OF MICE AND STEAM:

What It's Like To Be In A Movie On Location

# Picture 01

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1626 Noyes Road Arroyo Grande, California 93420

When Hollywood decided to remake the classic 1940 film Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, an operating steam traction engine and a separator were needed for the harvesting scenes in the present version.

The story revolves around two itinerant farm hands, George and Lennie, as part of a wheat harvesting crew on a ranch in the Salinas Valley of California in 1928.

Movie Director Gary Sinise wanted an authentic steam threshing outfit for the film. Instead of Steinbeck's original setting in the Salinas Valley, the filming was done at the 1,800 acre Gainey Ranch near Santa Ynez, north of Santa Barbara. This site was chosen because of its 'old California look' with oak trees and rolling grain fields and not the present-day Salinas Valley row crop scenery.

The search for a suitable steam threshing outfit covered much of California. Old timers and old time equipment restorers and exhibitors at shows and museums were asked where this operating equipment could be found. Unlike the U.S. Midwest and East, there is not too much of this equipment in California today.

A telephone call from a movie set coordinator began 'getting steam up' at the R. C. Wiley & Son Ranch, where just such equipment was available and in good operating condition. Next came a personal visit to determine feasibility. A video tape of the equipment in operation at Pioneer Day in Paso Robles was loaned to the set coordinator to take to Hollywood and show to the 'Big Boys' of the movie. This showing turned out to be a hit! It resulted in a contract which included moving costs, insurance, hiring the crew as extras, food and lodging, as well as a daily lease amount for the steam traction engine and separator. Even wood fuel, water, and extra help were provided.

Camera shoots close-up of open door firebox, then is brought up and panned along belt to separator for dramatic effect. Note all the crew involved in early morning start with fog still on the land.

Members of the threshing crew: Dave Barlogio, separator man; R.C. Wiley, fireman and water tender; Carson Wiley, engineer and crew chief.

The filming day started before daylight at 6 a.m. in October. The steam was up by 8 a.m. But then came the old story of 'hurry up and wait.' Each scene was shot from three to five times with different camera angles. Rehearsals were made before each scene.

Behind the cameras were 40 to 50 people doing various jobs: assistant directors, sound specialists, camera operators, set decorators, movers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, wranglers, and others. To the uninitiated, their movements appeared to be mass confusion, but actually were very precisely orchestrated to carry out the shooting requirements of a $10,000,000 venture.

The threshing outfit consisted of a 1914 Advance Rumely 12-40 HP traction engine, SN 14020, which drove a 1928 22'x38' McCormick Deering separator (threshing machine). As a part of the harvesting scenes, a mule-drawn binder was used to produce the necessary bundles of grain for the separator. The bundles were pitched into the feeder by the actors. The grain came out of the grain spout into burlap sacks. The sack jigger unhooked the sacks from the spout and transferred them to the sack sewer who sat under a canvas shade. An old-time rancher was dug up to teach the actors how to sew a grain sack. Equally hard to find were the proper sewing needles, which finally turned up in Minnesota at $17 each. The old rancher had not sewn a sack in fifty years, but it all came back in a hurry. According to him the formula was 'five stitches for barley six stitches for wheat.'

The operating procedure for the engine in the movie was not according to standard operating practice by any means. An assistant director in radio communication with the director called for running the threshing equipment as required. A 'run' required much starting and stopping of equipment. A medium fire was maintained. Between runs, steam pressure would build. The air temperature during the day hit 95 to 100 degrees.

General view of threshing operation with 12 HP Advance steam traction engine and 22' x 38' McCormick-Deering separator.

Originally the boiler of the Advance Rumely traction engine was designed to operate at 150 psi. However, in this instance the safety relief valve was set at 90 psi. The actual working pressure during the harvesting scenes was never over about 75 psi. The hydrostatic test pressure before operations was 150 psi. These working pressures may seem low to some, but there was no difficulty in operating the separator at 1100 rpm under load. The job was to thresh 11,000 lb./acre grain in 30' bundles. The safety factor was of paramount importance, especially with a 76 year-old boiler, even with good care and testing.

An important factor in this whole steam threshing project was the expertise of the crew. Carson Wiley was the engineer, R.C. Wiley was the fireman and water tender on the engine. Both men have many years of experience. Both recently attended the Midwest Old Threshers class on the safe operation of a steam traction engine. In addition, the Wiley library contains many books and periodicals on the subject of steam power. The separator was manned by Dave Barlogio, a grain rancher experienced in harvesting over many years in California.

Aside from actual operation of the equipment under filming conditions, there were a number of meetings devoted to going over the details involved. As moviemakers, director Since and his staff were among the best. However, as grain threshermen their knowledge was very limited. Authenticity was a prime goal. Much time was spent answering questions as to how the equipment operated, as well as the what's and whys of it all. Questions such as these were discussed by the hour:

What kind of fuel and how much would be required to run the steam traction engine?

How long would it take to stop and move to a different location?

How long would it take to get up steam and be ready to run from a cold water start?

How often do you have to change sacks at the grain spout of the separator?

Would a team of horses pulling a bundle wagon be frightened coming up alongside the separator?

How much smoke would the steam engine make and what color would it be?

There was an interesting sidelight to the question of frightening the horses. The wranglers did not want to take a chance with today's horses, not used to this type of equipment, noise, dust, straw, and moving belts. Consequently, the horsedrawn bundle wagons were brought up to the feeder, the horses unhitched and removed before starting to thresh.

All of the actors and extras who would be on camera were dressed in ranch clothes of the 1928 vintage even down to their shoes. Some wore bib overalls, some had baggy wool pants and suspenders. Felt hats were the style. Haircuts, mustache and sideburn trims were also required. This hair-cutting matter was dealt with by a question at the interviews of possible extras. If the answer was 'no!' it was goodbye.

The most uncomfortable part of this whole wardrobe routine was the theatrical dirt that was liberally applied to the clothes. Glycerine and makeup were put on the face and arms to give the effect of sweating. (Hardly needed.)

The movie Of Mice and Men is due to be released in October, 1992. It will run approximately 137 minutes. The harvesting scenes will probably run about eight minutes throughout. A video tape should be released about six months later.

At the end of the filming of the harvesting scenes the threshing crew received a big round of applause from the entire movie crew and actors for a job well done. Interestingly enough these movie people seemed to appreciate that doing the 'real thing' could be the best part of the acting after all.