February 28, 2008

Daze In Tinsel Town: Cornell Film's Past and Present

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It all began with The Emerald City. No, actually, it began with Frank Morgan ’12, who, besides managing four years of hellish winters here in Ithaca, also had the distinction of being the Wizard. (You know, in The Wizard of Oz. Yeah, that guy.) The man behind the curtain is an icon of Cornell’s long, historic tie to the land of dreams and the silver screen (sing it with me… doo doo doo doo doo Hollywood).
In all seriousness though, I had no idea how distinguished our ties were to Tinsel Town until John Schroeder ’74, The Sun’s production manager, told me recently. (Props, Schroedster. Props.)

The connection goes beyond anything you could imagine. For instance, did you know that the idea for Casablanca was actually birthed here at Cornell? According to the November 1992 issue of the Cornell Alumni News, “Cornell and the Movies” (that’s right, 1992: the Old School), Murray Burnett ’31, a member of Pi Lambda Phi (which has since left our campus), birthed the idea for Casablanca in his play Everybody Comes to Rick’s.

The tale behind Burnett’s original creation of Casablanca is a cautionary one: He and writing Joan Alison wrote and sold Everybody Comes to Rick’s to Warner Brothers in 1942 for $20,000. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers asked them to sign an agreement entitled “Assignment of All Rights,” which Allison and Burnett believed was your basic contract.

Sadly, you know what happens afterwards. Warner Brothers “appropriated” all rights to the play, meaning that Burnett relinquished his claim. When Casablanca won an Oscar in 1943 for Best Screenplay, Burnett was not given credit for writing the play. After a series of lawsuits, Burnett won a few small recognitions, but nothing equaling what he actually deserved.

Okay, now that I’ve depressed you (and hopefully convinced you to put that genius screenplay in a lock box FOREVER), let’s move on to some happier tales of Cornellians in the movie biz. For your pop cultural references, you can look to everything from Citizen Kane to Say Anything to the television series The Office (ever heard of it?).

For you fashion-philes, The Devil Wears Prada was based on a book of the same name (and storyline), written by Cornell graduate and Alpha Epsilon Phi sister Lauren Weisberger ’99. And last year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture, The Departed, was edited by Thelma Schoonmaker ’61.

The list goes on of course, including actors, writers, directors and even computer animators, like George Joblove ’76 MS ’78 and Douglas Kay ’76 MS ’78, who, before animating Terminator 2, used to move the Johnson Museum around the Arts Quad (in a computer program, of course) for S’s and G’s (that’s shits and giggles for those of you not in the know).

So what’s the point of all this, except as more proof — hello, Hottest Ivy!? Well, to steal a phrase from my current favorite YouTube series, Look Around You (side note: you should definitely check it out).

The guys who run Cornell Cinema, the students in the film department making short films and that weird kid who sits next to you in Stats who is incessantly quotes Seinfeld and spends lots of time creepily scribbling away in his Moleskin … it’s entirely possible that down the line, one of them may be clutching that little gold statue and thanking Cornell for his or her education.

And there you’ll be, watching the TV and telling everyone, “I knew him when I was in college!”

Special thanks to John Schroeder and the Cornell Alumni News.