Gore Vidal, who died on Tuesday (July 31, 2012), was the author of Screening History, one of two favorite books about film written by an author who was not known primarily for writing about film (the other is The Devil Finds Work, by James Baldwin). Published in 1992, the book charts the author’s own childhood obsession with movies and the various historical forces at work that both influenced those movies and reflected them. He gives special attention to the Warner Bros. production, THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (1937); the English historical drama FIRE OVER ENGLAND (1937); and various filmed depictions of Abraham Lincoln, but he intersperses recollections of those films with all sorts of personal history.
He outlines the basic thesis of the book in two paragraphs in the chapter on THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER:
“From the earliest days, the movies have been screening history, and if one saw enough movies, one learned quite a lot of simple-minded history. Stephen Runciman and I met on an equal basis not because of my book Julian, which he had written about, but because I knew his field, thanks to a profound study of Cecil B. De Mille’s The Crusades (1935), in which Berengaria, as played by Loretta Young, turns to her Lionheart husband and pleads, ‘Richard, you gotta save Christianity.’ A sentiment that I applauded at the time but came later to deplore.
Thanks to A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Marie Antoinette, my generation of pre-pubescents understood at the deepest level the roots—the flowers, too—of the French Revolution. Unlike Dickens’ readers, we knew what the principals looked and sounded like. We had been there with them.
In retrospect, it is curious how much history was screened in those days. Today, Europe still does stately tributes to the Renaissance, usually for television; otherwise, today’s films are stories of him and her and now, not to mention daydreams of unlimited shopping with credit cards. Fortunately, with time even the most contemporary movie undergoes metamorphosis, becomes history as we get to see real life as it was when the film was made, true history glimpsed through the window of a then-new, now-vintage, car.”
(Baldwin’s book, The Devil Finds Work, covering roughly the same period of films, also emphasizes how films were received by audiences at the time and explores the relationship between the movies and the people in Baldwin’s Harlem community who consumed them.)
In his detailed discussion of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, Vidal ties in the film’s message with the studio politics of the time:
“The film’s overt political message is straightforward: a good king will listen to the people and help them. Oddly enough, kings with absolute power were a staple of American movies. One seldom saw democracy in action, and when one did the results were apt to be simple-minded fables like those of Frank Capra.
“More is to be learned, I believe, from William Keighley, auteur de The Prince and the Pauper as well as of Babbitt, than from Capra. The prince’s father, Henry VIII, explains to his son the nature of power. Why the Warner Brothers thought that the American public would find interesting a disquisition on princely power in Renaissance times is a secret that Jack L. Warner took to his grave. On the other hand, the king’s musings were possibly addressed to the serfs at Warner Brothers, a studio known for its love of tradition, particularly the annual Christmas layoff.”
Speaking of Capra, Vidal also describes his encounter with the director of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE when Capra was briefly signed on to direct the film version of Vidal’s play, “The Best Man.” I’m not going to quote the whole thing, but here are some choice clips:
“As I have noted, I never liked his political films. Even at twelve, I knew too much about politics to be taken in by his corny Mr. Smith coming to my town….
“I had already lost two films based on my work, The Left-Handed Gun and Visit to a Small Planet. In each case, the wrong director had made the wrong film. I was not about to lose a third one. But how to get rid of Capra? The French auteur virus had already infected Hollywood, and dozens of brothers-in-law of producers who had spent years locked up on sound stages with actors no one wanted to talk to were now being treated as if they were singular creators, so many Leonardos, sprung, as it were, from the good earth of the San Fernando Valley. Of these auteurs, Capra was an acclaimed master, at least by Cahiers du Cinema.
Capra and I discussed the script a number of times. The realism of the piece did not impress him because, for him, politics was not what it is but what he himself had screened. As William Wyler studied not Roman history but other Roman movies in preparation for Ben Hur, so Capra tried to conform my, to him, disagreeable realism with the screened America that he was used to; that he had, in fact, helped invent. Once again the story was to be about the good guy who speaks for all The Little People.”
He goes on to describe how Capra wanted the lead character, to be played by Henry Fonda, to greet the party delegates dressed up as Lincoln, which prompted Vidal to take back control of the project and get a director “who had worked for me in television.” He goes on to say:
“Those who would like to know Frank Capra’s version of all this will find his story in his memoirs. In any event, I was able, that once, to screen our politics the way they are or were as of 1963. The picture was also entirely mine until I got to the Cannes Film Festival to receive a prize and saw, on a billboard, a vast advertisement for The Best Man—un film de Franklin Schaffner.”
One more choice quote from the book, this time from his chapter on Lincoln:
“Lincoln was a god-like presence in other films, such as The Littlest Colonel, starring Shirley Temple, a child actress who, at the age of six, sued Graham Greene for suggesting that she was a sexual provocateur. She won her case and became American ambassador to Czechoslovakia. I suppose it could have been worse. Certainly, to the day of his death, Greene lived in terror of Shirley Temple’s wrath.”
It should be pointed out that Temple was nine when that happened, not six, and she didn’t get the Ambassador gig until five decades later. The lawsuit was in response to a review by Greene of the film WEE WILLIE WINKIE (1937), starring Temple and directed by John Ford. If I had access to that review I would quote the offending passage.
In 2000, I got Vidal to sign my copy of Screening History when he came to the TV studio where I work to appear on an episode of “Theater Talk,” around the time “The Best Man” was first revived on Broadway. (A new revival is playing on Broadway right now.) It was just before the presidential election that year, when Al Gore, a distant cousin of Vidal, was running against George W. Bush, with Ralph Nader running as a popular 3rd party candidate for the Green Party. In an off-camera moment, one of the hosts asked Vidal who he’d be voting for and Vidal answered, “Blood is thicker than Nader.”
When I approached Vidal with my autograph request, I pointed out a photo on the wall of the station lobby showing legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and I got a chuckle out of him when I suggested a caption for the photo from a quote of Murrow’s found in Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest. I’m going to tell the story with that quote here, one of my favorite stories in the book. There’s a reference in it to Vidal’s grandfather, T.P. Gore, the first senator from the state of Oklahoma, and the man who was Vidal’s parent figure for much of his early life. The story involves an encounter between Vidal and Murrow following the funeral service for Eleanor Roosevelt in 1962 and refers to Vidal’s and Mrs. Roosevelt’s unsuccessful attempt to get Murrow to run for the senate.
“After the service, outside the church, I found myself standing next to Ed Murrow. He had a constant cough, which made the cold air steam. I turned to him. ‘Mrs. R. and I always wondered why you said no to the senate race. You could have won.’
Murrow gave me a gray, hard look. ‘You must understand. I don’t like people.’
‘Neither did my grandfather, and he was very useful to them, in politics.’
‘But I really don’t like them.’ Thus spake the Coriolanus of the Columbia Broadcasting System.”
So I wanted the caption under Murrow to read, “I don’t like people.”
One other choice memory of Vidal. He was a presenter of the Best Screenplay Oscars at the 48th Annual Academy Awards, held in 1976, and in his brief remarks he referred to the film, MYRA BRECKENRIDGE, which had been adapted from his novel in 1970, as “six million celluloid guitar picks.”
A few years ago, I picked up the DVD of MYRA BRECKENRIDGE because I’d heard that the audio commentary provided by Raquel Welch was particularly funny and scathing. It’s definitely worth getting just for that. Upon John Huston’s first entrance, she says: “I love John Huston. Why couldn’t he have directed this movie?”
The DVD also offers an alternate commentary provided by the director, Michael Sarne, to give his conflicting side of the stories told by Welch. Sarne posits a gay conspiracy, which supposedly included Vidal, to design the film with a pro-gay agenda and then to sabotage it once the conspirators realized Sarne wasn’t making the film they wanted.
If you’ve ever read the novel, which pays loving tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood and is quite a witty and funny work, you’ll realize that the only conspiracy was by 20th Century Fox and its production executives, including the recently deceased Richard Zanuck, to ruin a good book by making it conform to the countercultural trends and so-called “youth culture” of the time. I remember reading a piece by Vidal in which he recounted how he pleaded with Zanuck and his longtime production partner David Brown not to hire Sarne, whose only claim to fame at the time was the swingin’ London comedy, JOANNA (1968), which Vidal referred to as “40 commercials looking for a product.” I googled all this and found that the whole story is told in Graydon Carter’s book, “Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood: Rebels, Reds and Graduates and the Wild Stories Behind the Making of 13 Iconic Films.”
Finally, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that, as someone with great interest in Billy the Kid and the various movies about him, I’ve still never seen GORE VIDAL’S BILLY THE KID (1989), a TV movie written by Vidal as a corrective to THE LEFT-HANDED GUN (1958), an adaptation of Vidal’s original TV play, and one which Vidal referred to negatively in an earlier quote above. I’ve also never seen SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959), a film for which Vidal wrote the screenplay, based on Tennessee Williams’ play. I have both films on tape, having recorded them off cable some years ago. Now I have to watch them.