"These Three": The Influence of William Wyler and Gregg Toland on Lillian Hellman

By Hayes, Richard | Literature/Film Quarterly, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

"These Three": The Influence of William Wyler and Gregg Toland on Lillian Hellman


Hayes, Richard, Literature/Film Quarterly


"Playwrights who go to Hollywood for any length of time seldom come back without a fatal streptococcus septicus" said George Jean Nathan in a 1937 article in Scribner's Magatane. "The potential of mauve motor cars, marble dunking pools, English buders, and seven-dollar neckties" in Nathan's analysis leads writers to disregard their independence and integrity: "Hollywood harlotry," he calls it (66).

Nathan articulates a commonly held assumption: Hollywood is often seen as pillaging the American theatre of its talent and its scripts, of turning great directors and actors into journey-men, most of all of seducing the dedicated men and women of the theatre with the promise of untold wealth. Fine refers to this as the "Hollywood-as-destroyer" legend:

Novelists and playwrights of acute sensibility and talent, so the legend goes, were lured to Hollywood by offers of huge amounts of money and the promise of challenging assignments; once in the studios they were set to work on mundane, hackneyed scripts; they were treated without respect by the mandarins who ruled the studios; and they were subject to petty interferences by their intellectual inferiors. In the process, they were destroyed as artists. (3)

For Fine, the secret to avoiding artistic destruction in Hollywood "lay in drawing a distinct line between movie work and serious writing." Playwrights - "Eastern writers," Fine calls them - "became, in a sense, literary schizophrenics, acting out one identity when working on what mattered to them and another when in the studios" (156).

An "Eastern writer" who had a long professional association with Hollywood was Lillian Hellman. Hellman represents a challenge to Fine's "Hollywood-as-destroyer" legend and particularly his view that Hollywood writers were compelled to become "schizophrenic." Robert Kirsch argues that some writers "found in Hollywood and in die movies material and techniques which enhanced dieir work" (qtd. in Fine 9). This was certainly the case with Lillian Hellman. This essay will consider Hellman's appropriation of elements of the film technique of her Hollywood collaborators, Gregg Toland and William Wyler, for theatrical purposes. It will do so by comparing a play by Hellman from before her first serious professional contact with Hollywood (The Children's Hour) to a play written after she had spent some time working in the film industry (The Little Foxes). The essay will show thus that not all contact between playwrights and Hollywood was destructive. Furthermore, it will show that a refusal to separate "serious writing" and work for the movies brought creative dividends for at least one American playwright.

Following the success of her first play, The Children's Hour (1934), Lillian Hellman came to Hollywood to work as a scriptwriter for Samuel Goldwyn. Other writers of the Goldwyn stable included Elmer Rice, Sidney Howard, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArdiur, and Robert Sherwood, but Hellman became "a prize of Goldwyn's collection" (Wright 105). Goldwyn and Hellman would work together on several films: The Dark Angel (\935), an adaptation by Hellman of a silent film of the same name by Frances Marion, from an original play by Guy Bolton; These Three, an adaptation of The Children's Hour (1936); Dead End, a version of Sidney Kingsle/s play (1937); The Little Foxes, an adaptation of Hellman's own hit play (1941); and The North Star, an original screenplay by Hellman (1943). Two other screenplays by Hellman were also produced in Hollywood, the William theterle directed The Searching Wind (1946) from her play, and Arthur Perm's The Chase (1966). Hellman contributed to several other screenplays, including the adaptations of her plays Watch on the Rhine (1943), to which she is credited as providing "Additional Scenes and Dialogue," and the 1962 version of The Children's Hour (see Dick).

These Three, Dead End, and the film of The Little Foxes were directed by William Wyler (who later also would direct the 1962 version of The Children's Hour) and photographed by Gregg Toland, a frequent collaborator with Wyler. …

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