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Moving Pictures, Dede Allen 

Thursday, Jul 29 2010
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On the surface, Dede Allen's Moviola could have belonged to anyone. Invented for editors to more easily see the films they were piecing together, the device had a small viewing screen mounted to a rolling stand with foot pedals for the editor to control the clips moving through it.

What set Allen's Moviola apart was the work she could coax from it: Bonnie and Clyde, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Reds. Virtuoso films in a virtuoso filmmaking era.

Now the Moviola is missing.

Allen died last spring. But her daughter, Ramey Ward, knew her Moviola well. As a child, she was always welcome in Allen's cutting room. When Ward wanted to spend a day with Allen, her mother hired her to write Cine Tabs, the white labels at the end of each "trim" or cut piece of film that Allen would later use in the work print.

"Dede loved the agility of the Moviola," Ward says. "She worked on two at a time, trim surrounding her, sticking out of her hair and her blouse — it was coming out of her ears. She was just so fast."

To pull Allen away from her Moviola, her family would often have to collect her. They lived in New York, in Harlem, actually. About 9 or 10 p.m., Allen's husband, Stephen Fleischman, would pack up Ramey and her brother to drive to 1600 Broadway, where Allen and many New York editors worked, to bring her home.

Ward says her mother's own childhood informed her devotion to work.

Allen was born in America, but at age 3 she was abandoned by her mother, who left her at a sanitarium in Switzerland. She did not see her mother, her only parent, for 10 years. But her mother saw her, coming to watch through a wall of mirrored glass, never once talking to or even touching her daughter.

Years later, when Allen married, her mother pulled Fleischman aside with some advice. She told the man who would be Allen's partner till the day she died 63 years later that her daughter needed to be put on a farm to milk goats. The girl was too sensitive to live in the city.

Fleischman had other ideas. He encouraged Allen to pursue her interest in filmmaking.

What followed was a lifetime of seminal work that included The Hustler. She revolutionized cinematic storytelling, defining her own visual vocabulary and bringing staccato cutting, nonliteral storytelling, and the importance of sound to film.

If she changed her craft in the cutting room, her daughter says, Allen also changed herself. Sitting at a Moviola she discovered who she was, and what she was capable of, leaving behind whatever marks her childhood had put on her.

Though Fleischman himself was a documentary writer and producer, he saw to it that the family's schedule revolved around Allen's.

"Our life was divided up into what movie she was working on," Ward recalls.

And so it was that when Ward was 15 and her mother was on location cutting Little Big Man, she spent the summer riding ponies with the Native Americans the production had hired.

"I can't tell you how exciting it was," says Ward, now in her 50s. "I'd sit in the trailer with Dustin and play poker."

When her mother worked with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward on Rachel, Rachel in 1968, Ward was hanging out in a bar, with the assistant directors and production assistants. She was 13, not drinking, but soaking it all in.

"I did not have a traditional upbringing," Ward notes of a time when stay-at-home moms were still in fashion and her mother was always working. "But I always knew she loved me so much; if there was something really important, she would drop everything. And I have all these lessons, her incredible integrity and character."

Then came an offer to work for Elia Kazan on America, America. "My memories of that picture were: a breakfast table drama over whether to work for someone who named names," Ward says. "My parents were both communists when they were young, they met in that milieu. I remember Dede at the dinner table, arguing that many of her friends had been hurt by him.

"My mother had incredible intellectual courage," Ward says. "She never bad-mouthed a director. Her commitment was always one hundred percent, even if, clearly [a film] wasn't going well."

In the end, she chose to work with Kazan.

Others might distance themselves from a bad picture in the press; Allen held true, whether it was a professional relationship or a friendship.

Says Ward, "If you needed something, she would just buy it, even if she had just met you. She was a very, very generous person."

Which explains what happened to her Moviola. Someone's husband or boyfriend needed to cut a film. Allen wasn't using it. She had been hired by Warner Bros. as an executive, so she loaned the machine out.

It was still missing a few years ago, when Ward asked her mother about it, and it was not accounted for after Allen's death.

"My dad said, 'Why do you want the Moviola? What are you going to do with it?' " Ward did not have an answer.

But Dede Allen's Moviola is still missing and Ramey Ward would like to have it back.

Reach the writer at tibbyrothman@verizon.net

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