As a precursor to our film project, 12 Western Feature-Length Films in 12 Months, produced by our company Running Wild Films and 5J Media which will begin production in 2016, I have decided to share my thoughts on films from the genre as I study Westerns in preparation to make our own.
This series of short blogs is titled “Western Impressions”.
3 Godfathers (1948)
I was surprised at this one, somehow I had avoided it, turned off by the “baby” plot and the impression that it wasn’t a “serious” work of Ford’s. But it has much more weight than I guessed and also far more than it gets credit for. While the film may lean towards “comedy”, people die in this film. Tragedy rides alongside comedy from beginning to end and thus the film has a deep resonance. In some ways, these deaths feel more like the death of Howard Hawks professionals, doing their best until they just can’t anymore.
Lasting impression: Harry Carey Jr. singing “Shall We Gather at the River” with all three godfathers in silhouette on the top of a sandhill during their funeral for the baby’s mother. Beautiful moment that stands among Ford’s best.
Robert Totten (1937-1995)
Bob Totten is someone I wished I had gotten to know better than I did. We met in 1994 under somewhat curious circumstances that went something like this…I was teaching film studies here in Arizona at ASU (Arizona State University) when I got involved with a couple of guys who were trying to get a low budget movie project off the ground. This was a film entitled Cry Vengeance based on a screenplay that I had written which was in turn based on an idea by one of the producers. The idea was to make this a local production with that same producer playing the lead and utilizing all local talent behind and in front the camera. After the script was written the two producers became extremely enthused about its possibility and put all their energies into seeing it come to fruition. Somewhere in the course of a lot of conversation the question as to who would direct this epic came up. It was suggested that I should consider it. I was at least qualified as some of the other names mentioned. I had been to film school and had directed several shorts. So I told them I would think about it and after about a week I said yes. The reason for my reluctance is that I was teaching and would have to miss a semester in preparation for something that might never actually get off the ground. But I took the chance and said yes. After all it was my screenplay so why shouldn’t I direct?
After that decision was made the producers started to move forward aggressively with their preproduction activities. Meetings were held, conference calls were made and all kinds of production initiatives were being implemented. But I noticed that with each plateau they arrived at the budget for this mini budgeted film increased to the point where in a year and a half it accelerated to more than ten times the original figures. When this happened suddenly it was no longer a “local production” anymore. Now the guys were making trips to LA and talking to industry figures. Through some connection they had now they were talking to the execs of some big studio about financing our film, which was now budgeted at seven million dollars. That is small by Hollywood standards but enormous in terms of where we began.
The first thing they were told was that they had to get some name actors attached. This meant that the producer couldn’t play the lead as planned. He said fine. He was more interested in producing anyway. So they contacted some TV level names that said they would commit as soon as the financing was in place. The next thing was the director. If the suits were going to take this project seriously it had to have a director with some established credentials. The guys sheepishly came and told me about it and I agreed right away. I knew it was coming so I wasn’t surprised. In fact I was even grateful because the scale of the production had outgrown anything I thought I could handle so I was more than happy to pass the burden on to someone else. Of course I didn’t say anything about that. I just said I understood and left it at that. The next couple of days they spoke to a few guys and then in came Bob Totten. I had never heard of him but when he started listing some of the things he had done I became very interested. Especially when he mentioned that he had been the first director on a film that ultimately became Death of a Gunfighter (1969). That’s when I jumped up and said: “Oh my God, you’re the original Alan Smithee.” He looked at me and said: “Oh so you know that story, huh?” … “Some of it.” Then I pushed him to tell me more. When the interview was over I invited him for a drink and started asking him all kinds of questions about directing and working with Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, LQ Jones, Jack Elam, Mercedes McCambridge and Ruth Roman and all the others who were in the cast of The Sacketts (1979). Those were legendary actors to me and I wanted to hear all about them. I remember him looking at me at one point and saying: “You were the one scheduled to direct this film weren’t you?” I told him yes. “So I’m effectively taking away your job.” …I told him I didn’t care. He laughed and said: “There I was thinking that I would have to be dealing with a potential enemy. But you are in fact a fan, aren’t you”…”Yes!” I told him with the joyous glee of a teenager. We sat there for maybe two hours more drinking and talking. Actually him talking and me listening. He was a wonderful raconteur and I heard all the stories about the various actors, their quirks, their idiosyncrasies and their special gifts that made them so effective on screen. Right then and there I decided that I wanted to write a book about him. But I didn’t want to propose the idea at the time. After all I had only just gotten to know the man. What I would do is befriend him and after we had gotten to know each other better then I would broach the subject. By this time the producers had decided that this was the man for the job and I had lobbied for the job as his assistant. So we would have a lot of time to get to know each other on the shoot. Well, to cut to the chase, the film never got made. The funding never came through and the project was abandoned. But I kept in touch with Bob. We talked on the phone and he was always pleased to hear from me. I told him about the book that I wanted to do and he was flattered. I said that I would visit with him in Sherman Oaks where he lived when the school semester ended . We would talk, I would take notes and start the process from there. He mentioned that he had been ill. But he was full of plans for a TV project he wanted to write, produce and direct. It was a remake of the John Ford film 3 Godfathers (1948)…The last conversation we had was one morning when he called and told me that he was getting a western heritage award at a conference of some kind and invited me to attend. I looked at my schedule and realized I couldn’t make it because of my school obligations. About a month later I read that he had died of a heart attack.
I was sorry about this not just because of the book project. I had looked forward to spending all kinds of time listening to the interesting and amusing stories he had to tell. Bob was an interesting man but a fun guy too. I’m sure he is missed by those he was close to. But I miss him as well.