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“They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”
Hosea 8:7

Proverbs, adages, maxims, parables, and legends supply an amazing proportion of story themes. This, of course, is because they are full of profound meaning relating to human life.  A proverb is a saying certified by the voices of generations, and the origin of many of those are in use today is lost in mists of antiquity. Thousands of years ago, men said significantly, ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’; ‘He who chases two hares catches neither’; ‘The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children’; ‘Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.’

. . . Proverbs record the thoughts of generations, the voice of the multitude, and they are found in all nations. . . . The wisdom of the great religions of all races is expressed in maxims that have touched all phases of life, business, health, and matrimony, and have in them the germs of many a story with the stamp of authority. Themes based on these sayings have the advantage that the audience is in sympathy with theme. ‘As ye sow so shall ye reap,’ has been a story theme from time immemorial.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
Pages 107-108

What do you want to bet that Saturday Night Live this weekend opens with a skit on the recent college admission scandal? Low hanging fruit for the writers. Ripped from today’s headlines and perhaps sprinkled with ancient wisdom from the prophet Hosea.

Scott W. Smith 

“I was astounded at how really useful ‘thematic thinking’ turned out to be.”
Stephen King
On Writing, page 207

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A Quiet Place

While I have found many quotes from talented writers and directors talking about their disdain for the topic of theme, I will say I have found more from equality talked writers and directors who embrace theme in their work, and in the work of others.

When Oscar-winning Francis Marion wrote the following words in her 1937 book keep in mind that talking pictures were not even a decade old. And feature films had only been made for about two decades.

“Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”
Carlos Stevens

I don’t know how many other filmmakers in the 1930s agreed with her, but there were some fine films made during that time. In fact, many consider 1939 as the single best year in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Some would say the best year for films ever.

Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Wuthering Heights
Stage Coach
Of Mice and Men
Ninotchka
Dark Victory
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Gunga Din
Young Mr. Lincoln
Beau Geste
Union Pacific
Golden Boy
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

This was at the tale end of The Great Depression when millions of Americans went to movies weekly. World War II and television were a few years away from changing movie going habits forever.

Marion embraced theme and spent seven pages covering the topic from her point of view. Here’s another excerpt from her book:

Examine any good plot and you will find a theme imbedded in it; it is the theme that gives the plot objective and purpose. A plot that does not prove anything is diffused and uninteresting. It ‘doesn’t get anywhere.’ As a matter of fact, a plot is merely the more or less mechanical invention that gives opportunity to the characters to portray a theme; and the theme keeps the story from being just a series of episodes concerning the same characters. 

The theme rarely is mentioned in the story; it is never rubbed in. The audience may not put it in words at all, but will recognize the theme and the fact that the story keeps in line with it. Suppose that you have taken for your theme the slogan, ‘It pays to advertise.’ These words may never be mentioned in the story, but the story itself will demonstrate the truth of that statement.

. . . The theme which Sinclair Lewis definitely proved, and which certainly gave purpose to his Main Street, might be stated simply as, ‘the ugliness of life in middlewestern town.’ The theme of Sorrel and Son by Warwick Deeping might be, ‘No sacrifice is to great for a father to make for a beloved son’; of The Four Horseman of by Ibanez, as ‘Want, disease, famine, and death forever follow war’; and that The Miracle Man*, ‘Spiritual regeneration is possible even in the worst of men.’”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories  (1937)
pages 106-107

*Since Marion does not give the author for The Miracle Man I am not sure if she is referencing the movie versions—there were two; The Miracle Man (1919) starring Lon Chaney,  The Miracle Man (1932)—or the 1914 Broadway play version , or the original source material—The Miracle Man novel by Canadian Frank L. Packard.

P.S. You could paraphrase Marion’s quote about Sorrel and Son to be “No sacrifice is to great for a father to make for his beloved family” and I think that theme that transcending A Quiet Place (2018) beyond just a monster movie. And a big reason for its box office success. And the father’s sacrifice in that movie, according to screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, was an idea that they hit on early.

Scott W. Smith

“The more important the theme, the more important the story.”
Frances Marion

To show that the debate on theme in relation to screenwriting is nothing new, here’s what Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion wrote in her book How to Write and Sell Film Stories—published in 1937:

‘If you cannot state the gist of a play in three lines, it lacks backbone,’ is an adage long in use by the theatrical world. It is based on the prime necessity of coherence and purpose in any form of drama; in other words, it calls for theme, and all good stories, whether or not the author is aware of it, have a theme. 

There seems to be considerable misunderstanding among amateur writers as to what theme is. A theme is not plot. It is not ‘a message’ or some didactic factor designed to make people think, nor is it a moral. The film story is not required to preach, or to argue for reformation. It has no call to be ‘uplifting’ and its theme may have as little morality as the old verse

It is a sin
To steal a pin,
But it matter naught
If you don’t get caught,

always providing, of course, that the sinner is a likable fellow.

It is sometime said that theme is any simple idea, such as ‘love,’ ‘vengeance,’‘divorce,’ ‘jealousy.’ The writer of a film story who does not conceive his theme in a more specific and concrete form that than this is headed for trouble . . . . 

The theme is the underlying idea, the aim, the implication of the plot; it is the proposition on which the plot is based; it is the backbone that sustains it. It is the truth that the story proves; it is the frame within which the story is pictured. It helps to give that logical coherence that makes the story whole.

In some stories the plot arrangement naturally reveals the theme without any particular effort on the part of the writer. Or the writer may start with theme and build a story about it, in which the case he has a thematic story.”
Frances Marion (The Big House, The Champ)
pages 104-105

Related links:

Screenwriters Bryan Woods & Scott Beck on Theme
Ryan Coogler on the Theme of ‘Black Panther’
David Mamet vs. Aaron Sorkin/Judd Apatow/Martin Scorsese on Theme
Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

Scott W, Smith

Note: If you’ve followed this blog much you know that I’ve been writing a book based on this blog. It’s been a long in winding road to condense a greatest hits so to speak out of more than 2,600 post, but I’m hoping to actually see the release of it by the end of the month. Until then, here’s an excerpt from the book that is actually not from a previous post.

“One could write a history of Hollywood around Frances Marion.”
—John Beltone

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Writer/director Frances Marion was not only the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (The Big House in 1930), but she was the first screenwriter to win two Oscars after The Champ won in 1932.

It’s hard not to watch the opening shot of The Big House and think it didn’t influence Frank Darabont’s opening in The Shawshank Redemption. (I’m not sure there were any big prison movies before The Big House, but her movie was informed by working as a journalist and visiting prisons.)

Marion’s first IMDB credit is on the movie The New York Hat in 1912 which was directed by D.W. Griffith and which began a long career working with Mark Pickford.

She also wrote films starring the biggest stars of early cinema including Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, and Jean Harlow. The early films being short, silent films where the writers were credited as scenarist. Which explains why it’s estimated while she amassed over 300 writing credits in her 30+ year career.

But she also made the transition to talking feature films, and was a highly paid screenwriter working for legendary producers Sam Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg.

She was under contract with MGM and married to actor Fred Thomson died in 1928, but at one time was billed as “The World’s Greatest Western Star.” Think of them as an early Hollywood power couple.

They built a glamorous home built in 1925 known as The Enchanted Hill overlooking Beverly Hills. It included a large Spanish Hacienda-style home on four acres overlooking Beverly Hills and was complete with an organ, a barn for horse and living quarters for staff, a guesthouse, tennis courts and a hundred foot swimming pool.

Frances did not attended college, but after her mother died when she was young she did attend a boarding prep school that prepared girls to attend colleges on the east coast. She could speak several languages, played the piano, and was a gifted artist.

Plans to attend college were dashed when the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 wiped out her family’s fortunes. Six years later she arrived  in Los Angeles at age 24 with the hopes of being an artist.

Instead she was able to find work writing movies and at one point was “the highest paid writer in Hollywood.”

In a non-Hollywood ending, the home that Frances built was eventually bought by Microsoft co-found Paul Allen, and demolished. When Allen died in 2018 the land was still a vacant lot.

That demolition of that home was another chapter on Hollywood history that bit the dust. Perhaps a fitting metaphor as tech groups from Silicon Valley (and beyond) change the direction of how the Hollywood film industry operates.

She wrote that screenwriting was “like writing on the sand with the wind blowing.” Frances Marion is greatly forgotten today, but wouldn’t it be great to have a conversation with her today? To hear her give some screenwriting insights from golden era of Hollywood?

Well . . . she did leave behind a couple of books, including How to Write and Sell Film Stories. The book was published in 1937 and not easy to get ahold of, but I have a copy. So until I announce when my book is available, I’ll be pulling excerpts from her book.

Scott W. Smith

 

“‘Girl-writer’ is honestly what they called me. This was because comedy shows for people like Bob Hope and Jack Benny were usually written by groups of men who were known as ‘The Boys.’”
Madelyn Pugh Davis

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Madelyn Pugh Davis was kind of the Diablo Cody in the early days of sitcom television, back when there weren’t many female writers. She majored in journalism at Indiana University and got her start in radio before eventually moving to Los Angeles and becoming a staff writer for the entire run of  I Love Lucy. 

”I had come to Hollywood from Indiana not too long before [meeting Lucille Ball], and she was the first real celebrity I had ever met besides Hoagy Carmichael, the Hoosier composer of “Star Dust,” and everyone in Indiana had met Hoagy or claimed they had. Bob [Carroll] and I had written lots of radio scripts as staff writers at CBS for Pacific Network, but this was the first full network script we had ever written. We rehearsed all day and did the show in front of a studio audience in the late afternoon. The two of us sat upstairs in the glassed-in clients’ booth during the show, and I hate to admit it, bit we counted the laughs—ninety two. This was it! We were writing a network show for Lucille Ball, and we got ninety-two laughs. We were on our way to The Big Time.”
Madelyn Pugh Davis
Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America’s Leading Lady of Comedy
(On working on the radio program My Favorite Husband )

“For four of its six seasons, ‘I Love Lucy’ was the most popular show on television; it never ranked lower than third in any of those seasons. It received two Emmy Awards for best situation comedy and two nominations for best comedy writing.”
Dennis Hevesi
New York Times (April 21, 2011)
Madelyn Pugh Davis, Writer for ‘I Love Lucy,’ Dies at 90

It’s estimated that over their career that Davis and her writing partner Bob Carroll write a total of 400 radio shows and 500 TV shows. In 1992, they were given the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award from the WGA.

They weren’t known as joke writers but specialized more in visual comedy. Watch this video of classic I Love Lucy visual comedy moments.

Ken Levine points out on his History of Sitcoms podcast that through the entire run of I Love Lucy (181 episodes) that they only used five writers. And only two of those writers are credited on every episode— Bob Carroll Jr and Madelyn Pugh Davis.

Not bad for a boy writer from Florida and girl writer from Indiana.

Related link: Interview with Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

Unless you’ve been stuck under a avalanche in Colorado the past few days you can’t have missed that Captain Marvel starring Brie Larson opens tonight. Here’s what the IMDB slash page looks as I type this post. But you may have missed that movie has Iowa roots.

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Captain Marvel co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who also co-wrote the film with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) shot their first narrative indie film Sugar (2008) in Davenport, Iowa. Actually, in the same Quad City area along the Mississippi River that A Quiet Place screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods first started making films together as youngsters.

And the last feature Boden and Fleck made before Captain Marvel  (Mississippi Grind) actually starts out in Iowa. Though I think for budgetary reasons the entire film (except for insert shots) was shot in Louisiana. No news yet if Captain Marvel makes a stop in Iowa.

Mississippi Grind, starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds, is one of the best acted films that people never saw. It had a limited release in 2015, but is hopefully finding its lost audience now that it’s on Netflix. But the $130,000 box take (less than Captain Marvel probably spent on orange juice for the crew) made Boden and Fleck question the future of their careers.

Here’s a lightly edited excerpt from an interview that Boden and Fleck did in 2016 on The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast.

Brian Koppelman: I do sense from you a little discouragement on the state of independent film. I look at your career and I think they’ve been able to make all these movies exactly the way that they’ve wanted to. It’s incredible. It’s the kind of thing that later someone looks back and thinks they’re living a french new wave kind of existence. Of course, living it is hard. You’re making exactly  the movies you want to make with no creative compromises. Yet I can see your frustration—are you frustrated by it?

Anna Boden: I am frustrated by it, but I look back at all the movies that we’ve made and the experience of making them—it took a few years to make Mississippi Grind (our last film) and I was frustrated. I was going home to my husband every night as we were trying to get that movie off the ground [and] I was like I can’t do this—this is my least favorite part of filmmaking. And I was complaining to all my friends about it—maybe I should open a B&B in Hudson Valley. And then we got down to New Orleans and started prep and I felt so happy. I felt so exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. So confident in what we were doing and the people we’d chosen to work with. And in those moments that it’s worth it. But then you finish and then you spend a year releasing it, and then nine people see it. And then you have to start raising money for your next project. And it’s in those lulls that you start wondering, “Is it really worth it?”

In that lull between releasing Mississippi Grind and beginning to work on Captain Marvel, Boden and Fleck directed three episodes of Koppelman’s Showtime series Billions in 2016 and 2017.

Scott W. Smith

“The farm was a stage set; the tractor drivers and nurserymen were stagehands.”
Steven Bach

“When I order a tree at nine a.m., I want to be sitting in its shade by five p.m.”
Moss Hart

In 1937 Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It with You) was a rich and successful Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. He had a Pulitzer Prize and a little cash to spend. So he purchased a more than 200 year old farmhouse house on 87 acres—called Fairview Farm— in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. (About an hour and a half from New York City.)

Back in August, I wrote a post about Bucks County because that’s where a young playwright named Neil Simon took one of his first plays that was struggling to find an audience. He called the the three-week summer stock run at The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania a ”last ditch for his play.”

Playwright George S. Kaufman also had a farm in the area, which is probably originally drew Hart to the area. Plays that Kaufman & Hart wrote together would be performed at the Playhouse, sometimes with Kaufman or Hart also directing or acting.

When Moss Hart married Kitty Carlisle in 1947 the two spent their honeymoon performing the Kaufman and Hart play The Man Who Came to Dinner, at The Bucks County Playhouse.

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Moss & Kitty Hart on their Fairview Farm in Bucks County where they started a family and entertained famous guests.

The Playhouse helped attract many people to the area including John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith (perhaps now best known as Rocky Balboa’s original trainer), Lillian Hellman, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harpo Marx. Many who found a way to spend time with Hart on his farm.

Hart also did much of his writing on the farm including a story based on his own property—George Washington Slept Here. He also spent a good deal of money on the farm—including expanding the farmhouse, adding a pool and tennis courts, and thousands of trees and shrubs— which had an positive economic impact in the area during the 1930s.

“Landscaping, decorating, and remodeling would continue as his Broadway and Hollywood earnings helped end the Depression in Bucks County, bringing delight to friends and contractors, not to mention well-diggers.”
Steven Bach
Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart

Hart “bought the farm” in the other sense when he was only 57 years old after three heart attacks.

P.S. When I started this blog in 2008 I knew that I could probably gather enough notes to write a year of posts. I never thought I’d be doing to a decade later. Now I realize I could do a year of posts on just Moss Hart (1946-1961), but this will be a last post on him for a while. But in a few days I’ll begin a string of posts on early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion who had a connection with Hart. In the 1930s he rented her famed estate overlooking Beverly Hills.

Scott W. Smith

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