When Hollywood came to the UP

James Stewart, right, playing a defense attorney, grills a witness played by Orson Bean in the courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Murder.”

In March of 1959 a Hollywood crew invaded Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to start filming the 1956 best seller, <I>”Anatomy of a Murder.”</I> The author, Michigan Supreme Court justice John D. Voelker, wrote the novel under the pen name Robert Traver.

The author, Michigan Supreme Court justice John D. Voelker, wrote the novel under the pen name Robert Traver. Voelker died in March 1991, at the age of 87, after having lived his entire life in Ishpeming. He loved fishing and wrote a number of classic books on the subject.

As a supreme court justice for three years, he wrote 99 opinions, all so carefully crafted and readable that they stand out on law library shelves as literate pearls among the dull, dry, prose produced by lesser justices.

Voelker wrote “Anatomy” based on the 1952 Big Bay Lumberjack Tavern murder trial. Voelker said that any resemblance to the Lumberjack trial was “purely coincidental,” despite the similarities.

Director Otto Preminger meets with his stars Lee Remick and James Stewart.


      The story tells of a bartender murdered by an Army Lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who claims the victim had beaten and raped his wife (Lee Remick). She supports her husband’s version but no physical evidence supports the rape incident. The wife was a well known tramp about camp and was accused of lying to protect her husband. The defense (Jimmy Stewart) claimed that both were telling the truth and the husband became temporarily insane and killed during his rage over what happened to his wife.

The movie was a hit and was Hollywood’s first on-screen use of such words as “intercourse,” “contraceptive,” “spermatogenisis,” and “sexual climax.” Chicago police tried to block the first screening of the movie in that city unless these “obscenities” were deleted. A federal judge overruled the Chicago police, probably having heard the words before. The movie marked the biggest challenge to the movie Morals Code since Clark Gable said “damn” in “Gone With the Wind.”

The judge was played by Boston attorney Joseph N. Welch, who had become famous for his clashes with the notorious Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings. Welch’s wife played a juror in the movie.

Detroit News writer Al Weitschat wrote, “There could be no quarrel with the choice of Welch as Judge Weaver. He gives this amiable disciplinarian with the brisk sense of humor the authentic touch, and his handling of the comedy draws so many laughs he comes close to stealing the show.”

Director Otto Preminger led his group of 150 movie makers to the Upper Peninsula, much to the delight of local residents. He also used about 300 extras who were paid $10 a day. (In Hollywood the pay was $22.50 a day for extras). Those with speaking roles $90 a day. More than 1,500 applied for the jobs.

“The floors on the city commission chambers were almost broken down by the crowd on tryout day,” Oral “Moose” Lacombe recalled in 1978.

Despite the presence of actors like James Stewart, Lee Remick and George C. Scott, the real star of the movie was the grand old courtroom at Marquette.


      LaCombe said that Preminger stood in front of the crowd and pointed to the people he had selected. “You’re on the jury,” Preminger told Lacombe.

LaCombe said he collected his fee every day for the 23 days it took.

“They made us wear the exact same clothing every day. At the end of each filming session, the garments were laundered.”

Lacombe said one day he put on a tie clasp and the cameraman ordered him to remove it.

LaCombe said that the movie jurors formed a group that had annual reunions until most had died. LaComb clipped every newspaper and magazine article about the film.

“I wouldn’t sell the experience I had for a million dollars,” he said, despite the fact that his actual duties required only that he sit there “like a mummy.”

Boston lawyer Joseph Welch, who became famous by clashing with Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, played the judge in the movie. He’s shown here with co-star Lee Remick.


      Marquette’s County Clerk Lloyd LeVasseur got the role of Clovis Pidgeon, the movie’s county clerk. Lavasseur, born in 1903, the year the cornerstone for the historic Marquette County Courthouse was laid, also got roles for his his real-life assistants, Millie Johnson and Gladys Ogert.

Ishpeming businessman Robert B. Brebner played the victim. “As a matter of fact,” he laughed in a 1959 interview, “I’m dead before the film starts!

“The photographer must have taken 200 pictures of me,” he said, “out on the ice…fishing…in the woods…hunting….in the gym…punching the heavy bag…tossing a basketball.”

“The worst was yet to come…at the trial the police introduce pictures of the corpse–me!”

His acting was limited to being taken to the tavern where he was made up with five bullet holes, and then to the morgue. “We had to wait,” he said. “There was a real customer ahead of us.”

Snuffy the dog endeared himself to the star, Stewart, by lighting a flashlight with his paw, then carrying the light to his trainer. “Much better than cats,” Stewart opined.

Michiganian and actor George C. Scott played the skillful and unrelenting prosecuting attorney, Claude Dancer: “I found making ‘Anatomy’ an exhilarating experience. But the techniques of moviemaking often hem an actor in and impose restrictions that are frustrating.

“My own massive ugliness sort of frightened them. Maybe that’s why they continually tell me to tone down. I find it difficult because I like to feel and reflect the power of a good role.”

Preminger gives some last-minute directions to Welch before the cameras roll.


      Preminger pegged Scott as a “sympathetic heavy of the Humphry Bogart type” and had expected him to get a supporting actor Oscar.

Weitschat wrote of Scott’s performance, “As much as Stewart, he is responsible for holding attention in the lengthly trial scenes. Scott makes Dancer a dynamic little man with beady eyes and a sinister way of sneaking up on a witness.”

Preminger described the courthouse as “one we would find difficulty duplicating on a Hollywood stage.” Additional scenes shot at Ishpeming, Big Bay (called Thunder Bay in the film) and Michagaumee also appeared in the movie.

The movie company spent six weeks in the area and left $300,000 behind, as well as giving local residents their first up-close view of the movie industry and its stars.

Among the stars, Lee Remick had become a quick replacement for Lana Turner who quit because she objected to the wardrobe and to Preminger’s “strong” language.

Remick, according to Weitschat, “projects the proper mood and manner of the predatory female, who always seems to have men on her mind, but dissolves into a frightened girl on the stand.”

The film had its world premiere at the United Artists Theater in Detroit July 1, 1959. Searchlight beams roamed the skies while cameras focused on stars and dignitaries. Beauty queens from the Freedom Festival also graced the event.

Governor and Mrs. G. Mennen Williams, Mayor and Mrs. Louis C. Miriani, and Windsor Mayor Michael Patrick joined Preminger, Remick, Scott, Arthur O’Connell, Welch and his wife, and Voelker and his wife at the premiere.

Of the movie, Weitschat proclaimed, “for the first time on the screen, appear the clinical details of a sexual offense heretofore confined to medical and court records.”

The cast also included Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, Orson Bean, Murray Hamilton and Duke Ellington.

The town of Ishpheming, where author and Michigan Supreme Court justice John D. Voelker spent his entire life, provided the backdrop for several scenes in the movie.

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News