The Marathon

FILMED July 1974

One day during my preparation for THE CRADLE producer Robert Jacks invited me to go with him to a screening room where we viewed Sydney Pollack’s production of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? Bob told me that he had tried very hard to option the Horace McCoy novel upon which the movie was based, but to no avail. I didn’t think anything more of the situation. The following season after I completed filming THE CONFLICT, I stayed on at Lorimar to direct another WALTONS. When I was handed the script for that assignment, I recognized the reason behind the invitation to attend that earlier screening. Bob had commissioned a script, THE MARATHON by Nigel McKeand, whereby he could make up for the loss of the option for McCoy’s novel. Suddenly it all made sense. THE WALTONS took place in the depression years of the early thirties. The marathons took place in the depression years of the early thirties. Bob was going to do his version on THE WALTONS of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? and he had picked me to shoot them.

I was thrilled with the assignment, but my coming aboard was an unforeseen lucky break for Bob Jacks. What he didn’t know was that when I was ten years old, a marathon was staged in the Armory building in Mason City, Iowa, and I went with my parents every Friday night. I was totally caught up in the entertainment and the excitement of it. I called the Armory every morning to see which couple or individual might have been eliminated the previous day. I had many fond memories of that marathon that I could put to use on the current production. Incidentally there was a possible script discrepancy I chose to ignore. I don’t believe marathons were ever staged for a limited length of time, certainly not as short as a week. They were entertainments geared to bring in paying audiences. The longer they ran, the more interest was built up in the community. The contestants literally became celebrities, which was a draw at the box office. The people runing the marathons weren’t about to close down a gold mine churning out a profit, especially during the depression. But since John-Boy had only a week off from college, I chose to ignore that discrepancy. I wanted to go to that marathon.

What I especially admired about Nigel’s script was the way it didn’t treat John-Boy’s entering the marathon merely as an adventure, a youthful escapade; it broadened it into a drama about a mother’s having to accept her son’s growing up. I remember reading a review of this production when it aired that commented on John-Boy’s rebellion, that it was unusual but nice to see this darker tone in the series.

Two extraordinary talents contributed to the look of THE MARATHON. Ed Graves, the art director, was faced with the task of designing the huge hall that would be necessary to stage such an event, but he had to do it on a television budget. So there were no walls in his set. He hung a large black circular cyclorama curtain and then erected set pieces within it: a bandstand, columns, arches and bleachers. All of this surrounded the dance floor where the marathon would take place. Russell Metty, our Academy Award winning director of photography, then was faced with the task of lighting it. On all of THE WALTONS’ episodes I had directed thus far, Russell did his masterful work without rising out of his tall chair. He had a great lighting crew, but he was in charge and ran the show from his seated position. But on this production I saw Russell working most of the time on his feet.

I remembered that there was more reason to attend the marathons than to watch tired couples struggling to stay on their feet. There was entertainment, lots of singing and dancing. Many of the contestants were ex-vaudevillians. Sound film had hastened the death of vaudeville, and the dance marathons provided a place for them to work during the depression. June Havoc, sister of Gypsy Rose Lee and the real-life grown-up Baby June of the great musical, GYPSY, was one of those entertainers who did that. I requested that the script be changed so that the characters of Spanky and Helen would be out-of-work vaudevillians and I cast Lennie Weinrib and Joyce Jameson in those roles. Lennie had been in my second Equity Library Theatre West production of GOLDEN BOY many years earlier, although in a non-musical role. But I had seen him and Joyce in many of the BILLY BARNES REVUES, theatre productions staged in the Hollywood area. These revues were great entertainments; some of them went to Broadway.

Normally a recording session for music was in postproduction after the composer had written his background score. But THE MARATHON was kind of a mini-musical, so we had an extra recording session before filming began. I had access to the Warner Bros. enormous music catalog, selected the songs I wanted and spent a day in pre-production on the recording stage with a small combo recording the music for the various dance numbers.

Every day at one o’clock we viewed the rushes from the previous day’s filming. There was excitement at the screenings from the first day. Half way through the schedule Lee Rich, the executive producer and one of the co-founders of Lorimar, ordered more extras to fill the bleachers; he said they looked too empty. That was all it took for the tight budget to be loosened a bit.

We hired somebody’s sister, who was a dancer, to choreograph our dance numbers. That didn’t work out, so Joyce and Lennie ended up doing their own choreography. And even Richard got into the act, which wasn’t difficult because both his parents were dancers.

A large part of the pre-production day on the recording stage was spent recording the music for our Jackrabbit Run, an elimination dance that was another contribution out of my memory of the past. I selected CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME as the music to be played, and we recorded it in several increasingly fast tempos. Incidentally in Mason City the elimination run was staged every night. That was the major way of eliminating contestants. We spent at least a full half-day doing this sequence. With two cameras we photographed the runners in the increasingly fast tempos. For each tempo of music there was a wide master angle, an angle on John-Boy and Daisy, one on Spanky and Helen, another on Steve and P. M., one on the master of ceremonies and one on Fred, his assistant on the floor; and we ran at least five four or five-minute runs for each two-camera setup.

That was a lot of running. During one of the later takes I saw one of the couples (and I think they were a married pair of Hollywood extras)…

… drop out because of exhaustion, but being professional they managed to do it out of range of either of the two cameras photographing the take.

The size of the set created a problem. In the large arena-like Armory in Mason City, the area for the Jackrabbit Run was much larger than a basketball court. The runners were spaced out so that they really ran fast. In our much smaller space they couldn’t do that without bumping into each other. To have had a set that large would have required more couples to fill it and would have increased the time to light it. Budget again! Since I couldn’t create the scene totally realistically on the soundstage, I relied on the editing room to take up the slack. And it was done admirably by our fine film editor,Michael McCroskey under the supervision of the incredible Gene Fowler Jr.

I had been doing cop shows at QM too long. When I was in the editing room working with the editor on my director’s cut, I suggested cutting Grandma and Grandpa’s walking away a couple of steps after they started. It was Gene Fowler who convinced me to stay on them for the long walk away. One never stops learning and how fortunate for me to be learning from great professionals.

I had the set dressing department provide me with rolling tall tables for the eating sequence. Carol McKeand, Nigel’s wife and the story editor for the series, had some reservations about this. I think she thought it was not real, that it was inhuman to make the contestants eat standing up. I insisted that if that’s the way they did it in Mason City, Iowa, that’s the way we should do it on Walton’s Mountain. The fact that people would endure that kind of treatment in the hope of winning a few dollars was just another indication of the desperation faced by so many during the depression.

I think there are star-making roles. In 1931 James Cagney played Tom Powers in THE PUBLIC ENEMY and became an overnight star. In 1934 Myrna Loy, who had been in films since 1925, played Nora Charles in THE THIN MAN, her eightieth screen appearance, and became a bona fide star. But I also think there are star-making scenes. In 1936 Anna Held’s telephone scene in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD earned Luise Rainer her first Academy Award and screen stardom. The following year Andrea Leeds, as a sensitive, aspiring young actress, in very effective close-up walked up a flight of stairs to commit suicide in STAGE DOOR and was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination and screen stardom. I bring this up because I think that Daisy’s “reach out and touch a raincloud” scene was a star-making scene and that Deirdre Lenihan gave a star-making performance. But in the four decades in which Hollywood had moved from the theatre’s big screens to the smaller ones on the television sets in the nation’s homes, things had changed. Deirdre Lenihan was another example of the vast pool of exceptional but undervalued talent that existed in Hollywood during that time. Deirdre did return to THE WALTONS for five more appearances as Daisy. She made many guest appearances on other television series in the ensuing six years. But after 1980 her film career ended. Why?  I don’t know. I never saw Deirdre again after our six and a half days together filming THE MARATHON.

The only disagreement Gene Fowler and I ever had was over the final moments of that scene. I don’t remember exactly what Gene’s objection was or what was his solution. In fact I didn’t understand it at the time. It had something to do with the time frame in which it took place — the rest period was ending too soon. All I knew was that scene had been created from the gut, from the selection of I’VE GOT A RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES as the music to the intercut dolly-in close-ups of the two principals. We took our disagreement to Bob Jacks. I prevailed. And the friendship between Gene and me wasn’t even dented.

Carroll Newman was a production coordinator on THE WALTONS. I met her again at a social gathering many years later. She had been a close friend of Bob Jacks and had stayed in touch with him after he left THE WALTONS. She told me, of the ninety-one episodes he had produced for the series, THE MARATHON was his favorite.

The journey continues

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One Response to The Marathon

  1. John Dayton says:

    Ralph, ironic you mention Lee Rich as ordering more extras as one my memories of this episode was the big goof I made by releasing some of the extras before you were done with them, all in an effort to save $$ as the dancers got big bumps – anyway, I had to don one of those awful wool sweaters with the diamonds on it and get out on the floor AND in the bleachers along with the other A.D.s (I think it was Joe Florence and Ralph Ferrin) to make up for three bodies. I looked at your footage and think I spotted the back of my head a couple times.

    I really thought I was going to get into trouble for this mortal sin, but I guess all was forgiven.

    And I recall as if it were yesterday the beautifully sensitive performances of Richard, Michael and Dierdre.

    I’m especially conscious now of what a remarkable actor Richard is. We had a lot of fun and clowning on set, but when the camera rolled Richard would step into a performance in a heartbeat – isn’t that amazing?

    Thanks again for the insight and remembrance.

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