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Arthur Penn: A Media Legend
by Karen Pecota

Since 1982, the Berlin International Film Festival has given special tribute to many film industry heroes. The 2007 festival honored 85-year-old Arthur Penn for his contributions in public television and for directing feature films. He received the Honorary Golden Bear award for his outstanding achievements and ten of his films were featured on the big screen: The Left Handed Gun (1958), The Miracle Worker (1962), Mickey One (1965), The Chase (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Night Moves (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976), Four Friends( 1981).

Robert Müller from the Berlinale and the Deutsche Kinemathek (Museum for Film and Television) interviewed Arthur Penn, who shared special moments of his career. Listening to Penn reminisce about experiences over almost a century was delightfully entertaining. It was an honor to be in his presence and to walk down his memory lane.

Arthur Penn was born 1922 in Philadelphia. He was to follow in his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker but became interested in the theater through participation in high school productions. He worked at the local radio station reporting the news. After the death of his father in 1943, he went to New York and, shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the army where he first moved to South Carolina. He spent his free time in a small drama circle he formed with fellow army buddies until being shipped to Europe in 1944. The atrocities he experienced in battle haunted him deeply. Towards the end of the war he was transferred to Paris to join a soldiers’ performance company where he entertained until he returned to America. He enrolled in a small college to study philosophy and psychology but ended up teaching acting and stage production in the performing arts department. He completed his higher education in North Carolina and Italy. In 1951, he was hired by NBC as a floor manager for the Colgate Comedy Hour and worked with actors like Dean Martin. In 1953, he was asked to direct a live dramatic TV series called Dolls Play House First Person. In 1953-1958 he was part of a team of rotating TV directors until the making of his first feature film in 1957, The Left Handed Gun.

Arthur Penn belongs to a select group of filmmakers who successfully transitioned from the golden age of live television to the golden age of film. In the early 1950s, fledgling television presented plays for a small percentage of people who actually had TV sets. In those days he was required to learn the potential of the camera, as well as many different jobs around the studio. For example: they would rehearse with the actors for six or seven days; then Arthur would go home with a blueprint of the studio (kitchen, living room, etc) to figure out what the camera could “see” through different sized lenses. The sets were very small; therefore, the lenses had to be quite close to a person, action or thing. This is where the words “kitchen drama” was coined. They worked in an intense, completely live environment. When they went on air, they were ready on the set with three cameras, each one with four lenses of different sizes. The directors had to memorize those twelve lenses, because they had to edit simultaneously on the air, constantly giving verbal direction, i.e., camera 2 next on a 35, or camera 3 next on a 75, etc. Each camera man received a list of shots so that they could follow and work quickly. From early live television the field expanded rapidly, a virtual explosion of new techniques every week. In the end, millions of television sets were sold and the movie studios lost their audiences. Everybody stayed home! The movie studios panicked and this preceded the golden age of film.

He left New York and headed for Hollywood with a group of film entrepreneurs. They hit the wall of orthodox Hollywood with an arrogant style that earned them the name movie brats of the ‘70s. His experience dictated his appeal and eventually his original style earned him respect in the industry because his new ideas worked. With confidence and courage he brought current topics to the big screen, always including natural humor which encompassed life’s conflicts. Penn said that Arlo Guthrie reminded him in a recent conversation (2007) that they were most likely the first to produce a music video. Arthur Penn attracted seasoned talent, especially award-winning screenwriters, which increased his acclaim as a feature film director for the next decades. His enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge with future generations of filmmakers has afforded him opportunities with the Actors Studio and beyond.