The Conflict: Part II

FILMED June 1974

Saturday, our sixth and final day on location in Frazier Park found me with a ton of work to complete and it had to be completed that day. The last two sequences were locations that couldn’t be duplicated in the Los Angeles area, Frazier Park was too far from the studio to return to, and there was still that impending strike just six days away. We finished filming around Martha Corinne’s house by about 3:00 pm. The area I had selected for the final location was quite a distance away. The move (as usual) took about an hour. We arrived at the area at about 4:00 pm with almost five pages left to film before we lost the light — about a half-day’s work. I retained my planned staging, but I eliminated a third of my planned coverage. We had had a Titan crane for the entire location; never in the previous five days was it as crucial to our survival as it proved to be in those last three hours. But the real hero was director of photography Russell Metty. Because of the remoteness of the location he could not bring in arc lights. He had to light only with reflectors. The cameramen like Russell who came out of the golden age of Hollywood have been acclaimed for their artistry. What has not always been recognized was the speed with which they delivered it.

The part of that sequence between John-Boy and Grandpa after Boone and Wade left was a two-page scene. By my normal rate, that should have taken two hours to film. We filmed it with two cameras shooting opposing cross angles (something many directors of photography would not do) with Richard and Will turning in fine one-take performances and completed it in less than half that time. Thanks to the professionalism of the four actors and Russell Metty and his great crew, we filmed a half days work in about three hours. We were returning to Los Angeles with our full six-day’s of location filming completed.

The scene between Martha Corinne and Grandma in the back of the truck was filmed on the back lot of Warner Bros. Studio on Friday afternoon of that first half-day. The truck was not moving; it was just being shaken. And no rear process screen was used. We actually were doing it in poor man’s process using Michael Learned’s head in the rear window of the truck to block the view ahead (and I’m not even sure that was Michael’s head; it may be have been one of the stand-ins).

Beulah told me of her two great professional disappointments. The first was when she was cast to replace an ailing May Robson as Aunt Polly in David Selznick’s production of THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, and then was replaced by May Robson when she recovered.. But the bigger disappointment was when in the following year, 1939, she was contacted by 20th Century Fox Studio and asked to do a screen test. By this time in her career, Beulah did not do screen tests. She had been in Hollywood since 1931, had been directed by film’s greatest directors: King Vidor, John Ford, Lewis Milestone, Sam Wood, William Wyler, Henry Hathaway, Frank Borzage, Clarence Brown, Leo McCarey, Cecil B. DeMille, George Stevens and Anatole Litvak, and had twice been nominated for an Academy Award. But this was a request from John Ford. He would be directing the test, and Beulah was assured she was the only person being tested. The role was Ma Joad; the film was THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Beulah agreed to do the test. The script for the test was sent to her, and after she read it, she made a decision. She called the studio and requested a delay of a week before testing. They agreed. She called a friend, who agreed to drive her on her planned expedition. She then dug into her personal wardrobe and put together a suitable costume for the role she was about to play. She told me she went into her yard and dug her hands into the ground to get dirt under her fingernails. She was now prepared. Her friend drove her to northern California, where Beulah ’visited’ the Okie camps that were set up to accommodate the vast number of people from Oklahoma arriving in California, the people who were the inspiration for John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel. She met with those people, she spoke with them, and in her ragged dress and with hands that looked worn from labor, she seemed to be one of them. I asked Beulah whether she was ever recognized; after all by this time she was a screen celebrity. She said only once, and she made a hasty retreat. She visited several camps, and then returned to Los Angeles to prepare for her screen test. The day of the test arrived, and Beulah reported to the studio, where Mr. Ford directed the several scenes. As she was leaving, the actor who had appeared with her in the test, in saying goodbye said, “Miss Bondi, I know my opinion doesn’t mean anything, I’m just a contract player here at the studio, but I just want you to know that I think you’re the best of all the actresses who have tested for this role.” Beulah said that she knew then she would not play Ma Joad; that the role would probably go to an actress under contract to the studio. Jane Darwell, under contract to 20th Century Fox Studio, played Ma Joad and won an Academy award for her performance. For Beulah it was the loss of the role of a lifetime, but I think it was a greater loss to film art of what would have been a legendary performance by a true screen immortal.

Richard Thomas was twenty-two years old when we filmed THE CONFLICT. He was nineteen years old the first time we worked together when he guest-starred on an episode I directed of THE FBI. I thought he was an amazing actor for one so young. Disciplined. Thorough in the details he brought to his characterization. And he did it with such ease. I remember one day on location seeing him cavorting playfully in a field while the setup was being lit. When he was called to the set, he immediately was back in character. Richard came from a theatrical family; his parents were owners of the New York School of Ballet and he had been acting professionally since the age of seven, when he appeared on Broadway as one of the children of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO. He was like Mickey Rooney. That wasn’t blood flowing through their veins. It was grease paint.

I was involved with the film editors when they picked the stock footage showing big bulldozers at work on the encroaching highway. I recognized a couple of the shots, because I had filmed them myself three years earlier for an episode of THE FBI, the episode that had guest-starred Richard Thomas.

For my opening shot of the next sequence where the members of the family were waiting, I had planned to have Martha Corinne seated on the porch. But one day while we were preparing for the next shot, I saw Beulah seated off to the side, away from the activity, a lone figure lost in thought, totally in character, Martha Corinne. It was such a powerful image, I revised my original planning and filmed her for the waiting scene just as I had seen her.

Carol McKeand voiced an objection to John-Boy’s taking the rifle. Richard and I felt that John-Boy was so emotionally drawn into the family situation (when Grandpa had said, “It’s blood that joins us…,” John-Boy had responded, “I know, I felt it with Wade.”) it was totally in character for him to do that. It was a meaningful moment and it made what followed even more powerful.

The two speaking senators were old friends. The chairman of the committee, Bill Erwin, was also an alumnus of the Pasadena Playhouse. I remembered that as a student there more than a quarter century before I had seen him starring on the main stage in a production of THE REMARKABLE MR. PENNYPACKER. And a dozen years later he would play Grandpa Vanderhof in a stage production I directed of YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. He passed away in 2010 three weeks after he celebrated his ninety-sixth birthday. The other speaking senator was also a Bill, William Quinn. He was a true theatre veteran, having started his career as a child actor on Broadway and he appeared in silent films as Billy Quinn. Later on television he had played Mary Tyler Moore’s father on her classic sitcom, MARY TYLER MOORE, had recurring roles on THE RIFLEMAN, McHALE’S NAVY, THE ODD COUPLE and played the blind man on ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE. In real life he was Bob Newhart’s father-in-law.

For the letter-writing scene, we recorded Beulah’s dialogue and played it back as we filmed her. She was hearing her voice as she performed the scene for the camera. Again it is an example of her thorough preparation. Even as she was pre-recording the dialogue, she was preparing for how she would be reacting to it later.

Richard wanted his being shot to look like he was shot by a rifle. No crumbling to the ground for him, so we attached a strong wire to him from behind. When he was fired at, the wire was strongly yanked back, pulling him off balance into a fall.

The man falling out of the truck was an accident; it wasn’t planned. But since it did happen, I didn’t cut and redo the scene. I used it and added the extra shot of him scurrying for cover. It added to the reality.

When I received the original script, I had only one major reservation. In that earlier version Lucas brought back the information that the senate committee was allowing her to remain on her property. I went to Earl Hamner with my thoughts. It wouldn’t have happened that way. The federal government wasn’t making those kind of accommodations. But more importantly I thought we were missing an opportunity for a more emotionally powerful close to our story. Earl rewrote the ending of our script. I contributed this bit of information to his book, GOODNIGHT JOHN-BOY, but with his usual modesty he eliminated the fact that he wrote the closing scenes and wrote them superbly and poetically.

I had one other script change request. I knew how each episode ended with the exterior shot of the house as the family said their goodnights. I went to Bob Jacks and asked that I be allowed to alter that. I told him what I wanted to do, and he gave it his okay.

The journey continues

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6 Responses to The Conflict: Part II

  1. John Dayton says:

    Ralph – wow – so powerful – thank you. Was it my imagination or did I hear Will shout “Johnny!” at Richard? If so, I think it surely was the only time Grandpa ever called John-Boy that during the entire run of the series – the scene gave me the chills – Will and Richard are amazing – no acting, just being.

    • Ralph says:

      You were not imagining. He did say “Johnny.” Again that was the amazing way that cast playing the Waltons always brought an extra texture to the script. On the printed page Grandpa’s line was, “My boy” And he only said it once. On film Grandpa said, “Johnny,” three times.

  2. Tim says:

    I love that so much of this one was filmed on location. It seems the show pretty much abandoned that practice in later seasons and stuck to the backlot. I have one question: was the ice cream really homemade?

  3. wendy says:

    Yes John, Will shouts out ‘Johnny’ three times and this scene is one of the two scenes in this second part of The Conflict that really hit me in the gut. So many emotions are stirred in the viewer by this scene because by this stage in the series we know all the hopes and dreams John-Boy’s parents and grandparents have for him – college, career, future – and Grandpa realises in a split second that it might all end on that dusty road. It’s a very confronting and punchy scene, John-Boy takes a bullet and Grandpa thinks he has lost his first-born grandson…and all for what? a bit of land? the sight of Grandpa running down that road towards John-Boy shouting ‘Johnny! Johnny!’ never fails to affect me, Will Geer’s voice is almost choked with dread and fear. He certainly ran well fast for a man his age!

    Then there is that final sequence with John-Boy and Martha-Corinne as she preprares the leave her home for the last time. I am writing this before having read the above blog article because having seen this particular scene almost a dozen times now I can honestly say that of any scene in any TV show or movie I have ever watched, this one never ever loses its impact. We have all had to move on in our lives at some stage, leave behind places which held fond memories and special moments for us and no doubt we have all paused and thought briefly to some extent before doing so what that moving on means to us. Beulah in that final sequence runs the whole gamut in just a few short minutes; from being the new young bride to being the old woman who has lost her place in the only world she ever knew.
    When she says “Henry was a shy man with a woman, he didn’t lift me over the threshold the way a bridegroom is supposed to – but when we came into this room…..” Martha-Corinne sniffs the air for the scent of lilac and bay rum and with that Beulah’s face magically transforms for a brief moment into that of a young girl – you can actually see it! – she once again becomes the young bride experiencing the first moments in her new home. I have been a young bride and I know exactly the moment she refers to….and then she returns to ‘now’ and becomes old once more under the weight of reality and resignation. No matter how many times I watch that sequence I will always find it hard to breathe during it… is the most evocative, sensual and moving scene ever captured on film in my opinion.

    I have always said that for a young actor looking for a lesson in the craft there is more to learn watching Beulah Bondi in those few seconds than in ten years worth of acting lessons.

    Thankyou for this

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