Monday, October 18, 2010
Saturday, October 31, 2009
In THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE the James Stewart newspaperman character states if there is a difference between the truth and the legend, print the legend. So having noted this and in case there is such a conflict difference, I herewith print one of my favorite Hollywood legends. Edmund Gwenn, the beloved Santa Claus of THE MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, spent his final time in the Motion Picture Home. George Seaton, who had written and directed Gwenn in THE MIRACLE, often visited him. One day as they sat chatting, Mr. Gwenn suddenly looked up and quietly said, “George,... dying’s hard...” Long, long pause. Then with a twinkle in his eye he added, “...but comedy’s harder.” To which I add, but it is more fun.
I didn’t get back to DR. KILDARE until the beginning of their fourth season. And wonder of wonders the script they presented me was a charming comedy written by Boris Sobelman, MAYBE LOVE WILL SAVE MY APARTMENT HOUSE. I don’t think David Victor thought of me as a comedy director. His favorite name for me was ‘boy storm cloud’. Maybe Norman Felton remembered those rave theatre reviews, all comedies. However it came to be, I was delighted.
And remember what I recently said about hooking your audience as soon as possible.
“Thanks for the bone.” Those were the words of Paul Bryar when he arrived on the set to play the taxi driver in the opening sequence of this comedy. Paul was one of my closest friends. In the fifties he and his talented wife, Claudia Bryar, had starred in my stage productions of MY THREE ANGELS and DEATH OF A SALESMAN. And the previous year he had appeared in a very substantial role in the television production AGE OF CONSENT, an episode on EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, which was filmed in New York. This role may only have had two lines of dialog, but it’s amazing how a few well-played close-ups can turn a bone into a cameo.
My first choice to play Mr. Pappinax had been Al Lewis. He too had appeared for me in a New York production, an episode of NAKED CITY entitled NO NAKED LADIES IN FRONT OF GIOVANNI’S HOUSE. And no, it wasn’t because I wanted to use Al in any production with “House” in the title. It was because I thought he was a very funny man and a fine actor. Imagine Jane Murray (casting director) and my surprise when we received word from NBC that we couldn’t cast him. They gave no reason, just that he was not acceptable. This was 1964, but obviously the blacklisting days of the fifties were still with us. But not at CBS. Al was cast later that same year in their long-running series, THE MUNSTERS. Jules Munshin proved to be a marvelous next choice.
The usual format for this series was that Dr. Kildare would get involved with a patient with the ‘Disease of the Week’, and his mentor, Dr. Gillespie would supply wisdom and support. Not this week! Now it was Dr. Gillespie seeking wisdom and support from his younger colleague. Incidentally, take notice of the fact that you are able to chuckle, even laugh out loud, in spite of the fact that there is no laugh track.
So Dr. Wiley Lansing, the Wolf of Blair Hospital, is sent to take care of Tommy’s foot -- and hopefully Dr. Gilleslpie’s concerns about his niece.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but (according to the Internet Movie Data Base) this was little Lisa Loring’s first television show. I told Lisa (as Suzy’s daughter, Cindy) that she didn’t like Dr. Wiley. That she should glare at him. Watch what she did.
To explain to you civilians: back in the old days when a scene took place in a moving car, it was filmed without ever leaving the studio. It was filmed in process. On a (usualy empty) sound stage behind the car a big screen was set onto which, via rear projection, a traveling shot would be projected. The filming camera and the rear projection camera were interlocked. On the day we filmed the scene of Serena and Wiley on their drive, while the crew was setting up and lighting the scene, I perched up on a high ladder between the camera and the car but off to the side and out of the shot. A set of ear phones rested on my lap. I was prepared, so I would be able to hear the dialog when the filming took place. Occasionally I would raise the ear phones to check on the crew's progression. One time when I did, I heard Suzy telling Barry about the PLAYHOUSE 90 she had appeared in, THE DEATH OF MANOLETE.
I have to interject here that THE DEATH OF MANOLETE was the opening show of PLAYHOUSE 90’s second season. The smash hit and big Emmy winner of the first season had been Rod Serling’s REQUIEM FOR A HEAVY WEIGHT starring Jack Palance. This was a reunion of the two of them, this time directed by John Frankenheimer instead of Ralph Nelson, who had directed REQUIEM. The show was an unmitigated disaster. All those bull heads mounted on little dollies being pushed around to simulate battle in the bull ring didn’t quite do it. And Suzy’s performance was generally panned.
To return to our process set as I raised the earphones to my ear, I heard Suzy telling Barry about THE DEATH OF MANOLETE. I impulsively called out across the vast, empty stage, “Suzy, I was on staff for that production.”
Suzy responded, “You were? Then how come you hired me for this show?”
One day as we were preparing another scene that included Barry and little Lisa, since he saw I was preoccupied, Greger (Suzy’s son, Tommy) took it upon himself to remind Lisa, “Remember what Ralph told you. You should glare at Wiley, because you don’t like him.”
To which Lisa replied, “Oh that’s all right, I really don’t.”
I overheard and couldn’t resist sharing this humorous moment with Barry. Big mistake. From then on he tried and tried to ingratiate himself with Lisa, but she would have none of it. Boy, did she stay in character.
I didn’t tell Lisa what I wanted her to do when Wiley choked until I filmed her close-up. So when we shot Barry’s choking reaction first, with Lisa off camera, her response was totally spontaneous. It was a most evil, gleeful chortling that could have emanated from the little girl in THE EXORCIST. It was too evil to use! Lisa went from this show into the long-running series THE ADDAMS FAMILY.
Barry Nelson was a consummate professional, possiblly the best actor of comedy I ever worked with.
Richard Chamberlain was amazing. He had a class scheduled for every night of the week, which of course he would attend only if he finished the day’s filming in time. One night an acting class, another dancing, singing, etc. Because this story focused on Gillelslpie and his niece, Richard finished early many days and was able to attend class. I was back on the MGM lot in the fall when this episode aired. The day after its showing I asked Richard what he thought of it. He said he liked it... but he wasn’t in it very much.
As to our plot all turns out well. The couple get married. Mr. Pappinax gets his apartment house back. And as I said, comedy is hard, but comedy is fun!
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
My second production for the 1962-1963 season was another DR. KILDARE. I was no longer on staff as Assistant to the Producer, having left early in 1962 to free lance. This Kildare script by Peggy and Lou Shaw was powerful stuff -- the story of a man, brain injured in an automobile accident, who is now a complete aphasiac.
Harkness Smith, the cinematographer for the series was going to be absent for half the shooting schedule. Ted Voigtlander was brought in to replace him for those three days. Ted too was a brilliant cameraman, and I was priveleged to work with him three years later when he photographed THE WILD WILD WEST series.
Directing episodic television had its limitations. But it also had its disciplines. One of these was “hook your audience early.” Television did not have a captive audience like a movie theatre, where the attendee having coughed up the price of admission was unlikely to depart. Television viewers were free to leave the room, pick up a book or even just change the channel. Some shows (THE WALTONS in its early seasons) would select a pivotal dramatic scene from the drama and show it as a prolog. DR. KILDARE started their stories with the prolog. As a director you hoped that the script created by the screenwriter would give you a strong scene to start with. But strong or weak the director’s task is to get the drama and the conflict of the story into view as clearly and quickly as possible. On DR. KILDARE a freeze frame motif was used to heighten and enhance the drama. Believe it or not but the use of the freeze frame dramatically in 1961 when the show debuted was a major innovation.
Beverly Garland was a gutsy actress. She needed all of her talents for the complex role of Susan Hastings, the wife of the aphasiac.
And Harry Guardino was a terrific actor. (We would work together again a half a year later on an episode of NAKED CITY.) I had seen Harry perform several years earlier in the national company of A HATFUL OF RAIN. In the role of the drug addict’s brother he stole the show. Noted actor Malcolm Atterbury told me he too had seen the show and been very impressed with Guardino’s work. Later when Malcolm had acted in a television production with Harry, he told Harry how much he had admired his work. He said he had wanted to come backstage and compliment him at the time, but since he didn’t know him, he felt he might be intruding. Harry’s answer was he would have been very welcomed backstage. There was a paucity of visitors.
The EASY thing about Harry’s role was HE HAD NO LINES TO LEARN. Well, eventually -- one word.
I want to say something here about the music of Harry Sukman. He had composed the background score for all of the DR KILARE episodes I had directed. As a basis for his score there was the DR. KILDARE theme that Jerry Goldsmith, another veteran of PLAYHOUSE 90, had composed. Then Harry would also create another theme (in other words another melody) for the current story’s protagonist, in the case of this show a plaintive Jerry Hastings theme. Earlier when Harry had been signed to compose the score for Arena Productions’ new series, THE ELEVENTH HOUR, he had agonized with me over not being able to come up with a theme. It was as if he had used up all of the melodies in his head. When I was still on staff I had been very impressed with the theme he had created for an episode OH, MY DAUGHTER, a story involving Dr. Gillespie and his daughter. I suggested using that theme. After all it was a secondary melody in that show. It was not as if it was identifiable like a series theme. And I thought it was too good not to use. Harry agreed with me. And that’s how the ELEVENTH HOUR theme music was born.
Even dramas, maybe especially dramas need to have a lighter moment. I thought the Shaws had provided a delightful one that Ken Berry, a fellow interne at Blair, performed quite deliciously. Ken, incidentally was a sensational dancer.
HASTINGS’ FAREWELL provided another first for me. It was the first time I would go to an institution for research. In this case Peggy and Lou Shaw and I went to the Long Beach Naval Hospital to visit their Aphasia Unit. The Shaws then wrote the sequence where Kildare, now very involved in Jerry Hastings’ plight, goes to visit an Aphasia Unit. I consulted with my casting director, Jane Murray, and told her I wanted to cast our speech pathologist just like the one I had met. She was more like a fraternity house mother than a scientist. Jane loved the idea and that’s what we did.
Our speech pathologist was Betty Bronson, Peter Pan in the 1924 silent film, PETER PAN.
There was one unfortunate incident that occurred. The day before Betty was to work, it was thought our script might be short, and so the Shaws wrote an addition to the sequence. It was a page and a half of fairly complex medical dialog. Betty had the scene from the original material down cold. But the sheer volume of medical verbiage in the new material sent to her the night before filming caused problems. She had most of it, but there was one bit she kept stumbling over. We finally solved it by having her READ her lines from a cue card while I filmed a close-up of Mike with her hands on his head.
And HASTINGS’ FAREWELL provided another first for me -- my first location shooting.
I’m afraid that I was a pain in the you know where a lot of the time, asking for script changes. But there were a few times when I fought to avoid changes, to protect the script. Just before I was to shoot the Act III scene finale, a colored page came down from the story editor adding an additional line. I stormed into David Victor’s office and pleaded to leave the script alone. The added line diluted the power of the moment. David saw it my way, and the added line was eliminated.
Does Kildare give up? If you ask that, you obviously have not seen any Dr. Kildare episodes!
And remember the words about Irving Thalberg: “He didn’t make movies for people to see. He made movies for people to feel.” I guess I still believed those same words.
Fourteen years later I would return to the subject of aphasia. I was priveleged to direct the episode GRANDMA COMES HOME on THE WALTONS. Ellen Corby had had a stroke that kept her off the show for a year. This episode was her return to the series. Ellen had gone through intense therapy during that year. She was able to comprehend and with intense concentration speak a little. It was the reverse of the situation with Harry Guardino. He had to portray a person who couldn’t comprehend, who couldn’t speak. Ellen, who really couldn’t speak had to portray Grandma, who although limited in her speech, could speak. Stick around. I’ll be dealing with that episode in detail down the line.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Carolyn Jones was a true movie star. You knew it the moment she walked into a room. Or at least I knew it when she arrived at our production office. We had cast her in an episode of DR. KILDARE, and she had come in for a fitting. No, not a wardrobe fitting, a nose fitting. She was going to play Evy in Jerry McNeely’s drama about plastic surgery, THE MASK MAKERS. Jerry incidentally was a long distance screenwriter. He was a university professor in Michigan. His teleplay focused on Evy, a girl with a very large nose, who undergoes plastic surgery, and her emotional traumatic after effects. It was a teleplay that a few years earlier would have been written for STUDIO ONE or PHILCO PLAYHOUSE.
I don’t remember if we knew when we cast Carolyn that she had many years earlier undergone the same surgery. But she very conveniently and graciously brought photos of herself before her surgery to our meeting. We took her and the photos to the MGM make-up department, where they proceeded to construct a prosthetic to turn movie star Carolyn into plain, unattractive Evy. And I remember very vividly how Carolyn changed in the make-up chair. With the application of the new nose the movie star dimmed, as the woman who would soon enter our camera appeared.
It’s unfortunate this episode wasn’t in color. Charles Hagedon, our art director, designed a set for Evy’s apartment that was worthy of a top MGM feature production. The walls were painted charcoal gray with an accent wall of tomato red. He had two occasional chairs reupholstered in a gray and white wide-striped pillow ticking type material. And he brought from the MGM prop department a beautiful credenza that he had been wanting to use in a set for ages. He apologized for the fact that the colors of the credenza clashed with his gray and red color scheme. But he said since we were filming in black and white, it wouldn’t matter. But it did matter to Steve Potter, the set decorator. Charles very graciously conceded, and the credenza was replaced by another credenza of Steve ‘s choosing. This one blended into the set beautifully, and incidentally was equally magnificent. Oh that prop department!
Kildare’s hospital assignment determined the weekly episode’s story line. In THE MASK MAKERS he is assigned, against his wishes, to plastic surgery. And it just so happened that his close personal friend, Evy, was (conveniently) a candidate for that surgery.
And more interested than he had suspected. I wanted to show how serious she really was. Thus the drawing!
Evy visits the hospital and meets the plastic surgeon. Her lead-up to the surgery was a little less painful than my lead-up to the filming. You see I endured a documentary of a nose surgery. Filmed in EXTREME close-up! Thankfully not in color.
During lunch the day that Carolyn came to the studio for the nose fitting, she told me that her surgeon had told her that when she awakened after the surgery, she should not look in a mirror. So of course she did. I couldn’t wait to get back to the office to ask producer David Victor to add that scene to our story.
And here is where Jerry’s script took a darker turn. No ‘and the beautiful princess lived happily ever after.’
I’m sure it’s my theatre training, but I love entrances. On the stage (at least back in the old theatrical days) stars didn’t just appear. They MADE AN ENTRANCE! I remember Katharine Cornell’s first appearance in THAT LADY. There was a large archway up center looking out on a balcony. Miss Cornell swept into view from up left, looked upstage over the balcony wall, then turned into view to thunderous applause. I try to deliver my leading characters’ first appearance as an entrance whenever possible. I thought I gave Evy with a nose an entrance at the opening of the show. I considered Evy’s first appearance after the surgery to be a NEW character, worthy of an ‘entrance.’
Jerry’s script was more than the story of a nose job. With Kildare’s aversion to his assignment to plastic surgery turning into an appreciation of its benefits, he showed the field to be more important than a cosmetic process for the vain. And with his detailed step by step revealing of Evy’s emotional after-effects, he showed the inherent possible perils. And I was and am totally enamored of Carolyn’s performance.
And the possible depths to which the patient might fall.
I loved shooting scenes in the hospital corridors. Interesting angles. But being very new to the game, from my first show I arranged to have a pass into the studio on the weekend. I then spent time right on the sets planning my shots. I did this whenever possible for several years.
Harkie lit the corridors differently for day scenes and night scenes. I especially liked shooting night scenes there. Just as a couple decades earlier Judge Hardy had his man-to-man talks with young Andy, DR. KILDARE usually had a similar scene between our older and younger doctors.
But being a weekly happy series, naturally Kildare finally brings the lovers together for a happy (if not quite convincing) ending. For me my ending was more convincingly happy. This was my second DR. KILDARE assignment. I was booked to return in the fall for another assignment. And unbeknownst to me there was a visitor on the set who seven and a half years later would have a very strong effect on my career.