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Dudley Nichols gave John Wayne some of his best lines, and his screwball writing for Hepburn and Grant remains hilarious. If you want to know movies, you need to know about Nichols.
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The talkies' first great screenwriter
April 15, 2008
Each Valentine's Day, Ann Arbor's grand old movie palace, The Michigan Theater, stages a symbolic "love fest" for its loyal supporters who hold theater memberships. This year's "valentine" was an early evening chocolate- and- champagne fete, followed by a showing of Howard Hawks' screwball comedy "Bringing Up Baby" (1938). Its quirky plot involves an easily befuddled zoologist whose life and career are nearly done in when a wealthy heiress sets her sights on him. Complicating the situation is the heiress's "baby" (a leopard) whose presence creates mayhem and chaos. The couple, of course, are played by Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and in a film that has more pratfalls than any other I can think of, it's great fun watching Hepburn and Grant engaged in such broad slapstick.
The script for "Bringing Up Baby" was co-authored by Dudley Nichols (with Hagar Wilde), and it's always a thrill to see Nichols' name on the Michigan Theater's big screen.
Likewise, with the screen writers' strike freshly concluded, all of us movie lovers had received a strong reminder of just how important writers are. Without them, the show literally cannot go on.
Of all the excellent writers to work in Hollywood, Dudley Nichols was one of the very best. He was born in 1895 in Wapakoneta, Ohio. After high school he chose the University of Michigan for his college education (1914-1917), followed by two years' service in the Navy. Nichols spent the 1920s working in journalism in New York, as a columnist, court reporter, and theater and music critic.
Nichols success in theater and fiction led to an invitation in 1929 to go to Hollywood and try his hand at writing for the new medium of talking pictures. Though he knew nothing about film, Nichols had the good fortune of a first assignment with the great director John Ford—a veteran of silent movies who was making the transition to sound.
Drawing on his Naval background, Nichols' first script for Ford was a war film about a group of sailors who are stranded aboard a malfunctioning submarine. During the process of making "Men Without Women" (1930), Nichols said he fell in love with the cinema and its "exciting" ways of telling a story.
Nichols worked on eight more films with Ford. Then, in 1935, Ford hired him to write an adaptation of Liam O'Flaherty's 1925 novel "The Informer." O'Flaherty's book was a portrait in psychology. It told the story of Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen), a brutish, heavy-drinking Dubliner who betrays a buddy for 20 pounds during the 1922 Irish Rebellion and who lives in torment afterwards. On the page, O'Flaherty delved into his protagonist's mind via literary techniques such as internal monologue. But these techniques were not well suited for film.
Nichols rose to the challenge, and his script would become a breakthrough for psychologically acute, experimental narrative in Hollywood. Rather than relying on gimmicks like voice-over, Nichols filled the movie with images and sounds that served as external manifestatiosn of his character's disturbed psychological state: repetitive background sounds such as ticking clocks and wind that seemed too loud. Fog hung thickly. The camera stayed obsessively on small details such as a clutched hat and a reward poster, blown by the wind, that seems to chase Nolan.
The script called for double-exposure shots that would reveal Nolan's haunted thoughts, his imaginings overlaid atop the real world.
Reminiscent of German expressionistic films of the 1920s, "The Informer" was brand new for Hollywood, and Dudley Nichols' script was widely praised by critics. William Troy, film reviewer for The Nation, wrote: "….rarely has an American motion picture achieved such a consistent unity of emotional tone because outer and inner world are fused."
Time and again Dudley Nichols would prove his brilliance and flexibility as a screenwriter. He worked with equal skill on serious experimental films like "The Informer," on the slapstick "Bringing Up Baby," and on Ford's great western "Stagecoach" (1939).
"Stagecoach" is my favorite western, for a number of reasons. Ford's minimalist, uncluttered close-up studies of characters traveling on a stagecoach through dangerous territory is transcendental; the staging of the Indian attack and cavalry rescue has no equal in American western action and stunt work.
But what really elevates the film to another level are the allegorical implications of the screenplay. The stagecoach's journey through the perils of Monument Valley is an archetypal one—a cleansing heart-of-darkness passage for the travelers. And there is unforgettable dialogue, previously unexpected of westerns. Today we take for granted the sort of reserved, stoic dialogue, punctuated by long periods of reflective silence, that Nichols introduced to the world here. But to this day no one has bested Nichols' powerful dialogue. When the passengers do speak, each line carries an elegant simplicity, and often it's eloquent. This eloquence appears in the dialogue of the gambler Hatfield, and most notably in passages spoken by the Falstaffian Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a refined drunk being run out of town. In one exchange, Doc and Curley (George Bancroft) trade views at a stagecoach stop. Curley is taking a vote from the passengers on whether to turn back or continue on the dangerous journey without cavalry accompaniment.
(Doc realizes he is the center of attention and that this is an historic moment. He regards the glass in his hand.)
I am not only a philosopher, I am also a fatalist. Somewhere, sometime, there may be the right bullet or the wrong bottle waiting for Josiah Boone. Why worry when or where?
(Impatiently) Yes, or no?
Having the wisdom, sir, I have always courted danger. During the late war—when I had the honor, sir, to serve the Union under our great President Abraham Lincoln, I fought midst shot and shell and cannons' roar…
Do you want to go back?!!
No! (He looks indignantly at Curley and turns back to the bar.) I want a drink!
Nichols script rings with memorable lines like these. There's also the wisdom of Ringo, played by John Wayne, who drily observes, "I guess you can't break out of jail and into society in the same week."
Dudley Nichols wrote some 60 screenplays, including "The Long Voyage Home" (1940), "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1943), "The Bells of St. Mary's" (1945), "Pinky" (1949), and "The Tin Star" (1957). But it was during the 1930s that Nichols made his mark; he was arguably the greatest screenwriter of the decade, a writer whose work helped advance the screenplay as a serious form of literature. He made an impact off-screen as well: Nichols was one of the founders of the Screen Writers Guild and twice served as its president. In 1936 he led his own one-man writer's strike by refusing to accept the Oscar he'd won for Best Screenplay for "The Informer." His letter of refusal to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was a prescient one: "As one of the founders of the Screen Writers' Guild, which was conceived in revolt against the academy, and born out of disappointment with the way it functioned against the employed talent in any emergency, I deeply regret that I am unable to accept the award. To accept it would be to turn my back on nearly 1,000 members of the Screen Writers' Guild." The American film industry and the University of Michigan have good reason to be proud of Dudley Nichols.
Film historian and critic Frank Beaver is professor of film and video studies and professor of communication.