Monday, April 19, 2010

Crossing Yordan

Over at the Film Noir Foundation website, they have a couple of interesting articles from the Noir City Sentinel available to those who don’t receive the publication; one of them—written by the inestimable Alan K. Rode—covers the career of screenwriter Philip Yordan, who penned such classic film screenplays as Dillinger (1945), Johnny Guitar (1954) and The Big Combo (1955). Rode’s essay attempts to answer the question: was he the renowned and prolific scribe of nearly a hundred feature films, “or was his career the most elaborate and prolonged ‘front’ in Hollywood history?”

It’s a ripping good read, and to me the most interesting anecdote in the piece is the story surrounding House of Strangers (1949), a 20th Century-Fox film noir starring Edward G. Robinson as the tyrannical patriarch of an Italian banking family—loosely based on I’ll Never Go There Anymore, a novel written by Jerome Weidman. The film was a bust at the box office—some say because Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck pulled the film because the family uncomfortably resembled that of studio president Spyros Skouras, who was not amused by Robinson’s caricatural performance. In an example of Hollywood’s moral bankruptcy, Yordan won an Oscar for—wait for it—Best Original Story five years later when he refashioned Strangers into a Western, Broken Lance (1954). Lost in all this is how the final screenplay for Strangers wasn’t even written by Yordan but by the director of the film, Joseph L. Mankiewicz:

Although Yordan helped develop the characters, Siegel fired him after an incomplete first draft because the producer believed the script wasn’t working. Yordan’s unfinished script was rewritten by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who replaced Yordan’s dialogue with his own. He directed House of Strangers using his own revised screenplay. The Screen Writer’s Guild decided that the credit should read: “Original Story by Philip Yordan; Screenplay by Philip Yordan and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.”

Mankiewicz, who recently had won a Guild arbitration case on A Letter to Three Wives, sensed bureaucratic payback in the Strangers decision and, furious, refused to split the credit. Yordan ended up with sole screenplay credit for House of Strangers. He won his Oscar for Broken Lance based on whatever he did or did not do on House of Strangers. Years later, Mankiewicz sniffed, “Phil Yordan made a career out that screenplay.” Yordan’s version of the House of Strangers debacle? “Joe Mankiewicz tried to put his name on my screenplay as the co-author and Sol struck it off.”

I know it’s too late to make a long post short, but reading Rode’s essay is what inspired me to watch my DVD of House of Strangers last night, and I believe I can safely say that nearly twenty years had passed since I viewed it the last time—a VHS copy that I got to rent for free when I worked at a Ballbuster Blockbuster Video store in Savannah. Remarkably, the movie still holds up well—though I will confess that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did the first time around; this might be because I’m too familiar with Broken Lance…which I caught on AMC a few Saturdays back.

For those who haven’t seen Strangers: discredited lawyer Max Monetti (Richard Conte) emerges from prison after a seven-year stretch and pays a visit to the Monetti Savings and Loan—a banking institution now run by his brothers Joe (Luther Adler), Antonio (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) and Pietro (Paul Valentine). The savings and loan was once known as the Gino Monetti bank; Gino (Edward G. Robinson) being the patriarch of the family who has since gone to his greater reward. During his stay in the Big House, the only thing that kept Max going was the thought of wreaking vengeance on his brothers—Max ended up there on a jury tampering rap in an effort to keep Gino out of jail—but after meeting up again with his girlfriend Irene (Susan Hayward), who pleads for him to bury the past and start over fresh in San Francisco, he abandons any plans of revenge after a series of flashbacks convince him that all his father accomplished during his time on Earth was to sow dissension among the four sons.

Strangers was a big hit with my Mom, who watched it with me; we’re both big fans of Conte and Robinson (in fact, I had planned to make it a Conte double feature by putting on Thieves' Highway [1949] afterward but she decided to call it a night) and she was pleased when she recognized Zimbalist (I joked that he looked a lot like a guy I knew in the FBI). It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I’ll watch Eddie G. in just about anything, and while I was kind of disappointed at the paucity of Hayward’s role I did like this dynamite dress she wears in one scene. Great supporting cast in this one: Debra Paget, Hope Emerson, Esther Minciotti, Diana Douglas—and OTR vets like Dick Ryan, Sid Tomack and Herb Vigran (he’s sitting to Eddie G’s right in the boxing sequence) in bit roles. The debate over who was ultimately responsible for Strangers’ screenplay probably won’t ever be settled—but in the end it’s a moot point as it is a most entertaining and dynamic picture.

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