Philip Yordan: The Ghosts and the Screenwriter
He was dead, I was told. Or at least he wouldn’t answer my letters (he didn’t). When I finally trapped him on the telephone, he said he was far too busy to grant an interview. I said I was coming to see him anyway. Would he talk? He said, “We’ll see.”
Philip Yordan is the great mystery man of the post-1930s generation of Hollywood screenwriters.
No film writer has more protean credits for the last 50 years--from the tough-guy “Dillinger,” “Detective Story,” “The Big Combo” and “The Harder They Fall,” to the quintessential Westerns “Johnny Guitar” and “The Man From Laramie,” from the literary adaptations “God’s Little Acre” and “Studs Lonigan,” to the science-fantasy “Day of the Triffids,” from the historical/biblical “King of Kings” to . . . roughly 100 titles in all (credited and uncredited), Yordan estimates.
“Not that my credits are so striking,” he said, without flourish, “but when I was called in on a situation, the picture was made. Good, bad, or indifferent, the pictures were made.”
In his mid-70s, he is still at work, spawning one or two films/and or video productions a year. Last April, the shadowy, Oscar-winning screenwriter for 1954’s “Broken Lance” (starring Spencer Tracy), has one of his first releases in more than a decade, as co-writer of the Vestron horror picture, “The Unholy,” which drew mixed reviews but disappeared from theaters after a brief run.
According to the hearsay and legend about Yordan, he was either a great writer or never wrote a script in his life. He worked hard or he employed surrogate writers.
His biography begins in his native Chicago, where, after a term as a would-be actor at the Goodman Theater, he decided to become a lawyer. Only, according to the lore, he was too preoccupied with his various business enterprises to actually attend classes--so Yordan hired someone to go through law school under the name of Philip Yordan and to pass the boards.
Maybe so, maybe not--this anecdote is repeated by many old friends and associates. “That’s nonsense,” says Yordan, vehemently.
Nowadays, Yordan operates out of an office-in-a-garage in a suburban tract in San Diego, where there are stacks of film cans, file cabinets and office supplies and an extensive library of reference books, many of them The-Most-Unforgettable-Character-I-Ever-Met type.
No publicity seeker, he nonetheless answered questions for three hours on one recent Saturday morning, interrupted by a steady stream of phone calls and express mail deliveries.
He could pull from the shelf a book of film essays by critic James Agee, citing “the intensity of the telling” of one of Yordan’s early low-budget programmers (“the story has locomotor ataxia at several of its joints . . .”). Yordan could quote French film maker Francois Truffaut, from another book, on the subject of Philip Yordan. He could find six of his films among the listing in another volume of the 52 greatest epics of all-time.
All the while, he’s chewing on a succession of unlit cigars.
Cut to his first major Broadway triumph, “Anna Lucasta,” a plot with a distinct resemblance to a certain Eugene O’Neill play, set in Harlem with an all-black cast. (It was filmed twice, once in 1949 directed by Irving Rapper, and again in 1958 directed by Arnold Laven.)
Named by critic Burns Mantle as one of the 10 best scripts of the 1944-45 Broadway season, the play has been the object of some speculation among Yordan insiders. One tells the tale that Yordan, incapable of writing such a showpiece entirely on his own creative impulse, painstakingly copied “Anna Christie” structurally and plot-wise, adapting it to a Chicago setting with a Polish family background.
When that failed to excite producers, according to another version of the same apocrypha, Yordan hired an out-of-work black dramatist to provide a revision with Harlem dialect and characterization.
Maybe true, maybe not. Yordan denies all. But a pattern in his career of such, shall we say, innuendo, has not only haunted Yordan but enhanced his mystique as Bigger Than Life.
In 1938, Yordan came to Hollywood to work for director William Dieterlie. It was the perfect jungle for expression of his genius at supplying the demand. In short order, he became known among producers as a bravura “spitballer,” that is, one who can talk a good script (and one has only to meet Yordan to appreciate how spellbinding is his vernacular). He became a much-sought-after script doctor and coarse dialogue specialist, often arriving at the 11th hour to contribute the famed lightning-quick “Yordan touch.” A lot of his work went uncredited.
According to Milton Sperling, the screenwriter-producer who has produced and co-written a number of films with Yordan, once Yordan became established he evolved into an unusual hybrid, a “businessman-writer.”
Sperling says Yordan began his reputed practice of employing “surrogates” to write his screenplays, in order to multiply his earnings and his prestige. The practice proliferated and was made easier by the blacklist in the ‘50s, when many writers could not get jobs using their own names.
Yordan admits at least one instance of “surrogate” scriptwriting dating back to the 1940s, and others that as yet have not yet been recorded in the film source-books.
Among the “unemployable” whom Yordan hired as a ghostwriter was the poet, documentarist and screenwriter Ben Maddow. Introduced to Yordan through Irving Lerner, who knew Maddow in the 1930s when both were in the forefront of the American documentary movement, Maddow had adapted “Intruder in the Dust” and “The Asphalt Jungle” for MGM before finding himself persona non grata at the studios because of past left-wing affiliations. Out of work under his own name, he was grateful to Yordan for the opportunity to “write underground.”
Maddow is cited in various authoritative film books (among them, “The Film Encyclopedia” by Ephraim Katz) as having written such films--with on-screen credit to Yordan--as “Johnny Guitar,” “The Naked Jungle,” “Men in War,” “God’s Little Acre,” and two directed by Lerner, “Man Crazy” and “Murder by Contract” during the 1950s.
Though Yordan will admit to some of this (he even concedes that Maddow wrote the only novel “by Philip Yordan,” “Man of the West” in 1955), he bridles at the question mark of “Johnny Guitar” and tells long anecdotes about the writing of it.
In Yordan’s version of events, agent Lew Wasserman telephoned Yordan late one night in 1953, alerting him to an emergency in Sedona, Ariz., where location filming had ground to a halt over Joan Crawford’s disdain
of the initial script. Yordan had to take a night flight on “a broken-down tramp plane” in order to beat the limousine summoned from Beverly Hills to chauffeur Crawford home.
Yordan had to contend with a fiery Crawford and her stoic director-associate producer, Nicholas Ray, who wanted to quit except that he was up to his neck in gambling debts. (“Nick didn’t hardly ever say anything,” says Yordan, “in fact, he would sitwith his back to you when you talked to him.)
It was Crawford’s idea “to play the man” and shoot it out with her female nemesis (Mercedes McCambridge) at the end, says Yordan--one of the Freudian twists of the plot that delights film critics. The rewriting proceeded from there, all on location, and against the clock--like many a Yordan “rescue” operation.
When Maddow viewed a copy of “Johnny Guitar,” a parable cult Western starring Crawford and Sterling Hayden, he confessed to this reporter that he did not recognize any of the script as his own. Maddow says he may have added it to his list of film credits, originally, because he read somewhere in a French film magazine that it ought to be attributed to him.
After Maddow, Yordan’s payroll expanded to Bernard Gordon, Ben Barzman, Arnaud D’Usseau, Julian Halevy (a.k.a. Julian Zimet) and probably others--all Hollywood progressives reduced by the tyranny of the blacklist era to using pseudonyms and/or working abroad.
Yet among these “surrogate” writers, the baffling assertion is often encountered that this credited writer of so many film classics did very little actual writing.
“Philip Yordan has never written more than a sentence in his life,” says Maddow flatly. “He’s incapable of writing.”
“He was primarily a deal maker,” says Gordon. “Being on the set was an agonizing bore for him and a waste of time . . . he had a sense of what could be promoted and concentrated his energies on that.”
Sperling says that Yordan’s habit of employing “surrogates” was an open secret in Hollywood by the late 1950s because Yordan had shopped too many scripts around town at times when he was under exclusive contract to this or that studio.
Yordan was working so fast and furious that he could not keep the assignments straight. Once, says Sperling, who was producing films at Warner Bros., Yordan dropped off a script on his desk on the same day that he delivered one to Darryl Zanuck at Fox. Sperling received an angry phone call from Zanuck: “I believe you have a script of mine, and I have one of yours!”
Yordan had mixed up the two scripts. “Zanuck charged Yordan like a rhinoceros and said, ‘I’m going to blackball you in this business!” recalls Sperling, “It was a very difficult moment for Yordan because he was exposed in this dubiously legal situation.”
Sperling himself fired Yordan in 1960 after the screenwriter delivered his script for “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.” Yordan’s secretary materialized a few days later to claim that she had written it. Confronted by Sperling, Yordan admitted the woman had indeed taken down his words but insisted she had been awarded a proper secretarial bonus.
One recent business dealing has been questionable, to put it politely, and old-timers in Hollywood got a chuckle out of a 1984 sighting in the trade paper Variety reporting that Yordan, a defense witness at a murder conspiracy trial in Florida, was apprehended while trying to flush key documents down a toilet in a Tallahassee court building.
The key documents? Yordan’s “script for perjury,” in the words of the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case involving a dummy film corporation in the Cayman Islands. The statement (had it been ghost-written, too?) consisted of a three-page written statement repeated virtually verbatim by Yordan on the stand.
According to the prosecutor who spoke in court, one of the documents contained instructions from the defendant in the trial on how Yordan should testify, in the event that another document directly contradicted information that Yordan had previously given federal agents and prosecutors.
Maybe true, maybe not. Yordan says they were only personal documents that had nothing to do with the trial (and he was not otherwise implicated).
But it brought to mind the old Hollywood anecdote about Yordan’s Oscar acceptance speech for “Broken Lance.” Some say Yordan did not have the foresight to have a “surrogate” prepare his remarks, which is why he said all of two words, “Thank you.”
(Yordan admits that he did not write a single word for that screen Western starring Spencer Tracy. It was based on Yordan’s credited story in the Fox files for the much-admired “House of Strangers” in 1949, which producer Joseph Mankiewicz, to further complicate matters, claims to have written.)
Be that as it may, Yordan has his stalwart defenders, Sperling among them.
Sperling says that Yordan is a first-rate film writer when he chooses to be. Sperling co-wrote “Captain Apache,” much later, in 1971, and says he is eyewitness to the fact that Yordan would sit and work at a desk on the screenplay just like any writer. Indeed, Sperling says he was more the walker and Yordan was more the sitter.
“What he (Yordan) did generally (in his career) was to have someone else write a first draft, then he would put in his Yordan thing,” says Sperling. “It’s an abrasive, tough, very crisp, very colloquial kind of writing. And it was very good. Don’t let anyone tell you he couldn’t write. He could write exceedingly well.”