Friday, February 5, 2016

Edward Bernds' memoir is a history of early Hollywood sound films

By Doug Gibson

I've long wanted to read Edward Bernds's memoir, "Mr. Bernds Goes to Hollywood: My Early Life and Career in Sound Recording at Columbia with Frank Capra and Others." But it's pricey. Just to buy it in Kindle is $40-plus dollars; out of print dead-tree copies go around $50 and more.

But I found it, in the library at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, where this blog calls home. Who wouldn't want to read about Edward Bernds' career as main sound man for such great Capra films as "Lady For A Day," "It Happened One Night," "You Can't Take It With You" and more? And Bernds was also on the set doing sound for Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Gregory LaCava, and more. In the studio system of the 1930s, it wasn't all A production assignments. Bernds was assigned to dozens of low-budget western oaters, many starring Charles Starrett. He also did sound for screen tests and the low-budget near low-on-the-Columbia-totem-pole comedy shorts. In fact, Bernds was on the set when a trio of performers, Moe, Curly and Larry, starred in a musical novelty short called "Women Haters." Of course, they became the Three Stooges and Bernds was around doing sound for many of the comedy, Stooges, Andy Clyde and others.

Bernds was born in Chicago in 1905. He loved the new medium radio and by the time he was 20 he worked at a Chicago station. When his girlfriend, Bathsheba, moved to Los Angeles, Bernds eventually followed her there and the pair were married. They returned to Chicago briefly but a job offer came from southern California as a sound technician. Bernds' tales of the early days of sound films is fascinating. He describes the gradual sophistication of studios' sound systems. Early synchronized sound involved filming in a confined space, that limited the freedom of the camera. That may be why so many early sound films look stagy.

Bernds worked briefly at United Artists but moved to Columbia. It was considered a lesser studio but it was a smart move for Bernds. He describes how he was noticed by Capra, an exceptional director who was able to place actors in plots and situations and elicit performances that made audiences care about their fate. Capra noted Bernds' talent, and he became his preferred sound technician.

It was a fortunate partnership. Bernds was an observer of film, a frustrated wannabe screenwriter and director who compensated that desire by writing short stories for the 1930s literary magazine "Rob Wagner's Script." Bernds recalls taking his published stories to Columbia's crusty boss, Harry Cohn, who always asked Bernds to send a screenplay. As Bernds notes, at that point in his life he lacked the confidence to write a screenplay.

As mentioned, Bernds kept notes and along with his memories they provide a detailed look at early sound Hollywood that is a treasure for film buffs. We get peeks into the characters and actions of stars such as Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Jimmy Stewart, Loretta Young, Leslie Howard Jean Arthur, The Stooges, of course, and many more.

Trust me when I say the life of a working-class, integral member of a film crew, the sound technician, is an interesting topic, particularly one toling 80-plus years ago. Bernds captures the times, the down of the Great Depression, the hope that Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered. We walk streets in 1930s southern California with Bernds and we vicariously relive Bernds' memories of his favorite mode of transportation, the cross-country train.

Bernds learned both diplomacy and when to assert himself on a set. As he recalls, Capra was open to suggestions, but a director such as LaCava would fire a subordinate for unsolicited information.

The details of filmmaking, beyond just sound technology, are fascinating in Bernds' memoir. He takes us across the Atlantic to shoot a film in England, to New York and New Jersey for shoots, to ranches in southern California, to the rickety Columbia stages used for the comedy shorts, and much more. We get glimpses of the dangers, and sometimes tragedies, that resulted in filming in an era before modern special effects.

Through the 1930s, Bernds and his wife raised a family and saw his paycheck grow with Columbia. But he harbored a major ambition, to be a director. And that is the theme of "Mr. Bernds Goes to Hollywood," it's one film professional's journey to finally becoming a director. The book opens with Bernds' relating Cohn's bewilderment that his efficient sound man wanted to chuck that for directing. It ends with Bernds' move to directing with the shorts department under the guidance of producer Hugh McCollum. The memoir barely covers the directing years, but any genre fan is well aware of the dozens of Columbia comedy shorts Bernds directed, and the features work he got, usually "Blondie" films.

Bernds never became an A director. He didn't have the opportunity to do Capra-esque films. He left Columbia when McCollum was fired and a previous western feature with The Stooges he made, "Gold Raiders," got terrible reviews and that hurt his career (I have seen the film and enjoy it). But he was hired at Allied Artists for a while and was busy directing for more than a decade, including the later Bowery Boys films, a couple of late Stooges features and some genuine cult science fiction films, including "Queen of Outer Space" and "World Without End."

He died in 2000, a year after his memoir was published. A couple of interesting points: Although he has great respect for Capra, he notes several recollected events that are distinctly different from what Capra writes in his autobiography. This is important because Capra, who had feuded with Harry Langdon in the 1920s, was harsh to Langdon in his memoirs, claiming things about him that have been debunked since.

Also, there is a bittersweet recollection of Bernds, and his writing pal Edward Ullman, visiting his old work office at Columbia in the late 1960s on business. The pair of film veterans were condescended to and lectured on comedy by a youngster less than half their age. At that point, Bernds decided he was content with his two film industry pensions.

I urge fans of the Columbia comedy shorts to read this book. They will gain a better appreciation of one of the best shorts directors. His later years are highlighted with an epilogue interview of Bernds by Leonard Maltin and Joseph McBride. Bernds offers interesting tidbits, some delightfully gossipy. McCollum, Bernds reveals, was smitten with the beautiful comedy shorts supporting player Christin McIntire, although he says it may have been platonic.

Those wishing a more detailed look at Bernds' work with Columbia comedy shorts must read the book by Ed Watz and Ted Okuda, "The Columbia Comedy Shorts, reviewed here.

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