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Philip Yordan: The Ghosts and the Screenwriter

June 26, 1988|PAT McGILLIGAN | Excerpted from a forthcoming article in Film Comment from "Backstory II: Interviews with Screenwriters of the '40s and '50s," University of California Press, 1989. and

SAN DIEGO — He was dead, I was told. Or at least he wouldn't answer my letters (he didn't). When I finally trapped him on the telephone, he said he was far too busy to grant an interview. I said I was coming to see him anyway. Would he talk? He said, "We'll see."

Philip Yordan is the great mystery man of the post-1930s generation of Hollywood screenwriters.

No film writer has more protean credits for the last 50 years--from the tough-guy "Dillinger," "Detective Story," "The Big Combo" and "The Harder They Fall," to the quintessential Westerns "Johnny Guitar" and "The Man From Laramie," from the literary adaptations "God's Little Acre" and "Studs Lonigan," to the science-fantasy "Day of the Triffids," from the historical/biblical "King of Kings" to . . . roughly 100 titles in all (credited and uncredited), Yordan estimates.

"Not that my credits are so striking," he said, without flourish, "but when I was called in on a situation, the picture was made. Good, bad, or indifferent, the pictures were made."

In his mid-70s, he is still at work, spawning one or two films/and or video productions a year. Last April, the shadowy, Oscar-winning screenwriter for 1954's "Broken Lance" (starring Spencer Tracy), has one of his first releases in more than a decade, as co-writer of the Vestron horror picture, "The Unholy," which drew mixed reviews but disappeared from theaters after a brief run.

According to the hearsay and legend about Yordan, he was either a great writer or never wrote a script in his life. He worked hard or he employed surrogate writers.

His biography begins in his native Chicago, where, after a term as a would-be actor at the Goodman Theater, he decided to become a lawyer. Only, according to the lore, he was too preoccupied with his various business enterprises to actually attend classes--so Yordan hired someone to go through law school under the name of Philip Yordan and to pass the boards.

Maybe so, maybe not--this anecdote is repeated by many old friends and associates. "That's nonsense," says Yordan, vehemently.

Nowadays, Yordan operates out of an office-in-a-garage in a suburban tract in San Diego, where there are stacks of film cans, file cabinets and office supplies and an extensive library of reference books, many of them The-Most-Unforgettable-Character-I-Ever-Met type.

No publicity seeker, he nonetheless answered questions for three hours on one recent Saturday morning, interrupted by a steady stream of phone calls and express mail deliveries.

He could pull from the shelf a book of film essays by critic James Agee, citing "the intensity of the telling" of one of Yordan's early low-budget programmers ("the story has locomotor ataxia at several of its joints . . ."). Yordan could quote French film maker Francois Truffaut, from another book, on the subject of Philip Yordan. He could find six of his films among the listing in another volume of the 52 greatest epics of all-time.

All the while, he's chewing on a succession of unlit cigars.

Cut to his first major Broadway triumph, "Anna Lucasta," a plot with a distinct resemblance to a certain Eugene O'Neill play, set in Harlem with an all-black cast. (It was filmed twice, once in 1949 directed by Irving Rapper, and again in 1958 directed by Arnold Laven.)

Named by critic Burns Mantle as one of the 10 best scripts of the 1944-45 Broadway season, the play has been the object of some speculation among Yordan insiders. One tells the tale that Yordan, incapable of writing such a showpiece entirely on his own creative impulse, painstakingly copied "Anna Christie" structurally and plot-wise, adapting it to a Chicago setting with a Polish family background.

When that failed to excite producers, according to another version of the same apocrypha, Yordan hired an out-of-work black dramatist to provide a revision with Harlem dialect and characterization.

Maybe true, maybe not. Yordan denies all. But a pattern in his career of such, shall we say, innuendo, has not only haunted Yordan but enhanced his mystique as Bigger Than Life.

In 1938, Yordan came to Hollywood to work for director William Dieterlie. It was the perfect jungle for expression of his genius at supplying the demand. In short order, he became known among producers as a bravura "spitballer," that is, one who can talk a good script (and one has only to meet Yordan to appreciate how spellbinding is his vernacular). He became a much-sought-after script doctor and coarse dialogue specialist, often arriving at the 11th hour to contribute the famed lightning-quick "Yordan touch." A lot of his work went uncredited.

According to Milton Sperling, the screenwriter-producer who has produced and co-written a number of films with Yordan, once Yordan became established he evolved into an unusual hybrid, a "businessman-writer."

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