“Citizen Kane” is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher. A great deal in the movie that was conventional and almost banal in 1941 is so far in the past as to have been forgotten and become new, and the Pop characterizations look modern, and rather better than they did at the time. New audiences may enjoy Orson Welles’ theatrical flamboyance even more than earlier generations did, because they’re so unfamiliar with the traditions it came out of. When Welles was young—he was twenty-five when the film opened—he used to be accused of “excessive showmanship,” but the same young audiences who now reject “theatre” respond innocently and wholeheartedly to the most unabashed tricks of theatre—and of early radio plays—in “Citizen Kane.” At some campus showings, they react so gullibly that when Kane makes a demagogic speech about “the underprivileged,” stray students will applaud enthusiastically, and a shout of “Right on!” may be heard. Though the political ironies are not clear to young audiences, and though young audiences don’t know much about the subject—William Randolph Hearst, the master jingo journalist, being to them a stock villain, like Joe McCarthy; that is, a villain without the contours of his particular villainy—they nevertheless respond to the effrontery, the audacity, and the risks. Hearst’s career and his power provided a dangerous subject that stimulated and energized all those connected with the picture—they felt they were doing something instead of just working on one more cooked-up story that didn’t relate to anything that mattered. And to the particular kinds of people who shaped this enterprise the dangers involved made the subject irresistible.
“Citizen Kane,” the film that, as Truffaut said, is “probably the one that has started the largest number of filmmakers on their careers,” was not an ordinary assignment. It is one of the few films ever made inside a major studio in the United States in freedom—not merely in freedom from interference but in freedom from the routine methods of experienced directors. George J. Schaefer, who, with the help of Nelson Rockefeller, had become president of R.K.O. late in 1938, when it was struggling to avert bankruptcy, needed a miracle to save the company, and after the national uproar over Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” broadcast Rockefeller apparently thought that Welles—“the wonder boy”—might come up with one, and urged Schaefer to get him. But Welles, who was committed to the theatre and wasn’t especially enthusiastic about making movies, rejected the first offer; he held out until Schaefer offered him complete control over his productions. Then Welles brought out to Hollywood from New York his own production unit—the Mercury Theatre company, a group of actors and associates he could count on—and, because he was inexperienced in movies and was smart and had freedom, he was able to find in Hollywood people who had been waiting all their lives to try out new ideas. So a miracle did come about, though it was not the kind of miracle R.K.O. needed.
“Kane” does something so well, and with such spirit, that the fullness and completeness of it continue to satisfy us. The formal elements themselves produce elation; we are kept aware of how marvellously worked out the ideas are. It would be high-toned to call this method of keeping the audience aware “Brechtian,” and it would be wrong. It comes out of a different tradition—the same commercial-comedy tradition that Walter Kerr analyzed so beautifully in his review of the 1969 Broadway revival of “The Front Page,” the 1928 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, when he said, “A play was held to be something of a machine in those days. . . . It was a machine for surprising and delighting the audience, regularly, logically, insanely, but accountably. A play was like a watch that laughed.” The mechanics of movies are rarely as entertaining as they are in “Citizen Kane,” as cleverly designed to be the kind of fun that keeps one alert and conscious of the enjoyment of the artifices themselves.
Walter Kerr goes on to describe the second-act entrance prepared for Walter Burns, the scheming, ruthless managing editor of “The Front Page”:
He can’t just come on and declare himself. . . . He’s got to walk into a tough situation in order to be brutally nonchalant, which is what we think is funny about him. The machinery has not only given him and the play the right punctuation, the change of pace that refreshes even as it moves on. It has also covered him, kept him from being obvious, while exploiting the one most obvious thing about him. You might say that the machinery has covered itself, perfectly squared itself. We are delighted to have the man on, we are delighted to have him on at this time, we are aware that it is sleight-of-hand that has got him on, and we are as delighted by the sleight-of-hand as by the man.
“Citizen Kane” is made up of an astonishing number of such bits of technique, and of sequences built to make their points and get their laughs and hit climax just before a fast cut takes us to the next. It is practically a collection of blackout sketches, but blackout sketches arranged to comment on each other, and it was planned that way right in the shooting script.
It is difficult to explain what makes any great work great, and particularly difficult with movies, and maybe more so with “Citizen Kane” than with other great movies, because it isn’t a work of special depth or a work of subtle beauty. It is a shallow work, a shallow masterpiece. Those who try to account for its stature as a film by claiming it to be profound are simply dodging the problem—or maybe they don’t recognize that there is one. Like most of the films of the sound era that are called masterpieces, “Citizen Kane” has reached its audience gradually over the years rather than at the time of release. Yet, unlike the others, it is conceived and acted as entertainment in a popular style (unlike, say, “Rules of the Game” or “Rashomon” or “Man of Aran,” which one does not think of in crowd-pleasing terms). Apparently, the easiest thing for people to do when they recognize that something is a work of art is to trot out the proper schoolbook terms for works of art, and there are articles on “Citizen Kane” that call it a tragedy in fugal form and articles that explain that the hero of “Citizen Kane” is time—time being a proper sort of modern hero for an important picture. But to use the conventional schoolbook explanations for greatness, and pretend that it’s profound, is to miss what makes it such an American triumph—that it manages to create something aesthetically exciting and durable out of the playfulness of American muckraking satire. “Kane” is closer to comedy than to tragedy, though so overwrought in style as to be almost a Gothic comedy. What might possibly be considered tragic in it has such a Daddy Warbucks quality that if it’s tragic at all it’s comic-strip tragic. The mystery in “Kane” is largely fake, and the Gothic-thriller atmosphere and the Rosebud gimmickry (though fun) are such obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics that they’re not so very different from the fake mysteries that Hearst’s American Weekly used to whip up—the haunted castles and the curses fulfilled. “Citizen Kane” is a popular masterpiece—not in terms of actual popularity but in terms of its conceptions and the way it gets its laughs and makes its points. Possibly it was too complexly told to be one of the greatest commercial successes, but we can’t really tell whether it might have become even a modest success, because it didn’t get a fair chance.
Orson Welles brought forth a miracle, but he couldn’t get by with it. Although Hearst made some direct attempts to interfere with the film, it wasn’t so much what he did that hurt the film commercially as what others feared he might do, to them and to the movie industry. They knew he was contemplating action, so they did the picture in for him; it was as if they decided whom the king might want killed, and, eager to oblige, performed the murder without waiting to be asked. Before “Kane” opened, George J. Schaefer was summoned to New York by Nicholas Schenck, the chairman of the board of Loew’s International, the M-G-M affiliate that controlled the distribution of M-G-M pictures. Schaefer had staked just about everything on Welles, and the picture looked like a winner, but now Schenck made Schaefer a cash offer from Louis B. Mayer, the head of production at M-G-M, of $842,000 if Schaefer would destroy the negative and all the prints. The picture had actually cost only $686,033; the offer handsomely included a fair amount for the post-production costs.
Mayer’s motive may have been partly friendship and loyalty to Hearst, even though Hearst, who had formerly been associated with M-G-M, had, some years earlier, after a dispute with Irving Thalberg, taken his investment out of M-G-M and moved his star, Marion Davies, and his money to Warner Brothers. M-G-M had lost money on a string of costume clinkers starring Miss Davies (“Beverly of Graustark,” et al.), and had even lost money on some of her good pictures, but Mayer had got free publicity for M-G-M releases out of the connection with Hearst, and had also got what might be called deep personal satisfaction. In 1929, when Herbert Hoover invited the Mayers to the White House—they were the first “informal” guests after his inauguration—Hearst’s New York American gave the visit a full column. Mayer enjoyed fraternizing with Hearst and his eminent guests; photographs show Mayer with Hearst and Lindbergh, Mayer with Hearst and Winston Churchill, Mayer at lunch with Bernard Shaw and Marion Davies—but they never, of course, show Mayer with both Hearst and Miss Davies. Candid cameramen sometimes caught the two together, but Hearst, presumably out of respect for his wife, did not pose in groups that included Miss Davies. Despite the publicity showered on her in the Hearst papers, the forms were carefully observed. She quietly packed and left for her own house on the rare occasions when Mrs. Hearst, who lived in the East, was expected to be in residence at San Simeon. Kane’s infatuation for the singer Susan Alexander in the movie was thus a public flaunting of matters that Hearst was careful and considerate about. Because of this, Mayer’s long-time friendship for Hearst was probably a lesser factor than the fear that the Hearst press would reveal some sordid stories about the movie moguls and join in one of those recurrent crusades against movie immorality, like the one that had destroyed Fatty Arbuckle’s career. The movie industry was frightened of reprisals. (The movie industry is always frightened, and is always proudest of films that celebrate courage.) As one of the trade papers phrased it in those nervous weeks when no one knew whether the picture would be released, “the industry could ill afford to be made the object of counterattack by the Hearst newspapers.”
There were rumors that Hearst was mounting a general campaign; his legal staff had seen the script, and Louella Parsons, the Hearst movie columnist, who had attended a screening of the film flanked by lawyers, was agitated and had swung into action. The whole industry, it was feared, would take the rap for R.K.O.’s indiscretion, and, according to the trade press at the time (and Schaefer confirms this report), Mayer was not putting up the $842,000 all by himself. It was a joint offer from the top movie magnates, who were combining for common protection. The offer was presented to Schaefer on the ground that it was in the best interests of everybody concerned—which was considered to be the entire, threatened industry—for “Citizen Kane” to be destroyed. Rather astonishingly, Schaefer refused. He didn’t confer with his board of directors, because, he says, he had good reason to think they would tell him to accept. He refused even though R.K.O., having few theatres of its own, was dependent on the other companies and he had been warned that the big theatre circuits—controlled by the men who wanted the picture destroyed—would refuse to show it.
Schaefer knew the spot he was in. The première had been tentatively set for February 14th at the Radio City Music Hall—usually the showcase for big R.K.O. pictures, because R.K.O. was partly owned by the Rockefellers and the Chase National Bank, who owned the Music Hall. The manager of the theatre had been enthusiastic about the picture. Then, suddenly, the Music Hall turned it down. Schaefer phoned Nelson Rockefeller to find out why, and, he says, “Rockefeller told me that Louella Parsons had warned him off it, that she had asked him, ‘How would you like to have the American Weekly magazine section run a double-page spread on John D. Rockefeller?’ ”According to Schaefer, she had also called David Sarnoff, another large investor in R.K.O., and similarly threatened him. Schaefer was stranded; he had to scrounge for theatres, and, amid the general fear that Hearst might sue and would almost certainly remove advertising for any houses that showed “Citizen Kane,” he couldn’t get bookings. The solution was for R.K.O. to take the risks of any lawsuits, but when the company leased an independent theatre in Los Angeles and refurbished the Palace (then a vaudeville house), which R.K.O. owned, for the New York opening, and did the same for a theatre R.K.O. owned in Chicago, Schaefer had trouble launching an advertising campaign. (Schenck, not surprisingly, owned a piece of the biggest movie-advertising agency.) Even after the early rave reviews and the initial enthusiasm, Schaefer couldn’t get bookings except in the theatres that R.K.O. itself owned and in a few small art houses that were willing to take the risk. Eventually, in order to get the picture into theatres, Schaefer threatened to sue Warners’, Fox, Paramount, and Loew’s on a charge of conspiracy. (There was reason to believe the company heads had promised Hearst they wouldn’t show it in their theatres.) Warners’ (perhaps afraid of exposure and the troubles with their stockholders that might result from a lawsuit) gave in and booked the picture, and the others followed, halfheartedly—in some cases, theatres paid for the picture but didn’t play it.
By then, just about everybody in the industry was scared, or mad, or tired of the whole thing, and though the feared general reprisals against the industry did not take place, R.K.O. was getting bruised. The Hearst papers banned publicity on R.K.O. pictures and dropped an announced serialization of the novel “Kitty Foyle” which had been timed for the release of the R.K.O. film version. Some R.K.O. films didn’t get reviewed and others got bad publicity. It was all petty harassment, of a kind that could be blamed on the overzealous Miss Parsons and other Hearst employees, but it was obviously sanctioned by Hearst, and it was steady enough to keep the industry uneasy.
By the time “Citizen Kane” got into Warners’ theatres, the picture had acquired such an odd reputation that people seemed to distrust it, and it didn’t do very well. It was subsequently withdrawn from circulation, perhaps because of the vicissitudes of R.K.O., and until the late fifties, when it was reissued and began to play in the art houses and to attract a new audience, it was seen only in pirated versions in 16 mm. Even after Mayer had succeeded in destroying the picture commercially, he went on planning vengeance on Schaefer for refusing his offer. Stockholders in R.K.O. began to hear that the company wasn’t prospering because Schaefer was anti-Semitic and was therefore having trouble getting proper distribution for R.K.O. pictures. Schaefer says that Mayer wanted to get control of R.K.O. and that the rumor was created to drive down the price of the stock—that Mayer hoped to scare out Floyd Odlum, a major stockholder, and buy his shares. Instead, Odlum, who had opposed Nelson Rockefeller’s choice of Schaefer to run the company, bought enough of Sarnoff’s stock to have a controlling interest, and by mid-1942 Schaefer was finished at R.K.O. Two weeks after he left, Welles’ unit was evicted from its offices on the lot and given a few hours to move out, and the R.K.O. employees who had worked with Welles were punished with degrading assignments on B pictures. Mayer’s friendship with Hearst was not ruffled. A few years later, when Mayer left his wife of forty years, he rented Marion Davies’ Beverly Hills mansion. Eventually, he was one of Hearst’s honorary pallbearers. “Citizen Kane” didn’t actually lose money, but in Hollywood bookkeeping it wasn’t a big enough moneymaker to balance the scandal.
Welles was recently quoted as saying, “Theatre is a collective experience; cinema is the work of one single person.” This is an extraordinary remark from the man who brought his own Mercury Theatre players to Hollywood (fifteen of them appeared in “Citizen Kane”), and also the Mercury co-producer John Houseman, the Mercury Composer Bernard Herrmann, and various assistants, such as Richard Wilson, William Alland, and Richard Barr. He not only brought his whole supportive group—his family, he called them then—but found people in Hollywood, such as the cinematographer Gregg Toland, to contribute their knowledge and gifts to “Citizen Kane.” Orson Welles has done some marvellous things in his later movies—some great things—and there is more depth in the somewhat botched “The Magnificent Ambersons,” of 1942 (which also used many of the Mercury players), than in “Citizen Kane,” but his principal career in the movies has been in adaptation, as it was earlier on the stage. He has never again worked on a subject with the immediacy and impact of “Kane.” His later films—even those he has so painfully struggled to finance out of his earnings as an actor—haven’t been conceived in terms of daring modern subjects that excite us, as the very idea of “Kane” excited us. This particular kind of journalist’s sense of what would be a scandal as well as a great subject, and the ability to write it, belonged not to Welles but to his now almost forgotten associate Herman J. Mankiewicz, who wrote the script, and who inadvertently destroyed the picture’s chances. There is a theme that is submerged in much of “Citizen Kane” but that comes to the surface now and then, and it’s the linking life story of Hearst and of Mankiewicz and of Welles—the story of how brilliantly gifted men who seem to have everything it takes to do what they want to do are defeated. It’s the story of how heroes become comedians and con artists.
The Hearst papers ignored Welles—Hearst may have considered this a fit punishment for an actor—though they attacked him indirectly with sneak attacks on those associated with him, and Hearst would frequently activate his secular arm, the American Legion, against him. But the Hearst papers worked Mankiewicz over in headlines; they persecuted him so long that he finally appealed to the American Civil Liberties Union for help. There was some primitive justice in this. Hearst had never met Welles, and, besides, Welles was a kid, a twenty-five-year-old prodigy (whose daughter Marion Davies’ nephew was bringing up)—hardly the sort of person one held responsible. But Mankiewicz was a friend of both Marion Davies and Hearst, and had been a frequent guest at her beach house and at San Simeon. There, in the great baronial banquet hall, Hearst liked to seat Mankiewicz on his left, so that Mankiewicz, with all his worldliness and wit (the Central Park West Voltaire, Ben Hecht had called him a few years earlier), could entertain the guest of honor and Hearst wouldn’t miss any of it. Mankiewicz betrayed their hospitality, even though he liked them both. They must have presented an irresistible target. And so Hearst, the yellow-press lord who had trained Mankiewicz’s generation of reporters to betray anyone for a story, became at last the victim of his own style of journalism.
In the first Academy Award ceremony, for 1927-28, Warner Brothers, which had just produced “The Jazz Singer,” was honored for “Marking an Epoch in Motion Picture History.” If the first decade of talkies—roughly, the thirties—has never been rivalled in wit and exuberance, this is very largely because there was already in Hollywood in the late silent period a nucleus of the best American writers, and they either lured their friends West or were joined by them. Unlike the novelists who were drawn to Hollywood later, most of the best Hollywood writers of the thirties had a shared background; they had been reporters and critics, and they knew each other from their early days on newspapers and magazines.
In his autobiography, Ben Hecht tells of being broke in New York—it was probably the winter of 1926—and of getting a telegram from Herman Mankiewicz in Hollywood: “WILL YOU ACCEPT THREE HUNDRED PER WEEK TO WORK FOR PARAMOUNT PICTURES? ALL EXPENSES PAID. THE THREE HUNDRED IS PEANUTS. MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS. DON’T LET THIS GET AROUND.” A newspaper photograph shows Mankiewicz greeting Hecht, “noted author, dramatist, and former newspaperman,” upon his arrival. After Hecht had begun work at Paramount, he discovered that the studio chief, B. P. Schulberg—who at that time considered writers a waste of money—had been persuaded to hire him by a gambler’s ploy: Mankiewicz had offered to tear up his own two-year contract if Hecht failed to write a successful movie. Hecht, that phenomenal fast hack who was to become one of the most prolific of all motion-picture writers (and one of the most frivolously cynical about the results), worked for a week and turned out the script that became Josef von Sternberg’s great hit “Underworld.” That script brought Hecht the first Academy Award for an original story, and a few years later he initiated the practice of using Oscars as doorstops. The studio heads knew what they had in Hecht as soon as they read the script, and they showed their gratitude. Hecht has recorded:
I was given a ten-thousand-dollar check as a bonus for the week’s work, a check which my sponsor Mankiewicz snatched out of my hand as I was bowing my thanks.
“You’ll have it back in a week,” Manky said. “I just want it for a few days to get me out of a little hole.”
He gambled valiantly, tossing a coin in the air with Eddie Cantor and calling heads or tails for a thousand dollars. He lost constantly. He tried to get himself secretly insured behind his good wife Sara’s back, planning to hock the policy and thus meet his obligation. This plan collapsed when the insurance-company doctor refused to accept him as a risk. I finally solved the situation by taking Manky into the Front Office and informing the studio bosses of our joint dilemma. I asked that my talented friend be given a five-hundred-a-week raise. The studio could then deduct this raise from his salary. . . .
I left . . . with another full bonus check in my hand; and Manky, with his new raise, became the highest paid writer for Paramount Pictures, Inc.
The bait that brought the writers in was money, but those writers who, like Mankiewicz, helped set the traps had their own reason: conviviality. Mankiewicz’s small joke “Don’t let this get around” came from a man who lived for talk, a man who saw moviemaking as too crazy, too profitable, and too easy not to share with one’s friends. By the early thirties, the writers who lived in Hollywood or commuted there included not only Mankiewicz and Hecht and Charles MacArthur but George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, and Nathanael West and his brother-in-law S. J. Perelman, and Preston Sturges, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Kober, Alice Duer Miller, John O’Hara, Donald Ogden Stewart, Samson Raphaelson (the New York Times reporter who wrote the play “The Jazz Singer”), Gene Fowler, and Nunnally Johnson, and such already famous playwrights as Philip Barry, S. N. Behrman, Maxwell Anderson, Robert Sherwood, and Sidney Howard. Scott Fitzgerald had already been there for his first stretch, in 1927, along with Edwin Justus Mayer, and by 1932 William Faulkner began coming and going, and from time to time Ring Lardner and Moss Hart would turn up. In earlier periods, American writers made a living on newspapers and magazines; in the forties and fifties, they went into the academies (or, once they got to college, never left). But in the late twenties and the thirties they went to Hollywood. And though, apparently, they one and all experienced it as prostitution of their talents—joyous prostitution in some cases—and though more than one fell in love with movies and thus suffered not only from personal frustration but from the corruption of the great, still new art, they nonetheless as a group were responsible for that sustained feat of careless magic we call “thirties comedy.” “Citizen Kane” was, I think, its culmination.
Herman J. Mankiewicz, born in New York City in 1897, was the first son of a professor of education, who then took a teaching position in Wilkes-Barre, where his second son, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was born in 1909, and where the boys and a sister grew up. Herman Mankiewicz graduated from Columbia in 1916, and after a period as managing editor of the American Jewish Chronicle he became a flying cadet with the United States Army in 1917 and, in 1918, a private first class with the Fifth Marines, 2nd Division, A.E.F. In 1919 and 1920, he was the director of the American Red Cross News Service in Paris, and after returning to this country to marry a great beauty, Miss Sara Aaronson, of Baltimore, he took his bride overseas with him while he worked as a foreign correspondent in Berlin from 1920 to 1922, doing political reporting for George Seldes on the Chicago Tribune. During that time, he also sent pieces on drama and books to the New York Times and Women’s Wear. When he came home, he took a job as a reporter for the New York World. He was a gifted, prodigious writer, who contributed to Vanity Fair, the Saturday Evening Post, and many other magazines, and, while still in his twenties, collaborated with Heywood Broun, Dorothy Parker, Robert E. Sherwood, and others on a revue (“Round the Town”), and collaborated with George S. Kaufman on a play (“The Good Fellow”) and with Marc Connelly on another play (“The Wild Man of Borneo”). From 1923 to 1926, he was at the Times, backing up George S. Kaufman in the drama department; while he was there, he also became the first regular theatre critic for The New Yorker, writing weekly from June, 1925, until January, 1926, when he was offered a motion-picture contract and left for Hollywood. The first picture he wrote was the Lon Chaney success “The Road to Mandalay.” In all, he worked on over seventy movies. He went on living and working in Los Angeles until his death, in 1953. He left three children: Don, born in Berlin in 1922, who is a novelist (“Trial”) and a writer for television (“Marcus Welby, M.D.”) and the movies (co-writer of “I Want to Live!”); Frank, born in New York in 1924, who became a lawyer, a journalist, a Peace Corps worker, and Robert Kennedy’s press assistant, and is now a columnist and television commentator; and Johanna, born in Los Angeles in 1937, who is a journalist (on Time) and is married to Peter Davis, the writer of the Emmy Award-winning TV program “Hunger in America.”
Told this way, Herman Mankiewicz’s career sounds exemplary, but these are just the bare bones of the truth. Even though it would be easy to document this official life of the apparently rising young man with photographs of Mankiewicz in his Berlin days dining with the Chancellor, Mankiewicz in his newspaperman days outside the Chicago Tribune with Jack Dempsey, and so on, it would be hard to explain his sudden, early aging and the thickening of his features and the transparently cynical look on his face in later photographs.
It was a lucky thing for Mankiewicz that he got the movie job when he did, because he would never have risen at the Times, and though he wrote regularly for The New Yorker (and remarked of those of the Algonquin group who didn’t, “The part-time help of wits is no better than the full-time help of half-wits”), The New Yorker, despite his pleas for cash, was paying him partly in stock, which wasn’t worth much at the time. Mankiewicz drank heavily, and the drinking newspaperman was in the style of the World but not in the style of the Times. In October, 1925, he was almost fired. The drama critic then was Brooks Atkinson, and the drama editor was George S. Kaufman, with Mankiewicz second in line and Sam Zolotow third. Mankiewicz was sent to cover the performance of Gladys Wallis, who was the wife of the utilities magnate Samuel Insull, as Lady Teazle in “School for Scandal.” Mrs. Insull, who had abandoned her theatrical career over a quarter of a century before, was, according to biographers, bored with being a nobody when her husband was such a big somebody. She was fifty-six when she resumed her career, as Lady Teazle, who is meant to be about eighteen. The play had opened in Chicago, where, perhaps astutely, she performed for charity (St. Luke’s Hospital), and the press had described her as brilliant. The night of the New York opening, Mankiewicz came back to the office drunk, started panning Mrs. Insull’s performance, and then fell asleep over his typewriter. As Zolotow recalls it, “Kaufman began to read the review and it was so venomous he was outraged. That was the only time I ever saw Kaufman lose his temper.” The review wasn’t printed. The Times suffered the humiliation of running this item on October 23, 1925:
A NEW SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL
The School for Scandal, with Mrs. Insull as Lady Teazle, was produced at the Little Theatre last night. It will be reviewed in tomorrow’s Times.
Mankiewicz was in such bad shape that night that Kaufman told Zolotow to call Sara Mankiewicz and have her come get him and take him home. Mrs. Mankiewicz recalls that he still had his head down on his typewriter when she arrived, with a friend, to remove him. She says he took it for granted that he was fired, but nevertheless went to work promptly the next day. Zolotow recalls, “In the morning, Herman came down to the office and asked me to talk to Mr. Birchall, the assistant managing editor, on his behalf. Herman had brought a peace offering of a bottle of Scotch and I took it to Birchall. He had a red beard, and he tugged at it and he stabbed the air a few times with his index finger and said, ‘Herman is a bad boy, a bad boy.’ But he took the bottle and Herman kept his job until he got the movie offer.”
The review—unsigned—that the Times printed on October 24, 1925, was a small masterpiece of tact:
As Lady Teazle, Mrs. Insull is as pretty as she is diminutive, with a clear smile and dainty gestures. There is a charming grace in her bearing that makes for excellent deportment. But this Lady Teazle seems much too innocent, too thoroughly the country lass that Joseph terms her, to lend credit to her part in the play.
Scattered through various books, and in the stories that are still told of him in Hollywood, are clues that begin to give one a picture of Herman Mankiewicz, a giant of a man who mongered his own talent, a man who got a head start in the race to “sell out” to Hollywood. The pay was fantastic. After a month in the movie business, Mankiewicz —though his Broadway shows had not been hits, and though this was in 1926, when movies were still silent—signed a year’s contract giving him $400 a week and a bonus of $5,000 for each story that was accepted, with an option for a second year at $500 a week and $7,500 per accepted story, the company guaranteeing to accept at least four stories per year. In other words, his base pay was $40,800 his first year and $56,000 his second; actually, he wrote so many stories that he made much more. By the end of 1927, he was head of Paramount’s scenario department, and in January, 1928, there was a newspaper item reporting that he was in New York “lining up a new set of newspaper feature writers and playwrights to bring to Hollywood,” and that “most of the newer writers on Paramount’s staff who contributed the most successful stories of the past year were selected by ‘Mank.’ ” One reason that Herman Mankiewicz is so little known today is, ironically, that he went to Hollywood so early, before he had gained a big enough reputation in the literary and theatrical worlds. Screenwriters don’t make names for themselves; the most famous ones are the ones whose names were famous before they went to Hollywood, or who made names later in the theatre or from books, or who, like Preston Sturges, became directors.
Mankiewicz and other New Yorker writers in the twenties and the early thirties were very close to the world of the theatre; many of them were writing plays, writing about theatre people, reviewing plays. It’s not surprising that within a few years the magazine’s most celebrated contributors were in Hollywood writing movies. Of the ten friends of the editor Harold Ross who were in the original prospectus as advisory editors, six became screenwriters. When Mankiewicz gave up the drama critic’s spot, in 1926, he was replaced by Charles Brackett, and when Brackett headed West, Robert Benchley filled it while commuting, and then followed. Dorothy Parker, the book reviewer Constant Reader, went West, too. Nunnally Johnson, who was to work on over a hundred movies, was a close friend of Harold Ross’s and had volunteered to do the movie reviewing in 1926 but had been told that that job was for “old ladies and fairies.” Others in the group didn’t agree: Benchley had written on movies for the old Life as early as 1920, and John O’Hara later took time out from screenwriting to become the movie critic for Newsweek—where he was to review “Citizen Kane.” The whole group were interested in the theatre and the movies, and they were fast, witty writers, used to regarding their work not as deathless prose but as stories written to order for the market, used also to the newspaperman’s pretense of putting a light value on what they did—the “Look, no hands” attitude. Thus, they were well prepared to become the scenarists and gag writers of the talkies.
The comic muse of the most popular “daring” late silents was a carefree, wisecracking flapper. Beginning in 1926, Herman Mankiewicz worked on an astounding number of films in that spirit. In 1927 and 1928, he did the titles (the printed dialogue and explanations) for at least twenty-five films that starred Clara Bow, Bebe Daniels, Nancy Carroll, Esther Ralston, George Bancroft, Thomas Meighan, Jack Holt, Richard Dix, Wallace Beery, and other public favorites. He worked on the titles for Jules Furthman’s script of “Abie’s Irish Rose,” collaborated with Anita Loos on the wisecracks for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and did the immensely successful “The Barker” and “The Canary Murder Case,” with William Powell, Louise Brooks, James Hall, and Jean Arthur. By then, sound had come in, and in 1929 he did the script as well as the dialogue for “The Dummy,” with Ruth Chatterton and Fredric March (making his screen début), wrote William Wellman’s “The Man I Love,” with Richard Arlen, Pat O’Brien, and Mary Brian, and worked for Josef von Sternberg and many other directors.
Other screenwriters made large contributions, too, but probably none larger than Mankiewicz’s at the beginning of the sound era, and if he was at that time one of the highest-paid writers in the world, it was because he wrote the kind of movies that were disapproved of as “fast” and immoral. His heroes weren’t soft-eyed and bucolic; he brought good-humored toughness to the movies, and energy and astringency. And the public responded, because it was eager for modern American subjects. Even those of us who were children at the time loved the fast-moving modern-city stories. The commonplaceness—even tawdriness—of the imagery was such a relief from all that silent “poetry.” The talkies were a great step down. It’s hard to make clear to people who didn’t live through the transition how sickly and unpleasant many of those “artistic” silent pictures were—how you wanted to scrape off all that mist and sentiment.
Almost from the time the motion-picture camera was invented, there had been experiments with sound and attempts at synchronization, and the public was more than ready for talking pictures. Many of the late silents, if one looks at them now, seem to be trying to talk to us, crying out for sound. Despite the legend of paralysis of the medium when sound first came in, there was a burst of inventiveness. In musicals, directors like René Clair and, over here, Ernst Lubitsch and, to a lesser degree, Rouben Mamoulian didn’t use sound just for lip synchronization; they played with sound as they had played with images, and they tried to use sound without losing the movement of silents or the daring of silent editing. Some of the early talkies were static and inept; newly imported stage directors literally staged the action, as if the space were stage space, and the technicians had to learn to handle the microphones. But movies didn’t suddenly become stagebound because of the microphone. Many of the silents had always been stagebound, for the sufficient reason that they had been adapted from plays—from the war-horses of the repertory, because they had proved their popularity, and from the latest Broadway hits, because the whole country wanted to see them. The silent adaptations were frequently deadly, not just because of construction based on the classical unities, with all those entrances and exits and that painful emptiness on the screen of plays worked out in terms of absolutely essential characters only, but because everything kept stopping for the explanatory titles and the dialogue titles.
Even in the movies adapted from novels or written directly for the screen, the action rarely went on for long; silents were choked with titles, which were perhaps, on the average, between ten and twenty times as frequent as the interruptions for TV commercials. The printed dialogue was often witty, and often it was essential to an understanding of the action, but it broke up the rhythm of performances and the visual flow, and the titles were generally held for the slowest readers, so that one lost the mood of the film while staring at the dialogue for the third scanning. (It seems to me, thinking back on it, that we were so eager for the movie to go on that we gulped the words down and then were always left with them for what, to our impatience, seemed an eternity, and that the better the movie, the more quickly we tried to absorb and leap past the printed words, and the more frustrating the delays became.) The plain fact that many silent movies were plays without the spoken dialogue, plays deprived of their very substance, was what made the theatre-going audience—and the Broadway crowd of writers—so contemptuous of them. Filmed plays without the actors’ voices, and with the deadening delays for the heterogeneous audience to read the dialogue, were an abomination. Many of the journalists and playwrights and wits of the Algonquin Round Table had written perceptively about motion pictures (Alexander Woollcott, who managed to pan some of the greatest films, was an exception); they had, in general, been cynical only about the slop and the silent filmed plays. But though they had been active in the theatre, there had been no real place for them in movies; now, with the introduction of sound, they could bring to the screen the impudence that had given Broadway its flavor in the twenties—and bring it there before the satirical references were out of date. Sound made it possible for them to liberate movies into a new kind of contemporaneity.
There is an elaborate body of theory that treats film as “the nocturnal voyage into the unconscious,” as Luis Buñuel called it, and for a director such as Buñuel “the cinema seems to have been invented to express the life of the subconscious.” Some of the greatest work of D. W. Griffith and other masters of the silent film has a magical, fairy-tale appeal, and certainly Surrealists like Buñuel, and other experimental and avant-garde filmmakers as well, have drawn upon this dreamlike vein of film. But these artists were the exceptions; much of the dreamy appeal to the “subconscious” and to “universal” or “primitive” fantasies was an appeal to the most backward, not to say reactionary, elements of illiterate and semi-literate mass society. There was a steady load of calendar-art guck that patronized “the deserving poor” and idealized “purity” (i.e., virginity) and “morality” (i.e., virginity plus charity). And all that is only one kind of movie anyway. Most of the dream theory of film, which takes the audience for passive dreamers, doesn’t apply to the way one responded to silent comedies—which, when they were good, kept the audience in a heightened state of consciousness. When we join in laughter, it’s as if the lights were on in the theatre. And not just the Mack Sennett comedies and Keaton and Chaplin kept us fully awake but the spirited, bouncy comediennes, like Colleen Moore and Marion Davies, and the romantic comedy “teams,” and the suave, “polished” villains, like William Powell. My favorite movies as a child were the Bebe Daniels comedies—I suppose they were the movie equivalent of the series books one reads at that age. During 1927 and 1928, Paramount brought a new one out every few months; Bebe, the athletic madcap, would fence like Douglas Fairbanks, or she would parody Valentino by kidnapping and taming a man, or she might be a daredevil newsreel camerawoman or a cub reporter.
I did not know until I started to look into the writing of “Citizen Kane” that the man who wrote “Kane” had worked on some of those pictures, too—that Mankiewicz had, in fact, written (alone or with others) about forty of the films I remember best from the twenties and thirties (as well as many I didn’t see or don’t remember). Mankiewicz didn’t work on every kind of picture, though. He didn’t do Westerns, and once, when a studio attempted to punish him for his customary misbehavior by assigning him to a Rin Tin Tin picture, he turned in a script that began with the craven Rin Tin Tin frightened by a mouse and reached its climax with a house on fire and the dog taking a baby into the flames. I had known about Mankiewicz’s contribution to “Kane” and a few other films, but I hadn’t realized how extensive his career was. I had known that he was the producer of “Million Dollar Legs” (with W. C. Fields and Jack Oakie and Lyda Roberti) and “Laughter” (with Fredric March and Nancy Carroll), but I hadn’t known, for example, that he had produced two of the Marx Brothers films that I’ve always especially liked, the first two made in Hollywood and written directly for the screen—“Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers”—and part of “Duck Soup” as well. A few years ago, some college students asked me what films I would like to see again just for my own pleasure, and without a second’s thought I replied “Duck Soup” and “Million Dollar Legs,” though at that time I had no idea there was any connection between them. Yet surely there is an iconic spirit that links them—even the settings, Freedonia and Klopstokia, with Groucho as Prime Minister of one and Fields as President of the other—and now that I have looked into Herman Mankiewicz’s career it’s apparent that he was a key linking figure in just the kind of movies my friends and I loved best.
When the period of the great silent comedians, with their international audience, was over, a new style of American comedy developed. One couldn’t really call a colloquial, skeptical comedy a “masterpiece,” as one could sometimes call a silent comedy a masterpiece, especially if the talkie looked quite banal and was so topical it felt transient. But I think that many of us enjoyed these comedies more, even though we may not have felt very secure about the aesthetic grounds for our enjoyment. The talking comedies weren’t as aesthetically pure as the silents, yet they felt liberating in a way that even great silents didn’t. The elements to which we could respond were multiplied; now there were vocal nuances, new kinds of timing, and wonderful new tricks, like the infectious way Claudette Colbert used to break up while listening to someone. It’s easy to see why Europeans, who couldn’t follow the slang and the jokes and didn’t understand the whole satirical frame of reference, should prefer our action films and Westerns. But it’s a bad joke on our good jokes that film enthusiasts here often take their cues on the American movie past from Europe, and so they ignore the tradition of comic irreverence and become connoisseurs of the “visuals” and “mises en scène” of action pictures, which are usually too silly even to be called reactionary. They’re sub-reactionary—the antique melodramas of silent days with noise added—a mass art better suited, one might think, to Fascism, or even feudalism, than to democracy.
There is another reason the American talking comedies, despite their popularity, are so seldom valued highly by film aestheticians. The dream-art kind of film, which lends itself to beautiful visual imagery, is generally the creation of the “artist” director, while the astringent film is more often directed by a competent, unpretentious craftsman who can be made to look very good by a good script and can be turned into a bum by a bad script. And this competent craftsman may be too worldly and too practical to do the “imaginative” bits that sometimes help make the reputations of “artist” directors. Ben Hecht said he shuddered at the touches von Sternberg introduced into “Underworld”: “My head villain, Bull Weed, after robbing a bank, emerged with a suitcase full of money and paused in the crowded street to notice a blind beggar and give him a coin—before making his getaway.” That’s exactly the sort of thing that quantities of people react to emotionally as “deep” and as “art,” and that many film enthusiasts treasure—the inflated sentimental with a mystical drip. The thirties, though they had their own load of sentimentality, were the hardest-headed period of American movies, and their plainness of style, with its absence of false “cultural” overtones, has never got its due aesthetically. Film students—and their teachers—often become interested in movies just because they are the kind of people who are emotionally affected by the blind-beggar bits, and they are indifferent by temperament to the emancipation of American movies in the thirties and the role that writers played in it.
I once jotted down the names of some movies that I didn’t associate with any celebrated director but that had nevertheless stayed in my memory over the years, because something in them had especially delighted me—such rather obscure movies as “The Moon’s Our Home” (Margaret Sullavan and Henry Fonda) and “He Married His Wife” (Nancy Kelly, Joel McCrea, and Mary Boland). When I looked them up, I discovered that Dorothy Parker’s name was in the credits of “The Moon’s Our Home” and John O’Hara’s in the credits of “He Married His Wife.” Other writers worked on those films, too, and perhaps they were the ones who were responsible for what I responded to, but the recurrence of the names of that group of writers, not just on rather obscure remembered films but on almost all the films that are generally cited as proof of the vision and style of the most highly acclaimed directors of that period, suggests that the writers—and a particular group of them, at that—may for a brief period, a little more than a decade, have given American talkies their character.
Description:Cinema Journal publishes essays on a wide variety of subjects from (using) diverse methodological perspectives. A "Professional Notes" section informs Society for Cinema and Media Studies members about upcoming events, research opportunities, and the latest published research.
Coverage: 1966-2014 (Vol. 6 - Vol. 54, No. 1)
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Subjects: Film Studies, Humanities
Collections: Arts & Sciences III Collection, JSTOR Essential Collection