Harry & Walter Go to OSR: 1975

It was the first movie filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory. At the time one of the Hollywood producers called it “the first major motion picture ever filmed in Ohio.” He added, rather wistfully, “it may not be the last.”

This was in 1975. The movie was called Harry and Walter Go To New York.

It was quite a big deal around here for two weeks at the end of summer. And then it was a big deal once again a year later when the movie came out.

It seemed astonishing to see Mansfield’s landmark on the big screen in the dark theater. It was like somehow we were real. Somehow the real world had recognized us, and for a little while we were a legitimate place.

It was like somehow the movies were more real than real life, and everything we did was in a dream world until Hollywood came to give us credibility and authenticity.

This 1976 promotional publicity shot from Columbia Pictures was sent all over the world with our familiar OSR walls in the background.  This print came from Argentina.

Part of the credibility factor was based in the magnitude of the stars who showed up here and walked among us. They were bona fide big movie names and legitimately iconic celebrities. They were Academy Award people. Even the second-stringers — the supporting cast — were a crowd of culturally recognizable faces we had all seen on TV.

Here they were in our town. They were staying at the Blue Dolphin. They were eating at Mr. Steak.

It was like their very presence here made us all better.

And, like super-leavening mixed into the bread, we rose higher and seemed bigger. They were not afraid to be seen here— they looked like they were having fun in our town. This must be a real place!

All of the sadly debilitating lousy self-esteem that Mansfield suffered at the end of the 20th century could be tracked back to the mid 1970s when the underpinnings of the city started to rust.

It was like at that very critical moment, the benevolent heavens opened up and sent us a kind wave of confidence by recognizing us with a shot of cultural cachet … Mansfield, Ohio: film site of a major motion picture.

The Back Lot

What’s amazing is that when Columbia Pictures was out at OSR filming hundreds of characters dressed up like the 1890s, the prison was actually full of prisoners.

This wasn’t the quiet, echoey cavern it was to become; it was hot and seething, an overcrowded and incorrigibly misbehaving environment.

When you visit there today and stand in the big empty block, sounds seem muffled or oversizedly distant: almost reassuring, echoes of birds or steel doors. Its hard to imagine the horror the place inspired in 1975 when within those stone walls there was an unearthly hum, a strange dull roar … almost a growl.

There was an unsettling pitch of a thousand voices filling the atmosphere — crowding the air till you could smell it, feel it slowly unhinging you from the ground beneath you.

Jeff Sprang was there at the time. He was a staff photographer for the News Journal that year, and he was sent on assignment to capture the filming at OSR. When he commented on the experience he said,

“It was the sound more than anything else that I remember, and what a breathless relief it was to step outside.

“There were guards on the walls — live rifles and pointed hats shadowed at the top of the walls overlooking our every move and, as intimidating as that may sound, it was actually quite reassuring.”

Jeff Sprang’s perspective in 1975 when filming in the OSR prison yard.
(Jeff Sprang/Mansfield News Journal)
Hollywood sent its top talent to Mansfield, and Jeff Sprang was there to document it.(Jeff Sprang/Mansfield News Journal)
A special period locomotive was set on the B&O tracks to deliver Harry & Walter (James Caan & Eliot Gould) to the OSR film set.
(Jeff Sprang/Mansfield News Journal)

Columbia Pictures made a deal with OSR in order to bring in all the cameras and booms. Part of the pact was that they would begin providing a “better grade of movies for the inmates.” They also laid out cash for $1,000 worth of new TV sets.

Accordingly, it was the inmates at the prison who got to see the first official Mansfield premiere when the movie came out next summer. Oddly, the way it worked, the prison population had turned over so much during the intervening months between filming and projecting, that only about half of the 2,300 incarcerated men knew what they were watching.

They set up the screening in the prison gym, and dimmed the lights down as far as they could.

And the film rolled.

The movie is 1 hour 50 minutes, and the prison footage is all over within the first 39 minutes.

As a masterful photojournalist, Jeff Sprang’s unique perspective provides priceless documentation of Mansfield’s first moment in the Hollywood spotlight. (Jeff Sprang/Mansfield News Journal)
The prison break scene in the movie was filmed from behind the running prisoners, but Jeff Sprang captured a different perspective.
(Jeff Sprang/Mansfield News Journal)

The Film

At the time, and in retrospect as well, critics did not consider the film too particularly memorable. It is however, famously remembered as the most colossally overbudgeted film of the decade.

Apparently, the topheavy financial overburden was so acute it caused Columbia Pictures to stagger and nearly topple. No one would say what the final figure was — somewhere from $5 to $7 million (which by today’s standards would be roughly 23 million.)

That may have been most unfortunate for Hollywood execs, but it certainly made for a beautiful film. The sets are over-the-top for a period piece from an era famous for over-the-top.

The budget was no problem at all for Mansfield. All the extras were ‘drawn from the unemployment line.’ They were paid $2.10 to $2.75 an hour.

The prison band was made of all local extras, led by popular Mansfield musician Luis Mendez. (Jeff Sprang/Mansfield News Journal)

The Times

It couldn’t have happened at a better time for Mansfield. In 1975 the city was looking down a dark tunnel of demoralizing proportion. Mansfield Tire had suffered a blowout and was already slowing way down. Tappan, Barnes, all of them were looking iffy, and all the major industries in the flats were trying hard to ignore the writing on the wall.

The city was scared. It helped a lot that suddenly the real world out there where everything is bright lights and hopeful endings seemed to recognize us, and value who we were enough to project Mansfield up onto the nationwide movie screen.

Michael Caine and Diane Keaton were captured in this publicity shot seated in a rowboat in the OSR pond.

The Party

We felt important, and there’s no saying how inestimably valuable that is for a place that’s going into identity crisis.

We all got to be big time name-droppers.

I had a couple friends who got all dolled up one night like they just got off the flight from New York, and they strolled into the lobby of the Downtowner chewing their gum really loud. They marched up to the desk with all the brass in Ohio and demanded to know, “Where’s Jimmy? What room is Jimmy in?”

They were talking about James Caan and the poor woman behind the desk had never been trained in those New York defenses, so she just pointed the young women toward the elevator.

You wouldn’t get away with that in L.A. This was a Mansfield moment.

The cast and crew from Hollywood who came to Mansfield to film in 1975 all stayed at the Downtowner on Park Avenue West.  Everybody in town knew they were there, and the restaurant was packed every night.

Review

I don’t read movie critics so I’m not going to be one. The critics didn’t like this movie, but it is hard for me to not like it. And not just because of the local connection.

There are parts that have a lot of corny schtick, but it is vaudeville. The film is a very skillful synthesis of old-time vaudeville slapstick with old-time vaudeville melodrama translated into a completely different entertainment medium that didn’t exist during vaudeville.

In some ways it is experimental, and like all experiments there are varied results.

There are parts that make me laugh out loud, and for any film that can surprise me like that I’m willing to suspend all other judgment.

You should watch it yourself. 



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