Let us now praise famous Mankiewiczes.
There were two of them, the brothers Herman J. and Joseph L., and during their nearly half a century of Hollywood activity, they wrote, directed or produced well over 100 motion pictures, everything from the noteworthy “Citizen Kane” to the numbing “Cleopatra.”
Far from rebels, the Mankiewiczes were, as the exemplary monthlong tribute that begins Friday night at UCLA’s Melnitz Theater demonstrates, consummate industry insiders, players well before the term was current. Yet more than any other ghosts from the movie business’s golden age, they would feel at loose ends and out of place in today’s Hollywood.
Because, each in his own way, the Mankiewiczes were writers before they were anything else. Their characters love to talk, and the words they spoke were thoughtful, witty and the best kind of sophisticated. The Mankiewiczes symbolized the power of language on film, and though their like may at some point be seen again, it doesn’t look to be any time soon.
Yet this said, the two brothers, 12 years apart in age, had very different careers and rarely worked together. Herman was the great wit of his age, a gambler, drinker and raconteur who pal Ben Hecht called “the Central Park West Voltaire.” Yet, except for “Citizen Kane,” his output as a writer and occasional producer rarely reflected his talent and style, and his dying at age 56 in 1953 only compounded that sense of waste.
Younger brother Joe, who died at age 83 earlier this year, had a longer, less-erratic career and its achievements were more tangible and enduring. For two consecutive years, with “A Letter to Three Wives” in 1949 and “All About Eve” in 1950, he captured Oscars for both writing and directing, a feat that seems even more remarkable and unlikely to be duplicated as the years pass.
UCLA’s 29-film “A Tale of Two Brothers” tribute shows both careers in their divergent patterns. With Herman there was usually a sense that he couldn’t be persuaded to take the movie business or his gift for it totally seriously. With Joe, on the contrary, you see someone who is focused on both improvement and accomplishment. And as you watch the younger brother gradually finding his way, you are increasingly aware that the older one disdained to have a way at all.
It was Herman who started first. After doing everything from being the New Yorker’s first regular drama critic to handling publicity for dancer Isadora Duncan, he came out to Hollywood in 1926 and was almost immediately successful, leading to his famous telegram to Hecht: “MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS. DON’T LET THIS GET AROUND.”
Herman began as a writer of titles for silent films, items like “Derely Devore, the star, rose from the chorus because she was cool in an emergency--and warm in a taxi.” Mostly he collaborated (he shares credit on the landmark “Dinner at Eight,” for instance, with two playwrights, one other screenwriter and a gentleman who did additional dialogue), leading to a classic Mankiewicz bon mot: “Nothing puts me to sleep faster than the sound of my collaborator’s typewriter.”
With “Citizen Kane,” where Herman has first position in the Oscar-winning credit shared with Orson Welles, Mankiewicz finally delivered on his potential. Or so insists Pauline Kael, whose spirited “Raising Kane” manifesto in the New Yorker, Herman’s old home, made a strong case for Mankiewicz, an intimate of both William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, as almost the exclusive writer of that film.
After “Kane,” Herman’s films, though they always had moments of unexpected cleverness, were very much on the sentimental side. “The Enchanted Cottage,” for instance, is a multihanky romantic fantasy about ugly ducklings in love. And “Pride of the Yankees,” for which Mankiewicz shared an Oscar nomination, tells the story of baseball star Lou Gehrig with a full-bore emotionality that includes a scene of home runs hit for “little Billy in the hospital.”
In person, however, Herman remained acerbic. Perhaps the most famous story about him concerns a dinner party given by producer and gourmet Arthur Hornblow Jr. at which Mankiewicz drank so much he was ill at the table. “Don’t worry, Arthur,” were his first words afterward. “The white wine came up with the fish.”
A brother like this was not easy to follow, but Joseph Mankiewicz came out to Hollywood in 1929 and had no trouble finding employment as a writer. The two brothers worked together on 1932’s “Million Dollar Legs,” one of the most deeply nutty movies ever made. Starring W.C. Fields and dealing with the potent Olympic team of the mythical country of Klopstockia, where all the women are called Angela, all the men George, this lunatic farce was, not surprisingly, the favorite film of surrealist Man Ray.
Producing was the next step for Joe, and though his work included such exemplary films as “The Philadelphia Story” and “Woman of the Year,” both starring Katharine Hepburn, Mankiewicz’s drive to be a director was more compelling.
The UCLA series begins with his earliest films, like the Gothic “Dragonwyck,” starring Vincent Price, and the stylishly noir “Somewhere in the Night.” But it also shows such unusual items as the very ambitious “Julius Caesar” featuring Marlon Brando, “Five Fingers,” a cracker-jack World War II spy drama starring an ultra-suave James Mason, and “People Will Talk,” a hit-and-miss vehicle with Cary Grant as the doctor we all wish we had, a film that Mankiewicz used to make some pointed--and still pertinent--jabs at the medical profession.
It was this willingness, not to say eagerness, to tell different kinds of stories, stories about ideas and states of mind, stories that couldn’t be contained in a one-sentence pitch, that characterized Joseph Mankiewicz’s work in general and his trio of classics (“All About Eve,” “A Letter to Three Wives” and “The Barefoot Contessa”) in particular. Laced with slashing language and verbal bite, these three are as satisfying on the 10th viewing as they were on the first, and seeing them is a potent reminder of just how much screenwriters can achieve when both talent and power are on their side.
Schedule of Films in Retrospective
Friday: “The Enchanted Cottage,” “Dragonwyck.”
Monday: “Manhattan Melodrama,” “Forsaking All Others.”
Wednesday: “Three Comrades,” “The Shopworn Angel.”
July 16: “Dinner at Eight,” “Million Dollar Legs.”
July 19: “Pride of the Yankees,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
July 21: “Strange Cargo,” “Mannequin.”
July 23: “Citizen Kane,” “The Late George Apley.”
July 26: “The Philadelphia Story,” “Woman of the Year.”
July 28: “A Letter to Three Wives,” “People Will Talk.”
July 30: “Five Fingers,” “Julius Caesar.”
Aug. 2: “Christmas Holiday,” “Somewhere in the Night.”
Aug. 4: “The Barefoot Contessa,” “Suddenly Last Summer.”
Aug. 6: “All About Eve,” “A Woman’s Secret.”
Aug. 11: “Cleopatra.”
Aug. 13: “Sleuth,” “There Was a Crooked Man.”
All films begin at 7:30 p.m. at UCLA’s Melnitz Theater.
Information: (310) 206-FILM.