Detroit Free Press
By Lilian Jackson Braun
August 11, 1990
When I was in Rome last fall, I met a Michigan actress who was there to make a film – an Italian Western, no less
Now Esther Mason Frank is home, bubbling with enthusiasm about here foreign movie-making adventure. “I played a housekeeper with a face like a sour lemon,” she said, making a face like a sour lemon.
The film, which will be released in the United States as well as other countries, is title “Blood River.” R includes plenty of blood.
“Two massacres and a rape,” Mrs. Frank recounted. “The rape scene was filmed in two versions for release in different countries. In Japan, anything goes, Spain is the most conservative. The American screen permits more freedom than the Italian.”
The movie is the story about the American West, directed by a Paris-based director and produced by an Italian film company, which is owned by and Israeli and staffed by Italians, Spaniards and Americans.
And how did Mrs. Phillip Frank of Birmingham get involved in this international stew.
“My daughter Sarah is a production assistant for Filmar Associates,” she said. When I visited her in Italy last spring, I met directors, and they liked my face. Italians like mobility. A few months later they phoned me in Birmingham on a Thursday, and on Monday I was on the set.”
The English-born Esther Frank, who has lived in the Detroit area for 25 years, has had a long career in repertory theater and radio, appearing with such notables as Orson Welles, Ronald Colman, Charles Laughton and Basil Rathbone. More recently she has worked in community theater, one-woman shows, TV drama and commercials. Detroit playgoers have seen her at Northland Playhouse and the old Case Theater.
In the Italian film all her scenes were with John Ireland.
“He plays in a lot of Italian Westerns,” she said. “He was the lead and the heavy, and I was Aunt Alice, the widow of his brother, who kept house for him.”
John and I and the director – Charles (George) Breakstone, who is remembered from silent films – were the only ones on the set who spoke English. It was… interesting. Also a bit frightening. But it was a magnificent experience – the spirit of camaraderie, for example. At the commissary the principals and the lowliest grip sat down to eat together. It was one big family.”
The movie was filmed in Tierrenia at the old Carlo Ponti Studios.
“The terrain there has everything,” Mrs. Frank explained, and it’s cheaper. They improvise magnificently, and there are so many beautiful looking people. The Spanish stuntmen are excellent.”
Most of the European actors were studying English, she said.
“Italians and Spaniards spoke English in the scenes – sufficiently well enough for dubbing. No direct sound was taken. All the voices will be dubbed, and the mouths have to look right.”
The film was shot in six weeks.
“Everyone was sincere and hard-working. No temperament.”
One episode appealed strongly to the animal-loving Frank (family). (Son Elliot is studying to be a veterinarian.)
“They were filming the burning of a haystack,” she said Mrs. Frank, “The horses were ready – and the stuntmen. The flames had to be just right for the camera. And then a stray dog wandered on the set.
“She was obviously going to have puppies, and they were afraid she would get burned. Everything stopped until she was properly taken care of.”
Meanwhile, Sarah was coping with the headaches of the production, acting as an interpreter, and even doing choreography for the square dancing.
“They adore Sarah,” her mother said, “and because of that I believe I got extra attention – even a more flattering wig.”
The Birmingham actress’ credentials impressed the Italian film people, too – but chiefly the fact that she had worked with Orson Welles.
Now Esther Frank is home, facing the ridiculous after weeks of the sublime. She has just been filmed for a TV commercial in which she spent two days posing in a mink coat, in a chauffeured car – on the city dump!
ZAGO, Maria Teresa (Esther Mason) [1906, England, U.K. - 8/8/1990, Englewood, New Jersey, U.S.A. (Alzheimer’s Disease)] – theater, film, TV actress, married to Phillip Frank, mother of Ellliot Frank, Sarah Frank Oleskar [1946- ].
[Submitted by Mike Hauss]