Behind the Scenes of The Flame and the Arrow at TCMFF 2022
December 6, 2022
Regular readers of this blog know how big a fan I am of Ben Burtt and Craig Barron’s entertaining presentations at the TCM Classic Film Festival. And I’m not the only one, clearly – their popularity at TCMFF has risen substantially since their fest debut in (I believe) 2013. Year after year, they give fans a peek behind the scenes, detailing the special effects and production histories of countless films. This year, they dove into The Flame and the Arrow (1950) along with another special guest, co-star Gordon Gebert.
Read on to learn about some of the topics they touched upon during their presentation.
The Friendship of Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat
The Flame and the Arrow partly came about because of Lancaster and Cravat’s friendship. The duo met when they were young, well before Lancaster’s movie career. At that point, they both possessed an enthusiasm for gymnastics and acrobatics, even going so far as building equipment in their backyard! Before long, they developed an acrobatic act together. Eventually, they took this act to various circuses and even refined it for the vaudeville circuit.
After several years of working together under big red tents, Lancaster expressed interest in trying his hand at Hollywood. While he journeyed west, Cravat remained with the circus, honing his skills as a mime and clown. As we know, Lancaster eventually made it in Hollywood. Even as his star started to rise, he never forgot his friend. And that’s where The Flame and the Arrow comes in.
Craig Barron and Ben Burtt present The Flame and the Arrow at TCMFF. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Swashbuckling + circus skills = The Flame and the Arrow
Cravat posed an idea to Lancaster: A swashbuckling picture where they could both showcase their acrobatics. Lancaster took the idea to Warner Brothers, and they gave the greenlight. The studio recently re-released The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which proved profitable, so studio head Jack Warner figured another action-adventure movie would make money, too.
The film was a go! One question arose in pre-production, though. What would they do with Cravat’s voice? (He had a strong New York accent that didn’t exactly fit the Italian setting of the film.) Their solution? Make his character mute. Through Cravat’s previous training, he already perfected the ability to portray expansive emotions through his facial expressions and body language.
“Let the recycling begin!”
Burtt and Barron showed the audience how Warners reused various props, locations, and effects in The Flame and the Arrow to keep the budget down once production started. The echo of arrows flying from Robin Hood, the resonance of swords clashing from The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), facades from The Sea Hawk (1940), and more were recycled in new ways for this film.
The studio also extensively employed matte paintings in the picture, transporting viewers to new locations like northern Italy, where the film takes place. In many cases, such as a scene in which Lancaster performed a flyover on a high bar, the live action elements were paired with matte paintings to bring the whole scene to life.
Speaking of matte paintings, Barron confirmed that not many of them survive; sometimes, remnants would even be cropped and used as decoration. This is exactly what former Warner Brothers archivist Leith Adams encountered one day. He received a call from someone whose father was a studio executive and had several fragments from matte paintings in his office at home. Luckily, Leith was able to obtain the paintings and return them to the studio.
An example of a matte painting used in the background in the movie.
Jack Warner is not impressed
Burtt and Barron screened an outtake for us, a behind the scenes look of Lancaster, Cravat, and others prepping for a routine with the circus troupe in the movie. As the story goes, apparently Jack Warner paid a rare visit to set that day, and he was furious to find Lancaster goofing around with a funny red nose on (especially when he wanted Errol Flynn for the part). Warner had no idea why his star was dressed as a clown, but he knew he didn’t like it and stormed out.
Introducing Gordon Gebert
Burtt and Barron had a trick up their sleeves, something fans don’t normally witness at these presentations – an eyewitness to the action!
Child star Gordon Gebert appeared in The Flame and the Arrow as Lancaster’s son Rudy. Best known for his starring role in the Christmas classic Holiday Affair (1949), Gebert at this time was under contract to RKO for 3 films. The kicker? He never worked on the RKO lot; the studio kept loaning him out for movies like this.
Memories of Lancaster and Cravat
Gebert recalled the duo being real buddies. They were always together on set and palling around each other’s trailers. (Their joking and improv spilled over to filming, too, he remembered.) Though the two friends clowned around, he also said they were very professional. Gebert appeared in a number of scenes in which they performed their acrobatics, and he was fascinated by the stunts they executed.
Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat filming The Flame and the Arrow.
Haircuts, archery, and… ballet?
“The haircut was not my favorite part,” Gebert laughed, saying he was horrified to learn he’d have to get a bowl cut for the part. Another element he didn’t really like? Learning ballet. That seemed to be due to his young age. Gebert did, however, enjoy learning archery and recalled practicing a lot with a bow and arrow. Overall, filming the movie was “great fun,” he said.
Going to school on set – and having a famous schoolmate
As he was still a child, Gebert had to attend school while filming. He worked four hours a day and went to school for three hours, with a one-hour break for lunch. He recalled life on set as being very fragmented, so sometimes he’d be at school for 15 minutes, then on set for 20, and so forth.
There was an issue with school, though. Back then, the contract studio was in charge of educating child stars, and they were required to have space on the lot for a school, even if the child wasn’t filming there. RKO head Howard Hughes decided he didn’t want to do that. So, he did away with the school when Gebert was done with the movie, and that move ballooned into a huge controversy: Should Gebert go back to regular school or be taught at RKO?
They came up with a unique solution. An actress at Warner Brothers was attending school there, and they already had space and a teacher for her. So, Hughes brokered a deal with Warners to send Gebert to school on that lot, which he did for a whole year. He was in third grade while his classmate Debbie Reynolds (!) finished high school.
Speaking of the Warner Brothers lot, Gebert frequently rode his bike there with friends and sometimes even scaled the fence and hung out on the lot after hours! He said he and his friends could normally play around for an hour before security inevitably found out and chased them back over the fence.
Lancaster and Gordon Gebert (with the bow and arrow) in a scene from the film.
Gebert did his own stunts – sometimes
In one scene, Rudy runs across rooftops to create a diversion and get the bad guys to go after him instead of his dad. In the film, we don’t see what’s below – because they were basically on the ground. Gebert recalled the ‘roof’ was probably eight or nine feet above the ground – which is still high! – and it was slippery. Even so, he did his own running; he wasn’t scared because it didn’t seem that high to him. (For shots that involved greater heights or ones where you couldn’t see his character’s face, a stunt man was used.)
In that same scene, some have wondered whether Rudy’s smile, seen as soldiers catch and take him away, was the result of a bad take or part of the character. Gebert doesn’t recall, but he thinks it fits perfectly in the story; he’s supposed to distract the soldiers so his dad could get away, so that smile could very well have been confirmation that he did his job.
What he’s up to now
Gebert left the business in 1960. If he had stayed, he would have gone behind the camera; he told us he had an interest in the technical side of things.
That said, he always wanted to become an architect, so he went to school and did just that! He still works in the architectural field and currently is a professor at the City College of New York.
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