UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Harley Quinn and Abraham Lincoln, Together at Last!

Who else but Tom Stempel would connect Harley Quinn and Abraham Lincoln in a column about screenwriting? Tom analyzes the characters, directing, and impact of films that create cinematic history.
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Uh-oh, Tom is Going to Write About Graphic Novels Again!

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020. Screenplay by Christina Hodson, based on the character of Harley Quinn by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. 109 minutes)

birds of prey

When I was a kid in the forties and fifties, I read comic books. Everybody did in those days. But as I grew up, I put away childish things (except for Mad Magazine; some things are sacred). I got out of reading comics before Stan Lee changed everything. Unlike a lot of younger men, I was never caught up in Spider-man’s web.

When I started doing this column in 2008, I wrote an item on the movie 300 in which I pointed out a couple of reasons graphic novels, as they are now called, did not make good movies. One was the lack of characterization. The other was that the novels had a lot of “stunning visual images.” Reading a comic book for half hour, a pile of stunning images can be fun. But when you drag that out for two hours or more, it can just be exhausting.

The column in those days was at The House Next Door, and that particular column received a lot of outraged comments from fanboys. The archives, alas, do not include the reader comments, but you can read my replies at the top of the next column. I made the point there that the static nature of graphic novels means you do not get the great nuances you can get with actors on film.

So, you can understand why I do not see that many movies based on graphic novels, although I have seen and reviewed several over the lifetime of the column. And here’s another one. Which demonstrates the same points I made back in 2008.

I had passed on Suicide Squad when it came out in 2016. It sounded like a typical comic book movie, and the only thing that would have appealed to me is casting Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. So when Birds of Prey came along, I put it on my “will probably see” list. Before I could go, the theatres closed, so I just recently picked it up as a Netflix rental.

Like a lot of movie sequels, Birds has a lot of exposition to get through, although I think it could cover it a lot quicker. The basic thing we need to know is that The Joker has broken up with her, which makes her fair game, in a lot of meanings of the term, for all the other bad people in Gotham City (in this film it appears there are no good people in Gotham). Then when we get through that exposition, we suddenly get a flashback for more exposition that by then we do not really need.

The plot eventually kicks in, something about a large diamond, and there is a lot of running around, chasing, and fighting. And there are the dazzling visuals that get exhausting to watch. The stunt work is impressive, but also exhausting to watch.

[Script Extra: 30 Days of Tips for Character Development - Theme, Setup and Payoff]

Before I saw the movie, I read a few of the over 2000 reader comments on IMDb. Nearly all the ones I read were from fanboys that were outraged there were no good guys in the film. They are right: all the men are pond scum. But the women make up for it, not by being sweet little girls, but by being the toughest shitkickers in the movie. Yes, I suppose you could call it a feminist movie, but not the subtlest one you will ever see. The women are the major characters, which probably irritated the fanboys more than just their combat skills.

I think Hodson has overwritten Harley, and unfortunately Robbie has overplayed her, with no modulation, which gets tiresome. Mary Elizabeth Winstead provides a little more variety as Helena aka The Huntress. The Huntress joins the party late and Winstead delivers some sly moments as The Huntress tries to figure out how to play well with others. Jurnee Smollett also has some quiet moments as Dinah Lance. The always-welcome Rosie Perez is exactly what you would expect as a tough Gotham City cop. There can be something satisfying about writers and a performer delivering exactly what you expect.

POP QUIZ #1: In addition to appearing in this column with Young Mr. Lincoln, there is another connection between Birds of Prey and Abraham Lincoln. What is it? The answer appears at the end of the column.

Yes, John Ford’s, But Also Lamar Trotti’s.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939. Original Screenplay by Lamar Trotti. 100 minutes)

In 1972, the editors of Cahiers du Cinema wrote a long essay on Young Mr. Lincoln. Cahiers du Cinema, as you may or may not know, was the French film magazine that started the whole crap of the auteur theory (anything good in a movie is from the director, anything bad is from the writer or producer) in 1954. The article was translated into English and appeared in the Autumn 1972 issue of Screen, and was later reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism, a 1979 anthology.

young mr lincoln

I would be willing to bet the farm that the article did not mention Lamar Trotti.

Since I had already begun to focus on screenwriters, I did not read the article. Geoffrey O’Brien, in his essay on the film in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion Collection DVD, describes the Cahiers article as “celebrated, if by now scarcely readable.” On the other hand, he mentions Trotti, but only once. In his 1986 book John Ford: The Man and his Films, Tag Gallagher, in a lengthy section on the film only mentions Trotti once, and only in a footnote. You might wonder what I am doing having a book on John Ford on my bookshelves. I have it exactly because it downplays screenwriters and it reminds me what we are up against.

But there are younger film historians who do mention screenwriters. I believe I have mentioned before J.E. Smyth’s 2006 book Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane. It was Smyth’s doctoral dissertation at Yale, and she discovered looking at American historical films of the thirties that the historical details in the films came from the screenwriters rather than the directors. That is certainly true of Lamar Trotti and Young Mr. Lincoln.

Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20 Century-Fox, liked historical films and had been thinking about a film about Lincoln for some time. Zanuck turned to Trotti and a treatment he was already working on.

Lamar Trotti was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and had been a newspaper reporter before joining Fox. In the early thirties he collaborated on screenplays with the more experienced Dudley Nichols. Together they wrote two of John Ford’s more successful pictures of the period, Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), both noted for their feeling for Americana. Trotti moved on to write other historical films, such as In Old Chicago (1938) and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). While working on Bell with Zanuck, Trotti convinced Zanuck to do his Lincoln film. Zanuck was in a hurry, since there was one other film about Lincoln scheduled, and Robert Sherwood, one of the period’s best known playwrights, had just opened Abe Lincoln in Illinois on Broadway. Trotti went back East to see it and reported to Zanuck that they had nothing to worry about, since the play and his script were not that similar. Sherwood’s play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Another Pop Quiz: which film won the Pulitzer Prize for screenwriting that year [1939]? Answer at the end of the column.)

[Script Extra: Learning How to Write to Theme with "The Last Jedi"]

As head of production at Fox, Darryl Zanuck focused on narrative drive. What is unusual about Young Mr. Lincoln is that the structure is much more episodic than other Fox films of the time. Biographical films often tend to be, but here Trotti, presumably with Zanuck’s approval, focuses on scenes that tell us about Lincoln and the other characters, as well, but with a thematic rather than narrative drive. In the opening scene, in 1832 in New Salem, we see John Stuart, a local politician, giving a bombastic speech, then turning to Lincoln, who unwinds himself and stands up. He gives a straightforward list of his positions, then adds, “My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance.” We never see Stuart again, although he became Lincoln’s law partner.

After a scene where he trades some fabric in his store to the Clay family in return for a barrel of books, we see Lincoln reading by the river. Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s first love, comes upon him, and they have a short scene in which she encourages him to get into the law. It is not a love scene as such, but we can tell they are more than just friends. Trotti does a lot, subtly, in a few short lines.

And then Ann is dead. Lincoln is out walking by the river, it is now later winter, and he comes across her grave. This being a John Ford film, he talks to her grave. But there is also a visual clue that it is a Ford film. Ford loves to play tricks on the audience, and he has a dandy here. In the previous scene with Ann, the river in the background is running right to left. In this scene, the river is flowing left to right. It would have been easy to flip the film used for rear projection, but it is typical Ford not to. Other examples on request.

So, Lincoln rides a mule (apparently because he cannot afford a horse) into Springfield, Illinois in 1837. Then Lincoln deals with two older gentlemen having a legal argument over who owes whom how much. Lincoln finds a sly and funny solution to the situation, and we never see the two men again. I told you the film was episodic.

In the early drafts of Trotti’s script, the big public event where the murder takes place is a traveling circus. It was Zanuck who suggested he change it to an Independence Day celebration. Look at how much more activity that gives you: a parade of veterans of the War of 1812 and the even older veterans of the Revolutionary War, a pie-eating contest that Lincoln judges, a tug of war (and Honest Abe actually cheats by tying his end of the rope to a wagon that pulls the other side into the mud!!), and a burning of tar barrels in place of fireworks. Sometimes the boss’s suggestions are on the money. Both Trotti and Zanuck knew from their past experiences that Ford was going to love both the rustic humor of the townsfolk and the nostalgia for the veterans, and he did.

The fight in which “Scrub” White is killed happens 35 minutes into the film. The two suspects, the Clay brothers, Matt and Adam, are almost lynched by the townsfolk, but Lincoln stands in the door of the jail and talks them out of it. The speech Trotti gives him includes some comments about the law he has made earlier, but Lincoln also talks directly to the townspeople he knows. He is either not quite the country bumpkin we have seen, or else he is growing out of it.

Lincoln talks to the boys’ mother and suggests she might want to get a better lawyer. He tells her “I’m just sort of a jackleg lawyer.” If you have heard that term before, it is likely in the anecdote that both Ford and Henry Fonda told. Fonda was reluctant to play the president. Ford swore at him and told him the role was not the president, but some kind of “jackleg lawyer.” So people have assumed that the line came from Ford, but is a line of dialogue in the script, which is where Ford probably got it from.

Just as we got the rustic comedy of the celebration before the murder, we now get the comedy of jury selection before the trial turns serious. Ford had a habit of letting the comedy get out of hand, but Trotti’s script has enough to satisfy Ford before he has to get serious about the trial.

[Script Extra: True Crime Writing - The Devil is in the Details]

The Cahiers du Cinema crowd, in one of their more outrageous mistakes, says the trial is completely fictional. It is based on a real case in 1857 in which Lincoln used the Farmer’s Almanac to win a case. The business of their being two defendants who were brothers and whose mother was forced to say which one committed the murder came from a trial covered by Trotti in his young reporter days.

By the end of the trial, Ford is photographing Lincoln sitting in his chair in court like he sits in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and when he goes out the door of the courtroom to cheers from an unseen crowd, Ford shoots him from a low angle, making him look very presidential.

In the final scene Lincoln says goodbye to the Clay family as their covered wagon is leaving town. He is with a backwoodsman Efe, who asks him if he is going back to town. Lincoln says, “No, I think I may go on a piece. Maybe to the top of that hill.” He walks up the hill, and there is lightening and rain. Trotti and Ford and Zanuck have earned their right to suggest Lincoln’s coming greatness without beating us over the head.

Young Mr. Lincoln opened in June 1939 and did not do well. The film version of Abe Lincoln in Illinois opened in April the following year and also did not do well. (You can read my review here.) J.E. Smyth notes that “real” historians tend to like the Sherwood film better than the Trotti film because it takes a more conventional approach, with much of it based on documented material. Smyth says however that what Trotti, Ford, and Zanuck were doing with this film was creating a more cinematic kind of history. With Trotti’s subtle writing (there is nothing subtle in Sherwood’s play and screenplay) and Ford’s poetic visuals, we can feel the past.

POP QUIZ #1 answer: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays the Huntress in Birds of Prey, played Mary Todd Lincoln in the 2012 movie Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter.

POP QUIZ #2 answer: There was no winner of the Pulitzer Prize for screenwriting in 1939 because THERE WAS NO PULITZER PRIZE FOR SCREENWRITING!!! AND THERE STILL ISN’T!!! I‘ve been talking about this since the very first of these columns twelve years ago and still nobody has done anything about it. Come on Pulitzer people, get off your asses and join at least the 20th century, if not the 21st.

More articles by Tom Stempel

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