Saturday, November 28, 2009
THE PONY CART - 1976 (The Waltons)
In the fall of 1976, I was on the back lot of Warner Bros. studio on the front lawn of the Walton house. It was the first day of filming THE PONY CART, a new episode of THE WALTONS. A small figure in a long dress wearing a poke bonnet came around the corner of the house and waved to me.
Two years earlier at the time I completed filming THE CONFLICT, I purchased my first VCR machine; and when the show aired, I taped it. During the following two years, I saw much of Beulah Bondi socially. She came to my house. I went to hers. And I remember that when I was with her personally, I could not see any trace of Martha Corinne. I would watch the tape of the show, and the actress and Martha Corinne were so different, I couldn’t see anything of the Beulah I had come to know.
Now on the back lot the small figure in the poke bonnet came rushing across the lawn, a big smile on her face, to greet me. And I smiled right back. It was Martha Corinne. And we greeted each other as two people would who had not seen each other in two years. I swear, that’s the way it happened.
Ten days earlier I had taken Beulah to lunch one day, and then we went to the studio. Beulah was scheduled to go to the Warner wardrobe department to select her costuming for the new production. And then she requested a screening of the second hour of THE CONFLICT. After the screening I asked her what she thought. Her answer: “Very interesting lady. I hope I can get her back.”
When I returned her to her home, I asked, half-jokingly, “Well Beulah, have you learned all of your lines.?”
She replied, “Not yet. I’ll have them by Thursday. Then my work will begin.”
She did have a few requests for minor dialogue changes, which I made note of and took to Earl. Amazingly I had no script changes to ask for.
The story was very simple. Martha Corinne showed up at the Walton home for a visit.
This was a very interesting project for me and different from anything I had done before. It was truly a one-woman show. Martha Corinne did not share scenes. She took over. The scene in which she doled out the gifts was a good example. She was the engine that not only drove the scene, she was the engine that WAS the scene.
Dining table scenes at the Walton’s always presented a minor problem. Because of the number of people involved around the table, because of the youth of more than half of them, and because of the familial exuberance they felt for each other -- it was difficult to get a quiet run-through of a scene until camera rolled for take one. During a break when they were lighting another set-up, Beulah and I were seated on the sofa in the living room. Beulah looked at me with a wry smile and quietly said, “It’s not like the old days.”
Will Geer came from a far different school of acting than Beulah. I was very amused the day we did the following scene between Beulah and Will. As she came into the shed and tapped him on the shoulder, Will spun around with such energy and velocity that Beulah stopped in her tracks and then turned and stared at me, with a look that said, “What are you going to do about this?” By the time camera rolled, Will, as always, had his performance pulled back into the realm of reality.
In THE CONFLICT Martha Corinne’s dominance and forcefulness was easily explained -- she was a victim and was fighting back. That same take-over personality as a guest in the Walton home could very easily turn obnoxious and unpleasant. And for most of the family it did. But you don’t want the audience to react to her as the family did. Watch how Beulah navigated those treacherous waters.
As John Springer wrote of her in his book, THEY HAD FACES THEN, "...she was so real, she was frightening.” But she also was not without humor.
I heard rumored at the time that Michael Learned had an arrangement with the writers that if she didn’t have dialogue in a scene, she was not to be included. I sympathize with actors in supporting roles in series who are not always used to best advantage, who are just wasted. (i.e. Joan Blondell in BANYON, Burgess Meredith in SEARCH, Phil Abbott in THE FBI). What I think Michael didn’t appreciate was the power of her presence in a scene.
The night THE PONY CART aired, Beulah had a small dinner party for friends, who would then watch the show with her, Mary Jackson (one of the Baldwin sisters), Amzie Strickland and some others. I was invited but could not attend because I was finishing filming an episode of FAMILY. I was told that during the ‘planting’ scene you just viewed, Beulah exclaimed, “She’s stealing the scene!” Mary Jackson reassured her, “No she’s not stealing the scene, Beulah.”
Irony of ironies, that year when Beulah won an Emmy for this performance, Gary Frank won an Emmy for his continuing role in FAMILY. The episode he submitted to the Academy was the one we were filming the night THE PONY CART aired.
Ed Graves (art director) and I scouted the locations in Frazier Park for this production. It was far simpler than it had been for THE CONFLICT. We only needed two sites -- the place where the home had stood and the grave yard. And it would only be for one day, no overnight. Only Beulah and Richard would be performing. As we started back, Ed spotted a rattle snake in the middle of the road. I don’t think I had ever seen a rattle snake before, and no, we didn’t get out of the car to look at it. Ed rode over it, crushing it beneath the tires, as he maneuvered the car back and forth, back and forth. We then went to the ranger station to report the location of the remains.
The magic of the editing room. There was the first part of this scene, when Martha Corinne and John-Boy moved away from the car, that we wanted to cut. It was where Martha Corinne pointed her staff at a log. The cut was made to a close-up of a second log she pointed to. That shot then tilted up to a close-up of Martha Corinne. The problem was we had 'crossed the line.' Martha Corinne in this close-up was looking camera left, when in the master shot she was looking camera right. So Gene Fowler flopped the film. But Richard’s matching reaction couldn’t be flopped because the part in his hair would give it away. Easy solution. Just use one of the close-ups of Richard when his look was in the correct direction. Do I have you sufficiently confused so we can move on?
The small creek where John-Boy gets water in the rusty can was not filmed in Frazier Park. It was shot on the back lot of Warner Bros. studio. And I vaguely remember that Richard had a sprained ankle when we filmed this sequence. No major production problems here, so just sit back and appreciate two consummate performers at their peak.
“I hate to be as stubborn as you are.” A favorite line. Beulah and I were both Tauruses. I remember when we went to see Baryshnikov at the Hollywood Bowl, Beulah insisted on paying for the parking, and I insisted she shouldn’t. That line was said that night, I just don’t remember who said it.
Martha Corinne returns to the Walton home with John-Boy. Grandma is unhappy, until Olivia finally gets John-Boy to explain the real reason for the return.
And so Martha Corinne helps Ben finish his pony cart, including painting it for him.
The location for the field of daisies presented a challenge. Our only filming off the lot was Frazier Park, and with the ninety mile commute to and from, even if we could have found a place to film, lack of time would have prevented it. So Ed Graves, the art director, had to create it on the Warner Bros. back lot. There were no fields of daisies back there. Unlike MGM’s back lot, there were no fields. It was all wooded areas and dirt roads. So Ed found a place where there was a fork in the dirt road. Where the fork led off to the right would be the path for the pony cart. Where the fork led off to the left, he created our field of daisies.
And again I was allowed to alter the usual “Good Night” ending.
Beulah the night she won the Emmy.
It came with the picture
Beulah told me of her two great professional disappointments. The first was when she was cast as Aunt Polly in David Selznick’s production of TOM SAWYER, and then was replaced by May Robson. But the bigger disappointment was when in 1939 she was contacted by 20th Century Fox Studios and asked to do a screen test. By this time in her career, Beulah did not do screen tests. She had been in Hollywood since 1931 and had had two Academy Award nominations. But this was a request from John Ford. He would be directing the test, and Beulah was assured she was the only person being tested. The role was Ma Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Beulah agreed to do the test. The script for the test was sent to her, and after she read it, she called the studio to request a delay of a week before testing. They agreed. Beulah had a plan. She dug into her personal wardrobe to put together a suitable costume. She told me she went into her yard and dug her hands into the ground to get dirt under her finger nails. She called a friend, who agreed to drive her on her little expedition. They traveled to northern California, where Beulah ’visited’ the Okie camps, camps that were set up to accommodate the vast number of people from Oklahoma arriving in California, the source for the material in John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel. I asked Beulah whether she was ever recognized; after all by this time she was a screen celebrity. She said only once, and she made a hasty retreat. She visited several camps, and then returned to Los Angeles to prepare, as only Beulah prepared, for her screen test. The day of the test arrived, and Beulah reported to the studio, where Mr. Ford directed the several scenes. As she was leaving, the actor who had appeared with her in the test, in saying goodbye said, “Miss Bondi, I know my opinion doesn’t mean anything, I’m just a contract player here at the studio, but I just want you to know that I think you’re the best of all the actresses who have tested for this role.” Beulah said that she knew then she would not play Ma Joad, that it woud probably be portrayed by an actress under contract to the studio.
A loss of a role for the actress. A greater loss to film art of what would have been a legendary performance by a true screen immortal.