BRADLEY BEACH, N.J. — FRIENDS of Doug McClelland tell him that one day he's going to walk into a 1939 movie and never be seen again. Then he tells them ``that wouldn't be so bad.'' As a film consultant, lecturer, and author, Mr. McClelland finds it easy to live in the past. His life has been fused with film - it's been his education, career, and entertainment. He regards himself as a recluse here in his home-cum-library filled with thousands of old movie photos and videos.
After careers as an arts editor for a small newspaper and the editor of a music trade magazine in the '50s and '60s, he settled on the New Jersey shore for health reasons and started writing books. ``Now I just can't stop,'' McClelland says.
He's perhaps best known for ``Hollywood on Ronald Reagan'' and ``Down the Yellow Brick Road: The Making of The Wizard of Oz.'' His latest work (due this fall) is an in-depth look at the career of Eleanor Parker, a ``very underrated actress,'' he says.
John Springer, a publicist who has managed the likes of Judy Garland, Liz Taylor, and Henry Fonda, says McClelland is one of the half dozen or so authorities on films of the '30s and '40s. ``I've always found his work to be serious, and not only well-informed, but very readable,'' he says.
McClelland reflects on the oldies with reverence: ``The [old] movies were fabulous, and everybody went because there really wasn't any television until the late '40s,'' he says during an interview at his home sprinkled with movie lobby cards.
In his eyes, the artistic quality in movies has taken a plunge in the past decades. He sees extreme ``then and now'' differences in everything from their production to their public reception.
``When I see camera work in films today, it's so depressing - they throw the actors out there and if they can be seen, that's the extent of the creative camera work. In the old days ... women used to be so fabulously lighted. They'd stand a whole day lighting Joan Crawford, or Susan Hayward,'' says McClelland.
Screenwriting has also suffered. ``Sometimes movies today will stretch out 2 hours on one incident, whereas a lot of the old films would follow a whole family from one generation to the next and then beyond that.''
Actors and actresses today take their work much more seriously than those of, say, 30 years ago, which is a good thing, he says. Yet they lack the personality and voice that sustains audience loyalty and affection. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy ``could make a telephone book seem interesting - and they frequently had to,'' for not all their movies were great. But ``in those days even when Gable was in bombs people went to see him, or Bette Davis, because they loved the stars. Now today when a Dustin Hoffman is in an `Ishtar,' nobody goes. ...When he's in ainman, which is a hit, then everybody goes,'' he says.
HE often refers to ``voice'' when describing actors and actresses of years past. Mimics still do routines around old-time actors' voices, McClelland points out. But ``actors today don't seem to have any voices - Meryl Streep has a tinny little ing'enue voice.'' Jane Wyman, on the other hand, always had ``very clear, sharp diction, and Ronald Coleman had one of the screen's greatest speaking voices,'' he says.
Not to say all contemporary movies fall flat. ``I was seeing a lot of movies in 1982 that I liked and I was amazed - things seemed to be picking up,'' ``E.T.'' and ``Diner,'' for instance. But then the standard slipped again, he says: Special effects and location filming can't make up for holes in a screenplay.
For a film to be good, he says, it must have interesting people, ``heart,'' and a good screenplay. It must also be appreciated. ``I don't think people have the same regard, the same respect that they used to,'' he says of the last point.
McClelland speculates that people's tastes deteriorated along with their morals through the decades: ``When people's morals fly out the window, so does their aesthetic sensibility.''
You can see it in the performers, he says: It seems to be a badge of honor now to have been in the Betty Ford clinic. Ten years ago, it was fashionable to say you had an illegitimate child.
``[Movies] have been good to me. I've enjoyed them, they were my education,'' he says recalling some (``David Copperfield,'' ``The Yearling'') that inspired him to read when he was younger. ``I'm trying to put a little of it back with the preservation of their history.''
Viewing that history is a lot easier these days with videocassette recorders, which McClelland is particularly thankful for. ``I think it's fabulous, are you kidding? Especially to recluses like me,'' he says with a laugh. He encourages people to rent classics or see them on cable. But ever referring to the good old days, he says ``the best way, of course, to watch old movies is on the big screen.''