Posted in: Contributors, Essays, Guest Contributor

Lunch at Bad Aussee

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Normand F. Lareau, a longtime friend of Movietone News, is a resident of New York City, a confirmed addict of the cinema (especially the films of François Truffaut), a vendor of movie stills, a filmmaker, and a kindhearted connoisseur of cats and people. He is currently engaged in a yearlong bike trek around Europe. —Ed.

A friend in New York gave me the name of a dialogue coach working for an Italian film company and said, “Look her up. She’s fun; she’ll show you a good time.” It seemed that the company was doing location work in Bad Aussee, Austria, and if I hurried I could maybe watch them filming. As it happened, the day I arrived in tiny Bad Aussee the crew had been up until 3 a.m. in hellish weather shooting the climactic rain-and-fire sequence of the film; it couldn’t be done “day for night” and everyone had to be there whether or not they were needed.

Ruth Carter, the dialogue coach and friend’s friend, was out of reach until about 1 the next day. We made a date by phone to meet then in the diningroom of her very expensive hotel (which, she explained, didn’t matter very much since everyone was “per diem”).

A short, reddish-haired Edith-Head-with-a-personality shook back her bangs as she extended her hand and said, “Normand? Hi, I’m Ruth.” Watching her stride across the diningroom bathed in sunlight, I recast a stellar memory and came up with the vision of a Ninotchka more in the style of Barbara Stanwyck. She squatted by a window in a quiet corner, smiled, threw her head back, and nervously rolled a copy of the Continental edition of Variety which, she explained, belonged to “Frank” Nero.

I started explaining how I came to be in Austria (mainly to see her). She had finished her work on this film and was anxious now to get paid and head back to Rome, her home base, as there was the chance of a job waiting for her. She suggested that we take a walk into town and have a coffee at “Piazza Navrona”—the name the Italian crew had given the outdoor café in Bad Aussee. That would happen later; but first we bumped into someone in that diningroom, one of the featured players in the film, and his wife. They invited us to join them for lunch. Ruth went to leave Nero’s Variety with a desk clerk who looked like the second lead in a Visconti film. Then we four pulled up our chairs around a table facing a “summer ski” made of straw.

The featured player was wearing a bushy red beard which I hadn’t quite seen beyond. Ruth introduced him: Harry Carey Jr.! I was startled—very evidently so. “I love that doubletake everybody does,” Mrs. Carey said. She was bubbly, bright, and a very pretty blonde. He didn’t have his father’s piercingly sad eyes or his apologetic manner; his color, like that of the beard, was red. I found myself thinking about his career: Ford, Wellman, Walsh had directed his first three films, and he had been in many good pictures over the years. But, unlike his contemporary and frequent Fordian costar Ben Johnson, he had yet to find the part, to realize that moment of “fire and music” needed to immortalize him.

The film which Ruth, Carey, Franco Nero, and Virna Lisi had been working on for two wet, snowy, chilly months in Austria was a sequel to a big Italian hit, an adaptation of Jack London’s White Fang. This one, naturally, was tentatively entitled The Return of White Fang: those words, in Italian, glared from the side of a sound truck parked at the film’s headquarters, an old hotel in town.

Carey was most gracious, seemed interested in me and in answering my questions. Since still photography was my bag and the still photographer’s time and place on the set my particular interest, I asked about that area of filmmaking first thing. Carey said that usually the time between rehearsal and the first take was the still man’s. John Ford, though, for whom Carey had worked in eleven pictures, wouldn’t allow the still man on the set until he, the director, was completely finished shooting—and then he would stay around giving pointers and even helping with setups. I asked Carey if he might know how it happened that the stills for an Ingmar Bergman film were identical time and again with the angles used in the movie itself. Was it possible that Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s cinematographer, supervised or even did some of the still photography himself? I sensed that Carey almost resented my asking about a Swedish director. Ruth interceded and said it was impossible that the two were done by the film’s lighting cameraman; he just wouldn’t have the time.

Our talk turned to the subject of stunting. During the filming of The Return of White Fang, Virna Lisi, as a nun, was supposed to go charging through a burning, crumbling building (on that wet cold night that ran till 3 a.m.), so a notice was placed on the call board for someone to perform the stunt. The bid by the short, stocky special-effects man was the lowest, so he became—from the rear, mostly—Virna Lisi on her errand of mercy.

Discussion of this stunt brought up one with Ford during the shooting of Mister Roberts. It seemed that a call had been posted for someone to ride a motorcycle off a pier at full throttle. A member of the technical crew bid for this hazardous night duty, which was too dangerous for a second take. The volunteer, dressed as a sailor, got himself loaded while Ford and the crew waited. “It’s OK,” Ford told them, “give him all the time he needs.” Eventually the stunt man flew off the dock and went plunging into the deep. The camera rolled. Bubbles slowly started rising to the surface. Ford got worried. He was sure the cyclist was in trouble. Then, the camera still recording, a sailor cap came floating up to the top. “Go get him!” Ford yelled. Seconds later the volunteer, a movie man of many years, came up. He had purposely stayed down long enough to let the sailor’s cap drift to the surface, thinking that it would be a good touch. This incident didn’t prove Ruth’s theory that everyone involved in a film contributed to the final result, but it didn’t exactly reinforce the auteur theory for an absolutist—which I had been.

Mister Roberts was a sad occasion for Ford in one respect, Carey remembered. It marked the end of a close bond between him and “Hank” Fonda that went back to their combined greatest moment on the screen, The Grapes of Wrath, and beyond. They had differences while filming Roberts because Fonda repeatedly made references to what Josh Logan had done in the stage version. It had been the Broadway success of Fonda’s career and the actor wanted to film the play, while Ford searched for the film equivalent of a man named Roberts and his story.

We talked about what a shame it was that Ford hadn’t worked for such a long time before his death. “Well, you’re only as good as your last picture,” Carey said, shaking his head in disbelief. He felt Ford’s last two films were beautifully composed, but they did very badly at the box office. So Ford was considered “through.” It was ironic that his last movie should have been about seven women when his entire output was so male-oriented. Carey was proud—he boasted of it—of having appeared in Ford’s last movie in his traditional genre, Cheyenne Autumn) and he was happy that William Wellman, Ford’s contemporary, had another film.

Harry Carey Jr. spoke little of his father because, he said, his father seldom took his work home with him. (But he had recorded their life together in a book he had just finished.) His father had once come home saying, in a very dejected, almost angry voice, “Richard Dix can’t walk and talk at the same time!” It seemed that most of that day had been spent trying to get Dix, the star of some 60 pictures, to make a simple cross while reading a line of dialogue. About the best that could be done was a word a step. Incredible as it seemed, Dix flatly stated that he either walked or he talked—he never had to do both together!

Slowly, quietly, walking, talking, Franco Nero approached our table, wondering if we had seen the makeup man; he had a bloody scratch very close to his left eye. “Kitten scratch you?” Mrs. Carey wanted to know. No one had seen the makeup man. He asked after the director, who had just walked by. This man, an Italian, was having a luxurious helping of ice creams—an Austrian delight, he called it.

Nero usually walked around in a daze. On this Sunday, in this plush hotel, he was wearing a dirty beige sweater and torn dungarees. During the shooting of the film he developed an insecurity complex which stemmed from his being shorter than one of the German second leads. He would get to the set before the others and build himself a platform of snow, for instance, so he could appear taller.

I asked Ruth later, “Does he need a White Fang?” “Oh, it was a very big hit for him. He’s very popular.” Nero was very big right then in Italy. What about Virna Lisi? The film did nothing for her; fortunately, she had another to do. We thought of people who had talent, and those who did not, and the ones who did well at the box office and those who didn’t. All of us laughed at the billing war Delon and Belmondo had waged during Borsalino, Belmondo insisting on top billing and getting it—but les affiches read: “Alain Delon présente JeanPaul Belmondo et Alain Delon dans Borsalino.”

As Ruth and Carey talked about going to Rome to dub the film, I asked if live tracks and boom mikes were passé, if all location work were dubbed. It depended on whether or not they could get a clear track. A waterfall prevented them from using some of their work; sometimes it was a plane or some other disturbance that mucked things up. Carey recalled once having had to read a letter from someone who had died, and break down and cry as he read it. He knew that would be impossible to synchronize in a dubbing session, so he asked for a live track. Ruth mentioned that Fellini didn’t do the bit with actors reciting numbers instead of dialogue anymore, even though his films were still dubbed.

All that remained to be done in Bad Aussee were a few scenes with Nero, who had come late to the shooting because of another film, and longshots with doubles up in the mountains. Carey was on vacation now, but as he had some dubbing (“looping”) to do in Rome, his fare would be paid there and that would give him and his wife a holiday in Italy.

When Carey left and we shook hands I said, perhaps foolishly but sincerely, “Your father was a beautiful man.”

Movietone News is grateful to Mike and Susan Peskura for their editorial assistance.

Copyright © 1974 Normand F. Lareau