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Archive for July, 2021

In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot. I am sure that I did not.
Moby Dick, Chapter 6, written by Herman Melville

I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw the 1956 version of Moby Dick, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the director (John Huston), the star (Gregory Peck), or the actor playing Father Mapple (Orson Welles). It was probably something I stumbled upon in my youth while watching TV on a rainy Saturday afternoon. What I do remember is the minister climbing into the pulpit shaped like a boat. It was visually stunning.

Here’s the sermon that Welles reportedly did in one take. It’s not the sermon on the mount, and I don’t know how theologically accurate the sermon is, but Welles has quite a commanding delivery. (The film version sermon written by Ray Bradbury with the director John Huston is significantly shorter than the book version Melville wrote in chapter 9.)

Last week, I revisited the film version of Moby Dick after part of my recent vacation took me to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The film was not shot in New Bedford, but there is a ship shaped pulpit in Seaman’s Chapel there. (When I stopped by on July 4 it was closed for the holiday, so I could only take exterior photos.) Moby Dick author Herman Melville visited this church in 1840 before setting out to sea on a whaling boat.

I imagine someone has written extensively on sermons in movies, but here’s a short list of movies I came up with.

On The Waterfront (1954)

The Apostle (1997)

Tender Mercies (1983)

Sister Act (1992)

I’ll Give My Life (1960)

Places of the Heart (1984)

The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Elmer Gantry (1960)

Leap of Faith (1992)

MARJOE (1972)

The last three on that list could be filed under hypocritical preachers. And the last one I’d never seen or even heard about until writer/director (and encyclopedia of film history) Quentin Tarantino mentioned the name Marjoe Gortner in passing on his recent interview with Joe Rogan.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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After I left Nantucket in June, I spent most of the next day accomplishing my own whale quest. The photo below is the best result of about three hours of total driving on Cape Cod and around three and a half hours on a boat. (And a few dollars on a whale watching boat.)

We saw three whales on our outing off Provincetown, Massachusetts in an area known as the Stellwagen Bank. Those waters off Cape Cod are considered some of the best places in the world to watch whales.

Your expectations tend to be high when you go whale watching—in part because we live in an internet age. But our guide said that seeing 3-5 whales is a good day. She had seen as many as 20 once, and they occasionally have days where they don’t see any.

And the sperm whales you think of when you think of Moby-Dick are in deeper waters so that was off the table. I was glad to see the whales we saw, and seeing the classic tail on the end of a dive was worth my entire trip.

My wife and I only spent a few hours in Provincetown because we were staying at an inn located in Brewster. Provincetown is a dash of Key West and a sprinkle of Savannah. And odd mix considering it’s a sub-two hour boat trip from downtown Boston (and a little longer if you drive).

The town has always been on my radar since the days when I studied acting and playwriting since Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill went there in 1916 and for a time in his 20s lived, wrote, and had the plays Anna Christie and Bound East For Cardiff performed (and sometimes just readings of his work with actor friends).

If you’ve never read O’Neill’s one act plays, I just saw that four of then are available on Kindle for just $5.25 total. (And in paperback for $8.99.) It can be overwhelming for young writers (and older writers for that matter) to read his masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night. The early in his career Bound East for Cardiff is a good place to start.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.“
Ishmael in Moby-Dick (Chapter 17)
Written by Herman Melville

“I can assure you, Ernest Hemingway was wrong when he said that American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn. It begins with Moby-Dick.”
—Novelist E. L. Doctorow
(More than 150 years after Moby-Dick failed to make a ripple when initially released.)

While I was on Nantucket at the end of June, I picked up the book Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick at Nantucket Bookworks.

Philbrick wastes no time in dropping some surprising facts about Melville that were unknown to me:

Page 6:

“By the time of Melville’s death in 1891, Moby-Dick had sold a grand total of 3,715 copies.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick

Page 2:
”In December 1850, Melville was just thirty-one years old. A few months earlier he’d decided to move his family from New York City to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, the temporary home of his new literary idol, Nathaniel Hawthorne. . . . From the second-floor study of the farmhouse he purchased and renovated with loans from his father-in-law and a family friend, he could see nearby Mount Greylock.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathanial Hawthrone’s The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850. He moved to a farmhouse near Lennox, MA in March of that year, and a few months later met Melville at a picnic. Melville had already had success with his novel Typee. The house he bought in 1850 is known as Arrowhead and located in Pittsfield, MA. I took a tour of the house during the last week of June.

The furniture and other items in the room are not authentic, and there have been some modifications to the house, but the room where Melville wrote Moby-Dick is essentially the same.

And you can see the view that Melville had when he looked out over Mt. Greylock. When Melville finished Moby-Dick, he thought he’d written a story that would be considered one of the best American novels. He arguably did, though it would take about 80 years for the book to be discovered and appreciated. When he died, Moby-Dick wasn’t even mentioned in some of his obituaries. Unable to make a living as a writer, he sold Arrowhead 1863 and moved to New York City where he died 1891.

Though Melville was landlocked when he wrote Moby-Dick, he did spend four years at sea living a great adventure in his early 20s. (He said that was his Harvard and his Yale.) Melville was inspired by the tragic true story of the Essex whaling ship.

Philbrick’s modern retelling of the Essex story is the book In the Heart of the Sea, which became the Ron Howard directed movie In the Heart of the Sea.

P.S. Part of my short time in Nantucket was spent at the Whaling Museum which was quite fascinating, and gave a great overview of how the small island for a time was a hub of international trade due to the islanders success in the whaling industry. And though Melville has a chapter on Nantucket in Moby-Dick, he did not actually visit the island until after his book was published.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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This afternoon I fly home from Boston after a vacation in New England that was like a live Ken Burns documentary. Much of the time I listened to David McCullough’s audio book 1776. If I would have taken this trip at 16 (and paid attention) I would have done much better in my high school American History classes.

Hundreds of years of history are at every turn in this part of the country. Even the hotel I’m writing this post has its own history going back 100 years. The hotel is also where some scenes of The Firm starring Tom Cruise were shot back in the ‘90s, and where Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell are shooting a movie (a reworking of A Christmas Carol) down in the lobby as I type this post.

For the next week or so I’ll post some photos and stories of what I learned along the way. But like a good screenplay, American history is full of conflict, interesting characters, transformative transition periods, climaxes, resolutions, and new beginnings.

Update: Apparently, today was the first day of shooting of the movie Spirited:

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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