In a documentary well timed to coincide with the arrival of “Frost/Nixon” — among the most critically lauded movies in Ron Howard’s filmography — Richard Schickel accompanies the actor-director on a nostalgic stroll through his portfolio, following in the footsteps of “Spielberg on Spielberg” and “Scorsese on Scorsese.” With 19 features to his credit, Howard lacks quite the body of work of those directors, which perhaps explains why it’s not “Howard on Howard” but rather a salute of the 54-year-old director for “50 Years in Film,” dating back to his days as a child star. Told entirely in Howard’s own words, it’s an interesting but antiseptic affair.
Howard begins by talking about becoming a child actor and learning to appreciate the collaborative aspects of filmmaking on “The Andy Griffith Show,” a role that briefly threatened to constrain him (Opie!) as he grew into more adult roles and eventually directing.
Schickel’s approach gently probes filmmakers about their craft without deviating much from a standard film school lecture, even though Howard notes that his education came from “the Roger Corman School of Popular Cinema,” as he made his feature helming debut for Corman on “Grand Theft Auto” in 1977.
Howard has a habit of describing how each movie was “born” — attributing “Parenthood,” for example, to a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires with his children, or “The Paper” to a high school interest in journalism. Schickel fastidiously avoids any discussion of where the director’s work may have disappointed, which is unfortunate. Howard has demonstrated himself to be genial enough to address the less than entirely flattering response to, say, “The Da Vinci Code,” but here he’s mostly limited to explaining that “Far and Away” was an attempt to replicate “It Happened One Night” or musing about working with Russell Crowe.
Equally intriguing are the Howard movies omitted from the edited chat, which include “Gung Ho,” “The Missing” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Mostly, these TCM documentaries exist to create themed programming blocks, in this case a bit haphazardly paired with the aforementioned “Grand Theft Auto,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Journey,” a 1959 movie in which the young Howard co-starred with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.
Strictly as a film historian, Schickel contributes insight into a director’s mind, and the clips are meticulously chosen. In terms of penetrating Howard’s cinematic “Cocoon,” though, this “Splash”-free exercise remains pretty “Paper” thin.