Milan Herzog, actors Jean Landret and Ghislaine Dumont, and
The Milan Herzog I Knew
Born in Croatia on August 24, 1908, Milan Herzog lived more than a century, passing away in Hollywood in 2010. I first met him in 1959, when he was a substitute teacher of film history at Northwestern University. The classes were at night and during the day he worked as head of film production for Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, a prominent academic film studio in nearby Wilmette. I signed up for the class before I knew who he was. Hearing the first lecture, I was pleasantly surprised. The word spread around campus and his reputation grew, lecture after lecture. Soon he was attracting a large number of students who monitored the class for the pleasure of it. Near the end of the quarter students were packing the lecture hall and most of them hadn’t signed up for credit.
In addition to classic film history, Milan spiced it up with stories about his early days as a translator of silent film title cards and his time at the Sorbonne University in Paris in the 1920s, where he earned a doctorate of law while working as a waiter in a Latin Quarter restaurant and a Paris tour guide. There were stories of working as an international reporter for a Yugoslavian newspaper. In addition to his gift as a story teller, Milan had a gift for languages. He could read, write and speak Serbo-Croato-Slovenian, French, German, English, Italian, Spanish and some Russian. He spoke English most of his life but never lost his rich Serbian accent.
He told us that in the early 1930s, as a multilingual reporter for a Yugoslavian paper, he witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany, fascism in Italy and saw Europe descend into chaos. In the late 1930s he, his wife Ronnie and infant son Sadja boarded a ship in Genoa, Italy, for the United States. When they landed in New York, he looked for a job. Because of his short stint in Yugoslavian film, he applied for and got a job as projectionist and manager of a small movie theater in Oakland, California. The Mormon owner was leaving on a Mission. The Herzogs made the long train trip across country. When they arrived in Oakland, Milan began managing the theater and running the projectors. Ronnie sold candy and popcorn in the lobby. Then, the United States entered World War II. The Mormon owner returned, sold the theater and Milan lost his job.
The family was off again, this time south to Los Angeles. Here he worked for six months as shipping clerk for a company called Tito Inc. Then one day, he got a phone call from the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. They had apparently been keeping track of him and he was recruited by the U.S. Office of War Information, a small group broadcasting radio programs to people in occupied Europe. This later became the Voice of America. Having been a reporter in Serbia and fluent in the language, he was immediately hired and did two broadcasts a day.
When the war ended in 1945, Milan submitted his resignation to William Benton, a former senator, multi-millionaire, and board member of the University of Chicago. Benton had recently acquired the Encyclopaedia Britannica book company from Sears Roebuck. Now he was starting an educational film company. He had purchased the 16mm film library of Electrical Research Products (ERPI) and wanted to start producing new films. He invited Milan to come to work for him in New York. The company would be called Encyclopaedia Britannica Films. Two years later the company moved to Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. More producers were added but Milan was their most prolific and rose to become head of production.
We have been able to identify close to 100 films that he produced and many he directed. But no one was keeping track at the time and many of the early ones only gave screen credit to the academic advisor, not the filmmakers. He produced and directed many films where he received no screen credit. Milan specialized in the humanities and languages. There are a few exceptions where he made science films. He estimated that he produced over 500 films but that number requires an unlikely average of 28 films a year or more than two per month.
There were no tests in Milan’s film history class at Northwestern University. The grade was based on a single term paper dealing with the history of film. The student could write about any aspect of film history he or she wanted. At that time, in addition to a full college schedule, I was working 30 hours a week for a small industrial film company in Chicago. I felt I could write a “C” paper in a couple days and with some extra effort I could do one that might earn a “B” but I didn’t have the time to spare to really dig in and write an “A” paper. So I planned the lazy way out, the “B” option. But a week before the class ended, when I should have been writing my paper, I came down with a strep throat infection and high fever. I left school and went to my parent’s home and did nothing for a week while my mother nursed me back to health. I was so weak I could hardly shuffle to the bathroom. I would accept an “I” grade (for incomplete) and write the "B" paper after I recovered.
Then I got my report card I was astounded to see Milan had given me an “A”. He must have confused me with some other student. I called his office in Wilmette. “Dr. Herzog, I have been ill and out of commission for 10 days. I am sorry but I did not turn in my paper. You mistakenly gave me an “A”.
“I noticed that you didn’t turn in a paper but I am confident you will and when you do, it will be top grade work.” Though I did not want to do the work required, Milan was forcing me write an “A” paper. I thanked him but was not completely happy about it. I then put a lot of work into a paper about a silent movie studio, Keystone Pictures. Keystone was founded by Mack Sennett in Hollywood in 1912 and specialized in short comedies. They were famous for the Keystone Kops, a bunch of humorously incompetent policemen. Keystone Studio was also where Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle got their starts in film.
After a few phone calls, I found someone who worked there when the studio flourished in the 1920s. He was now running a movie theater chain in Chicago. He provided insights I hadn't found in books. When the paper was done, I felt it deserved the “A” he had given me and I turned it in. He quickly read it and scrawled a big "A" on the title sheet.
At the end of my senior year, I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study film in France at the Institute for Higher Studies of Cinema (IDHEC). I married Elaine Cosley and we went to Paris for the school year of 1960/61. Coincidently, Milan was producing a 150-film French language series in France. We connected with him and his wife Ronnie in Paris. Milan's wit was sometimes cutting. I don't think he could stop his racing brain which led to unfortunate remarks he might later regret. Right after he met me in Paris, he said, "Tommy, why did you bring a wife to Paris? It is like bringing a sandwich to a banquet." Despite such sarcastic observations, Milan and his wife treated us very well. This included many a good restaurant dinner. Living in Paris was more expensive than we thought it would be and Milan could tell we were poor. To help out, he hired me to work as an assistant editor on his French series, "Je Parle Français." He also paid me as an actor, matching my voice, to the lip movements of French actors playing Americans in the films. I worked evenings on weekdays and during the day Saturdays.
In June, 1961, we returned to the United States and less than a year later I was inducted into the U.S. Air Force. After three years of military service I began shopping around for a civilian job. I wrote a letter to Milan and he offered me a job as a film writer. So, in the summer of 1965, I began working at Enclyclopaedia Britannica Films in Wilmette, Illinois. It was not my ambition to be a writer and when a producer/director was not available to make the film from my script, I offered to make it myself. Milan took a big chance and told me if I could work with just one assistant, he’d provide a camera and film. Once again, he had faith that I could do a good job. I shot the simple film in less than a month and it turned out well. After that film, I became a full-time producer/director at Britannica.
In 1969, I transferred to Britannica's West Coast film unit at 6519 Fountain Avenue in Hollywood. Two years later, Milan, now age 62 and semi-retired, moved to Hollywood himself. Though near the mandatory age of retirement at Britannica, he had twice the energy of most producers. His wife Ronnie was now suffering from lung cancer and she passed away a few years later.
In 1978, Milan attended an international children’s film festival in Belgium. Here he met an Indian woman named Shanta Gidwani. She was 33 years younger than he was. They hit it off and married a year later. By now Britannica’s west coast unit was fazed out but Milan paid the building rent himself and sub-leased offices and studio space to free-lance film makers. He made a deal to produce a series of short films on child development for a small company who sold videos to schools. Shanta joined him in the work. The films were simple observational films showing how young children behave in certain situations. Milan and Shanta continued making these short films into his 90th year. Then, he finally retired for good.
The week before Milan died at age 101, Shanta called me for a final good bye. I went to their home in the Hollywood hills, just below the famous Hollywood sign. There, I had a few moments with him. His mind was scrambled but he recognized me. We had known each other for 50 years. He was ready to die and tears came to his eyes when he saw me. A few years earlier he told my wife that after age 95, he no longer enjoyed life. And so, on April 20, 2010, four months short of his 102nd birthday, the amazing Milan Herzog died.
In addition to his managerial and filmmaking talents, Milan had a shameless tendency to over-state and shade the truth. For example, when film producer Bert Van Bork returned to Wilmette from making a film on whaling, everyone was eager to hear of his adventures. (This was in the 1960s when such activities were still legal.) A group of us gathered at a small restaurant near the studio. Bert held everyone’s attention as he recounted the adventure of hunting the large sea creatures. During a lull in the conversation, Milan spoke. “My grandfather was a whaler.” The attention shifted to him. We were dumbfounded to hear this. Then Oscar Sams, head of filmstrip production broke the silence. “Milan, seriously, there are no whales in Yugoslavia.”
Milan didn’t miss a beat, “Ah, Not anymore.”
Tom Smith, Glendale, CA
December 30, 2020