Rehearsing Finian

There were three weeks of rehearsals at the studio before principal photography started. It was made up of many elements and Howard Kazanjian was right in the middle of it.

As in his turn on Camelot, Howard was given charge of the stars in the morning call for Finian’s Rainbow. He would check in on them and ask about their needs (had they eaten, etc.). He had one actor this go-around that gave him no end of problems when it came to his make-up call. Don Francks had an attitude problem (it nearly cost him his role in the film). [Howard  – he was not likable – he had that STAR mentality that sometimes infects performers. It went like this – on a first film an actor would talk to you – by the second, you had to knock on his door – by the third stage, who are you? Francks had jumped to the third stage in this his first major film].

On the other hand, Fred Astaire was grand. He and his choreographer Hermes Pan arrived early on the set and would spend the whole day, rehearsing, rehearsing, and more rehearsing. At first the songs were all pre-recorded versions. Later they added a live piano on the set. Howard was in awe of Astaire’s “dance ethic.” Fred was dedicated and meticulous (in his old RKO and MGM days, Fred was known to have rehearsed some numbers for six months before committing it to film).

Astaire had some disappointments along the way in the production of Finian. Fred had preferred one of his experienced dance partners, Barrie Chase, in the role of Susan the Silent. Instead, Coppola opted for a younger unknown dancer, Barbara Hancock (Howard – she turned out to be a real trooper – in the dance number in the rain – Barbara persevered despite suffering from the flu). But his biggest disappointment was the loss of his long time collaborator, Hermes Pan. Coppola let him go half way through production and replaced him with someone far less experienced. Fred didn’t fight it, philosophically he chalked it up to the prerogative of the director. Still, it was a blow to Fred and may have bled into his performance. Howard noticed that the solo dance number that Fred performed in the barn seemed flat and unenergetic [Howard – I had watched him dance his heart out all day long in those rehearsals. He was much more agile than that. He could have done much more and better!]

As part of the rehearsal process, Coppola had a table read through the whole script, just with the principals. And as an additional aid, they booked the rehearsal hall on the WB lot and did the whole show, a full-blown “Broadway Musical” – just no sets. Coppola even brought in his father Carmine to provide the music accompaniment. Howard was the stage manager, cueing everything, including the lights from his place in the theater seats. This was an important step for two reasons. One, Francis got a feel for the flavor of the whole production; and two, the cast got a feel for how all everything fit together, a crucial understanding, especially as they entered film production and its need for shooting out of order.

Be sure to catch next Wednesday for “Under the Spreading Cement Tree,” the next post in The Adventures of Howard Kazanjian.

Howard’s Friend Joel Freeman

Howard's Friend Joel Freeman

Camelot as a Warner Bros. project was Jack Warner’s baby. But he only put in a couple of appearances on set. Joel Freeman, listed as the “associate producer” (and Howard Kazanjian’s friend), actively produced the movie.

Howard Kazanjian was at a good age – fresh from the DGA training program and full of questions and wanting to excel in his craft. He found a willing mentor in Joel. Howard learned more from Joel than anyone else in the business.

Joel Freeman is now 93, and still active.  (In fact, Howard talked to him recently about some projects that Joel was trying to launch).   At the age of twenty, Joel started as a messenger at MGM (where his uncle, Dore Schary then worked).  During WWII, he served in an Army Air Force film unit. After the war he became an AD at two of the smaller studios, RKO and Selznick. In the late 40s he made the move back to MGM, where his uncle Dore had taken over the reigns from Louis B Mayer. Later in the fifties, Joel became an independent supervisor for film and TV, then followed his uncle to WB  for two projects – Sunset at Campobello and the Music Man.

Joel was extremely cautious – he would call on Howard to supply him with numbers, lots of numbers.  If extras were used – how many? How many hours did they work? When did they start the day? Could extra crew be sent home early? What time did they go to lunch? Howard learned to count everything, right down to the amount of lunches consumed.  [Howard – (on their next project together – Finian’s  Rainbow) – “buses were used to transport extras to off locations – seats on one bus numbered 32; on the other 33 –  how many empty seats were there? Remember there were no vans in that day. You recorded what time you left one stage and what time you arrived at another, and what time you started shooting.  Optimally you would move around lunch time. All this was recorded in the Production report, from which you could see your money savings”].

But there was another side to Joel.

Once, when they were still in the midst of shooting Camelot, a big press junket was announced for the studio. Joel took Howard aside and told him he was invited.

Howard replied – But I’m not dressed for it. And that he’d have to go home to get a proper change of clothes.

Instead, Joel ordered him to the wardrobe department.  There they fitted him on the spot – selected a suit, marked  and pinned it up and told him to come back. When he did, they were just pressing it. They supplied him with socks and proper shoes and he was off to the junket.

Howard noticed that on the suit there had been a tag with an actor’s name. He attended the press junket in a costume originally made for Christopher Plummer for his role in another recent WB film –  Inside Daisy Clover.

Be sure to return next week for the last Camelot post – The Iconic Ending –  in The Adventures of Howard Kazanjian.