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THE MAN BEHIND ‘SUNSET BLVD’

Billy Wilder is one of the towering figures of American cinema, a writer and director whose credits speak for themselves. Yet, interestingly, he always worked with a writing partner—first Charles Brackett (on such films as Ninotchka, Midnight, and Hold Back the Dawn), then Raymond Chandler (onDouble Indemnity), and finally I.A.L. Diamond (on Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, and many more). One man’s name is generally forgotten in this roster, yet he shared credit for one of Wilder’s greatest triumphs. My old friend, film historian Tony Slide, who edited the diaries of Charles Brackett, tells the story.

 

By Anthony Slide

Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett at work (courtesy AMPAS)

On March 29, 1951, three men mounted the stage at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood to accept the Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay in acknowledgement of their work on Sunset Blvd. Two — Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett— were well known within the industry at the time and their reputations have not diminished with the passing years. The third man was probably pretty unfamiliar to most members of the audience that night and he remains very much the forgotten third man as far as the script for Sunset Blvd. is concerned. His name, as it appears on the film, was D.M. Marshman, Jr.

D.M. Marshman, Jr. (courtesy Western Reserve Academy)

Donald McGill Marshman, Jr., or “Mac” as he was called by Wilder and Brackett, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 21, 1922, the son of a trial lawyer, and graduated from Yale, where he received his B.A. in the Class of 1945. At college, Marshman had written a column for the Yale Newsand with T.O. Cole he had authored a three act comedy, Poet’s Corner (unproduced but copyrighted in 1946). In 1946, Marshman joined the staff of Lifemagazine, initially identified as a staff writer and later, in the summer of 1947, as an assistant editor. Two of the most prominent articles that he wrote for Life are “A Bold Tennessean with a Katzenjammer Accent Is the Newest Top-Flight Director in Hollywood” (on Robert Siodmak), published in May 1946, and “The Second Rise of Joan Crawford,” published in June 1947.

In June 1948, Marshman left Life to become movie critic for its sister publication, Time, replacing Hillis Mills. As was the custom at Time during that period neither man received credit for his work. Indeed, when Marshman left Time, he was succeeded by Robert Wernick, who also was unacknowledged.

Both Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder were familiar with Marshman’s work as a critic, and, at the latter’s suggestion, he was brought to Hollywood. The tall, booming-voiced Marshman effortlessly turned the duo into a trio. “Billy Wilder was the greatest talent, He had a good ear and would fuss and fuss with lines until they were right,” recalled Marshman, “but Charlie was the finer man….I was very fond of him, you know, and he was extremely generous to me, both personally and professionally. [He was] the most agreeable of men. You’d want to have him at a party.” The two men Marshman described as “professional friends, not social friends.” Wilder would often tell Marshman that it should be “Goodrich and Hackett and Wilder and Brackett,” referencing contemporary screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

Marshman was not just welcomed for his writing skills, however. As Marshman told me, the two partners played cribbage on a regular basis. On the way back from location for The Emperor Waltz they were engaged in what had been their favorite pastime. The game involves one person playing, say, a deuce, the partner playing a deuce, the first one playing a deuce, and so on. Wilder played a deuce, and so did Brackett. Wilder played a second deuce and won the round. When the hands were revealed, Brackett had the fourth deuce, which he had not played. He refused to explain why to Wilder and the two men never played cribbage again. When Marshman was hired, they discovered that he knew how to play cribbage, and so they could take it in turn to play with him.

Marshman was deemed “a smart fellow” by Brackett and Wilder after telling them that The Emperor Waltz was “a schmaltzy piece of fluff,” with which the two men agreed wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately I did not make contact with Don Marshman until after I had completed the edit of the Charles Brackett diaries for publication by Columbia University Press. [Leonard Maltin’s review of this book is reprinted below.] Marshman was familiar with diaries, about which Brackett would talk often, but which he maintained were unpublishable. When we did connect, in the summer of 2014, he had much to relate about the making of Sunset Blvd.,most of it, to the best of my knowledge, previously unreported.

Marshman recounted that the original idea was “to do a movie where the hero was a secret Communist. He would be played by Gene Kelly.” It took about two weeks to decide on the structure of the film as made, with the three men running through ideas or “blue skying,” as they called it.

A later photo of Marshman at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (courtesy AMPAS)

Generally, Marshman did not remember which lines in the script could be credited to which writer; it was very much a collaborative effort. The one memorable line for which he does take credit is in the scene where Norma Desmond is buying a coat for her young protégé. The salesman comments, “As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?” As to the most famous line in the film in which Norma Desmond insists, “It’s the pictures that got small”: “Billy and I were working on that scene at his home. He never wrote anything. I would sit with a pencil and pad and we would talk how a scene would work. He had a very good ear for dialogue. I remember Gillis had to say, ‘You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.’ There was a very logical response, and I don’t remember who said the actual words first. It was very obvious to say. It was not a matter of anyone looking at that as a choice line of dialogue.”

The name “Norma Desmond” is generally thought to be taken from Norma Talmadge and William Desmond Taylor. Marshman agreed in regard to Norma Talmadge, but insisted that the “Desmond” is Florence Desmond. When I pointed out to him that Florence Desmond was a British actress who had not appeared in silent films, Marshman stated categorically that the three of them thought she had. Wilder and he always thought that the references to silent films would register with an audience that had grown up with silent films. “Blur the lines between reality and imagination.”

It is doubtful that audiences wonder where Norma Desmond gets the gun with which she shoots Joe Gillis. But the three writers did—and didn’t know what to do about it, with hours of meetings spent on the subject. Charlie Brackett had the idea of a loyal housekeeper getting the gun but that would require her to be introduced to the audience. Ultimately, it was decided that at some point Norma Desmond had gone out and purchased the gun, and engaged audiences would not stop to think when that was and how she was able to do it.

Marshman told one fascinating anecdote in regard to the music by Franz Waxman, identified as “an old friend of Billy’s.” Waxman worked independently and the three writers did not hear the score until it was being recorded. All agreed, “It seemed to be fine.” There is melodious music over the scene of William Holden and Nancy Olson working on the script and walking around the studio at night. When Wilder praised the piece, Waxman explained that he had not written it; he took the theme song from Paramount on Parade, which was also used for the Paramount newsreel, slowed it down and made it very rich and very sentimental. Nobody recognized the original source.

After Sunset Blvd., Brackett and Wilder split up. Marshman left Hollywood, married and traveled abroad. He returned in 1952 to work on the 20th Century-Fox production, Taxi, actually shot in New York. Released in 1953, Taxi stars Dan Dailey and Constance Smith, with Marshman sharing screenplay credit with Daniel Fuchs, and the story credited to Hans Jacoby and Fred Brady, based in turn on Sans Laisser d’Adresse by Alex Joffe and Jean Paul Le Chamois. “With six authors banging away furiously at their typewriters it is hard not to understand why the film is so full of sound, fury and bad dialogue,” sourly commented Cue(January 24, 1953). The sole reason for Taxi’s having any modern interest is that it marked the film debut of John Cassavetes.

The second film on which Marshman worked, for RKO, was also shot on location, this time in Mexico, in Technicolor and 3-D. While the screenplay credit forSecond Chance goes to Oscar Millard and Sydney Boehm, Marshman does receive acknowledgement for the story and adaptation of this melodrama involving the ex-girlfriend of a crime boss, played by Linda Darnell, who has linked up with a prizefighter played by Robert Mitchum. With a climax on a broken cable car in the Andes, Second Chance was praised by Newsweek (August 10, 1953) as “a very respectable example of thriller writing.”

Charles Brackett was at 20th Century-Fox at this period, but he did not produce Taxi, too minor-league for someone of his reputation. He was busily at work on the Marilyn Monroe vehicle, Niagara, released only a week after Taxi appeared. Marshman did, however, work with Brackett in the spring of 1953 on an unrealized project, Jewel of India.

In 1953, Marshman abandoned his Hollywood career and pursued a new one, in advertising, on the East Coast. As he recalled in a 2007 interview with his local newspaper,

“It became clear that these studios could not afford these tremendous payrolls. It became a catch-as-catch-can business. The big stars began making deals for themselves. And I figured it was a poor bet for me. To have a successful career, you had to be very, very talented, or very well connected, or you really wanted to do it more than anything else in the world. None of these things applied to me….I didn’t think the movie business was going to be any kind of life for a gentleman. And I’ve never regretted it.”

Initially, Marshman worked with the prestigious Young & Rubicam Agency. From 1974-1979, he conducted a fund-raising campaign for Yale University, worked as a professional speechwriter, and in 2010, he founded his own organization, Marshman Enterprises, in Milford, Pennsylvania. Since 1955, he had lived in Darien, Connecticut, with his wife, Ann, the mother of his four children, and a reportedly tarnished and darkened Oscar.

Like his mentor, Charles Brackett, Marshman had been a staunch Republican, but as he explained to Western Reserve Academy Magazine (January 14, 2014), “Gave up my Republican registration and vote nine years ago after 60 years in the fold and feel better about it every day.”

Don Marshman died in Darien, Connecticut, on September 17, 2015.

 

Book review: “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age edited by Anthony Slide; foreword by Jim Moore (Columbia University Press)

It might seem odd to call the man who co-wrote Ball of Fire, Ninotchka, Midnight, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Blvd. an unsung hero, but Charles Brackett has always lived in the shadow of his high-profile writing partner, Billy Wilder. This valuable compendium of diary entries from 1933 to 1950, painstakingly edited by Anthony Slide, not only sheds light on that renowned  collaboration but evokes the reality of daily life in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system.

Anyone with a rose-colored view of what it must have been like in “the good old days” will have a rude awakening after reading Brackett’s account of the vagaries, petty jealousies, and peccadilloes of studio chiefs, producers, and directors way back when. It’s a miracle that anything worthwhile came out of such a maelstrom. After having producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. pitch him the story of Midnight, in December of 1937, Brackett writes, “The story seemed to me as he told it in his office after luncheon to have the traits of all Parisian Paramount comedies. No reality of characters or background—one forced and familiar situation after another.” Four years later, while working on the screenplay for Ball of Fire in July of 1941, Brackett notes, “A day at Howard Hawks’ is always a day of hell. He applied his fabulous anti-architectural methods to the script all morning.”

A graduate of Harvard with a law degree, Brackett began contributing theater reviews to The New Yorker in the 1920s. While his subsequent short stories, plays and novels never achieved great success, he was welcomed into the fabled Algonquin crowd, including Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker. When Hollywood first beckoned, in 1933, with a screenwriting contract at RKO, he (like so many other New Yorkers) wasn’t in a position to refuse a steady job at a healthy salary. He returned East after his first contract expired and relocated to Los Angeles a few years later.

But his heart wasn’t in it. He returned to his home town in upstate New York as often as possible, and mused, in one glum 1942 diary note, “Sat sadly toting up my invisible balance sheet, regretting bitterly that I ever left my beloved Saratoga [Springs] where I think—oh well, why fool myself.” Some days he openly questions his talent, while other times he asserts his opinions quite decisively. Another reason for his melancholy—seldom if ever mentioned here—is that his wife spent many years in a mental institution. (We learn a great deal about Brackett in an introductory essay by his grandson, Jim Moore, who is working on a full-fledged biography. Editor Slide also provides an informative preface which explores, in some detail, rumors regarding Brackett’s sexuality.) Yet another troubling aspect of his personality is his dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semitism, which is expressed on a regular basis throughout the diaries.

There is so much to glean from these observations—including the politics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—that one is almost tempted to take notes while reading.

Perhaps the most intriguing takeaway is that Brackett and Wilder had a volatile relationship right from the start. Although dubbed “The Happiest Couple in Hollywood” by Life magazine in 1944, Brackett had doubts about their ability to coexist early on. In a 1939 entry he writes, “Violent quarrel with Billy whose manners are [words have been scratched out] & from whom I fear I shall have to part company, much as the thought of working alone now terrifies me—reconciliation—but I doubt the value of any reconciliation with him.” In 1942 he muses, “Another day of hell. There are times when I look at Billy, the best dramatic mind with which I ever came in contact, with the appalling feeling that his mind is dropping apart before my eyes—its brilliant decisiveness crumbling to utterly foolish indecisions.”

If Wilder didn’t feel inspired on a given day, he wouldn’t report to the studio. Brackett couldn’t get through the day without taking an afternoon nap. Meetings for the Screen Writers Guild and the Academy would often drone on till the wee hours of the morning. Lunch in the commissary, or at Lucey’s, across the street from Paramount, would usually involve playing a word game with fellow writers. These and other details are what make this Hollywood chronicle so immediate, vivid and valuable.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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