18 June 2024

[continued from Part I]

TT: Is it true Reynolds helped finance Helen?

CH: Indirectly. Some of the financing came from an NBC deal that they had made with her to do a series, which I don't think ever happened.

Part of the deal was that they would provide some financing for a feature film for her. And I think my executive producers availed themselves of a portion of that money to help make Helen.

TT: Did Debbie and Shelley get along?

CH: Just barely.

TT: Interesting.

CH: It was rather inevitable that they would have a conflict occasionally. Shelley imagined a rivalry with Debbie.

TT: Why is that?

CH: Well, Debbie still had a very youthful figure and by this time Shelley was already dumpy and heavy. It was that sort of thing, a kind of female jealousy.

TT: Your evident joy in directing children comes through in Helen.

CH: I loved working with all those kids. Tony Charmoli did the choreography and he did a marvelous job. Together, George Edwards, Charmoli and I interviewed all the children that the casting director could find who could dance and sing. And then we chose the young kids we put in the film.

TT: The Shirley Temple scene is memorable. It's got echoes of GYPSY to a certain extent. And yet, Day of the Locust as well.

CH: Yes.

TT: You didn't use real rabbits in the scene in which Helen goes off the deep end...did you?

CH: They WERE real rabbits. They were rabbits who would have been butchered anyway. For food. We did it all through the ASPCA.

TT: And that was all monitored by the ASPCA?

CH: Yes, it certainly was. We couldn't have done it otherwise.

TT: One of the great standouts is Hamilton Starr, the flamboyant elocution director played by Micheal MacLiammoir.

CH: When I was casting that part, I talked to my casting director and I said I'd like to have Ralph Richardson or John Gielgud. I wanted an old seasoned actor of the old school. Of course, I couldn't afford either of them. But I had recently seen a film called The Kremlin Letter, a John Huston film. MacLiammoir had a small part in it.

And then I remembered having seen him in Orson Welles' film of Othello in which he played Iago. I also knew that he was the leading actor of the Irish theater. He fit the bill and I said to my casting director, "What about Micheal MacLiammoir?" I had just seen him in The Kremlin Letter so he was still available and still working.

My casting director thought it was a wonderful idea. She knew exactly who he was and knew how to contact his agent in Dublin and we made a deal for him to fly over and do the part.

TT: It's interesting that he's Irish because in HELEN he plays that Oscar Wilde type of fop to perfection.

CH: Oh yes...but as a classic actor, he speaks the King's English. He could put on an Irish accent but he didn't have one.

TT: Anyone that can almost steal scenes from Reynolds and Winters is a strong performer.

CH: Yes, well...as I said, he was a very well known theater star in Ireland.

TT: The ending in Helen is a classic.

CH: Well, it was all my idea...I can only say that. The great thing I think is Shelley's performance at the piano. If I'd had my way, I would have held even longer on her face.

TT: The maniacal face?

CH: Yes, the madness...

TT: Was the conclusion in the original script?

CH: Yes.

TT: Were there any important cuts that you can recall?

CH: The thing that irritated me personally the most was one of the transitions where Debbie has come home and Shelley is standing there with a balloon and she lets the balloon drop. You know...and the next scene is the beginning of the performance at the theater?

TT: Right...

CH: You see the marquee on the outside. I had specifically designed those two images to be in a dissolve and the Executive Producer said he didn't like dissolves. And out it went. It was a cut and it wasn't designed that way. The arbitrariness of it made me furious. Unless you're Spielberg and you have some clause in your contract that doesn't allow interference, you've always got these klutzes in Hollywood studios who arbitrarily make decisions.

TT: The indomitable Agnes Moorehead has a part in What's the Matter with Helen? as evangelical Sister Alma. What was she like?

CH: Agnes was an old pro. She was wonderful. To make that scene work, I had to rewrite it myself the night before. So I took the lines to her in the dressing room in the morning around 6AM. She's such a formidable presence in person! I had met her socially but very briefly - so I didn't really know her.

Anyway, I went in with those lines and I'll never forget...she struck terror in my heart because she said, "I don't like lines given to me at the last moment!"

TT: Yikes.

CH: But she came out of her dressing room a couple of hours later and she was letter perfect.

TT: She makes such an impression and it's easy to understand why the character of Helen could truly be under the spell of this evangelist.

CH: She's fantastic.

TT: You'd get Ralph Richardson for your next project, as well as Shelley Winters part deux. Tell us about Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971).

CH: Yes, we made that right after What's the Matter with Helen? She and I both flew to London together to make it at the Shepperton Studio.

TT: Who approached whom?

CH: It was an AIP production. They had already contracted her to do a film for them. And they decided this was the one they wanted to do with her. Because I had just worked with her and she liked working with me, they hired me to direct it.

TT: So this was a contractual obligation for her?

CH: Yes.

TT: Did you have a preference for the original title: "The Gingerbread House"?

CH: Yes, I preferred it. And I particularly dislike the Americanized title that producer Samuel Arkoff chose. He called it Who Slew Auntie Roo? It should have the same root to it as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It's not What Happened to Baby Jane?

TT: Right.

CH: And so the true title of my film is Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? That's the title on the film itself.

TT: Who Slew Auntie Roo? is a little too alliterative.

CH: And blunt. I can't verbalize it but there's a big difference.

TT: One title was used in the film prints (the one you like) and the other for advertising.

CH: That was only in America. In England, it was always Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?

TT: How was working with the two main children (played by Mark Lester and Chloe Franks)?

CH: I liked directing children; they're very open to suggestion. They have their little imaginations working. I got along extremely well with them. The only thing was that Mark didn't actually like being in the movies. His parents pushed him. He really would rather have preferred to be playing tag or ball with the boys in school.

TT: Interesting. He's so good in Oliver!. And also Eyewitness.

CH: Well, his parents were pushing him. He had no interest in acting at all. So to get him to act, I figured out something I could do with him, which was to give him all of his intuitive thoughts while he's going through a certain action. I would supply in his head what a method actor would ordinarily do. And so I would tell him, "And now you think this, and now you think that. Then you remember this." And suddenly his acting came alive.

TT: Were you satisfied with the way ROO turned out overall?

CH: Generally, yes.

TT: At times, Mrs. Forrest (Roo) comes across as strangely sympathetic while the brother and sister do not in the end. They seem malevolent.

CH: That was part of the intentional irony of the story. She meant well...

TT: Right.

CH: The kids projected on her from the fairy tale of "Hansel and Gretel." And so that was really the intention...to show how children can be cruel but they did it in all innocence. That was a major point in the way the story was developed.

TT: How was the second round with Shelley on this one?

CH: Well, she didn't have the rivalry of Debbie Reynolds being on the set this time. Shelley was the solo star, there were no problems at all. She was completely happy through the whole production.

TT: In 1973, you made The Killing Kind. It's a terrific film and also one of the more unusual of yours in the sense that it has a contemporary setting. Can you tell us about the relationship between Ann Sothern and John Savage, who played her son?

CH: Well. As you know, Ann was an old MGM star and she was used to the perks of being a star. They all get used to that and this was an extremely low-budget film. We couldn't provide a limousine or anything like that for her. But we got along fine. The only slight conflict that came up was with John. I think in that major scene where he tells her off...

TT: The scene with "You fat whore"...?

CH: Yeah. I think she was aware that he was giving a very good performance and I just felt she was a little jealous and thinking, "Am I gonna come out on top or is he gonna come out on top?" That's the impression I got.

TT: But boy, she gives a wonderful performance.

CH: Oh, I think she's quite perfect.

TT: And what's remarkable about Sothern here is that her beauty shines through despite the fact that she's heavy.

CH: She had gotten very fat. But, yes...you can see how pretty she still was.

TT: Was she comfortable with the role and the script?

CH: She was. And she was very proud of the film when it was finished. Very proud of it.

TT: Any thoughts on the onscreen psychological relationship between mother and son or on the title The Killing Kind...which seems to have a double meaning because the mother (in her love) becomes a killer as well as her psychotic son. Would you agree with that?

CH: It isn't a question of whether I would agree with it. That's the sort of comment that critics may make or may discover but I never comment about things like that.

TT: You prefer to leave thematic analysis completely up to the audience, to the individual?

CH: Entirely, yes.

TT: How was the young Cindy Williams?

CH: She had just done Travels with My Aunt and George Edwards knew her. He was the one who brought her on board. I was delighted with her. She was great fun to work with...a sweet person.

TT: The Killing Kind is the type of odd but powerful film that should receive awards but often doesn't because of a lack of proper recognition for the genre.

CH: Well, we couldn't even get it distributed properly.

TT: There was an important sequence that was cut out...

CH: Oh yes...I was so upset about that. Damn those ignorant, stupid, vulgar, insensitive producers working with us. They cut out a scene where John Savage encounters the old lady coming down the stairs on her little vehicular motor seat.

And just before that, he was at the zoo and it's a scene (that cannot be verbally described but it was a wonderful scene) where he was looking at the caged animals...the apes...and you see him through the cage on the other side, of course.

And you cannot help but sense that he has recently just come out of jail. Then he hears a burst of female laughter and he looks over and in the distance, he sees the girl that he was accused of raping.

TT: Tina.

CH: Yeah, so that puts the whole thing of Tina in his mind. But it was cut out of the picture. The way it is now, he just comes into his room, looks her up in the phonebook and calls her.

TT: It's a shame that it was cut out.

Ruth Roman is very good as his attorney. Her murder is a really violent scene, isn't it?

CH: Yes it is...and she was wonderful in it. But not surprisingly, she had a big phobia about fire. She was terrified of it so I made a point of never having her in a scene with fire. You'll notice at the end of the scene, John lights the pillow and tosses it off screen.

TT: Right.

Luana Anders is fantastic as the repressed woman who ends up calling the police.

CH: Yeah, she's really good. I loved Luana...I had put her in Night Tide. She was a friend of Jack Nicholson. She was in some of his films.

TT: So she was a throwback from the early sixties Corman days.

CH: Yes, she had also been in Francis Coppola's Dementia 13.

TT: Was the rat that was used real?

CH: Of course. The dead rat was a real dead rat. I don't remember how that happened or if it was under the ASPCA or what.

TT: And the scene in which John chokes the cat?

CH: For that cat, we had a vet give an injection to a real cat. It was sleeping...but it was not hurt in any way.

TT: That's good to know.

Speaking of cats, let's talk about your next TV project, The Cat Creature (1973). It continued your fascination with Val Lewton.

CH: Oh yes...it was very definitely a tribute to Val Lewton.

TT: Is it true that it was originally supposed to be a direct remake or re-thinking of Cat People?

CH: No. From the beginning, it was quite separate. The storyline was quite different.

TT: We read that Robert Bloch, who had penned PSYCHO, suggested a whole different concept at that point.

CH: Well, I think he wrote the original story but I don't think it was based on Cat People at all. The Cat Creature was about this reincarnated Egyptian princess and all that sort of thing.

I was very proud that I brought back Gale Sondergaard for the film because she had been among the actors who had been blacklisted in Hollywood because of her leftist political leanings in the 1930s.

Gale had not appeared in pictures for several years and she had just come back from New York where she had been living. At that point, suddenly all was forgiven and she was allowed to work again. I think I was the first one to give a really good part to her.

TT: She was so wonderful in 1940's The Letter. How many years had it been since she worked in film?

CH: I'd say it was about twenty years. It was an awful long time. Gale was a magnificent woman. I liked her so much.

And you know, it always amused me that she had this sort of sinister persona on the screen that was the total antithesis of what she was in real life as a human being.

TT: She sounds like she was a very decent person.

CH: Very. Oh...one of the nicest people I've ever worked with.

TT: Is it true that the role of Hester played by Sondergaard in The Cat Creature was originally written for a man?

CH: Yes.

TT: So the sex was switched when you secured her for the part?

CH: That's right. It was all my idea to change it to a woman and give the role to Sondergaard.

TT: Who else had been considered for the pivotal role of Rena, which went to Meredith Baxter?

CH: When I was talking with Doug Cramer, the producer, about casting the girl...the studio executives...again, utter stupidity and insensitivity...they had had a show which got a high rating a week or two before starring Patty Duke.

So they said, "Why not Patty Duke for the part [of Rena]?" Well, that's like casting my grandmother for the part. She was so totally unsuited for it. I looked at the producer aghast and I said, "My God, what a stupid suggestion." He told me he agreed with me but...

TT: Why would Duke have been unsuitable?

CH: Well, the whole point was that Rena had to be a very sexy beautiful girl. Patty Duke was not that type. It was a grotesque idea! We finally settled on Meredith Baxter...who was not right for it either.

TT: Were you satisfied with Baxter's performance?

CH: She was alright.

TT: Wasn't Diahann Carroll considered for Rena?

CH: I wasn't even aware of Diahann Carroll at that point. I did work with her later on Dynasty.

TT: Kent Smith, one of the stars of Cat People, had a small role...

CH: Yes, we consciously tried to cast The Cat Creature with a lot of 'B' picture names from the 1930s and 1940s.

TT: John Carradine appears in the flophouse scene...

CH: That's right.

TT: What was he like?

CH: A sweet old man. He was terribly, terribly crippled with Arthritis. I felt very sorry for him.

TT: Do you recall the "little person" that's in the scene with Carradine, sitting on his desk?

CH: She's a dwarf. That was a scene that I wrote and put in the picture. Fortunately, Doug Cramer let me do it.

TT: We've always been curious about who the dwarf is...as her name doesn't appear in the credits.

CH: I have no idea. She was someone who was appearing in some little club someplace doing a lipsynch routine.

TT: Wow.

CH: Believe it or not, there were no dwarf actresses around Hollywood at that time.

As you may know, a midget is differentiated from a dwarf in that he/she is like a tiny, miniature human being...perfectly formed. Whereas a dwarf will have a big head and short, stubby legs. They're really quite distinctively different. The lady in What's the Matter with Helen? is a midget.

TT: Like the brother and sister duo who played the couple in Freaks?

CH: Yes, look at Freaks again. You'll see the difference.

TT: Interesting. Is that Peter Lorre's son who plays the murdered pawnbroker?

CH: No, that was just a joke. There was some actor who clamed to be Peter Lorre, Jr. and he was not even related.

TT: Huh!

CH: Yes, a very brief thing...he was trying to cash in on Peter Lorre's name.

TT: One of the unforgivable errors to date is that Cat Creature has never been released on either VHS or DVD. Do you have any idea why?

CH: No. I have no ownership in those films. I just directed them for hire. And I have no idea about their fate. I have no idea why they would put out How Awful About Allan and not put out The Cat Creature.

Best of all my TV horror films though is Killer Bees (1974), which I'm very proud of.

TT: That was next on our list. It looks like it could have been a difficult shoot because of the subject matter.

CH: It was very difficult to work with live bees. It was a real conundrum to work all that out. The interesting thing about that is that we had planned to use drones. You know, drones don't have stingers.

But the season was past for drones. We had these worker bees and the bee wrangler (the guy who took care of the bees for the production) came up with an extraordinary idea. At least I think it was.

He would have a crew of people working all day long who would put the bees in dry ice and the cold would make them go to sleep...like they're anesthetized. And then we had these people who would take the bees out of the container one by one and squeeze them a little...

TT: Squeeze them?

CH: Well, so the stinger would protrude and they would chop it off with a doctor's scalpel.

TT: Fascinating. Sort of like cleaning shrimp.

CH: Yes. So all the bees in the film are bees that have been treated that way. Otherwise, they would have all been stinger bees. We had a whole staff of people with the doctors' scalpels.

Maybe ten people at a table, working on the bees so we would have enough of them. Remember, Gloria Swanson had a lot of bees on her. It was a fascinating process to watch.

TT: Tell us the story about how Bette Davis almost played the role of the German matriarch.

CH: Barry Diller, one of the heads of ABC at the time, wanted Bette to play the part. I had met Miss Davis socially and one day the producers came and they said, "Bette Davis is on the phone and she wants to speak to you."

And so I came on the phone and the first thing Bette said to me was...I'll never forget this...this is a direct quote: "I'm absolutely terrified! I'm so sorry I can't do this part."

She explained to me that her doctor wouldn't let her do it because if there was any danger at all of being stung, she would go into anafeletic shock, you know?

TT: The medical condition where one bee sting could start a chain reaction and kill you?

CH: Yes, indeed. So her doctor would not let her do the picture. But Gloria Swanson had no fear of the bees at all. She was very ecologically oriented.

TT: So had Bette been able to do it, you would have proceeded with her?

CH: Yes. Barry Diller was the head of the network and that's whom he wanted.

TT: Do you think she could have carried off the German accent at that point in her career?

CH: I doubt it. (Laughs.) But when she bowed out, I was THRILLED to be able to work with Swanson.

TT: What was it like working with the Queen of the Silents, Miss Norma Desmond herself?

CH: Well, as you might expect...she was very professional and utterly charming. And I got along with her extremely well. We remained friends after the production and up until she died.

TT: What a masterful face Swanson had...long and almost like a marionette.

CH: It was a wonderful face. It's simply one of the great movie faces.

TT: And she looked so healthy for her age. She was born in 1899 so she was in her mid seventies at the time!

CH: Yes, she looked great...and here she was playing a woman at the age of 80. That poor cameraman...I remember the first shot we made of Gloria, he turned to me and said, "I don't think I can make her look much over 40."

TT: Well preserved, without a doubt. As with The Cat Creature, we wish Killer Bees had been released on home video...

CH: I wish it would have been too.

copyright 1998-present | The Terror Trap; www.terrortrap.com | all rights reserved