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.

Making a Musical for Bill Conrad

 

The next time Howard Kazanjian worked for producer Bill Conrad, the budget had been bumped up to 1.2 million. Warner Brothers was looking to cash in on the new craze sweeping the young teen audiences in America, represented by the success of such musical variety shows as Shindig and Hullabaloo.

The studio saw potential in a script penned by the first winner of the Samuel L Warner Memorial Opportunity Award, Joyce Geller when she was there for her internship. (I mentioned this in passing on my post entitled “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree”). Geller’s script told the story of a talented but unsuccessful singer Cliff Donner (played by Gil Peterson) and an ambitious go-go dancer Hallie Rodgers (played by Debbie Watson), who are paired up by a millionaire rock’n’roll entrepreneur Tony Krum (played by Roddy McDowell). The story pivots around Krum’s plan to generate PR for the duo by engendering a perception in the teen audience that they are falling in love – complications, of course, ensue. Geller preferred her title “The Wiggy Plan of Tony Krum,” but the studio wanted something they considered more meaningful, hence “The Cool Ones.” She salted her dialogue with words such as “Ratfink” and “Dingaling,” jargon calculated to resonate with the target audience.

Conrad also put together his team with an eye to this end. For director he selected Gene Nelson, who most recently had helmed two Elvis Presley films – “Kissin’ Cousins” and “Harum Scarum.” Nelson came from a dance background, notably having played the part of Will Parker in the film version of “Oklahoma.” Howard found him to be a very nice guy.

For DP Conrad tapped Floyd Crosby. He had extensive experience working on teen projects, including four of the beach party movies and several Roger Corman horror productions. He had a couple more musical connections of interest, he had been involved with the production of Oklahoma in the 2d unit, so he may or may not have been acquainted with Nelson already. And most interesting of all, Floyd was the father of David Crosby, at this time a member of the rock band, the Byrds – (Crosby Stills and Nash and (sometimes Young) was in the near future).

For choreographer, they brought in Toni Basil. She had assisted her mentor David Winters, the choreographer on both Hullabaloo and Shindig, (she would appear later in Easy Rider; and did choreography for American Graffiti). She brought along her friend and fellow Shindig dancer Teri Garr, whom you can catch in the background in some shots. Both Toni and Teri had appeared in front of the lenses of Floyd Crosby before, in the film “Pajama Party.” Another Shindig member, a guitarist for the Shindig house band was given a small speaking/singing part – Glenn Campbell.

Three garage bands were tapped to appear in the film – The Leaves, The Bantams, and T.J. and the Fourmations. In the main, the music was supplied by Lee Hazelwood, the composer propelling Nancy Sinatra to the top of the charts (“These Boots Were Made for Walking”). He scored ten of the twelve tunes for “The Cool Ones.” One of these – “This Town” has had a long life afterwards. Hazelwood brought in Billy Strange for the arrangements. Strange was a guitarist and a member of the Wrecking Crew, the famous group of studio musicians (utilized by many of the rock groups of the day, including the Byrds). He also supplied one song. The twelfth song slotted in was the 1957 tune “It’s Magic” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne which was warbled by the novelty pop personality Mrs. Miller.

Howard reported to Assistant Director Gil Kessel. Gil was an old timer at WB, having got his start as a set decorator in 1941 on The Maltese Falcon. He made the switch in 1958 to AD. Howard says he was a little slow, and envious of the younger people coming up. He looked askance at them, not viewing them so much as assistants but rather as his replacements.

The Cool Ones was shot mostly at the studio. For exteriors they travelled to the nearby San Fernando Valley and over to Palm Springs. Most of the scenes shot in Palm Springs were around the town, both day and night exteriors. There was one challenging bit – a musical number staged inside the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and up on the observation platform. The tramway begins at an elevation of 2,643 feet and climbs the Chino Canyon wall up to a level of 8,516 feet. Howard says that the shoot was further complicated by limited time up on top.

The Cool Ones had one more “musical tie-in” of note. When at work on one of the sets, Howard tells me that Lee Wilson the WB lighting gaffer pointed out to him that the carpet on the floor was the same one that had been used in the Ascot race scene for “My Fair Lady.” At that time there were sets for that film still around the lot, notably the one for Covent Garden – the flower market standing set. (The Cool Ones had a market scene too, but it was on location over in Olvera Street).

The Cool Ones should be so famous.

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 in the Middle

Howard Kazanjian was all set for the first day of shooting on “Finian’s Rainbow.”

His director Francis Ford Coppola had fixed on an idea for the opening title sequence. He wanted to shoot his two main stars on the Golden Gate bridge. At that time no one shot anything on the Golden Gate Bridge, for the simple reason that you could not even get a permit to do so.

Not to be deterred, Francis set out to do it anyway. He and Howard took a rented station wagon, picked up Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, then headed for the bridge.  Francis dropped Howard and the two stars off at the San Francisco end of the bridge. From there the threesome pretended to be pedestrians out for a stroll, sightseeing. (Of course, Howard kept out of range of the camera). With the tailgate on the station wagon down and the camera set there to shoot, Francis had the key gaffer drive the vehicle past them and then slow down to a crawl, while he and his cameraman caught his stars as they walked the pavement.  By the time they got to the end of the bridge the police had arrived to investigate what was going on. They pulled them over into the scenic turn out on the Marin side.

The production manager from WB for Finian was waiting for them in this parking lot when they pulled in. And he just so happened to know the officer that was threatening to arrest them. Another fine mess they avoided. [Aside – you won’t see a hint of this bit in any of the DVDs. Howard remembers that in the roadshow release a section was used, including a distant glimpse of the flashing red light of the cop car when it came after them.]

A couple of days later they mounted a larger expedition. Again they held on to the station wagon, but added a truck, and a car. They used the car to transport Fred and Petula. With Francis driving, Fred sat in back on the right and Petula on the left, with Howard on the hump in the middle. Their route was all planned out as they headed south out of San Francisco. However, Francis was soon off the route when he spotted some sheep off on a hill. They soon lost the other vehicles in pursuit of their bucolic shot. Once they were up by the sheep, Francis had Howard get out and herd the fleecy critters past their one camera.

By the time they loaded up the station wagon, Howard knew he had to do something to head off the possibility of a meal penalty. It was already late afternoon, so he put the question to them.  He stated did you want to have your meal here, gesturing to the passing scenery with no eatery in site, or wait for the hotel where they had scheduled to stop before their day began.  Fred spoke up and said, “No, let’s wait for the hotel.” And Petula nodded her agreement. So Howard had it on the record that they had declined his offer. The stars had graciously played along with the AD to save the production from the cost of the meal penalty.

[Aside – this sheep footage also did not make the DVD cut.]

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.