Monday, October 18, 2010

A JOURNEY TO SUNRISE - September 1964 (Dr. Kildare)

Stephen Bowie in his insightful (and at at times even inciteful) CLASSIC TV HISTORY blog recently wrote:

Also this year I’ve watched most of the fourth and penultimate season of NBC’s  Dr. Kildare, a once near-great doctor drama that slowly turned mushy and bland.  ... I can’t decide which episode is the series’ nadir: “A Journey to Sunrise,” a vanity piece that gives Raymond Massey (who co-starred as Kildare’s windbag boss Dr. Gillespie) a dual role as a dying Hemingway-esque writer, or “Rome Will Never Leave You,” a  prophetically titled, turtle-paced three-parter that contrives gooey romances for both Kildare and Gillespie during an Italian business trip.

I felt compelled to leave a comment on this posting.

Stephen, you may be being a bit hard on (producer) David Victor. True, what  you said about the fourth season of DR. KILDARE. I should know. I directed one of the shows you listed as the nadir of the series, and I agree.

Yes, I directed the series’ co-nadir, A JOURNEY TO SUNRISE.  It was my fifth and final association with DR. KILDARE.  The year before had seen my catapulting booking on Herbert Leonard’s ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY.  And my next assignment was THE FUGITIVE, the beginning of my long association with Quinn Martin Productions.  But the immediate problem was this JOURNEY, entitled at the time of production, A FAMILY OF SPARROWS.  The plot followed the usual format for the series starting with a patient being admitted to the hospital, but this patient arrived with an entourage.  I thought the family of sparrows accompanying him were a clone of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, but with a time warp problem; it was as if they had lost their way out of Oklahoma in the thirties and arrived at Blair Hospital in the sixites.

The patient, Graham Lanier, was a famous author.  He was the spine of the show and casting director Jane Murray and I very soon narrowed our short list down to James Whitmore and Lew Ayres.  My choice depended on whether I wanted to portray him Ernest Hemingwayesque (Whitmore)  or F. Scott Fitzgeraldish (Ayres).  I had already worked with James Whitmore the previous year on ARREST AND TRIAL, and I had met Lew Ayres socially.  I wanted a day or two before deciding, giving me time to evaluate, to visualize the script scene by scene as it would play both ways.  Large mistake!  While I was deliberating Associate Producer Doug Benton, came up with a suggestion: “We’ve been looking for a way to give Ray Massey more to do; why not have him be the guest star.”  And the tidal wave that that suggestion created totally swept over me and quite frankly sank the show.

The McConnell parents were played by Malcolm and Ellen Atterbury.  Seven years earlier I had directed them in a theatre production of Robert Anderson’s ALL SUMMER LONG; and Ellen had also appeared in my Equity Library Theatre West production of MORNING’S AT SEVEN.  They were very close friends.  Malcolm was a fascinating man.  He was from Philadelphia.  His family owned the Pennsylvania Railroad, but he wanted no part of the railroad businesss.  He and Ellen had had their own theatre company in upstate New York, which they left when they migrated to California in the fifties.  Malcolm told me on one of his early film interviews he was asked by the casting director (in a very condescending manner) whether he could ride a horse.  Malcolm simply replied that yes, he could;  his family had had its own stable of horses.

Let me make clear right off -- this was not a happy shoot.  I don’t absolve myself of all the blame for the show’s failure, but neither do I accept all of it.  It was a difficult script, loaded with dialogue that was sometimes poetic, sometimes verbose, a script fostering a hidden dark secret.  The clues to that secret were in Lanier’s speeches, but Massey’s portrayal veered more toward the John Brown fanatic he had played in the Errol Flynn starrer, SANTA FE TRAIL than to a sensitive, guilt-ridden author.  There was not much nuance or sensitivity in his bombast.

This production was my first experience with split screen, the process by which Raymond Massey as Dr. Gilleslpie could appear in a shot with Raymond Massey as Graham Lanier.  Today’s  sophisticated computer capabilities make what we did seem very primitive, and our antiquated process was very time-consuming.   (Don't forget this was being filmed on a six day schedule.)  The camera would be locked off, everything bolted down and  I would film the shot with Raymond Massey as Graham Lanier and a stand-in actor playing Dr. Gillespie.  Then we would wait for Massey to change makeup and wardrobe so we could film the same shot with him playing Gillespie and the stand-in playing Lanier.  (We couldn't film some other scene while we waited because the camera was locked off and couldn't be moved until we completed the split screen scene.)  Later in the lab the two halves of film with Massey in them would be merged.

Contributing to the already difficult situation, Massey felt that the following scene (written as a confrontation between young Dr. Kildare and Lanier) should be between Dr. Gillespie and Lanier.  Unfortunately the front office agreed,  and a scene that would have shown Kildare trying to solve the mystery of his pain-racked patient, that would have strengthened the bonding between the author and the young doctor, the scene became just another exercise in split screen.

I cry when I think of what that scene would have been with Richard Chamberlain and James Whitmore.

Finally there was a sequence with some visual activity, not just talking heads.

The hidden dark secret in the relationship of Lanier to the McConnell family, behind what was driving Lanier to insist on suffering pain rather than receiving morphine injections -- the time had come for that secret to be revealed.  

Most of this show took place in the hospital.  That was not unusual for a series in its advanced years.  Using standing sets, limiting extra sets and refraining from location work -- all these factors contributed to lowering the budget. We filmed the final scene, which needed to be an exterior, on MGM’s lot 3.  Today that area is a mass of apartments and condominiums.

Stephen Bowie also wrote in his blog on DR. KILDARE’s fourth season:

I am also partial to Christopher Knopf’s “Man Is a Rock,” a terrifying study of a heart attack victim (Walter Matthau) forced to confront his own mortality, and “Maybe Love Will Save My Apartment House,” a zany romp by Boris Sobelman, who wrote a handful of very funny black comedies for Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

You can read about MAYBE LOVE WILL SAVE MY APARTMENT HOUSE  in the archives to the right.  I also directed that one.

And this journey brought to a conclusion my involvement with the series that had started my journey in film.  I don’t think I realized it then; but all these years later I guess I wish I could have gone out with a bang, not a whimper.  But there were more bangs ahead -- and more whimpers!

Stephen Bowie’s CLASSIC TV HISTORY blog can be read at:

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