Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Eugene O'Neill

An interesting artifact has come into my hands on loan from an old friend. It's an early draft of the screenplay for MGM's 1935 movie of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! by the husband-and-wife team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

It's a very early draft, in fact -- labeled both TEMPORARY and INCOMPLETE and dated January 18, 1935. The picture's premiere (in Worcester, Mass.) wasn't until December 6, and it didn't open in New York until Christmas Day. I don't know when it opened in Los Angeles, but Variety's review (and they were always very prompt) finally appeared January 1, 1936 -- nearly a full year after this draft started making the rounds at the Culver City studio.

Exactly what rounds did it make? Well, obviously it never made it back to the Script Dept., despite the request on the cover. The names "Oliver" and (smaller, more faintly) "Harry Oliver" are pencilled on the cover. Harry Oliver worked as an art director in Hollywood in the '20s and '30s, including (but not exclusively) at MGM; his IMDb page lists credits with Fox before the 20th Century merger (two of which, 7th Heaven and Street Angel, garnered him Oscar nominations), with Harold Lloyd, and with independent producer Sol Lesser. He's not among the names credited on Ah, Wilderness!, but that doesn't mean he didn't work on it; MGM was all one big family in those days, and crafts technicians didn't get credit for every lick of work they did. My guess is that when Ah, Wilderness! was in pre-production, the Art Department got a number of scripts for budget estimating purposes, and Harry Oliver got one of them to look over and offer input. How it got out of his hands (Oliver died in 1973) and wound up in my friend's wife's friend's uncle's box of mementos is anybody's guess.

The "600" stamped on the label isn't the number of this individual script, it's the picture's production number -- meaning this was the six-hundredth feature initiated since the founding of MGM in 1924. The "Incomplete" stamp is literal: the last page of the script, p. 93, ends at a point where the finished film still has 32 of its 97 minutes left to run. The "Temporary" stamp means "Tentative"; there are many minor and two major differences between what the Hacketts had written by January 18 and what eventually turned up on the screen.

The first major difference is in the treatment of Wallace Beery's role. Beery (left) gets top billing in the picture, playing Sid, the brother of Spring Byington's Essie Miller and the brother-in-law of Essie's husband Nat (second-billed Lionel Barrymore, right). O'Neill's play all takes place on one day -- July 4, 1906 -- but the Hacketts had expanded the time frame to open a week or two earlier ("late June"), before Sid enters the action (he comes back to the Miller household after being fired for drunkenness from his newspaper job in a neighboring town). So in this January 18 draft, Sid doesn't show up until page 40 (of 93), on the morning of the Fourth. This would hardly do for a star of Beery's standing at the time (I wouldn't put it past him to have griped about it himself, loud and long), so a scene was added showing him going off with high hopes -- for both his new job and his newfound sobriety -- at the end of June, before slinking back to the Millers in time for the holiday. ("Ma! Pa! Uncle Sid's come to spend the Fourth!" To which Sid mutters under his breath: "The Fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ad infinitum.")
As for the second major difference, it's another scene that doesn't appear in O'Neill's play -- a major one, just over 15 minutes long. I don't know when it was inserted into the script, but God bless the Hacketts for writing it, and Clarence Brown for directing it so beautifully, because it's one of the best and funniest scenes in the whole movie. Most of it takes place during the graduation ceremony at the high school in this small Connecticut city, where Nat and Essie Miller's middle son Richard (Eric Linden) will be the valedictorian. Before Richard's speech, however, we're treated to a generous sampling of the commencement program: the school glee club singing "The Blue Danube", an earnest young student reciting Mark Antony's funeral oration from Julius Caesar; a more nervous youngster offering Poe's "The Bells" ("...of the bells bells bells bells bells bells bells...") and studiously counting every "bells" off on his fingers; a girl student's how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation travelogue about her family's visit to the Swiss Alps; and my favorite, this young lady (I wish I knew her name) struggling doggedly through a clarinet solo, darting irritated glances toward her piano accompanist at every real and imagined mistake.

When it opened on Broadway in October 1933, the sweetly sunny Ah, Wilderness! stood out as the most uncharacteristic play the somber, brooding O'Neill had ever written -- a distinction it retains to this day. Like his searing, tortured masterpiece Long Day's Journey into Night, it grew out of his family's life in New London, Conn. (pop. in 1900: 17,548), which the O'Neills made their summer home from 1884 (four years before Eugene was born) until the future playwright was well out of his teens. Both plays take place in virtually the same house -- the stage directions to both Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day's Journey describe the same room in almost every detail -- but the families that populate them couldn't be more different. The Tyrones of Long Day's Journey are unmistakeably Eugene, his penny-pinching actor father, his morphine-addicted mother and his alcoholic older brother. The Millers of Ah, Wilderness!, however, were modeled on the O'Neills' friends and neighbors John and Evelyn McGinley and their large brood of seven children; both Eugene and his father James admired and envied the McGinleys' jovial domesticity and unforced affection for one another. If Long Day's Journey into Night (making allowances for dramatic license) represents Eugene O'Neill's memory of his unhappy, dysfunctional family, then Ah, Wilderness! (making the same allowances) gives us the youth and family life O'Neill wished he had had. The Miller clan has its conflicts and crises, but they are character-building rather than soul-destroying, and there's nothing that can't be handled with love and common sense.

In their adaptation, the Hacketts emphasized the one slim
thread of plot in O'Neill's nostalgic reverie of a youth he
never had: the emotional growing pains of the Millers' middle
son Richard, from his jejune flirtation with radical politics to
his blossoming romance with neighbor girl Muriel McComber
(Cecilia Parker) and the mean-spirited oppostion of her father.
In so doing, the Hacketts handed 25-year-old Eric Linden the
opportunity to give the performance of his career -- and he
delivered in style. Never mind that he gets no better than
fourth billing; Ah, Wilderness! is Eric Linden's picture from
beginning to end. And never mind that he was a good
decade too old for the role; his boyishness made him look
not a day over 16, and his performance did the rest. Linden
had a busy career in the 1930s -- mostly in B-pictures for
RKO, Warners and MGM -- without ever really becoming
a star; this was his only chance to carry an A-picture on his
own. After this it was back to Bs at Metro and on loan to
various studios and independent producers. But before he
finally closed out his career in 1943 with Criminals Within
 (for lowly Producers Releasing Corporation, the skid row
flophouse of Hollywood studios), he would give one more
performance that I'm sure everyone who ever saw it
will remember to their dying day:

He was the Confederate soldier in Gone With the Wind 
who has just learned from Harry Davenport's Dr. Meade
that his leg will have to be amputated. He is on screen
for less than three seconds, but his desperate cries
("Don't cut! Don't! -- cut! Ple-e-e-e-ease!!") have
curdled the blood of millions of moviegoers for over
70 years. Oh yes, I'll just bet you remember
Eric Linden, all right.

The Hacketts deftly tinkered with the letter of O'Neill, but Ah, Wilderness!
 remained stoutly faithful to the play's spirit, and for that, a good share of
the credit should go to director Clarence Brown. Brown's career and work
deserve more attention than they've gotten, and maybe someday I'll have
more to say about him. For now, I'll simply observe that in his 53 pictures
between 1920 and 1952 he directed a striking number of performers to
their best-ever performances: Eric Linden here, Elizabeth Taylor in National
Velvet, Claude Jarman Jr. in The Yearling, Juano Hernandez in Intruder in
the Dust, George Brent in The Rains Came, Marie Dressler in Emma, and
so on. An equally striking number gave their near-best for him: Garbo and
Basil Rathbone in Anna Karenina, Mickey Rooney and Frank Morgan in The
Human Comedy, Charles Boyer in Conquest, Paul Douglas in Angels in
the Outfield -- well, you get the idea. I could do a whole post just on
Brown's contribution to Ah, Wilderness!, but my topic here is what
the picture's success led to for MGM and Hollywood -- consequences
beyond what anyone could have expected. Clarence Brown had
a lot to do with that success; let's just leave it at that.

Ah, Wilderness! was a critical and financial hit for MGM, though it was somewhat overshadowed (at the time and ever since) by some of the studio's other pictures of 1935 (Mutiny on the Bounty, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Anna Karenina) and '36 (The Great Ziegfeld, Libeled Lady, San Francisco, Romeo and Juliet). Still, people noticed, and the chemistry of Ah, Wilderness! was tried again in the B-picture unit: Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington and Eric Linden were reunited as parents and son in The Voice of Bugle Ann, another (albeit lesser) piece of nostalgic Americana, set in the Missouri hills, from a novel by MacKinlay Kantor. 

Later in 1936, Sam Marx of MGM's story department got the brainstorm that would take the legacy of Ah, Wilderness! in a whole new, yet oddly congruent, direction. He remembered a play he'd seen that ran a little over a year on Broadway in the late '20s. It was called Skidding by Aurania Rouverol, about a small-town judge who has to preside over a political hot-potato case in the middle of his campaign for reelection; the play centered on the judge's case of conscience and (as a sidelight) the way it affected his family. Marx got Lucien Hubbard, head of the studio's B unit, to buy the screen rights, but it wasn't easy. "I practically had to get him down on the floor with my knees in his neck to make him buy the play," Marx recalled.

When the picture went into production in the fall of 1936,
Aurania Rouverol's Skidding had a new title, A Family
Affair; George B. Seitz was directing, from a script by Kay
Van Riper. It reunited a hefty chunk of the cast from Ah,
Wilderness!: Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, Mickey
Rooney, Charles Grapewin. Also back were Eric Linden
and Cecilia Parker, romantically paired once again -- only
this time she was the one in the family and he was the
neighboring sweetheart. The picture was shot on the same
backlot "New England Street" that had been built for
Ah, Wilderness!, and the new family "lived" in the same
house. If you have any lingering doubt that this new
picture was designed to evoke pleasant memories of the
earlier one, here's the title frame from Ah, Wilderness!...

...and here's the same frame from A Family Affair. The new
picture took place in the "present day" (i.e., 1936) instead of
a rose-colored turn of the century, but otherwise it followed
the benevolent formula laid down by Eugene O'Neill in his
change-of-pace comedy: the friendly, cozy big-small-town
where everybody knew everybody else, the close-knit family
bound by ties of affection and respect, the periodic heart-
to-heart talks between father and son. The family of
newspaper publisher Nat Miller in Ah, Wilderness! were the
clear progenitors of Judge James K. Hardy and his clan --
at least, by the time MGM had brought the Hardys to the
screen. (In fact, ironically, Aurania Rouverol's play had
beaten O'Neill's to Broadway by nearly five-and-a-half
years; Skidding had a longer run, too.)

A Family Affair was an unexpected hit, particularly for a B picture, and exhibitors besieged MGM with requests for more, especially more of Mickey Rooney, who played Judge Hardy's teenage son Andy -- the equivalent, if you will, of Eric Linden's Richard Miller in Ah, Wilderness! By the time the studio could get a sequel underway, Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington had moved on to other projects and were unavailable. They were replaced by Lewis Stone and Fay Holden as Judge and Mrs. Hardy, and You're Only Young Once became, officially, the first installment of the series -- and the only one not to have the name "Hardy" in the title.

The Andy Hardy pictures, 14 of them between 1937 and 1946, became the most successful series in movie history before the James Bond movies -- and in fact, if we think of it in terms of percent of profit for cost of production, they may still hold the record. There's no telling how many of MGM's expensive, prestigious failures had their fingers pulled out of the financial fire by the Hardy family. The series served as a training ground for future MGM stars -- Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Esther Williams, Kathryn Grayson, Donna Reed, and of course Judy Garland -- who one way or another would cross Andy Hardy's path. It made Mickey Rooney the number-one box office star in America for three years running. It was pointed to by Louis B. Mayer as his proudest achievement. It won MGM a special Academy Award (certificate) in 1942 for "representing the American way of life". In 1941 Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron proclaimed the Hardys "the first family of Hollywood", commemorated by a plaque in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

By the way, don't go looking for that plaque; it isn't there any more. The Andy Hardy pictures have long gone (unjustly) out of vogue. A few were issued on VHS years ago, but only one (so far) has made it to DVD, and that from the bargain-basement Warner Archive. (It's Love Finds Andy Hardy, and it's available, no doubt, only because Judy Garland co-stars with Mickey.) (UPDATE 12/23/11: The Warner Archive has begun to rectify this; they've just issued The Andy Hardy Collection, Vol. 1 with six of the early titles.) (UPDATE 7/12/13: The rectification is now complete: Warner Archive has issued The Andy Hardy Film Collection, Vol. 2 with the remaining ten features. Titles are also available individually.)

Mickey Rooney had an interesting take on the series: "Creating this New England utopia was all part of L.B. Mayer's master plan to reinvent America. In most of his movies that came under his control, Mr. Mayer knew that he was 'confecting, not reflecting' America...The Andy Hardy movies didn't tell it 'like it is.' They told it the way we'd like it to be, describing an ideal that needs constant reinvention."

In 1946, the year of the last regular Andy Hardy picture (Love Laughs at Andy Hardy), there was a sort of closing of the circle on Ah, Wilderness! Producer Arthur Freed, still flush from his rousing success with Meet Me in St. Louis (which itself was a very close cousin to Ah, Wilderness!) conceived the idea of turning O'Neill's play into a musical. So the Hardys moved out of their comfy white house and the Millers moved back in (and painted it yellow for Technicolor), and the result was Summer Holiday. This time Andy Hardy himself, Mickey Rooney (who had played the youngest Miller boy in Ah, Wilderness!), was promoted into the role of Richard Miller, and Richard and his Muriel (Gloria DeHaven) got the top billing (thanks to the Hacketts' tweakings of O'Neill, here preserved and enhanced) that Eric Linden and Cecilia Parker had deserved but been denied in 1935.

Summer Holiday was completed by mid-October 1946 but wasn't released until April 1948, and it's not hard to understand why: it's a bit of a dog. Not Arthur Freed's worst musical by any means (Till the Clouds Roll By, anyone?), but not all that far behind. The movie has a higher regard today in some quarters thanks to director Rouben Mamoulian's latter-day reputation, but it's pretty flat and charmless when stood beside Clarence Brown's 1935 picture. Part of the problem is the rather colorless score by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane; except for the movie's one hit, "The Stanley Steamer" (an ode to the Millers' newfangled automobile, first inserted by the Hacketts), the songs are probably the most forgettable score Warren ever wrote, and Blane's rhyming dialogue just forces the cast to burst into doggerel from time to time. Then there's the Richard/Muriel romance; sincere and comically poignant in 1935, it's rather arch and hammy here (Rooney was a dynamic talent in those days, but arch hamminess was always his Achilles' heel). In any event, audiences didn't respond as they had to Ah, Wilderness!; Summer Holiday lost nearly $1.5 million.

So Freed and Mamoulian's new, improved Ah, Wilderness! failed, and by the time it was released the last Andy Hardy movie was already two years old. (In 1958 MGM got the Hardy family back together -- all except Lewis Stone, who had died in 1953 -- for a reunion movie, Andy Hardy Comes Home. Alas, Andy learned that Thomas Wolfe was right; the movie was a flop.)

Even by 1948, the "reinventions" Mickey Rooney talked about had begun to outstrip Andy Hardy, but Andy cast a long shadow for decades after the series itself ebbed. Sometimes the influence was direct and deliberate, as with the Archie comics that started in 1941 in blatant imitation of Andy Hardy and are still around today. Sometimes it was indirect but distinct, as in TV sitcoms from Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, through The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch, to Eight Is Enough and The Cosby Show. In them all, we can still discern the basic template with which L.B. Mayer "confected" small-town American life, in MGM's conscious imitation of the way Eugene O'Neill had "confected" an imaginary youth for himself in New London, Conn.; the shadow of Andy Hardy is really the shadow of Ah, Wilderness! (And let's not forget Meet Me in St. Louis and the Technicolor musicals inspired by it, like Centennial Summer, State Fair, and yes, Summer Holiday, all with a clear kinship to O'Neill's comedy.) With all due respect to the titanic power of plays like Long Day's Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh and Mourning Becomes Electra, it just may be that Ah, Wilderness! was in fact the most influential play Eugene O'Neill ever wrote.

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