Playwright, screenwriter, and director Clifford Odets, co-writer of Sweet Smell Of Success, is not Barton Fink, just as newspaper gossip columnist Walter Winchell is not Sweet Smell Of Success’ J. J. Hunsecker, and real-life newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst is not Citizen Kane’s Charles Foster Kane. Yet the biographies of these real-life figures have gotten so wrapped up in the stories of the characters they inspired that contemporary audiences could be forgiven for thinking that William Randolph Hearst’s final word was an irresistibly enigmatic “Rosebud,” and that upon arriving in Hollywood, Odets was put to work writing Wallace Beery wrestling pictures.
The Coen brothers’ 1991 cult film Barton Fink uses Odets’ life, career, politics, and hairstyle as the starting point for a smartass satire of painfully earnest leftist idealism that seemed to confirm to the most stinging criticisms against Odets. Barton Fink depicts its Odets surrogate as a hypocrite who writes comically histrionic love letters to the dignity of a working class he views from a safe distance, while collecting fat paychecks from the mercenary vulgarians who control Hollywood.
Barton Fink made its phantom Odets a phony and a fool, a man who professes high morals, yet is sniveling and small, a preening pretender rather than an authentic poet of the working class. Fink is a caricature that exaggerates all Odets’ faults for comic effect, while ignoring his considerable gifts. But like many caricatures, it has some grounding in reality. Odets’ decision to testify before the House Committee On Un-American Activities rather than risk blacklisting certainly calls into question the conviction of his famously passionate leftist political beliefs. And while Odets never wrote any Wallace Beery wrestling pictures, the one-time wunderkind of the American theater did end his promising career by writing an Elvis movie and serving as story editor for a television anthology called The Richard Boone Show.
Barton Fink could make wicked satirical sport of Odets’ earnest persona because the writer had fallen so hopelessly out of fashion. Odets has come to embody a number of qualities and theatrical traditions now considered adorably old-fashioned at best, and laughable at worst. He was a writer of trembling earnestness and ambition who genuinely set out to uplift the spirit of the working man with his groundbreaking early plays. That level of ambition is admirable even as it invites mockery; anyone who takes himself that seriously is begging to be knocked down a peg or two, and Odets certainly did.
The extravagant bigness of Odets’ work similarly makes him an inviting target of mockery. Odets’ dialogue was the furthest thing from naturalistic; his characters talk like people at the height of their pretension, ambition, and furious erudition. The speech in his plays and screenplays is invariably heightened, sometimes to a comic extreme, as in 1955’s The Big Knife, where a character tells the protagonist—who’s earlier described as “the warrior minstrel with the forlorn hope”—“Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul.”
To get a better sense of Odets’ cinematic strengths and weaknesses, I watched two films based on his plays, 1939’s Golden Boy and 1955’s The Big Knife, and two movies he co-wrote, the 1945 John Garfield/Joan Crawford melodrama Humoresque and the 1961 Presley movie Wild In The Country. These are far from the only scripts Odets worked on, but they provide something approaching a representative inventory of his work in film.
Odets often wrote about intense, troubled young men, usually artists of some sort, torn between pursuing lofty aspirations and the earthier demands of making a living and supporting a family. But the conflict is seldom as clear-cut or as unlikely as the one in 1939’s Golden Boy, which cast young, pretty William Holden as Joe Bonaparte, a young man with a unique dilemma. Joe is torn between his proud Italian papa (Lee J. Cobb), who wants Joe to perform the greatest classical music in the world on a $1,500 violin purchased after tremendous sacrifice, and Joe’s own desire to make his fortune as a professional prize fighter.
Joe Bonaparte has two paths before him: He can use his art to uplift the human spirit and reduce grown men to tears (like Odets), or he can beat up strangers for money. The preposterousness of Golden Boy’s premise is amplified by the incongruity of having Joe’s aged father played by the 27-year-old Cobb, a standout at the Group Theatre, where Odets got his start. Cobb’s scenery-devouring performance suggests Pinocchio’s Geppetto after a dozen or so espressos, or an Italian version of the garment-rending, “I haff no son!”-hollering patriarch Laurence Olivier played in 1980’s The Jazz Singer. At the time, Cobb’s performance might have seemed like a masterpiece of transformation (such a young man, playing such an old man!), but now Cobb’s performance feels exactly like what it is: a young actor doing a crazy over-the-top caricature of a doting immigrant father.
Golden Boy benefits from the intensity and conviction of William Holden in his star-making role, and from the screwball charm of Barbara Stanwyck as the worldly dame who takes a shine to the golden boy once he starts winning fights. Rouben Mamoulian directs briskly and confidently, undercutting the material’s staginess with kinetic montages of Joe battling his way to boxing glory. And while Golden Boy falls far short of the lofty standards it sets for itself, it’s nevertheless a lively, entertaining melodrama. Odets might have set out to be a great artist, and sometimes succeeded, but Golden Boy suggests his true talent was as an entertainer, composing muscular and full-bodied pulp.
Odets isn’t credited as a screenwriter on 1955’s The Big Knife, an adaption of his play, just as he isn’t one of the four screenwriters credited with adapting Golden Boy for the big screen. But the film nevertheless reflects Odets’ sensibility as much as the screenwriting work he did adapting other people’s works. The Big Knife opens with a narrator explaining that protagonist Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) is a man who once had ideals and integrity, before he sold them out to be a big movie star. It then introduces Castle, whom Palance plays as a man with the body language of a caged panther. He’s powerful but unmistakably imprisoned by circumstances, a lost man in a prison that looks an awful lot like the Hollywood sweet life.
Castle is a man with a secret: Many years back he was involved in a hit-and-run accident alongside starlet Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters, heartbreaking as ever playing a good-time girl on the skids), then left a buddy to take the fall. The all-powerful studio where Castle has been prostituting his gifts for gaudy paydays knows about the skeletons in his closet, and uses them as leverage to force Castle to accept a seven-year contract with the studio that amounts to spiritual and creative death.
Castle faces a dilemma: Should he play his violin, or wallop mooks right in the kisser for a big payday? No wait, that’s Joe Bonaparte’s dilemma. Castle is forced to choose between going with the wishes of his long-neglected muse and idealistic wife (Ida Lupino) and rejecting the contract at the risk of ending his career, or accepting the money and the spiritual death it represents. Is Castle willing to trade his metaphorical prison for a real one? Or is the price of integrity too high?
Rod Steiger costars as Stanley Shriner Hoff, an amalgam of real-life studio heads Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer who uses a façade of fatherly concern to hide an icy core of cynical calculation. Steiger plays Hoff as a man who, like Sweet Smell Of Success’ J.J. Hunsecker, keeps a mental tally of everyone’s price. He’s a sociopathic operator whose paternalism quickly takes on an unmistakably sinister air. He is, in other words, Satan incarnate, the evil and avariciousness of Hollywood given human form.
As an actor, Steiger isn’t actor prone to subtlety or understatement. Nor are Palance or Winters, for that matter. The Big Knife piles on by having Palance get drunker and drunker with each successive scene until he and Steiger are engaged in what can only be described as an epic gesture-off, with each actor emoting with such delirious abandon that their performances can be seen from outer space. The performances in Golden Boy and The Big Knife are pitched more for the stage than the screen. Director Robert Aldrich, whose classic noir Kiss Me Deadly was released the same year, doesn’t even try to make the film cinematic. Instead, he makes the massive Bel Air mansion where so much of the action takes place a character itself, a showplace that’s also a spiritual purgatory.
With The Big Knife, Odets’ richly earned cynicism about show business fused with Aldrich’s toughness to create a caustic, almost oppressively dark noir that’s strangely haunting and resonant despite, or perhaps because of, its deliberate excesses. For Odets, going too far wasn’t a crime; not going far enough was. The Big Knife makes that clear with its furious commitment.
Actor John Garfield looms large in Odets’ story. He was the prototype of Odets’ tormented young artists, playing Charlie Castle on Broadway in the 1949 production of The Big Knife and Joe Bonaparte in a 1952 revival of Golden Boy, as well as the lead role of Paul Boray in the 1946 adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s “Humoresque,” which Odets scripted alongside Zachary Gold. Humoresque casts Garfield as, naturally, a passionate, intense violinist whose mastery of the instrument attracts the attention of Helen Wright (Joan Crawford), a wealthy alcoholic at the tail end of her third failed marriage. Like J.J. Hunsecker and Stanley Shriner Hoff, Helen collects people, then trades or gives them away when she tires of them. But Helen has a weakness Hunsecker and Hoff lack; she needs people. Specifically, she needs Boray. The deeper she falls for the hot-blooded young violinist, the more her steely mask of brusque authority fades to reveal a woman who has managed to hold on to some of her vulnerability, at great cost to herself. Crawford cuts a solitary figure in Humoresque, especially once she admits the depth and strength of her feelings for Paul to herself and to him, and begins a slide that can only end in tragedy.
Humoresque is driven as much by performances as words. That’s even more apparent in Wild In The Country, a 1961 melodrama that paired Odets’ screenplay (an adaptation of J.C. Salamanca’s novel The Lost Country) with the cultural explosion of a young Elvis Presley. Presley plays one of Odets’ signature soulful young artists, this time a young man named Glenn Tyler who runs into legal trouble on account of his drinking and his temper.
After a violent dust-up with his brother, Glenn is ordered to see sensitive therapist Irene Sperry (Hope Lange), who sees past his hardscrabble exterior to the soulful artist underneath. Glenn, it turns out, is a natural-born writer with an uncanny, intuitive gift for language, which Irene sees as his ticket to college, and then to glory. (It’s never directly established, but I suspect that if he were ever to pick up a violin, Glenn would discover he’s a genius at that as well.)
Wild In The Country belongs to the all-too-brief segment of Elvis Presley’s career when was still trying to establish himself as a dramatic actor, with far more success than he’s generally given credit for today, and he delivers an appropriately brooding, charismatic performance rippling with raw sexuality. The Odets/Presley pairing isn’t as incongruous as it might seem, since Presley was a damn good dramatic actor when he wanted to be, and his performance here ranks alongside his turns in Jailhouse Rock and King Creole as one of his best. The only time this strange union feels awkward is during a pair of songs clumsily shoehorned into the film to remind audiences they’re watching a movie starring Elvis, though to its credit, Wild In The Country does not feel like a proper Elvis movie.
As an artist and a man, Odets didn’t care for half-measures. The stakes for his characters are often glory or disgrace, the best of everything or the oblivion of the gutter. So it can be difficult to take a measured look at a film career that seemed to swing from giddy highs to agonizing lows, but the truth is that Odets had far more creamy middles in his career than his reputation or Barton Fink suggest. Sure, he didn’t have the impact as a screenwriter that he did as a playwright, but that doesn’t mean he was a failure; it just speaks to the immensity of his achievements as a playwright. As a passionate, tormented young man himself, Odets set out to uplift the human spirit and transform theater. As a young playwright, he succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. His contributions to film are a lot more limited, but he wrote some damn good stories, and made some entertaining pictures in his time. Besides, uplifting the human spirit is overrated.