Why Burbank Was Never the Place for ‘Papa’

When I told my son that this week’s column was about why Hemingway never went to Burbank, he proposed an explanation: “Because there’s no big game in the East Valley?”

Funny, kid, funny.

But the truth is Ernest Hemingway, the centenary of whose birth was Wednesday, was not put off by the paucity of elephants in the area. Rather, he had an almost phobic distrust of the movie studios. That was never truer than when one of them was making a picture based on a Hemingway work, as Burbank’s Warner Bros. did on several occasions.

Hemingway got burned by Hollywood relatively early in his career. In 1932, Paramount made “A Farewell to Arms,” starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. When Hemingway heard that the filmmakers were considering giving the movie a happy ending, he was angry and appalled.


Director Frank Borzage filmed two endings--one in which Catherine survives childbirth--but the movie was ultimately released with an ending almost as downbeat as the novel’s. Although the film was nominated for Best Picture, Hemingway hated it, perhaps most of all because it underscored the utter lack of control a writer has once he sells the rights to a novel or short story to Hollywood.

In 1981, Frank M. Laurence published his doctoral dissertation as the book “Hemingway and the Movies.” Laurence’s groundbreaking study is full of fascinating detail about the movies made from Hemingway’s work and his involvement, or, more often, his lack of involvement, with the films.

One way Hemingway expressed his disdain of Hollywood was by staying away. Laurence writes that he was able to verify a single visit by Hemingway to Los Angeles. That was in July 1937, when Hemingway sought donations at a screening of “The Spanish Earth” for the anti-fascists fighting Franco.

In Laurence’s view, Hemingway’s dislike of Hollywood stemmed not just from its failure to be faithful to his texts, but from his belief that he had been outmanned in his dealings with the industry.


That was never more true than with “To Have and Have Not.” Hemingway sold the rights to the novel to Howard Hughes for a piddling $10,000, with no strings attached. Hughes turned around and sold the rights to Howard Hawks for $80,000.

Warner Bros. made two memorable movies from the material. The first was Hawks’ 1944 film of the same name, best known for casting a sultry starlet named Lauren Bacall opposite studio superstar Humphrey Bogart. The screenplay was co-written by William Faulkner, a prime example, in Hemingway’s eyes, of how writing for the movies ruined writers by stealing time from more personal work and paying them addictive sums of money in the process.

In 1950, Warner Bros. reworked material from the novel to make “The Breaking Point.” This time, Harry Morgan was played by John Garfield, his love interest by Patricia Neal. Hemingway had learned to stop bad-mouthing films based on his work, at least in public, but there is no reason to think he liked this movie version either.

Inexplicably, Hemingway originally had high hopes for the film version of his 1952 novella, “The Old Man and the Sea.” Papa, as he insisted on being called, handpicked old friend Peter Viertel to write the screenplay. (He also wrote the screenplay for the 1957 movie version of “The Sun Also Rises.”)

According to Laurence, Hemingway was obsessed with realism and had a clear vision of what the filmed incarnation of “The Old Man and the Sea” could be. He wanted a quasi-documentary in black and white, a film made by “local people on a local ocean with a local boat.” This film, too, was to be made by Warner Bros.

The project began to go awry early on. Viertel and producer Leland Hayward were both afraid that viewers would be bored silly if all they saw on screen was an old man sitting in a small boat for a very long time, hoping to catch a fish. But Hemingway was adamant that nothing should appear in the script that wasn’t in the book. The studio ended up deleting about half the material from the novella.


Ostensibly, to make sure Viertel knew what a poor Cuban fisherman’s life was like, Hemingway tortured Viertel. Papa made him spend a night in a crummy hotel with nothing to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Even worse, Hemingway got him into a dinghy belonging to Papa’s famous fishing boat, the Pilar, then set the little boat adrift. Viertel rocked all alone on the open sea for several hours, not knowing when Hemingway would return, and getting increasingly seasick. Amazingly, Viertel stuck with the project.


Perhaps the cruelest thing Hemingway did to Viertel was to persuade him that writing for movies was unworthy of a man who could be writing books. In a 1992 interview, Viertel recalled that Hemingway was always telling him, “You’ve got to quit whoring in Hollywood.” Viertel’s heartbreaking remark on the subject: “Sometimes you haven’t got what it takes to make this kind of decision.”

Hemingway’s assigned role in making “The Old Man and the Sea” was to oversee the catching of a giant marlin in the waters off Cuba while cameras rolled. When he succeeded in landing nothing but relatively puny 400-pounders, he proposed moving the shoot to more fertile waters off the coast of Peru. There the gods that control location shooting continued to thwart him, and he failed to deliver usable footage of a sufficiently large, sufficiently feisty marlin.

The studio finally pulled the plug on the Peruvian expedition after 32 extremely costly days. Ultimately, the decision was made to abandon the sweltering Cuban location and to do the bulk of the filming in the studio’s huge water tank in Burbank. Warner Bros. bought existing footage of a Texas fisherman fighting a record-setting marlin to splice into the film and constructed a fake fish for the marlin’s close-ups.

The result was fairly awful. Instead of seeing local people on a local ocean with a local boat, the moviegoing public got Spencer Tracy on the Warner Bros. lot in a boat built by the prop department. The critical ocean scenes were so phony-looking, even director John Sturges didn’t like them.

Hemingway’s slender book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1952, and he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. Press releases about the movie trumpeted these literary successes, and the newspaper campaign for the film promised audiences: “ALL HELL AND HEAVEN AND HEMINGWAY BREAK LOOSE!”

And those are just a few of the reasons Hemingway never went to Burbank.