One of the countless gags in Olsen and Johnson’s “Hellzapoppin’ ”
This is Part 3 of James Curtis’ 1975 interview with Dick Lane. In this installment, Lane discusses Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Jack Benny, Howard Hawks and making “Hellzapoppin’ ” with Olsen and Johnson.
JAMES CURTIS: How would you appraise Spencer Tracy? How would he behave on the set? Was he a loner?
DICK LANE: Oh, no, no. He was quite a guy, a real guy. We had a lot of fun, too.
JC: Did he ever flub his lines?
DL: Very rarely. He had another thing about him. During that scene, he became kind of dramatic in the story. The script called for a cut to Gable, who was sitting in the audience, and he had a line: “What a ham!” And Tracy didn’t want the thing in; he wanted it out. He said, “It breaks the continuity of my speech up there, and I don’t want it. It makes me look like a thing up there–I’m not a ham.” Fleming said, “Alright, it’s out.” The last day that Fleming was on the picture, Tracy was gone. He said, “Let’s shoot that line.” He got Gable in the seat, and he shot the one line: “What a ham!” And when it was shown at the preview, you could hear Tracy yelp to South Pasadena when he heard that line. They told him it was going to be out, but it’s still in when they rerun it on TV.
JC: It’s hard to imagine Gable’s stature at the time.
DL: He was very aptly named. He was The King.
JC: How did he handle that kind of fame?
Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in “Parnell” in a photo listed on EBay at $24.99.
DL: You’d never know that he was The King. Nobody ever called him The King. And nobody ever kowtowed to him or toadied to him or schmoozed him. Everybody accepted him for what he was–a tremendous guy and a fine actor. He never delivered a bad performance, that I can think of, except one. He made one picture–
DL:–called “Parnell.” It’ll empty a theater like a stink bomb. But nobody ever said that MGM made a bad picture; Clark Gable made a bad picture. Almost dragged him down.
JC: You went to Warner Bros. for a few pictures. You did “Brother Orchid,” which is one of my favorites–an Edward G. Robinson comedy.
DL: I did one there that I’m not very proud of, with Jack Benny, called “The Horn Blows at Midnight.” There’s one that will empty theaters.
JC: I never thought it was that bad…
DL: Oh, my…
JC: I always enjoyed it.
DL: Benny wasn’t bad. Benny was good.
JC: He was Benny. Jack Benny never played anyone but himself.
DL: I loved Bob Hope’s line about him. He said, “Put a skirt on him and you can take him anywhere.”
JC: When you worked on “Brother Orchid,” could you tell the difference when you were at one studio as opposed to another? Did each one have a different atmosphere?
DL: Well, in that picture, if I remember rightly, Lloyd Bacon was the director. I’ll tell you the difference you would see was in the various directors. On a Howard Hawks set, you never heard the assistant shouting, “Quiet! Quiet! Quiet! We’re Rolling! Settle down!” He had a little sign on a stanchion that said: “Silence is expected on this set.” And that’s all. When he was ready to shoot, he spoke very quietly, “Roll ‘em.” And they’d roll and we’d play the scene. Another thing I liked about Howard Hawks was that he’d watch rehearsals, and when it got time to shoot, he’d turn his back to the set. He wouldn’t look at it. He’d sit with his hand cupped to his ear, and when the scene was completed, if he didn’t like it, if it didn’t sound right to him, he’d say, “No, let’s try it again.” And if he liked it, if it rang good in his ear, he’d ask the cameraman if it was all right for camera, all right for sound, all right for lines, he’d say, “Print it.” Because unless he could believe it in his ear, it wasn’t there. He knew that the cameraman wasn’t going to let anybody walk out of camera range, he knew the sound man wasn’t going to let anyone walk away from his microphone. And the script girl was sitting right there with the script; she wasn’t going to let them make any mistakes in the lines. So if they’re on the job and they do it the way he said they were supposed to do it in rehearsal, he didn’t want to see it, he just wanted to listen to it.
JC: And he could tell just by listening.
DL: He did time and time again, scene after scene… He was a nice guy to work with.
JC: What was the difference between Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart?
DL: Night and day. Well, they were both great actors. Bogie liked to drink, liked to play, have fun, kid around, clown around, but Robinson was a very serious man. He loved to talk art. He loved fine things. He knew his art–at least he impressed me. Of course, he could say anything about art and he’d impress me, because I didn’t know anything about it. But he was a pleasant man to work with.
Dick Lane with Olsen and Johnson in “Hellzapoppin’”
JC: One of my favorite films is “Hellzapoppin’” and you played the director in the opening of the film. It starts out with Shemp Howard as the projectionist complaining about what a lousy picture it is. He slams the door on the machine, starts it, and they go to a production number in Hell. Olsen and Johnson appear, and then you holler, “Cut!” They walk off the set, and you’re arguing with them, trying to explain to them that they can’t make a picture without a plot. And that’s the whole plot of the picture…
DL: Do you remember Roy Rogers coming in at the finale? He’s on the wrong set?
JC: Was that Roy Rogers?
DL: That’s what it’s supposed to be.
JC: Was it actually him?
DL: No, I don’t think so. They had a line, I don’t know whether they left it in or not, a little scene… I didn’t see the picture after it was run.
JC: You didn’t?
DL: I make ‘em, I don’t have to look at ‘em.
JC: Why didn’t you?
DL: I don’t know; I go to fewer movies than anybody I know.
JC: You don’t like to watch yourself?
DL: Not particularly. But they had a scene–I hope they left it in–where the telephone rings. One goes to the phone and he says, “Yeah, go ahead… That’s good… Oh, yeah, that’s good… Oh, that’s bad… That’s good… That’s good…” The other guy says, “What are you doing?” He says, “I’m helping my wife sort a box of strawberries.” I thought that was one of the funniest things–on the telephone.
JC: That’s in the film… You’re chasing them through different sets, and as you pass through an individual set, the costuming changes…
DL: You know, running from scene to scene, changing that wardrobe–that was a mess. Because you could never remember–Wait a minute, have I been in this set or not? And what did I have on while I was in there? Each time you went in they’d take a picture of you and what you had on. In that set. Because if we had to make re-takes, the shots had to match. It was a crazy thing.
JC: It must not have been a very orderly set.
DL: Oh, it never was with Olsen and Johnson. Couldn’t possibly be.
JC: They were primarily stage personalities, I guess.
DL: I’ll tell you how silly this Olsen was. His daughter married Bill Lear–you know, Lear Aircraft. And when their daughter was born, as grandpa he wanted to name her. So he named her Crystal Shanda Lear. They still call her Shanda, but they’ve dropped the Crystal. And when the little boy was born a few years later, he wanted to name him Gondo. They stopped that. Crystal Shanda was enough.
JC: H.C. Potter directed that film. You don’t hear much about him. How did he work?
DL: He was less confused than any of us who worked under him–I can tell you that. He knew what he was doing, we didn’t. Nobody seemed to care.
JC: What kinds of things would happen when Olsen and Johnson were working?
DL: Right in the middle of a scene they’d yell, “Cut! Hey, got an idea. How does this sound?” They’d re-write the thing, and the director, Potter, would say, “Wait a minute. If we keep re-writing this thing, this’ll be longer than any theater will permit. We’ll be running for three days. Something’s got to be cut–we’ve got to cut something somewhere. Let’s do it once the way we wrote it.” Finally, he stopped yelling cut altogether.
JC: Did they stick to the script?
DL: No. They used to come close to it. Drive the script girl crazy, because she’s got to… You know, in a long shot, if you put your hand in your pocket on a certain word, when you come in for the close-up, you’d better do it again. Picture, picture, picture–she’d have them run this thing–take a look at it–and what she should have had was television. She could have had an instant replay.
JC: How long did “Hellzapoppin’” take to do?
DL: I don’t remember. It was several weeks.
JC: Was it considered a big, expensive production for Universal?
DL: No, it wasn’t. The biggest expense was Olsen and Johnson. I did a picture there later that cost a lot of money–“Song of Scheherazade.”
JC: That was Yvonne De Carlo, wasn’t it?
DL: Yvonne De Carlo and Jean-Pierre Aumont.
JC: Universal was considered kind of low rent, wasn’t it? Could you tell that when you were working there?
DL: No. They refused to run second to anybody. They had a great pride in their work over there. They turned out some fine things over there. Of course, later on, when MCA came in, they changed things around a great deal.
JC: When you were making films, how would you get a part in a picture? Would you ever audition for a role?
DL: Well, once you’re established… I had a reputation for being a quick study. And if they had reams of dialogue–fine, get Dick Lane. I could rattle the stuff off. Whether they heard it or understood it or not, I said all the words. And cops and robbers–the summation–you know, down in the last reel, when you’ve discovered who was the culprit–the butler did the murder–then you have to tell ‘em how you solved it. And it usually takes a whole lot of dialogue. That’s what they needed me for.
JC: Inspector Farraday.
DL: Oh, yes. I could tell you all about it.
Dick Lane, Adele Mara and George McKay in “Alias Boston Blackie,” listed on EBay for $10.
JC:I guess the war had broken out about the time you started the Boston Blackie series.
JC: How many total Boston Blackies did you do?
DL: I think there were maybe twenty–I’m not sure.
JC: When you were doing them, did you have any idea what they were costing?
DL: No, we didn’t pay much attention to that. As long as our checks showed the right numbers. I had an experience on a Boston Blackie that I’ve never forgotten. Harry Cohn was a very peculiar man. He would take you to lunch and buy your lunch, but made sure you got back on the set in time. So we were making one of these Boston Blackie things, and he sent us all over to the Brown Derby for lunch one day because something happened to his own kitchen–it went out–and it was in the summertime and we were in makeup. When we came out, a bunch of young kids were on the sidewalk with their autograph books–they’d heard that’s where the actor are. So when we came out, these kids come running up, and one little guy came up to me and he said, “Gimme your autograph!” So I signed his autograph and he went over to the curb, and he held it down like a guy with trombone vision, way down, and he said, “Who the hell is that??” That deflates you.
JC: Chester Morris was a bigger star in the thirties.
DL: He was a great, fine actor, and his whole family were in vaudeville together–his brother Adrian, his sister, and his mother and father. They used to do what we called “center door fancy”–a little comedy skit, an interior thing, and they always carried a set with them, center door, upstage, exit right and left, tables and chairs and sofas. A little family skit, and they were a fine family of actors. Chester was an unusually good comedian. Adrian was the serious one. Chester got into a play called “Crime,” and from then on he was on his way. They brought him out here. I think he did a picture, too.
JC: Well, he made “Corsair” and “Bat Whispers,” and then he kind of slipped downhill a bit. What do you think happened to Chester Morris?
DL: He suffered all his life with asthma. He went through tortures with that. I remember might after night he’d sit up. He’d tell me the next day when he’d come on the set that he’d had an hour and a half or two hours of sleep.
JC: Did that affect his performance?
DL: No. No, when the camera rolled, he was there and he made it.
JC: You always feel had the feeling he had the makings of a really fine fast-talking comedian, and he never seemed to reach that potential.
DL: He seemed to feel at one time that he had been relegated to the “B” pictures, as they used to be called in those days. He and Richard Arlen did so many of them together–adventure pictures, you know. They’d haul nitroglycerin or be truckers hijacking something; nowadays we see the same stories being done on these television things. Rewrites, different locale, different people, but the same stories that Chester Morris and Richard Arlen used to do. They were Pine and Thomas, remember them?
JC: Pine-Thomas at Paramount.
DL: They’d make them for $190,000, maybe $200,000, and they’d get their money back quickly.
Don’t think I quite believe the Howard Hawks story but all in all a fun read.
Actually, that’s true about Hawks, because I’ve talked to others who worked with him. In fact, if you see the 1970 George Plimpton special “Plimpton! Shoot-out at Rio Lobo” there’s film of Hawks directing Plimpton’s cameo in the movie (with John Wayne) and he can be seen with his back to to the action when film is rolling. I vividly recall his reactions to the gunshots, although I don’t think they explained why he turned his back in the show.
Really? Well, it’s a heck of an anecdote that I’d never seen before.