For me this is the best kind of personal documentary; one in which the subject tells his/her story honestly, naturally, without any sense of pretense or grandiosity, while the filmmaker quietly observes, though with gentle nudges here and there to focus the conversation, acting as our curious proxy as we momentarily become friends with a stranger.
In this film's case our subject is John Alarimo, a WW2 veteran who subsequently spent his life in Hollywood, though he's not someone even the biggest cinephile would know of -- but that's what makes this so fascinating. Johnny was the guy on set, at the parties, working and socializing with the major players during the great years of Hollywood: Heston, Burton, Taylor, et al. Now, though, as an elderly man living alone, not wealthy and with no immediate family of his own, the filmmaker (a second cousin from a different generation) takes his camera and shows us what is a most intimate of portraits: of a man reflecting on his life's journey.
Johnny's someone who wants to remember because he kept every memento and carefully organized them, and yet, at the same time, we feel in watching him he wants to keep certain memories to himself. Johnny's story will appeal to movie buffs but more widely to people, like me, who also walk along the street and see someone and wonder who they are, where they're from and what they did to get to this place and point in time. This is an emotional film, to be sure, in the nakedness of Johnny reminiscing about friends long since deceased, but it's also a highly entertaining and technically well made film as all the photos, books, posters, notes and things from Johnny's extensive library are so expertly presented to us making this a wonderfully visual experience, too.
There are documentaries that are made about historical, well-known events, documentaries pieced together by existing footage, essentially journalistic in nature, and then there are documentaries like this one that could only have been made by one person at one time. This is why I find this so special. It manages to straddle both the big and the small in life because Johnny lived in a glamorous world we're all fascinated by and yet we find ourselves more interested in him, of this "forgotten" man who lived behind the scenes. It isn't meant to tell every single detail of Johnny's life, to explore those dark corners and tell the gossip we tend to crave. This is just a study of a gentle, kind man who is happy to share the good (and a few bad) times. He "saved" Ben Hur and a lot more. We should all be grateful this documentary was made in time for us to give credit where it's due. The next time I watch that chariot race I'll be thinking of him. Thanks, Johnny.