15 April 2016

I can't do anything about the script

When producer David O. Selznick bought the film rights to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind in July 1936, he knew that transforming the book into a workable screenplay would be a helluva job. It was estimated that filming the entire 1,037-page novel would make a picture of about 168 hours long, so drastic cuts were necessary to get it down to a manageable size (without damaging the novel's key elements). To write the screenplay, Selznick first hired Jane Murfin with whom he had worked before on a few films, but he quickly fired her when he heard that Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist/screenwriter Sidney Howard was also available. 

So Howard was hired, and in February 1937 he submitted his first draft which was far too long with a running time of about six hours. Several editing sessions with Selznick followed, but Howard failed to deliver a script with an acceptable length. Consequently, more than a dozen other writers were brought in by Selznick to work on Howard's script, including Ben Hecht and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Selznick himself also worked on it). Their joint efforts resulted in a final screenplay that was close to Howard's original version (but apparently much shorter). In the end, Howard received sole screen credit for the screenplay and was also the only writer to be honoured with the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. (The Oscar was posthumous as 48-year-old Howard died tragically in a tractor accident at his farm in August 1939, before GWTW was released.)

From the very start, David Selznick wanted to involve GWTW's author Margaret Mitchell in the filmmaking process. He asked her repeatedly to work on the screenplay, but Mitchell refused and wanted nothing to do with it. She wanted nothing to do with the casting either or any other aspect of the production. Mitchell was, however, quite happy to meet with George Cukor (GWTW's first director), Sidney Howard or anyone else from Selznick's company, and she offered her assistance in bringing the filmmakers into contact with people who might be useful. (Atlanta historian Wilbur Kurtz and Mitchell's friend Susan Myrick were both hired by Selznick as technical advisers at Mitchell's suggestion.)

In the fall of 1936, plans were made for George Cukor, Sidney Howard and Katharine Brown (assistant to David Selznick) to visit Atlanta. To make sure that Howard knew about her attitude towards the film, Mitchell wrote to Katharine Brown on 17 November: "I hope you told Mr. Howard that I am not doing anything about the adaptation for I don't want him to come down here with a false impression". Brown wired back that Howard knew, so naturally Mitchell was quite upset when she received a letter from Howard asking her to help him with possible additional dialogue and to read his script. On 21 November 1936, Mitchell answered Howard's letter, saying there must have been a misunderstanding, that she wanted nothing to do with the script or the film. Mitchell listed several reasons for her refusal to cooperate, one of her biggest concerns being the people from Atlanta who would never forgive her if they didn't like the film and she had in some way been part of it ("You didn't write the book and you do not live here in Atlanta and if they do not like something then you will be excused").

Mitchell's letter to Howard is shown below and is one of the more than 300 letters written by Mitchell collected in The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone With The Wind (edited by John Wiley, Jr.; October 2014).

Incidentally, Mitchell and Howard wrote several letters to each other but in the end they never met.

Mr. Sidney Howard
Tyringham, Massachusetts

Atlanta, Georgia
November 21, 1936

My dear Mr. Howard:

I was so pleased to have your letter and am happy to know that you are coming South. You were very kind to write me so many nice things about "Gone With the Wind" and I especially appreciated your remarks about the negro dialect which was just about the toughest job in the book. 

But my pleasure at your coming is somewhat dimmed by the fear that there has been a misunderstanding about my part in the production of "Gone With the Wind". I hasten to write to you for I would not have you come South under a misapprehension.

When I sold the book to the Selznick Company, I made it very plain that I would have nothing whatsoever to do with the picture, nothing about additional dialogue, nothing about advising on backgrounds, costumes, continuity. They offered me money to go to Hollywood to write additional dialogue, etc.  and I refused. I sold the book on that understanding. Not more than a week ago, I wrote Miss Katharine Brown of the Selznick Company and asked her if you were familiar with my attitude and she wired me that you were.

But now your letter arrives and I realize that they have not told you and I am very distressed about it. I still have no intentions of doing anything about additional dialogue or even looking at the script. There are many reasons for this and I will try to list them as briefly as possible.

In the first place it would do no good for me to look over the script- any more than looking over a Sanscrit grammar. I know just as much about Sanscrit as I do about writing for the movies. A script would mean nothing to me and it would take me weeks or months to figure it all out.

In the second place, I haven't the time. I never dreamed writing a book meant losing all privacy, leisure and chance to rest. Since July 1, I've averaged an engagement every forty minutes from nine in the morning till long after midnight. And, between these engagements, I've had to handle an enormous mail and try to see my family.

The third reason is this. I know it sounds like a silly one but it is an important one to me. If I even so much as looked over the script, without even passing judgment on it, and there was some small item in the finished production that incensed or annoyed the people of this section, then I'd get the blame for it. Southerners have been wonderful to my book and I am grateful indeed that they like it and are interested in the forthcoming picture. Not for worlds or for money would I put myself in the position where, if there was something they didn't like in the picture, they could say, "Well, you worked on the script. Why did you let this, that and the other get by?" I would never live it down and I could never explain that I really had nothing to do with the script. It won't matter to them if there is something in the movie they don't like that you may be responsible for. You didn't write the book and you do not live here in Atlanta and if they do not like something then you will be excused.

From the minute the news of the movie sale broke, I have been deviled by the press and the public for statements about who I wanted in the picture, who I wanted to do the adaptation, where I wanted it filmed. I have never opened my mouth on any of these subjects for it occurred to me that such statements would be the greatest presumption on my part as Mr. Selznick and you are most competent people and know how to produce good pictures. Moreover, having said I'd have nothing to do in any way with the production, I've published it in Ascalon and told it in Gath that I have no connection with the film of "Gone With the Wind." To be frank, I do not care who they put in it or where they film it. To be quite frank, I have all confidence in you and Mr. Cukor and Mr. Selznick so why should I rush about issuing statements to the press on matters that are none of my business?

I did tell Miss Brown that I would be only too happy to do this for her--that if she, or Mr. Cukor or you, came South I would do all I could in making contacts for you for finding new talent, for rounding up research workers and local historians who know what really went on down here in those days. I said I'd take her from Dalton to Milledgeville, showing her old entrenchments, old houses and introducing her to people in each town along the way to help her. That's going to be a tough assignment in itself. But I can't do anything about the script or about additional negro dialogue. I just can't. I'm too nearly crazy now with the load I'm carrying to even consider it, even should I want to do it.

I know this foregoing doesn't sound hospitable nor obliging! But I had to write it for I realized that the Selznick Company had not explained the situation to you and I was very upset at the thought of you coming all the way down here in the belief that I was going to be of any assistance on the picture beyond making contacts. 

May I tell you now, how sincerely happy I was when I heard that you were going to do the adaptation? I did so want the book to fall into good hands and was so pleased when it did!

Speaking of Civil War Monuments- you should see our Southern ones. I believe they were put out by the same company that put out the Northern ones. They are twice as ugly and three times as duck-legged!*

*The last paragraph regarding Civil War Monuments is Mitchell's reaction to Howard's news that he had bought a farm in a village with a Civil War Monument.

At the premiere of GWTW with Margaret Mitchell (far left) and husband John Marsh, seated next to Clark Gable and wife Carole Lombard.

This post is part of  CMBA's Spring Blogathon "Words! Words! Words!" Click 
here for a list of all the wonderful entries.

8 April 2016

Designing To Kill A Mockingbird

Robert Mulligan's 1962 To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the finest literary film adaptations I have ever seen. The film is based on Harper Lee's wonderful coming-of-age novel of the same name, which became a big success after its publication in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a year later. Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula bought the film rights to Lee's novel after it spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (a bit unusual as the film rights to promising novels were often sold before publication), and once the rights were secured they started assembling the cast and crew.

Putting together a good cast is a hard task with any film, but I guess it's even harder when it involves the picturisation of a popular book. Pakula and Mulligan did the best job possible, especially by hiring Gregory Peck to play Atticus Finch, and Mary Badham, Phillip Alford and John Megna to play the children (resp. Scout, Jem and Dill). But apart from the important task of casting and getting on board a good screenwriter (Horton Foote), in order to catch the mood of the novel you also need the right cinematography (Russell Harlan), music (Elmer Bernstein) and production design. Art directors Henry Bumstead and Alexander Golitzen were hired to design To Kill A Mockingbird, and to do research for the film Bumstead was sent to the town of Monroeville, Alabama in November 1961(Monroeville was Harper Lee's hometown which served as the model for Maycomb, the fictional town in the book.)

In Monroeville, Bumstead was met by Harper Lee herself. The author showed him around town and gave him suggestions regarding the architectural details of Maycomb and how to accurately depict them in the film. Bumstead was very charmed by Lee who, unlike many other bestselling authors, loved being involved in the film adaptation of her book and later came to Hollywood to spend weeks on the set. After his trip to Monroeville, Bumstead wrote to Alan Pakula, talking about his meeting with Lee and discussing in detail what he had seen and how things could be duplicated for the film. Bumstead's letter is shown below, as is a letter from Pakula to Harper Lee written prior to Bumstead's visit (Pakula wanted to make sure that Lee was okay with Bumstead coming down to Monroeville). The research trip to Monroeville eventually paid off in the form of an Oscar Henry Bumstead, Alexander Golitzen and set decorator Oliver Emert would win the award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration at the Oscars in 1963.

The letters from Pakula and Bumstead will be shown in transcript only, images of the letters can be seen here. Original source: Henry Bumstead and Alan J. Pakula papers at The Margaret Herrick Library.

Alan J. Pakula and Nelle Harper Lee 

November 3, 1961

Dear Nell:

It was good talking to you. Any photographs you can find --old or new-- that show anything of the architecture, house interiors, gardens, trees, etc. of Monroeville in the '30s would be of great help to us; and the sooner we can get them, the better. Of course, we will pay for any expenses in connection with a photographer. 

Henry Bumstead, the Art Director on the picture, may come down for a long weekend but I will give you plenty of notice and make sure it is convenient for you. If you find that these requests interfere with your time for writing, just wire me to go to hell with all the other Philistines.

We could take the easy way and just stick Atticus and the family in a nice, new ranch house and give the Radleys a big, new picture window for Boo to look through, but somehow I don't see the picture quite that way. Unfortunately, here in Hollywood, it is far easier to get the physical details of life in ancient Egypt or the Roman Empire than in a southern small town of thirty years ago.

Warmest regards to Bear and your father and to Gladys and her family.


[Alan Pakula]

Harper Lee and Henry Bumstead

November 1961

Mr. Alan Pakula

Dear Alan:

I arrived here in Monroeville this afternoon after a very interesting and beautiful drive from Montgomery. Although this is my first visit to Alabama, I have worked in the south a number of times. During my drive I was very much impressed by the lack of traffic, the beautiful countryside, and the character of the negro shacks that dot the terrain. 

Harper Lee was there to meet me, and she is a most charming person. She insisted I call her Nell-- feel like I've known her for years. Little wonder she was able to write such a warm and successful novel. 

Monroeville is a beautiful little town of about 2,500 inhabitants. It's small in size, but large in southern character. I'm so happy you made it possible for me to research the area before designing TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Most of the houses are of wood, one story, and set up on brick piles. Almost every house has a porch and a swing hanging from the porch rafters. Believe me, it's a much more relaxed life than we live in Hollywood.

So far I have seen all the types of buildings we need for our residential street, but they are scattered throughout the town so it would have been impossible for us to shoot the picture here in Monroeville. Therefore, I feel that the freeway houses we purchased for our southern street, with sufficient remodeling, will better suit our purposes. I have also photographed a wonderful Boo Radley home, which we can duplicate on our street.

I also visited the old courthouse square and the interior of the courtroom Nell wrote about. I can't tell you how thrilled I am by the architecture and the little touches which will add to our sets. Old pot bellied stoves still heat the courtroom and besides each one stands a tub filled with coal. Nell says we should have a block of ice on the exterior of the courthouse steps when we shoot this sequence. It seems that people chip off a piece of ice to take into the courtroom with them to munch on to try and keep cool. It reminded me of my "youth" when I used to follow the ice wagon to get the ice chips.

Nell is really amused at my picture taking, and also my taking measurements so that I can duplicate the things I see. She says she didn't know we worked so hard. This morning she greeted me with "I lost five pounds yesterday following you around taking pictures of door knobs, houses, wagons, collards, etc. -- can we take time for lunch today?"

The way people look at me around town they must think I'm a Hollywood producer rather than just an art director. Nell warned me about this-- that they knew someone from Hollywood was in town, but they didn't know who I was or what I did. 

Yesterday afternoon the news was around town that that man from Hollywood was taking pictures in Mrs. Skinner's collard patch. They couldn't understand it because the opinion is that there are much better collard patches around town than Mrs. Skinner's. It seems that after giving me permission to photograph her collards, she rushed to the phone to give out the news. I must admit that when I confessed that I'd never seen a collard, both Mrs. Skinner and her colored help looked at me with raised eyebrows.

Nell says the exterior of Mrs. Dubose should have paint that is peeling. Also, the interior should have dark woodwork, Victorian furniture, and be grim. Her house would be wired for electricity, but she would still be using oil lamps-- to save money, so Nell says. Boo Radley's should look like it had never been painted-- almost haunted.

Other items which will be useful ---- the streets should be dirt, and there are no lamp posts as we know them today. The lamps hung from the telephone poles. Also, in 1932 they were still using wooden stoves for their cooking and heating. 

The almond trees that line some of the streets are beautiful, but I feel we can get the same character by using white oaks. 

There are no mailboxes on the houses-- seems people go to town to the main post office to pick up their mail.

We photographed some negro shacks, which will be of great help when we come to do the exterior of Tom Robinson's shack. Many of the shacks are located in areas covered with pine trees so we could do this sequence on the Upper Lake section of the lot where we have pine trees.

We also photographed some back porches, which will come in handy when we do the back of Boo Radley's.

All in all, I certainly feel this trip will be of tremendous help in the designing of the picture. Again, my thanks to you.

Warmest regards,


Henry Bumstead

Harper Lee visiting the Monroeville courthouse in 1961 (above), and the interior of the courthouse in the film (below) which was replicated in Hollywood and modelled after the actual courthouse in Monroeville.
To Kill A Mockingbird  is one of those rare film adaptations that not only received praise from the public and critics but also from the author. Harper Lee was very impressed with the film and later said that she was "very proud and very grateful". The film received three Oscars, i.e. for Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay (Horton Foote) and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black and White (Henry Bumstead/ Alexander Golitzen/ Oliver Emert). It was nominated for five more Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress for then ten-year-old Mary Badham, at the time the youngest actress ever nominated in that category.

This post is my contribution to the Beyond The Cover Blogathon, hosted by Now Voyaging and Speakeasy. For a list of all the other entries click here.

2 April 2016

They will have little time to worry about getting their salaries cut

In 1927, MGM's big boss Louis B. Mayer decided to found an organisation that would settle labour disputes without unions. To discourage writers, directors and actors to get organised and start demanding pensions, health benefits etc., Mayer got together with a group of industry people and created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). While initially focusing on labour issues, the Academy soon decided to also give out annual awards for achievements in filmmaking (again at the suggestion of Mayer)Of the several committees AMPAS formed in those early days, one of them was the committee for Awards of Merits. This committee would be instrumental in shaping the awards and the awards ceremony, with its efforts ultimately leading to the first ceremony being held on 16 May 1929. The "award of merit for distinctive achievement", then presented in 12 categories, is now of course known as the Academy Award or by its nickname Oscar. 

In the 1920s, Darryl F. Zanuck, mostly known as producer and executive for Twentieth Century Fox, was under contract to Warner Brothers. He wrote stories for the successful Rin-Tin-Tin series, and also wrote more than 40 scripts under pseudonyms before becoming a producer. On 7 November 1927, Zanuck wrote a letter to Frank Woods (secretary of AMPAS), discussing the Awards of Merit committee, apparently after Woods had talked about it in his letter to Zanuck. Zanuck calls the committee "a marvelous thing for the Industry", as the awards would surely keep the minds of writers and directors busy and keep them from worrying about their salaries. Zanuck also makes flippant nomination suggestions, putting forward Rin-Tin-Tin as "most popular player". The implication in Zanuck's letter that there was an ulterior motive for creating the Oscars has at one time been corroborated by Louis B. Mayer himself: "I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them [...] If I got them cups and awards they'd kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That's why the Academy Award was created." [source]

Via: twitter


November 7th, 1927

Mr. Frank Woods, Secretary,
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,
6912 Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood, Calif.

Dear Frank:

Your letter received and digested. I think this Awards of Merits committee is a marvelous thing for the Industry, as it will cause so many arguments and discussions among the various directors and writers who did or did not get the award that they will have little time to worry about getting their salaries cut.

Now that the salary cut is all over with, we need some topic like this to start discussing, and I want to congratulate you and your Board of Directors for thinking of such a wonderful subject to keep the minds of the writers and directors busy for the next six months.

My nominations for the award of merit are as follows:

Producer -- Jack L. Warner.
Asssociate Producer -- Darryl Francis Zanuck
Director -- Any Warner Brothers Director (Same to be selected by drawing straws.)
Writer -- Any writer under contract to Warner Brothers.
Most popular player -- Rin-Tin-Tin

Will you kindly submit this list to the balance of the committee, so that we may get together on same.

All kidding aside, I think the magazine committee functioned quite well in their first issue, and I would certainly appreciate the invitation to donate an article to one of the forthcoming issues. Once upon a time, I too was a magazine subscribe, and it looks like this magazine is going to give me an opportunity to prove it.

Sincerely yours,

Darryl Zanuck (signed)

The Academy's magazine for which Zanuck hoped to write an article was very short lived. The November 1927 issue was the first and only issue of the magazine.

Darryl F. Zanuck, studio boss Jack Warner, Rin Tin Tin and Lee Duncan (the dog's owner).