Remembering Rudi Fehr

Robert Rollins Pictures

Remembering Rudi Fehr

By Robert Rollins

One of the greatest influences in my life was by a gentleman named Rudi Fehr.  He was not only my mentor, but was my dear friend.  I first met Rudi in my freshman year at California Institute of the Arts, while attending his editing course.  He must’ve seen something in that quiet, frightened and lonely boy I once was because he quickly took me under his wing and we became fast friends.  Rudi had great patience.  He would always listen attentively, never growing impatient with my constant chatter, never taking sides if I was having a disagreement with my parents and was always willing to give sagely advice when necessary.

Rudi is gone now, but there isn’t a day that passes for me without a thought of him, remembering him with a certain amount of magical awe.  I have often spoken about the love and respect I have for Rudi, but I realize the unfortunate fact that nobody really knows about this incredible man.  Therefore, to honor my dear friend I would like to share with my readers, the life of Rudi Fehr.

The life of Rudi Fehr is an incredibly rich story of an immigrant refugee.  He rebuilt his livelihood in the United States and has left a cinematic legacy to the classic Hollywood studio era. Rudi joined Warner Bros in 1936 as a film editor until attaining producer status in 1952.  In 1954, Rudi was elected to the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.  After retiring from Warner Bros. in 1976, he returned in 1977 to supervise foreign language adaptations of the studio’s films for France, Germany, Italy and Spain.  In 1980 Rudi joined Zoetrope Productions and worked with Frances Ford Coppola.  He returned to the editing bench in 1984 to gain an Oscar nomination for John Huston’s black comedy Prizzi’s Honor.

A native of Berlin, Germany, Rudi was born on July 6, 1911 and studied at the Lyceum Alpinum in Switzerland.  “I really intended to be a diplomat,” Rudi once told me of his early years in Berlin, but, because of the Hitler regime and his ethnic background, it was not possible. So he studied music and wanted to be a symphony conductor.

Rudi’s father was a banker on the board of one of the leading German film combines, Tobis-Klangfilm.  He arranged a job for his son to work as an apprentice film editor and within months Rudi was editing his first film, Der Schlemiel (1931).  Rudi worked for the producer Sam Spiegel in Germany, then in Austria and England after the Nazis came to power.

Upon his arrival to the United States late on night in 1936, Rudi had barely stepped off the ocean liner when he was detained by an immigrations official.  Apparently the immigrations official was concerned that Rudi was trying to smuggle the numerous musical instruments he had brought with him from Germany through customs.  Tried as he might to explain to the immigrations official he played all the instruments, the man wouldn’t believe him and insisted that Rudi would play every instrument present.  Rudi warmly recalled, “So I graciously obliged the official by taking up each instrument and serenading him while standing on a New York pier on a beautiful evening.”

He moved on to Warner Bros’ studios at Burbank, California, initially translating German films into English, then becoming an assistant to the editor Warren Low on such notable productions as The Life of Emile Zola (1937), starring Paul Muni, and Jezebel (1938), starring Bette Davis.  My Love Came Back (1940) with Olivia de Havilland was the first feature he edited himself.  While cutting Million Dollar Baby (1941), he met one of its supporting players, Maris Wrixon, who later became his wife.

Of his early work, Rudi said, “I was especially pleased with Watch on the Rhine (1943).  The director had never made a film before and I worked with him day and night to lay out all the shots.”  This was Herman Shumlin, who had directed the hugely successful stage original on Broadway and was fine with the actors (Paul Lukas and Bette Davis) but had no idea of film technique.

Working at Warner Bros, Rudi had little choice in the films he cut. “Each of the major studios produced about 60 pictures annually.  The picture that started shooting was assigned to the editor who had just finished a show,” he explained to our class.  Editors worked in varied genres and had little or no opportunity to impose a style of their own.  In fact, when asked whether there was such a thing as a style that would identify a particular editor, he responded: “In my humble opinion, absolutely not!”

Many of his films were routine, but A Stolen Life (1946) had the visual intricacy of Bette Davis playing the dual role of two sisters, initially on screen at the same time, and Humoresque (1946) presented John Garfield as an outstanding violinist, dubbed by Isaac Stern.  Garfield had to be carefully filmed and edited as he couldn’t play a note.  He kept his arms behind his back in close-ups while a member of the studio orchestra perched on each side of him, their hands coming into frame to do the fingering and bowing.  John Huston’s tense crime drama Key Largo (1948), with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, was another plum that landed in Rudi’s lap.

The production chief Jack L. Warner came to place great value on Rudi’s taste and judgment, and in 1952, without asking him first, promoted him to a producer.  But, after handling the mediocre 1953 remake of the musical The Desert Song, Rudi escaped back to the cutting rooms, where he had the great satisfaction of editing two Alfred Hitchcock thrillers in a row.  I Confess (1953) was shot in Quebec, but Rudi remained in Burbank to look at each day’s rushes as they were processed, phoning Hitchcock with his comments.  The footage went off to Canada for Hitchcock to view, then back to Rudi to start editing.

Despite the director’s reputation for “storyboarding” his films and “cutting in the camera”, Rudi recalled, “I never saw any set-ups he had thought of before.  I never saw anything on paper.  With I Confess, he shot a lot of film because he knew he couldn’t go back to Quebec to retake it.”  The second Hitchcock film, Dial M for Murder (1954), produced much less footage, being shot mostly on one set at Burbank, but Rudi again saw no evidence of preconceived editing by the director.  “He gave me a completely free hand.  He never told me how to do anything.  He looked at the film after I finished my first cut and gave me few changes – never more than five or six.  I got along with him just famously.  It was the most pleasant association I’ve ever had in my career.”  Dial M for Murder was shot in 3-D. Rudi had earlier cut the horror hit House of Wax (1953) in that short-lived process and found that it made no significant difference to his work other than to ensure that the 3-D highlights, like a ping-pong ball leaping out of the screen, were presented to maximum effect.

When Rudi did accept an executive position in 1955, it was as Warners’ head of post-production.  He viewed the rushes of all the films in production each day with Jack Warner and oversaw their editing.  He was also required to accompany the studio chief on the five-minute walk from the cutting room to his office, so that Warner could avoid being collared by people he didn’t want to see by pretending he was too busy discussing an editing crisis. “I never asked for special favors, even though I was alone with him two hours a day while we went over rushes,” Rudi related to me: “Once, my wife convinced me to ask for a two-week vacation; we wanted to go to Arrowhead.  Warner’s answer was, ‘Rudi, when I’m here, you are here.  When I take my vacation, you take your vacation.’  Finally, Warner did take his vacation. I went to his right-hand man and asked for my vacation.  He said, “Are you crazy?  Do you want me to carry the ball for you too?  I need you now more than ever.”  So he said no; and therefore from 1956 to 1963 I didn’t have one day off.”

Rudi became a skilled diplomat and intermediary between executives, producers and directors, trying to get all sides to agree to editing changes.  He specially supervised the foreign-language versions of the Jack Warner production of My Fair Lady (1964) in order to make them as good as the English version.  He remained at the studio 10 years after Jack Warner relinquished power.  He managed to get on with the next generation of innovative filmmakers.

After retiring from Warner Bros in 1976, he joined Francis Ford Coppola at Zoetrope, working on post-production of Apocalypse Now (1979) and as the supervising editor on One from the Heart (1982).  In 1984, when John Huston asked him to edit Prizzi’s Honor, Rudi exclaimed, “But the last time I edited was in 1954!” “Oh, it’ll come back to you,” responded Huston. Rudi went to work. “The toughest problem was to cut 28 minutes out of a two-and-a-half-hour cut.  I thought that Huston was going to do that, but I was told it was my responsibility.”  Working on the picture with his daughter Kaja, he cut it down to an effective 129 minutes.

Rudi’s crowning achievement was in 1983, when he was presented with the Grand Medal of Merit by the President of West Germany.  In 1990 he joined the California Institute of the Arts faculty, worked on foreign-language versions, and chaired the committee for the foreign film Academy Award, and in that year was honored by the Land of Berlin, which presented him with the Medal of Merit.  In March of 1993, Rudi received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Cinema Editors.  Rudi passed away on April 16, 1999.

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