Sunday, December 20, 2009
GIRL IN THE NIGHT - November 1967 (Ironside)
Although this was the ninth production I directed for Universal (including a couple when the MCA talent agency first moved into production with their purchase of Revue Productions and were still called Revue Productions) it is the first one I’ve written about on this blog. So let’s get something clear right off the bat. I didn’t like working there. MGM, the Bert Leonard group at Columbia, Desilu, all had a familial feeling about them. Universal was a factory. I was never sure whether we were turning out films or hot dogs. I used to say that as I drove through the gates onto the lot, I felt as though I passed through electronic beams that sought to drain the creativity out of me. And now that I’ve said that, I have to admit that directing GIRL IN THE NIGHT was a pleasant experience.
The script was written by True Boardman, an actor turned writer with quite a background. True’s father was a silent film star, and True as a youngster, six or seven years old, had also appeared in film. He even made a film with Charlie Chaplin. I didn’t meet True until some time after completing this project, but we became friends and I would often play bridge with True and his wife. Thirty-five years later when I left Los Angeles and moved to Carmel, I discovered that True lived on the Monterey Peninsula. Our friendship reignited, and we ended up forming a Hollywood ex-patriot group that met every other week for lunch. The group included the two of us, Lamont Johnson, Don Hanmer, Kit Parker (a local film distributor who actually was the one who instigated formation of the group) and Shan Sayles. I have to tell you a favorite story. One lunch, after we had been meeting for several years, I arrived anxious to tell them that I had had a pacemaker installed since we had last met. True looked at me disdainfully and said, “I’m on my fourth.”
Four years earlier in 1963 I had directed the first ARREST AND TRIAL, a ninety minute drama with a nine day shooting schedule. The director of photography had been Lionel Lindon. Now four years earlier when I reported for that assignment, I only had eleven film directing credits on my resume. I was just coming off the five Bert Leonard productions (ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY) and I was not the most secure or confident member of the Directors Guild of America. And Lionel Lindon was indeed a force to be reckoned with. I had not had this sort of association with a cameraman up to this time. I would carefully lay out with him (as I was accustomed to doing with my director of photography) the planned set-up that I wanted. I was very clear and meticulous in my explanation. Lionel would look at me as if I were a recent graduate of the local high school drama department, take a rag out of the rear pocket of his trousers, throw it to the ground and gruffly say, “Put the damn camera here.” To put it bluntly, he had me totally intimidated. On the sixth day when we were shooting away from the studio on location, Lionel was involved in a dispute with a member of the transportation group and made an anti-Semitic remark. He was removed from the production. But before he left, he came over to say goodbye to me and to wish me well. Nothing was said about the incident, the reason he was leaving the production. It was just a warm, unexpected gesture so that now I was totally confused. When one reported to Universal for an assignment, one never knew who the cameraman on the production would be. (I will be discussing Universal’s way of handling department assignments in a moment.) But on the seven intervening shows that I had directed at Universal since ARREST AND TRIAL, I always planned that if Lionel Lindon was the director of photography, I would request either a change in cameramen or my release. But this was four years later. I decided it was time I met up with Goliath again, even if he owned an Oscar for his work on AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS.
Tisha Sterling, a Universal contract player and the daughter of Robert Sterling (we had done two productions together), was cast as Elaine. I faintly remember meeting Tisha concerning the portrait of her that would have to be painted. And then I was notified that Tisha was out. She had been cast in a major feature, COOGAN’S BLUFF, and Susan Saint James would be our Elaine. At Universal I found I was very very rarely consulted about casting. In this case Steve Carlson, a contract player was cast as Johnny, and the rest of the cast was just cast. But it turned out to be a very fine group. Donnelly Rhodes, Oscar Beregi, Mort Mills and Simon Scott.
And now we arrive at the kind of moment that seemed to occur more often at Universal than at other studios. I left the studio Wednesday after my last day of prep, prepared to commence production the following morning. Soon after I arrived home, I received a phone call from my producer, Cy Chermak. He told me I was to report to the studio the following morning as scheduled, but I would not be filming. This gets interestingly complicated. You know, George Washington eons ago was not in favor of political parties. He felt politicians would find that their allegiance would be to their party, not the government they were serving. (And hasn’t that come true!) Universal wanted the various crew people’s allegiance to be to their studio department, not to the production to which they might be assigned. So NO SHOW HAD A PERMANENT CREW. Each department (Camera, Lighting, Gaffers, Props, Make-up, Hair, Wardrobe, Script) had its crew units. When a unit finished an assignment, it went to the bottom of its department's crew list. As each new production started, the unit at the top of the list would be assigned. This way no crew person ever stayed on any one show long enough to form an emotional attachment to it. Raymond Burr was not happy with this arrangement. He wanted to have a set crew. He wanted to have the same make-up person, the same hair dresser. He wanted exactly what the studio didn't want. He wanted a team. He had complained. The Black Tower had acknowleged his complaints, but nothing changed. So Cy told me to come to the studio prepared to shoot, but there would be no filming because Ray would not be showing up. He had a scheduled meeting with the black suits in the Black Tower that afternoon to resolve this problem, once and for all. I don’t know what happened at that meeting. I’m sure the black suits said, “No problem, anything you want, Ray baby.” But I know that I reported at 7:30am on Thursday morning, by 8:00am I was back home. I reported again at 7:30am on Friday morning and filming commenced.
Detective stories present a problem. There is the more interesting story of the “crime” story, and then you have to deal with the dull police interrogation. This script actually alleviated a lot of that problem. For one thing, Ed, a member of Ironside's team, was personally involved in the crime story. This was one of the better film noir scripts I had the opportunity to do. So let’s look at how the script puts out the hook I’ve talked about.
Raymond Burr had had a long association with Gilmor Brown and the Pasadena Playhouse. Not only had I graduated from the school at the Playhouse in1948, between 1955 and 1958 I had directed six productions in Mr. Brown’s personal theatre, the Playbox. I assumed this might be some sort of bonding between Burr and me. No. He was respectful of it when I told him, but Ray was a cool, aloof man, at least as far as my association with him. Very very professional, but very very impersonal.
Raymond Butt was a master at something I’ve never seen any other performer do. I’m sure it started on PERRY MASON, when the amount of dialogue to be memorized each day had to have been overwhelming. Ray used teleprompters, but he used them so creatively, it never showed. And he used more than one. In the wider master shots, a teleprompter would be place outside of camera range behind each actor in whose direction Ray would look. When doing an actor’s close-up, the fellow actor in the scene stands next to the camera. In this case the teleprompter was placed where the actor would stand. Ray would look at the telepromter, while the actor stood to the side of it. If there was more than one character in the scene, a teleprompter would be placed where each of those performers stood or sat. If Ray wanted to look away, say glance down at the ground, a telepromter would be placed there also. It was totally ingenious.
This show provided another first for me. It was the first time I directed a production using flashbacks to tell much of its story.
The search for Elaine leads Ironside and Ed back to the bar where he met her. There a waitress offers to meet them with some information about Elaine. Which leads to another first for me -- a character lip-sync singing to a pre-recorded playback of another singer's recording.
Cy Chermak told me that GIRL IN THE NIGHT was a rewrite of a WAGON TRAIN script. I told the cast this one day, including Oscar Beregi, who was cast as Stefan.
Oscar smiled and said, “Yes, I know, I was in that production.”
“Oh,” I replied, “what role did you play?”
Stilll smiling, Oscar said, “The same one.”
Ed next takes Ironside back to Stefan’s restaurant, where he had gone with Elaine that night.
It was always a little nerve wracking to be handed studio contract players. Many of them were placed under contract mainly because of their physical beauty. Whether they could act or not didn’t seem to matter. I lucked out on this production. I had already worked with Don Galloway four years prior when he had a supporting recurring role on ARREST AND TRIAL. Susan, who was only twenty-one when we filmed this episode, was awfully good, as proved by the series she starred in later -- McMILLAN & WIFE and KATE & ALLIE. And twenty-four year old Steve Carlson rounded out my winning hand, as you’ll see when Ed and Ironside finally track down Johnny Foster.
I am asked many times, “Just what does a director do?” An easy response is, “I say ‘Action’ (although I usually preferred to say, ‘Go’), I say ‘Cut’, and on rare occasions I get to say, ‘Print’.”
But since on this blog I am committed to telling the whole truth, I have to admit I usually did more. Directing could entail more than just getting the words on the pages of the script onto film. Here is the script for the following scene in Johnny’s dressing room. You can read it and then compare that to what you see in the film clip.
I had known Simon Scott, who played Jim Cardoff, since, 1955 when I did the lighting for a stage production at the Players’ Ring in Hollywood of Maxwell Anderson’s SATURDAYS’ CHILDREN. in which he starred. But I knew him as Danny Simon. Danny was a marvelous actor, and I used him many many times during our careers. He was the gentlest of souls, but he certainly could play evil.
Remember what I wrote at the beginning of this posting about Lionel Lindon? Well this was a totally different experience. I never saw Lionel without a hat on his head, so I’m not sure where his nickname, Curly, came from. But on this show he was Curly and all smiles. Our set was a constant ball. And boy was he a good cameraman -- and fast. One day at about 3:30 in the afternoon I got wind of the fact that we were going at such a great pace, there were plans to have us move to another stage and start work on the next day’s schedule. I went to Curly and asked him if he wanted to move to another stage when we finished our work on this one.
“Heavens, no.” he said. Except he didn’t say “Heavens.”
“Well then for God’s sake, slow down because that’s what they’re planning.”
So Curly slowed down, we finished around 5:30, which was a nice early end of the day for us and not enough time to move to another stage to continue shooting for them.
Perry Mason usually (if not always) resolved his cases in the court room. Ironside had more imagination. This case ended at a lake; except it was more like a pond on the Universal back lot. I didn't dare photograph it; there wasn't enough water there to drown her.