Tuesday, April 11

Behind the Scenes I

How about meeting a few folks from behind the scenes? For the most part, for a majority of the public, these are some unsung heroes.  Within the industry, of course, these are heroes whose praises were sung all the time. Most actresses remember who dressed them for a particular film and we're visiting the movie colony's most famous costumer.  All actors care very much about how they are shot... we're speaking cinematographers here.  Stunt people are revered as well and the one we're saluting also handled directing B units on some of his films.  A director's best friend is an editor and whether you know it or not, she's yours, too.  Let's visit this first group of four.

Yakima Canutt was a real cowboy.  He taught movie actors how to be cowboys, ride horses, take falls, get slugged and the like. John Wayne, who would become a devoted friend, learned his famous walk and talk by copying Canutt.  Before he became the most famous movie stuntman of all-time, he had been a champion rodeo rider of broncs and bulls for nine years.

While in Los Angeles performing in a rodeo, he ran into silent movie cowboy and former rodeo star himself, Tom Mix.  The actor hired Canutt for two pictures and the newly-christened stunt man ended up assisting in 48 silent films.  By the time talkies electrified the world, Canutt was head stunt coordinator at Republic Pictures and working with Wayne, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.  In all he would make over 250 pictures as either stunt coordinator for a film or perform stunts himself or both.    

Back in the day, safety measures, laws and such were not as tight as they are today and Canutt was injured a number of times, some of them quite seriously.  He took time off to heal and then was right back at it.  Most of his stunts involved horses (and other livestock, such as stampedes) and he perfected such daring results as jumping off a cliff on horseback, falling off a galloping horse and tumbling ass over elbows on a horse that went down due to a tripwire (since outlawed).  He perfected the stunts in Stagecoach (1939) where he jumped from the backs of a team of horses and also drops down to the rigging attached to the horses and moved himself from front to back under their stomachs.  Nothing was too dangerous for Yakima Canutt.

When he got too old to do stunts himself, he turned to second-unit direction.  In many cases this is directing specialized action
sequences but can also involve supplemental footage not involving the leading cast.  

He worked for Disney on Old Yeller (1957) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960).  In 1959, he worked for William Wyler on Ben-Hur and is responsible for staging the chariot race involving nine teams of four horses and for teaching Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd to do their own charioteering.  Also in 1960, while Stanley Kubrick directed most of Spartacus, Canutt handled the action sequences.  When a wall was to fall on Clark Gable in San Francisco (1936), it was Canutt who took the hit.  He had at least one appearance as an actor when in Gone with the Wind (1939, he is the ruffian who accosts Scarlett on a bridge as she's leaving a shantytown in a carriage.

He once said he lived a dream life, working in a profession that he incredibly loved, all of which may account in some way for his living until 90.  He passed away in 1986 in North Hollywood.

Anne V. Coates is a film editor and a beloved one at that.  At 91 she is still working, having worked on Fifty Shades of Grey in 2105 and about to begin work on her 55th film.  She's been at it since 1952 and is still one of a handful of women to be editors.

She was born in Surrey, England, with a silver spoon in her mouth. Growing up thinking she would have a profession that dealt with horses in some manner, it all changed when she fell in love with movies. She wasn't altogether sure what she wanted to do at first (directing interested her) but thought she might get a foot in the door considering her uncle was J. Arthur Rank who at one time or another ran three studios... Pinewood, Shepperton and Ealing. But he wasn't interested in helping her so she became a Red Cross nurse, called VADs or Virgins Awaiting Destruction. (So help me!)

Eventually Uncle Arthur allowed nepotism to blossom by way of giving her some gofer jobs on religious films. She kept her eyes and ears peeled for openings anywhere and when an assistant cutter position opened at Pinewood, she applied for it, bluffing her way through the interview, and got the job.  She was on her way.

She has worked with some of the best directors in the industry. She enjoys working alone and says she generally does so through the first cut.  Then, of course, it's usually long days tucked away with scissors and the director.  Since she's independent, she can pick and choose and says she usually works with directors whose work she already admires.  She knows, of course, that the director makes the final decisions but she is keen on providing her take on things. She doesn't avoid battle but she does eschew disrespect.

She is probably most famous for her work on David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), for which she won an Oscar.  Anyone editing a film of that length and magnitude would certainly have to know her stuff.  She is also responsible for the seamless work on such films as Becket (1964), Young Cassidy (1965), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Eagle Has Landed (1976), The Elephant Man (1980), Chaplin (1992), In the Line of Fire (1993), Out of Sight (1998) and Unfaithful (2002).   

Coates has been nominated for her country's BAFTA award four times and received its prestigious Fellowship in 2007.  At just the last Academy Awards she received a Lifetime Achievement honor.

Edith Head always gave great costume.  Likely the most famous of this quartet, as much as anything because after costuming became an Oscar category in 1948, she would garner an astonishing 35 nominations and win eight times, a record for any woman.  She dressed virtually every name actress of the 30s and 40s but especially those who were under contract to Paramount studios where Head worked for 43 years.  This included such luminaries as Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Betty Hutton, Veronica Lake, Dorothy Lamour and Paulette Goddard.

She had a master's degree in romance languages and taught French until she decided she wasn't making enough money. In 1924 Paramount hired her as a costume sketch artist even though she had virtually no experience.  Some say she was never Hollywood's best costume designer but few would deny that she wasn't the smartest. In a short time Paramount's top two designers were at other studios. Her first famous costume was the sarong she designed for Lamour in 1937's The Hurricane.

The short, plainly-dressed and severe-looking Head made those she costumed feel like pampered goddesses.  She was so popular that she was frequently loaned out to other studios to dress their actresses who requested her despite the fact that all major studios had their own costumers.  On the other hand, she squawked now and then that she could not stand dressing Goddard and Colbert because they were fussy beyond what even Head could tolerate. 

To my untrained eye, the best dressed any actress ever looked in any film was Grace Kelly in 1955's To Catch a Thief.  Head, of course, was Oscar-nominated but she should have won.  She did, however, win the little golden man for The Heiress (1949), Samson and Delilah (1949), All About Eve (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Facts of Life (1960) and The Sting (1973). 

After 43 years at Paramount, she left to go to work for Universal, where she would stay until the end of her life.  It is generally believed she followed Hitchcock there... each thought they had a wonderful working relationship.  When the studio got big into television production, Head followed that lead as well.

Hollywood's most famous, prolific and popular costume designer died in 1981 of myelofibrosis, four days short of her 84th birthday,

James Wong Howe was one of the most sought-after cinematographers in the history of movies.  There was a definite wow factor to his work and you've noticed and perhaps commented on it before and just didn't know it was his gift to you.

Born in China but raised in Washington State, his dream was to become a prizefighter.  After he moved to Los Angeles, he got a job as an assistant to a commercial photographer and was soon delivering the man's work, some of which were stag films, all over town.  He loved watching movies being filmed in Chinatown and befriended a cinematographer who suggested he try working as one in the movies.  He was hired by one of the early movie studios and studied his new craft as seriously as anything he ever undertook.

His recognition in the industry blossomed due to his uncanny ability in lighting and photographing actresses, particularly silent screen stars Mary Miles Minter and Clara Bow. By the early thirties, he was much in demand for his technique and genius for lighting, low-key lighting in particular.  He became famous for his use of shadow and was one of the first to use deep-focus photography in which both foreground and distance remain in focus.  He used photography as a means of elucidating traits of a character.  For example, in Seconds (1966), he used tracking and distortion to suggest mental instability.

Being Asian posed problems for him during the war.  He wore a button which read I am Chinese so he could avoid being sent to Japanese internment camps.  He became rather bitter over the fact that he could not legally marry his longtime partner, writer Sanora Babb, despite the fact that they had wed in France in the late 30s. After U.S. laws banning interracial marriage were overturned in 1948, the Howes married again in 1949. During the Hollywood witch hunts, he was gray-listed (rather than blacklisted) because of his association with so many lefties.

He was under contract for years at Warner Bros and worked with most of the great directors and was cinematographer on over 130 films.  He was nominated for Oscars 10 times and won twice... for The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963).  You have seen his work in such films as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (his first color film), Yankee Doodle Dandy, Air Force, Body and Soul, The Brave Bulls (strapping cameras to the bullfighters), Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic (ah yes, circling Kim Novak and William Holden during the famous dance sequence), The Old Man and the Sea, This Property Is Condemned and The Molly Maguires.

Howe lived long enough to see retrospectives of his astonishing work all over the world and at least three documentaries have been made.  He was in ill health for several years before his death from cancer in Hollywood in 1976.  He was 76 years old.

Next posting:
A book review

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