The Trap

Filmed January 1965

Having resolved the editing room impasse, I reported to the Fox Western lot just before Christmas to prepare THE TRAP, my second 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. Whereas my first show spent a great deal of time in the planes dropping bombs, this outing never left the ground; in fact it went underground into a cellar bomb shelter to show the other side of war, to present a view of the horror of being the recipients of dropped bombs and of the incredible fortitude of the English during the never-ending blitz by the Nazi Luftwaffe. It was an intense character study, possibly more like a stage play than anything I had filmed or would film in my future.

This series was my first time really working with art director Richard Haman, probably the favorite art director of my career. I had known of Haman (without knowing him) earlier at CBS, where he was art director for the hour-long live series, CLIMAX. Our association on my first outing on 12 O’CLOCK HIGH had been minimal; it did not have any unusual set demands, since it was filmed in standing sets and rear projection process. This time it was a different situation. The script for the opening sequence on this show had the five people led to a doorway that would lead them to a cellar for shelter during a bombing. I expected a simple little corner set with a doorway. I was given much more. With this episode Haman truly proved his mettle and earned my everlasting respect and admiration.

I was comfortable directing soundstage-confined scripts. Until the Bert Leonard ROUTE 66’s and NAKED CITY’s that was all I did. But never before and never again would I direct a screenplay in as limited a space as THE TRAP. Richard Haman had designed a cellar set in which I would spend five of my seven scheduled filming days and he had designed it expertly.

I realized the challenge confronting me. The script broke down into short vignettes between two or three characters. My responsibility would be to tie them together, to give them a flow, and I needed to avoid having any character ‘disappear’ because he didn’t have dialogue to speak. In the theatre that would not be a problem since all five people would always be visible. I had to solve the problem cinematically. AND MAKE IT VISUALLY INTERESTING AND EMOTIONALLY COMPELLING! Since camera movements would have to be limited (limited space and set dressing debris demanded it) that was definitely the time to heed John Ford’s mantra, “move the actors, not the camera”.

Actually the set, which usually served as background, in this case was like a sixth character in the play. It changed from scene to scene, it occasionally shook during scenes and instead of speaking lines it dropped dust and debris on the other characters.

Our first bit of casting was setting Michael Anderson Jr. to play Bert Higgs. But then we were notified by his agents that he had an offer to play in a new John Wayne movie, THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, so we released him from the commitment. Casting director John Conwell brought in a string of young possible replacements to audition, all of them American with studied English accents except for one twenty-five year old. John Leyton was an English actor who had appeared in two major Hollywood films. He auditioned for us, and there was no question, we wanted him to play Bert Higgs. There was no question, but there was a problem. His green card, which permitted him to work in the States, needed to be renewed; and it was the week between Christmas and New Years. John Conwell went through proverbial hell trying to get action from the government offices involved. Luckily for us he did — at the very last minute.

Associate producer Charles Larson had co-authored TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE. He, like Gene Coon of whom I have written, was a fine writer who did an amazing amount of rewriting on scripts before and even during filming; and like Coon, most of the time he did not take a screen credit. Because that earlier script had required very little rewriting, I had had very little contact with him. Things were different this time around. The script I was given was a blatant melodrama of five people stranded in a cellar during a London air raid. Charles fleshed out the people and created a complex study of the conflict of class differences as five people faced the ugly horror of war.

I don’t have any special recall related to Dinah Ann Rogers. Nothing unusual happened with her. She was a total pro, a fine actress who came to the set totally prepared to deliver what I consider a lovely, nuanced performance. She was one of that army of Hollywood actors whose talent exceeded their status in the hierarchy of filmdom. It would be twenty years before we would work together again, but in theatre when she appeared in a production of YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU that I directed.

THE TRAP was my first association with William Spencer, Director of Photography. Little Billy! When I directed TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE, Billy was away filming a pilot for Quinn Martin. This was the beginning of a professional relationship that had a profound affect on my growth as a film director. We would do thirteen more shows together in the next two years. It was while working with Billy that I learned my lenses. The zoom lens at that time was only available for the Arriflex camera, which because of the noise it created could not be used when dialogue was being recorded. We worked with flat lenses. In setting up a shot I would take the position where the camera should go and Billy would stand directly behind me and look over my left shoulder so that he was seeing the same angle I was seeing. When I had described the shot, I would ask him what lens he would be using. Eventually instead of asking, I would name a lens, but with a question mark – asking if that was going to the one. Soon I was batting a hundred percent in my responses and Billy beamed like a proud papa.

Billy was an artist who painted with light. He won the Emmy that year for black and white photography of this series. Ironically 12 O’CLOCK HIGH would be the last time he would work in black and white. The rest of his career was spent in color — which he hated. When color became the dominant mode of transmission on television, Billy watched on his color television set, but he watched in black and white with the color turned off.

The patient was Jack Raine, a fine English actor who had appeared in my 1960 theatre production of THE CIRCLE at the Pasadena Playhouse. In that play the second act opened with Jack and Rachel Ames seated on a settee center stage as they looked at an old photo album. Jack and Rachel had all of the dialogue in the scene, but Jack wryly commented at one rehearsal that no matter what they did, no one in the audience would be paying attention to them. They would be looking at the star of the show, Estelle Winwood, who was seated on a pouffe downstage left. She was looking at a newspaper and had a fan, both of which he was sure she would use as she was a notorious scene stealer. He then told of a production of T.S. Eliot’s THE COCKTAIL PARTY, which he had seen at the Las Palmas theatre in Hollywood. In the party scene Miss Winwood had been seated with Marsha Hunt on a settee down center. She held a martini glass in her hand and whenever she spoke her lines, she faced the audience, holding the glass normally. When she finished speaking, she turned to Miss Hunt for her response. As she did she carefully tipped the martini glass so that the liquid reached the rim, where it remained until Miss Hunt finished speaking. Then Miss Winwood again turned to the audience as she spoke her next line, righting the glass for the duration of her speech. This went on throughout the entire scene between the two actresses. Tip glass. Straighten. Tip glass. Straighten. I had no doubt that the story was true. I had seen Miss Winwood years before in THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT. The tea party sequence between Miss Winwood, the madwoman of the title Martita Hunt and the other two characters on stage was still vivid in my memory. Miss Winwood with a whole other set of tricks had indeed stolen the scene. I barely remember anyone else being on the stage. However in the production at the Pasadena Playhouse, she was not up to her usual thievery. I think THE CIRCLE had a great sentimental value to her. She had appeared in the original 1921 Broadway production playing the young wife, Elizabeth. She told me that she and Tallulah Bankhead had tried unsuccessfully to mount a revival of the play with Tallulah playing the young wife and Winwood playing the older woman. The production at the Pasadena Playhouse, with her in that role, was a project she had presented to them, which they agreed to produce.

David Frankham had also been in the cast of my Pasadena Playhouse production of THE CIRCLE. When he reported to begin production on 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, it had been almost five years since we had seen each other and I was stunned by his appearance. He had lost a lot of weight and looked almost gaunt. I’m not sure to this day what had caused the loss of weight; maybe it had been deliberate. What is interesting is that photographically it was most becoming. And as we worked, I remember changing my mind and thinking that the loss of weight added to David’s effectiveness in playing Lewis Glenway.

Hermione Baddeley was not our first choice to play Lady Constance. Gladys Cooper was. (Oh how I loved her evil mother in NOW, VOYAGER.) But Miss Cooper had a recurring role on THE ROGUES, a weekly series produced by Four Star Productions. It wasn’t that she was so occupied with her activities for that production that she was unavailable; she wasn’t in every episode. But there was a sponsor conflict. I don’t remember which sponsors were involved; but say Lucky Strike cigarettes sponsored THE ROGUES and Camel cigarettes sponsored 12 O’CLOCK HIGH — that was the kind of conflict that prevented her from performing for us. Not that we were short-changed with Miss Baddeley. I had seen her a year and a half earlier in THE MILK TRAIN DOESN’T STOP HERE ANYMORE on Broadway. And in fact there was an added dimension with her casting. When Quinn Martin viewed the first day’s rushes in which Miss Baddeley appeared, he asked us to film an added close-up with her character explaining she was not to the manor born, that she came from more common stock and had to adjust to her new elevated status in life.

I don’t remember when I stopped going to the studios on the weekend before filming began to plan my staging and camera coverage right in the sets. I really don’t remember any of the times I did that after my early experiences on DR. KILDARE, except this show.  And this one I remember very vividly. It was the New Years Day weekend in 1965 and Los Angeles was experiencing a cold spell. A sound stage without heat and without the warmth of the big arcs and spotlights can be like an ice house. And that’s where I worked the entire weekend, wearing the heaviest overcoat in my Southern California wardrobe.

I have stated that directing episodic television was like jumping on a freight train in motion. Once on board, you had to climb on top of the train, run across and climb down into the engine and take over running it. Then before you could bring anything personal to a story, you had to get acquainted with who the people, (the running characters on the series) were. That was not in terms of who you wanted them to be, but who they already were, because you caught them as ongoing, already established characters. And all of this had to happen instantaneously, because unlike the theatre where there was the long extended rehearsal period, in television within an hour of beginning a scene would be filmed that would be part of the final product, and it would need to be as good as the scenes filmed on the sixth and seventh days.

And then there was the matter of establishing a director-actor relationship with the star of the series. In films (unless the star was a superstar with a superego) the director hired the star. The director in episodic television was the hired personnel. How he was perceived by the series’ star would determine his future possible return for added employment. I state all of this because on TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE there was an instantaneous connection between Robert Lansing and me. I don’t know why but he trusted me from the first minute.

With THE TRAP, 12 O’CLOCK HIGH became my favorite QM series, then and forever. It didn’t achieve the success of other QM productions that I directed: THE FUGITIVE, THE FBI, BARNABY JONES. And what happened in the changes to the production at the end of the first season (which I will get into shortly) definitely contributed to its eventual cancellation, but the first season of the show I believe truly was classic television that has unfortunately slipped through the cracks.

I remember that in 1931 when Universal released FRANKENSTEIN, at the end of the film they headed a listing of the cast with the announcement: A Good Cast Is Worth Repeating. I have not done this before but here I say : A Good Cast and Crew Is Worth Repeating.

The journey continues

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3 Responses to The Trap

  1. Jonathan says:

    “David Frankham had also been in the cast of my Pasadena Playhouse production of THE CIRCLE. When he reported to begin production on 12 O’CLOCK HIGH … I was stunned by his appearance. He had lost a lot of weight and looked almost gaunt. I’m not sure to this day what had caused the loss of weight; maybe it had been deliberate.”

    Hi, Ralph,

    I know the answer to this one — and David says I can tell you! At that time, or just previously, David was also working on another WWII drama — the film KING RAT, in which he played a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp.

    Like most of the actors in it, he was required to look gaunt and starved for that role, so he lost 30 pounds for the film (although he says most of the British stars didn’t bother to comply with that requirement!).

    Because of conflicts with John Mills’ scheduling, filming on David’s role kept being put off for months and months, so he had to maintain that look for much of that year.

    David was heartbroken at missing his chance to finally work with Gladys Cooper. Seeing her in NOW VOYAGER had inspired him to want to be an actor at age 16; he interviewed her when he worked at the BBC in the 50’s; she was the first person he met when he came to the United States (seeing her on Broadway in THE CHALK GARDEN, and then having dinner with her, immediately upon disembarking from the Queen Mary) … and … she taught him how to drive a car!

    He remembers being excited meeting Ms. Cooper for their costume fittings for this episode on a Friday … but then showing up and seeing Ms. Baddeley on the set the following Monday.

  2. Anne says:

    I met Richard Haman in 2006. He came into my gallery looking for a picture light for a beautiful watercolor he had. Later on, I found out it was by him. He’s an AMAZING artist – I have never seen someone use watercolor like him. He invited me over to his house and showed me his work. I was stunned. I can only imagine what his tv and movie work must have been like. Sadly, his health was in decline as he lost his wife and, because of his smoking, is battling emphysema. I have since lost contact with him, but I know he at that point he was living in a gated community in Savannah, Ga. He was quite closed mouthed about his work in Hollywood, and only mentioned it in passing. Seeing his work and reading from others in the industry how much they admired and respected him, makes me wish I’d known him in his younger days.

  3. john b. says:

    I enjoyed this episode immensely, Mr. S. It’s one of my favorites of the series. I think I saw it when it was fist broadcast, not sure. The story is simple as can be, the characterizations rich in detail, with some nice changes of heart along the way, notably David Frankham’s poseur, who turns out to be a pretty decent fellow when he drops the charade near the end. Miss Baddeley was actually better casting IMO than the more austure (is there a better way to put it?) Gladys Cooper would have been. Her common touch added warmth to to the proceedings.

    The suspense was very well handled, and as I’ve seen the episode a few times now thanks to reruns I’m always impressed by the use of music, especially near the end, which, if memory serves, is a slow, almost mournful playing of the show’s main theme, or some variation of it. Speaking of music, I’ve noticed that whenever the lead character,–whether Lansing’s or Burke’s–gets into his plane and the propellers start to move the same stirring, almost inspirational music kicks in. Dominic Frontiere’s? It’s very beautiful, almost Wagnerian, in the best sense of that word. It always makes me want to join the air force!

    To return to The Threat: it was one of those one offs they made a lot of in the first season. The war was less the focus than how war affects people in various ways,–in this case a single bomb–rather than action oriented scenes. John Leyton had a good part. I remember him from The Great Escape, thought he was going places. Overall, this episode and much of the 12 O’Clock High series channeled some of the burgeoning Anglophilia that was engulfing American pop culture back, then, partly due to JFK’s fondness for all things British (James Bond, for one); and also, in the wake of his assassination, the rise of the Beatles and the so-called British invasion of pop music that was already happening by the time 12OCH began. That Was The Week That Was was another show with a “British beat”.

    As first rate television, from what I consider TV’s “real” golden age (1955-66), The Threat is yet another example of making something compelling and engaging out of what might appear on the surface,–and indeed was–common material. This goes to remind me just how much we’ve lost in television, as even with the proliferation of cable channels, and far more permissiveness, the quality, the talent, just isn’t there.

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