Posts Tagged ‘Samson Raphaelson’

“In 1928 I lost everything I had, and in 1936 I went broke again. So did most of the other soundly advised people in the county…I lost very little money through extravagance, I regret to say. Most of my losses were the result of the dubious pleasure of remarking over the phone, ‘Yes, go ahead.'”
Samson Raphaelson

Imagine your writing career talking off in the 1920s. That’s where playwright/screenwriter Samson Raphaelson found himself after his play The Jazz Singer had a long run on Broadway and then his play was turned into the first talkie film in 1927. You can imagine that for that moment in time life was good for Samson Raphaelson. Then 1928 came along ushering in the Great Depression which lasted more than a decade.

In his book, The Human Nature of Playwriting, Raphaelson said he went broke not once, but twice. His book is based on a class he taught in 1948 at the University of Illinois, and along with his writing advice he gave some practical financial advice to students that is just as valuable today as when he talked about in more than 60 years ago.

“A writer can live anywhere. I myself bought a modest house in the country, where the taxes are low. Ideally, one should live a simple, modest existence and provide for his old age—that is self-evident. I’m trying to tell you how in terms of my temperament and experience.
Samson Raphaelson
The Human Nature of Playwriting

I believe at the time Raphaelson taught that one semester class his home was in Pleasant Valley, PA—about 120 miles outside New York City.

Scott W. Smith

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Playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson would have been 54-years old when he guest taught a class one semester at the University of Illinois at Urbana back in 1948. At that time, along with his play (The Jazz Singer) that was performed over 300 times in Broadway, he had more than 25 feature credits as a screenwriter.

Yet I think the book that came out of teaching that class (The Human Nature of Playwriting) is an excellent example of what I’ve said before—produced screenwriters often don’t make the best teachers. They have a gift and talent to tell stories—and tell them like few can. When they write, to borrow Bob Dylan’s phrase, the ghost comes by.

But where Raphaelson’s book is thin on technical advice on writing he does give some great anecdotes from his writing career that can be extremely helpful.

“The worst play I ever wrote and my biggest flop was The Wooden Slipper. I worked on it harder and longer than anything else in my life—three years—and it was completely meaningless, full of technique and nothing else…The Wooden Slipper was a devastating failure when it opened in 1933. On the second night there were a hundred people in the house, many of them on passes. On the third night Dwight Wiman, the producer, decided to give no passes and about twelve people came…sitting there alone in the balcony, I saw the obvious —what was wrong with the play, how bad it was and why; and that was a great moment…When I think of that night, I remind myself to write about living people; to write unpreteniously, for I have no grandeur; to write humorously, for it is intolerable to see people as they are without the grace of humor; and to not write at all unless there are people in my heart—to live instead, and that isn’t easy, either.”
Samson Raphaelson

As the saying goes, “Success is a poor teacher.” The lesson of touching a burning stove is quickly learned.

In the class and book Raphaelson spends a lot of time letting students develop their ideas which I didn’t find very interesting. In Raphaelson’s later years he did teach playwrighting at Columbia University in New York and perhaps there is where he further developed a teaching style. (Any former Raphaelson students out there?)

Maybe all Raphaelson was doing in Urbana was what the best teachers do—simply investing time encouraging and fostering talent that some students have. Slogging through bad ideas and dead end scenarios in hopes that one or two in the class will have a break through and eventually have their work find its way to the big screen.

May your “Wooden Slippers” find their way to the stage or screen. And if flops, may you learn from your mistakes and make the next one better. Keep in mind that seven years after Raphaelson’s flop, the script he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion helped actress Joan Fontaine win an Oscar for her performance.

Scott W. Smith

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Back in January, I wrote a post about The Jazz Singer and how that movie was based on a Samson Raphaelson play and short story. The Jazz Singer was Raphaelson’s first film credit, but he went on to write and gain credits for more than a total of five decades. His two most well-known scripts were The Shop Around the Corner (1940) which starred Jimmy Stewart and was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and  Suspicion that featured an Oscar-winning performance by Joan Fontaine. (The film also co-starred Cary Grant and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.)

It turns out he wrote a book back in the late forties called The Human Nature of Playwriting. I’m not sure if any other screenwriting blogs have discovered this book, but I’d never heard of it before. It’s out of print, but I tracked now a copy at screenwriter John August’s old stomping grounds—Drake University in Des Moines. I don’t know if August ever checked this book out from the Cowles Library back in his undergraduate days, but I’m guessing it’s been there a couple of decades.

So a couple of months ago when I was doing some post-production work in Des Moines I found my way to the Drake campus to do a quick read of Raphaelson’s book. Raphaelson was born in New York City in 1894, but according to an article by Smith Glaney he spent his teenage years in Chicago and studied English at the Illinois Institute of Technology. (He graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1917 and that’s where his papers are archived.*) In the spring of 1948, well into his career, Professor Fred S. Slevert asked Raphaelson to speak to the school of Journalism at Illinois. A stenographer was on hand to record the entire four-month class. And that was the basis for the book. And there it sits on the shelf at Drake, right next to the classic Kenneth Rowe book Write that Play.

So for the next few days I’ll pass on some quotes from that class.

“The creative piece of writing—play, story, poem, rides on emotion. Usually on the emotion of the central character. By emotion I mean hunger, a desire, something burning under that character, humming and beating like a motor, sending him forward.”
Samuel Raphaelson
The Human Nature of Playwriting

Emotion, huh? Glad I spent 40 days writing about emotion last year. Beginning with this David Fincher quote and concluding with 40 Days of Emotions.

*Back in 1921 Raphaelson wrote the fight song for the University of Illinois— “Fight, Illini!: The Stadium Song.” The next year he wrote the short story The Day of Atonement which got published and later became the play The Jazz Singer.

P.S. Excellent article where Betty Kaklamanidou compares Little Shop Around the Corner with the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film You’ve Got Mail.

Scott W. Smith

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