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Films and Filming (December 1960)

"Creating An Illusion"

By James MacArthur (in a recorded interview)

I’m not a follower of the Method school of acting. I suppose it helps people in some ways, it certainly gets rid of any inhibitions an actor has. It’s like any other school of acting, it’s not going to make a great actor out of someone who has no ability. But the Method as it is is not a bad idea, it is a kind of post-graduate school. It’s not the sort of place you go right out of high school just because you want to act, because you’ll get some very peculiar ideas about the whole thing.

But after several years’ study at other schools which are the equivalent of RADA, where you work on your voice, movements and all the physical aspects which are so important and which give you a certain discipline, then maybe the Method school can help you. But I think you have to have the discipline first, otherwise it can ruin you. Because people who go in there not having done any basic, work, seem to have the impression that all they have to do is to “feel” the part. And, of course, when they get on the stage and feel the part all they way, their voice cracks, they walk peculiarly, their movements are jerky, and, of course, whether or not they feel the part doesn’t make any difference, because it’s the audience that has to feel it.

When you watch some of these people, they are feeling it so much that you just watch them feeling the part, and you’re not dragged along with it as you should be.

How did I become an actor?

When I was eight, coming from a theatrical family, I was offered a role in a play in summer stock. I didn’t know what it was all about and I said “yes.” So my mother said, “Well, now, if you’re to do this, you’ve got to do it right.” So she worked with me on this part, which was all in Welsh, in a play called The Corn in Green. That was my beginning in the theatre. I didn’t do anything for five or six years, then when I was 15 I went back into summer stock as an apprentice, which is a sort of handiman around the place, and I learned a great deal about the theatre -- on props, painting, lighting and so forth, and I wound up as the assistant electrician.

Then in the summer of my junior year I met a man who was a producer who had a script he thought would be right for me. I read the part, and didn’t get it, and I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll be a business man of some sort or another.” Anyway, he asked me to read for the part again, and I finally got the part and did this on television -- an hour live show called Deal A Blow. In the spring of the next year I had a letter from RKO, saying that they were going to make the play into a movie and would I be in it. Would I! So I made the movie, by this time the title had been changed to The Young Stranger.

The film was somewhat expanded because of the greater scope of the cinema in general, and I think the script had been improved. It was a small film at best, but they had a good director, John Frankenheimer, whose first film this was, who had also done the television show. It was one of those films where you have to have a good script, because although you can have good performances out of a bad script, you must have a good script for the film to be successful as a whole.

I don’t think it was a difficult film to appear in because it was a small movie, and it’s like a play, you can be with it all the time. You know exactly what is going to happen next. But with a big picture, for instance, with Swiss Family Robinson, we do a scene, and then it might be a month before they came back to do the continuation of that scene.

But the parts I have had in the four films I’ve made for Walt Disney have all been good parts in their way. I mean none of them was a great acting role, but in very different ways they have all been extremely interesting. I had a loose picture deal contract with him, which has now expired, whereby if he wanted to use me he did, but I had script approval. With The Young Stranger it was the dialogue and acting that counted because the characters had to come out of the screen, whereas most of Disney’s films rely mainly on visual action rather than on dialogue.

You can follow the evolution of films from the early ones where they tried to do everything possible, and it slowly came to the comedies of the thirties where everything was as unbelievable as possible, because in actual fact nobody wanted it to be believable. In those days you went to the theatre to be entertained and not to listen to people on a street corner talking like everybody else does. Then during the war, films started getting more serious, and now its turned into a thing where films are used as a weapon of social criticism, and I suppose the best films in that sense are the ones that really get down to earth.

But it should be like the theatre, you’ve got to make it just a little bit bigger than life, you can still make people believe you just as well. But here again I think this is the cause of the trouble.

What is a hero in today’s society? They’re destroyed every concept in movies and literature of man being a noble creature, and in the socialist welfare state individuals don’t count, so when movies are made about individuals they are about people of no significance.
Entertainment seems to have gone out of the window. There are very few film-makers left who are really trying to entertain people. We have become so serious since the war. Kids today, who ten years ago would have wanted to see nothing but entertainment films, are discussing the problems of South Africa, and talking about the H-Bomb. There seems to be a great awareness of what is going on in the world.

In America we used to be able to sit back and think of Europe as being 10,000 miles away and that what happened there didn’t concern us. But now you just can’t ignore what is happening there. And I think an extension of this is the great juvenile delinquency problem. I wouldn’t walk down certain streets in New York at night because I’m afraid of a knife in the back -- for no particular reason at all. I don’t think that the kids who are involved feel that the H-Bomb has anything to do with it, it’s just a tension that is under everyone. They may not realise it; it’s like living on a keg of dynamite.

You as an individual have nothing to say about what’s to happen. You want to strike out at this but there’s nothing you can do. Recently, in a cab in New York (the taxi drivers there are wonderful people for solving the problems of the world) the driver told me he was all for an all-out war. He felt he just wanted to burst out, and didn’t care what happened. And the reflection of this is that people want more serious fare. And Walt Disney is one of the few people who continues to just make entertainment.

I worked with four film directors in five movies. I wasn’t really aware of the director as such on the first one, because of working with him in television. I think the perfect relationship between an actor and a director is one whereby the actor completely trusts the director and believes in him, because after all you’re being seen on the screen more or less through the director’s eyes, and if you don’t trust him it’s very worrying because you know you’re still coming out of his eyes, but you don’t know quite what he is going to do. And films where the actor fights with the director generally don’t come off.

With the second film I made I went in with complete trust and I got one of the old type Hollywood directors, you know, “O.K. We’ll shoot it ... Right. Print.” And if I went to him and suggested, “What if I did this?” he’d say, “Sure, kid, sure.”

Directing is a very subtle art. It’s no good just being able to direct actors, you have to know camera angles, lenses, and all the finer points of the art. But an audience must never be aware of the director, when you become too aware of camera movement, with shots through people’s armpits, or through iron grill-work, then they just distract from the story.

Every case, of course, is different because every movie is different. In Citizen Kane Welles maybe shot a lot of peculiar angles, but it came off and made a wonderful film. He’s a great director when he has a strong producer, if you can channel him in the right way he has a brilliant creative mind.

But I got along very well with John Frankenheimer. He’s done a lot of television work. For two or three years he did the equivalent of eleven theatre plays a year on television.

The only thing that’s wrong with live television is that you feel you wish you could have another crack at it. Opening night performances are very rarely peak performances, because most actors I’ve talked to say they only really get into the part after a month of steady playing. But on the other hand you get some very good shows on television. Television, after all, is just an extension of the newspapers. Newspapers are geared to get you by the headlines, and you watch television in much the same way as you read a paper.

Films can always do more than television, because unless you’re going to have television screens thirty feet wide it can never match the scope of the cinema. I’ve seen old pictures like The African Queen on television, and you just don’t feel anything because the scenery’s gone and you cannot see all the wonderful little details which make up a great movie.

What television has hurt in the States is not the big movie because they make tremendous sums of money, or the small budget film made for around £40,000 because a circuit booking guarantees they’ll make a profit, but the in-between film, the good, pleasant film made for a moderate amount of money.

James MacArthur

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