By Michael Fox
Claude Jarman, Jr. was an enthusiastic amateur in the Nashville Community Playhouse’s Children’s Theater when MGM scouts flew the fifth-grader to L.A. for a screen test in 1944. He passed, needless to say, and was cast as the lead in Clarence Brown’s hit film of Marjorie Kinnin Rawling’s beloved novel The Yearling (1946). Jarman’s moving performance garnered the Academy Juvenile Award, an honorary Oscar previously given to child stars Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Margaret O’Brien.
Overnight success can be, if not an outright curse, a peak that a performer never achieves again in his or her life. Jarman soon realized that a lot of actors were more gifted than he was, and that his singular talents lay elsewhere. Fortunately for Bay Area film culture, Jarman’s love of movies and moviemakers didn’t wane or waver when he retired from the silver screen. As the leader, executive director, and co-programmer of the San Francisco International Film Festival from 1965 to 1980, he grew the festival into a major cultural event with a global reputation. Claude Jarman, Jr. is the fitting recipient of the 2019 George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, an honor named after his fellow Festival champion and late friend.
Jarman made a fistful of movies during his five-year contract at MGM, highlighted by a still-powerful adaptation of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1949) by the director who’d given him his big break, Clarence Brown. Jarman returned to Tennessee when his deal expired, attending high school and making movies like Rio Grande (1950) in the summer. The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), which came out the same year he graduated from Vanderbilt University, marked the end of Jarman’s screen career aside from a couple of late-’50s TV appearances.
“I never had been really satisfied that I did superior work,” Jarman explained to an Associated Press reporter in 1960. He was in the process of joining a Birmingham, Alabama, advertising agency at the time, parlaying the public relations training he received during a three-year stint as a navy officer. Then, in 1963, Jarman was recruited as director of public relations by the John Hancock Insurance Co.’s San Francisco office, where his boss happened to be president of the Chamber of Commerce.
Metro Theater owner Irving M. “Bud” Levin had founded the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1957 out of a love of films domestic and foreign. Jarman and others, recognizing the Festival’s growth and potential to be a major civic event and more, encouraged the Chamber of Commerce to form a committee (and commit a budget) to operate and program the annual event. Jarman initially handled PR and sat on the selection committee, while his fellow Hollywood veteran Shirley Temple Black joined the board.
In the mid- and late-’60s, the fall Festival was distinguished by black-tie Opening Nights and marathon tributes to Hollywood greats that film scholar and force of nature Albert Johnson organized and moderated. In 1965 alone, one could attend—at no charge!—all-day retrospectives at the Masonic Temple with onstage interviews of John Ford, Lewis Milestone, King Vidor, Busby Berkeley, Mervyn LeRoy, William Wellman, Gene Kelly, Leo McCarey, Hal Roach, and John Frankenheimer.
“Claude could charm the birds out of the trees,” writer and raconteur Barnaby Conrad recalled in a 2007 interview for the Festival’s oral history project. “And he got whatever he wanted. He was low-key, but in a gentle manner he could convince people of anything. He could get all these people to come out from Hollywood.”
Not everyone, mind you. To this day, Jarman rues the adamant refusals of Orson Welles and Bing Crosby to accept Festival accolades. (Katharine Hepburn never graced the Festival stage either, but the historical record suggests that she was not a Holy Grail for Jarman.)
The SF International Film Festival was the first event of its kind to honor living filmmakers with career salutes. But in the days before rep houses and revivals, before VCRs and film schools, when silent movies were dismissed (if they were even remembered) and Hollywood’s Golden Age of black-and-white dramas was relegated to the dustbin of late-night slots on new-tech color TVs, audiences were often sparse.
“If you went back and did these today, you would have people standing on their heads to get in,” Jarman reminisced in 2006. “We had to practically shout, ‘Come on out, come up and see King Vidor,” or “Come in the afternoon and I’ll give you a ticket.’ We were just embarrassed about not getting enough people in there. It was a Wednesday afternoon, one o’clock. Who can take the time to do that?”
The Chamber was involved for three years before stepping away, by which time Jarman had moved into the executive director’s chair. His first year at the helm, 1967, included a seemingly unmemorable meeting that proved decisive in the Festival’s success going forward and up to the present.
As Jarman recalled, “George Gund came into the office one day and said, ‘I’m interested in the Film Festival. I’d like to make a $1,000 contribution.’ And I said, ‘That’s great. What can we do for you?’ ‘Nothing. I just believe in the Festival.’”
Gund, an unprepossessing adventurer whose admiration for Eastern European films dovetailed with his love of travel, befriended countless filmmakers in Hungary, Czechoslavakia, and elsewhere. He and Jarman shared the same favorite film, Franticek Vlacil’s Marketa Lazarova (1967), and their scouting trips to Berlin and Cannes—Gund became chairman of the Festival in 1973—were a perfect blend of business and pleasure. The Festival developed a stellar reputation abroad, and international directors and stars gravitated to San Francisco.
The Festival comprised approximately 20 curated films in those years, ranging from Eastern European slogs to Nouvelle Vague treats to William Shatner’s Esperanto saga Incubus (1966).
“There was a lot of criticism that the Festival was too commercial, that we didn’t show enough experimental films, but we could never survive by doing that .…The city could not support it. So I think we put together an event where every evening was an event, and not just spread out all over the city. We tried to not be more ambitious than we could handle.”
At the same time, the Festival navigated the generation gap that defined America in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s by introducing midnight movies that attracted the younger moviegoers thronging the Haight and Berkeley. A pie fight—guerilla warfare, San Francisco-style—disrupted the 1969 Opening Night gala before Mayor Alioto, master of ceremonies Victor Borge and star Anthony Quinn could arrive for the screening of The Secret of Santa Vittoria. (Jarman’s executive producer credit on the 1972 Bill Graham concert documentary Fillmore illustrates his ability to connect with the youth movement as well as the business establishment.)
“If you . . . think about ’67, ’68, it just seemed that everything was controversy. You were going to find people on both sides of the fence. So anything you did was controversy. If you had Henry Fonda, ‘Well, why do you have some old actor? Why don’t you have somebody like Jack Nicholson?’ So we always tried to have a certain mixture of people that managed to provoke and antagonize everyone.”
The Palace of Fine Arts was constructed as the Festival’s new home in 1970, though Jarman found himself mopping up overflowed toilets on Opening Night when the new venue was flooded by a rainstorm. The tributes became ticketed events—with a token payment—to improve crowd control, and the honorees expanded to non-directors like cinematographer James Wong Howe and writer Truman Capote, and New Hollywood stars like Paul Newman. (Oh, to have been in the house the year Fred Astaire did an impromptu dance with Albert Johnson, or for the tributes to an ebullient Jeanne Moreau and Jane Fonda, stalwart and even receptive to hecklers.)
Jarman added the Castro Theatre to the mix in 1977 with a second, neighborhood Opening Night that was a good deal more casual than the Palace of Fine Arts affair. Alec Guinness was in the house to open Jarman’s last, triumphant Festival, in 1979, before handing the reins to Albert Johnson, Tom Luddy, and Peter Buchanan.
“I think what I accomplished was being a part of something that added a whole new dimension to the city,” Jarman said. “There was the opera, the symphony, and the ballet, but film became an integral part of the city. I don’t think we set out to achieve that, but when you sit back and look at it and reflect, I think you see that’s what [we] did achieve.”
A member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist (KQED Arts, among other outlets) and instructor, and a proud inductee of Essential SF.