Industry vets give insight into Hollywood history

As Oscar approaches its 80th anniversary, it’s worth remembering that much of the storied history of cinema is alive and well just a short drive up the 101 freeway. Sharon Knolle visited the residences run by the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif., to talk with retired industry pros about their experiences working on Oscar-nominated films, and about the way Hollywood used to operate before multinational corporations ruled the biz.

MAURY WINETROBE

(85, film editor, nominated for “Funny Girl” in 1969)

“I went to USC and during the summer, I took a job as a janitor at Columbia Pictures and I wanted to be a film editor, so I’d take some film and I practiced. And I got a job on ‘Funny Girl,'” says Winetrobe, who had the good fortune to be nominated for an Oscar for his very first film. 

He had first worked as a music editor and, finding he preferred film, made the switch, so working on a musical was a natural fit. 

“Barbra Streisand does a number on roller skates, and it ran for seven minutes. She said, ‘What do you think about it?’ And I said, ‘It’s too long.’ And she said, “Well, I like it, I like to see myself onscreen,'” Winetrobe chuckles. “We cut it down to a minute and a half.” He recently watched it again at the Academy Theater. “They ran ‘Funny Girl’ the other night to a full house and I wondered, ‘Why did I do it that way? Why did I cut it there?’ But it’s still my favorite because it was the first one.”

Winetrobe considers himself lucky to not only have worked with some of the top directors, like Robert Aldrich, but to have had a free hand with editing. “William Wyler, who was one of the biggest directors around, used to say, ‘Do it the way you want to.’ I think you go by the film, whatever the film tells you. Once in a while you’ll cut a scene because the director wants it that way, but most of the time you go with your instinct.”

Winetrobe only offered advice once to a director, who he declines to name, and who he’d worked with several times. “‘I don’t think I’d shoot it that way,’ I told him,” he says. “It was the last picture we did together.”

BETTY FREEMAN

(94, helped sound-effects husband)

“I polished him last night,” Freeman says of her late husband’s Oscar, which she brought with her to the interview in a wheeled suitcase as it was too heavy for the petite woman to carry. “He was dark and dim and gloomy looking and now he’s somebody again. It was fun to give the old boy another chance to look around.” Charles Freeman won the statue in 1948 for sound effects in “Portrait of Jennie.”

The Oscar usually resides with her son, since she was sure that everyone at the home would have one. “I thought it would just be so common, but then I found out that practically nobody does!”

She recalls the unusually small Oscar ceremony the year that her husband won. “They suddenly decided they weren’t going to have a big affair. The big companies were not going to finance it. It was very tiny, so the only people who could go were the nominees.

“We parked our car in Beverly Hills, and they had all these beautiful black limousines waiting for us and we piled into them. Kids were yelling at us as we went down Wilshire. All the people in the seats were nominated, so you looked all around the room, watching everybody, it was very exciting. And he won it.”

Freeman often helped her husband with his work. “At night, he and I would go down (to the studio) and we would be the audible effects, making noises, tapping on the floor or whatever. In ‘Portrait of Jennie,’ when she was skating and walking in the park, they didn’t get all the audible effects so we made whatever sounds we thought we needed.

“Sound effects at that time were still relatively new and they would not get them, and they didn’t have a library that was adequate,” Freeman says, adding that for Westerns, they’d often go to their friends who had horses to capture the sound of horses galloping. “The creativeness of being a sound editor was important,” she says.

CONNIE SAWYER

(90, actress)

Sawyer got her start at 19 (under her given name of Rosie Cohen) in vaudeville and standup comedy. After seeing a production of “The Glass Menagerie,” she decided she wanted to be a character actress. She started studying with Ute Hagen and got into the Actors Studio, and is still one of the most sought-after character actresses in the business, appearing on shows like “ER” and “Becker” as well as commercials. (Her interview had to be conducted over the phone as she was busy working on the day that we visited the Motion Picture Fund Home.)

One of her most memorable roles, as one half of a couple in the opening scenes of original-screenplay Oscar nominee “When Harry Met Sally,”  was entirely ad libbed. Being a Method actress, Sawyer insisted on reading the entire script first. “When I got to the part where the old lady says, ‘I’ll have what she’s having,’ I ran over to Rob (Reiner) and said, ‘I want to do the showstopping line.’ And he said, ‘I gave it to my mother!’ And I said, ‘Well, I can’t top that!’ “

Another favorite role of Sawyer’s was as the drunk who comes into the hotel crying, “Geronimo!” in “A Hole in the Head.” She was the only one brought in from the Broadway show for the film when Frank Sinatra acquired the rights. She had two young children at the time and told Sinatra that she couldn’t leave them alone. “Oh, God, bring the children,” he told her. “And I was very cocky then,” she says, “so I said, ‘Well, I’ll have to bring the maid who takes care of them,’ and he said, ‘Bring the maid!’ When I got on the set, he said to everybody,  ‘You don’t know what this broad did to me!’ That’s why I loved Sinatra, he was so real and so funny and so honest. I had a ball working with him.”

She’s just finished a significant role as James Franco’s grandmother in “Pineapple Express,” a film that was mostly ad libbed, to her great delight. “It’s great to go to work. Who cares whether they’re good parts or not? The fact that I can still work is great.” 

CHARLES JARROTT

(80, director)

After a career spent in repertory theater, Jarrott made the jump to directing television and then got offered his first feature film, 1969’s “Anne of the Thousand Days.”

“I was quite surprised — nevertheless, I took it,” he laughs. “One of the things I had done (for TV) was called ‘The Young Elizabeth.’ It was a very filmic version, and Hal Wallis was excited about it, and it was on the strength of that that he gave me the film. Everybody in television in those days wanted to be in film, but it was very hard. They didn’t cross over like they do now.”

But the transition didn’t make Jarrott nervous. “I think one of the things that helped me in feature film was that if you’ve done live TV, you can do anything. It teaches you the most enormous discipline. It also teaches you to put the whole picture into your head and edit it yourself in your head, so when you shoot, you shoot fairly economically.”

As for working with Richard Burton, Jarrott recalls, “You don’t direct Burton, you suggest something to Burton, but he’s got his own way that he wants to do it, and if you feel that it’s very wrong, you go up and say, ‘I think maybe you can do it another way.’ “

In fact, his set was so calm that Alec Guinness, dressed as Charles I, wandered in from another shoot and asked if he could sit for 10 minutes because his set — with co-star Richard Harris — was so disruptive. Jarrott had other visitors, in the form of Oona Chaplin and her children, and was later dismayed to hear that Charlie Chaplin himself had been wandering about in the hallway, too shy to come in.

“Anne” was nominated for 10 Oscars (it won a Golden Globe), but Jarrott didn’t attend the ceremony as he was busy working on his next film, “Mary, Queen of Scots,” starring Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. “That was interesting, with the two premier actresses of England in the same piece.”

Jarrott praises Redgrave as “a terrific artist,” saying, “She’s got a million ideas. The only thing you have to try to do is avoid the more bizarre suggestions,” adding that for Mary, she wanted to play the entire role with a French accent, as Mary had lived in France for much of her life. At the producer‘s insistence, the idea was dropped. “Any good actor, you can give them a good reason, they will accept it. It’s only people who are very insecure who sometimes fight.”

RUTHIE TOMPSON

(97, Disney animator)

It was a different era when Tompson got her start in animation, when a “nosy kid,” as she laughingly refers to herself, walking by the Walt Disney studio would be invited to come in and observe. As a child, Tompson was a neighbor of Walt Disney — in fact, he used to film her and her friends playing for animation studies.

As a young adult, Tompson was working at the Burbank stables, where Disney and several of his animators came to learn to play polo. “All of a sudden this guy looks me in the eye and says, ‘Ruthie Tompson, what are you doing here?'” Disney suggested that Johnson come work for him, and when she demurred, telling him that she couldn’t draw, he insisted. “‘You don’t need to, we’ll teach you,'” she recalls him telling her. “And if you do it, we’ll give you the job, and if you don’t, goodbye.”

Tompson began night school to learn how to ink animation cels. “I didn’t know how to draw, and they used these delicate little pens,” Tompson explains, noting that if you did it wrong, the tip would break and splatter ink all over. The second night, the instructor tactfully suggested that Tompson switch to painting. She was called in to work on some Christmas shorts, and later she joined up full time, staying until forced into retirement in 1975. 

“What impressed me when I first went to work at the studio (was) here I am a peon, basically, and the first thing they did was give me the script for ‘Fantasia’ and said, ‘Take it home and read it and if you have any suggestions, please let us know,'” she recalls. “Fantasia” won an honorary Oscar in 1942 and is considered to be a groundbreaking film.

Employees also got paid for any gag that made it into a finished film. Tompson once suggested a different tune for a Pluto short, earning herself $5.

At lunch, rough cuts of animation were shown and bits that got laughs stayed in, while those that didn’t were cut. Tompson remembers Disney overhearing her humming “Baby Mine” from “Dumbo” and deciding, on the basis of that, to keep the song. The song was nominated for an Oscar.

She went on to work in different departments, including scenery planning, before ending up as head of the department. Her less-than-stellar inking came back to haunt her when a batch of cels she’d proudly signed were thrown back at her when she criticized a newcomer’s inking skills. She was one of the first women in the cinematographers society: She didn’t actually handle a camera, but her job involved plotting camera moves. It was more than a year before she got paid the same as her male predecessor, thanks to an employee who complained on her behalf. “I got a big check after that,” she smiles.

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