Introduction: The Next Wave
The year 1939, generally regarded as the high-tide mark of the Golden Age of Hollywood, is the informal starting date for the chronology of movies and movie-writing careers covered in this book. The film industry was having a heyday. It was a time of B pictures galore (with many a nugget among them) and already highly evolved, quintessentially American genres—the Western, the musical, the gangster film.
An estimated 483 films were produced and released by the studios in that year. But by 1959, that number had plummeted to 187.[*] In twenty years, dramatic events had overtaken the motion picture industry, reshaping the studios, the films, the scripts.
The first thing one notices about the screenwriters and writing credits of the 1940s and 1950s is the significantly fewer number of each, screenwriters and credits, when compared to the generation of motion picture writers who rose to prominence during the early sound era of the late 1920s and early to mid-1930s.
As the deluge of motion pictures dwindled, so of course did the pool of screenwriters. Indeed by 1959, and the dawn of the unruly 1960s, the studio contract writer could be said to be an endangered species.
In his provocative yesteryear chronicle City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s, Otto Friedrich makes it plain that the 1940s were a decade
of transition for the motion picture industry, from an era of hope and glory to a period of caution and upheaval.
World War II was a jolt to the system. The recruitment of writers dropped off. The scripts changed to accommodate new social imperatives and genre demands. There were topical themes, extremes of escapist froth, and paranoical film noir .
Several of the writers interviewed here functioned meritoriously behind the scenes on armed forces documentaries during World War II—Richard Brooks, Garson Kanin, Arthur Laurents, Ben Maddow, Daniel Taradash. But, in general, the war put a gap in careers, and after it ended there were some abrupt transitions.
Garson Kanin stopped directing and started writing movies. Poet Ben Maddow found himself in Hollywood, usually writing film scripts instead of verse. Richard Brooks was elevated, thanks to a novel he had written during his tour of military duty, from the B to the A status of Hollywood scriptwriter.
Then came a cycle of misfortune. The year 1946 saw the first regular network television service; the year 1947 brought the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to Hollywood for closed-door hearings; and beginning in the late 1940s, antitrust rulings prescribed the divorcement of the theaters and the end of block-booking.[*]
Massive studio layoffs accompanied the decline in production. There were also deaths of major (and minor) film executives who had figured, for three decades, in the established network of power and relationships. The rules as well as players of the game were in flux.
As early as the mid-1950s, there were no longer armies of writers on each studio payroll competing for A and B credits. Indeed, many of the studios ceased to make B movies altogether. For all intents and purposes, some studios (RKO, for example) ceased to make any movies.
(W. R. Burnett, the novelist and screenwriter of Little Caesar, High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle, and many other titles, who survived three decades of the system at Warner Brothers, said in Volume 1 of Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age that the handful of scribes remaining on the payroll in Burbank grimly referred to the studio as "Death Valley.")
For some writers, the bête noire of television production offered a kind of haven.[**] No longer succored by the studios, old-time screenwriters, with credits
dating back to the early silents, provided the backbone for certain of the prestigious television series that originated on the West Coast, from "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" to "Bonanza." Of course, they were also busy tossing logs on the more conventional fires of sitcoms and action fillers.
Just as in the early days of sound, frequently the old-timers were assigned to collaborate with the new-timers. The old-timers might ensure the verities of structure and continuity, while the new-timers bolstered the contemporary slant and slang. In this fashion the older generation of writers was passing the torch of "story craft" to younger disciples who would emerge, in the 1960s and 1970s, as the bright lights of a reconstituted Hollywood.
In a way—though this was always a false dichotomy—the existence of television served to point up the more glittering nature of motion pictures. It was more fashionable to believe that, compared to television, motion pictures were the expansive, exploratory, serious medium, just as Broadway, especially for the 1930s generation, had once held the snob edge over Hollywood.
Films (according to this school of thought) could attempt bold social statements or intimate personal ones. Studios could afford the bloated expense of time-span epics, crowd extravaganzas, or special effects. The wide screen was more alluring to the "name" stars and directors. Movies could turn a quicker and bigger profit. The cinema could, and writers always felt this deeply, explore the outer limits of creativity.
Although the antitrust rulings and the inroads of television weakened the motion picture industry, it was the blacklist that especially injured screenwriters. Of the Hollywood Ten who went to jail in 1950 rather than testify before a congressional committee as to their alleged membership in the Communist Party, eight were writers. No one has done a strict accounting as to how many of the other several hundred blacklistees were screenwriters, but the implication in The Hollywood Writers' Wars by Nancy Lynn Schwartz, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, and Naming Names by Victor Navasky—among the very best books on the subject—is that writers formed a disproportionate majority of the victims.
There was a ripple effect among those writers who were not blacklisted, especially the liberals who had to fend off suspicions. As a consequence of the climate of fear, much that was progressive, that advanced story material politically or thematically, was submerged or had to battle its way to the surface.
Of course, no one can say what the blacklisted writers might have written. And how one feels about the quality of the movies of the 1950s depends, inevitably, on one's analysis of the cause and effects, the extent, of the blacklist. There is still debate about the cause, and murkiness about the effects, among film historians. Although the blacklist is central to the experience of Hollywood screenwriters who, one way or another, lived through it, inevita-
bly there is disagreement, disparity, contradiction, and paradox in the collective memory—in this book, as in other chronicles that hinge on the blacklist.
Even in the case of the more famous people, the credits for that period are still being sorted out.[*] The "shared" noms de plume are confusing. In this volume Ben Maddow and Philip Yordan, the former operating as the "ghost" of the latter during the 1950s, cannot quite agree on who wrote what. (Between them, they encompass just about any issue one would care to raise about the blacklist.) Film noir exemplar Daniel Mainwaring also permitted his name to be used as a "front" by certain blacklisted writers, yet he always guarded the secrecy of such arrangements.
Naturally, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had trouble keeping the official credits straight during this unfortunate era. Despite the tremendous personal and professional odds against the blacklisted community, and the formal opposition of the industry, there were pseudonymous, blacklist-related Oscar nominees and Oscar winners in the different script categories practically every year of the 1950s.
(Not that, as Arthur Laurents and Philip Yordan relate in their respective interviews, there weren't some dubious credits—and Oscars—before the blacklist as well.)
The career climb for scriptwriters was perilous in the 1950s, and the creative atmosphere in the industry somewhat restrictive. A scriptwriter had to be determined—dead set on that sunshine and swimming pool (the perks were still attractive)—and in love with the idea of writing movies .
That, if anything, was the fundamental difference between the scriptwriters of the earliest sound era and those of the "next wave."
More of the "next wave" scriptwriters had prejudices in favor of, not against, motion pictures. The great film artists, such as D. W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, and Orson Welles, had conquered the effete critics. Now there were
museum retrospectives and celebratory books about "the cinema," along with well-documented admiration for the Hollywood-stamped product in such sophisticated foreign capitals as London, Paris, and Rome. Movies had been validated as an art form.
The screenplay itself had acquired grudging respect. As we know from FrameWork, Tom Stempel's valuable history of U.S. screenwriting, there were, early on, plenty of how-to books about motion picture scenarios, as well as, dating from the 1930s, prestigious script collections edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols (Oscar winner for the screenplay of The Informer in 1935). These preserved the best "film plays" for study and imitation by fans and practitioners.
The ambivalence towards Hollywood that haunted the group of screenwriters interviewed in Volume 1 of Backstory does not manifest itself, at least to the same marked degree, among the screenwriters of Volume 2.
The "next wave" of screenwriters may have had flourishing sidelines. They may have had independent bodies of work as novelists or playwrights or even, as in the case of Ben Maddow in this volume, as poets. But with notable exceptions, they became the first generation of scriptwriters who put films on the same aesthetic plane as novels and plays.
The impaired state of the film industry in the 1950s did offer some advantages for the younger, more resourceful up-and-comers, who in any case would not have the sentimental perspective of having experienced the good old days of studio writing assignments.
Thanks to the Screen Writers Guild, the scriptwriter was in a better position to protect himself or herself creatively as well as financially. There were benefits and a basic scale owing to the historic guild settlement with the producers in 1941, as well as a formal arbitration process to adjudicate the credits.[*] Although it is impossible to calculate such things, it seems there was much less "forced collaboration" as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, less rewriting behind the backs of screenwriters. Now, if nothing else, producers had stringent budget incentives to stick to one or two writers.
Broadly speaking, individual writers had more authority and status than in the preceding generation. Writers were compelled less by the machine-belt production that was slowing down or by the need to compile roving "fix-it" credits to justify a studio sinecure. There were still the aggravated relationships between writers and producers (and directors), there were still the familiar shackles of genre axioms. But there were obvious strides in creativity, too.
Perhaps the major changes in post-World War II (and pre-Vietnam War
era) film narrative came in areas of content rather than form—sex and politics, Freudian psychologizing, racial problems, and life-style issues (booze, drugs, rock and roll). As the world turned, so did Hollywood.
The scriptwriters of the 1940s and 1950s responded to the changing attitudes and concerns. Featured in this volume are the writers of Intruder in the Dust (1949), The Blackboard Jungle (1952), From Here to Eternity (1952), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), among other seminal films. Some of these movies may seem tame nowadays, but in their time they were perceived as landmarks in their depiction of inflammatory social issues.
If the best scripts of the "next wave" reflected society more truly, they also seemed to reflect their particular writers more transparently. That was one of the advances over the past. The identity of the writer was manifest in his recurrent concerns and motifs, in a thread of consistent personality throughout a varied career. Writers still could not be autobiographical, strictly speaking, but neither were they constrained to be as impersonal as before. In a word, screenwriters could express themselves more freely.
The Hollywood screenwriters of the 1930s, the "first wave" of sound-era writers, were an extraordinarily versatile group. But their versatility was imposed in part by the studio assignment merry-go-round and in part by the more developmental nature of the task. To some extent, however, the career versatility mitigated against any personal subtext in the writing.
As Stewart Stern remarks in his interview, he always responded better to a script subject that rose "out of the soul." And as Betty Comden and Adolph Green attest, they found themselves echoed, to a surprising degree, in the musical comedies they wrote. What bothered Ben Maddow in the 1950s was the alienation he felt from his true self when he ghosted impersonal scripts for Philip Yordan.
The writers of the 1940s and 1950s were not quite the interchangeable, amorphous creatures that they once appeared to be, at least to many producers of the 1930s. "Send in the boys!" was the old refrain—a couple of writers, the more the merrier. The "next wave" were known to have precise strong suits—distinct literary personalities—outside of which they, and Hollywood, rarely chose to venture.
Writers could also direct. Big revelation!—and yet that's what it was. Before the recognition of the Screen Writers Guild and the flexing of writers' muscles, this dual role was not a given.
Beginning in the early 1940s there was an onrush of top-notch writer-directors like Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and John Huston, not to mention such less impressive examples as Nunnally Johnson, Norman Krasna, and Dudley Nichols. It became practically de rigueur for any important screenwriter to make a stab at directing.
In Volume 1 of Backstory, there were precisely three writers from the
generation of the 1930s who traveled that path. In the present volume, seven writers of the fourteen interviewed also served stints as directors.
Ben Maddow (for independent films and documentaries) and Garson Kanin (whose directing career preceded, and was largely independent of, his scriptwriting career) are each a saga unto themselves. Walter Reisch's directing résumé was, with the exception of one U.S. venture, restricted to Europe. Daniel Taradash tried directing only once. The horror specialist Curt Siodmak tried it several times but never quite enjoyed the authority and obligation as much as did his brother, Robert. These were all intermittent directing careers, whereas the iconoclastic Richard Brooks, of course, was one of the preeminent writer-directors of his generation, able to master both professions.
Directing could be lonely, arduous, stressful. More than one screenwriter in this volume found that it was not the end-all and the be-all. Yet surely the lesson is not lost on the current generation of Hollywood writer-directors that people like Brooks, who armored their integrity by directing their own scripts, have turned out to have the longest, most productive careers.
Many critics consider the 1940s to be an exceptional period of studio movie-making. As books like Nora Sayre's Running Time and Peter Biskind's Seeing Is Believing[*] point up, the 1950s are the more arguable decade. Some seasoned directors hit their stride (Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, George Stevens, Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, and Anthony Mann, to name a few), while others (among them Frank Capra, Charles Chaplin, Fritz Lang, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh, Preston Sturges, Lewis Milestone, and William Wellman) stumbled. One's point of view on the decade depends, inevitably, on whether one focuses on the riches, the dregs, or the vast in-between.
Here are reminiscences from fourteen screenwriters responsible for some of the treasure trove, not only from the Truman-Eisenhower era, but from the span of their respective careers, whether they began writing in the 1930s and continue today, into the 1990s, or whether they may have resided, for long stretches of their careers, in Europe or New York City—even Ohio! or Florida! (For as Hollywood quaked, one of the beneficial side effects was that screenwriters could and did scurry to live elsewhere.)
Their backgrounds run the gamut from hardscrabble roots to silver-spoon upbringings, just as their careers include every type of writing challenge, every happenstance, every studio experience. There are undeservedly obscure writers and there are distinguished Oscar winners, unbelievably prolific writers and those who suffered from an occasional "block."
There are updates on the studios and their chieftains of the 1940s and
1950s; vignettes of directors (like Cukor) who respected the script and others (like Hawks) who fiddled with it; glimpses and anecdotes of eminent colleagues, including an assortment of tales about Faulkner; insights into the tricks, traps, and technology of films; philosophy about the illusions and realities of the craft.
These Hollywood scribes have differing approaches to scriptwriting. Some (like Richard Brooks and Walter Reisch) believe story and construction to be paramount. Some (theater animals like Garson Kanin and Arthur Laurents) assert that characterization is the cardinal basis. Others (like Leigh Brackett and Dorothy Kingsley) say they were largely content to contribute highlights to other people's screenplays.
There is the usual cheating on the part of the editor to include interviews with people who do not fit tidily into any generational—or genre—concept.
The last gasp of "talkies" screenwriters lured to the film capital with pomp and publicity by the studio talent scouts arrived in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The resourceful Walter Reisch came over by boat in 1937 as a guest of Louis B. Mayer, along with other European refugees escaping Hitler. After winning a national playwriting competition, the intelligent adaptor Daniel Taradash signed with Columbia, the better to escape law practice, in 1938. The mystery man and master of many modes, Philip Yordan, arrived in Hollywood in 1937. Richard Brooks timed his first visit to coincide with the World Series of 1940.
The others are all 1940s arrivals. Stewart Stern, an infantry veteran whose war experience colored his sensitive view of the world, is the only one to affix his name to his first screenplay as late as 1951.
Among the fourteen interviewees are included paragons of most Hollywood genres. Private-eye yarns, neurotic potboilers, and pulp horror seemed to proliferate in the 1940s, and in this book there are one-on-one transcripts with several geniuses of those categories. These writers, with their dark themes, may have been yoked, ineluctably, to the anxiety/fear/suspense of the film noir organism, yet each also manifests unmistakable quirks and signposts.
For example, Daniel Mainwaring's fatalistic scripts are rooted in his own identification with, and suspicion toward, small-town Americana; while Richard Brooks' lone protagonists are, like their creator, self-made men, answerable only to themselves.
Curt Siodmak (from Germany) as well as Walter Reisch (from Austria) had flourishing film careers in Europe for a decade before arriving to cope with Hollywood axioms in the late 1930s. It is interesting that both of them, refugees from Nazism who long, long ago worked together on a science-fiction film classic, F.P.1. antwortet nicht (F.P.1. Does Not Answer, 1932), ultimately trod such divergent ground. Siodmak, a prolific novelist consigned to B studios and producers, became the ultimate shlockmeister of his era, the creator or co-creator of many horror, adventure, and science-fiction film clas-
sics. Reisch, for directors Ernst Lubitsch and George Cukor, for MGM and for Twentieth Century-Fox, refined the elegant Kammerspiel and documentary-style melodrama.
Among the story genres that seemed to dominate the 1950s were the anti-Red parables, the biblical and historical epics, the troubled-teenager pictures, the hard, unsentimental Westerns, the soapy family-dynasty dramas, the "meaningful" science fiction, and the larky musicals. With the exception of the anti-Red offshoot, in this volume we have representative exponents of every territory.
Included are writers of scripts that somehow seem to reflect perfectly that era—time capsules, as it were, of the 1950s—whether it be Richard Brooks' shaping of The Blackboard Jungle, or Comden-Green's ebullient musical Singin' in the Rain (1952), the Philip Yordan psycho-Western Johnny Guitar (1954), or the quintessential James Dean vehicle (co-written by Stewart Stern), Rebel Without a Cause . Typical or topical, these films also reflect something of their writers. That is one of the themes sounded, repeatedly, in this volume.
These writers, presented in alphabetical sequence, brought style and distinction to every project they tackled.
The cult science-fiction and mystery novelist Leigh Brackett began as a "ten-day wonder" at the shoestring studios. Then, on the mistaken assumption she was a hard-boiled male, she was hired by director Howard Hawks to work with William Faulkner on adapting Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1946). She worked almost exclusively for Hawks for twenty-some years before being lured away by the fine contemporary directors Robert Altman, for his version of The Long Goodbye (1973), and George Lucas, for the second installment of Star Wars (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980).
In the 1940s and I950s, there was no more gutsy screenwriter than Richard Brooks. He was responsible (often as writer-director) for such diverse material as the novel (The Brick Foxhole ) that was the basis for Crossfire (1947); the Bogart films Key Largo (1948), Deadline U.S.A. (1952), and Battle Circus (1953); and faithful screen adaptations of Joseph Conrad, Dostoevski, Tennessee Williams, Sinclair Lewis, and Truman Capote. Though his career faltered in the 1980s, Brooks's finest films will never go out of fashion.
Arguably the "first couple" of Hollywood musicals (though they aren't married to each other), Betty Comden and Adolph Green co-wrote the scripts for many of our best-loved song-and-dance comedies, including Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), and It's Always Fair Weather (1955). They stuck to the Arthur Freed unit at MGM and worked primarily with old friends Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and with director Vincente Minnelli. New Yorkers to the core, Comden and Green left Hollywood with the dissolution of the studio apparatus and returned to stage work, but left an indelible mark as the perfectionists of the modern screen musical.
Garson Kanin 's career was as varied and spectacular, behind the scenes, as the more public one of his wife and frequent collaborator, actress Ruth Gordon. A Broadway and Hollywood wunderkind as an actor and director, he co-directed an Oscar-winning documentary during World War II, then scored his first major success as a playwright-director with the smash Broadway hit Born Yesterday (film version, 1950). He and Gordon provided the witty repartee of sparkling Hepburn-Tracy vehicles and the combustible situations of the early Judy Holliday comedies, all of them directed by their friend George Cukor. After Kanin left movies, he became "the Boswell of Hollywood," a novelist and social historian of Tinseltown's glamorous past.
The fix-it writer Dorothy Kingsley, a former socialite from the Midwest who forged a long comedy career at MGM, graduated through the years from innocuous (and profitable) Esther Williams poolside musicals to splashier (also profitable) tune-filled vehicles with the more imposing names of Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter, and William Shakespeare prominent in the credits.
The novelist, playwright, and stage director Arthur Laurents lived in Los Angeles for all of two years in the late 1940s, but scripted memorably for directors Alfred Hitchcock, Anatole Litvak, Max Ophuls, David Lean, and Otto Preminger. Though blacklisted to some extent, Laurents kept busy in the 1950s and eventually wrote the books for two Broadway perennials, West Side Story and Gypsy . The screen adaptation of his novel The Way We Were (1973) became one of the box-office blockbusters of the early 1970s. Though Laurents is self-deprecating about his film work (and his reasons, as recounted in this interview, are hilariously convincing), he has a reputation as one of the screen's consummate romantics.
Another exceptional, variegated, ultimately checkered career: Once associated with the documentary movement of the 1930s (he co-wrote the seminal Native Land in 1942); Ben Maddow began to write studio features in the late 1940s. His studio assignments (Intruder in the Dust in 1949, The Asphalt Jungle in 1950) were acclaimed, but the flow of work was cut off by the blacklist. Later, after years of "writing underground," Maddow dabbled in directing noteworthy avant-garde features. His Hollywood period was blighted by his role as a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) cooperative witness, which Maddow speaks about for the first time, and painfully, in this interview.
Walter Reisch had a remarkable life story—spanning involvement with the nascent, post-World War I Austrian film industry; a stint with UFA, producer Erich Pommer, and "talkies" in Berlin; work with Alexander Korda in London; and long contract years with MGM and Twentieth Century-Fox, in Hollywood. An adept originator as well as a director of note in Europe, Reisch became a specialist in "story construction" in the United States, conforming admirably to the disparate studio regimes of Louis B. Mayer and Darryl F. Zanuck.
The younger brother of atmospheric suspense director Robert Siodmak,
Curt Siodmak is the author of many prescient science-fiction and speculative novels, including the well-known Donovan's Brain, which is never out of print and has been filmed three times to date. Though Siodmak likes to say he worked as a screenwriter only for the weekly paycheck, his motion picture contributions—imaginative stories with various dread creatures run amok (to some extent allegorical nightmares of Hitler, who drove him from Europe)—make him one of the leading exponents of the fantastic cinema.
The questing screenwriter Stewart Stern, who has written for Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Dennis Hopper, can be said to be a link between the antiheroes of the film generation of the 1940s and those of a more contemporary mold. Unable to cope with the exigencies of Hollywood in the 1970s, Stern left Los Angeles and active screenwriting, retreating to Seattle, where he resides today. As with his screenplays, Stem's emotions are close to the surface, and he speaks movingly of his own limitations, of career disillusionment, of his writer's block.
A somber note is contributed by Daniel Taradash , the Harvard-educated lawyer who became one of Hollywood's most respected literary recyclists, with significant credits ranging from Golden Boy (1939) to Rancho Notorious (1952) to From Here to Eternity (1953) and Picnic (1955). Taradash himself describes the early half of his career, still in the studio heyday, as "triumph," and the latter half, in the hands of independent producers and iffy properties, as "chaos."
As the prototypical "businessman-writer," Philip Yordan deserves, perhaps, a book of his own. A prolific self-promoter with many hard-hitting screenplays to his credit, including Dillinger (1945), House of Strangers (1949), Detective Story (1951), Johnny Guitar (1954), God's Little Acre (1958), and Studs Lonigan (1960), Yordan is controversial for the use of "surrogate writers." He admits to having employed certain blacklisted writers under his aegis in the 1950s. Yordan specialized in crime thrillers, weird Westerns, ancient and religious epics, and nail-biters about rotten families and doomed heroes. Though he lived overseas for many years, Yordan emerged unscathed from the collapse of the Bronston film empire, and returned to the United States in the 1970s to live in San Diego, where he continues to churn out low-budget exploitation features.[*]
Oral history is not, strictly speaking, factual. Fact is increasingly presumptive in the realm of Hollywood history and hard to pin down amid so much
conflicting rumor, gossip, legend, folklore, and reminiscence. A dozen people will tell tales of Harry Cohn's funeral, and who cracked wise what. The historian might attempt to organize the most plausible and narrowed-down scenario. The oral historian takes a kind of glee in the loose ends, in the cacophony and din.
Naturally, screenwriters get the benefit of the doubt here, and that may be cause, for some, for skepticism. Although the editor admits siding passionately with the writers' point of view and their generally unsung contributions, he also tries to be fair. Where an obvious or glaring error of fact has been detected, the correction has been noted in the text or footnoted.
The strength of a group portrait such as this lies, it is hoped, in the cross-weaving of viewpoints, in the chorus of voices, as well as in the close-ups of the individuals.
So there will be din and the cacophony, yes, some questionable assertions—and some clarion truth—as fourteen of the best screenwriters of their time recollect their lives, their careers, and the backstories of writing their motion pictures.