Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Farley Granger Speaks in San Diego

Strangers on a Train Star Promotes His Autobiography


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

You’d have to be a pretty hard-core old-movie buff to recognize the name Farley Granger today, but in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s he was considered one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood thanks to three movies. One, They Live by Night, was directed by Nicholas Ray and cast Granger as a small-time crook who flees cross-country with his wife (Cathy O’Donnell) not only to avoid capture but also in a desperate attempt to establish a “normal” lifestyle. In this film, Ray creates an aura of doomed romanticism he later duplicated in the scenes between James Dean and Natalie Wood in a far more famous film, Rebel Without a Cause.

The other two films that made Granger’s reputation — and keep it alive today — were directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rope (1948), loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924, cast him and John Dall as a young Gay couple (though given the censorship restrictions on U.S. films at the time their relationship is barely hinted at) who murder a college classmate and are found out by the professor they idolized (James Stewart). In Strangers on a Train (1951), based on a novel by Lesbian author Patricia Highsmith — who also wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley — Granger plays a tennis star with political aspirations who meets a dissolute heir (Robert Walker) on a train and listens to the man’s plan that they each kill the person the other would most like to be rid of: the heir’s father and the tennis star’s wife, who’s standing in the way of his ambition to marry a senator’s daughter and jump-start his political career.

Granger, now 82, came to San Diego September 16 for an event at the Odd Fellows’ Hall near Claire de Lune coffeehouse in North Park. The event featured a screening of Strangers on a Train at 2 p.m. and an appearance by Granger and Robert Calhoun, his partner of 44 years, to promote the book they’ve just written about Granger’s life, Include Me Out. The title comes from the famous saying attributed to veteran producer Sam Goldwyn, who signed Granger to a standard seven-year contract in 1941 — when the actor was only 17 — and made his life hell for most of the next 12 years until Granger literally had to pay Goldwyn virtually every cent he had to buy his way out of the Goldwyn contract.

Though both of Granger’s films with Hitchcock had Gay overtones that have been discussed by modern critics, and a biographer of Robert Walker said that he had deliberately played the opening of Strangers on a Train as a Gay cruising scene, Granger said he didn’t think the opening of Strangers was particularly Gay and nobody talked about the Gay implications of these films while they were being shot. “The words were never brought up or discussed by Hitchcock,” said Calhoun — who frequently seemed to have a better memory of the details of Granger’s life and career than Granger himself did — adding that “if the actors had any discussions about it, they were very subtle.”

Granger and Calhoun also fielded questions about the famous climax of Strangers, in which Granger’s character has to finish his tennis match so he can head back to the small-town carnival setting in which Walker’s character killed his wife, to keep the villain from planting evidence linking him to the crime. Granger said that Hitchcock spent an entire day on the final scene. “It was a tough scene to be on the merry-go-round with the horse’s foot near me” as he and Walker fought.

“Hitchcock had a real touring carnival outside L.A. that he rented, and he used their merry-go-round,” Calhoun added. “But a lot of it was special effects, and there were a lot of tricks Farley was not privy to.” In the film, the person running the merry-go-round is accidentally shot by a police officer, and he falls onto the speed control, speeding it up and sending it out of control. An old man who knows how to work it volunteers to crawl under the wildly spinning merry-go-round and stop it — and for technical reasons the scene couldn’t be faked: the actor playing this part actually had to do the stunt even though it would be near-certain death if he lifted his head or body too high. But when the man makes it to the center and pulls back the control, the sudden deceleration causes the merry-go-round to crash — and that scene was staged with a model.

San Diegan John Lockhart recalled that he worked in the mailroom at Warner Bros. while Strangers on a Train was being filmed. “Occasionally we got tours around the lot,” he said, though Strangers was “a very difficult set to get on” because Hitchcock, unlike some other directors, routinely kept his sets “closed” and barred visitors from coming in and watching him shoot. Lockhart also said that “the mailroom staff gave nicknames to the different films being shot on the lot, and our nickname for this film was Two Strangers on a Stranger.”

Another audience member asked why so many people in Strangers on a Train were shown smoking on screen and whether Hitchcock or Warners had a tie-in with a tobacco company. “In the old movies, they all smoked,” Calhoun replied. He mentioned a photo they’d wanted to use in their book, but hadn’t been able to get the rights to, “that was a Camel’s ad with Farley holding a Camel in one hand and a tennis racket in the other” — an attempt to link smoking with athleticism it’s hard to imagine a tobacco company getting away with today.

What made that ad even more bizarre is, as Granger added, “I didn’t take the picture.” The R. J. Reynolds tobacco company, makers of Camel’s, arranged with Sam Goldwyn to do the ad and inserted the cigarette into Granger’s hand. Nor did Granger ever get paid for the use of his image in the ad; as the owner of his film contract, it was Goldwyn who got the fee from Reynolds. It was treatment like that, as well as roles in bad movies like Roseanna McCoy (which Granger had agreed to do because he loved the original script, only Goldwyn had it rewritten and the rewrites were terrible) and Edge of Doom, that led Granger to want out of his Goldwyn contract.

“Goldwyn said he’d let me out, but I had to give him all the money I had, and I said, ‘Gladly,’” Granger recalled. Disgusted not only with Goldwyn but Hollywood and movie work in general, Granger wanted to move to New York, study at the famed Actors’ Studio and work in live theatre — but he had no money to do so. He was saved by his agent, who had a well-paying movie role for him on a film called Senso, to be shot in Italy and directed by Luchino Visconti, a major Italian director then unknown in the U.S.

“The agent said, ‘He [Visconti] wanted Marlon Brando but couldn’t get him, so now he wants you,” Granger said. “I had no idea how good Visconti was, but he was a great director, one of my best.” What’s more, Senso was scheduled to shoot for three months but was actually in production for nine — and the overtime provisions of Granger’s contract meant he made twice as much money as he’d agreed to when he signed for it.