This is Part 2 of James Curtis’ 1975 interview with Dick Lane. In this segment, Lane discusses his start in films in Los Angeles, making “Union Pacific” with Cecil B. De Mille, Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO and making “Boom Town” with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
Part 1 is here.
Photo: Dick Lane, Adele Mara and George McKay in “Alias Boston Blackie,” listed on EBay for $10.
JAMES CURTIS: The first film, I guess, that you made out here was “Super Sleuth” with Jack Oakie.
DICK LANE: No, the first picture I made at RKO was a picture called “The Outcasts of Poker Flats.” Bret Harte. And in it was Van Heflin, Preston Foster–they were the two leads. My first morning on the scene, I had two or three words. All I said was, “I’m walkin’ Sonoma,” and somebody shot me. And I fell and lay on a rock from eleven o’clock in the morning until it was too dark to shoot well. While I was lying on that rock all afternoon, and Preston Foster and Van Heflen were blowing their lines, I’m looking up in this tree, and I said to myself: “This is pictures? This is the movies? Where you make love to beautiful women and wear fancy clothes? Here I am on a rock, freezing to death, and there are birds up in this tree. Oh, no. This is not what I came for.” But that was the first picture.
JC:Did you ever think that you might want to get out of it and go back to the stage?
DL:If ever I had it, it was that morning. But from then on, things got very busy, and at that time, you could make as many films as the company would hire you for. They’d give you so much a week, and that meant they could use you in anything. I worked in as many as three pictures at one time. In one day. At RKO. Until the Screen Actors Guild finally came through with a ruling–you work in three pictures, you get three salaries. Well that stopped all that. But during the 18 months I was at RKO, I worked in 33 pictures.
JC:Your contract ran for 18 months?
DL:Well, a seven-year contract is a joker anyway. A seven-year contract is four six-month options and five one-year options. So at the end of the first six months they can drop you like a hot potato.
JC:But you can’t drop them.
DL:No. But at the end of my 18th month, my third six-month option, they overlooked the fact that I had an option coming up, and I didn’t remind them. It lapsed two days beyond the date they were supposed to renew me. My agent said, “Don’t say anything about it.” He went over and booked me into Universal, and I stayed over there for ten pictures. On freelance, and I’ve freelanced ever since. Except for the contract I had with Columbia for the Boston Blackie things.
JC:Was the contract just for the Boston Blackies? Or could they use you in other things too?
DL:Oh, I worked in other things too at Columbia. It’s been a wonderful experience.
JC:You were considered kind of a master of dialects at that time–you could mimic any kind of national accent.
DL:The fellow I used to try to pattern myself after was J. Carrol Naish, probably one of the best dialecticians. He played some wonderful things.
JC:I always thought he was Italian or Mexican–
DL:No, he was Irish.
JC: –he was Irish! I saw that in his obituary.
DL: Yeah, J. Carrol was Irish. He played Portuguese… and Italians. He did a series called “Life with Luigi.”
JC:He was Charlie Chan for a while, too.
DL: That’s right.
Photo: George Zucco and Dick Lane in “Charlie Chan in Honolulu.”
JC:When you got the ball rolling, pretty much, in 1938, you were bouncing all over the place–Twentieth Century-Fox for a Charlie Chan picture called “Charlie Chan in Honolulu.”
JC:With Sidney Toler. I guess that was just after Warner Oland had died.
JC:Were the Charlie Chan films treated a little better than, say, how RKO treated their product at that time? Or the Boston Blackies?
DL:Yes, they put a little more time and effort into them. Because they knew they had a fine property there in Charlie Chan. Speaking of the Charlie Chan things, later, during the next few years, they brought a fellow we used to call “The Creep”–Peter Lorre–and they started a series they called Mr. Moto…
JC: Peter Lorre got a reputation over the years, especially later on in television, as being quite a character.
DL:He was a lovable little man.
JC:What was it like to work with him?
DL: Well, he was a little reticent about his background, his past. The only thing he did tell me one time–we were working at Warner Bros. and we were in the commissary having lunch and I’d been talking about Joe Penner–he said his life was quite parallel to Joe Penner’s early life. Joe was a Magyar–a gypsy, you know. Peter Lorre told me he never had a pair of real shoes. His grandmother used to make his shoes, and she’d knit socks and things for him. He wanted a pair of shoes more than anything in his life, and he said he ran away and finally came up to Berlin, where he heard about Max Reinhardt, the great director. He told Max what he wanted to do, that he wanted to be an actor. And Max believed him and made an actor out of him. As a result he came to the States. He was a nice little man to know.
Photo: Peter Lorre and Dick Lane in “Mr. Moto in Danger Island.”
JC: You did “Mr. Moto in Danger Island,” and you did “Union Pacific” with Cecil B. De Mille…
DL:Yes. I played Sam Reed, the engineer. That was an experience.
JC:Was De Mille a hard taskmaster?
DL:Yes, but I liked to work for him because he knew what he wanted and had the ability and the vocabulary to tell you what he wanted.
JC:Was he an actor’s director?
DL:Yes. He was a very peculiar fellow in a great many ways. He loved to find a patsy in his cast somewhere. He’d try different people, and if he started to jump at you or scream at you and you yelled back at him, he’d lay off, he’d leave you alone. But if you whimpered about it, oh, well that’s where he could crack the whip. And sometimes he seemed to enjoy having fun with the patsy. For an instance, we had a scene, a pickup scene, a little scene that one has to just insert into the picture, of a man who is rolling a wagon wheel up and putting it on the axle of a big old wagon. And as he rolled this wheel, a rider on horseback comes into the scene. And since we were shooting this man, to simulate the rider, an assistant walked behind the camera with a handkerchief on a stick, so that he could follow that handkerchief with his eyes as if it were the rider coming into view. And as he followed this handkerchief on a stick past the camera, he, just for a split second, looked into the camera. And De Mille said, “Cut! Don’t look into my camera!” Well, now he’s conscious of the camera. He tried it again; he’d get to the camera and look under it, and go on. And “Cut!” again. And then he’d look over it, he was so conscious of that camera. And finally De Mille lit into him. Oh, and he laid him to filth. “Stand out there with your tongue hanging out, begging for a job. I give it to you and you come in and stink up my picture…” and he went after him. And while he’s doing this, Lynne Overman and I were sitting directly behind him, and in the middle of this tirade he turned around to us and said, “How am I doing?” He loved it. He finally hired the fellow for another picture because he was a patsy.
JC:He was terribly flamboyant, wasn’t he?
DL:Oh, my. He’d come in with the leggings on, you know–the leather puttees. One day he’d have all green–a green whipcord suit, with a green matching shirt, green tie, emerald ring–green everywhere. The next day it would be orange, or gray. He had to be the center of attraction at all times, and he had a good reason to be because he was really somethin’ else.
JC:“Carefree,” at RKO, I guess was one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ last pictures together. At that time, I get the impression, RKO was in trouble.
DL:Well, RKO a great many times was in trouble. When they finally did keel over, it was inevitable. Howard Hughes came in and took over. Strange things about Howard Hughes–several weeks after the studio was sold to Mr. Hughes, nobody had ever seen him. Which was natural. And after several weeks of that, they got a call from a Mr. Dietrich, who was his manager, and he said that Mr. Hughes was coming down to see his studio. Well, everybody buzzed around, and I remember that Walter Daniels said, “Come on down. Hughes is comin’ down.” So I went down there, and we waited, and finally Mr. Hughes came in. And we walked around with him, showed him the whole studio, all the different stages, and the front rooms, the cutting rooms, the editing rooms, the offices and everything, and he just went umhum… umhum…. umhum. Never said anything–just umhum… umhum. And finally we went up into Pan Berman’s office, with a big long conference table, and we all sat around, looking at him, and him looking back at us, and finally Walter Daniels said, “Uh, well, Mr. Hughes, you’ve seen your studio. What do you think?” And Hughes looked up an down this long table, and finally he said, “Paint it.” And got up and walked out.
JC:Did he ever come back?
DL:Never saw him again. But they did–they painted it. And they painted everything, even the fire hydrants. Everything.
JC:When you were shooting the Fred Astaire picture, was it longer to do because of the amount of rehearsal involved?
DL:Yes, we took a great deal more time. It wasn’t that they didn’t know what they were doing, but they were both such tremendous artists that if they did anything in a dance it was no good just to stand back, way back in a long shot, and see them do it. They did things so well, certain little nuances, if you can call it, in a dance–they wanted them accented by being in a little closer. A great many times they’d take one scene over and over and over again. That means (unintelligible) the playback, then just one little turn. They wanted it so perfectly, they were perfect people, both of them–particularly Fred Astaire. When he asked Ginger, it was like automatic with her.
JC:Was there ever any temperament displayed?
DL:Never. Never. I don’t think there’s a temperamental ounce of anything in Fred Astaire or Ginger. Ginger came up the hard way. She came up from the ranks–vaudeville. She took her training there.
JC:They were easy to get along with.
JC:Did you ever have any problems with a major personality?
DL:Never. I’d rather run away from a fight than get caught in one.
JC:You’re able to get along with everyone?
DL:Yes. I don’t think I’ve ever had a cross word with anyone I worked with.
JC:After that, you went to MGM and did “Boom Town.”
DL:Oh, yes. I did several pictures at MGM. I did one called “Two Girls on Broadway” with Lana Turner and Joan Blondell. Walter Pidgeon. I played an impresario, a musical comedy man–a Ziegfeld-type thing.
JC:What was it about MGM and Louis B. Mayer?
DL:Louie B. Mayer was a despot. Either it went the way he wanted it to go, or it just didn’t go. It needed relaxation, which it didn’t have. Everybody worked under stress. But I did a picture over there with Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, a thing called “Midnight Serenade.” Ethel Barrymore and Mario Lanza, if you’ll remember. That was an experience. Delightful woman to work with. And then I did a baseball picture there, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Esther Williams.
JC:How would you compare the way Gene Kelly would work with the way Fred Astaire would work? Or is there any comparison?
DL: There was no comparison, unless you could say there are two gods. These two are in a field of their own. I couldn’t say one was superior to the other, but they were both top. And still are.
Photo: Spencer Tracy and Dick Lane in “Boom Town.”
JC:When you did “Boom Town,” I guess it must have been one of their biggest pictures of the year.
DL:Jack Conway was the director, but one of the reasons I delighted in the picture was that Jack Conway was taken sick during the making of the picture. And they didn’t want to close the picture, so they brought Victor Fleming on to take over while he was ill. He had flu or something; I don’t remember what it was. Victor Fleming had just completed “Gone With the Wind” with Gable. He picked a sequence, the courtroom sequence. He said he’d direct that. And he did. But after the first couple of days, it looked like: “Wait a minute, this fellow isn’t going to come back in the next few days and we don’t want to run out of work here. I don’t want to get into another sequence. This should take maybe five or six days, but we gotta make this thing last until he gets ready to come back.” So we’d go on the set in the morning, nine o’clock call, and sit around and read the dailies–Variety and the Hollywood Reporter–until ten or ten-thirty. And then Fleming would say, “Well, what do you say we put the stooges in?” Stand-ins. The stand-ins would go in, and they’d light the thing and take a look at it. The he’d say, “Well, let’s go to lunch.” After lunch, we’d try the stand-ins again. And then about two o’clock, he’d say, “Well, what do you say we take a crack at one?” So we’d go in, and we’d try it. And he’d say, “Let’s shoot it.” So we’d shoot. He’d say, “Alright, how was camera?” Okay for camera. “How was it for sound?” Okay. “Did we get our lines right?” We’d say yeah. “Print it. I’ll take a look at it in the morning. Right back here tomorrow.” That thing went on for 17 days.
JC:Seventeen days before Conway came back?
Photo: Spencer Tracy puts his hands in his pockets in “Boom Town.”
DL: Seventeen days before he came back, and he never went out of that sequence. But he finally finished it. But during that sequence, you’ll remember the scene in that witness box. Tracy’s in the witness box. He had a habit of putting his hands in his pockets. He told me that was because he didn’t know what the hell to do with them. He’d put ‘em in his pockets. And he’d stand up. And he had a long speech. It had to be memorized and given beautifully. And when he was doing it one time, Gable crawled on his hands and knees around behind the jury box and gave him a hot foot–both shoes. You never saw a guy come out of his shoes so fast! By the time he got his shoes off and the fire put out at the bottom of his pants, Gable was on his motorcycle and off the lot.