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A Blast From the Past: A Few Minutes with Ralph S. Hirshorn, Director of 1962’s The Dismembered

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By Elias Savada.

This wasn’t supposed to be an interview. While writing my review of the Blu-Ray of his sole feature The Dismembered, I thought I had met Ralph S. Hirshorn before. Sure he lives in Philadelphia, where I’ve been 3 or 4 times, but it wasn’t there. Looking in my address book, there he was, with a single note, “San Sebastian.” Ah.

And still I couldn’t remember our previous meetup. More on that in a minute.

Hirshorn being easily accessible via phone definitely helped. As chairman of his family’s insurance business and a member of its firm since 1963, I just dialed. In a business meeting, I left my name and number. He called me back after lunch. This transcription of our telephone conversation, excerpted below and edited for clarity, got off to a bumpy start, but only because of the software I was using. It identified me as Shirley Bassey. My singing voice is nowhere as good as the Welsh artist.

So, I must have met the director in 2000, when he was at the San Sebastian Film Festival (a wonderful event). I was on the New Directors jury that year and he was just an avid cinephile anxious to watch new and interesting movies. I wish our introduction to one another was more memorable (Ralph had no recollection of our meeting, either), but our brief telephone chat was delightful and insightful. After talking about the festival, we got to yakking about his film career and life surrounding his single feature film…

Watching the Blu-Ray of The Dismembered, I was amazed at the quality and clarity coming off a 16mm print. It’s really crisp. It’s also nice to have something that you would never expect to see the light of day, actually see the light of day.

(Boisterous laughter) That was only the second movie I made. The first was just a short subject (The End of Summer).

I’m calling it Buñuelian.

That’s good! Yeah. (More laughter.) It was actually meant to be a take off on Avant-garde films. Also, I kind of like the idea of non-sequiturs.

And that got you your job at Columbia Pictures? Wow! Who was smoking what out there?

HirshornI think I know what happened. Yale University, where I attended college, entered it as a student film in a Screen Producers Guild competition and it won the Jesse L. Lasky inter-collegiate film award. My guess is that they (the guild) just got tired of giving the award every year to UCLA or USC, and they wanted to just “oh well what the heck” give it to some other school. So it was great. Actually, we got two awards – one for Yale and one for me. It was great. I was kind of working on The Dismembered that summer and then went off to Columbia in the fall.

I was there for a couple years. I worked on Gidget Goes Hawaiian and Sail a Crooked Ship. I was with Ernie Kovacs, and I must say that that was worth the trip. It was amazing. He not only would gamble all night and then he’d pick up his lunch right away in the morning, but he also wrote a book called Zoomar (which he wrote in 13 days), while we were filming Sail A Crooked Ship. The night after we wound shooting I have a picture of him at the end of shooting with me of course and Jesse White (a comedian who most remembered for his portrayal of the Maytag repairman in television commercials from 1967-1988). I have that photo in my living room.

A couple of other things I’d like to share surrounding The End of Summer. When I got my award out in California (in January 1960), I got to meet a lot of people, including Gary Cooper. A really nice man – just wonderful. I knock on the door of the suite at the Beverly Hilton where they rehearse you for the award ceremony. Gary Cooper opens the door, and he’s about a foot and a half taller than me. Straight up. And I said “Gee, Mr. Cooper I’ve seen High Noon 52 times. He looks down at me and rubs his hand across his mouth and goes “Gosh.” It was wonderful.

That night Eva Marie Saint, when she presented the award, was introduced by emcee Jack Benny, and he gushed with flowery niceties about her. When she strolled to the podium she muttered “Aw shit.” The event was being broadcast live on the radio. Apparently the audience was stunned, then broke out into uproarious laughter. Any number of newspaper articles across the country covered the story (The Associated Press headline read “Angelic actress startles film industry with earthy response.”)

So, I had a great time when I was out there (in California). I would probably still be there, but unfortunately my father died so I came back east and took over the family business. I had to. My brother, who was running the business, had left it to join the Foreign Service. So I had two problems. One was what to do with the business and what to do with my mother, now a widow, who had fallen apart completely.

Turning back to The Dismembered, our shooting budget was about two thousand dollars that they provided.

The Blu-Ray’s audio commentary said it was $5,000.

It could have been. But they provided the money. They financed it. I think my parents put up a thousand, but they did finance the post production. It really was very, very helpful, because I couldn’t hang around other than doing a little bit of the editing.

I so much wanted your commentary to go into more detail about your associate producer Carl Lerner, Jr., a well-known editor and Philly native. Did you meet him there?

Dis 02Yes. A wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man. So he literally saved the movie. And also understood what we were trying to do. What happened was the film was meant basically to be a takeoff on the very, very poorly made horror film. These pictures were strictly for drive-ins. I’m into it, and we did not have an opportunity to watch the film’s rushes. A definite setback, but I did realize that what I was doing was really just making a bad movie, and there wasn’t enough winking. So it was their suggestion to give it a subtitle, Oswald, You Botched It Again! That was pretty smart. They (Carl and his helpers) put in a couple subtitles that I thought I could have done a lot better with, but it still helped convey the comedy. And another thing we did was we throw in some slapstick. You know, just point and say “we’re not taking this seriously.”

But my biggest problem during shooting was that I liked to move the camera, especially with up and down shots. I did not have a director of photography. What I had was a camera operator who I had to hire because he came along with the camera. That group also included the sound man and assistant director. Basically the guy was renting us the equipment. I wanted to give them employment for a week or two. He was making a TV movie and at the time he shot NFL films, before NFL Films existed. He did the black-and-white 16mm movies in Philadelphia. His name was Lou Kellman. And among other things he brought to the TV culture something called Diver Dan. At any rate it was a very pleasant experience. We had a lot of , but we did not have really enough film to do too many, if any. And so that was one problem. And of course the special effects were intentionally hokey.

All the wires.

Yeah. Yeah. (lots of laughter) You’re supposed to be able to see them.

You mention briefly in the audio commentary that the opening sequence, where they’re robbing the safe with their medical garb on, was silent because of a possible post-production error. All the dialogue was dubbed. Did you shoot it silent?

Actually, we did shoot it with sound, which was a real mistake, because we had masks on the actors (garbling their voices). And apparently we didn’t record or didn’t record enough surface (room) sound. No, that didn’t bother me (how the scene plays in the movie).

To me, I’m getting the feel of a film that might have been shot 30 years earlier – like an early talkie with the rickety piano on the track.

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a pure accident. I really have to fault myself. I could have easily made changes. I made some, but mostly I realized that the dialogue was way too flat. I could have basically shortened and sharpened it and made it funnier, but didn’t. That was one failing. The other wasn’t really my fault, but we had a 35mm camera with a blimp…and no dolly. We couldn’t roll it around. So it really restricted what the hell we could do with it. I should have shot it in Super16. I had a 16mm Arri which I had used before (on his short film). And then, boom! And I had multiple lenses. It was so much easier on the short. I shot in regular 16. And that was all off the cuff. No dialogue, which was fine. So those were ideal circumstances. Three of my friends from college contributed.

Back to The Dismembered, was there ever any reason why those particular five ghosts were in that house?

No. no, no. You think that they died there or something like that. There’s no backstory whatsoever.

I’m trying to figure out the various costumes. One of your actors is in a World War I uniform. Effie’s knitting. There’s Oswald, of course. And the other male ghost looked like he just got off a horse carriage from the Borgo Pass.

(Ralph likes that – a big laugh). Two of the ghosts were teachers from Penn Charter (the independent school founded in 1869 at the urging of William Penn). But my great regret is that I was so limited making my first feature.

And then you were gone.

Yeah I was, and now I’m working with a crew of anywhere from 30 to 40 (in the insurance business). Totally different experience.

Did The Dismembered ever get released?

If it did it, that would be news to me. I did get a 16mm print from the lab, but I honestly never saw anybody connected to the movie again.

Thanks for the chat and good luck with your next film!

(Laughter)

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).

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