Edward Anderson: From Hungry Men to Thieves Like Us
Over the years, Anne would remain particularly bitter that her ex-husband had received only $500 for the film rights to Thieves Like Us. Particularly when she thought about those lines of Keechie’s that she had edited or, in some instances, composed. Anderson’s deal was typical at a time when Hollywood sought to buy, at a premium if possible, novels that could be adapted for the screen. Though buying the rights was a gamble for Rowland Brown, a director-writer past his peak and trying to ease his way back into the frontline of Hollywood productions, he would do well by the deal. Known for his gangster films and portrayal of underworld figures as part and parcel of the capitalist ethic, Brown had hit his peak in 1932, directing and writing the influential Hell’s Highway. As an indication of how fickle Hollywood can be, Brown, three years before securing the rights to Thieves Like Us, had been responsible for Angels With Dirty Faces, which had earned him an Academy Award. Yet by 1939, and the purchase of Anderson’s novel, he was already yesterday’s movie news.
At least Brown’s script remained true to the spirit of the book, incorporating, as it did, large chunks of its dialogue and observations. If Brown was to fail, he was going to do so without sacrificing his artistic and political integrity. Unfortunately, he would immediately have problems with the film, failing in his attempt to cast his friend Joel McCrea as Bowie. When Paramount refused to allow McCrea to work outside the studio, Brown should have realised the project was unlikely to get off the ground.
In 1941, Brown, his career almost over- he did go on to receive story credits for Edward Marin’s Nocturne (1946) and Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential- sold the film rights and script to RKO for $10,000. Not a bad return on his $500 investment. Despite Brown’s track record, RKO sought another director. Either they considered Brown past his sell-by date, or, having seen his script, and knowing his reputation, they were concerned about the film’s politics. It could also have been that Brown had ignored the changes demanded by the Breen Office, or refused to kowtow to Washington insistence that representing judges and prison guards as evil or cynical was counter-productive to the war effort.
At this point, RKO hired Dudley Nichols (The Informer, Bringing Up Baby, Stagecoach) to rewrite the script. In 1944, Brown was actually rehired. But RKO balked at the director’s suggestion that they shoot the film in Mexico. Just when it looked as though the studio was about to write-off the project, John Houseman joined the fray. Hired as a studio producer, Houseman was a product of the New York stage and Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, and had been involved with such films as Citizen Kane and Letter From an Unknown Woman. Houseman would begin his tenure at RKO by resurrecting Thieves Like Us for a young director, Nicholas Ray, who, at the time, was a protege of Houseman’s, and known for his New Deal theatre and radio work. It would be Nicholas Ray’s first film. “I found the book,” said Houseman, “and gave it to Nick to read, and he fell madly in love with it.” To persuade the studio that the film merited resuscitation, Houseman explained to his employers that Ray, who had submitted a 196 page first treatment to the studio, had worked with Alan Lomax and the Department of Agriculture and was acquainted with the milieu in which the film was set.
Making $300 a week, Ray wanted Robert Mitchum for the part of Chicamaw. Mitchum had not only read the book and liked it, but, as a child of the Depression, had first-hand knowledge of boxcars, soup kitchens and Hoovervilles, and had even been arrested for vagrancy and served time on a Georgia chain gang. However, the studio refused to let their $3,250 per week marijuana-smoking star take the role. According to Mitchum, RKO thought of him as a male Jane Russell. With a reputation as a troublemaker, the studio wanted to keep a tight rein on their actor. Had Mitchum landed the part, the ambiance of the film might have been decidedly different. As it is, Ray’s casting- Howard Da Silva, who had appeared in Houseman’s The Cradle Will Rock, as Chicamaw, Cathy O’Donnell as Keechie and Farley Granger as Bowie- seems nearly perfect.
Though the war was over, the film was still having problems with the Breen Office, as well as Howard Hughes, who was back in charge of the studio. Hughes wasn’t very interested in Ray’s film, while, in 1946, the Breen Office was saying that “one very objectionable, inescapable flavour of this story is the general indictment of Society which justifies the title.” This might account for the film’s various title changes, the studio’s confusion over the contrasting approaches Ray and the producers sought to take, and the depoliticalisation of the film’s content. Originally Ray had wanted to call the film Little Red Wagon, as in “it’s your little red wagon,” by which was meant, “it’s your business.” Then Ray, who considered himself a leftist, changed the title to I’m a Stranger Here Myself. Thus shifting the film’s focus from a song of experience to a song of innocence. Other titles booted around by the studio included The Narrow Road, The Dark Highway, The Twisted Road, Never Let Me Go, and Hold Me Close. Finally, in a poll conducted by Houseman, preview spectators delivered the verdict: the film would be titled They Live By Night. Even depoliticised, the film still looked like it might never reach the screen. It was only when Dore Schary, another Hollywood liberal, took over as head of production in 1947 that the film would be given the green light.
Upon its release in Spring, 1949, Ray’s film, eventually written by Charles Schnee from the director’s adaptation (before Schnee, who wrote Red River, came on board, there had been talk that A.I. Bezzerides might write the screenplay), had little box office impact. Film goers were looking for more urbane material. While Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script are prefaced by a passage from Solomon- “Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry; but if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; he shall give all the substance of his house.”- Ray prefaces his film with the following: “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” Thus Ray’s film lacks the urgency of Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script. Without Brown’s politics, Ray bent Anderson’s text- flexible by virtue of its lack of politics- into his own brand of intimate lyricism.
Ray’s capitulation over the sound track is another indication of how far the film strayed from his original vision and the novel’s orientation. It had been Ray’s intention for the the music to be a defining element around which the action would take place. In a sense, the soundtrack Ray envisioned was something Robert Altman- who revolutionised the concept of soundtracks in his film Nashville- created in his remake. In the latter, background and foreground were blurred through the use of fragments derived from the era’s radio dramas- Gang Busters, Romeo and Juliette- and music. Had Ray stuck to his original idea, viewers might have been treated, as was his intention, to Leadbelly singing “Midnight Special,” as well as an assortment of other folk music and radio programmes of the era. Unfortunately, all that remains is a snatch of Woody Guthrie singing “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”
Upon completion of the film in 1947, Bantam republished Anderson’s novel under the title Your Red Wagon in a print run of 270,000 copies. However, the author, no longer owning his own book, would receive no money from the film tie-in. Though ready for release in 1947, the film, thanks to more discussion between Ray, Houseman, Schary and Hughes over the title, to wait a further two years before it hit the screens.
Not surprisingly, Anderson believed Hollywood owed him something beyond the $500 he’d received for the film rights. Upon its release, Anderson, at the time making $30 a week as a Forth Worth journalist, wrote to Howard Hughes at RKO, asking for money should the film become the success predicted by newspaper columnist Louella Parsons. Hughes, unperturbed by ethics, couldn’t be bothered to respond to Anderson, but handed the letter to someone in his legal department who, in a terse and formal reply, turned down Anderson’s appeal.
For close to twenty years, the world forgot about both the novel and its author. By 1964 RKO had allowed the book to fall into public domain. Though the studio didn’t reregister the title, it did retain adaptation and foreign rights. Having paid 25 cents for a copy of the novel while browsing in Needham’s Bookfinder in L.A., independent producer Jerry Bick purchased the rights to Anderson’s book from RKO. It was said that John Ford was also interested in remaking the film. Ironically, the fact that the conservative Ford was able to tolerate the “social significance” of Anderson’s novel- saying it could not be avoided- is another indication of the pliability of Anderson’s novel.
Having produced Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Bick had been paying the options on Anderson’s novel since 1967. In 1972, he purchased the story for $7,500, and immediately sent the book to writer Calder Willingham. Meanwhile, a year earlier, Altman had come across the book and was also interested in adapting it. When he, Bick and Willingham met, Altman made it clear that he intended to use his own scriptwriter, Joan Tewkesbury. Rather than follow Ray’s film, Tewkesbury returned to the novel, extracting and cutting wherever necessary. Though she hadn’t read Willingham’s script, the Screen Writer’s Guild insisted that the latter be credited for his work on the film.
Altman shot his version of Anderson’s novel in Mississippi, in cities like Jackson, Vicksbourg and an assortment of small towns, such as Morton and Pocahantus. The film, which Altman finished at the end of 1973, differs greatly from Ray’s. With its own historical sense and politics, Altman was able to strip away Ray’s sentimentality and romanticism, replacing it with a stony-faced and laconic stoicism. Both are excellent films. Ray’s might be the more moving, but Altman’s, with its humour, brutality and finely drawn characters, is the more believable. Where Altman seeks realism, Ray opts for romance. Though Anderson might have had less time for Ray’s psychological interpretation, he would probably have preferred Altman’s adaptation, which, other than the ending, sticks more closely to the novel.
There is no record as to what Anderson thought of Ray’s film when it opened in Forth Worth in 1950. Certainly critics greeted the film coolly. Not long after its premier, Anderson was back on the road, moving from one small town newspaper to another. After staying in San Antonio for a few years, he went to El Paso, then Laredo, and finally Brownsville, where, between 1960 and 1963, he covered municipal politics for the Brownsville Herald. Obsessed by Fidel Castro- he was certain America was pushing Cuba into the arms of Russia- and having developed an obsessive interest in the philosophy of Swedenborg, he drank- though apparently not to excess- and, in a Brownsville dancehall, met Lupe, a Mexican dancer whom he would marry.
Lupe could barely speak English, but Anderson’s border Spanish was sufficient for purposes of communication. A modest woman, Lupe wore no make-up or jewellery, and neither drank nor smoked. She had a child from a previous relationship, and it wasn’t long before she and Anderson had a new-born son. But Anderson wasn’t ready to settle down. While Lupe remained in Brownsville, he continued to wander. Even if the combination of Lupe and Swedenborg gave Anderson’s life a modicum of stability, he was demonstrating signs of increasing mental unbalance. Not only was it his ambition to write sermons and promotional material for young evangelists, but, in a letter to his daughter, he wrote, “It is also my discovery...that the United States is unprecedented, perhaps, since the Egyptians, in the worship of ‘graven images,’ automobiles, that is. Their adoration of the scarab (beatle) is historic and it is not accidental. I hold, that the most popular car in the world today is the Volkswagen, known also as the ‘beatle.’” Living off social security checks, Anderson claimed to be working on a book that would expose the corruption of the clergy. He moved to Cuero, a small port town near Corpus Christi, where he worked on the Record, writing articles and putting the paper together. It would be his fifty-second newspaper. Crankier than ever, he was known to rant about Zionism, believed Charles Lindberg would one day lead the nation, and expressed admiration for Robert Kennedy and Helen Keller. He was also working on a Swedenborgian text, “O Man, Know Thyself.”
Having grown tired of Cuero, Anderson returned to Brownsville, where he died in September, 1969. He was sixty-four years old. Three years later Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us would be released. After Anderson’s death, his agent Alex Jackelson was said to have several unpublished Anderson manuscripts in his possession, one of which was a novel alternatively titled Several Hundred Wives and One Hell and Many Heavens. Begun fifteen years before his death and rewritten several times, it is the story of a group of indigents along the Mexican border during the time of Pancho Villa, and is imbued with a Swedenborgian optimism. Anderson must have thought about reigniting his short-lived Hollywood career, for, during the 1960s, a synopsis was sent by Anderson, or by his agent, to Warners where it remains in the studio’s archives.
Anderson’s literary accomplishments would remain largely ignored. If anything, his lack of recognition was as much the result of not belonging to a literary group or movement, as to his literary inactivity or increasing mental unbalance. Neither a Black Mask hardboiler, a Hollywood backslapper, nor a well-connected East Coast journalist, Anderson was always out on his own. To make matters worse, Anderson could never crank out paperback pulp fiction, much less brain-numbing film adaptations. Though his gifts were suited for the 1930s, his fiction became lost amidst the more extreme stylisations of later years, only, ironically, to be recycled in an age of tough love and trickle down economics. While one cannot help but be moved by his fiction, Anderson’s life was shaped by the same circumstances that moulded the lives of his characters. He was just another victim of hungry men and thieves like us.
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