“The Cinematic Faulkner” includes excerpts from The Life of William Faulkner, Volume 1: The Past Is Never Dead 1897-1934 (March 2020) and Volume 2: This Alarming Paradox 1935-1962 (September 2020), with the permission of the University of Virginia Press.
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William Faulkner disparaged his two decades of work in film, even though he spent the equivalent of four years in Hollywood and worked at MGM, Universal, Twentieth Century-Fox, RKO, and Warner Bros. Biographies of Faulkner treat his film work as more or less ancillary to his life and fiction, but in fact his screenwriting transformed his conception of himself and his writing. An understanding of the man and his work changes when his contributions to cinema are integrated into a capacious conception of his career.
On November 13, 1931, a giddy William Faulkner, caught up in the commotion that his sensational novel Sanctuary (1931) had produced, wrote home from New York City to his wife Estelle: “I am writing a movie for Tallulah Bankhead. How’s that for high?” He wanted everyone in his family to know he had created “quite a sensation”: “Tell Cho-Cho [his stepdaughter] I sat next to Jack Oakie in a restaurant yesterday, and that I am going to see Nancy Carroll next week.” Oakie, called “America’s Joyboy,” appealed to children because he looked like an overgrown kid who flummoxed adults. Adept at sight gags, especially triple takes, he had appeared in a musical, Sweetie (1929), with Nancy Carroll, an early star of the talkies with a huge fan base. Faulkner mentioned to Estelle a dinner party with Pauline Lord, the acclaimed actress who starred in the first New York production of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie (1921). In London, she had received a half-hour ovation for her performance. She had flattered Faulkner, telling him, “I’m famous, too” (Blotner, Selected Letters, 53).
Agent Morton Goldman told Faulkner that his two-page treatment for Bankhead was “very bad.” Faulkner agreed he had written trash. He seemed, in Goldman’s words, to “believe that movies had to be contrived and maudlin to succeed so he tried to meet that requirement” (Collins interview August 2, 1967). But that is hardly the whole story, since Faulkner’s interest in film and in a cinematic style dated back to at least April 1925, when he wrote to his mother about a “a fine movie, He Who Gets Slapped, which should be shown by Bob Williams,” a relative who owned the Lyric Theater in Oxford (Watson, 196). The film, about a diminutive scientist, Paul Beaumont, who is ridiculed and spurned by the woman he loves, appealed to Faulkner, five foot five and still lamenting the loss of his childhood sweetheart to another man in marriage. Like Faulkner, Paul becomes an artist, making art out of his misery. It is an exquisite film, reviewer Mordaunt Hall observed in the New York Times (November 10, 1924), and worthy of Chaplin and Lubitsch.
When Faulkner finally made it to Hollywood in 1932, the duplicitous female became a staple of his MGM treatments. He arrived near the end of the pre-code era, when films began to back away from boldly exploring and exploiting sexuality and violence, capitulating to conventional morality. Films like Laughing Sinners, Safe in Hell, and The Road to Ruin (all released in 1931) would be impossible to make a year or two later. For a brief period, then, Faulkner would experience a degree of freedom in his choice and treatment of subject matter, suiting studio assignments to the emerging themes of his novels, even if, in the end, he capitulated to Production Code stipulations.
From May 7 to June 16, Faulkner worked on four treatments under the direction of story editor Sam Marx, who enjoined the neophyte scenarist to write for the camera – which meant in his first effort, Manservant, focusing on a photograph of a woman who haunts the lives of two men of different races. Set in India and the United States, the film is suffused with the cultural and sexual tensions of pre-code pictures, featuring a triangle of the British Major Blynt; his love interest Judy, an American “high-class demi-mondaine” (Kawin, 108); and Das, the Malay servant who dresses like a white man and doubles as Blynt’s alter ego, in a racialized threesome that presages the miscegenational coupling in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) of mixed blood Charles Bon and his white half-sister Judith Sutpen that is thwarted by their brother, Henry Sutpen, who destroys his love for Bon by killing him. In Manservant, Judy returns home, tries to reform, but then encounters Blynt again as he courts her sister, Marcia.
Das’s romantic attachment to Blynt and his beloved Judy is the subtext. Das knows and sees all, including the machinations of a maid in love with Blynt, who decides to poison him since she cannot have the major for herself. The vigilant Das maneuvers to reunite Blynt and Judy and takes the fatal poison himself. Tragedy then becomes inept farce in Faulkner’s treatment: a “CLOSEUP shows” a bottle “labeled ‘Poison’” (Kawin, 24). The treatment is crude and undeveloped but also suggestive: “Das knows that if he were to tell Blynt the drink is poison, Blynt would not believe him” (Kawin, 27). In the end, serious themes are sentimentalized: “ON SHIP – Judy and Blynt – they are married. They are taking Das’ ashes back to the home which he had not seen in fifteen years” (Kawin, 28).
On this first outing, for all its faults, Faulkner’s treatment did a creditable job, providing opportunities for the camera to view the action through windows and doorways, creating an intimate, invasive sense of watching and speculating on human behavior. Faulkner deftly deploys photographs and newspapers to heighten curiosity and reflect the passage of time. Using Das as the linking figure not only unifies plot and theme, it presages the speculative dynamic, the watching and waiting, that distinguishes novels like Absalom, Absalom! and The Town (1957).
In nearly all of these early, unproduced, treatments, a “night bird” consorts with unsavory society. The menacing stranger is a Popeye figure right out of Sanctuary. Like Temple Drake in that novel, these women are drama queens, although they continually back away from their self-destructive gestures. Like Judy, Mary Lee in The College Widow, Faulkner’s second treatment, is afraid to turn to her father, but on her own she is horrified in a scene reminiscent of Temple’s panic at bootlegger Lee Goodwin’s place in Sanctuary: “Mary Lee is afraid to turn on the light. She is weak with terror; it seems to her she can hear the two men creeping about the dark house seeking one another” (Kawin, 50). But unlike the Judy of Manservant, Mary Lee is not redeemed, and the grim denouement would have been too much even for a pre-code movie: “She now lives in an expensive hotel – she must get money to live on somehow, so she is the companion of middle-aged men at night clubs and such” (Kawin, 53).
Faulkner’s third treatment, Absolution, focuses on two friends: Corwin, the scion of an old Southern family, and John, from a family “without social position” (Kawin, 61). At the center of their lives is Evelyn, a young woman from a socially prominent family. John proves the more gallant and chivalrous of the two men, retrieving a ribbon Corwin has snatched from her. As John grows up, he realizes the implications of his low standing in society, which results in Evelyn’s family preferring Corwin as her suitor. Evelyn dares not oppose her family. Hurt and bewildered, John leaves town. In this case, the ostracized hero turns to crime and a “dissolute and vicious life” (Kawin, 63). But John’s attraction to Corwin resumes, even though they have been rivals, and Corwin, realizing Evelyn is unworthy, laments his estrangement from John but cannot summon the will to reconcile with John, and during the war forces John to shoot down his plane. Returning home after the war, John realizes that he “gave up the friend he loved for a woman who was not worth it.” Just before Faulkner wrote “THE END,” he has John draw a pistol from his pocket (Kawin, 69).
The spirit of He Who Gets Slapped hovers over these treatments as the male heroes sacrifice the strengths of male bonding for the hazards of romances with women – unreliable vessels of virtue that so disturb the suicidal Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929). The males in these treatments, including Faulkner’s final work for MGM, Flying the Mail, act like brothers in battles over their sisters. Perhaps a story conference about Flying the Mail later filtered into a Budd Schulberg anecdote about Faulkner in Hollywood. A group of writers were told that the movie should open with a boy and girl “very much in love.” The audience should know this instantly without it being said. No one seemed to have an idea about what to do. A silent Faulkner then wrote a few words on a piece of paper, folded it, and sent it forward to the writer leading the meeting. He read Faulkner’s words aloud: “make them brother and sister” (Collins interview with Schulberg, November 17, 1950).
Faulkner took pride in his work, even this work for hire, as screenwriter Daniel Fuchs later said; as did his colleagues Stephen Longstreet and Budd Schulberg. But Faulkner did not seem to fit in. Another one remembered him sitting at a table in the MGM commissary with everybody “bitching.” Faulkner said “there’s something immoral about all these writers together here like this” (Blotner interview with Bob Buckner, June 8, 1966).
Then Howard Hawks appeared. He looked somewhat like a tall version of Faulkner in tweeds, with the same aristocratic bearing. The director had been reading Faulkner since the publication of Soldiers’ Pay (1926) and ranked him as high as Hemingway. Hawks wanted to film Faulkner’s story “Turnabout,” a natural choice for an Anglophile director who loved to do male-bonding pictures and dress in tweeds. A daring American flyer, Bogard (Gary Cooper), takes a British sailor, Claude Hope (Robert Young), with him on a bombing mission, and then Claude takes Bogard on a torpedo boat mission with Ronnie (Franchot Tone), Claude’s friend and comrade in arms. Bogard, misreading Claude’s typical British understatement, had not realized just how dangerous the torpedo missions were: They have to go straight at enemy ships to deliver their bomb and then swerve, opening themselves up to enemy fire. Ronnie and Claude perish on their mission against an enemy ship but Bogard bombs it, and the story ends on a high note of heroism.
At their first meeting, Hawks pitched Faulkner, telling him they could make an exciting film hewing closely to Faulkner’s own story. Hawks looked at the silent writer and could not tell what he was thinking. It is tempting to imagine Faulkner’s excitement: At last he would get an opportunity to film his own work in collaboration with a director who actually read him. Faulkner got up and said, “See you in five days.” Hawks said, “It shouldn’t take you that long to think about it.” Faulkner, employing the clipped words of his characters, said: “I mean to write it.” He delivered, and Hawks took the treatment to his brother-in-law, Irving Thalberg, the presiding MGM genius, head of production, and the inspiration for F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s Monroe Starr in The Last Tycoon. “Shoot it as it is,” Thalberg told Hawks. “I feel as if I’d make tracks all over it if I touched it” (McCarthy, 178). This was quite a compliment from a producer famous for altering writers’ scripts and directors’ plans.
But then Hawks received word that the film had to include Joan Crawford, a star in high demand who appeared in three or four pictures a year. A musing Faulkner absorbed the news from his director and then said in his usual quiet, understated manner, “I don’t seem to remember a girl in the story.” Hawks, just as curt, said: “That’s the picture business, Bill. We get the biggest stars we can, and Joan’s a nice girl, too” (McBride, 57). Unlike the preening novelist in The Last Tycoon who disparages such commercial considerations, Faulkner met with Crawford and went to work on a new script, writing the terse dialogue she wanted so that she would fit into the taciturn dialogue provided for the men. At the same time, he produced an ambitious script that challenged Hollywood conventions. He created a backstory for Crawford, making her, beginning in childhood, the focal point of her two male companions, Ronnie and Claude, in a tense dynamic reminiscent of the male obsession with Caddy Compson in The Sound and the Fury. But Hawks could not get the right children for the roles, not to mention that the background story would slow down the high drama of men and women at war that suited the Hollywood tempo of his films. Writing for Crawford also wrenched Faulkner right out of the misogyny of his earlier screen treatments, with Crawford expressing an independence from male domination and a courage and stoicism that match the male quest for glory.
This promising screenplay reveals that Faulkner had begun to master the cinematic format. Bruce Kawin points out the effective use of montage: “a series of glimpses of events, often augmented by superimposition, indicating the passage of time or the unfolding of a process. Faulkner’s use of sound effects in these transitions is unconventional (most such sequences simply had music tracks) and quite beautiful.” He worked in the “sounds of warfare, letting them clarify the characters’ thoughts” (Kawin, 117, 120). For example, when Ann calls Bogard a coward because he has not enlisted yet, they are near a window where the soldiers’ tramping can be heard. Bogard listens as the tramping fades away in a scene that heightens the drama of two fraught lives against the mass movements of murderous war (Kawin, 164). The film, retitled Today We Live (1933), credits the story to Faulkner and screenplay to Edith Fitzgerald and Dwight Taylor. The final product, not as daring as Faulkner’s screenplay, reflected Production Code pressures that would result in censorship. Joseph Breen, enforcing the code, advised that words like hell, damn, God – even gad – be eliminated from the script as well as two references to “Huns,” since “it has become highly offensive with Germans,” although Hawks managed to hold on to one Hun. British censors later deleted derogatory references to British officers (Turner).
At home, Faulkner told his stepdaughter, Cho-Cho, now fourteen, a story of what it was like in Hollywood. At screenwriter Lawrence Stallings’s party, Tallulah Bankhead arrived late with a male companion. She said, “Lawrence, I’m late because this gentleman wanted to know if I was a true blonde and I had to show him.” Then she pulled her skirt up to her waist. Stallings, wine glass in hand, put it up to his eye, and said to her: “Say Ah. Tallullah” (Collins interview with Cho-Cho, January 17, 1965).
On January 12, 1933. MGM’s script department had in hand Faulkner’s fully developed screenplay, War Birds, derived from the diary of John McGavrock Grider, a World War I aviator, first published anonymously (Kawin, 257, 275). Then Major Elliot White Springs rewrote the diary after Grider’s death and published it in Liberty magazine in 1926. The diary had been a likely source for Faulkner’s short story “Ad Astra,” which featured the Sartoris twins, the flamboyant and reckless John who is shot down in the war, and his fractious surviving brother, Bayard, tormented by survivor guilt that drives him to his own test pilot death in Faulkner’s third novel, Sartoris (1929). Grider, a Southerner and the grandson of a Confederate army captain who later became a banker, had obvious appeal: “I hear that the Germans have the goods in airplanes and A.A. guns. I guess it’s the North and South over again,” the diarist notes (War Birds, Location 201).
The diary is a grim, if authentic, portrayal of the air war. MGM’s script reader recommended focusing on the thrilling air battles and the romantic, heroic quest of the aviators (Kawin, 257). Hawks rejected a treatment with a silly love triangle that did not do much with the diary’s grainy depiction of war. Faulkner’s remarkable solution was to reimagine the story of the Sartoris twins, the first example of his willingness to transform his fictional world into the medium of film. Unlike other novelists, he did not regard his novels as fixed, sacred objects, or his characters as living only within the boundaries of a published book. In War Birds, Bayard is the steady brother, a cool war ace, not the tormented suicidal figure of Faulkner’s fiction. John, the wayward one, recently married but still a philanderer, dies in the air recklessly pursuing the enemy, feeling betrayed by his French mistress, Antoinette, who he has discovered with another man. To complicate matters more, Bayard brings home Lothar Dorn, the German pilot who killed his brother as well as Antoinette, both of whom Bayard befriends when, in their own way, they show a surprising fidelity to the memory of his dead brother. Lothar has also lost a brother in the war, and like his namesake in “Ad Astra” he understands the futility of war. Bayard stifles the impulse to shoot Lothar, thus ending the violent cycle of war, much as in The Unvanquished (1938) Bayard (grandfather of Bayard in Sartoris) renounces the right to retaliate against his father’s murderer, thereby enacting his own Reconstruction. Faulkner could have been thinking of the South when he has Lothar tell Bayard: “Your brother is slain, but my country is slain; fallen from a greater height than any Camel has ever reached” (Kawin, 408). Faulkner’s willingness to reconstitute his characters and plots and settings rivals the Hollywood penchant for remakes.
Faulkner’s use of the term “double exposure dissolve” nine times throughout the script emphasizes a superimposition of images that reflect the simultaneity of events in the present and also between past and present. This cinema technique is the equivalent of italics in The Sound and the Fury. What happens now in the film also happened then, and what happens now dissolves into what happens next, as if any moment of time is a conduit of the past and future. The is the Bergsonian time that Faulkner said he believed in.
How Hawks might have shepherded this script through the censors is hard to imagine. Certainly John’s line that “sooner or later I’ll be in another jam, fumbling around under another skirt” would have been bowdlerized (Kawin, 299). But the story of John’s redemption through the way others honor his life might, perhaps, have carried the day for the director, an expert in getting scripts approved that skirted propriety. Early on, an inclination to redeem his characters, which became apparent in Requiem for a Nun (1951), had its beginnings in Hollywood. The commercial demand for happy endings – in this case, the “ghost of John’s ship” looks down at the reconstituted family, “his face bright, peaceful” – may be hokey, and yet it reflected a genuine, sentimental side of Faulkner he had no fear of exploiting (Kawin, 420).
Faulkner filed his last script for MGM on August 26, 1933 (Kawin, 449). Mythical Latin-American Kingdom Story is an ambitious original political scenario that is like nothing he had written up to this point in fiction or film. Compared to Conrad’s Nostromo – a novel that creates a mythical Latin American country, Costaguana, dominated by foreign and material interests – Faulkner’s script upends Conrad’s patriarchal plot by centering on a revolt, headed by a woman, Maria Rojas, a strident forerunner of radical Linda Snopes in The Mansion (1959). Rojas aims to restore a deposed king by displacing the American agents who are exploiting the country’s resources. Rojas explicitly rejects the role men have played in the country’s politics: “Men, men, it is no wonder there is no stability in our country, since our mother land spawns only adolescents” (Kawin, 462). When a girl laments “Oh, if I were only a man just for a little while,” Maria responds: “Will you be forever more a victim of man?” (Kawin, 465). Why Rojas puts faith in the king is never explained, except that he is devoid of the male chauvinism and ineptitude that has dishonored the country: “It is chivalry, not love, for which we play this game,” the unsentimental Rojas declares (Kawin, 477). Rojas may seem a universe away from Caddy Compson, Addie Bundren, and Lena Grove in The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932), but she shares their self-sufficiency and couples her independence with a quest for power.
The script is also an anti-war, anti-fascist indictment, beginning with a newsboy barking out headlines about American victories over Germany and confident proclamations of postwar prosperity and disarmament. The oppressed resort to their own thuggish tactics, however, suggesting Faulkner shared Conrad’s skepticism about the merits of political liberation movements. Whatever crimes the occupiers have committed in exploiting the country’s economy are matched by Rojas’s brutal willingness to manipulate other women and men in her monomaniacal revolutionary program to restore the king, five years out of power. Rojas preys on human vulnerabilities, making sure that the American pilot, Bowden, who brings in a gold shipment the revolutionaries will use in their cause, is discredited. She stages a scene in which his fiancée, Nancy, mistakenly supposes he has been bedding another woman, Marion, whom Rojas has tricked into meeting Captain George Bowden, who works for Nancy’s mine owner father. Rojas is so secretive it is not possible to fathom all of her maneuvers, and in that regard she resembles the clandestine work of Linda Snopes, who engineers the murder of the fascist-like Flem Snopes. While the king and his retinue follow Rojas’s lead, they are aware that in the quest for power they may lose their humanity. Although much remains obscure and to be worked out in Faulkner’s original draft, his Conradian dilemma is clear: remaining your own person apart from your employment and while engaging in politics is problematic.
That Bowden, a World War I ace is reduced to carrying out the interests of a mine owner suggests how he has diminished himself. Faulkner’s own plight as a hired hand, while it did not compromise his novels, nevertheless troubled him. He, too, worked for a pot of gold. Bowden, a man of few words, like Faulkner, keeps his own counsel, and tries to wrest himself from Rojas’s trap, but in the end seems to realize he has become so implicated in the regime that he cannot exonerate himself.
An MGM script reader dismissed Mythical Latin-American Kingdom Story: “one or two characters that might have been very interesting if the author had taken the trouble to develop them” (Kawin, 433). But Faulkner thought enough of this property to request Sam Marx’s permission to use it as the basis of a novel. Faulkner did not follow up, but Marx, many years later, still thought the script filmable (Kawin, xxxvii). In fact, he associated Faulkner’s depiction of the king as a redeemer, a startling prefiguration of Fidel Castro at the beginning of his revolution when he seemed, said Marx, “an answer to everybody’s prayer” (Collins interview with Marx, January 11, 1968). It should be taken seriously: “a complete screenplay,” Bruce Kawin notes, “with no treatment or studio consultation whatever” (Kawin, xvii).
By July 1, 1934, Faulkner had returned to Hollywood for three weeks, making a $1,000 a week, to work at Universal Studios with Howard Hawks on an adaptation of a Blaise Cendrars novel, Sutter’s Gold (1926). The film began as a Sergei Eisenstein project at Paramount, which the studio rejected for two reasons: its projected $3 million cost and the subject matter, the 1849 California gold rush – dismissed as “history, past and dead now” (Montague, 109, 110). After the Russian director’s departure, Hawks had somehow commandeered the Eisenstein script and taken it to Universal for Faulkner to rewrite as a big-budget epic of the American West (Gleeson-White, “William Faulkner Screenwriter,” 435).
Faulkner’s public statements provide no idea of the scope of his work for Hawks or how quickly he produced a 108-page ambitious screenplay treatment. If working on his novel Absalom, Absalom! remained a priority, Sutter’s Gold nevertheless deeply engaged the novelist’s imagination, since it afforded the same kind of huge canvas and character that Faulkner now seemed to crave, beginning with projects like the Mythical Latin-American Kingdom Story.
How much the film meant to him is revealed in a long letter (September 4, 1934) to Will Bryant, who remained in Faulkner’s confidence in ways not vouchsafed to others, because Bryant believed in Faulkner’s genius and was always willing to wait for the writer’s mortgage payments on Rowan Oak, the antebellum mansion he had purchased from Bryant. If there is another letter evincing such enthusiasm for Hollywood work, I have yet to find it. Even the word Faulkner used for his Hollywood stay, “expedition,” is especially fitting in his pell-mell description of the picaresque Sutter:
the Swiss immigrant who fled Europe in 1830 to escape debtor’s prison, made an Odyssey across the American continent trying to reach California, reached Vancouver, could not get to California, went to Hawaii, got a Russian ship captain to take him back to Alaska, from there bought a small vessel and reached California at last, established a “New Helvetia” where people could find refuge from the oppression which drove him to desert his wife and children in Europe, became the richest man in the world, when one day his carpenter found gold while building a flour mill. The Gold Rush of ’49 overwhelmed him. He had title to all the land in the Sacramento basin, where the gold was found, yet he never got an ounce of it. His very land was taken away from him by claimstakers, so that when order was at last established, no government dared trying to dispose the hordes of people, although Sutter’s grant and title were admitted. He spent his fortune trying to get justice, was driven out of California by a mob, went to Washington and spent almost twenty years trying to get an audience with Congress and receive justice, became a pauper, was sitting on the Capitol steps one Sunday waiting for Congress to convene, when a newsboy, for a joke, told him that his claim had been allowed at last. He died of shock, and was buried by contribution by a small Moravian church congregation like our Southern negroes are buried sometimes.
It is a good story, I think, and I have just finished it (yesterday). I have worked at it pretty steadily. . . . (Trotter, 102)
Sutter squatted in Faulkner’s imagination, Sutter’s New Helvetia a larger simulacrum of Sutpen’s Hundred, the kingdom Thomas Sutpen had torn out of the earth he had purchased from the Chickasaw. Here in Sutter was a driven, displaced and dispossessed man coming along, so to speak, at the very time that Faulkner worried about losing his own home. To save himself, he had to do as Sutter had done, and set out on a sortie to a new world. What is more, he had to explain himself to his mortgagee, who could have foreclosed on Faulkner on several occasions but instead tolerated, even encouraged Faulkner’s plans to acquire more property adjacent to Rowan Oak. The fraught emotional weight that Faulkner carried when dealing with his financial and familial obligations could be eased in his letters and meetings with Bryant, which could include literary talk without embarrassment or excuse.
Faulkner followed closely Cendrars’s portrayal of Sutter as a migrant, an obsessive, ruthlessly pursuing his design, notwithstanding family obligations or the ordinary ties that bind most men to their communities. In short, he is kin to the relentless Thomas Sutpen, who would dominate the storytelling in Absalom, Absalom! Sutter’s story confirmed the importance of Faulkner’s novel in progress and how much history it paralleled. Cendrars’s Sutter, like Faulkner’s Sutpen, refuses to “submit.” Both ambitious men belong to “a hardy race of adventurers,” as Cendrars puts it. Both men engage to work with others but ultimately go it alone. Sutter shows up in pre-gold rush California with an armed band of Kanakas (Hawaiian natives) forming a cordon around him like the passel of “wild niggers” that accompany Sutpen. Sutter even narrates his own downfall in clear, simple prose, without expatiation, much as Sutpen does in telling the events of his ruin (Cendrars, 44; Faulkner, 4 passim).
But the Cendrars novel, via Eisenstein, became in Faulkner’s adaptation a new original work. In some ways, Eisenstein’s version is closer to Absalom, Absalom! than Faulkner’s own screen treatment of Cendrars’s novel. In Eisenstein, the “blackened face of Sutter,” who “fights like a demon” and is a “dark figure,” a “horseback emperor” with “hynotising eyes” (Montague, 157, 160), recalls the novel’s portrayal of the charismatic, sulphur-reeking “man-horse-demon” (Faulkner, 4). Eisenstein describes the “rhythmical lift of the wagon wheels” as a kind of refrain calling out “Sutter . . . Sutter” (Montague, 186) just as Faulkner’s novel resounds with the “steady strophe and antistrophe: “Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen.” Most astonishing is Eisenstein’s depiction of Sutter fighting with a Negro (Montague, 160), which does not appear in Faulkner’s screen treatment, even though it is very like Sutpen’s fights with his slaves (Faulkner, 13). That Faulkner could not get Eisenstein out of his system is apparent in a scene in The Wild Palms (1938) that is “like something out of an Eisenstein Dante” (155).
Nevertheless, in his screenplay, Faulkner not only rewrote Cendrars, he also radically changed Eisenstein’s cinematic conception of the story. Faulkner returned to his brief time as a clerk in his grandfather’s bank to focus on what it means to have a society based on money, and to his earliest understanding of movies that were silent, making the audience concentrate intensely on the pictorial even as they craved those title cards that not only dispensed vital information but became signposts, signifying where the film was headed, and in this instance, how Sutter sought his destiny. So many accounts of Faulkner’s screenwriting emphasize that he wrote long speeches that did not suit the esthetics of Hollywood film. To be sure, but not always.
The first three minutes of the film contain no dialogue and are about money changing hands:
Gold letters increase in size, filling the camera, FADE in behind letters: Four or five stacks of coins at close shot, filling camera. PAN slowly BACKWARD to: small scoops digging into coins, hands handling shovels, then arms. PAN back complete, reveals vault, clerks busily shoveling coins. TRUCK BACKWARD from vault through countingroom, clerks writing at high desks, one vacant desk in view but not emphasized yet. TRUCK on BACKWARD through lobby of bank, grilled windows, customers, etc. To: Street entrance of bank. Title letters decrease and DISSOLVE. RESOLVE SUPERPOSE: title:
(Town), Switzerland. January, 1830.
DISSOLVE title, PAN to: brass plate beside door:
Rittsmueller Brothers (All quotations are from the script in the Howard Hawks Papers)
Civilization and the gold standard and the California gold rush – the sheer materiality of money – dominate the film. But Sutter begins as a disciple of Rousseau, a believer in natural innocence and an opponent of a corrupt society. He does not pay his debts, and he does not take them seriously – a wonder in the world of William Faulkner when not a day did not seem to pass when a debt was not due.
We first see Sutter, and we might as well be seeing a Swiss version of William Faulkner, except for the musical instrument: “He is young, with a clerklike, indoors, face, intelligent but impractical. He has a thin youthful moustache, carefully curled; there is something foppish about his appearance; he loves to wear his uniform; he is enjoying himself. He is younger and more intelligent looking than the other members of the band.” Faulkner understood that love of uniforms, parading around town in the Royal Flying Corps getup, and wearing his aviator’s outfit on special occasions for the rest of his life in the sense of display that set him off from others. He treated Sutter the showman as a kinsman.
The first title card accomplishes what great silent films did so well, presenting not just exposition, or comment on action, or what characters say, but using language as emblematic of their natures:
He was born poor but he did not hate poverty;
He earned his daily bread by handling other
men’s gold, but he did not covet it – – – –
DOUBLE EXPOSURE of title to: title:
DOUBLE EXPOSURE of title to: title:
To him gold was dross, and Liberty and Justice alone were gold.
The very words, “Sutter’s gold,” take on a new meaning – his understanding of money – not what he possesses – at least not to begin with.
Sutter’s first speech: “He speaks with impassioned eloquence and conviction, preaching Rousseau’s philosophy of man’s duty to his fellow man; of the honest rewards of honest toil and honest sweat, the Arcadian life of the soil.” It is impassioned, sincere, and amateur.” Such a man cannot provide for his family, and they are evicted, and Sutter is on the run. Nowhere do we see Eisenstein’s dark figure, or any prefiguration of Thomas Sutpen. Sutter is fanatical but only in devotion to his natural man ideology. Sutter is “calm, ecstatic, serene.” But he is also haughty, vain, and more than a little preening – like young William Faulkner: “Unconsciously his other hand smoothes his uniform coat” (Howard Hawks Papers).
Sutter never lets go of the uniform – even after it is dirtied and bloodied and torn in beatings he suffers, Christ-like, in his devotion to Rousseau. He forsakes family and home and society, as summed up in the words of a title card that tells more than the character himself could say:
Speaking no language save his own, with neither purpose nor hope, fleeing not yet to anything or anyplace, choosing a ship bound for the new world not because he hoped yet to find less of injustice there than in the old – – – – –
But in the new world he is “assaulted and robbed, his uniform’s buttons and epaulettes jerked off.” He perseveres, learns English, styles himself “Professor Sutter,” and delivers lectures on “Liberty and Mankind.” He opposes slavery, frees an octoroon, and after much trial and tribulation he leads a group of settlers West: “So he went beyond peace and found, not only life again, but purpose,” as the title card says.
Sutter survives an Indian attack and gradually becomes the commander of a following that will fulfill his dream of a new state, New Helvetia. He has a new appearance and a new uniform: “now with beard and moustache, swaggering frontier style. He wears fringed hunter’s shirt, with two pistols in belt, a new hat” (Howard Hawks Papers). In effect, he becomes a political force and eventually the embodiment of the state itself in a quasi-fascist manner – even selling the octoroon to further his empire, which encompasses, at least in his own mind, the whole of the Sacramento valley. He becomes an anti-Christ, crucifying three Indians, and he murders one of his friends and followers for reasons of state. He seems part Kurtz, part Stalin, pursuing an ideology that justifies mass murder as the only means of establishing a new world. This Rousseau gone awry is a refutation of Rousseau, of the idea that society corrupts natural innocence. The proud Sutter – too proud to honor his debts or to countenance society’s other demands – has, in the end, re-created a society even worse than the one he escaped.
When gold is discovered on Sutter’s land, he regards it as an “increase of his power.” The gold rush, which he is vain enough to think he can control, is the corruption of his dream of justice and liberty. All ideals are subsumed in the materiality of digging for gold, which is like the scooping of coins at the beginning of the film. Faulkner used this story again in the Snopes trilogy, in which Flem Snopes cons V. K. Ratliff and others to acquire the worthless old Frenchman’s place by salting the property with gold coins, fomenting the illusion of buried treasure (The Hamlet, 396, The Town, 8).
Sutter’s utter incomprehension of society and his role in it Faulkner understood very well while working for Hollywood gold, after he, too, had spurned his grandfather’s bank job. Sutter’s world is one in which money changes hands, again and again, as opposed to man in a state of nature uncorrupted by society – a dream of Rousseau’s destined to end in grief and absurdity, as Sutter becomes a foolish figure, thinking he can get the President to honor his claim to all of the gold rush land. He arrives in Washington in uniform and delivers a “grandiose peroration. Everyone will have free land in California once his claim is settled. A large crowd gathers, laughing. When police stop him, he calls himself General Sutter” (Howard Hawks Papers). This self-bestowed honorific is reminiscent of Faulkner’s own Southern kin, maintaining their titles in memory of a lost cause. Lincoln is shown indulging Sutter’s petition but also realizing he can hardly dislodge the squatters on Sutter’s land. All Sutter receives is a pension and then the mockery of a newsboy who, as Faulkner told Will Bryant, dupes Sutter into believing that his claim had been allowed at last. Sutter dies of shock after the boy’s announcement of fake news, but Faulkner does not include that last little bit in the letter to Will Bryant about Sutter’s funeral, arranged “by contribution by a small Moravian church congregation like our Southern negroes are buried sometimes.” The Sutter that Faulkner creates, at least in his letter to Bryant, rests beside the Negroes he once championed and then abandoned
That Faulkner created a screenplay to rival his greatest fiction came to naught at Universal, which shelved the project because it would cost too much to film. It is not an exaggeration to say that Hollywood broke William Faulkner’s heart, even though he would never have put it that way. But this was the first of several magnificent projects he conceived with Howard Hawks that would not be filmed. He had always found a publisher for even his most difficult works, but success in Hollywood would elude him, and when it did come, it was too late for him to take any real joy in his accomplishment. But he soldiered on, keeping his disappointments to himself and buoyed by Hawks’s unswerving faith in Faulkner’s screenwriting prowess.
In December 1935, Hawks had another project for Faulkner to write: an American version of a French World War I trench warfare novel, Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgelès, which had already been adapted in France as Les Croix de Bois in 1932 with some stirring battle scenes the director planned to repurpose. Faulkner’s handwritten screenplay reveals he had mastered a good deal of the technical terms that Hawks had explained in their first collaborations. The director scrapped the novel’s ensemble cast of characters who one by one lose their lives, except for a few survivors, one of whom narrates their fate. He favored instead a Shakespearean approach, with the two officers, La Roche and Denet, as comrades in arms and rivals in love, complemented by group of soldiers as groundlings commenting on the action. But the director retained and embellished several of the novel’s riveting scenes: the remnant of a regiment dreading their fate as they hear the Germans digging a tunnel and placing mines to blow them up; that same regiment’s entrance into a cemetery, an “orchard of wooden crosses”; the anguished cries of a soldier in no man’s land out of reach of his rescuers exposed to merciless machine gun fire (Dorgelès, 129, 181, 220). This unflinching account, written by an infantry veteran, was hardly Hollywood’s usual fare, yet Hawks drew Faulkner to this holocaust, counting on him to invent a story not only appealing to moviegoers but also acceptable to the censors. “We would also like to recommend that care be taken not to make any of the battle scenes, etc., unduly gruesome,” cautioned Production Code czar Joseph Breen (Breen, January 31, 1936).
Faulkner had been assigned by associate producer Nunnally Johnson at Twentieth Century-Fox to work on the script with Joel Sayre, whose initial treatment did not satisfy Johnson. Sayre was charmed by Faulkner and his work. “One of the pleasantest men to spend time with that I ever knew,” Sayre told biographer Carvel Collins. “Faulkner’s voice was a wonderful relief in Hollywood, where so many people were speaking with such strident, overwhelming voices.”
Although stories about Faulkner’s drinking in Hollywood are legendary, the fact is he could respond overnight to Darryl Zanuck’s numerous requests for revisions. Faulkner did not miss deadlines. As George Garrett observes, Faulkner thrived in an atmosphere of huge egos and talents – Hawks, Johnson, and Zanuck – “powerful and often contradictory presences” (Garrett, 163). To do less than one’s best is to demean the profession and the writer’s own sense of self as his work on Absalom, Absalom! grew apace in the early California mornings before he had to report for duty at the studio, where he worked with men as obsessed and passionate as himself.
As in Today We Live, The Road to Glory obligated Faulkner to reckon with a romantic triangle not in the original material but put there by Joel Sayre at Hawks’s direction. Like Ann in Today We Live, Monique is an army nurse loved by two men. Monique is devoted to Captain Paul La Roche (Warner Baxter), but then she falls in love with La Roche’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Michel Denet (Fredric March). La Roche is worn out by war. He is shown constantly swallowing aspirin and drinking cognac, barely managing to overcome his exhaustion. But he is also a highly disciplined soldier who has hardened himself to death, unlike the softer Michel – a courageous soldier but also an artist, who woos Monique by playing the piano. He is witty; La Roche is earnest and only unbends in Monique’s presence. She feels obligated to La Roche, who is taking care of her family, but she loves Michel. Monique at first resists Michel’s advances. But slowly he breaks down her resistance – in part by paying deference to her resistance, her insistence on the integrity of her own person. A war in which men must show their solidarity and even their love for one another, performing their duty, not indulging in their personal desires, has its parallel in the romantic triangle, as Denet vows to defer to La Roche after discovering that the woman he desires is in fact his commanding officer’s beloved. Denet strives to control his compulsions – to resist courting Monique, to resist his men’s panic over the mine that might blow up their line. Denet executes La Roche’s order that they stay in place until replacements arrive. Thus Denet subordinates his individual will to collective action. Then La Roche, like Claude in Today We Live, is blinded and no longer regards himself as Denet’s romantic rival. La Roche forgives his beloved and declares, “I understand everything,” a sentiment that is implied but not actually expressed in the released film. Subsequently, La Roche is blown up in a barrage he directs (with his father’s help) on his own position, which is the only way to destroy the German assault. His father, a veteran of the battle of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War (September 1-2, 1870), sounded the last charge with his bugle. He deplores the lack of cavalry and bugle-blown attacks in modern warfare and might as well be one of those Civil War veterans that populated Faulkner’s childhood. In fact, Sedan was a lost cause, marking a humiliating French defeat with the capture of Napoleon III. When La Roche’s father sounds his horn just before he is blown up, he is evoking the “wild bugles and the clashing sabres and the dying thunder of hooves,” that so permeated Gail Hightower’s existence in Light in August (75, passim).
Many Hawks scholars comment on the cyclical nature of his work – not only his repetition of the same story lines, as in Today We Live and The Road to Glory, but also in his awareness that one man carries on another’s work (Hillier & Wollen, 51), as Denet takes over from La Roche at the end of the film. Faulkner, in a manner of speaking, fulfilled a typical Hawks plot. But then it might be said that Hawks was channeling Faulkner as well, since the repetition of characters and wars is a feature of Sartoris, and solemn La Roche and the gay Denet bear some resemblance to the brothers Sartoris. La Roche sacrifices himself for love and country, dying in the full knowledge of his sacrifice, unlike the blind and unconscious war pilot Donald Mahon in Faulkner’s first published novel, Soldiers’ Pay, which Hawks extolled.
As is often the case in film productions, it is difficult to ascertain exactly who wrote what – especially since Faulkner, Sayre, associate producer Nunnally Johnson, and Hawks himself all worked on the film’s dialogue. But however you look at the film, Faulkner is fused to this collective authorship.
In late February 1936, the hard-to-please Darryl Zanuck, a writer himself who scoured scripts at Twentieth Century-Fox, commented on Faulkner’s work on Banjo on My Knee: “Great first treatment” (Gleeson-White, William Faulkner At Twentieth Century-Fox, 190). The studio head expected, and Faulkner delivered, a template for the film. Meta Carpenter, now involved in an affair with Faulkner, said that even when the studio did not use his dialogue, the underlying structure of a Faulkner composition remained, and he took pride in his nimble ability to fix the scenes of screenplays (Wilde, 298-300). She had worked closely on continuity for Howard Hawks and had already helped Faulkner with The Road to Glory (Wilde, 105-08). For Banjo on My Knee, he broke down the treatment into six sequences, with minimal dialogue and camera directions. At a glance, in other words, Zanuck could see the whole picture. The released film would include virtually all of Faulkner’s characters intact and most of his plot points as well. He evidently produced a script as well. Fellow screenwriter David Hempstead claimed that Faulkner wrote “magnificent . . . practically blank verse,” two or three pages at a clip that Nunnally Johnson did not like and that he rewrote (Collins interview with Hempstead, n.d.). The setting on a Mississippi River shanty boat just above Memphis fitted Faulkner perfectly, as did the scenes in the New Orleans Creole Cafe, the kind of hangout Faulkner frequented in the mid-1920s. Walter Brennan (Newt Holley), who specialized in crotchety yet charming old men, plays his one-man-band contraption at the shanty boat wedding of his son, Ernie (Joel McCrea), and Pearl (Barbara Stanwyck). The rest of the film is the story of how this quarreling couple split up, reunite, and split up again, frustrating Newt’s hopes for a new generation. In the end, the couple reconcile, realizing they cannot live without each other, or without the river. The story, and especially the patriarch’s place in it, appealed to Faulkner’s “concern with genealogical transmission,” observes Michael Grimwood, “with the preservations of memories and values from one generation to the next” (279). As Newt avers, both his father and grandfather have drowned in the Mississippi and he expects no less for himself. He says so as a point of pride, regarding such deaths as natural.
Although Faulkner’s full-length script has not survived, the spirit of the released film suits his own sense of the interplay between his white and black characters. At a pivotal moment on a New Orleans wharf, a black chorus and lead singer perform the “St. Louis Blues” in an escalating melancholy, with a sense of unbearable loss: “I hate to see that evening sun go down / Because my baby he done left this town.” The black ensemble make Pearl’s feelings about leaving home, abandoning her husband, and wanting to return all that more poignant, especially since Newt has played the song at her wedding, as Faulkner specified in his treatment, calling W. C. Handy’s composition the film’s “theme song” (Gleeson-White, Faulkner at Twentieth Century-Fox, 196). Handy’s work is also alluded to in one of Faulkner’s best short stories, “That Evening Sun.” In the film, the blacks sing as they load a ship with huge sacks on their shoulders, burdens they carry in a solemn manner onto the ship that, Pearl later learns, would have taken Ernie away yet again. The blacks are a side show, local color, and yet they are central to Pearl’s misery at that moment. They express her plight. They know suffering, and, as in Faulkner’s fiction, they are, for all their separateness, integral to the action. Then Pearl’s spirits rise when she hears nearby Newt banging his way through an exhilarating medley of Stephen Foster tunes and “Dixie,” capping off his contagious performance by donning a Confederate cap, the emblem of pride and loss, that Faulkner put at the heart of his treatment. This vignette takes place in a city that invites all kinds of entertainment and mixing of styles, just as it first welcomed Faulkner in 1925, and as it welcomes a river man who has never been in a restaurant let alone performed in front of an audience other than his family and friends. All these elements of the film seem to be Faulkner’s even if he did not write them.
On April 9, 1936, on a loan-out from Fox to RKO, Faulkner worked on narrative outlines and a treatment for Gunga Din (1939), although the film, directed by George Stevens and starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen, showed no trace of Faulkner’s work. The film amalgamated Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Gunga Din” and his short story collection Soldiers Three, featuring an Irishman, a Scot, and a Cockney. Tragedy and comedy are blended together in a buddy picture suffused with nostalgia for the British Empire and fast-talking, battling characters set against panoramic landscapes of the Indian subcontinent.
Faulkner knew the Kipling poem quite well. Gunga Din is a bhisti, a water carrier for the troops, who dies in battle hoping he has slaked the thirst of his white superior. A heroic servant of nobility, Gunga Din is memorialized: “Of all them black-faced crew/ The finest man I knew/ Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.” The poem can be taken as the epitome of imperial condescension, but it is also a tribute to courage over color, and a sense of human solidarity that Faulkner felt applied to his own experience with black people, which transcended social status and racial consciousness. Gunga Din becomes, in the end, a minister to suffering humanity: ’E’ll be squattin’ on the coals / Givin’ drink to pore damned souls, / An’ I’ll get a swig in Hell from Gunga Din!” He is clearly superior to the callous, racist white soldiers. The poem’s final line has become a proverbial expression: “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
Faulkner once referred to his magazine adventure stories as “third rate Kipling,” but his treatment eschewed the picaresque element that Hollywood favored. Instead he wrote up notes that reflected the solemn, tragic spirit if not the plot of Kipling’s poem. Captain Holmes has a son, Das, by an Indian woman Holmes abandons. Das, in turn, rejects his dying father, refusing to rescue him. Holmes’s other white son serves alongside Das in World War I. Not only do they remain loyal to one another even after their kinship is revealed, Das sacrifices himself for his British regiment. For Faulkner, it was not enough to make Gunga Din carry water for the British, As with Absalom, Absalom!, he transforms the story of war and fraught family relationships into a probing exploration of loyalty, courage, and honor – all of which are explored in Kipling’s poem, but without the compelling consanguinity of Faulkner’s treatment. You cannot set aside part of the human race, Faulkner implies, by simply ennobling the singular Gunga Din. Hollywood did not want a multiracial Gunga Din story, preferring Sam Jaffe in a brown body aping British military drill and playing a comic figure throughout most of the film, a sidekick to the antic and avaricious Cary Grant, obsessed with the golden temple that Gunga Din discovers. Gunga Din does redeem himself near the movie’s end. Almost dead from a battle in which he defends his British masters, he struggles upward on the temple’s golden frieze, blowing the horn that alerts British troops and their Indian allies to the ambush that awaits, planned by the followers of Kali, the goddess of a sect set on conquering all of India and driving out the British. Of course, the British overcome their nefarious enemies, and at the end an actor playing Kipling makes an appearance penning his famous poem, part of which is read out to commemorate Gunga Din’s sacrifice. Faulkner did make additional futile efforts to conform to Hollywood expectations, but after a month, he was taken off the picture, supposedly for writing dialogue deemed turgid for the screen. Meta Carpenter remembered driving to the RKO lot to pick up a scowling Faulkner who told her “The trouble with the script is that these damned fool people [he gestured toward the administration building], don’t begin to realize that Gunga Din was a colored man” (Wilde, 136).
On March 15, 1937, Faulkner turned in to Twentieth Century-Fox a twenty-six page treatment of Drums Along the Mohawk, a best-selling novel by Walter D. Edmonds, followed on June 13, 1937, by a much longer “dialogued treatment,” two months before he began work on his novel The Wild Palms (1939). To read Faulkner’s scripts and his novel in their sequence of composition is to realize how he sought to exploit and subvert Hollywood and mainstream fiction conventions.
In the film, released in November 1939, without a writing credit for Faulkner, two separate stories of love and war are jammed together in absurd and yet popularly acceptable ways. Gil Martin (Henry Fonda) takes his new wife, Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert), from her grand Albany home to settle their new homestead in territory contested by American rebels, Tories, and their Indian allies. Lana is shocked by the primitive conditions, by Blue Back, an Indian (even though he is friendly), and has to overcome hysterics, eventually holding her own, shooting an attacking Indian on the British side, and becoming a full partner in Gil’s ultimate triumph, as he bravely runs through a hostile Indian encampment and outpaces his murderous pursuers to summon the victorious American army.
But this is not what Faulkner wrote in two treatments, following Edmonds’s lead, showing American settlers at odds with the nascent nation state (akin to the big government New Dealers Faulkner opposed). The settlers simply want to farm their land and resent the intrusions of the Continental Congress, which pays their militia poorly, takes the settlers’ grain, and delays sending armed forces to help protect the land from the depredations of the British and their Indian allies. “God save us from the Continental Congress,” declares Bellinger, a militia leader (All quotations are from Gleeson-White, Faulkner at Twentieth Century-Fox, 691.). In effect, two colonial powers with different policies are in contention. Bellinger tells the Colonel in the regular army: “You’re going to lay waste to their [the Indians’] country, destroy their towns and drive them from the land – men women and children. Then I suppose you’ll turn around and march back to Albany? What do you think the Indians will do then?” (677). In a long and quite detailed script, Faulkner stripped away much of the patriotic sentiment featured in the released film and the novel. When a militia man gets his first look at the nation’s new flag, he remarks “Thirteen stars. Thirteen. That’s unlucky, ain’t it?” (607).
The Faulkner of the Indian stories and also the critic of colonial settlement that will emerge in Go Down, Moses appears in the screenplay, in which Indians are viewed more as Native Americans, with Lana commenting, in the last words of Faulkner’s script, on their family friend, Blue Back: “He has lost everything now. Even the land his ancestors lived on. While we have so much” (751). The Indians are driven by other Indians and American militia and regulars toward Indian encampments on the Niagara frontier, a retreating force that is reminiscent of Southern defeat in the Civil War. “What would you do if you had been driven out of your country,” Bellinger asks the regular army colonel, “had looked back to see your house and fields burned, driven back on some folks that are the same color and speak the same language as the ones that drove you out? And you sitting there with nothing to do but feel your stomach getting more and more like a walnut, let alone having to look at the eyes of your women folks and the faces of your children every time you turned your head” (705). This is the kind of Faulknerian speech often deemed too long for the movies – at least for the major studios, although an independent producer like Walter Wanger might well have worked in this kind of dialogue, as he did in Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage (1946), an unorthodox Western that includes a white man punished by his community for raping an Indian woman.
The tense Martin marriage in Edmonds’s novel and in Faulkner’s scenario is nothing like the final sentimentalized Hollywood version. In his first treatment, Lana refuses sex after a miscarriage, and her husband loses patience and takes her by force, effectively raping her. Gil considers recovering his manhood by bedding the nubile Nancy, a servant girl, excised from Faulkner’s careful examination of colonial class structure. In true Hollywood fashion, Gil remains faithful to Lana, but he is taunted by Helmer, a strapping eligible single male who pretends to wipe mud off Gil after witnessing Lana rebuff her husband. “You lost your yoking match, too,” Helmer tells Gil, adding, “I’m just wiping the mud off for you” (596). That kind of sexual joke could not survive the Hollywood Production Code.
In a second, longer “dialogued treatment,” the rape scene is cut but the sexual threat remains. Mrs. McKlennar, who employs Lana and Gil after Indians torch their home, advises Lana to submit to her husband, and when Lana refuses, Mrs. McKlennar grudgingly admits to admiring Lana’s independence: “Still, I must say you did pretty well” (597). In the released movie the love story capitulates to a rousing war epic, incorporating Lana as essentially a new recruit. In Faulkner’s treatments the love story heads one way and the war another, reflecting a polarity akin to The Wild Palms even if, in the end, Faulkner had to rein himself in to produce a happy ending. As a character in Faulkner’s dialogued treatment declares, “To be young and to be in love – there is no wilderness then.” In his earlier treatment he had written that the film’s ending needed “whatever sappy stuff . . . about love conquers all things, etc.” (Gleeson-White, Faulkner at Twentieth Century-Fox, 521, 751).
Faulkner’s liberated fiction in The Wild Palms resulted in a far different wilderness/civilization diptych and a fraught reading of romance and love. “The Wild Palms,” a novella within the novel, begins in a Pascagoula, Mississippi, beach cottage, the place for a temporary stay by the sea. A middle-aged doctor who marries the wife his father picked out for him and lives in the house his father had built and smokes a pipe because his father said cigarettes were for dudes and women has rented his cottage to Charlotte and Harry. Charlotte stands out because she wears men’s pants, tight in just the right places. She is alluring but also in command, and as such she fascinates the doctor and his real estate agent. Charlotte is a bolder Lana. Mrs. McKlennar, who employs Lana and her husband after Indians burn their home, says to Gil: “I’m interested in seeing just how much longer it will be before you decide just which one of you wears the pants in your family” (592).The real estate agent is sure Charlotte and Harry are not married to each other, although he suspects (rightly) that Charlotte has a husband, and the doctor speculates (rightly) she has children. Charlotte sits in a beach chair all day long “watching the palm fronds clashing with their wild dry bitter sound against the bright glitter of the water while the man carried driftwood into the kitchen” (6). Calling Harry “the man” emphasizes his gender, which is second in importance to his subservient role. The “natural” order of things, as expressed in Drums Along the Mohawk, has been reversed, or rather, the undertheme of Faulkner’s treatment, which emphasizes the paradox involved in the yoking of men, women, and wilderness, and civilization, becomes paramount in his novel. As Dr. Petrie, observes in Drums Along the Mohawk: “Women are strange creatures, Gil. The frontier is no place for them. Yet it can’t exist without them. Else there would be no reason for us to make it livable” (579). Harry, the parody of a pioneer, walks barefoot on the beach. The minimalist cottage, devoid of much furniture and containing only the basics in mismatched utensils and cracked cups, suits a twosome stripped bare of accoutrements. Their settlement is no better equipped than the Gil Martin-Lana Borst household. Harry and Charlotte, living on the fly, outrage the proper doctor’s wife.
Charlotte stares at the doctor with “blank feral eyes” as he does his Christian duty, delivering a bowl of gumbo to the uncivilized couple. He is like the placid frontier types who welcome Lana and Gil. Charlotte is, in fact, in a position similar to Lana’s in Drums Along the Mohawk, having forsaken, in Charlotte’s case, not a comfortable Albany estate but the comforts and status of a married woman with children in Chicago. She has given everything up for love, and what has it brought her? She is in a wilderness of her own bitterness and isolation that cannot be perversely turned around in a Hollywood treatment. That was, in truth, Lana’s plight, and her anger and depression are given full scope in Faulkner’s scripts. But Claudette Colbert, playing Lana, could hardly hint at her anger and depression, since her marriage, like the war, had to be won on Hollywood’s terms.
The doctor could well be a conventional Hollywood character suddenly confronted off-screen by a woman unwilling to behave according to the script men put women in: “What is it that man as a race can have done to her that she would look upon such a manifestation of it as I, whom she has never seen before and would not look at twice if she had, with that same hatred through which he must walk each time he comes up from the beach with an armful of firewood to cook the very food which she eats.” The alienated Charlotte is on the frontier of the doctor’s consciousness, of all that he must repress in order to please his father and his wife and remain respectable and a man. Charlotte is a revelation to him, a character that heretofore he could not imagine watching in the movie he has made of his life. In his encounter with Charlotte the doctor detects a “sense of imminence, of being just beyond a veil from something, of groping just without the veil and even touching but not quite, almost seeing but not quite, the shape of truth.” In her presence, he has begun to reflect on the grounds of his own existence as he struggles toward insight: “Something which the entire race of men, males, has done to her or she believes has done to her.” Any moment now, he will realize that the issues joined are pregnancy, childbirth, and abortion. As Dr. Petrie says in Drums Along the Mohawk, women “know how hard it is to create life” (580).
The male prerogative that is taken for granted by Gil Martin and his Hollywood begetters is at risk in Faulkner’s novel. Harry has brought Charlotte to this figurative wilderness, the end of the line, but even more than Lana, Charlotte does not want to surrender. “The fool. To bring her here, of all places. To sealevel. To the Mississippi coast” (11), remarks the doctor’s censorious wife when informed that Harry has knocked on their door asking for medical assistance because Charlotte is bleeding. No female character in Drums Along the Mohawk appears to tell Gil much the same – that he has no business bringing his wife to a warring frontier where she miscarries. The novel is about another kind of frontier conflict, the one within the human heart, the storm center the doctor has entered, objectified in the “unimpeded sea-wind which thrashed among the unseen palms” (11). What would be a cliché in a motion picture – “the invisible wind blew strong and steady among the invisible palms, from the invisible sea” – becomes in Faulkner’s prose human palms and a sea of emotions (12).
The doctor behaves like a character observing the limits of the Production Code. He only recognizes his “barricade of perennial innocence” (12) – how much knowledge he has blocked out like a redacted film script when he picks up on Harry’s hint that Charlotte’s bleeding is where a woman bleeds, not from the lungs as the doctor first supposed. Now the doctor’s veil is parting – an apt choice of words for a man – really a civilization – that blinds itself to a woman’s suffering and also puts women in veils (ignorance) and that characters like Caddy and her mother wear in The Sound and the Fury. But it is just as much the doctor who is the woman, the violated one, as it is Charlotte. And his wife might as well be Mrs. McKlennar implying that Gil is a fool for not disciplining his wife.
The denouement of this novella, one half of The Wild Palms, ends in Charlotte’s death from a botched abortion that Harry, a medical student, has performed. This tragedy alternates, chapter by chapter, with “Old Man,” the farcical and yet moving novella of a convict released from prison to help in rescue efforts during the great flood of 1927. He ends up saving a pregnant woman – but not the woman of his pulp fiction and celluloid dreams: “who to say what Helen, what living Garbo, he had not dreamed of rescuing from what craggy pinnacle” (124). The convict resolutely does his duty even as his romantic desires are thwarted, and Faulkner declares his freedom from Hollywood. How many stories, including Drums Along the Mohawk, ended, to Faulkner’s disgust, with love conquers all – a foregone conclusion with stars such as Claudette Colbert, not to mention Joan Crawford, who gets her nod in the novel in a reference to “lunch rooms with broad strong Western girls got up out of Hollywood magazines (Hollywood which is no longer in Hollywood but is stifled by a billion feet of running colored gas across the face of the American earth) to resemble Joan Crawford” (174).
Life floods through this novel as it is never permitted to do in movies, as one story inundates or spills over into another, and the novel replicates the Mississippi, “doubling back upon itself over and over as it moves south” (Gwin, 133-34). A flood almost wrecks the family home in Banjo on My Knee, but it is preserved by landing on a sandbar not long after Faulkner is taken off the picture. Faulkner knew that Hollywood was not built to comprehend stories such as Harry’s and Charlotte’s, let alone the tall convict’s. His fellow prisoners presume he would enjoy the company of women after having been deprived of them for so long, but all he can say in the novel’s final words, is “Women, shit” (285), which Faulkner’s publisher replaced with an ellipsis. The doctor can only think of Harry as a murderer. This is a novel that humbles the world it depicts, a world of limited imagination.
On July 18, 1942, massively in debt once again, Faulkner wrote to James J. Geller, head of Warner’s story department, mentioning a letter he had received from producer Robert Buckner about working on a screenplay about Charles de Gaulle. “It is a good idea,” he told Geller, “and I will be proud to work with it and I hope and trust I can do it justice” (Blotner, Selected Letters, 157). President Roosevelt had told the studio head, Jack Warner, “this picture must be made, and I am asking you to make it.” Warner replied, “I’ll do it. You have my word” (Warner, 290). For the next five months, Faulkner would work on a story outline, a story treatment, a revised story treatment, and two complete screenplays, in an epic effort. For the first time in his career, he worked, in effect, on a government project, doing an assignment, in a sense, for the President of the United States, and having conferred on him a level of responsibility he had not experienced in Hollywood or anywhere else, for that matter.
This was not a property especially suitable to Faulkner’s talents or to his esthetic, even though it was a war movie with the kind of military subject matter appealing to him and set in France, like The Road to Glory. He had traveled in the country and admired its literature. But his work avoided the explicitly political, and historical figures rarely appeared in his work. He had never written a biopic. Usually writers already adept in the genre would be added to such a project. But Buckner, raised and educated at the University of Virginia, a playwright, short story writer, and screenwriter as well as a producer, perhaps believed he could work it all out most efficiently with just Faulkner, who “had no meanness about him,” Buckner recalled. “He was not petty. He took things at their face value. He was not superior about Hollywood. . . . He wasn’t quite sure of the terminology. He would use dissolve for fade and cut for dissolve. He used these terms with more facility than accuracy, like a cook who felt that seasoning was needed” (Blotner interview with Buckner, June 9, 1965).
Faulkner liked Buckner (Rollyson, Volume 2, 208). A prestige writer for a prestige project? Perhaps that also entered into Jack Warner’s approval of using the risky Faulkner, who no one else had been willing to hire because of his drinking. Geller and Buckner regarded Faulkner as their rehabilitation project and told him so. Warner Bros., more than any other studio, had produced anti-Nazi films, making Faulkner’s work there welcome. Buckner understood, perhaps better than other producers, how William Faulkner’s integrity would enhance their work. He would bring “verity to an important picture that was contaminated by false values and false relationships and make the whole picture better,” Buzz Bezzerides said. “Sometimes a whole picture can be made in a few scenes. WF would have worked more in this town if this was understood” (Blotner interview with Buckner, June 9, 1965).
In fact, this probity is exactly what Faulkner brought to Howard Hawks’s Air Force (1943), taking two days to rewrite a Dudley Nichols sentimental death scene that the director had not liked. In the original version, a dying bomber pilot had plaintively said to his crew: “Wait a minute . . . don’t go. . . . Don’t go . . . Wait for me, fellows.” In Faulkner’s version, the dying man’s last effort is a terse, monosyllabic, workmanlike inventory of their mission: “Everybody in, chief? . . . Doors closed? . . . Here we go. Lock ’em. . . . Wheels up. . . . They sound like they’re gonna run all right, Robbie. . . . Monk. Monk, what’s our course? . . . That’s right. . . . That’s right into the sunrise. Right into the . . . the sunrise.” The moving ending arises out of the matter-of-fact details of flying that Faulkner himself had learned to master and admire. The dying man’s last and longest speech is built upon the understated, matter-of-fact, duty-driven. If Buckner trusted Faulkner, it is because he recognized that this supposedly aloof writer had a “collaborative persona,” one that is expressed in Hawks’s own loving portrayal of their collaboration. That Faulkner valued his contribution to Air Force is evident in his letter to son-in-law Bill Fielden, recommending the film and pointing out the death scene (Blotner, Selected Letters, 173).
In a story outline, Faulkner noted, “We can use the method Mr. Buckner suggested”: to show how in May 1940 de Gaulle’s agents helped to organize the Free French forces after the fall of France and the installation of a Nazi-controlled Vichy government. “I am now trying to follow a suggestion of Mr. Buckner’s,” Faulkner reiterated: “This was to paint a big canvas to show the growth and scope of the Free French moment and indicate that its limit is boundless, that one strip of film cannot possibly contain it, that it will run over the edge and will go on and on until its aim is accomplished” (Brodsky and Hamblin, The DeGaulle Story, 6).
In a one-page abstract, Faulkner set the terms for the film that recall the Civil War setting of Absalom, Absalom! with “brother against brother” and “blood against blood.” This would not be a typical biopic. De Gaulle would be present only at strategic moments, calling France to its patriotic duty. The main story would be about the reckless Georges (a passionate Gaullist) and his brother Jean, a Vichy sympathizer. The Mornet brothers live in Breton, which becomes, like Faulkner’s South, a region apart that is nevertheless driven to support the cause of the Free French. The tensions between the brothers are eventually resolved in Hollywood fashion in a Tale of Two Cities ending with Jean arranging to have Georges freed from a Gestapo cell, dressing him up in Jean’s clothes, while Jean, Sidney Carton-like, takes Georges’s place. In the film’s last scene, Allied bombers appear as the underground sets fires to welcome them.
Unfortunately, all de Gaulle’s representatives could see were mistakes Faulkner had made about life in France and the fraught relationship between collaborationists and the underground. Faulkner contended the facts didn’t matter. He was aiming at peoples’ hearts, “to uplift even by reaffirming the value of human suffering and the belief in human hope” (Brodsky and Hamblin, Volume III, 395-98).
When Roosevelt soured on doing a film about de Gaulle after their meeting in Casablanca, the studio stopped production. A disgusted Faulkner nevertheless continued on, working on other projects: a quasi-documentary titled The Life and Death of a Bomber; an Errol Flynn picture, Northern Pursuit, about a Mountie battling Nazis; and other minor projects, including his first and only full-length script, the unproduced Country Lawyer, about Yoknapatawpha, which featured characters not in his fiction (Rollyson, Volume 2, 219-21, 223-227).
Then a good picture came along, Battle Cry, a Howard Hawks project that would cover every war theater in Europe and Asia. Meta Carpenter remembered Faulkner’s excitement: “His step was jaunty. He was not drinking to excess. Never one to talk shop. . . . He did tell me that his screen treatment, with pages and pages of dialogue, was coming along with only minor hitches” (Brodsky and Hamblin, Volume IV, x). He was not writing from scratch – instead adapting several published stories and a radio play and at strategic points introducing Earl Robinson’s Lincoln cantata. Some of Faulkner’s collaborators, including Robinson, were Communists. Faulkner was perforce assembling and modifying the dialectic of public discourse about war coming at him from different angles and attitudes, deploying the drama of different peoples and cultures in strategically built-up scenes, with Robinson’s choral commentary on the drive for liberty, beginning with the Civil War.
Writing this film was William Faulkner’s reckoning with the Civil War as he wrote a new kind of history – this boy who had grown up in a Southern classroom drawing a picture of Lincoln as ogre, listening to the tales about “the tyrant,” as he was commonly described in Southern poetry during the war. When Henry Fonda (Faulkner had him in mind as the hero) objects to the Civil War talk, saying “But that was 1865,” he might as well be addressing audiences who went to see Gone with the Wind, who were able to set the Civil War aside as grim but also colorful and above all, over! Fonda says of that time: “The world was smaller, folks seemed to know then. At least, they never had to go to the end of the world to fight slavery.” To which his grandfather responds: “That’s jest where we want slavery: right at the ends of the earth!” (Brodsky and Hamblin, Volume IV, 6).
Scenes set in Lincoln’s Springfield segue to North Africa, where a white Southerner is seen nursing a black soldier named “America.” Action shifts to a Russian village and an intrepid Russian pilot, and to other Russian sites, and then to the guerrilla war in China against the Japanese, and the resistance movement in France. In scenes reminiscent of Today We Live, Faulkner has Fonda walking through English streets in 1941, exciting the “astonishment and annoyance and a little contempt” from Englishmen who feel America has come to the war too late (Brodsky and Hamblin, Volume IV, 70). Then the action shifts again to the Hornet, an aircraft carrier ferrying a load of Spitfires to Malta. Faulkner, the WWI RAF trainee who worked on meticulous drawings of aircraft, focuses on the new planes, some of which have to make incredibly short landings on carriers, and others like the “long-range-Focke-Wulf with four engines and a big range from shore” (Brodsky and Hamblin, IV, 73).
Earl Robinson thought Faulkner was well on the way to an “honest-to-God great picture,” with “scenes that will really be new and startling but at the same time simple and true and embodying real people and believable characters and situations.” One of the producers, William Bacher, said of Faulkner’s work: “I think he’s a swell craftsman. Mr. Hawks, and he’ll come through with a great job on it.” Nevertheless parts of the expanded story treatment were “spotty and confusing,” Robinson noted (Brodsky and Hamblin, IV, xxx). Then the studio balked, citing estimates of a $4 million production. A devastated Faulkner once again returned home.
“Yes, I’m back again,” Faulkner wrote from Hollywood to his agent Harold Ober on April 22, 1944 (Blotner, Selected Letters, 180). Howard Hawks had given him Jules Furthman’s script for an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, To Have and Have Not, and Faulkner took it apart and reassembled it into a more efficient piece of construction, limiting the action of the story to three intense days and simplifying locations – putting Harry and his love interest, Marie (Lauren Bacall), in the same hotel, making her entrances and exits all the more enticing and intimate. “Rested, clear-eyed Bill knew what to do straight off,” Carpenter remembered (Wilde, 298). Hawks-to-Faulkner-to Carpenter – it was a sort of reunion, although with a difference: word got around about Faulkner’s powerful performance. He alternately enjoyed and deplored the newfound respect, according to Carpenter: “All this head bowing and foot scraping. . . . Nobody looked at me before this, and if it’s a flop, none of them will look my way again” (Wilde, 300). Faulkner understood how precarious anyone’s position at the studio could be, as he wrote home to Estelle: “There have been fierce domestic upheavals in the studio. Warner seems to be in some state of almost female vapors. He fired his main producer, Mr. Wallis, and all Wallis’ writers. Two other producers are about to quit. I think Warner has forgotten me. But someday he will look out his window and happen to see me pass, so I may be fired too. None of us know what’s going to happen. Half the writers are gone now, and the whole shebang might blow up at anytime” (April 14, Blotner Papers).
Hawks had been in a jam because of U.S. government concerns about the film’s location, Cuba, and the possibility of embarrassing the Batista regime and thwarting President Roosevelt’s South American “Good Neighbor” policy. When Hawks told Faulkner the setting would be changed to Martinique, Faulkner suggested they concentrate on the conflict between the Free French and the Vichy government (Kawin, To Have and Have Not, 32). Here, then, was yet another opportunity to get into production the anti-fascist critique that had been stymied in The De Gaulle Story and Battle Cry. In effect, Faulkner had saved the picture for Hawks, and he did so while working under the close supervision of the Production Code. His agility in strengthening Harry’s character owes something, as well, to Hawks’s deft handling of Joseph Breen, whose objections not just to sex but to violence, had been a problem for Hawks over the past eight years.
A rewrite had to be produced by February 22, and the director started shooting March 1, with Faulkner on the set doing more rewrites and working with the actors. It was an amicable set. Faulkner not only enjoyed watching Bogart and Bacall fall in love, he developed a scene that Hawks had trouble staging. In her screen test, Bacall had delivered her famous line to Bogart: “You don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. . . . Oh, maybe just whistle. . . . You do know how to whistle, Steve. You just put your lips together and blow.” Hawks remembered they had an “awful time” finding the right moment and setting. Faulkner said, “If we put those people in a hotel corridor where nobody else is around, then I think we can make that scene work.” In fact, Bacall delivers the lines as she heads toward the door of Harry’s room. She turns back, as the door opens to the corridor, and then launches the lines at the sitting Bogart, whose whistle just after she leaves shows how powerfully she has struck him. It is likely the actors and Hawks worked up the business of the scene, but Faulkner provided the impetus. “I wrote the line,” Hawks said, “but he [Faulkner] wrote the stuff that led up to it” (McBride, Hawks on Hawks, 78).
Hawks, known for asking actors to suit dialogue to their way of speaking, also subordinated Faulkner to the same methods. When Bogart was given several pages of dialogue Faulkner had written for him, Bogart said, “I’m supposed to say all that?” Hawks intervened and cut down the scene consulting with his star. Faulkner had to “keep ahead” of Hawks “with a day’s script.” In this respect, he had Carpenter’s invaluable help, since she had a meticulous sense of continuity that kept the director and writer straight on the changes made nearly every day. Furthman edited Faulkner’s work, but the two writers do not seem to have collaborated as such. (See Kawin’s introduction to To Have and Have Not.)
Faulkner’s greatest contribution to the film is the character of Eddie, the “rummy,” brilliantly played by Walter Brennan with an extraordinary array of tics and staggers and frailties that the actor exploits and yet overcomes in a relentlessly cheerful performance. No matter how harshly Harry speaks to him, Eddie returns for more, bringing out Harry’s better self. For all of Eddie’s failings, he knows that Harry needs him. Why? Because Eddie believes in Harry’s goodness. To keep Eddie aboard Harry’s boat is a vindication of Harry’s own humanity. When Harry’s fascist-like client, Mr. Johnson, wonders why Harry keeps the feckless Eddie as a crew member, Harry responds that Eddie thinks he is taking care of Harry. And more than Harry is ever willing to acknowledge, Eddie does just that. Eddie is always there when Harry needs him. The paradoxical nature of Eddie’s appeal – he is a dependent who is not really subservient, insofar as he has his own personality to express, which is never suppressed in his service to Harry.
Fascists do not understand – such is the message of To Have and Have Not – that the world is not divided between the strong and the weak. There is an interdependency in human affairs that cannot be summed up in a survival of the fittest ideology. The strong are strong only inasmuch as they take everyone on board – not just those who don’t drink, or have no disabilities. Eddie helps Harry do the right thing, saving the lives and the mission of the anti-fascists aboard his boat. Even though Harry sends Eddie away, Eddie sneaks aboard the boat and literally steers the ship through danger. Furthman’s Eddie dies; Faulkner not only keeps Eddie alive, he softens Harry’s treatment of him and makes Eddie integral to the plot and copacetic with the Production Code.
Almost immediately after wrapping on To Have and Have Not, Hawks and Faulkner turned to another collaboration, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s mysterious mystery The Big Sleep, which the film did nothing to clarify but resulted in a triumph nonetheless. Even after consulting Chandler, Faulkner and Hawks never figured out exactly what happened in the novel. Suffice it to say that detective Philip Marlowe is engaged to investigate the disappearance of Shawn Regan and becomes involved with the Sternwood daughters, the unstable Carmen and the duplicitous Vivian. What matters is Marlowe, admired by everyone for his strength of character – including the police who resent his scoops, the women who try to manipulate him, and even the men who try to kill him. Eddie Mars, the casino owner who wants Marlowe murdered, calls him a “soldier” – as do others because Marlowe is so committed to doing his duty. Mars is sarcastic and yet he is respectful, realizing that Marlowe will not be deterred from finding out what happened to Shawn Regan. Like Faulkner, who remained reticent about his craft, Marlowe treats his case as a kind of trade secret he won’t share with anyone until he figures out what happened to Regan. Soldiers do their duty and follow orders – except when they don’t because they have an even higher sense of obligation to the truth. Marlowe ultimately figures out that the Sternwood sisters have collaborated with Eddie Mars in covering up a crime because he understands the passions of love – of Eddie’s wife, for example, who perpetuates the ruse that she ran off with Regan in order to help Eddie cover up a crime. The only honorable thing for Marlowe to do is to sort out these conflicting passions, even after General Sternwood has paid him off.
Marlowe becomes the way for Faulkner to express the values that inspired The De Gaulle Story and Battle Cry. Marlowe gives no speech about honor and pride and love in Chandler’s novel. But he is a force for redemption. The Sternwoods allude to a decline in their line that fits Faulkner’s conception of the deteriorating Sartorises and Compsons in Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury. General Sternwood, for all his hard, bitter demeanor, wants to believe in love – that Shawn Regan has not abandoned him, and Marlowe allows the general to believe that Regan has only gone away and wishes the general well, rather than stating the truth: Carmen killed Regan in a fit of jealousy. Marlowe’s gift to a dying man is also the hope that men like Regan and Marlowe inspire. The gentleman-hero survives in Marlowe for all his tough monosyllabic talk and his silences. In effect, Marlowe, like Faulkner, becomes a family man, when Norris, the butler cum all-purpose servant, “takes the liberty” of moving Marlowe’s car into the driveway and expresses “our gratitude” for what Marlowe has done for the Sternwoods – much as a black servant might do in a Faulkner novel. Marlowe inherits, like an eldest son, the Sternwood mythos. At the end of the film, Marlowe, who hardly ever has time to even sleep in his apartment, says to the arriving cops that they will have no trouble catching up with him. “I’ve decided already myself to stay.” Hardly ever at home in Hollywood, Marlowe, whose office has been everywhere, like the displaced Faulkner moving from one temporary residence to another, has finally found a refuge (Solomon, 183-84). Although Jules Furthman rewrote the picture’s final scenes, they depend on Faulkner’s and Leigh Brackett’s opening sequence establishing the affectionate bond between Sternwood and Marlowe, who has become a substitute for Regan (Wood, 170).
Leigh Brackett disparaged Faulkner’s unwieldy dialogue but delighted in his story construction, which makes the shooting script a marvel of interlocking scenes featuring a moving in and out and returning to several interiors similar to the opening and closing of doors in To Have and Have Not, creating the effect of following the characters into scenes in the most natural, fluid way. In The Big Sleep, we become a part of Marlowe’s itinerary – visiting the Sternwood mansion, the orchid house, various Sternwood bedrooms, the Geiger bookshop (the blackmailer’s lair), Geiger’s house, Marlowe’s living room, Marlow’s bedroom, Marlow’s car, Marlowe’s office, Joe Brody’s apartment (another blackmailer’s lair), the district attorney’s office, Eddie Mars’s casino, Mars’s private office, the automobile shop where Marlowe is roughed up. Very few scenes occur outside: on a few streets, a fishing pier, and a highway. All this coming and going in “transitory spaces” (Solomon, 181) is the point of the film as Marlowe’s wit and strength are tested from every conceivable angle, reflecting “hopeless enclosure within an ominous universe” (McBride, Focus on Howard Hawks, 51). Losing a grip on exactly what is happening and who is guilty has never seemed to bother many viewers because Bogart’s Marlowe is so resilient and so much his own man, impregnable in many of the same ways as the aloof William Faulkner even as it is apparent that beneath that impervious mien is a smoldering fury.
Marlowe has been a hired hand. “I try to do my job,” he says, as Faulkner did. But what a job in this case, since the novelist cum screenwriter did not so much adapt another writer’s novel for a screenplay as participate in a screenplay that worked out the existential dimension of his own Hollywood career: the detective story as displaced autobiography. Faulkner rarely had much to say about a finished script, but after doing his final rewrites, he told James Geller that he had worked on them even after receiving final payment, “in respectful joy and happy admiration. WITH LOVE, WILLIAM FAULKNER” (Blotner, Selected Letters, 186-87).
That should have been the end of William Faulkner’s screenwriting career. He really did not want to go on, no matter how desperate he was for money. The success of To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep had come too late, and by the late 1940s he was intent on writing his masterpiece, A Fable, and resuming his career as a novelist. But he could not break his Warner contract and seemed to approach new projects in a cynical and devilish temper. He rewrote one of several screenplays for Jerry Wald’s production of Mildred Pierce. How seriously he took the project is in doubt. He introduced a new character, a black maid who soothes a distraught Mildred by singing “Steal Away.” In the margin, Faulkner wrote, “God damn! How’s that for a scene?” And yet he produced a scene (never filmed) reminiscent of Thomas Sutpen’s rebuff at the white planter’s front door in Absalom, Absalom! A proud Mildred Pierce experiences a similar rebuff at the front door of a Beverly Hills mansion, and like Sutpen, she is galvanized into creating her own establishment, a successful restaurant – her all-consuming design – only to come to grief when her daughter, Veda, murders Mildred’s husband who has been having an affair with Veda. The violence and quasi-incest, the flashbacks and retrospective point of view – all in the James M. Cain 1941 novel have led to speculation that Cain had rewritten Faulkner who rewrote Cain for the screen (LaValley, 34-36; see also Robbins 249-55; Solomon, 172-74).
Faulkner’s work on The Damned Don’t Cry, which became a Joan Crawford vehicle, did not make it into the produced film. He wrote a few good scenes, off the books, for Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (Rollyson, Volume 2, 271-72) and then worked on another film adaptation of a novel, Stallion Road by Stephen Longstreet. Judging by Faulkner’s adaptation, he loved the horses and did not care for the characters, who are mostly so unpleasant Longstreet was called in to remove all trace of Faulkner’s work. As Darryl Zanuck might have said, Faulkner did not create a rooting interest in his hero, an embittered World War II veteran and veterinarian experimenting on a cure for anthrax and involved in a romantic triangle.
Then in November 1944, Howard Hawks purchased the film rights to Irina Karlova’s Dreadful Hollow and turned the project over to William Faulkner. The surviving first-draft screenplay, all in Faulkner’s words, does not include a date, and it is not mentioned in his extant correspondence. On January 25, 1951, Hawks was trying to get Darryl Zanuck to approve production of the film. The producer declined, saying he had nothing against the picture, but it seemed formulaic. He had “‘seen it all before’ in one form or another” (Howard Hawks Papers). What was he thinking? How could a lesbian vampire movie by William Faulkner seem prosaic? Three years later, Jack Warner also passed on the project (Howard Hawks Papers). The executor of the Faulkner estate announced plans to film Dreadful Hollow, and he has assured me the film is still in development (Lee Caplin email to Carl Rollyson, May 26, 2018).
Why would Faulkner have seemed the right writer for a horror movie? Hawks may have known about “Revolt in the Earth,” Faulkner’s voodoo version of Absalom, Absalom!, apparently written in the spring of 1937 in collaboration with avant-garde director Dudley Murphy, whose film of The Emperor Jones Faulkner admired and drew upon in earlier fiction as well as in “Revolt in the Earth.” While at Warner’s, Faulkner had tried to interest producers in the script, but it had been dismissed as work unworthy of a great writer (Rollyson, Volume 2, 105). In “Revolt in the Earth,” Faulkner centers on Clytie, a black Sutpen, who seems to have an occult understanding of the family’s tragedy. She is shown as the prominent figure in a black culture that scorns their white masters who struggle with desires they cannot control. Clytie remains in novel and film adaptation an inscrutable figure, the unknowable Sutpen, the survivor, the Clytemnestra whose role in the murder of Agamemnon (Sutpen) is occluded, as it is in different versions of her actions in Greek mythology and drama. She stands in “Revolt in the Earth” as a kind of medium, attuned to the forces that undo white people who are surrounded by black people they do not comprehend, notwithstanding white claims to superiority. The relentless laughter of the black characters and their ominous drumming serve as an abiding mockery of white mastery. (A draft of “Revolt in the Earth” is in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.)
In Dreadful Hollow, Faulkner was returning to an exploration of the supernatural to get at otherwise inexplicable and irrational drives. Faulkner hewed closely to the novel’s plot line: Jillian Dare arrives at Rotherham Halt, 204 miles from London, to take up employment at the Grange (remember Wuthering Heights), a country estate inhabited by “two furriners and a loon,” as an old yokel calls them. (All quotations are from the script in the Howard Hughes Papers.) Dare’s family desperately needs her income, and the independent Jillian sets off to walk to work, refusing the offer of a lift from Larry Clyde, who motors by and tries to pick her up. “Nonsense, my dear child,” he says to her condescendingly, “Be sensible, Miss Muffet, and take advantage of providence.” His words conjure up the fairy-tale atmosphere of the movie and also the formulaic aspect that Zanuck spotted. Vampire movies often have young doctors as heroes and sometimes intrepid females like Jillian who dares brave the supernatural surroundings that unnerve Clyde for all his seeming lighthearted patter. But here the formulaic is playful. After all, Clyde calls Rotherham Halt “Little Rotting-off-the map.” The persistent, jocular Clyde finally succeeds in driving her to the Grange and on their arrival says: “Here we are. Are you still sure this is where you want to go” – even after the “loon,” Jacob Lee, menaces her with gardening shears, saying “Go way! Nobbut ain’t allowed here!” The redoubtable Jillian – she may have appealed to Hawks’s penchant for strong women – answers: “Nonsense. I’m expected. Go back to your work.”
Jillian rings an “old fashioned bell. It BOOMS hollowly in the depths of the house – a deep portentous sound in keeping with the grim exterior.” The quite slow buildup to the occult is reminiscent of Night of the Demon (1957), which director Jacques Tourneur would turn into a classic a little more than a decade later. The lady-in-waiting to the Countess has the appearance and the manner of Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. Jillian stands at the door:
A face is looking out at her from around a parted curtain in a window – a grim, harsh woman’s face. The curtain falls back, after a moment the door opens with a slow grinding of heavy bolts and the same woman stands in it. She is SARI. She is gaunt, spare, forbidding, in severe black with a maid’s cap and apron. She has a harsh, yellow face. She gives Jillian a swift up-and-down examination but says nothing.
Jillian is standing in a hall that has “an air of wealth and decayed splendor with a faint foreign flavor. Jillian, still carrying the suitcase, looks about curiously. Then she hears the heavy bolts grinding again and looks around to see Sari holding the door again as if the house were a fortress with an enemy just outside.” Jillian is the outside world. She is us, come to call – except that she shows no fear and, unlike us, is equal to the situation. Or so it seems. The decayed splendor is not all that different from the house haunted by memories in Sartoris or the house disquieted by an idiot in The Sound and the Fury. As in a Faulkner novel, Jillian enters a degenerated world in need of new blood.
Jillian now meets her employer, the Countess. Jillian feels a sudden inexplicable reluctance as the Countess Czerner, with “clawlike hands,” caresses Jillian’s hand. Sari intervenes: “If my lady begins to fondle and make a fuss over you, you must let me know at once. AT ONCE, do you hear?” Sari’s concern seems genuine, but Jillian as the younger woman also seems to excite Sari’s jealousy, suggesting that Sari sees a sexual rival that will consume the Countess’s attention. Is Jillian also a reminder of Sari’s earlier, uncorrupted self? Hard to say, but it is a possibility, one that a director and actress might exploit. Sari and the Countess are not sisters, but they act like the Sternwood sisters in The Big Sleep, seemingly devoted to one another but also pursuing their passions.
Rejuvenation, as in The Big Sleep, becomes a major theme, with the Countess, like General Sternwood fixing on Marlow, seeking a substitute in Jillian for her own failing powers. Like Sternwood, the Countess cannot get warm enough. She sits “in a high-backed chair almost like a throne, close to the hearth on which a fire burns even though it is June.” Death is the big sleep the Countess has tried to delay, and her saying “no to death” is the phrase that comes to haunt Requiem for a Nun. The Countess and Sari seek to freeze time and remain in the kind of stasis that is familiar to readers of “A Rose for Emily” and of Miss Rosa Coldfield’s time-stopping narrative in Absalom, Absalom!, critic Michelle E. Moore points out (Moore, “Vampires, Detectives, and Hawks”).
The Countess is perched between youth and age in a strange way: “At first glance, she appears to be an old woman. But something is wrong. She was beautiful once. She looks frail and wrinkled, her face is lined and the hand which she holds out to the fire looks like a claw. Yet her hair is raven black, her eyes and teeth are those of a young woman. Even her voice is young in pitch, with only a slight crack in it.” She explains that she is a Transylvanian blue blood, saying it all in the passive voice, which emphasizes her debility, admitting that, as with Faulkner’s blue bloods, there is a taint, a “tiny drop of black gypsy blood,” a drop that is “all the fire and fury of a volcano.” In short, the edifice of superiority is corrupt and only the outsider can reverse the rot that subdues the Sternwoods in The Big Sleep and the Compsons in The Sound and the Fury.
Garlic wreaths adorn the doors of the Grange, which any horror movie addict recognizes as a prophylactic measure against the intrusions and attacks of the undead. The stalwart Jillian, who desperately needs the job, braves all without any outward sign of foreboding, even though as she watches from a window, “a dark shape” runs out of a copse and Larry Clyde shows up to ask Jillian, “Little Muffet, are you all right?” His concern only annoys her – as does Sari who, notwithstanding Jillian’s protests, locks her in for the night, supposedly to prevent an attack from the prowling loony Jacob Lee.
The next morning in the kitchen Jillian sees a large bowl “half filled with a dark liquid” that looks like blood. Clyde comes calling again (like her alter ego alerting her to the danger). He got a look at that dark shape: “big, black. It looked like it had wings and was about to fly.” Jillian says he is foolish: “I saw nothing. And I don’t think you did either.” Still, she shivers when Clyde recites Tennyson’s “Maud”:
I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood,
Its lips in the field are dabbled with blood-red heath,
The red-ribbed ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,
And Echo there, whatever is ask’d her, answers “Death.”
Although Clyde is a doctor, like his father, his aspiration has been to be a poet, and it is his imaginative perceptions that Jillian dares to deny at her own peril. She is a staunch British empiricist, not an unfamiliar figure in horror film, but here presented with a certain poignancy given Clyde’s romantic inclinations. In effect, Jillian tells Clyde that she is being paid to overlook what might seem strange, and Clyde riles her up by treating her like a little Goldilocks: “Leave this place of the dreadful hollow, Miss Muffet.”
Sari, who seems even more forbidding than the Countess, locks her mistress in her room. Even though the Countess is in bed looking like a corpse, suddenly she rises and runs with “amazing agility and speed” to the windows beseeching Jillian (outside) to unlock the door, which Jillian does as the Countess draws blood: “It is my finger nail. Do forgive me, child,” the Countess says. In effect, the Countess has arisen out of her own past, as Jillian can see when she examines a photograph of the Countess “with a wild strange look, slender, in the riding habit of a bygone day, posed, slim-waisted, in a full skirt and a hat with sweeping plumes.” Jillian is nineteen confronting the nineteenth century and shivers when she finds a book with Tennyson’s lines about the dreadful hollow, and shuts it, seeing a stuffed but lifelike wolf, giving out a prolonged scream, as though the literature she reads has come to life. The power of words, of rhetoric, is so Faulknerian. No wonder Hawks wanted him to work on this film.
As Jillian begins to realize her harrowing plight, Larry Clyde searches through his father’s journal for an account of a trip to Transylvania that might reveal what is happening at the Grange. Vera, the Countess’s niece, shows up, seeking the same revival of the “old past, when life was worth living.” Vera and the Countess may actually be the same person, in which case the Faulknerian idea of perpetuating family behavior by giving different generations the same name (thinks of the Bayards and Quentins) becomes a literal truth in the vampire tale.
Vera is accompanied by a doctor, Vostok – Clyde’s coeval – who tells her that the “beauty you believe you see is a mirage, the deceitful colors that merely tint and hide corruption.” The peasant blood that enlivened the Czerners has also crazed them, Vostok explains. When Clyde learns of Vostok’s presence, he notes that the doctor is “quite famous – in his way. Does things with corpses. . . . . He’s trying to bring people back to life. He’s pulled it off once or twice, I understand. But they are sensible corpses and go back to sleep.” Clyde, like his father, is intrigued with this vampiric experience and even susceptible to it when he hears Vera singing: “He looks at Jillian, sees her succumbing to it, as if it were at Jillian that Vera directed all its force, even while she struggles against it” – the “it” inherent in the power of the words, of literature to animate desire and a longing Faulkner was drawn to all his life in the language he created.
But the lust for young blood becomes a threat to the community when a young boy goes missing, with the clear implication that he has become the Countess’s victim. The child is, in effect, Jillian herself, as the dialogue makes clear:
Clyde: You must leave here. Don’t you see you must?
Jillian: They will find the child.
Clyde: What makes you think something has happened to the child (as she stares at him staring, Lee grips her arm). Jillian have you seen or heard anything suspicious while you’ve been here.
Jillian: (almost violently) No! No!
Jillian begins to tremble and cannot stop. Clyde holds on to her asking her to marry him, but she only wants him to let her go. This moment, one of the most powerful in the script, portrays a young woman who is youth and what everyone wants at the price of surrendering her own will, which she refuses to do no matter how much she is frightened. The lesbian vectors of the plot converge in a crescendo as Jillian re-enters the house with Vera “singing in a triumphant peal.”
When Jillian answers the plaintive call that the ailing Countess is worse, she is accosted by a swooping bat-like creature that is only deterred by a garlic wreath she holds under her arm. Jillian wonders if she is going mad but is prevented from leaving the Grange because of the police investigation of the missing boy. In her next encounter with Vera, Jillian is amazed at how old she looks in her “dull black cloth” robe that “clings to her as if it were wet, folding about her like folded wings.” Like the Countess, Vera moves swiftly toward Jillian, toward youth, become “brilliant, vital, eager.” Vera, like nearly everyone else, calls Jillian her “dear child” and tries to coax her to abandon the wreath.
Clyde, reading his father’s journal, gradually works out what is happening at the Grange. The Count, a man of “contemptuous pride” like Colonel Sartoris, the family patriarch, introduces Clyde’s father to his wife, “descendant of the gypsy Magda who lies at the crossroads with a stake through her heart. . . . She is a vampire, as Magda was. The curse has fallen upon her, she cannot escape nor be saved. Unless you do as I ask,” the Count tells Dr. Clyde, “every child, every young creature in this district walks under the shadow of death. Without human blood she cannot live. Draw her vampire teeth – and let her die mercifully in peace.” If Clyde’s father refuses, “then the peasants will destroy her, as they did the gypsy Magda.” The teeth are extracted, and she fades away, but her progeny have survived.
In the denouement, Larry Clyde and Inspector Gregory, informed of what is really happening at the Grange, combine to rescue Jillian as the Grange goes up in flames. There is a lot of running around involving Sari, “heavily panting” and Jillian “stumbling up the drive, almost spent.” Faulkner, keenly aware of the ludicrous plot, put in a note to Hawks on the script: “One modern woman running is ridiculous, comic; one chasing another doesn’t help it much. Am trying to tell this in more or less static shots.”
Sari prevents the Countess from pursuing Jillian. Sari confronts the Countess with “despairing grief” and kills her with an axe, chopping her head off, and then Sari dies of a heart attack. Vostok, whose motivations have been occluded – he seems to want to save the Countess and Vera but also realizes they cannot continue to murder for blood – are finally explained by Sari, before she dies, who reveals that the old Count made a gentleman of Vostok and made Vostok’s medical fame possible. The very idea of a gentleman – so precious to Faulkner’s own sense of himself – becomes in Dreadful Hollow a source of fealty to the past but also a propelling force for change. The gentleman has a duty to revere tradition, especially one’s ancestors, and yet to change that tradition if it is to survive. Vostok has set fire to the Grange to “make a clean sweep,” Clyde surmises: “house, policemen, witnesses, body, evidence – all.” Then he would take her [Vera] and clear off, allowing Jillian to supply the Countess’s needed blood.
A lesbian vampire film – what else can be made of the Countess and Vera vying for Jillian? – would hardly seem a fitting subject for William Faulkner and Howard Hawks, and yet the brooding on doom and family disintegration, the hold of the past that must be acknowledged but also broken, the power of these female characters, their down-to-earth indomitability, and the role of the gentleman-hero as exemplified in the two Clydes and Vostok reflect much of the ethic that the gentleman-director and his gentleman-screenwriter exemplified. And not to be discounted is the sheer brio of their encounter with a genre they sought to parody and to transform. Can’t you just hear Hawks say, “Bill, see what you can do with this.”
Whatever Faulkner felt about Dreadful Hollow he kept to himself and gave every indication that the horror he dreaded was Hollywood itself. Stephen Longstreet remembers Faulkner’s farewell to Hollywood in September 1945. They were standing at the studio gate, which perhaps reinforced Faulkner’s feeling of incarceration. Longstreet remembers him scowling: “What a goddamn place. One leaf falls in one of those god damn canyons, and they tell you it’s winter.” In a foul mood, Faulkner had called Hollywood “the plastic asshole of the world.” A week later he was gone (Brodsky and Hamblin, Stallion Road, xvi).
That should have been it – no more Hollywood, especially after the popular success of Intruder in the Dust (1948), the publication of several Faulkner titles in mass market paperbacks, and then the awarding of the Nobel Prize. But Howard Hawks had other ideas. His biographer Todd McCarthy boils down the director’s pitch: A picture based on William E. Barrett’’s “timely and inspirational novel, The Left Hand of God, about an American flier trying to escape the embattled China of 1947 disguised as a priest. The trappings of the story – the resourceful pilot hero, a gorgeous young nurse, the endangered outpost of humanity [a Catholic mission] trying to stave off violent and unpredictable forces – had obvious appeal to Hawks, who certainly would have played up the adventure and romance angles” (85). But what was the appeal to Faulkner? Hawks telephoned eight times in one evening from Hollywood, and before the eighth time, Faulkner said, “I hope he doesn’t phone me again because I will have to give in” (Carvel Collins interview with Alabama Maclean, Faulkner’s aunt, October 5 or 6, 1951).
The money was good: $2,000 a week and a bonus if Faulkner finished the work in a month. But did Faulkner need the money after the $30,000 Nobel award? In fact, he did, because he had set up a $25,000 trust fund. Much of the Nobel wealth would go to doing good works. Howard Hawks had saved Faulkner’s career in Hollywood on many occasions, and Faulkner was scrupulous about paying his debts, no matter how long it took him. And what if The Left Hand of God abetted Faulkner’s own work? What if Faulkner’s adaptation of this “inspirational novel” fulfilled the work on The De Gaulle Story, Battle Cry, and Requiem for a Nun, all of which dealt with the theme of redemption and of individuals asserting a newfound integrity in the midst of history? McCarthy calls Faulkner’s first-draft screenplay “craftsmanlike . . . rather dull and sincere, with an abundance of narration” (486), but Faulkner’s work is neither perfunctory nor boring, and is superior to the film eventually released starring Humphrey Bogart and Gene Tierney.
To begin with, Faulkner conceived of the film, although set in China, as a Hollywood western. Here is how his film opens: “Evening after sunset. A small gorge or mountain pass, barren solitary. A rough trail along which pass a column of mounted men and heavy though crudely laden packanimals with their drivers.” (All quotations of the screenplay are from Gleeson-White, Faulkner at Twentieth Century-Fox, 761.) The studios almost always wanted their audience to identify with foreign characters and situations as though the world abroad was American. So in the released version of the film, Lee J. Cobb plays a Chinese warlord. Faulkner did not suggest actors for the roles, but in creating Hank, it is hard to believe he did not have Walter Brennan in mind, one of the stars of Banjo on My Knee and To Have and Have Not. Hank is not in Barrett’s novel. He is a singular Faulkner creation but also a Hollywood creature. He is the wisecracking sidekick so often employed in the Brennan-Cooper films and, even more notably, for Faulkner’s purposes, in the Brennan-Wayne collaboration in Red River (1948). After the first appearance of Jim Carmody, comes the “second white man” (761), Hank, subordinate to Carmody but also his critic, functioning as Brennan does in Red River as Wayne’s conscience. In one version of the film, Brennan also narrated the story, providing a perspective – by turns serious and comic – on the hero just as Hank does who supports Carmody but also questions his decisions. As for the Chinese, well, they are make-do American Indians and even sometimes sound like refugees from Drums Along the Mohawk.
Without Hank, the released film lacks humor and tension, so that even an actor as great as Humphrey Bogart can seem if not exactly boring, then without enough to do, since he has no one, really, to answer to. Listen to Hank narrate the story and you can hear Walter Brennan: “China, 1951 right under the edge of Tibet a thousand miles from nowhere and for my nickel you could have had the country and the job both two years ago, and by now even Jim too was going around to that idea.” (762) The hard-boiled, apolitical language – right out of The Big Sleep – is applied to history. Soon the Communists would take over the country, but their encroaching power is only an off-camera phenomenon alluded to in the dialogue.
Hank’s voice-overs, it is true, are uncommonly long for the screen, but they could have been compressed while retaining his mordant humor. His narrative interludes function like the introductory sections of Requiem for a Nun, a draft of which Faulkner was writing on the reverse side of the Left Hand of God script. Without narrative, the released version of the film lacks the background necessary to savor Carmody’s developing moral consciousness, which he works out under Hank’s intense scrutiny.
Jim and Hank are downed pilots now working for a Chinese warlord, Yang, their rescuer who will not let them go. They are also in the midst of a civil war trying to avoid “soviet gangs” who are moving across Yang’s territory. When one of Yang’s men kills a traveling priest, Carmody whips the murderer across the face – assuming an authority that Yang accords to himself. When Yang orders Carmody to do the same to Hank, the two white men escape, knowing full well that Yang, not daring to lose face, will come after them.
Carmody, wearing the dead priest’s clothes, and Hank, dressed as a servant, find refuge in a Catholic mission, which has been expecting the arrival of a priest. Carmody, who has said “Religion is for children” (779), is called upon to perform mass, hear confession, administer communion, attend to the dying, and, in general, take care of the mission that becomes his mission – at first only as an effort to save himself but, in the end, to serve humanity, the “Chinks,” as Hank calls them. Carmody, for all his reluctance, performs well as a priest inspiring reverence among his congregation – rather like the recalcitrant Nobel laureate who found, perhaps to his surprise, that he could fulfill his public responsibilities with considerable success. It had not been easy. “Billy has gotten so touchy we don’t dare mention his fame, and believe me, we edge off. He is so very proud and happy over winning the prize, but is his own shy self about publicity,” his mother explained (Carvel Collins Papers, Maud Falkner to Sallie Burns, January 16, 1951).
In Faulkner’s graduation speeches to his daughter’s high school and college classes and in his Nobel address, he had insisted the world could change only if individuals, one by one, changed themselves and protested injustice. Carmody mentions he was an altar boy but is now a lapsed Catholic, and the dying priest replies, “There is no such thing” (781). He might as well say, as Gavin Stevens does, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun, 73) – the most famous line Faulkner ever wrote. Although Carmody jokes when he calls himself “an American white devil” (785) when rejecting the attentions of a courtesan, he regards himself as unredeemed.
Faulkner’s serious moral purpose as well as his enmity toward Hollywood and his own problematic dealings with popular culture erupt as he pictures Hank lying in bed reading a “movie magazine or detective story of True Confessions, or maybe a battered Saturday Evening Post two years old” (787) – none of which prepare him for the hazardous and morally complex sojourn in the Chinese mission, which includes encountering Dr. Sigman, a disaffected radical who has fled Europe to this poor village of people. Carmody shies away from political talk. What matters, in the screenplay, is his courage in opposing Yang, his loyalty to Hank, and the self-sacrifice he will make for a community of believers. Carmody recounts his injury in an avalanche – an episode not in the novel that explains his devotion to Hank: “It must have taken him days to keep me alive and still get me down that mountain to where he could find help. I don’t know how he did it” (808).
Carmody and Hank have saved each other, but the hero has not yet figured out how to save himself. That the mission welcomes Carmody as a priest becomes less significant, ultimately, than his understanding that their faith in God and humanity is what will redeem him. His qualities as a man, not just a priest, invite the attention of Dr. Sigman, his wife, and Anne, the wife of a lost American pilot (presumed dead). Anne, a devout Catholic, is troubled by her romantic attachment to Carmody, who is susceptible to her as succor to his soul. Faulkner plays down their sexual attraction as he concentrates on Carmody’s spiritual revival. He has been a man who figured all the angles, a soldier of fortune, who gradually renounces his own ambitions.
Dr. Sigman says “there are no miracles,” and yet he practically quotes from Faulkner’s Nobel Prize address about the “human race, which, for all its baseness and folly, is still capable of fidelity and sacrifice for the sake of love” (813). And for all Hollywood’s corrupt dealings, Faulkner was still trying to redeem it in this script.
When the village comes to seek Carmody’s blessing, he is so moved that he kneels to them – a spontaneous gesture that Hank is sure came as a surprise: “I don’t guess he knew why, either. But it was the right thing to do. It was exactly right. It was as if the Lord himself was taking care of him – of us –” (836). The “us” is everyone, white and Chinese alike, and Carmody’s spontaneous submission to his fate, to saving the village, seems like a gift of grace, not an action of his own volition. Without Hank, how could the power of this salvation have been conveyed? It certainly does not occur in the released film. Was Faulkner also thinking of the grace he had shown in the Nobel ceremony, the pirouetting that his lover Else Jonsson noticed – not aware that this was the same man who had at first refused to travel to Stockholm and then doused himself with liquor in the days approaching the Nobel event? (Rollyson, Volume 2, 336, 339) When Faulkner said the award was not just to him, he meant it. Accepting the prize meant he could no longer go it alone, as he had done so often in Hollywood, in New York, at home, acting as his own soldier of fortune.
By all accounts, Faulkner’s presence at Stockholm inspired awe. Anne, watching Carmody perform as Father O’Shea, exults: “Never in my life did a Mass move me as that one did. He was so deliberate – so reverent – so sincere. It was as though it could go on forever – none of us ever leave the church again –” (851). She is speaking of a moment but also of eternity and universality, the very terms of Faulkner’s Nobel sermon. The Communists in the film are described as godless – not only in the disbelieving sense but in their obliteration of individuality. No wonder, then, that the Nobel declaration of faith is a key Cold War document reified by this film. Such moments sound preachy, but Hank is always there to be earthy – this time at a baptism to say he can assist Carmody: “I can co-pilot on that. (Carmody reacts) The baptizing. I can hold a Texas yearling while they notch its ear. I guess I can hold a Chink kid while you sprinkle it. – Okay, okay, just say I’m bored” (867).
Carmody is Faulkner in character: “The whole Chinese family is watching him with the same air of complete trust. He sees the family and speaks to them in the hill dialect, indicating that he is learning even something of that” (869). That Faulkner had a similar impact is undeniable. On February 28, 1951, Perrin H. Lowrey Jr., writing to Phil Stone, Faulkner’s mentor, while Faulkner was in Hollywood working on The Left Hand of God, testified that “as a young writer, I wanted to tell someone close to him how much his speech of acceptance in Stockholm meant to those of us who are trying to turn out something good. The dignity and selflessness and awareness of that speech must have been particularly meaningful and encouraging to all the young writers of my generation. . . . So I wanted him to know. . . . I simply wanted to thank him for doing so generous and so fine a thing” (Brodsky and Hamblin, Volume II, 63). Even if Stone never forwarded this letter, Faulkner had to know through those close to him like Joan Williams, Shelby Foote, and many of the students he counseled that his words inspired generations of writers.
Carmody contrives a nonviolent strategy that boxes in the warlord Mieh Yang demanding Carmody’s return and the capitulation of the mission. If Yang tortures Carmody but does not break him, he will lose face. If Carmody succumbs to torture, Yang will lose face because it will be said he should never have chosen such a weak man to command his troops. Yang withdraws and Carmody, as an imposter, surrenders to the discipline of the church – an ironic outcome, it turns out, since the Catholic Church protested Faulkner’s script because Carmody actually performs religious services.
After two decades in Hollywood, Faulkner knew that his mixture of the profane and the sacred could never be approved. Perhaps he thought Hawks could finesses the censors, as he had done in previous pictures. Or, perhaps, writing a screenplay drawing on both an understanding of Hollywood limits and a wish to transgress those limits was enough compensation for Faulkner. Or, like all Hollywood product, he knew his script would be rewritten, and he might as well have his say – as he did, for example, with Sutter’s Gold and Drums Along the Mohawk, films rewritten and released, but not nearly as powerful or as honest as his scripts.
And that should have been the end of Faulkner’s Hollywood hegira. But Howard Hawks, a sort of William Faulkner alter ego, came calling once more – this time by letter, cable, and finally by phone. He made Land of the Pharaohs sound like The Wild Palms and Banjo on My Knee, with Pharaoh as the original slave master:
Egypt is great, perfectly beautiful and very interesting. This can be an amazing picture. Here’s a little description which you probably already know.
Egypt is a river, outside of the land alongside of the river it’s a desert and all life is centered around the river. Old days the Nile used to overflow and the land was inundated except for the villages which are always built on higher ground, naturally or artificially. During flood times the people worked for the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh was God, he controlled all the people, fed them, and according to his nature, ruled them. If he were warlike they fought, if he were artistic the arts became worthwhile. (Brodsky and Hamblin, Volume 2, 127-28)
Did Hawks’s account of dragging pyramid stones to the Nile remind Faulkner of the Indians in his story “A Justice,” rolling that steamboat home to their plantation?
In December 1953, Faulkner set off for the first stage of his journey to Egypt, saying to his mother he did not want another movie job, but “Mr. Hawks has been too good to me” (Blotner, Selected Letters, 356). What did Faulkner do in Egypt? He couldn’t remember much and said he hadn’t done much. The project had not begun well since he showed up with a bleeding head wound from some misadventure in a bar and then asked Hawks if they were going to do Red River “all over again.” Later Faulkner said it was the same picture Hawks always made, and made well: “The Pharaoh is the cattle baron, his jewels are the cattle, and the Nile is the Red River.” He might have added that the driving of the slaves was akin to the cattle drive in a Hawks western. The other two writers, Harold Jack Bloom and Harry Kurnitz, like Faulkner, knew almost nothing about Egypt. Bloom found Faulkner irritable and taciturn – no longer the sweet drunk so many other screenwriters had previously encountered. To his mother, Faulkner wrote on March 19, 1954: “I don’t like Egypt – have had stomach trouble ever since I got here – the food, water, sandals – . . . . Unpleasant” (William Faulkner Collection, University of Virginia). He had not really wanted to go to Egypt, saying beforehand to his editor Saxe Commins that his back hurt and he was not well (Commins, 206).
Hawks wanted them to focus on a Pharaoh obsessed with building a pyramid with legions of slave labor – not so different from a grandiose Hollywood studio mogul (Jack Warner was bankrolling the picture) or Hawks himself, according to his biographer writing about the fifty-six-year-old director’s recent marriage to a twenty-four-year-old. Did Hawks, after meeting Faulkner’s young lover, Jean Stein, in St. Moritz, also see parallels with Faulkner, the creator of Sutpen’s Hundred, with a penchant for rebirth via young women? Other than polishing some scenes, Faulkner mostly talked out his sequences and Kurnitz rewrote them and later claimed only one of Faulkner’s Pharaoh lines survived, “So . . . how is the job getting along?” Faulkner wrote Jean Stein on March 14: “Worked very hard this past week. . . . Finished script again, for the second time. . . . He [Hawks] can tear the script up again. . . . But just maybe, maybe, he won’t. . . .” He did. Faulkner completed his work by the end of March, just before principal photography began (McCarthy, 517-24; Blotner, Selected Letters, 362).
“Worked very hard”? As nonchalant as Faulkner might seem, he cared about the work. The film seems Faulknerian, even though he did not write it. The Pharaoh means to make his mark on time with a burial edifice that is impregnable and that will endure and hires a foreign architect just as the slave-driving Sutpen does to create his own dynasty, which, like the Pharaoh’s, fails. Jokes aside about Faulkner asking if he could make the Pharaoh talk like a Kentucky colonel, he apparently understood why Hawks had chosen him for the project. Hawks wanted more than the prestige of hiring a Nobel Prize winner. The director insisted on Faulkner’s important contribution to the film (Solomon, 245), and who knows what they might have said to one another or intuited during the stages of writing the film, when Hawks rewrote what his writers wrote. Faulkner’s collaboration with Hawks, begun two decades earlier, remained symbiotic. Concerns about Faulkner’s exact contribution to certain films are, to a certain extent, misguided, since the importance of his work consists of precisely his effort to apply his genius even to projects that seemed to affront his intense individualistic mentality.
To have recovered all this evidence and testimony about Faulkner in Hollywood is to give the lie to so many interviews in which he claimed film was not his medium and that he never mastered it. Who has? Screenplays are almost never enough to read on the page like a story, novel, or play. Screenplays demand collaboration and dedication, and it turned out that Faulkner was magnificently prepared to make and share his contribution with his collaborators – no matter what doubts he might have had about his ultimate accomplishment.
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_____, ed. Country Lawyer and Other Stories for the Screen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
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_____, ed. To Have and Have Not. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.
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