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Understanding Screenwriting #87: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, A More

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Understanding Screenwriting #87: <em>J. Edgar</em>, <em>Hugo</em>, <em>Sullivan’s Travels</em>, A More

Coming Up in This Column: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, Hell on Wheels, The Closer, but first…

Fan Mail: Happy New Year, and welcome to pigs flying and Hell freezing over: David Ehrenstein actually had complimentary things to say about stuff in this column TWO columns in a row.

And thanks to “Keith” for clearing up where the “Marlene” in Martha Marcy May Marlene came from. I can now sleep better at night.

J. Edgar (2011. Written by Dustin Lance Black. 137 minutes.)

On the one hand…: Writing about Dustin Lance Black’s script for Milk (2008; see US#14) I gave Black a hard time for the lack of characterization for most people in the film. It was an example of the “characters” in a documentary, in this case the 1984 The Times of Harvey Milk, being more interesting than his fictionalized versions. I am glad to see the awards, including the Oscar, that he won for that script did not prevent him from trying to improve his work. The characterizations in this script are terrific, from his version of J. Edgar Hoover down to the smaller parts. This gives us a wide range of great character scenes. We see Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) in a couple of doozies. Throughout the film we get great scenes between Hoover and his second-in-command Clyde Tolson. I particularly liked two Tolson scenes. In the first Tolson kisses J. Edgar and the latter reacts violently. It could easily have become camp, but Black, DiCaprio, Armie Hammer (as Tolson), and director Clint Eastwood keep it from getting out of hand. The second is late in the picture when an aging Tolson “corrects” Hoover’s recollections and we see what really happened in multiple previous scenes. Those scenes were flashbacks as J. Edgar is dictating his memoirs.

One reason the first of those two Tolson scenes works so well is that Black deals with Hoover’s possible homosexual feelings in wonderfully subtle ways. It would have been way too easy to make him a simple closet case, but Black goes into why Hoover had trouble admitting to any homosexual feelings. Black gets that across by giving us a sense of the attitudes of the time and how they affected individuals. I pinged on the script of Milk for often being politically “on the nose,” but that is definitely not the case here, or at least not culturally “on the nose.” The film spends most of its time in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’60s, so we do get a sense of how things changed over that period of time. In the ’20s and ’30s Hoover is almost an heroic figure as he establishes the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We see him fight for fingerprinting and other scientific crime-fighting techniques that old-timers put down, but we also see him be very picky about the personal details of his agents. Television writers I talked to about working on the ’60s series The F.B.I. told me that Hoover was still that way. At one point a writer wanted to give Inspector Erskine a cold, but Hoover insisted F.B.I. agents did not get colds. Although there were still very few black agents in the Bureau in the late ’60s, Hoover was agreeable to having a black agent on the show, probably to make the Bureau more modern than it was at the time.

Since Hoover ran the Bureau for fifty years, there is a lot that is left out, enough to make another film. We get nothing from the ’40s (capturing Nazi spies) or the ’50s (searching for Communists). I missed those periods, but Black is probably smart not in include them in an already long film. By dropping them, he may give us a better sense of the changes in attitudes between the early and later years. If you are jumping from the ’30s to the ’60s, the visual changes alone will help shift our minds a bit before anybody says or does anything.

On the other hand, as much as I like a lot of this film, it is in one way a complete mess. Black is constantly cutting back and forth from time periods and it is hard to adjust to, even given the visual clues. He will give you a great scene, say one between Hoover and his mom, then cut to some different time period. He will get us involved in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, then not pay it off until we have time-jumped several times. We are constantly losing the emotional threads, which takes us out of the picture. I admire Clint Eastwood a lot as a director, but handling this kind of time-jumping has never been his strong suit. You can see what I mean in Bird (1988) and Hereafter (2010).

Hugo (2011. Screenplay by John Logan, inspired by the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. 126 minutes.)

Hugo

Lumpy: We sweep into a Paris train station in the 1930s and meet Hugo, a boy of about ten who lurks in the upper reaches of the station. His uncle used to keep the clocks running, but when he disappeared, Hugo continued the job, unbeknownst to anybody in the station. So he spies on the other people in the station, which gives us good visuals: the people who work there and Hugo’s reactions to them. OK, fine, but the film takes forever to establish all that. Hugo loses a notebook he cherishes, and Georges, the old man running a newstand, refuses to give it back. Hugo will not tell him what’s in the book. And doesn’t tell him. And doesn’t tell him. It is 45 minutes into the film before we find out about the automaton that Hugo is repairing, based on his dead father’s notes in the notebook. Georges tells Hugo he burned the notebook, but Georges’s ward, Isabelle, gives it back to Hugo and they become buddies. It is an hour into the film before we find out that Georges is in fact Georges Méliès, the great pioneering French filmmaker. Through Tabbard, a French film scholar, we get a flashback of a visit Tabbard made to Méliès’s studio as a boy. It is beautiful recreation of the studio, but Tabbard is a minor character, so we wonder, why are we getting his flashback? Especially since later Hugo and Isabelle persuade Georges to tell them about his work, and we see essentially the same material. It would have been much more dramatic if we saw it through Hugo and Isabelle’s eyes as Georges tells us all about it.

It has also taken us half an hour to get from finding out who Georges is to getting his version. Like so much in the film, it could go quicker, a lot quicker. Much as I love, film historian that I am, the recreations of Méliès’s studio and work, there is almost too much of them, since it takes us away from Hugo. The movie shifts from being Hugo’s movie to Georges’s movie. I know the filmmakers love old films, and as much as I love luxuriating in the material about Méliès, it throws the film a bit out of whack. And as a film historian, I also noticed some historical glitches. Méliès’s career did not end because World War I changed audience attitudes, as the film states, but because Méliès kept making the same kinds of films over and over and over again. His 1912 film A Voyage to the North Pole is hardly different from his classic 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. He simply did not grow with his audiences. Now there’s a lesson for filmmakers.

Two other minor details. Some critics have complained that the character of the Station Inspector seems like a slapstick intrusion, but to me he fit nicely into the film, and I think the director did a very nice job getting Sacha Baron Cohen to give a nuanced performance. The other detail: Hugo is in 3D, and because the director (Martin Scorsese) and his cinematographer (Robert Richardson) know film as well as any two guys around, the use of 3D to give us a sense of the space of the station is brilliant. Psst, don’t tell Marty I said that. He’ll think I am going soft in my old age, although based on some evidence below, I may be.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941. Written by Preston Sturges. 90 minutes.)

Sullivan's Travels

The Sturges Project, Take Four: After the success of The Great McGinty and Christmas in July (both 1940), Sturges was afraid he was due for a flop with The Lady Eve (1941), but it turned out to be a big hit as well. Zanuck had loaned Henry Fonda for Paramount for Eve in return for Sturges coming to Fox to make a film. Sturges passed another of his trunk items, Song of Joy, to Zanuck, who thought it was second rate and guessed that it had come out of the trunk. The Zanuck-Sturges collaboration would have to wait. According to Brian Henderson in Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, Song of Joy was something of a meta-cinema satire on Hollywood, with Sturges constantly pulling the rug out from under us as to which movie we are watching. That appears to be the only element that he brought over to Sullivan’s Travels. According to Sturges’s biographer James Curtis (in Between Flops), Sturges intended to make fun of directors whom he felt were getting too much into sending messages. Curtis does not indicate which directors Sturges had in mind, but there were plenty around. Capra is name-checked in the film, and Sullivan’s first name John may be a reference to John Ford. Sullivan’s middle name is Lloyd, which may be a reference to Sturges’s Paramount stable mate, Frank Lloyd. Sturges started writing Sullivan’s Travels in February 1941 and he started shooting in early May. Henderson points out that there are fewer changes from draft to draft in Travels than there are in earlier Sturges screenplays. Partly that was because it was not based on previous scripts, and partly it was because Sturges was getting more confident. He may also have been getting sloppier.

Henderson mentions there are a number of logical holes in the script. We start with a clip from a melodrama that supposed to be about the conflict of labor and capital, but in the office scene that follows it is never made clear whether this is a film somebody else made, or whether it is the one Sullivan wants to make. It appears to be the former, and it also appears that Sullivan wants to make a film of a book, but he hardly mentions it in the office scene. Henderson also seems a bit huffy about the mixture of seriousness and slapstick in the film. As I was reading his essay I was bothered by his comments, since Travels is one of my favorite Sturges films. Then I read the screenplay. It simply did not live up to the film.

Oh my God! What happened? Partly it may have been that Henderson’s essay turned me hypercritical, and I began to find other inconsistencies, e.g., why in the chain gang sequences is the Trusty carrying around a newspaper that must be at least a couple of weeks old? The classic opening scene in the studio office seemed as good as I remembered it, but then the script becomes, as Henderson noted, uneven. You could defend the script against that on the grounds that it is a picaresque tale, but in the script I found a lack of connections. I had an even bigger problem when Sullivan meets The Girl. I always got on my screenwriting students for not giving their characters, especially the majors ones, names, and here is the great Preston Sturges doing just that. There did not seem to be much going on between Sullivan and The Girl in terms of what we will watch, and I was never clear in the script what she was after. She does not seem sexually interested in Sullivan, and she is very casual about his being a big director who might give her aspiring actress a break.

It may also have been that I am simply getting old and not as perceptive about screenplays as I used to be. I have always prided myself on being able to spot what is playable in a script and what isn’t. I have been wrong before, of course, as in looking at a middle draft of the screenplay of Jaws (1975) and thinking the shark jumping up on the boat and eating Quint would be totally ridiculous on film. Or, it occurred to me that this may be one of those very rare cases (see the notes in US#65 on Casanova Brown [1944] for an example) where the film is better than the script.

As you can imagine, I then sat down to watch the film with a combination of dread and hopeful anticipation. The film gets off to a rousing start with the clip from the drama. It does not look like anything else we have seen in Sturges. It’s visually darker, for one thing. Sturges’s cameraman on The Great McGinty was William Mellor, who had a distinguished career shooting such films as Giant (1956) and Peyton Place (1957), but had been very condescending to Sturges. The cameraman on Christmas in July and The Lady Eve was Victor Millner, who had shot films for De Mille (The Crusades [1935] and The Plainsman [1936]), but also shot 1932’s Trouble in Paradise for Lubtisch. Milner obviously learned how to fill the screen from De Mille. In the De Mille films he fills the screen with props and set decoration; in the Sturges films he fills them with Sturges’s stock company of character actors. Milner was unavailable for Travels and was replaced by John Seitz, whom we talked about a little bit in the comments on The Badlanders in US#58. He could handle the mixture of light and dark Sturges wanted in the film, and he makes this scene dark but still with the energetic action Sturges stages. It may not look like a Sturges scene, but it feels like one. That’s not the last time we will see that in this picture.

Seitz was also not above goading Sturges. As they got ready to shoot the studio office scene, Sturges was considering the various angles he might use and Seitz said, “I dare you to do it all in one take.” Sturges replied, “Well, I have never refused a dare in my life.” Sturges had written the role of Sullivan specifically for Joel McCrea, who insisted that nobody wrote scripts for him; they wrote scripts for Gary Cooper and any that Cooper turned down went to McCrea. McCrea had only had limited stage experience and most movie actors were not required to do long takes. But he was game, after Sturges assured him that if it didn’t work they could cut it up into smaller segments. So they shot it in a four-minute take, which is what you see in the picture. Like the Bildocker-Parker scene in Christmas (see US#85) the result is a scene that could only be in a movie written and directed by Sturges. McCrea’s Sullivan is a slightly pompous guy whom McCrea gives a likeable quality to. He is arguing to be allowed to make a serious picture. Sturges has given him not one but two studio executives to fight. Why two? One would make the scene more focused. But two makes it more lively as they double team Sullivan, so the dialogue goes back and forth in a zingier way. And Sturges has made LeBrand (probably named after his studio patron William Le Baron) and Hadrian not unsympathetic. They are not above comparing their hardscrabble backgrounds with Sullivan’s privileged life. And here’s the real reason you have two of them: after Sullivan leaves, LeBrand and Hadrian call each other for lying through their teeth about their poor younger days. McCrea may have not had much stage experience, but he recognized great dialogue when he read it. He said of Sturges’s scripts, “He wrote dialogue I could just look at once and do.” In this scene the writing is wonderfully poetic, with recurring phrases, like LeBrand’s insistence on having “a little sex” in Sullivan’s movie. Next time you watch the scene, count the number of times the phrase comes up, and who says it and how. Well, I was relieved that scene worked on film at least. The first two scenes also reminded me of the varied visual styles of the three opening scenes of Citizen Kane, which was just going into release in May 1941 when Sturges started shooting. Kane probably did not influence the script, but it may have made Sturges and Seitz realize you how many varieties of visual looks you could have within the same film.

Next we see Sullivan preparing to go out as a hobo with only ten cents in his pocket. His Butler, played by Robert Greig, who appeared in three Sturges films, objects to treating poverty as simply something to be studied. It is one of those smart off-the-wall speeches that Struges wrote better than anybody, and Sturges gives it its due by shooting Greig in closeup. Sullivan is then on the road and we get the slapstick scene with the “land yacht,” the trailer the studio has following him. It seems a little too frantic, but the script and the film have established that we are going to see everything in this film. Struges does not stage it as well as some other directors might. Then, in the script, Sullivan is picked up by Mr. Carson, who asks him about his travels. Carson turns out to be the local sheriff and threatens to throw him in jail for vagrancy. The scene was cut from the picture, perhaps for length, but it may have been too much foreshadowing of the hobo scenes later on. It may also have been cut because it was too similar to the scene with the truck driver who gives Tom Joad a ride at the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Both Carson and the trucker notice that Tom and Sullivan’s hands are not working man hands.

The film goes from Sullivan escaping the land yacht directly to the scenes with Miz Zeffie and her sister Usula. In the script the sequence seems like just a picaresque diversion, but the scene in which the three of them are watching a movie is developed with a little more detail in the film than in the script. It becomes the forerunner of the famous movie scene at the end of the film. Sullivan escapes the sister in another slapstick scene and ends up…back in Hollywood, which becomes a nice running gag in the film as well as a unifying element in the film. The movie scene and the returning to Hollywood work on screen as connective material.

He goes into a diner and meets The Girl. Sturges had passed over a lot of other female stars to go with Veronica Lake. He had seen her in the rushes of I Wanted Wings (1941) and liked how she read her lines in a way that dominated the scene. She stole that picture when it was released. And she was perfect for the part of The Girl. And here, my children, is why Preston Sturges is PRESTON STURGES and Brian Henderson and Tom Stempel aren’t. Lake was known in her later starring parts, such as in This Gun For Hire (1942), for her sexual insolence. What Sturges saw was that he could have her use that insolence in a non-sexual way. Yes, it’s in the lines, but Sturges’s understanding of how she could deliver those lines makes it play on film. As a writer and director, you have to understand the dynamics between the lines and the performer. The lines are not bad, but you have to have been Sturges to know how they needed to be read. The script is good, but subtle in a way we do not expect in Sturges. And that kind of subtlety is tricky for a reader, even one as experienced as I am, to get. The Girl is constantly challenging Sullivan, and he and we never know what she is going to say to him. Sturges and McCrea didn’t know either. Lake had already begun to develop a terrible reputation, and she showed why on this production. She was late and hardly ever knew her lines. By the time she got them after several takes, McCrea, who was better on the early takes, was worn out. Lake is the reason the film went over schedule and over budget. She is also one of the many reasons the picture works. When McCrea was offered the lead in her 1942 film I Married a Witch, he turned it down, saying, according to Robert Osborne, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.”

So Sullivan and The Girl go on adventures, always ending up back in Hollywood. When they hop aboard a freight, the picture begins to darken, visually and emotionally. At one point Sturges and Seitz have a long montage of Sullivan and The Girl walking through the slums of a big city. After all the non-stop dialogue, it is strikingly visual. The print quality of Travels on the boxed set is not top drawer, and I suspect, given their reputation, the stand-alone DVD of Travels from the Criterion Collection is probably better, but I can assure you that neither one can hold a candle to a great 35mm print. Once at LACC we rented a 35mm print from Universal and ended up getting a brand new one, fresh out of the lab, without a mark on it. My projectionist and I sat there slack-jawed at the brilliance of Seitz’s cinematography. His ability to combine of light and dark provide another method of holding the film together.

Henderson points out that Sturges, in his direction, does not give us a close-up of the hobo who steals Sullivan’s shoes so that we will recognize him later. But I think Sturges is, once again, ahead of Henderson and me. Sturges understands that we do not have to see that it is the same guy. We can assume that it was, or, given that this is a picaresque tale, we may think the shoes have changed hands several times before they show up on the bum who is killed.

Sullivan ends up on a chain gang, and who is The “Mr,” the man in charge? Our old friend Al Bridge, here not in a comic part as we have seen him, but as a real hard-ass. And he is just as good in this as he was in those parts. And because we “know” from previous Sturges films that he can be funny, Sturges has him laughing the loudest as the chain gang watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon in the black church. Jimmy Conlin, the shortest actor in the Sturges stock company (he appears in all eight of the films we will be discussing), gets one of his biggest roles of The Trusty, who has a wonderful scene, shot all in shadows, as he tells Sullivan how to survive, a scene that would not be out of place in any drama of the period.

Watching the Mickey Mouse cartoon is, along with the first scene in the studio office, the best known in Travels. Sturges wrote in the screenplay that on the screen “…we see a silent comedy, possibly Chaplin in The Gold Rush, possibly a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler.” He settled on the Mickey Mouse cartoon. I think Sturges’s direction, and or editing, is a little off in this scene, since he has the audience laughing a lot quicker than we do, but the message is so great we don’t mind too much. When Sturges started writing the script, he had no idea what Sullivan would discover on his travels. Sturges took away everything from Sullivan and discovered that the one thing he still had was his ability to laugh.

So naturally he ends up back in Hollywood and no longer wants to make Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? This now irritates the studio people because his adventures have produced great publicity for it. In his final speech, Sullivan says, “…there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh…did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much…but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan…”

When Sullivan’s Travels was completed, the new executives at Paramount liked it, but realized with its tonal shifts it would be a difficult film to sell. So the poster consisted of a drawing of Veronica Lake with her by-now-famous peek-a-boo hairdo, which never really appears in the film. Joel McCrea is nowhere to be found, and the ad line is “Veronica Lake is on the take.” That would have been perfect if the film was The Lady Eve, but it’s not. Audiences who went expecting Eve redux were disappointed and the business never picked up. Pop quiz: how would you sell Sullivan’s Travels to an audience in 1941?

Hell on Wheels (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

Hell on Wheels

You’d think…: By now you know I love westerns. And you know I love train movies. For all my reservations about John Ford’s 1924 classic The Iron Horse, I’ve seen it several times. You know from US#30 how I feel about De Mille’s 1939 Union Pacific, but I am probably not yet finished watching it, either. So this new series should have been right up my alley. It is set in the Post Civil War era and like the Ford and De Mille films deals with the Union Pacific building its westward link of the Transcontinental Railroad. I will even buy that the plains of Alberta, Canada, where it is shot, can more or less pass for the American plans of Iowa and Nebraska. But the writing is sorely lacking.

The “Pilot,” written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton, the show’s creators, begins with a man going into church in Washington D.C. He goes into a confessional, but he does not confess. So the man on the other side takes out a gun and shoots him. No, the Catholic Church did not develop a stricter no-confession policy in the 1860s. The shooter is Cullen Bohanan, an ex-Confederate soldier who is hunting down the Union soldiers who killed his wife. He squints under his wide-brimmed hat and seldom smiles, so we are maybe in Outlaw Josey Wales territory. But Cullen is simply not that interesting a character (not a patch on Josey) and Anson Mount, who plays him, does not give us any look into his soul. Cullen joins the railroad to look for the other killers, like The Iron Horse’s Davy Brandon, who is searching for the man who killed his father. Since he had slaves before the war, he is put in charge of the black laborers, including Elam, who does not have much of a characterization either. Durant, the boss of the railroad is a standard corrupt businessman, but not particularly distinctive. The only interesting character in the pilot is Johnson, the yard boss. He is given a very rich performance, better than the script deserves, by Ted Levine, more recently known as Captain Leland Stottlemeyer on Monk. Johnson knows the whereabouts of the men Cullen is looking for, but just before he can tell Cullen where the men are, Elam kills him. I almost gave up on the show at that instant. Killing off your most interesting character, guys? Jeez.

I went back for two more episodes. The second was “Immoral Mathematics,” written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton, which spends its first 33 minutes with Cullen imprisoned in a boxcar. Oh, like that’s really visual. He makes his escape and ultimately convinces Durant to let him take over Johnson’s job. Cullen’s nemesis in this episode is the Swede, a large man, dressed in black, who is Durant’s enforcer. He is the most interesting character in this episode, so I figured he would not last out the episode. He did. The third was “A New Birth of Freedom,” written by John Shibau. Cullen has found Johnson’s papers, which leads him to thinking he knows where one of his wife’s killers is. So he rides out to find him. Wait a minute. He has just been given the new job of yard boss, and already he’s leaving the yard for several days? And Durant does not fire his ass? Cullen finds Lily, the widow of the railroad surveyor, who was killed by a group of Indians John Ford would have rejected as politically incorrect. Lily has been wandering around in the wilderness, wounded, but smart enough to know that if she ever gets back to the railroad, the tube she holds onto with his late husband’s maps will be a nice bargaining chip. They make it back to the camp just as there is a funeral for her husband and his associates. Wow, a funeral at a railroad camp out on the Great Plains. You and I don’t have to think too hard to imagine what Ford or Stevens or Hawks or Mann or Boetticher or Peckinpah or even H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone (see US#28) could have done with that. Here we get a couple of speeches in a tent. I’m leavin’ Cheyenne, pardners, and lighting out for the Territory.

The Closer (2011. “You Have the Right to Remain Jolly” episode written by James Duff & Michael Alaimo. 60 minutes.)

The Closer

Ho, ho, ho: The Closer has been mostly a dramatic show (Detective Brenda Leigh Johnson and her team solve crimes), and the comic moments come mostly from the great set of supporting characters in Brenda’s team. This episode does deal a bit with the Federal case against her, but it mostly focuses on a much lighter murder case. Buzz, the team’s videographer, and his visiting sister Casey, are at a Santa theme park they used to go to as kids. Santa, in a new twist, is to arrive flying through the sky on a zipline. Somebody has tampered with the equipment, and while he does hit the chimney, it is only to splat against it. There are immediately suspects: the dead Santa Randy was married, but fooling around with one or more of the Elves. His wife and the Elves get into a fight as Brenda and her team arrive. The male members of the team are very taken by Casey, and we get recurring bits of them trying to cozy up to her during the case.

The owner of the park is Santa Jack. He smokes, drinks, and during one drunken talk, alas before he has been Mirandized, almost confesses to fixing the equipment. Is this a perfect part for Fred Willard or not? That’s who they got, and he’s terrific. Buzz is very disappointed to have his Christmas ideals about Santa broken, although Casey, the smarter of the two, is not surprised. It turns out Santa Jack’s niece was trying to kill Jack so she could take over the park and sell it to developers. She goes to jail, and Jack sells the park anyway.

In a one-hour procedural, there is not time for as many Christmas jokes as there are in this year’s A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, but some are wonderful. Willard works his Santa beard as well as Joe Pesci works his hairpiece in JFK (1991). And stay through to the closing tag in which Casey, a TV weatherperson in Seattle, goes through her usual “We’re keeping track of the weather for Santa” bit, and then reacts differently when the camera goes off.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.