OK, Movie Smarty-Pants, It’s You vs. John DiLeo
In its reissue, John DiLeo’s 1999 And You Thought You Knew Classic Movies: 200 Quizzes For Golden Age Movie Lovers, is no less challenging, nor any less delightful.
nGrowing up on Long Island, John DiLeo was a movie obsessive with a cataloging mind. Even before his teens he was setting his alarm clock to wake up in the middle of the night so he could watch classic American films on television, or to turn on his VHS recorder.
Then, “at about 10, I got a paperback on the Academy Awards, and I used that as a guide to what I should watch, from then on,” he says by phone from his home in Milford, Pennsylvania.
Explaining how he came to write one of the most compelling of all movie quiz books, And You Thought You Knew Classic Movies: 200 Quizzes For Golden Age Movie Lovers, he says it all dates from that childhood fascination. He had seen just about every important American talkie by the time he got to Ithaca College, primarily to study theater, but with a couple of film classes, to boot.
Of course, 30 or even 20 years ago, watching movies day, night, and all weekend was no easy matter. Those that were on television were so cut up and disrupted by advertisements that a buff would have to figure out what had happened during as much as 20 or 30 missing minutes. “There was no advertising-free movie watching then,” recalls DiLeo. “Films were cut to shreds. We’d never accept that, today. It wasn’t a great way to be introduced to the American classics.”
The VCR (rather clunky precursor of the DVD, kids) came on the market while DiLeo was in high school, so that he could at least record the 70 to 80 percent of films’ original footage with which tv stations surrounded their umpteen plugs. Then cable networks began to appear – in the “Turner age,” as DiLeo dubs it – permitting fans to watch whole movies (although in Turner Classic Movies’ earliest days, they had to suffer through the colorized prints he produced until fans’ derision dissuaded him from his bizarre project).
In his post-college days, DiLeo pursued an acting career, an uncertain life that tends to have plenty of long hours to fill. He took to compiling quizzes on the movies, largely to amuse himself. It wasn’t until he had built a horde of those that the thought of making a book out of them even crossed his mind. When a friend suggested he do that, he says, “I thought, ‘I couldn’t do that. Other people do things like that.’”
By that time, he was about 35, and transitioning out of acting. Casting about for a new direction, he realized he already had one. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he was sitting on some kind of gold mine – or, at least, a celluloid one. “There were still magazines like Premiere and Movie Line, and I fantasized I could get a column in one of those,” he says. “I’d been accumulating data for a long time.”
To get started, a book would be just the thing. His, he reasoned, could be for fellow film fanatics, rather than a general reader. It could have quizzes on such out-of-the-way topics as “fictional movies within movies”, and “backstage theater scenes within films.” He recalls: “I had lists I’d been compiling even though I didn’t know why I was doing that.”
The result, in 1999, was And You Thought You Knew Classic Movies, from St. Martin’s Griffin Press. It won plaudits from big movie names like Pauline Kael, one of the doyennes of film reviewers: “This is the smartest movie quiz book I’ve ever seen.”Musical-theater icon Stephen Sondheim, a renowned film nut, told DiLeo he had virtually conquered the quizzes, stumbling at only a few of the questions that he attributed to “senior moments.” In plenty of other readers, no doubt, the book has provoked howls of execration. It is a formidable movie quiz book. DiLeo says: “I’ve always known that the stuff I’m doing is for a niche market. I knew that, going in. It’s for people who are as passionate as me.”
That suits him fine. He says: “Some die-hard movie fanatics said how much they enjoyed it because of that. They had to wrack their brains. That was the audience in my head: people like myself.” What he did not want to create, he had decided, was “another silly book about lines from Casablanca.”
In 1999 he was living in Manhattan. He has spent most of his life in and around New York City, although he now resides in a 315-year-old Pennsylvania town about 50 miles to the northwest. Since And You Thought You Knew Classic Movies, he has since written four more. He has written columns for three regional newspapers, and has also been a book reviewer for the Washington Post Book World.
John DiLeo was born in 1961 in Brooklyn, and grew up just a little further from Manhattan, on Long Island. He graduated from Ithaca College in 1982 with a degree in fine arts and went to work as a stage actor in small productions in and around New York City. Nothing on Broadway, “nothing that made me feel encouraged.” He also did a little film and television work. He appeared in NBC’s Another World, a soap opera that was ending a 35-year run at about the time his book appeared.
He nominates as his “one claim to fame, and not much of one,” a small role as a reporter, with a couple of lines and a credit, in a 1995 comedy, The Jerky Boys. Frankly, he says, “it was bad, and it was a flop.”
Sample quizzes from And You Thought You Knew Classic Movies quickly establish how DiLeo’s mind runs, and also how stiff a task he sets for his readers. Almost all the quizzes require matching items in a Column A with those in a Column B. It’s a teasing and often taunting match-’em format. When DiLeo diverges from this format, it is generally to insert an extra challenge, such as “While you’re at it, name the films, too.”
One of DiLeo’s delights is to compile sets of questions around such themes as the cigarette. And he focuses on all aspects of Hollywood’s Golden Age of 1930 to 1970.
St. Martin’s press kept And You Thought You Knew Classic Movies in print for five years before returning rights to DiLeo. He is reissuing it now not only for the printed-book market, but also as an e-book. But he also has long wanted to correct the very few flaws he later found, as well as to include some better items he turned up in later filmwatching.
Back in the late 1990s, DiLeo did due diligence to try to ensure that every one of his quizzes, and every one of their answers, stood up to the most rigorous testing. “That was a little trickier than it is today,” he says. “That was before Netflix and YouTube and all the things that would make it much easier, now.”
His method was to compile his questions with information fairly well established in his memory. Then he checked everything he thought he knew by looking back at the many videotapes he had made of American classics, from television broadcasts – “just to check things you knew were right,” as he says. Sure, film-fan and –history books were plentiful, but they may offer conflicting information about a film’s opening credits or its plot points or details about its character details, while the films themselves never lie.
When he did not have his own copy of films he wanted to include, he reached out to fellow movie obsessives. That was about all the archival research available to him, although the collection at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, could have helped.As far as he now knows, he got very little wrong, and the rare imperfections were not necessarily his. Regarding one “error,” DiLeo quips: “The facts changed.” Soon after his book appeared, a new biography revealed that Greer Garson was born in England, not Ireland, as stated in every reference book. “It had been a case of the Hollywood publicity machine turning legend into fact,” he says.
“That has been bugging me for 15 years.” So, with his new edition, he has removed Garson and Ireland from his quiz about stars and their countries of origin, replacing her with George Sanders (born in Russia).
And, he now notes, it’s Duchess of Idaho, not The Duchess of Idaho.
“It may sound logical to claim that The Duchess of Idaho is the correct title of an Esther Williams movie, but a viewing reveals that it’s actually just Duchess of Idaho.
“Something as simple as that can make all the difference. Writing a movie quiz book demands absolute accuracy. Without it, you quickly lose the trust of your readers.”
About the only other changes in DiLeo’s take two are items he includes in quizzes about such diverting topics as “lipstick moments” and “cigarette moments” in films. He slipped in facts and factoids that he later came across, and that pleased him more than the originals.
With his thorough fascination with Hollywood film, he has contributed to the Washington Post’s Book World and he currently writes monthly DVD and film-book columns in three city magazines in eastern American states. He also frequently hosts classic-film series, appears on radio programs, and conducts film-history seminars. And he has been an annual participant in the Black Bear Film Festival in the Poconos where he interviewed Farley Granger (2005), Arlene Dahl (2006), and Marge Champion (2010) on the festival’s stage.
DiLeo’s books since 1999 have reflected his mind’s cataloging capacities when it comes to movie minutiae, lore, and history. His second book was 100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember But Probably Don’t (Limelight Editions, 2002). It won kudos for drawing renewed attention to great films new and old, renowned and less so. A Washington Post review said “Not only is this helpful criticism, but 100 Great Film Performances can serve as balm for anyone who has ever been disgruntled by the Academy’s choices on Oscar night.”
As in his first book, his selections for 100 Great Film Performances were informed by his desire to keep worthy movies from falling into oblivion. He didn’t exclude films simply because they were unavailable, or near impossible to locate. He had faith that time would bring them around again. DiLeo’s third book, Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery, appeared in 2007 from the Hansen Publishing Group. Then came Screen Savers II: My Grab Bag Of Classic Movies, in 2012, with many questions and quizzes that DiLeo hadn’t been able to fit into his quiz book.
A different kind of project for DiLeo was his Tennessee Williams And Company: His Essential Screen Actors, which Hansen published in 2010. In it, he dealt in 11 chapters with 11 actors from Williams’ stock company of interpreters. “What joined them was simply that they had worked on Tennessee Williams films more than once,” says DiLeo. “That turned out to be a fantastic experience, and I’m very proud of that book.”
In his embrace of films that might have got away, DiLeo indulges his practice of always writing about whatever interests him. “If you put all my books together, you would see that they include all the great films,,” including the familiar. “But I do tend to focus on the ones that belong to the next tier in terms of people knowing about them. I take it upon myself to write about them and get the word out about them. I want to share my excitement with readers.”