her own. One moment features Lillian’s rolodex prominently. It’s an externalization of her many relationships, the kind of thing that can’t be mimicked by a search engine.
Their romance is out of step with today’s values as well. When they married, they weren’t both head over heels in love with each other. Harold was certainly infatuated with Lillian, but Lillian was as happy to escape Florida as she was to marry Harold. Yet they were faithful to the commitment they made to be faithful to each other, and love grew between them.
Today is often seems like we don’t have the patience to allow love to blossom, romantically or in other arenas of life. We want everything now. We may be more advanced technologically than our grandparents were, but our hearts are fashioned the same. Harold and Lillian’s example serves to remind us of how important it is to be faithful and steady in our relationships and in our work. We look for immediate impact, but the greatest good comes through time.
Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story also reminds us that though our tabloids and social media feeds are full of “news” about celebrities, it’s the women and men behind the scenes of Hollywood that really bring our cinematic dreams to life. Mark Cousins, in his great documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, calls Hollywood a “bauble” that tempts us with its glamor but disappoints us with its hollowness. He frequently cuts to a shot of a Christmas ornament on a tree when he says this in that series. He forgets that the “bauble” is hanging on a tree branch. People like Harold and Lillian are those branches. There’s a tree beneath the “bauble,” an entire forest, in fact, of women and men patiently working to craft our shared dreamscape. The more movies we have about these faithful women and men, the better. They’re the real heart in the art we love.