Friday, July 2, 2010
AN F FOR MRS L, BULLY FOR YOU, GENTLEMAN FRIEND - July 1969 (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father)
This outing has also been posted on my website at www.senensky.com
Six months after completing THE LIBRARY CARD, I returned to MGM to direct three more episodes of COURTSHIP. Two seasons before I had directed an episode of INSIGHT for Father Elwood Keiser at Paulist Productions. This was a series of inspirational half-hour films that he produced every spring when the Hollywood studios were on hiatus. The attraction for me was that they were done live on tape. The fact that I had spent four years at CBS on the production staff of PLAYHOUSE 90 and later a daytime half-hour soap opera without getting to direct in that medium had always felt like unfinished business. So when Bud (he was a six foot five Catholic priest, but he responded to “Bud”) called to check my availability, I was only too happy to accept. In fact I did three in a row; it was like a crash course in directing multiple camera live television on tape. It wasn’t for the money. I returned the fee that was offered.
And there was more work. Years earlier when I was still just a secretary at CBS, I knew Bernie Grossman, who also worked there. Years later Bernie was the ad agency representative for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE when I directed THE TRAIN. I mention this because Bernie at this time was the agency rep for the new THE BILL COSBY SHOW. No, not the one about the Huxtable family, the earlier show where he played a gym teacher. It seemed that they were having director problems and Bernie recommended me. So I also directed an episode there during the time between COURTSHIP assignments. I’ll be writing about that series soon.
Six months can produce changes in a production company as I had already learned. This time the changes were improvements. Ralph Riskin had come on board as associate producer. He was another prince in Hollywood royalty; his father was producer Everett Riskin, his uncle was the legendary Robert Riskin, screenplay writer of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, LOST HORIZON, MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN and most of the classic Frank Capra films; and his aunt was Fay Wray, KING KONG’s great love.
But the addition that I think brought a great new dimension to the series was Peggy Chantler Dick, the new story editor. I loved her card in the closing credits.
And that she did -- everything that was right with the show, with her typewriter she made even righter.
Half hour shows were filmed in different ways. Some were performed before a live audience. They rehearsed three or four days, then filmed a performance before a live audience with multiple cameras. Before the advent of tape, film cameras were used and then the film would be edited. After tape entered the picture, the director edited during the performance as had been done during the live television era.
Filmed half hour television shows did it differently. THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, which I shall get to eventually, did one show a week. Monday was a reading day, that was seldom used. The next three days were devoted to filming the show. Fridays were used as a pickup day; many times the musical sequences were not completed in the three days and these would be filmed on those Fridays.
Still other half hour shows followed the same kind of schedule as the hour shows. They were filmed with one camera; when filming was completed, a new show started the following day. This was going to be another first for me. I filmed the three shows back-to-back; there was no prep time between shows. You know, filming a show in three days -- well it seemed to end just as I was getting warmed up. The ten and a half days it took to complete the three episodes gave me a chance to get my engine revved up. And an added excitement was how different the three shows were from each other. The first one was AN F FOR MRS L.
Although most of my stage directing, before entering film, had been in comedy, only two of the sixty-six television shows I directed before COURTSHIP had been comedies. They were episodes of DR. KILDARE and NAKED CITY. In both instances my challenge had been to fit what were very broad comedies into the dramatic mode of the respective series. Here the problem was the reverse. Mrs. Livingstone’s situation was very personal and very serious. Not to acknowledge that, to treat it strictly comedically would diminish its importance. The script provided me with the approach to take.
Mrs. Livingstone’s flunking her exam was a Hithcock MacGuffin to get us into the main story -- of what occurs when a seven year old boy’s imagination encounters a frightening circumstance.
I think a big contribution Peggy Chantler Dick made was the fleshing out of the character of Mrs. Livingstone. And as I had discovered six months earlier with the first two COURTSHIPS, I was finding more true human drama in this sitcom than I had been finding in many of the dramatic shows I had directed.
Are you as annoyed as I have been with the opening billboard credits on television series -- the same one week after week. Another of Jimmy Komack’s innovations. He didn’t change them every week, but he did change them.
Although Peggy Chantler Dick would not have any writer’s credit on this show or my previous episode, I sensed an added dimension in the characterizations for this show, BULLY FOR YOU, that I attributed to her. There was a deeper sensitivity to the people in what was actually the broadest situation comedy of my first four outings..
And now, let’s meet Joey.
Did you recognize her. That was six year old Jody Foster, six months younger than Brandon. Jody’s mother came to the set with her, as was required by law. But unlike many other sound stage mothers, I was not aware of her presence; she stayed in the background, as good sound stage mothers should have done.
Once Joey started serving the dinner, those two youngsters, the seven year old and the six year old, had all the business; Bill and Miyoshi were relegated to the side lines to react. There was a hysterically funny moment that taught me as a director a valuable lesson. When Eddie asked for more tea and Joey responded, “Get it yourself”, the script called for Joey to hit Eddie and Eddie responded by hitting her back. I carefully staged the scene, cautioning both of them to pull their punches, no one was to actually get hit. Well on the first master two shot of the business Jody carefully socked Eddie without touching him. Brandon however ended up walloping Jody in the shoulder. Jody paused, turned to me standing by the camera and with the greatest comedy timing and an even greater reading of the line she said, “He hit me.” I and the crew exploded in laughter as I cut the take. Only then, too late, did I realize that reaction could have been used, with some judicious rewriting, in the continuation of the scene. As I said, it was a valuable lesson. A few years later when I was directing THE FAMILY NOBODY WANTED, there was another incident of something unexpected happening during a take. That time I was able to keep the “accident” in the film.
And finally I wonder how the feminists of today are reacting to the Japanese customs of forty-one years ago.
For my third and final episode in this outing, again a major change in style, both in the script and visually. First let’s take a look at this episode’s opening vignette.
I don’t remember what the ratio of rewriting was required for the rewriter to receive screen credit. But whatever it was, Peggy Chantler Dick obviously surpassed it, because this time she was credited as the co-writer. This first scene between Tom and Mrs. Livingstone is loaded with Peggy. As I stated above, she brought a dimension to Mrs. LIvingstone that humanized her beyond being just the housekeeper.
Imported Japanese films came to the States in the fifties with the production of RASHOMON. I wanted to use their visual style as much as I could. I felt this story called for that kind of treatment.
The following script, scene 8, is our introduction to Mrs. Livingstone’s gentleman friend, Mr. Sato.
Miyoshi, George Takei (our Mr. Soto, a reunion for me with STAR TREK’S Mr. Sulu), the camera crew and I went to MGM’s back lot #3. There we filmed a Peanut’s-style (Jimmy’s description) sequence like the many Jimmy had done with Bill and Brandon. This is what we came back with.
No scripted dialogue. All improvised.
And I have to say, regarding the next sequence, MGM still did the best sets in town.
Eddie’s opening line, “Mrs. Livingstone, how come that lady had a pack on her back?” was not in the script. When Brandon and Bill came on the set and Brandon saw our waitress garbed Japanese style, he asked Bill that question? I heard it and knew it had to be in the film.
Now what actress who had an Academy Award and was now appearing in a successful television series would seriously consider giving it all up for a marriage destined to take her back to Japan. Again first the script, then the rest of the outing on MGM’s lot 3.
Obviously not this actress. And again no scripted scene; all improvised.
I was booked to return to direct four more episodes (again back-to back) in November.