The New York Times, July 17, 1966

You Can't Release Dante's 'Inferno' in the Summertime


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 PEOPLE!"

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 "Biography."

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 dice.

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 blind."

"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.

"Why not?"
"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.

"Well, Sol?"

"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 peremptorily.

"You don't have to read it. I'll show you the silent picture!"

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 mild man.

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 Grossinger's."

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 national ethos.

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 happen again.

*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, author—and screenwriter.

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