Second post about the wonderful book Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age: At the American Film Institute, by George Stevens Jr., which summarises a series of encounters at the AFI with legendary filmmakers. Martin Scorsese described the book as invaluable for those “who want to learn about movies and to those of us who may want to recharge our batteries and look to the masters for inspiration.”
On Making Westerns
Now, in the early days of pictures, I knew of fifty cowboys and good riders that I would request, but the Guild passed a ruling that there could be no requests and that the casting office would supply the riders. Well, half of them couldn’t ride, and there were about two hundred people hurt during production. I’d go down in the morning to watch them getting on the horses and they’d be getting on from the wrong side. They didn’t last long.
A bad idea, a real sword
There was a young actor playing the part of a lieutenant. When doing a long shot where they have swords, we would supply them with wooden swords with a silver tint to them so it looks like the real blade. When the property man went to take this chap’s real sword away from him and give him the phony sword, he said, “No, I’m going to use this one.” The property boy argued with him for a while and couldn’t get anywhere, so he let him keep the real sword.
So we shot the scene and there were a couple of explosions on either side, and he was thrown off the horse. The sword was thrown up into the air, came down like that into the ground, and him on top of it. I saw the whole thing and ran down and pulled the sword out of him, called a limousine, and sent him to a hospital. Unfortunately, his mother wouldn’t sign to let them operate and in three days the boy died. Another cowboy who was pretty drunk fell off a horse and broke his neck. Another fellow was watching the scene and evidently, it didn’t look too good because he had a heart attack and died.
I made almost two hundred of them (westerns). In those days we used to work until three or four in the morning. When I’d get home at daybreak there’d be a new script on my lawn, next to the Los Angeles Times. We went back and started work at nine o’clock.
On Making Silent Movies
Silent picture scripts were such that you could ad-lib anywhere because nobody had to write dialogue, which took time, and nobody had to learn dialogue, which also took time. You would have a script that said “Love Scene.” Just two words, and that was it. In fact, sometimes you had “Battle Scene,” and you might spend a week on a battle scene. One time I remember thinking, I’ve run out of all the love scenes I know. And in the days of silent pictures you could go to the theater full of people and go up to the projection booth and watch the audience, and cut out three frames if you wanted to.
It didn’t hurt anything because you didn’t have synchronized sound. I would go every night to see The Big Parade on Hollywood Boulevard and I kept trimming and trimming, three or four frames at a time, to get a laugh out that I didn’t want because the producers were frightened of that particular laugh. Maybe it was a release of nervous tension or something.
The Arrival of Sound
When sound films first came in and the audience heard a great lover, like John Gilbert, say “Darling” or something, it got a laugh. The minute you say, “I love you,” it sort of gets humorous. But if it’s silent it can mean a lot of other things. In silent pictures you couldn’t turn away from the screen as much. When sound first came in, that’s when popcorn and all the drinks started, and necking in the theater, because you could turn away and do all sorts of things and still hear.
You wouldn’t miss anything—the sound would take care of it. But in silent pictures you had to just sit there and try to figure it out. When silent films ended I know that most of my director friends were just horrified with the idea of being able to use words. Not musical accompaniment, not sound effects, but words. It was just a terrible idea, and I know that René Clair and Eisenstein wrote articles against it.
The Two Reels that got Thrown Away
According to your book there were two reels of Lost Horizon that you just threw away. How did they affect the story and why did you throw them away?
It’s very simple. It’s an example of the value of an audience. We saw the picture with the two reels in it, about twelve of us in a projection room, and we came out of the room raving that it was the greatest picture ever made. We were absolutely riding on cloud nine. Then we took it to a preview at Santa Barbara, and about ten minutes into the film the audience began to snicker, and the laughs begin to get louder. But there were no laughs intended. The film was a complete bust.
A Stinking Picture
They left the theater in droves before it was over, and the few who stayed until the end came out in the rain saying that it was the goddamndest picture. “Did you ever see such a stinking picture?” And why? Why did that picture seem so wonderful to us in a small projection room, and yet a large audience turned it down completely? It was a new experience for me. It was a two-million-dollar picture, half of Columbia’s budget for the year. They made twenty pictures with the other two million dollars.
So I walked around the hills trying to figure out—scene by scene—what started these people laughing. I couldn’t really figure it out, but I did have one idea I thought might be worth trying. It was to put the main titles at the beginning of the third reel and forget the first two reels. So that’s what we did. We went down to San Pedro and showed the picture to an audience there and there was not a titter. Nothing. Everything that was wrong was in those first two reels. Such a simple solution to a complete bust.
Now, in that same film (North by Northwest) there was a final sequence on the faces at Mount Rushmore. Due to the objections of the government, we weren’t allowed to have any of the figures over the faces. We were told very definitely that you could only have the figures slide down between the heads. They said this is the shrine of democracy. What I wanted to do, and was prevented from doing, was to have Cary Grant slide down Lincoln’s nose and hide in the nostril. Then I wanted Cary Grant to have a sneezing fit. That is a typical example of utilizing your material to the fullest.
A Final Thought on the Subjective
I’m a believer in the subjective—playing a scene from the point of view of an individual.
A few masterworks from the above-mentioned filmmakers:
More about Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age in our post Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Harold Lloyd.
More about silent movies in Buster Keaton: The Best Comedian Ever?
More about Making Movies? Check How Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT Was Written, Film Blocking, What is it?, The 5 Best Books on Making Movies, by Darren Aronofsky, First Assistant Directors: Who Are They?, The World of Movie Posters and Foley Artists: Who Are They?, amongst many others!