Thursday, March 11, 2010

Studio Stories VIII – Casey Robinson Sees What No Other Writer Saw & Saves "Dark Victory"

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.

As a storyteller, have you ever worked on a tale five times as long as you should have only to find you couldn’t “lick” it? Somehow, somewhere, there was a problem, and it undercut the whole piece, but you couldn’t see what it was. Then, perhaps, after putting it aside for months or years, or maybe after showing it to someone who maybe wasn’t even a writer, you arrived at the solution. Maddening, isn’t it?
In Patrick McGilligan’s Backstory 1, University of California Press, 1986, pp. 300-2, screenwriter Casey Robinson related his experience working on Dark Victory (1939):
The New York play was a failure in 1935. They had tried three or four different endings while testing it on the road, and nothing worked. (Robinson) saw the play (about a woman dying of brain cancer), and had an epiphany as to what was wrong. He asked his boss and mentor, Hal Wallis, at Warner Brothers to buy it for Bette Davis to star in. Unfortunately David O. Selznick already had the rights locked up. Robinson said:
“So for three years I had a prayer every night: ‘Please don’t let David’s writers get the right ideas.’ Well, (Selznick) had, I believe four scripts prepared. He had very good writers. But nothing was happening. Finally, I heard that Ben Hecht had said to him, ‘The only way to save this is to make it a comedy.’ And I guess they tried that. At any rate - and now we are into 1938 - word comes that Selznick is willing to sell DARK VICTORY...
“The play was about a rich, spoiled girl who gets carcinoma of the brain and is going to die. In the second act she learns she is going to die and accepts it gallantly. Oh, there was a little sadness about it; she was in love with her doctor and that part is still in the picture. But what had happened is that they had played the third act in the second act. Where were they going to go? If she accepts death, this is the end... (By the actual third act) it was dissipated. It was all gone. And they just had a lot of gabble in the third act that meant nothing. There had to be, in the middle of the piece, a period of great rebellion against fate - of anger, which, of course, was mixed up with her love for the doctor. Also, the anger that she hadn’t been told, and so on...”
So often in writing, writers grapple with problems they cannot put their fingers on, cannot understand, yet know somehow that until they are fixed, the story will not work. Even “the greatest screenwriter in Hollywood” at that time (according to many), Ben Hecht, couldn’t solve the script. But Robinson had that “epiphany” and saw what it was: the narrative was in three acts, but the protagonist’s transformation was only in the first two, making the third act an anticlimax. Billy Wilder is famous for saying, “If you have a problem in the third act, the problem is gonna be in the first.” ---Conversations With Wilder, by Cameron Crowe, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. The essential truth is there: a story is an organic unit, a failure in a key component anywhere can mean death everywhere. #
Lee A. Matthias
Quote of the Post:
If you have a problem in the third act, the problem is gonna be in the first.
---Billy Wilder

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