Thursday, February 4, 2010

Studio Stories IV – The Front Page Meets Gunga Din Meets Sinatra

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.
In my forthcoming book, LATERAL SCREENWRITING: Using the Power of Lateral thinking to Write the Great American Movie, in a chapter on creative idea-generation, I discuss one method of creating viable stories: update or transform a previous story into a fresh one. We’re probably all familiar with the example of Jane Austen’s novel, Emma transforming into the movie, Clueless. And there’s the Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner updating to You’ve Got Mail. There are literally hundreds of examples of this, but several favorites of mine include:
  • Mutiny on the Bounty became Red River – a voyage on the high seas became a cattle drive on the prairie.
  • High Noon became Outland – A lawman facing criminals in a town that has abandoned him became an inter-planetary lawman facing criminals in space.
  • The Tempest became Forbidden Planet – Shakespeare’s tale of magic and mystery on an island became a tale of science fiction on a planet in another star system.
  • Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story – Shakespeare’s tale of tragic love updates to Manhattan’s upper west side in the late ‘50s, with music.
  • Plutarch’s and Livy’s variations of the story of The Rape of the Sabine Women became Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Sobbin’ Women, which, in turn, became the musical, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.
  • The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven became Battle Beyond the Stars became A Bug’s Life – Heroes come to a town and drive off invaders.
There are two interesting stories related to this approach. The first is found in screenwriter and author, Max Wilk’s book on Hollywood screenwriters from the golden age of movies, Schmucks With Underwoods, Applause, 2004, pp. 177-8. Garson Kanin tells of the time screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote Gunga Din (named after the Kipling poem, but the story was theirs) and put it out for bid. Every studio but Columbia had made an offer. When their agent, Leland Hayward asked legendary Columbia chief, Harry Cohn why he hadn’t made an offer, he said he already owned it, that he bought it seven years earlier from the same writers, only then it was called The Front Page (their hit play about the newspaper business, made as a movie at least four times, first as The Front Page, then as His Girl Friday, then again, by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond in the ‘70’s with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, as The Front Page, and finally in the late ‘80’s, this time in the world of tv news, as Switching Channels – speaking of that, somebody ought to take it to the internet – are you listening, screenwriters?). Anyway, Hayward laughed at Cohn’s assertion.
“What’s so funny?” asked Cohn.
Gunga Din, said Hayward, patiently, “has absolutely nothing to do with The Front Page.”
“Have you read it?” asked Cohn.
“Of course I’ve read it.”
“And you don’t see it’s the same picture?”
“Harry,” said Hayward, “thank you very much. You’ve given me a great Harry Cohn story. I’ll be dining out on this for weeks.”
But when Kanin, who was relating Hayward’s story, read Gunga Din, he realized Cohn was right: Hecht and MacArthur had taken not only the story, but the characters of The Front Page, changed the period, the locale, and the occupations. Kanin lauded Cohn for his sharp observation, but, in my view, the joke was on Cohn because Gunga Din was a hit. In fact, it became a classic, and nobody ever noticed its pedigree, if indeed it was as he says – I find the similarity quite a stretch. Nonetheless, the principle (and, if true, Hecht and MacArthur’s ingenuity) is a lesson to screenwriters.
The other story is from screenwriter, W.R. Burnett, in Backstory 1, p.78. Burnett describes how Frank Sinatra came up with the idea to “kid” Gunga Din:
“I got a call from ‘Swanie’ (H.N. Swanson, agent) to go to Columbia to have lunch with Frank Sinatra, which I did. Frank said he had an idea to take Gunga Din (1939) and kid it. Good idea. But Frank didn’t know what to do with it. So I went home and thought about it and figured out a way to do it. I put it out West with this fanatical tribe of Indians, and that’s Sergeants Three. I wrote a treatment and gave it to Howard W. Koch, the producer... Finally he got him on the phone and said, ‘Frank, what do you want us to do?’ Frank said, ‘Write the script.’ I said, ‘I wrote it.’ Frank said, ‘Howard, what do you think?’ Howard said I think it’s swell.’ I don’t think Koch ever read it. I don’t think Frank ever read it. So they shot my first draft. Scared the hell out of me, you know.”
So, if anyone’s ever stuck for an idea, think back to those stories, books, and films that have really touched you or that you love. Is there a way to update one? Can you put the essential events into a new milieu, a new setting or genre, and make it new again? There’s always that idea about updating The Front Page to the internet era ala You’ve Got Mail. I don’t ask for anything but a thank you in the credits. #
Lee A. Matthias