Note: This interview appeared in the April, 1980 issue of Films
Incorporated’s Kaleidoscope Review. Leo Dratfield, who conducted the interview,
was Kaleidoscope’s Editor-in-Chief, and was well-known as the founder of
Contemporary Films. Notes within the text in [brackets] are written by Geoff
Alexander, and were not part of the original interview.
MILAN HERZOG-A MAN OF MANY TALENTS
The Films Incorporated Board of Directors arc an important factor in the success
of our company. Their contributions extend beyond the two meetings a year they
attend. It is always an enriching experience to see and meet with them. The warm
reception accorded our interview with our "senior" board member, Ort Hicks,
encouraged us to follow up with a good friend, Milan Herzog.
LD: Years ago, you and I were on a. plane together and I remember we spoke of an
ideal film company. You would produce, I would acquire, and we'd set up
distribution, It never came to pass, but here we are, more or less under one
wing --- I'm working for Films Incorporated, you are on their board of
directors, one of their advisors. I'd like to tell our readers a little about
your background. I know you're from Yugoslavia. How did you come to America? How
did you break into film?
MH: It was accidental, like so many things in life. My Viennese uncle used me
for a translator when dealing with Yugoslav exhibitors. On one visit, I saw some
film translations on an unoccupied desk and corrected the grammatical errors.
This led to a permanent, freelance assignment translating silent titles from
German, French, Italian and, later, English. When sound became dominant, I
translated subtitles. This was my introduction to the movie industry — which
became my first love. I must add, parenthetically, I was very interested in
photography and became a fairly good photo reporter ---probably the first staff
reporter in my home town of Zagreb.
LD: You were a critic?
MH: I was music critic and theater reporter. Because of my interest in foreign
languages, I obtained a scholarship from France where I completed my legal
studies. I have a doctorate in law. Then comes a very interesting period in my
life. I was named to the court of a small town in Serbia, got married there, and
got involved in politics. Then I went to Belgrade as a foreign policy editor of
a newspaper. Within a year, I acquired at an auction shares of a semi-defunct
company called Cooperative for Economic Films. I hired the best cameraman then
in Yugoslavia, Octavian Miletich, who became the technical head of my little
company, and I brought in an Austrian refugee, Egon Mautner, who later worked
for B&H and the Signal Corps in this country. We produced industrial
and educational films.
LD: What year was that?
MHl: It was between 1935 and 1939. We also did newsreel work, short films and
location work for German features. For instance, I did a short for Bavarian Film
in Munich on "Whirling Dervishes," and another made in an Albanian border
village where men return on one given day to buy a bride and get married. Then
just before my U.S. visa came through. I was commissioned to make a film for the
New York World's Fair. I left before its completion. It probably was bombed or
burned. I never heard about it.
LD: Did Yugoslavia have an exhibit at the Fair?
MH: Yes, but my film never arrived.
LD. When you came to the States, you had a background in film production. Did
you go into that here?
MH: Not directly. My first job, believe it or not, was to run what I call a flea
movie house, I mean. a movie house full of fleas in the poorest section of the
Bay Area, in Oakland. I learned a lot about American ways there. It also helped
me in learning colloquial English.
LD: What were you showing at the movie house?
MH: We showed a different feature every day. The owner was a Mormon who had been
called on a missionary assignment in Europe. He just left me. He said, "You look
intelligent; go ahead, run the theater." Saturday was County Fair Day. You can
imagine my first Saturday. It was a simple bingo game with prizes donated by
local merchants. Only three weeks in America, I was standing on stage, calling
out numbers and making jokes --- in a new language. But it worked out very well.
I got chummy with the Irish dominated teamsters union, my next door neighbors,
who helped me keep order in the theater. My wife sold candy in the lobby and my
son took his first steps there. Later the theater was sold and we went to L.A.
One day I got a phone call from Washington. I was invited to come East
immediately with my family. There was danger that the Germans would impose a
dictatorial government in Belgrade. The State Department urged that I help form
LD: Did you accept?
MH: Yes, and on our way East the Germans attacked Yugoslavia; the King and his
government fled. I was asked by Washington to receive them, to find offices for
them and take care of their needs. None of them spoke English. In New York I
found office space for the government-in-exile in an abandoned house on Fifth
Avenue. Then I was asked to broadcast in Yugoslav for WRUL-Boston with my old
friend, Svetislav Petrovich, a noted royalist newscaster. Politically we didn't
agree, but during war one isn't petty. Then a small group of journalists from
Czechoslovakia and other invaded countries formed the first informal "United
Nations Organization." Unofficially, I represented Yugoslavia and was also a
U.S. observer since we were not yet in the war. When the Office of War In-
formation was formed, I was made head of the Yugoslav section and got involved
in broadcasting as well as into film, with a weekly newsreel for overseas and
short subjects of which I narrated maybe 100.
LD: What about features?
MH: 20th Century-Fox called me to prepare master scripts for versioning of new
features. Once a master script is made in English for subtitles, then
translations can be done expeditiously in different languages. I did the
Yugoslav versioning and my wife typed them. We gradually became makers of
foreign version masters for all the majors. The work was done in preparation for
the end of the war when the Americans wanted to be
ready for the post-war market. I also worked on a weekly music show for overseas
short wave radio. Every Sunday we presented a different orchestra in a different
American city. During intermission we took the listeners on a tour of the city.
LD: That went through the end of the war?
MH: Yes, past D-Day. Later in 1945 I was asked to join Britannica and resigned
from OWI. In fact, I was only hired by EBF to make 150 Spanish and 100
versions of Britannica films that had been sold to the office of Inter-American
affairs. I had to see that they were properly translated, that they were cued
and edited. This was the time of optical sound tracks, before magnetic tape.
Actually it was a routine assignment, so the first year I wrote and produced
five films in addition to 150 Latin American versions. In this way I became
involved in EB productions. Before the spread of TV, 8mm film was popular in
homes. A "Home Division" was formed and I produced for it. I wrote and directed
for United Artists Ballad of the West with Merle Travis. In 1948 I produced
Christmas Rhapsody which was probably the first educational film ever to be
among contenders for the Academy Award. While it didn't win it was sort of nice.
It was also the first educational oriented film with an original score and a
full orchestra. It played at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood During the
L.D: Is it still in distribution?
MH: I think so. Because of the success of that film, Britannica had me make
Christmas films for five years in a row. Meanwhile, I became more and more
productive. Britannica was ready to continue a successful series on
children and people in foreign lands. I did Une Famille Bretonne. both in
English and in French, followed by Children of Ireland, People of Spain, etc.
LD: When did you meet Charles Benton?
MH: When the second Christmas film was made, Charles was my assistant. He had
just graduated from Yale and married Marje, In 1955 I wrote tour scripts dealing
with life in the middle ages. The series started with the First Crusade, and
ended with the decline of the Guilds. I went to France and produced, I think,
the first four genuine costume films in color for education. I had bought all of
Ingrid Bergman's costumes prepared for the
making of ]eanne D'Arc, I had a very good team of professionals. We went to
Avignon where we found a beautifully preserved castle which fit the period.
Inside, the fireplaces were broken and the staircases unusable. So we spent
eight days with about 20 men working to patch everything up. Our art director
shaped things the way they were in the original castle and built a big cross in
front of the main gate where the cross once stood. The local museum people were
enormously helpful. They let us take some less valuable tapestries and furniture
for decoration and we also borrowed medieval kitchen utensils for the kitchen.
LD: How many Americans came with you?
MH: I produced a tot of films abroad but I always went alone. I hired everybody
locally. Obviously we did a good job because we won the Prize of Paris that
year. The following year Britannica sent me to Vienna. There were some frozen
MGM schillings to be had at a bargain price. It was MGM's money and not to be
taken out of Austria. We bought and paid for them in dollars in the U.S. It
helped that I had a good command of German.
LD; How many languages do you speak?
MH: I speak German and French fluently and my native Serb-Croat. I get along
quite well in the other Slav languages. I also speak some Italian and Spanish.
So, I get along.
I came to Vienna on the heel of the Soviet withdrawal. The retreating Soviets
cleaned our the studios, leaving nothing behind. Not one film splicer. I brought
equipment with me from Munich. We must have been the first 16mm production in a
Vienna studio because stage hands and technicians kept coming to look at our
"toys." In order to edit, we had to blow up from 16mm to 35mm black and white
and improvise with nails for lack of editing equipment. We pre-recorded the
music and organized our shooting so well that we never had to place dolly tracks
twice in the same direction. In three months we completed the six films dealing
with differing parts of the orchestra and on conducting. The Los Angeles
Philharmonic Society still uses one of the films to prepare students for a tour
of the Orchestra Hall.
In 1958 I was sent to Boston to build a studio and work on physics films. That
is where I met David Lutyens (ed note: currently a Vice-president of Films
Incorporated). He was teaching physics at Harvard then. From Boston I went to
Paris to develop a French language course.
There was a professor, LaVelle Rosselot, a third or fourth generation Huguenot
from Ohio [she taught at Otterbein College, OH]. She had written a brilliant course --- one of those total immersion
courses --- which she taught to air force officers assigned to North Africa. She
and I left in May, 1960, for Paris. By July we had the course updated at the
Sorbonne and started production. We had 62 speaking roles in it and a crew of
16; we covered all of France. I returned with a finished product ---120 films,
30 hours of tape, and textbook [and teacher's guides] --- in March, 1961.
lessons 1-13 of Je Parle Français]
Then management said, "Look, Spanish is so hot you've got to do it." So I went
to Mexico in 1963 and produced a first year course called La Familia Fernandez.
In 1964 we continued in Spain with a second year course called Emilio en Espana.
Then I went to Russia and helped organize the making of a series on the Soviet
Union, which ended in a sort of catastrophe in that Russians not only stole a
lot of equipment, but also delivered 200,000 feet of film which was not slated
and they refused to send the script girl to America to identify the scenes.
LD: Well, you shot it?
MH: No, no, I was the producer. A Russian film crew shot it. At any rate,
Britannica decided to write off those films.
LD; They were never released?
MH: Oh yes they were. I took the rushes with me when I left Chicago for
California to manage the West Coast Unit. The first thing I did in California
was to edit the 200,000 feet of Russian film. We made five films from the
footage, four of which are realty beautiful.
LD; They were released by Britannica?
MH: Released by Britannica and doing very well. I won the EFLA and Golden Eagle
awards for Student Life. I narrated it in the first person because I have a Slav
accent. I forgot to tell you that I became Vice-President of Britannica in 1962.
Later I became Senior Vice-president and my friend Bill Deneen came in as acting
head of production. I was also for two years Vice-President of the International
Division. Eventually Britannica decided to centralize all production in Chicago.
I offered to buy the West Coast Unit. They said that couldn't be ---“ it would
look like a sweetheart deal." "Look," I said, "advertise, see what you can get
for it. I'll pay you $100 more than the highest bidder." Which I did. I bought
LD: Which included what?
MH: Equipment, desks, teases, etc. The staff stayed with me, Britannica gave me
my first assignment. I had earlier produced filmstrips on the Soviet Union and
the satellite nations and I wanted to do the parts of free Europe. Britannica
gave me a contract and I did 32 filmstrips. It was at this time I became a board
member of Films Incorporated. Then my son joined me as a partner.
LD: The one that was toddling to the popcorn machine?
MH: Yes. He had been professor of art history at Ohio State University for eight
years. Almost immediately we got into doing college courses. That's what we're
still doing. I must have left out hundreds of things, but I know I directed the
largest number of films made by any educational producer. I did most of
Britannica's geography films, either directly or indirectly. I certainly have
written them all, if I haven't directed them all. I love filmmaking, and
gradually I began to enjoy making filmstrips too.
LD: Which do you prefer?
MH: Filmmaking. I'm a filmmaker basically.
LD: Are you in touch with any of the Czech or Yugoslav filmmakers?
MH: Not as much as I should. The old ones, of course, I knew well. The Yugoslav
equivalent of the Oscar is called the Miletich award after my old cameraman.
LD: What about Yugoslav animation.
MH: Yugoslav animation grew up under Tito's regime as an outlet for expression
by artists. I had no role in it whatsoever.
LD: Thank you. This has been a most interesting conversation.