The Hands of Ingrid

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I know, I know, enough with the Halloween postings already! But this one isn’t that spooky. Curiosity prompted us to watch John Frankenheimer’s live TV version of The Turn of the Screw, a piece which only survives because Frankenheimer himself paid to kinescope his shows as they went out (a highly technical procedure which basically involves aiming a movie camera at a TV screen). This paid off, since the director was able to preserve his early work, and also refer back to it, which he found useful when making big movies. Our naive first efforts are often revealing to revisit.

The script for this adaptation of Henry James’ renowned novella is by James Costigan, with a heavy lit-crit emphasis on sexual hysteria as a cause of the ghostly manifestations: even more so than in Jack Clayton’s famous film version, THE INNOCENTS. Incidentally, both filmmakers rely on long lap dissolves for atmosphere, which makes one wonder if Clayton somehow caught the Frankenheimer airing (unlikely), or if something in James’ prose somehow suggests the idea (intriguing).

Recalling the way the BBC’s live Quatermass productions instill a kind of terror through the sheer flop-sweat of the cast struggling to make it through the broadcast without flubbing, corpsing, drying, breaking legs or dropping dead, I was anticipating some agreeable tension here, but Bergman is cool as ice, totally professional, and the kids are so eerily good they chill more for precocity as performers than as characters. Apart from one slight line-stumble early on (which feels quite natural), it’s amazingly slick, and somehow less scary for it.

I got distracted by technical considerations since the drama wasn’t fully engaging my mind. How did Frankenheimer manage scene changes in a narrative where the same character is in nearly every sequence? Here’s a doozy ~

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Dissolve from governess closing French windows to governess’s hands, pressed against the glass of the window as rain pours down outside. Cut to Ingrid at the window.

It seems so simple, yet it’s completely impossible to do live, since during that dissolve Ingrid is literally required to be in two places at one: standing outside in a medium shot, and standing inside at the window with her hands in ECU (plus it has to be simultaneously dry and rainy).

So, I’m thinking Frankenheimer must have had a hand double already in position for that close view. And while it was on air, Ingrid must have sprinted from her position outside to a different window, positioned her hands to match her double’s, and picked up the scene from there. The first televisual hand transplant has been carried out!

I mention this trick over coffee to my editor friend Stephen Horne, and he says, “Ah, kind of like the two Dorothies in WIZARD OF OZ.” Now, I’ve lived with/in OZ all my life, almost, and precisely for this reason, I guess, I’ve never fully unpicked what goes on when Dorothy crosses the threshold from sepia farmhouse to Technicolor Munchkinland. To begin with, she’s apparently sepia, but since this trip is accomplished with a moving camera, we can exclude matte shot trickery. So she’s not filmed in sepia, she actually IS sepia. Some poor stand-in has been spray-painted brown from head to toe, along with the farmhouse door (I wonder if she got sick like Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Woodsman who was poisoned by his lead face-paint). There’s even a sepia Toto, created using the same technology as the horse of a different colour you’ve heard tell about. As we move through the doorway into the gaudy fantasy kingdom, the camera loses sight of the brown Dorothy, and when she re-enters frame she’s a full colour Judy Garland. The magic of movies!

I wonder who came up with this? Must check my Making Of book. Definitely not Victor Fleming, the credited director — I think we may have to chalk one up for the Genius of the System. It’s the kind of thing a bunch of heads of department spitballing and brainstorming, or brainballing and spitstorming, would come up with together.

I don’t know which is more amazing, the OZ substitution, which effects a change of film medium from b&w to colour, or Frankenheimer’s, which went out live to an unsuspecting nation.

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16 Responses to “The Hands of Ingrid”

  1. Aljean Harmetz’s book on the making of The Wizard of Oz may have the answer to your technical query. It’s chock full of all sorts of interesting stuff. Most notable is the fact that Louis B. was OBSESSED with Shirley Temple and convinced that only she could play Dorothy. So Judy entered the picture knowing that she was “sloppy seconds.” Many people helped out but besides Arthur Freed the film’s line producer (who got his one ultra-famous “unit” as a result) and songwriters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg (Yip being my favorite communist next to Larry Adler) George Cukor was on the project briefly. The had Judy decked out like a Maxfield Parrish illustrations with a giant curly wig and an incredibly colorful dress. Cukor told the unit to get rid of this sort of thing STAT. He told Judy “Listen, you’re just a simple little farm girl from Kansas. Keep that in mind.” She did and turned the part into something that has moved generation after generation. It’s also the reason she chose Cukor to direct A Star is Born. He knew how smart she was and respected her from the start — which few in Hollywood power positions did.

    Frankenheimer’s The Comic with Mickey Rooney is a long-take TV wonder that used to be on You Tube/It may be available on home video and must be see to be disbelieved. Pure energy at its most ruthless.

  2. OK, gotta track down that Rooney! I can’t even imagine what the nervous tension must have been like with MR and JF doing live TV together.

    The reason I disbelieve Fleming as progenitor of any technical tricks is the accounts I read of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where he had no clue how to go about transforming Tracy.

    Shirley Temple did The Bluebird as, I guess, a kind of alternative to Oz, but it never entered the canon. Creepiest scene in that is in heaven, with a lot of little kids who are waiting to be born — and they’re all white.

  3. The Comedian is amazing, and is available on a “Golden Age of Television” collection from Criterion; not sure if it is still in print. As far as this transition goes, Frankenheimer had already started using videotape when he did “The Old Man,” on Playhouse 90 in 1958. Turn of the Screw was done a year later, and may have been done that way as well. Certainly the transition shots.

  4. Regarding The Comic: according to Frankenheimer, Mickey Rooney showed up the first day of rehearsal with the entire script memorized, letter-perfect. Frankenheimer was delighted. But, after a couple days of rehearsal, Rooney began to get bored and started changing his lines and blocking every day, claiming each change made the show better, while reducing to chaos, of course, all of Frankenheimer’s careful plans.

    Eventually, Frankenheimer came to him and said, “Look, Mickey, I think everything you’re doing is great. My problem is, I’m kinda a dumb guy. If I don’t hear the line that’s in the script, I don’t know when to cut to your close-up.”

    According to Frankenheimer, Rooney stuck exactly to the script after that.

  5. Brilliant direction! The implied threat of withholding closeups… works every time.

    Mike Hodges directed Rooney in Pulp and found him a ball of nervous energy, unable to stop even between takes.

    Shocking revelations since his death about the elder abuse he seems to have suffered. No doubt more revelations/accusations are on their way.

  6. Claude Chabrol said his favorite film performance was Mickey Rooney in Men of Boys Town: “I love all hysterical actors.”

  7. Mickey was as hysterical as they come!

  8. henryholland666 Says:

    For me, as much as I love “The Innocents”, the only adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw” that really matters is Benjamin Britten’s incredible opera:

    I’ve seen three productions of it, it’s a stunner in the theater. “Peter Quint! You devil!” indeed.

    Britten wrote the part of Miles for then-boy treble David Hemmings, who did the premiere in Venice in 1954. Hemmings had the nerve, the unmitigated gall, to have his voice crack due to the onset of puberty at a later performance. He was one of Britten’s notorious “casualties”, people who had outlived their usefulness to him and were kicked to the curb.

  9. Well, that is the fate of all boy sopranos, I guess. Hemmings was lucky in that his talent had other outlets.

    Maltydog’s suggestion that Frankenheimer could have used a bit of pre-record for his transition is a compelling one, though I like my low-tech version slightly better, from a poetic standpoint.

  10. Talking of doubles: There was a live TV production of Christmas Carol titled “The Stingiest Man in Town,” which survives in kinoscope. Basil Rathbone played Scrooge. For one longish shot we only see “his” hands clinging to Christmas Future’s robes as his voice swears to reform. Next shot has Rathbone changed from his nightshirt to his street clothes.

    As for the transformation, there’s an episode of “The Goodies” where we see what seems to be an old B&W film. Then the camera reveals Buster Keaton fan Bill Oddie is painting a full-color street to simulate B&W. A later bit involves characters watching bits of film in a projection room. At one point an onscreen character — Oddie still in B&W? — reaches out and grabs somebody from his seat, revealing that the screen was a window in a miniature set.

  11. Yes! That shot formed part of the opening titles montage for years, and seemed entirely inexplicable to the childish me. Later, as an adult, I saw the episode, and it (sort of) all made sense. One of their best.

    Fascinating to realize that the hands trick was a commonly used one, probably. The directors must have watched each others’ shows to crib ideas and figure out how effects were achieved. They also had a trainee system. What they did NOT do, according to Arthur Penn, is hang out together. I saw a talk by Penn where Brian DePalma was in the audience and he expressed amazement that Penn’s generation of New York TV directors did not seek out each others’ company socially.

  12. Consulted The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz, which is full of detail, but contains nothing on the arrival in Oz, though Judy’s stand-in was interviewed.

  13. david wingrove Says:

    My favourite version of TURN OF THE SCREW (alongside THE INNOCENTS) is the 1985 OTRA VUELTA DEL TUERCO by the late Spanish film-maker Eloy de la Iglesia. Notorious in the Franco years as both an ‘out’ gay director and a heroin addict, Eloy turned the governess into a young man. That certainly adds a fascinating twist to the story’s (already twisted) sexuality.

  14. Well, why not? Most later version I struggle to see the point. Is it really going to get any better with Patsy Kensitt? But a distinct new take on the story is its own justification.

  15. david wingrove Says:

    Have you seen the Patsy Kensit version? It’s a riot. Marianne Faithfull (apparently in a drugged-out stupor) narrates the whole thing as part of a group therapy session. Julian Sands smokes opium and sprawls on a zebra-skin rug – and then vanishes again. And Patsy herself is actually NOT TOO BAD!

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