A Journey To Sunrise

Filmed September 1964

Stephen Bowie in his insightful (and at times even inciteful) CLASSIC TV HISTORY blog wrote:

Also this year I’ve watched most of the fourth and penultimate season of NBC’s Dr. Kildare, a once near-great doctor drama that slowly turned mushy and bland. … I can’t decide which episode is the series’ nadir: “A Journey to Sunrise,” a vanity piece that gives Raymond Massey (who co-starred as Kildare’s windbag boss Dr. Gillespie) a dual role as a dying Hemingway-esque writer, or “Rome Will Never Leave You,” a  prophetically titled, turtle-paced three-parter that contrives gooey romances for both Kildare and Gillespie during an Italian business trip.

I felt compelled to leave a comment on this posting:

Stephen, you may be being a bit hard on (producer) David Victor. True, what you said  about the fourth season of DR. KILDARE. I should know. I directed one of the shows you listed as the nadir of the series, and I agree.

Yes, I directed the series’ co-nadir, A JOURNEY TO SUNRISE. It was my fifth and final association with DR. KILDARE. Just prior to this booking I had directed my first THE FUGITIVE and was contracted to return there for another episode. But first I had to deal with the current production, originally entitled A FAMILY OF SPARROWS. The plot followed the usual format for the series starting with a patient being admitted to the hospital, but this patient arrived with an entourage. I thought the family of sparrows accompanying him was a not-as-well written clone of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, but with a time warp problem; it was as if they had lost their way out of Oklahoma in the thirties and arrived at Blair Hospital in the sixites. The patient, Graham Lanier, was a famous author. He was the spine of the show, and casting director Jane Murray and I very soon narrowed our short list down to James Whitmore and Lew Ayres. My choice depended on whether I wanted to portray him Ernest Hemingway-esque (which is the way the character was written) or F. Scott Fitzgeraldish (which I thought might add a dimension to a script that I felt needed some help). I had already worked with James Whitmore (the choice for Hemingway) the previous year on ARREST AND TRIAL, and I had met Lew Ayres (the choice for Fitzgerald) socially. I wanted a day or two before deciding, giving me time to evaluate, to visualize the script scene by scene as it would play both ways. Large mistake! While I was deliberating, Associate Producer Doug Benton came up with a suggestion: “We’ve been looking for a way to give Ray Massey more to do; why not have him be the guest star.” And the tsunami that that suggestion unleashed totally swept over me and quite frankly sank what I thought was an already leaking vessel in need of some repair.

The McConnell parents were played by Malcolm and Ellen Atterbury. Seven years earlier I had directed them in a Hollywood theatre production of Robert Anderson’s ALL SUMMER LONG, a play that had originally been staged in a Washington, D.C. theatre the year before his TEA AND SYMPATHY was produced in the same theatre; but it was the latter play that successfully reached Broadway first. ALL SUMMER LONG  which followed was not the great success of its predecessor. When Robert Anderson came to see our local production, he interestingly told me he had a special affection for the play; he likened it to the child one could have who had not arrived physically perfect. Ellen had also appeared in my Equity Library Theatre West production of MORNING’S AT SEVEN. They were very close friends. Malcolm was a fascinating man. He was from Philadelphia. His family owned the Pennsylvania Railroad, but he wanted no part of the railroad business. He and Ellen had had their own theatre company in upstate New York, which they left when they migrated to California in the fifties. Malcolm told me on one of his early film interviews he was asked by the casting director (in a very condescending manner) whether he could ride a horse. Malcolm simply replied that yes, he could; his family had had its own stable of horses.

Let me make clear right off — this was not a happy shoot. I don’t absolve myself of all the blame for the show’s failure, but neither do I accept all of it. It was a difficult script, loaded with dialogue that was sometimes eloquently poetic, sometimes annoyingly verbose, a script fostering a hidden dark secret. The clues to that secret were in Lanier’s speeches, but Massey’s portrayal veered more toward the John Brown fanatic he had played in the Errol Flynn starrer, SANTA FE TRAIL, than to a sensitive, guilt-ridden author. And I think I  understand why this occurred. Massey was faced with creating a character distant from his Dr. Gillespie, who also was a bit of a curmudgeon, but with a softer, gentler side. By concentrating so heavily on his external gruffness, the result was a performance without much nuance or sensitivity, a performance filled with fury and bombast, signifying very little.

This production was my first experience with split screen, the process by which Raymond Massey as Dr. Gilleslpie could appear in a shot with Raymond Massey as Graham Lanier. Today’s sophisticated computer capabilities make what we did seem very primitive, and our antiquated process was very time-consuming; don’t forget, this was being filmed on a six day schedule. The camera would be locked off, everything bolted down, and I would film the shot with Raymond Massey as Graham Lanier and a stand-in actor playing Dr. Gillespie. We would also film Graham Lanier’s closeup. Then we would wait for Massey to change makeup and wardrobe so we could film the same shot with him playing Gillespie and the stand-in playing Lanier. We couldn’t film other scenes while we waited because the camera was locked off and couldn’t be moved until we completed the split screen scene. Later in the lab the two halves of film with Massey in them would be merged.

Contributing to the already difficult situation, Massey felt that a key confrontation scene  between Lanier and young Dr. Kildare should be between Lanier and Dr. Gillespie. Unfortunately the front office agreed, and a scene that would have shown Kildare trying to solve the mystery of his pain-racked patient, that would have advanced the plot, that would have strengthened the bonding between the author and the young doctor, the scene became just another exercise in split screen.

I cry when I think of what that scene would have been with Richard Chamberlain and James Whitmore.

There was only one sequence in the entire script that was cinema, that was filmic, that had any action. Needless to say, I very much welcomed the chance to do it.

Characters in every script have backup stories. The problem with this script was that the backup story was the main drama. I wondered if that story was some unsold script in the writer’s trunk that he made use of by adapting it into a DR. KILDARE episode.

Most of this show took place in the hospital. That was not unusual for a series in its advanced years. Using standing sets, limiting extra sets and refraining from location work — all these factors contributed to lowering the budget. We filmed the final scene, which needed to be an exterior, on MGM’s lot 3. It was my first and only time to work on that wonderful backlot.  Today that area is a maze of apartments and condominiums.

Stephen Bowie also wrote in his blog on DR. KILDARE’s fourth season:

I am also partial to Christopher Knopf’s “Man Is a Rock,” a terrifying study of a heart attack victim (Walter Matthau) forced to confront his own mortality, and “Maybe Love Will Save My Apartment House,” a zany romp by Boris Sobelman, who wrote a handful of very funny black comedies for Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

So I directed one at the bottom and one at the top of his list. I directed MAYBE LOVE WILL SAVE MY APARTMENT HOUSE.

This journey brought to a conclusion my involvement with the series that had started my journey in film. And I was to learn in the future what an impressionable project I had contributed to, if even so slightly. Many years later fine actor Jason Wingreen told me of an incident when his wife, Sandy, was in the hospital awaiting the arrival of their first son. Sandy had been a devoted fan of the DR. KILDARE series. Now she was having trouble summoning any personnel to her room. She rang and rang, but no one came, and she was becoming more and more frustrated and angry. Finally Jason said to her, “Sandy, you have to realize, there is no Blair Hospital.”

I don’t think I realized it then, but all these years later I wish I could have left Blair Hospital with a bang, not a whimper. But there were more bangs ahead — and more whimpers!

The journey continues

This entry was posted in Dr. Kildare. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Journey To Sunrise

  1. Phil says:

    Ralph, I teed up this episode for my dad, but did not show him your write-up until afterward. I didn’t want to color his opinions before we viewed it. After the 4th video, his questions started: “WTH is going on? What are we watching? Why is this dragging?”

    The last video won’t advance past the 0:59 mark…keeping my fingers crossed on what I haven’t seen yet.

    • Ralph says:

      I warned you! It must be the sadist in me — I’ve fixed that last video so viewers can suffer to the end.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *