Month: April 2012

William Faulkner and Hollywood

William Faulkner is known to most as a great American novelist, whose works high schoolers have to read and college students write dissertations on. Faulkner was also a screenwriter for the Hollywood studio system, working extensively with Howard Hawks.

Faulkner married and his wife began having children in 1929, after only one of his novels, The Sound and the Fury, had been published. As a way to make money, he signed a six-week contract with MGM in 1932. He worked off and on as a screenwriter until 1955. Some of his most memorable work includes an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, which was directed by Hawks, starred Humphrey Bogart, and debuted Lauren Bacall. His first screenwriting credit was for Today We Live, starring Joan Crawford in 1933. The only screenplay he ever wrote that was not directed by Hawks was Slave Ship, although he did uncredited dialogue work on several other projects, including The Southerner.

Faulkner’s own work was adapted for the screen as well, sometimes by him and sometimes not. Today We Live was an adaptation that Faulkner wrote of his own short story, “Turn About.” His most recognizable novel, The Sound and the Fury was adapted to the screen in 1959, not by Faulkner, but by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., directed by Martin Ritt, and starring Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward. For the most part, it is obvious that the film is not faithful to the book, but some reviewers, including Variety, but excluding the studio that released it, praised the film.

The Sound and the Fury is especially known for its stream-of-consciousness and non-linear storytelling, which was a pioneering mark of modernism that Faulkner would perfect in his later works. What is challenging about The Sound and the Fury, even in reading the novel, is the voice of the mentally challenged Benji, but Faulkner’s deftness and skill sculpt a story out of Benji’s narrative. It does take time and effort, and there are places that are difficult to get through. But in the end, the story makes sense. The relationships between family members are tangled, and often hints are dropped that are not revealed until they have been forgotten in the end, but Faulkner knew where he was going. The decline of the South and of Southern aristocracy was the primary focus of Faulkner’s writing. His salacious tales of loose women came later, but hints can be seen in The Sound and the Fury. On the whole, the narrative structure and multiple voices all point to the destruction and decline of the Compson family, once prestigious in the South.


Before Jerry Wald produced The Sound and the Fury for Fox, he produced The Long, Hot Summer, an adaptation of Faulkner’s The Hamlet, starring Orson Welles, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward. This film took a lot of liberties with Faulkner’s work, and looks more like a Tennessee Williams/spaghetti Western mash-up than anything. Newman’s and Welles’ performances attract attention, and won Newman a Best Actor award at Cannes, but otherwise, the film falls flat. Wald recovered by calling it a prelude to the main event, the adaptation of The Sound and the Fury, released the next year.

Yul Brynner was cast as Jason, a man struggling for his family’s honor. Brynner had already done The King and I and was a box office draw, but he was most definitely not Southern. Wald defended the choice by stating that “temperamentally” Brynner was perfect for the part of Jason. Woodward was 29 and pregnant during the shoot, playing a 16-year-old girl, rebelling against her family’s expectations. Benji, as a character, takes a backseat (he isn’t even mentioned in the initial credits, and in the character list, appears as “Ben”) and Quentin’s (Woodward) long-lost mother, Caddy, played by Margaret Leighton, appears as a major storyline. Quentin’s namesake, her uncle Quentin, whose story forms the center section of the book, is dropped entirely. Caddy is mentioned in the book, particularly in connection to Benji, but never makes an appearance. But, having a promiscuous mother return, just as her daughter is contemplating running off with a carney or her uncle, is much more salacious. The characters and casting may seem screwy, but it gets worse.

The plot is flattened out and moved forward in time for the film. Understandably, it was difficult to recreate Faulkner’s modernism on screen, especially since Wald wanting a sweeping, CinemaScope picture (think Elizabeth Taylor in Giant). But, the most beautiful pieces of writing are cut from the story. Quentin is sexed up, and the relationship between Quentin and Jason twisted, making the two of them the focus of the film. I would argue that Benji or Quentin (male) are the focus of the novel, both narrating significant storylines. But, Benji and Quentin’s viewpoints belong to the decline theme, and the theme of Wald’s picture is more of girl Quentin’s coming-of-age and struggling to do as she pleases. Casting Joanne Woodward and Yul Brynner in that type of film, rather than a sensitive study of the decline of a Southern legacy, would guarantee more box office sales.

Faulkner’s work, besides its modernist style and focus on the fall of the Southern aristocracy, has also been classes as “Southern Gothic.” “Gothic tales contain grotesque, tempestuous characters, bizarre and spooky sexuality, overheated emotions, and melodramatic violence,” film historin Jeffrey Meyers writes. They are marked by narcissism and voyeurism. While the film adaptation of The Sound and the Fury was disturbing, mostly in terms of casting and character realizations, it was not “Gothic.” With the addition of older Caddy to the film, the opportunity to create a truly “grotesque” character emerged, but was flubbed. Caddy’s sexual promiscuity, it can be argued, drives ll of her brothers to madness. Benji, in the novel, is castrated, after he rapes a girl. Jason is sexually jealous of his niece. Quentin loses a “duel” for Caddy’s honor, after he discovers she is pregnant. He tries to take the blame, but ultimately kills himself. The three boys see Caddy’s dirtied underwear (at age 7 for Caddy), noting the beginning of Caddy’s sexual activities and the boys’ obsession with her virginity. This character of Caddy, as an adult, coming back to town to see how her estranged daughter has turned out could be rich, twisted, grotesque, broken, and cruel. Played by Margaret Leighton in the film, Caddy isn’t even a lurking, sinister character. She is bland. She appears in the park in the beginning, frightened and not wishing to be seen. The mood is bright and cheerful; just another day in town. Caddy’s personality is not even defined enough to clash with the bright and sunny day. She is just there. Her relationship with Jason also falls flat. It is almost impossible to discover who she is at first, because she does not relate to the others. The actress is almost more concerned with her false accent and ludicrous colloquialisms. The Gothic atmosphere is lost to the new story being told. Added scenes with girl Quentin and Jason, emphasizing and sensationalizing their relationship detract from the uneasy feeling created in Gothic tales.

Quentin and Jason’s relationship does make one uneasy in that the much older uncle is sexually possessive of not only his sister, but his niece. He accuses her of being promiscuous in her relationship with the carney, Charlie (in the novel, the name of Caddy’s first boyfriend) Bush. Quentin defends herself by saying he “made her feel like a woman.” Jason says that any man can do that and passionately kisses his niece. Disturbing, yes. Uncomfortable, very. But, Gothic tales relied on suspense and implied discomfort, rather than overt disgusting displays. Overheated and tempestuous characters (actually, it is helpful to think of Prospero in The Tempest when looking for a tempestuous character) are very often more subtle, or at least, dramatized in  more stylized and underplayed manner. The scene on the bridge between Quentin and Jason is mere sensationalism.

The New York Times, in a review by Bosley Crowther, dated March 28, 1959, absolutely skewers the film, the writing, directing, acting, the entire concept. Applying the famous Macbeth quote, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” from which the title derives its name, is the nicest thing the Times had to say about the entire film. “Incongruous,” they say of both Brynner and Woodward’s casting and acting and “formless and spongy,” of the script. They allow for the “sweeping” nature of the direction and photography, but for a studio known for Westerns, this one didn’t exactly break the mold. It really is half-pipped between Fox’s Westerns of the early 1950’s and the American epics (re: Giant) of the latter half of the decade.

Variety, however, gave the film, and Woodward, especially, a warm reception. Dated December 31, 1958, Variety calls The Sound and the Fury a “work of cinematic stature.” A far cry from “a tale told by an idiot.” Woodward “gives firm conviction,” and Brynner is “every inch the household tyrant.” Variety also praises the Mississippi settings, which are “unusually effective in communicating atmosphere.” …Probably because it was filmed on a Fox backlot. Really, Variety? Not exactly the intellectual giant and international tastemaker that the Times was, Variety was still widely read and trusted, especially by the film community. But praising the casting of a pregnant 29-year-old as a “youthful” girl? Come on.

Modern reviewers tend to be a bit more diplomatic, although trending towards the Times view of the film. Rob Nixon, a reviewer for TCM, generally agrees with the miscasting of Woodward and Brynner, but allows that some still enjoy the film and count it as among their favorites. But, we classic film lovers are noted for our strange tastes. Films usually gain sentimental value, rather than cinematic value, over time, and Nixon allows for the “fond memories” some viewers (and bloggers) have of the film. I watched it at my family’s beach house one night while on a family vacation. TCM was featuring films starring Joanne Woodward, and The Sound and the Fury was given the midnight slot. I found myself more confused trying to place the events and characters in the context of the book I had read and loved than I was when reading the notoriously difficult book. About halfway through, I realized that my favorite character, male Quentin, and his heart-wrenching storyline were not going to appear, and I was just fed up. Woodward convinces no one. Wald’s career started its downward fizzle. It pleased some, at the time and now, but not because of its quality or faithfulness to a brilliant and versatile (hey, he wrote screenplays too, remember?) writer’s work.

Supporting Actors: Thomas Mitchell

The name Thomas Mitchell may not be instantly recognizable, but his list of credits should illicit a knowing “ohhh, that guy.”

Mitchell was born in 1892 in New Jersey, to Irish parents. The on-screen persona he created was most definitely Irish, usually hard-drinking, stout, and usually one who pulled through in the end. Frank Capra gave him his first break, in Lost Horizons (1937), and only a year later he was up for an Academy Award, under director John Ford. In 1939, he starred in John Ford’s landmark Stagecoach (as Doc Boone), as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With the Wind, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (again directed by Capra), Only Angels Have Wings with Cary Grant, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He was nominated for and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Stagecoach. He continued his relationship with Capra, working with him again in 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life, playing Uncle Billy. He became the funny-sad drinker in almost all of his notable roles. I can’t think of one on-screen moment when Mitchell was not drunk. But Mitchell was, in reality, a highly-trained actor. He got his start in a Shakespeare company run by Charles Coburn (who would become a great film star in his 60s). Mitchell was recognized for his talent, and won three of acting’s highest awards: an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy. He never won a Grammy, probably because he sang too many Irish drinking songs on camera.

AFI Top 100: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Katharine Hepburn utters the title line about halfway through the movie when breaking the news to her husband (Spencer Tracy, in his last film appearance) that their daughter’s African-American fiancé’s parents are coming to dinner. The daughter (Katharine Houghton, Hepburn’s real-life niece) says it again, to the black maid, Tilly, to announce Monsignor Ryan is also staying for dinner. Sounds like a madcap dinner party, but actually, it is a very serious film that takes itself very seriously.

Netflix (on the DVD sleeve) calls it a “snapshot of race relations in the late 1960’s,” and the movie seems intended to explore the themes of “difference of pigmentation” (as Tracy’s character says) and supposedly liberal Americans reactions to interracial marriage. The film provides interesting perspectives from the black maid (who is against the marriage) to the wealthy white wife (who is for the marriage) and combines them all to promote a message of love. Tracy claps his fellow father on the back as they all go into dinner, the title song (“Glory of Love”) plays, and the lights fade.

The problem I have with this movie is neither in the theme or the message. While I think, in 1967, this was a great comment on society and illustrates how art can bring about social change, ultimately, the art of the film suffered. Stanley Kramer, the director, also worked with Tracy in some of his other late movies, including Judgment at Nuremberg and Inherit the Wind, and the main credited cinematographer, Sam Leavitt, is known for his work on Anatomy of a Murder, The Defiant Ones, and A Star is Born (1954). They were an accomplished team, but on this project, they seemed almost to forget that the camera is the audience’s eye.

I think that film is a great medium, not better or worse than other forms of art, but great because of its unique qualities. The ability to re-shoot and re-edit to get just the right performance or just the right sequence, in theory, makes for quality in product. Over the years the use of lights, sound and special effects, computers, and other technology have enabled movies to go beyond what anyone thought possible. Unimaginable anything can be brought to the screen, made to look real. It also has a very distinctive narrative quality, one that particularly separates it from live theatre, the camera and the camera drawing the audience’s eye. It is an obvious statement: the audience sees what the camera sees. The audience cannot see what the camera does not see. In a stage performance, audiences are free to look where ever on the stage they choose: the whole scene is before them. Use of the camera can cut off or cut out parts of a scene. A couple in a corner, while they may be noticed on stage, can be out of the camera’s field of vision. This ability to direct the audience’s gaze also controls the story. The couple off-screen is more easily forgotten than the couple sitting just to stage left. The camera as a narrative eye is a rich subject, which I hope to tackle more fully, but I was talking about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

 

In Guess, the camera pans not once, but twice, behind an object, in a U-shape around the character who is speaking. When Joey is speaking, the camera begins facing her right profile and begins to pan around the table where they are seated, passing her mother’s profile, passing and lingering behind her father’s head, cutting Joey off from view, and resting on John (the fiancé)’s right profile. Why does the camera linger behind the father? Joey is not saying anything particularly significant about or relating to her father, and her face is cut off from view for a few words, mid-sentence. The audience knows the four who are seated around the table. We know, for several reasons, that her father would not get up at this moment: enough dramatic tension has built, and he has already decided to cancel his golf game, what would be his only reason for leaving. So why do we need to see the back of his head? And at the expense of seeing the speaker, the focal point of the scene? For indeed, seated around the table on the terrace, Joey, and her radiant happiness as she tells the story of meeting John, is the focus of the scene.

 

Later, as Spencer Tracy (who has become so much more Irish and less brash in his age), paces the terrace, mulling over the words of John’s mother (“shriveled up old man” are the choice ones), the camera begins the arc pan away from Tracy and behind a tree. The music swells in the background, Tracy’s facial expressions work, and the audience sees tree bark. These moments of cutting the audience off from the character who the scene is about, who the scene is designed to explore, are jarring and seem very poorly shot.

This movie won two Academy Awards, Best Screenplay for William Rose and Best Actress for Katharine Hepburn, but I think the filmmakers dropped the ball in several key scenes on storytelling.

I watched this movie as part of my goal to watch all of AFI’s Top 100; I would recommend it if you liked In the Heat of the Night (which stole the Best Actor Oscar that year for Rod Steiger from Tracy) or Adam’s Rib.

Supporting Actors: Eric Blore

Eric Blore began his career, like many classic actors, on the stage. Appearing in a minor role in Fred Astaire’s The Gay Divorcee, led to his being cast in the film version, co-starring Ginger Rogers. As a supporting actor, there is nothing better for your career than the backing of a more famous leading actor. (It worked so well for Humphrey Bogart with Leslie Howard that he named his daughter Leslie.) The Astaire/Rogers series of musical comedies kept a rotating cast of supporting actors, but Blore appeared in more films than any other actor (save Fred and Ginger). He was the quintessential English butler, and my personal favorite character of his was Cecil Flintridge, floor manager at Ginger’s apartment in Shall We Dance, simply because of the exasperated way he always pronounced “Flintridge,” while blinking profusely. He also played a butler for writer/director Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels. Blore was mostly certainly typecast as a butler, playing the part innumerable times (mostly innumerable because he played the butler in all of the Lone Wolf films as well), and to utter perfection. His slight lisp and way of rapidly blinking in confusion or glaring at impropriety was hilarity.

 

Blore’s death was announced by Kenneth Tynan, the famous British drama critic, in The New Yorker, a month before he actually died. Blore’s lawyer demanded a retraction, which Tynan grudgingly wrote. However, the evening before the new issue hit the stands, Blore died of a heart attack.

Happy 70th Anniversary, Casablanca!

Casablanca, Best Picture Winner and #2 on AFI’s Top 100 list, was a dark horse. No one working on the film had any idea the movie made for $850,000 would become a timeless classic. No one thought Humphrey Bogart could play a romantic lead. My favorite mis-under-estimation of Casablanca was by the credited writers and winners of the Best Screenplay Oscar that year, brothers Jules and Phil Epstein, in pitching their revised script: “Oh, it’s just going to be a lot of s*** like Algiers.” Here’s to that.