Garson Kanin: Self-Expression
Interview by Pat McGilligan
When, in 1961, New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons wrote that Garson Kanin's writing "was influenced by Gertrude Stein," author John O'Hara, for one, was highly amused. "There it was," wrote O'Hara in a letter to a friend, "just casually tossed away in a more or less routine paragraph; the answer to the question that has been bothering the literati since dear knows when: who influenced Garson Kanin? People have sat up half the night arguing the question. . . ."
Once upon a time, O'Hara mused, "some stuffy fellow" reading the New Statesman posited the theory that as a matter of fact nobody influenced Garson Kanin. That Kanin was sui generis . "Some pundits have held out for Molière," said O'Hara, "some for Sheridan. Racine has been mentioned. Walter Pater. Corneille, of course." O'Hara himself held no firm opinion. "But nobody had thought of Gertrude Stein!" he exclaimed in wonderment.
For Kanin enthusiasts, there are two major periods of Kanin's work in Hollywood: the years 1938–1941, when he directed seven varied and entertaining films at RKO—a productive stint interrupted by military service and war documentaries; and the years 1946–1954, his heyday as a playwright/screenwriter after World War II.
During the latter period, the redoubtable Kanin wrote, alone or with his wife, actress Ruth Gordon, six enduring motion pictures: A Double Life (1948); Adam's Rib (1949); Born Yesterday (1950), based on his stage hit; The Marrying Kind (1951); Pat and Mike (1952); and It Should Happen to You (1954). (On her own, Ruth Gordon wrote The Actress in 1953, an adaptation of her autobiographical play Years Ago .) Showcased in two of these films (Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike ) was the romantic Hepburn-Tracy screen pairing; and
in four, the comedienne Judy Holliday in show-stealing performances as a birdbrain. All were directed by George Cukor.
The Gordon-Kanin team (for that was the order of their billing) was probably the greatest pure screenwriting collaboration in all Hollywood history—pure because no one rewrote their scripts; because their screen stories were all original; because they never worked under contract; and because director Cukor, a close friend, filmed their scripts as written. The films the Kanins wrote together signaled, to a large extent, the high tide of American sophisticated comedy. No films were (are) more admired by other Hollywood com-
edy writers—few films play as well today, without embarrassing concessions to yesteryear's artificialities.
All the more unfortunate that Gordon and Kanin split up as a scriptwriting team after only four acclaimed movies (and only wrote together once again in their lives, a 1980 made-for-televison feature). All the more inexplicable that Kanin would so completely turn his back on Hollywood, in the early 1950s, to concentrate on theater and books. Kanin's motion picture career after It Should Happen to You was spotty and was usually confined to an adaptation of one of his plays or works of fiction. A brief comeback, at directing, in 1969—his own scripts of Where It's At (1969) and Some Kind of a Nut (1969)—only pointed up how long Kanin had been away.
Something obviously happened to put him off Hollywood. Or was it just that, as he says, his love of the theater was so strong?
Kanin is many things besides the compleat motion picturemaker: an award-winning playwright, a first-rate director of plays and opera, a novelist and short-story professional, a compulsive essayist, a superb memoirist. He is a character in his wonderful book Hollywood, which is one of the best Tinsel-town chronicles in the form of never-ending Sam Goldwyn anecdotage.
We talked in his New York office across the street from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Carnegie Hall, where Kanin had been an eager young acting student in the early 1930s. Nothing fancy about the surroundings: rather modest and worn furnishings; walls decorated with framed photographs and commendations; bookcases piled with stacks and rows of his scripts and books. Born Yesterday was being prepared for a Broadway revival, and rumored as a film vehicle for Whoopi Goldberg.
As the appointed hour neared, Kanin's office assistants rushed to the window and waited to spot the 75-year-old writer as he walked from his nearby Central Park apartment and wended his way across a busy intersection, several stories below.
Garson Kanin (1912–) (and Ruth Gordon, 1896–1985)
A Man to Remember (Garson Kanin). Director only.
Next Time I Marry (Garson Kanin). Director only.
The Great Man Votes (Garson Kanin). Director only.
Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin). Director only.
My Favorite Wife (Garson Kanin). Director only.
They Knew What They Wanted (Garson Kanin). Director only.
Tom, Dick and Harry (Garson Kanin). Director only.
Woman of the Year (George Stevens). Uncredited contribution.
Fellow Americans (Garson Kanin). OEM (Office of Emergency Management) production.
Ring of Steel (Garson Kanin). OEM production.
A Lady Takes a Chance (William A. Seiter). Uncredited contribution.
The More the Merrier (George Stevens). Uncredited contribution.
Battle Stations (Garson Kanin). OWI (Office of War Information) production.
Night Stripes (Garson Kanin). OWI production.
Salute to France (Garson Kanin, Jean Renoir). OWI production.
The True Glory (Garson Kanin, Carol Reed). OWI production.
From This Day Forward (John Berry). Adaptation.
A Double Life (George Cukor). Co-story, co-script, with Ruth Gordon.
Adam's Rib (George Cukor). Co-story, co-script, with Ruth Gordon.
Born Yesterday (George Cukor). Adapted from his Broadway play, uncredited contribution to film script.
The Marrying Kind (George Cukor). Co-story, co-script, with Ruth Gordon.
Pat and Mike (George Cukor). Co-story, co-script, with Ruth Gordon.
It Should Happen to You (George Cukor). Story, script.
The Girl Can't Help It (Frank Tashlin). Based on his short story "Do Re Mi."
High Time (Blake Edwards). Co-script.
The Rat Race (Robert Mulligan). Script, based on his play.
The Right Approach (David Butler). Based on his play The Live Wire .
Some Kind of a Nut (Garson Kanin). Director, story, script.
Where It's At (Garson Kanin). Director, script, based on his novel.
That's Entertainment! (Jack Haley, Jr.). Script.
Born Yesterday (Luis Mandoki). Remake of 1950 film.
Plays include Born Yesterday, The Smile of the World, The Rat Race, The Live Wire, The Amazing Adele, Fledermaus, Do Re Mi, The Good Soup,
A Gift of Time, Come On Strong, Remembering Mr. Maugham, Dreyfus in Rehearsal, Peccadillo, and Time and Chance .
Television credits include "Born Yesterday" (adapted and co-directed, 1956), "Mr. Broadway," "An Eye on Emily" pilot, "Something to Sing About," "The He-She Chemistry," "Josie and Joe" pilot, "Scandal" (adapted from Movieola, 1980), "The Scarlett O'Hara War" (adapted from Movieola, 1980), and "Hardhat and Legs" (written with Ruth Gordon, 1978).
Novels include Blow Up a Storm, The Rat Race, Cast of Characters (collected short stories), Where It's At, A Thousand Summers, One Hell of an Actor, Movieola, Smash, and Cordelia?
Non-fiction includes Remembering Mr. Maugham; Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate. Memoir; Hollywood, It Takes a Long Time to Become Young; and Together Again! Hollywood's Great Movie Teams .
Academy Awards include best-script nominations for A Double Life, Adam's Rib, and Pat and Mike . His co-directed wartime documentary The True Glory received the Oscar for best documentary in 1945.
Writers Guild awards include script nominations for Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday, The Marrying Kind, Pat and Mike, and It Should Happen to You .
Ruth Gordon's solo plays include Over 21, Years Ago, The Leading Lady, and A Very Rich Woman .
Ruth Gordon's books include Myself Among Others, My Side, An Open Book, and Shady Lady .
Ruth Gordon's films (solo writing credit, without Garson Kanin) include The Actress (play basis, screenplay, directed by George Cukor, 1953) and Rosie! (play basis, directed by David Lowell Rich, 1968).
Ruth Gordon died on August 28, 1985. In reviewing her life and career, the New York Times commented that she was at heart "a seaman's daughter" who "never tired of exploration or conquest."
You speak in your various memoirs, particularly Hollywood, about falling in love with motion pictures at a very tender age. I remember your description of your feelings when you owned your first Brownie camera. But you do not talk much about when you first started reading and writing, or when you might have owned your first typewriter .
Reading—we always read. My father's idea of a gift for his children was a book. He hardly ever bought us anything but books. I remember when my father first got us The Book of Knowledge, about twenty-five or thirty volumes
(I think) broken up into various categories for young people. We sat down and read the whole damn thing from beginning to end. It took six months.
I was always a reader, from a very, very early age. The writing developed professionally rather late, because I had other careers that came before it. In a nonprofessional way, the writing began early on. My brother, Michael, and I were constantly making up sketches and performing them, even in grammar school, and writing what amounted to short plays.
Like most Jewish boys, I was destined to become a lawyer. That was what you did. You became either a lawyer or a doctor.
I was supposed to become a lawyer and I pretended that I was going in that direction, but it didn't last very long, because shortly after I graduated from grammar school and started to go to high school, the Depression hit very hard. I left school and I went to work.
My first job was as a Western Union messenger. Then I had other jobs clerking and as a delivery boy, and finally I wound up at R. H. Macy and Co., where I worked for over a year as a stock boy in the silverware department. All this time, I was playing saxophone and clarinet in little bands, mainly to make some money, on Saturday or Sunday nights at clubs, for dances and weddings. From that experience, I conceived the idea of being a musician. The only thing that stood in the way was that I had no particular talent for it. I just wasn't a very good saxophone player.
In order to hang on to my jobs as a saxophone player, I had to be the one that got up and did the funny numbers or the songs.
That led to other things—to performing and to playing in vaudeville. And I began to be aware, more and more, of the Broadway theater, the legitimate theater, and that interested me greatly.
It just fascinated me. We always went to the theater. I remember, vividly, going to the theater with my mother and father, and I would sit up on the arm of the seat. I was maybe four, five years old.
It was affordable?
My parents always found the money. We were not poor people per se. My father was very able, and there were times when we were really quite affluent. He was in the real estate business, a builder. That business has its ups and downs. It was feast or famine all through my early days.
But along the way, the theatrical impulse became very strong. At the first opportunity I had, I learned about the American Academy of Dramatic Arts right across the street here in Carnegie Hall. That excited me very much. So I went to the academy, and after that I went into the theater as an actor. I was very lucky, very successful, hardly ever unemployed. Those also were the early days of radio, so you could supplement your income by, all day, running around to different networks and doing radio programs. Not very much money—
five, six, eight dollars a program. There was no AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] in those days.
Were you writing at all in those days?
Not even thinking about it?
No. Single-minded, I was just interested in being the greatest actor in the world. Then I began to face the realities, which were that I wasn't going to get sufficient opportunities as an actor. By that time I was working for [producer-director] George Abbott.[*] I had been in several plays for him, and I admired him very much. More or less, I insinuated myself on him and became his assistant, and I was his assistant for about four years. I put on all the road companies, did most of the casting, began to be his play reader, and made myself generally useful. I was good at that and built up a kind of reputation as being a bright kid around Broadway.
What, primarily, did you learn from Abbott—producing or directing?
Directing. I was never interested in producing, anymore than I am now. Too much business involved in that.
So, what is it you learned from Abbott?
A standard of excellence. Precision. A whole methodology of directing. When I directed road companies for him, I was sort of imitating his method—his way of getting the play on, his ideas of pace, his ideas of cutting out the boredom, of keeping it moving and keeping it alive.
Was it reinforcing your native comic sensibility, working on such hit stage comedies as Room Service and Boy Meets Girl?
Oh, I have no idea. I would not be the judge of that at all.
By working with entire scripts, as opposed to vaudeville bits or radio parts, were you learning dramatic structure?
Subliminally, I suppose, yes. I wasn't studying it in any way, except by osmosis. I was putting in long, long hours. I was going to the theater incessantly. I went every single night and to all the matinees, and over a period of eight or nine years, I'm sure I saw every single thing on which the curtain was raised in the city of New York—and a lot out of town.
My position with George Abbott led, quite easily and logically and simply, to an offer from Sam Goldwyn to come out and learn the movie business and work in motion pictures.
So now I was in Hollywood working for Sam Goldwyn, but that was a kind of Tiffany studio. He only made very classy, important pictures. He somehow had a misconception about me. He had it in his mind that he was going to develop me as an assistant to himself. A nice man—I liked him very much—and eventually he liked me. But he had no idea, or at least he never listened when I told him, that I was interested in being a director.
When I finished a year with him, I thought that was enough. By that time I had acquired a kind of training, an expertise, that I couldn't have got any other way, because in'36 or '37, when all this was happening, there was no such thing as the American Film Institute, there was no such thing as a film course at any university in the United States, there was no such thing as film being taught as it is now.
Was it a psychological leap for you to go from Broadway to film?
No. I was never as interested in film as an art form per se as I was in the theater. Which is still quite true. The theater is my love and my life and my wife, and the movies are a mistress. A very delightful mistress, and a very valuable mistress—but no, I consider myself a theater animal.
But I had a good time in Hollywood, working first for Goldwyn. When I wanted to leave him after a year, he was rather irritated with me. I told him I was interested in directing, and I never would get an opportunity there with him, and eventually he understood that.
So I left his employ on a Saturday—in those days, in Hollywood, we would work a six-day week, with only one day off, Sunday. And I went to work at RKO on Monday. There, things went a little better, and after about six months there, I eventually wormed my way into directing my first picture.
In your various memoirs, I don't detect much nostalgia or warmth toward your RKO years .
Oh, you are wrong. I was given tremendous opportunities that I took full advantage of.
Was that because of someone like Pandro Berman, who was head of production, giving you such creative license?
Partly—Pandro was head of the studio most of the time—not all of the time. He was a very nice man.
I had met a fellow by the name of Robert Sisk, who had been the chief press agent for the Theatre Guild in New York. In my theater days, working for Abbott, I had come to know Bob Sisk. We were theater friends. When I came to RKO, he had become an RKO producer. We used to see each other and lunch together once in a while. Dalton Trumbo was writing a picture for him. I got to know Trumbo—who had an adjoining office to mine. We used to talk late into the night.
I got to talking about this picture he was writing. It wasn't called A Man to Remember ; that's the title I put on it later. We talked and talked and, as people do when they talk, I sparked some ideas from him, and he
from me, and at the end of that process, he said to me, "How would you like to direct this picture?" I said, "I'd like to if they let me. Do you think they'd let me . . . ?" He said, "Let's go and talk to Bob Sisk."
No one seemed to have any objection. Because I was very cheap—I think I was getting $400 a week, which was nothing from Hollywood in those days. Actually, on my first picture, the cameraman was making more money than me; he was making $800 a week. That didn't bother me. I would have paid them for the opportunity.
So began my whole work as a film director, and in that stretch I think I did seven pictures.
In your period at Goldwyn, when you were studying films and filmmaking behind the scenes, and then later at RKO, were you growing interested in a career as a screenwriter, now that you were working with writing and keeping company with writers more?
I just wanted to be a director. Something has to be remembered here, and that is that the director occupies the important creative position in Hollywood, even today. I deplore it, I think it's a fake, I think it's a mistake, I think it's terribly unfair. You can imagine how I feel when I pick up, say, the New Yorker magazine and in the front are all the listings of the revival pictures. Adam's Rib is always listed—they're crazy about Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike . And they always refer to it as "George Cukor's Adam's Rib." "George Cukor's Pat and Mike." It's always the director who has that possessive on a picture.
Quickly in Hollywood I got the idea that the director is the kingpin, and that was the thing to be. The directors were the royalty and everyone else was small fry. That still obtains, I'm sorry to say.
Were you dabbling at scripts at night?
I always worked with the writers. From the very beginning, from the first picture with Dalton Trumbo. I worked with him daily, I made a lot of suggestions and cuts, I had a lot of ideas, and we had a lot of quarrels; but they were professional quarrels, not personal ones.
It was the same when my wife and I were writing films together. In real life we never quarreled at all. But when we were writing together, we quarreled incessantly. It's part and parcel of the profession, which is why I don't collaborate, because I don't have the energy or the time or the patience to go through quarrels, disagreements, fights, and compromises. I could never be induced to collaborate again.
Can you tell me something about the RKO writers you worked with? I am thinking of Trumbo, but also of a writer who is not so well known today, John Twist, with whom you worked on two films and who had such a long and intermittently fruitful career .[*]
John Twist was a darling fellow in every way. He was an adorable hack. I don't think he took his writing very seriously. He took his assignments very seriously. And he was very good at playing the political studio game. Everybody liked him. He would be called in on pictures and sometimes originate them. In terms of what he was asked to do, he was extremely good, very productive, very swift—oh, there were many years in which he did six or seven pictures a year.
When George Abbott, my old boss, came out to do pictures—he never did very much in film; I don't think he was very interested in pictures—he came to RKO at one point, strangely enough where I was already established as a sort of hotshot. Now our positions were reversed: he was the tyro, I was the old experienced fella. He came to me and asked me for advice, and I immediately suggested John Twist, and indeed John went to work for Abbott on that picture with him, starring, I believe, Lucille Ball [Too Many Girls, 1940].
Dalton [Trumbo] was a first-class, A-one, fine American writer. I think if he hadn't gotten caught up in the movie business in the way that he did, economically, he would have become a much more important writer than he turned out to be. As you know, he had at least one extremely successful book—Johnny Got His Gun —a memorable book. And he wrote some plays that were less successful.
Playwrighting is a difficult mystique. I remember my master and mentor Thornton Wilder once saying to a group of friends, "Playwrighting is not an intellectual pursuit. Nor is it particularly a literary pursuit. I know some very fine and successful plays that have been written by dopes, by near-illiterates." I didn't appreciate the fact that he was looking right at me as he said all this.
Yet it's quite true. You cannot imagine a man who does not have a solid, sound literary background sitting down to write a good or successful novel. To write a good novel or even to write a passable novel is an extremely difficult job. It takes long preparation. But Thornton was right: I have known some very lowbrow, near-illiterate guys who wrote successful plays. Writing plays is something quite different from writing a novel or short story.
I knew you were friends with Thornton Wilder. I hadn't realized you had such a close relationship with him that you regard him as your mentor .
I met Thornton Wilder when I was still an actor. I Was playing an important part in a play by Robert Ardrey called House on Fire, which was produced and directed by the great Arthur Hopkins.[*] Thornton Wilder had been a teacher
of Robert Ardrey's at the University of Chicago, and one weekend he came to New York to see a run-through of the play. Robert Ardrey took me to lunch with him. Thornton didn't think I was any good in the play and he told me so, so that didn't make a big hit with me, but on reflection I saw that he was right, and I followed many of his suggestions. I got better in the play.
On that weekend we became great friends. Thornton Wilder was basically an educator. That's what it said on his passport: It didn't say "playwright" or "novelist," it said "educator." He considered that his playwrighting and novel-writing were a kind of avocation. I think he was wrong about that, but that was his perception of himself.
When he heard that I had never gone to college, he was astonished. When I told him I hadn't gone to high school much, except for a few months, he was absolutely appalled. Not only that, but worried. He'd say, "What is going to become of you? You're not equipped for life . . ."
He helped me. He really took me in hand. And he stayed my friend for close to forty years. Coincidentally, when Ruth and I were married, it turned out that Thornton. Wilder was her closest friend in the world, so that was a bond. The three of us would meet frequently, we traveled a lot together to Europe, and then of course Ruth did his play The Matchmaker, and that brought us together a lot too.
Did you learn a lot about writing as a result of your friendship with him?
He really was the one who encouraged me to write to begin with. First, he wanted me to write a journal. I used to tell stories about things that had happened in the theater, and he'd say, "Write that down. Make that into a story." So I did. I did that more and more. Finally, when I was in the army, I was complaining to him about the major essence of trouble about being in the army—the boredom. The drills, the chores, the ditch-digging, the basic training were so boring. And Thornton said, "I think you could relieve that boredom by doing something creative. Why don't you write something?"
By this time I had already directed a number of movies and I was equipped. So I wrote a lot of movies and sold them, too, and was able to bridge those years by writing movies, not always using my own name, of course, because I was so terrified of the army roles. All of the work that I did during the war while I was in the service, both in the United States and overseas, was done sub rosa, because first as an enlisted man and then later as an officer, it would have been improper for me to take any screen credit.
Movies that, even today, do not bear your credit or are not known to have been written by you?
Some of them. . . . Then I began to write a movie based on some experi-
ences I'd had in Washington when I was stationed there, in the O.S.S., for about a year, during which time I was married. I wrote this serious exposé about Washington—I hadn't thought of writing a comedy. It turned into a comedy without my meaning for it do so. It turned into Born Yesterday . The first play I directed after the war was The Rugged Path by Robert E. Sherwood, starring Spencer Tracy, but Born Yesterday turned out to be the first play I ever directed that I had also written.
So, Born Yesterday was your first concerted, serious piece of writing from beginning to end?
That late in your career?
I know that during the period at Goldwyn, when you studied filmmaking and studied the films of great directors, you professed admiration for John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and a few other directors. Did you have gods among the screenwriters?
No. Because they weren't gods. They were workaday men.
Not even people like Ben Hecht or Robert Sherwood or Sidney Howard—the best of them—people whom you worked with or who were in Hollywood, screenwriting, at the same time as you?
The three that you've mentioned, they went to Hollywood to make a few bucks. They weren't really interested in film per se. Ben Hecht became interested in films a little bit later when he and Charlie MacArthur set up a studio here on Long Island to make a string of pictures. But basically they were in the business of screenwriting to make money. Bob Sherwood was never very interested in pictures. He was a playwright. That is what he did.
Why do you think you developed in the direction of comedy, so that a story like Born Yesterday would turn into a comedy even as you were writing it? Did your comedic bent have anything to do with your upbringing?
I've never thought about that. I just think I'm a cheerful, funny guy. I don't take life all that seriously. I can see the funny side of almost anything, and I enjoy making other people laugh. And I find it much more enjoyable to write in a comic vein.
If I could define what is for me the ideal style and the ideal accomplishment, it is to treat a serious subject lightly. I feel I succeeded with Born Yesterday . It's a very serious play—and it's funny. I've tried to do that again and again, and I've never succeeded as well as I did that time, but I still try. To write a comedy which is a lot of jokes doesn't interest me at all. I don't mind making jokes in real life, but in the theater I prefer a play to be something far more substantial. It ought to be laughter based on something a little more meaty.
When you were writing Born Yesterday, your first from-start-to-finish piece of work, was it hard for you?
No. I had a whale of a time. I was in the army and I didn't have much free time, but I wrote evenings, after my work was done, until I got bleary, and weekends when I had no duties. I found that very enjoyable, as I do to this day. For me, there's nothing more deeply and thoroughly enjoyable in life than writing. That's the apex of true enjoyment. I know how many writers talk about the torture of it all and how difficult it is and how they sweat blood and how they can hardly bear to face that empty page. I'm sure it's true. I don't think they're pretending. I'm sure there are many writers who find writing extremely difficult. I'm not saying I find it easy . It's not easy at all. But I do find it enjoyable.
Were you surprised to find it so enjoyable? After so many years as an actor, as an assistant director in the theater, then as a motion picture director—to come around to something that you had, until then, never truly considered?
Absolutely. I thought writers were those poor sobbing creatures locked in their rooms, suffering. I had no idea writing could be so enjoyable.
Do you feel that World War II affected or deepened your comic point of view? I think there is a qualitative leap in your RKO films and then in the later films that you wrote or co-wrote, a maturity as well as a sober quality .
George Stevens once told me that, after being with the photographic unit that liberated the concentration camp prisoners at Dachau, he could never quite bring himself to direct a comedy again .
I'm not aware of that in my case. That's for others to look at, examine, interpret. I have no objective sense of what I do. I do it deeply and automatically, which is a result of the teaching I got from Thornton Wilder. When I sit down to write, I don't have any idea what I'm going to write. As I told you, when I sat down to write Born Yesterday, it was going to be a serious play. It turned into a comedy.
The same thing happens when I write novels. Things happen in the novels that astonish me. I can't believe they're happening when they do. As Thornton used to put it, "When you sit down to write, you never know what's going to run down your sleeve." Because if you're truly writing fiction or plays well, you're writing with your unconscious. If you are writing imaginative literature of any kind, whether it's poetry or plays or films or novels, it's inside of you, somewhere.
To give you an example: What makes people laugh? Only one thing, not two: surprise. That's the only thing that ever makes me laugh, or makes anyone laugh. However, it's not as simple as it sounds for a writer, because there are perhaps 200,000 different kinds of surprises and variations on surprises. But any time an audience laughs, it is because it's been surprised by the use of a word, by a piece of business, by a look.
So the question is, If you're writing and you suddenly laugh, if it is true that you only laugh at surprises, how can you laugh at something you yourself have written? The answer is, you didn't know you were going to write it a moment before you wrote it. You were writing along in an unconscious way. Your conscious mind observes it, your eyes see it, your sensibility digests it quickly, and it makes you laugh, because you really are surprised at what you wrote. That's one of the most important lessons of writing anything. People who write strictly on a conscious level do not write well.
Do you have any advice as to how to get to that unconscious level?
You have to learn that for yourself.
On the other hand, I can remember in one of your books that you wrote about staying up late on coffee and Benzedrine in Hollywood—one of the few screenwriters I've talked to who will admit to any kind of stimulant. Are there other tricks that you have to get the creative juices flowing?
Certainly not coffee and Benzedrine. I haven't had coffee for years. And Benzedrine was for emergencies, when you couldn't stay awake.
Do you have any pragmatic suggestions?
The most important thing is concentration. The two enemies of any kind of creative work are interruption and distraction. Which is why so many writers feel they have to go away somewhere. When you sit down to write, you have to make a journey, a journey from the real world into the world of the
imagination. Part of learning the lesson is learning how. I cannot advise young writers on how to make that journey into the imaginative self. I can tell them what other people have done. I can tell them what I do. It's not really going to help them until they find their own way.
Now, Ernest Hemingway had a very exact system. Ernest Hemingway always wrote on blocks of paper with pencil. When he had finished work, usually in the late afternoon, he would pick up a handful of his pencils and he would slam them down on his desk, successfully breaking every point of the pencils. Then he would throw the pencils down on the desk and leave his workroom, and he wouldn't see that room again until the following morning.
When he got up in the morning, he'd get some air and eat some breakfast and do whatever else it was he had to do; then he would go into his study and close the door and sit down at the desk. He had some penknives that he especially liked. He used to acquire them all the time and carry them everywhere. He would pick up one of his favorite penknives and he would pick up the first pencil and he would very carefully, laboriously, brilliantly, carve a perfect point on that pencil. Then he would lay it down. Sometimes he would pause and sharpen his knife; that would be another little distraction. Then he would pick up the next pencil and put another point on it.
He told me once that sometimes it would take four, five pencils—he said on some days when he had a hangover it might take seven or eight pencils to be sharpened—but somewhere along the line, when he finished sharpening either the fifth or the sixth or the eighth pencil, he would put down the penknife and he would pick up the pencil and he would begin to write again.
Thornton Wilder had a way. Thornton Wilder used to get up in the morning and he always liked to go where people were to have breakfast—a lunch counter or a diner. He'd have breakfast and talk to a lot of people; then he would go home and read over the last chunk of material that he had written. Then he would go for a walk. And as he walked, he would mumble to himself some of the passages that he had just read, and he would project his imagination into future roads of that material, and when he felt excited enough, he would go home, go into his study, pick up his pen, and begin to write.
Willa Cather had an interesting mnemonic device. She used to read a chapter of the Bible every morning before she went to work. Sometimes more than one. When she finished reading, she'd put the Bible down and go to work.
But, as you can observe, each of these mnemonic devices—
Wouldn't help anyone else —
They might, they might. Each one was a bridge from real life and the laundry list, from the bellyaches, from the argument with the wife, from the frustration of some idea, from an unfortunate headline in the newspaper—which [reading the newspaper], by the way, is a great mistake. If you're a writer, what you have to do is get up in the morning and go to work. It's best to have nothing interfere, no conversation, certainly no newspaper, no tele-
vision, no listening to news on the radio. You should get as soon as possible from your one form of unconsciousness to the next form of unconsciousness, and not have too much intervene.
I remember Somerset Maugham once said he worked every day for four hours. Ruth pointed to this great big shelf of his work and said, "You mean to tell me that all of that was accomplished by just working four hours a day?" He said, "I never worked more than four hours a day. . . ." Then he raised a finger and said, "But—never less." So working four hours a day, he accomplished, as we know, one of the greatest bodies of work in English literature, comprised of novels, a couple hundred short stories, many works of nonfiction, criticism, and articles on every conceivable subject, including bridge, on which he was a great expert. And he only worked four hours a day.
Does the way you get started, as an individual, differ from the way you and Ruth got started in the morning, as a team?
We would always simply read over the previous day's work, just to get the "join."
My own way is to write one page of journal. Journal—meaning anything that comes into my head. Maugham was asked by Ruth, "What if you sit down one morning at your desk and you can't think of anything to write?" And he said, "Well, my dear, in that case, I sit down and write, 'W. Somerset Maugham, W. Somerset Maugham, W. Somerset Maugham, W. Somerset Maugham' . . . until something occurs to me, and it always does." In other words, he was saying to Ruth, the motor of actually writing itself.
Like calisthenics, warming up .
That's right. I'm very interested in this particular subject. These days, as you know, we are in the midst of a kind of mechanical revolution, and we have word processors, screens, printers, and all kinds of new devices. My associates here in the office use them. I'm a demon reviser—everything I write is written seven, eight, nine, ten drafts—and they tell me that for going throughout and making revisions, [these devices are] extremely useful and helpful, but I haven't ever touched one. Nor do I intend to. I'm an expert typist, and that's as far as I want to go.
I'm the president of the Authors League of America, and I preside at the council and annual meetings, so I know a lot of writers. In the last couple of years, it's astonishing how much they've been talking about their word processors. It's almost as though they're talking about mistresses; they're talking the way writers used to talk about girls. They criticize each other's choices, and they have very sophisticated and esoteric combinations of the typewriter and the printer and the kind of paper they prefer to use. One very important drama critic told me that if he didn't have his word processor, he couldn't write!
Somerset Maugham never wrote anything except with a fountain pen and a block of paper. Then you think of Charles Dickens and everything he turned
out: everything was written . Or Balzac—we know that is how Balzac wrote because he only wrote at night. He was a terribly social man and he lived on excitement—parties and balls, theater, and opera. So he was out every night of his life, and he would come home at midnight or beyond, he Would brew an enormous pot of coffee, and then he would sit down and write till daybreak. Then at daybreak he would go to sleep until the afternoon. Then he would get up, take care of some business, and then get ready for the next social event.
Of course, he died at forty-nine, so it's not such a hot recommendation for his routine, but he did turn out an enormous number of books. And that wasn't easy, because he used to rewrite incessantly. He rewrote so much that finally there was not a single publisher in France who would publish him. They would set up his work and send him the galleys, and he would rewrite the whole damn thing in galleys. They'd set it up with corrections and send the galleys back, and he'd rewrite it again. By the time they got him into print, he had used up seven or eight sets of galleys, which made the cost prohibitive and which is what drove him into publishing his own work at his own expense.
The methods of writing are extremely individual, but I'm sure if I spent ten minutes digging into this, I could tell you a dozen more names of important writers, novelists, playwrights, poets, who never in their lives used anything but a fountain pen and a block of paper. . . .
Are you saying this technology is negative for writers?
I don't know enough about it, but I think it would be worth the examination of some scholar. Because when they talk about speed—that's not the point, to write fast. The idea is to write deeply and clearly and well. And anything that promotes what I call facility is, I think, probably in the end working against the depth.
When, exactly, and why did you and Ruth start collaborating as writers?
I was in the army for five and a half years and overseas for over two of those years, and we had just been married. When I came back [to the United States], it just seemed that if I went to work in the normal way, say, writing and directing movies in California, and she went to work in her normal way, being an actress in the theater in New York, we'd be separated again, or still, and we wouldn't see each other. I was going to write something, an idea I had in the army, a theater subject—a Ronald Colman picture called A Double Life —and I said to Ruth, "Why don't we write it together?" It meant that we could be around each other all the time: get up in the morning and go to work together and talk together.
Yes. So we wrote that. We intended just to write that one together, and then she was going on with her own stuff and I with mine. But it turned out
to be a big hit. Ronald Colman won the Academy Award and we were nominated ourselves. Big stuff. Pretty soon we were asked to do another picture together, and we did Adam's Rib with Tracy and Hepburn—and that was an even bigger hit. We were sort of hooked into writing as a team for a couple of years.
Was it a great leap for you and Ruth to decide to write together?
Ruth had always written. She was a published writer for some time before I was.[*] She had written many, many articles for the Atlantic Monthly, and she has since written lots of books and plays.
But was it a risk and a challenge for you to set aside your careers and reputations, individually, and to collaborate as one?
Oh, always, But I suspect collaboration as a real form of what I call expression—which is what all real writing should be, self-expression—always falls short. I cannot name a single fine novel or great novel that was written in collaboration, can you? Has there ever been a great poem written in collaboration? Even a short story?
How does it happen that so many plays are written in collaboration? It's because one person may have the theatrical expertise. He might be a director or an actor; many actors used to collaborate on plays with writers and take the credit and a share of the profits. But I'm not sure how many really fine plays have been written in collaboration, either. That is not to say, successful plays. We know of, say, the example of Kaufman and Hart. Or Lindsay and Crouse. But I mean, really fine plays.
How did yours and Ruth's strengths and weaknesses complement each other in the writing?
Her strength was always tremendous, tremendous theatrical expertise. She knew more about the theater than anybody that I ever encountered in my life. And she, being a very great actress, could recognize the strengths and the weaknesses in a role, so that she wouldn't allow a part in any of our films to be anything less than a wonderful acting part. Not only the female roles, but especially the female parts—it was almost as though she was going to act them herself. Was it a good enough part? Was the part boring? Was it consistent? Was it flat? Did it lack variety or humor? And she always stuck with that idea of what was going to make a good part. That was a tremendous strength in writing films.
What were your particular strengths?
Well, I'm good at that too. (Laughs .) We both just slugged away at all of them with everything we had.
Norman Krasna told me that in a collaboration one person is always the
junior partner and one is the senior. Who was the junior partner in your collaboration?
Moss Hart used to say, "In a collaboration, there's always a sitter and a walker. One guy sits at the typewriter and the other guy walks." In his collaboration with George S. Kaufman, I think Moss was the sitter and Kaufman was the walker. In the case of Ruth and me, we used to talk, talk, talk, talk endlessly, and then after the talking I would put it down on paper. Then, after it was down, she would go over it and revise it extensively. Or sometimes there would be scenes which she had dreamed up or created, and she would do the first draft of those.
It was a very eclectic way of working, without any particular system. I think systems in writing are created out of the necessity, aren't they? Created out of the necessity of the moment, of the deadline, or of where you are in the world physically. When we were in the country, we used to get up at six o'clock in the morning and go to work very early on. . . .
What is it about having been an actor—or, in Ruth's case, an actress—that helps one so tremendously in the writing?
Because what you're doing is acting out all the parts all the time, unconsciously. Digging down, you'll find there is a long, long list—from Molière on (Molière was a wonderful actor)—of actors who became the very best dramatists.
Being an actor gives you an insight into characterizations?
I suppose so. It is also just writing good parts, which is the essence of writing a play or a film. You have to write good parts for actors to play. If you don't, you're not going to get good actors.
Usually, if you write one smashing part in a play, it can be enough, if the other parts are at least adequate. It's been pointed out to me, what makes Born Yesterday what it is, is that it has not only one marvelous part, but two and sometimes three—if they're lucky in the casting of the third part. They're good acting parts.
And I would say to young playwrights, especially, don't worry so much about the story. There are no original stories. All the stories have been told in one form or another. The only thing that makes a successful play is the delineation of character. Be sure you write good parts. Interesting, dramatic, amusing, romantic—it's the characters that make the play.
Were your characters, to some extent, alter egos for yourselves?
Ruth's play Years Ago, since it was an autobiographical play, her vision of herself at 17 or 18, was indeed a self-portrait. Over 21, her wartime play, was also highly autobiographical, about herself and me, her experiences as an army wife.
As you write, how can you avoid the autobiographical strain? You're only one person, you see everything with your own sensibility and your own reactions; so all writing is to an extent autobiographical. And you shouldn't be
afraid of that. You shouldn't be afraid of revealing yourself. The more you reveal yourself, the better, in a way.
Isn't that the best part of the fun of writing, that self-discovery?
It's a tremendous release. I think writing, if it's done right, is the healthiest thing I know of as a human activity, whether you're a professional writer or not. I think everybody ought to write a diary or a journal or letters to friends. It amounts to self-expression, and self-expression is extremely healthy.
Did MGM put any special demands on you, when you wrote for Tracy and Hepburn?
You have to remember I've never been employed as a screenwriter. Nor was Ruth. Neither one of us, individually, or as a team, were employed for so much as a single day as writers by any motion picture studio, ever. All we ever did was write original screenplays and sell them. To this day, that's all I do in the movie business. I have never worked on other people's material and I am not employable as such.
That was our method, so that we could write freely, for ourselves. And in the case of Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike, of course, we had Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in mind as potential players. As it happened, Pat and Mike was first rejected by the studio and only after a year or so did they reconsider. In the meantime, we felt that we did not want to sell it elsewhere because it had been so specifically designed for Tracy and Hepburn that any substitution would have diminished it.
Was it an advantage for you and Ruth, on your films together, that your director, George Cukor, didn't write?
There have not been many writer-directors. Clearly, that's the ideal. I think the best we have ever produced in America is Preston Sturges. That is because he wrote every word and directed brilliantly. Then we have Billy Wilder, who writes in collaboration. I don't know much about his present collaboration, but knowing him, I think it's'mostly his stuff that Izzy [I. A. L. Diamond] puts down very well.
What isn't ideal is to get a powerful director who monkeys around with a script. As my brother Michael once said quite brilliantly, "Isn't it curious that hardly anyone can write, but everyone can rewrite?" Give me a Shakespearean text, I can fix it up, make some cuts, change some words, and think I'm improving it. It gives me a vicarious sense of creativity, but it isn't creativity, and it's one of the things that we deplore as screenwriters, the fact that our stuff is always monkeyed around with, without exception. It's always sullied in one way or another by a producer, by a director, by a head of the studio, by a censor, by a powerful star. That's why I say, three cheers for the theater and the Dramatists Guild.
Yet I would have guessed that Cukor was very sympatico with you and Ruth, with Hepburn and Tracy .
Oh, yes. We were all great pals, in addition to being co-workers. He certainly was a great respecter of the text, once it had been set. We used to have a lot of conferences and talk about the script. Not only with him. When we were doing the Tracy-Hepburn pictures, Kate and Spencer were in on some of the talks, too. But no one ever made any important contributions to any of our scripts. There were, of course, these discussions and questions of clarifications, but in almost every case it was a question of educating the people involved as to the form, the meaning, the themes, and the resolutions of these works.
Why did you and Ruth stop writing together?
As I say, we didn't enjoy it really, because we'd quarreled a lot. After the fourth picture, The Marrying Kind with Judy Holliday, we said, "Let's not work together anymore." From that point on, Ruth wrote her own stuff, and I wrote mine. In fact, I never saw any of her writing until it was finished, and she never saw mine until it was finished, and in some cases I never saw hers until it was published . That proved to be a much more efficacious way of working.
I think it's incomprehensible to people that you and Ruth, who were prob-
ably one of the finest screenwriting teams ever, split up as a writing team after you had reached such a creative level —
We were just as good after we split up!
Didn't you lose something by splitting up?
Just the company. It had relieved a little bit of the loneliness, because you have to sit by yourself in a room for four, five, six hours a day. That's something you have to conquer in your own way. I don't find the loneliness oppressive. I find it peaceful and I enjoy writing.
But you had gained something, hadn't you, the wisdom of the experience at least, by writing with Ruth?
Oh, I gained more than I can say, just from living with her and being married to her for forty-four years. In a rich relationship, you always gain something—that's part of it. We civilize each other, don't we? That's why good relationships and good influences are so important.
For example, I cannot imagine a writer who reads nothing but thrash being a good writer. The good writers I have known were also good readers. I'm not, not any longer. I used be an omnivorous reader. But Maugham once said, "Nobody after the age fifty reads anything." I used to argue about that, but more and more I see that he was probably right. As you grow older, you just don't'have the same time anymore to sit down and read the Encyclopaedia Brittanica or a thirty-four-volume set of Mark Twain, as my brother and I used to do.
You had all the time in the world then .
But life catches up with you. Reading is a tremendous luxury, a luxury that sometimes I can ill afford. I would advise young writers to, among other things, read the best writers, the classics, and as much as possible read fine English rather than translations.
You say you are a "theater animal." And except for a couple of credits, in the late 1960s, indeed you turned your back on originating Hollywood scripts after your last picture directed by Cukor, It Should Happen to You. Do you think the best films ever can be as good, in terms of the writing, as the best plays?
Never! Never for a moment. And the reason is clear: When you sit down to write a play, you are expressing yourself. You're expressing your own experiences, your own beliefs, your own religion, your own knowledge, your own hopes, your own fears. But in Hollywood you're always writing under very close supervision, and you know goddam well as you're writing a screenplay that the next day you'll be off it and somebody else will be on the same piece of material. This is the realistic point of view. And once you begin to face that, you don't break your heart, you don't get suicidal, if you know that that is the position of the screenwriter.
Haven't a certain few managed to escape that syndrome?
Only very, very, very recently.
To some extent, in his own way, just because of his own power—when it was power. I think he is an extremely important figure in the history of film, a great man, an incomparable director, and a very, very fine screenwriter (though he seldom wrote on his own, as you know—it was almost always in collaboration, either with Charlie Brackett or with Izzy Diamond). I know him well and I love him. However, even the most important directors never had what we call the final cut. They just didn't have it. John Ford didn't have the final cut. Frank Capra didn't have the final cut. He may have thought he had the final cut, but when the chips were down, he didn't.
Of late, in the last ten years, a few of the newer fellas have managed, because of enormous commercial success, to put themselves into a position where they are literally self-employed. Three or four of them are in a strong, solid position. I admire them very much. I applaud them. They have caused a kind of breakthrough.
But they represent perhaps 2 percent of the 100 percent of American screenwriters, whether they are employed or whether they write original material and submit it to the studios. Because the minute you sell it, it's all over: you have sold your copyright, you've been paid for your work, and therefore you are an employee who can be discharged or replaced. That's the division.
It's a paradox. In Hollywood, you are paid handsomely, yet you do not have any controls, whereas on stage, you are taking a huge gamble which pays you so much less, and yet you have tremendous creative freedom .
You get paid less except—except—if you succeed. If you get a hit, you can make much, much more money than you could ever make in Hollywood. I've earned a great deal in Hollywood, but nothing to compare with what I have earned out of one play. Not even close. So that is a paradox . . . and a challenge. A gamble. You can spend a year writing a play and it runs one night. But, as I say, there are these tremendous compensations, working in the theater.
I've been on the council of the Dramatists Guild, a beloved organization, for forty-four years now. I have observed the economic changes in the theater. A great many things have changed: the Dramatists Guild has made a great number of concessions to the producers in terms of money, in terms of royalties, in terms of out-of-town tryouts. We've done everything we can to make it possible for plays to be produced and run successfully and to pay off the backers and then to move more and more into the sharing. There have been a great many innovations in the contract—some of them very good, some of them more in favor of the producer.
But in all of the changes, in all of the discussions and conferences and arguments and fights that have gone on—and I spent a little over two and a half years as part of a five-man committee negotiating the new contract with
the [theater] producers—the one thing that was steadfast, that was sovereign, the one thing that did not change and could not change and was never challenged or even mentioned, was that the playwright has the final say about his work.
Nothing can be changed without his permission. No member of a cast can be engaged without his approval. No director can be engaged, no designer, no musician—nothing about the artistic elements of a play can be altered or compromised without the permission of the playwright. In other words, the playwright is king, as well he should be. Without the playwright, there's no theater.
That's the essential difference between films and the theater and why, of course, I prefer to work in the theater. I love films and I love writing films, but up until the present time I have not found it possible to keep artistic control in the same way that I do in the theater.