For forty years, A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie made movie history as the king of visual effects at MGM. From Tarzan swinging on a supposed vine to a tornado ripping through Kansas in The Wizard of Oz, he and his team created true movie magic. Perhaps “invented” would be a better word, as they devised solutions to moviemaking problems no one had ever tackled before, beginning in the silent film era and continuing through such milestones as Mutiny on the Bounty, The Good Earth, Forbidden Planet, and both versions of Ben-Hur! Back in the 1960s, shortly after his retirement from Metro, Gillespie started working on a book about his career, selecting photos and incorporating carefully-saved work sheets for each job—from dramatizing an earthquake in San Francisco to crafting a miniature aircraft carrier for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
Here’s a brief sample of what he says about the quake and a scene in which a brick wall appeared to bury Clark Gable: “That was a full-sized mechanical dilly. We dreamed up some firsts, I believe, on this one… The film was necessarily scissored just as the wall started to tumble. The ‘bricks’ were by courtesy of the L.A. Paper Box Co., the ‘mortar’ was an extremely lightweight plaster mixture, and the illusion of a gory crushed demise, much too believable for even the ‘King’ to have scrambled smilingly out from under, resulted in the necessary film clipping.
“The big theater-night-club set, for this picture, in which Miss MacDonald warbled her lovely lyric soprano, occupied all of Stage 12 at M.G.M. There had been some argument about the destructive movement of an earthquake. I supported the ‘horizontal’ theory while others insisted that it was the vertical, rolling ‘ups and downs’ which caused the damage. An expert from California Polytechnic College in Pasadena was contacted, and I won. In fact, he commented that our ‘schematic’ for the big set, actually represented the very kind of an ‘earthquake table’ upon which, in small scale, Cal Tech experiments were conducted.”
On the page facing these words are behind-the-scenes photos revealing a raised set on railroad car wheels with “breakaway balcony, faux ceiling, and ‘brick’ walls.”
Unfortunately, no one was willing to publish Gillespie’s manuscript, although friends and colleagues were enthusiastic. He passed away in 1978. Finally, after more than forty years, his grandson, Robert Welch, film book editor Philip J. Riley, and BearManor Media have made this long-awaited project a reality.
I doubt that anyone who’s interested in the hows and wherefores of visual effects—or the studio system, for that matter—will be disappointed. The book is told in Gillespie’s avuncular voice, and fortunately he is generous about sharing credit with the many skilled specialists who also toiled at MGM. Storyboards, photos showing the components of complicated shots, mattes, miniatures, architectural drawings, breakdowns—even detailed invoices—fill the 375 oversized pages of this paperbound volume.
But, as much as any other ingredient, it is Gillespie’s positive outlook and optimism that characterize this combination memoir and manual. It looks back at a golden age made so by creative, thoughtful, hard-working men like Buddy Gillespie.