Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Monday, May 31, 2010

Addio, Cinevent 42!

It's 1:15 in Columbus as I type this, and the 2010 edition of Cinevent has gone to bed. Monday's program wrapped it all up with Dancing on a Dime, a pleasant 1940 B-musical from Paramount; 1924's Lighthouse by the Sea, from the silent heyday of the original Rin Tin Tin; and Sarong Girl, one of striptease star Ann Corio's Poverty Row efforts to follow her colleague Gypsy Rose Lee into a Hollywood career.

Saturday is usually the biggest and busiest day at Cinevent, when it's hardest to find a seat in the screening room and the dealers' rooms are most crowded. You snake your way through the aisles between the tables, catching odds and ends of conversations, gasps of surprise or pleasure, reminiscences, polite dickering and the occasional faintly vinegary whiff of acetate film. On Sunday the dealers and their customers have already begun to trickle out for the trip home. By Monday morning it's down to a cadre of dedicated Cineventers unwilling to let the weekend come to a close without seeing the very last of it. There's a valedictory air in the screening room and hallway on Monday, and everyone is already beginning to look forward to next year. Everyone, that is, except the organizers of Cinevent themselves, who no doubt won't even give a thought to Cinevent 2011 until they've had a few months to unwind and decompress from this one.

So off we all go; have a safe trip home, everybody, and we'll see you next year...

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cinevent, Day 4

Sunday's highlights:

(1) Chad Hanna (1940) Stable boy Henry Fonda runs away with a moth-eaten circus in 1841, in gorgeous Fox Technicolor* and with spot-on atmosphere courtesy of director Henry King. There's also a pretty amazing scene of 16-year-old Linda Darnell training to be a bareback rider; it's one long take of her horse cantering round and round the tiny circus ring, with Darnell bouncing in her training harness scrambling to hold on and her trainer barking instructions. The shot goes on for what seems like five minutes without a cut, and you can't take your eyes off the screen; the plot goes nowhere during that time, but we learn a lot about 19th century circus life and the grit and determination of Darnell's character. (And incidentally, we learn something about Darnell's own grit -- she was allergic to horses.)

(2) Roadhouse Nights (1930) Here's another one of those synchronicity moments: this is one of the movies Richard Barrios talks about in A Song in the Dark, with Helen Morgan as a saloon singer embroiled in her gangster boyfriend's crimes. Not a musical exactly, but with plenty of music -- including several songs from Morgan (in her prime, before the booze really laid her low) and movie newcomer Jimmy Durante (it's also Durante's only movie appearance with his vaudeville partners Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson).

Plus an honorable mention for Woman on the Run (1950), a tight little noirish thriller set in San Francisco with Ann Sheridan as the estranged wife of a man on the run from the killer whose crime he witnessed. This one joins a select list of movies (Vertigo, The Lineup, Experiment in Terror) that give us a visual record of what San Francisco looked like before becoming crusted over with skyscrapers. (The amusement park climax isn't San Francisco, however; it's Carmel.)

*And speaking of Technicolor, here's a good rule of thumb: If you want to see Golden Age Technicolor at its best, for the 1930s look to Selznick International (A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred, Gone With the Wind); for the '40s, 20th Century Fox (Hello, Frisco, Hello; WilsonThe Black Swan); and for the '50s, Paramount (Shane, The War of the Worlds, White Christmas).

Cinevent, Day 3

Saturday's highlights in Columbus:

(1) Straight Shooting (1917) This was 23-year-old John Ford's first directorial effort ("Jack Ford," as he was billed at the time), and it's a remarkable document as well as a good, solid archetypal western film. Here in a compact 60 minutes is the John Ford western fully formed, with some images and frame compositions as striking as anything Ford would do later on. Harry Carey, Ford's favorite leading man, demonstrates the mold into which Ford would later pour young John Wayne, and which would remain Wayne's forever after that (see the last shot of the Duke in The Searchers for his and Ford's conscious tribute to Carey).

(2) The Fleet's In (1942) This wartime musical combined Dorothy Lamour, new-minted leading man William Holden, and an excellent score by director Victor Schertzinger (music) and Johnny Mercer (words) that included the perennials "Tangerine" and "I Remember You." There's a touching story connected with the latter song, recounted in the Cinevent program notes. Schertzinger, a popular and respected man on the Paramount lot, died unexpectedly midway through production on the movie, and shooting was closed down for a time. When they resumed work, the first day's shooting was devoted to Lamour's rendition of "I Remember You." The practice, of course, was for the performers to lip-synch to a playback of the soundtrack, recorded weeks earlier. As they reached the end of the first take and the sound man allowed the playback to continue past the end of the song, Schertzinger's voice unexpectedly came over the loudspeakers, complimenting Lamour during the original recording session (as both director and composer) on her excellent performance of the song. The sound of his voice (combined, no doubt, with the sentiment of the song) was too much for Lamour, and she simply fell to pieces on the set.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cinevent, Day 2

Highlights of the first day at Cinevent here in Columbus were:

(1) Hired Wife (1940) Rosalind Russell plays a secretary in love with boss Brian Aherne, who doesn't have the presence of mind to fully appreciate her. When he runs into tax trouble, she agrees to help out by marrying him -- strictly on paper, you understand, just for business purposes. The inevitable comic complications ensue before the inevitable clinch at the fadeout. Writers Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman frost this cake with plenty of tasty dialogue, Brian Aherne never looked so lively and animated, and the actress was never born who could beat Rosalind Russell with a mouthful of good dialogue. And Roz, just coming off the breakthrough one-two punch of The Women and His Girl Friday, was sitting on top of the world, and you can see she knew it; and

(2) Chicago (1927) This was the first (and silent) film treatment of the Maurine Watkins play that would serve as the source for 1940's Roxie Hart with Ginger Rogers, and (of course) the Tony-and-Oscar-sweeping musical. Long feared lost, this version surfaced some years ago, and it's a lively two hours. Phyllis Haver makes a Roxie Hart who can stand beside Ginger Rogers, Gwen Verdon and Renee Zellweger without hanging her peroxided head. (And I couldn't help reflecting what a nice meal Marion Davies could have made of the role -- but of course, Hearst wouldn't have let her anywhere near it. Not in a thousand years.)

Now it's back to the program, so if you'll excuse me...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cinevent 42

 I'm interrupting my posts on Henry Hathaway to post from Columbus, Ohio, where the 42nd Cinevent is about to begin. If you don't know about Cinevent, you certainly should, especially if you live within convenient travel distance of Columbus (and after all, I come in all the way from Sacramento). It's a "classic film convention" held every Memorial Day Weekend in Columbus; from Friday through Monday there are movies all day and deep into the night. The years of vintage range roughly from 1914 to 1950, with the program breaking down to about two-thirds talking pictures and one-third silents with live piano accompaniment, by either Dr. Philip Carli or David Drazin, two of the foremost silent film accompanists in America today. In addition to the movies, there are the dealers' rooms, where any manner of memorabilia are available to collectors; you've already seen some of it here.

I'd been hearing about Cinevent for decades because my uncle -- who lives in Muncie, Indiana, not too far from Columbus -- has been coming here since the 1960s. Whenever he spoke of it, I'd think, "One of these years..." Well, one of those years finally came in 1998, and I haven't missed a Cinevent since then; I have a standing commitment for Memorial Day from now on.

This year, there are some unusual -- almost eerie -- touches of synchronicity with this blog. One of the first features this afternoon is the 1924 silent Open All Night, on which none other than Henry Hathaway himself served as assistant under director Paul Bern (the great Howard Hawks also served as production manager). And Cinevent's annual Saturday Morning Animation Festival will include a 1917 short by Willis O'Brien, the special effects pioneer who hired Marcel Delgado to build the models for The Lost World and King Kong. The title is certainly intriguing: Prehistoric Poultry.

For now, however, I have to free up the hotel's computer. Stay tuned, and I'll try to post more as the weekend progresses. No promises, though; the days are full and pass quickly here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"A Genial Hack," Part 1

Henry Hathaway once said there was a time when he would have welcomed being called an "accomplished technician" or "studio workhorse." "But the more I think about it, the more I realize it makes me seem to be a genial hack." Hathaway was indeed an accomplished director, and he worked long and well in the studio system, first at Paramount, then for twenty years at 20th Century Fox. But he was nobody's hack.

I guess I've always been a little over-protective of Henry Hathaway. Several years ago I bought one of those big encyclopedias that claim to tell you "everything you need to know" about American movies (actually, that should've tipped me off -- the really good ones don't do that). This one -- well, let's just say it was published under the aegis of a very prestigious group of people. The first thing I did was to turn to the biographical section on directors to see what they said about Hathaway. He wasn't listed. I scanned back and forth across the pages, just to make sure I wasn't seeing what I thought I didn't see. Then I closed the book and never opened it again; when the donation truck came around, into the bin it went.

Whoever compiled that book, I didn't expect them to admire Hathaway as much as I do -- I don't suppose anyone does that. But I wasn't going to let them act as if he never existed. Not if they wanted to take up space on my bookshelf.

I first became aware of Hathaway the night I saw How the West Was Won at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. I was just beginning to notice movie directors; I wasn't one of those film-buff prodigies who could discourse on the Auteur Theory at an age when other kids were reading Fun with Dick and Jane. I knew about Cecil B. DeMille, and Alfred Hitchcock, but everybody knew who they were. And I knew about John Ford, one of the other credited directors on How the West Was Won. George Marshall, the third director, not so much (though I knew about Destry Rides Again, one of his pictures). But Hathaway's name caught my eye for the simple reason that the program said he was born in Sacramento, where I lived.

Now that I knew his name, I began to notice that Henry Hathaway directed some movies that I'd always loved. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), which I saw on a reissue at the age of eight. North to Alaska (1960). And others that I'd seen on TV in the 1950s and early '60s: Call Northside 777 (1948), Down to the Sea in Ships (1949), Fourteen Hours and The Desert Fox (both 1951). Others would later make the list: The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), Nevada Smith (1966), True Grit (1969). And, of course, How the West Was Won itself.

Hathaway was born in Sacramento (March 13, 1898), but it wasn't exactly his home town; it was just where his actress mother happened to be on the point in her tour when his time came. (Traveling theater companies didn't offer maternity leave in 1898.)

Henry Hathaway may well be the only hereditary Belgian nobleman who ever made it as a Hollywood movie director. His name at birth was Marquis Henri Leopold de Fiennes, a title he inherited through his father. Hathaway said his father's name was Henry Rhody, but he appears to have been a bit of a theatrical jack of all trades -- advance man, stage manager, actor -- under the name Rhody Hathaway. Hathaway said his mother's maiden name was Jean Weil, though other sources say she was born Marquise Lillie de Fiennes in Budapest in 1876. I'm inclined to take her son's word on this point, but whatever the case, Mom acted under the name Jean Hathaway, and before long little Henri Leopold had taken it too. (Also, Henry's paternal grandfather was supposed to secure the Hawaiian Islands for Belgium in the 1860s, and settled in San Francisco when the deal fell through. Considering how Belgium later administered its colonial holdings in Africa's Congo, native Hawaiians might have cause to be grateful that Hathaway's grandfather failed.)

Jean Hathaway seems to have been no ordinary woman. Only 22 when her son was born, by the time they both entered movies in 1911 or '12, she had moved into "character parts" -- somebody's mother or aunt or older sister, or a villainess if one was called for. I don't know how old she is in this picture, but it seems to me she's more or less the same age as Henry in the picture below, taken on the set of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, when he was 37. 

That's Henry standing on the left, next to Nigel Bruce. (At the table are Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda and Fred Stone.) You can see that Henry certainly took after his mother.

In more ways than one. Rhody Hathaway seems not to have had the theater bug as severely as his wife -- it's never been the most stable career path, and it was downright perilous then. Henry's father eventually left the biz and got into electronics -- a more obviously burgeoning field in the 1910s and '20s -- working on an early x-ray machine. Jean continued to tour, occasionally getting stranded, in those pre-Equity days, when a company would go bankrupt on the road.

When this happened to her in 1911 in San Diego, leaving her broke with no way to get home, she cast about for some kind of job to earn train fare, and landed with the American Film Company in nearby La Mesa. Moviemaking was a footloose operation in those days, grinding out quickie one-reelers for the nickelodeons, but here was steady work in one place, so when she saw that it was going to pan out, she sent for Henry and his sister, who had been living with relatives in San Francisco.

Henry started out as a child actor -- usually, he said, playing the kid in the opening scene who grows up to be the leading man. As he grew into his teens, he went to work at Universal, first as a laborer, then a prop man. (His last acting credit was in 1917, just before a short army stint stateside during World War I.) After mustering out of the army, he went back to movies as a prop man at Goldwyn Studios, then Paramount, where he worked as an assistant director throughout the 1920s, learning the craft under men like Josef von Sternberg and Victor Fleming. He graduated into directing in 1933, remaking silent Paramount westerns for sound -- only on a lower budget, re-using footage from the silent versions wherever possible. ("I had to have the new leads costumed the same as the silent players.")

Few directors had a career to compare with Henry Hathaway's. He literally got in on the ground floor, before there was even a Hollywood as we know it today. He made his first movie in 1911, his last in 1974. He started out digging ditches and lugging equipment, and rose to directing huge projects with the biggest stars in the business. Along the way he pioneered sound, color and narrative Cinerama, the wonder of the age throughout the 1950s.

The performances he got from his actors are nothing to sneeze at either. He made a star of Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947) and landed an Oscar for John Wayne in True Grit. And Dorothy Lamour, that sweet, ever-befuddled foil for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, never gave a good dramatic performance for any other director, but she did it for Hathaway twice, in Spawn of the North (1938) and Johnny Apollo (1940).

I'll have more to say about some of Henry Hathaway's movies later on. For now, take this as an introduction to the man, something to plug the hole in that encyclopedia I mentioned earlier -- just in case you happened to buy it from the thrift store I donated it to.

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Here's a Job for You, Marcel," Part 3

On the recording of our inverview, at the point at which Part 2 of these posts ended, Mr. Delgado got up to answer the phone -- this was 1970, remember, and when the phone rang you had to answer it. While he was out of the room, Bob, Carol and I agreed that we had probably stayed long enough and were now keeping him from his family. In fact, during our conversation, his adult son had come in from working in the yard (edited out of the transcript) and asked if Mr. Delgado was "going over to Bob's later on." It even occurred to us that the phone call Mr. Delgado was answering at that moment might be one of his relatives asking what was keeping him.

The three of us agreed it was about time to wrap up our visit with Mr. Delgado. But before we left, we definitely wanted to have a look at those albums we had glimpsed sitting on the dining room table. I left the tape recorder running while we perused the albums, and what follow are excerpts of that conversation.

JL: [seeing date on picture from Mighty Joe Young] Nineteen-forty-seven! And the film was released in ’49. You worked on it that long? Here’s December of ’47 and here’s July of ’48.

MD: Forty-seven, ’48, yes.

JL: And here’s the burning orphanage. How did you do the fire on that?

MD: Oh, that thing was really on fire.

How big a model was it?

MD: About one inch to the foot. [Ray Harryhausen has said that the orphanage model was about five feet tall – jl]

JL: Here’s the tug-o’-war.

MD: That little model was only four inches high.

JL: [another picture, another movie] What’s this from?

MD: Dinosaurus! That’s the one that I told you they wanted to shoot next Thursday. So I just made the thing to look like something. It was nothing. I said, “If you want it that way, okay.”

JL: And is this Mighty Joe here?

MD: That’s Mighty Joe. That’s the way they looked when I finished them, before I put the fur on.

JL: [seeing a picture of Delgado with a full-scale model of a hippo] What’s this here? Is this what I think it is?

That’s Disneyland. I worked on Disneyland.

Disneyland? The jungle ride? You worked on the jungle ride at Disneyland?

MD: Just a little bit, not enough to hurt anything, or make any dents on it.

JL: And this is Son of Kong here? 

MD: Yes, that’s Son of Kong. You know, that was kind of a little joke.

JL: A joke?

MD: Yes. How could he have a son by Fay Wray? That’s why he was white.

JL: Is this one of your sketches or Mr. O’Brien’s?

MD: No, Byron Crabbe made that.

I understand there’s a gentlemen living up in Chico now who worked on the picture, and he’s working on a book about King Kong.

Who is this?

JL: I can’t remember his name. [reading from the copper cover of the souvenir program] “The picture that staggers the imagination.” When the press agents said all this they didn’t know it was really true.

MD: You know, Jim Danforth bought one of those things about six years ago, and he paid something like $7.00. [Seven dollars!?! The program I saw on eBay went for an exponentially higher sum. – jl] It’s a wonder that I still have that.

JL: “King Kong opens Thursday, March 16, Grauman’s Chinese.”


JL: “Technical staff: E.B. Gibson, Marcel Delgado, Fred Reese, Orville …” Orville Goldner, that’s the man who lives in Chico.

MD: Orville Goldner, yes! What was he doing?

JL: I heard that he worked on the animation, and that he’s writing a book about it now. This is why I thought, “Why, that so-and-so, he’s beating me to my idea.”

MD: Orville Goldner, yes. Well, he’s been everything, that Orville Goldner.

JL: What did he do exactly?

MD: I really don’t know what his job was on King Kong. I really don’t know what – What is he classified there?

JL: He’s with you on the technical staff.

MD: I don’t know what he ever did. I really don’t know what was his job.

JL: [reading from the press book] “If Kong stood atop the dizzy tower of the Empire State Building as in the picture, beating his chest with a thunderous din, roaring out in tones audible around the world that his was a remarkable achievement, so should your handling of this picture create such an impression. Twenty-four-sheets [posters – jl] should grow to 48; six-foot enlargements should bound to 60-foot enlargements. There is great entertainment in King Kong; the big showman will go out and sell that entertainment.”

MD: A lot of people are dead already. Eddie Linden is dead, the cameraman. Byron Crabbe is dead, Willis O’Brien is dead, Vernon Walker is dead.

JL: These are your two Kongs, right?

MD: Yeah. They can’t compare, you know, with Mighty Joe for looks. I think Mighty Joe was a better looking monkey. But Kong, the story has more punch than Mighty Joe.

You actually did have a full-size hand and head, right?


JL: And feet, did you have feet?

MD: No, just one foot, the foot and the hand. And the head.

In resetting the models between frames, did you use instruments or did you just do it with your fingers?

MD: No, you set it with, just with your fingers.

JL: There’s the full-size bust. Did you have much to do with this one?

MD: Oh, yes.

JL: You designed that too?

MD: I sure did.

JL: You had something like 87 machines inside this thing, operating the muscles?

MD: No, that’s another story. You know, it’s a funny thing, but when I went to see the picture, on that night there was a kid, a young boy, sitting in the back where I was sitting, with a couple of girls. And he was telling these girls everything about how he was up there, he was right on top of King Kong, on top of the head manipulating all these levers. We sure got a kick out of that, my brother and I.

JL: How did you feel when you finally sat there in the theater watching it? Did you feel really proud of yourself?

MD: No, I didn’t have no feeling. It was a job that was over. You know, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, when you worked on a thing like that, you just worked on it, you got paid whatever you got paid. That was it. That’s all it means to you.

JL: Years ago, even before Mr. O’Brien died, there was a man whose name was Charles Gemora, he was a midget, who died in Hollywood. And whenever they needed a gorilla or something in a movie, he’d play the gorilla, he’d get in the gorilla suit because he was a small man – he wasn’t quite a midget, but he was a small man. And when he died, the obituary said that he had “played” King Kong. And I thought, what an insult, to think that that was a man in a suit. But what a compliment, too, to think it was that real.

MD: That’s what they ask me, they ask me all kinds of questions. And I says to them, never was there a man in a suit. They even think that on the climbing, on the climbing of the Empire State Building, that it was a man. They claim that there was a man because they could almost see the structure of a man.

JL: But never at any time –

MD: Never at any time there was a man in a suit. Nobody ever played King Kong in a suit.

JL: Did you paste all these in here at the time or later?

MD: At the time.

JL: [reading from a publicity still caption] “Bruce Cabot clutching Fay Wray to him as the giant ape god Kong, who can squeeze the life out of a human being between his thumb and forefinger, approaches, in Kong, Radio Pictures’ half-fantastic, half-realistic photoplay.” This was obviously an early release, before the title was changed to King Kong.

JL: What’s this?

MD: Eagles. War Eagles. That would have been a wonderful picture.

I take it this wasn’t finished?

No, it wasn’t finished, it was shelved.

When was it that this went into production?

Oh, that was in nineteen – 1948, I believe.

How far along did production get before it was shelved?

We just made one sequence, and I don’t even know what became of it. They shelved it because it was the war or something, they were afraid they weren’t going to finish it, so they just shelved it. Which they never reopened it again. [another picture] There’s Jim Danforth.

JL: What’s this on?

MD: That’s – what’s the name, the man with the double head, the monster with the double head – Jack the Giant Killer [1962]. I made the original giant, then when I got it finished, this fellow that was rushing me all the time, he didn’t think it was good enough and he changed it. And the minute I knew that he changed it, I disowned it. They remodeled it and it didn’t look like anything, so I don’t claim that one. But I made the original model for that one.

And this is Mad World, right? Are these your models too?

MD: Yeah, I made the little models.

JL: Did they use your models or did they just rebuild the whole thing?

MD: No, they used my models but they didn’t animate them the way they should have been. You couldn’t see nothing. Couldn’t see nothing at all.

JL: What’s this?

MD: That’s Master of the World.

JL: The Vincent Price picture?

MD: I just worked on the miniatures.

JL: Overall, offhand, could you estimate how many films you have worked on?

MD: Well, I have no idea. I worked 46 years, that I put in pictures. I worked on a lot of them, and I worked mostly all the time.

So there it is, the full account of my meeting with Marcel Delgado. It's with no small sense of relief that I finally get this on the record and off my chest. For 40 years I've had this nagging sense of ... well, not guilt exactly, but almost. As if I finagled this meeting under false pretenses. It wasn't false pretenses, really. But pretensions, definitely. It was beyond pretentious of me to think I was up to writing the book I contemplated. But I'm glad I thought so; otherwise I would never have met this remarkable, gentle man.

Some of the illustrations in these posts are the same pictures I saw in Mr. Delgado's albums, having been subsequently published elsewhere. Others are simply examples to give a sense of what we were talking about. I recall pictures (and you can hear us reacting to them on the tape recording) that I only wish I could share with you now: the model of Kong standing next to an open carpenter's tape measure; or Mighty Joe Young posed next to a live kitten, both of them staring wide-eyed at the camera; or a picture of the models from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, clearly (if sketchily) intended to represent Buddy Hackett, Spencer Tracy and Sid Caesar. I wonder where those albums, and that copper-covered program, are now. (And I wonder whatever happened to the scoundrel who cleaned out those albums, leaving only cheap copies of the priceless pictures in them. Nothing good, I hope.)

Marcel Delgado passed away the day after Thanksgiving 1976, 51 days short of his 76th birthday. Ever since I saw the news, I've wished I had found a way to publish my interview with him. It was the least I could do, in return for his graciousness and hospitality. And it's the least I can do now.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Here's a Job for You, Marcel," Part 2

Continuing my interview with Marcel Delgado, August 16, 1970:

JL: So after Lost World there wasn’t that much work before King Kong?

No, because there wasn’t very much of that kind of work. In fact, from there I went – I went down to work on the other jobs that were – In fact, there wasn’t very much for me to do. Well, I went down to propmaking, you know, making props and stuff, at which I learned a lot. I learned to do a lot of things. I taught myself how to model cars and all those sorts of things, make different things for motion pictures.

JL: Did that experience help you in building the models on Kong?

Well, in fact, I think King Kong helped me on all those things. Because I experimented with different things. I like to experiment, and I did a lot of pictures where I needed – you have to know what you’re doing. Sometimes you have to, on this trick job, you know, you have to know what you’re doing. Sometimes you don’t know where to begin.

Sometimes they want -- like George Murphy, the senator, you know he used to be in pictures. And I worked with him on a picture where he was a magician, a dancer, you know, hoofer. And he's dancing on the stage and he sees a fountain spouting water on this side of the stage, and this fountain over here is dead. So while he's dancing he goes and touches the stream of water and picks it up on his finger and carries it all across and puts it over there on this other fountain. And that job was supposed to be a -- you know, it's a trick job to pick up a stream of water and carry it on your finger like this. "Well,
Marcel, here’s a job for you.” They don’t tell you how to do it. But “Here’s a job for you,” so it’s up to you to figure it out. So he goes and sings around and tapdances, while he goes singing around and dancing with the water on his fingertip like this, he goes and plants it on this other fountain, like that. [The picture was Step Lively (1944) - jl] Those are the kinds of jobs. You don’t know what you’re going to do or how you’re going to get started. They don’t tell you, they just write it down in the script and say, now, let the prop man do it. 

JL: Like that classic line from a script, “the volcano erupts.”

MD: So every time they came to me, perhaps I was the most notable for a thing like that; they used to come to me and say, “Well, Marcel, here’s a job for you.”

JL: Did you remain under contract to one studio or did you work freelance around Hollywood?

MD: Well, see, like I say, those jobs weren’t plentiful, like King Kong and Mighty Joe and all those things. Of course, now they are making pictures all over, in Japan, everyplace. But they’re making it with a gorilla suit. I mean, they don’t have the depth, they don’t have the meaning. All they do is just get a table and put it in there, and photograph it, and it’s nothing, just looks like what it is.

JL: A nice little toy set.

MD: Now you take that Dinosaurus!, it was just – nothing. Just some little trees over there made out of – something – there on the table and photographed, and that’s the way it looked on the screen. Didn’t have no depth.

JL: How large were the jungle sets for, say, King Kong or Lost World, how large would they be sometimes?

MD: Well, they differed in size. It all depends how deep they want them. They’re not exactly so wide, they just cover up probably about five or six feet. But if you want depth you have to put them farther down. You know, everything is by matte shots and stuff like that.

A lot of which were pioneered by King Kong.

You can get a lot of depth by doing that, by using glass and stuff like that.

Working in this section of the business, have you ever been sensitive to special effect, ever noticed the effects in a movie more than you might have done otherwise? And if so, were there any movies that especially impressed you with their effects?

Well, I really don’t know. Of course, I suppose they do impress me at certain times. Sometimes I still wonder how they do it, but I find out how, I work it out. Being myself a trick man, I say, I can figure out how they did it. Even though I wasn’t there, I can tell how this Ray Harryhausen made the skeleton play the duel with this man [in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad – jl].

They asked me, “I bet you don’t know how he did it.” I says, “Well, right offhand I don’t.” But then I started to figure it out, and I didn’t know how he did it, but I explained to the fellow that asked me, and I said, “Is that the way he did it?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s what he did.”

I probably don’t notice at first, I mean, it probably don’t interest me at all. But if I want to find out something I can always figure out how he did it. So there’s a lot of ways of finding out. 

JL: There’s a contemporary review of King Kong from 1933, and I quote: “So great is its impact that I venture to predict it will not be forgotten even in 1960.” And of course, here we are in 1970. Did you ever think you were working on a film that was going to be remembered that long?

No. That’s what bothers me now, because the kids ask me, “Don’t you have any pictures?” I say, “Yes, I have a few pictures.” The only ones that I have are the ones they made for proofs, you know, for shooting. I picked them up off the floor, they only made them just temporarily, you know, just to see how the thing looked on the screen. I got some in there in my albums, those are the only pictures that I picked up. They’re not even finished, I mean, they’re not even developed right. The old pictures that I had in my albums, they were stolen by the kids, and they were replaced by some other photographs that they made of them. They replaced them with photographs of them that they printed themselves, but they stole my old ones.

JL: Which kids were these?

MD: The fans, you know, people that are interested in this kind of work. See, I get letters from different parts of the world. As long as it has been, it seems to me that now it’s starting to go a little more than than it did before. I never knew it was going to be like this. See, I get calls on the phone from New York, Georgia, and I get letters from as far as Africa and Japan, and they seem to know all about these things, you see. They ask me, “Why didn’t you get something?” I could’ve gotten King Kong over here, I could’ve had it here, I could’ve had that little gorilla that I made, but somebody beat me to it. I didn’t even think of stealing it myself because I didn’t want it.

JL: What are you gonna do with that in 30 years?

MD: You see, I didn’t know it was going to be like this. I mean, it didn’t interest me to bring them home because I fought with them all day, I played with them, I fixed them, I tore ’em down and built ’em all over again, so it didn’t bother me at all.

JL: It’s funny, if you mention Atlanta nobody thinks of Gone With the Wind, but if you mention the Empire State Building, everybody thinks of King Kong, whether they’ve seen the movie or not. Was there anything at all that struck you as unusual about the film? Fay Wray said that when she first saw the script she thought somebody was playing a practical joke on her. Did it strike you as unusual on that – or on The Lost World for that matter – that a major studio would put a major investment in that kind of movie.

MD: Well, The Lost World was done way back in 1924, wasn’t it?

JL: Twenty-five, released in 1925.

MD: Yeah, and they had their doubts then whether it would make a hit or not. But RKO, at that time when we made King Kong, RKO was just nearly on the brink of bankruptcy, and King Kong got ’em out of it.

JL: It sure did. The first time I saw it was in ’56 when it was reissued. It had been shown on a New York TV station 15 times in one week –

MD: The mistake that they did was to sell it with the rest of the library that they had in films. That probably would be showing if somebody owned it, owned the rights to it. I don’t think RKO had the rights to it anymore.

JL: RKO had sold out to Desilu at that time. There are several parts of Mighty Joe Young that are considerably more sophisticated than King Kong. One critic called it “King Kong for children,” and the comparison between the two is obvious. Did you ever find yourself consciously repeating processes in Mighty Joe Young that you had used on King Kong?

MD: Mr. O’Brien won the Academy Award for – for King Kong, was it?

JL: No, for Mighty Joe Young.

MD: For Mighty Joe Young. In fact, Mr. O’Brien said that I should’ve gotten it. Mrs. O’Brien now says that O’Brien told her that when he died, to give it to me. So she’s saving it for me now. I told her, “While you are living, you keep it; that’s yours.” But she wanted to give it to me, she said I deserved it, that Mr. O’Brien said that I deserved it. “Actually, Marcel should’ve had it.” But you see, he was given credit for everything, so he took it. Actually, that’s the way they go. See, it’s the producer that always gets the credit, not the people that work with him.

JL: He actually had four or five assistants working with him on King Kong. There are four or five names in the credits in addition to yours. I can’t remember any of them offhand.

MD: Well, Max Steiner got credit.

JL: For music, yes.

MD: And this fellow that made the sound effects. [Murray Spivack – jl]

JL: About Max Steiner. King Kong was one of the first movies to use a musical score that extensively. Did you plan any of your sequences with the idea that they’d be scored to music? Or did you just film them and leave it up to Steiner –

MD: Well, I don’t know, I didn’t have anything to do with it. I really don’t know.

JL: I read that David O. Selznick had O’Brien make up a demonstrator reel of the fight between Kong and the allosaurus, and shaking the men off the log, to sell the RKO board of directors on the idea. Do you recall working on that at all?

MD: Well, that's one thing that I wasn’t very much involved with because, you see, my job was entirely to attend to King Kong. That was my job originally, to take care of it every night, groom it, fix it. I was working all the time because one was working and the other I had in the shop, working on it. Once in a while I had a little time off, but not very much. Generally I had to work almost every night to get them ready for the next morning.

JL: Shooting went on for the better part of a year, didn’t it?

MD: Yeah, we worked there for about, must have been about a year and a half to finish up King Kong. See, it wasn’t originally King Kong, it was Creation when we started.

JL: He had planned Creation, hadn’t he, then wound up using the models on King Kong?

MD: Creation was the original story that we started on, but somehow they didn’t think very much of it, I guess. I don’t know what it was about it, I never read the script.

JL: Some other projects that Mr. O’Brien had in mind that never came about. El Toro Estrella, do you remember that?

MD: Oh yeah, they made a little – little picture, I think. Seems to me they made it in Mexico.

JL: That’s what I heard, Mexico or South America with live-action bulls --

MD: I think – I don’t know whether they made it or – He wrote the story, Mr. O’Brien wrote the story, and I think he sold it to Lesseur [sp?], Lesseur Studios. I don’t know whether Lesseur ever made it or not, but he sold it to Lesseur.

JL: Were there any other projects that you and Mr. O’Brien started on that didn’t pan out?

MD: Well, Gwangi was one of them. The original Gwangi, the first one. Ray Harryhausen finished it up not very long ago, it was shown last year sometime [The Valley of Gwangi (1969) – jl]. But evidently it wasn’t very good, because the kid didn’t commend very much about it. Then when I went to see it over here, it was on the Boulevard here, it only was there for one week. When I decided to go up there, it was already gone. So it didn’t show very much. So according to the comments of the kids, they didn’t think very much of it. But we made a sequence on Gwangi, oh, long before we started Mighty Joe. A little short sequence. I don’t know what year it was, but it was long before we made Mighty Joe

I’ve heard rumors that Harryhausen is working on a remake of King Kong in England; do you know anything about that?

No, I really don’t. I don’t know what Ray is doing now. I don’t think his last picture did very good. I don’t think Gwangi made any money. By the way the kids talked about it, I don’t think they liked it very much. See, I go by the kids; they’re the ones that discover whether it’s good or not. These kids know more about it than we think. They know what’s going on. If they say it’s all right, it’s all right. But if they don’t like it – it’s got to be good, otherwise they don’t like it.

After Mighty Joe Young did you work with Mr. O’Brien and Harryhausen on The Animal World?

No, I didn’t. That was at Warner Bros., wasn’t it? Well, Mr. O’Brien was hired on that picture just for his name only. He didn’t have anything to do with it.

Was it that way with the remake of Lost World too? His name is in the credits, but they used iguanas.

MD: Yeah, he didn’t have anything to do with that either. And It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, he was there just for his name only.

JL: Oh really, he didn’t do the animation for that?

MD: He didn’t do anything. He was just on the payroll there. He didn’t make it. In fact, he died during that time we were making Mad, Mad World. I built those models for Mad, Mad World, and I animated that scene -- you know, where the guys are rolling around on the ladder on the firetruck? And when I got through, the fellows said, "Ooh, Marcel, it's like real!" But you know, Lin Dunn [Linwood G. Dunn, visual effects supervisor on the film] is the sort of man who -- he has to say something is good. If somebody else says it, he doesn't approve it. So when they said, "Marcel, it's like real," he doesn't approve it. So they threw out my animation and had it done over by somebody else. So I disown it. I disown it. But I tell you right now, if they put that scene in the film the way I did it, the way I animated it, then you would have seen something.

JL: So during the last years of his life Mr. O'Brien didn’t really do that much work himself?

MD: No, he was just hired, you know, for his name only.

JL: How about the English film The Giant Behemoth, which was similar to the last episode of The Lost World; did he do much work on that?

MD: Did he work on The Giant Behemoth? I really don’t know. You know, it was Obie’s idea of remaking King Kong again. He wanted to remake it again in color. It would have been his dream to finish it up in color. But the kids say why make it? It’s there. They can’t make it any better. Even if it’s in color, they can’t make it any better.

JL: Several scenes that have surfaced that were cut from King Kong – where he’s picking the clothes off Ann, where he finds the wrong girl in New York and drops her, and several others – do you know when those scenes were cut out?

MD: Well, I think they were cut out at the very beginning, they were censored. Like when he tore the clothes off of Fay Wray, that was censored. And the spider scene was censored. I don’t know why, but I mean – you know, these years, why everything has changed. Some of those pictures, they have everything now [i.e., cut scenes have been restored – jl] My daughter saw it in Sacramento, she saw the whole thing, complete.

JL: King Kong?

MD: Yeah. She said she saw the whole thing, it was all together. When she saw it, it was in Sacramento, and they had a boy there describing the whole thing. And he says, “Many people are in the belief that Mr. O’Brien made these models, but really it was Marcel Delgado that made them.” My daughter was so thrilled about it she called me right away.

JL: As I said, that letter I read when somebody criticized Ray Harryhausen’s models compared to Willis O'Brien's, he said the criticism is accurate, but let’s give credit where it’s due: those models were made by Marcel Delgado. And he described the fact that you actually duplicated the muscle structure; rather than just padding with rubber you actually duplicated the muscles.

Well, you see Ray doesn’t manufacture – he doesn’t fabricate his models, he casts them. And a cast model never works right. If you bend its arm like this, you can see a crease right there [inside the elbow – jl]. Mine don’t; they bend like this and you can see the muscles actually work. If you watch Mighty Joe, when the police are following them in the truck and he’s sitting in the back, and he goes and he spits at the cops [imitating Joe’s spit and “go away” gesture – jl]. That was the first time, when I saw that, that I thought the move was exactly right.

To Be Concluded ...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Here's a Job for You, Marcel," Part 1

Here is the first part of my interview with Marcel Delgado, August 16, 1970:

JL: Your first job was on The Lost World, wasn't it? So many things I've heard about you and I can't even remember where I heard them. You met Willis O'Brien when you were how old, 19?

MD: I was about 19, yes.

JL: And you were in engineering school?

MD: No, I was going to art school at the time.

JL: How did you meet him?

MD: Well, Mr. O'Brien and I were going to school at night. He was taking the class, learning to model. I met him there. Then a little while after I met him he asked me if I wanted to go to work for him. I told him I already had a job. I used to have a job that I was working in the morning.

JL: Part time work?

MD: Yeah. So I told him I already had a job, I turned him down. Finally, after so many times, why, he said, "What are you doing tomorrow, Saturday?" "Well, I don't have to work." "Why don't you come to see me at the studio?" Well, I'd never been to a motion picture studio, I thought it would be a good chance for me to go in, take a peek. Well, that day he took me to a nice little place he had all fixed up for me, and he says, "How do you like your studio?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, this is your studio if you like it, if you want it, it's yours." Well, that's what I'd always dreamed about. I said, "Thanks." So he said, "When are you going to start work?" I says, "Right now."

JL: So it was just seeing your own studio that you finally decided to?

MD: Yeah, I turned him down I don't know how many times; it didn't interest me at all. He didn't know what I could do then, he'd just met me. Every day he saw me he said, "You want to come work for me?" I says, "No, I already have a job." I turned him down several times until he mentioned the studio. That was the beginning of it. I started right there.

JL: He never invited you for one particular project, it was just to come and work with him.

MD: No, he just wanted me to come work with him.

All that time he had been getting the place ready for you?

MD: Yeah. And I thought it was a very nice thing for me to be there. I mean, I always dreamed about having a good studio, with drawings and pictures and statues and all kinds of things, you know.

JL: This was at First National Studios?

MD: Yeah.

JL: How long did it take you -- you said when you went to work there you didn't know what you were going to do in particular?

I didn't know what I was going to do.

JL: How long did it take you to find your niche, to find out what your facet of the work was going to be?

MD: Well, I just started. He just showed me the place, the things that he wanted done, "There are the materials, here." He didn't show me how, he just said, there it is, that's it. That's all, I had to work it out on my own. I never did anything like that in all my life.

JL: And you started in building the models for The Lost World.

MD: I started working with the models right there and then. I didn't know just where to begin, I just started.

JL: Did you have to do much research on that, on dinosaurs?

MD: Well, I referred to -- By that time he had the pictures of Charles Knight, you know, the artist over there at the museum in New York. And he had drawings, photographs of the drawings of Charles Knight. I liked those and I referred to those all the time. I made a copy of them. So it happened that what I didn't know I studied, I mean right there and then; I tried this and if it didn't work I tried something else.

The reason I wondered about that is, films like King Kong and The Lost World have done a great deal to popularize dinosaurs; any child knows a great deal of dinosaurs now. They probably weren't all that current a study at the time.

MD: No, there was nothing like that. In fact, that was the first picture of its kind, the combination of miniatures with life. Everything was undercover, you know, everthing was closed. It was a secret for all the time we were working there, and nobody knew what we were doing. Nobody was allowed to come in to where we were, it was more or less private. Because they didn't know what it was going to be, you see.

JL: Did you work very closely with Mr. O'Brien on the animation itself?

Well, I did some animation, and on The Lost World also, but my job was to make these animals, and fix them and take care of them. And I made something like, oh, pretty close to fifty of them. I mean, I had quite a menagerie.

Average about twelve, fourteen inches?

They ran about an inch to the foot.

So some of them would be as many as twenty, thirty inches long?

MD: Well, I mean that from the tail, the end of the tail to the nose, one end to the other. I think that was the scale, about an inch to the foot. They weren't too big.

On Mighty Joe Young I made a little gorilla which only was four inches tall. You know where he played the tug-o'-war with the wrestlers? He's only four inches. I designed that in one afternoon and I made the little skeleton. I didn't make it, I just designed it and I had it done in the machine shop. And then I made, for the closeups he wanted a one-and-a-half inch [to the foot - jl] model, which they never used, for the closeups. Because the little one was so well made, it worked like a watch. Everything was so perfect, how it moved, it took all the closeups. As small as it was, it took all the closeups.

JL: That's amazing.

MD: So they didn't bother using the one for the closeups.

JL: In the beginning, on Lost World, what was your biggest single obstacle in buidling these models?

MD: Well, it was the first thing. I never knew anything about it, about what I was going to do. He never taught me how. He used to make these animals himself, but when I started I didn't even ask him, he didn't even bother to tell me about it. In fact, I think he was just trying me out to see what I could do. And I started from the very beginning, I didn't know nothing about it. So I started to experiment with this, and before I knew it I was building them. Which I think -- I feel I did pretty good for a beginner.

I was watching it about a year ago, watching The Lost World, and I had a kid that was watching the picture, and he was just all in. And I said, "That was my first job in pictures." And he turned around, he says, "My God, if I could only do this in twenty more years I'll be satisfied."

JL: I've read several histories of the movies that have pictures of the dinosaurs and describe them as "clay models." Does it ever bother you that the things you worked so carefully on are passed off as clay?

MD: Well, Mr. O'Brien had made some clay models, but they weren't altogether finished. I had my idea about how the skin would look, the texture and all that sort of thing, I had to work it out myself. By the drawings of Charles Knight I could tell more or less, but you have to imagine quite a few things yourself in order to get reality. In fact, I developed several things during the time that I worked with those things, how to make those muscles. See, my animals, I make them with muscles just like the human body has. They're not "casted," they're fabricated. Every model that I made, they had muscles just like the human body, but they were an animal. Once the muscles were in, they're pulling in the way they should work. That's why my animals look alive on the screen. That's what the kids tell me, and I have a bunch of kids that tell me that same thing.

JL: As a matter of fact, the first time I came in contact with your name was in a review of the new version of One Million Years B.C. in the magazine Films in Review. The reviewer, William K. Everson, said that the animation was good but the models weren't as realistic or live-looking as Willis O'Brien's models. After that, somebody else wrote in and said to give credit where it was due: the models were the work of Marcel Delgado.

MD: Well, in fact, nobody knew who made the models. They thought Mr. O'Brien made them. Well, he used to make his own models. But when they start talking about King Kong and Lost World, they didn't know who made them. They used to give him credit for them and I never bothered about it because it was his job, his work.

JL: Have you ever seen any of his earlier films?

MD: Yes, I've seen one or two of them. They were little short things, fifteen, twenty minutes.

JL: How did they compare in sophistication with The Lost World?

MD: Well, you can't compare them very much. At that time, they were so early, the idea at that time was just to see them move, you know. But The Lost World was more or less a professional film, whereas the first pictures that he made, they were just tryouts, I guess. So they didn't care, as long as they moved it was something different anyway, so it was all right.

JL: On The Lost World were there ever times when you were rushed for time or money? There are times in the film where it seems that the animation is a little more hurried.

MD: I suppose that sometimes -- You know, the motion picture business is very funny. They try to make a scene and say, well, we have to start next Monday, and we've got to finish it up by a certain time. Doesn't give you enough time to do anything. See, I've worked on pictures where I tell them, they ask me how long it will take to make a model, I say it will take me about a month. And then when I get there they start putting dates on me, they say we'll shoot this next Wednesday. You can't do it next Wednesday, but you can't do nothing about it. I can fashion up anything, you know, in two or three days, but I mean, the quality isn't there. It'll probably look all right to look at it, but it doesn't have the effect, the muscles don't flex, they don't work.

Like that picture Dinosaurus! [1960 - jl]. See, I told them it would take me a month to make one of those models. Well, the first week I was there, they said, "We're gonna shoot this next Wednesday." I said, "You must be crazy!" They said, "No we aren't." "All right, if you want to shoot it next Wednesday, it's next Wednesday." I finished, it looked all right, but -- it wasn't finished.

Did it get easier to turn out the models fast? After a while did you get to where you could turn out the quality you wanted in the time they wanted?

MD: No, you can't get the quality, it's impossible. It's impossible because -- I mean, I can get a model, just whittle it out just like carving a piece of wood, but it has no quality. It has no quality, the muscles don't show, I mean it doesn't show any reality. They get out of shape, it has no shape, and a few little moves, why, the shape is gone.

JL: Do any of the models you used in Lost World or King Kong still survive, or have they deteriorated?

MD: Oh, they are long deteriorated. See, they're made out of rubber, and the rubber sulphurizes with the ozone, see, and the air hits it, that's it. It starts to go. It starts to go from the first day.

JL: How long could a model be expected to last in shooting?

MD: Well, the model doesn't last very long; it's the maintenance that keeps it up. Like I say, you make a model and leave it out where the air hits it, it starts to go right away.

JL: Then you had to give it regular daily care?

MD: Every day. Every day. Many of those models, I tore 'em down to the bone, then I start all over again, build 'em up again. And by the time I got finished they had to look like the other model. I had to do it all by my memory.

JL: You had to remember what the model looked like?

MD: And it's pretty hard to -- Many times I used to -- Many times, I built King Kong three or four times. More than that. Of course, I had two Kongs. When one was at work, the other one was in repair.

JL: You only used two models for Kong?

MD: Just two models.

JL: I heard different stories; I heard as many as 27 were used.

MD: [smiling] No.

In fact, this publisher of Playboy Magazine, what's his name? Hefner? He called me up from New York one night. He talked to me, and he told me who he was, and he says, "I want to talk to you about something. I heard so many stories about King Kong, some people say he's 40 feet high, others say 14, others say 24. How tall is he supposed to have been?" I said, "Well, I really don't know, but I think it's about 18 feet or so." I really didn't know. Eighteen feet is not so big. I mean, it's big, but it isn't so -- [Delgado was evidently working on the premise that his models for Kong were 18 inches high; in fact, Kong's apparent size varies throughout the picture. - jl] You see, King Kong was 18 inches high, and Mighty Joe was only 16, two inches shorter. Then I discovered that even that little model I had made, you could get all kinds of action and it isn't so heavy to manipulate. I could make them that small and still take all the closeups.

JL: So you had two models of Kong for the whole shooting, I suppose almost constantly rebuilt?

MD: Oh yes, I had to work almost every day and at night, every night, get them ready for the morning's shots. Sometimes it only lasted a few hours of the day, and then it broke, I had to take it out again and get the other one in.

JL: I heard that sometimes you would work ten hours and get 25 feet of usable film.

MD: I tell you, in that kind of work if you get ten feet of good film a day you're doing wonderful. You're doing a good job.

JL: Did you ever have to just close down shop because a model broke down under the lights?

MD: Well, they didn't exactly close, they just didn't animate. The animators just waited until I got through.

JL: What did you and Mr. O'Brien do between The Lost World and King Kong? There were eight years in there.

MD: Mr. O'Brien wasn't very much of a businessman. He was a good artist and all that sort of thing. Like [Ray] Harryhausen, Harryhausen took advantage of everything that he could get hold of. See, Harryhausen's first job was with Mighty Joe, and that was his first beginning. But Harryhausen did probably five times better than O'Brien ever did because O'Brien wasn't a businessman. He was just a good fine artist and he knew what he was doing, and that was it. But as far as having business ability, he didn’t have it.

To Be Continued...

Friday, May 14, 2010

First Comes the Phone Call

Back in 1970, in the reckless ardor of youth, I took it into my head to write a book about the making of the original King Kong. One Sunday night in January, I even went so far as to call Los Angeles and San Diego information to see if they had a listing for Merian C. Cooper. I was hardly surprised that they didn't; someone like Mr. Cooper would surely have an unlisted number.

But I was surprised when I tried the name Marcel Delgado; information had a number for that name in Los Angeles. When I called, a soft, lightly accented, cultured-sounding voice answered.

"May I speak to Mr. Marcel Delgado?"


"Marcel Delgado, the retired special effects artist in Hollywood?"


So there it was. I was talking to the man who built the models for the great Willis O'Brien, for the silent The Lost World and King Kong. (I didn't think "the original King Kong" then, because this was 1970 and there were as yet no remakes to confuse the issue.) Hoping I didn't sound as excited as I felt, I introduced myself, told him I was planning to write a book on the making of King Kong, and asked if he could tell me how to get in touch with Merian C. Cooper.

"Oh no, I haven't seen Mr. Cooper for many years. I think he's living down in Coronado these days."

We didn't talk much longer -- it was, after all, fairly late on a Sunday night -- but before I hung up I asked if I could feel free to get in touch with him again. "Yes, of course," he said, "I'll be happy to hear from you."

I had also gotten his address from information, so I wrote him the next week and he answered very promptly, inviting me down to see him and asking only that I let him know when I was coming. I mentioned it to my college chum Bob Irvin: " ... and he said I could come down and visit him." "Well, Jim," said Bob, "Let's go."
And we did. The following August, with our classes safely on hold for the summer, Bob, our friend Carol Cullens and I drove down to Southern California for the weekend, where we stayed with relatives of Bob's. Mr. Delgado greeted us at his home at 1761 North Van Ness Avenue (don't bother looking it up; the house -- the whole block -- is gone, subsumed into a TV studio at the corner of Van Ness and Sunset).

I didn't take this picture, but it is from the same time period as our visit to his home, and this is exactly how I remember him looking that day. In fact, he may well be wearing the same shirt in this picture that he wore as he sat chatting with us in his living room that sultry August afternoon.

As a matter of fact, I didn't take any pictures, because, ill-prepared upstart that I was, I hadn't thought to bring along a camera. But I did think to bring along a tape recorder, and I recorded our conversation over the next two hours as he reminisced about his career in special effects; not all of the jobs he talked about are listed on his entry at the IMDB.

A few months ago I finally got around to having that old 6-inch reel-to-reel tape transferred to CD, and I'm in the process of transcribing our interview for posting here -- soon, I trust.

Mr. Delgado had some keepsakes that he shared with us. Two old-style black-page photo albums filled with behind-the-scenes pictures. Or rather, copies of them; he had once lent the albums to someone who had copied all the pictures, then pasted the copies in the albums and mailed them back to him, keeping the originals. Mr. Delgado never got them back, and he never lent the albums out again.

I'd never seen any of these snapshots before, but many of them have been published since, and here are a couple:

Delgado (on scaffold at left) and others working on the full-size bust of Kong;

... and ...

Delgado and his brother Victor (left) building the armature for Kong's full-size hand.

He also had the Holy Grail of movie souvenir programs, the only copy of it I've ever seen. Here, just to give you the idea, is a picture of the replica that was included in the deluxe collector's DVD of Kong that came out in 2005, at the same time as Peter Jackson's remake:

The real thing was 8 1/2 x 11, and you couldn't buy it at the theater. In fact, you couldn't buy it at all; it was published as a supplement to The Hollywood Reporter on Monday, March 6, 1933, heralding the coming of Kong. The front and back covers were paper-thin sheets of copper. (One of these programs was offered on eBay a few years ago. I bid it up to -- well, I won't say exactly how high, in case I ever get another chance at one; I wouldn't want the seller to know how much I was willing to pay. Anyhow, I didn't get it. And I wasn't the second-highest bidder, either.)

I never did write that book about King Kong. I was foolish to think I ever could; I had neither the time, the resources, nor the experience for such a project in those days. By the time I might have been able to tackle it, it had already been done. Twice: in The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, and (even better) The Girl in the Hairy Paw, edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld.

Now it's back to plugging away on that transcript, so I can give you Marcel Delgado in his own words, opening his home, his memories and his scrapbooks to this callow young intruder from Sacramento.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Songs in the Light, Part 3

In American entertainment, the 1900s were the Vaudeville Century. This is a theme I expect to return to and explore as opportunity arises. For now, suffice it to say this: we live even now among the last ripples of the entertainment tsunami that was vaudeville (what is American Idol but a hi-tech riff on Amateur Night down at the local Orpheum?). For decades after it supposedly "died" under the one-two punch of radio and talking pictures, vaudeville's influence persisted as its practitioners abandoned the shriveling two-a-day circuits and went where the money was: Broadway, Hollywood, radio, television.

Those early musicals Richard Barrios deals with in A Song in the Dark, and the Vitaphone shorts that preceded them, were the ground on which vaudeville and talking pictures first met, and I think that's the main reason I find them so fascinating. Here was vaudeville, in the full vigor of what seemed the prime of life, little suspecting that before another decade was out it would go the way of traveling medicine shows. And here are talking pictures, flexing their muscles and, haltingly, finding their legs.

One of the biggest names in vaudeville belonged to the Duncan Sisters, Rosetta and Vivian (or "Hymie" and "Jake," as they were affectionately known). Beginning with an act mixing straight ballads and comic songs, they got off to a rocky start in 1917, when Variety called them "not ripe as yet for the big time." They ripened fast, perfecting their act on the circuit until in time they were getting $7,500 a week plus 50 percent of the box office over $25,000 -- megastar earnings in an age when 90 percent of American families were earning less than $5,000 a year.

As luck would have it, the Duncan Sisters' one and only talkie, It's a Great Life (1929), has survived intact, Technicolor inserts and all. As a movie it's yet another variation on The Broadway Melody and a bit of a challenge to one's patience, but as a record of Hymie and Jake in harness it's priceless. They play sisters named Hogan; Alexander Gray plays the pianist who breaks them up (at least until the final happy fadeout). Midway through the movie, there's a 12-minute scene that duplicates the sisters' vaudeville act exactly. Later, in a Technicolor dream sequence, the "girls" (Rosetta was 35, Vivian 32) harmonize to "I'm Sailing on a Sunbeam." The two scenes give, as Barrios says, "a worthy glimpse of what vaudeville and stars like the Duncans meant to the American public."

Also in 1929, Fox Studios hired the reigning kings of Broadway, DeSylva, Brown and Henderson (I've always wondered how three guys wrote songs together; anyhow, it certainly worked for them), to write screenplay, music and lyrics for an original musical designed to usher Fox's top stars, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, into talkies. The result was Sunny Side Up, and I caught up with this one at Cinevent in Columbus, Ohio in 2005. In a manner that would crop up again and again in movie musicals, the two stars did their best, with a gameness that compensated somewhat for their lack of musical finesse: Gaynor could barely carry a tune, but she had sweet appeal aplenty and made you want to believe she was really socking it over (she gets the perennial title tune); Farrell had a decent light tenor voice, but a lugubrious whining way with "If I Had a Talking Picture of You" that all but drains the song of its charm. The real musical chops were in the secondary couple, Frank Richardson and Marjorie White (vaudevillians both), who cavort joyously through "You Got Me Pickin' Petals Off o' Daisies," a comic love song in the vein of "Button Up Your Overcoat."
(Later, they get a reprise of the title number that shows Janet Gaynor how it's done.) White was a particular joy on film, a peppy four-foot-ten scene-stealer whom Fox kept busy in their early musicals. She later went to Columbia, where she was top-billed in Woman Haters, the Three Stooges' first short in their long career at the studio. Sadly, White's career was cut short in 1935 when she was killed in a Santa Monica auto accident; she was 31.

It wasn't all vaudeville in those early talkies, of course. The careers of silent stars Bessie Love and Bebe Daniels were beginning to flag in the late '20s, and both made huge comebacks in (respectively) The Broadway Melody and Rio Rita (Love even snagged an Oscar nomination). Rio Rita survives in a slightly edited reissue version; it's a bit of a relic, with Daniels's performance probably the best thing about it.

Neither woman's stardom lasted long into the 1930s. Daniels is best remembered today as the leading lady whose broken ankle gives Ruby Keeler her big chance in 42nd Street. Love, after a popular (and still creditable) run in light musicals of the day, kept plugging away in smaller roles for decades; her last was in The Hunger (1983) with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve.

MGM famously shoved Joan Crawford into a few musicals, in which the salient feature is her feverish determination to make good, clomping through her dance routines with panting zest; eventually she and Metro (and, later, Warner Bros.) channeled her manic drive in more fruitful directions.

These ruminations on early musicals, prompted by a happy rereading of A Song in the Dark, have run on longer than I expected. I think I'll wind up with an illustration of the unexpected, if sometimes modest, pleasures to be found in those half-forgotten songfests. This one is from Love in the Rough (1930), a musical version of the Vincent Lawrence play Spring Fever that -- like the play and movie of Follow Thru -- exploited the vogue for golf in the wake of Bobby Jones's phenomenal career. Robert Montgomery (who proved a pretty good song-and-dance man) plays a shipping clerk whose prowess at golf earns him an entree to his boss's country club, where the upper crust snobs take him for one of their own. He and heiress Dorothy Jordan fall in love at first sight, and she sings "I'm Doing That Thing," one of the sprightly songs by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. Jordan is a delight; even her slight speech impediment is endearing.

Jordan's movie career was cut short more happily than Marjorie White's. She was cast opposite Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, but dropped out to marry producer-director Merian C. Cooper, leaving Ginger Rogers to take over for her. Jordan came out of retirement years later to play John Wayne's doomed sister-in-law in The Searchers. But here are both she and the Hollywood musical in the bloom of youth (with a special dance insert from Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker). Enjoy:

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