Wednesday, February 17, 2010

NO NAKED LADIES IN FRONT OF GIOVANNI'S HOUSE - March 1963 (Naked City)

After wrapping ALIVE AND STILL A SECOND LIEUTENANT, I flew back to the west coast, packed some fresh laundry, picked up my next script (a COMPLETE one again) and flew back to New York to start work on my third production for Herbert Leonard, another NAKED CITY titled NO NAKED LADIES IN FRONT OF GIOVANNI’S HOUSE. I arrived the morning of Saint Patrick’s Day. I checked into my hotel, and the production people picked me up to scout locations. There was only one major location to find, but we needed to do it before the day’s big Parade took place. That location was Benvenuto’s house, but why don’t I let the author’s script tell you what we needed.



After the turmoil of the search for the isolated house in Corpus Christi for ROUTE 66, it was a relief to find what we needed fairly quickly. As I was being driven back to my hotel, I asked where the company was shooting that day. I was told they were in midtown Manhattan. I decided I would be dropped off at the location, say hello to the crew and then walk back to the hotel. Little did I realize what I was letting myself in for. The company was shooting at a construction site, a new building going up. And when I say up, I mean UP!. Sixty-two stories up. And they were filming on the sixty-second floor. But having committed myself, there was no backing out. They dropped me off at the site, and I was escorted over to the outside elevator that was going to take me up to where the company was filming. I am being generous when I call what I got into an elevator. I swear it seemed like a piece of flooring attached to four tall vertical poles at the corners with horizontal bars about waist high to discourage (but not prevent) anyone thinking of jumping off on the ascent. As we went up, it did not seem as if we were rising; rather that the surrounding skyscrapers were dropping so that we were looking down on them. That ride stopped at around the fifty-second floor. The final ten flights had to be walked. The stairs for those last ten flights hadn’t been completed yet. The structural framing for the risers was in place, but the treads had not yet been built, so loose planks of wood were laid across the openings. I finally reached the top where the company was shooting. Totally open, with a nice cold breeze, no a not-so-nice cold wind blowing. I greeted everyone -- Paul Burke, the crew, stunt man Max Klevin and then found a box dead center where I could sit and watch. Paul Burke was at one end of the building, leaning over to see what was going on down on the street below. I feared at any moment the wind blowing would give him the chance to see it close up. They were doing a fight scene; Max and another stunt man had safety ropes attached to their waists as they struggled at the very edge of the building. I was already wondering if there might be the possibility of my sitting there until they finished the building so I wouldn’t have to get back into that elevator. And then they called lunch, and everyone started leaving. Well I wasn’t about to stay up there alone. Besides I was tired (I had traveled all night) and hungry. So I started down those improvised stairs to the fifty-second floor, where I had a decision to make. It was not a difficult decision. I WALKED down the remaining fifty-two flights, staggered back to my hotel, giving thanks all the way that I had not been assigned the script I had just visited.


The strange things that can happen. On ROUTE 66 when we didn’t have a completed script and had difficult locations, we started filming anyway. This time I had a completed script, a show that was going to film mostly in the studio, and my few locations already selected. I was ready to go, but I sat around for several days waiting, because the current show starring Piper Laurie was behind in its schedule. But even difficult shows finally wrap, and the one waiting in the wings goes into action.


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No, you haven’t made a mistake and logged onto a COMEDY CENTRAL blog. That is the opening of NO NAKED LADIES IN FRONT OF GIOVANNI'S HOUSE, my ninth film and my first comedy (on film that is). My stage work had been close to fifty percent in comedy.


The interiors were filmed at NAKED CITY’s New York studio, which was unlike any studio I had ever shot in on the west coast. As I remember, I think it was located on 3rd Street in lower Manhattan. As I further remember, it was not really a film studio. I thought it was an old three story house that had been gutted to provide a couple of large pseudo sound stages; one stage housed the permanent police headquarters set, the other sound stage was for the swing sets, in this case the hallway and the apartment interiors. There was nowhere near the height of the west coast sound stages, so all overhead lighting was from lamps attached to the top of the set walls.


That is Al Lewis as tenant Carrari. The following season I wanted to cast him in the DR. KILDARE episode, MAYBE LOVE WILL SAVE MY APARTMENT HOUSE, but could not get him approved by NBC. So now sit back and enjoy a very funny actor at work, backed up by some fine talent provided by casting director Marion Daugherty.

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This was a reunion for me with Harry Guardino. The previous September we had worked together on DR. KILDARE where Harry played an aphasiac. He had one WORD of dialog to memorize for that role -- “Wife.” He had considerably more lines this time around.


I think the influence of live television from the Golden Age of Television of the fifties was still being felt. This script by Abram S. Ginnes could have been produced on any of the New York hour-long live television programs of that era. I appreciated the quality of the writing when I filmed it; I appreciate it even more today when I compare it to the dearth of literate dialog being heaved at us from our screens -- large and small.


And as before, filming exteriors in New York city was an exciting experience. There is a visual energy that not only provides an exciting background to the action, there is another energy that seems to permeate the actors and add an extra coating of reality to their efforts.

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The challenge of this script was to reconcile the very broad farcical events with the realism of the series. But then, isn’t that the secret of good comedy? When I was on staff of PLAYHOUSE 90, they did a production of James Thurber’s THE MALE ANIMAL. PLAYHOUSE 90 aired on Thursday night. Friday morning across the country newspapers would carry reviews, people at water coolers would discuss and critique the previous evening’s airing as if it had been a Broadway opening. The response to THE MALE ANIMAL was not good. The reviews were almost totally negative. It was the alternating show, so I had not worked on it. Lenny Horn, the assistant director on the production, was in the office the next morning, totally surprised and confused by the response to the show. He told me he had thought they had a fine production, a very funny show. He asked me what I thought of it. I said I didn’t think it was very good. He wanted to know why I thought that. I said, “Because it wasn’t real.” His response: “But it’s a comedy.” Get my point?


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I don’t remember whether we shot the following sequence at a street market or whether we had to create our own market in the street. Strangely of all the sequences in the film, I remember this one most strongly during the editing session. Before I continue I think I should describe the usual procedure for editing a film. When the yards and yards (sometimes it seems like miles and miles) of film arrive, the editor puts together his first assemblage. This then is screened in a screening room for the producer, who will give the editor his requests for changes and cuts. (I am skipping over at this point the matter of the director’s cut. In the early days of television, as I described for you in my dealing with Quinn Martin, this did not exist.) The editor makes the requested changes, and the film is again screened for the producer. Any further changes the producer may ask for, plus the matter of editing the film to the specified length required by the network are made. Then the film is shipped off to the other departments -- sound effects, music, possible special effects -- before it is sent to negative editing. But Bert Leonard didn’t do it that way. During the few days I was back in Hollywood before leaving for Texas for another ROUTE 66, I went to the studio one afternoon. That afternoon at the studio turned into a late night event for me. Bert took me with him to the editing room where he had not one but three (maybe four) editors at work. Each editor had a reel of the picture that he was cutting. The room buzzed with the sound of the several moviolas. When an editor had completed assembling his reel (about ten minutes of filml) Bert looked at it, not in a screening room but right there in the editing room on the moviola. He had his hand on the moviola’s brake so that if he saw a place where he wanted a change made, he stopped the film and gave the editor his instructions, which the editor made note of. When he had viewed the entire reel, the editor went to work on the requested changes while Bert moved to another editor, another moviola. When Bert was satisfied with a reel, he said, “Ship it.” That’s the way he worked his way through the six reels. Never did he look at the film from beginning to end. Never was the matter of the length of time discussed. And for a director it was encouraging to see the care he took to make each moment in the scene work, his fearless intercutting of closeups for reactions with never a thought or care to “speed it up.”


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Remember what I wrote earlier about Harry having more lines this time than the last time we had worked together. Now we get to the big climactic scene -- the confrontation between Benvenuto and his father. And Benvenuto has ALL THE LINES. (And I am giving you an abbreviated version.)


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The final scene in Benvenuto’s house was in his basement. Somebody got the bright idea that if you needed the basement of a New York house for a set, why not use the real basement of a real New York house. So I was shown the basement of the building which housed the studios for NAKED CITY. It was great. Atmospheric. Sinister. But then some wiser heads prevailed. In the sequence we were to film, Benvenuto starts a fire in the basement. Even with the greatest precautions this posed a dire risk. There was one narrow stairway out of the basement. If a stray spark were to cause a major fire, there would have been 7 cast members, a minimum of 3 camera folk, me and the first assistant director, the sound boom man (the mixer could have been upstairs), at least 2 special effects men to tend to the fire in the scene, at least 2 grips and 2 gaffers and the script supervisor all rushing for that lone stairway. That’s a grand total of 20 people. As I said, some wiser heads prevailed, and it was decided to create a basement set in the upstairs studio.


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There were two sequences in our script that took place at the docks; the first when Francesca arrived on the ship (which you’ve already seen) and the final one with the ship sailing away. Well obviously we couldn’t schedule two trips to the docks; that would have been too expensive. So I filmed the second sequence the same day as the first. But all film angles had to exclude the ship. We found out what date the ship would be leaving, and on that day a second unit (just an arriflex camera, no sound) was sent with Harry and Marisa to film two shots involving the departing ship. By the time the film editors put it all together, you would never have known it was not all filmed on the same day if I hadn’t told you.


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At the time the three month period with Herbert Leonard Productions seemed to be my entry finally into a film directing career. Within a month after I completed my final NAKED CITY I was booked for ten more assignments, a full season's work. But looking back I realize that three month period was much more than that. The five scripts I had just directed were as varied as could be hurled at any director and placed challenges the likes of which I would never have demanded of me again. I don’t think it was that as I became more experienced, I was better equipped to deal with what was asked of me. NAKED CITY was finished; ROUTE 66 would return, but for its final season. I truly believe that this was the beginning of the homogenization of television. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. Oh, there would be surprise pockets of creativity that crept onto schedules. Four years later STAR TREK beamed into space, and we all know what Paramount and NBC did to it; that it survived and became a classic in spite of, not because of them. A decade later THE WALTONS bloomed. But these were the exceptions, not the norm. Oh television made more money, but creative decisions were no longer being made by visionaries like Bert Leonard; now they were being made by General Electric and Rupert Murdoch.


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