Going Fishing with Bill Conrad

Bill Conrad wrangled another 1.2 million budget from Warners for his next project – Chubasco – on which Howard Kazanjian would continue his DGA apprenticeship. Besides being the name of the lead character, the title refers to the heavy thunder storms at sea along the Pacific Coast during the rainy season, a fitting metaphor for the troubled, mercurial young rebel (portrayed by Christopher Jones) who becomes involved in a star-crossed relationship with Bunny (played by Susan Strasberg), the daughter of a Portuguese tuna fisherman (played by Richard Egan).

The director Allen H. Miner also wrote the script. It was a passion project for him. He had covered the lives of tuna fishermen before in a documentary for which he wore all the hats – producer, cameraman, director and editor – The Naked Sea, released in 1954 by RKO. Bill Conrad’s connection to Miner dates back to this film. He provided the narration for it, and a few years later he appeared in a western directed by Miner, entitled The Ride Back.

According to Howard “we had a very strong cast for the day, basically all names.” And many deemed Christopher Jones a rising star. He was being boosted as a successor to James Dean. Miner brought Jones with him as his choice for the lead, having directed him in a couple of episodes in the TV series, the Legend of Jesse James. At this time Jones was married to his co-star Susan Strasberg, and a lot was made of that fact in the ongoing promotion for the picture.  Articles appeared in the press asking the question could they be as successful together as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Sadly, they split the year that Chubasco was released. Strasberg remained in the acting profession, but Jones, after appearing in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, dropped out of sight for a myriad of personal reasons.

Originally Robert Burks was tapped to be DP. He was Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographer, teaming up with him beginning with Strangers on a Train through Marnie (only missing Psycho). Howard does not recall Burks on Chubasco at all. So for whatever reason, Burks must have left the production prior to Howard’s involvement with it. Two DPs are listed instead. Between Paul Ivano and Lew Jennings, I am not sure which was his replacement. Howard tells me that when you see two DPs, one of them is usually responsible for a specialized type of photography.  In the case  of Chubasco this was most likely for the underwater sequences.

The AD on the project, Fred Gammon, handed Howard the usual assignments. [Howard –  “Checking in actors into make-up in the morning, seeing that they get breakfast if needed.  Getting them to the set.   All paperwork, time cards, call sheets, production reports, etc. etc. etc.”] He also set the extras for the scenes on shore, notably the confrontation between Jones and the motorcycle gang that was crashing a party under a pier and Jones’ subsequent arrest. Howard placed extras for the bits when the fishermen brought their catches in.  [Howard – “I remember watching the tuna being unloaded and moving up a ramp bumping their heads on the wooden sides.  And then seeing huge piles of tuna in the warehouse.  I loved tuna sandwiches until I saw how they were handled”].

The first phase of the production was tough. The home port for the story was San Diego. So that is where principal photography commenced for the exteriors. [Howard – “I think we were down in SD only two weeks. I stayed at the El Rey Hotel, that was the place to stay at the time. While on location I got the crew and cast to the harbor and sent them out to sea.  I stayed back on shore doing whatever needed to be done. Shooting on water is always difficult.  Always the fewer at sea the better”]. There were more vessels than one involved. Besides fishing vessels upon which the cast performed, another was set apart as the crew vessel. It also acted as a camera platform for master shots focused on the fishing boats. The studio hired a huge yacht to act as courier between the ships at sea and the company base on the mainland.

Just because Howard was land bound by his responsibilities, didn’t mean that he didn’t get to go out on the water. [Howard – “I recall being taken to dinner by Joe Cramer at the Coronado Hotel on the weekend. Joe was one of the best and nicest guys I met in the business and he took me under his wing. He was the assistant to the head production manager at WB, Dutch Meyer, to whom we all reported]. (Aside – The following year Cramer was the unit manager on “Bullitt” and AD on “The Green Berets”).  Cramer arranged for Howard and a few others to have a short cruise and a meal that Sunday. On location the production was shuttered on Sunday, and this yacht sat idle (you can see it in the above video, beginning about the 10 sec mark). It was paid for, so why not use it. Prior to this Howard’s experiences on the water had all been less than pleasurable (even outings to Catalina with his dad when younger, or on fishing expeditions with his uncle). And so it proved again. He became sick immediately upon the yacht casting away from the dock and had to lie down. Someone suggested a meal. In the dining salon a gigantic table (20 foot long) had been set up. It was on gimbals, so it could move but stay level. The chef brought out the meal. The blood from the meat moved around on the plate ever so slightly, but it was enough to send Howard up on deck to the rail.

After the two weeks in San Diego, the production moved up to the studio in Burbank for interiors. [Howard – I was on the film exactly 30 days.   I don’t recall if I saw the wrap or not.   I know I went onto Cool Hand Luke the next day].

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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.