Thursday, October 9, 2014

This Day in Literary History (‘Intruder’ Film Premieres in Faulkner’s Hometown)

October 10, 1949—William Faulkner had spent a sizable portion of his most creative years in Hollywood, but it was a different experience for him to be attending the hometown premiere of a movie adapted from one of his novels. Yet, though the screenplay was written by others and he had only showed up at the opening at the insistence of one of his aunts, Intruder in the Dust overwhelmingly reflected his influence—including choices for location shooting, suggestions on the content and acting of key scenes, even a behind-the-scenes defusing of locals’ resentment over his treatment of an issue gaining in urgency with each passing day: racism.

Most Oxford, Miss., residents ended up enjoying the film when it opened that day at the local Lyric Theater. (After all, so many knew family members or friends who had acted in it—or had even done so themselves). The problem was that not enough Americans as a whole did so. MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer had predicted this outcome nearly a year before, and now it seemed that events would be proving him right: the film underperformed at the box office.

Mayer thought that Americans would not turn out for a socially conscious film implicitly critical about the American political system, but the truth was a bit more complicated. Veteran MGM director Clarence Brown, who came from Tennessee, had been haunted by race riots he had witnessed in 1906 in Atlanta, and he had wanted to purchase the rights to Faulkner’s novel of a racially-charged murder trial even before publication.

But Mayer’s point-blank refusal to secure the rights meant that, by the time another studio champion of the project, Dore Schary, had been installed as head of production, three other films on racial issues were well on their way to release: Mark Robson’s Home of the Brave, Elia Kazan’s Pinky, and Alfred Werker’s Lost Boundaries. The U.S. public, perceiving a glut of movies devoted to this one issue, may have simply decided to stay home.  

Contemporary reviewers, as well as historians of film since then, hailed the movie for its feel for the region and its fine acting, particularly by Juano Hernandez in the pivotal role of defendant Lucas Beauchamp. 

Even so, most who saw Intruder in the Dust could not have been aware that the adaptation could only begin to suggest the experience of reading Faulkner’s complex novel—a work with extraordinarily vivid description that nevertheless challenged at every turn with its long sentences; characters that, like so much of his other fiction, harked back to other novels and short stories in his loose ongoing saga about “Yoknapatawpha County”; and a treatment of race as complicated as its current state in the Deep South (e.g., the film never indicated that Beauchamp, with black and white ancestors, tended to identify with the white ones, because Brown, who could accept the idea of political equality for African-Americans, found miscegenation to be beyond the pale).

Faulkner’s own personality and struggles make him the equal of anything that sprang from his fecund imagination. The Coen brothers’ movie Barton Fink exploits this persona through a character, W.P. Mayhew, strongly suggested by Faulkner in the early Forties: a Southern novelist moonlighting in Hollywood, carrying on an affair with a script assistant when he is not falling-down-drunk. It is an exaggeration of his actual situation (there are no indications in the novelist's real life, unlike in the film, that a script assistant with whom he was carrying on an affair wrote any of his works).

While in Hollywood, Faulkner, while called upon to adapt the works of others (notably, Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, which had virtually nothing to do with the original), had only been called upon to translate one of his own for the big screen: his first screen credit, Today We Live, from his World War I short story “Turn About,” done during his short stint in the early Thirties at MGM. The original had been short enough to allow him space to expand, including an invented part for one of the studio’s principal female stars at the time, Joan Crawford. It is hard to say whether he could have done a better job of streamlining the vastly larger canvass of his novel than the screenwriter who got the job, Ben Maddow.

Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner had little invested emotionally in film as a medium; he simply regarded his screenwriting assignments, even the ones he did in partnership with the understanding Warner Brothers director Howard Hawks, as jobs to pay the bills. (That last phrase was literally true in his case: in January 1941, he couldn’t afford to pay a $15 electricity bill.) While pleasantly surprised that Brown did such a good job with Intruder in the Dust, he was also thrilled to receive extra remuneration from one of his works.

As it turned out, this film adaptation came at a time when his financial situation, though not his health, was about to undergo a dramatic improvement. A couple of years before, a volume that critic Malcolm Cowley edited, The Portable Faulkner, had led American reviewers to raise him higher in the pantheon of native writers, to the point where it approximated his long-lofty position abroad. A month after the premiere of Intruder in the Dust, 15 of 18 members of the Swedish Academy had voted to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature, and though he did not receive the award immediately (rules required a unanimous vote), that showing had put him in a strong position to win the following year. Within the next five years, he would not only win the Nobel but also the National Book Award (for his Collected Stories) and the Pulitzer (for a novel, ironically, regarded as among his weakest, A Fable).

All this came at a time when alcoholism, long a powerful influence in his life, would now affect his work. Like Hemingway, poor health, with drinking a significant contributing factor, had begun to cloud his creative power. Faulkner didn’t experience Hemingway’s extreme inability to finish work, but in a way, it might have been better if he had: the novels he wrote in the last dozen years of his life did not measure up to his extraordinary output from 1929 (The Sound and the Fury) to 1942 (Go Down, Moses).

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