Maybe Love Will Save My Apartment House

Filmed June 1964

In THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE the James Stewart newspaperman character states if there is a difference between the truth and the legend, print the legend. So having noted this and in case there is such a conflict difference in what I am going to say, I herewith print one of my favorite Hollywood legends. Edmund Gwenn, the beloved Santa Claus of THE MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, spent his final time in the Motion Picture Home. George Seaton, who had written and directed Gwenn in THE MIRACLE, often visited him. One day as they sat chatting, Mr. Gwenn suddenly looked up and quietly said, “George,… dying’s hard…” Long, long pause. Then with a twinkle in his eye he added, “…but comedy’s harder.” To which I add, but it is more fun.

I didn’t get back to DR. KILDARE until the beginning of their fourth season. And wonder of wonders the script I was assigned was a charming comedy written by Boris Sobelman, MAYBE LOVE WILL SAVE MY APARTMENT HOUSE. I don’t think David Victor thought of me as a comedy director. His favorite name for me was ‘boy storm cloud’. Maybe Norman Felton remembered those rave theatre reviews, all comedies. However it came to be, I was delighted.

“Thanks for the bone.” Those were the words of Paul Bryar when he arrived on the set to play the taxi driver in the opening sequence of this comedy. Paul was one of my closest friends. In the fifties he and his talented wife, Claudia Bryar, had starred in my stage productions of MY THREE ANGELS and DEATH OF A SALESMAN. And the previous year he had appeared in a very substantial role in the television production AGE OF CONSENT, an episode on EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, which was filmed in New York. This role may only have had two lines of dialog, but it’s amazing how a few well-played close-ups can turn a bone into a cameo.

My first choice to play Mr. Pappinax was Al Lewis. He too had appeared for me in a New York production the previous year, an episode of NAKED CITY entitled NO NAKED LADIES IN FRONT OF GIOVANNI’S HOUSE. And no, it wasn’t because I wanted to use Al in all my productions with “House” in the title. It was because I thought he was a very funny man and a fine actor. Imagine casting director Jane Murray’s  and my surprise when we received word from NBC that we couldn’t cast him. They gave no reason, just that he was not acceptable. This was 1964, but obviously the blacklisting days of the fifties were still with us. But not at CBS. Al was cast later that same year in their long-running series, THE MUNSTERS. Jules Munshin proved a delicious second choice.

The magic that can be created in the editing room. There was a short scene when Serena’s shoe was delivered to Gillespie’s secretary. It was felt the scene needed a cap, a closer. I had filmed an insert of the secretary taking the shoe out of the bag, but not being put back into the bag. No problem. We simply used the shot of the shoe coming out of the bag in reverse, and the dissolve to the next scene helped camouflage the fact that the bag sprang open of its own accord.

Just as the series had its disease of the week, it also seemed to have its Gillespie’s secretary of the week. This episode’s secretary was Arlen Stuart, another friendship that originated at the Players’ Ring Theatre in Hollywood. In 1946 Arlen had come to the west coast from Ohio, where she had secretly submitted a photo of her closest friend in the MIss Ohio State beauty contest. Her friend won and as a result was offered a contract by 20th Century Fox Studio. Arlen accompanied her friend to the west coast where said friend made her film debut in CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE. The friend was Jean Peters.

The usual format for this series was that Dr. Kildare would get involved with a patient with the ‘Disease of the Week’, and his mentor, Dr. Gillespie, would supply wisdom and support. Not this week! Now it was Dr. Gillespie seeking wisdom and support from his younger colleague. Since DR. KILDARE was a dramatic series, no laugh track was added, but nothing changed; nobody at the networks noticed that audiences managed to laugh without that obnoxious addition’s assistance.

Barry Nelson was a consummate professional, possibly the best leading man actor in comedy I ever worked with. Although he did a tremendous amount of work in film and television, I think his greatest achievements were on the Broadway stage. The last time I saw him perform in theatre was in Los Angeles in a national touring company revival of LIGHT UP THE SKY. He had the thankless role of the older playwright and gave the funniest performance in the production.

I met screenwriter Boris Sobelman, but not until after production was completed. He was one of the few authors whose work I directed that I did meet. He was very pleased with the way the show turned out, and I for one was amazed that I had received a script to direct that hadn’t sent me into the producer’s office with loads of requests for changes.

I didn’t know at the time that six year old Lisa Loring was at the very beginning of her career. When we filmed in June, 1964, she had never appeared on network television. What I also didn’t know was that she had filmed the pilot for THE ADDAMS FAMILY, which was on the fall schedule on CBS. For someone with as little experience as this child, she was remarkably professional, albeit in a very precocious way. My main direction to her was that she didn’t like Dr. Wiley, so she must glare at him. That she did with some very funny line readings.

In the early days of television Holllywood film studios considered this new upstart medium to be their mortal enemy. They refused to supply it with product. So to satisfy the voracious appetite for material that the three networks plus the hundreds of independent tv stations required, old independent movies and even some major studio product, now in pubic domain because their copywrights had not been extended, found their way onto the screens of the nation’s tv sets. The old movie that the kids and Gilleslpie watched was not out of that old backlog. We filmed it so that it could have a connection to the ongoing story of the predatory Wiley.

Rear projection process photography was a way of filming scenes in moving cars without ever leaving the studio. For enclosed cars the studio had mock-ups, a small auto interior of a back seat that was placed in front of a big screen onto which, via rear projection, a traveling shot would be screened. The filming camera and the rear projection camera were interlocked. Becaue Wiley’s car was a convertible, we were able to use the real car instead of a mockup. On the day we filmed the scene of Serena and Wiley on their drive, while the crew was setting up and lighting, I perched up on a high ladder between the camera and the car, but off to the side and out of the shot. A set of ear phones rested on my lap. I was prepared, so I would be able to hear the dialog when the filming took place. Occasionally I would raise the ear phones to check on the crew’s progress. One time when I did, I heard Suzy (who was miked, as was Barry) telling Barry about THE DEATH OF MANOLETE, a PLAYHOUSE 90 production in which she had appeared. THE DEATH OF MANOLETE was the opening show of PLAYHOUSE 90’s second season. The smash hit and big Emmy winner of the first season had been Rod Serling’s REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT starring Jack Palance. This was a reunion of the two of them, this time directed by John Frankenheimer instead of Ralph Nelson, who had directed REQUIEM. The show was an unmitigated disaster. All those bull heads mounted on little dollies being pushed around to simulate battle in the bull ring didn’t quite do it. And Suzy’s performance was generally panned. Hearing Suzy talking about the production, I impulsively called out across the vast, empty soundstage, “Suzy, I was on staff for that production.”

Suzy responded, “You were? Then how come you hired me for this show?”

My response: “I forgot.”

It was the practice at the studios to retain sets from their feature films that could be used for their televisions productions. Serena’s apartment was the set from the Jane Fonda feature, SUNDAY IN NEW YORK. It was a two-level set that provided me an opportunity for some interesting staging.

On the day we were preparing the scene when Wiley had come over to cook a steak dinner for them, Greger (Suzy’s son, Tommy), seeing that I was preoccupied, took it upon himself to remind Lisa, “Remember what Ralph told you. You should glare at Wiley, because you don’t like him.”

To which Lisa replied, “Oh that’s all right, I really don’t.”

I overheard and couldn’t resist sharing this humorous moment with Barry. Big mistake. From then on he tried and tried to ingratiate himself with Lisa, but she would have none of it. Boy, did she stay in character.

I didn’t plan to tell Lisa what I wanted her to do when Wiley choked until I filmed her close-up. So when we shot the master ending with Barry’s choking, with Lisa off camera, her response was totally spontaneous. It was a most malevolent, gleeful chortle that could have emanated from the little girl in THE EXORCIST. When we did her closeup, I stuck to my original plan for her response. What she did was too evil to be funny.

The word “sitcom”, originated in the 60’s, referred to situation comedy: comedy evolved out of the humorous situations in which characters found themselves. At its best sitcom was a true art as exemplified by Lucy and her peers. But it was an art that had its roots in the movie screwball comedies of the 30’s and the great radio comedians of that same era, especially Jack Benny. I felt Boris Sobelman’s script was a worthy successor to those antecedents.

Drunk scenes, when well acted, can be very funny; if not played well, they can be embarrassing. I thought Boris had written a fine drunk scene, funny but remarkably revealing about Wiley’s character. And in Barry Nelson I had a gem of an actor to play it. At the following day’s dailies, some fault was found with the number of empty beer glasses I had on the table. Forty-seven years later I agree. Thankfully and gratefully Barry did not go overboard as I did.

Richard Chamberlain was amazing. He had a class scheduled for every night of the week, which of course he would attend only if he finished the day’s filming in time. One night an acting class, another dancing, singing, etc. Because this story focused on Gillelspie and his niece, Richard finished early many days. I still remember the days I told him at 4:30 or 5:00 that he was finished for the day and his response, “Great, I can go to class.”  I was back on the MGM lot in the fall when this episode aired. The day after its showing I asked Richard what he thought of it. He said, “I liked it… (then hesitantly added) but I wasn’t in it very much.”

The journey continues

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6 Responses to Maybe Love Will Save My Apartment House

  1. Phil says:

    As I watched this with my Dad, he asked me a question about “Cooper”. I said, “That’s not Jackie Cooper, that’s Barry Nelson!” I’ll bet other people have gotten those two mixed up. This was a really good episode, but we voted thumbs down immediately on all the empty beer mugs.

    Yes, that is the apartment from ‘Sunday in New York’. Some brief clips of this movie on Youtube show some necessary adjustments made for your program:

    ‘Kildare’ had a wall with a big hole; the movie used this space as a large, built-in stereo cabinet with shelves, and a closet door to the left of it.

    ‘Kildare’ had a plain counter between the living room and the steps down to the kitchen; the movie used the counter as a bar with stools on the living room side.

    ‘Kildare’ had a large glass slider leading to the balcony of this high-rise apartment; the movie covered that whole wall with brick, except for a fireplace and two small windows above the kitchen (like a basement apartment).

    Looking out the glass slider (10th video), it appears to be a real view of a bridge with cars moving, but the video is not sharp. Was this a rear projection or scale modeling?

    • Ralph says:

      Regarding your last question, I don’t remember. It could be rear projection or it could be a backdrop with flashing lights behind it.

  2. 'Annah. Sobelman says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience ,, inside. the. directing. , the. character. of
    the. actors , , and. the author —— who is my uncle , Boris. Sobelman ,,, I’m. sure. he’s
    reading your observations. , &. compliments over my shoulder.  —— He. was
    funny. with. wit. , I mean. humorous , fascinating , and. modest. — — H. died. at. age. 61 of lung.cancer , , , a. big smoker ,,— — I am his niece , ‘Annah,— — A few of his big metaphors , / among. others / , , were the ‘Uncle ‘ and the. ‘Aunt ”  —— Humor was a. character all its own .

    • Ralph says:

      Boris was one of the few authors of scripts I directed that I got to know. He was warm, wonderfully witty. I was very sorry I didn’t get to work with him again.

  3. mike millwood says:

    Finally, someone else noticed the fact that Barry Nelson looks a lot like Jackie Cooper. I’ve been confusing them with each other for years. They are approximately the same age. I think Cooper is more popular but they are both excellent performers in their art. So many times I have watched movies thinking it was Cooper and it turned out to be Nelson and vice-versa. They not only look alike. their mannerisms are the same. Makes me wonder, have you ever seen them together at the same time/place. LOL

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