Obituary: Robert Parrish

Kevin Brownlow
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:11

Thirty years ago, when I was starting out as a film historian, I used to show silent films from my collection to anyone who would ask me. One kind American film-maker who seemed fascinated was the veteran director Andrew L. Stone, and he held gatherings at his London home to which he invited fellow film-makers. I remember meeting names I had until then only read about. One man who always came was a tall, handsome American - so handsome I assumed he was a leading man. But this was Robert Parrish, who turned out to have directed films like that remarkable western The Wonderful Country (1959), with Robert Mitchum. I found all those American film people extraordinarily charming and fascinated by their craft. But Parrish seemed to know all of film history from personal contact. You couldn't mention a film he didn't know, a director he hadn't worked with.

He was a man of constant surprises. I remember talking about Chaplin's classic City Lights (1931), an example of a silent film released into the talkie era. "I was in that," he said. "I was the kid who blew the peashooter at Charlie." It was City Lights which fired his ambition to be a film director - up to then he'd assumed every film had been directed by D.W. Griffith. And it was City Lights which began a friendship with Chaplin.

Parrish told the story of how Chaplin had shot five takes of a little dance on Monsieur Verdoux; he showed all five to Parrish, now a film editor. Chaplin was good in all of them, but in take three the camera panned a little far and picked up an electrician for a fraction of a second. "Which take did you like best?" asked Chaplin. Parrish chose take five. "Did you like my dance in take three?" "Yes, but what about the electrician?" Chaplin jumped out of his seat. "What are you looking at him for? You're supposed to be looking at me. If you noticed the electrician that means I wasn't holding your attention."

Parrish remained loyal to Chaplin throughout the McCarthy period, when the very mention of his name could arouse suspicion, and when David Gill and I made the television programme Unknown Chaplin (1983) for Thames, Parrish proved enormously helpful.

By that time, I had grown accustomed to mentioning a title and hearing Parrish say "Oh, I was in that . . ." He was even in Murnau's Sunrise (1927) - a vast set of an imaginary city had been built on the Fox lot in false perspective. As the buildings got smaller, the extras had to get smaller, too, so Parrish found himself, aged 11, dressed in adult clothes among a crowd of other children.

It is part of Hollywood's unspoken wisdom that the worst start a child can have is to become a kid actor. Bob Parrish certainly disproved that. He played with Our Gang at the Hal Roach Studios, he was a powder monkey in The Divine Lady (1929), an epic about Nelson, and he had an eye- opening location trip with Raoul Walsh for the massive western The Big Trail (1930), presented in sound and wide screen.

His stories about these pictures were marvellous in themselves, and he often came at them sideways, so not only the punchline but the situation took you by surprise. We all entreated him to write them down and in 1976 he did so, producing one of the most enchanting - and hilarious - books about the picture business ever written. It was called Growing Up in Hollywood and it ought to be reprinted in this centenary year.

Parrish did so many things so well, one tended to forget that he was a film director. He had also been a famous editor. His first boss, who had graduated to editing via boxing and stunt work, decorated his cutting room with a sign which said "In this room, ART is spelled with an F." Because this editor drank, Parrish graduated to creative cutting much earlier than normal. By the time he worked with John Ford on The Informer (1935) he was an apprentice editor. Knowing that he really wanted to be a director, he hung about the stage to watch Ford. Eventually, Ford, who had used him first as a kid extra, then as an actor in a number of pictures, decided to give him his first lesson.

He warned him that from time to time he would come on the set in the morning without an idea how to stage the scene. He advised him to call for the viewfinder - finders were long, heavy metal objects which could be detached from the camera. "Go to the centre of the set. Put the finder to your eyes and close your eyes. Now you're in a good position to think. After you've held this position for 15 minutes a front office spy - an associate producer - will come on the set. The jungle telegraph will have passed the word that it's 9.30 and you haven't made a shot. He'll slink up like a sidewinder to a position just about where you are now and say, 'How's it going, Jack?' As soon as the sonofabitch speaks, you swing the finder around hard, like this."

Ford turned, the finder struck Parrish hard on the forehead and drew blood. Ford kept on talking, never taking the finder from his eyes. "You'll find your aim will improve and you can knock off two or three associate producers a week. That's the end of the first lesson."

Parrish joined the navy and cut The Battle of Midway for Lt-Cdr Ford. It won the Oscar for the best documentary short subject of 1942. A few years later, Parrish won the Oscar for his editing (with Francis Long) of Robert Rossen's Body and Soul (1947). When he achieved his ambition of becoming a director his years in the cutting room paid off handsomely. His first, a gangster picture called Cry Danger (1951), was well reviewed and well received. I remember being very impressed by the visual quality of The Wonderful Country (1959). He told me that on location he took an extra cameraman - Alex Phillips, a Russian living in Mexico - using him with the agreement of the director of photography (the great Floyd Crosby) because he was willing to take incredible risks. Sometimes, said Parrish, his shots were utterly useless, but more often than not they were breathtaking. I thought that an admirable technique.

The great stories of Parrish's directorial career can be found in his second book, Hollywood Doesn't Live Here Anymore, which he published in 1988.

That career included films like The Purple Plain (1954), Fire Down Below (1957) and less happy experiences like being one of several harassed directors on Casino Royale (1967). He met Bertrand Tavernier while working on In the French Style (1962) and 20 years later they collaborated on a documentary, Mississippi Blues (1963), which echoed memories of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

Parrish more or less retired after this, although he had long lived at Sag Harbor, on Long Island, with his wife Kathie.

Every so often a funny story or intriguing clipping would sail through the post - this was his way of keeping in touch with all his friends. But there was no substitute for meeting the man. As Bob Parrish once said about Joel McCrea, he always made you feel better than you were.

Robert Parrish, film editor, director and actor: born Columbus, Georgia 4 January 1916; married Kathleen Norris (one son, one daughter); died Southampton, Long Island 4 December 1995.

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