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Picnic

September 29, 2011 1 comment

Production Credits:

Director: Joshua Logan | Producer: Fred Kohlmar | ScreenplayDaniel Taradash | Cinematographer: James Wong Howe | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1955 | Running Time: 113 or 115 min.

Principal Cast: William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Arthur O’Connell, Rosalind Russell

In 1953, Picnic was a critically successful play on Broadway, where it won a Pulitzer Prize for playwright William Inge and a Tony for director Joshua Logan. Both Paramount and 20th Century-Fox studios expressed interest in turning the play into a film, but concerns were raised about putting the play’s frank sexual content on screen.  Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn purchased the play in September 1953 for between $300,000 and $400,000. After submitting a script to the PCA (Production Code Administration) in November 1954, the studio was cautioned to cut all suggestion that characters Hal and Madge had improper relations after the picnic. The finished film keeps whether Madge and Hal had slept together somewhat ambiguous.

Hoping to re-capture the play’s critical and popular success,  Cohn asked the play’s director Joshua Logan, who had worked in Hollywood in the ’30s as a dialogue director, to undertake his first solo directing assignment. Logan brought some radical cast changes to the production, asking only original cast members Arthur O’Connell, Reta Shaw, and Elizabeth Wilson to recreate their characters in the film. One of the casting changes was for the flashy supporting role of Rosemary. Logan wanted to cast his friend Rosalind Russell,but was afraid she’d balk at taking the lesser role, however when he called her and asked, “Would you like to do Pic ?” she said yes before he could finish the sentence.

For the lead role of Madge, Janice Rule who had originated the role on stage, was screen tested repeatedly, but apparently her beauty and sex appeal couldn’t be captured on film. Columbia head Cohn wanted the studio’s resident blonde bombshell, Kim Novak, for the role, but though noted for her beauty, she was considered somewhat deficient in the acting department. Some stories state that she was forced on Logan but the director would later say that after a number of tests, he decided she would be perfect.

When veteran actor William Holden was cast as the sex-charged drifter  Hal Carter, some critics felt that the then 37-year-old actor was not young enough for the role (or for the characters sexual shenanigans). He would prove them wrong, and his performance would establish him as a major sex symbol.

Holden was at the end of his Columbia contract when he signed to play Hal. He only owed the studio one more film and had to settle for a paltry$30,000 fee under his contract (his going rate as a free-lance actor was$250,000 per picture). Nonetheless, he was happy to finish his contract with such a prestigious project. Holden did have an issue at the requirement that he strip to the waist for several scenes, complaining, “I’m too damned old and too conservative to do a striptease.”

The other issue for Holden was having to dance during the film’s “Moonglow” scene. After being forced to dance with Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, he went on a three-day drunk to handle the ordeal. This time Holden demanded stunt pay and Columbia wrote him a check for $8,000. To help ease him into the idea, Logan had choreographer Miriam Nelson take Holden to the local roadhouses, where he could get drunk while dancing to the jukeboxes.   It didn’t appear to help for when Logan, as he later wrote, finally got some footage, “They [Holden and Novak] bobbed about awkwardly like grade-schoolers.” The problem was eventually solved by cinematographer James Wong Howe  having the lights and camera do the dancing. The camera was placed on a dolly that allowed it to circle the stars while also swaying up and down and 50 small, brightly colored spotlights were set-up so that the smallest movements changed the colors on the stars.  The resulting scene would go on to become an iconographic film moment.

Harkening back to the world of theater, Logan insisted on two weeks of rehearsals (costing of $20,000 a day) and to maintain authenticity filmed in several Kansas towns, stating “It’s gotta look like Kansas and it will if I have to kill every last one of ya!,”  From the start, Novak felt insecure around the high-voltage cast, causing her to be withdrawn and moody. Holden, too, was insecure, worried that he would look too old next to the 22 year-old actress.  As a result, they barely spoke on the set. Logan’s frustrations with her mounted throughout filming and at one point, in order to get her to show some emotion onscreen, he reportedly punched her in the stomach.

Filming was interrupted almost daily by hailstorms and “wailing” tornado warnings and the cast and crew were “half-consumed” by “carnivorous” bugs. Several of the actors suffered injuries, for example, Holden suffered a leg gash on a railroad signal light, Novak was stung on the hip by a bee, and Rosalind Russell was “bruised from earlobe to toenail during a wild gambol across a suspension bridge.” A local 70-year-old “spinster” saw her film debut canceled when she broke both legs and several ribs during a fall down an embankment.

Picnic was one of the year’s top box-office attractions earning an estimated $6.3 million.  The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Arthur O’Connell), Best Direction and Best Music and the award for Best Art Direction and Best Editing. It would make stars out of Kim Novak and William Holden and is still sometimes cited as a richly detailed snapshot of life in the American Midwest during the 1950s.

Some Interesting Trivia:

William Holden had to shave his chest as it was considered too risque for those times.

Kim Novak appeared in the film as a redhead, a departure from her signature platinum blonde style.

The role of Hal Carter’s room-mate on Broadway had been played by Paul Newman in his Broadway debut; the film part was given to Cliff Robertson as Newman was just starting his rise to stardom at Warner Bros.

The climactic picnic scenes had to be shot on a soundstage due to rainstorms.

Columbia Pictures wanted to promote Rosalind Russell for an Academy Award nomination, but the actress refused to be placed in the “best supporting” category. Many felt she would have won had she cooperated.

In 1957, a marketing investigator, James Vicary, announced that for six weeks he had included subliminal messages in showings of the movie “Picnic.” The messages supposedly said: “Eat Popcorn, Drink Coca-Cola.” According to Vicary, the sales of this products increased from 18 to 57%. Even though his experiment led him to fame, Vicary never gave details of how he realized the experiment; and admitted in a later interview that everything was just a marketing trick.

The last shot is often thought to be the first use of a helicopter shot in a feature movie. It was filmed by Haskell Wexler, James Wong Howe’s assistant. Despite its legend, this was NOT the first movie to feature a helicopter shot. They Live by Night (1949) was an early, if not the very first, film to use it.

For Further Reading:

Variety film review; December 7, 1955, page 8.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048491

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/86664/Picnic

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The Lady From Shanghai

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Production Credits:

Director: Orson Welles| Producer: Orson Welles, Richard Wilson and William Castle| Screenplay: Orson Welles | Cinematographer: Charles Lawton Jr.| Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1948 | Running Time: 86-87 min.

Principal Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders

By 1946, Orson Welles had found he was no longer welcome in Hollywood. The once-promising director had made and released two unsuccessful films in succession: Citizen Kane (1941, a film that was nearly destroyed for its thinly disguised depiction of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). As a result Welles was considered unbankable by studio heads. Welles would not return to Hollywood filmmaking until 1947’s The Lady from Shanghai.

Before becoming a filmmaker Orson Welles had carved out a considerable reputation for himself in theatrical and radio productions. By the age of eighteen he was a successful actor at the Gate Theatre in Ireland and a year later, he made his Broadway debut as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Welles’ collaborations with director/producer John Houseman (including the staging of an all-black ‘voodoo’ Macbeth), led the two to form their own repertory company, the Mercury Theatre.

Welles was soon directing the Mercury players in weekly, hour-long radio dramas for CBS. He exploited radio’s intimacy to heighten the sense of narrative immediacy. One especially infamous production being his notorious Halloween 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds (1898). This production used concocted news bulletins and eyewitness accounts that were so seemingly authentic in their reportage of hostile Martians landing in New Jersey that a panic ensued among unsuspecting listeners. Soon after this innovative media success, RKO brought Welles to Hollywood to produce, direct, write and act in two films. The studio paid him $225,000 plus total creative freedom and a percentage of the profits. This deal was the most generous offer a Hollywood studio had ever made to a largely untested filmmaker. His first film, Citizen Kane, described today as the most stunning debut in the history of film, fared poorly at the box office. When his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons was also a commercial failure Welles found himself dismissed from his contract with RKO.

After leaving Hollywood, Welles returned to the theater world, a move that eventually led him from New York back to California. In 1946 while working on a stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, he ran out of money. To obtain the necessary funding to finish the project Welles put in a call to Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, and offered to write and direct a picture for $50,000. As Welles told the story the conversation went:

I called Harry Cohn [head of Columbia Studios] in Hollywood and I said, ‘I have a great story for you if you could send me $50,000 by telegram in one hour. I’ll sign a contract to make it.’ ‘What story?’ Cohn said. I was calling from a pay phone, and next to it was a display of paperbacks and I gave him the title of one of them, Lady from Shanghai. I said, ‘Buy the novel and I’ll make the film.’ An hour later, we got the money.”

While Cohn did agree, he stipulated that he would only send the money if Welles would direct the movie free of charge. Although the funds were not enough to save the stage production (which closed after a very short run), Welles soon found himself at the helm of The Lady from Shanghai. Reportedly, when Welles finally read the book he thought it was horrible. He then set about writing the adaptation in three days.

As experimental and groundbreaking as Kane, Welles conceived a vision of the film as “something off-center, queer, strange.” He cast himself in the male lead and brought in some of his colleagues from the Mercury Theater for the other roles–most notably his casting of Everett Sloane as the crippled, shifty lawyer Arthur Bannister. The part of femme fatale Elsa Bannister was originally intended for French actress Barbara Laage (who had yet to make her first film appearance) however, Cohn stepped in and decreed the lead would go to Rita Hayworth, Columbia’s biggest star. Welles and Hayworth, who had married in 1943, were officially separated at the time and Hayworth agreed to play the role as an attempt to reconcile their marriage. Though her plan worked temporarily, ultimately the two divorced before the film was finally released.

The first thing Welles did at the start of production was to order Hayworth’s trademark long, luscious red hair bobbed and dyed blonde, an act that did not impress his bosses at Columbia. who were hoping the appeal of Hayworth’s star image, which had been carefully built up in films such as Gilda (1946) would bring people to the theatre.   Harry Cohn was later quoted:””The six people who saw what Orson Welles did to Rita wanted to kill him, but they had to get behind me in line.”

The Mexico shoot was plagued by a number of problems, many of them detailed by producer William Castle in his diary. During the day, the temperature was usually blisteringly hot, and at least once, Hayworth collapsed from the heat. At night, millions of poisonous insects swarmed around the arc lights, often blotting them out.  Some scenes were filmed close to a crocodile-infested river and the rock from which Hayworth’s character dives into the ocean had to be scraped to remove poisonous barnacles. A substantial delay in shooting occurred when Welles was bitten and his eye swollen shut to almost three times its normal size.

Shooting was also delayed whenever Errol Flynn, who owned the yacht on which much of the action takes place. disappeared for extended lengths of time. He skippered the yacht in between takes, and his contract stipulated the yacht could not be used unless he was present.

The initial rough cut of the film ran approximately 155 minutes. After testing poorly with preview audiences, editor Viola Lawrence was brought in to cut out over an hour of footage, bringing the film to its current length of 87 minutes. While Welles was unhappy with many of the cuts (more specifically those Lawrence made to the Chinese opera and Funhouse sequences), he objected even more strongly to the studio’s choices for score and sound design.

For many years The Lady from Shanghai was considered one of Welles’ greatest failures. However, contemporary audiences and scholars alike agree that the film is a well-acted and stylish example of the film noir in which the performances of Hayworth, Sloane and Anders in particular stand out. The film’s visually striking deep-focus and chiaroscuro cinematography along with a number of other offbeat touches characterize The Lady From Shanghai as a film that only an immensely talented and innovative director like Welles could have produced.

Some Interesting Trivia:

Errol Flynn can also be seen in the background in one scene outside a cantina. Apparently when an assistant cameraman, suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack,  the often-drunk Flynn tried to put him into a duffel bag, and Welles had to immediately send someone ashore to alert authorities before Flynn could bury the man at sea.

The color used to dye Rita Hayworth’s hair was called “topaz blonde”

Orson Welles was very displeased with the score put together by the studio appointed composer.  In particular, the final mirror scene was supposed to be unscored – to create the sense of terror.

The film has often been interpreted as a commentary on the doomed marriage between Hayworth and Welles.

Near the end of shooting, Orson Welles told Columbia executives that he wanted a complete set repainted on a Saturday for shooting on Monday. After Columbia exec Jack Fier refused (stating union rules and the expense of calling in a crew of painters to work on a weekend) Welles and several friends broke into the paint department that Saturday and repainted the set themselves. When they were finished they hung a banner on the set that read “The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fier Himself”.  On Monday, when the union painters arrived at work and saw that the set had been repainted by someone else, they refused to work and threatened to stay on strike until a union crew was paid triple time for the work that had been done. To placate the union, Fier agreed to pay them what they wanted but put the cost on Welles’ personal bill. In addition, he had the union painters paint a banner saying “All’s Well That Ends Welles”.

For Further Reading:

Welles, Orson and Peter Bogdanovich. This Is Orson Welles. Ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum. Da Capo Press, 1998.

Telotte, J. P. “Narration, Desire, and a Lady from Shanghai.” South Atlantic Review, 49.1. Jan. 1984. 56-71.

Winchester ’73

September 22, 2011 1 comment

Production Credits:

Director: Anthony Mann | Producer: Aaron Rosenberg | Editor: Edward Curtiss| Screenplay: Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase| Story: Stuart N. Lake | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1950 | Running Time: 92 min.

Principal Cast:  James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephan McNally, Millard Mitchell, Rock Hudson, Anthony Curtis

The Western has long been a staple of Hollywood storytelling with films involving cowboys and Indians going back it’s earliest days however by the mid-1940s, its popularity had apparently past. 1950’s Winchester ’73 would renew interest in the Western with its new way of looking at the genre, and as a result usher in the beginning of the modern western.

The first of several classic collaborations between actor James Stewart and director Anthony Mann, the film both summarized the Western genre up to that point and managed to reenergize it at the same time. It’s episodic story-line, developed by Mann, working with writer Borden Chase, incorporated many of the stock situations and characters that had become well known in westerns up to that time including a shoot-out, a runaway carriage, a poker game, a bank robbery, and Indians attacking a cavalry. The difference in the film comes from the addition of a new level of inner psychology to the characters.

The story that would evolve into Winchester ’73 had been floating around Universal as a project for several years in the late 1940s. Originally attached to direct the film was Fritz Lang who was famous for westerns like The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941). The project got its star, James Stewart, as the result of a two-picture agreement that had been made with Universal, in which the actor would be given a percentage of the film’s profits, rather than being paid his regular salary or a flat fee. It was a deal ultimately proved lucrative for Stewart as some modern sources estimate that he received $500,000 as a result of the box-office success of Winchester ’73.

After Lang backed out, it was Stewart who suggested that Mann direct the picture after seeing his work on the M-G-M film, Devil’s Doorway (1950). The move would begin a successful Stewart and Mann partnership as the two would go on to work together on a total eight films. One of the first things that Mann did upon taking over was to bring in screenwriter Borden Chase to re-write the existing screenplay by Robert L. Richards. Chase had just had a great success co-writing the screenplay to Howard Hawks’ classic western Red River (1948).

Stewart, Mann and Chase were very conscious of the fact that Stewart’s character, McAdam, was a clear break from the sort of hero the actor was previously associated with, especially in comparison with his previous westerns like Destry Rides Again (1939) which had been released a decade earlier. In Winchester ’73 Stewart plays a morally ambiguous hero that is driven by revenge to the point of psychosis. The audience is introduced to the new type of hero in the moment that McAdam confronts Dan Duryea’s character in a saloon, smashing his face down onto the bar. The scene helped to silence earlier ridiculing from the press at the idea of James Stewart, the “thin man,” playing a tough westerner. Chase was later quoted:

When the picture was given a sneak preview, there had even been some titters in the audience at seeing Stewart’s name in the opening titles of a western. But once he smashed Duryea in that bar, there would be no more snickering.

Shelley Winters was worried upon finding out that both she and Stewart thought that their best-photographed side was their left side, but she found that Stewart would yield in their close-ups. As she later said,

A couple of Left Profiles don’t make for a convincing love scene when the two of them are staring off in the same direction. Since he was the star… I knew who’d be told to turn right. I couldn’t have been more wrong. One morning Tony Mann came to me and said that Jimmy wanted me to be shot from the left because he knew that the whole thing was making me anxious. Naturally, Jimmy never said a word to me directly.

While she gave an excellent performance in the film, Winters evidently didn’t think much of the role, later commenting:

Here you’ve got all these men… running around to get their hands on this goddam rifle instead of going after a beautiful blonde like me. What does that tell you about the values of that picture? If I hadn’t been in it, would anybody have noticed?

The film received almost universal praise, in particular for Stewart’s performance and the new “maturity” in his acting style. In 1952, Stewart was named the winner of the third annual Reno Silver Spurs award as best Western actor of 1951 for his performance in the film. The film was also named best Western film with Anthony Mann being named best Western director. Mann himself later said that the film: “…was one of my biggest successes. And it’s also my favorite western. The gun which passed from hand to hand allowed me to embrace a whole epoch, a whole atmosphere. I really believe that it contains all the ingredients of the western, and that it summarizes them.”

Winchester ’73 changed the way audiences saw the Western as it forced them to confront the idea of the noble hero of the west, as a man besieged by personal problems, violent and even psychotic, an idea that became increasingly prevalent in American film from Winchester ’73 onward.

Some Interesting  Trivia:

In the famous scene where James Stewart shoots a bullet through the washer with the postage stamp…that is not Hollywood magic. The shot is performed successfully by renowned marksman Herb Parsons.

Winchester ’73 was the last film which Tony Curtis was billing as “Anthony Curtis.” Beginning with his next film, Kansas Raiders (1950), his billing became the Tony Curtis most audiences know him as.

The horse used by James Stewart  in the film was named Pie and by the end of filming he had became very fond of the horse but when he tried to purchase him, the company that supplied the horse refused to sell him. Still Pie was available to Stewart for every western he made for the next twenty years.

For Further Reading:

Dewey, Donald. James Stewart: A Biography. Atlanta, Ga.: Time Warner Publications. 1996.

Horton, Robert. “Mann & Stewart: Two Rode Together.” Film Comment. March 1990; 26(2), 40-47.

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/95933/Winchester-73/articles.html

An Introduction

September 22, 2011 Leave a comment

How you ever wondered how a certain scene in your favorite movie was filmed?  Or who else may have been in the running to play the lead?  If you enjoy film history, gossip and are one of those who actually watches the commentaries on your DVD – this is the blog for you.

As a lover of all film (although I do have a tough time with the scary ones) I have always been interested in the behind the scenes stories – and now I hope to share those I find with others.  The idea came from film historian, William K. Everson who was famous for handing out extensive program notes prior to his screenings.  These notes, often about rare films have been preserved by NYC.  They are well worth a read and can be found here:

http://www.nyu.edu/projects/wke/notes.htm

There will be no reviews or opinions (at least I will try to keep my thoughts on whether the film is good or bad to myself) but instead just trivia, funny stories and other anecdotes that I can find about a particular title.

You can contact me at nitrategeek@gmail.com or by commenting on this blog.

Enjoy!

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