Friday, February 15, 2008

Ben Maddow: Affairs of the Skin

Part 3

That Maddow was blacklisted in 1952 might account for the statement on the dust jacket of Forty-Four Gravel Street which states that the author had recently adapted Fred Zinnerman’s Member of the Wedding. Not only would one be hard pressed to find evidence supporting this claim, but Maddow would maintain that, at the time of his blacklisting, he had been working on an early version of High Noon and had just finished a draft of The Wild One. Though, after seeing the finished product, Maddow insisted that his name should be removed from the latter film. That might have been the case, but it was, in all likelihood, less his dislike of the The Wild One, than McCarthyite politics that caused his employer, Stanley Kramer, to summons Maddow to his office only to inform the writer that he had no choice but to fire him.

As for the blacklist, Maddow was to insist that, since those on the Hollywood left were making considerable sums of money, the process had more to do with denying the left funds than with the notion that the left might have been influencing Hollywood films. According to Maddow, there was little to influence. What, said Maddow, was leftwing about Intruder in the Dust, other than it was about a black man, who was, in any case, not even an African-American. Moreover, Maddow maintained that, if compared to New York, there were, in fact, relatively few leftwingers in Hollywood. He would point out that most Hollywood leftists were from New York, and, once on the West Coast, found themselves in alien territory, so joined the party as “a sop to their conscience.” Typically, Maddow’s cynical analysis, though containing an element of truth, fails to consider that some principles transcend sectarianism, locale, and the blatantly obvious. True, the total number of Communist Party members in the movie business was never very large. The House Committee maintained that there were 324 employees, and their wives who were Party members. This out of an industry of more than 30,000. According to Otto Friedrich, in his excellent City of Nets, “scarcely two or three dozen Communists could be said to have any importance whatsoever.” Likewise, fund-raising. While the HUAC maintained the Hollywood Communists had raised over $900,000, social critic Murray Kempton suggests the figure could not have been more than $500,000, and this was over a fifteen year period.

It was through Irving Lerner, whom he had known since his days making documentaries at Frontier Films, that Maddow met the infamous Philip Yordan, Maddow would end up writing between six and ten scripts for Yordan, who, himself, would go on to receive credits for “writing” The Big Combo, House of Strangers, and scores of other films. According to Maddow, Yordan was incapable of writing anything, and, even before the blacklist, had employed others, blacklisted or not- though obviously blacklisted writers were cheaper- to do his writing for him. But in Hollywood, Yordan’s approach was not unusual. Well-known writers would often have a stable of underlings working for them. For instance, Ben Hecht, who, amongst his many great films, penned such noir efforts as Edge of Dawn, Kiss of Death, Underworld and Where the Sidewalk Ends, employed a staff to write in the style of Ben Hecht, with the famed writer adding a personal touch to authenticise the scripts. It is another example of Hollywood’s lop-sided orientation, a situation that lends itself to various absurdities, from hiring a stable of writers to Milton Sperling (producer of I Wake Up Screaming, Cloak and Dagger and co-scriptwriter of Merrill’s Marauders) asking Maddow to work on a film with him, the idea of which was to look at the last five winners of Best Picture of the Year, take the best scenes out of each of them, and recombine them into a new film. Maddow wisely chose to pass on that particular project.

In Maddow’s estimation, Yordan was nothing short of a con-man, who began his writing career by going to his local library where he asked how one might go about becoming a writer. The librarian politely inquired if he had ever read anything. Yordan had to admit he hadn’t. She suggested he should read a play, study its structure, and try to write something similar. She gave him a copy of Anna Christie, which Yordan took home, read and copied word for word, changing its locale, making the language a bit more contemporary and changing the heroine from a woman who returns to New England to a woman who, as a B dancer, returns to Chicago. Retitling it Anna Lucasta, he was able to sell it to Hollywood, which launched his career as a Tinseltown writer.

According to one filmography, reproduced in Backstory 2, Yordan’s screenwriting credits can be attributed to a variety of writers. Maddow supposedly wrote Man Crazy, The Naked Jungle, Gun Glory, Men in War, God’s Little Acre, and Johnny Guitar, while Joseph Mankiewicz wrote House of Strangers, and Robert Tasker wrote Dillinger, despite the fact that Yordan received an Academy Award nomination for the latter script. Yordan would also employ Bernie Gordon (55 Days at Peking), Milton Sperling (The Bramble Bush), Ben Barman (El Cid) and Arnaud d’Usseau (Studs Lonigan).

So enigmatic is Maddow’s Hollywood profile, and such was the low regard he had for his own scriptwriting career, that it is difficult to pin down exactly what films he did or did not write. It is said that under Yordan’s name Maddow wrote Johnny Guitar, a film which many have taken to be a critique of the McCarthy era. Strangely, Maddow always maintained he had no recollection of having worked on the film, while Yordan would swear he wrote the film while on location. One Spanish periodical goes so far as to claim that Maddow not only wrote for Yordan, but also ghosted all of Huston’s films. This is hardly likely, Maddow was never able or willing to elucidate the matter, saying that, for the most part, he only saw the rushes to the films he worked on, and that six weeks’ work that happened over thirty years in the past can easily fade beyond recall.

The ambiguity surrounding Maddow’s- or, for that matter, Yordan’s- screenwriting credits leads one to briefly ruminate on the politics surrounding film credits. Any close reader of these chapters will no doubt have reached the conclusion that the world of film credits is, indeed, a murky one, abundant in falsifications, discrepancies, omissions, and inaccuracies. It is a subject about which film historian and critic David Thomson says the following:

“Anyone who spends long contemplating the product, or listening to the stories told by men and women who have worked in film, knows that credits are not to be trusted... A great script is many things, or versions, along the way. In the end, it is the transcript of the finished film that may involve structures only perceived in the editing room as well as lines lopped over resistant lips. The script is always changing,and there are people who have had busy and well-paid lives assisting the changes with hardly a credit to show for it. Some writers are doctors; and nearly all writers feel sick sooner or later.”

Regarding Yordan, Thomson concedes that he was a superb deal-maker, hustler, and entrepreneur: “He could have written nothing, or he could have written everything. The truth will never be known, and if Yordan is half the operator one suspects, then it is probably beyond remembering.”

Employing blacklisted writers might have been a lifeline for Maddow, but it would prove even more lucrative and career-enhancing for Yordan. Not that the distribution of profits would take place on a level playing field. The two men were meant to split any money derived from the scripts, but Maddow, who, for obvious reasons, had never put pen to paper regarding their arrangement, would remain in the dark regarding the exact percentage he was receiving from Yordan, and had to take the latter’s word that he was receiving his fair share. This is not something one would normally choose to do when dealing with one so slippery as Yordan, the supreme trickster of post-1930s screenwriting.

It wasn’t that Yordan was leftwing or rightwing. The fact was, he had no politics, much less scruples. Unless, in Hollywood, self-aggrandisement counts as a political position. For this was a man who, according to Maddow, would buy the rights to novels on the basis of their covers, only to stack them on his desk to illustrate to anyone entering his office the number of titles he currently controlled. Maddow even claimed to have written a novel for Yordan. It was a typical piece of chicanery that began with Yordan selling a screenplay- written by Maddow in three-and-a-half weeks- on the basis that he had already sold the novel on which the screenplay was supposedly based; and then selling the novel on the basis that he had already sold the screenplay. To secure the deal, Yordan then told a minor executive at Warners that he would pay off his large gambling debt in exchange for the executive telling Jack Warner that he had mistakenly taken home the script, began reading it and couldn’t put it down. At which point it was up to Maddow to write, in a matter of days, the non-existent novel and send it off to the publisher. Thus the script to Gun Glory (1957) and the novel Man of the West were born. Of course, Maddow’s name was missing from both the film and the novel.

Despite such exploitation, Maddow and Yordan remained on reasonably good terms. However, not being able to write under his own name depressed Maddow to such a degree that he, like so many in Hollywood, began seeing a psychoanalyst. To see his words and ideas on the screen, yet not be able to claim them as his own, would lead to a case of writer’s block even regarding stories and poetry written under his own name, a condition from which it would take him a number of years to recover.

Maddow’s recantation occurred in the late 1950s when the blacklist was all but over. Supposedly, Maddow’s agent at the William Morris agency was desperate to get him work, so much so that the agent was willing to pay someone to have Maddow’s name removed from the blacklist. Not that Maddow was an innocent bystander in the matter. After going to the office of Republican congressman and committee representative Donald Jackson, and signing a statement, Maddow was, overnight, once again able to work. According to his friend and fellow blacklist victim Walter Bernstein, Maddow willingly admitted he had become a friendly witness, that he had simply grown “tired of going into the screening room when the lights were out,” and that it was his decision to phone the William Morris Agency and demand that they get him “out of jail.” Though Maddow had told Bernstein that he had only named those who had already been named, former Frontier Films director Leo Hurwitz claimed Maddow had named him, which all but ruined his career. Once removed from the blacklist, Maddow’s depression quickly disappeared, and he immediately found employment with that friendliest of friendly witnesses Elia Kazan on Wild River (1960).

Maddow would claim he felt little allegiance to the Hollywood left, or to his earlier political principles which, interestingly, were formed, as a Sand Street investigator, through observation, rather than through theory or participation in a particular struggle. Maddow would insist he was beyond ideology. Regarding his recantation, Maddow would only say that “conscience had nothing to do with it,” he had simply felt caught between two flags, and if one does not believe in flags, then what could it have mattered to him. What’s more, Maddow claimed he had disagreed with the Party on several issues, and, though he mixed with party members, would disclaim any adherence to conventional Marxism: “Any theory, when matched up with life, doesn’t begin to deal with complexity. And I’m interested in complexity.”

A man of mystery, Maddow, who would pass away in 1992, maintained that Hollywood, in many ways, suited him. Yet, with an almost Buddhist-like resignation, he would also say, “your spiritual life is inward. It’s enclosed in your house and grounds. It’s in your books and records,” and not in what one produces for money.

Strangely, many of his former leftwing friends were willing to forgive Maddow. As director Faith Hubley put it, “I don’t believe in permanent guilt. There are some people I’ll never talk to because I don’t really like them. But I feel some people were victims- they were weak, and they became victims- and I believe they punished themselves enough, so I don’t have to punish them.” While Bernstein says, “I always felt Ben was a strange man in many ways...[Although] my friend Arnold Manoff was not surprised at all, because he had always thought there had been something dark about Ben. But I feel uncomfortable assessing this or that degree of guilt much of that subjective.” Manoff, the husband of Lee Grant, died in 1963, a year before the release of Maddow’s now all-but-forgotten Affair of the Skin. Despite his obvious talent, Maddow would leave the world of film in the 1970s, his career and perspective as enigmatic as ever.

Films China Strikes Back, 1937; Native Land, 1942 (as David Wolff); Framed, aka Paula, 1947; The Man From Colorado, 1948; Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, aka Blood on My Hands, 1948; Intruder in the Dust, 1949; The Asphalt Jungle, 1950; Shadow in the Sky, 1951; The Wild One, 1954 (uncredited); The Naked Jungle, 1954 (as Philip Yordan); No Down Payment, 1957 (as Philip Yordan); Gun Glory, 1957 (also novel, as Philip Yordan); Murder by Contract, 1958 (uncredited); The Unforgiven, 1960; The Savage Eye, 1960; Two Loves, aka The Spinster, 1961; An Affair of the Skin, aka Love as a Disorder, 1963; The Balcony, 1963; The Way West, 1967; The Chairman, aka The Most Dangerous Man in the World, 1969; The Secret of Santa Vittoria, 1969; The Mephisto Waltz, 1971; Man on a String, 1972 (TV).

Novels Forty-Four Gravel Street , Little Brown, Boston, 1952.

Sources Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, ed. Patrick McGilligan, University of California, Berkeley, 1991. A Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson, Andre Deutsch, London, 1998. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s by Otto Friedrich, University of California, Berkeley, 1997. “Evolution of the Thriller” by Claude Chabrol, Cahiers du Cinema, The 1950s, Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed, Jim Hillier. Routledge/BFI, London, 1985. The Hollywood Screenwriters, ed Richard Corliss, Avon, New York, 1972. “The Making of The Naked City by Malvin Wald, The Big Book of Noir, eds. Ed Gorman, Lee Server, Martin H. Greenberg, Carroll & Graf, 1998. More Than Night by James Naremore, University of California, Berkeley, 1998. Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, eds. Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, St. Martin’s, New York, 1997.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Ben Maddow: Affairs of the Skin

Part 2

Never thinking he was following a particular career, Maddow, at first, considered writing for the movies merely a pleasurable way of making a living. When he didn’t feel like working, he was not beyond turning down a project without a second thought. He once had the nerve to turn down a lucrative screenwriting job at Columbia because, as he told the studio, he was working on a long poem and didn’t have the time. Maddow preferred to think of himself as a would-be writer of short stories and poetry. Not that he was alone in this pursuit, but, as he would later say, “I noticed that most of the guys who were in the same position I was, writers with ambition, never got around to doing their own work. They would accept one assignment after another. Or they would spend three or four months between assignments doing nothing or getting drunk.”

Hollywood Ten scriptwriter Albert Maltz had once told Maddow there were three secrets to a successful Hollywood career: talent, luck and social contacts. Maddow doubtlessly had the talent and the luck, but he did not go out of his way to cultivate contacts. He and his wife rarely socialised with Hollywood people, and knew few fellow-scriptwriters. Fortunately, Maddow, when he wanted to, was usually able to find work, writing films like the noir melodrama Framed (1947). Directed by Richard Wallace, and starring Glen Ford and Barry Sullivan, it concerns an unemployed drunk who is used as a fall-guy by a couple of thieves. It was Maddow who thought up the opening scene in which a truck goes out of control. Though the film, like other examples of film noir, have been expurgated ad infinitum, Maddow would say that he “never thought these films were a vehicle for any kind of ideas.” They were simply meant to entertain audiences. Any serious ideas that came forth from the films were, according to Maddow, purely accidental, or came from the novels on which they were based.

Though this was not the case regarding Maddow’s script for the extraordinary The Asphalt Jungle, a film which differs considerably from Burnett’s novel. Not only does Huston’s movie do away with the police superintendant-as-narrator, but, unlike the novel, it focuses on the criminals, treating their activities as an everyday human endeavour. This is why, according to Maddow, audiences sympathise with the film’s criminals. As far as Maddow was concerned, Burnett’s crooks were always fascinating, and he was only highlighting what the author had inferred in the novel. Of course, one can also attribute the success of Huston’s film to the cast, predominantly unknown East Coast actors assembled by the director. The one established Hollywood star that Huston had managed to bring on board was Sterling Hayden. Like the director, Hayden was a former communist who had been a member of the Hollywood Committee for the First Amendment and would later reluctantly supply names to the HUAC. He also spent time on the couch of Tinseltown psychotherapist Ernest Philip Cohen, who, at the time, was urging patients to comply with the HUAC. Hayden would say to Cohen, “I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing.” Cohen, a former party member himself, was, according to writer and director Abraham Polonsky, not only turning patients into stool pigeons, but handing over names and information gathered from his sessions to the Feds.

The studio had let Huston have his way with the cast and general direction because, in Maddow’s opinion, it never considered the film to be important enough to merit the usual amount of meddling and interference. However, the film would come under heavy criticism for its liberal attitude towards the underworld. While MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, who had supplied the names of various screenwriters to the HUAC, hated the movie- calling it “full of nasty, ugly people. I won’t walk across the room to see something like that”- and wished Huston had stuck with hackneyed stereotypes.
A study of, as one character puts it, “this left-handed form of human endeavour,” the film, to everyone’s surprise, was given the go-ahead by the Production Code office. This despite the fact that it trod on dangerous ground, showing a robbery in detail, depicting a crook who escapes punishment by committing suicide, and portraying the police as corruptible. It’s possible that the Production Code office, who concluded that the movie showed that “justice triumphs through efforts of law,” might have seen an early version of Maddow’s script, which went some way to portray the police sympathetically, rather than the final script or film. In his earlier script, Maddow had included an epilogue and prologue- similar to what would turn up a few years later in Invasion of the Body Snatchers- in which the Police Commissioner is shown talking to a group of reporters. “The worst police force in the world,” he says, “is better than no police force...Take the police off the streets for forty-eight hours and nobody would be safe...We’d be back in the jungle.” Though Huston junked Maddow’s framing device, he did include that bizarre penultimate scene which takes place at the police station: the Commissioner switches on the police radios and says to waiting reporters, “Suppose we had no police force, no matter how bad?...[The] jungle wins, the predatory beasts take over.” Yet, with hindsight, the message is clear: this is a film that not only shows crime as an everyday occurrence, but mirrors the demoralisation of the left and the nation’s unease during the onset of the atomic era, McCarthyism and the souring of the American dream.

It was Clarence Brown who recommended Maddow to Huston. Maddow never felt totally comfortable when faced with Huston’s princely lifestyle, but the two got on reasonably well, working together on the script for some six months. Of course, it was Maddow who did most of the writing, while Huston talked. Maddow also found it difficult to adjust to Huston’s work habits, which consisted of getting up late, attending to various domestic matters, having lunch, working for a couple hours, followed by a cocktail, by which time he would be about ready to sit down for dinner. Finally, Maddow was urged by the film’s producers to make Huston do more work, lest the film fall hopelessly behind schedule.

Working with Huston gave Maddow some insights into the source of cinematic ideas. He told Richard Corliss in the early 1970s, that films come from three sources. They can come from an idea originating with the director or producer, though such a person is “generally quite devoid of any but the most primitive notion of actual human life. Frequently he is quite unable to write, though there are certain gifted individuals who are able to dictate.” So a screenwriter is hired, but “it is difficult to make these people come alive, because the idea, however charming, does not grow from the marvelous confusion of American Life, but springs...from the crevices of a clever, skillful and egotistical brain.” The second source is through an adaptation of a play or novel. “If the novel is bad, the film has a decent chance to be good. If the novel is fairly good, the film is generally not bad at all. But if the novel is great, the film, paralyzed with admiration, is quite hopeless.” The third, and, according to Maddow, the source of truly great films is “when the real maker of the film, the director, is also the author. This imposes the interesting burden upon him or her of being a person of enormous talent. We have, so far in this country, only a few who can do it.” However, Maddow would also say, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, that the situation is not without hope: “I have a purely personal superstition that good films are made mostly in the decade after a country has suffered defeat. Let us hope, then that the golden age of film in America is yet to be.”

Part 3 to follow.