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“What a World”: Recreating Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles for “Farewell, My Lovely”

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To date, there have been eight attempts at bringing Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective Philip Marlowe to the big screen, and only two of them have been keepers, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, and Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely (1975), with Robert Mitchum in the role. The Big Sleep has been available on home video for decades, but it wasn’t until last month, more than 40 years after its theatrical release, that Farewell, My Lovely was finally given an authorized DVD release (by Shout! Factory). Just in time, too. It’s the perfect stocking stuffer for the film noir fanatic on your holiday gift list.

That’s because Farewell, My Lovely was Richards’ affectionate Valentine to the film noirs of the 1940s. A serious, faithful Valentine, not a spoof (like those unfunny 70s “comedies” The Black Bird and Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective) nor a post-modern deconstruction of the genre (like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves). As he explained it to me, Richards was determined to recreate the feel of the original film noirs from the first decade of the genre. (Albeit with Technicolor prints and relaxed censorship.) Richards was kind enough to allow me to interview him in connection with this article, which was fortunate because my on-line research yielded precious little information about the making of this film. (And what few factoids I found turned out to be false. More about those later.)

If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes provided the DNA that all subsequent fictional British detectives were descended from, Chandler’s Marlowe was its American equivalent. By his own admission, Chandler wasn’t the first writer to create believable detective fiction for pulp magazines that owed nothing to the British drawing room mysteries popularized by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers; Dashiell Hammett got there first.[1] As Chandler memorably put it in his celebrated essay The Simple Art of Murder: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley… Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”

Although Philip Marlowe is basically an idealization of what a heroic private detective should be, with his honesty, integrity, and well-defined code of honor (one that Chandler gladly admitted was a fantasy of his own imagination), it doesn’t change the fact that Marlowe is the mold that all subsequent fictional American detectives have been set from. Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee were particularly influenced by Marlowe, even down to the first-person narration peppered with wisecracks and wry observations about modern society.

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Robert Mitchum

It is the character of Marlowe that creates the biggest challenge for filmmakers trying to do justice to Chandler’s stories on the screen. While some of the other actors who attempted the role, such as Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, and Elliott Gould, had considerable acting chops, they still fell short of the standard set by Bogart and Mitchum. It’s not enough for an actor to be able to be convincing as a tough guy with a flair for flippancy to play Marlowe; most importantly, the actor has to exude an unmistakable sense of melancholy as Marlowe, one based on a longing for a better world without greed, fear, or corruption, a world where the rich and powerful aren’t free to ruin the lives of others who are defenseless against them. More than any of the other would-be Marlowes, Bogart and Mitchum embodied that tarnished idealism. Richards put it this way: “I’ve always said that Chandler had somebody like Mitchum in mind when he wrote Farewell. Tough guys at that time in film noir weren’t defined by muscles. They had ways of being tough and muscles wasn’t one of them… There was a certain melancholy they endured that gave them a reason for being a tough guy.”

The other main difficulty in adapting Chandler’s books for the screen is the incredible complexity of his plots. His convoluted plotting owed no little thanks to the fact that his first four novels were mash-ups of elements from the short stories he wrote at the start of his pulp career. (The reason that Hawks’ film version of The Big Sleep is so notorious for its confusing storyline is due mainly to a combination of plot elements changed or eliminated in accordance with the censorship code, Hawks’ own disregard for story exposition, and one infamous mistake on Chandler’s part.[2]) Once again, by his own admission, Chandler simply didn’t care about story construction or who did what to whom. As he expressed it, “I don’t care whether the mystery is fairly obvious but I do care about the people, about this strange, corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or just plain foolish.”[3]

But whatever shortcomings Chandler may have had in constructing his plots, he more than made up for them with his genius for writing dialogue. As an American with a classical education from Dulwich College in London, Chandler was a frustrated would-be poet who was drawn to pulp mystery fiction by the creative uses of slang he found in them. In a 1949 letter to Canadian journalist Alex Barris, Chandler explained his fascination with the language of the pulps: “[W]hen I use slang, colloquialisms, snide talk, or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself. I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language, and slang that you make up yourself.” [4]

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Robert Mitchum

Even filmmaker Billy Wilder, who was certainly no slouch when it came to writing dialogue himself, credited Chandler with coming up with the best lines in their screenplay for Wilder’s 1944 film adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Example: After the film’s protagonist takes a sip of iced tea, he mutters, “I wonder if a little rum would get this up on its feet.” Or in the novel Farewell, My Lovely, when Marlowe interrogates a quack doctor who runs a sleazy sanitarium, he says, “Remarks want you to make them. They have their tongues hanging out waiting to be said.” [5]

Farewell, My Lovely (1940), which followed Chandler’s first novel The Big Sleep (1939), is arguably Chandler’s best work,[6] because it has his most straightforward plot, in which Marlowe is hired by a hulking ex-con to find his long-lost girlfriend. Although Marlowe’s investigation leads to the usual detours and false leads, the entire mystery revolves around a single question: Where is Velma Valento? Once the answer is provided at the end of the story, all of the other pieces of the puzzle fall neatly into place. (Or as Mitchum’s Marlowe puts it at the end of the film, “Now it all makes sense, everything.”)

Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely was the third time Chandler’s novel had been filmed. The first version, made in 1942, titled The Falcon Takes Over, dropped the character of Marlowe altogether. It was the third entry in RKO’s low-budget series of programmers based on Michael Arlen’s debonair sleuth The Falcon, with George Sanders’ Falcon filling in for Marlowe, and the setting changed from Los Angeles to New York City.

Since they already owned the film rights to Chandler’s novel, RKO agreed to remake the story two years later at the urging of actor Dick Powell, who was desperate to shed his baby-faced male ingénue image and thought that Marlowe was the perfect role to achieve that goal.[7] (Powell had tried to escape his typecasting earlier that year when he campaigned for the lead in Double Indemnity, but Wilder had an even more unlikely male ingénue in mind, Fred MacMurray.) Since Powell was so associated with musicals and light comedies, the RKO suits decided to rename the film Murder, My Sweet for the US market. (In the UK, where, thanks to the Brits’ devotion to the mystery genre, Chandler’s name was a bigger draw than Powell’s, the film retained the original title Farewell, My Lovely.)

The wheels were set into motion for Richards’ version when Hollywood producer Elliott Kastner obtained the film rights to three of Chandler’s novels from his estate in the early 1970s.[8] The first one Kastner produced was Robert Altman’s 1973 film version of The Long Goodbye. This was set in modern Los Angeles rather than the novel’s original setting 20 years earlier, mainly because it was cheaper than shelling out for period costumes, props, and sets. In fact, Altman decided to turn a possible liability into an asset by building the entire film around the concept of Marlowe being an anachronism in 70s LA.

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Robert Mitchum

Kastner decided to make Farewell, My Lovely his second Chandler adaptation, and that’s where Richards, a former photographer turned filmmaker, came in. “A version of Farewell was presented to me by Elliot Kastner with a contemporary script,” Richards told me. “I turned it down, giving Kastner the option of my doing it if he would let me make it a film noir movie and keep it in that period.” Kastner gave in to that provision and Richards agreed to direct the film mainly because, as he put it, “the motivation really was working with Robert Mitchum.” (By the way, many sources claim that Richard Burton was the first choice to play Marlowe, including the usual suspects Wikipedia and the IMDB, but Richards shot that down. “I have never heard about Richard Burton being thought of, but that may have happened during the period of the contemporary script that I turned down. When presented, Mitchum was a yes by everybody, even though some commented that he wasn’t box office anymore.”)

Richards’ next step was bringing in David Zelag Goodman to write the screenplay. Goodman’s previous credits had included Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), and he would go on to script two of Richards’ subsequent films, March or Die (1977) and Man, Woman and Child (1983). They set their version of Farewell, My Lovely in 1941, so that they could reinforce the period setting by making Marlowe a baseball fan following Joe DiMaggio’s famous hitting streak of that year. “David Goodman and I had worked on various scripts and I had felt that I wanted to have this version of Farewell stamped with a time-mark,” Richards said. “Goodman, not me, came up with the Joe DiMaggio hitting streak. By the way, he was a crazy New York Yankees fan and could recite the complete Yankee rosters from 1927 on.” 

The early 40s setting required a top-rate team of designers to recreate the look of the period and Richards’ commissioned two of the best in the business, production designer Dean Tavoularis (who’d already worked on Chinatown, another period detective mystery set in LA) and art director Angelo Graham. “Tavoularis and Graham were my heroes. They understood the period and they found every location, and since we never went into a studio, that was a great asset… [They] had a team of Los Angelinos help find the locations. We even went as far as Long Beach to shoot, and we were lucky enough at the time to find enough areas that were still in the style of the period. Both Tavoularis and Graham were born and raised, I believe, in Los Angeles and they knew the areas to send the scouts to.”

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Robert Mitchum

For a cinematographer to capture his vision of the story, Richards brought in another alumnus from Polanski’s Chinatown, John Alonzo. One of the distinctions of the picture’s cinematography was its use of a film stock known as Fujifilm to give the picture’s neon-soaked hues a faded, stylized look, kind of like a color equivalent of black and white photography. “Having been a photographer before a director, I experimented with different films, trying to find a film that would offer a bit of grain that I felt would achieve the period look. I believe Farewell was the first feature film ever shot with Fujifilm in America. At that time, Fujifilm had been used to make prints to send to theaters. The film stock helped, but the tones were really brought out by Dean Tavoularis, who chose the colors to imitate the feel of black and white.” The combined efforts of Tavoularis, Graham, and Alonzo more than succeeded in establishing the period look. More than any other film adaptation of Chandler’s work, even more than Hawks’ The Big Sleep (which was filmed entirely on studio sets even though the actual locations were just outside the Warner Brothers lot), Richards’ picture looks just like the Los Angeles invoked by its author.

Another invaluable member of the creative team was composer David Shire, whose haunting and evocative jazz score was one of the film’s greatest assets. Like Bernard Herrmann, Shire’s best work was done in the thriller and fantasy genres. Shire’s two most notable credits before Farewell, My Lovely were both thrillers, his minimalist solo piano jazz score for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and his throbbing, pulse-pounding jazz/rock fusion score for Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (also 1974). Shire’s masterpiece would come a decade after Farewell, his gorgeous symphonic score for Walter Murch’s underrated fantasy Return to Oz (1985).

Shire’s music perfectly enhanced Tavoularis and Graham’s period recreation. Shire also got into the spirit of the mystery genre by providing a major clue to the solution of the puzzle in his score. (And, no, I won’t spoil the mystery by pointing out that clue. You’ll have the see—and hear—the movie for yourself.) In addition, Shire complimented Richards’ homage to the classic film noirs by providing his own homage to their composers. “Mrs. Grayle’s Theme,” a sultry romantic melody for strings and horns, was Shire’s tribute to David Raksin’s iconic theme for Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). The music accompanying the climatic sequence where Marlowe and his client take a nocturnal speedboat ride to an off-limits gambling yacht (cheekily titled “Take Me to Your Lido” on the soundtrack LP), with its emphasis of aggressive, militaristic percussion and blaring horns, was Shire’s homage to Miklos Rozsa, whose scores graced many of the classic film noirs, such as Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), and Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947). And best of all was Shire’s “Marlowe’s Theme,” a sad, melancholy blues lament utilizing a background for strings with solos for Dick Nash’s trombone and Ronny Lang’s saxophone, the perfect accompaniment for Robert Mitchum’s Marlowe.

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Robert Mitchum

Mitchum was born to play Philip Marlowe. The suits might’ve been skeptical about Mitchum’s box office appeal at the time, but 1973-75 had been banner years for him. Farewell, My Lovely was the third of three superlative crime thrillers he’d made during that period, following Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and Sydney Pollock’s The Yakuza (1974). (Talk about a winning streak….) As riveting as the young feral Mitchum of the 1940s and 50s had been, the older, sadder-but-wiser Mitchum of the 1970s was even more fascinating. He rivaled another iconic Hollywood star, Spencer Tracy, when it came to the art of underacting. Mitchum’s casual, laidback approach also extended to his attitude on the set as well. In a 1971 interview with film historian Stuart M. Kaminsky for his book Don Siegel: Director (Curtis Books, 1974), justly celebrated filmmaker Siegel described his experience of working with Mitchum on their 1949 collaboration, a RKO low-budget semi-comic crime thriller called The Big Steal. “I discovered that [Mitchum] was a personality actor. He gave out very little in his performance so that when people acted with him, they seemed to be overdoing it. He also put on an act, like Peter Lorre, pretending that he never studied his lines. He’d mumble that he never saw the scene before, stumble through it once, and then do it perfectly… I think he’s much more serious about his work than he lets on. It’s an affectation on his part that he just doesn’t care.”

When I told Richards about Siegel’s description of Mitchum, he laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s Mitchum exactly.” He then added his own recollections of working with Mitchum. “Mitchum was well-read with a sensational sense of humor. He would pick up on any little peccadillo and make fun of it. Sometimes it was difficult to take, but when you thought carefully about it, it became funny. One day we were running two hours late, and I asked Mitchum to help out and stay late because we had a large group of extras and it would be really expensive to bring them back. He asked me to get one of the ‘Magnificent Seven,’ which is what he called the producers since so many were given credit on the film, to find out if it was okay with the crew to work late. This one producer, not Jerry Bruckheimer, came back five minutes later and said that it would be no problem with the crew. When Mitchum came on the set, he told the crew, ‘Haven’t you guys got homes? Working late? Is that the way you get to stay away from your old lady?’ Everyone in the crew laughed, but one of the grips said, ‘We never said we wanted to work late.’ Mitchum then went up to the producer and said, ‘Get some coffee for me. Make it a little milk, two sugars.’ It was his way of reducing the producer to a messenger in front of the crew.”

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Robert Mitchum

The overall tone of Farewell, My Lovely is set immediately with Shire’s main theme accompanying the opening credits, which are superimposed over actual footage of 1940s Los Angeles tinted in soft jukebox colors. The atmosphere evoked continues with the film’s opening shot: Marlowe looking regretfully through the window of a seedy hotel with a drink in his hand and the hotel’s neon sign reflected in the window pane. (The same image was adapted for the publicity artwork.) The script’s first lines are the beginning of Marlowe’s voiceover narration.

“This past spring was the first that I’d felt tired and realized I was growing old. Maybe it was the rotten weather we’d had in LA. Maybe it was the rotten cases I’d had, mostly chasing a few missing husbands and then chasing their wives once I’d found them, in order to get paid. Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am tired and growing old. The only real pleasure I’d had at all was following Joe DiMaggio, belting the apple at an incredible clip for the New York Yankees. Well, it’s the middle of July now and things are worse than they were in the spring. In the spring, I wasn’t stuck in a dingy hotel ducking the police.”

Marlowe decides the time is right to call in some law, specifically his old friend Lieutenant Detective Nulty of the LA Homicide Squad, played by another familiar film noir actor, John Ireland. (Richards: “A real veteran. I never had to say much to Ireland. He completely understood what I was going for.”) As instructed, Nulty comes to the hotel room alone to listen to Marlowe’s story, signaling the start of the extended flashback that comprises the bulk of the film’s 95-minute running time.

“I was working on a twenty-five dollar-a-day breeze trying to locate a fifteen-year-old runaway from Carmel. An honor student, majoring in men. She had all ‘A’s, but none of them on her report card. She had only one other interest, dancing.”

The film fades to a dime-a-dance joint where the customers crowd the floor accompanied by a band and singer performing Jule Styne and Sammy Kahn’s 40s hit “I’ve Heard That Song Before.” Marlowe finds the bratty teenager (Noelle North) there and threatens to take her out of there, “Look, would you like to dance your way out, you wanna walk out, or would you rather be carried out? It makes no difference to me.” She opts for exiting the place without putting up a fuss.

As he takes her to the limo where her wealthy parents await her after missing “a marvelous dinner party” to come get her, they are followed out of the dance hall by Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran), the enormous hulk of a man who will soon be Marlowe’s next client. (According to Richards, O’Halloran was “a natural to play Moose. An ex-boxer and defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles. Being 6 foot 7 and weighing 250 pounds, Moose was a good name for him. He was a natural actor. This was his first movie and Mitchum helped me give him the confidence he needed.” Richards also told me that the rumors that O’Halloran’s lines had been dubbed by another actor were unfounded.)

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Jack O’Halloran & Robert Mitchum

The Moose starts to introduce himself to Marlowe, but a car rides past and a punk in a cowboy hat (Burton Gilliam) inside takes pot shots at them while they duck down behind a bus stop bench. The car speeds away, but the Moose isn’t the least bit fazed. As Marlowe’s narration puts it, “He didn’t bat an eye. Fear wasn’t built into his giant frame.” Moose tells Marlowe that he wants to hire him. He just got out of the stir after a seven-year stretch for armed robbery. (“The Great Bend Bank robbery. Eighty grand. I did it solo. Ain’t that something?”) His first priority is finding his old girlfriend Velma Valento. “I ain’t seen her in seven years, She ain’t wrote in six,” Moose explains. Marlowe decides to play along and accompanies the Moose to the last place Moose knew where Velma worked, a seedy dive called Florian’s on Central Avenue.

Marlowe: “Hey, this is a colored neighborhood, man. It’s been that way for a long time.”[9]

Moose: “Let’s you and me go on up and maybe nibble a couple. They might know something about my Velma.”

Marlowe: “Now how the hell would they know anything? It’s a colored joint.”

Moose: (grabbing Marlowe by the arm, insisting) “Let’s you and me go on up, huh?”

Marlowe: “Okay, but leave off carrying me, will you? I can walk by myself. I’m all grown up now. I go to the bathroom by myself and everything.”

The two of men head into Florian’s to the stares of the exclusively black patrons there. (The wonderfully dingy barroom is one of Tavoularis and Graham’s best touches.) The bar’s bouncer (Dino Washington) tries to chase them out of there (“No white boys here, fellas. Just for the coloreds.”), but when he plants a right cross on the Moose’s chin, it doesn’t register, and the Moose picks him up and flings him across the room onto a table top, completely incapacitating him. The bartender (Harry Caesar) tells the Moose that the bar’s owner Mr. Montgomery, who’s over at the pool table, would be the one to question about his girl. As the Moose saunters over to back section of the bar, Marlowe asks the bartender if he’s armed.

Bartender: “Got me a sawed-off.”

Marlowe: (sarcastic tone) “That’s illegal. Besides, I don’t think that would stop him anyway—“

A shot rings out. Marlowe runs to the back section to find the Moose with his hands wrapped around the neck of the late Mr. Montgomery, kicking away the gun Montgomery had tried to shoot him with. Seeing as it’s a clear case of self-defense, Marlowe advises the Moose to take a powder. Before taking off, the Moose gives Marlowe a retainer fee.

“The fifty bucks felt snug against my ribs. The joint had emptied out, so I called you, Nulty, and had a few drinks. Mr. Montgomery didn’t seem to mind.”

This entire sequence in Florian’s was taken almost verbatim from the opening two chapters of Chandler’s book. The scene had been seriously botched in the previous two film versions. In The Falcon Takes Over, the seedy bar became a swanky nightclub, and in Murder, My Sweet, the seedy bar was still a seedy bar, but, in both cases, the clientele was exclusively white, making the scene a lot less memorable.

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Sylvia Miles & Robert Mitchum

The next step of Marlowe’s investigation is to locate the former owner of Florian’s. At the fleabag across the street from the bar, Marlowe finds Tommy Ray (Walter McGinn), a white jazz musician, with a black wife and child, who’d played at Florian’s before his marriage had gotten him driven out of his profession. Ray gives Marlowe the address to the decrepit old house where Florian’s widow, Jessie (Sylvia Miles), lives. (Richards: “Everybody agreed on Sylvia Miles without question.” Miles was the recipient of the film’s only Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.) Jesse Florian is an over-the-hill ex-showgirl who usually spends her dreary days listening to the obviously new and expensive radio in her living room, but she gladly accepts the pint of whisky Marlowe brought with him and tries to flirt with him over drinks while he tries to pump her for information.

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Robert Mitchum, John Ireland & Harry Dean Stanton

From there, the trail Marlowe follows in search of Velma leads him to several other people who have connections, either close or marginal, to his quest. Among them are Detective Billy Rolfe (Harry Dean Stanton), Nulty’s corrupt weasel of an assistant (Richards: “Stanton is by far one of the best actors Hollywood has ever produced. He got along great with Mitchum, even though they were adversaries in the film.”); Lindsay Marriott (John O’Leary), a fey gigolo who hires Marlowe to help him ransom a jade necklace stolen from a lady friend, and winds up battered to death with a sap after Marlowe is knocked out by the assailants; Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe), a smooth gangster who has lots of political muscle due to the cops and city officials on his payroll (Richards: “A deservedly well thought of actor who didn’t need me to say very much. He too understood what I was going for.”); Frances Amthor (Kate Murtagh), the tough lesbian madam of one of LA’s most frequented whorehouses[10] (Richards: “She was a person I had once interviewed for a commercial I was shooting and I never forgot her. Kate was a real trooper. I never really thought she was happy to have played a madam, but at the end of the shoot she came up to me and thanked me.”); Judge Baxter Wilson Grayle (played by famous pulp novelist and screenwriter Jim Thompson), a wealthy ex-jurist who’s also one of LA’s major players and is noted for his priceless jade collection (Richards: “Thompson was, of course, one of the fathers of film noir, and he was gracious enough to become Judge Grayle for me. Of course I was honored.”); and, most importantly, Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling), the Judge’s promiscuous young wife (Richards: “Rampling was Elliot Kastner’s great idea.”).[11]

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Charlotte Rampling

When it was first released, it seemed as though Farewell, My Lovely was going to be a box office disappointment. “It was opened in mid-August,” Richards told me, “possibly one of the worst times to bring out a film. Then it opened in New York to great reviews and business.” “It is, indeed, the most evocative of all the private detective movies we have had in the last few years,” Roger Ebert raved. “Farewell, My Lovely is a great entertainment and a celebration of Robert Mitchum’s absolute originality.” Richards is still particularly proud of Rex Reed’s review, where he said, “Farewell, My Lovely is the kind of movie Bogart would stand in line to see.”[12]

In the end, Farewell, My Lovely did good enough overall business to allow Richards to get approval to make March or Die, an excellent attempt to revive the Foreign Legion adventure genre that failed to repeat Farewell, My Lovely’s success at the box office. After three more pictures, the last being Heat (1986), a disastrous collaboration between Richards and star Burt Reynolds that left both men regretting the experience, and an equally disastrous encounter with Dustin Hoffman over a script Richards hoped to direct, Richards decided to retire from the film industry and moved to New York. [13] 

Another result of Farewell, My Lovely being a surprise hit was Elliott Kastner’s decision to make a third Chandler film with Mitchum repeating his role as Marlowe, the first and only time that an actor has played Marlowe twice for the big screen. This next film would also be a remake, a second filming of The Big Sleep. Unfortunately, Kastner failed to learn the lesson of Richards’ approach and opted once again to give the story a contemporary setting. To add injury to insult, Kastner also decided to save even more money by moving the story from Los Angeles to London and assigned notorious hack Michael Winner to write and direct the picture. Not surprisingly, Winner’s The Big Sleep (1978) opened to universally negative reviews and sank without a trace. To say this turkey came nowhere near the quality of Hawks’ original or Richards’ take on Chandler would be, to quote Joss Whedon’s script for the pilot of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, “an understatement of epic proportions.”

The long-awaited DVD of Farewell, My Lovely, produced by Timeless Media Group and released by Shout! Factory, features a pristine widescreen transfer. The only extras, however, are two original theatrical trailers.

When I first began work on this article, I reached out to my friends in the film historian community for any info they could provide me with. (Special thanks to Dwayne Epstein, author of Lee Marvin: Point Blank, for pointing me to Dick Richards’ personal website.) I’m happy to report that Richards has been extremely gratified to hear about how many people are still interested in his work and his best film. 

 

[1] I suppose it can be argued that Jonathan Latimer “got there first” with his cynical detective character Bill Crane, but, as entertaining as it is, Latimer’s writing is crude with virtually none of Hammett or Chandler’s nuance and artistry and, therefore, wasn’t even close to matching their influence on future writers.

[2] In tying up The Big Sleep’s loose ends, Chandler had forgotten to provide the solution to one of the murders. He wasn’t aware of his mistake until Hawks sent him a telegram asking who’d committed the murder. Chandler admitted that he didn’t know. A hack filmmaker probably would’ve “corrected” the mistake, but it’s a testament to Hawks’ genius that he decided that, if the murder wasn’t solved in the book, it wouldn’t be solved in his film version.

[3]Raymond Chandler Speaking, ed. by Dorothy Gardiner and Katherine Sorley Walker, Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

[4] Also collected in Raymond Chandler Speaking.

[5] Unfortunately, this wonderful line is missing from Richards’ film version. In the movie, the sanitarium became a brothel, and, frankly, the equivalent line was pretty lame: “What’s the matter? Cat house got your tongue?”

[6] Although The Long Goodbye (1953) is widely considered to be Chandler’s masterpiece (it’s certainly his most ambitious work), for many others it falls short of Farewell, My Lovely’s succinctness and stronger story. 

[7] While Chandler liked Powell’s Marlowe and thought he looked pretty much as he imagined the character, he never said that he thought that Powell was the screen’s best Marlowe, despite Pauline Kael’s false assertions. Chandler’s personal favorite among the films based on his work in his lifetime was Hawks’ The Big Sleep. As he said in a 1946 letter to his publisher Hamish Hamilton (also collected in Raymond Chandler Speaking), “When and if you see the film of The Big Sleep… you will realize what can be done with this sort of story by a director with the gift of atmosphere and the requisite touch of hidden sadism. Bogart, of course, is also so much better than any other tough-guy actor. As we say here, Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also he has a sense of humour [note the British spelling] that contains that grating undertone of contempt. [Alan] Ladd is hard, bitter, and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article.”

[8] As a producer, Kastner was a notoriously ruthless bully who alienated many of the people he worked with. The story goes that a British film director was talking to a friend and said, “You’ll never believe who I just saw walking down the street. I saw—pardon my language—Elliott Kastner.”

[9] Modern adherents of political correctness might object to the terms used in the film for blacks and gays, but the language is faithful to the period. Terms more acceptable these days would’ve been incongruous in that 40s setting.

[10] One of Amthor’s henchmen was played by a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. Richards cast him because “I needed a tough guy and Stallone had the looks and ability.”

[11] The scene introducing Rampling in the film (Helen Grayle descending a circular staircase as she shoots a seductive look at Marlowe) was recreated as a shot-for-shot parody in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), the first entry in the cop genre satires by the team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrams, and David Zucker.

[12] There were some pans, of course. But Jay Cocks’ negative review for Time Magazine is particularly notable for its sheer pettiness. One of Cocks’ complaints was that the Grayle mansion, which Chandler described as “rather gray for California”, was red brick in the movie. He also objected to Marlowe’s line “What a world,” asserting that Chandler would have never used “such a hackneyed phrase.” However, the line “What a world” was in the novel, only it isn’t spoken by Marlowe, but by Marlowe’s semi-girlfriend Anne Riordan, a character who was cut from the movie.

[13] Please pardon the extraordinary length of this endnote, but in answer to my questions about his withdrawal from the Hollywood scene, Richards explained the circumstances to me in detail: “I found a script titled Would I Lie to You? It was optioned, and brought to my attention by Bob Kauffman, a comedy writer; one of his films was Love at First Bite. He felt I should develop the script, which later became Tootsie. I watched myself immerse into the project. I had heard stories from Ulu Grosbard, a director who had a major dispute with Dustin; friends from England, who told me hair-raising stories about the making of Agatha; and Phil Feldman, who was in charge of First Artists/Warner Brothers. Phil, who produced The Wild Bunch and was somebody I highly respected, had lunch with me and told me about the litigation that Dustin brought about and felt that, as a friend, he had to warn me. I told him “Thanks, but quite honestly Dustin would never let me direct Tootsie since he would probably want an Academy Award-winning director to deal with.” I stayed on and did as much as I could as producer of Tootsie. I then realized, unlike the 70s, it was getting tougher to get a film done, even though I had an original script that Bob Kauffman and I felt was going to be easy to get made. It was called Daniel of New York, about a hairdresser from Queens. At the time, we felt John Travolta was our first choice for the lead. We floundered when he didn’t commit immediately. Having four kids who were born in New York that I somehow kept out of the drug culture that invaded the high schools in Hollywood, I didn’t mind having more time with my family. I got a more than generous multi-year contract to direct Wilford Brimley in commercials for Quaker Oats. What was to be a two-year period turned out to be five. I watched my kids grow up in New York and was able to send them to Ivy League schools. I became part of a group of New York film people that included Sydney Lumet, Bob Fosse, Budd Schulberg, Sam Cohn, Peter Maas and Arthur Penn. We all had a certain feeling that didn’t include the idea of living in Hollywood. I have been living in New York and have continued to work steadily. I still enjoy being called upon to fill in for directors when needed. I have also continued to write and, at this time, I hope to bring to Broadway a play I have written about Hollywood called Turnaround.

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (Special Halloween Double Feature): “Doctor X” (1932) and “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933)

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“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

It’s doesn’t take a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient to figure out why the horror movie genre first flourished during the Great Depression. When the things that scare the hell out of the average person are life-changing events like losing one’s job or home or, in some extreme cases, life (due to starvation, illness, or suicide), it’s understandable why movie audiences would seek cathartic thrills in the frights provided by supernatural menaces they would never encounter in real life, such as vampires, werewolves, or man-made monsters.

It was Universal Pictures that virtually invented horror pictures with the one-two punch of Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein (both 1931). However, as film historian Carlos Clerens stated in his seminal 1967 book An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, “Warner Brothers loomed large as Universal’s most serious rival, at least in the first years of the vogue.” Warners’ first two horror pictures (also both 1931) were starring vehicles for the great John Barrymore,[1] Archie Mayo’s Svengali and Michael Curtiz’s The Mad Genius. (Svengali is an especially memorable film with one of Barrymore’s finest film performances.) Both of these pictures were definitely in the European Gothic mode established by Universal.

But for their next two horror movies, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, both directed by Curtiz), Warners decided to up the ante, photographing them in Technicolor, which then was still utilizing the original two-strip process (the first instances of using color cinematography for this genre). In addition, these next two efforts would be the first “modern” horror pictures, both set in contemporary New York City and, typical of Warners’ output of the period, reflecting the economic realities of the Depression. (The heroes in both movies, played by Lee Tracy in the former and Glenda Farrell in the latter, are newspaper reporters who are forced to risk their lives pursuing dangerous stories under threat of losing their jobs.)

The cynical wise-cracking newshound would eventually become one of the most oft-repeated clichés of the horror genre, but in these initial instances, the characters were unique and genuinely amusing, thanks mainly to the expert comedy chops of Tracy and Farrell, and the crackling dialogue provided by scenarists Earl Baldwin and Robert Tasker (Doctor X), and Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson (Wax Museum). Lee Tracy practically created the smart-ass reporter archetype when he played the role of Hildy Johnson in the 1928 Broadway premiere of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s iconic newspaper comedy The Front Page. After that triumph, Tracy spent most of his career type-cast as reporters or publicity flacks or other similar fast-talking roles. A few months before Doctor X, Tracy had the best role of his Hollywood career as gossip columnist Alvin Roberts (the movies’ first, but by no means last, caricature of Walter Winchell) in Roy Del Ruth’s screamingly funny black comedy Blessed Event.

Before Wax Museum, Glenda Farrell’s most notable roles at Warners were in two dramatic classics directed by Mervyn LeRoy, in an atypical ingénue role in Little Caesar (1931) and in a much more typical role as the alcoholic floozy who blackmails Paul Muni into a loveless marriage in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). Mystery of the Wax Museum was the first movie that revealed Farrell’s considerable gifts as a comedienne and had a major influence on her subsequent film career as well as leading to her own ‘B’ mystery franchise as reporter Torchy Blane. (Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went on record as saying that Farrell’s performances in the Torchy Blane films were their inspiration for the character of Lois Lane.) Almost forty years later, the smart-assed, monster-hunting reporter archetype would come full circle in the person of burned-out, middle-aged but indefatigable scandal monger Carl Kolchak, thanks to writer Richard Matheson and actor Darren McGavin, in the hit 1971 made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker, which spawned a sequel and its own weekly series.

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In place of Barrymore, these next Warners horror flicks featured leading performances by two actors making their debuts in the genre they would be linked with for the rest of their lives, Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Not surprisingly, Wray played the damsel-in-distress in both films, the type of role she would best remembered for, particularly in King Kong (1933). Atwill’s roles in the films under discussion were quite different. In Doctor X, he played the title part of Dr. Xavier, noted scientist and father of Wray’s character. Despite some sinister dialogue and camera angels, he was an obvious red herring designed to draw attention from the real villain of the piece. However, in Wax Museum, Atwill had the role of his career as the story’s demented fiend, wax sculptor Ivan Igor. As film historian William K. Everson pointed out in his 1974 book Classics of the Horror Film, Ivan Igor was the type of villain role usually played by Boris Karloff, an initially completely sympathetic character “driven to madness and revenge by the greed and stupidity of others.”

Another notable contributor to both films was Anton Grot, the innovative set designer who was head of the Warner Brothers Studio Art Department from 1927 to 1948. Grot’s deliberately stylized sets influenced Warner’s visual style immensely. “I for one do not like extremely realistic sets,” Grot once said, “I am for simplicity and beauty and you can achieve that only be creating an impression.”[2] This approach dovetailed perfectly with Curtiz’s distinctive visual style which was formed from his days in Vienna in the mid-1920s, making films in the German Expressionist tradition of the period. (Curtiz used Grot extensively while they were both at Warners.) Cinematographer Ray Rennehan’s color photography in these two films also enhanced the surrealism of the visuals.

Just as Roland West’s 1930 thriller The Bat Whispers was filmed in two versions, widescreen and normal Academy ratio, Doctor X was likewise filmed twice, in Technicolor and black-and-white. The color version was shown only during opening engagements in major cities, whereas the black-and-white version was the one that most of the country saw. The suits at the Technicolor company weren’t happy with this approach, however, so Mystery of the Wax Museum was only filmed and released in Technicolor. (The use of color was so integral to the film that shooting an alternate version in black-and-white would’ve been pointless anyway.) Eventually, both films were forgotten by the general moviegoing public, replaced in popular memory by the slicker, more elaborate horror pictures that came later. (Wax Museum, of course, became completely overshadowed by its more profitable but inferior 3-D 1953 remake, Andre De Toth’s House of Wax, which became a cult favorite due mainly to Vincent Price’s performance in Atwill’s role.)

For decades, Mystery of the Wax Museum and the Technicolor version of Doctor X were considered irretrievably lost, with just the black-and-white version of Doctor X surviving. But, in 1970, a 35mm nitrate Technicolor print of Mystery of the Wax Museum was discovered in Jack Warner’s personal vault at Warner’s Burbank lot. As well documented by Everson, Wax Museum unfortunately received a rushed restoration job that botched the Technicolor hues and failed to retain the original vibrancy of the colors. (The result looked like a badly colorized version of a black-and-white movie.) After Warner’s death in 1978, a Technicolor print of Doctor X was found in his personal collection and received a far superior restoration job in 1986 by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, providing modern audiences with a better idea of what the movie originally looked like.

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In Doctor X, a serial killer, who strangles his victims, then cannibalizes their bodies, is stalking New York, but only during a full moon. (The recurring shots of a full moon glowing through the clouds against the background of an emerald green sky are among the film’s most memorable use of Technicolor.) In the opening scene, reporter Lee Taylor (Tracy) is prowling the city wharfs looking for news—any news—when he stumbles onto a possible scoop. He spots a couple of police officials escorting a renowned scientist into a waterfront morgue. He tries to get past the plainclothesman (Tom Dugan) guarding the door, but with little success.

Cop: “Only stiffs go in there tonight.”

Lee: “No kidding?”

Cop: “No kidding.”

Lee: “What’s keepin’ you out?”

Lee then heads for the nearest pay phone, which, this definitely being a pre-Code picture, is located in a nearby cathouse. After trading some banter with the resident madam (played by none other than Mae Busch, best remembered by Laurel & Hardy fans as various villainesses or the shrewish Mrs. Hardy), Lee calls into his paper’s night editor (Selmer Jackson).

Lee: “Give me the night desk, please… Yeah. Willard Keefe… Yeah, this is Lee Taylor. I’m down at the Mott Street Morgue. Just now they bring in the body of an old scrubwoman murdered under very peculiar circumstances… No, they won’t let me see it. I can’t get any dope. Police—” (ogling an attractive prostitute walking by) “Very good.” (back into phone) “I say very—what? I say I can’t get any dope on it. Police orders. Just now, Stevens, O’Halloran, and a guy named Dr. Xavier arrived. Something’s doing.”

Keefe: “Yeah, I’ve heard that one, too.”

Lee: “Listen, you lunkhead, I’m not clowning. Look out the window, will you?”

Keefe:  “What do you mean, the moon?”

Lee:  “Certainly, I mean the moon. I’m laying 10 bucks to a dime it’s another Moon Killer murder.”

Keefe: “Well, that’s different. Now, listen, Lee, stick right on it.”

Lee: “Fine.”

By impersonating a corpse under a sheet, Lee’s able to learn that the evidence points to the killer being someone associated with Xavier’s Academy of Surgical Research, the prime suspects being one of four scientists: Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), an expert on cannibalism whose lower left arm has been replaced by a cosmetic prosthetic; Dr. Haines (John Wray, no relation to Fay), who was once suspected of cannibalism when he and two other scientists were cast adrift for several weeks in a lifeboat and one of the men disappeared before their rescue; Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), an expect on lunar studies researching the effects of moonlight on peoples’ psychology; and Dr. Duke (Harry Baresford), a paraplegic dependent on wheelchair and crutches who was the other surviving scientist in the lifeboat incident. (Even from just these brief descriptions, any dedicated fans of mystery fiction should’ve already figured out who the guilty party is!)

Annex - Wray, Fay (Doctor X)_01S Lee Tracy, Fay Wray

Xavier is granted 48 hours by the police to conduct his own investigation before they give the story to the newspapers, a promise that becomes moot after Lee exposes the deal. Then Lee scams his way past the maid into Xavier’s home where he “meets cute” with Joanne Xavier (Wray) when she catches him red-handed swiping photos of her and her father. Needless to say, Lee’s immediately smitten and makes some clumsy attempts at flirting with Joanne. For the rest of the picture, they carry on the type of light semi-affectionate sparring that would become so prevalent in the screwball comedy genre established just a couple of years later.

Lee: “Are you going swimming with me in the morning?”

Joanne: “No, thanks. Good night.”

Lee: “What will you do if I start to sink and yell for help?”

Joanne: “Throw you an anvil. Good night.”

docteur-x-1932-01-g Harry Beresford, John Wray, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Lionel Atwill

Running at just 76 minutes, Doctor X is divided into a traditional three-act structure. Act One, the first half-hour, takes place entirely in New York City. Act Two, the second half-hour, moves the action to a remote mansion located at Long Island’s Blackstone Shoals, where Xavier hopes to continue his personal investigation. (In what would become another oft-repeated horror film cliché, this sinister old mansion resides on a cliff overlooking the ocean.) Per theatrical tradition, Act Two concludes with another murder. Finally, in Act Three, the last two-reels, the movie kicks into high gear, particularly when, in the picture’s most justly celebrated sequence, the villain transforms himself into a monster with the aid of electricity and a creepily ghoulish invention he calls “synthetic flesh.”

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Providing a plot synopsis for Mystery of the Wax Museum is practically superfluous since most film enthusiasts have already seen House of Wax. Indeed, several scenes from the original were faithfully duplicated in the remake, including the opening scene (the sculptor’s museum being destroyed in a fire started by his corrupt business partner to cash in on the insurance [3]); the theft of a young woman’s corpse from the city morgue (both versions featuring the morgue attendant’s sexist wisecrack about a dead female body moving and moaning under the influence of embalming fluid, “Ain’t that just like a woman, always has to have the last word?”); the grand reopening of the wax museum in New York; the female ingénue beating on the sculptor’s face in self-defense, revealing a horribly mutilated face hiding underneath a wax mask; the cops grilling a suspect who’s a strung-out addict (heroin in pre-Code Wax Museum, alcohol in post-Code House of Wax) until he cracks and reveals that the sculptor, whose hands were injured in the fire, has been repopulating his museum with corpses encased in wax; and the grand finale in which the sculptor tries to turn the ingénue into a recreation of his masterpiece, Marie Antoinette, by strapping her to a gurney and showering her with molten wax. (House of Wax’s sole improvement over the original was David Buttolph’s effectively frightening background music.)

mystery-of-the-wax-museum-production-still_2-1933 Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray

There are some major differences between the two versions, however. The original had a contemporary setting, while the remake was done as a period piece in the 1890s (in keeping with Hollywood’s tiresomely obsessive nostalgia for “the Gay Nineties” that began during World War II). The prologue takes place in London in the earlier version, and is set in Baltimore in the later one. But the biggest difference between the two is the emphasis on humor in Wax Museum, provided mostly by Glenda Farrell’s reporter Florence (no surname)[4] and her cynical editor Jim (Frank McHugh). (There are no characters equivalent to Florence and Jim in House of Wax and the only thing resembling humor in the film is the guy with the paddleballs.) Many of the dialogue exchanges between Farrell and McHugh anticipate the similar verbal skirmishes between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), such as this one after Florence notices that the new wax museum’s Joan of Arc statue looks suspiciously like the suicidal young socialite whose body was stolen from the morgue.

Florence: “I am right! I know I’m right!”

Jim: “Well, no one would ever suspect it. You don’t sound right.”

Florence: “Listen, Jim—and if you wisecrack while I’m talking, I’ll crown you with the inkwell.”

Jim: ”All right, wise guy. Go ahead. Spill it.”

Florence:  “Jim, there’s a little hokey-pokey wax museum opening up down on 14th Street.”

Jim: (sarcastically) “Now don’t that call for an extra?”

Florence: “I asked you to keep your trap shut!”

Jim: “Well, you can’t blame a guy for getting a little breathless with a scoop like that.”

Florence: “All right, you poor baboon, you can guess the rest of it!”

Jim: “No kiddin’? What’s your idea?”

Florence: “Just this, I got a look at that dump a little while ago and if they haven’t got a wax figure of Joan Gale in that line-up, then I’m crazy.”

Jim: “We’ll grant that.”

Florence: “What?”

Jim: “About the Gale girl, I mean. Where do we go from there? What of it?”

Florence: “Listen, Jo-Jo, does this mean anything to you? Joan Gale’s body was swiped from the morgue! Did you ever hear of such a thing as a death mask?”

Jim: “I used to be married to one.”

Florence: “And it came to life and divorced you. I know all about that. Now my idea is this, somebody swipes the girl’s body, takes an impression, makes a mold, produces a wax figure, and—bingo—peddles it to this old skate down there!”

Jim: “Work that up into a comic strip and we’ll syndicate it.”

Florence: “You go to hel—“

Jim: “What?”

Florence: “Let it go.”

Jim: “Come down to earth. Do you think they would dare do anything like that? Don’t you think they’d know that figure would be recognized? Shake your head real hard, you’ll be all right.”

Florence: “All right, master mind, but there’s something cockeyed about that joint and I’m going to find out what it is.”

mystery-of-the-wax-museum-production-photo_6-19331Glenda Farrell on the set

Mystery of the Wax Museum was arguably the first feminist horror picture. Long before Joss Whedon created that vampire-slaying blonde Buffy, Florence proved to be tougher and superior to any of her male counterparts, completely outwitting the police, exposing the villain’s plot, and rescuing her friend Charlotte Duncan (Wray) from a fate worse than death. (In the remake, the savior was more traditionally a man, a police inspector played by Frank Lovejoy, although, in both versions, it was a male cop’s haymaker that sends the villain plunging into his own vat of bubbling wax.) Florence’s toughness and independence is beautifully accented by Farrell’s comic timing and caustic delivery. (When the playboy Florence is dating wants to chicken out of assisting with her investigation, she responds with, “All right, brother, then you can go to some nice warm place and I don’t mean California!”)

WM-004Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Lionel Atwill

The story was remade yet again under the title House of Wax in 2005 (with a dimbulb cast that included Paris Hilton). This time around it was a trashy piece of teenage torture porn so ineptly made that it single-handedly killed off the Dark Castle Productions series that had proven to be a successful annual Halloween attraction for Warner Brothers in the previous four years. Far more enjoyable than either remake was Hy Averback’s Chamber of Horrors (1966), an intended television pilot that was released theatrically instead, in which the House of Wax was reimagined as the headquarters for a trio of amateur criminologists (Cesare Danova, Wilfred Hyde-White, and Tun Tun) in turn of the century Baltimore. The villain in this picture was a demented blueblood (Patrick O’Neal in a creepy, underplayed performance) whose severed right hand had been replaced by an all-purpose prosthetic equipped for such instruments of torture as a hook, scalpel, and meat cleaver. Interestingly, Doctor X was never remade. And, no, despite its title, Vincent Sherman’s The Return of Doctor X (1939) is in no way, shape, or form a sequel. That movie’s sole claim to fame was Humphrey Bogart’s only performance in a horror movie as a resurrected scientist who requires the blood of others to sustain his undead existence. (Bogart, who hated the picture, later quipped that, if only he’d been draining Jack Warner’s blood, he would’ve found the experience more rewarding.)

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Mystery of the Wax Museum is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray as an extra for the 1953 version of House of Wax. Doctor X has been released only on DVD as a double-feature with The Return of Doctor X in Warner Home Video’s Legends of Horror set. And both films often turn up on Turner Classic Movies, especially around Halloween.


[1] It’s not inconceivable that the thought of becoming Warners’ answer to Lugosi and Karloff played a major role in John Barrymore’s decision to take his brother Lionel’s advice and jump ship for MGM.

[2] Introduction to Film Studies, Jill Nelmes, editor, Routledge, 2012.

[3] In the remake, the partner was rather blandly played by Roy Roberts, while, in the original, the role was played by one of Hollywood’s most wonderfully malignant heavies, Edwin Maxwell. Significantly, Roberts got killed off early in the proceedings, whereas Maxwell remained a major supporting character throughout the rest of the picture.

[4] For years now, way too many film historians who should know better have repeated the IMDB’s mistake of listing Dempsey as Florence’s last name, a characteristic IMDB gaffe obviously posted by some humor-impaired film nerd unable to grasp the concept of sarcasm when a cop responds to Florence deliberately slapping him hard on the back by calling her “Mrs. Dempsey” (you know, referring to the boxing champ), even though it’s well-established that Florence is single and is roommates with Charlotte.

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The Seven Sisters: Movie Studios and Their Backlots

It was never about the movies.

Few people realize this but the movies themselves are only the end result, a byproduct of the factories which created them.  It sounds downright sacrilegious, considering the vast emotional weight we place on our cinematic entertainments but trust me, the most momentous and important thing Hollywood has given the world isn’t a movie at all, any movie, but rather Hollywood itself. That is, Hollywood’s movie studios and our ideas about them.

It’s true, behind the tall walls at Hollywood’s seven studios have been created no less than our very ideas of what we are, where we live and what makes up our world.  And none of this has been accomplished by the movies at all, but rather by the studios, the physical factories which birthed these movies.  Most of our ideas about sociology, history, architecture, and geography were created inside these gates. The movies created there were the only the medium through which these messages were delivered.

MGM

“When I was a kid I took a trip to Los Angeles with my parents and at the time MGM was offering, for a little while, a tour of their studio,” remembers writer Stephen X. Sylvester. “I spent an afternoon there and it changed my life. We went to Disneyland the next day and I was so disappointed. Compared to MGM, Disneyland felt like pale Xerox of a movie studio. Real life felt like a pale Xerox of as movie studio. It still does.”

If one was to place a push-pin in the intersection of Hollywood and Vine on a map of Los Angeles – and then to place additional pins at the historic (if not always original) sites of the seven major film studios, the “Seven Sisters” as they are still referred to, that compose the industry, a jagged triangle would be formed. Furthest afield would be MGM, which was nine miles through dicey LA traffic from Hollywood Blvd. Twentieth Century-Fox would make up the other side of this triangle at seven and a half miles. Warner Bros., to the north, is just over four miles away. Universal, at the base of the Cahuenga Pass, just over three. Paramount and RKO  lie to the south a mile and a half away. Columbia, slightly west at only half a mile from ground zero would complete the physical picture. (Disney, the last sister, rose to prominence as a major as RKO waned)

A visitor to either modern day or historic Hollywood however, would have a hard time doing more that staring through the fences at these studios. True, several of the majors offer, or have offered, public tours of their lots, and one studio, Universal, even has its own amusement park. But Hollywood’s studios have always been closed-off cities with their own rules and folklore.

Movie studio backlots are the sections of a studio which distinguish that studio from any other factory, industrial site or manufacturing center. In the history of the world there has never been another business where entire secret cities have regularly needed to be manufactured and then never used as what they appear to portray. If you want any business tips then visit to Cofe Winchester blogs. Also, click here for best information related to the business. Sets on a studio backlot may need to look like Shanghai at midnight or Dodge City at high noon, but only in the most superficial way possible.  A backlot version of the Grand Hotel need only look like the Grand Hotel – or like an audience’s idea of what the Grand Hotel needs to look like. And in fact, for most of us, that which makes us think we are familiar with the Grand Hotel is probably born not from reality – but from watching films set – but not filmed, at the Grand Hotel.

Sadly, in modern Hollywood a studios’ signature architecture is becoming an endangered species.  Like Route 66, which once spider-webbed across the nation and now survives only in our imagination and in fit and starts, backlots still exist at all the studios, if you look for them, but only in pieces. Even in an a era of computer created virtual backlots modern studios have discovered that it is indeed practical to keep limited standing sets on their properties and, if you have a friend, who can get you a pass to visit, take a public tour, or if you can climb a fence, you can still visit them. The experience is well worthwhile, both alien and achingly familiar. Time does not stand still on a backlot, only in the films and memories which they produce. But if your mood and the sunlight through the smog and the time of day are right while you are there, a modern backlot can feel just like it must have felt in the past.  Just like it can feel in the movies.

Before its too late then, let’s pick up that map of Hollywood again and visit Hollywood’s’ mythical, mysterious studios, not as they were in the movies, but as they physically exist today. And as they once were…

In some ways MGM built the ultimate, prototypical, backlot. Producer Thomas Ince, credited with being the inventor of the modern, factory-styled movie studio – and movie studio backlot – opened the property in Culver City in 1915 in partnership with fellow pioneers D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett. Corporate wrangling resulted in the lot eventually being acquired by Samuel Goldwyn, and after a 1924 merger, by the newly created MGM. Exterior sets were constructed at the western or “back” part of the studio property as needed.  Someone, probably plant manager J.J. Cohn, started recycling these sets for later pictures when it was discovered that a sign or a title card or another angle could turn a street created to look like one location into something entirely different.  The era of the backlot was born.

MGM’s backlots were divided into 3 properties.  The first and oldest was the real estate on the edge of the original studio property, aka; “Lot One.” Lot One’s backlot was distinguished by a man-made lake which was used regularly into the 1940’s. But many of the surrounding sets were gradually moved across the street to the 40-acre “Lot Two.” Lot Two eventually contained a variety of European and Asian districts, the industry’s largest (7-acre) “New York” Street, and a working railroad with three depots of progressively larger and more modern vintage and culminating in a vast Grand Central Station replica.  The “Small Town” or “Andy Hardy Street” was perhaps the busiest of all backlot sets at all studios, owing to MGM’s many pictures extolling the virtues of rural communities, which it copied, and which copied it, and which still existed all across the United States at the time.

Up the road a few blocks was the even larger (65-acre) “Lot Three” which itself was surrounded by the smaller satellite lots “Four,” Five,” “Six,” and even “Seven.”  Lot Three contained fewer sets than Lot Two, but they were generally larger than those at any other studio. A man-made tropical jungle and lake was infested with real animals and marine life, which apparently couldn’t tell the difference. A tree-line road was so generic that it was used by virtually every film of every historic period that the studio produced.  Most studios could boast of a Western street somewhere on their backlot, but MGM had 3 separate frontier era districts, even though the parent company produced comparatively few Westerns. Adjacent was the famous “St. Louis Street” which most production designers agreed was the ultimate masterpiece of all studio backlots.  The eight houses constructed there by Cedric Gibbons, Lemuel Ayers, and John Martin Smith charmed everyone who visited the location or saw any movie which utilized it. To see this set, everyone agreed, was to experience a feeling of longing for a past which no one alive today, or even in 1944 when it was constructed and when the world was at war, ever really experienced firsthand.  The nostalgic, heightened reality these homes embodied and represented could not have been created, or experienced anywhere but on a backlot.  The set was planned, designed and created to be better than real life.

Universal 1947

Universal Studios in 1947.

Across town and on the other side of our map, Universal Studios held a very early backlot.  Founder Carl Laemmle purchased the land which would become the largest movie studio on earth in 1914 for $3,500.  He took satisfaction in knowing that real history had taken place near his new property in 1846 when Mexico officially ceded the territory of California to the United States right across the street from his office. The grand opening party (Universal’s, not California’s) was held on March 15, 1915.

Universal, despite its size, (various acquisitions and mergers eventually bloated the lot to 415 acres) has the disadvantage of being built on the side of a hill. It is the only Hollywood studio where golf carts have to be gas-powered in order to make it up the steeper grades. Therefore, the backlot has been limited over the decades in size and shape by the natural terrain. Various sets, particularly residential streets, have been built or moved onto the hillsides, but areas representing cities have historically had to be constructed along a flat, narrow band of real estate between the bottom of the hill to the south and the Los AngelesRiver on the north. Lankershim Blvd. on the west and Barham Blvd. to the east provide man-made borders on the other two sides.

The front lot was constructed along Lankershim and consists of 31 soundstages, post-production and technical facilities.  Walking east onto the backlot from there today an explorer immediately finds oneself in a wonderful reconstruction of New York City, which oddly has mountains on one side and a nearly dry, paved river bed on the other. Unfortunately, most of today’s “New York Street” is of a comparatively recent vintage. The original street was lost in an arson fire set by a disgruntled security guard in 1990 (some of which itself burned again in 2008) and what the cameras (and guests on the company’s “studio tours”) actually see is a copy which mimics and in some cases surpasses the original sets.

All of this, of course, begs what eventually must be asked when thinking about backlots.  At which point does a backlot set, always in a constant state of flux, stop being the original structure and become a copy or a new building with an entirely new identity?

While we ponder this question on our tour, this pseudo-historic New York evolves into a small town street with courthouse.  A residential street, apparently designed as part of this same set, was removed in 1981 so that production offices could be constructed.  Some of the houses from this street, familiar from American television series like The Munsters, Leave It to Beaver and Bachelor Father were moved up onto the hillside, where they remain, in truncated form to this day. Part of a castle once stood nearby.

A “Mexican Village” complete with cobblestone streets, corral, and bridge lead, appropriately, into the studio’s (and Hollywood’s) last surviving Western set.  Universal publicists claim that their “6 Points Texas” Western street is the oldest working spot on their backlot and the most filmed spot on the planet, although most of the current structures are actually of relatively recent vintage. But a walk down this weathered, grey strip, and the nearby “Denver Street” with its wooden sidewalks and dirty storefronts, leaves one feeling that this is indeed the real thing: an “actual” Hollywood  location, not a recreation for tourists or a dude ranch pastiche.  And the affection this area inspires is not for the actual Old West, but for Hollywood’s impression of that West, and for the Western itself. So a glance up at the company’s “Black Tower” office complex, which looms over the slat-board facades and casts its shadow over her ersatz frontier streets somehow is not as incongruous as it should be.

Let’s move on. A lake and a smaller pond fronts a New England fishing village.

Farther over are the remnants of a European Street alleged to go back to 1919, although most of the extant streets and structures actually date to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and, let’s be honest: nearly all of them are certainly much more recent than that.

The pseudo-Gladiator “Spartacus Square” stands on the extreme east side of the studio’s lower lot. Walking behind this impressive edifice, where the trams full of Hollywood’s happy tourists can’t go, the tired traveler sees not a Roman Senate in progress but crushed cola cans and dirty paper plates left behind by some long-ago craft service staffer.  Yards away, traffic can be heard buzzing by on Barham Boulevard behind the razor wire fence.

Across the street from Universal, and running parallel to the Hollywood Hills is the massive (one often hears the word “sprawling” used) 110-acre complex still occupied by Warner Bros. Warners looks today, at the sunrise of the 21st century, more like a traditional movie studio than any of the other majors, even Universal, where studio construction seems to be dictated by what a tourist expects to see while in Hollywood.  In fact, at Warner Bros., it almost seems as if the studio was built after the clichés were created only in order to live up to them   In any case, the wide streets and orderly rows of soundstages which greet a modern visitor constitute virtually the same view which Humphrey Bogart would have seen when he first drove onto the lot in 1932.

The Warner Bros. lot.

The Warner Bros. lot.

WB 1931

The auto gate on Olive Blvd. (or “Gate 2”) has been used, for decades, as the quintessential movie studio entrance in pictures.  Less ornate, and therefore less identifiable with a specific lot than Paramount’s regal Marathon Ave. entrance, it has shown up both in the studio’s own product - A Star is Born (1954), It’s a Great Feeling (1949), Blazing Saddles (1974) – and rented out as a set to other companies: Universal’s Bowfinger (1999), Disney’s Ed Wood (1994), Columbia’s The Way We Were (1973), etc.  One can cross all the way onto the backlot from this single main artery.

By the late 1940s, this backlot, although comparatively small when measured alongside to the kingdoms at Fox and MGM, must have been astonishing in its variety and scope.  A visitor in, let’s say, 1946, could wander down “Brownstone Street” onto the six blocks of New York Burroughs and find hidden behind the that set’s eastern wall the formidable Stage 21, at one time the world’s largest soundstage, where inside floated two complete ships, each 130 feet long! A railroad shed, with two locomotives, exterior track and a working indoor station sat behind it. Farther along, “Bonneyfeather Street,” a European coastal area would twist would and spiral through a tangle of alleys and morph into a big city “Tenement Street,”complete with fire escapes, streetlights, parking meters, neon signage, and machine gun pockmarks on many of the walls left over from the studio’s gangster dramas.

“Dijon Street,” a mid-eastern/Arabic community, was built in 1930 for a long-lost early version of Kismet and part of this street can be seen as Casablanca in 1943.  “English  Street” runs south for two blocks and terminates at a warehouse/landing strip which stores a small fleet of prop airplanes. On the other side of this hanger can be found a “Viennese Street,” which would be rebuilt into “Madison Avenue” in 1949 for Life with Father and some of which survives today as “French Street.”  An early version of the studio’s current “Midwestern” or “Midvale Street” with residential section, curls behind this thoroughfare and to the east.

Behind this is a “Norwegian  Street” which, with a disarming sense of logic, eventually becomes “Canadian  Street,” a sort of Western town, only with snow. (Oddly the studio would not have a permanent “Western Street” on lot until 1956).  The backlot then curls west and back into itself with a rather upscale “Philadelphia Street” before terminating into what was then Soundstage 20 (and which today is the Media Archive Building).  Taking this 1946 trek would surely leave any exhausted visitor wondering what continent, what world, he was in.

In addition to the mazes and cul-de-sacs of standing sets found on the main lot, Warner, like most of the other studios, kept a ranch facility.  Theirs was a 2500-acre tract in Calabasas.

Columbia 1940

Columbia Studios, 1940.

Columbia Pictures represented the outstanding rags to riches success story among the majors.  The company started out among the most miserly and penny-pinching of the low-rent studios which clustered up, and then withered away and died, in the poverty row district of Hollywood along Sunset and Gower Streets.  Columbia’s early product was indistinguishable from the films being ground out by any her neighbors in this district.  But she did have something all of her fellow unfortunates lacked.  And that was Harry Cohn. Cohn was regarded by his peers with awe, derision, envy, admiration, hatred—just about anything you might want to say about the man, good or bad would probably be accurate.  His penny-pinching ways were much remarked upon in Hollywood, yet in the depths of the Great Depression, Cohn was the only mogul who refused to back an industry-wide measure which would have halved the salaries of anyone making less than $50 a week. Fortunately for his well-maintained reputation, this act of kindness was not widely publicized.

Cohn literally and determinedly pulled and dragged his grubby little company up from the squalor – and in an astonishingly short amount of time, even for such a young industry, managed to anoint her as a major force in the industry, first with profits, then with respectability, and finally with Academy Awards and genuine if  begrudging prestige.

The physical lot he did this on certainly reflects the company’s hand-to-mouth origins.  Cohn’s plant was the smallest, physically, of any of the seven sisters.  Even at its largest it was only a city block deep by half a block wide.  Columbia Studios always looked like a hodgepodge ghetto of squalid little offices and, eventually, 14 over-worked and mostly closet-size soundstages.

Any sort of significant backlot here was nearly impossible; consequently, in 1934 Cohn purchased a ranch facility a half dozen miles away from his chaotic fiefdom up in Burbank. Other movie ranches, Warners, Fox’s, RKO’s, Paramount’s, were usually hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres across, containing terrain suitable for any sort of location.  Cohn’s cut-rate equivalent was a whopping 40 acres (a second 40-acre parcel was quickly sold off). In 1952’s High Noon, it is possible to spot the telephones poles and post war tract houses spiraling across the “Western” landscape during the famous crane shot near the climax.

Cohn’s spread however, did evolve into one of the more interesting satellite backlots.  Perhaps because space was so limited, and budgets so low, many of the facades constructed there saw an inordinate amount of duty over an inordinate number of years.  A single curved block of residential homes, which either had no backs, or which had two fronts so as to be eligible for double duty, started appearing in features from the late ’30s but really reached iconic status from the 1950s onward when Screen Gems, Columbia’s television division (started in 1949) began shooting their domestic-themed sitcoms there.

Until this street is experienced first hand, it is impossible to imagine that the home of TV’s Dennis the Menace is the same set used as the home of Donna Reed.  Or that the house next to it was Blondie’s home, the I Dream of Jeannie house, and the home where Father Knows Best.  Or that the house next to that was used in both Bewitched and The Partridge Family.  Or that the Bewitched home is next to the house used in the Lethal Weapon film series, as a not-so-stately Wayne manor in a Batman serial, and as the home of both Gidget and Hazel!  In 1999 this entire, surreal city block stared in the feature film Pleasantville. The plot concerned a strange place inside a black and white television where old sitcoms flower magically to life.

The real world however, could not be kept out. The turmoil the movie industry faced in general in the 1970s hit Columbia particularly hard.  In 1972, the young business school grads who had inherited Cohn’s cramped offices on Gower Street vacated many of them to cohabitate with Warner Bros. up in Burbank.  They turned the original lot, briefly, into a tennis club. In 1998,  Columbia moved across town again, this time to its current digs, the old MGM Lot One. The Columbia Ranch stayed part of Warner Bros., which it remains today.

rko manhole

RKO was in a similar situation to Columbia, although “the biggest little major” always had the prestige and cache that Columbia originally lacked.  The studio was the first major created after the coming of sound --as its logo, that of a beeping radio tower astride the globe seemed to testify.  An actual, physical replica of this insignia used to stand on the corner of Melrose and Gower Streets, astride one of the company’s soundstages.  The studio underneath this logo was hardly any bigger than Columbia, which lay only a few blocks north but in a decidedly shoddier neighborhood.  And as with Columbia, it seemed in the early days that the executives inside would be forced by the cramped locale to build their exterior sets off-lot in the San Fernando Valley.

Instead, those executives purchased an entire, preexisting studio complex, actually another old Thomas Ince lot, also in Culver City, in January 1931 – instantly fortifying the company with an additional 11 soundstages and a spectacular standing backlot as well.  Most RKO pictures from this era were shot at one or both of these facilities, with the interiors often being shot on Gower Street and the exteriors out on “40 Acres.”  In 1937 the studio also purchased 88 additional acres in the San Fernando Valley – Encino, actually.

With postwar hard times, the Hollywood lots were purchased by General Tire and Rubber in 1955 and shortly thereafter RKO ceased active production. Lucile Ball, once a perky RKO starlet achieved the dream of every starlet by buying her old studio for her own production company, Desilu, in 1956.

Paramount Pictures was RKO’s next door neighbor.  In 1967 Paramount executives bought the property and removed the wall between the two lots.  The surviving studio now occupies the entire 65-acre compound.  Even today, a walk across Paramount’s grounds will reveal ghostly touches of RKO, including the manhole covers on the west side of the studio, which still say “RKO” (One wonders if there are any companies today, however affluent, that would go to the expense of putting their names on sewer fixtures that would be seen only by employees!) Even the famous Paramount studio water tower was in fact once part of the original RKO property.  The beeping radio tower facing the street has been removed too, of course, but the globe it stood on paradoxically remains. It looks down on a very different world indeed.

Paramount, 1976.

Paramount, 1976.

Like RKO, Paramount, has always suffered somewhat in that their location, right in the center of Hollywood, became valuable quicker than the outlaying suburbs of Culver City and Burbank. With the “movie boom” of the teens and twenties came escalating real estate prices.  And, so relatively early in the game the studios with the most desirable and centralized locations, responsible for the sudden local growth to begin with, found themselves with no place to expand beyond their current locations.  Paramount’s lot was big enough for this to not be as much of a problem as it was for RKO and for Columbia, but they never had the space for the sprawling backlots which could be found at some of the other, outlying studios.

A look at the Paramount product tends to bear this out.  Most of the studio’s pictures are rather stage-bound.  There are few exteriors, and these are often soundstage exteriors, with painted backdrops and process screens substituting for the real thing. Artistically, this somewhat artificial mise en scene gave the studio’s pictures a definite and recognizable “house style.” And yet this look was definitely an economic choice rather than an artistic one.

To alleviate their lack of suitable exteriors, Paramount purchased a 2,400-acre ranch near Malibu in 1927 although perhaps due to its somewhat distant location it wasn’t used as much as other studio ranches. Sets included a New England Street, a frontier village and Calvary fort.  They actually sold the property in 1953 but continued to lease parts of it, along with other studios and independent producers, for decades.   Today the property is owned by the state. A western town, constructed shortly after the Paramount era ended still stands on the grounds. Television’s Carnivale and Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman have been comparatively recent tenants.

The primary backlot area Paramount constructed on their main lot was paradoxically built near the center of the studio and buttressed up against the wall looking over into RKO. Closest to that iconic main gate, which everyone still associates with the studio (and which, in case you ever wondered, was constructed between August 24 and September 10, 1926) stood, until the mid 1970’s, a smallish version of that must-have on every studio lot, a small-town business district. Until 1979, a “Western Street” stood on real estate where a massive parking lot sprawls today (Amusing but unsubstantiated rumors at the time held that Paramount was afraid to dismantle their Western town while John Wayne still lived!). The hundreds of black BMW’s which now bake under the California sun occupy ground where many a cinematic cowboy found immortality or oblivion.  A most interesting feature about this set was the artificial mountain range which buttressed the north western flank of the set, and kept audiences from realizing that unlike some of the street’s suburban cinematic neighbors, Paramount was in the middle of a city – even if that city was Hollywood.

A 75-foot-high sky backdrop (The original was built in 1947, the surviving version is a copy) still stands on the northern edge of the studio’s impressive “New York Street.”  At five acres and with five separate and distinct districts, it is one of the most impressive sets of its kind.  Unfortunately, the set which visitors and film goers see today is actually a copy of an older “New York Street” which was destroyed in a fire in 1983.  Happily, in 1991, it was rebuilt.

Incidentally, the South LA community of Paramount was founded in 1946 and was in fact named after the studio.

20th Century-Fox backlot and tank, 1940.

20th Century-Fox backlot and tank, 1940.

Twentieth Century-Fox is the studio which most tried to emulate the success of MGM.  Physically, their lot, located west of Beverly Hills in a community later and tellingly called Century City, was closer to Metro’s in size, ambition and even geographically, than any other.  In one respect at least, Fox was actually superior in that the entire property, almost 300 acres at one point, was located on one large parcel of land, and not broken up or eviscerated by distance or highways  (although Olympic Blvd. cut the plant into two distinct halves).  Some of this real estate was never really developed for production, although the open land must have come in handy.  Oil wells, real ones, not props, dotted the eastern side of the lot for decades. Quality-wise, the Fox pictures, while not really inferior to MGM, often felt so because their predominant choice of genres; musicals and period pictures, seemed consciously designed to echo the pictures made down the road in Culver City

The front lot, as befitting its (near-) Beverly Hills location, was beautifully maintained and landscaped.  The “sound” stages – for in fact they were the first of their kind constructed for sound anywhere – decorated with ornate statuary and scrollwork, looked more like a carefully regulated civil engineering project than a factory.  At least the early ones did.  The later stages are less gaudy, giving the whole place a sort of Oz-meets-the-Bowery-Boys lopsidedness.

Our traveler walking across the backlot could have encountered, depending on which decade he took the trip, any of the following:  “Bernadette Street” (from The Song of Bernadette, 1943) a French village, a Roman “slave market” set,   an enormous and pillared “Colonial Home,” a “Spanish Street,” a “Swiss Set,” a “German Village,” a partial castle with a moat. “Algerian Street” was a sort of Ali Baba/Jerusalem compound which sat behind the “English Garden of Charles II” – which was beautifully decked out with swimming pool and rolling lawns.  Behind this all was a long “New York Street” which dated to 1931.  “Tombstone Street” was the ambiguous Western village; It rested across from the “Alaska Town” and the “New England Street.” All of this finally led to the company’s back gate on Santa Monica Blvd. – a real Los Angeles street by the way, not a backlot.  Commuters on this street for years could see part of the elaborate Titanic model constructed for the 1953 picture peeking over the fence.

The East Lot, on the other side of the soundstage sector, contained the “New” “New York Street,” A section of Railroad, a “Compound” or fortress set, and a vast section of desert.  The Chicago set from In Old Chicago (1938) also stood in this sector and covered nearly six acres.  This area was redressed in 1944 and doubled for a gas-lit London in The Lodger. The “Chicago Lake” stood on one end and was repeatedly drained and refilled to portray every body of water on the planet for the 25 years.  “The Waterways,” a series of locks and canals also stood nearby.  “Jones Street” the studio’s all important residential street, also stood over here.

As if every location in the known world was not covered on-lot somewhere, Fox also maintained a ranch near the Paramount Ranch in Malibu.  They purchased the property in 1946, after leasing real estate in the area for several years.  The studio sold the property to the State of California in 1974.

Fox was the first studio to suffer physically from the contractions the film industry faced in the 1960s and ’70s.  The enormous overhead accrued by Cleopatra which was shooting in Europe in 1963, literally forced the moguls running the studio back in California to begin selling off some of their now-trendy Westside real estate upon which the studio had been built in order to meet payroll.

The acres of sets and landscaped lawns toppled over.  The lakes were drained. The palaces and kingdoms were disassembled.  In their place rose the skyscrapers and shopping malls and law firms of CenturyCity.  As recently as the mid-80’s, the beautiful commissary where Tyrone Power and Shirley Temple had once supped was halved to build a monolithic office tower.  One of these skyscrapers, decades later, would one day house MGM.

By 1969, when Fox was producing Hello Dolly, there was no backlot left on which to construct the elaborate turn-of-the-century New York Street the production called for.  Instead, the sets were built on the front lot; in the parking lots, across the lawns, on top of the offices and over the front of the administration buildings where the decision had been made to dismantle the studio in the first place.  It was as if, ghoulishly, those administrators, having devoured the backlots, the sinew and very flesh of the studio, now found themselves surrounded, entombed, and eaten by the very thing, the very flickering ghost they thought they had destroyed.

Many of the minor studios and several of the rental lots constructed permanent exterior set at various times and of varying degrees of interest and complexity. The Republic lot in Studio City, which survives and is now owned by CBS, being a particularly notable example.  Notable sets on this property included, naturally, several large Western streets, and the lagoon later used in the TV series Gilligan’s Island.  Part of a residential street survives today.

Powerful independent producers Sam Goldwyn and David O. Selznick also kept standing backlots on their property.  Goldwyn’s contained a few blocks of city streets and a small town district.  A “New York Street” lasted there into the late-’70s.

Selznick leased the “40 acres” Thomas Ince backlot of which RKO was the longtime landlord (and which for the record, was actually 28 acres) He burned down most of his standing sets spectacularly  on camera for Gone With The Wind (1939) Cannily, he then built his Atlanta sets over the ashes for that picture.

These vaguely “southern” facades saw duty for decades, most prominently on The Andy Griffith Show for American television.  At various times the backlot also contained the Hogan’s Heroes prisoner’s compound (built on the site of GWTW’s Tara), the Gomer Pyle Army barracks, a Western village, a jungle (utilized in RKO’s  Tarzan film series), an Arabian village, and detailed New York and Chicago Streets (kept very busy in The Untouchables TV series). The backlot portion of the studio, which was located near the end of Ince Blvd., was torn down in 1976 and is now an industrial park whose warehouses are used by a space-starved film industry for television production.

The Disney lot, 1959.

The Disney lot, 1959.

The other major independent producer of the era was, of course, Walt Disney.

Disney had little need for a standing backlot until the early 1950s.  Before this, most of his sets were, like most of his stars, painted cells animated for the camera. “I’ve always admired you” Alfred Hitchcock was reputed have told Disney at an apocryphal Hollywood party in the ’40s. “If you don’t like your actors, you can tear them up.”

The first Disney studio was located at 2719 Hyperion Ave in Hollywood (a grocery store today) and contained no facilities for live-action production.  Disney moved his operations to a 51-acre tract he had paid $100,000 for in Burbank in 1940 after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Designer Ken Webber crafted all of the original buildings, imbuing the lot with a campus-like unity alien to the random hodge-podges of architectural chaos that existed at any other studio. The first soundstage was constructed at this time and was used for the occasional live action or live action/animation hybrid produced by the studio.  Stage 2 was constructed in 1949 and was used for live action features and television, including Dragnet (an original tenant) and “The Mickey Mouse Club.”  Stage 3 was built in 1954 and includes the underwater tank used extensively for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  The cavernous Stage 4 was built for Darby O’Gill and the Little People in 1958 and later subdivided for TV to become 4 and 5 (1988), Stage 6 and 7 were not completed until 1997.

In 1959, even as he started building a backlot on his own studio, Disney purchased a 700-acre ranch in Santa Clarita and started building sets there as well, mostly of the Western variety.  Golden Oaks Ranch, as it is called, and which Disney is still developing, remains a valuable location, not just for Disney but for all of the real estate-starved modern studios

On his Burbank lot, an early California pueblo set was constructed in 1957 for use in the Zorro TV series and became the first permanent standing set on the property.  It contained several blocks of cobblestone streets, a fountain, a fort, and a town square.  The result was versatile enough to be successfully redressed into a French olive plantation for Monkeys Go Home (1967) and a British village in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).   It was demolished in the mid-eighties and replaced, inspirationally, by the current “Zorro Parking Structure.”

A “Western Street” was constructed in 1958.  It too was rebuilt several times over the decades and stood in for the Irish countryside in Darby O’Gill and the Little People, (1959) and a beachfront fishing village in Pete’s Dragon (1977 — complete with ocean!)  “Western Street” was bulldozed in 1988.

A “Residential Street” was added in the early 1960s.  So by this time the only backlot staple missing from Disney’s fiefdom was a small town business street.  Disney of course, had already built just such a town, not at his studio but at Disneyland.

Walt Disney apparently had been looking for and recreating this street, in different ways ever since his childhood in tiny Marceline, Missouri.   His somewhat wistful longing for the charm of small-town America was common to men of Disney’s age and era.  A look at the works of such diverse artists as Thornton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe, William Saroyan, Sterling North, Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Norman Rockwell,  Frank Capra, Booth Tarkington, Meredith Wilson, and Earl Hamner Jr. reveals this same longing for a world which each of them had, presumably chosen to leave behind and then regretted forever.

Disney finally did order a small town American street built in 1965, obstinately, for 1966’s Follow Me Boys.  The set would rise near the north east corner of the lot, to compliment his already standing residential street. Oddly though, “Business  Street” as the set was called, turned out to be a decent if not spectacular shooting space.  Designer John Mamsbridge found that by this time there was little he could add to the street Walt had been over-designing in his head and at Disneyland for a decade.  In 1965, there was little more to be done except copy the copies and uncork the nostalgia.  The somewhat pedestrian result would turn out be Walt’s last personal addition to his studio, He would die less than a year later.

The “Business Street” backlot would survive Disney by a decade-and-a-half before being rebuilt for Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1981 and demolished entirely in 1994. It was, at that time, the last existent sector of Disney’s original backlot. Stages 6 and 7 stand on the site today.

Walt’s original lot now has one tiny exterior set, a Midwest-themed boulevard built in 1997 over the outer wall of the Plumbing Department.  It consists of one half of one side of one city block.  Like its forbearer, it is christened “Business Street,” perhaps as much a hope for future production bookings as a homage.

Our tour of Hollywood’s lots and backlots then is over.  As has been observed in our travels, most of Hollywood’s backlots are now either gone or have been repurposed into parking lots or office space.   And with the advent of “virtual backlots” created inside a computer the future doesn’t look rosy.

So if you plan on visiting Hollywood and climbing that fence, you’d better do it soon.

****

Steven Bingen is a historian, author, and former archivist for Warner Bros., who has written or contributed to innumerable books, articles, and documentaries on Hollywood history. In 2011, Steve coauthored MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, the first significant book ever published about a movie studio lot. His latest book is Warner Bros: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot, an acre by acre and scandal by scandal examination of the legendary studio. He also authored the screenplay for 2012′s The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, which was the last theatrical feature film ever shot on black and white film stock. Appropriately enough, Steve lives in the world’s largest backlot, also known as Los Angeles.

Amazon link:

On the soundstage with main mutineer Van Johnson during The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Edward Dmytryk: A Worthy Reexamination (Part II)

Here’s the conclusion of Dwayne Epstein’s two-part interview with director Edward Dmytryk:

Edward Dmytryk in the late 70s, moving on from directing and into teaching.

Edward Dmytryk in the late 70s, moving on from directing and into teaching.

DE: How do you tell actors that what they are doing you don’t think will work?

ED:  When you have your first rehearsal, all your actors are apt to make a mistake here or there. They don’t know exactly where they’re going and they’re feeling their way. Someone in the company will say, “Hey, he made a mistake. He didn’t say that line.” I’ll say, “Shut up,” because when I have the next rehearsal, they recognize that they made that mistake. Rather then getting bawled out like school children, they correct it themselves so you give them a little leeway. Three or four rehearsals, they’ve corrected all their mistakes. If they still have one, what you do is you take them into the dressing room and talk about it. I rarely, rarely bawled anybody out in front of anybody else.

JP: No, you never have.

ED: I wouldn’t do that. Except sometimes a guy would make a mistake for one reason or another. I didn’t have to…Tracy twice misread a line. He got a different take from that same line. I could mean one thing or it could mean another. He took one meaning, which was not very good. I let him go ahead and I printed the take with that thing. Then I called him aside and said, “Spence, there’s another thing you can do with it.” I would never read a line for him. I did that (laughs) with Monty Clift one time just by accident. It was a scene on Young Lions and he said to me, “Eddie, please don’t read lines to me. You do it so wonderfully (I laugh) that it will inhibit me.” I knew what he was talking about.

DE: He could have been a director himself. Quite a diplomat.

ED: I can’t remember an exact line from any one of my films practically because I made it a point when I read the script, no matter how many times, I went over the script not to remember the lines exactly.

DE: What do you consider somebody like Lee Marvin’s greatest strength was as an actor?

ED: Lee was a natural. We get those kinds of people and they’re easy to work with. Like kids, they’re easier to work with than theatrical actors. You get people who have never been in the theater and it’s amazing. Mary Astor is a perfect example. Wonderful actor and you never have to go through that period where you say, “Forget about the theater. Forgot about the audience and making an impression.” The one thing is people from the theater have a tendency to do is read a line. That’s where the writer, who’s always there, gets very mad and in Hollywood the writer has no say in changes. The main thing is that when we were working together on an acting book, I said this to other people and particularly to my school groups, one of the wonderful thing about Spencer Tracy, other actors, he’d play with good actors, like E.G. Marshall worked with him in one scene, top actors worked with him. They’d come to me after a scene and they’d say, “Spencer, he gives you something.” For a long time, I wondered, “What the hell does he give them?” I found out: Attention. He listens to them. He pays attention. They were somebody in that goddamned thing. It’s amazing how often you get actors who are just thinking about their own lines, they’re just another character and they’re thinking about they’re own lines and, “What am I going to say when she finishes?” He never did that. Every line from him was as spontaneous as possible…Spence had me crying more than anybody in the world and the crew. We did a scene in The Mountain (1956), at the finish there, where he brought the girl down. Did you ever see that picture?

DE: Yes I have.

With Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner on The Mountain (1956)

With Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner on The Mountain (1956)

ED: He brought the girl down from up top and he’s trying to say it was his fault and not his brother’s. He was at fault. He stumbles through the damned thing trying to be very real. When I was working with Tracy particularly — but I would do this with other people too — I often would start with the costar if it were an important scene. I knew I was going to be in a close shot so I’d start with that. That with be spontaneous and I’d get the longer shots later if I needed them. I was starting with a close shot and E.G. Marshall had to read a line to him that got the scene started. He was right by the camera where I wanted him. He read the line and Tracy started. After the scene — which was probably a page long, long scene — when he finished it, I said, “cut,” and I looked over and E.G. was crying and the cameraman was crying and everybody was crying. I was crying because Tracy was so wonderful. E.G. looked at me and said, “Goddamit, I wish all these method actors could see these guy act just once!” E.G. was a great actor himself….All great actors, all great actors are creators….Monty himself would do that. He had a million ideas a day. He’d say, “Hey Eddie, how about doing this?” I’d say, “No, I don’t know..” He’d say, “Okay, forget about it.” I’d say, “Wait a minute. Let’s talk about it.” He’d say, “No, no, forget about it. I’ll have another one.” ….I used to welcome them as well as from any other members of my crew. I don’t think I ever followed a suggestion just exactly. A suggestion from an actor was an idea and I’d say, “Hey,” if it were a good one I’d think what else can I do with that idea? Sometimes I could take it or change it. Like I say, actors are creators.

DE: What do you if an actor has idea and another had a completely different take on it. Obviously you’ll have the final say but where do you go with that?

ED: That doesn’t happen very often.

JP: Remember, you have a script and they read it together.

ED: That’s the other thing…

DE: I’m thinking about an actor who says, “While I’m saying this line, I push my hat back,” and the other says “Yeah, but I won’t be able to do this big take…”

ED: Well, I say, “No, don’t do that take.” (All laugh) I had only one actor that ever stopped a rehearsal and say, “Is that way you’re going to do it in the take?”

JP: Who was that?

ED: (Under his breath) Kirk.

DE: (Laughs) Gee, I wonder which Kirk.

JP: You mentioned Caine Mutiny earlier, and that was one of the most difficult films Eddie ever did. It started in Honolulu. Started in Hawaii with all that stuff on the ship. Started on location and then for them to do all that stuff on the ship ….He had 3 weeks back home in the studio and [to Dmytryk] you were remarkable with that because you had all the actors commenting on that. You reminded them of the same base.

On the soundstage with main mutineer Van Johnson during The Caine Mutiny (1954)

On the soundstage with main mutineer Van Johnson during The Caine Mutiny (1954)

ED: Part of my skill, darling. When I tell my film classes don’t storyboard, they say, “Well how am I going to remember it?” I say, “The people you work with.”

JP: Remember the monsoon or hurricane?

DE: Typhoon.

JP: Typhoon. They were doing all this stuff on the set and the problems with that, and the lines to do, and that was tough.

DE: I think you got the best performance out of Humphrey Bogart as an actor.

J: He (Bogart) thought so too. He loved doing that.

DE: You could tell. He was amazing in it. That thing he did with his eyes!

ED: I saw where he was asked who were the best directors he ever worked with…

JP: Don’t pat yourself on the back.

ED: No, I was second. John Huston was first.

DE: There’s nothing wrong with that.

ED: Yeah, John Huston was first and I was second. John Huston made three great pictures with him. There’s no doubt about it and I don’t feel bad about it.

JP: You’re lucky to be among the few.

ED: I do think, that in spite of everything, that particular performance was his performance because it gave him the best opportunities.

JP: I think that was one of Eddie’s best films, too, because he held it together. He really took along time to do that. Not as long as Young Lions, but it was a long one.

ED: As a matter of fact, we made it in 54 days.

JP: Are you still counting? How do you remember?

ED: I remember because that was the one where Kramer was in Dutch with it being the last picture for Columbia. He made a deal where he made all these pictures, 20 pictures at a certain level. He was allowed to make one at 2 million dollars. If he didn’t come in exactly on the budget or under budget within 54 days, the studio would take over. So, he was worried every damned day. Every day he was worried about this picture. That’s why I remembered it because normally I wouldn’t remember it all.

DE: What was Stanley Kramer like to work with as producer, because he was such a good filmmaker?

ED: He was a fine.

DE: Was he a hands-on producer?

ED: No, he was a hands -off producer.

JP: Back up, back up. You said he became such a great filmmaker. Okay. He’s one of the greatest producers in this town. I don’t know if you’d call him a great filmmaker.

ED: He also made some bad ones. Did you ever see the one he made with Frank Sinatra?

DE: Which one?

ED: Where they pull the cannon over the mountain?

DE: Oh, The Pride and the Passion (1957) Well, like everyone, he’s made some really bad films.

JP: We don’t talk about bad ones. (All laugh) But he really was a wonderful producer.

DE: If it comes down to whether he was a better producer than a director, I won’t argue the fact that he was probably a better producer.

ED: That’s our only point. I remember Time Magazine, on one of his pictures saying, “Kramer the director fails Kramer the producer.” The point is, sure he made some very great pictures — The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942) — what was that thing called?

DE: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967).

ED: Very, very good film. I think if he had stayed a producer and got the best directors there possibly could be he would have made more good pictures. That was his skill. He was the only producer I ever worked with who would talk. Every picture I ever made with him you could talk methods and you could talk cutting and society, which is what he was into.

JP: Did he ever use Lee Marvin?

DE: As a director he used him in Ship of Fools and he was brilliant in that, especially that one monologue he had. Kramer referred to Marvin’s talent as being able to reduce the most difficult scene to “Utter simplicity.”

ED: Tracy could do that too. He could take any line, no matter how complex it was and make it simple. Any good actor should do that. Students used to ask me, they don’t any more, thank god: “How do you talk to an actor? How do you tell them what to do, besides this business about dialogue?” The actor reads the script. He knows the part as well as I do. I assume he’s just as smart as I am and can read it just as well as I can. He can understand the part even better because it’s the one part that he’s concerned with, where I’m concerned with all the parts.

DE: I’m glad you mentioned that. On Raintree County, how much input did the actors have on their appearance?

Left-right, the gargantuan cast of the gargantuan Raintree County (1957): Rod Taylor, Nigel Patrick, Dmytryk (standing), Elizabeth Taylor,  Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Marvin, Agnes Moorehead and Walter Abel.

Left-right, the gargantuan cast of the gargantuan Raintree County (1957): Rod Taylor, Nigel Patrick, Dmytryk (standing), Elizabeth Taylor,
Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Marvin, Agnes Moorehead and Walter Abel.

ED: I don’t remember. All I can say is that as a director in those days, I was in charge of everything. Nobody could do anything without my signature. They couldn’t build a set without my signature. They couldn’t sign a dress without my signature or outfits used in the picture. Who came up with the idea of the outfit, whether it was him or me, I can’t tell you. In many cases, it was other people, wardrobe, actors, or what have you. Any director who would say, “No, don’t do that,” would be pretty silly.

DE: Well done. How long have you been married, by the way?

JP: We’ve been together almost 50 years and we’ve been married 49. No 48, we’ve been married 48 years. Is it over 50, now?

ED: Yeah, 51 in October, darling.

DE: Usually it’s the woman who remembers. Very good. Hurray for our side.

ED: How can I forget the first time I saw? Ahhh, the first time I saw her!

Dmytryk and wife Jean Porter in the early 70s, who, at the time of the 1996 interview, had celebrated more than fifty years of matrimony.

Dmytryk and wife Jean Porter in the early 70s, who, at the time of the 1996 interview, had celebrated more than fifty years of matrimony.


1:YOUNGEDITOR

Edward Dmytryk: A Worthy Reexamination

2:RKO

He was one of the true pioneers of film noir, a favorite director of Humphrey Bogart’s, the only director among The Hollywood Ten and the man responsible for helming some of Hollywood’s most heralded stars in some of their most offbeat and in some cases, best performances. In spite of all that, Edward Dmytryk has never been included in the pantheon of great directors.

Maybe it’s because he quit making gritty noir masterpieces as soon as he could, or that as an incarcerated member of The Hollywood Ten he recanted and then named names. Perhaps it was because many of the films starring the aforementioned legends received lukewarm responses when first released and have remained in movie viewing limbo ever since. When was the last time cable or Netflix offered Clark Gable in Soldier of Fortune (1955); Bogart in The Left Hand of God (1955), Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot unlikely paired in the western Shalako (1968); or Richard Burton and a bevy of international beauties in Bluebeard (1972)? Granted, some of these titles are rather cringe-inducing but even the cringe-filled moments are at least entertaining. Whatever the reason for Dmytryk’s absence from perceived greatness, his body of work is certainly worthy of reexamination.

6:CLIFTLION

I was lucky enough to interview him as part of my ongoing research for my book, Lee Marvin: Point Blank a few years before he passed on in 1999. He and his wife, former actress Jean Porter, agreed to meet with me for lunch at the legendary Musso & Frank in Hollywood in September of 1996 and that which did not go in the book can be read below. As the reader will discover in part 1, what transpired were not the bitter rants of a disappointed old man but the fascinating reminisces of a life well lived.

Dwayne Epstein: Does your way of working vary by actor?

Edward Dmytryk: My way of working with an actor, I wasn’t…when I was a cutter on the set throughout the 1930’s, I worked with guys like George Cukor and people like that. They all worked in their own way. You give the actors…Let me put it like this, once a picture starts, they’re my closest collaborators. You see, I worked with good people. I was lucky. That’s how I looked at it. I worked with the best. I had the best people all the way around and I started that early in my career. I could do whatever I wanted to do. In other words, I sometimes would do things that would make the studio very angry. In Europe, I remember they wanted me to come home. So I said finally, “I’m tired of you asking me to come home all the time. Fire me.” I wanted to quit because I was having a terrible time in Europe with the crew, not with the actors. See, in France half of the crew was Communist and half of the crew was non-Communist. Well, to the Communists, I was an ex-communist. The Communists feel there’s nothing worse than an ex-Communist. They’re much more hated because he knows the truth. So they sent me a memo. After I sent them a wire, they sent me a 14-page telegram. I had never seen one like that before. It was apologizing, saying, “No, go right ahead and do what you want to do.” I gave them 2 or 3 opportunities to fire me and then I almost quit. In those days, particularly the studios, they hired a guy and they trusted them. They wouldn’t have let me go because they couldn’t replace me with anybody. It would have cost them a hell of a lot more money and maybe not be as good. With the actors, I worked very freely. I’m in control of the staging and the pace, particularly. Which is very important because actors really don’t understand pace. Particularly if they come from the theater.

DE: Well they can’t in terms of the film because they don’t know how it’s going to be cut.

ED: Yeah, and I cut all my own pictures. See, now as far as I expect of them…I expect Tracy, when he plays a scene, to do things with it that I had wished I had thought to do. To surprise me. That’s the wonderful part about him. … I give him a certain amount of freedom but I don’t let him wander all over. I don’t let him…we change lines all the time but the changing of the lines is under my control. In other words, I wouldn’t do what John Cassavetes did because actors would run on forever if you let them.  I never liked John Cassavetes’ pictures because they were strictly they would run on and on and on. So, if an actor wants to ad-lib I’d say, “You think you can write better than the writer did? If you can, go ahead. If you can’t, don’t mention it anymore.” But I would change it. I’d change scripts like Young Lions as much as 50%. I could have gotten real credit of it. I don’t think I ever made a picture where I didn’t change something. You got to bring a picture to life. All the writers these days write dialogue. There’s nothing there about what to do and how to do it or how a scene starts or how it ends or goes from sequence to another smoothly and continues the flow of the story, that kind of thing. I’ve had cases several times where I’d come in on a set and I’d have a rehearsal with my cast and then I’d call the art director and say, “This won’t do. I can’t shoot this scene here. I got to have another set. Have the writer write another scene,” and walk out to take the day off and rewrite.

4:8IRONMEN

DE: What do you remember most about working with Lee Marvin on Eight Iron Men (1952)?

ED: He and Bonar Colleano had been out on the town the night before while we were making that one. They got along very, very well. They came in an hour late. That’s unforgivable. I gave them hell and I’ve never seen two such penitent guys. They were like kids with their heads down. They kept saying, “I know it’s wrong, I know it’s wrong. We’ll never do it again. Never.” And they never did. I never knew he had a reputation for drinking and I know he did drink but not on the set…Lee was interesting. I had a lot of interesting characters. That’s what I liked about the pictures I was doing, good actors.

5:RAINTREE

DE: Speaking of interesting characters, how did you get along with Montgomery Clift?

ED: Well, yes and no. I got along fine with him. I had a lot of trouble with him on Raintree County (1957) because, well, after his accident he was on drugs and drinking so much he could never work an afternoon. He was in every scene so it took about 160 days on that picture. I thought I’d never use him again. Then when I got back right after that, I was sent what they had, they didn’t have a complete script yet on The Young Lions (1958). I read it and said, “Geez, there’s only one guy to play this part and that’s Monty Clift.” I called him on the phone and had sent him the script. He sent me a telegram a few days later just saying ‘yes.’ On that picture, he never indulged. He did in the evenings but he never missed an hour’s work. I was thinking last night, because I was running a scene for my class the day before yesterday, this one sequence where he brings Hope Lange home, that was the last thing we did. It was done at night, of course. Just before midnight, he started…He was little rough. I called midnight dinner and I said to him, “Monty, I don’t want to have come back tomorrow and do this again.”

DE: How did Montgomery Clift get along with the rest of the cast on Raintree County?

ED: Very well. Monty was a guy who liked everybody…. We started in New Orleans but then we filmed it in Natchez, all up and down the south. … I don’t remember Monty drinking with anybody, actually. I didn’t follow him at night. He drank. He took dope actually, first thing in the morning.

DE: He was in a lot of pain at that time, wasn’t he?

ED: Yeah, because he had his jaw broken in three places and it was wired up. The wires were out by the time we went back to work. Nevertheless, he felt a lot of pain. I think that was his excuse but I think he was drinking all of his life as far as I know. One of the things I did before the picture, because I had never worked with ever before, I didn’t know him, I got in touch with the people. What’s his name, with the Irish name?

DE: Kevin McCarthy?

ED: McCarthy was a very good friend of his. McCarthy said, “He’s a tough guy to be a friend to because he drinks so much. You just get disgusted with him. There comes a time when you have to say good bye.” So, I was warned. Strangely enough, at the beginning you don’t want to hear about this.

DE: I know it was a difficult movie to make, and the divergent cast and the accident and all, but in the scenes that Lee Marvin and Montgomery Clift had together, the characters were adversarial, I’m thinking specifically about the foot race. See, Marvin is much more physically imposing than Clift is.

ED: If it were an honest race, he could have beat Monty.

DE: When you watch it you see Marvin do the miraculous task of making Clift look like he beat him. How did he do that? Were there any little things you talked about before the shooting of it?

ED: No, he just knew that Monty had to beat him and he kept it so. As a matter of fact, for a little while, he was maybe a little bit ahead. He had a much longer stride than Monty did and he made it look like as though he was working hard. He could have slowed up his stride a little bit.

DE: In high school Lee Marvin was a track star.

ED: That I didn’t know.

Jean Porter: (Laughs) Now you find out.

DE: Do you recall when you first met him?

ED: No. But I can tell you that I would do with Lee is what I would do with all actors. People ask me about working with actors. When I first started teaching about 15 years ago at USC., one of the professors there was a professor of film but had never been on a set in his life. One of those academicians. He said, “Eddie, how do you get an actor to read a line the way you want it?’ I said, “I don’t.” He said, “What do you mean by that?” I said, “Do you think I’m going to tell Spencer Tracy how to read lines? That’s his business. That’s his art.” I’m a third-rate actor. If I told him, “This is the way to read a line,” he’d be giving a third rate performance. I never tell a good actor how to do lines, nor does any really good director that I know of.

DE: On The Caine Mutiny (1954), many of the actors are on record as saying Bogart was one of their heroes. How did they get along with Bogart on the set?

ED: Fine. I never had any trouble with anybody. Only one actor in my life I ever had any trouble with who’s name I won’t mention…We had a large cast in that picture with a very good cast right down the line. We got along like brothers and sisters. I never had any trouble. You mentioned Raintree County. Elizabeth, the only time Elizabeth was not on time is when she missed the plane for New Orleans. On the set she was always on time, she was always cooperative.

DE: Was she very protective of Montgomery Clift?

ED: They were very close. She helped him of course but he was a very, very good friend of his. Which was important. He would help her with her acting. He’d go through the script with her whenever we had rehearsals and he’d help here and there. She got a nomination for that picture, as you probably know.

DE: I’ve never been on a film set but I read that there’s a lot of hurry up and wait. What kind of things is done between set-ups?

ED: Play cards.

DE: What was the game of choice?

ED: We played poker. We played odd games. We played this one thing that sometimes I’d join them in. We played Chinese poker. It’s an interesting game.

DE: Was there a difference in rehearsal than what we would see on film?

ED: Not really. Sometimes there is. You see to me, rehearsal is where you make the thing. By the time you’re ready to photograph it, you’re just registering it, that’s all. There’s only one actor I knew who really wanted to go all out in rehearsal. You don’t encourage them to go all out because one of the things they have to do is to pace themselves. That’s another thing. When you do a scene finally, you have to be spontaneous. One of the things you don’t want to do is work too hard. That’s why I don’t mind changing lines to make it fit or for character’s purposes or anything of that sort. Take a line that’s literally in the script and make it a natural kind of thing that I guy in the street would say. I did it gradually. Sometimes I didn’t use the script but I did it rarely. You know, we’d be rehearsing and I’d say [to the actor], “Gee, you know that’s great. You did something great there. Do it again.” He’d say, “What did I do?” “Well, you took this trash here and you moved it over here.” He’d say, “Did I?” I’d say, “Sure you did. Don’t you remember?” Of course he didn’t do it. It was something I wanted him to do.

DE: That’s an interesting way to do it.

ED: Oh sure. You give them all the credit. The more credit you give them, the better they do for you, for Christ’s sake. Of course. You don’t say, “I’m the king. I’m in charge.” The auteur theory is the worst damned thing that was ever thought of.

DE: I’m in complete agreement because film is too collaborative.

ED: There’s that but you also limit yourself. I advice all my students, don’t make storyboards. A storyboard is a plot. You got it down there and once you got it down there you say, “That’s the way we’re going to do it.” Then there’s no more creativity after you’re on the set. I say, “You got to keep changing. You got to keep thinking about possible change.” You don’t necessarily change but possible changes occur right up to the time you shoot it.

Next Time: “Edward Dmytryk: A Worthy Examination” (Part 2)!


Inherit-the-Wind-poster

The Still Relevant Musings of Stanley Kramer

I always tell people that the best part of my job as a writer is talking to people whose work I admire about the work I admire. There’s no better example of that then Stanley Kramer. He agreed to meet with me in November 1994 at the legendary Sportsman’s Lodge. The interview was for my book Lee Marvin Point Blank so consequently, Marvin was the main topic of conversation. Most of Kramer’s thoughts on Marvin went into my book but the opportunity to speak with the pioneering producer/director naturally bled into other topics. That which didn’t go into the book is presented here for the first time. Sadly, he passed away in 2001 (on Lee Marvin’s birthday!) and what survives here are the opinions, anecdotes and cantankerous musings of a filmmaker whose value can never be overestimated.

Skramer

Dwayne Epstein: As a producer, you did a film in 1952 called Eight Iron Men based on a play…

Stanley Kramer: Was Lee in that?

D: Yeah, he was. Do you remember anything about it?

S: No, not very much. But he must have impressed me because I used him several times after that.

D: What would be in a script that would make you think Lee Marvin could play the part?

S: My natural sense of genius. I mean why do you cast? You cast out of ego, too. You see it that way. People say to me, “Why did you use Gene Kelly?” or “Why did you use Fred Astaire in a dramatic part?” or “Why did you make the first picture with Marlon Brando?” Because I felt that I was doing something special.

D: And you were.

S: Not always.

D: You had the guts to at least try something different.

S: Try, yeah. That’s why I got into it.

D: How did Lee Marvin and Brando get along?

S: Not too well. Brando had done Streetcar and a couple of other things. I was the only one who made two films with him that didn’t make any money.

wildone

D: I always thought The Wild One (1954) was a big hit.

S: It was banned more places that it played.

D: Was there a rivalry between the two actors that transferred to the screen?

S: Since they played the heads of rival gangs, they played it that way.

D: Lee hid behind his personality?

S: He created a personality and hid behind it. He wasn’t that way, at all.

D: What was he really then?

S: Soft. Sensitive. Easy to hurt.

D: You saw that side of him?

S: I lived that side with him. I must have done about five pictures with him.

D: How would that sensitive side show itself?

S: Well, sometimes with another actor or actress. Sometimes with a director. It would depend. He wanted to do a good job much more desperately than his personality indicated.

D: So there was a sense of insecurity about him?

S: Sure, but he was very talented.

D: Having worked on The Caine Mutiny (1954), would you say there was a comparison between Bogart and Lee Marvin?

S: I don’t think so.

D: How would they be different?

S: Well, Bogart was a star incarnate, from the beginning. First time I ever got together with Bogart, for example, was in Hawaii, The Beachcomber’s Restaurant. There was a bout eight of us at the table and the film was starting rehearsals the next morning. We had all been settled in there for about three or four days. Around 11:00, I looked at my watch and said, “For all the guys that have to work tomorrow, I think it’s time to turn in.” Bogart said, “Wait a minute. What do you fancy yourself to be? Who are you, the producer of this picture? For Christ’s sake, dictating the time to go to bed and everything, that’s ridiculous! What’s your function here?” Fortunately, I thought of a line. I said, “My function is to see that recalcitrant actors get to bed on time.” He looked at me and just stared at me. Then, he broke out in a laugh. He said, “Okay.” That was all just before we started The Caine Mutiny.

D: Do you remember if Lee Marvin got along with Bogart, because I know he was enamored of Bogart?

S: Right, he was. I don’t remember. Too many other things going on.

D: The first film you directed, Not As A Stranger with Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin had a small part in that. What was it like working with him then? It was a pretty volatile cast with Sinatra, Mitchum, Broderick Crawford….

S: I don’t recollect. You’ll have to make it up.

D: [laughs] I won’t do that. Some critics said Gene Kelly was miscast in Inherit the Wind (1960). I thought he was wonderful in that.

S: I did, too. It’s hard to find reasons for that failure of that movie except I know some of the reasons. United Artists never went all the way down the line with it, to open it and do it, exploit it. It needed that. I thought Tracy and March would carry it, you know?

D: They were like titans.

S: They were titans, too. They had respect. That was a wonderful experience for me. Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn’t. When I was working on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), everybody said, “Christ, this will fold like an accordion.” Yet, they stood opposite each other. The guy kissed the girl in the opening scene.

D: The world didn’t come to an end.

S: No, maybe if it had we’d have made more money. If you have any personal questions, feel free to ask me.

D: What do you look for in a script? Obviously, you have a certain style of filmmaking like all great directors do…

S: No I don’t.

D: I think you do. I think you have a film that says Stanley Kramer on it.

tracy

S: How do you…That’s why I made a picture, the picture I made was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, World (1963). That’s not a Stanley Kramer picture.

D: Right, since every now and again, you got to break the mold. No question about that. But chances are, if there’s a film that says Stanley Kramer on it, it’s not going to be a light piece of fluff. You tackled tough subjects mostly…

S: I didn’t think they were so tough when I tackled them. I made them because I believed in them and visualized it and thought, “Well, I could do this. Make a great thing out of it.” Doesn’t always turn out that way. That’s what makes a Christian out of you.

D: What do you look for in a script when you read it?

S: I don’t look for anything in particular. Surprise me! Shock me! Stun me! Intrigue me! Do something! I don’t know whether it jumps off the page but maybe I can visualize something. Chances are, if it jumps off the page, it wouldn’t be very good.

D: Did you ever think of directing a play instead of just films? You seem to be a very good actor’s director.

S: Who told you that?

D: No one. That comes just from watching your films. You give great showcases for actors in your films.

S: Well, then the film would be the showcase. But, nobody ever offered me a play script and I never thought of one so…I’ve directed stage productions, workouts, locally and so forth.

D: Interesting. When you cast Burt Lancaster as the judge on trial in Judgment at Nuremberg, was there a chance of casting Lee Marvin in that or any role in the film?

S: I’m sure I did along the way. Maybe there was some reason why he wasn’t in it. See, I had Tracy near the end of his life, since it was an all-star cast, I did that so I could get try to get an audience where it all jelled, because it never did sufficiently. We got an audience but not enough. Lancaster was a replacement. That part was set and agreed to and all negotiated out for Olivier to play. He got married. He married Joan Plowright. He said, “Unless you can postpone the picture for four months, it’s out.” I couldn’t. At any rate, Lancaster was one of those nasty…It didn’t work entirely because everybody else had a background of being German; Schell and all the defendants. But Lancaster read it and wanted it. I didn’t like the accent he played with.

D: He tried.

S: He tried and he performed pretty well.

D: You produced John Cassavetes’ first studio film, A Child is Waiting (1963). I’m guessing he preferred his own independent projects so he wasn’t crazy about the experience.

S: He wasn’t crazy about the experience because of me, probably. We had difficulties. He was a talented fellow. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have put him in the job. But I had a self-centered idea about films. There can only be one dominant and you can’t do it by conference, by agreement. One guy has the concept and the driving force. That’s what I always felt to be true, anyhow. Cassavetes was young, unregimented, not accustomed to listening, and I was in his ear a lot. It was a project I would have done. I was busy on something else. The reason I didn’t direct it is I made the project go up to that point but it was the kind of subject most people wouldn’t be interested in, anyhow. We used a lot of people from the hospital

D: Burt Lancaster played the head of the hospital but would you have considered Lee Marvin for Lancaster’s role as the lead?

S: Yeah, I would have considered Lee Marvin for anything. I thought he was a hell of an actor.

D: Do you recall if you did or not for that role?

S: Probably not because Lancaster was a much bigger name. Some of those subjects needed a symphony of names. It’s always a confining thing. See, in the early days, Marlon Brando had never made a film, and that was good. Kirk Douglas hadn’t done anything, and that was good. There were other people. Jose Ferrer was not known in films. Gary Cooper was but Grace Kelly hadn’t. I had used a lot of people exciting in those days. Then, I began to switch cast, vis a vis Astaire or Gene Kelly, that kind of thing…dancers [laughs].

fools

D: On Ship of Fools (1965), how did Lee Marvin get along with Vivien Leigh?

S: I don’t know if there was anything personal going on between them. I would be the last one to ask about that. But, he got along very well. After all, he was a queer duck. Meeting him for the first time, for an actor who’s supposed to be playing with him, it must have been an experience for her, too. I’m sure it was.

D: Would you say there was a mutual respected for each other’s talent?

S: The respect that he had for her was unbelievable. What her respect was for him, I don’t know.

D: How did Lee Marvin get the part in Ship of Fools?

S: I picked him. If you ask me on what basis, I don’t know. Usually, casting is a feeling. [pause] I can’t stress enough that he was really two people. He had an outer facade and this terrible, sensitive, introspective underneath. How do you deal with that, as an actor? It’s not easy. He was very respectful of Vivien Leigh. The first scene they played together I remember very well because of Marvin. He came into the dining room, crossed the room and sat down at the table.

D: That’s right.

S: How do you know that’s right?

D: I’ve seen the movie several times. Wasn’t it the scene where he’s at the table and she comes in and he doesn’t get up for Vivien Leigh who sarcastically says ‘don’t get up.’?

S: You’ve seen it more recently. At any rate, he worked out the lines, how to cope with it and then did me the honor of discussing it. He often did that, very often. This was always deep with him because either he had something profound to say which people ought to listen to — he always seemed to be so surfacely amuck or rough. When you bear that, when you lifted the curtain and looked behind it, there was a lot to see.

D: So you’re saying there was much more depth to the man then people realized?

S: Not only much more depth but he was sensitive underneath. His sensitivity he protected as best he could. I always gave him credit of his intelligence. I remember…let me think a minute. I constantly had a feeling he left too soon. I think he had a lot more to say and do, I really feel that. I don’t think he ever crested, is what I mean

D: Have you seen a film in recent years and thought Lee Marvin could’ve done it?

S: Well, it wouldn’t be that obvious. I made a picture once called On the Beach (1959). Fred Astaire played a scientist in it. Everyone said, “What the hell is Fred Astaire doing in this? Can’t visualize it.” I visualize it somewhere along the line. I think he came through very well. It would be the same with Marvin. If Marvin, for example, played a hard…I often look for a role for something like a football coach or a college instructor so I could use him and stand out from that.

D: Well, Anthony Quinn in RPM (1970) was a college instructor. Did you consider Marvin for that role?

S: I don’t remember that. It was a gigantic failure. That’s what I remember most.

D: It was a game effort.

S: Unfortunately, you don’t get points for that. I’ve had a lot of game efforts [laughs].

D: During Ship of Fools, anything else in particular about it that stands out in your mind?

S: Well, I had a conglomeration of people in the film, as you know. It was the one and only experience I had with an actor named Oskar Werner. He happened to be one of the great actors of all time. He and Spencer Tracy, but I only made one picture with Oskar…He was very difficult for everybody. I made a pact with him. If our objectives, our high objectives were up there and clear to both of us, he’d get rid of all this crap and go for it, which he bought and did. Many times he would do something and say to me something he never said to anybody: “What do you think?” That was a big concession for him.

D: How did he get along with the other actors?

S: Fairly well. He and Signoret, I got together and made a pact with both of them. They made a pact with each other: Drop the resentment and the dislike and let the roles dominant.

D: Seemed to work. Their love scenes seemed very believable.

S: Of course. So many other things I was satisfied with most of the way. I remember one day I had a scene with Vivien Leigh and she was drunk, she was playing it. It occurred to us, on her walk down the ship’s corridor, do something, the Charleston. Just suddenly broke into it like it was on her mind. And she did it and went off quickly. Then she went on her way to the cabin. That was my idea. I want credit for that one!

D: What are you doing with yourself, lately?

S: I’m preparing to make a picture, yeah. That’s one of the things I’m doing. I also wrote another book.

KRAMER

D: Anything you can tell me about the upcoming film?

S: Well, I can tell you it’s present time. I have two projects. The first one, I’d like to be the story of modern Soviet Russia: After the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a good love story. I got to bring it up to date. Changes every month.

D: Any casting in mind?

S: Well, the guy who’s dogging me the most is Max Schell. Last time Max Schell and I got together, he won the Oscar. This is very special, too. Good love story.

D: You mentioned a new book. Is it on filmmaking or your own experiences?

S: Well, running through it is film anecdotes, motivations, agonies, prejudices.

D: Any of the later films that weren’t necessarily hits with critics or audiences, say, The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) that you may have reconsidered casting?

S: I don’t recall, maybe. In terms of casting, you have to have a big enough ego and I had it. You visualize something, you get an idea, a thought, and you follow it through against the current. If it comes off, great. If it doesn’t, you made a mistake.

D: So, you’re saying casting against type worked for you a lot better?

S: No, it didn’t work a lot better but it worked, sometimes. Not always.

D: Can you think of an example where it failed?

S: Yeah, but I won’t tell you.

D: [Laughs] Okay, that’s fair. That seems like a good note to end on.

S: All right. Hope you got enough.

D: I sure did.

 

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Micro 1

The Micro Movie House: An Improbable History

Some movie theaters have become as legendary as the films which have illuminated their screens. These venues are famous for their influence or historical significance, or their longevity, or for the legends that have grown up around them.

This is not a story about one of those theaters.

The Micro Movie House in Moscow, Idaho, that’s right, Moscow, Idaho, was a Seventh-Day Adventist Church, of all things, until 1975, when it was converted into an unlikely cinema, seemingly over the course of a single inspired, and from all surviving evidence, intoxicated weekend.

The theater was designed, if such a word is applicable, like a Rubik’s cube half-solved and then dropped drunkenly in superglue. Patrons entering under the tiny marquee and through the front door would immediately be confronted by a precarious wooden staircase leading down into who-knows-where. Those brave enough to risk descending these stairs into the dark would find themselves in a “lobby.”  A ticket for the night’s performance was purchased not at a box office, but at a portable podium-pulpit, apparently a repurposed remnant of the building’s earlier career. The narrow room beyond was adorned with vintage movie posters, an actual fireplace, and a suggestion box. None of which are likely to be found at a modern multiplex, I suspect.

The basement concession stand was as idiosyncratic as the rest of the Micro. In addition to popcorn and soft drinks (served in waxy cups, inexplicably adorned with the logo of a nearby taco chain), the place offered candy, fresh-baked cookies, self-serve coffee, and famously, apple cider. The cider was particularly memorable. It came in 3 sizes, and could be served with or without ice, filtered or unfiltered, and hot or cold. Conceivably, ordering the cider, what with all the inherent decisions involved in doing so, could have made an indecisive patron late for the start of the film.

That film was projected in an auditorium off the lobby and atop another twisted set of stairs. I’ve read that the Micro could accommodate 150 people. But I know for a fact that selling 125 tickets would fill up all of the seats (and yes, they were real theater seats. I wonder whatever happened to all those pews.), and the single bench at the back of the room as well.

That bench was under the projection booth, which had been constructed on a raised and walled-off platform where the church’s pulpit had once stood. The holy light which originated from the booth was the product not of God, but of 2 vintage, Simplex 35mm projectors. The first time I watched a movie under the light of those projectors it was the 1980s. I was a freshman in college and I was instantly smitten.

My parents had neither encouraged nor discouraged my budding and inexplicable interest in film. I’d went to Moscow, located in Idaho’s rural and usually frozen panhandle on a theater arts scholarship of all things, and this phd scholarships program which involves many years in deep research,  was one of the best things that happen to me it has made the person who I am today. As soon as I started frequenting the Micro I’m afraid that the world of the stage lost me forever to the world of the soundstage. The Micro, you see, ran a mix of conventional Hollywood pictures, in their second and third runs, and classics and contemporary cinema from around the world. I’d never seen or even heard of many of the exotic cinematic pleasures I encountered at the Micro. I may have gone to college at the University of Idaho, but I got my education, at least the one I still reference, at the Micro.

After a few weeks of seeing virtually everything the theater had to offer I decided that I had to become a part of this place. I gathered my courage and asked the manager for a job. Well, it wasn’t so courageous come to think about it. I actually dropped my phone number into the suggestion box with the offer to work for free to “learn the business.”  I was astonished when the manager, Bob Suto, actually called me and invited me in for an interview. He even, eventually, liked me enough to pay me. I’d always thought that the film industry was more difficult to get into than that.

Micro 1

For the next 4 years the Micro became a part of my life which I still haven’t quite shaken off.  And the story of the Micro, the idiosyncratic, independent, eccentric little Micro, personifies, to a certain degree an entire era made up of spunky repertoire theaters which ran whatever the hell they wanted. And actually found success, for a time, in doing so.

Conceivably these theaters grew out of the independent or “revival” houses which had no corporate affiliation during the studio era. In the late 1950’s the legendary Brattle theater, near Harvard, Mass, began inexplicably running old Humphrey Bogart pictures. And the largely college-age patrons who frequented this theater found themselves unexpectedly relating to films starring an actor who had been a hero to their parents’ generation. These same movies were then being widely syndicated to television, but the thrill of seeing them with an audience of equally appreciative, and often chemically enhanced, peers, created the first film “cults.”  Audiences went again and again to these films, often reciting the dialogue along with the actors on the screen. And other theater owners, especially those lucky enough to be close to a college campus, were quick to follow the Brattle’s example. Other Hollywood personalities, those which these audiences perceived as being somehow, counter-culture, like the Marx Brothers, or W.C. Fields, were quickly joined on-screen by films of foreign auteurs and by experimental and independent films from all over the world as well.

It didn’t last, of course. The original generation of revival theater audiences grew up, went to Woodstock or Viet Nam, and eventually decided they liked to watch their movies while sitting at home on the couch.  By the time I made my debut at the Micro home video was already a fact of life. Some of the patrons I sold tickets to could conceivably have been children of the audiences who cheered Jean-Paul Belmondo reverently whispering Bogie’s name in Breathless (À bout de soufflé,1960). I didn’t know it at the time, but I was there for the very end of a rather romantic era in film exhibition.

But Bob Suto must have known that he was piloting a ship which ultimately had to flounder. He didn’t give a damn. The Micro’s schedules were ballsy and eclectic and weird. It was like Bob was determined to bring the best and oddest of world cinema into the wilds of Idaho – whether or not Idaho was ready for them or not.

The theater was actually bankrolled and subsidized by Bob’s sister and her husband, who owned the local Taco John’s – thus solving forever the mystery of the Micros’ enigmatic drink cups. But the crazy thing was that, for a long time, the good people of Moscow, a medium-sized university town, largely populated by ex-hippies and agriculture majors, responded to being condescended to in large numbers and with open wallets. I used to get the schedules of what Bob had booked and have no idea how it was that a mainstream Hollywood offering like Trading Places (1983) could share the same screen, in the same week, with Bye Bye Brazil (1980) and Sophomore Sensations (the latter was a 1975 German-soft-core oddity so obscure that it took me five minutes to even find it on IMDB). One week Bob proudly told me that we were the smallest theater, in the smallest market in the United States, to project Abel Gance’s recently restored Napoleon (1927).  We sold out that weekend. But we still lost money on it.

Midnight movies were a big part of any revival theater’s existence. The Micro’s signature midnight movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was the king (queen?) of that particular income stream. Ordinarily, two employees could handle an entire shift at the Micro. One person would sell tickets and another would work concessions. At show time the ticket teller would carry the box-office podium back to the concession era and the person there would vend both tickets and popcorn while his partner ran upstairs to fire up the projectors. If a line formed downstairs, and anyone bought a movie ticket and the cider, the whole system could be jeopardized by the complexities of the situation.

On Rocky Horror nights however, a third employee was brought in. Part of this unlucky individual’s job was to climb onto the stage at 11:59 PM and warn the audience that throwing rice and toilet paper, and even other patrons into the air was fine and well, but that anyone caught squirting water at the screen would be roughed up by “management” and thrown outside.  This warning became de rigueur on Rocky Horror nights after our screen was repeatedly doused in water by enthusiastic audience members. We eventually replaced this screen because the damaged areas started to shine and glisten under the projector light.

Actually, we probably would have ignored the complaints this caused, had the screen not been further mauled by an impromptu belly-dancing demonstration by Bob’s girlfriend Leanne, who had accidently sliced a horizontal line in the thing while swinging a prop sword during her memorable (at least to me) gyrations. Even this indignity we tried to cover up with some glue. But the seam the sword wound left behind really was impossible to ignore. During a screening of Notorious (1946), for example, Cary Grant’s lips would occasionally line-up so perfectly with the repaired seam that the actor would end up looking like a debonair and highly reflective version of Mr. Sardonicus.

The projection booth at the Micro had a lock on the door, with good reason. The machines inside had been workhorses in the 1930’s. But by the 80’s, these black behemoths, which looked like a set of Mickey Mouse ears, cast in iron and turned on their sides, were,  like the projectionists who operated them, somewhat idiosyncratic. They illumined our new screen using carbon rods mounted inside a reflective drum. The carbons would hiss and pop and sputter, and it was a near constant job keeping them feeding into each other at the proper speed and reflective density. I sometimes wonder how many people alive today were trained, like I was, in the maintenance of such archaic exhibitor’s alchemy. I must have been one of the last.

There were also reel changeovers between projectors to be performed every 17 minutes or so. As far as I know, film labs still print tiny circles, lasting 4 frames each and spaced about 20 seconds apart at the end of each reel of film, even though almost every theater in the country has now converted to digital projection, and any venues which still project actual celluloid probably splice all the reels together onto platters. But old habits die hard. At the Micro we used these visual cues to time the transitions from one projector to another. When it worked right the transition was seamless. Occasionally, the marks would be missing, along with the last few feet of film on the reel, and we would scratch new circles into the print with a razor blade. I remember when I was hired Bob asked me if I had any experience as a projectionist. I told him I knew how the cue mark system worked; having picked up this information up from an episode of Colombo. Never let anyone tell you that obsessive television watching isn’t a valuable skill in securing employment. At least it was for me.

As I’ve explained, the Micro was a legitimate, 35mm equipped theatre. But some of the films Bob booked were only available for projection in 16mm. We had a Bell & Howell projector for this purpose, which had been modified with a Xenon bulb and extra-large distribution and take-up arms. The projection booth was built off of the floor, so the ceiling was inordinately low from inside. One night I was projecting Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) in 16mm. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, because it hadn’t happened before, and never happened again, but as the weight of the film shifted from the front spindle to the rear, the front reel shifted upward ever so slightly and started rubbing against the ceiling. Unable to move, the film locked in place and caught fire in the gate, colorfully incinerating Clark Gable mid-mutiny. I repaired the damage, but couldn’t keep distribution reel from continuing to bang into the ceiling. It probably happened a dozen times on that endless, unforgettable evening. As I’ve said. The booth had a lock on the door for a reason.

Any skills as a projectionist I managed to acquire, at least those which didn’t originate on the NBC Mystery Movie, came not from Bob, but rather from his chief projectionist – although we never used that phrase (we didn’t bother with titles at the socialist utopia which was the Micro). Darwin Vest was a mechanical genus who managed to keep the projectors running, more or less, in spite of any mistakes I inflicted upon them. He could listen to the machines grinding away and tell that the intermittent gear was just a little out of alignment. At least I think he could. I took his word for it.

Darwin was a maestro in the projection booth. But his heart was elsewhere. He was a scientist of some renown, but was hampered academically because he had no formal accreditation. His specialty was the venoms of poisonous spiders and reptiles. Darwin was famous in certain circles of academia for identifying the hobo spider as being a venomous species. During the first years we were working together he was busy assembling a show, “The Venomous Reptile Review,” with his sister Becky, who also worked at the Micro. The presentation was intended to educate audience members about biting, clawing, spitting or otherwise aggressive snakes and lizards through up-close and personal demonstrations. But, sadly, when the show opened at a lecture hall in nearby Pullman, Washington, only 12 people showed up, ultimately forcing Darwin and Becky to shutter the act and to escape anxious creditors by hiding out in the projection booth.

Darwin was a fascinating guy in a doomed, F. Scott Fitzgerald sort of way. A quiet, soft spoken intellectual with a neatly trimmed beard and an air of always being three-steps ahead of everyone else, but of being too polite to let on. He once invited me out for drinks after, or maybe it was before, a shared shift at the Micro. All I wanted to speak about was movies. Usually he was fine with this, but on this night he seemed to want to talk to me about some mysterious, impenetrable research he was engaged in on campus. I was still obsessing about the Herzog film our projectors had been mauling that week, but to be polite I finally asked him what exactly it was he had been doing behind locked doors in the chemistry building every day. He took a drink, and then looked around, as if spies might be lurking begin the potted ferns. “Cancer,” He finally whispered.

“You’ve…got it?”

“I’ve cured it.”

He then told me exactly what it was he had been working on, something venom-related, surely, which had somehow led to his mysterious, kitchen-sink cancer cure. But I could follow what he told me no more than I could repeat any of it today. All I can recall is that he said that in every test he had performed the cancer cells had retreated. “It needs a lot more work; years of work, maybe” he whispered, “but someday…”

The next day, post hangover, it occurred to me that I had recently wallowed in the delicious tragedy of Sophie’s Choice (1982) at the Micro. And that there was a scene where Kevin Kline’s romantic, schizophrenic scientist character had engaged in a similar conversation with a protégée. The realist in my nature, even today, assumes that Darwin was repeating this scene with me, either ironically, or drunkenly, just to screw with me and to see if I would notice its origin. Yet Darwin wasn’t that sort of person. He was too kind, and too self-absorbed for this sort of referential trickery. Unfortunately “someday” never came for him either. In 1999, Darwin was taking a walk at night, as was his habit, and he vanished into the dark without a trace. The case is still open. It’s still officially listed by the F.B.I as unsolved.

My years at the Micro came to an end with my graduation, although I had spent more time either changing reels or watching them play out there than I ever had in school. Home video had been eroding the Micro’s audiences since before I arrived, but the opening of a nearby multiplex, and changing audience tastes caused attendance to continue to drop off after I was gone. Apparently, although none of us knew it, the Micro had actually had been existing inside a Camelot-like bubble – where it was still 1969 – for a decade. That bubble finally burst in 1998. It had been a long run. A quarter century lifetime for a theater so haphazardly constructed, indifferently managed, and scheduled so contrary to popular taste is a long time. Perhaps passion and a gambler’s spirit is a better business tool than one would suspect. Bob Suto and the Micro had a lot of both.

The last movie to run at the Micro Movie House was a free screening of the much-beloved-by- Moscowite’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’ve not been back to see it for myself, but friends tell me that the building which housed the Seventh-Day Adventists and then the Micro is now a tattoo parlor.

There are still a few revival theaters left in the large cities. Many theater chains now dedicate a token number of screens to independent film as well. But this once-upon-a-time willingness by audiences, even audiences in allegedly conservative places like rural Idaho, to support eclectic, eccentric film programing, is apparently a thing of the past. No one can be certain, of course, but it now seems likely that the lights have forever dimmed on theaters like the Micro. Just as it now seems likely that, like my friend Darwin, who walked off into the night with a secret and never returned, we’ll not see their like again.


Steven Bingen is a historian, screenwriter and former archivist at Warner Bros. Originally a native of Seattle, Washington, Bingen has written or contributed  to dozens of books, articles and documentaries on Hollywood history, Including MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which he coauthored, and which was the first significant book ever published about a movie studio lot. A follow-up is due in September; 2014. He lives in the world’s largest backlot, also known as Los Angeles, California.

http://mgmbacklot.info/

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