Rescuing the Actor (Film Editing)

One more important area remains to be discussed—selective editing of inadequate acting. I am not talking about bad acting; the only ameliorative measure an editor can take in such a circumstance is to diminish the misery as much as possible. I am talking about acting which, for one reason or another, fails to hit the mark.

The best example of corrective treatment of such acting is one I have referred to on previous occasions. It is a prime example of serendipity rather than of creative ability; the result of an effort to make the best of a difficult situation rather than a rationally conceived and executed editing accomplishment.

English butler (won in a poker game from a British lord), has accompanied his new boss to the bar. At one point Ruggles wishes to quote from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but can’t remember the speech. Neither can any other member of his party, nor any of the saloon’s habitues.

Suddenly, Ruggles attention is arrested by Laughton, who is murmuring, "Four score and seven years ago. …" Amazed to learn that the Englishman knows the words, Ruggles encourages him to continue.

Laughton was highly emotional and extremely nervous. Filming his shot alone, in medium close-up, occupied a day and a half. McCarey patiently shot the scene from 40 to 50 times, rarely getting a complete take, and never a perfect one. Finally Laughton, with tears streaming from his eyes, dropped to his knees and begged for mercy. McCarey decided to postpone further shooting.

At this point I suggested that it might be possible to patch together a complete sound track by using the best parts of a number of takes. McCarey agreed. To begin with, I worked only with the sound track, checking out all the 15 or 20 printed takes and an even greater number of "outs." Using a line here, a phrase there, sometimes only a word or two, I pieced together a complete version of the speech. McCarey listened to it, liked what he heard, and asked me to complete it.

So far my efforts had been little more than routine. Now came the hard part. Fitting the picture to the track brought chaos, since each of the sound cuts needed a matching picture. Only one solution presented itself. The speech was started in a setup over Laughton’s back, followed by cuts of the reactions of others in the saloon—first, Charlie Ruggles and his table companions, and then other onlookers as, one by one, they left their stools and walked over for a closer look and listen. Offscreen, the butler’s voice grew in strength as he gained confidence, and the speech ended triumphantly to the barkeeper’s "Drinks on the house."

Dramatic logic holds that at least a large part of the speech should have been played on the scene’s central character, the butler. But every matching cut of Laughton showed his rather generous lips blubbering, his eyes turning upward in their sockets, and huge tears rolling down his cheeks. So, except for two short cuts, the entire speech was played over shots of the onlookers.

At the executive running, Ernst Lubitsch, then head of Paramount production, suggested that since the scene belonged to Laughton, we should see more of him. McCarey agreed, and I was outvoted. I selected a pair of the most innocuous cuts and added them for the sneak preview.

Ruggles of Red Gap turned out to be one of that year’s top films. At the preview, it played beautifully—up to the Gettysburg Address. The scene started, the players reacted, everything went well. Then came the first cut of Laughton, tears streaming down his cheeks as he spoke. Americans admire the Gettysburg Address, but they don’t cry over it.

The audience burst into laughter, which continued to build throughout the rest of the now inaudible speech. But laughter, at the expense of Lincoln’s noble phrases, was not what we were looking for. One of the film’s key scenes had been torpedoed.

As we left the theater after the preview, McCarey said, "Put it back the way you had it." I did, and the next preview confirmed our original judgment. This time there was no laughter. The audience listened attentively and applauded Laughton’s performance. From that day until the end of Laughton’s life, hardly a Lincoln’s birthday passed without one of the major radio networks inviting him to once again deliver the Gettysburg Address.

This example illustrates not only the part luck can play in the editorial construction of an important sequence, but it also focuses attention on what may be the most difficult, perhaps (in my opinion at least) most creative, and potentially useful editing technique of the future—the old art of montage.

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