"I was still in Munich, working for a joint control: half an English company, half a German one. I was given a script. I was told to go on location and get some pretty shots. I was told my star would be coming out for the studio stuff later.
When I read the script, I found it was set in the Kentucky hills. My heroine was a pleasant, simple, homely schoolmarm. My star was glamorous, dark, Latin, Junoesque, statuesque, slinky, with slanting eyes, four-inch heels, nails like a mandarin's, and a black dog to match her swathed dress.
But the worry was for the latter. First of all, I had to get my mountain scenes. I had no time to go looking for them. I had to ask everybody in sight: "Where can I get a nice thatched village with snowy mountains in the background and nice tree stuff in the foreground, and no modern stuff that would be out of the picture?"
I was recommended to this place, to that place, to the other place. But this place's only charm was a new glazed-tile town hall; and that place had been recommended because it had just lampposts installed; and the otherplace because the beer was good.
But as I was walking along, I glanced into a picture shop. I saw a postcard of the perfect location. I went in and asked where it was. "Obergurgel," said they. Yes, you do remember it. It's where professor Piccard came down from the first stratosphere flight.
I took the German assistant director I had just been given and out to see the place. To get there we took a train to Innsbruck. We then drove for seven and a half hours in an open Victoria. We then walked for two and a half hours on our feet--No transport could reach it.
With every step we swore conditions would be so primitive, the place so out of the way, that to film anything there would be out of the question. But it had cast a spell upon me, that postcard. That was the ideal place to shoot the Kentucky hills (in Germany). Snow on the high ground, woods on the village level, thatch, a forgotten, almost a vanished, civilization. Grand.
I reached the place. For once it was up to the pictures of it. It was perfect. I went back to Munich as happy as a sandboy. But on the way I wanted to speak English. I was tired to death of German gutturals. I was sick of floggin my brain to think in another language. I was mad to hear the sound of an English voice, as mad to speak and be understood in my own tongue as a claustraphobe is anxious to get into the open air. I knwo that feeling too: I had it in an Italian seaplane.
However, I got back to Munich. there I picked up my company: Malcolm Keen was one of them. He was the most important to me: he brought out my engagement ring. Nita had not yet arrived, so we went out to do the out-of-doors shots.
We got to Obergurgel. We settled in a cottage. We went out in the evening and plotted out the work for the next day. A few long shot of the snow and the closeups and medium shot amid the woods. Content as a dog promised a nice bone, we went to bed.
we woke up the next day, the village was a foot under snow.
That washed us out. The snow meant that we should have to wait six months at least to make the picture at Obergurgel. We took our snow scenes and made our way down the valley, hoping just to beat the falls as they too made their way steadily to the lower ground.
We got to a place called Umhaus. It seemed only a fraction less perfect than Obergurgel. We made all our arrangements. We went to bed.
There was only one thing to do: produce a thaw.
I got hold of four men who formed the local fire brigade. I convinced them that they must get out the fire engine and wash the snow away. They argued, finally the agreed. They pulled out the manual pump with its leaky hose and they turned it on the village.
We washed the snow from the houses, from the roofs, from the trees, from the ground. But one of the houses had a leaky roof, and the old peasant woman who lived their complained she was being really washed away.
I saw the mayor. I told him my troubles. He said that a rich film company could probably get what they wanted--at a price. I asked him how much I should give her. He said, "A schilling"--the Austrian coin worth 7d. I gave her two. If I had given her ten, I think I could have flooded the whole countryside, she was so pleased.
And on that small area of land, washed clean of snow with a fire engine, our exteriors were made.
I went back to Munich to meet my star. As she stepped off the train, Munich quite audibly gasped. They had never seen anything like her before. She traveled with her father, who looked like Earl Haig. Her Louis XIV heels clicked down the platform. The dog on his leash was long and gleaming with brushing. Her maid followed her. It was like the royalty Germany hadn't seen for five years.
But I was thinking of a simple Kentucky miss in a gingham gown and a cotton apron. I had to produce a strong woman of the midwestern mountains who handled a gun instead of lipstick.
First, we quarreled about her nails. They came down from half an inch beyond the finger to a quarter. We had another discussion. They came down to an eighth. Another discussion and they were alright.
The heels came down layer by layer. The makeup was altered shade by shade. The hair was changed curl by curl.
Nita put up a magnificent fight for the appearance that had made her, but it was nothing to the fight she put up for the clothes she wanted to wear. Fortunately, I was not concerned with that: it was Alma's job.
But Alma, who took her round and made her buy cottom aprons instead of silk and compelled her to choose cloth instead of satin frocks, nearly fainted when she saw her lingerie.
Munich is a cold city, and it was winter. But Nita under her frock, wore just one garment: such scanties as even today would be considered: well, scanty.
However, Nita turned out to be a grand person. For all her entourage, there was nothing high-hat about her. She talked to everybody in her heavy New York drawl. The Germans, accustomed to the starchiness of the Hohenzollerns, fell hard for this American royalty, with her father and her dog, her maid, who was more democratic that the stagehands.
I shall never forget one afternoon. We had been working hard all day, and Nita was nearly all in. She had to play one more scene, where she was cleaning Malcolm Keen's rifle when a face appeared at the window and she pointed the gun at him.
The scene was going well when, just as she turned the gun to the window, I saw it waver. It veered from side to side. It moved up and down. It went round in circles.
Then, without a word, Nita tilted to one side and fell headlong.
The floor was very hard. The set was built on a foundation of stones set in cement. Before the camera had even stopped turning, she had recovered. And all she said was: "Why don't they build these lousy sets right over here? This floor's too gol-darned hard for comfort."
She's got to her feet and wanted to go on playing, but we called it a day.
Owing to that delay, and the delay caused by the snow, we got a little late with the production. Nita had one bit scene still to play. It was half-past four in the afternoon and her train--for Paris--left at half-past six.
Nita was playing a scene where she had been run out of town (unjustly, of course) by the Kentucky farmers. She had to turn to them and tell them all just what she thought of them.
In silent days, we never wrote dialogue, except for close-ups where anyone could lip-read. In a big emotional scene, we let people say just whatever came into their heads. It helped them get over the atmosphere.
When Nita finally turned on these "farmers," I called, "Give them all you've got."
She did. She gave them, in English, Italian, American, Bowery, Park Avenue, and, maybe, double Dutch. She called them anything and everything she could lay her tongue to. She told them where they got off, where they came from, where they were going to. She used words we had never heard before.
When, shuddering and shaking with emotion, she stopped and I called out "Cut," the whole studio--none of whom understood a word she had said--burst out in spontaneous applause.
She caught up her dress, her dog, her maid, he father. She piled into a taxi. She rushed to the station. She caught her train still in her gingham gown, with the makeup still on her face.
She went to Paris, When Alma and I were married, we went to Paris for our honeymoon and spent the first day of it with Nita...but that is another story--and one I'm not going to tell."