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Home Vision Entertainment presents

The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story (1996)

"After watching people for ninety years, you pick up a few things."- Al Hirschfeld, in his tenth decade

Stars: Al Hirschfeld
Other Stars: Robert Goulet, Robert Loggia, Geoffrey Holder, Cy Coleman, Barbara Walters, Joan Collins, Katherine Hepburn, Stefan Kanfer, Adam Gopnik, Joseph Papp, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, Brendan Gill
Director: Susan W. Dryfoos

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:26m:06s
Release Date: 2004-06-22
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BB-B- C+


DVD Review

As a kid, one of the great pleasures of my Sunday mornings, waking up at the crack of noon, was ambling into the kitchen to find the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times, and look for that week's Hirschfeld drawing. With the number next to the artist's signature as my guide, the Nina hunt would begin—Hirschfeld was famous for, besides being the foremost caricaturist in the history of Broadway, hiding the name of his daughter in his drawings, on neckties or in strands of hair, the folds in a blanket spelling out "Nina." In so many ways, Hirschfeld was the very embodiment of the paper for which he worked, and of Broadway—this documentary is a fond overview of his life and work, made by a member of the Times' royal family. (The director is Susan W. Dryfoos; her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all publishers of the newspaper.)

The early part of the film is heavy on biographical information—Hirschfeld grew up in St. Louis, in a family unusual for its time, for his mother was the breadwinner, and his father stayed at home with the children. (Hirschfeld also claims that his father coined the phrase "senior citizen.") Born in 1903, Hirschfeld grew up being entertained not by television and radio, but by vaudeville and burlesque; as did so many other Americans, between the world wars he went to Paris for an extended stay; he even spent a year in the USSR in the late 1920s. We see here both his aesthetic and political evolution—he dabbled in sculpture and watercolors, and did some overtly political work, before finding the arena that suited him best and for which he is most famous.

Stefan Kanfer (formerly of Time) and Adam Gopnik (of The New Yorker) are on hand to provide some cultural context for Hirschfeld's work, in a sort of formalist criticism that seems like a vague effort to get him into the canon. Fortunately, though, most of the rest of the film show many of the artist's drawings, with the subjects of them and Hirschfeld's own reminiscences. His stories have the patter of having been told over and again for decades, so if they're not the most probing, they're certainly entertaining—and his candid and funny discussing his own lack of judgment in picking hits. (He tried to convince Moss Hart to abandon directing a musicalized version of Pygmalion, which he saw as an inevitable hopeless failure.) We get to see, then, the ripening of his mature style, and he hit his stride during glory years for Broadway—these were the times of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman, of Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma! and the corpus of shows we think of as legendary.

I don't know how successful his style really was with the later years—in some respects, what's suited to Tennessee Williams may be less so to Hair, or Angels in America. But his drawings always retained a keen wit and whimsy, and his influence was significant—among those interviewed here are animators who worked on Disney's Aladdin, and they frankly cop to using Hirschfeld as their principal inspiration. We also see the artist at home, with his wife, an actress, and of course with Nina. This isn't the most penetrating documentary film portrait, but it's one of the most charming; and given that Hirschfeld died in early 2003, at the ripe old age of 99, it's certainly the best available look at the man and his times.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The visuals are a little flat and faded, but Al Hirschfeld's drawings look as crisp as they did when they came off of his drafting table.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: It's all clear enough, though the interviews culled from various sources don't always patch together so well, and hiss and ambient noise levels can be wildly variable.

Audio Transfer Grade: B- 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. gallery of Hirschfeld drawings
  2. accompanying booklet, with essays on the artist
Extras Review: The menus feature close-ups of Hirschfeld sketching while Ethel Merman sings There's No Business Like Show Business, very much in keeping with the spirit of the feature. A 2002 short (07m:24s) shows Hirschfeld, at 99, working on what must have been one of his very last caricatures, of Paul Newman, then on Broadway as the Stage Manager in a revival of Our Town. There's also a gallery of 19 of the artist's caricatures, ranging from Aerosmith to Orson Welles; the accompanying booklet features two heartfelt pieces that ran in the Times in January 2003, on the occasion of Hirschfeld's death.

Extras Grade: C+

Final Comments

Even if the days when Broadway was the center of the world were long before your time, you're likely to be charmed by this film and its subject, whose work and visual style will forever be associated with the salad days of the Great White Way.

Jon Danziger 2004-09-02