By Sydney Ladensohn Stern

University Press of Mississippi. 468 pages.  £34.95. ISBN 978-1-61703-267-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns



The life of a screenwriter in Hollywood was never all that easy. Writers hardly rated highly in the studio pecking order, and their work, if it wasn’t already the result of a collaborative effort with several additional writers, could be re-written by directors, producers, and actors. It was true that writers could be well-paid by the standards that applied outside the film industry, but they were poorly paid in comparison to the people who could interfere with their scripts. And their terms of employment were often temporary. Short-term contracts were not renewed if a writer couldn’t produce what was wanted quickly. It was often a case of “We don’t want it good, we want it Tuesday”.  More writers could always be brought in to improve it. Studios were like factories and designed to produce a product called movies.

The brothers Mankiewicz – Herman and Joseph – stayed the course in Hollywood, and were usually  in receipt of earnings that others might envy. They were both linked to films that have a place in screen history, and their names are remembered because of that fact. But not everything ran smoothly for them, and, for varying reasons, they had their share of the many difficulties that a career in films almost inevitably involved.

Herman, the older of the two, was born in 1897, and Joseph in 1909. In childhood Joseph always looked up to Herman, and later in life he took on the responsibilities of picking up the pieces as his older brother’s life began to fall apart. They were both heavily influenced by their father, a teacher and later professor who expected high standards and was not in favour of popular culture, including the cinema. Sydney Ladensohn Stern describes him as a “harsh parent”. She also tells the story of Herman’s feelings when a bicycle he had been given as a Christmas present was stolen. It was an incident that imprinted itself on him and was a shaping factor when, much later, he worked on the screenplay for Citizen Kane.

A bright student, Herman applied to go to Columbia University in New York, but because of his age had to wait a year before acceptance. His father sent him to work in the coal mines near Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, where the family was then living. Stern says that Herman always valued the experience of working with the miners, who taught him to smoke and drink, and he admired their camaraderie. But he was never a radical, and in the 1930s, when the Screen Writers Guild was established, he refused to join it, and instead aligned himself with a rival, more-conservative  organisation designed to represent the interests of writers in the studio system. 

Herman had an active life as a student and enlisted in the armed forces in 1918. He arrived in France in early November, but was too late to find himself in a combat situation. Before leaving New York he had started writing book reviews and articles for the New York Tribune, and when he returned from Europe he continued to pursue a career in journalism. He was also deeply interested in the theatre and anxious to write plays. I’m not giving a complete account of Herman’s travels and experiences in the early 1920s. He visited Paris and Berlin, and in New York wrote for the New York Times and the newly-started New Yorker. His work as a theatre critic introduced him to the legendary Algonquin Round Table, and its often hard-drinking characters like Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and George S. Kaufman. He also knew Ben Hecht, Louise Brooks and Harpo Marx.

In 1926 the lively and likeable Herman moved to Hollywood, attracted by stories of the high salaries paid for turning out what appeared to be routine scenarios. His intention was to earn enough to settle some debts – he gambled as well as drank – and then return to New York. Like others at the time, he had little fondness for the cinema and saw it as inferior in both content and intention to the theatre. Working in Hollywood, Herman had to adhere to its conventions. As Stern puts it, “Movies grew out of peep shows and vaudeville. They started as commerce and developed into art”, and art was ok provided it made money. She quotes Herman as saying: “When the producer says to you, ‘Now in Reel Three the fellow shouldn’t kiss the girl, he should kiss the cow’, that fellow was going to kiss the cow and there wasn’t a thing the writer could do about it”.

Faced with situations like that, Herman rarely took his work in Hollywood too seriously. Perhaps his general view was summed up in a telegram to Ben Hecht encouraging him to come to Hollywood, part of which read, “Millions are to be grabbed out here, and your only competition is idiots”.  And Herman, although he had a wife and children to support, took advantage of his capacity to earn high fees for what he wrote by spending much of his income on drinking and gambling. And he continued to yearn for a move back to New York and the world of the theatre.

Did Herman connect with any major films during his time in Hollywood? Citizen Kane (1938) is probably the only one, and his contribution to that was for a long time disputed. Orson Welles often claimed to have written most of the screenplay, and downplayed what Herman had added. But Stern makes a convincing case for Herman being the main source of it, and she points out that his memories of the bicycle he lost when young were likely behind the word “Rosebud” that Kane utters as he dies. The bicycle and the sledge represented lost innocence.

It would be unfair to overlook some other films that Herman had links to. He worked on Monkey Business (1931) with the Marx Brothers, and on Dinner at Eight (1933) which, as a stage play, had been a hit on Broadway, and became a popular film. There was Million Dollar Legs (1932), hailed as a “surrealist masterpiece” by the artist and photographer, Man Ray. Later, he wrote Christmas Holiday (1944), often included in lists of film noir material and notable for Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly playing uncharacteristic roles. Some attention should also be paid to Mad Dog of Europe, an attack on Hitler and the rise of the Nazis that Herman struggled in vain to get into production. Despite his reputation for drinking and flippancy he was politically astute enough to understand what was happening in Germany and elsewhere as state-sponsored anti-Semitism gained a foothold in various countries.     

Joseph Mankiewicz, who still looked up to his brother, had followed him to Hollywood. Like Herman, he thought of the cinema as having less importance than the theatre. Both brothers can be seen as wanting to please their father by creating something good in his terms, which may not have been the best sort of influence for them. If someone has their mind set against something they are convinced is inferior then it’s difficult to convince them that it can have qualities worthy of attention. “Pop” Mankiewicz never did think much of films as art.  

Joseph’s first film for MGM was Manhattan Melodrama (1934) which featured Myrna Loy and William Powell, and turned out to be a box-office success.  He shared credit for the screenplay with Oliver H.P. Garrett, He also contributed dialogue to King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934), a socially-conscious film about a collective farm during the Depression. Vidor later disparaged Joseph’s contributions to the script, saying they were no more than a few adjustments here and there.

Persuaded to take on the role of a producer, Joseph spent some time overseeing the work of other writers and directors.. It was not a task he was completely happy with, though it raised his earnings beyond what he would have received writing screenplays. And he needed the money. Herman was frequently in debt or trouble of one sort or another, and relied on Joseph to come to his rescue. But one advantage that being a producer brought was the power to order re-writes when necessary. Joseph, as a producer, could not claim any screenwriting credits unless he had written the full script, but he was in a position to make revisions and replace writers when required.

An example was when he brought in F. Scott Fitzgerald to work on Three Comrades 1938) which, in Stern’s words, “could have been the industry’s first major openly anti-Nazi film”. But it was based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, whose books had been burned by the Nazis, and interference by the German Consul in Los Angeles, the Catholic Legion of Decency, film censor Joseph Breen, and studio heads worried about possible effects on the sales of their films in Germany, led to references to Jews and Catholics being removed from the script: “Remarque’s powerful political drama was reduced to romantic melodrama”.  Breen even wanted the Nazi thugs changed into communists.

Joseph left MGM and went to work at Twentieth Century Fox. He wrote and directed A Letter to Three Wives (1949), which was both a critical and commercial success. And gave him some standing as an astute social critic. This was further enhanced when he used his skills as writer/director for All About Eve (1949), a sharp observation of the world of the theatre in which an ambitious young woman ruthlessly claws her way to stardom by exploiting her relationship with an older, established actress. It’s a film that has become something of a cult classic over the years and bears repeated watching for Mankiewicz’s work and his capacity to get the best out of his actors, including Bette Davies  and Ann Baxter.

Herman’s career had been in decline as he drank his way through the late-1940s and early-1950s, and he died in 1953. Joseph continued to work steadily. He directed Julius Caesar (1953), which starred Rex Harrison, John Gielgud and Marlon Brando. He then turned his attention to Hollywood and, almost biting the hand that fed him, wrote and directed The Barefoot Contessa (1954), in which Ava Gardner played a Spanish dancer discovered by a wealthy man anxious to put money into a film. He’s accompanied by a washed-out, cynical director (played by Humphrey Bogart) and an obsequious publicity man (Edmond O’Brien in excellent form), both of them anxious to please the man with the money. The film wasn’t a complete success, perhaps partly because of a somewhat contrived ending. And there had been intrusions from Howard Hughes, who suspected, not without reason, that the money man was based on him. Nor had everything been comfortable among the cast. Bogart had little regard for Gardner’s talents as an actress.

If there had been difficulties with The Barefoot Contessa they were nothing compared to what Joseph experienced when he directed Cleopatra (1963), an extravaganza that featured Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison. It was an experience from which, according to Stern, Joseph “never really recovered”. There have been books and documentaries about the making of the film. It ran wildly over-budget, suffered from studio interference, was affected by the behaviour of its stars, and in the end didn’t impress the critics. There was even a dispute about screenwriting credits, and finally Joseph, Ranald MacDougall, and Sidney Buchman shared them. Buchman was a blacklisted writer living in Europe.

It might have seemed that Joseph’s career would end with a failure, but he did close it with Sleuth (1972) and its fine performances from Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. He died in 1993.

I’ve only managed to refer to a few of the films that Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz were involved with. Some of their work was admittedly routine, and in Herman’s case was obviously badly affected by his alcoholism. But they both were also responsible for films that have stood the test of time. And even in their minor moments there are flashes of dialogue or direction that come alive. It wasn’t easy creating art in Hollywood, where the dollar reigned supreme and everyone had a better idea about how a film should be made than the writers and directors, but Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz did at times achieve it.

The Brothers Mankiewicz is informative and entertaining.  It has numerous notes and a useful bibliography, and testifies to some dedicated research. I should add that the emphasis in the book is rightly on their activities with regard to working in Hollywood. But there are sufficient details about their personal lives, in terms of wives, children, and other relationships, to round out their stories.