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“To be alive, to know consciously that you are alive, and to relish that knowledge–this is a kind of magic.”
Edna Ferber

“Life can’t defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death.”
Edna Ferber

Move over Tom Arnold.* On a recent shoot in Ottumwa, Iowa I learned that Arnold is not the only Ottumwan with ties to Hollywood. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edna Ferber (1885-1968) lived for a spell in Ottumwa.

Ferber’s novel So Big (for which she won the Pulitzer) was made into a movie—three times. The first was a silent film in 1924, the second version  (black & white with sound) starred Barbara Stanwyck in 1932, and the third incarnation was a color version in 1953 directed by Robert Wise and starred Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden.  (Maybe a 3-D version is next.)

Ferber’s stories also made it to Broadway and Television—and in some cases her writings like Show Boat started as a novel, and became a Broadway play, and a movie. How many writers have pulled off that trifecta?  She wrote the play Dinner at Eight with Charlie Kaufman that also became a TV movie and the George Cukor directed film which featured John Barrymore and Jean Harlow.

Two of her best known works for film lovers are the western Oscar-winning Best Picture Cimarron (1960) and Giant (1956) which was directed by George Stevens and starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. (How many people have overlooked the bottom of the Special Edition DVD: FROM THE NOVEL BY EDNA FERBER. (In 2009, Giant was adapted into a musical and performed at the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia.)

Ferber’s first published work was Dawn O’Hara in 1911 meaning that her work is coming up on a 100 year run and still appears to have legs. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she began her literary career as a journalist after graduating from high school in Appleton, Wisconsin, before moving on to bigger stages in Chicago and New York.

In the book Great American Writers: Twentieth Century, R. Baird Shurman writes, “The triviality of the wealthy, the nobility of the working-class underdog, and the tragedy of senseless financial ruin are recurring themes in her work. These popular themes propelled Ferber’s career and ensured her popularity during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and World War II.”

“Edna Ferber is a small, peppery, restless, cosmopolitan, a Midwesterner transplanted to Park Avenue. She learned to write on a newspaper and retains a copy editor’s flair for strong simple themes and brisk sentences. Bold strokes. Challenges. Controversies. Crusades.”
Robert Wernick
Life magazine article The 3 Queens of Fiction
April 6, 1959

And while her time in Ottumwa was short it did impact her literary mindset (though not positively) according to Shurman, ” During Ferber’s early childhood years in Ottumwa, Iowa she and her family experienced unremitting anti-Semitism in a rough, marginally impoverished coal-mining town. Ferber recalled desperately running the gauntlet while taking her father’s lunch to the family store when she was young. Her witnessing of a lynching deeply impacted the young Ferber, as did recurring violent floods on the Des Moines River. The grim, dull life of the town and the often despondent attitudes of its inhabitants imprinted dark impressions on her imagination that ultimately inspired characters and plot elements in her literary works.”

Ferber’s work was also praised by Rudyard Kipling and she received an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. She was as part of the Algonquin Round Table, which was the subject of 1987 Academy-Award Winning documentary The Ten-Year Lunch. The writer’s group was also covered in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, where Ferber was portrayed by Lili Taylor. Ferber’s autobiography is called A Kind of Magic.

Today Ottumwa is an All American City with a very nice performing arts center the Bridge View Center. Suitable for a revival of Show Boat.

* Though Tom Arnold grew up in Ottumwa, the town is probably more well-known to M*A*S*H fans as the home of the fictional character Radar OReilly from the book, movie, and TV show. (Or was the fictional character really based on Don Shaffer?)

Scott W. Smith

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Indiana’s been in the news the last couple weeks. First there’s the new Indiana Jones film that’s on top at the box office, there was the Indy 500 this past weekend, and then I saw the front page of New York Times yesterday morning and learned that director and Indiana native Sydney Pollack died Monday.

It seems like a fitting time to take a road trip to the Hoosier State. Though Pollack was not a screenwriter it’s worth paying tribute to this giant of a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story.

Before he headed to New York after high school in South Bend to study acting with Sanford Meisner he had spent his life in Indiana.  From acting in theater, to directing TV shows, to directing over 40 feature films Pollack was unusually gifted. I was a long time fan of Pollack’s and he directed some of my favorite films:

They Don’t Shoot Horses, Do They? The Way We Were Jeremiah Johnson Three Days of the Condor The Electric Horseman Absence of Malice Tootsie Out of Africa The Firm Sketches of Frank Gehry 

He was a two time Oscar winner (Out of Africa & Tootsie) both of which films also won Best Picture Oscars.  Another Indiana native producer/director Robert Wise also had won two best director Oscars for his films West Side Story & The Sound of Music. He also won two more Best Picture Oscars for producing both movies.

And to challenge Nebraska’s cool actor category (which produced both Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando), Indiana lays claim to Steve McQueen and James Dean. The list of entertainment icons from Indiana also includes Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), comedian Red Skelton, song writer Cole Porter, and TV host David Letterman.

Moving to the writing side, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis. Glenn Berggoetz writes, “It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience. During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the form of a teacher.” (Note also that Vonnegut also honed his skills at the Iowa Writers Workshop.) 

Theodore Dreiser from Terre Haute wrote the novel An American Tragedy that was made twice made into a film including the 1951 George Stevens’ version (A Place in the Sun) staring Elizabeth Taylor that won 6 Academy Awards. It is a film that Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) said if you wanted to learn how to direct you should watch 50 times.

To counter Dreiser’s somber look at the dark side of America let’s look at another film with Indiana roots. Playwright and screenwriter Steve Tesich was born in Yugoslavia, raised in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He won an Oscar for his screenplay Breaking Away based and filmed in Bloomington, Indiana and that became the 1979 sleeper hit staring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Chrisopher Plummer and James Earle Haley.

Tesich’s script came at a time before we were jaded by sports stories and was released just three years after Rocky. The film captures much of what I’m trying to write about in Screenwriting from Iowa. That is that there are stories to tell beyond Hollywood, and people all over the world need encouragement to tell those stories.

Frank Deford reviewed Breaking Away for Sports Illustrated in 1979:

“It is the rare film that has understood the essence of sport so well as Breaking Away; or understood summer or growing up; or, for that matter, America and Americana. This joyous story about four young A&P cowboys and a bicycle race in Bloomington, Ind. cost a measly $2.4 million to make but it is better by far than all the ballyhooed, star-studded epics. Steve Teisch’s screenplay is impeccable; Peter Yates’ direction is nearly magic in its command and sensitivity; and the cast is perfectly chosen, an ensemble always in character. And if all this were not enough, Breaking Away also evokes a spirit these times yearn for.

“I’m sure that Teisch and Yates didn’t set out to wave the flag, but there is something special here… the wonderful thing about Breaking Away is that you leave the theater very proud that America has both an Indiana and a Hollywood.”

TV and film director David Anspaugh was born in Decatur, Indiana and also studied at Indiana University before going on to win two Emmy’s producing and directing Hill Street Blues and the quintessential Indiana film Hoosiers.

Matt Williams from Evansville, Indiana is best known as the creator and executive producer of Roseanne and co-creator of Home Improvement. But he also wrote for The Cosby Show and produced the Mel Gibson film What Women Want. He graduated with a theater degree from the University of Evansville and was awarded an honorary doctorate from there in 2003.

And the newest up and coming writer/ director from Indiana is James C. Strouse (from Goshen, Indiana) whose latest film Grace is Gone won the critics awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. His first film Lonesome Jim starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Steve Busemi. 

But I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana who seems to embody a Midwestern spirit in everything he does. Going way back into the early 80’s with prefect sing-a-long songs Jack & Diana (“Two American kids growing up in the Heartland”), Pink Houses and Small Town to his classic thought-provoking album Scarecrow that addressed the farm crisis in the 80’s, to his more recent Our Country. Mellencamp embraced his Midwestern roots and we were better for it.

While his film connections are usually on the soundtracks of films he did star and direct the 1992 film Falling from Grace. Mellencamp was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Indiana University awarded him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts.

On Sunday I spent a several hours driving on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinenental highway in the country. (It goes through both Iowa and Indiana. And paid my first ever $4.+ per gallon for gas.) It’s hard for me to make that kind of trip and not think of Mellencamp’s lyrics, “Ain’t that America Something to See.”

It’s something to write about, too.

P.S. Did you know that in the original Indy script that it was Indiana Smith? Doesn’t have the same ring does it?  (Spielberg thought it sounded to much like Nevada Smith, a 1966 Steve McQueen film.) And isn’t it hard to see Tom Selleck as Indy, who Spielberg originally wanted but couldn’t get because of Selleck’s commitment to Magnum P.I.?

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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