It’s the film that infuriated a sleeping giant. When wunderkind of radio and stage Orson Welles went to work for RKO Pictures in his 20s, he started with a modest project: a thinly veiled expose on the life of retired news tycoon William Randolph Hearst, cunningly filmed in near-secrecy.
Welles’s seeming paranoia turned out to be well-justified. As soon as Citizen Kane was completed Hearst’s estate offered RKO $800,000 ($100,000 more than the picture cost to make) to destroy the film. When that failed, Hearst used his influence to prevent theaters from carrying the picture. Although Citizen Kane received nine Academy Awards nominations – and Welles with co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz won for best screenplay – the film had a negative, even hostile reception from audiences until it was re-released in the 1950s.
So, who really deserved that Oscar for best screenplay writing – Welles or Mankiewicz? Rumors about the project still churn, partly due to the 1971 essay “Raising Kane,” written by renowned film critic Pauline Kael. In it, Kael claimed that Welles’s co-screenwriter wrote the whole script, though Welles got most of the credit. In reality, the shooting script was a combination of two scripts – one by Mankiewicz, written in six weeks while he lay in a hospital bed, and the other by Welles, who eventually combined the two. Did we mention that Welles was a boy genius? The original idea seems to have come from a play he wrote while in school, titled Marching Song. It’s about the life of a public figure, retold through the eyes of those who knew him.
Mankiewicz does, however, get full credit for the origin of “Rosebud,” Citizen Kane’s dying word that sparks the mystery. Gore Vidal claimed that “Rosebud” was the name Hearst gave to his mistress’s clitoris, but the screenwriter had a slightly different inspiration – “Rosebud” was the name of Mankiewiz’s own childhood bicycle.
Casablanca started as a summer vacation gone wrong. High school English teacher Murray Burnett and his wife Adrienne were traveling in Vienna – just as the Nazis entered in 1938. After helping some of Adrienne’s Jewish relatives make arrangements to escape, the couple decided to cut their vacation short. But first, they spent a few days at a resort on the French Riviera, where they found a nightclub overlooking the Mediterranean. That nightclub had a now-familiar setting – a black pianist performing for a mix of Germans, Frenchmen, and refugees. Two years later, Burnett and co-writer Joan Alison used that scene to create the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s.
The play contributed more than just the inspiration fro the eventual 1972 motion picture. Every character, as well as most of the dialogue, appeared in the film, with slight modifications. Curious about the classic song choices? Even the use of “As Time Goes By” originated from the play. Burnett had grown to love the song after hearing it at his Cornell University frat house. Sadly, when the film received an Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1943, neither Burnett nor Alison received the recognition they deserved.
It’s a Wonderful Life
After several years of working on it, Philip Van Doren Stern completed the short story “The Greatest Gift of All” in 1943 and sent it to several publishers with no luck. He then went with the next most logical idea: distributing the story as a 24-page Christmas card pamphlet. Apparently Stern had quite a Christmas card list, because a Hollywood agent saw the story and sent it on to Charles Koerner, then head of RKO Pictures.
RKO intended the film as a vehicle for Cary Grant, but the script seemed unusable – too dark for a screenplay. However, the vibe felt just right to director Frank Capra (himself, originally a failed short story writer), who had just returned to Hollywood after serving in World War II and wanted to leave his Pollyanna-ish films behind. Capra decided that Stern’s story had the right mix of pathos and comedy. If at first Capra worried about the absurdity of filming a man telling his disappointments to an angel, that quickly changed. He later said that the Christmas classic was his favorite of all his many films. Surprisingly, while the film remains an American favorite as well, it failed to garner any Academy Awards.
Hollywood producer Lawrence Turman read the novel The Graduate (1963) by Charles Webb after hearing about it in The New York Times, and he admired the story enough to remain ninety percent faithful to the book – plus a few key differences.
One was the casting. In the novel, Benjamin Braddock and his family are WASPs, blond and polished. The role of Mrs. Robinson was originally offered to Doris Day, and Robert Redford screen-tested for the part of Benjamin. Suave, sunny pillow talk could have ensued, but Turman convinced Nichols that Benjamin had to be sexually insecure (the antithesis of Redford) and Mrs. Robinson needed to be a grittier, more predatory character Anne Bancroft eventually won the role, and the part of Benjamin went to Dustin Hoffman, who had the bumbling persons Turman and Nichols were looking for.
Nichols came up with the other big twist in the film: the ending. In the novel, written in the early 60s, Benjamin sweeps away from Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, just before she marries the man her parents approve of. But the film, which debuted in 1967, ends with a shocker: Benjamin arrives just after the wedding kiss but steals the bride anyway. They hop on a bus and look excited (and then apprehensive) as they stare out the back window, leaving tradition behind. The decision worked as Mike Nichols nabbed the 1968 Oscar for best Director. Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson!
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg was coming off the biggest failure of his career, the film 1941 (1979), when he developed an idea for Night Skies – a horror film about aliens terrorizing a rural area. Of course, Spielberg anticipated that one alien of the bunch would be the nice sort.
While Night Skies was in pre-production, Spielberg began to have doubts, Francois Truffaut, who starred in Spielberg’s Close Encounters, suggested that he make a film for children. So, while Spielberg was directing Raiders of the Lost Ark, he collaborated with writer Melissa Mathison on a story about a 10-year-old who has an imaginary friend or talking toy. Mathison (on set because she was Harrison Ford’s girlfriend) ran with it and created ET and Me – the story of an extra-terrestrial striking up a relationship with a boy from a broken home.
The film that could’ve gone the way of crop circles and terror became one of the best-loved children’s classics and inspirational films in history. Meanwhile, Spielberg exorcised his interest in supernatural suburban horror on the film.
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