A Question Of Innocence

FILMED  December 1979

In 1934 MGM produced THE THIN MAN, a B-picture filmed incredibly in only two weeks. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett the film starred William Powell in only his second film under his new MGM contract. Forty-two year old Powell had made his first film, a silent, in 1922. Two years later he began a seven-year association with Paramount Pictures. During that time, he played in a number of interesting films, but stardom was elusive, so in 1931 he switched to Warner Bros. There again he was disappointed in the roles he was given, so in 1934 he moved to MGM in Culver City. THE THIN MAN would be his 60th film appearance.

Co-starring with Powell in THE THIN MAN was twenty-eight year old Myrna Loy, another newcomer at MGM, having joined the company the previous year. She too had started in silent films, her first in 1925. Strangely, Montana-born Loy would play many exotic Oriental ladies during those years, and like Powell, film-stardom eluded her. THE THIN MAN was her 80th film appearance.

What is remarkable is that not only was the inexpensive THE THIN MAN one of the most popular films of 1934, not only was it nominated for four Oscars, and not only did it inspire five sequels and was the breakthrough to superstardom for both William Powell and Myrna Loy, it created a whole new genre of film – a blending of the detective story with the screwball comedy, and forty-five years later it would serve as the template for a very successful television series.

My first sequence on my first day of a seven-day schedule was a scene at a newsstand. To film it we went to Century City. Now I had filmed in Century City before — for THE FBI and for THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER, but this was different. For the former show, with the camera atop one of the tall buildings, I filmed a shot of a circling helicopter that then panned down to a man entering a building. For the latter show it was a sequence of shots of small Eddie spending a lonely Sunday amid the tall, deserted structures of Century City. The current sequence was a confined scene at a newsstand. If HART TO HART had been filming at MGM, Warner Brothers or Universal, we would have filmed on the backlot, — in fact if we had been filming at 20th Century Fox two decades earlier, we probably would have been on their backlot, which would have been exactly where we were. When I moved to Los Angeles in the mid-fifties, there was no Century City. The 176-acre commercial and residential district that became Century City WAS the back lot for 20th Century Fox, whose main lot was just southwest and across the street (Olympic Boulevard) from what became this mini-metropolis.

By 1979 good guest star roles for women in series television were a rarity. Gone were the days of the sixties when DR KILDARE, NAKED CITY, ROUTE 66, BEN CASEY, THE FUGITIVE, STAR TREK and so many other shows gave the gals a chance for their expressive close-ups. But in 1979 there was an oasis – a class television series that recognized that women provided wonderful protagonists. I was excited when I read A QUESTION OF INNOCENCE and knew immediately whom I wanted to play Rose. Seven years earlier in 1972 I had been involved with the production of a Quinn Martin series, BANYON that unfortunately ended up in television’s graveyard after only fifteen episodes. The magnificent Joan Blondell was a regular on that series, and I must add a misused and under-used regular. Joan had come to Hollywood in 1930 after appearing on Broadway in the play, PENNY ARCADE, when she and James Cagney (who had also appeared in the play) were put under contract by Warner Brothers to appear in the film version of the play, renamed SINNER’S HOLIDAY. She told me that in her first three years at the studio in Burbank, she appeared in thirty-one movies. She said that some mornings as she drove through the gate, she would ask the guard where she was to report. He would tell her that her first call was at a certain stage for (and he would name the production) and that later she would report to another stage, where she would be playing in another film. She told me that she had conversations with Bette Davis about careers. She said Bette’s highest priority was her career – Joan’s was her family. Years later in 1945 when she was cast as Aunt Cissy in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, she thought that was the role that might prove to be the breakthrough for her, but because of the stringent need at the time to control the running time of films so that the maximum number of showings per day could be accomplished, much of her performance ended up on the cutting room floor. My casting director sent an offer to Joan’s agent. We were told she was unavailable, with an inference that she was ill. Knowing actors, I hoped that Joan knew that someone wanted her for a film. We began filming on December 3. Joan died on December 25.

We filmed the sumptuous office scenes on our seventh and last day. Since this was my second assignment on the series, I was feeling very comfortable with the company and decided to have some fun. I found a charming picture of Robert Wagner, astride a horse, with his cute Buster Brown haircut with bangs and in his suit of armor for PRINCE VALIANT. I made arrangements with the men in the prop department to have a five-foot high cardboard-backed print made. In the scene when the Harts were opening the picnic basket when I cued Rose to enter, the door opened, but instead of Rose, the tall photo of Wagner came sailing through the door. Needless to say, the surprise entrance was enjoyed by all.

I did not know Jeanette Nolan personally when we cast her as Rose, but I was certainly aware of her. For me she was a member of another of those families I considered Hollywood dynasties. She was married to craggy-faced character actor John McIntire, who appeared in some sixty-five films and hundreds of television shows; she was the mother of Tim McIntire, a fine, versatile and underrated actor who died an untimely death at the age of 41. But mainly she was a brilliant actress with an impressive resume that belies the fact that she may not be remembered today. Her many feature film appearances and over three hundred television shows were preceded by her first performance before the camera in 1948 as Lady Macbeth to Orson Welles’ MACBETH. However, talented as the lady was, we were not about to risk her incurring any injuries. Jeanette did the close-ups, but that was a stuntwoman who rolled down the slope.

Seventy-one year old Lionel Stander was a true original. His career began in theatre when he was nineteen, moved in front of the cameras six years later, and forty-six years after that his gruff foghorn voice was still before the cameras starring in one of the hit television series of 1979. But it wasn’t all a smooth ride. After an explosive start in the thirties, his booming career hit a bump when his contract at Columbia Pictures was cancelled because of rumors and accusations about his political leanings. His career slowed in the forties and came to a complete standstill in the fifties: the reason — the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that labeled him a communist. I have read much about that dark time in Hollywood history, about careers like Larry Parks’ that were destroyed, about lives like John Garfield’s that were shortened. I have worked and knew personally many who were also affected in that period: Will Geer, Richard Collins, True Boardman, Burl Ives, Burgess Meredith, John Ireland. There was not an anarchist in the group. They were all sensitive, gentle souls with strong compassionate, leftward feelings. And that raises an important question for me. Why is it that the moment one becomes overly liberal, moves far to the left, he is immediately dubbed a communist? I’ve often wondered why when one becomes overly conservative, moves too far to the right, why isn’t he dubbed a fascist?

The set for the Hart home was truly magnificent – far larger and more luxurious than the residence of the Charles couple in THE THIN MAN. But it did raise a question for me. In the opening billboard Max proclaimed that he takes care of the Harts. We already know that he is the chief chef; we will soon learn that he does the laundry, and since we so often see Max wearing an apron, there is nothing to discourage our thinking that he does all of the housework.

There was a lot of work scheduled for a Braddock University location. We might have gone to one of the local universities for a day – Irvine (which I did for a later HART TO HART) or USC (which I did later for several episodes of THE PAPER CHASE), but it was decided to improvise and use facilities closer at hand. For the night sequence of the confrontation between Rose and Whitney, we went across the street from the studio to Rancho Park. For the following scene between the Harts and the fencing coach, we inserted stock shots to establish a university, placed a Braddock University sign on the lawn near the 20th Century Fox commissary and thus had parts of our university right on the studio lot.

HART TO HART had a secret weapon up its sleeve. Its name was Mart Crowley. Years before the young aspiring playwright had been Natalie Woods’ secretary. He burst upon the Broadway scene with his luminous play, THE BOYS IN THE BAND, later transferred equally brilliantly to the screen. Now Mart was back as Executive Script Consultant for Natalie’s husband’s new series. I had already witnessed the uncredited contributions of Charles Larson and Gene Coon to scripts (Larson on 12 O’CLOCK HIGH and THE FBI and Coon on THE WILD WILD WEST and STAR TREK). I could sense when a bit of dialog seemed to come from a typewriter other than the production’s credited author. Mart wrote with an amazing combination of extreme sensitivity and acerbic wit. I’m sure that in the office scene, he wrote Jennifer’s line, “Wasn’t Nice Nice,” or later in the kitchen when Max standing over his cheese soufflé said, “What a nice compliment from such a good-looking sniffer.” I am more than positive he wrote Jennifer’s final line in the gymnasium scene, “Prickly little pear, isn’t he.” That was almost a line left over from his character of Harold in THE BOYS IN THE BAND.

If you could take your eyes away from Jeanette Nolan’s stunning performance, you may have noticed the other member of the Hart family to complete the similarity to the Charles family of THE THIN MAN. Nestled next to Robert Wagner was the canine scene-stealer, Freeway, being just as cute and precocious as his predecessor, Asta.

The 20th Century Fox lot had a major difference from MGM, Universal, Paramount or the old RKO Radio lots. Unlike those studios, there were buildings on the Fox lot whose exteriors were less institutional in appearance. I always felt the gray exterior walls of the buildings at MGM looked like a prison. An example on the Fox lot was the old Writers’ Building. It was two separate buildings, connected by a second story walk-through and beautifully landscaped. We were able to use it for our other Braddock University location – the girls’ sorority house.

That was the first time I photographed that building but nor my first connection with it. Several years before when I directed many episodes of NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR, the building served as the production offices for producer Charles FitzSimons.

The script called for 2 scenes in a university gymnasium and 1 scene in a fencing room. We found a gymnasium close to the studio in a YWCA, but there was no fencing room. I decided to move the fencing room scene to the gymnasium, so I ordered two very large movable mirrors to be constructed. On the morning of the fourth day of filming when I arrived at the location, there were no mirrors. I did not scream, I did not shout, but by the time we finished filming the first sequence that didn’t require mirrors, 2 mirrors had miraculously appeared. One of the crew, I think it was the sound mixer, commented that he had suspected that under my quiet demeanor, there lurked a pretty tough hombre.

When Whitney said, “Where did you learn how to fence like that, Mr. Hart?” Jonathan’s answer was, “Watching Errol Flynn on the late show.” My suspicion was that Robert Wagner’s learning how to fence like that was another example of how complete the major studios had been in their training of young potential stars they had under contract.

During my prep period producer David Levinson called me into his office one morning. He said he had just received exciting news. The production had been given approval to film a show in Vail, Colorado, and I was selected to direct it. Did I react to this exciting news by leaping to my feet and jumping with joy? No way! I had already directed a production of HART TO HART. The three stars were absolutely wonderful to work with – charming, affable, professional. But led by RJ Wagner, they did operate at a slower pace (which I appreciated) than most television shows. RJ explained it. He said his training as an actor had been in feature films, and that was a pace and rhythm that worked for him. As I told David, that all worked fine on the local locations and on the soundstages, but I was not about to commit myself to a situation where I would be sitting on the side of a mountain in the wintertime waiting for the Harts to appear. You’ll hear more about this as  …

The journey continues

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6 Responses to A Question Of Innocence

  1. Judy LITMAN says:

    I absolutely LOVED Hart to Hart. I had a crush on RJ for years before he got that role. Later, when TCM became my favorite channel, I recorded all the Thin Man films. The romance between the married couple, along with mystery was a dynamite combo. Some of the quips are classic. ML, on the morning after a shoot out: “I read where you were shot in the tabloids”. WP retorts: “Not true, didn’t even come close”. We don’t get the great reparte any more. I had no idea that you directed many of the Hart episodes. Just wish you lived down here in SoCal, instead of Carmel. We would have a blast together. Thanks for these memories, and btw your memory is fantastic. Maybe you have diaries.

  2. Daniel Rudolf says:

    Robert Wagner? Possibly the man I envy the most. He was married to the woman I had the biggest crush on in my life. 🙂

  3. Judy Litman says:

    OMG, no diaries! you do have a fantastic memory. Nick and Nora, what a fantasy trip it is. But then, Hart to Hart was even better, now that I look at it some more. C,mon., both Nick and Jonathan were charming and handsome, but Nick Charles was also an alcoholic! Still the chemistry was there in both shows, and thanks for the snippets of the this episode. I have seen Lionel Stander is a few of the oldies on TCM, always good. Agree with the Jeanette Nolan critique. She’s terrific.

  4. Phil says:

    Cozi-TV occasionally shows an old series I never heard of before, ‘Mr. & Mrs. North’. It looks like they were copying ‘The Thin Man’ about thirty years before ‘Hart to Hart’ was doing it. I later learned that ‘North’ was a franchise of books, radio broadcasts, a movie, a Broadway play, and this series. For TV, if ‘H2H’ was the luxury version, then ‘North’ was the economy version – 30 minutes, B&W, and so-so guest stars. I was surprised that Barbara Britton had first-billing in the opening credits over Richard Denning, until I started watching this. It’s Mrs. North who takes the initiative, while Mr. North drags his feet.

    *****

    I finally got around to watching a particular ‘Nanny and the Professor’ episode at hulu.com which I have a distinct memory of as a kid. I remember Nanny and the children cleaned up a neighbor’s overgrown front yard, but the old grouch who lived there flipped out afterward. Well, that turned out to be one of your eps., “The Humanization of Herbert T. Peabody”. As I watched, I couldn’t figure out who was playing the misanthrope…he didn’t look familiar at all. The ending credits had the answer, Paul Winchell, but who is that? Thanks to IMDB, I now know…although the names of his puppets (Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead) are more familiar to me! Some of his bio details in IMDB are astounding.

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