Wednesday, November 3, 2010
THE HERO - April 1965 (12 O’Clock High)
The script for my final 12 O’CLOCK HIGH had the most stereotypical protagonist of any of my four airborne adventures on the series. In the thirties and forties, James Cagney practically had a one-man franchise at Warner Bros. on the cocky, brash, undisciplined man in military service. In THE FIGHTING 69TH, HERE COMES THE NAVY, CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS he served disruptively on land, sea and air, but always emerged at the end as a hero. Three decades later we were about to resurrect that character.
My second and third episodes of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH had been grounded. This one sent me back up into the wild black and white yonder of TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE, back again for two days to the small process stage, and back to the airfield in Chino, this time for two days. It also provided me with a welcome reunion with James Whitmore; the previous season we had worked together on ARREST AND TRIAL (see archives to the right).
Let me digress for a moment. The young copilot was played by Peter Deuel. He had little to do, but I was very impressed with him. I remember going to producer Frank Glicksman and telling him I thought Peter was someone to note for future use. I never saw Peter again after that one day’s work. His future was not at QM Productions. The following season Peter was cast by Screen Gems (the television arm of Columbia Pictures) in a sitcom that failed. Not to be deterred Screen Gems cast him in another sitcom the following year, that one too doomed to end after a single season. Peter was then put under contract by Universal, where he spent three years guest starring in the studio’s television productions before being cast to co-star in the series ALIAS SMITH AND JONES, a rip-off of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID that became a huge success. According to interviews at the time, Peter did not find fulfillment in the daily grind of that television series. After only thirty-three episodes he ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was thirty-one years old. Again there are eight million stories in tlhe city of Hollywood, Peter Deuel’s is one of them.
Our first day of filming was at the airfield in Chino. It was the last day of March, but April showers were already threatening. Our schedule for the day listed the sixth day’s work as our cover sets in case of inclement weather, but the decision had been made in the production office that the rain was a possibility, not a surety. And so we commenced filming; the conditions for creating the look of England in winter were visually excellent.
But as the work on this sequence progressed, the weather conditions worsened; small raindrops started spitting, but not enough at first to halt filming -- until we were setting up the final setup of that last sequence, the shot under the plane’s wing...
...when Billy Spencer and I agreed it was time to call a halt. Paul Wurtzel, our assistant director, disagreed. “You're under the wing. You can’t even see the rain,” he said. Billy pointed to behind Lansing and Whitmore where a sheet of water was cascading like a waterfall off the wing. His point was made. We wrapped the location, returned to the studio and finished the day working on interior scenes from the sixth day’s schedule. The following day when the weather had cleared, we returned to Chino and picked up where we had left off.
I read today about the difficulty actors have doing scenes in blue screen. I don’t think the actors in this show had it any easier. As in TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE a third of the filming was on the process stage in the plane with rear projection. That meant acting very short scenes, many of them with an actor at a different location (a different section of the airplane or someone in a different plane) or reacting to attacking airplanes that weren’t there and wouldn’t be there until the film editor integrated the stock footage days, even weeks later as he put together the final assemblage.
I also want to commend the film editors of this episode (Marston Fay) and TO HEINIE. WITH LOVE (Jerry Young). Beside selecting the required film for our rear projection they were the ones who plowed through miles of stock footage to create the action footage for the sequences -- the air battles, the fleet of planes in flight, planes taking off and landing. There were scenes in the script marked (STOCK) that were what the screenwriter envisioned -- the editors then had to find film that matched that vision.
On one of the days Frank Overton reported to the Chino location at the crack of dawn. He filmed the following sequence and a longer scene with Lansing and Whitmore (that was edited out of the final film for time). He was then dismissed and sent back to the studio. Seconds after his vehicle left, assistant director Paul Wurtzel realized Frank was not finished, that he still had another sequence to shoot. Today, with cell phones, there would be no problem. The vehicle carrying Frank back to the studio would be phoned in transit, and he would be returned to the location. But those were ancient B.C. days (Before Cellphones). All Paul could do was phone the studio and notify them that when Frank arrived, he was to be sent back to Chino. I think that was a day Frank wished we could have been doing STAR TREK (which he did do for me a couple years later) so that he could just say, “Beam me out to the location, Scotty.” Being the trooper that he was, there were no complaints.
I like doing action sequences. They are exciting to do, they are exciting to watch. But I have to confess, I’m even more challenged and fulfilled confronted with a good dramatic dialogue sequence if it’s intelligently written, built on a strong conflict with interesting nuances, and if I’m fortunate enough to have good actors to play it.
One of the things I learned early on DR. KILDARE was that when there was technical information being dispensed, it was advisable to present it as carefully and clearly as possible. The viewing audience must assimilate the information as completely as the men at the briefing so that they will understand the events that follow.
It’s easy to stage a dramatic scene that is a direct confrontation between opposing forces. A challenge is when the drama is a bit of exposition being related.
I couldn’t resist showing you the scene Frank Overton had to return to the location to film
The radio operator in the next clip is Nigel McKeand. Nigel first acted for me two years before this in an episode of THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. Nine years later Nigel had switched hats and wrote THE MARATHON, one of the best THE WALTONS I was priveleged to direct. Two years after that I directed an episode of FAMILY, produced by Nigel. And eleven years later the last film I ever directed was an episode of BLUE SKIES which Nigel produced.
Our American culture has a peculiar attraction to the celebrity of heroes. I liked and appreciated what this script had to say on the subject.
And that brought an end to my involvement with 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. Robert Lansing’s contract was not renewed; he was replaced by Paul Burke. William Spencer with his camera crew and assistant director Paul Wurtzel moved with associate producer Charles Larson, now elevated to producer, to Warner Bros. studio to work on Quinn’s newest series, THE FBI. 12 O’CLOCK HIGH was not Quinn’s most famous series (I think THE FUGITIVE was). It was not his most successful series (THE FBI ran for nine seasons). But it was my favorite of the QM series I directed.