Sunday, November 8, 2009

THE TRAP - January 1964 (12 O'Clock High)

That wallk led General Savage into one of the most intense, internal dramas I ever staged, as five strangers met and conquered their individual, personal fears under harrowing circumstances.

The summer of 1964 I was booked to direct my first show for Quinn Martin Productions. It was an episode of THE FUGITIVE, their successful series just entering its second season. The show was being filmed at the Sam Goldwyn Studio on Santa Monica Boulevard, another first for me. They must have been satisfied with my work, because when filming was completed, I was booked to come back a couple of months later to direct another episode. During my prep for this second FUGITIVE I met Quinn Martin for the first time. He came down from his office to our production office to meet me. He had some words of advice for me. According to the great production designer, William Cameron Menzies, once you have the set-up for your shot, then tighten it just a bit more and lower the camera just a bit more. There was something reassuring about this visit. I felt I was being groomed for additional work. It was like a helping hand guiding me to fit into their groove.

I was also booked to direct an episode (TO HEINIE WITH LOVE) of their new series, 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, a co-production with 20th Century Fox. But that series was not being filmed at the large studios on west Pico Boulevard. It was based at the old Fox lot at Sunset and Western, the stages where SEVENTH HEAVEN and SUNRISE may have been created. The lot extended to both sides of Western Avenue. The lot east of Western had production offices and two fairly large sound stages; one for DANIEL BOONE and one for 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. The lot west of Western was mainly back lot type streets. This is where we filmed our exterior London scenes. There was also an extremely small stage for their process photography. This was the stage where they filmed their scenes of the bombers in flight. I had filmed there on the first show I directed, but this current show never left the ground.

When I finished filming TO HEINIE..., my agent called and said they wanted to book me for three more 12 O’CLOCK HIGH's, which would finish out my season. I had a problem with this. Arthur Fellows, the executive in charge of post-production, had a standing rule; directors were not allowed in the editing rooms. I turned the offer down. I told my agent I preferred working for production companies where I would be allowed to go into the editing rooms. My agent called the next day to say that he had delivered that message to Quinn, and Quinn's answer was, "Ralph can go into the editing rooms here". And so for the next decade Arthur Fellows constantly teased me with the fact that I was the only director he allowed into his editing rooms. I liked Arthur. He really knew film. I had great respect for him. (Also on A FAREWELL TO ARMS he had decked David O. Selznick.) And I know that he respected me.

With THE TRAP, 12 O’CLOCK HIGH became my favorite QM series, then and forever. It was the first time I worked with Charles Larson, the associate producer-story editor for the series. In future years Charles became a producer, and we worked together another dozen times. He, like Gene Coon of whom I have written, was a fine writer who did an amazing amount of rewriting on scripts before and even during filming. And like Coon, without taking screen credit. THE TRAP was a story of five people stranded in a cellar during a London air raid. It was Charles who fleshed out the characters in the story. He turned what started out as a blatant melodrama into a character-based script like those produced live on STUDIO ONE or PLAYHOOUSE 90 during the Golden Age of Television.

This series provided another first - my first time working with art director Richard Haman, probably the favorite art director of my career. We worked together twenty plus times. I had known of Haman (without knowing him) earlier at CBS, where he was art director for the hour-long live series, CLIMAX. Our first outing on 12 O’CLOCK did not have any unusual set demands. With this episode Haman truly proved his mettle and earned my everlasting respect and admiration. The script for the opening sequence had the five people led to a doorway that would lead them to a cellar for shelter. I expected a simple little corner set with a doorway. Look at what I got!

I was used to directing studio-confined scripts. Until the Bert Leonard ROUTE 66's and NAKED CITY's that was all I did. But never before and never again would I direct a screenplay in as limited a space as THE TRAP. Richard Haman had designed a space in which I would spend five of my seven scheduled filming days. Fortunately for me he had designed it expertly. I spent the 1965 New Year’s day and weekend on the old Fox lot planning my staging and camera coverage. I remember it very well. It was a cold holiday, and a sound stage without heat is like an ice house. I worked wearing the heaviest coat in my southern California wardrobe.

I recognized what my problems were. Camera movements would have to be very limited. If ever there was a time to heed John Ford’s “move the actors, not the camera”, this was it! Limited space and set dressing debris demanded it.

I always believed in ‘selling the set’ if it was a good one. And Haman had provided me with what I considered a spectacular one. Television because of its small screen resorted many times to telling the story in close-ups, talking heads. Herb Brodkin, a New York producer of THE DEFENDERS and THE NURSES had been an art director. As a producer he didn’t believe in wasting money on unnecessary sets. I had directed two episodes of THE NURSES, and we joked at the time that a close-up that showed the top of the head and the chin was a Brodkin wide shot. I thought establishing the cellar as a possible future tomb was a top priority, a necessity!

The script broke down into little vignette scenes between two or three characters. My responsibility woud be to tie them together, to give them a flow, and never to have a character 'disappear' because he didn’t have dialogue to speak. In the theatre this would not be a problem. All five people would always be visible. I had to solve the probem cinematically. AND MAKE IT VISUALLY INTERESTING AND EMOTIONALLY COMPELLING! Fortunately I was blessed with five dedicated and gifted professionals. So now let’s go down into the cellar.

Now that you’ve met the five characters, I have a surprise. The set, which usually serves as background, in this case plays a more ACTIVE part. It really becomes a sixth character.

John Leyton was a twenty-five year old English actor who had appeared in two major Hollywood films. He auditioned for us, and there was no question, we wanted him to play Bert Higgs. There was no question, but there was a problem. His green card, which permitted him to work in the States, needed to be renewed; and it was the week between Christmas and New Years. John Conwell, who was now casting director for QM Productions, went through proverbial hell trying to get action from the government offices involved. Luckily for us he did -- at the last minute.

THE TRAP was another first for me -- my first association with William Spencer, Director of Photography. Little Billy! When I directed my first 12 O’CLOCK, Billy was away filming a pilot for Quinn Martin. I wonder if you can appreciate his artistry seeing this small screen presentation of a faded copy of a cable aired program. Billy won the Emmy that year for black and white photography of this series. Ironically 12 O’CLOCK HIGH woud be the last time he would work in black and white. The rest of his career was spent in color -- which he hated. Once color became the dominant mode of transmission on television Billy watched on his color television set with the color turned off.

I don't have any special recall related to Dinah Ann Rogers. Nothing unusual happened with her. She was a total pro, a fine actress who came to the set totally prepared to deliver what I consider a lovely, nuanced performance. She was one of that army of Hollywood actors whose talent exceeded their status in the hierarchy of filmdom.

A good script doesn’t just keep delivering climaxes. A good script lets the audience in on potential danger earlier, thus creating suspense. THE TRAP script did just that.

THE TRAP was another first for me. It was the first time I ever said “action” and the damned bomb heard me and being an obedient actor it not only moved, it hit its mark!

Hermione Baddeley was not our first choice to play Lady Constance. Gladys Cooper was. (Oh how I loved her evil mother in NOW, VOYAGER.) But Miss Cooper had a recurring role on THE ROGUES, a weekly series produced by Four Star Productions. It wasn’t that she was so occupied with her activities for that production that she was unavailable. She wasn’t in every episode. But there was a sponsor conflict. I don’t remember which sponsors were involved. But say Lucky Strike cigarettes sponsored THE ROGUES and Camel cigarettes sponsored 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. That was the kind of conflict that prevented her from performing for us. Not that we were short-changed with Miss Baddeley. In fact there was an added dimension with her casting. When Quinn Martin viewed the first days rushes in which Miss Baddeley appeared, he asked us to film an added close-up with her character explaining she was not to the manor born. She came from more common stock and had to adjust to her new elevated status in life. I thought it was a nice touch.

In 1960 David Frankham had been in the cast of my Pasadena Playhouse production of THE CIRCLE. (That’s just six months shy of half a century ago.) This was the first time we worked together in film. A couple years later he guest-starred in one of my STAR TREK’s. And just last week he reestablished contact with me for the first time in over twenty years.

Unwanted help up above. A bomb and a baby down below. The birth of a baby provides a ray of hope to allleviatiing other fears. And at this point please forgive a director for admiring his bicycle shot. And even more for admiring the intense, focused concentration of his cast. 

I bet you didn't expect me to get another character into the cellar.

I think it’s time to call it a wrap on the cellar. We know General Savage solves the problem of the bomb because he had to report to the studio the following day to start filming the next show. And don’t you think we see enough explosions in movies and television today? I will say our explosion was ample but not excessive. Besides, I would rather focus on PEOPLE!

See you next time when General Savage returns with a very Hitchcockian experience.

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