War & Peace, brought to you by Wrigley’s

There’s a great bit in King Vidor on Film Making where he talks about running out of money on WAR AND PEACE. They had a scene where Audrey Hepburn exchanges saucy glances with Vittorio Gassman at the opera. They built several opera boxes so they could film Audrey’s shots in the studio, with enough surrounding context to make it look like she was really there, but their plan for an opera house fell through.

The producers were sending Vidor to every opera house in Italy in hopes he could wrangle a venue for free, and somehow fill it with extras in period dress also for free.

Finally, King decided he wasn’t going to find an opera house, and mobilised his mighty brain. As they say in the military, If you know what your objective is, you’ll know what to do.

KV needed a reverse angle of Gassman in the stalls at the front of the opera house. And he needed a wide shot of the interior to establish it.

Elsewhere in his book, Vidor talks about his strong visual memory. He made a mental picture of what the front of an opera house looks like. What could you actually see from Audrey’s box? The orchestra would be hidden in the pit, save for the head and shoulders of the conductor, and the neck of a bass fiddle.

Vidor wasn’t entirely without resources: he had the use of a studio. They strung the only bit of red velvet they had to make part of the curtain. The audience believes it’s looking at half the curtain, because we know what size a theatre curtain must be. In fact, what we see in shot is all there was.

A row of camera platforms formed that part of the stage front not covered by the curtain. A row of lamps were strung along here to suggest footlights. A red velvet barrier masked the non-existent “orchestra pit” and the conductor was a man in a low chair peeping out over the top, dressed in the top half of a costume, while the broken neck of a bass fiddle was held in view a short distance away. Adding the sound of an orchestra tuning up completed the illusion.

Some rows of chairs were arranged, and Vidor could just barely afford twenty extras in costume. Now for the establishing shot.

Vidor had obtained a large photograph of La Scala. He wondered how much movement he would need to get into it for us to believe it was a live action shot. He sent it to Technicolor in London who were known for doing good special effects and asked them to turn it into a large painting. Then he asked them to affix little pieces of light silver foil to the images of figures in the audience, and position an electric fan where it would cause the foil to move. He advised them that they could obtain suitable foil from Selfridges in Oxford Street, who sold Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum.

The effect Vidor was hoping for was a suggestion of a dozen or so fans flickering in the audience. I don’t quite read it that way — probably the foil should have been tissue paper — but the trick is nevertheless a complete success — we read the opera house as a live action shot populated with real, full-sized three-dimensional people.

The establishing shot is at 1:27:27 in the Youtube video above, and Gassman’s reverse angle starts at 1:28:53.

WAR AND PEACE stars Eliza Dolittle (2) and her real-life husband, Stephen Orlac; with Tom Joad; Brancaleone da Norcia; Chief Insp. Charles Dreyfus; Colonel Stok; Amanda Beatrice Cross; The Stranger (from Venus); Mr. Lundle; Fräulein Schneider; Alfred Dolittle (1); Lola-Lola (2); Sherlock Holmes (1984-94) and his best friend, Sherlock Homes (1970); William Mossop; and the voice of Colossus.

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5 Responses to “War & Peace, brought to you by Wrigley’s”

  1. revelator60 Says:

    Vidor said somewhere that his first cut of War and Peace was five hours long. I have a feeling that would have been a better film—and a better adaptation—than Bondarchuk’s version, which is good at war but plodding in peace. Paul Schrader has argued that as it is Vidor’s film is still the better one.

  2. Confession: I have seen neither. But reading about the Vidor makes me determined to see it. I watched the astounding extras reel of the Bondarchuk and so I really ought to get around to that too.

    I did see his Waterloo on the big screen and really liked it.

  3. I take pleasure in old-school trickery. Recall an interview with a noir director who laughed that a famous tracking of the hero’s feet was just to cover that they didn’t have a full street set.

    Recently revisited “Enchanted April”. On the commentary, the director points out how tight the London exteriors are — they’d only show a doorway, using a flurry of extras and maybe a vehicle to imply what supposedly (but didn’t) exist just out of frame. The effect is persuasive and you never question why you aren’t seeing more.

    Similarly, Terry Gilliam talks about how a tiny band of extras was precisely deployed to imply a mass audience for Agamemnon in “Time Bandits.”

  4. James W Cobb Says:

    i have never been able to make it through the Vidor WAR AND PEACE. I did see the full Russian version in 70mm at AFI about a decade ago…. all eight hours or so in one day…. and think it is amazing. I understand a new restoration of the latter is going be shown in the U.S. in the coming months and rumor has it that Criterion may do a blu ray. Based on your comment though, I may have to give Vidor another shot.

  5. The Vidor is shot by Jack Cardiff, so there are going to be some pleasures…

    It’s facinating how some movies and shows (the acclaimed Feud was one) look empty and cheap, while others with bolder directing choices achieve production values that never actually existed.

    A good one I forgot to mention — I think it comes from Dmytryk’s On Film Directing. A boxing match had to be staged, and it was supposed to be set in a giant arena, but they couldn’t afford a crowd. Looking at newsreels of actual events, they realized all you could see after the front rows was darkness with the occasional flash of a cigarette lighter. So they just had a few guys running about in the unlit space, pausing here and there to ignite their Zippos. A cast of thousands!

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