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Posts Tagged ‘Suspicion’

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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Once upon a time…between 1927-1941.

By 1927 the film industry was barely 30 years old but great strides artistically and its popularity grew. Filmmaking which started in the United States and France was now happening in Russia, Germany, Italy, Britain, Sweden and beyond. Film technique grew more sophisticated and the audiences simply grew.

Movie theaters became known as picture palaces sometimes the size of cathedrals. In the larger cities the plush carpet, dome ceilings with artwork, and seating for 2,000- 4,000 per theater was not unheard of. They were often grand and sometimes gaudy. Ushers were needed for crowd control. Keep in mind this was not only long before the invention of television, but before the great depression.

There was around 20 movie studios by the end of the 1920s and many people don’t realize that  the 800 films produced per year was at an all-time high. (Compare that today with about 400 feature films being made these days on average. Granted many of these films were shorter.)  Director like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were respected.

Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, William S. Hart, and Lillian Gish were well paid for their talent. But they were not paid to talk. Because until 1927 films were silent. The Jazz Singer changed all of that. Though largely a silent picture it did employ sync sound. Within two years most American movies were talkies.

If you think the industry is going through shift now can you imagine the changes than occurred at that time? Famous and glamourous actors for various reasons were done. Career over. Directors and cinematographers who had the freedom to move the camera freely down had larger cameras and cumbersome sound issues to deal with. And the poor pianist and organist across the country who played the scored music at theaters were now out of the business.

But audiences didn’t care about all of that. By 1929 movie attendance was averaging 90 million tickets sold per week. Even the stock market crashing in 1929 at the start of The Great Depression did not really show down the movie industry. And some would say people during the great depression was a boom to the movie industry as people look for hope and diversion in cheap entertainment. The 30s and into the early 40s are known as the golden age of cinema.

The movie making system was controlled by studios where writers, directors and actors were under contract  so not free to work on any movie they desired and filmmakers had to work under the restriction of  they Hays Code which put restraints on what could and could be on screen. In perhaps a nod to the belief that creativity is best expressed when limitations are set rather than allowed total freedom, the Hollywood golden era produced what many believe to be the finest films ever made.

And even if you disagree with that it’s hard to disagree with scholars who believe that 1939 was the single best year for movies. Check out the lineup:

Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Stagecoach
Goodbye Mr. Chips
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Ninotchka
Gulliver’s Travels
Jesse James
Dark Victory
Gunga Din
Wuthering Heights

Though personally I think 1941 was the single best year for movies (Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Dumbo, Sullivan’s Travels, Suspicion, Sergeant York, The Little Foxes, The Lady Eve). The truth is whatever year you pick around that time there is an amazing list of great films.

I honestly don’t know why that short studio era was so prolific. But I do know we’ve never been able to return. Perhaps it was just a shear numbers game in that they were making twice as many films as they are today. (There was no competition from TV, Internet, video games, etc.) Or maybe creating fine work in the hyper-studio controlled era has something to do with an old T.S. Elliot quote;

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

Every decade since then has turned out some great films, but there has been a lot of sprawl. Of course, maybe all that sprawl from the 1930s has just been long forgotten.

What I do know is that on December 7, 1941 the United States was attacked on Pearl Harbor and followed by the U.S. joining World War II. A war that only lasted a few years but where between 50-70 million people died. Things have never been the same. Including movies.

Hollywood side note: Edwin S. Porter, a lead pioneer in the early film business who gave D.W. Griffith his first acting job and who in 1903 directed highly the successful The Great Train Robbery , resisted the changes in the film business and was working in the appliance business in 1930.

Scott W. Smith

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