Behind the Scenes with a Behind the Scenes Operator: Reel Life

From attending to director Michael Winner’s parking meter and falling foul of the British film censor to interviewing David Lean at the National Film Theatre in London, Tony Sloman’s autobiography casts a fascinating light on the British film industry.  A marvellous string of anecdotes relating to Othello (1965), One Million Years B.C. (1966), Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968), Wonderwall (1968), De Sade (1969) and cult television series The Prisoner (1968) are augmented by insights into the less well-known aspects of how movies are made. 

Most commonly associated with the sound and editing departments, he also directed two British sex films Sweet and Sexy (1971) and Not Tonight, Darling (1971). In addition, he is also a walking encyclopaedia on film – he later lectured on the subject – and a riveting part of the book involves how he fell in love with the movies. I’ve read countless biographies of actors and directors who made it big in pictures and rarely, if ever, do their stories focus on their love of the medium, of the films they saw when growing up and the experiences that entailed. So the first part of this book plays off to the soundtrack of inveterate filmgoing in the 1950s at his local cinema in London and then up to the West End, one expedition to view a revival of Gone with the Wind ending up instead with the saucier Femmes de Paris (1953).

Getting into the business was very difficult for a tailor’s son from Streatham and, having determined to become a film editor, even attending evening film classes failed to open any doors until he responded to a newspaper advert and became a dispatch boy and soon after an editor for a small suite of cutting rooms in Soho in the same building as Private Eye magazine, thus beginning a long apprenticeship in this particular discipline, working in all the  British studios from biggies like Shepperton, Elstree and Pinewood to smaller outfits such as Merton Park.

Except for this book I would be unaware of the how menial are some of the tasks essential for a film to be made. One of his earliest jobs was to attend the screening of rushes and “tick the selected takes in the rushes notebook…and then after numbering them break them out in script order for the editor to assemble the next day in the cutting copy.” He learned not to count frames or measure length when dictating a particular cut but to put himself in the position of the character and the audience, how much of what they see needs to be shown to register.  

One of the refreshing elements of this biography is that the author is happy to own up to professional and personal mistakes. As he didn’t drive he was unable to synchronise car engine sounds in the correct manner. He got into trouble for labelling cans containing film in pen and not stencil. As a result of personal mishap, he learned the hard way never to film anything without a continuity person present.

His second directorial effort “Not Tonight Darling” was renamed “Frustrated Wives.”

And he has a fan’s delight at meeting stars in the flesh, walking down the street with a David Niven determined to be swamped by fans, recounting that Maximilian Schell is shorter than expected, James Mason taller. He reveals that Dana Andrews’ favorite of his own films is not a Hollywood classic like Laura (1944) or The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) but the lesser known Three Hours to Kill (1954) because when the producer ran out of cash he paid the actor in Mexican artefacts that came to be worth a quarter of a million dollars. Former silent film star Bessie Love tried to convert him to Christian Science when the author would have rather she reminisced about her days in early Hollywood. Eating in a restaurant in Cannes he watched at another table Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti share a bowl of bouillabaisse and later bumped (literally) into Graham Greene and encountered in the hills working as barman a former camera operator for Jean Renoir.

He met the entire Dirty Dozen at lunch in the studio canteen, heard Maggie Smith swear and enjoyed an up-close-and-personal encounter with Raquel Welch over the moviola “pressing closer to me in that tiniest of bikinis.” Working with  Ray Harryhausen on One Million Years B.C. (1966) “my main function with him was to be his own personal soundstage at Elstree with the moviola…to see where his newly-shot material would go into the sequence as cut…Ray needed to see them over and over and do frame counts before shooting his effects.” On the same film he was responsible for writing “dialogue” – in other words” a series of grunts and sounds that would match up with the actor’s mouth movement.”

There are other fascinating nuggets. He played an unsung part in the success of The Prisoner, coming up with the ideal piece for the beginning of the Arrival episode – the “Radetzky March.” He had an unusual job title, too, “Film Librarian,” which consisted of getting all the back projections which had already been filmed ready for the actual set. Supplying library material as and when, shooting inserts, and matching new film to location work.  “The secret of finding music for mute material was not merely finding music that was appropriate but to find music that would positively enhance the image to which it would be matched.”

There are other fascinating nuggets. Donald Sutherland was revoiced in his role in Oedipus the King (1968) but after the success of Mash (1970) his original voice was put back in. The first screening of Wonderwall (1968) was for the Beatles because George Harrison had expressed an interest in writing the score. In the course of this when his Indian-style slippers were ruined  by rain someone on the set whipped up for him a “customized pair of cardboard shoes made from Technicolor delivery boxes.” Composer John Barry was set to co-finance a film called The Jam but the screenplay was shown to Jean-Luc Godard who promptly went out an made Weekend (1967).

Sweet and Sexy” was renamed “Foursome” for the U.S. market, even though no such activity takes place. At one point Scottish actress Quinn O’Hara had been engaged to U.S. pop star Fabian.

He shared a flat with Michael Billington (Alfred the Great, 1968) – who holds the record for most auditions for the role of James Bond. Billington was a lover of Liza Minelli, Barbara Broccoli and Quinn O’Hara and was slated to direct Sloman’s first film but when he was offered a starring role in the UFO series (1970-1971), Sloman took over the directorial reins and recruited as leading man Billington’s UFO stand-in Robert Case. Quinn O’Hara (Cry of the Banshee, 1970), Billington’s girlfriend, had the female lead. It began life with the relatively harmless title of City Suite.

But when it was funded by Miracle Films, the title changed to City, Sweet and Sexy and finally plain old Sweet and Sexy (though it goes by the name of Foursome on imdb). What the Americans called “sexploitation.” The initial budget only ran to £15,000 but was increased to  £20,000. But when submitted to the British Board of Films Censors in October 1970, it was refused a certificate unless 40 minutes were cut. After nearly 18 months of wrangling it was finally granted an X-certificate – minus 21 offensive minutes – and the 69-minute picture finally opened at the Cameo Royal in London in March 1972.

Sloman had better luck with his second feature, Not Tonight Darling (1971) – also known as Frustrated Wives. Luan Peters (Lust for a Vampire, 1971) came on board as star and Sloman had the good luck to snare pop band Thunderclap Newman, who had enjoyed a big hit with “Something in the Air”, for the score. There were also appearances by Jason Twelvetrees, who had also been in Sweet and Sexy, Fiona Richmond (Let’s Get Laid, 1978) and James Hayter  (A Challenge for Robin Hood, 1967).

The book ends in the early 1970s and I can only hope Tony Sloman is hard at work on a second volume as his memoirs are a welcome antidote to the raft of books about big stars which are often far less entertaining. An excellent read, especially if you are interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of movie making.

EXTRA: This is not in the book but I did a bit of digging on my own account to see if any of his movies were ever screened in the U.S. I found out, as noted in the article above, that “Sweet and Sexy” was released in the U.S. as “Foursome”. Despite the concerns of the British film censor, it was not that out of line otherwise it would not have received an “R” rating when it could easily have been rated “X.” I couldn’t find any sign of a review, either in “Variety” or “Box Office,” the two main trade magazines. But I did find some evidence that it had been screened in some big cities.

It was distributed by AIP in the U.S, and C-P in Canada. “Variety” and “Box Office” had different methods of measuring revenue. The former simply listed the gross. But the latter employed a different approach. It related the receipts for each film according to the average weekly take of a particular cinema. This was in some senses a better idea. Strong figures might not necessarily mean a good result if that cinema was used to movies knocking up big numbers.

In January 1972 “Foursome”, playing solo, had a “sexy” opening week, according to “Variety,” at the 1,200-seat Midtown in Philadelphia (tickets priced at $1.50-$3.00) with $14,000 (equivalent to $96,000 today) followed by s second week of $9,500. The same month, supported by “Freedom to Love” (1969), a documentary about sexual behavior, “Foursome” ran for three weeks at the 609-seat World (tickets $1.25) in Chicago. The first and third weeks both accounted for $3,800 but the second week was tops with $4,000. In April there was a “lusty” (presumably intended ironically) $3,100 at the 2,809-seat Loews Downtown (tickets $2.00-$2.50) in Dayton where it played solo.

In August at the 676-seat Suburban World (tickets $2.25) in Minneapolis it scored a “fair” $4,000, again the only film on the program. In December it turned up at the 250-seat Playhouse (tickets $2.50) in Washington, as the supporting feature this time to “Together” (1971) starring Marilyn Chambers and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, later responsible for the first “Friday the 13th ” (1980). The outcome was a “sharp” $4,500. By comparing seating capacity and ticket prices you can get a better idea of the film performed.

Box Office magazine marked performance on a percentage basis against a basic mark of 100, which represented an average week. According to this magazine, the movie was also to be found in Hartford where it scored 175 (i.e. almost double the average week’s takings), New Haven (175), Boston (150) and Buffalo (100). The takings in Minneapolis were no great shakes according to this method of analyzing results, reaching only 100 on the magazine’s measuring system.

Box Office also noted a couple of outings in Canada, where it played as the supporting feature to “Love Me Like I Do” (1970) starring Dyanne Thorne, later immortalised as “Ilsa”. However, Canada appeared not to subscribe to the percentage system. Instead, in Winnipeg at the Downtown in March 1972 it was judged “very good” while in Toronto at the Coronet in November 1972 it was judged “fair.”

SOURCES: “Variety” – January 12, 1972, p8; January 26, 1972, p10; April 5, 1972, p14; August 30, 1970, p14; December 6, 1972; p14. “Box Office” – September 11, 1972, pB4; “Box Office Barometer,” September 18, 1972 pB4; November 6, 1972, p16; November 13, 1972, pK2; March 5, 1973, pK3.

Bronson Unwanted

That Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) was a smash hit in France did nothing for Charles Bronson’s Hollywood career. Hollywood had form in disregarding U.S.-born stars that Europe had taken to its box office bosom. Example number one of course was Clint Eastwood, ignored by the big American studios until four years after his movies had cut a commercial swathe through foreign territories. Charles Bronson took about the same length of time for his box office grosses abroad to make an impact back home.

While we tend to look upon The Dirty Dozen (1967) as a career-making vehicle for many of the supporting stars, that wasn’t actually the case. Jim Brown was quickest out of the blocks, a full-blown top-billed star a year later in The Split (1968). Otherwise, John Cassavetes had the biggest crack at stardom after landing the male lead in box office smash Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But the rest of the gang – Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Richard Jaeckal et al – remained at least for the time being strictly supporting players.

For Charles Bronson, the year of The Dirty Dozen produced nothing more than television guest spots in Dundee and the Culhane, The Fugitive and The Virginian. Beyond that he had a berth in two flop westerns Villa Rides (1968) and Guns for San Sebstian (1968) and no guarantee his career was moving in an upward direction. But the latter picture was primarily a French-Mexican co-production, the Gallic end set up by top French producer Jacques Bar under the aegis of Cipra which had previously been responsible for Alain Delon vehicles Any Number Can Win (1963), Joy House (1964) and Once a Thief (1965).

There was another, as vital, French connection. Henri Verneuil directed both Any Number Can Win and Guns for San Sebastian so could attest to Bronson’s screen presence. And another legendary French producer, the Polish-born Serge Silberman, best known for Luis Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), had taken note of Bronson, whose screen persona was similar to that of French stars Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin. Silberman’s Greenwich Films production shingle was in the process of setting up Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami.

Like The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), Farewell Friend was part of a new trend to make French productions in English as well as French, in this case the English version viewed as “the working one.” But that ploy failed to convince U.S. distributors to take a chance and the film sat on the shelf for five years. And little that Bronson did in the meantime increased his chances of a serious stab at the Hollywood big time.

Although Paramount had piled cash into the Italian-made Once upon a Time in the West (1968) it was counting on Henry Fonda – undergoing a career renaissance after Madigan (1968), The Boston Strangler (1968) and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) – to provide the box office momentum. Bronson was billed fourth after Claudia Cardinale, Fonda and Jason Robards, so still in Hollywood’s eyes a supporting player.

And while the Sergio Leone picture flopped Stateside, the success of Farewell, Friend in France turned Bronson into a star and was instrumental in the western breaking box office records in Paris (where it ran for a year) and throughout the country.

Fortunately for Bronson, European producers recognized his potential. His next picture should have been an Italian-French-German co-production of Michael Strogoff, for which he was announced as the top billed star (Advert, Variety, May 8, 1968, p136-137).  When that fell through, Italian company Euro International, bidding to become the top foreign studio outside Hollywood, gave him top-billing in Richard Donner drama Twinky (aka Lola, aka London Affair, 1970) and Serge Silberman tapped him for Rene Clement thriller Rider on the Rain (1970), another French hit.

British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) was responsible for recruiting him for You Can’t Win ‘Em All (aka The Dubious Patriots, 1970), but with Tony Curtis taking top billing. Again, though funded by an American studio, this time Columbia, it was another big flop, mostly because the studio did not know how to market the picture, Curtis in a box office slump and Bronson considered to have little appeal.

But still the Europeans kept the faith. Another French-Italian co-production Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970) gave him top billing over exiles Telly Savalas and Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife. That was also the case with Cold Sweat (1970), helmed by British director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962).  He had another French-made hit with Someone Behind the Door (1971) and Terence Young hired him again, along with Farewell, Friend co-star Alain Delon, Japanese star Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, 1954) and Dr No alumni Ursula Andress for international co-production Red Sun. While this western sent box office tills whirring all over the world, it only made a fair impression in the U.S., ranking 53rd in the annual box office chase.

Riding on the back of The Godfather phenomenon, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis chose Bronson for Mafia thriller The Valachi Papers (1972), again directed by Terence Young, which produced something of a box office breakthrough in the U.S., ending the year just outside the Top 20. But it took another British director, Michael Winner, to help solidify the Bronson screen persona and boost his global appeal. Four – and all of the hits – out of the star’s next six pictures were directed by Winner.  These were the western Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1975). The Mechanic was such a big hit Stateside it did better in its second year of release than the first and Columbia redeemed itself by giving prison escape thriller Breakout (1975) the widest release – up to that point – of all time.

That America had little interest in developing Bronson as a breakout star could be judged by the distribution treatment of his pictures. As mentioned above, Farewell, Friend had to wait until 1973 for its U.S. debut and then renamed Honor among Thieves. Twinky was denied a cinema release in the U.S. and went straight to television in 1972. Violent City had to wait until 1973 for a distribution deal, Cold Sweat until 1974 and even Red Sun took nine months before it hit American shores.  Until The Valachi Papers did the business, Bronson was not considered the kind of star who could open a picture in the U.S.

By then, of course, Bronson had reversed the normal box office rules. Usually, for films starring American actors, foreign revenues were the icing on the cake. For Bronson it was the other way round. Along with Clint Eastwood he was the first of the global superstars, whose name resonated around the world, and whose pictures made huge amounts of money regardless of American acceptance or interest. But had it been left to Hollywood, Bronson would never have made the grade.

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