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An Homage To A Pair Of Fathers

September 16, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Sometimes the stories behind the making of films are nearly as interesting as the films themselves. So it is with "Hard Traveling," which opened in Los Angeles and Seattle last week, with engagements in New York and other major cities following shortly.

It was produced in and around Santa Cruz, Calif., for an amazingly efficient $425,000 (with no deferred costs). Much of the money was raised locally from a skein of limited partners, each in for modest amounts.

"Hard Traveling" is a work of both personal and intellectual passion for Dan Bessie, who wrote and directed it, and for his personal and professional partner, Helen Garvy, who produced the film.

Bessie's father, Alvah Bessie, wrote the story as a novel, "Bread and a Stone," in 1941. It got glowing reviews but sold few copies, having appeared only a little while before Pearl Harbor.

Dan Bessie's parents had been divorced and his mother had been remarried, rather startlingly, to an itinerant and illiterate ex-convict in whom she saw (correctly, Dan Bessie has had no doubt) qualities of kindness and goodness.

But, unable to get work in Depression times, barred as an ex-convict from joining the Army and desperate to help support the family, the stepfather killed a prosperous and well-liked local businessman in a bungled robbery attempt. He confessed and, despite pleas in his behalf, received the death penalty and was executed.

Dan Bessie, not yet 10 at the time (he is 54 now), remembered only that men came and took his stepfather away. His mother said that he had been drafted. Bessie was, he says, a teen-ager before he knew the true story.

Alvah Bessie wrote his angry and only lightly fictionalized novel between the conviction and execution of his ex-wife's new husband. Bessie, a newspaperman educated at Columbia, fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and later wrote a book about it, "Men in Battle."

On the strength of his books, he was recruited by Warner Bros. in 1943 as a screenwriter and won an Oscar nomination for his original story for the Errol Flynn success "Objective Burma!" in 1945.

He always wanted to make a film of "Bread and A Stone," and Bette Davis reportedly expressed interest in playing the wife. But Bessie's radical politics brought him afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee. For refusing to answer the committee's questions, he became one of the historic Hollywood 10 and served time in a federal prison at Texarkana, Tex.

He never worked in films again and spent his last years as a lighting man and offstage announcer at the Hungry i in San Francisco, bringing on such then-new faces as Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. He died in 1985, but lived to see a roughcut of "Hard Traveling."

Dan Bessie, barely 6 when his father went off to Spain, didn't get to know him until the later San Francisco years, when they became adult friends.

"My mother," Dan Bessie said the other afternoon in Los Angeles, "felt strongly that it was my stepfather's illiteracy more than anything else that led him into trouble. She decided to devote her life to teaching children. She got a master's degree in childhood education."

Dan, his younger brother and their mother came to California from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1946 when Dan was 14, and the mother taught at cooperative nursery schools in Santa Monica. Dan graduated from Santa Monica High, worked as a merchant seaman and at 25 found a job as an animator on "Tom and Jerry" cartoons at MGM.

That led to television commercials and various directing chores. In 1970 he started an educational film company, specializing in medical subjects. He met Helen Garvy, a Radcliffe-educated psychologist and family therapist. Bessie sold his company and they settled in Santa Cruz and launched Shire Films, another educational film company.

Shire has made three films with Ray Bolger, including a live-action "Peter and the Wolf," which has won several awards, been widely shown on cable television and now sells well in cassettes.

"Cable and cassettes, bless them, kept us going while we were putting 'Hard Traveling' together," Bessie says. Shire has also made an honored film called "Child Abuse: The People Next Door," a significant choice since Bessie's stepfather had also been a victim of child abuse.

"Unlike many child-abuse victims, he didn't then abuse his own children. He went against the stereotype," Bessie says. "He held fast against everything, until he finally cracked.

"I remember his giving us boys dimes as wedding presents, and I remember well when we all hitchhiked to town on a flatbed truck to see Chaplin in 'The Gold Rush.' Some of those things are in the film.

"There are millions of Ed Sloanes out in the world today, and unless they get a break somewhere along the way, they'll end up in jail."

"Hard Traveling" has an earnestness and a quality of unfeigned compassion that is as affecting as the events themselves.

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