By Danny Peary
Archie’s Betty fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Meanwhile, you can see it this Friday at 7:30 and Saturday at 2:30 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, Boston Comic Con on August 1 and 2, and a growing number of film festivals. It is the second feature film by Gerald Peary, following For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. You may remember that I interviewed my brother in 2013 when he had a leading role in Andrew Bujalski’s indie favorite, Computer Chess. He’s on screen again in his own film but as himself, as a narrator rather than an actor, and his major work on this very personal documentary is behind the camera. I think it’s disgraceful that a new Archie has been unveiled and the comic has being updated and is, of course, now p.c., so there couldn’t be a better time to go back in time and explore why Archie and the other characters had such worldwide appeal and should never be tampered with. And to allow the film to introduce us to the real life people who were the inspiration for all the popular characters of Riverdale that were created and illustrated by the great Bob Montana and were essential to our childhoods. Archie’s Betty raises a lot of questions, and fortunately I was able to ask them.
Danny Peary: Your film is about several things at once. The appeal of Archie Comics. Archie illustrator Bob Montana. Two other men who might have created the beloved characters in Archie Comics. You. And your decades-long attempt to identify the real-life counterparts of Archie Andrews and everyone else at the fictional Riverdale High School. So why is it called, quite simply, Archie’s Betty?
Gerald Peary: It’s a kind of detective story, and detective stories often have cryptic titles which add to the mystery. For the first two acts of my film, you have no idea why it’s called Archie’s Betty. The title is a tease, though it makes sense with the big revelation in Act Three. Anyway, I think it’s a more intriguing title than such mundane possibilities as Me and Archie or Archie, Betty and Me, or Searching for Archie and Betty.
DP: And you decided not to add a subtitle and have it be something like, Archie’s Betty: A Search for…
GP: I thought of that but I already did one movie, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, with a title which is excruciatingly long. John Waters told me that by the time that title was over he’d forgotten how it began! Archie’s Betty is short and to the point–although you don’t know what the point is until Act Three.
DP: Your first documentary was about movies, your second is about comic books. Are you deliberately moving forward as an historian of pop culture?
GP: Well, I’ve always been interested in things that happened at an earlier time that inform you about today’s time. I don’t live in it but I greatly respect the past and revel in making connections between the old and the current and new. What both of my movies do is pay homage to a lost part of popular American history. Not many young people try to learn about pop culture of the twentieth century; and most older people have amnesia about it beyond such obvious things as the Beatles and JFK. I hope to inform both groups. My first movie was intended to encourage people to read and care about film critics. I hope Archie’s Betty inspires people to seek out and read older comic books, especially Archie Comics, and especially those that were drawn by Bob Montana. Starting in 1941, he illustrated Archie until his death in 1975. Check out Montana’s Archie panels, both in comic books and the Archie newspaper strip. They’re lovely and exciting. He could really draw. The look of comics that excited me as a boy in the 1950s is so much more beautiful than the digital comics of today.
DP: Most people who grew up reading Archie didn’t know who the original illustrator was, so I would think one goal of your film is to make them realize that Bob Montana should be a big name in American pop culture.
GP: Definitely. Bob Montana was the original Archie artist, yet except for very small circles, he’s not known at all. So my film exists to show audiences that Montana was a major artist, and maybe that will inspire new exhibitions of his graphic art. That would be pretty cool.
DP: Your Archie search has gone on for more than 25 years. Could you go back to the beginning?
GP: Certainly. One day in 1988, I was reading the Boston Globe and came across a letter to the editor from a librarian in Haverhill, Massachusetts. I don’t know what she was responding to, perhaps somebody’s article. But she bragged that the famous characters in Archie Comics were based on people who lived in her town; and they were at Haverhill High when Bob Montana went there from 1936 to 1939.
I got the shivers reading this. I’d been an enormous Archie fan as a boy. And the claim was that Archie and Betty and the others who were part of my childhood were real flesh-and-blood people. I was so excited that I immediately wanted to drive to Haverhill, which is only thirty miles from my home in Cambridge. I had to find out about this! Within a day or two, I turned in a proposal to the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine to write an article about Haverhill’s famous residents. This was in the ‘80s, when magazines were thick with investigative articles and you could write at length. My proposal was accepted, and I spent more than a month going back and forth from Cambridge to Haverhill and doing research.
DP: Was it the journalist in you that made you want to play detective?
GP: I’m a journalist for the same reason I’ve become a film documentarian: to uncover interesting things other people don’t know, I want readers to learn about somebody obscure I care about, whether it’s a filmmaker nobody ever heard of or a bunch of people walking around Haverhill, Massachusetts, who happen to be the real Moose, the real Jughead, on and on. Tell the world about them–that’s always what I’ve tried to do.
DP: What did you discover in Haverhill in 1988? Did you meet on the street the real-life people behind the Archie characters as the librarian had alluded to in her letter?
GP: Yes and no. I was told that a guy named Buddy Heffernan was the model for Archie. But he was in retirement in Florida. I talked to Buddy on the telephone, and he informed me how he was like the Archie character, including chasing young girls and getting sent to the principal’s office. Everyone in Haverhill agreed that Jughead was based on Richard “Skinny” Linehan, who was very funny and ate and ate and remained incredibly slim. Richard definitely resembled Jughead in the photographs I saw. Unfortunately, he had already passed away. Also deceased was Agatha Popoff, who had been a beauty queen of Haverhill High when Bob was in attendance. Agatha was said to be Bob’s inspiration for Veronica.
I did meet Elizabeth Walker Bostwick, who seemed the best candidate among several women in Haverhill who claimed to have been the inspiration for Betty. She had been a sweet, homespun girl when Bob Montana knew her. She was his next-door neighbor. My biggest “eureka” moment came when I met the person whom Moose was supposedly based on, an ex-football player at Haverhill High from when Bob went there. I arrived at a taxi stand in Haverhill, got out of my car, and there standing in front of me was this guy with a flattop and a thick neck. He was Arnold Daggett, who said, “Do I look like Moose?” Well, yes! For Buddy and Elizabeth, there was a little leap of faith on my part because neither looked that much like the Archie characters. Arnold Daggett was Moose.
So I left Haverhill behind believing I had found five of Montana’s inspirations for his major characters. I had met two in person, talked to one on the phone, and the fourth and fifth were dead.
I ended up writing a Boston Globe article of three or four thousand words that I believed proved that the Archie characters were modeled after students Bob knew at Haverhill High School. The article was published in 1988 and led directly to a showing in Haverhill in 1989 of Bob Montana’s art. Several of the people whom I said were the Archie models attended the show. They were interviewed in the local papers and on television. At that time Bob Montana’s widow, Peg Bertholet, was still alive and living in New Hampshire. She happily supplied her late husband’s art for the show, and I was able to talk to her when we both came to Haverhill for the exhibit. Bob Montana did a lot of other art, but this show was exclusively Archie. It celebrated Haverhill, Archie, and Bob Montana.
DP: At the time did you think, I’m going to keep writing about Archie Comics and Haverhill?
GP: I was treated like a hero in Haverhill for having written the article. But after that. life went on, and I returned to my regular existence in Boston as a college teacher, journalist, and film critic, and that was it. As an adult, I am not a big comic book reader, so in 1989 my participation in the Archie world came to an end. No regrets.
DP: When did you start thinking of turning your story into a movie?
GP: I had no thoughts of it being a movie. The story of how the film came about starts with a comic-book expert named Shaun Clancy. He used to live in Massachusetts but now resides in the state of Washington. He contacted me in 2010. It was not about making a film together, but about a book he was writing on Bob Montana. He had loved my article, and asked if I could help him a little bit with his Montana biography. Shaun started to send me interviews he had done with various Archie-connected people, and I edited and organized them so they made better sense. I’m a professional journalist so I was just helping him out voluntarily. Again, I was reading about Bob Montana and the comics I loved so much as a boy, and the characters I’d written about twenty-five years before. And somehow, as I was assisting on Shaun’s book, I started thinking of making a short film about this story. I convinced Shaun to be the co-producer. And that, for good or bad, blossomed into a longer film of 69 minutes.
DP: Your film begins with you, as the narrator, recalling that when you were eight in 1952, you went with our father to the barbershop in Philippi, West Virginia, the small town where I was born three years earlier. While waiting to get your hair cut, you discovered several Archie comics in a pile on a table there. I assume you had read other comics by that age?
GP: Yes, I read comic books, and they thrilled me. Donald Duck and Gene Autry were favorites. I remember that this barbershop in downtown Philippi was the epicenter for comic books. There’d always be a lot of people waiting, so I literally had over an hour each time before getting my hair cut to read like crazy. They had spooky EC Comics and Archie Comics. I loved the forbidden horror comics, but Archie really got to me.
DP: As you say in the film, I was instantly a Superman and Action Comics fan. So why did you, my older brother, respond instead to Archie?
GP: A major reason had to do with our living in, of all places, Philippi. Being the only Jewish family and having parents who had foreign accents was a very strange, alienating experience. Through those Archie comics, I escaped into a utopian world that I imagined was somewhere else than West Virginia. Curiously, I didn’t pick a Jewish world to escape into but a Christian utopia. Whatever, Riverdale was so much more urbane than our small town in rural West Virginia, and I wished I could go there. But how did I, an 8-year-old, relate to Riverdale High? In Philippi, I went to Barber County School which included all twelve grades in one building. Archie Comics presents mythic teenager students, the kind I was already familiar with walking down the halls of my school.
DP: In the movie, you say that those Archie characters “saved me when I was young.” So was your being grateful to those characters important enough to motivate you doing this documentary?
GP: When I started this movie, my only interest was to factually tell the story of Bob Montana. That seemed enough. But every time someone would watch a rough cut of the film, they would ask, “Why are you telling this story, why is it so important to you?” My answer was always, “I like Archie, I like history, and I like solving a mystery.” And that was never satisfactory to anybody. “But why are you telling this story, why is it important to you?” I resisted for over two years in the editing room making the film “more personal.” Wasn’t the fact that I was the voiceover and you see me occasionally on camera enough? It was certainly not enough for my wife, Amy Geller, who grew up not reading Archie. A filmmaker herself, she was bored with the cuts she watched because they were too much about the Archie story, hardly anything of her husband’s deep thoughts.
I was frustrated. The movie was about Bob Montana, not me. Sorry, Amy. People kept offering me their psychological theories for why I wanted to tell the Archie story beyond how it helped me escape West Virginia. But nothing connected with me and I didn’t want to give insincere reasons. A year-and-a-half ago, I showed Archie’s Betty to my friend Robb Moss, who’s a filmmaking professor at Harvard, and he said the same damned thing. “You need to dig deeper and express why you are making this movie.” And this is a guy who had three of his ex-filmmaking students receive Oscar nominations in the same year, including Joshua Oppenheimer. Robb knows!
I went home from my film screening with Robb and thought and thought. And a week later, I realized an obvious second reason why I cared so much about the characters in Archie. I related to them because, like them, I was always a bit of a rascal. I was in trouble from elementary school through high school for saying smartass things. Particularly in high school, I was always getting sent to the principal’s office. I was a complete screw-up and barely graduated because I had such bad grades. Yet I was also a fairly nice guy who read many books on my own and had my own intellectual life. I didn’t have a knife, I didn’t stab anybody, I just didn’t like school. In a significant way, Archie and Jughead relate to school like I did. An important point I make in the film is that although the Archie kids are rascals, they are actually good kids. They’re not juvenile delinquents, just a bit mischievous. Archie Andrews tries to get away with this and that. Jughead says no to everything because he’s not interested in the conformist values of everybody else. That sort of makes him the original “slacker” and so completely appealing. To me in school, Archie and Jughead represented two complementary sides—one an active rascal and one a passive rascal–and I totally connected to them. They made me feel better about who I was, which is why I’m still carrying Archie and Jughead with me after all these years. That was my revelation. I now could put an honest reason for why I cared about Archie into the movie, and that felt good. And with two real reasons articulated in the movie for why I was so fond of Archie, I felt like, “Whew, I can now go back to what I was doing before, telling Bob Montana’s story.”
DP: Perhaps another reason you made this film is that you related to Montana. Are there similarities?
GP: Bob was someone who, because his family was on the vaudeville circuit, moved from place to place and school to school. As you know, we moved a lot and I was in a different school in the 4th grade, 5th grade, 6th grade, and 7th grade, and that’s pretty tough. However, if I have an artistic side to my personality, I think it’s because being an alien outsider fosters that. That’s certainly true of Bob Montana as well.
DP: I’ve read that Montana traveled through all forty-eight states as a kid, performing with his parents. As you made the film, did you feel more connected to him because of this?
GP: I certainly related to his changing schools and feeling like the strange new kid.
DP: Did you aspire to be like the kids Bob Montana drew, or did you want them as friends?
GP: I think I had a friendly relationship with them in my imagination. I more inspired to be Gene Autry. I played him in neighborhood cowboy games, never wanting to be Roy Rogers. I don’t remember every playing Archie or Jughead, as much as I loved them. I didn’t inhabit them.
DP: Why are you driven to solve the mystery of who inspired these characters?
GP: I don’t really have a definitive answer. It was Archie but it could have been other things that were seminal to my childhood. I would surely want to go meet the real Betty, the real Archie, the real Jughead. But I guess if Gene Autry based his character on someone in the next town from me, I’d want meet that guy, too.
DP: Archie is unique in that it appeals to both male and female fans.
GP: It’s absolutely true that it appeals to both sexes, but boys and girls have very different reasons for liking Archie. Women who read Archie as girls talk about whether they thought of themselves as Betty or Veronica. They were obsessed with those two characters and didn’t really care much about Archie Andrews or the other males. With guys it’s much more split, in that they identified with Archie or Jughead but they were drawn to Betty and Veronica. It’s important to note that among the first sexualized images my generation ever saw were Betty and Veronica. They are unbelievably sexy when you’re eight years old.
DP: But didn’t girls who considered themselves “a Betty” relate to her trying forever to corral Archie, who is in turn attracted to the beautiful Veronica?
GP: That might be true, but no women I’ve talked to has said anything about Archie. Just about Betty and Veronica. “I was Betty and I hated Veronica.” The conversation stops there. The biggest fans of Archie Comics seem to be women in their fifties. When I’ve mentioned my film, females in that age bracket have smiled and gotten teary-eyed with nostalgia. And it’s always about Betty and Veronica, Betty and Veronica,
DP: I would think that far more girls would relate to nice Betty instead of snooty Veronica.
GP: I actually met a few women who as teenagers were haughty and–it’s all in their heads—felt they were better than the other girls in school. Veronica had an attitude of superiority and entitlement with which they empathized. Betty was just too ordinary and too down to earth to appeal to them.
DP: Since Archie appeals to both sexes, why do you think it has never yet translated into a television series or a movie?
GP: It makes no sense. It’s not like you’re trying to turn James Joyce’s Ulysses into a film or a TV pilot. What’s the problem? There’s supposedly an Archie movie being made by Warner Bros. in the next year, and I imagine it will translate if it’s done properly. As we know, there are Archie variants in successful movies and television shows. The Andy Hardy movies with redheaded Mickey Rooney inspired Archie; Archie obviously inspired the television series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. And maybe Happy Days and Grease.
DP: In your 1988 Boston Globe article, you came up with a lot of conclusions about the real-life counterparts for the Archie characters. But in your movie, made twenty-seven years later, you decided that almost everything you thought then is suspect.
GP: Some of what I thought then I still believe. I still think Bob Montana based Jughead on Haverhill’s Richard “Skinny” Linehan. A bit of what I thought then was wrong, and a lot more is in question. There is, all in all, a Rashomon element to the story: lots of contradictory stories all seemingly containing some truth. In the movie, I am checking again the claims I heard in 1988 from the city of Haverhill’s true believers who said, “Our city produced all the characters in Archie Comics.” Now, in some cases, my conclusion remains this person is probably the inspiration of this character. In other cases, my new conclusion is maybe that person is the character. And in some cases it’s not the character after all. My big new conclusion is this: there’s a person I never knew about in 1988 whom I believe was Bob Montana’s inspiration for Betty. And so we go back to the title.
DP: It’s like you thought your work was done in 1988, and it wasn’t.
GP: My conclusions, which felt fairly definitive about in 1988, were shook up by Shaun Clancy. As I say in the documentary, he is the Sherlock Holmes of comic book detective work. He challenged me to look over what I decided then, and for us to figure out together what’s really true.
DP: When you started making the movie, did you know you were going to come to the conclusion, “I’m sure this is the real Betty”?
GP: No, because when I started making the movie I hadn’t interviewed this Betty yet.
DP: Did you know she existed?
GP: A major reason the movie was started is that Shaun claimed he’d found who the real Betty was, and it was completely different than anyone I had decided might be her in my 1988 article.
DP: In the movie, you bring forth a new candidate for the inspiration for Archie, another Riverdale High alum named Art Tremblay, “a handsome troublemaker adored by the girls.” But you were also blinded to the fact in 1988 that an obvious model for Archie was Bob Montana himself. However, since Bob in high school was no girl-chaser, I imagine you were confused. How much of Archie was based on Bob and how much was on the girl-chasing classmates he idolized, Buddy Heffernan and Art Tremblay? Those two still could have been inspiration for Archie’s personality and antics.
GP: I agree. The look of Archie seems to come from Bob Montana and Mickey Rooney thrown together. But Bob is Archie more in looks and in his mind than in deed. Archie’s actions are in line with Buddy and Art. Montana was a shy guy and perhaps the world’s nicest guy. Perhaps too nice a guy to have at the center of a movie. Nobody has ever said a bad word about Bob Montana that I’ve heard.
DP: Late in the movie, you and Shaun discover an interview in which Montana talked about all the Archie-like things he did at Haverhill. But what he said was probably not true.
GP: That’s a good point. He probably didn’t do those things; Buddy and Art probably did them. In real life Bob was a good boy, definitely not a rascal.
DP: Shaun mentions in the movie the many interviews Montana did. In those interviews, did he talk about the real-life inspirations for his characters? And if so, why didn’t Archie fans such as yourself know about the connection between his friends and his characters until your article in 1988?
GP: I never read any Montana interviews until recent years. They are very hard to find. Actually, there are only a few interviews with Montana, and they tend to be brief. There might be a sentence or two alluding to his Haverhill inspirations, but certainly no journalist ever followed up with a story. They just quoted what Montana told them and dropped it. Nobody did any detective work.
DP: Someone in your film mentions that Bob Montana had no sense of humor, which is a surprise.
GP: It’s her perception that he had no sense of humor. I don’t know if other people thought he was funny. Nobody ever said anything about what a funny guy he was, just how sweet he was. But he obviously had a sense of humor and the comics show that. It’s crazy to think he was humorless, but I think it’s very funny that she said it.
DP: His father died of a heart attack at a young age. Do you think that there was a sadness to Bob that made him draw cheery comics at school and then as a profession?
GP: I don’t know, but I can say that nobody ever mentioned that he was a sad kid.
DP: Do you think his classmates in Haverhill knew that when he was younger he played banjo and did rope tricks professionally as part of his parents’ act?
GP: I don’t think anybody knew his background as a vaudeville entertainer. All anyone knew was that he was this new kid in town who drew cartoons for the school newspaper. He made drawings of everybody, and he was a good kid the other kids protected because he wasn’t strong.
DP: When you went to the Haverhill Library and looked at the town’s Wall of Fame, how did you feel seeing a picture of Bob Montana up there in his bow tie?
GP: I think it’s so interesting that lots of famous people have come from Haverhill, this place that many people have not heard of. Louis B. Mayer, Rob Zombie, Tom Bergeron are from this city, too. The Wall of Fame is a formal thing in the library, with pictures of stately dead people. Almost no women. All older guys. And there’s the young Bob Montana. His image seems unique and precocious compared to the ones of Louis B. Mayer and John Greenleaf Whittier. Here’s this one kid, the pride of Haverhill, and I wanted to find out everything about him.
DP: Seeing that final picture taken of him in 1975, a middle-aged man with a beard, would you have thought they were the same person?
GP: I don’t think there’s much of a change. He’s got a beard, but he’s still very gentle looking. He goes from being a kid in high school who doesn’t have any dates to a happily married man with four children. But it’s the same guy. There’s not a trajectory in which some tragedy happened to scar him, until the real tragedy of his sudden death at a very early age while cross-country skiing, Before that, he seems to have had a charmed life. He liked living in Meredith, New Hampshire, and he was a popular guy where he lived. He got involved with local theater and did an amateur movie with the Meredith citizenry. His time on earth was too short, but it was a good time on earth.
DP: Did anybody besides Bob Montana move out of Haverhill? You say that Agatha Popoff, the rich girl who was possibly the inspiration for Veronica—if it wasn’t actress Veronica Lake–was sent away to school, but what about everyone else?
GP: Haverhill is one of those towns where people stay. Of the people I interviewed, if they moved it was usually to a town no more than twenty miles away. Bob’s move to New York City, after graduating from a high school in Manchester, New Hampshire, was a big deal. That was really extraordinary. He had a pushy mother, a bossy stage mother, who wanted a career for him. Probably we would not have had Bob Montana, the comic artist, if his mother didn’t yank him to New York and send him to art school. That led to his getting a job at MLJ Comics and creating Archie at the age of twenty-one.
DP: A lot of your movie is about who should get credit for creating Archie. Do you give credence to the idea that his supervisor at MLJ Comics, Harry Shorten, was behind the witty dialogue?
GP: We’re now talking only about the very beginning, when Montana was just twenty-one. He had a veteran supervisor, Harry Shorten, who already had a history of working in comic books. He definitely taught Bob to write sharp and witty dialogue. But that doesn’t say Bob didn’t have a sense of humor, just that he was a young guy learning how to use it on the page. Later on, Bob moved from New York back to New Hampshire forever, and he supplied the whole daily strip and the Sunday comic strip, for many, many years–drawn and written by Bob Montana. So he learned how to write effective jokes. Yes, he had a sense of humor.
DP: You actually present a strong case in Act Two of your film that John Goldwater, the founder and publisher of MLJ Comics—later Archie Comics–was not only the main person behind the whole Archie empire but behind all the characters. And then you return to the idea that Montana was the true force behind Archie. Did you feel as you were assembling the section on Goldwater that maybe he was right to stake his claim?
GP: I wouldn’t say I made a case for John Goldwater being the creator of Archie. I borrowed from his diaries and interviews so that Goldwater made a case for himself. I think it definitely has some credibility. I feel certain that he was the one who decided to do a comic book character who was a regular boy, not a superhero like Superman.
I do believe that the name Archie came from Goldwater’s childhood friend. I think Goldwater was involved in how the character of Archie was formulated. He was definitely a creative publisher and an executive with artistic leanings.
DP: In your movie you show a mock picture that Bob Montana drew for a potential cover of Collier’s magazine before he worked for John Goldwater. The boy in the picture looks very much like Archie. It seems Bob was drawing an Archie before John Goldwater thought of a character named Archie.
GP: This is why it’s a Rashomon kind of story. There are various truths which overlap. One truth is that Bob Montana was drawing Archie-like figures before he worked for MLJ Comics. Another truth is that John Goldwater ordered Montana to draw a character named Archie who was named after Goldwater’s childhood friend, and to make him look like Mickey Rooney. I think what emerged is this Archie Andrews character who fits what John Goldwater thought Archie should look like. But he also resembles the boy Bob Montana had drawn earlier. The prototype of Archie existed before the character of Archie. But that was not known by Goldwater–he looked at Archie’s face as presented by Montana and endorsed it. He didn’t care where the face came from, It was not important at that moment–it only becomes important historically, many years later, when someone takes Bob Montana’s side and says, “Bob Montana is absolutely the sole creator of Archie because he had already drawn him before he worked for John Goldwater.” But I’m very clear in my movie that Archie is a composite. Archie really does come from several places all mashed together. And that’s fine.
DP: My guess is that Bob Montana was called into John Goldwater’s office and was told, “We’re creating an anti-Superman thing, with kids in a high school,” and Montana then went and drew from his own art and experiences and the people and places he remembered in Haverhill and elsewhere. And when Goldwater saw what Montana came up with, including a character who resembled the very popular Mickey Rooney, he said, “Fine.”
GP: That could be it. You’ve solved the Archie mystery!
DP: Not if Goldwater made up having had a childhood friend named Archie. He could have said that to prove he was the inventor of Archie, and not Montana.
GP: The ethical rule in film and journalism is that you give everybody their best argument. You want even the villain to get his due. But my movie has no bad people. It does have conflicting storytellers, and as a filmmaker I must present their stories in their most articulate way. I think it’s very important that Goldwater’s case be stated as well as he would have stated it if he were still alive.
DP: What was your biggest frustration making the movie?
GP: Having the story never quite work. Only in the last several months of editing did it come together. We’d often fixate on the first six minutes of the film, how important it was to set up everything right and also to move through it quickly in an exciting, cinematic way, and it took three years for the first six minutes to finally kick in. It was exasperating thinking, “Who wants to watch the rest of this movie if the opening is so wobbly?” In those six minutes, I had to explain a little bit what Archie Comics is and make it clear why I am the narrator and have put myself in front of the camera. And I had to set up why I was making this movie and what it is going to be about. I had to do it in a jaunty, interesting manner that was clear and not confusing. Seven minutes in, I take viewers on the road to Haverhill, Massachusetts, to check out the Archie mystery, I needed the audience to want to come with me and stay with me for the rest of the movie. Boy, that was hard. Solving the mystery of the Archie characters was hard, too.
DP: I think you do a good job of satisfying us about who all those characters came from. I think we come to the same conclusions you do.
GP: But it’s still important philosophically that I leave room for people to disagree. I don’t want to smooth everything out and claim that this is right and this is right and this is right. The world is more ambiguous than that, and it’s fine to not be sure.
DP: On many television true-case unsolved murder mysteries, hour-long documentaries with talking heads, cases are built against someone who the victim’s family and friends think did it, but there is no resolution. As with your film.
GP: There is the 19th century mystery tradition from Sherlock Holmes of the detective with a magnificent mind who actually can solve the most perplexing crimes and put the world back into order. In Holmes’s stories, everything falls into place, the guilty are caught, and things are resolved. But in many contemporary mysteries, there are still unsolved crimes at the end, or they end in a depressing way, where the killer is found and you’re really sorry that’s the person who did the killings. I’m closer in Archie’s Betty to that second kind of mystery. Although in Act Three, we do make a discovery which I would say leads to a happy ending.
DP: What would you want to ask Bob Montana if you got to sit with him for five minutes?
GP: He was too nice a guy to jump at, so I think the first minutes I would not ask him anything. But maybe after several days of hanging out, I would get to what continues to be a mystery–as I ask myself in the film: if Bob Montana based all those characters on people from Haverhill, why didn’t he call them on the phone and tell them? I guess I would like to hear from him about that. Although I don’t know if what he’d say would be revelatory beyond what’s already in the movie. On second thought, I’m satisfied with what I’ve learned at this point. I would just hang out with Bob, shake his hand, and tell him, “You’re a nice guy. Thanks for Archie.” That’s all I would say.
DP: What’s happening with the film now that it’s finally completed?
GP: Its world premiere was in April 2015, at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema, a very prestigious festival. I was there for the screenings and met lots of Latin American Archie fans from not only Argentina but also Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay. A Spanish-language version of the comic has, for many decades, been exported to South America from Mexico, where Archie is “Archie Gomez” and Reggie is renamed “Carlos.” In the US, Archie’s Betty premiered at the RiverRun Festival in North Carolina and then had five great screenings in Boston at the Institute of Contemporary Art (the ICA). I’m pleased to say that my friends from all areas showed up at the ICA, from local filmmakers to my colleagues on the web magazine, The Arts Fuse, to my neighbors to guys I play pickup basketball with at the Cambridge Y. And, of course, some real Archie devotees.
The great discovery was that my film seemed to appeal to practically everyone, a surprisingly populist work. I was stunned by how many people told me that they were deeply moved by the story, and some even cried. I had no idea that my modest, niche little documentary could have such a reception.
This summer of 2015 there will be showings at New England film festivals at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, the Maine International Festival, the Newburyport Festival in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival in Vermont. There will be two gala screenings in Haverhill at NECCO College on October 1; and Jane Murphy, the last survivor of the Haverhill class of 1939, and someone who has long believed she was a model for Betty, will be in attendance. I’m very sorry to say that Charlie Hayden, the other 93-year-old in my film from Haverhill, died last winter.
What I do hope to do, cross my fingers, is have a showing somewhere in New Jersey near where a certain Betty lives, so she will be able to attend. She so wants to appear at some film festival, but it needs to be in her vicinity. Unfortunately, she won’t be attending the big screenings coming up, July 17 and 18 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. But I hope everyone else comes there to see her in Archie’s Betty.