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Saturday, September 01, 2012

Metro Takes A Powder --- Part One

What good reason to address Keep Your Powder Dry, another paper napkin MGM release from long ago-far away WWII? By latter half of 1944 when it was made, there'd been thorough inventory of service branches to which Hollywood could pay tribute. Now came the WACS, to whose ranks would go Lana Turner, Laraine Day, and Susan Peters as recruits from contrasting backgrounds and temperament. Women in uniform were irresistible both to men and other women. With action confined to training camp, Keep Your Powder Dry maintained candy coating that a winding-down wartime audience preferred to pics that put femme characters in harm's way.

Laraine Day is WAC For a Day at Real-Life Training Facility

Powder's camp could house Abbott and Costello given minor-est script adjustment. Nod to reality was publicity's emphasis upon WAC technical advising in all aspects of production, military cooperation and stamp of approval being essential to any war-related studio venture. Laraine Day in fact pulled duty as temporary WAC recruit to get flavor of her part and assure a public that MGM was playing by the service manual. Real uniforms were said to have been issued to the stars. Picture fame in those days came with patriotic responsibilities. Cast members made nice with visiting service-folk, went by hospitals, and kept off-studio time available for morale enhancing at the Hollywood Canteen. Stars performed well over and above calls of duty during WWII, this a must to maintain their public's good will.

I sometimes wonder who among them cringed at the notion of compulsory Canteen appearances, not all celebs being natural glad-handers/dance partners. Putting myself in their place, I'd have been intimidated by the nightly mob. What was it really like for sex symbolic love goddesses suddenly thrust among aggressively male recruits with hands-on access to them? If Lana Turner were me, she'd have run like hell. To appear in Keep Your Powder Dry invited wider participation in aspects of war relief that could use glamour-dusting to raise needed funds and support.

The Cast Consults a Ouija Board to Relieve On-Set Boredom

A just-us-girls camaraderie was emphasized in reportage from the set of Keep Your Powder Dry. Revelation years later told all-too-human stories, rivalries being real as ambitions were pursued. Lana Turner and Laraine Day didn't particularly like each other, reflecting character conflicts in the movie. Director Eddie Buzzell told support actress Lee Patrick that she might get some good scenes in Keep Your Powder Dry "if those other bitches will let you." Laraine Day agreed to do the picture upon assurance she'd co-star with Robert Taylor in the upcoming Undercurrent, a promise not kept. She'd leave MGM as a result.

Keep Your Powder Dry was done on sound stages heated to ungodly levels by arc lampage. Cast/crews had to make peace with this, but human bodies could withstand but so much. Variety reported Lana Turner and Susan Peters passing out, Turner carried by ambulance to MGM medics. In years before quiet and efficient central air, Hollywood shooting barns were as many pits of Hell, a fact of factory life seldom if ever addressed by the fan mags.

WAC recruiting was also a mission of Keep Your Powder Dry. Why would that branch cooperate with filmmakers otherwise? A positive service image was Priority One. Even though these women were taught manly skills, it was essential that femininity and even a touch of glamour be preserved, thus pairings off in the canteen with servicemen on leave. This was where Metro could test new personalities on six-month option. A Bill Johnson was one. He has dialogue with Lana Turner in what you could accurately call an on-screen screen test, Johnson another newcomer who'd be tried and let go. Competition again. You could say Bill lost his race to another Johnson, Van, or Tom Drake, two from beginner ranks that did make the grade.

Director Eddie Buzzell On The Back Lot with Lana Turner and Susan Peters

Once brought aboard, MGM did take care of its own. Those who'd been around long enough and made the right friends could expect protection when chips were down. Lana Turner reported to costume designer Irene for fittings and found the department empty. Irene wasn't showing up for work, but Turner got the blame. When the latter protested to Louis Mayer, he told her allowances must be made for a longtime employee who'd developed a drinking problem. Everyone's business was the company's business, private matters most of all. Turner understood and took the minor rap for Irene.

A short-time later happening would further reveal MGM's generous corporate nature. Keep Your Powder Dry co-star Susan Peters had finished her work and was spending New Year's Day 1945 at a shooting club with husband Richard Quine, an actor and future director. Somehow, her rifle discharged when she reached down to pick it up, lodging a bullet in her spine. Peters had been a prime candidate for top rungs, having made the grade supporting Ronald Colman in Random Harvest and as lead lady to Robert Taylor in Song Of Russia. A brightest career future was interrupted by the event of January 1. To follow press releases and trade talk from there is to open a fascinating window into Gold Age Hollywood's response when real-life tragedy visited one of its own, that subject to be taken up in next week's Part Two.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

I see wonderful journeyman Pierre Watkin is along for the ride.

2:05 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Received the following from industry vet Craig Reardon, who supplies his own fascinating addendum re the subject of lighting (and consequent heat) on Golden Era movie sets. This is Part One of great stuff, as is always the case from Craig, and I thank him very much for sharing insider dope on the picture-making process ...

Hi John,

Wow, "Keep Your Powder Dry"...! Not only have I never heard of it, but I'm also amazed you have several beautiful, full-sized stills from it!

I was just responding to your bit about the heat on sound stages. This movie appears to have been in B&W (right?), but order to have any depth-of-field whatsoever, meaning focus any deeper than 6" either side of wherever the lens was focused, any photographer--including a cinematographer--needs to stop down the lens, which means to close the aperture to a smaller circle, which deepens the field of focus, but sacrifices the amount of light that can enter the camera and strike the film. The only solution to the latter was to increase the light levels--period! So, in those days of relatively 'slow' film emulsions, they had to light the hell out of the sets, and they were apparently quite warm.

I remember older makeup artists telling me how they would cope with this. Fred Phillips (remembered for his involvement with genre stuff like Corman's "House of Usher", TV's "Outer Limits" and "Star Trek"--though his career stretched back to the silents) told me personally that they'd often keep a galvanized wash tub on the set full of water, crushed ice, and a ubiquitous and popular astringent product called Sea Breeze, and they would soak chamois cloths in it, and when the stars were about to have heat stroke--!--they'd wring out one of these chamois cloths and go in and pat them down on their pulse points. I mean...what more do you need to hear, right?

8:40 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon ...

Another wonderful old vet, Charlie Schram, who began at MGM in the 1930s, told me that during the making of "The Wizard of Oz", the heat levels soared--indoors, that is!--due to the use of Technicolor cameras on gigantic sets. He said the poppy field set filled one of MGM's longer stages and was lined at the top with arc lights, each of these basically consuming--little by little--a fat 'stick' of pure carbon, which generated a light almost as bright as the sun. He said the electricians up in the catwalks were almost fainting in the heat and that it was measured as being 120ยบ up there. Murder. Bert Lahr, who was Charlie's charge (he made him up as the Cowardly Lion) not only had the heavy makeup to deal with, which included a suffocating bald cap, but his costume was created using the actual hide of a lion--it was leather, in other words! He said Lahr would sometimes collapse from the heat.

Lahr and Haley would often have to be re-made-up during a shooting day because they'd literally sweat their makeup and appliances right off. You think about "The Wizard of Oz" for a second. Particularly now that we have WB's phenomenal reconstruction of the film from the original camera negative, think about the close-ups on all the characters, all through the film. They're perfect, aren't they? Where is the evidence of all this suffering, this sweating, this misery? No place. That alone, to me, is a tribute to the makeup artists and especially the stalwart performers, in those days.

For the makeup artists, it would have literally been like trying to keep a sand castle looking perfect as the surf continues to roll in and erode it constantly. For the performers, it would have been like wearing a fur coat on a hot summer day, with sweat trickling down every inch of your body, yet having to appear blithe, cheerful, playful and otherwise in character---plus remember your lines, plus retain some sense of your own body movements while you're inundated in costuming.

8:41 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon, Part Three:

I have picked the worst possible example I can think of, from those days, to support your remarks about how sound stages were even on B&W movies in more ordinary clothing. Sound stages were still very warm when I started at Universal in 1977, by which time all television shows were being photographed (with older Mitchell cameras, which Universal owned in those days) on Eastman film, yet which still required respectable levels of light to record the bright, snappy, and frankly banal image that I always heard NBC required of the studio in those years, for some reason...unfortunately.

And, if you think of contemporary shows then like "Marcus Welby, M.D.", "Ironside", "The Six-Million Dollar Man", "The Rockford Files", "Quincy", "Kojak", "The Hardy Boys" al...they did all have that front-lit, boring look, and I can tell you that part of that came from what were called nine lights---a rack of nine, hot, bright bulbs that were positioned just off-camera in virtually every set-up, that flooded the set and performers with 'that' light which gave NBC the level of illumination they wanted and simultaneously eliminated any sense of character or atmosphere that a DP like Conrad Hall, on a show like "The Outer Limits", or a George Clemens, on "The Twilight Zone", had managed to create without such requirements.

A makeup artist would have to blot and powder performers frequently in these situations because it would not be long at all before at least half of them began to 'bloom' under this level of light, meaning, they would begin to become shiny with a combination of oil and perspiration. Hey, the glamour of showbiz! Well, that's just it. The glamour of showbiz is a construct, a combination of the real charisma of the top performers, fighting through the reality of uncomfortable clothing (even a plain business suit and tie, worn on a warm set), lighting, and the absolute need for a quiet set while filming. That meant turning off the "air" (the A/C)---ALWAYS!---while cameras were turning.

8:41 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon's Part Four and Conclusion ...

There are old stages at Paramount, WB, and Universal...or, there certainly were when I first started out...where you could still see the enormous hatchways that were originally constructed in the walls of the stages where the old-fashioned 'swamp coolers' could insert their huge ducts. These were wagons with water reservoirs and blowers which would 'inhale' exterior air, run it over the water or water-cooled radiators, and blow it into the enormous sound stages, before the air was refrigerated by modern air conditioning systems. In fact, if you walk around any major lot, usually the newest additions to any given soundstage are the A/C equipment, either on a roof or outside the perimeter of the stages. They've been fairly standard over the 35 years of my own working career, but you got the definite feeling they were relatively new and modern. And I think that when A/C was first introduced, it was prohibitively expensive to outfit something as ginormous as a soundstage--although this is just speculation on my part. Since it was eventually done, it was probably more a matter of simply assessing the "new" technology and factoring it into studio expense and upgrading.

I'd also wanted to add that although the heat levels on the set at MGM were probably way up there, as on any movie lot, the wonderful thing about MGM vs. studios in the San Fernando Valley (i.e., Universal City or WB or Republic), or in Hollywood (Paramount, Columbia, RKO), was that in Culver City there is almost always the most wonderful and refreshing breeze flooding the entire lot from the nearby Pacific Ocean. It's something I forget until I work there again -- today, of course, it's called Sony Studios -- and it distinguishes it from all the other places. So, at least performers at MGM could go out and be revived by that wonderful, fresh breeze.

Anyway...a very real and interesting sidelight of moviemaking that you touch upon here, and like any real thing vs. the wonderful 'unreality' of the finished products, fun to remember and consider. I mean, it makes you more appreciative of what the earlier filmmakers had to deal with, and how successful they were -- on so many levels -- of keeping elements of mundane reality at bay, as it were, in the final films.

I also enjoyed the quote from the director about "the bitches"! I don't want to create the impression that all stars, female stars in particular, were or are bitches. But, let's just say it happens. I'm sure it always has.


8:42 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

john, i admire your eclectic selections, your wide ranging appreciation of movie history and your obvious love for your subjects! "powder" is a tiny treasure for collectors of faded, forgotten nostalgia pieces, and even though iv'e at least one hundred vintage stills from this epic in my attic, somewhere, you've managed to find a few iv'e never seen before! i'd love if you could let us know the box office take for this one in part two - i know it did well, but i'l love to see figures! have you noticed how it pre-empted "private benjamin" by forty years? child goldie might have worshipped lana in a darkend fleapit in 1945. teen marilyn obviously did! i'd also like to see you tackle "forever amber" someday, iv'e just finished reading Gary A. Smiths book on that one.

6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Reardon:
I want to thank you, if not personally, then electronically for your insighful contributions to GREENBRIAR PICTURE SHOWS. Your comments make me feel that I, too, am suffering along with Bert Lahr on an MGM soundstage, some seventy years ago.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Jeez. ...Agnes Moorhead June Lockhart AND Natalie Schaefer. ...Tina Louise in the last post. ...shows how long ago 60s TV was. ....

4:43 PM  

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