My first contact with Beulah Bondi was in 1957. I had directed a production of Andre Gide’s THE IMMORALIST at the Horseshoe Stage, a ninety-nine seat theatre in Hollywood. My leading lady was Rachel Ames, daughter of the legendary character actress, Dorothy Adams. Doro, as I came to know her, brought Beulah Bondi to see the production. I didn’t get to meet Bondi then, but I asked Doro if it would be possible for me to speak to her on the telephone. Doro made the arrangements, and I phoned Miss Bondi. That conversation was the first time I heard her mantra: acting is BEING, not SEEMING.
The beginning of the 1974-75 season saw me returning to THE WALTONS to do a two hour epic -- a story of Martha Corinne, Grandpa’s elderly sister-in-law, a mountain lady who with her family was being evicted from her property to make way for a big highway. It would be very Hollywood to say that I remembered her kindness in talking to me that time long ago. But that was not the way it was. What I really remembered was the impressive mountain lady, mother of Henry Fonda, in the first outdoor Technicolor production, THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE, produced in 1936. Once her name was suggested, it was just a matter of the casting director making the deal.
For the role of Wade, Martha Corinne’s grandson, we did a lot of auditioning. NIck Nolte impressed us enough that I went to see him in a production of PICNIC at one of Hollywood’s small theatres. But the following day Richard Hatch came in to audition. Richard gave a dynamic reading. I remember that he didn’t just sit and read. He moved all over the office. After he left Bob Jacks looked at me and said, “That’s it!” I couldn’t have agreed more
As I’ve written before, it was the custom to hold a cast reading of the script before filming began. But it was decided to hold the reading at six in the evening, at the end of the filming day. It was too long a script to squeeze into the usual lunch hour period. Bob Jacks and I discussed the possibility of including Beulah in that reading. However, to book her for the reading would have meant her salary would start on that day. So I was assigned the task of telling her of the reading, and welcoming her if she would like to attend. She accepted most graciously.
The scheduled evening arrived, and I went to Bob’s office, where a very large tray from the local Jewish delicatessen (owned and operated by Chinese) was spread out on a coffee table. I was greeted with the news from Bob that the reading was being postponed because of conflicts in Will’s, Michael’s and Ralph Waite’s schedules. Only Richard and Ellen were available. This had been such a last minute decision that Beulah Bondi had not been told. She was on her way to the studio as we spoke. All of the others would be coming to the office from the set before leaving for their respective appointments. Were you ever in a situation where you just wanted to wake up and find out it was all a nightmare? But as everyone started arriving, I knew the nightmare had to play itself out. Introductions were made; this was after all my first physical meeting with Miss Bondi. “Beulah,” she said. She was to be addressed as Beulah. (The giant mountain woman of TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE was barely five feet tall.) Will and Beulah of course knew each other. And as we sat around, Bob explained to Beulah the circumstances, and the fact that the reading would be postponed. Will interjected that his conflict that evening was the opening at the Hartford Theatre of a play starring Henry Fonda. Beulah answered, yes she knew about that. She had tickets for the opening, but she thought the reading was more important. You could have heard a marshmallow drop on thick carpet.
Later Will encouraged Beulah to tell us about Beulah Bondi’s summer gesture. It was in 1929 that Beulah was in the cast of Elmer Rice’s STREET SCENE. Because it was a somber drama with a large cast and heavy sets, it did not have the budget to allow for a pre-Broadway tryout tour. It was opening cold in New York, with just four or five preview performances. Beulah had worked out a piece of business, which she said she would have used if they had had an out of town tour. But she decided she would not use it in the preview performances. So on opening night Beulah’s character was seated on the steps of a New York brownstone tenement. It was hot and she had a folded up newspaper which she used to fan herself -- face, neck, under her arms, all the while carrying on a conversation with a character leaning out of one of the building’s windows. At one point she was to stand and turn upstage to look up at the woman in the window. As she rose and turned, she reached behind and pulled at her skirt and her underwear beneath it. You see the gesture? Beulah said as she did that, she heard this roar of laughter from the theatre. And it went on and on and on. It stopped the show. Beulah said she stood there frozen, figuring she would be fired and had ended her Broadway career before it had gotten started. After the show, expecting the worst, she saw Elmer Rice, the show’s director, when he came backstage to her dressing room. He told Beulah to keep the business in her performance. STREET SCENE was the show that brought Beulah to Hollywood in Samuel Goldwyn’s 1931 production, directed by King Vidor. The summer gesture stayed on in the movie. But Beulah was not happy with the way Mr. Vidor handled it. He had a low angle close-up of her 'summer gesture'.
THE CONFLICT, being a two hour show, should have had a thirteen day shooting schedule. It was scheduled to start on a Friday. The following week we were to film on location in Frazier Park, an area ninety miles north of Los Angeles. Location shooting allowed for a six day week. Then we would return to the studio to complete photography. But there was not going to be time enough for six more days. All filming in Holllywood was scheduling for the possibility of an industry strike; I forget whether it was writers or actors. So in that eventuality I had to finish on Friday -- my twelfth day. But one more snag hit the fan. The production filming ahead of me was running behind. It also had to be finished before the possible strike. I ended up beginning my show at 2:00pm on Friday, which meant I had to complete this epic in eleven and a half days.
Soon after we commenced filming, Beulah told me there was a book coming out soon dedicated to her. The book was THEY HAD FACES THEN by John Springer.
It is a magnificent book that includes mini bios of every actress who had an English speaking role in any film released in the 1930’s.
John Springer wrote in this book: “When you are speaking of the most moving movie scenes of all times, certainly you’re going to choose several from Leo McCarey’s MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. There’s the heartbreaking final moment when the old man is going away and the old lady is at the train station to see him off. He doesn’t know -- but she does, and you do -- that they will never see each other again. ...There is the absolutely devastating scene when the old lady gets a telephone call from her husband so many miles away -- and pours out her love and loneliness to him, oblivious of the annoyed, then ashamed, then strangely touched guests at a card party in the room where she is on the phone. Try to see that without choking up.
“I yield to no one in admiration for Victor Moore, but the person who tore you apart at all of those moments was the beloved Beulah Bondi, surely the mosts versatile character actress on all levels the movies have known. She wasn’t one of those darling lavender-and-old-lace ladies. Her Lucy Cooper in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW could be a cranky, cantankerous old girl. But she was so real, she was frightening. Academy Oscars ceased to have their full value the year she did not get a nomination for MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW.”
I today have Beulah's copy of Springer's book with the following inscription:
On location there was a long, long trailer called a honey wagon with several small dressing rooms for the stars. At the end of our first day of shooting, as we prepared to drive back to the motel where we were staying (about twenty miles), Beulah told me she had left her script in her dressing room. I immediately became concerned with getting it before the honey wagon left. Beulah then assured me it was no great catastrophe; she knew her scenes for the next day. What I finally learned was Beulah knew all of her scenes for the entire picture.
Now to get on with the show. The Waltons get word that Grandpa’s sister-in-law and her family are in trouble. They are to be evicted from their property to make way for a big highway. They load into their truck and head for the mountains. If you notice little Elizabeth getting one of the few close-ups in the scene, it was because she was ill the day we filmed it. If you pay strict attention, you will see that she is missing in the master shot when everyone gets out of the truck. We picked up her shot after she recovered.
The morning we prepared to shoot the sequence with Martha Corinne’s feisty pigs, Judy (Mary Ellen) informed me that her character wouldn’t behave as written; she wouldn't run away and climb a tree. Bob Jacks was available, and Mary Ellen suddenly saw the light.
Beulah told me about her experience on the movie, THE SNAKE PIT, starring Olivia de Havilland and directed by Anatole Litvak. The movie was well into production by the time she reported to the studio. She was greeted with dire reports from other character actresses who had been working. They told her that Litvak was impossible, overly demanding; nothing any of them did seemed to please him. Beulah responded she couldn’t understand that; she had worked for ‘Toley’ before (THE SISTERS with Bette Davis at Warner Bros.), and she had never had any problem with him. She was warned, just wait, you’ll see. So came time for Beulah’s first scene. She reported to the set in make-up and costume, was greeted by Mr. Litvak, did a brief rehearsal and then prepared to film. Camera rolled, action was called, and Beulah did her scene. Litvak called “Cut, let’s do it again, please.” The warning actresses on the side lines gave Beulah nods of the head that said, “See, what did we telll you?” Beulah did take 2. Again “Cut, let’s do it again please.” More nodding heads and smirks. Take 3. Take 4. Take 5 and finally “Cut, Print.”
Beulah, never a shy one (she was a Taurus) went up to Litvak. “Toley, may I ask you a question?”
Litvak: Of course, Beulah. What is it?
Beulah: You never said, so what was wrong with those earlier takes?
Litvak: Nothing, Beulah. I just like to watch you act.
Let’s watch Beulah act as Martha Corinne has returned to the Walton home and talks to the family about the past.
And the next morning Martha Corinne was taken to inspect what could be her new home. At one point the script said Martha Corinne turns a light switch on and off. See what Bondi makes of that little direction.
Saturday, the sixth day on location in Frazier Park found me with a ton of work to complete. And it had to be completed that day. Frazier Park was too far from the studio to return to. And the last two sequences were locations that couldn’t be duplicated in the Los Angeles area. We finished filming around Martha Corinne’s home by about 3:00 pm. The final location was a distance away, an area I had selected because of its openness. The move (as usual) took about an hour. We arrived at the area by about 4:00 pm, and I had to do some fast revising. There were about five pages left to film, really about a half day’s work. The first sequence was between John-Boy and Wade. I retained my planned staging, but I eliminated a lot of the coverage. And you know what? I liked what I filmed better than what I had planned.
Russell Metty was my salvation. Because of the remoteness of the location he could not bring in arc lights. He had to light only with reflectors. And in the scene between John-Boy and Grandpa, we filmed with two cameras. To complete the professionalism the four actors, and especially Richard and Will in their long dualogue, turned in fine one-take performances. We filmed a half days work in just about three hours. We were returning to Los Angeles with our full six day’s of location filming completed.
We resorted to using stock footage for a short sequence showing big bulldozers at work on the encroaching highway. I recognized a couple of the shots, because I had filmed them myself three years earlier for an episode of THE FBI. That episode, GAME OF TERROR, had guest starred Richard Thomas.
Martha Corinne returns to her mountain home and takes charge of defending her property.
In planning my coverage to show the various family members during the time of waiting and preparing, I had Martha Corinne seated on her porch. But one day filming an earllier sequence I saw where Beulah was sitting, waiting for her next scene. That’s where I filmed Beulah for the opening shot of this sequence.
Beulah was 85 years old when we filmed this production.
Carol McKeand voiced an objection to John Boy’s taking the rifle. Richard and I felt John-Boy would be emotionally drawn into the family situation, and it made what followed even more effective.
But first, another “I like to watch her act”.
The man who fell out of the marshall’s truck -- that was an accident, it wasn’t planned. But since it did (luckily) happen, I added the extra shot of him scurrying for cover. It added to the excitement.
Richard wanted his being shot to look like he was shot by a rifle. No crumbling to the ground for him, so we attached a strong wire to him from behind. When he was fired at, the wire was strongly yanked back, pulling him off balance into a fall.
When I received the original script, I had only one major objection. In that earlier version Martha Corinne got to stay on in her home. I went to Earl Hamner with my thoughts. Number one it wouldn’t have happened that way. But more importantly I thought we were missing an opportunity for a more dramatic close to our story. So Earl rewrote our final scene. I contributed this bit of information to his book, GOODNIGHT JOHN-BOY, but with his usual modesty he eliminated the fact that he wrote the closing scene. But Earl, you can’t edit my blog. You wrote it superbly and poetically. It was a joy to film.
When I read the closing voice-overs for the final exterior shot of the Walton house that always ends the show, I went to Bob Jacks with a request that I be allowed to alter their usual ending. I told him what I wanted to to, and he gave it his okay.