University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Films of J. S. Watson Jr. and Melville Webber, Some Retrospective Views (III)

Volume XXVIII · Number 2 · Winter 1975
The Films of J. S. Watson, Jr., and Melville Webber: Some Retrospective Views (III)


It wasn't a habit of mine to spend any more time in the main hall of the Eastman School of Music than it took me to walk from the entrance to the elevator. But one spring morning I dared myself to sit in one of the formal chairs that flanked the walls. I knew very few of the students and faculty and felt I was in the school under false pretenses since I had never registered as a student but was studying privately with a couple of the faculty members. I had never been comfortable with people of my own age, indeed, since childhood had been terrified of them.

But that day I sat down, fully prepared for the puzzled and even sneering glances of the passing throng. But what I wasn't prepared for was the presence of a solemn-looking man whom I had never seen before and who I wouldn't have been surprised to learn was a dairy farmer dressed up for a day in the city. He was quite clearly examining me, not as if he thought we might once have met, but as if he were considering me as a future farm hand. Then he broke out in a rather lopsided smile and asked me if I'd like to act in a movie.

All the most nourishing rewards of my life have resulted from fortuities. . . . And this meeting with Remsen Wood, a painter (and never of cattle) was one of the greatest of these. For had I not been sitting in that hall at that precise time on that precise day, I might well have missed a unique experience and friendships that have survived the wear and tear of almost half a century.

What Mr. Wood was looking for, he told me, and more in the manner of a farmer than a painter -- laconically, I think the word is -- was a sex-besotted butler. And I, he felt sure, had that look.

Irony of ironies! I was a virgin and both terrified and deeply suspicious of all females except little girls and elderly women! But when I learned that the person who was planning to make the film was the Watson who was part owner of my favorite magazine, The Dial, I contained my fears and agreed to come up to the filming place for a "screen test."

I had heard that an unusual film had been made in Rochester based on Poe's story "The Fall of the House of Usher." It hadn't been released and until I went up for my test I didn't know that the producer was Dr. Watson. The other participant was a brilliant, sardonic, immensely witty little man by the name of Melville Webber. He was a short, grinning, chain-smoking, fast-moving fellow whom I always envisaged as a series of circles: round head, round eyes, round body, and a mouth constantly open in a circle of laughter.

The place where they worked was two-thirds of an old carriage house behind Watson's father's house on Prince Street. A third of it was used as a garage for automobiles, including an "electric," a fashionable vehicle of the twenties, battery-operated and requiring recharging every night. The center area of the carriage house was the old tack room and, after the movies got under way, it was used for film splicing, costumes, make-up, and glorious, endless talk. The other large area was where the filming was done. Through all the years I was in and out of the "barn" so-called, I don't recall a single exterior shot.

The day that I went up to find out if I would be a suitably lascivious butler, the cubist sets used in the Usher film were still standing and I had the impression that there were still a few last-minute shots to be made. I trust I shan't be chastised for a faulty memory (forty-five years later) but I'm sure I remember Melville Webber in a top hat careening through a maze of toppling cubist sets -- evidently escaping from the foundering House of Usher. He was The Visitor who had ridden up to that awesome pile, as was described in one of the most extraordinary first paragraphs I have ever read.

But there was still room for me to pace about, I childishly hoped, in the manner of a butler's majestic tread. My meeting with Dr. Watson had been so casual and congenial that I was relaxed enough to skip, if so asked. Indeed, when he mentioned that he had never seen nor heard of a butler with a mustache, I was so elated by the implication that I was adequate for the role, that I took myself off to a barber shop and had my mustache removed. I admit the sight of my long, denuded upper lip almost caused me to burst into tears, but then I thought of my great good fortune: I had been asked to join a most remarkable group of people in a most salubrious environment. For the "barn" looked out on a vast greensward that served as a kind of village green for all the houses that bordered it, all but one of them lived in by members of the Watson and Sibley families. Undoubtedly it symbolized wealth, but it was beautiful as well and made me feel safer than I had felt in years. I haven't dared visit that haven in Rochester for many years for I'd rather keep my memory of its loveliness intact. It wouldn't surprise me if today all that marvelous sea of green were solid cement. I'm not at all sure that the expression plus ça change, etc., is any longer valid.

Remsen Wood, the deceptively bucolic-appearing "talent scout," was creating the scenery for the butler film. His wry and even sardonic remarks were always delivered in the manner of someone standing about in a village general store, but I soon came to realize that there was a glint of finely honed steel flashing from the seemingly innocent haystack.

It wasn't long before I met Hildegarde Watson, the beautiful and extremely nimble-witted wife of Dr. Watson. And about that time I was given a showing of the Usher film, in which Hildegarde awesomely played the role of the doomed sister.

This film is not only an extraordinary cinematic achievement and one of almost unbearable suspense, but it has continued to this day to create the illusion that it is at least forty-five minutes long. When I was told that it ran only thirteen minutes I refused to believe it and though my watch told me this was so, I still would not accept the fact. It may be that the mind cannot believe that so much shattering terror could be packed into less than at least forty-five minutes.

The film about the butler had been called The Dinner Party and was the highly ingenious brainchild of Hildegarde Watson. But for a reason I've never quite understood, it was never finished. I do remember daring to suggest denouements and closing scenes but obviously they lacked what was essential. Nor, as far as I can recall, were there any other convincing solutions conceived by any of those working on the film. So it was shelved. Shortly afterwards I was asked by Dr. Watson to compose a background score for The Fall of the House of Usher. I was extremely honored but considerably uncertain of my ability to produce a score which could measure up in style and intensity to the film. I had, after all, only recently learned enough about music to write even a short piece of any merit and I was certain that the entire film should be underscored. To compose a score to span thirteen long minutes-long, that is, to a person who had managed to turn out only pieces lasting a few minutes at most -- seemed an awesome task.

But I accepted the offer and set to work to write a score which I decided should have many exact synchronizations with the film, and I decided also to use an eighteen-piece orchestra. Ah, the innocence of youth! For had even a superior conductor ever attempted to record this score, with its many synchronization points, he would have broken his baton into slivers.

Somehow an evening was planned in which I was to play a piano-reduction of my score in a dimly lit room to the showing of the film. The ensuing fiasco was due to my extreme nervousness, my monstrously bad piano playing, my inability to watch the music and the screen simultaneously (for the purpose of synchronizing music with picture), the inadequate light for reading the music, and the presence of an audience. Since Dr. Watson and I are quite shy, we never managed to discuss properly my failure to demonstrate what I had composed.

So the score gathered dust. Many years later, after the film had become famous in cinema circles and had been given a sound track of recorded music, I received a call from Hildegarde Watson asking if I would like to compose a score for the film. I must ask her some day if she was aware, when she made this call, that I had completed another score many years before.

This time I wrote a score for only six players and limited the demand for synchronization to only a few spots in the film. I obtained the services of the New York Wood-wind Quintet (the best woodwind quintet in the world, in my opinion), those of a splendid percussionist, and, perhaps best of all, the promise of a truly great conductor to conduct the film track. This glorious man, Leon Barzin, is one of the most extraordinary talents I have ever encountered in my long life among musicians. And I am honored that he has respected me and agreed to conduct not only the score to this film but others as well.

I had come to know Melville Webber quite well by this time and always found him highly entertaining company. I remember one Sunday morning he spent working on a portrait of me. It's so sad about the lacunae of memory, for I can't recall what the result of that morning's effort was or what became of it. I only recall the violent intensity with which he put paint to canvas and the hilarious, irreverent comments he made about all manner of things while he worked.

I'm tempted to stray into memories of some of our dizzy, drinking dinners and wanderings about Rochester but I must resist, since these reminiscences are about that special group that gathered in the carriage house through the last of the innocent years before the big cage was opened and the barbarians moved in and smashed every aspect of beauty, distinction, joy, subtlety, elegance, style, and high-mindedness.

I've never asked whose notion it was to make a film of the Bible story which was entitled Lot in Sodom. I'm sure it must have grown out of the intimate relationship between Melville Webber and the Watsons. All I know is that I found myself involved in it. I recall distinctly that many attempts were made to get characters to move as might have the subjects of Giotto's paintings. The results of the experiment were, however, to me at least, grotesque to the point of irrepressible laughter; and they evidently looked no less ridiculous on the screen, for thereafter no such awkward movements were attempted.

Hildegarde Watson played Lot's wife; a very lovely young girl, Dorothea Haus, Lot's daughter; and Friederick Haak, Lot himself. Oh my, my, what happy, laughing gemütlich days those were. No threats, no deadlines, no competition, no cigar-chewing "backers," no venom. Of course, I'm sure there were moments of irritation and tension and differences of opinion but they couldn't have been of any magnitude or I'm sure I'd remember.

I think I tried directing some of the scenes. And I know that in the scene in which Lot is desperately trying to dissuade the Sodomites from breaking into his home I used a simple device at the point where I felt he should behave the most dramatically. Lot in Sodom was almost wholly a silent film, so my sudden four-letter expletive at this point in Lot's desperate plea went unrecorded except to cause the precise consternation on his face that the scene needed.

The Sodomites themselves were a bit of a problem for, as is obvious, considering their sexual aberrations, they would be more convincing as Sodomites not only if they were lavishly costumed, but if their physical movements were on the effeminate side.

So I did a perhaps mean thing: I approached the most effeminate among the Eastman School students and, under some wildly false pretense, persuaded them to come to the "barn" for a tryout. Unsuspecting of my nefarious plot, they arrived like swallows returning to Capistrano, allowed themselves to be lavishly bedecked and alarmingly maquillaged by Melville Webber, with the great wit and hyperbole that were his special talent (one simpered, "I feel just like something off the remnant counter!"), and permitted themselves to be photographed in a hysterical, posturing group. But it must have rapidly become clear that their unconventional personalities were being mocked, for they never appeared again. I'm surprised that I had the courage to enter the Eastman School during their subsequent (admittedly justifiable) fury at having been so misled.

But other young people were found who were so directed that they conveyed -- filmicly, at least -- all they needed to. I've often wondered if they were truly aware of the significance of their impersonations.

For the old men at the gate, a group of highly distinguished-looking, elderly, bearded gentlemen were collected, leaving in the driveway circle outside the barn their junk wagons -- as I recall, horse-drawn.

Considering my mousey behavior with the Usher score, it is no wonder that Dr. Watson called upon the compositional talents of the violinist, Louis Siegel, for the score ofLot in Sodom. I haven't heard it in years, but my recollection is that it successfully provided the needed background musical commentary.

All these memories are so newly dredged up from so long ago that I can't be certain of nearly all of them. But I'm sure that on one occasion, before repeal of the Volstead Act, I had a barrel of rather high-proof beer delivered to the barn and, though never censured by the producer for having done so, I can believe he may have occasionally muttered imprecations when our visits to the spigot occurred too often.

After the completion of the Lot film -- which, by the way, received high praise and may still be found running in small cinemas -- a local newsreel was attempted for which I wrote rather raunchy and irreverent commentaries, and, in fact, delivered them into a microphone. The movie theatre manager received so many righteous complaints about some of my remarks that there were weeks when the newsreel was deleted from the program after the first screening. I even managed to persuade those for and against Prohibition to debate their differences before the camera. Some of these were outlandish and so comical as to force one out of the filming room.

Dr. Watson didn't care much for the "talkies," but since we had microphones and a sound camera in the barn, I thought I would present him with a comic gift, a script in which the spoken lines were all superfluous, since the accompanying pantomine conveyed completely what the spoken lines said. For example, the posterior of a character is seen being lowered into a chair, and one hears spoken the line, "I guess I'll sit down now."

Knowing Dr. Watson's predilection for puns, the worse the better, I loaded the script with the most appalling I could think of and entitled it, "Tomato's Another Day." The plot was the sheerest nonsense concerning a husband, wife, and lover. But the results were hilarious, and I'm told that the picture was actually screened in a Boston theatre under the title, It Didn't Happen That Night. It didn't finish out the week either, due to the utter bewilderment of the audiences.

One more short talking film was made of a skit I had written for a local revue under the title What Was Mrs. Oliphant's Maiden Name?  I am hoping that a print of this may emerge from the stack of film cans in the barn one of these days, as my recollection of it is that the actors, Herbert Stern and Neddie Royce, performed well, and that their dialogue was rather funny.

One afterword: In the credit title of Lot are listed four persons whose names begin with "W," and I'm happy to see mine among them. In alphabetical order they are:


  Bernard O'Brien was our sound man.


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