Fixing Walt Coy’s Timeline Part 2

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I had to laugh when I realized that this Research post had its reference point centered in 1928 San Francisco, a time and a place about which I have written five other posts.

This time around it is a starting point for unraveling a timeline problem in the life history of Walt T. Coy, the stagehand whom I knew at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle, Washington. Occasionally during the 11 month gig (June 1927 to May 1928) that the Herb Wiedoeft Band put in at the Trianon Dance Hall, Walt filled in for their drummer (Walt spelled his name as “Weidoff”). Herb got an offer from a major studio in Hollywood to score a picture. He did not have a regular place on the band for Walt just then, but dropped a hint that he might be able to use him if he happened to find himself down south.

Walt did pick up a job that would serve to that end. He joined the band on the H. F. Alexander, a passenger liner that sailed up and down the West Coast, making calls at Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once the ship was beyond the three mile limit out came the booze without limit. When the ship called at San Francisco, Walt bought a San Francisco Examiner in which he learned to his dismay that Herb Wiedoeft had died as the result of an automobile accident.

I looked up the details about this event. Herb Wiedoeft died in Medford, Oregon on May 12th 1928, the day after the car accident. So, this places Walt in San Francisco, most likely in a seven day window after the accident. After this news Walt says he decided to try his hand at acting down in Hollywood. This seems logical because as I established in last week’s post, he already had some experience as an extra on the production of “The Patent Leather Kid,” the year before.

After the news in San Francisco, Walt records :

“Finding myself eventually in Los Angeles with a few extra nickels in my pocket, I decided to take a fling at being an actor. This turned out to be a rather short-lived adventure.

One of the studios I was in was called the Chaplin Studio – later changed to United Artists – and a Charlie Chaplin picture was in the process of being filmed. For a young fellow to be there, it was a big deal. Charlie Chaplin was a meticulous artist. The same scene was reshot hour after hour until it was perfect in Chaplin’s eyes. As young as I was then, I classified him as a perfectionist.” (from My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me, page 67).

I confess I was really curious to know which Chaplin film this could be. According to his filmography, “The Circus” seemed to be closest in time, but it was released in January 1928. The next film in order was “City Lights” which was not released until 1931. I remembered that “City Lights” did have a longer than normal production period, so that seemed the logical place to start. (This Chaplin film is one of my all-time favorites, and in my opinion a masterwork).

One online source listed that it was in production from 12/31/1927 to 1/22/1931. This seemed to fit the bill easily, but what if the scenes employing extras were all before May 1928? So, I did more checking.

Variety gave the negative to that question, for it reported in their 1/29/1929 edition, that the Chaplin Studio had remained dormant for the first five months of the preceding year (1928).

Production reports for the studio indicate that Chaplin was working on the story for that time period, clear up to August of 1928, when set construction began. Another source confirms the construction month:

“Charlie Chaplin’s unit is building sets for “City Lights.” (from the Daily Exhibitors Review for 8/20/1928).

This very same article mentioned that Gloria Swanson’s “Queen Kelly” was to enter production after September 1st.

This gave me the idea to look into the Swanson picture. I thought that whatever time Walt spent as an extra on that film, might shed some light on his Chaplin Studio tenure.

“Queen Kelly” did not start on September 1st. In the trades there are articles showing it moving back and back. Finally Variety on 11/7/1928 (p 4) reported:

Los Angeles 11/6 – “Erich Von Stroheim’s second day directing “Queen Kelly” was a long one. During the day he worked on exteriors. In the evening, he came into the studio to kill one sequence with certain actors. There was a little delay in getting going, but the original plan was adhered to. It was 6:30 in the morning, when the troupe was dismissed. The call was for the following evening when the company again worked during the night.”

In the same edition of Variety (over on page 7) there is another short article that identifies the exteriors noted in the above quote.

Los Angeles 11/6 “…While the schedule calls for 10 weeks’ shooting it is deemed doubtful if this will be observed on account of the large number of mob scenes to be photographed out of doors – and the sun at this season is not dependable.”

Therefore, it would seem that Walt gained work as an extra on Von Stroheim’s “Queen Kelly,” before he was at the Chaplin Studio. Variety reported that the silent version of “Queen Kelly” was finished before Christmas. They then moved over to the Pathe Studios to work on the sound version, one for which they would not be needing extras, as only the leads had speaking parts. Things fell apart for Von Stroheim with the new year (1929), he was fired off the production and another director brought in for the dialog version. It was all a big mess after that. In fact, “Queen Kelly” was released in Europe and South America but never saw the light of a theater projector in the US (it was televised in the 1960s).

[Aside – with one exception – there was a clip from “Queen Kelly” that was inserted into Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” whose cast included Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim.]

This dovetails nicely with the start of filming for “City Lights.” I could not find any proof that Chaplin had ever pointed a camera at any extras in 1928. But once 1929 rolled around, (and Walt would have been looking for extra work after “Queen Kelly”), I found some substantial proofs. Variety again (for 2/6/1929, page 7):

Los Angeles 2/5 – Charles Chaplin after many delays has started “City Lights.” Previously he had done some work alone, but now he is surrounded by Virginia Cherrill, leading woman; Henry Clive, Henry Bergman, and Harry Crocker.

There are two sequences in the beginning of “City Lights” that called for lots of extras. Both, I believe, were filmed in the first two months of 1929.

The first was a scene where the Tramp character (“working alone” – i.e. not with named performers) fidgets with a stick that is stuck in a sidewalk grate. A ton of extras pass back and forth in the background. The sequence was cut from the release print, but you can view it in the Kevin Brownlow limited series, “The Unknown Chaplin.”

(The cut sequence from “City Lights.”)

The second scene covers the meeting between the Tramp and a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). I like to think that Walt was present for this segment. It does seem to fit his description above (“The same scene was reshot hour after hour”), for Chaplin famously took 342 takes on this very scene.

I watched both sequences with an eye to catch a glimpse of Walt, but I could not make him out anywhere – but I guess that is the purpose of an extra, to be an unrecognizable presence.

The Chaplin Studio shut down production on “City Lights” from mid-February until April 1st. Illness in the cast was the main cause, including Chaplin himself who was sent home with ptomaine poisoning (Variety 2/27/1929). When Charlie returned he again tackled the meeting scene with the blind flower girl (a scene that he would revisit in December, and again in 1930).

It is my guess that Walt left Los Angeles when production halted in February, and went back to Seattle. And his future involvement in film making was from the other side of the camera.

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.

Bodega, Stockton and Sonora

There were some scenes that Francis Ford Coppola and Howard Kazanjian captured on their trips around the Bay area that did stay in Finian’s Rainbow. And they were clearly not those done by Carroll Ballard because the presence of Fred Astaire and Petula Clark are unmistakable.  (Ballard was sent out after principal photography with some doubles for the stars – in which he covered the likes of Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty and scenic parks in Utah and Montana).

There is a gorgeous shot, with Fred and Petula, as they walk along a fence line with a small village in the background. Only seven buildings are visible, two are notable, one a church and the other I thought might be a courthouse.  I asked Howard if he recalled the location. (Howard – I believe it was the same town in which Hitchcock filmed The Birds). I looked again. Face-palm! No wonder I thought there was something very familiar about that “courthouse.” It was indeed the building used by Hitchcock. It was the schoolhouse, that set the locale for one of the attacks by the birds. In real life it is the former Potter Schoolhouse, now a private residence in Bodega, CA.

Fred and Petula at one time are viewed from shore traveling up a river on the deck of a boat. I took it to be along the Mississippi River, somewhere in the south. Actually, Francis and Howard had been driving through Stockton, CA when the director spotted the boat and seized another opportunity.

It may have been on the same trip that they ended up in Sonora where they had scheduled to shoot some footage of their romantic lead Don Francks as he is returning home to Rainbow Valley on a train. Coppola caught a lot of coverage with the actor in various parts of the train – inside, outside, and atop.

On the spur of the moment, Francis decided to add a new element to the sequence. He had seen an effect in another film and wanted to replicate it. (The film was a short by Charles Eames called “Toccata for a Toy Train” – see below). The effect gave the sense that the train was hurtling toward the camera, enveloping it and passing on – from the front, right through the back.  No one on the crew could figure out how it had been done without losing a camera. So Phil Lathrop, the DP, made some calls to ask around – this is what they found out – it was done with a mirror.  Howard was sent out to find the biggest one available.  He came back with a huge 6’ by 6’ one which they mounted at a forty-five degree angle across the tracks. Then from the side the operator framed the shot to take in the full size of the reflected image as the train moved towards it. The mirror, however was not of the best quality and consequently there was a bit of a vibration as the train moved down the tracks. There was only one take, for the train smashed into the mirror. And so it was done, the broken mirror edited out of course.

With this the location shoot was finished, and they returned to the studio for a couple weeks of rehearsal prior to beginning production in the sound stages and on the backlot.

[To view the first four minutes of Finian’s Rainbow to see the Bodega and Stockton footage try this link:

http://www.tcmscreenonthegreen.com/watchtcm/movies/19397/Finian-s-Rainbow/

and select the clip Look to the Rainbow]

[Below is the Eames film mentioned above – the effect Coppola wanted begins around the 8:47 mark]

The Education of an Assistant Director

Having just finished one musical – Camelot – Howard Kazanjian was now being put aboard another – Finian’s Rainbow. But instead of a veteran director, he was being teamed with a young film school grad, who had only one other film under his belt – Francis Ford Coppola.

This production marked the end his trial period with the DGA. On his own time, Howard took in all the PGA / DGA seminars he could, seminars that addressed the rules and regulations of the SAG, the Teamsters, IA, etc. As a result, he became quite knowledgeable in these matters, often knowing more than the first ADs, men that were often 25 years his senior. (Aside – Howard was once in William L Schaefer’s office, the executive assistant to Jack Warner himself. A question arose about one of the SAG regulations. Howard explained to him what the rule was and how it would benefit the production. Schaefer had to call the SAG to confirm what Howard proposed. They did. Schaefer who had worked at the studio since 1933, was completely unaware of this particular regulation).

So on the set, as an AD you had to have your fingers on the pulse of all the situations before you, so as to not fall afoul of any of the SAG or other union regulations and incur unwanted monetary penalties that were charged against the production. Chief among these regulations were those governing work hours and meal times.

First, you had your 8 hour day, at your regular rate, but overtime did not kick in until after 10 hours. Overtime would mean time and a half on the pay scale. That means you could work your people 9 plus hours before multiples of their rates kicked in.

If the production did go into overtime, the AD had leeway to send certain crew members home – like a greensman or a certain number of electricians or even unneeded extras. In these instances they were people that had already finished their work, having prepped the set, and were only on standby for emergencies.

And then there were the meal rules –

Beginning the day, actors in for make up at 6AM would be offered a bite of breakfast. Then counting from 7AM the next meal (lunch) had to be offered within the next 5 and half hours. Counting from the end of their meal period their next meal had to be offered within the next six hours. As AD you had to keep all these things in mind and watch your clock, for there were penalties when these time frames were exceeded.                                                                                                                                          

 If they failed to break for a meal within the prescribed time the meal penalty kicked in – the first half hour meant a rate of time and a half – the second half hour double time.

At the end of the day, Howard took his time cards, made all the calculations and handed them in to payroll.  For his attention to detail, he earned the respect and approval of the studio.  They liked him, and he was being groomed for bigger and better things.

On the other side of the coin, Howard Kazanjian was well liked by the actors and the extras. He tried to have answers for the questions they came to him for. If he didn’t have an answer, he told them he would try to get one, especially for the extras.  Howard knew that as extras, if they were not working, they needed to be looking for work. And they did not want to move on, if there were any chance at all there would be something for them. It was the considerate thing to do.

Come back next week for the continuing Adventures of Howard Kazanjian in “Meeting Francis Ford Coppola.”