UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Sometimes Books are Better than Movies

Tom Stempel writes about three new movies with mediocre or worse scripts and has read two terrific books about, you guessed it, screenwriters.
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Yep, Another One of Those.

I’m Your Woman (2020. Written by Julia Hart & Jordan Horowitz. 120 minutes)

I'm Your Woman, Amazon Studios

I'm Your Woman, Amazon Studios

Julia Hart, who also directed, had always liked 1970s crime movies, but as a writer-director she began to wonder what happened to the women the male characters sent away to keep them out of trouble when the shooting started. So she thought she and her husband, Jordan Horowitz, should write a movie about a woman in that position. They did.

This film, alas, is yet another one of those movies with a great idea that is not very well developed. A great idea is not enough; effort is required to make it work.

We begin with Jean, who is married to Eddie. Jean sort of knows Eddie is a small-time crook, but she does not pry into his business, as most wives of small and big-time crooks are smart enough not to. One day Eddie walks into the house with a baby and announces it is hers. Well, they always wanted to have kids, but he does not tell her where it came from. Then he disappears.

Shortly Cal, a friend of Eddie’s comes along, bundles her and the baby up and drives away with them. He deposits them in a house with instructions not to talk to anybody. So we wait around with Jean and the baby. And wait and wait. Both the script and especially Hart’s direction are very s-l-o-w. This is a 90-minute movie dragged out to two hours.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Tom is Writing About…Directors?]

Neither the script nor the direction give the actors enough to do. Jean is played by Rachel Brosnahan, who is spectacular in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but simply is not given enough to work with here. If you see her only in this, you will wonder what all the fuss is about. What the writers needed to do was show Jean’s development and change as she deals with her situations. Jean seems one-note most of the way through.

Eventually, bad stuff happens in the neighborhood and Jean is on the road again, this time ending up with a Black woman and her son. They are all hiding out in a cabin. Then some more bad stuff happens. Jean finds her inner bad girl, but we don’t know how, so it is not convincing. She also does something spectacularly stupid toward the end, but I will leave to find out for yourself if you get stuck watching this.

Not All About Eve.

The High Note (2020. Written by Flora Greeson. 114 minutes)

The High Note, Focus Features

The High Note, Focus Features

A superstar has a personal assistant who has ambitions. No, it is not a remake of All About Eve (1950). The superstar, Grace Davis, is a pop singer, and her assistant, Maggie Sherwoode, wants to be a record producer. As in Eve, the superstar is the most compelling character, but here the focus is more on Maggie, who is simply not as interesting as Grace. Every time we are with her, we want to be with Grace.

Maggie’s story drags along because Greeson does not let Maggie tell Grace what she wants to do. Yes, there is a risk Grace will dump her if she does, but in the record business, as in the movie business, you have to take risks. Not helping is that Grace eventually comes around to helping Maggie. To make that work Greeson has to have a couple of coincidences, one a real whopper, at the end. Shakespeare got away with that (a lot!), but he so involves us in the characters we sort of buy it.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Writing for Performance]

By sticking with Maggie, the film is shallower than it could be. It is an hour into the movie before Grace mentions the problems of ageism and racism in the business. It just gets mentioned and never brought up again. Joseph Mankiewicz knew how to fold it into the story of Eve.

Not the Writers You Know.

Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s (2020. Book by Philippe Garnier. 370 pages. Available at Black Pool Productions at http://blackpoolproductions.com/scoundrels1.html)

Published by Black Pool Productions

Published by Black Pool Productions

I have a couple of reasons why I should not like this book. I’ll tell you the second reason at the end of the review. The first is that while it covers writers who were involved with Hollywood in the 30s (and the 40s), he never mentions my book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, or anything else I have written on the subject. How dare he not!

But I love the book in spite of that.

Garnier (whom it surprises me I have never met) is a French journalist who writes about Hollywood and American film for French publications. This current book was first published in French in 1996 as Honi soit qui Malibu and no English-language publisher has done a translation until now. We have Eddie Muller to thank for the current version. Muller, if you don’t know, is an expert on film noir. His introductions to films noir on Turner Classic Movies are the best on the channel because he mentions the writers and often has wonderful stories about them.

You cannot get the book on Amazon, but you can get it at Muller’s Black Pool website via the link above, or, if you are in Hollywood, you can get it at the Larry Edmunds Book Shop.

Garnier started interviewing writers connected to Hollywood in the 80s when many of the writers from the 30s were still around. Rather than focus on the big name screenwriters, he tends to focus on the lesser known writers, most of whom have most of their credits on B pictures, including several films noir. Many of them have one or two credits on A pictures, but Garnier is more interested in them as working-class writers.

Garnier tells us in his opening note that the book is about writers and Hollywood, not writers in Hollywood. Unlike so many historians who focus only on writers in Hollywood (or else just repeat the same old crap about writers losing their souls when they moved from New York City to Hollywood), Garnier tells us about the writers’ other literary work. Many of the writers were journeyman newspapermen who worked as writers and editors on a variety of small-town newspapers; think, Garnier suggests, of Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole (1951). They wrote short stories, not only for the pulp magazines, but higher class publications. H.L. Mencken admired and published several of the writers. Many of the writers also published novels of various kinds, not just crime novels.

Ace in the Hole, Paramount Pictures

Ace in the Hole, Paramount Pictures

So it is not surprising that Garnier has a chapter on bookstores in Hollywood in the 30s, where writers would gather and talk. The most famous of the bookstore at the time was the Stanley Rose Bookshop, two doors down from Musso & Frank, where writers spent a lot of time drinking. Garnier also points out they spent time gambling (bookies were welcome at the studios) and playing polo.

They did find time to write. John Bright and his partner Kubec Glasmon adapted their book Beer and Blood into what became Public Enemy (1931), which made James Cagney a star. Daniel Mainwaring, between writing for studio publicity departments, wrote the novel Build My Gallows High, then wrote the screenplay for it, which became the film noir classic Out of the Past (1947). W.R. Burnett wrote the novels High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle, made into films in 1941 and 1950. And those are just some films that you may have heard of.

I mentioned I had a second problem with the book. Garnier is not as detailed in his sourcing the material as he should be. There are no footnotes. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, there is a lot of detail about the sources, but it’s not as complete as you might want. In many cases, it is clear where the information comes from (his interviews with the writers, books, etc), but not always. An early section on Achmed Abdullah has no sources listed. On the other hand, the chapter on Rowland and Sam Brown comes directly from interviews from Sam and his daughter Moya, and gives us more on the legendary Rowland than you will get anywhere else.

I suspect the reason Garnier does not do more is because he is aware, as he mentions several times, that finding the truth in Hollywood is nearly impossible. People believe their own PR and memories are very variable. I generally found that with the bigger name writers I interviewed that they tended to tell the truth. Most of the time at least. I think writers are generally more truthful than, say, directors, actors, producers and the like. Garnier found that was not true of the writers he talked to.

Depending on how you feel about the truth, you may or may not care as much I did. I can guarantee you that either way, you will enjoy this book enormously.

A Writer-Producer You Should Know About.

Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock. (2020. Book by Christina Lane. 400 pages)

Joan Harrison

Joan Harrison

Joan Harrison, if she is mentioned at all in books about Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend, is described as “Hitchock’s secretary,” sometimes even “Hitchcock’s former secretary.” Books may even mention that she had a few screenplay credits on his films. I don’t know of any book that mentions she was not only the first woman, but the first person of only three screenwriters, to be nominated for two, count ’em, two screenwriting Oscars in the same year. The year was 1940 and she was nominated for her work on Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent. (Pop quiz: Who were the other two writers? Answer at the end of the column.)

Christina Lane does not mention that fact in her book, but that is about the only detail of Harrison’s life and career she doesn’t have. Yes, Harrison started with Hitch as a secretary in 1933 in their native England, but it quickly became apparent she was not a very good secretary. Harrison joined Hitch, his wife Alma, and whatever other writers there were on the picture in their discussions, and it was clear she had a good story mind. She also pushed to make the women characters stronger.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Writing Real and Fictional People]

In the forties Harrison left Hitchcock and became a producer at several different studios. Harrison had made a lot of friends when she was working with Hitch and they helped her move around in the studio system. Her specialty were films noir like Phantom Lady (1944), They Won’t Believe Me and Ride the Pink Horse (both 1947). (Yes, Eddie Muller has a blurb on the back of this one; he’s a busy guy.)

In the 50s, Harrison moved into producing for television, which brought her around to producing the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962). Lane’s section on this series is one of the best and most revealing parts of the book. Hitchcock himself had little to do with the series, other than appear in the openings and closing. Harrison did all the heavy lifting, and she also took great pleasure is hiring as many formerly blacklisted writers and actors as she could. When she wanted to hire Norman Lloyd (a great source for Lane) as an assistant, Lew Wasserman, the head of the company, called Hitchcock into his office and told him, “There seems to be a problem with Norman Lloyd.” Harrison had prepared Hitch for this, and he replied firmly, “I want him.” And he and Harrison got him. That’s how you work the system with the power you have available to you. Read this book to see all the other ways Harrison learned how to use this power.

Another Lawrence Wannabe.

The Lost City of Z (2016. Screenplay by James Gray, based on the book by David Grann. 141 minutes)

In my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays, the first chapter was an analysis of the great Michael Wilson-Robert Bolt screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Later on in the Not-Quite-So Good section, I did a chapter on “Some Lawrence Wannabes,” that included analyses of Troy (2004), King Arthur (2004), Alexander (2004), and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). In those comments, I pointed out were that the writers did things that Lawrence did and did them badly.

I celebrated my birthday in early December by spending the day watching the original, one and only Lawrence of Arabia. So perhaps it was not such a good idea for me to follow it up late in the month by watching Lost City. I spent the first half-hour or so comparing it to Lawrence. Lawrence begins with an action scene of his fatal accident on a motorcycle. Lost City begins with its hero, Percy Fawcett, like Lawrence a young British army officer, in a deer hunt on horseback. It looks like the hunt scene from Tom Jones (1963), but isn’t as funny.

Shortly Fawcett is called into Sir George, the head of the Royal Geographic Society. He wants Fawcett, who has shown some mapping skill, to go to Bolivia and map the Amazon. The scene is very on-the-nose, especially compared to the two scenes of Lawrence with General Murray and Dryden. We do not get a great cut like the match to the sun, but just an establishing shot of an ocean liner. Fawcett gets sort of a cute meet with his future companion Costin, but it is not a patch on the well scene in Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia, Columbia Pictures

Lawrence of Arabia, Columbia Pictures

The characterization in the film is mediocre and does not give much for the actors to do. The most interesting character is Fawcett’s wife, Nina, but we only see her when Fawcett at home, which is not often. We get none of the characterization of the natives that we do with Sherif Ali, Prince Faisal, and Auda Abu Tayi.

Eventually, as they get into the jungle, I began to compare it to some of the great jungle trek movies, like Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Fitzcarraldo (1982). It is not any better than them, either.

Pop Quiz Answer: The other writers with two Oscar nominations in one year are Preston Sturges in 1944 (Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) and Francis Ford Coppola in 1974 (The Conversation and The Godfather Part II).

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