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MR. CAPRA GOES DOWN MEMORY LANE


You’d expect the director of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be a veritable Mr. Sunshine off the set. But when I interviewed Frank Capra for a piece on the 50th anniversary of the talkies in The New York Times in 1977, I found him a bit chilly and impatient. What he lacked in warmth, however, he more than made up for by sharing his gift of total recall. --GUY FLATLEY



F
rank Capra, who directed a few silent films before surfacing as one of the top talents of the talkies with such movies as "It Happened One Night," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Lost Horizon," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful Life," chats in the den of his Palm Springs retirement home, though his furtive glances at his wristwatch signal his concern about being tardy for a golf date. "When film found its larynx, it astonished, amazed and absolutely threw everyone into a tailspin. There was panic all around Hollywood. They were being asked to spend millions of dollars to revise everything. It was all pretty chancy.

"Nobody knew if audiences would take to these pictures; they were used to looking at motion pictures, not photographed plays. Men like L. B. Mayer, powerful men who were in the habit of telling everyone in Hollywood what to do, were suddenly sitting in their offices, completely stunned. They didn't understand what the hell was going on, and so they lost control of the studio to the engineers. Soon the soundmen were telling everyone what to do. They talked Mayer into getting rid of his best-known, highest paid star, saying that his voice didn't sound good enough. They threw Jack Gilbert out, and he died of drink. It was ridiculous.

"I was at Columbia at the time, and I know that Harry Cohn [the studio head] was a very worried man. The machines kept coming in, great trucks and panels and wires that looked like so much spaghetti, and Cohn kept wondering if he was throwing his money away. 'Now give me that nonsense about sound again,' he would say. 'We photograph the person and the sound at the same time? Hell, I can see a person, but how can I see a sound?'

"'It's a great new tool,' I'd tell him. 'Just stay up there in your office and don't worry.' He couldn't understand that there were light valves that picked up sound from film, that you could photograph little squiggly lines that could be reproduced into sound. The talkies started out on disks, and that was rather simple, but to reproduce properly synchronized disks to accompany each film was a huge problem. Very shortly, they were producing sound film itself."

The toughest problem to be tackled was that of visual paralysis. "Silent cameramen had been free as a bird, but suddenly the freedom to photograph from any position was taken away. In the silent days, cameras sounded like coffee grinders, so that when talkies began, we had to put them into a big ugly, immovable, monstrous box with a window in the front. There was a door at the back through which the cameraman climbed, and once it was closed behind him, he found himself in an insulated, soundproof room, with no air vents of any kind. There was more air in the cameraman's lungs than in the booth. Sometimes, we used three cameras, suitably positioned to the action, and we'd edit it later to give the illusion of movement. The microphone would be hidden in a vase of flowers, or behind a piece of furniture, and the actors had to be careful not to talk unless they were talking directly into the mike.

"It was funny to us and tragic to us. It destroyed everything we knew, all of our carefully developed methods. The soundman became the chief man on the set. He told the actors when to talk and how loud to talk. There they sat with their earphones and dials, and most directors didn't know how anything was turning out until they saw it on the screen, and then they died. But the real chaos was among the actors. It was easy enough to accommodate those who had experience on stage, but no film actor had ever learned lines before.

"And working on a completely silent set was another experience they had never had. In the silent days, the cameraman was yelling, carpenters were hammering and a director was shouting commands on the next set. Then, all of a sudden, everything had to be as silent as a tomb. It was scary. The poor actors sweated, missed their lines, cried and broke down.

"Through the magic of technology, however, most of the problems that came in with sound were solved within a year. A quieter camera was made, and we were able to throw those awful booths away, and the technicians put together a movable boom that could follow the action around overhead, freeing the actors from the tyranny of that one mike hidden in the flowers. Thanks to American know-how, a revolution had taken place and Hollywood hadn't skipped a beat. We were back to making films, except people were talking now."

To read Guy Flatley's "The Sound That Shook Hollywood" in its entirety--including interviews with Myrna Loy, Raoul Walsh, Clarence Brown, Allan Dwan, Anita Loos, King Vidor and Buddy Rogers--click here.