The Better Angels of Our Nature

by James Scott Bell

On September 25, 1919, a white woman named Agnes Loebeck told police she’d been assaulted by a black man on the streets of Omaha, Nebraska. The next day the cops nabbed a suspect—a 41-year-old packinghouse worker named Will Brown. They took him to the Loebeck home where Agnes ID’d him.

News of the assault spread rapidly. The Loebeck house was soon surrounded by a mob crying for a lynching. Police reinforcements had to be called in. They were finally able to get Will Brown to the jail at the courthouse.

The howls for blood grew louder. A contingent of almost fifty police officers was dispatched to guard the jail.

On Sunday, September 28, a mob started a march to the courthouse. By the time they got there it had grown to an estimated size of 15,000. Looters hit the stores of downtown Omaha, stealing guns and ammo.

Some of the rabble started firing at the courthouse. The cops returned the gunfire. A 16-year-old mob ringleader and a 34-year-old businessman were killed.

Around 8:30 p.m. the crowd set fire to the courthouse. When firemen arrived the mob prevented them from dousing the flames.

Inside the jail Will Brown cried out to the sheriff, “I am innocent! I never did it! My God, I’m innocent!”

The mayor of Omaha, a man named Smith, tried to reason with the mob. Somebody whacked him on the back of the head. He came to with a rope around his neck. Somehow somebody rescued him, though Smith ended up in the hospital.

Then around 11 p.m., with the people inside the courthouse forced out, the ravenous pack got their hands on Will Brown.

They beat him until he was bloody and unconscious, stripped off his clothes, and put a rope around his neck. Will Brown was hoisted into the air from a lamppost and, with his body spinning, the mob used it for target practice.

They tied Brown’s body to a car and dragged it through the streets. In the middle of a prominent intersection they doused Brown’s body with fuel taken from lanterns and set it on fire.

When the fire went out they dragged the remains once more around the streets of Omaha so the crowd could have a look.

Bits of the rope used to hang Will Brown were sold for 10¢ each.

There was a fourteen-year-old boy who witnessed the killing. His father owned a printing plant across the street from the courthouse. They both happened to be there that night.

Later in life that boy, the actor Henry Fonda, would reflect that it was “the most horrendous sight I’ve ever seen.” That’s why Fonda, when he became a movie star, fought hard to make the film version of The Ox-Bow Incident, about mob madness and the lynching of three innocent men.

And why Fonda brought such empathy to a scene from John Ford’s classic Young Mr. Lincoln. It’s my Fourth of July movie recommendation. The film is loosely based on a real murder defense successfully conducted by Lincoln, in what has come to be known as the “Almanac Case.” I say no more, as I want you to get the full enjoyment of the movie.

Here’s the setup. After a prologue covering a bit of Lincoln’s life in New Salem, Illinois, we move to Springfield in 1837 where Lincoln hangs his shingle. At the Independence Day celebration a local man is found stabbed to death. Two sons of a widow are accused and hauled off to jail.

Immediately a lynch mob forms. Lincoln, observing it all, tells the widow he’s now her lawyer. He gets to the jail and faces down the mob. The rest of the film is the famous trial.

It’s one of Fonda’s iconic performances, perfectly nuanced. I must also mention the supporting performance of Alice Brady as the mother of the accused. Brady was an outstanding actress who could bounce between screwball comedy (My Man Godfrey, for which she was nominated as Best Supporting Actress) drama, and musicals. She won a gold statuette for her supporting performance in In Old Chicago. Tragically, Young Mr. Lincoln was her last film, as she died of cancer at the age of 46.

The movie is magnificent hagiography, in the inimitable John Ford style. And what is the purpose of hagiography? To put it in Lincoln’s own words, it is to inspire in us “the better angels of our nature.” In that spirit, let me leave you with a short clip from the movie. Lincoln addresses the mob—and us:

May you have a happy and reflective Fourth of July.

* Source material for this post may be found here and here

Movie Gems from the Early 1930s

by James Scott Bell

In one of Steve’s recent posts I left a comment with a little ditty based on the famous song “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” The song is from the 1933 film 42nd Street. Steve commented that he’d have to see it sometime. To which I say YES! Every writer, actor, dancer—indeed, any artist who bleeds for their art—needs to see this classic.

With dance numbers choreographed by the great Busby Berkeley, 42nd Street is the backstage tale of a Broadway musical, from initial financing to opening night. The central plot revolves around a naive young actress newly arrived in the big city (Ruby Keeler) who gets cast in the show’s chorus. Will she somehow emerge a star? (Go ahead, guess.) The marvelous cast includes Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, and Una Merkle, supported by veteran character actors Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, and Allen Jenkins.

Ruby Keeler and Warner Baxter in 42nd Street

But the movie belongs to Warner Baxter as Julian Marsh, the show’s director. Baxter—who a few years earlier won the second Academy Award for Best Actor (In Old Arizona, 1928)—fully inhabits the role of a man whose life is the theater, who is incapable of compromise, who would rather die (and just might!) than put on a mediocre show. Baxter gives us a masterful range of emotion, gaining intensity the closer they get to opening night. And then comes a crisis! The show is in danger! Can Baxter pull out a miracle? (Go ahead, guess.) We get the show itself for the last part of the movie. And then, for my money, one of most memorable last shots in movie history. When you see that shot—being the artist that you are—you’ll relate to it fully.

All this got me thinking about a few other gems from the early 1930s—the “pre-code era”—that shouldn’t be missed.

You’ll not see a finer ensemble cast than the one in Dinner at Eight (1933, dir. George Cukor). It’s led by Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Jean Harlow. From this film you can learn about handling parallel plotlines, and also the great value of orchestration. That is, creating characters who have the greatest possibilities for conflict with one another. Indeed, this is responsible for one of the best last lines ever. It’s between the highly-cultured actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) and the gorgeous but unrefined Kitty (Jean Harlow). Since it doesn’t spoil the film plot wise, here it is:

No pre-code retrospective would be complete without at least one film starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck, of course, went on to become one of the big stars of the golden age of movies, and then on TV in The Big Valley. Equally adept at comedy and drama, Stanwyck shot to fame in 1930 in the Frank Capra-directed Ladies of Leisure. She plays a “party girl” who falls genuinely in love. Stanwyck—not a classic beauty a la Garbo or Harlow—demonstrates that sexiness is as much about attitude as it is about surface features.

Stanwyck would show that over and over in her career, but never with more verve than in Baby Face (1933). As Lily Powers (great name) she uses her sexuality to seduce men on her way up the ladder in New York City. (The film is also notable for a small part played by a miscast young actor named John Wayne.)

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

And then, of course, there’s a film everyone who loves movies should see: It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra). From this you can learn the tropes of a great romance. Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled heiress who goes on the run, against her father’s wishes, to get to the man she wants to marry. The story becomes a national sensation. Taking a night bus for New York, Ellie is recognized by a street-smart reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable). He offers to help get her to her lover in return for her story, exclusive.

These two peas are not from the same pod. They take an immediate dislike to each other (trope). Through a series of obstacles they begin to fall in love (trope). But a big misunderstanding sunders their romance (trope) until…well, you need to see it.

The movie was not supposed to be a big hit. It was made by a small studio (Columbia) and Gable was in it only because he had been “loaned out” by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. Mayer was mad at Gable for demanding a raise, and wanted to teach him a lesson.

Some lesson. Gable won the Oscar as the film swept the major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay.

One famous bit of trivia. There’s a scene where Gable starts to undress in front of Colbert. When he takes off his shirt, he’s bare chested. Thereafter in America, sales of men’s undershirts plummeted.

The film also shows the value of what I call the “spice” of minor characters. Don’t ever waste yours. They are opportunities to delight your readers. The two standout spices in It Happened One Night are a pair of great character actors: Roscoe Karns as an obnoxious, would-be Lothario; and Alan Hale as a roadster-driving con man.

Undergirding it all is the flawless script by Robert Riskin, a frequent Capra collaborator. More trivia: During the production of his script for Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), Riskin reportedly got increasingly annoyed by critics talking about “the Capra touch.” One day, when he felt Capra himself was taking too much credit, he stormed into Capra’s office and threw down 120 pages of blank paper. “Put the Capra touch on that!” he said, thus becaming a hero to Hollywood screenwriters ever after.

I only have time for some honorable mentions, but these are all worth seeing and contain lessons for every writer. You should be able to find most of these via streaming services and/or YouTube:

Little Caesar (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

The Champ (1931)

American Madness (1932)

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

Rain (1932)

Scarface (1932)

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

The Power and the Glory (1933)

The Thin Man (1934)

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Happy viewing!

Any other early movie favorites you’d like to add? Of the films mentioned, which have you seen? Any other writer lessons you draw from them?

Books To Films

Do you read a book and then go to watch the movie, or vice versa? Have you enjoyed a film and then rushed to buy the book for a more in-depth experience? I am more of the latter persuasion. I’ve bought a number of books based on movies/TV shows I’ve seen first.

For example, I became a fan of Legend of the Seeker, a fantasy series on TV based on Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth books. It interested me enough to try his first title, Wizard’s First Rule. What’s it about?

        Wizard's First Rule (The Sword of Truth)

Richard is a simple woodsman until his father is killed and he learns of his destiny as The Seeker of Truth. Reminding me at times of Star Wars (Episode IV) due to the hero’s journey structure of the novel (see Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey), I didn’t want to put the book down. The world building is so detailed that you feel you’re there. What keeps you turning pages, aside from the evil Darken Rahl’s attempts to kill Richard and the other nefarious creatures he encounters, is the forbidden love story between Richard and Kaylan. This weaves a spell on you to see if they can defeat the magic that keeps them apart. Their love is the driving force throughout the entire series. I’ve read everything Goodkind has written to date and eagerly await the next installment in his newest series.

I am happy to be a fan of some YA shows, too. Both my husband and I were enthralled by City of Ember, a YA scifi story and book one in The Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. Twelve year olds Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet live in a mysterious city that depends solely upon a generator for light and power. When the lights begin to flicker and the city experiences blackouts, they know something is terribly wrong. They discover an old document that may provide clues to the city’s origins and an escape route beyond the forbidden boundary.

 City of Ember                       The City of Ember (Books of Ember)  

The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz is another one my husband and I both got hooked on after seeing the film, Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker. Alex Pettyfer was cute as the teen spy in this action flick reminiscent of James Bond. Teenager Alex Rider is recruited by British Intelligence after his uncle, a spy, is murdered. Coerced into completing Uncle Ian’s mission, Alex proves his aptitude for the job. With his martial arts training, language skills, and courage, he is more than worthy of the role. We ran out to buy Stormbreaker, the first book in the series, after seeing this movie and now have all the rest of the books on our shelves.

 Alex Rider             Stormbreaker (Alex Rider)

After a glimpse at The Hunger Games, I am tempted again to read the book to fill in the thoughts and emotional reactions that are not evident in the film.

So which comes first for you—the movie or the book?

My Favorite Movies About Writers

James Scott Bell

1. Sunset Boulevard (1950, dir. Billy Wilder)

One of the best American films of any kind. You know the story. Down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) avoids the repo men by pulling into the driveway of a decaying mansion, wherein resides the aging silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Gillis hatches a plan to make a little money off her, but who is actually controlling whom? Great support from Eric Von Stroheim as Max the butler, and Fred Clark as the producer who holds a pitch meeting from hell (not all that much has changed in Hollywood).

In any other year Swanson would have walked away with an Oscar. She was up against Bette Davis in All About Eve (another iconic performance) but they both lost to newcomer Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday.

2. The Whole Wide World (1996, dir. Dan Ireland)
A moving biopic of pulp writer Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian). Vincent D’Onofrio and Renée Zellweger deliver powerhouse performances as the doomed writer and the teacher who befriended him. Based on the memoir of Novalyne Price Ellis, played by Zellweger in the film.

Howard was one of the most prolific writers of the Depression era. He died by his own hand at the age of 30.

3. Old Acquaintance (1943, dir. Vincent Sherman)
A tale of art vs. commerce, of the real literary talent ignored by the public and the hack scribe who lucks into all the fame and money. Bette Davis plays the former and Miriam Hopkins the latter. It’s worth it just to watch these two divas (who intensely disliked each other) vie for attention (there’s a scene where Davis shakes Hopkins a bit too energetically). For my money, Davis steals it because she does not attempt to chew the scenery, the way Hopkins tends to. Makes you appreciate what a great actress Davis was.

BTW, Bette Davis was the greatest smoker in film history. If you watch her carefully, she never puffs the same way in any scene. She always works her cigarette in keeping with the mood of the moment.  

4. Teacher’s Pet (1958, dir. George Seaton)
This one’s about old school journalism vs. trendy classroom theory. Clark Gable is the crusty newspaper editor trying to get the best of college journalism teacher Doris Day. Gig Young is hilarious in support (he picked up an Oscar nod). The best scene is in a night club where Gable tries to drink Young under the table while Gable’s too-young-for-him squeeze, Mamie Van Doren, bumps and grinds a song that embarrasses everybody. Day is a monster talent: she could sing, dance and act in both comedy and drama.

BTW, did you know Doris Day was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate? She turned it down because she thought it too much against her image, but she would have killed that role, just like Anne Bancroft did.

5. Bullets Over Broadway (1994, dir. Woody Allen)
What do you do when a cheap thug is a literary genius, and you, the writer who wants to be great at all costs, don’t have that touch? 

It’s a movie full of great moments (Woody Allen is never funnier than when puncturing pretensions) and solid performances, most prominently Chazz Palminteri as the thug-genius and Jennifer Tilley as a mobster’s gal who, naturally, wants to be an actress (Oscar nods for both). Dianne Wiest won the Supporting Actress statuette as an over-dramatic Broadway star.

6. Midnight in Paris (2011, dir. Woody Allen)
Owen Wilson is perfectly cast as the Hollywood screenwriter who is transported back in time to meet some of his writing heroes. He’s hilarious as he relates to everyone in 1920s Paris in his laid-back, Southern California style (like when he offers a Valium to a wigged out Zelda Fitzgerald).

Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway (above) gives my favorite performance. He manages to capture both the bluster and genius of Hemingway, and neither he nor the script make him out to be a buffoon, which in our politically correct days would have been the easy choice. I also cracked up at Adrian Brody’s rendition of Salvador Dali.
So what about you? Any favorite films about writers or the artist’s life you’d like to put on the list? I’ve got plenty of microwave popcorn and am ready for some recommendations.   

Lots Of Opportunity in 2012

By John Gilstrap
Fair warning: What follows might be categorized as shameless self-promotion.  I prefer to think of it as seeing pretty lights on the horizon.  Either way . . .

If 2012 lives up to its potential, it could be a terrific year for me, career-wise.  It’s the kind of potential that I hesitate to talk about for fear of jinxing things, but among my resolutions for this year is to be less locked-down about things in general.

Let’s start with book news.  Nathan’s Run, my first novel (released in 1996), is now available in all eBook formats, with a paper version to follow sometime in the future.  As an added bonus, the eBook contains a link to my original ending to the story, which should answer the single most-asked question about Nathan’s Run.

On the Jonathan Grave front, Kensington is yet again stepping up to give the series as big a push as the market can sustain.  Damage Control (June, 2012) is featured in a two-page spread for the catalog, and will be released in a premium mass market format–not quite trade paper, but taller than the standard MMPB, which, if nothing else, allows for a more readable font size.  This is what happens when a professional sales force truly gets 100 percent behind an author and his books.  I couldn’t ask for more.

Hopefully, there’ll be movie news in 2012, as well.  New Year’s resolutions notwithstanding, I have to be a little circumspect here, but we seem to have taken a giant step closer to seeing a version of Six Minutes to Freedom on the big screen.  The rules of the movie game dictate that official announcements come not from me but from the producers.  Suffice to say that meetings are going very well, and that all the players seem to truly get the story.

Then there’s the television series I’m developing.  This, too, seems to have real legs with intense interest from all the right people.  We’ll actually be doing some shooting later in the month.  If it goes well, y’all will be among the first to hear.  If it doesn’t, well, I probably won’t say much because I think it’s a very good, very stealable idea.  (Is stealable a word?)

Finally, I would love to make this my first two-book year.  I’ve had an idea knocking around in my head for years, and if I don’t get it on paper, it’s going to make me crazy.  For that to happen, though, I need to write the next Grave book in six months instead of a year.  If all the other stuff comes to pass, this one might not be doable, but for now, in the first week of a brand new year, anything and everything is possible.

Here’s hoping that everyone’s dreams are realized in 2012!

Characters as Movie Stars

A few weeks ago the news broke that Tom Cruise had signed on to play Jack Reacher in the movie version of Lee Child’s 9th Reacher novel, One Shot. The furor that followed demonstrated just how wedded readers had become to their own image of Jack Reacher (and their belief that Tom Cruise, who is a ‘tad’ shorter that Jack Reacher, couldn’t possibly play the character they knew and loved so well). Not since Katherine Heigl was announced to play Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum has there been such reader angst over casting of a beloved mystery character.

The business of movie making requires ‘star power’ and I think it’s safe to say that Tom Cruise will certainly bring that to any Jack Reacher movie. Though we could all spend many an hour speculating and debating over casting of our favourite book, none of us can help but feel a sense of ownership over the particular image we have formed in our own heads (which may, or may not, bear any resemblance to the image inside the writer’s head when he/she created the character).

As writers I wonder how many of us have pinned up photographs of people who inspire or look like our characters? I know I have copies of historical photos that I used when creating Ursula Marlow (even though many readers, having seen the paperback cover, have asked me if I posed as the model for Ursula!). I also love nothing better than indulging in the fantasy of casting movies of my own books (note to Richard Armitage, you can play any one of my leading men!).

Still it is inevitable that when a book character is developed into a movie, fans are up in arms over the choice. So, here are my questions to you: Do you think the physical attributes are really that important when casting? Have you been disappointed with the casting choice of one of your favourite book characters? Have you ever found the movie (or TV) version to be much better, because the actors chosen to play the parts bring new meaning and depth to the written characters? And finally – are fans ever really satisfied with movie casting for their beloved books?

You’re gonna need a bigger boat

By Joe Moore

jaws Arguably, that may be one of the best lines ever written. Six words that encapsulate and summarize a situation so dire and frightening, there was no doubt in the mind of the moviegoer that the problems the characters faced had been grossly underestimated.

The movie JAWS came out in 1975 and is celebrating its 35th anniversary this summer. Few contemporary films had the same level of impact on life and the basic fears we all harbor inside. It came close to shutting down the beaches and everything people normally do at them during the summer. “Don’t go in the water” became a household phrase. Seaside resorts and businesses along the beaches were slammed while the theaters were packed and long lines lead up to the showing of JAWS. It was a phenomenon that undeniably equaled the mass hysteria of the 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ WAR OF THE WORLDS.

benchley1 The movie was based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel by the same name. It was and still is the only book I ever read in one sitting. I remember picking it up off a table at my mother’s house and reading: “The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.” I read the second sentence, walked over to a nearby couch and read the rest of the book without a break. It was beyond captivating. It was petrifying and easily the scariest story I’ve ever read. (Number 2 on my list is RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris followed closely by THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty).

It’s rare that a book and a movie can have such a drastic effect on the public. Benchley and Spielberg took the basic “haunted house” scenario and gave it a fresh spin, one that hadn’t been thought of before. They presented us a new type of antagonist, one that can’t be reasoned with, one that has no motive other than hunger—an eating machine. JAWS gave birth to a whole string of similar antagonist in movies like ALIEN, HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13th, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and others. But JAWS was the first to bring it to the page and the big screen and scare the you-know-what out of us. For those who are too young or just simply want to relive the moment, here’s the original movie trailer for JAWS. Enjoy.

Have you ever found a book so engrossing that you read it in one sitting? Has a book and/or movie had as great an effect on you as JAWS had on the public at the time?