This is one of the best films of 2015.
HOLLYWOOD - "The mustard! Watch the blasted mustard!"
Joshua Logan's face reflected horror as a prop man neatly and precisely stepped backward into a spray of mustard grass. Vanessa Redgrave, reclining in a hammock, lifted her head far enough to view the damage, and then sank back with a sigh.
"I have never seen anything like it," Logan moaned. "A buffalo herd leaves more behind it than this outfit."
The chastised prop man left with a colleague and a shovel, in search of another spray of mustard grass. Logan decreed a five-minute break and sank into his director's chair.
The cast of "Camelot" had been on location - or, more precisely, had been jammed into a suitably medieval little clearing on the back lot of Warner Brothers - since the light was right that morning.
Now it was past noon, and all they wanted ("All I ask," intoned Logan, face heavenward) was a brief sequence in which Queen Guinevere sang one verse of "Take Me to the Fair." That was all.
Part of the trouble was the clearing, hardly big enough to build a campfire in, or find a decent footprint. It was framed with trees, carpeted with thick green grass, and lit with romantic yellow beams from the sun and the rich hues of Logan's vocabulary. Into this clearing had been squeezed the hammock, slung between two saplings; Vanessa Redgrave (as Guinevere); Anthony Rogers (Dinadin); an epic-sized film crew; and at least a dozen visitors, fiancees, reporters and out-of-work knights.
Logan wanted to shoot the scene with just a touch of out-of-focus mustard grass in the foreground and just a suggestion of out-of-focus horses tethered in the background. Since David Lean found those daffodils through the frosty window in "Doctor Zhivago," no spectacle has been complete without a dash of tenderizing flowers around somewhere, like cinematic Accent.
The script called for Sir Dinadin to gently rock the hammock with his toe while Guinevere sang "Take Me to the Fair." Miss Redgrave is singing the songs in her own voice (an innovation in Hollywood musicals, one gathers), and the idea was to pick up her voice live and dub in the full orchestra later.
Unfortunately, the shooting schedule seemed to bear some eerie correspondence to the flight schedule at Los Angeles International Airport, which neatly placed a jet overhead just as Miss Redgrave got to the fair. And there was the incident of the collapsing hammock, which ruined another take when it sank gently to the ground in mid-song, pinioning Sir Dinadin's noble toe beneath it.
Then, finally, there was the business of the mustard grass. "Are they back yet with the mustard?" Logan asked, looking around helplessly. "A little thing like mustard grass. In half an hour the light will be wrong." He squinted at the sky.
"We've spent half the morning waiting for airplanes to fly over," he said. "Ordinarily on a scene like this we'd go ahead and film it and let Vanessa dub in her own voice later. But we want to get the live performance. I think it gives the scene a better feel.
"You know," Logan said, "it really will be Vanessa's own voice." He spoke as if he were reassuring a saboteur that the parachute really would open. "Ever since 'West Side Story,' people have gotten very bothered about dubbing in the voices of other singers. I can't imagine why.
"When I did 'South Pacific,' Ezio Pinza was the only actor who sang his own songs, and nobody seemed to care. But Vanessa herself will sing, all the same. She has a marvelous voice, but nobody over here has heard it because she's known only as an actress."
Logan said his emphasis in the filming of "Camelot" would be on the story rather than the songs. The Lerner-Lowe musical, which had long runs in New York and London, is based on "The Once and Future King," a modern retelling of the Arthur legend by the late T. H. White. The production will actually wind up costing more than Warner's previous Lerner-Lowe extravaganza, "My Fair Lady." according to Logan. He said the mathematics were very simple. "Fair Lady" was budgeted at $15,000,000, but a third of that was the $5,500,000 purchase price. "Camelot," on the other hand, is budgeted at $13,000,000, but the rights cost a mere million, so the production itself will cost $2,500,000 more. Got it?
A good many of the millions have been invested in John Truscott's formidable sets which occupy most of the sound stages on the Warner lot. There's a $500,000 Great Hall in the largest one, and down the street there's an Enchanted Garden which started out as Spring, and after duly serving as Summer and Autumn has now been transformed into Winter through the miracle of Morton's Salt and Saran-Wrap.
But the show-stopper is King Arthur's study, painstakingly furnished with handmade medieval scientific instruments, a butterfly collection, stuffed owls and squirrels, an astrolabe (which works, although nobody seems quite certain how), a fireplace, fur-covered chairs, and a pungent side of bacon.
"Nobody knows when Camelot existed if it did exist," Logan explained, "but I was damned if I was going to set it in one of those clammy old stone castles furnished with a flickering torch, suits of armor and moss-covered stairs. Our castle," he said warmly, "is a place King Arthur could call home."
Arthur's study is connected to Guinevere's bedroom by a moss-covered stone passage furnished with a torch and a suit of armor ("A concession to the castle fans," Logan explained), but the rest of the castle has a lived-in look.
Truscott, who designed the London and Sydney productions of "Camelot," has brought into full play the massive, but seldom-used, facilities of a studio built when 90,000,000 Americans went to the movies every week. The armor shop is in full production once again, painstakingly banging together 1,500 suits of armor, and the leatherworks have produced breathtaking costumes including a gown made for Miss Redgrave out of kid glove leather. Whether all of this will pay off at the box office is, as yet, an unanswered question. To a musical with de-emphasized songs and a set furnished with lavish expense, Logan added another risk when he cast relative unknowns for three of the four leading roles. Richard Harris (King Arthur), is of course an established star; but who, when Logan was casting his film more than a year ago, had heard very much about Miss Redgrave, David Hemmings, and Franco Nero?
As it happens, Logan's guesses were superb. Vanessa Redgrave won an Academy Award nomination for her performance in "Morgan," and Hemmings (who plays Arthur's illegitimate son, Mordred) has become one of the hottest screen properties in the world on the basis of his first and only film, Antonioni's "Blow-Up."
Franco Nero, who has the romantic lead as the gallant Sir Lancelot, is an Italian cowboy star whose only previous appearance in an American film was for John Huston in "The Bible." He played Abel to Richard Harris' Cain, but now they're back again, together again. Secure, then, in his choice of cast and exulted by the exquisite sets, such beautiful toys for a director who began within the confines of the stage, Joshua Logan now worries about camera angles and airplanes and mustard grass.
He watched without emotion as the prop men dug up the hapless mustard plant and replaced it with another (snatched, so the story went, from beneath the thundering hooves of F Troop). Then he stood up and signaled Dinadin to start the toe going again.
"All right now, ladies and gentlemen," he said, "may we begin?"
"I'm going to sing softer this time," Miss Redgrave said. "I don't want to be making opera faces."
Josh Logan nodded, and Sir Dinadin nodded, and the whole company nodded. But their eyes were on the mustard.
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