Post Production

Holey Foley: The Man Behind The Craft

THE UNITED STATES

It is important to state, at the onset, that many sound professionals assumed Jack Foley—the man for whom the craft is named—was a sound editor who began to perform footstep cues for his own reels, and thus began a career of doing those of other editors who had neither the talent nor the patience to do them. This, so it was understood, led to Jack then performing some props that were better left to him than the cutting room. Somewhere along the line, the rumor went around that Jack was from England, and that he was around in the 1950s and 1960s. It was said that he was from Universal Studios, and it was assumed that the editors and Foley artists who had worked at Universal must have known the venerable Mr. Foley. Almost everyone in postproduction sound had some kind of conception about Jack that we now know is inaccurate. Imagine my embarrassment as I now recall my appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, which was in July 1989, where I continue this myth on national television. I must constantly correct the record with every audience or class who sees this clip, as I try to encourage the critical thinking of young minds. So, let us begin with who Jack Foley was, and why he is considered the pioneer of today’s craft of Foley.

JACK BE NIMBLE: JACK OF ALL TRADES

Jack Foley was from Long Island. He was a New Yorker, of Irish descent. His family was Catholic. Beatrice Rehm, a long-distance championship swimmer, worked at the phone company with Jack, who played semipro baseball. They met through a mutual friend. She was Protestant, and this was a source of confl ict in both families. They were secretly married and moved to the West Coast, where Jack hoped for a baseball career in a milder climate. Shortly after, they had a traditional wedding in New York, which reportedly united both families, according to Catherine Clark, Jack’s granddaughter. Bea later converted to Catholicism.

In 1914, Jack and Bea moved to California, first to Santa Monica, and later to a small town called Bishop. This is where things get interesting. Jack served with the American Defense Society during World War I. This group was responsible for guarding the local water supply from sabotage. Jack also worked at the local hardware store, and raised his four children in Bishop. He was a regular part of the local community theatre, as an actor, writer, and director, and also wrote articles in the local newspaper. He was a cartoonist, so he found himself creating cartoon strips for the local paper as well. Jack, by all accounts, was quite the charming extrovert. His granddaughter would continually describe him as “a people person.” It appears that Jack was a man of many talents, so it should come as no surprise that when the farmers of the area sold their farms to Los Angeles for water rights, and the town of Bishop needed revenue, Jack would be one of the people looking for some inventive way of sustaining what was now his hometown.

Jack Foley saw the potential for Bishop in being a location for westerns in this new movie business from nearby Los Angeles. This was an exciting time for a person who was entrepreneurial. The film industry was new, and being reinvented on a daily basis. Once Jack convinced the local storekeepers what an economic boon location shooting could be for Bishop, he set out to convince the small film studios in the Los Angeles area to come to his lovely town. It is important to note that the “picture business” was not developed in any sort of organized process. Much as the internet—with its social networking, its convergence of blogs, chat rooms, and online gaming—has “happened” upon us in a chaotic and exciting way, and has enjoyed a short and recent era of being relatively tamed and codified, so too had the environment for movies in the early part of the twentieth century. It was open season for anyone with “gumption” and ingenuity. Many film pioneers captured in biographies have these qualities. This is important because one must see that Jack Foley was not just a guy who wanted a steady job and income for his family. He was willing to take risks on a new and exciting business that was unpredictable and required flexibility and inventiveness from its participants.

Jack Foley displaying his notable whimsy, with granddaughter Catherine Clark, partially seen, sitting at his side. Photo courtesy of Catherine Clark.

By the time Jack was in his thirties, he had parlayed his budding connections to the film business into a career as a stuntman and double. He became an assistant to director William Kraft, and eventually directed short subjects starring Benny Rubin. As was the convention in the movies at the time, everyone pitched in where they could, depending on their talents and commitment. There were not established positions in the beginning. Job titles were not common practice, and people moved from job to job depending on the requisite skillset. Thus, when Universal needed to add sound to Showboat (1929), Jack was one of those who seized the opportunity to pitch in and helped solve the latest problem brought on by this new technological problem—or opportunity, depending on one’s perspective.

When The Jazz Singer (1927) was released, using small segments of sound for Al Jolson’s improvisational singing performance, the predictable pressure on other studios to compete technologically put Universal in a panic. The studio was ready to release Showboat, a musical, as a silent movie. We can all laugh now at the irony of a silent musical, but at the time, the moviegoer was thrilled to get any glimpse of a Broadway show, even without sound, since traveling to New York to see the production was out of the question. It should be noted that this film of Showboat was not the famous Kern-Hammerstein score, but it did have some songs that were added later. So, in context, it made sense for Universal to make the bold decision of producing this long and involved musical for its audiences. However, with this new wrinkle thrust upon all the studios, it became imperative to redo the postproduction work on Showboat to put some sound into it. As David Yewdall relates in his book Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound, Universal rented the brand new and exciting Fox-Case sound unit to record the music, voices and sound effects for the film. Jack, among others from the various studios, took a class at the University of Southern California, which introduced the students to this new sound technology. When the studio was finally ready to put sound into the film there was one sound stage, with the orchestra, singers, and sound people—including Jack—to put all the sound in real time to the film. Jack and his brood did hand-clapping, footsteps, any props they could muster and background voices to the film. This was the incident that would set Jack on his path as an expert in this new field of filmmaking, which at the time had no name. Because of his particular talents including director, actor, writer, cartoonist, baseball player and stuntman, Jack Foley was a person who had the versatility to develop this job—invented at first out of necessity and later expanded into an esteemed craft—that was enhanced and perfected by others into a nuanced and respected field of sound effects with its own name, in honor of him.

As Jack Foley continued to perform sounds for films, focusing on props and footsteps, with some cloth sounds, it is helpful to reflect on the cultural environment in which Jack worked. Performing these sounds was considered an integrated part of the filmmaking process. Jack worked on a regular sound stage, with the same kind of sound support that would be afforded on the set with the cast in production. He had prop persons, recording experts, sound assistants (later affectionately referred to as disciples), and any other type of support that he needed, whether technological or labor intensive. As the technology developed, he altered his performance techniques. Sound was primitive during the formative years of Jack’s career as a soundman. There was only one track to record on, and this dictated the approach Jack would have to use. He had a piece of cloth he kept in his back pocket, to be pulled out for the clothing sound if he chose, and had a cane he used to create the illusion of more than one person walking at one time.


Jack would play with various gadgets in his kitchen to see how they sounded. He was not locked into any conventions. Since no one had done this before, there were no debates regarding the art or process. Jack “did his thing” and it was accepted. It is important to note that what Jack did was a secret for quite a while. Even his family was not sure what he did at Universal. When he was visited on the lot, he was typically in a suit, and would sit on a bench working on his column for a showbiz trade paper or be in an office. His family never saw him work. It was not until close to his retirement that his true profession became ubiquitously known in the industry.

As other studios acquired people who had worked with Jack, they developed their own systems for putting these sounds to picture. Jack Foley was never an editor, although he was inducted into the Editors Guild as an honorary member, and got a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors.

The soundpeople who followed Jack Foley came from different backgrounds and had different experiences in sound. The idea of performing sound effects live was not only in film, it occurred in radio and television as well. From radio plays to television news, sound effects were beginning to be performed, recorded, edited and mixed into every aspect of the media, as technology would permit.

Excerpt from The Foley Grail: The Art of Performing Sound for Film, Games, and Animation, 2nd Edition by Vanessa Theme Ament © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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