The New York Times, July 17, 1966
You Can't Release Dante's 'Inferno' in the Summertime
By S. N.
The advent of sound in Holly-wood 40 years ago was a
revolution and on the Lords of the
Manor it had the traditional effect of revolutions: it
panicked them. The Los Angeles suburb, hitherto wrapped in
silence, was forced to join the articulate world.* The
actors were panicked, too; they had, up to then, put all
their confidence in Titles to convey to the audiences what
they were feeling. Now they would have to utter the titles
themselves and they felt, only too often justifiably,
insecure about their ability to project them. Daniel Blum,
in his much-consulted "A Pictorial History of the Talkies,"
reproduces a Warner Brothers, Vitaphone ad which announces
triumphantly: "AT LAST—PICTURES THAT TALK LIKE LIVING
For some of the actors, and famous ones, too—John Gilbert,
for example—the demands of this unprecedented mimicry proved
too strenuous; they dropped by the wayside. Some—Miss Garbo,
happily—made it. In 1930 great twenty-four-sheets blossomed
over the highways and byways proclaiming: GARBO TALKS! It
was as if an animal trainer had taught a poodle to converse.
One wondered how Miss Garbo had managed before she
discovered in herself this special skill. How had she done
her marketing or given orders to her servants? For a long
time after I began to work in Hollywood, which was a
footnote to the revolution, I found that directors and
producers, rocking in the warm cradle of atavism, kept
referring to whatever dialogue I wrote as "titles."
There ensued a frantic and undiscriminating pell-mell wooing
of those who made their livings by writing like living
people. They wanted actors who could talk and writers who
could write the talk. Authors of vaudeville sketches that
had played the Palace, playwrights, novelists, short - story
writers, star reporters from The New York World, Broadway
producers of talking plays, were offered astronomical
contracts and trundled into drawing rooms on The Century and
The Chief. They went after stage directors, too, and sluiced
them out. Some of them, George Cukor, for example, even
stayed. They all sped West in shoals. The luxury of
transportation was the preliminary bait. There was even a
status symbol in the transportation that was offered;
whether you got a drawing room, a compartment, or just a
berth. The clincher was, oddly, escape from provincialism.
My first play was produced in 1927 and I began getting calls
very soon after from the New York offices of the great
Hollywood film companies. One day I got a call from Mr.
Mayer himself. I went to see him in the Presidential suite
at the Waldorf. Mr. Mayer was in a statistical mood. "How
many people a week see your play?" he asked. I gave him a
rough estimate. Mr. Mayer was pained. How could a writer of
my attainments (I had attained one play) consent to write
for so minuscule an audience? "With us," he said, and he
spread his arms out wide, embracing the universe, "you will
write for the whole world."
Writers with cosmic aspirations swallowed this bait,
especially if they weren't doing very well in New York. I
was sent "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." It is a charming book
but, as for much of the way the heroine is in love with a
toad, I felt that it was too avant-garde for me. I turned it
down. I turned down many offers. A few years later, at a
party at Gilbert Miller's, I met Winfield Sheehan, the
artistic head of Twentieth-Century Fox. He offered me
Molnar's "Liliom." I accepted that.
Mr. Sheehan was a short, paunchy, blue-eyed Irishman. He had
been, I believe, Assistant District Attorney of New York
and, later, head of the Fox theaters in New York. Though he
was tone-deaf, he married Jeritza. At the moment I met him I
had another play running in New York, "Meteor," with the
Lunts. Sheehan wanted to meet the Lunts because they talked
and wished to offer them a drawing room on The Chief. I said
I would arrange a meeting. He rhapsodized about the
lavishness of the production he would give "Liliom." Frank
Borzage would direct it. He was their ace director, having
directed the silent film "Seventh Heaven," with their ace
stars, Janet Gaynor and Charlie Farrell. It had been an
immense success. He did tell me one thing which delighted
me. He had just returned from Vienna and he had, he said,
engaged Leo Fall to do the music. Now I knew Leo Fall's
music because Oscar Levant was constantly playing the score
of "Madame Pompadour." It is ravishing. I was excited by the
idea of working with Leo Fall.
It turned out that Winnie had made a clerical error. He had
engaged, not Leo Fall, but his brother, Richard. This
Richard was a dear man with a lovely family. He came out for
six months. One option, as I remember, was taken up. The
second one wasn't. Richard had to go back home, where he was
murdered by the Nazis. His brother, Leo, the clear genius,
had mercifully already died. I used this sad incident of a
mistake between two composer-brothers when I came to write
I am a collector of enigmatic remarks, and all I remember of
the occasion when I brought Winnie Sheehan back to meet the
Lunts was one which Winnie made. I met him out front at the
final curtain. He had a lovely young girl with him. He
introduced me and then took me aside for a moment. He looked
quite anxious. He whispered: "May I take my friend back to
meet the Lunts?" "Of course," I said, "why not?" Winnie was
relieved. "You see," he said, "she's not a professional.
She's from Texas."
For 37 years I have been trying to align this dichotomy. No
To show that I have not forgotten the vocabulary of my
film-writing days, I will now Lap Dissolve to the final
conference on the finished script of "Liliom." It took place
in the paneled office of Sol Wurtzel, who was then running
the Fox studio because Winnie Sheehan was in New York
wrestling with bankers. It was 1929. Wurtzel was a
remarkable character. He was swarthy-faced, wore thick
glasses and chain-smoked huge cigars. He had a tic which
gave him the effect of smiling. An actor once said that Sol
had sent for him, smiled at him and fired him. The
remarkable thing about Wurtzel was his manner of speech, his
voice. It had a curious, granulated quality, like an
instrument for crushing pebbles. Remarks erupted from him;
there was always a fascinating absence of preamble. Someone
said that he made a thousand important decisions a day,
instantaneously and with perfect ease, because he was never
deflected by thought.
I became very fond of Sol. John Ford, who made many pictures
for Sol, was devoted to him. He was one of the few Hollywood
producers who read; he had tremendous tenacity and he
ploughed through books. There were present at this
conference the director, Frank Borzage, a lovable Italian
who had once worked as a ditch digger—he might have posed
for a statue of Colleoni—Sonya Levien, a rare spirit who
worked with practically every writer who came to Hollywood,
including William Faulkner; Mr. Oliver, the scene designer,
and the casting director, whose name I have forgotten. Sol
sat behind his desk, the finished script before him,
glowering at it and at us from behind his thick glasses.
He slapped the script viciously, but addressed me directly:
"I don't like a picture," he growled, "where the hero dies
in the middle!"
Borzage, a gentle man, came to my aid.
"In 'Seventh Heaven,' " he reminded. Sol, "the hero goes
"Yeh," Sol shot back, "but a blind man can still go to bed!"
It was up to me to answer the unanswerable. I said that I
couldn't keep the hero alive, that "Liliom" was a minor
classic and that while I would be willing to make any minor
adjustments that might be suggested, I couldn't change that.
Borzage deflected the conversation to casting. Mr. Oliver
said he intended to build—in miniature—a train in which to
take Liliom to Heaven (I imagine in a drawing room). Sol's
part in all this was listless; I could see that he was
unhappy; he saw himself giving his O.K. to a film in which
the hero dies in the middle. It violated all his instincts.
The odd thing is that Wurtzel was right. The film was done
beautifully in France, after our version was released, and
it failed as ours did. The conference ended on a dying fall.
Sol had invited me to Riverside for a preview of a new Fox
film. It was part of his program to indoctrinate me into the
business. I sat beside him while he drove. He was grim. I
saw his cheek muscles working. He drove in silence for a
time, a silence which was broken suddenly by a volcanic
remark: "You know, Sam, out here you ain't writing for a lot
of goddam Hindoos!"
I inquired. I tried to bring the Hindoos into focus. I found
that Sol had recently experimented with a book on Indian
philosophy and the notion of Nirvana had loomed up on him.
"You know," he barked, "those bastards love death. Out here
we don't care for it!"
Another time I worked on Sol to persuade him to bring the
Gershwins out because I missed them. I told him what an
extraordinary lyricist Ira was. He demanded to hear one. I
tried to convey a song the Gershwins had played for me
before I left New York, called "Isn't It a Pity?", a lament
of two widely separated lovers:
You, reading Heine,
I, somewhere in China.
Wurtzel quenched me.
"It's no good!" he screamed.
"It brings up the picture of a girl with glasses reading a
book and it kills the romance!"
Sol simply echoed a sentiment put into an immortal couplet
by Dorothy Parker. But he relented later. He brought the
Gershwins out. They did their first film, for Janet Gaynor.
Sol wanted to read a play of mine that was slated for
production in New York. I gave him the script. He sent for
me. The script was lying on his desk in front of him.
"It's nothing but a lot of goddam phonies in a penthouse!"
One night Sol came to dinner with me in my apartment in New
York. Alexander Woollcott was there—as he was playing one of
the phonies in the penthouse he left early —and several
others. In his abrupt manner, Sol took me aside after
dinner. "I want you to do two pictures for me next year:
'Life Begins at Forty' and Dante's 'Inferno.'"
I said that the latter assignment was formidable, that I
didn't know the "Inferno." This objection he brushed aside
"You don't have to read it. I'll show you the silent
I never did it, but Sol did. Dante's "Inferno" was somehow
in the air in Hollywood. I think it was the Inferno part
that appealed to them. Max Reinhardt had been engaged (so he
thought) by Mr. Warner to write a screenplay of Bilchner's
"Danton's Death," which Reinhardt had produced successfully
in Berlin. He went to Palm Springs with a collaborator and
they worked on the script for many months. When it was
finished, after he just looked at the title page, Mr. Warner
was horrified. He had thought it was Dante's "Inferno" that
Reinhardt was working on. Max was paid, but his script was
thrown away; it couldn't have mattered less to Mr. Warner
whether Danton lived or died.
A year later, one June day, Sol invited Irving Berlin and me
to see the finished film of Dante's "Inferno" in the
projection room at his house, a little Renaissance palais
which he had built for himself in Bel Air. A friend of mine
remarked when we were first invited to the house that it was
the kind of chateau a grand duke might build for his
mistress. But Sol lived in it very respectably, with his
charming wife and children.
The major premise of the film was that, if you spent all
your time reading Dante's "Inferno," no harm could come to
you, that the future would be swathed in felicity. The scene
is Coney Island. It is a father-and-son story. The son runs
the carousel concession; the father sits home and reads
Dante. The sorrow of his life is that he cannot get his son
to share his preoccupation. He pleads and pleads but the son
just won't read it. He prefers to hang around his carousel.
The father's worst fears are confirmed. At the climactic
point the carousel goes up in flames. It is a holocaust. It
is a real Inferno done with great realism. But it has a
salutary effect. When the disaster is over the son,
chastened, begins reading Dante.
As the sultry story unfolded, Berlin, sitting next to me,
whispered in my ear: "What are you going to say to Sol?" I
whispered back that I would trust to the moment. When it was
over, for want of anything better, I said to our host: "Are
you going to release this picture right away, Sol?"
"You can't release Dante's 'Inferno' in the summertime!"
said Sol sagely.
Sol didn't know it, but he had created a comic masterpiece.
I would give anything to have a print of this picture and a
projection room in which to show It has long been a stoutly
held conviction of mine that the funniest remarks are made
and the funniest books written not by professional humorists
but by the totally humorless. I think, for example, though I
hope that Professor Leavis doesn't hear about it, that "Lady
Chatterley's Lover" is a very funny book.
There are so many prints, of so many films of that era, that
I would love to have for my mythical projection room. Sol
Wurtzel was an "original." He was also a most endearing man.
The last time I saw John Ford, we both mourned him.
In that foetal era Hollywood came upon still another variety
of sound indulged in by living people, and that was music.
This was even more esoteric than speech, and it threw them.
They couldn't put Schubert and Chopin, Brahma and Schumann
into drawing rooms on The Chief, but they could get them on
celluloid and they did. They raked Europe for singers who
could sing like living people and for composers who could
write for them. The list of importations is impressive.
A famous coloratura named Miliza Korjus was imported to sing
in a film about Johann Strauss, "The Great Waltz." The
director, Gottfried Reinhardt, brought in one of the prima
donna's records to play for the producer, Bernie Hyman. In
it Madame Korjus sang a Mozart aria with trills that
ascended to heaven. Mr. Hyman was transported. "We'll put
that in the picture," he said. Reinhardt told him that would
be impractical since the aria was by Mozart and the film was
to be about Strauss.
"Who the hell is going to stop me?" said Hyman, normally a
Some years later, Gian-Carlo Menotti, as an incitement, was
shown a film just made about the Schumanns and Brahms, "The
Song Of Love." In one scene Brahms is sitting with his girl
listening to the first performance of his first symphony. In
the middle of the first movement he leans over to his girl
and asks her out to have a beer. They go. I was present and
I saw Mr. Menotti's pain. In the gentlest way he protested.
"Not," he said, "not at a first performance! No composer
would walk out on his own symphony being performed for the
first time." It was explained to him that it established
firmly Brahms's interest in the girl. Menotti understood the
basic axiom but I don't think that his pain went away.
For the projection room which I am never going to have and
for the delectation of friends I shall never be able to
invite, I think I should choose for my film library a smart
selection of the films that were made on serious music. The
producers had acquired a wary working-relationship with
speech but their relationship with music was catatonic. (The
paralysis spread even to England. I should like to have, for
instance, the Schubert film, "Unfinished Symphony." All
through this film poor Schubert is nagged by everybody: "Why
don't you finish your Unfinished?" Though Schubert had
finished the great C Major after he had not finished the
Unfinished, the scriptwriter ignored this burst of industry
and went on forever reproaching him for dilatoriness. There
is a short scene with Beethoven, who is sternly reproachful:
"Schubert, why don't you finish . . .?" They never let the
poor man alone; it never occurs to anybody—not even to
Schubert—to suggest that maybe he didn't want to finish it.)
In the Chopin film, "Song To Remember" the virtuoso is
introduced to George Sand by Franz Liszt. Chopin is a little
slow on the uptake but George isn't; she sizes him up at
once as likely material. She gives him an appraising look
and says meaningfully: "What are your plans, Mr. Chopin?"
Chopin stares at her, planless. Later, when they are cozier,
he is playing nocturnes for her. "This one, George," he says
as he begins a new one, "is for you." It wan Sainte-Beuve, I
think, who said of Madame Sand that she had a magnanimous
spirit and a perfectly enormous behind. Miss Merle Oberon
didn't quite live up to that. She was just magnanimous.
In all the films about music the famous composers and
instrumentalists are treated uniformly as being great
humanitarians, altruists, congenital do-gooders. They are
scarcely human: self-effacing, without vanity and immersed
in schemes for helping each other out. I suppose it's
because to the producers music was a celestial exercise; it
belonged, for them, in a nonhuman realm. For the last night
of my hypothetical series in my nonexistent projection room,
I would show a film called "Carnegie Hall," because I don't
think that any of the other masterpieces of unconscious
humor could possibly top it.
The major premise on which this film rests is that if you
are a mother who loves music and you have a little boy whom
you passionately wish to follow a musical career, the best
thing you can do for him is to take an apartment in the
residential quarter of Carnegie Hall. That way he will grow
up in close contact with the virtuosi and the conductors who
appear in the nonresidential part. So it comes about. The
boy stands in the wings and it would appear that all the
virtuosi who give recitals there are concerned with is the
ambitious boy's future. Artur Rubinstein, as he exits at the
end of a concert, ignoring his own ovation, gives the
waiting boy sound advice. "Bach," he quacks at him, "play
nothing but Bach. Bach. Bach. Bach."
The year pass; the mother sits and waits. Her patience is
rewarded but not in the way she had hoped. The day comes
when her son is booked to play a concert in Carnegie Hall.
She has a box for the concert and doesn't have far to go to
reach it. Walter Damrosch and other celebrities are her
guests in the box. But she is in for a terrible shock. Her
son has not followed Rubinstein's advice. He is the leader
of a jazz combo! Walter Damrosch and the others try to
console her but it is a hard blow to bear.
After the showing I asked the producer how it was that the
mother, whose life was spent in following the careers of
musicians, did not know that her son had become a jazz
celebrity. He winked at me:
"I tell you," he said, "she was taking a long vacation in
I am quite aware that, to gratify a personal idiosyncracy, I
have given a picture of Hollywood in its Grande Epoque that
is, in some ways, quite distorted. It wasn't all that funny!
In its great days when the Industry was the fifth largest in
America, before the cannibalism of the machines undermined
its monopoly, Hollywood enlisted the services of the most
extraordinary group of artists ever gathered in one place in
the history of the world. Its product whiled away the hours
for begrimed miners in Merthyr Tydfil and for bored
maharajahs in their palaces in India. It entertained the
world. During these years there was much editorial heckling.
The snipers were worried about the image of the U.S.A. that
Hollywood was creating abroad: too much preoccupation, they
said, with sex, with youth, with money and with crime. But
these are what America was preoccupied with then, and still
is, and so are the older civilizations whose tender
reactions we worried about. The taste of America isn't a
whit more exalted now than it was then, and neither is that
of England. If anything, crime occupies us much more now
than it did then. One of the distinguished books of the
current year is a factual account of a multiple murder. The
English newspapers have been preoccupied with a multiple
murder of their own. As for sex, it's a good old staple and
you have only to look at the top of our current best-seller
list in fiction to see that there is nothing to brag about
in the national taste. By and large, Hollywood expressed the
It was an extraordinary community; it was an enthralling
time. In all the world there was not a more aristocratic
acting skill than Miss Garbo's. There were the Chaplin
films. There were the Marx Brothers' films. There were the
Harold Lloyd and the Douglas Fairbanks films. There were the
Lubitsch films. Ernst Lubitsch was the only director in
Hollywood who had his own signature. There was no one there
then as witty, as personal. You knew it was a Lubitsch film
before it started. Under the credit titles of "The Merry
Widow," you saw a dedicated geographer, with a hand glass,
peering at a map of southeastern Europe, trying vainly to
locate the country which Prince Danilo deserts for the
blandishments of Paris. He gives up in despair.
Lubitsch himself was a remarkable man as well as a unique
director. He was gay, full of fun, impassioned, serious. I
shall never forget one night at a Hollywood gathering when
some cynic pooh-poohed the idea of the Warner Brothers
inviting Max Reinhardt to make "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Lubitsch poured vitriol over the skeptic, said it was too
bad if Hollywood, swimming in riches, could not afford to
take a chance on the most imaginative and daring director in
the world, to invite him to film a masterpiece which he had
already produced, with fabulous effect, on the stage. It was
a terrible day for very many people when Ernst Lubitsch
died. I shall miss him till the day comes when I will no
longer miss anybody.
With the influx of the refugees in the thirties, Hollywood
became a kind of Athens. It was as crowded with artists as
Renaissance Florence. The modest living room of Salka
Viertel's house in Mabery Road was surely, in those days,
the most fascinating salon in America. You would meet there
Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter ,
Leopold Stokowski, Arnold Schoenberg, the Franz Werfels,
Miss Garbo, Max Reinhardt, Aldous Huxley, Fritzi Masary, Sam
Hoffenstein. The latter's "Poems in Praise of Practically
Nothing" was found by the bedside of Chief Justice Holmes
when he died. These names are only a sprinkling, a full list
would read like an Almanach de Gotha of the arts. It was a
Golden Era. It had never happened before. It will never
*Warner Brothers, using a mechanism called
Vitaphone, had started things off by screening two films—one
a feature, length silent ("Don Juan," with John Barrymore)
that the studio had wired for sound in mid-production, the
other a short of classical singers accompanied by
orchestra—on a summer evening in New York in 1926. The
following year "The Jazz Singer," with Al Jolson,
established the fact that sound was Here To Stay.
S. N. BEHRMAN is the noted playwright, producer,