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Critic At Large : Faulkner's Hollywood Connection

January 23, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

One of the many remarkable items in Rudy Behlmer's compilation of correspondence, "Inside Warner Bros. (1935-51)" (Viking, $19.95), is a letter to Jack Warner from William Faulkner dated 15 October 1945.

"I feel that I have made a bust at moving picture writing," Faulkner said. "I have spent three years doing work (trying to do it) which was not my forte and which I was not equipped to do, and therefore I have mis-spent time which as a 47-year-old novelist I could not afford to spend. And I don't dare mis-spend any more of it."

He asked to be released from his contract. The studio refused, and he was subsequently one of several writers who toiled on "Mildred Pierce," although at that time he was working at his home in Oxford, Miss.

A longer and even more revealing glimpse of the Nobel-laureate novelist in Hollywood is now available in Volume IV of "Faulkner: A Comprehensive Guide to the Brodsky Collection," edited by Louis Daniel Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin (University Press of Mississippi, $35), which reproduces Faulkner's work on a massive and aborted Howard Hawks project in 1942 that was to have been called "Battle Cry." (It has no relation to the 1954 film made by Raoul Walsh from the novel by Leon Uris.)

Brodsky is a young Midwest Faulkner enthusiast who has assembled what is believed to be the largest collection of Faulkner material still in private hands, including his work at Warner Bros., where he worked on 18 films but got screen credit only on "To Have and Have Not," "The Big Sleep" and "Land of the Pharoahs."

Volume III of the Brodsky series printed Faulkner's work on another abortive patriotic project that was to have been called "The de Gaulle Story," which was evidently commenced at Washington's request and abandoned when the official view of the thorny French leader turned ambivalent. The interest of the "Battle Cry" material is enhanced by an introductory memoir by Meta Carpenter Wilde, the great love of Faulkner's Hollywood life, and Orin Borsten, her co-author on her book about her romance with Faulkner, "A Loving Gentleman."

Admittedly, screen writing was not Faulkner's forte, Wilde says, but he was competent from his first Hollywood ventures in the early 1930s, and by 1942 he was a pro, inventive at plot construction and script-doctoring, capable of writing easily sayable dialogue. He was making $350 a week, a pittance by the standards of his fellow writers--"the greatest bargain a studio ever struck with a ranking novelist"--and, pressed by creditors, he desperately needed every penny of it.

"Battle Cry" was to have been a epic-sized, world-embracing "celebration of the human spirit under threat of extinction . . . a conduit for his reverence for the embattled and suffering people of the war," Wilde says, the common man against the Axis powers.

In their introduction, editors Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin quote the outline of an early treatment. There were to be Russian, Chinese, English, Serbian, Greek and French sequences (based in part on four other properties acquired for the project). There were other writers and would likely be additional directors.

In Faulkner's structure, there was to be an American sequence linking the other sequences and a three-part Abraham Lincoln cantata--"Abe Lincoln Comes Home" with music by Earl Robinson and libretto by Millard Lampell--further punctuating the film. It would run long and be costly by the standards of the day. More than any other film writing he did, it suggests Faulkner the maker of intricately structured novels at work.

Then, after four months of intensive work, the project was dropped. Faulkner had written hundreds of typescript pages for an early treatment, an expanded treatment and two full drafts of the screenplay. The expanded treatment and the second-draft screenplay are printed in the book, copiously annotated.

Only a week before the shutdown Faulkner had written his wife, Estelle, back in Oxford, expressing optimism about the project and his work. "I have a promise from the studio that, when I have written a successful picture, they will destroy the contract. This is my chance."

Wilde speculates that several factors may have been involved in the termination of "Battle Cry." Jack Warner was said to have had a falling-out with Howard Hawks; the budget had risen to $4 million, an unthinkable figure--with the possibility that even that was not the peak (Hawks was known to be carefree about budgets), and there was a growing uneasiness about Russia as an ally.

But the experience was not totally a waste, Brodsky and Hamblin argue. The social idealism, the calls to courage and the possibility of attacking the world's ills that found expression in his subsequent writings, culminating in his Nobel acceptance speech, can be traced to themes he sought to dramatize in the stillborn wartime films. They do hint that Faulkner might well not have seen the blessing of the experience, so well disguised it was.

In fact, when "Battle Cry" was abandoned, Wilde remembers, Faulkner started drinking heavily again, seeking solace on Saturday afternoons in the back bar at Musso and Frank's with the extraordinary company of fellow writers and sufferers that from time to time included Alvah Bessie, Dalton Trumbo, Lillian Hellman, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, Elliot Paul, John Fante, Clifford Odets, W. R. Burnett, John Steinbeck and even, now and again, Carl Sandburg.

Faulkner apparently worked last on "Land of the Pharoahs" in 1955, 13 years after he asked Warner for release from his contract.

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