George Groves The Movie Sound Pioneer

The Story of the Oscar-Winning Soundman from St Helens, England

The Story of the Oscar-Winning Soundman from St Helens, England

Part 12 - George Groves and Warner Bros. (1964 - 71) – The parting of the ways with Jack Warner plus Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt and Woodstock

"I'd been with Colonel Warner for a long, long time and I felt that he was more like a father to me than a boss” – George Groves

PART 12 - GEORGE GROVES & WARNER BROS. (1964 - 71)

"I'd been with Colonel Warner for a long, long time and I felt that he was more like a father to me than a boss” – George Groves
When George Groves won a Best Sound Oscar for My Fair Lady at the 1965 Academy Awards, Warners were completing post-production on The Great Race. Directed by Blake Edwards and starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, the car race comedy set in the early 20th century was tagged "the great laugh show of all time!".

George labelled it a "sound effects editor's dream" and it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound. There was much ingenuity involved in creating the sound fx and considerable imagination used in employing them. By the 1960s the technological advancements in production were facilitating enhancements in creativity.

George was grateful to Henry Mancini who wrote the music for The Great Race and who lobbied Jack Warner to invest in enhancements to the scoring stage mixers, so they could accommodate more inputs. Mancini was concerned that they wouldn't be able to cope with the demands of the film. This was a small first step in modernising Warners’ scoring and dubbing studios.

In August 1967 Bonnie and Clyde starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty was released. George recalled how the score had been composed and recorded but then largely dispensed with, replaced instead by old bluegrass recordings by Flatt and Scruggs. This happened from time to time and not all composers and musical directors handled rejection well. One famous composer even threatened suicide after his score was unused.

Warren Beatty was producer on the show and took his responsibilities very seriously, sitting in on most of the dubbing sessions. Some directors and producers would want to involve themselves in the dubbing, others such as Alfred Hitchcock never did. They simply trusted George with his forty years of experience and his skilled editors to deliver the goods. George recalled Beatty as being "very fussy" about many of the sound edits. He was particularly insistent that the gunshots and sound of old vehicles be authentic.
George Groves and Jack Warner

George Groves and Jack Warner pictured in the 1960s – George thought of Warner more like a father than a boss

George Groves and Jack Warner

George Groves and Jack Warner pictured in the 1960s

1967 was a landmark year for George Groves. It was the year that Jack Warner sold out to Seven Arts, ending a 42-year association between the pair. Warner had spent little time in the sound department but he had always supported George, especially when Groves had to deal with difficult directors and picture editors who had challenged his authority:
 I'd been with Colonel Warner for a long, long time and I felt that he was more like a father to me than a boss. I always had a wonderful feeling of support from him...One thing I could always rely upon and that was 100% backing.  
However twenty years earlier George was nearly sacked by Jack Warner after bringing Errol Flynn into the studio to do some sound looping. Just one line in his latest film had to be re-recorded but George was unaware that he was in dispute with Warners. He was contracted to them but was off-salary and not being paid in between pictures. This was a bone of contention for Flynn as George recalled:
 After he'd done the looping job he demanded salary for all the time he'd been off salary. Well Warner he could have killed me. He said: "Who gave you authority to call Flynn in. …Didn't you know that he was off salary and he's suing us? This looping is costing me $5,000 a word?" He was mad. Mad, mad, mad.  
So George rang Errol and told him the writ was likely to cost him his job and Flynn said: "If that's the case George, I'll forget it". He was good to his word and immediately cancelled his writ.

Jack Warner's swansong as producer was Camelot, the story of the marriage of King Arthur to Guinevere, starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. Based on the 1960 Broadway musical, it was hoped it would emulate the heights of My Fair Lady, but George felt it wasn't quite in the same league.

It was, however, nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound and won an Academy Award for Best Music-Scoring. The main problem as far as George Groves was concerned was director Josh Logan's decision to use "extremely loud" playbacks in Vanessa Redgrave's musical numbers.

The lack of isolation of her recordings led to the actress having to "loop" or re-record her vocals. "This was a very unusual procedure", said George. Looping (a.k.a. ADR) is standard practice these days. The hostility of some actors and directors to the process, which George often experienced, has been overcome by a demand for the highest quality digital sound. But the looping procedure was developed to post-record lines of dialogue, not lines in a song. Redgrave had to sing the song line by line in the looping room to the original orchestrations, lip-syncing to her filmed performances.

George was highly impressed with Alfred Newman's scoring of the picture. "He was so wonderful and did a beautiful job". Although, Jack Warner and Josh Logan made him re-write the main title theme as they both considered it to be "depressing", although George thought it "gorgeous".

Peter Yates' Bullitt of 1968 is renowned for its car chases in San Francisco with Steve McQueen driving a Ford Mustang at high speed. Few appreciate, however, that the impact of the sequence was enhanced by attention to detail with realistic sound. In order to generate sound fx for dubbing in the picture, George arranged for the car to be driven by a stunt driver on a local track.

The recordings were played back to McQueen in the dubbing room. He was quite a speed buff himself and enjoyed driving fast cars but was quite unimpressed with what he heard on the tapes. He said to George: "That's not me driving, that's not my style", explaining that he had his own rhythm of shifting gears and accelerating. Plus he felt the recordings failed to fully convey the sensation of speed. Steve McQueen then said: "Set up a date, get the car and I'll drive."
Steve McQueen in his Ford Mustang during the celebrated car chase sequence in Bullitt

Speed buff Steve McQueen in his Ford Mustang during the celebrated car chase sequence in Bullitt

Steve McQueen in his Ford Mustang during the celebrated car chase sequence in Bullitt

Steve McQueen in his Mustang during the Bullitt car chase sequence

The quietest place that George could find with long enough runs to accommodate Steve McQueen's driving at 120 mph was at a disused airport in the Mojave desert on a boiling hot summer's day:
 We had a sound fx editor ride in the car with Steve. He drove at such speeds that this boy had to tie down the recording machine and he had to brace himself on the sides of the automobile to prevent being thrown from side to side when he made these fast turns and shifting up and down. They were out there all day with Steve just driving this thing for all it was worth. And we came up with the sound fx that you hear in the picture....He was absolutely delighted [with the results] and [Steve McQueen] threw a party for everybody in the dubbing room after he'd heard it.  
Bullitt was nominated for best sound but the Oscar went instead to Oliver!, the British musical drama film directed by Carol Reed. In January 2020 the Ford Mustang used in the film was sold at auction for over $3½m.
Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah and Michael Wadleigh

Directors Sidney Lumet (The Sea Gull), Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock)

Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah and Michael Wadleigh

Film directors Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah and Michael Wadleigh

During the 1960s directors and producers exercised their autonomy to choose their own crews - their "pet boys" as George put it – as opposed to Warners / Seven Arts approved technicians. This often created problems which the sound department would end up having to fix.

This happened with The Sea Gull, a film adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play, which was shot, edited and dubbed in Sweden in 1968 using local crews. However, producer / director Sidney Lumet was quite dissatisfied with the finished soundtrack to his film. So with a pressing deadline, he took it to Burbank for George and his team to re-dub. He was so pleased with the results that he took out a 'thank you' advert in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter:
 It had to be done fast because there was a release date set. We made the date for him and he was very grateful because he did publish a very beautiful ad in the local trades praising the Warners sound department and the dubbing job very highly.  
Sometimes it was the demands of directors that created difficulties. George found working with Sam Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch in 1969 somewhat challenging. Although he considered him to be a "very brilliant" director, he said that his "ego and objectionable language and attitude most of the time were pretty hard to put up with."

Peckinpah had made it clear that he didn't like Jerry Fielding's score and in the dubbing sessions insisted, against all advice, that the music levels be constant without natural highs or lows. "All the vigour and life", as George put it, was subsequently lost. It was usual practice to preview a newly completed film at a local theatre prior to its official premiere. So The Wild Bunch was shown at one in Fresno and was not well received. The day after the screening George had a drink with Peckinpah to discuss the problems with the film:
 I said: "Do you know what's the matter with that show, Sam? You made us dub it like a TV show...it's all flattened out. There are no high spots, there are no low spots. There's no vitality. And it's your fault. Let us go back and dub it the way we think it should be dubbed." And we became friends.  
The Wild Bunch was re-dubbed by George's team prior to its theatrical release and Jerry Fielding won an Oscar for the Best Music and Original Score.

In June 1969 Warner Bros. / Seven Arts merged with Kinney National who were originally a cleaning and parking operation. As well as making their own pictures, the company became increasingly involved in acquiring and distributing completed films. This happened with Billy Jack and George's sound department played no part in its making. However substantial work would sometimes have to be done to make an acquired picture fit for purpose and Woodstock was a prime example.

The rights to the film record of the 1969 music festival were bought by Warner / Kinney for just $400,000. It was shot on 16mm by director Michael Wadleigh with the sound recorded as 8-track magnetic. After the film had been converted to 35mm, it was edited in New York with creative use made of multiple screen images. The dubbing was, however, scheduled to take place in Burbank but the young Woodstock crew were mainly record company people with no experience of the film industry.
 We had to have meetings to educate these boys as to what could be done and what could not be done in making motion pictures.  
The sound department spent 2-3 months dubbing the film in total. "We were absolutely inundated with film", said George and with theatres booked all over the country, they worked long hours, 7 days a week, to meet the deadline. George suggested that the fourth track of surround sound be used to increase audience participation in theatres. So it included the many PA announcements made at the event, leading to some theatre audiences joining in and stamping their feet. They wanted the film to replicate as far as possible the actual event and this included a higher level of theatrical playback than normal. So George Groves wrote to theatre services organisations and projectionists with instructions as to the fader settings that should be used.

George had arranged for the Woodstock crew to test out a reel of dubbed film at the theatre used by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. However theatre manager Sam Brown shut down the projector and chased them out of the building, frightened that their high level playback would damage his speakers!

Groves even arranged for a sound technician to be sent to the main theatres that had pre-booked Woodstock to check that their speaker systems were properly balanced and to ensure that their surround speakers were good enough quality.
 We went to a lot of trouble to get a good job out of Woodstock... Mike Wadleigh is a real genius, unbelievable the work that he did and the artistry that he's shown. A real appreciation of the effect that sound could have.  
Woodstock was nominated for an Oscar for best sound but was unsuccessful, although it did win the best documentary award. George described his experience of Woodstock as "quite an event"!

As a result of George's work on Bonnie and Clyde, he became a good friend of the film's producer and star, Warren Beatty. This friendship paid dividends for Beatty in persuading George to resolve sound problems with his 1971 western McCabe & Mrs Miller. The film had been shot with a local crew in Canada and it was also dubbed there. George commented that it was "in trouble...[with] extremely bad sound". Intelligibility was poor and when it was previewed, audiences "could not make head or tail" as to what it was about. So considerable sound looping had to be performed to bring the film up to scratch:
 We had long sessions in the dubbing room with Warren and Julie Christie, who played the feminine lead, and Bob Altman and myself...it was a terrible job to get any intelligibility out of it.  
Director Robert Altman was not in favour of looping dialogue after a shoot but was persuaded by Beatty and the film's producers that it was the only hope in rescuing the film. "Sound looping" – ADR as it is now known – was so called because each line of dialogue that needed to be replaced was originally on a continuous loop of film. The actor repeated the line until s/he could no longer hear their original version in their headphones. That meant the new recording would be completely in sync with the picture. By the time of McCabe & Mrs Miller the technology had improved and an automated system had been developed and looped strips of film were no longer in use.
George Groves pictured with Peter Sellers apparently at a party

George Groves pictured with Peter Sellers apparently at a party - the date and occasion are not known

George Groves pictured with Peter Sellers apparently at a party

George Groves pictured with Peter Sellers apparently at a party

For some years George had been trying to persuade Jack Warner and Kenneth Hyman of Seven Arts to upgrade his scoring and dubbing facilities. Even Frank Sinatra had shown interest in investing. Finally he received the word that the new owners were giving the green light to his improvement plans. It was to be George's swan song at Warners and the new facility would be named after him.
Next – Part 13 George Groves & Burbank Studio (1972-76)
When George Groves won a Best Sound Oscar for My Fair Lady at the 1965 Academy Awards, Warners were completing post-production on The Great Race.
The Great Race poster
Directed by Blake Edwards and starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, the car race comedy set in the early 20th century was tagged "the great laugh show of all time!".

George labelled it a "sound effects editor's dream" and it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound.

There was much ingenuity involved in creating the sound fx and considerable imagination used in employing them.

By the 1960s the technological advancements in production were facilitating enhancements in creativity.
George Groves pictured in the early 1960s

George Groves pictured in the early ‘60s

George was grateful to Henry Mancini who wrote the music for The Great Race and who lobbied Jack Warner to invest in enhancements to the scoring stage mixers so they could accommodate more inputs.

Mancini was concerned that they wouldn't be able to cope with the demands of the film. This was a small first step in modernising Warners’ scoring and dubbing studios.

In August 1967 Bonnie and Clyde starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty was released.
Bonnie and Clyde poster
George recalled how the score had been composed and recorded but then largely dispensed with, replaced instead by old bluegrass recordings by Flatt and Scruggs.

This happened from time to time and not all composers and musical directors handled rejection well. One famous composer even threatened suicide after his score was unused.

Warren Beatty was producer on the show and took his responsibilities very seriously, sitting in on most of the dubbing sessions.

Some directors and producers would want to involve themselves in the dubbing, others such as Alfred Hitchcock never did.

They simply trusted George with his forty years of experience and his skilled editors to deliver the goods.

George recalled Beatty as being "very fussy" about many of the sound edits.

He was particularly insistent that the gunshots and sound of old vehicles be authentic.
“Jack

George worked for Jack Warner for 42 years

1967 was a landmark year for George Groves. It was the year that Jack Warner sold out to Seven Arts, ending a four decade-long association between the pair.

Warner had spent little time in the sound department but he had always supported George, especially when Groves had to deal with difficult directors and picture editors who had challenged his authority:
 I'd been with Colonel Warner for a long, long time and I felt that he was more like a father to me than a boss. I always had a wonderful feeling of support from him...One thing I could always rely upon and that was 100% backing.  
However twenty years earlier George was nearly sacked by Jack Warner after bringing Errol Flynn into the studio to do some sound looping.

Just one line in his latest film had to be re-recorded but George was unaware that he was in dispute with Warners. He was contracted to them but was off-salary and not being paid in between pictures.

This was a bone of contention for Flynn as George recalled:
 After he'd done the looping job he demanded salary for all the time he'd been off salary. Well Warner he could have killed me. He said: "Who gave you authority to call Flynn in. …Didn't you know that he was off salary and he's suing us? This looping is costing me $5,000 a word?" He was mad. Mad, mad, mad.  
So George rang Errol and told him the writ was likely to cost him his job and Flynn said: "If that's the case George, I'll forget it".

He was good to his word and immediately cancelled his writ.

Jack Warner's swansong as producer was Camelot, the story of the marriage of King Arthur to Guinevere, starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave.
“Camelot
Based on the 1960 Broadway musical, it was hoped Camelot would emulate the heights of My Fair Lady, but George felt it wasn't quite in the same league.

It was, however, nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound and won an Academy Award for Best Music-Scoring.

The main problem as far as George Groves was concerned was director Josh Logan's decision to use "extremely loud" playbacks in Vanessa Redgrave's musical numbers.

The lack of isolation of her recordings led to the actress having to "loop" or re-record her vocals. "This was a very unusual procedure", said George.

Looping (a.k.a. ADR) is standard practice these days. The hostility of some actors and directors to the process has been overcome by a demand for the highest quality digital sound.

But the looping procedure was developed to post-record lines of dialogue, not lines in a song.

Redgrave had to sing the song line by line in the looping room to the original orchestrations, lip-syncing to her filmed performances.

George was highly impressed with Alfred Newman's scoring of the picture. "He was so wonderful and did a beautiful job".

Although Jack Warner and Josh Logan made him re-write the main title theme as they both considered it to be "depressing", although George thought it "gorgeous".
“Bullitt
Peter Yates' Bullitt of 1968 is renowned for its car chases in San Francisco with Steve McQueen driving a Ford Mustang at high speed.

Few appreciate, however, that the impact of the sequence was enhanced by attention to detail with realistic sound.

In order to generate sound fx for dubbing in the picture, George arranged for the car to be driven by a stunt driver on a local track.

The recordings were played back to McQueen in the dubbing room. He was quite a speed buff himself and enjoyed driving fast cars but was quite unimpressed with what he heard on the tapes.

He said to George: "That's not me driving, that's not my style", explaining that he had his own rhythm of shifting gears and accelerating.

Plus he felt the recordings failed to fully convey the sensation of speed. Steve McQueen then said: "Set up a date, get the car and I'll drive."
Steve McQueen in his Ford Mustang during the celebrated car chase sequence in Bullitt

Steve McQueen in his Mustang in Bullitt

The quietest place that George could find with long enough runs to accommodate Steve McQueen's driving at 120 mph was at a disused airport in the Mojave desert on a boiling hot summer's day:
 We had a sound fx editor ride in the car with Steve. He drove at such speeds that this boy had to tie down the recording machine and he had to brace himself on the sides of the automobile to prevent being thrown from side to side when he made these fast turns and shifting up and down. They were out there all day with Steve just driving this thing for all it was worth. And we came up with the sound fx that you hear in the picture....He was absolutely delighted [with the results] and [Steve McQueen] threw a party for everybody in the dubbing room after he'd heard it.  
Bullitt was nominated for best sound but the Oscar went instead to Oliver!, the British musical drama film directed by Carol Reed.

In January 2020 the Ford Mustang used in the film was sold at auction for over $3½m.

During the 1960s directors and producers exercised their autonomy to choose their own crews - their "pet boys" as George put it – as opposed to Warners / Seven Arts approved technicians.

This often created problems which the sound department would end up having to fix.

This happened with The Sea Gull, a film adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play, which was shot, edited and dubbed in Sweden in 1968 using local crews.
Sidney Lumet

Producer / director Sidney Lumet

However producer / director Sidney Lumet was quite dissatisfied with the finished soundtrack to his film.

So with a pressing deadline, he took it to Burbank for George and his team to re-dub.

He was so pleased with the results that he took out a 'thank you' advert in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter:
 It had to be done fast because there was a release date set. We made the date for him and he was very grateful because he did publish a very beautiful ad in the local trades praising the Warners sound department and the dubbing job very highly.  
Sometimes it was the demands of directors that created difficulties.
Sam Peckinpah

Wild Bunch Director Sam Peckinpah

George found working with Sam Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch in 1969 somewhat challenging.

Although he considered him to be a "very brilliant" director, he said that his "ego and objectionable language and attitude most of the time were pretty hard to put up with."

Peckinpah had made it clear that he didn't like Jerry Fielding's score and in the dubbing sessions insisted, against all advice, that the music levels be constant without natural highs or lows.

"All the vigour and life", as George put it, was subsequently lost.

It was usual practice to preview a newly completed film at a local theatre prior to its official premiere.

So The Wild Bunch was shown at one in Fresno and was not well received.

The day after the screening George had a drink with Peckinpah to discuss the problems with the film:
 I said: "Do you know what's the matter with that show, Sam? You made us dub it like a TV show...it's all flattened out. There are no high spots, there are no low spots. There's no vitality. And it's your fault. Let us go back and dub it the way we think it should be dubbed." And we became friends.  
The Wild Bunch was re-dubbed by George's team prior to its theatrical release and Jerry Fielding won an Oscar for the Best Music and Original Score.

In June 1969 Warner Bros. / Seven Arts merged with Kinney National who were originally a cleaning and parking operation.

As well as making their own pictures, the company became increasingly involved in acquiring and distributing completed films.

This happened with Billy Jack and George's sound department played no part in its making.

However substantial work would sometimes have to be done to make an acquired picture fit for purpose and Woodstock was a prime example.

The rights to the film record of the 1969 music festival were bought by Warner / Kinney for just $400,000.
“Director

Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh

It was shot on 16mm by director Michael Wadleigh with the sound recorded as 8-track magnetic.

After the film had been converted to 35mm, it was edited in New York with creative use made of multiple screen images.

The dubbing was, however, scheduled to take place in Burbank but the young Woodstock crew were mainly record company people with no experience of the film industry.
 We had to have meetings to educate these boys as to what could be done and what could not be done in making motion pictures.  
In total the sound department spent two to three months dubbing the film.

"We were absolutely inundated with film", said George and with theatres booked all over the country, they worked long hours, 7 days a week, to meet the deadline.

George suggested that the fourth track of surround sound be used to increase audience participation in theatres.

So it included the many PA announcements made at the event, leading to some theatre audiences joining in and stamping their feet.

They wanted the film to replicate as far as possible the actual event and this included a higher level of theatrical playback than normal.

So George Groves wrote to theatre services organisations and projectionists with instructions as to the fader settings that should be used.
“Woodstock
George had arranged for the Woodstock crew to test out a reel of dubbed film at the theatre used by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

However theatre manager Sam Brown shut down the projector and chased them out of the building, frightened that their high level playback would damage his speakers!

Groves even arranged for a sound technician to be sent to the main theatres that had pre-booked Woodstock.

This was to check that their speaker systems were properly balanced and to ensure that their surround speakers were good enough quality.
 We went to a lot of trouble to get a good job out of Woodstock... Mike Wadleigh is a real genius, unbelievable the work that he did and the artistry that he's shown. A real appreciation of the effect that sound could have.  
Woodstock was nominated for an Oscar for best sound but was unsuccessful, although it did win the best documentary award.

George described his experience of Woodstock as "quite an event"!

As a result of George's work on Bonnie and Clyde, he became a good friend of the film's producer and star, Warren Beatty.

This friendship paid dividends for Beatty in persuading George to resolve sound problems with his 1971 western McCabe & Mrs Miller.

The film had been shot with a local crew in Canada and it was also dubbed there. George commented that it was "in trouble...[with] extremely bad sound".

Intelligibility was poor and when it was previewed, audiences "could not make head or tail" as to what it was about.

So considerable sound looping had to be performed to bring the film up to scratch:
 We had long sessions in the dubbing room with Warren and Julie Christie, who played the feminine lead, and Bob Altman and myself...it was a terrible job to get any intelligibility out of it.  
Director Robert Altman was not in favour of looping dialogue after a shoot but was persuaded by Beatty and the film's producers that it was the only hope in rescuing the film.

"Sound looping" – ADR as it is now known – was so called because each line of dialogue that needed to be replaced was originally on a continuous loop of film.

The actor repeated the line until s/he could no longer hear their original version in their headphones.

That meant the new recording would be completely in sync with the picture.

By the time of McCabe & Mrs Miller the technology had improved and an automated system had been developed and looped strips of film were no longer in use.
George Groves pictured with Peter Sellers apparently at a party

George Groves with Peter Sellers

For some years George had been trying to persuade Jack Warner and Kenneth Hyman of Seven Arts to upgrade his scoring and dubbing facilities.

Even Frank Sinatra had shown interest in investing. Finally he received the word that the new owners were giving the green light to his improvement plans.

It was to be George's swan song at Warners and the new facility would be named after him.