That Touch of ‘Mank’

The best movie comedies of the 1930s were largely written by former newspaper reporters who had also tried their hand at writing for the New York stage before being seduced by Hollywood’s sunshine and lucre.

Today, we think of journalists as PR staffers for the conventional wisdom, killjoys intent on instructing us in the appropriate tone with which to regard the passing parade. But reporters a century ago, as former Chicago newsman Ben Hecht explained, were of a less dignified social stratum: “They sat, grown and abuzz, outside an adult civilization, intent on breaking windows.”

Now showing on Netflix is the biopic Mank by ace director David Fincher (SevenFight ClubThe Social Network), the story of how the dean of Hollywood’s ex-journalists Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay of the most famous newspaper movie, Citizen Kane. Amazon eGift Card - Ch... Buy New $50.00 (as of 05:38 UTC - Details)

In the mid-1920s, Hecht, who co-wrote with Charles MacArthur the influential newspaper play The Front Page (which received its most perfect movie incarnation in 1940 as His Girl Friday), received from former Broadway journalist Mankiewicz the most quoted telegram in showbiz legend:

Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.

During the lucrative transition to the talkies, Mankiewicz lured many of his New York gambling buddies to write movies with him, an assemblage Pauline Kael called “some of the most talented alcoholics this country has ever produced.” She went on in her 1971 essay “Raising Kane” to explain:

Mankiewicz spearheaded the movement of that whole Broadway style of wisecracking, fast-talking, cynical-sentimental entertainment onto the national scene.

Mankiewicz and his pals became enormously successful dialogue writers, but tended to burn out young (although his more reliable younger brother Joe enjoyed a long career, peaking with All About Eve in 1950 before being ruined by Cleopatra in the early 1960s).

Writers, while extraordinarily well paid under the movie studio system, were treated as disposable technicians by the executives. Relays of writers were assigned to work on scripts in sequence. For example, Markiewicz was one of ten writers on The Wizard of Oz, contributing the key idea that Kansas should be filmed in black and white and Oz in color, before moving on without a credit.

This was a huge comedown in status and creative control compared with the exalted role of New York playwrights, who in the 1919 Broadway strike had won extraordinary intellectual-property rights over their plays. To this day, playwrights get to veto casting choices in any production anywhere, even after they are dead. For instance, in 2017, the estate of Edward Albee denied a producer in Portland the right to put on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a 35-seat micro-theater on the grounds that the late Albee wouldn’t have wanted a black actor cast in a white role.

In the movie industry, they joke about the blond starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer, but Marilyn Monroe married playwright Arthur Miller. In the theater, the writer is, contractually, The Man.

Mankiewicz was said to be the highest-paid writer in Hollywood during the early 1930s, and his wit made him a regular at the San Simeon dinner table of William Randolph Hearst, America’s most powerful newspaper baron.

But then his drinking, the accompanying car crashes and falls, and his self-destructive cynicism damaged his reputation. By 1940 he had been reduced to ghostwriting radio dramas for young Orson Welles when he suggested writing a biopic of Hearst for Welles’ movie debut.

NOMA Pre-lit 24-Inch L... Buy New $47.99 (as of 05:38 UTC - Details) Hearst was a big man, so Mankiewicz repaying his hospitality this way was fair game. But his treatment of Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies, was deplorable. Citizen Kane portrays her as a talentless shrew, when in reality she was a delightful comedienne beloved by San Simeon’s endless roster of superstar guests.

Kael sums up the irony:

And so Hearst, the yellow-press lord who had trained Mankiewicz’s generation of reporters to betray anyone for a story, became at last the victim of his own style of journalism.

Mank, a black-and-white period piece for grown-ups starring Gary Oldman, has been one of the more anticipated movies of this blighted year.

Amanda Seyfried lights up the flat screen as Marion Davies, but otherwise it’s a little disappointing. (Of course, I’m not even all that much of a Citizen Kane fan: To me, Mankiewicz’s wisecracking script and Gregg Toland’s German Expressionist horror-movie camerawork are individually impressive, but don’t meld well.)

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