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Film historian shares passion for Hollywood’s golden age

Philip Harwood, a film historian and instructor, at

Philip Harwood, a film historian and instructor, at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. Credit: Chuck Fadely

For cinema buffs, one memorable line comes during the fade-out of the fan-favorite classic “Casablanca,” when Humphrey Bogart tells Claude Rains, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

That line also sums up Philip Harwood’s love affair with the movies, a lifelong romance that began in the summer of 1970. “I went to see a lot of films that summer,” says Harwood, 53, of Levittown. “I remember vividly seeing ‘Patton,’ ‘The Out-of-Towners,’ ‘Airport.’ My family took me to see films that you typically wouldn’t take a 6-year-old to see.”

Though he admits he nodded off during the World War II action comedy “Kelly’s Heroes,” the other movies all made an impression on him. “I still remember that scene in ‘Airport’ with Gary Collins where the fuselage was dangling over his head,” he adds.

Flash-forward to 2017. Now he’s the one screening movies as a film scholar and instructor who lectures and teaches courses at Long Island libraries, Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, LIU Post’s Hutton House in Brookville and the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. On Tuesday, he’ll talk about best actress Oscar winners, from Janet Gaynor to Emma Stone, in “It’s Showtime! The Ladies of the Academy Awards” at the Oceanside Library at 2 p.m. (See box for details and more programs.)

For the June 20 lineup, a mix of film clips and discussions of the actresses and their work, Harwood will celebrate the centennial of such Oscar winners as Joan Fontaine, Jane Wyman and Susan Hayward, who were born in 1917.

Though most programs are Harwood’s ideas, occasionally he fulfills requests. For a Hutton House Lecture series, he was asked to profile the films of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, tied to the release of the 2015 biopic “Trumbo” with Bryan Cranston. For a 92nd Street Y series called “The Ideal President,” he screened “Dave” (1993), “The American President” (1995) and “Air Force One” (1997), one of his rare forays into contemporary films. His lectures usually start with a 10-minute intro about the film being shown, and a discussion with the class after the screening.

“They tend to have questions on the lives of actors, but they also often will have a memory of something that triggers their senses based on the film,” Harwood says. “They might remember where they saw it, or a certain incident tied to it.”

A screening of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Elia Kazan’s 1947 drama about anti-Semitism, drew firsthand accounts from audience members about how situations in the movie reflected their own experiences with bigotry. “That’s the wonderful thing about the post-film discussion in that it really becomes an interactive experience between instructor and class,” he says.

Harwood has a particular fondness for films from the silent era and the golden age of the Hollywood musical from 1933 to 1958 featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Discussions also tap into his knowledge of actors, directors and production back stories on the films, such as his presentation last month at the Cinema Arts Centre on the making of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

“He has a seemingly endless reservoir of facts and observations at his fingertips,” says Dylan Skolnick, the theater’s co-director. “He presents things in a very accessible and entertaining way. Philip is a great movie buff and his shows are kind of like a movie, very well written and well paced. He also has a charming and irresistible personality that people really love.”

Making of a movie maven

If Harwood’s life were a movie, it would probably open with a flashback to West Hempstead, where he grew up, in the 1970s. One of his influences was his brother, Mark, who introduced him to both the world of horror movies like “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and, rather primitively, the world of moviemaking.

“My brother was making films in Super 8,” Harwood says. “He made his version of ‘The Ten Commandments,’ but with G.I. Joe dolls, and he created his own stop-motion figures. We would also do films like ‘The Legend of Excalibur,’ where I was Arthur Gluttony who became King Arthur.”

At 8, Harwood began collecting books about movies and watching many of the golden-age classics on television. In high school, he wrote film reviews for the class newspaper and at Hofstra produced a weekly radio program on music from films and Broadway shows. His initial foray into a film studies program was as a volunteer teacher at the Harriet Eisman Community School in Long Beach, while also working in publishing sales. In 1997, he reached out to the New School in Manhattan about teaching a course. When an instructor who was scheduled to do a course on New York City directors backed out, Harwood was hired, and he’s been on a roll since.

His gig with Hutton House, an LIU Post continuing education program for older adults, began in 2009 when he proposed a course to assistant provost Kay Sato. Impressed by Harwood’s knowledge of film, she hired him.

“Like all of my professors, I observe and see how their classes are,” Sato says. “Two months ago I sat in on his class on the movie ‘San Francisco.’ I loved how he tied in the history of the 1906 earthquake as well as the production history of the film,” she says. “A lot of the people who come here are retired, and they’ve told me, I saw that movie in the ’30s or ’40s, but I never got so much out of it.”

Preserving film

Many of the movies Harwood screens are from his collection of more than 700 DVDs. He says his greatest joy has been sharing his passion for films and keeping the legacies of Hollywood’s golden age alive, especially among young audiences. In January, he became an adjunct professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, where his students are 19 to 22 years old.

“It’s a different audience [from the lecture series] and they know their film,” he says. “The first class, I asked, ‘What’s your favorite film and why?,’ and they talked about [directors Martin] Scorsese and [Quentin] Tarantino. But then some people said they enjoy seeing ‘Funny Face,’” the 1957 Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn musical.

Asked what his favorite film is and why, Harwood has no quick answer. After much thought, he says, “I decide on ‘Citizen Kane.’ But it’s not an easy choice. “I always think, what five films would I take to a desert island? You can see a film 1,000 times and see something different every time. It’s like revisiting old friends.”

And he’s hoping his students become well acquainted with those films, and appreciate sharing them together.

“When you see a film with an audience, there’s that camaraderie,” he says. “The best way to see a film, especially, a comedy, is with an audience. When you watch it at home, you laugh by yourself, and it’s not the same thing. Part of the experience of seeing a film in a theater is that you’re sharing the joy, you’re sharing the laughter together.”

Movie scholar and lecturer Philip Harwood shares his expertise about vintage films at these upcoming events.


WHEN | WHERE 2 p.m. Tuesday, Oceanside Library, 30 Davison Ave.

INFO Free; 516-766-2360, ext. 325,


WHEN | WHERE 2 p.m. June 29 (“A Damsel in Distress”), July 27 (“Rebecca”) and Aug. 31 (“Jane Eyre”), Syosset Public Library, 225 S. Oyster Bay Rd.

INFO Free; 516-921-7161,


WHEN | WHERE Five-week course July 14-Aug. 11 at 1 p.m., Hutton House, LIU Post, 720 Northern Blvd., Brookville

INFO $120; 516-299-2580,



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