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Understanding Screenwriting #89: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Descendants, My Week with Marilyn, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #89: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Descendants, My Week with Marilyn, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Descendants, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, My Week with Marilyn, Love & Other Drugs, The Great Moment, Susan Slept Here, but first…

Fan Mail: In talking about the final shot of the wedding of the twins in The Palm Beach Story, David Ehrenstein dragged out his favorite Fritz Lang quote about how it’s “because in the script it’s written and on the screen it’s pictures. Motion pictures they call it.” That does not exactly apply here. Sturges set up the wedding in the script and he could well have written in the reactions of the “other twins.” He didn’t, but he added them as a director, developing what he had written. And it’s not in this case “motion pictures,” because you can see their reactions in a still. The point I am making with a lot of the Sturges Project is the relationship between script and film is a lot more complicated than we normally think. David in his quotes about Sturges’s working method from Ruth Olay demonstrates that.

I may have given David the impression that it was my opinion that Mary Astor was not good in Palm Beach, but that was Sturges’s feeling. I think she is terrific. Sturges wanted her voice higher than her normal range and was disappointed when she couldn’t do it. But who wants a soprano Mary Astor?

Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011. Screenplay by Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller. 133 minutes.)

Harold Lloyd in Burn Notice meets Covert Affairs: I always liked the way the M:I television series managed to squeeze two hours of story material into one hour, which really made you run to keep up. On the other hand, the theatrical films have been a very mixed bag. Mission: Impossible (1996; screenplay by David Koepp and Robert Towne, story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian) was a mess. They had a great IMF team at the beginning, which they killed off, and the film became focused on Ethan Hunt rather than a team. There was supposed to be a romance between Hunt and Claire Phelps, but all those scenes got cut so when Jim Phelps accuses Hunt of having the affair we are totally lost. Mission: Impossible II (2000; screenplay by Robert Towne, story by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga) had the amusing idea of rewriting Notorious (1946; written by Ben Hecht), with Hunt pimping out Nyah Nordoff-Hall to Sean Ambrose to get whatever the Maguffin was in that film. As much as I love Robert Towne, Hecht is the winner in that contest. Also, M:I II introduced and proceeded to beat to death the business of everybody wearing facemasks to hide their identities. Mission:Impossible III (2006; written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams) was the best one so far. Hunt is retired and married but he gets “pulled back in” to try to protect one of his protégés while trying to hide from his wife what he really does. He also has to deal with the series’ best villain, an arms dealer played to the hilt by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hunt is working with a team this time, and the mixture of action and character probably come from J.J. Abrams’ work in television. (See US#77 for my comments on Abrams in the item on his Super 8.)

M:I IV (for brevity’s sake) may even be better than III, although I think I prefer III. Here Hunt’s in a maximum security Russian prison and an IMF team is trying to break him out. One of the team is killed before they start; another, Jane Carter, is a woman Hunt has never met; and the only one Hunt knows is Benji Dunn, a computer geek we met in III. The team gets him out, even though he insists on bringing out another prisoner with him, which turns out to be useful so much later on we may have forgotten about him. OK, so Hunt is out and thrown right away into a new mission, getting stuff out of the Kremlin. The stuff is not only not there, but the Kremlin blows up as the team just escapes. So we know we are not in the land of low budgets. Because of the political damage, the Secretary (of what? Defense? State? Housing and Urban Development?) has to shut down the IMF. So Hunt, sort of like Michael Westen, is burned. What the television series Burn Notice does is make up for a television budget (although they do blow up a number of cars on that show) by having Michael being very inventive on how to operate on no budget. Not quite the case here, as the team, on its own, has to make do with stuff in what I suppose you could call a Safe Boxcar as opposed to a Safe House. Like the toys Q provides Bond, the contents of the boxcar, or at least all they can carry, are exactly what they need.

Like Covert Affairs, we now get into some globe hopping, which has always been part of the appeal of the Bond movies as well; the M:I TV series shot mostly on backlots and Southern California locations. So we are off to Dubai, which can only mean one thing: Ethan Hunt is going to scramble around the outside of the upper floors of the world’s tallest building. It’s Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923) in IMAX. It is as spectacular a sequence as it is supposed to be; director Brad Bird’s previous life in animation serves him well, but the writers deserve some credit too. Hunt is not doing this just to show off, but to get into a room he cannot get into any other way. Like Lloyd in Safety Last, and unlike Lloyd in Feet First (1930; see US#85), Hunt has a goal. And don’t make it easy for your characters to reach that goal. In this case Hunt has gloves that can attach to the side of the building. What’s the worst that can happen (without killing off Hunt, that is)? The battery dies on one of the gloves. It is a beautifully directed scene, but it is also beautifully written. And it happens surprisingly early in the film. So how do you top it?

The next sequence has the team setting up a double scam on the person selling the launch codes and the person buying them. Carter pretends to be the seller and works the buyers over in one room while Hunt pretends to be the buyer in another room with the seller. I mentioned Notorious earlier and if you look at it in comparison to today’s action films, there is in fact very little action, but incredible suspense. The writers here have followed the great action scene with a great suspense scene, with attention to detail in both. Look at how they use the same goggles in the two scenes.

And then we are off to Mumbai to get another set of codes that will stop the bad guy (not quite up to Hoffman’s arms dealer in III) from using his codes to set off a nuclear launch. (This film has a bit of You Only Live Twice [1967] as well.) Like he did with Nyah in II, Hunt pimps out Carter to seduce a media mogul. We are surprised at her appearance. Up until now Paula Patton has played Carter as a straight-ahead kick-ass IMF agent. Now she shows up in a very slinky dress, complete with push-up bra to give her cleavage out to here, and a good half-ton of eye shadow. Needless to say, she gets what she wants, and then has what I suspect in the writing and shooting was a funnier scene than it ended up. Carter is in a car being recklessly driven (do the IMF people drive any other way?) by Hunt. She is trying to change out of her seductress outfit into her “work clothes.” Have you ever tried to get out of a slinky dress and a push-up bra in a speeding car? For the scene to work, we would have to see Hunt’s reactions to this. We don’t exactly, since Tom Cruise is playing Hunt very one-note, jaw clenched all the way through. His athletics are impressive, but emotionally he is a block of cement. That’s not true of the other members of the team: Patton as Carter, Simon Pegg as Benji, and Jeremy Renner as William Brandt. Often the best of the quiet scenes are between those three, so much so you may cringe when Hunt shows up. This is a particular problem in the final scene, after they have saved the world (and the film begins to drag in the last half hour as the chases and fights go on forever). We see Hunt’s wife from M:I III, who is supposed to be dead. She and Hunt exchange pleasant smiles. If we had been more emotionally involved with Hunt in this film, we might have found it more moving. Still, Tom Cruise swinging around the world’s tallest building is not chopped liver.

The Descendants (2011. Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. 115 minutes.)

 

The Descendants

A major disappointment: I’m a big fan of Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), and Sideways (2004). At his best he has a dry, off-beat freshness about his characters. So I was greatly anticipating this one, especially since it has been 7 years since he last wrote and directed a feature. He has been producing a lot, and the script by Faxon and Rash came to him as a possible project for him to produce. He eventually decided to direct it and did a pass on the script himself. I’d hate to think what it was like before he got his hands on it.

This script has one of the worst opening ten minutes I have heard in years. Over some shots of Matt King looking sad, we get a voiceover narration that goes on and on and on, explaining his situation: his wife is in a coma from a boating accident, he has no idea how to parent his two daughters, and as the head of the King family trust, he must decide within a week or so whether to sell off 25,000 acres of gorgeous Hawaiian land to developers. Guys, there are a whole lot of much more interesting ways to get that information across. Or if you are going to do this way, include at least some of the dry humor that Hemmings gives Matt in the book. On the first page he is thinking that the upcoming meeting with his wife’s doctor is like a romantic first date: what do you wear, what lines do you practice saying?

In the first half hour or more, everything that happens to Matt is bad, which makes the film very one-note. The wife is in the hospital. Scottie, his youngest daughter, has started acting out in school. Matt’s cousins are divided as whether he should sell the family land or not, and are putting pressure on him both ways. He goes to the Big Island to pick up Alexandra, his 17 year old daughter, from the school she is in. She’s generally obnoxious and we learn she’s had a drinking problem and has been going out with older guys. I would have thought that Payne, of all writers, could have picked up the novel’s dry counterpoint to all that misery. It’s a long way into the opening of the film before they bring on someone who might help. Alexandra insists on bringing her friend Sid to stay with them. She tells Matt she will be less of a bitch with him there. Sid is a typical teenage guy: insensitive, tactless, and we don’t get enough of him to help the film.

And then to make matters worse for Matt, Alexandra tells him that his wife was being unfaithful to him. In football terms this is known as piling on, and you get penalized some yardage for that. At least here, it gives Matt something to do: he wants to track down the guy she was sleeping with. No, not to beat the crap out of him, but to tell him that the wife does not have too much longer to live, and he had better see her if he wants to say goodbye to her. He’s serious about that. I think we are supposed to laugh at this the way we laugh at some of the characters in About Schmidt and Sideways, but the humor is not there in the script. Matt is still looking longsuffering, and we get a lot more closeups of George Clooney than we need, the way we did the closeups of Brad Pitt in Moneyball. Payne as writer and director is not taking advantage of Clooney’s slyness for rhythmical balance.

They discover that the wife’s lover has gone off to Kauai and they follow him there. In a nice scene in a hotel between Matt and Sid, we learn that Sid has only recently lost his father. If we had learned that sooner, the writers could have used it a lot better. The foursome discovers the house he and his wife are staying in is owned by one of the King cousins, and worse, Brian, the lover, is in league with the developers who want to buy the land. And still Matt does not just punch him out. We do get a few interesting scenes. Matt and Alexandra show up on Brian’s front porch and Alexandra distracts Julie, Brian’s wife, while Matt talks to Brian. The Matt-Brian scene comes close to what we expect from Payne.

Matt also gets a scene with Cousin Hugh, the only one of the family who is at all well defined as a character. We could have done with him earlier and in more scenes, but the one we have with him is nice. As is the scene a few days later at the hospital. Julie, not Brian, shows up with flowers for the wife. Brian had confessed the affair to her after Matt left, and she felt they owed it to the wife. Julie may also have felt she owed it to Matt. He baffled her when he left her house by kissing her full on the lips. The Matt-Julie scene in the hospital is the best scene in the film, at least partially because here is someone who understands and is sympathetic with Matt. And the writers are restrained enough so the two don’t fall into the nearest empty hospital bed.

Matt does the right thing and does not sell the land. He begins to think about ways to save it in its natural state, although why this had not occurred to him before is not clear. The film is very good at showing the way the real Hawaii looks (suburbs, narrow roads), so that when we do get to see the land, we are impressed with its natural beauty.

In the final scene Matt and his two kids sit on the couch together and watch television. I think we are supposed to feel he is a better father now, but it is more that the kids have come to appreciate him. I suppose at this point Matt will take what he can get.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011. Written by Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 129 minutes.)

 

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Unbalanced: You may remember that both my grandson and I liked the first film of what may be a new franchise, 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. The re-imagining of Holmes as an action hero did not do too much damage to the character, since as one of the writers pointed out, Conan Doyle frequently mentions but does not show Holmes’s physical skills. So naturally my grandson and I went off to see the new one, along with my granddaughter, who had also liked the first one. When we came out of this one, we all agreed that this one was not quite up to Sherlock Holmes. First, we all thought that it is not as funny. That can kill you in this kind of picture.

We also all agreed that this one is not as fresh as the first one. The idea of rethinking Holmes was a new way of telling the stories, but we know that going into this one. The writers are a new team; the only one of the several writers on the original involved here is Lionel Wigram, but only as a producer. They have not developed that view of Holmes beyond what was established the first time around. There are some good action sequences (I particularly liked the one in the munitions factory), but none of them are as inventive as the previous film’s. In the first film, they thought about having Holmes chase that film’s villain all over Europe, but decided to stick to Victorian England. Here we do go zipping around the Continent, but the writers don’t do as much with it as they could. There is a nice castle on a mountain, but they have not used it very inventively. The writers of the first film struck a nice balance between the action scenes and Holmes thinking through the clues. Here there is more emphasis on the action, so much so that the thinking scenes seem tacked on.

The writers also spend a lot of time on the bromance elements of Holmes and Watson, so much so it gets rather heavy going in places. We get it, now move on. Rachel McAdams is back briefly, very briefly, as Irene Adler, and she is better here than in the first one, possibly because she has less to do. Kelly Reilly is back as Watson’s wife, and now they are just using makeup to cover up her freckles, but she does turn out to be a crack codebreaker just when they need one. I suppose that is a fair trade. Holmes and Watson are also involved with a gypsy fortuneteller, Madame Simza. She generally just tags along, and it is a real waste of Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander. How’s about they throw the real Salander in to deal with Holmes? I’d pay to see that.

The arch-villain here is Professor James Moriarty, the predecessor to every arch-villain who came after Conan Doyle. As good as Jared Harris is in the role, he is not given very much to do. Harris gives good attitude, but a little of that goes a long way. Maybe they should have made Moriarity an action villain like they made Holmes an action hero.

My Week with Marilyn (2011. Screenplay by Adrian Hodges, based on the diaries of Colin Clark. 99 minutes.)

 

My Week with Marilyn

Lord Larry’s revenge: That’s the way the credits read: based on Clark’s diaries. Elsewhere it’s been said that the script is based on his two books, My Week with Marilyn and The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me. I suspect the credits read the way they do because several people have called into question the accuracy of Clark’s books. If you are saying something is from a person’s diaries, we are more likely to take it at face value. In this case, you shouldn’t. The film, the books, and the diaries deal with a young Colin Clark working as a third assistant director on the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Laurence Olivier directed himself and Marilyn Monroe. As Clark tells it, he was not only Marilyn’s caretaker, but also her sort-of lover. This creates a problem I always have with movies based on first person accounts. For example, Out of Africa (1985) is based on Karen Blixen’s version of her romance with Denys Finch Hatton (although the IMDb lists two books by others as source material for the film). I for one would really love to have heard Denys’s version of this crazy Danish woman he was schtupping between flying and hunting big game.

The film is clearly set up as a showcase for the actress playing Marilyn, but the script does not go deep enough or sharply enough into her. Michelle Williams has received critical acclaim for her performance. I was not so taken with her. Technically she gets a lot right: the look, the body movement, etc. Check out the credits for the long list of technical advisers Williams had. Unfortunately, Williams does not pop off the screen as Marilyn does. Given the way the film is structured, that’s lethal. But here is the irony: Marilyn stole The Prince and the Showgirl from Olivier, and Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Olivier steals this picture. He gets all the good lines and good reactions. The other supporting actors are also wonderful, except for Eddie Redmayne, who plays Colin Clark. He just stands around looking goofy in the presence of Marilyn. I suspect this is historically accurate, and he is hardly the first man to have that reaction to Marilyn Monroe, but it makes for a dull character.

Love & Other Drugs (2010. Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy. 112 minutes.)

 

Love & Other Drugs

What is this movie about?: I missed this one when it was in theaters. It popped up recently on HBO and I gave it a shot. It’s a classic example of a movie being “developed” in all the wrong ways. The book it’s based on is a memoir by Reidy of his time as a Viagra salesman in its early days. In the book, he has a large number of quickie affairs. The rights were picked up by Charles Randolph, a writer and producer who is best known as one of the writers for the 2005 film The Interpreter, which also suffered in the development process. Randolph did a loose adaptation called Pharma and one of the big changes he made in the story was to give Jamie, the main character, a real love interest. Well, I suppose it does give a structure to the material, but it makes it more conventional. Why would we want to watch conventional love scenes when you can show us the process by which Big Pharma peddles its wares? And Jamie having a variety of sexual encounters really would have more to do with the impact of Viagra than a single affair.

(The background on the script development is from Peter Clines article in the November/December 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting. A couple of sad notes here. Creative Screenwriting has, they hope temporarily, stopped publishing as a magazine. Given all the useful stuff I and others have found in it, we all wish the publisher Bill Donovan can get it up and running again. The second sad note is that its chief competitor Script Magazine has been sold off by Final Draft to F&W Media. F&W has also stopped publication of Script, but at least for now is continuing it as a website. You can check it out at www.scriptmag.com. I suspect the economy in general played a big part in closing down the published editions of the two magazines, and I’m sorry to see them both go. It’s not as if more general publications have taken up the slack with stories on screenwriters and screenwriting.)

The Pharma script eventually got to Zwick and Herskovitz, best known for their thirtysomething television series, but who have also done at a lot of good work since, both in films and television. They were interested in the love affair and began to develop that. They also began developing supporting characters, including a younger brother for Jamie named Josh. Josh dropped out of school, but became a multimillionaire by creating a medical software company. His girlfriend has dumped him and he moves in with Jamie, which leads, supposedly, to hilarity as he is constantly interrupting Jamie and Maggie when they are about to have sex.

So what we end up with is a script that spends way too much time on the romance, especially in the first hour of the film. We get some of the sales efforts of Jamie, but Viagra is not introduced until well into the picture. Maggie has Parkinson’s, so we get an anti-medical convention that is sort of a self-help group for sufferers of Parkinson’s. Late in the picture, we get a doctor who has been a secondary character giving a long speech on the difficulties of running his practice and dealing with Big Pharma and insurance companies. Sturges might have brought that off, but these guys don’t. In other words, the final film does not seem to know what it is about.

So it is not surprising that when it came time to sell the film to the public, the emphasis was on the fact that the two major stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, actually did some of their scenes…gasp…nude. The article on the film in the November 26th, 2010 Entertainment Weekly was only about the nude scenes. As attractive as both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are, the love scenes get rather boring, especially when nothing else is happening. Better they kept their clothes on and see how sexy they could be that way. But that would have required that Zwick, who also directed, have a better feel for how to make sensuality work on-screen. He’s not alone. There are not a lot of male American directors who can do that.

The Great Moment (1944. Screenplay by Preston Sturges, based on the book Triumph Over Pain by René Fülöp-Miller. 83 minutes.)

 

The Great Moment

The Sturges Project, Take Six: The Great Moment is the black sheep of the Sturges family. You may have vaguely heard of it, but you most likely have not seen it. And for good reason. It is a mess. And that is not all Buddy DeSilva’s fault.

Fülöp-Miller’s book was published in English in 1938. It tells the full, complicated story of the development of the use of anesthesia in medicine in the 19th Century. Now that’s a barrel of laughs. The book was controversial, and one of the controversies was over Fülöp-Miller’s claim that the use of ether as an anesthetic was really the discovery of a non-descript Boston dentist named William Morton in the 1840s. Europeans had long accepted Morton’s claim, but in America it was widely disputed at the time, with all kinds of medical hustlers coming out of the woodwork and claiming it was their idea. Paramount bought the film rights to the book, seeing it as a possible project for director Henry Hathaway and Gary Cooper. The studio was undoubtedly thinking of it as a typical ’30s Great Man biography. See US#52 for my discussion of two of the best known films of the genre, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Since Morton was a more down-to-earth figure, one could see Paramount thinking of Cooper. Unfortunately Hathaway and Cooper left the studio. Nobody else at the studio had any interest in the project. Until Preston Sturges picked it up. (The background here is, as before, from James Curtis’s biography Between Flops and Brian Henderson’s Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges.)

Nobody quite knows why Sturges took a liking to the material in 1939. He certainly saw the connections to his 1933 screenplay The Power and the Glory, with right turning out wrong, and Curtis suspects he liked the idea of the ingratitude shown Morton by his peers. Never underestimate the appeal of a martyred character to a screenwriter who has not yet had his chance to direct. Sturges worked on the screenplay off and on during 1939, even as he was preparing to direct The Great McGinty. He may have been hoping it would be his second film as a director. Early on in the writing, Sturges decided on a rather odd structure. Most biographical films start with the hero’s humble beginnings, follow him through his trials with all the stupid people who resist his ideas, and then end with his moment of triumph and fame. Sturges starts just after Morton’s death when Eben Frost, Morton’s assistant, comes to visit Morton’s widow. The two take us into flashbacks, but not of the early days. The flashbacks start with Morton’s triumph suggesting that ether, which he uses as a dentist, can be used in regular surgery. Then the flashbacks tell of all the problems he had afterwards: people claiming to have discovered it first, his inability to get a patent on it, and finally his death. At this point we are half-way through the script, and the flashbacks now take up his early days as he stumbles into his discovery, ending the film when he agrees to tell the medical establishment what his secret ingredient is, since they will not use it without knowing.

What was Sturges thinking? We know he saw a thematic connection with The Power and the Glory, and that may have led him to think of a structural connection, using the same kind of multiple flashbacks. Because Sturges was interested in the story of how badly Morton was treated later, he might have wanted to get that message out first so we would feel more sympathy with Morton. Or it may have been that he knew that material was the most serious in the film, which he might have hoped would put the audience in the proper mood, helping them get through some of the comedy sequences as Morton stumbles toward his discovery. By the end of December 1939, he put away the three drafts of the script he had written and did not come back to them until early 1942. We know he had been thinking he would alternate between flat-out comedy and slightly more serious films, so he may have resurrected the script as one of the serious ones. But things had changed at Paramount.

His films had been critical successes, but with the exception of The Lady Eve (1941) they had not been huge successes at the box office. There was no one at the studio who remembered buying the book, and no one but Sturges to root for it. And Buddy DeSylva thought it was repulsive. I mentioned in writing about Sullivan’s Travels (1942) that “the new executives” at Paramount liked it when they first saw it. William LeBaron, Sturges’s protector at Paramount, left the studio in February 1941, and he was replaced as head of production by songwriter, writer and producer B.G. “Buddy” DeSylva. I put in the link to DeSylva’s IMDb page so you can see he was not a slacker. You would have thought he and Sturges would get along, and they appeared to, at least for a while. But Triumph Over Pain drove them apart. DeSylva hated the project, and Sturges did not help matters. Sturges kept insisting the written foreword (all biographical pictures have to have a written foreword; it’s the law) include a zinger against statues of generals on horseback. In 1942? In the middle of the war? Sturges also kept fighting to keep the title Triumph Over Pain, which nobody else wanted.

The production went reasonably well, but when the film was completed and shown at a sneak preview, the results were mixed, to say the least. DeSylva took the film away from Sturges and recut it. It did not help. The film was a flop.

Thanks to Brian Henderson, we have a pretty good idea what was cut from the film: most of the first half hour or more. Sturges’s script and film started out with a sequence of a young boy being taken into surgery in the present day, and we learn it will not hurt because of anesthesia. This was cut completely. We do get Eben Frost getting one of Morton’s medals out of hock and bringing it to Mrs. Morton, but their scene is condensed. A long flashback of Morton and his wife preparing for bed is cut completely. In it Morton says he decided to tell the doctors that his treatment was simply ether, but DeSylva felt that that gave away the ending of the film and was cut. A sly scene in which Morton approaches a military colonel about his invention was cut, so we don’t get the colonel looking over his drawer of other inventions, mostly deadly. The flashbacks begin in the film with Morton getting a letter to come to Washington, but a very Sturges scene of Morton meeting President Pierce has been condensed to the point of all plot and no texture. The opening twenty minutes of the film goes so fast we can hardly figure out what is going on.

Once we get into the flashbacks leading up to the discovery, the film follows the script more closely, and naturally flows better. But Sturges undercuts himself. He wrote to a friend after the film was finished that “although I put in as much fun as I could, the story of Morton is still serious, thrilling, and a little sad.” Some of the comedy scenes, such as the President Pierce scene, or an early one with Jackson, a sort of mentor/rival of Morton’s, are good character comedy, but many of the scenes are out-and-out slapstick (Eben Frost’s first visit to Morton, where he jumps out the window) and work against the seriousness of the material rather than as a counterpoint. Sturges had written some nice dialogue humor into his script for the 1938 historical film If I Were King, which works better in connection with the story than the slapstick does in The Great Moment.

Even Struges’s friends had trouble with the film. When he completed his cut, he showed it to cinematographer John Seitz, who had not photographed the film. Seitz’s reaction was, “Why did you end the picture on the second act?” I don’t think Seitz was simply objecting to the putting the serious section first, but that the ending seems rather abrupt. Morton has his “great moment,” giving his idea to all mankind, the end. The script and the film both need another scene or two, including at least one to indicate how Morton was finally, years after his death, got his proper due for his work.

If we had Sturges’s cut, would it work? Probably not, although it certainly would have played better than DeSylva’s cut. But the seriousness and comedy never jell in the version we have, especially since Sturges as director pushes the slapstick to a higher level than he should for this picture. I am not sure audiences in 1942, given that they had been used to the typical Hollywood historical biographies, would have accepted the particular mixture Struges gives us. And Sturges may have known that. After The Great Moment, he wrote The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which was shot in 1942 but held for release because of censorship problems until 1944. Sturges then wrote Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) which DeSylva also recut. Eventually when DeSylva essentially gave Sturges a choice of recutting either Great Moment or Hero, Sturges picked, wisely, Hero. He may have accepted that Great Moment was a lost cause. In spite of what film editors tell you, a film cannot be “saved” in the editing room if there is no there there to be saved.

Susan Slept Here (1954. Screenplay by Alex Gottlieb, based on the play by Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb. 98 minutes.)

 

Susan Slept Here

Let me save you from this one: Elaine Lennon, an Irish friend of mine, suggested I take a look at this one, since it is about a screenwriter, and we don’t get a lot of those. Since it takes place at Christmas, TCM ran it in December and I watched it. I am still speaking to Elaine.

Mark Christopher is indeed a screenwriter. He even won an Oscar, and it is his Oscar that narrates the movie. A lot could be done with that, but nothing is, probably because the script is based on a stage play and everything is explained by all the characters in more detail than we need. Since Billy Wilder had Sunset Boulevard narrated by a—spoiler alert—dead man, you can imagine what he could have done with a talking Oscar. We do see Mark watching one of his bad old movies on television and he lip-syncs to the dialogue, but that’s about it. The story gets going when two police detectives bring him a juvenile delinquent for Christmas. He had told them he was thinking about doing a script about a delinquent and would like to talk to one. They thought of him when they picked up this kid, since if they don’t palm the kid off on Mark, the kid will have to go to detention over Christmas. Shades of Preston Sturges’s script for Remember the Night (1940; see US#38). And the 17-year-old delinquent is a girl. My mouth waters at what Diablo Cody could do with that. But Gottlieb was well into middle age, and had not a clue what a teenage delinquent girl was like. Keep in mind this was made the year before The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. And it gets worse. The girl is played by Debbie Reynolds, the least delinquent girl in movies ever.

Unlike Christopher Hampton on A Dangerous Method (see US#88), Gottlieb did not open up the play. We spent most of the 98 minutes in Mark’s apartment; one reason Elaine likes the movie in a guilty pleasure sort of way is that she loves what she calls his “Palm Springs moderne” ’50s apartment. The few times we go outside, it is for nothing that is not discussed in the film.

By the middle of the film everybody has pretty much forgotten that Susan is a delinquent. Mark never talks to her about her life in any sort of way that suggests he is thinking about writing about it. The film simply turns into a romance between her and the 35 year old writer, played by the 49-year-old Dick Powell. Cre-e-e-e-py.

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.