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Hollywood Quarterly (1950) - Pregnant with Jeopardy




"Pregnant with Jeopardy"


JAN READ, representative of the Hollywood Quarterly in London, has written scripts for British feature films and has had experience in the writing and production of documentaries. He worked in Hollywood for a year as production assistant to an American director.

Not so long ago, in the days when the British film industry was given over to the making of "quota quickies," there was a producer who was in the habit of remarking to script writers: "Put 'em all in evening dress for Chrisake — it doesn't cost us any more!" He would also run rapidly through a finished script, inserting titles in front of the characters' names. "This is Mrs. Agatha Smith," he would say, "change her to Lady Agatha Smith — it doesn't cost us anything." Unfortunately, the day came when there turned out to be a real Lady Agatha Smith, and it cost his company £10,000 in damages. What such cavalier treatment of scripts has cost the industry as a whole in terms of lost prestige and dropping receipts, it is impossible to estimate.

The current film crisis in Great Britain has only intensified trends that were already apparent. It has long been an established axiom that scripts are not really necessary — except in circumstances of extreme urgency. For example, a director needs something on which to stand the child star so as to raise her face to camera level. Where's that script? Everybody in a studio pays lip service to the importance of the script, but a more honest evaluation emerges when films go onto the floor before a script has ever been completed.

Symbolic of the fallen estate of the screenwriter is the systematic elimination of studio script departments. As is well known, every sizable studio in Hollywood has an established scenario department with a dozen or more screenwriters under contract. The charge has been made, and with some justice, that such departments can very easily degenerate into collections of well-paid, well-fed guinea pigs, whose members exist simply to churn out a daily quota of script, and to be hectored and browbeaten by producers. On the other hand, an established department does offer very solid advantages. Contrary to popular belief, a writer does not do his best work when leading a hand-to-mouth existence, completely uncertain while writing one work whether he can obtain a commission for another. Moreover, a studio script department affords constant opportunity for writers to mingle with floor technicians, to watch the scripted scenes being shot, and to help train young writers in what must remain a highly specialized branch of literary endeavor.

In the past, these principles have been broadly recognized in England, and each major studio has had its scenario department, with an experienced scenario editor in charge, where specialized knowledge has been passed on, not only to apprentice writers, but to established novelists and playwrights essaying a new medium for the first time. Perhaps the best known of these departments was that maintained by the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation and housed at the Shepherd's Bush studios, now sold to the British Broadcasting Corporation for television. It is significant that an unusual proportion of leading writers, writer-directors, and writer-producers made their names at Gaumont-British. They include Alfred Hitchcock, Sydney Gilliat, Frank Launder, Ralph Smart, Wolfgang Wilhelm, Brock Williams, R. J. Minney, Roland Pertwee, Ted Kavanagh, Val Valentine, Doreen Montgomery, and Leslie Arliss, all of whom, in their several veins, have left their mark on British pictures.

At the present time only one English studio — and that a small one — maintains an active and properly balanced scenario department. All credit is due to Sir Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios for having given continuous encouragement to young men writing specifically for the screen, where other and more powerful concerns have taken the easy way of hiring established playwrights and novelists on a job-to-job basis. It may be noted that in Scott of the Antarctic, Passport to Pimlico, Tight Little Island, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and The Blue Lamp, Ealing has produced some of the best British pictures of the last year.

Let us now examine what has taken the place of the established scenario department, and in passing we must mention that accountants at the front office have not been unappreciative of the part played by script writers in the successful production of films. In disbanding these departments they are careful to explain, from the depth of their creative experience, that genius cannot function when cooped up inside four walls — and regularly paid. Suppose, therefore, that Mr. X wishes to produce a film for Ironclad Productions in this year of grace 1950. An original treatment submitted by an experienced screenwriter will obviously not do. It may be good — Mr. X doesn't know, — but the screenwriter has been so occupied with his proper business of writing film scripts that his name is not known to the readers of Tid-Bits or the Daily Mirror. No, the subject must be a best-selling novel with a proved appeal to the public, and this he duly purchases. Not now possessing a script department, Mr. X's next move is to obtain the services of a writer, and who better qualified to write the script than the author of the original novel? No dull-metaled interpreter, Mr. X decides, shall impair the brilliance of Forever Today in its transference to the screen. Miss Y, who has never written for pictures before, is only too thrilled when her agent breaks the good news to her. Mr. X agrees to pay a lump sum of £2,500 for the job, in addition to the £5,000 he has already paid for the rights to the story. And Mr. X is comfortably paternal when they meet and he explains to her that there is "nothing in script writing" — he would do it himself if he had the time — and that she will learn all she needs by looking at the script of his last production, Tomorrow Is Always, of which he hands her a duplicate copy. "The dialogue and situations," he exclaims, "are all in your book. It's just a question of putting it into the right shape."

This brief honeymoon comes to an abrupt end when Miss Y's "screenplay" arrives six week later. In layout her manuscript is a facsimile of her duplicate copy of the script of Tomorrow Is Always. It is entitled "a screenplay in master scenes" and is typed meticulously with scene numbers, underlinings, and sequences labeled A, B, C, and D. There, as even Mr. X realizes, its resemblance to a real screenplay ends.

At this point he remembers Z, who used to work in his scenario department and whose treatment he rejected before buying Forever Today. His secretary cannot immediately locate Z — his telephone has been disconnected by the GPO, — but at length produces him from wherever unemployed film technicians hibernate. Z points out, as tactfully as may be, that the basic trouble about Forever Today is that it is not so much a story as a loosely connected and censorable series of undressing scenes. However, he goes away and, for £30 a week, turns in a month later a workable script; it retains the names of the characters and one or two of the main scenes, but otherwise it is his own original work.

Mr. X would be well advised to use Z's script as it stands, but in practice he will wedge in as many rewrites as there is time for, by as many hands as possible. It remains only to add that if Never Yesterday, as it is now retitled, is a really "important" production, some big playwright from the West End will be called in, at the expense of further thousands, to give the dialogue a "final polish." It will be noted that from first to last this new, economical method of scripting without a script department has cost Mr. X something in the region of £10,000 to 15,000, of which the £120 paid to Z has alone been usefully expended.

It may, however, happen that Mr. X actually carries out his threat of himself writing a script, and here it should be said at once that perhaps the greatest single menace to the British cinema has been the spread of elementary education during the last decade. Now that producers can read, every producer considers himself a potential writer. It is, in fact, a two-edged attribute of literature that, of all the arts, it requires materials no more complicated than paper and pencil. If only it were realized that paper and pencil are not all that is required, that rigorous training, both in literary appreciation and in dramatic structure, is essential background, that creative imagination does not flourish between cocktails, that masterpieces are not created off the cuff in actors' dressing rooms ... but that is to hope for the millennium.

As to producers' scripts, sufficient be two comments. The first comment was penciled by one of the most gifted contemporary English playwrights on a specimen of that bloodless horror known as the "technical script." It had been prepared from one of his plays and sent to him so that he might "fill in the dialogue." "Pure Surbiton," he wrote on the front, and on the back " — with apologies to Surbiton." He then proceeded to write a film script. The second comment was made by one of those amiable "associates" who haunt script conferences, in response to a plot suggestion just made by the producer. "Joe," he said, searching in ecstasy for the right word, "it's terrific — it's ... it's a situation pregnant with jeopardyI"

What allies has the British script writer in his struggle for existence? He has, of course, his agent, and in addition there are two professional organizations: the Screenwriters' Association and the Association of Cine-Technicians.

As for the mutilation and rewriting of film scripts by producers, directors, film stars, cameramen, and clapper boys, there is little that can be done. A standard clause in every writer's contract empowers the film company or its representatives to make any such changes in his work as the company may deem necessary. It is unfortunately obvious to anyone who has worked in a film studio that a film script, unlike the text of a novel, cannot be sacrosanct, because so many emergencies — ranging from casting difficulties to floods on location — are possible that the production company must retain liberty to do as is expedient. The trouble is that by keeping the door ajar for necessary alterations the written agreement makes it possible for a coach and horses to be driven through the script for no good reason at all. In the long run, the only remedy for this situation is a rising standard of public taste. Newspaper critics are, on the whole, justified in their strictures on current films, and the keen wind of ridicule can do much to dissipate vulgarity and foster a more intelligent approach to screen drama.

Where the Screenwriters' Association and the Association of Cine-Technicians come into their own is in compelling producers to stick to the letter of their contractual agreements, and also in securing industry-wide conditions of work in certain limited areas. For example, the Screenwriters' Association has done particularly good work in insuring that credit for writing a film is given where credit is due, and that revising a page or two of dialogue does not entitle a contributor to a script to rank in the credit titles with the real author or authors. In the event of credit disputes, there is machinery by which a tribunal set up by the Association has power to decide between the film company and the writer.

Under no circumstances can it be pretended that there is a bright future for screenwriters in England. It is probably true that a writer is freer to speak his mind in England than in Hollywood, but the problem facing him is that of mere survival. Under the present circumstances, more and more writers drift away into other occupations, or into more lucrative branches of film making — hence the parrot cries of "Where is the creative talent?" The axiom that a man is as good as his last picture holds in England as well as in Hollywood, and not the least of the young writer's difficulties is that he has only to be associated with one picture which, possibly through no fault of his own, emerges a failure, for support to be abruptly withdrawn. Producers and production companies must realize that the nurturing of new talent is a slow and delicate process, and whatever the storybooks may say to the contrary, writers do not work best on empty stomachs.