Joseph L. Mankiewicz

See the bottom of this page for a list of films produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz for MGM.

How can one write about a producer?

Usually, what people write is a series of film titles and funny stories and a few business details. But what about a producer who is maybe also an author of his films? What about Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer who not only authored his films’ scripts in whole or in part (without screen credit) but who also, as Metro’s man in charge, hovered over every aspect of his films’ design, casting, shooting and editing? And who then went on to direct many films himself? How can we know what is Mankiewicz in the films he produced, as opposed to what is Borzage or Lang or the other directors Mankiewicz hired?

To answer, we could trace the history of the production of each film, study the interoffice memos, and interview everyone involved.

But I have not done any of that. Nor has anyone else. What I have done is to consult a few books. But mostly I have looked at the films themselves, and other films by the same filmmakers, and tried to draw conclusions from my experiences of these films.

Theoretically, the job of a Hollywood producer in the ’30s and ’40s was to interface between the studio and the individual production. Sometimes the producer was the studio’s hatchet man. At other times he was the artists’ St George. Often he tried to be both at the same time. Metro had a number of executive producers at the time, all of them under the command of the studio’s undisputed dictator, Louis B. Mayer. Mankiewicz’s job was to work under close studio supervision in choosing material, developing script and sets, engaging the director, actors and technicians, keeping everyone on schedule and within budget, and editing their results. At MGM, where Mankiewicz produced 20 pictures between 1936 and 1944, neither stars nor directors nor writers (nor, according to Mankiewicz, producers) had much control of their work; they were simply employees. Nonetheless, MGM encouraged its employees to assert themselves. Mayer gave the example himself by choosing as his assistants men he knew would knife him in the back any chance they got. Thus even though many Metro films sink indistinguishably into the Studio’s prosaic identity, and even though it was precisely during Mankiewicz’s tenure that both Mayer’s power and the industry’s self-censorship were at their most repressive, nonetheless determined moviemakers were able occasionally to make movies that were far more theirs than Metro’s.

Curiously, Mankiewicz’s notions of what he thought movies should be are almost as evident in the films he merely produced for Mayer as in those he himself later wrote and directed. What Mankiewicz loved were words, actors, and theatre. He was a writer, brother of a writer, son of a literature professor. Yet rather than a literary man he was a ladies’ man, famously.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz got into movies because his brother Herman (who would become posthumously famous for writing Citizen Kane [1941] with Orson Welles) headed Paramount’s scenario department. Joe at 18 was paid to translate silent-film intertitles into German, and at 20 was appointed a junior writer. His salary then was $60 per week. Herman’s was $1250.

Seven years and more than 30 films later, Joe went to Louis B. Mayer and demanded to be made a director. Mayer made him a producer instead. “You have to learn to crawl before you can walk,” Mayer instructed, according to Mankiewicz – who added that this was the best description he knew of a producer’s posture. “[During these] black years…I produced a great many films which I am embarrassed to have associated with my name.” (1)

The posturing self-disdain in this remark of Mankiewicz’s will be found in the mouths of most of Mankiewicz’s characters, in most of the films he would direct. But before his day would come to direct, with Dragonwyck in 1946, he had first to crawl for ten years as a producer. And even after ten years he still had to get Mayer to fire him – over a love affair with Judy Garland.

Mankiewicz’s ideal film, whether as director or producer, was something I shall call a “photoplay” – a type of cinema that was less a “movie” than a filmed play, less a storyworld with characters than a document of actors acting the sort of acting for which self-conscious dialogue (like Mankiewicz’s self-disdain) and self-conscious mime are inevitable and endless.

Consider Spencer Tracy in Mannequin. Spencer Tracy had awesome quantities of that most essential (and mysterious) quality for a movie player: presence – force and clarity in embodying emotions. Critics remarked constantly that, whereas others actors had to work at their craft, Tracy “just did it, naturally”.

What critics fail to add, however, is that Tracy could also be an outrageous ham. He possessed a repertoire of cheap stage tricks which he was not shy of using to steal scenes from anyone sharing his frame – like pulling his ear while someone else is talking. In Woman of the Year the running gag is Tracy’s silent reactions to Katharine Hepburn’s incessant prattle, and even though the gag is supposed to be his passivity versus her activity, like Hulot in Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967), Tracy’s mugging results in him being far more active than she is. He wipes Hepburn off the screen, turns her into one of his props. After ten minutes, the photoplay seems heavy, fatuous and repetitious.

Yet even so, Tracy in Woman of the Year is relatively light and subtle under the (much thwarted) direction of George Stevens (who, after wisely refusing to work for Mankiewicz at “a producer’s studio”, unwisely changed his mind). In Mannequin, in comparison, Frank Borzage doesn’t appear to have resisted. A ham like Wallace Beery can get away with wiping his open hand slowly across his face the way Tracy does, because deep down inside us we believe Beery is the same oaf off-screen as on; but Tracy never lets us forget that he is more intelligent than the poor guy he’s satirizing.

For some spectators, it is precisely this ersatz-ness that is the essence of good acting: the visible technique of a virtuoso, like in music, painting or ballet, painting or gymnastics. One critic, curiously, remarks that Tracy’s “underplaying” helps Mannequin. We see things differently, he and I.

Probably we see Margaret Sullavan differently as well. Here is another adored “presence” with theatrical training. In Three Comrades there is never any doubt that she is “performing” – an ersatz display appropriately applauded with an Oscar nomination, and followed a year later by an Oscar award to Spencer Tracy at his hammiest, as a Portuguese fisherman in Captains Courageous (Victor Fleming, 1937). Both performances appealed perfectly to the photoplay fashions of the day, provoked showers of tears, and were felt to be exceptionally endearing. All art is ersatz, after all, else it would be life. But what is ersatz in Sullavan in Three Comrades (her “acting”) is not the same thing as what is authentic (her presence). The former quality graces the photoplay, the latter quality is the soul of a movie.

23 years ago I asked one of John Ford’s “stock company”, Ruth Clifford, why Ford had never used Lillian Gish in a movie. She stared at me in horror. I had missed the obvious, the fundamental: “Oh, no! She’s much too synthetic for him.”

I have been trying since then to understand what Ruth Clifford meant. The heroine of D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) “synthetic”?

Margaret Sullavan, in movies Mankiewicz did not produce, often seems less out of place, less ersatz and self-commenting, even in improbably naive roles in The Good Fairy (William Wyler, 1935) and The Shop around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940) because Wyler and Lubitsch subjugated her presence to their movies’ storyworlds. Similarly Borzage, without Mankiewicz around, could also make “movies”. In Borzage’s Little Man What Now? (1934), Sullavan is almost un-self-conscious, bouncing and nubile; at the opposite extreme, she is a carefully controlled, sparingly employed icon in Borzage’s The Mortal Storm (1940). But in Three Comrades, the game is no longer Borzage’s, but Mankiewicz’s, who was always there on the set, perpetually helpful, and Sullavan is merely an actress, devouring scenes with in-your-face calculation, milking a small repertoire of synthetic poses, stage tricks, and robotic gestures. And she is almost as mechanical, albeit winsome, in Borzage-Mankiewicz’s The Shining Hour, where her role is smaller. “Her performance is almost unendurably lovely”, wrote Frank Nugent in The New York Times, of Three Comrades, which was true enough. But the contrast is amazing when one compares these Borzage-Mankiewicz photoplays with Borzage’s independently-produced History Is Made at Night (1937). Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer, actors generally deemed far more “superficial” than “luminous” Margaret Sullavan, never seem so concocted as she.

Mankiewicz’s love of theatre imposed performances in which actors are outside of their roles. He seems to have equated intelligence with self-reflection, which is why Jean-Luc Godard adored him. His films are always comedies of manners, or perhaps comedies of self-comment.

And just as the “crisp, intelligent dialogue” of a “literate” script can have the result of substituting a playwriter’s intellectualised conceits for a more global, undigested view of a character, so too “acting” may substitute an attitude toward the character for the character herself. An “actress” like Margaret Sullavan, who came tantalisingly close to being a multi-faceted, nubile human being in Little Man What Now?, shows none of her reality in Mankiewicz’s photoplays, and these films nearly fossilised her, defining her (as Metro was wont to do) as a handful of pouts and laughs for the rest of her career. In life, she was tempestuous, spiteful, self-destructive, adorable, charming, predatory and promiscuous; on screen she is Shirley Temple.

Many actors are the opposite in life from what they are on screen. John Wayne was confused, Rock Hudson gay, Ingrid Bergman a wallflower, Spencer Tracy a nasty drunk. And in their best movies, these insides get out; we know, watching Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, that he may collapse at any moment. Not Sullavan. Like every actor who worked with Mankiewicz she drifted into formula: he never wanted characters to transcend their conceits, the better to symbolise life’s comic-tragedy. Thus in All About Eve (Joseph A. Mankiewicz, 1951) Bette Davis impersonates Bette Davis. A Mankiewicz character often goes insane from inner fury, but never abandons urbanity, never stops reciting. For those who enjoy theatre of this sort, Mankiewicz’s characters-who-have-found-an-author are a feast. For me, their joys and sorrows have no weight, for they themselves have no credibility. The problem is not that they are usually miscast (Sullavan seems no more a fashionable kept woman in Three Comrades than Joan Crawford a Lower East Side shop girl in Mannequin, a cheap whore in The Bride Wore Red, a Jacksonian belle in The Gorgeous Hussy; Robert Young, Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone, ubiquitous in these films, never seem to fit their roles). The problem is that Mankiewicz’s players are mannequins.

Borzage-with-Mankiewicz is to Borzage-without-Mankiewicz as death to life. In History Is Made at Night, the eyes flash out at us, the cutting is exciting, the camera angles make emotions vibrate. This is a movie. A storybook world. In a Mankiewicz photoplay, in contrast, the camera is almost invisible, the better to register performances. Angles never call attention to themselves. Two-shots are preferred, at a neutral distance. Eyes never leap at us. Human beings never threaten to violate the decorum of their roles. No one ever goes outdoors: back-projections abound, with the puppets flatly lit. This is filmed theatre. A recording.

Two of Mankiewicz’s biggest hits as a producer, The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year, owed their success not to him but to Katharine Hepburn, who owned the properties and marketed them to MGM with herself choosing the casts and directors and overseeing the scripts. It was she, not Mankiewicz, who got the idea of teaming herself with Spencer Tracy (the two would make nine films together). Nonetheless, the aesthetics of the Mankiewicz photoplay prevail. Mankiewicz fixed the scripts and was, as usual, ubiquitous.

Stevens walked off the set of Woman of the Year twice in frustration. His players actually were falling in love during Woman of the Year, a passion that endured until Tracy’s death, 25 years later, but you would never guess it from these scenes. In contrast, Hepburn seems truly to bare her soul (and body, though only hands and head are uncovered) while falling in love with John Ford (off-camera) in his Mary of Scotland (1936), a movie which literati never tire of mocking, but which is nonetheless, a lot of the time, a movie, with emotional richness infinitely above Mankiewicz’s photoplays. A movie is pictures; with Mankiewicz it is always a question of pictures of…, of “documentaries” of what happened on MGM’s sets, no matter the director – with one startling exception: Fritz Lang.

In Fury (1936), Spencer Tracy does not ham; his movements are controlled totally, and minimal. The camera calls constant attention to itself, assuming peculiar points of view, cutting to angles that often do not rhyme as one expects, delighting in elaborate montages that belong to another world completely from the unobtrusive Metro photoplay. Fury is composed pictorially; every other Mankiewicz is staged.

Mankiewicz was in awe of Lang. Mankiewicz was an ardent Germanophile who spoke German well, and both of his parents had come from Germany. When he encountered Lang, Lang had alienated his way onto a dung heap at Metro, which had imported him from Germany but now was about to drop him without his making a picture. Mankiewicz nonetheless got Lang assigned to him and to Fury, a project Mankiewicz had developed from an idea by Norman Krasna. And at the same time he rescued Spencer Tracy, who had been dumped by Fox after one-too-many drunken binges. Together they would do high art. Why not? Mankiewicz was 26 years old. Fury was his first real production at MG-M. So he supported Lang unrelentingly against unrelenting hatred – not only from Metro executives but from virtually the entire cast and crew, Sylvia Sidney notably excepted. Tracy mutinied, an electrician was about to drop an arc lamp on Lang, nearly everyone was trying to get him fired. Lang was “mean, ornery, German arrogant, and domineering,” recalled the cameraman, Joseph Ruttenberg (2).

Shortly after the movie’s release, Mankiewicz made an announcement. “My first production, intended to revolutionize the entire industry, was Fury…It was received enthusiastically by the press; exploited magnificently by the MGM organization; and with a great deal of luck and a good wind behind it, the organization may finally succeed in getting its money back” (3).

He got no thanks back from Lang, who refused for decades to shake his hand, because Mankiewicz, acting on Metro’s orders, had cut out some scenes of ghosts that preview audiences had laughed at. And he got no thanks from Louis B. Mayer, even though Fury eventually showed a profit of $248,000 on its $604,000 cost, because Mayer, who seems to have tolerated Fury in order to teach Mankiewicz a lesson, was chagrined that Fury went so counter to MGM’s photoplay style – and social content: this was the same studio that two years before had forced its top director, King Vidor, to mortgage his house and make Our Daily Bread (1934) independently (with Mankiewicz sharing the scripting).

Yet Lang, on the strength of Fury (and a request by Sylvia Sidney), went on to make You Only Live Once (1937) (with her) with increased authority, for Walter Wanger, the independent producer of Borzage’s History Is Made at Night. Whereas Mankiewicz, after such a distinguished debut, and still only 26, went on to a long series of photoplays remarkable for shallow conventionality and life-denying artifice. Joe became a good company boy.

Why? Was it a recoil from Lang’s rebuff? An embrace of Louis B. Mayer? The difficulties of marriage and strings of women? Perhaps all three.

Among the women was Joan Crawford, “the prototype movie star”, in Mankiewicz’s words, and Mankiewicz’s ability to handle the temperamental terror was part of his value to the studio. “I could handle Joan.” He had scripted two Crawford films already; now he produced three more in a row, than which duller films are not to be imagined. Love on the Run, an imitation of It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934) was the popular success of the first three, probably because W.S. Van Dyke as usual throws out the chaff. Undaunted Mankiewicz made six more Crawford photoplays, always trying to “fix” her scripts for her, and failing, although Strange Cargo has its champions, Crawford among them. “[It was] absolutely wonderful….Clark and I did our best work together in Strange Cargo. We had always been close, sometimes too close, but now we knew each other as mature persons and the chemistry was still there and it added to the fire. We both had good parts, the kind the critics call ‘fully realized.’ The story line was strong and the screenplay was splendid and Frank Borzage let us take it and run. And, baby, we ran.” (4)

In fact they mostly sit, in a boat stranded at sea, dying of thirst, much too slowly, after slogging through a bog forever. Censorship forbade suggesting that the lovers had sex, and succeeded: even less than in Woman of the Year does anything suggest actual emotions off-screen or on. The Legion of Decency condemned Strange Cargo because of a Christ figure played by Ian Hunter, thus adding to its cachet. Strange Cargo revels in verses and literary pretensions the way The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Long Voyage Home (1940) do, but never gets beyond conceits and play-acting. Once again, one feels certain that director Frank Borzage, without Mankiewicz, would have been far more excessive, abandoned, sharp, and lively.

Two years after Fury, Mankiewicz made another stab at art, getting F. Scott Fitzgerald his sole screen credit for Three Comrades. Margaret Sullavan complained Fitzgerald’s dialogues were unspeakable. The studio complained about Fitzgerald’s whores, unmarried lovers and Nazis, and his skit of Saint Peter as a telephone operator. Curiously, no one objected to consecrating murder in private vengeance with a church window and Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, because the victim deserved it. Said Mankiewicz: “If I do down at all in literary history, in a footnote, it will be as the swine who rewrote F. Scott Fitzgerald.” (5)

The tone of self-mockery is typical, as anyone who has seen a Mankiewicz film will recognize. But rather than the swine, let us remember the 26-year old who saved Fritz Lang.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz filmography (as producer for MGM only)

Three Godfathers (Richard Bolelawski, 1936). With Chester Morris.

Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936). With Sylvia Sidney, Spencer Tracy.

The Gorgeous Hussy (Clarence Brown, 1936). With Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor.

Love on the Run (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936). With Joan Crawford, Clark Gable.

The Bride Wore Red (Dorothy Arzner, 1936). With Joan Crawford, Robert Young.

Double Wedding (Richard Thorpe, 1937). With Myrna Loy, William Powell.

Mannequin (Frank Borzage, 1938). With Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy.

Three Comrades (Frank Borzage, 1938). With Margaret Sullavan, Robert Taylor.

Shopworn Angel (H.C. Potter, 1938). With Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart.

The Shining Hour (Frank Borzage, 1938). With Joan Crawford, Margaret Sullavan, Robert Young.

A Christmas Carol (Edward L. Marin, 1938). With Reginald Owen.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Richard Thorpe, 1939). With Mickey Rooney.

Strange Cargo (Frank Borzage, 1940). With Joan Crawford, Clark Gable.

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940). With Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart.

The Wild Man of Borneo (Robert B. Sinclair, 1941). With Frank Morgan.

The Feminine Touch (W.S. Van Dyke, 1941). With Rosalind Russell, Don Ameche.

Woman of the Year (George Stevens, 1942). With Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy.

Cairo (W.S. Van Dyke, 1942). With Jeanette MacDonald, Robert Young.

Reunion in France (Jules Dassin, 1942). With Joan Crawford, John Wayne.

The Keys of the Kingdom (John Stahl, 1944). With Gregory Peck.

Endnotes

  1. Kenneth L. Geist, Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Times of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (New York: Scribner’s, 1978), p. 73.
  2. Geist, p. 79.
  3. The Deltan, December 1936. Cited in Geist, p. 80.
  4. Roy Newquist, Conversations with Joan Crawford, Citadel Press, Secaucus, 1980, p. 85.
  5. Geist, p. 90.