Thursday, July 10, 2008

I have a feeling we're not in Kansas

Sally Field sits down with TCM host Robert Osborne tonight to present four of her favorite movies as TCM's "Guest Programmer". I've already mentioned one of her selections, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which is airing at 2:15 AM ET Friday. Immediately preceding The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Field has selected All About Eve, at 11:45 PM ET.

There's a lot to recommend about All About Eve, but since I don't have the time to write an extended post about one movie today, I'd just like to mention one scene. Towards the end of the movie, George Sanders (playing theater critic Addison DeWitt) is ostensibly in New Haven with Anne Baxter (playing Eve Harrington), walking down a sidewalk. The scene was done on a Fox soundstage with a rear-projection sequence of a street scene, as was quite common during the studio era. What's shocking about the scene, though, is just how obvious the rear projection is. Considering that this was one of Fox's prestige movies, it's really surprising that such a badly-produced sequence would make the final cut.

A lot of B movies have obvious rear projection, but there are earlier movies where the rear projection is fairly convincing. One example would be Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, in which a pivotal airplane crash sequence was shot by a pilot doing a steep dive, with the footage projected onto a rice-paper screen. That screen is important, since it was right in front of a large tank of water; when the plane was supposed to crash into the Atlantic Ocean, Hitchcock had the water burst through the screen, overflowing the set and leaving everybody to try to make their way out of a sinking plane.

Location shooting was done in the old days, although not to the extent it is nowadays, simply because it was cheaper to film on the back lot than it was to take an entire film crew to all ends of the earth. For example, a more recent movie like yesterday's Sleeping With the Enemy filmed in a small town in South Carolina for the scenes that were supposed to be in Iowa. But much of what you see in a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird is not in small-town Alabama: it's the back lot of Universal Studios; the set design deservedly won an Oscar.

True, many movies couldn't do all their scenes on the soundstages or back lots, and had to go on location. Westerns are the best example, with John Ford's use of Monument Valley being iconic and leading other directors to make their westerns in that area. The Adventures of Robin Hood uses a state park not far from Chico, California, for Sherwood Forest, while Nova Scotia is substituted for by the northern California coast in Johnny Belinda

One interesting scene is Marlon Brando's famous "I coulda been a contender" scene from On the Waterfront. It was set in a taxi, so the scene obviously called for rear projection to show a street scene through the taxi's rear window. However, the day they were supposed to film that scene, the rear projection equipment never showed up. So, director Elia Kazan solved that problem by putting up a venetian blind over the taxicab's rear window! The ironic thing is that the scene actually works better this way, causing viewers to focus on the actors and not see anything that's going on outside the taxi.

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