Master Class: The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics

Another excellent program streamed by the 92Y.

Host Illeana Douglas is the granddaughter of two-time Academy Award winning actor Melvyn Douglas; an actress, writer and producer; a frequent host on Turner Classic Movies, a provider of film commentaries and interviews for Criterion and Arrow Entertainment.

Sydney Ladensohn Stern is the author of The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics as well as Gloria Steinem: Her Passions, Politics, and Mystique (1997) and Toyland: The High-Stakes Game of the Toy Industry (1990.) A freelance writer, she’s also involved in the leadership of two biography seminars.

Alex Mankiewicz, the daughter of Joseph L Mankiewicz is an award-winning illustrator. As a graphic journalist, her work addresses refugees, domestic violence, First Nation, among other social issues.

Illeana Douglas, Sydney Stern, Alex Mankiewicz- photos courtesy of the Y

Herman Jacob Mankiewicz (1897- 1953)/Joseph Leo Mankiewicz (1909-1993)

Sydney Ladensohn Stern first became interested in writing about the brothers Mankiewicz when an editor for a Hollywood Legends series put out feelers to biographers. Having interviewed Herman’s son Frank for her Gloria Steinem volume, she had researched one brother which led her to the other. It was important to the author not to document separate stories, but to illuminate the brothers’ relationship as well as their accomplishments.

A: “The best was that Sydney wasn’t coming at it as a film fan, but rather a psychological point of view.”
I: “The brothers seem to have had very different temperaments.”
S: “I’d categorize Herman as hot (tempered) and Joe as cool (much more controlled.)

I: “You talk about the powerful influence of their father and how much they wanted to please him.” S: “Yes, Pop. Their parents were German Jewish immigrants who met here. Herman and Joe were first generation Americans with all that baggage implies.”

Herman J. Mankiewicz was a bookish, introspective child, then a prolific freelance writer/journalist. He was part of The Algonquin Round Table collaborating on plays with several members, worked in the theater department of The New York Times under George S. Kaufman, and became the first drama critic of The New Yorker. Attracted by his writing, film producer Walter Wanger invited Herman to Hollywood in 1926.

S: “He had problems with drinking, gambling, and running out of money. Herman went to Hollywood to pay gambling debts and stayed his whole life. He was an accidental film maker.” After a month in the movie business, he signed a year’s contract at $400 a week plus bonuses. “At the beginning of the sound era he was one of the highest-paid writers in the world.” (Pauline Kael)

Herman became head of Paramount’s scenario department and helmed writer recruitment. The studio filled with newspapermen like Ben Hecht to whom Mankiewicz had written “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

S: “Joe, on the other hand had stars in his eyes.” The younger Mankiewicz moved to Hollywood in 1929 , securing work as a title writer for Paramount. Through the 1930s Joe began writing scripts. The successful Manhattan Melodrama was written for MGM where he was under contract. S: “What Joe saw on the screen bore no resemblance to what he had written. He became a director to exercise control. He had much more pride in creation than Herman.”

I: “Joe knew how to deal with difficult women, Judy Garland and Joan Crawford for example. He seemed to understand their psychology.” S: “You just named two of the things he really loved, women and psychology. Joe wanted to be a psychiatrist, but failed physics. He was a big romantic and numerous affairs – Crawford was a brief one, Garland a relationship (He was pushed out of MGM for this one.)” Alex tells us her father was discreet, undoubtedly one of the reasons he retained good relations with ex-lovers.  Another was genuine interest in them.

I: “I wanted to mention the game changer for The Wizard of Oz.” Herman loved the books and didn’t think the film should be made. In 1938, he was hired to work on the Frank Baum classic. Thinking that where Dorothy came from was as important as where she landed, he wrote fifty-six pages including instructions to film the scenes in Kansas in black and white. A game changer, indeed. He was, however, fired from the film.

S: “By 1939, Herman had been fired from every major studio. He was on his way back to New York when he had a car accident and ended up back in LA, in traction. One of his visitors was Orson Welles.” The wunderkind arrived in Hollywood with contracts to make two films over which he had unheard of control. He was ostracized. Herman had known Welles in New York and was kind. The two men started to bat around ideas and came up with William Randolph Hearst. (Which lead of course to Citizen Kane.) I: “His son Don said that he always carried Hearst in his pocket like a coin.”

At first Herman didn’t want or expect credit for his work on Citizen Kane, but the more he got into the film, the more it seemed right. We watch a marvelous clip of Welles as Hearst and Ruth Warrick as wife Emily at the breakfast table over the years. It summarizes their relationship. Welles credited Herman with Rosebud. Both men won Academy Awards for the iconic film’s screenplay, but Welles got credit in most follow-up articles and publicity.

In a letter to his father afterwards, Herman wrote, “I’m particularly furious at the incredibly insolent description of how Orson wrote his masterpiece…” (Richard Meryman) S: “It seems to me no matter how much Herman wrote, it’s an Orson Welles movie.” Who wrote what remains in contention.

The upcoming David Fincher film Mank about making Citizen Kane is timed to the 79th anniversary of the wide theatrical release of the film. Gary Oldman plays Herman Mankiewicz through whose perspective the story is told, Tom Burke, Orson Welles. (Netflix)

I: “I want to talk about Joe now. Some of my favorite films came before his All About Eve” (written and directed by Mankiewicznominated for 14 Academy Awards, won six). Illeana brings up The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. A: I love The Ghost and Mrs. Muir because it’s dark and also fresh. The dynamic between the captain and the widow, sacrifice for love on so many levels, and the Bernard Herrmann score…! He (Joe) worked with Harrison four times despite difficulties. Rex was the perfect interpreter of his work- which included Cleopatra.

Our host brings up a series of socially conscious films rarely spoken of in relation to Joe Mankiewicz: 1950’s No Way Out – with a strong anti-racist theme featured Richard Widmark and the debut of Sidney Poitier as the first African-American doctor at the urban county hospital at which he trained. (We watch a clip.) 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement spotlit Anti-Semitism. 1949’s Pinkie told the story of a light-skinned black woman passing for white. Alex adds she thinks there was a mandate at Fox to say something socially important, that when studios controlled cinema, they could makes these choices. These films didn’t play the south.                

We then watch a clip of All About Eve. I: “It’s interesting that so many other actresses were considered for the role of Margo Channing before Bette Davis was cast. You can’t imagine anyone else doing it.” S: “Claudette Colbert had the part, but suffered a back injury. Davis’ career was on the rocks at this point. She credits this with reviving it.”

Illeana brings up the wide range of genres in which Joe Mankiewicz worked. A: “They’re very different but the thru line is psychology. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he’s not as well known over time as someone like Hitchcock. He was a bit of a magpie…I think he was just curious. When he approached Marlon Brando about Guys and Dolls (written/directed by Mankiewicz) Brando said, ‘I never made a musical.’ To which Joe responded, ‘I haven’t either.’”

I: “Now we get to Cleopatra.” S: That was very much not a Joe film. He took it under duress. They kept offering more and more money. The head of Twentieth Century Fox was looking for something to save the studio. His agent said take it and run. Joe’s health was broken. He wrote by night, directed by day, was blamed for overrun, and publicly fired.” The artist spent years getting out from under it. We watch a clip.

This apparently is where Alex’s mother came in. Having had an affair with Joe during 1954’s The Barefoot Contessa, she was present, loving and supportive during the two year Egyptian debacle. They married directly after.

I: “Your mom, I think, helped him accept his place in cinema history.” A: “It took dad till the last months of his life. He had 20 years of dreadful writer’s block. (But produced and directed during the time.) Both brothers buckled under- is film a valid thing to do with my life? Dad called it his “epiphany.” He was 83 when he finally realized he’d done extraordinary work.” During his over 40-year career in Hollywood, Joe wrote, directed and produced more than forty-eight films.

Herman wrote and co-wrote the original version of The Pride of The Yankees, and adapted Dinner at Eight. He drank himself to death never having gotten out from under. Following his death, Orson Welles was quoted as saying, “He saw everything with clarity. No matter how odd or how right or how marvelous his point of view was, it was always diamond white. Nothing muzzy.”

Remarkable men. Excellent exchange. Three smart, lively women. Sounds like a really good read.

Opening Image Herman Mankiewicz, Joe Mankiewicz- photo courtesy of the 92Y

The Book:

About Alix Cohen (892 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.