Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Endangered List (Case File #69)


Article by Merikaye Presley
(New Orleans Times-Picayune, DIXIE, November 19, 1972, p. 46-52)

It was early Sunday morning, and the sun had not yet penetrated the sky’s gray haze when long black Cadillacs approached the toll booths of the Mississippi River Bridge and deposited an assortment of threatening, sinister-looking characters.

They wore ‘40s-style suits, trenchcoats and broad-brimmed hats pulled low on foreheads. With Thompson submachine guns bulging under their coats and fat cigars protruding from their lips, they drew curious stares from motorists crossing the bridge.

The whole setting resembled a scene from “The Godfather” – precisely as intended. The Sunday “mobsters” belong to a group of local residents who are spending weekends filming their own version of the gangland smash hit, a satire which they have dubbed “The Lardfather.”

New Orleans attorney Anthony J. Russo, who is writer, director and producer of the amateur production, recruited a 150-member, predominantly Italian cast. “The categories of the cast are relatives, friends and clients,” he explained. Russo’s mother plays the Lardfather’s wife; his wife is Kay; uncles are Mafia family heads; and in-laws and friends portray a variety of “good and bad mobsters.”

Russo has two other films to his credit: “Dial D for Draw,” a take-off on murder mysteries, and “As the Worm Turns,” a soap-opera spoof.

The amateur movies started as a novel way to have a party, Russo said. He would film a movie including all his friends, then invite them to a gala world premiere to show it in final form.

His first two efforts also proved successful in raising some money for charitable causes, so Russo set out to film “The Lardfather,” his most elaborate production to date, with this end in mind.

Several Catholic charities have already asked to show the film for benefits when it is released next spring. Russo is planning a world premiere of the approximately two-hour film during Academy Award week in April, when “The Godfather” is expected to win several Oscars.

When Russo first saw “The Godfather,” he thought it would be the perfect target for a humorous satire. He saw the movie seven or eight times and wrote a script, jocularly following the sequence of “The Godfather,” but with an original ending. In Russo’s version, the Lardfather’s family name is Baccausa – Italian slang for a small, much-used room in the house – and the names of the other four families are all Italian ice creams – Spumoni, Taranchina, Tortoni and Cassati.

Russo purposely made only two complete copies of the script, so the members of the cast wouldn’t know all the punchlines in advance of the premiere date.

Russo’s friends were enthusiastic about the film and scoured their attics for the proper post-World War II clothing and effects. Many of the men and women in the cast bought new clothes which followed the revival of ‘40s styles and were appropriate for the movie.

One of the cast members, who owns a limousine service, provided Cadillac limousines for the outside shots and also loaned authentic Thompson submachine guns from his private collection.

Russo estimates that the film will cost $500 to produce, the bulk of that being film and processing costs. Incidentals, such as 20 rounds of ammunition expended at the police firing range to effect realistic closeup shooting scenes, added to the cost.

Filming began in the fall, and Russo worked first to complete all of the outside shots, such as the lavish wedding reception, before cool weather began. He hopes to finish all filming by the end of the year, then splice together the film and add sound tracks of dialogue, background music and sound effects.

Lining up locations to resemble those in “The Godfather” took some ingenuity, but Russo managed fairly well. A lakefront mansion was the site of the wedding reception, and the old Hotel Dieu hospital was where the felled Lardfather was cared for. A Chalmette Catholic church provided an authentic interior for the baptismal scene, and the Sicily footage was shot in Belle Chasse, where the levee – filmed at a low camera angle – was used to approximate rolling hills.

The actors assembled on the bridge for his recent Sunday filming listened to Russo as he described the scene they were about to shoot, the ambush murder of Sonny at the toll booth. He directed Vincent Marinello, an attorney who plays Sonny, to “really ham it up” during the death scene.

“I want a real hard dying scene,” Russo said. “When I finally tell you to die, roll over and die and then I still want a little jerk with the leg.”

Since members of the cast have all seen “The Godfather” more than once, they know pretty much what is expected in the various scenes, and directing is minimized.

After a couple of dry runs, Russo filmed the scene in successive takes. Marinello was doused with liberal squirts of catsup from a red squeeze bottle, and to add realism, bullet hole decals were pasted to the windows and body of Sonny’s car.

Production was temporarily halted when the container of decals was upset and its contents swept to the wind. Russo groaned, “I spent two hours last night cutting those out. Did Cecil B. DeMille ever have to go through this?”

Finally the guns were aimed and Sonny clutched his chest, stumbled from the car, staggering from the impact of the imagined bullets, then fell to the ground, rolled over on his back and died a quivering, exaggerated death, his legs jerking a couple of times before he lay still.

Russo shouted “cut!”, and the rest of the cast and onlookers applauded Marinello’s graphic performance.

Russo and his assistant producer, Claude Maraldo, simultaneously shoot all sequences as a safeguard against camera failure and so they can choose the best footage for the finished film.

After finishing at the bridge, the “gangsters” climbed into cars and drove to the French Market; scene of the attempt on the Lardfather’s life (There was more than one wisecrack about Italians frequenting the French Market). Once there, the cast attracted crowds of spectators from among tourists and shoppers.

In this scene, the Lardfather, portrayed by Bill Knowles, is gunned down as he walks to his limousine after buying some fruit.

Knowles, a research and design expert at Avondale Shipyards Inc. and a New Orleans jury commissioner, wore a specially-constructed mouthpiece which makes him a near ringer for Marlon Brando. “My dentist made it (the mouthpiece) identical to the one made for Marlon Brando,” Knowles said. “He saw a picture and description of it in a dental journal.”

Besides giving him a puffed-jowl look, Knowles said, the device hinders his smiling and impedes his speech, aiding his gruff, mumbling characterization of the Lardfather.

For the French Market scene, a real produce dealer was recruited on the spot for the segment. The Lardfather shuffled up to his stand, perused the assortment of fruit and swiped an apple (an ad libbed part) before buying a sack of oranges. (The oranges had been provided ahead of time by Russo who also serves as prop and make-up man.)

While shooting the fruit stand scene, one of the waiting “hit men” was heard to grumble impatient, “Come on, let’s shoot him. I’ve got to go play baseball.”

The Lardfather finally left the market and was slowly making his way to the limousing when he was shot from behind. He lurched backward, then staggered forward, falling on the hood of the limousine and scattering oranges in all directions.

After a second take, Russo announced that filming had ended for the day. As the cast began to leave, one member methodically picked up all the oranges from the pavement, commenting, “This is a low budget movie. This is our lunch.”

TRIVIA: Russo made THE LARDFATHER TOO a few years later.


Mike Mac said...

Nice to finally see an image for this movie- was that from the press book? (And now that I know that the director made two other movies besides the Lardfather titles, I am curious about those ones as well- especially when it comes to whether or not either one got any sort of theatrical play.)

H. Harmison said...

Wasn't Bill Slatten involved with this movie as well? Are copies available?