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||Nunnally Johnson (1897-1977)|
American screenwriter, producer, and director, whose screen credits included The Grapes of Wrath (1940), directed by John Ford, The Woman in the Window (1944), directed by Fritz Lang, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable, and The Three Faces of Eve (1957), starring Joanne Woodward. Several of Johnson's screenplays were based on best-selling novels varying from Daphne du Maurier and A.J. Cronin to John Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell.
"Marilyn was blowing take after take, either fluffing or forgetting a line completely. Every man and woman on the set was loathing her. I said: 'Don't worry, darling, that last one looked very good.' She looked at me, puzzled, and said: 'Worry about what?' I swore then that I'd never attribute human feelings to her again." (Nunnally Johnson in American Film, October 1981)
Nunnally Johnson was born in Columbus, Georgia, the son of James Nunnally Johnson, a superintendent for the Central of Georgia Railway, and Johnnie Pearl Patrick, an activist on the local school board. Johnson was an avid reader from early childhood and he had an uninhibited sense of humor, which he had inherited from his father. After graduating from Columbus High School in 1915, Johnson worked as a reporter on the Columbus Enquirer Sun, then wrote for the Savannah Press, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and the New York Herald Tribune. In 1931 Johnson published his short stories, which had appeared earlier in The Saturnay Evening Post and other magazines, in the collection There Ought to Be a Law.
In 1932 Johnson went to Hollywood, and began his career as a scriptwriter. His first solo screenplay credit came in 1934 on The House of Rothschild, based on George Humbert Westley's play about the famous banking family at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. During his years at 20th Century-Fox, Johnson became one of the most prolific writers. Cardinal Richelieu (1935) started Johnson's long association with Daryl F. Zanuck. Their major achievement with the director John Ford was The Grapes of Wrath. Johnson's script, based on John Steinbeck's radical novel, was superb. Nunnally avoided insistent statements of human dignity, but the end of the film gives an uplifting tone to the story. "Whenever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there..." says Tom Joad (Henry Fonda). Ma's (Jane Darwell) speech in the last scene has been criticized for sentimentality: "We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out, they can't lick us."
Shortly after 20th Cenury Fox had acquired A.J. Cronin's novel The Keys of the Kingdom, Johnson wrote a screenplay for Fox. When Zanuck turned the script over to producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Johnson had already left the studio. He was surprised to hear that his friend asked for sole screenplay credit. The Writers Guild decided that the credit should go to both Johnson and Mankiewicz. The screen adaptation, made in 1944, received mixed critics and Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune wrote that Mankiewicz and Johnson did not succeed in "packing a rambling literary narrative into the exigent outlines of a satisfactory film entertainment."
Jesse James (1939), directed by Henry King, was shot in the new "perfected" Technicolor. The film had a strong sense of time and place, anticipating King Vidor's The Gunfighter (1950), starring Gregory Peck. Historical material for Johnson's screenplay was assembled by Rosalind Shaffer and Jo Frances James. Origilally the script had been written for John Wayne by William Bowers and William Sellers, but the director Henry King praised Johnson's uncredited work: "I never saw anyone who wrote a script as good as Nunnally Johnson." When the filming started Johnson told King that Darryl Zanuck is not going to like Peck's moustache. Moreover, Zanuck objected the ending, in which Jimmy Ringo (Peck) is shot in the back by a young punk, who wants to be the fastest gun. Peck wanted his character to look and dress in a motley collection of clothes like the people in the daguerrotypes of the early West. Zanuck was right: the public did not want to see Peck in a funny hat and heavy moustache but in 1970, Action, the magazine of the Directors Guild of America, selected The Gunfighter among the best dozen Westerns of all time. Walter Kaufman once argued that The Gunfighter is the measure by which all Westerns would be judged.
Johnson's cooperation with John Ford in Tobacco Road (1941), based on Erskine Caldwell's novel, resulted in a bowdlerized version of the book. The Hays Office allowed only to hint at the novel's sexual themes. Before these films Johnson produced and wrote Rose of Washington Square (1939), a dramatic musical. Johnson's lines for Al Johnson, singing again a medley of his songs, supported skillfully the story: "This is your song. It was born just for you. Sing it and they'll never forget it or you." In The woman in the Window, the director Fritz Lang fought over the end of the film. Killing off the hero was a far from common practice in the Forties and the nightmare situation of Prof. Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) turns out to be a dream. Everything starts innocently: "I'm not married. I've no designs on you. One drink is all I require", says a beautiful model (Joan Bennett) to Wanley. After accepting the invitation an intangible network starts to surround the professor and threatens to destroy his life. "I was warned against the siren-call of adventure."
Johnson also started to produce films and in 1943 he formed International Pictures. The venture was not a success. However, The Moon is Down (1943) is considered among the best of the Resistance films. It was shot on the set of How Green Was My Valley. Johnson based his script on John Steinbeck's play about a Norwegian village resisting the Nazis. In The Desert Fox (1951), directed by Henry Hathaway, Johnson made a sympathetic portrait of the German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who died in 1944 (it was forced suicide at Hitler's command). Considering that the film was realized only some years after the war, it was an unusual project. The screenplay was based on the biography by Desmond Young.
Park Avenue (1946), the musical adaptation of Johnson's short story 'Holy Matrimony,' was Ira Gershwin's last Broadway. Eventually a flop, it run 72 performances. In the 1950s Johnson tried his hand in directing. The schizophrenia drama The Three Faces of Eve (1957) won Joanne Woodward an Academy Award. Night People (1954), set in the divided Berlin before the Wall was erected, continued Johnson's cooperation with Gregory Peck - it had started in 1944 from The Keys of the Kingdom. Upon meeting the actor, Johnson though that he wasn't very bright simply because he didn't have much to contribute to a sparkling conversation. A few people could match Johnson's impromptu wit. Peck admitted: "When I get mixed up with Nunnally Johnson or Herman Mankiewicz or Ben Hecht, I am struck dumb."
Night People, filmed in Germany, captured the atmosphere of a city still scarred by the war. Johnson described the the cloak-and-dagger yarn to Time magazine as 'Dick Tracy in Berlin.' Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote that the picture "... is first-rate commercial melodrama - big, noisy, colorful and good... The skillful and wily Mr. Johnson manipulates his pieces with such speed and such trickery in some places that you may well be confused..."
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) was based on Sloan Wilson's popular novel about a Madison Avenue executive trying to solve his marital problems and cope with his guilt complex about a wartime affair. The film was well received and Arthur Knight in Saturday Review noted that Johnson had adapted Wilson's book "not only with fidelity to the original but with considerable dexterity as well..." David O. Selznick sent a number of his famous, annoying memos to Johnson, whose reply was always polite: "Thank you very much, David," he wrote back. "I passed your notes on to Mr. Zanuck." Johnson was not a virtuoso director but he had professional competence and he had the ability to visualize and create new ideas from thin air.
Johnson's greatest box office hit in the 1950s was How to Marry a Millionaire, directed by Jean Negulesco, and starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall. Johnson's script was based on the plays by Zoe Akins, Dale Eunson, and Katherine Albert. The story depicted three women who rent an expensive New York apartment and set out to trap millionaires. A syndicated television show based on the picture, created in 1958 by the 20th Century-Fox, lasted only a season.
"You wouldn't know the place [Hollywood]. I don't know one-third of the people mentioned in Joyce Haber's column. And things move very fast here too. There is some fellow who produced one successful picture, Goodbye, Columbus, and some studio was so staggered by this overwhelming success that they made him the head of the studio. Do you remember when Zanuck used to produce two pictures before eleven a.m.? As for the other head of Paramount, named [Robert] Evans, in two years he has lost almost as much money as Vietnam has cost us. So it's not surprising that they're going to give him a raise." (from Johnson's letter to Robert Goldstein, in The Penguin Book of Hollywood, ed. by Christopher Silvester, 1998)
After giving up direction, Johnson wrote a few more screenplays, most notably The Dirty Dozen, based on E.M. Nathanson's novel and directed by Robert Aldrich. In the story twelve convicts, serving life sentences, are recruited for a commando suicide mission. This nihilistic war movie had many imitations, such as The Devil's Brigade, A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die, etc. The Dirty Dozed ended Johnson's career which spanned 40 years, from the last years of the silent film to the age of the Aquarius.
Nunnally Johnson died in Hollywood, California, on March 22, 1977. He was married to former leading lady Dorris Bowdon, whom he met in 1940 when she was starring the John Ford film The Grapes of Wrath. Nora Johnson, his daughter, has written about her father in Flashback: Nora Johnson on Nunnally Johnson (1979) and Coast to Coast: A Family Romance (2004).
For further information: The New Georgia Encyclopedia Companion to Georgia Literature, ed. by Hugh Ruppersburg, John C. Inscoe (2007); Coast to Coast: A Family Romance by Nora Johnson (2004); The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz (1994); The Letters of Nunnally Johnson, ed. by Dorris Johnson and Ellen Leventhal (1981); Screenwriter, the Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson by Tom Stempel (1980); Flashback: Nora Johnson on Nunnally Johnson by Nora Johnson (1979)
Selected films (as screenwriter, director or producer):