The Mask Makers

Filmed June 1962

My timing in real life was not as good as my timing in reel life. I left my paying job on DR. KILDARE just as television film production for the 1961-62 season was drawing to a close. The yearly spring hiatus, when there was literally no production going on, had arrived. And one episode of a successful and popular series, although greeted warmly within the company, did not produce an avalanche of requests for my services. The good news was that for the next 1962-63 season I was booked to direct two more segments of Dr. Kildare, but the first one wouldn’t be until June with the second one scheduled for September. Sometime in May just a year after I had reported to MGM the first time, I received the script of THE MASK MAKERS. Scheduled to be my first production, it was a drama with an interesting protagonist, who was, unusually, a woman, a rarity in television.

Carolyn Jones was a real movie star in the tradition of old Hollywood. You knew it the moment she walked into a room; at least I sensed it when she arrived at our production office. We had cast her to play Evy in Jerry McNeely’s drama about plastic surgery, and she had come in for a fitting. No, not a wardrobe fitting, a nose fitting. Our story was about Evy, a girl with a very large nose, who undergoes plastic surgery and her emotional traumatic after effects. It was a teleplay that a few years earlier could have been written for STUDIO ONE or PHILCO PLAYHOUSE. Jerry McNeely incidentally was a long distance screenwriter. He was a university professor in Michigan.

I don’t remember if we knew when we cast Carolyn that she had many years earlier undergone the same surgery. But she very conveniently and graciously brought photos of herself before her surgery to our meeting. We took her and the photos to the MGM make-up department, where they proceeded to construct a prosthetic to turn movie star Carolyn into plain, unattractive Evy. And I remember very vividly how Carolyn changed in the make-up chair. With the application of the new nose the movie star dimmed, not only visually but her whole personality changed, and the pre-surgery Carolyn emerged. I had a preview of the woman who would soon enter our camera.

It’s unfortunate this episode wasn’t in color. Charles Hagedon, our art director, designed a set for Evy’s apartment that was worthy of a top MGM feature production. It was a railroad apartment with charcoal gray walls and an accent wall of tomato red. He had two occasional chairs reupholstered in a gray and white wide-striped pillow ticking type material. And he brought from the MGM prop department a beautiful credenza that he said he had been wanting to use in a set for ages. He apologized for the fact that the colors of the credenza clashed with his gray and red color scheme, but since we were filming in black and white, it wouldn’t matter. But it did matter to Steve Potter, the set decorator. Charles very graciously conceded, and the credenza was replaced by another credenza of Steve’s choosing. This one’s color  blended into the set beautifully, and incidentally was equally magnificent. Oh that prop department!

Television in the early sixties was not afraid to take the time to be informative as well as entertaining. Jerry McNeelly’s script aimed to do more than just tell the story of a single person’s experience with plastic surgery. To accomplish that, since Kildare’s current hospital service assignment determined the weekly episode’s story line, in THE MASK MAKERS he was assigned to plastic surgery.

And unlike so much of what we see on the screens today, television was not afraid to take the time to explore people’s deeper emotional feelings, in the case of Evy, her need beyond vanity that could lead her to undergo the pain and uncertainty of plastic surgery.

Myrtle Oulman, the drama teacher who was the incentive that started me on the journey that led me to Blair Hospital, said once as we sat in the auditorium during a rehearsal, “If at any time the action on the stage froze, the visual picture that resulted should tell what is happening in the story.” I always subscribed to that theory, and in the many stage productions I directed I strove to accomplish it. I found that to be even more relevant when working in film; I always looked for ways to enhance visually the words the actors were saying and the thoughts they were thinking.

Although no scene in our story involved Evy’s surgery, as part of my preparation I viewed a documentary of a nose surgery, filmed in EXTREME closeup. Fortunately it was not in color. I remember I had to forcefully keep myself focused on the screen as the scalpel made the incision in the skin, which was then peeled away from the bone; my anguish continued as the instruments then chipped away at the bone through a full one hour ordeal. I ashamedly admit that was probably the most difficult thing I ever did pre-filming. I don’t know whether Jerry McNeely viewed a film of a nose surgery, I suspect he did, but I’m positive he did a lot of research. That showed in his script.

A problem facing any writer assigned to script a DR. KILDARE was keeping young Kildare  involved in the problem of the patient of the week without overstepping the professional ethics of his profession. That was not a problem always successfully solved. I think Jerry McNeely’s script was very deft in approaching the problem and very successful in solving it.

During lunch the day that Carolyn came to the studio for the nose fitting, she told me what had happened at the time of her surgery. Her surgeon had warned her that when she awakened after the surgery, she should positively refrain from looking in a mirror. Well when she awoke in the middle of the night, she did exactly what she had been told not to do. And she told me how she reacted. I couldn’t wait to get back to the office to ask producer David Victor to add that scene to our script.

Jerry’s research into the subject of plastic surgery went much further than the intricacies of the operation itself. His primary focus, more than the physical, was the emotional ramifications to Evy that the change in appearance brought her. And he took it minute step by minute step.

I’m sure it’s my theatre training, but I love entrances. On the stage (at least back in the grand old theatrical days) stars didn’t just appear. They MADE AN ENTRANCE! I remember Katharine Cornell’s first appearance in THAT LADY. There was a large archway up center looking out on a balcony. Miss Cornell swept into view from up left, looked upstage and leaned over the balcony wall, then turned and with a black patch over one eye and to thunderous applause moved to stand in the archway. I try to deliver my leading characters’ first appearance as an entrance whenever possible. Without the advantage of an archway to frame her, I thought I gave Evy with a nose an entrance at the opening of the show. I considered Evy’s first appearance after the surgery to be a NEW character, worthy of another entrance.

It would have been so easy (but less insightful) for Evy and her beau to discover their love for each other and live happily ever after. But Jerry’s script, which started with Kildare’s aversion to his assignment to plastic surgery, revealed the field to be more than a cosmetic process for the vain. Beyond that the script looked into the vulnerable areas of the psyche that could be affected after such an operation.

I loved Beulah Bondi’s definition of acting.  She said, “True acting is being, not seeming.” And that is exactly what is required when performing in film. The camera is like a microscope. It seems to have the ability to see right through the skin of the performer, to ascertain whether the performance is coming from the head or the heart, whether the actor is completely in the moment or just pretending. And acting is so much more than memorizing lines and hitting marks on the floor. Unlike in a play on stage where the actor starts the story at the beginning and plays through all of the turnings in the plot, the film performer plays scenes out of sequence. He or she might arrive at the studio and have to be prepared at 8:00 am to do a scene that starts at a high emotional peak. How do they do it? There is no one way. Each actor has his own way of emotionally preparing for a scene. Beulah arrived on the set in character and stayed in character, before the camera and between shots, the entire day. I’ll speak of other actor’s approaches as I discuss their performances. When Carolyn had a scene requiring her to start highly emotionally involved, I would tell her, “Let me know when you’re ready”, and she would turn her back to the camera; what she did then in her preparation was highly personal, private and internal. When she was ready, she would signal me with a nod of the head, I would order the cameras to roll and call for action and she delivered. She was a wonderful talent, a true professional.

Unlike television series today that have continuing story lines not unlike daytime soap operas, in the early years of filmed television each week’s episode was a complete story to be completed in the one hour time slot. I think that was a boon, but with a drawback. Sometimes the drama had the potential for extended treatment. THE MASK MAKERS did. But the restrictions imposed by the networks’ strict scheduling prevented that. The result could be a hasty, sometimes melodramatic resolution.

I liked shooting scenes in the hospital corridors, especially night scenes. Harkie lit the corridors differently for day scenes and night scenes. Just as a couple decades earlier Judge Hardy had his man-to-man talks with young Andy, possibly on this very same soundstage, DR. KILDARE usually had a similar scene between our older and younger doctors, and for this story the corridors provided a very effective place to stage it.

Being a weekly happy series, naturally Kildare finally brought the lovers together (not totally convincingly) for a happy ending. For me my ending was more convincingly happy. This was my second DR. KILDARE outing, and I knew I was returning in the fall for another assignment. What I didn’t know was that there had been a visitor on the set who, seven and a half years later, would have a very strong effect on my career.

The journey continues

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9 Responses to The Mask Makers

  1. Doug says:

    I enjoyed our article which my wife had described to me but, not nearly as much as yours did. She played the part of Martha with the name of Lonie Blackman. She has a few of the many, many TV series DVDs. Lonie loved the part of Martha. Now…the big question. Do you have a copy of The Mask Makers? If so, would you release it to her? I would be willing to pay a reasonable amount. Please let me know at the above Email address.

    Again, I enjoyed your article.
    Doug

  2. Josh Lee says:

    These clips were very moving and I thought incredibly intelligent and honest. This show was before my time so naturally I spent a lot of time amazed that Richard Chamberlain looked like he was 12. But I’ll never look at Carolyn Jones the same way again. It’s a long way from Morticia, that’s for sure. I would be interested in seeing more from this series.

  3. Phil says:

    The 10th video has a line that hit me like a two-by-four between the eyes: “Why couldn’t you have done that a month ago?” If the viewing audience understood what this meant, why didn’t that dense Dr. Phelan figure it out? Near the end of the episode (in a scene you did not post), Phelan says, “I love her Jim, I always have.” Hmmm…maybe his character could have been fleshed out more if the story, as you suggested, had the potential to be expanded over the 60-minute time limit.

    Ironically, ‘Dr. Kildare’ went to an expanded format in its last season (1965-’66). Instead of one 60-minute episode per week, they had two 30-minute episodes per week. In addition, they had several ‘mini-series’ (for lack of a better term) within that schedule. The data I found is fragmentary, but it seems the same writer and same director would handle each episode of one mini-series. I counted 16 mini-series, which varied between two and seven episodes in length (58 episodes overall).

    Do you recall the public and industry reaction to this format? Did you receive any offers to work the last season of ‘Kildare’? Thanks.

    ********
    FYI, a video dealer posted the first eight minutes of your ‘Medical Story’ episode (“An Air Full of Death”) on Youtube.

    • Ralph says:

      I was aware that DR. KILDARE changed formats at the end of its run. I’m sure the change was influenced by the success of the series, PEYTON PLACE, which as I remember also had two half hour episodes per week. I don’t know if there were any offers at the agency for my services. I never heard of any, and at that time I really didn’t want to work on series that had been around that long.

  4. Pingback: Obituary: Jerry McNeely (1928-2014) | The Classic TV History Blog

  5. Melbo says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve just read a biography of Carolyn Jones and have been thinking about what this episode meant to her. Clearly she put so much of herself and her experience into the portrayal of this character. I started Googling, hoping to find the episode and some more information about it and your blog came up. Wonderful stuff … thanks again.

  6. Michael Mill says:

    In the very early 1980’s I worked at AFTRA on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. One day I received a call from Carolyn Jones. After assisting her with some union questions, I sensed her friendliness & warmth. I mentioned that a high school friend of mine saw her touring production of Pinter’s THE HOMECOMING in St. Louis, and how truly excellent I was told she was. She enjoyed the compliment, to which I added, “Of course, my personal favorite of all your roles is the DR. KILDARE episode where you had plastic surgery, became very glamorous, and told some young swain words-to-the-effect of ‘Go & play in someone else’s back yard'”.

    She laughed when I told her I had only seen the episode once, when it was first broadcast nearly 20 years ago, but I thought she was exceptional in it and very, very effective.

    She told me she had undergone nasal surgery herself (which I did not know), so she was able to bring that personal experience to her portrayal. I told her again how I could still remember, albeit vaguely, several scenes, & that she had made a definite impression on me in that particular role.

    I spoke with her a short time later, again at AFTRA, and this was right after it became known that she was ill. She did remember me from our previous DR. KILDARE episode conversation. After answering her union questions, I told her, “You know, Miss Jones, there are many, many people praying for your recovery.” She paused a moment, then said very directly & warmly, “And you’re one of them, aren’t you…”

    I admitted to her that, yes, I was.

    That was the last time I spoke with Carolyn Jones, as she passed away shortly thereafter. Because of our two brief conversations, I have a very specific memory of a warm, gracious, & talented actress.

    At the very core of my admiration of Carolyn Jones is this particular DR. KILDARE episode which you directed. Thank you, Ralph, for making my interaction with Miss Jones possible. This episode that I had not seen for over 50 years has Miss Jones being every bit as effective & moving as I remember her being.

    Again, my very, very sincere thanks to you.

  7. Steve Z. says:

    Ralph,

    I noticed you mentioned Charles Hagedon and Steve Potter as art director and set decorator respectively. Did George W. Davis and Henry Grace have any input as the supervising art director and set decorator of their respective departments for this or any of the episodes you directed?

    • Ralph says:

      Not as far as I know. I never met either of the two gentlemen. I think as head of their respective departments their names automatically were included in all credits.

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