Before the Wind Came

before-the-wind-came

In writing my most recent Memories post (The SoCal Trip 1975), I was curious about one of the sites we visited on that particular vacation, so I did a little research.

The site was (and is) the Selznick Studio, which is wedged away in a small enclave in Culver City, California. (It still does business but now under the name of the Culver Studios). Formed in 1919 when Thomas Ince broke away from Triangle Pictures (whose other two partners of the troika were D. W. Griffith and Hal Roach), it has changed hands a number of times over the years. After the mysterious death of Mr. Ince in 1924, Cecil B. DeMille moved into the lot. He merged the concern with the Pathe company in 1926, which in turn was acquired by RKO in 1932. Selznick leased the lot from RKO in 1936.

[Check out this history, that chronicles some of the films (and TV shows) done on the lot. Of particular note were the old sets on the lot (i.e. ones for King Kong, etc.) that were torched for the burning of Atlanta sequence for GWTW.]

When doing some research for another project, I came across this brief article in Variety for October 30, 1935 p 7.

Shearer-Garbo in with Selznick-Whitney Prods.

Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo are among those who are reported tied in financially with the new Dave Selznick producing firm in which Jock Whitney is also concerned.

I realized this article heralded the genesis of Selznick’s involvement at the Culver Studio (then RKO). Shearer and Garbo disappear from any connection to Selznick, in so far as any corporate involvement is concerned. He had been pursuing Garbo prior to this for the role that finally went to Bette Davis in “Dark Victory” when the rights were sold to WB. Instead Garbo chose to do “Anna Karenina” as one of Selznick’s last projects as a producer in the employ of MGM. Garbo was close to Shearer and her husband Irving Thalberg, so this conjunction of their names is not unusual. The untimely death of Thalberg the following year and the subsequent turmoil may explain their absence from the concern going forward.

This article also set me off on another “rabbit trail,” in so far GWTW was involved.

The name in the last phrase, Jock Whitney, was completely new to me, and it proved fascinating to learn more about him.

Whitney was the young well-to-do scion of an East Coast family (who inherited 20 million from his father after 1927, and 80 million from his mother after 1944). His full name – John Hay Whitney gave the first clue to his family history. To anyone who has read about Abraham Lincoln, John Hay is a familiar name. He was one of Lincoln’s secretaries during his time in office. Later he was appointed ambassador to London, and later still served as Secretary of State under both McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. And Jock Whitney is his grandson and namesake. His other grandfather, served as Naval Secretary under Cleveland.

  Whitney graduated from Yale, and was a member of the Scroll & Key secret society while there, (his father also was an alumnus, but a member of the Skull & Crossbones secret society). He started as a clerk in a banking house. But once he came into money, he invested in personal interests. He was a major “angel” for Broadway productions during the 1930s. – “Here Goes the Bride,” “Life with Father,” and “Jumbo.” From there it was short hop to film.

He had been brought into the film business by Merian C. (“King Kong”) Cooper, then a producer and head of production at RKO. By 1933, Jock founded his own production company, Pioneer Films.  And around the same time he acquired a 15% interest in Technicolor. He used the process in making a musical short “La Cucaracha,” and later the first technicolor (three strip process) feature “Becky Sharp.” Pioneer was merged with Selznick Int’l Pictures in 1936, and Whitney ended up as chairman of the board of the new company.

Together on the Culver lot they were responsible for such films as “A Star is Born,” “Nothing Sacred,” “Rebecca,” and “Gone with the Wind.” In fact, it was through Whitney’s direct investment that Selznick acquired the rights to the Margaret Mitchell novel, which laid the foundation for what would be Selznick’s “signature” film.

In the Yale yearbook for 1926, in its write up about Whitney it noted that his future plans looked to an occupation in either the field of literature or diplomacy. Actually he “checked off both boxes.” The thirties and forties mark his time of involvement with literature as literary projects were translated to the stage and to the screen (in the 1940 census he lists himself as an executive in the Motion Picture Industry). He was an Eisenhower supporter in the fifties, and was consequently appointed the US ambassador to London, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather.

Up in Griffith Park

Link to a clip for this scene from Finian’s Rainbow

Of all the scenes in Finian’s Rainbow the most memorable to me was the outdoor wash-line scene. The setting is the exterior area of the home that Fred Astaire and Petula Clark have acquired near Rainbow Valley. It begins with an interaction between these two, then moves on to a duet between Petula and Tommy Steele (“Something Sort of Grandish”). The movement, the color, the focus on the passing images are wonderful, and no doubt my delight with it is helped along by the whimsical wordplay of the song. And then Tommy ascending out of the well under the billowing dress perfectly caps the scene. So, of course I had to ask Howard Kazanjian how it was all done.

I was surprised to learn from Howard that it was not filmed on the backlot at WB. Rather it was filmed up in Griffith Park, in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. I had known that James Dean’s film “Rebel Without a Cause” was filmed up there, but had no idea that so many other films and TV shows were shot there as well [Link to wikipedia article]. And that it has been a well used location ever since the early days of film, i.e. D. W. Griffith used it for the battle scenes in his 1915 epic “Birth of a Nation.”

A lot of preparations were necessary first. Permission was arranged with the city for them to shoot there (not Howard’s responsibility). Two structures were put up, one consisting of two facades joined together that stood in for the house, and nearby a structure that represented a well. Despite the presence of lots of vegetation, the greens man had a lot to do to prep the scene. Various plants were brought in to dress the area, including netted over tobacco plants down the hill from the “house” (viewable in the reverse angle from the main scene). And unlike in the backlot where there were sprinklers, all the grass in that area had turned brown, and needed to be sprayed painted green. And as a finishing touch, artificial plants were sprinkled throughout.

Then there was a lot of equipment to co-ordinate. Besides the usual array, two cranes were employed. First, a Titan crane mounted one of the cameras. This was fully mobile, being a truck with the crane attached to the flatbed on the back. And it had seats for three out on the boom – room for the DP, Camera assistant (Focus Puller), and the Director. The second crane was for lifting the actor – Tommy Steele – out of the well structure at the end of the scene.

The other big piece of equipment was the ritter fan wind machine, which was used throughout the scene. It was kept on a low setting to gently billow the clothes on the line and used to choreograph these objects with the music. And was once set at a higher notch to propel one long veil-like piece up against the blue of the sky to complement the lyric of the song. I was left wondering about that billowing dress onto which Steele was hanging. Was there another fan rigged inside of it? (Howard – No. The ritter (fan) was underneath hidden from the camera. The dress had a hoop ring inside the bottom hem to which Steele clung. He had no double. The only stuntman present was there to strap him into the harness).

Altogether it was busier behind the scenes than in front of the camera.

Intolerance in West Seattle

Intolerance in West Seattle

I don’t know how I heard about it. It was probably a movie ad in the newspaper, perhaps brought to my attention by my dad, who regularly perused that section of the paper. He needed to keep abreast of what was playing elsewhere, and more importantly checking up on the ads for the Cinema I and II in Renton. Having the show times correct was always a major concern, right under whether or not the right films were listed.

There was a theater in West Seattle that was running silent films (it was actually an organ society that rented this old theater from the owner John Danz of Sterling Theaters). It was located on California Avenue in West Seattle. On their schedule for an upcoming weekend was D. W. Griffith’s epic film “Intolerance.” And I had been wanting to see it ever since I read about it in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By (see my post The Parade’s Gone by the Stationery Store). So, here was my chance.

It was far afield from our familiar stomping grounds that encompassed only Renton, Tukwila, Bellevue and Seattle, and points in between. But not outside of that circle. West Seattle was like an island separated off from the rest of the area. So my girl friend and I took an exit from I-5 north and crossed the low area above Boeing field and below the Port of Seattle. West Seattle was some high ground on the other side. And California Avenue followed the ridgeline of that high ground.

On the posters out front of the theater, the name of the organist loomed bigger than most of the other credits.  That made sense once we were in and seated. The organ down in front was a monster – a Wurlitzer to be precise – or a 4 / 32 Wurlitzer to be absolutely precise. It looked as complicated as a control console in a space capsule. A small staircase of four keyboards was surrounded by a rainbow of switches. And that just kept the organist’s fingers busy. Below there was plenty to keep his feet dancing. (My organ teacher, Doris Terrill, back in Brockton, Mass would have been in heaven).

The evening led off with a mini concert on this organ, and moved smoothly into the movie itself. I watched entranced a D W Griffith wove the threads to four separate stories in four separate time lines into an exciting tapestry. [No spoilers ahead]. Intolerance is the theme throughout, cropping up in each story – the Babylonian/Persian section  – the story of Christ and His Crucifixion – France in the 16th Century and the St Batholomew’s Day Massacre – and a modern (i.e. 1915 modern) story of a young couple torn apart by societal forces. And the organ added more than musical accompaniment, chiming in with sound effects – whistles, car horns, etc., at the appropriate cue.

And the constant reminder (a poetic touch) of the hand rocking the cradle.

The Parades Gone By the Stationery Store

the Parades Gone By the Stationery Store

My parents finally found a home for us in Renton. It was in the Kennydale area, up alongside of Lake Washington. We had no view of the lake, as we were well away from it, and only a couple of lots over from the I-405 freeway.
So, I now drove to work from the opposite direction (i.e. no longer from SeaTac Airport). I could literally go from a nearby on-ramp to a cloverleaf near the theater, which gave me access to Grady Way from the beginning of the Valley freeway, which if continued on would take you to Seattle via Rainier Avenue.
Sometimes, I would take the back way through Renton, especially if I were not in any hurry. I found a favorite stopping place, just off downtown – a stationery store. But besides paper, pens, pencils and other office supplies, it also carried books. Nowadays, my comics stayed in their boxes, as I more and more delved into the real books upon which my Classics Illustrated were based. I did still check out some from the library, but now that I had my own money (a whole 1.25 per hour) I looked to acquire certain titles for myself.
It may well have been on my first visit to this store that I found a book by Kevin Brownlow. It was an oversized paperback that caught my eye on one of those revolving racks. It wasn’t his name that grabbed my attention, for I’d never heard of Mr Brownlow. It was the title that intrigued me – The Parade’s Gone By. The blurb read “Recreates the earliest days of the Movies.” In short it was all about silents. Mr Brownlow had interviewed many of the pioneers of the “new” art form, and here retold their story.
It was a fantastic read, one of those volumes that you did not not want to end. When you came to the end of a section, as long as there was another, you rejoiced. He talked about the silent stars, of course, but also about the directors, the cameramen, the writers, the editors, the moguls and others that toiled behind the scenes. And there were tons of pictures, stills from the films themselves and candid shots from behind the scenes.
You really caught from Brownlow his love for this era and his concern for the preservation of these films. The read did come to an end, but not without birthing a desire in me to see some of these films someday. To date all I’d seen were a few Harold Lloyd titles (more were listed in this tome), and dim memories of Laurel and Hardy. Now I not only wanted to catch up on the other comedians such as Chaplin and Keaton, but also other Hollywood luminaries such as Fairbanks and Pickford and Valentino etc.
Most of all I wanted to see the films of D. W. Griffith, and above all else, his masterpiece Intolerance. The photos for its Babylon set captivated me. But that event would be a couple of years in the future. For now the parade for me had not even started.