I was born into the work of film writing.
Or so I used to believe. Before World War II, my father had had a promising career as a political satirist and playwright, with a certain intriguing connection to Hollywood. But after I arrived, he’d put aside his writing to support his new family, i.e., me. So, throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was suffused with an Olympian purpose: if the brilliant father I worshiped had made such a sacrifice for me, I, his first born, would take up the shield he’d laid down and under this aegis continue his work.
When I presented to him my first screenplay and asked him to read it, I figured he’d be proud.
Man, was I wrong. My father’s single cold comment about my first effort was, “We all have our failures.”
Crushed, I spent nine months lolling around on my couch in a state of apathy, not writing. What eventually propelled me off the couch was a conversation I had with a writer friend. I was sharing with him my angst about being a failure in my father’s eyes, and was launching myself into an analysis of hubris when suddenly he cut through the mythology.
“Your father?” he yelled. “Your father? Why the fuck would you care what your father thinks about your writing after what you told me about him!”
Oh. Right. Here’s the story I’d told him:
In the summer of 1939, my parents and a couple of friends, all New York City school teachers, rented a large shabby Victorian house on the shores of a Martha’s Vineyard lagoon. My mother rode horses; my father was working on satire and a children’s book. Everyone played tennis, talked war and leftist politics, went skinny-dipping at night.
Dad would get up at 5 in the morning to bake butterkuchen in the living room fireplace for the slews of friends and relations who dropped in, and stayed.
One of my parents’ friends, Murray Burnett, a writer, ferried out to the Vineyard one weekend with his wife, bearing a play he was working on, was excited about. It was a multi-character contemporary drama called Everybody Comes to Rick’s. He read it to my father over the weekend. The play was almost finished, even down to a rudimentary background score — while at college, tone-deaf Murray had fallen in love with a moderately popular song from an old Broadway revue, and although he couldn’t even hum it with any accuracy, had woven it into the plot.
But Murray was struggling over the play’s finale, couldn’t figure out how to end it. He asked Dad, known to be a fastidious craftsman, to work on it with him. Murray offered a share in any future profits, a possible co-credit.
Throughout his life my father was a highly critical and incorruptibly honest guy. That weekend, he privately confessed to my mother that he wasn’t too impressed with Murray’s play.
But harsh and tactless as Dad would later be with his kids, he was always the essence of gentility with his friends. Gnashing his teeth in affecting chagrin, he sighed to Murray that he was so damn entangled by the internecine warfare in the teachers’ union he just couldn’t cut himself loose for creative work. Although the play was terrific.
Murray went back to the city and at Brighton Beach or Long Beach, some beach, was introduced to an agent, a brassy brunette lady name of Joan Alison. She convinced Murray to give her a co-writing credit and equal share of his play in return for her self-proclaimed wizardry as an agent. She was a hard broad; Murray consented.
There remained, however, the problem with the play’s ending and since the brassy co-writing Alison couldn’t actually write, she and Murray paid a visit that autumn to my parents at their Bronx apartment. Once again, Murray tried to persuade my father to work on the play. But now, in addition not to caring too much for the story, Dad didn’t care at all for Alison so…he just couldn’t, rotten politics, eat up all your time, these lousy commitments.
A well-known Broadway producer did express some interest in Rick’s but never got around to staging it. Eventually Rick’s was sold outright to Warner Brothers for twenty grand and a year’s writing contract for Murray, two-hundred fifty bucks a week.
Murray split the fee fifty-fifty with Alison and trekked out to Hollywood. The play went into Warners’ files, Murray onto Warners’ lot.
When the year was up, the studio opted not to renew Murray’s contract and he came back east where he went on to a successful career developing and writing radio shows.
(I remember Sunday nights when I was a little kid, parked in front of our huge Emerson radio and listening to Murray’s “Man Against Crime” — true detective stories. At the end of each episode, the announcer would describe the physical particulars of the criminal-of-the-week, selected from the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List…”ARMED AND CONSIDERED EXTREMELY DANGEROUS…” and I’d spend the rest of the week narrowing my eyes for him up and down the Grand Concourse.)
Then came the shock of Pearl Harbor. America joined the war and someone at Warners was inspired to pull out of the files Murray’s story about a desperate group of people trapped in a dangerous town by the encroaching Nazi storm. Its film adaptation was assigned to a screenwriting team, the brothers Epstein who, despite reputed problems with the ending, managed to come up with a screenplay. No one was knocked out by the finished product.
Who knows why the Epsteins preserved for their film version the song, the nearly forgotten song that Murray had loved, had written into his play? It was “As Time Goes By.”
It’s disheartening to realize that I was conceived, in my mother’s mind at least, the summer that my father wasn’t too impressed with Casablanca in its nascent form, but it must be interpreted propitiously that the film and I opened together, same year same month.
When Murray Burnett died, the New York Times obit got a lot of his story right. One thing they got wrong, though: Joan Alison didn’t write any of Rick’s. Nor – damn it – did my father. It was all Murray.
I wonder what Dad, who died in 1988, would have done with the ending. Should have asked him.