From Playwriting to Screenwriting

Thornton Wilder in Hollywood

My Midwest childhood was not a typical one. Television was a late arrival to our Milwaukee household, so when I watched Gilligan’s Island after school it was always at my friend’s house. Even after we acquired a TV set the movies and theatre filled our free time, and I am not talking about Disney cartoons and high school performances of A Christmas Carol. Mom and Dad were displaced New York culture vultures, which meant that by age seven I was already watching films by François Truffaut, Jacques Tati, and Yoko Ono, and experiencing my first Oscar Wilde play. By my pre-teens I was familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, Jerome Kern musicals, Georges Feydeau and Ferenc Molnar farces, and harrowing Vietnam War era plays by David Rabe.

Needless to say, I had very little to talk about with friends who spent their Friday nights at home watching The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family.

I was thirteen when I first saw Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. My second brush with Wilder was in a New York hotel room several months later as I watched the 1943 Alfred Hitchcock movie Shadow of a Doubt on a black-and-white television (Mom and Dad were out attending a three-and-a half-hour French film called The Mother and the Whore).

a town on a book cover
Our Town  by Thorton Wilder dust jacket.  Photo courtesy of Max Alvarez.

Hitchcock’s film is a wry tale of a charismatic urban adventurer known as Uncle Charlie who is concealing a grim secret from his naïve small town relatives, and Wilder was one of three credited screenwriters. This gripping suspense drama starred Joseph Cotten and an actress who had understudied the role of “Emily Webb” in the original 1938 Broadway staging of Our Town—Teresa Wright.

I can’t recall whether I linked the screenwriter to the playwright whose legendary work I had recently experienced in Milwaukee, but I knew that this Thornton Wilder fellow was important because he received special acknowledgment in the opening credits of the Hitchcock picture. Reading a Hitchcock interview a few months later I discovered Wilder was a good enough writer to even warrant a compliment from the British filmmaker—a man not known for doling out compliments—when the director remarked, “…[T]he reason I wanted Wilder is that he had written a wonderful play called Our Town.”

Wilder was a good enough writer to warrant a compliment from the British filmmaker—a man not known for doling out compliments—‘…[T]he reason I wanted Wilder is that he had written a wonderful play called Our Town.’

Artists indeed make strange bedfellows, and at a surface level there were no stranger bedfellows than the British master of the macabre and the Midwestern novelist/playwright of theological, religious, and homespun themes. In a similar vein, it is difficult to imagine the Ivy League intellectual Wilder wanting anything to do with Hollywood, much less a commercial thriller of familial deceit in which a murderer serves as an allegory for World War II era fascism.

But having seen both Our Town and Shadow of a Doubt so close together, I began to understand why these two theatrical and cinematic legends got along famously. I was familiar with Hitchcock’s erudite approach to suspense and mayhem just as I was the grimmer aspects of life in Wilder’s mythical Grover’s Corners where, at the start of Act III, Emily is being buried and the dead souls of the cemetery take front stage to comment on the background funeral. Our Town was in essence an experimental play, and Hitchcock favored experimenting in commercial movie settings. Is it any wonder that this rarely examined collaboration between two brilliant men proved so agreeable and that Shadow of a Doubt became one of Hitchcock’s finest achievements?

a street scene
Shadow of a Doubt  (1943). Alfred Hitchcock and Thorton Wilder. Photo by the.hitchcock.zone
Shadow of A Doubt - Trailer
A still from the trailer from The Shadow of a Doubt. 
Photo by Youtube.

The road to Hollywood for Thornton Wilder did not begin with Alfred Hitchcock. Wilder had been frolicking in the screenwriting field since late summer 1933 while he was teaching at the University of Chicago. His best-selling novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey had been published six years earlier, but now Wilder was having a career dry spell. When producer Samuel Goldwyn invited the author to come to Los Angeles to write screenplays during the height of the Great Depression, Wilder gratefully accepted the challenge. Unlike many intellectual writers, Wilder admired the motion picture industry and the industry admired him in return. It helped that he had a realistic view of how writers functioned in Hollywood where producers and production executives were the final arbiters of a film’s literary qualities.

In Thornton Wilder’s case, he did not receive screen credit for his two Goldwyn assignments, The Dark Angel (1934) and We Live Again (1935), and a Joan of Arc treatment he wrote for RKO in 1934 (intended for Katharine Hepburn and director George Cukor) was never produced. But Wilder remained respectful and appreciative of the Hollywood attention. He consulted with producer Sol Lesser for free after Lesser purchased the screen rights to Our Town, and he went along with the commercial constraints such an alliance entailed. On stage, Grover’s Corners had no scenery or props, but on screen in 1940 it was presented in full-fledged sets and with all the literalities Hollywood required. Wilder even agreed to alter the third act so that Emily Webb lived.

Admirers of Our Town naturally found such changes ludicrous and proof that movies could never capture the imaginations of audiences the way live theatre could. It took Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier to prove them wrong with his 2003 film Dogville, a subversive send-up of Our Town where sets are equally nonexistent.

While Wilder did receive a screenwriting credit for the film of Our Town, whatever work he did with Lesser was done from the East Coast. Alfred Hitchcock nonetheless convinced the playwright to return to Los Angeles for Wilder’s next—and last—movie writing assignment, Shadow of a Doubt.

I remember feeling a rush of excitement during a 2007 tour of the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills when the librarians displayed Thornton Wilder’s handwritten early draft of Shadow of a Doubt, which was included among the Alfred Hitchcock papers. I had previously seen only portions of this handwritten script in Dan Auiler’s Hitchcock’s Notebooks, but I was desperate to read it cover to cover. I simply had to know how much of Wilder appeared in the completed Hitchcock masterwork.

‘Mr. Hitchcock and I get on fine together,’ Wilder wrote a friend at the time his Shadow of a Doubt work. ‘In long story conferences we think up new twists to the plot and gaze at one another in appalled silence: as much as to say “Do you think an audience can bear it?”’

One year later, my wish was granted. As part of an assignment for the Thornton Wilder Society, I met Wilder’s nephew Tappan Wilder in Washington, DC, and he kindly made available the handwritten drafts Thornton wrote during the five weeks he worked for Hitchcock in mid-1942. Reading these drafts was a revelation because they proved once and for all that Thornton Wilder was truly the author of the Shadow of a Doubt screenplay.

For example, Wilder’s initial handwritten draft of June 10, 1942, has an identical structure to that of the completed film. Remarkably so that it contains only five scenes (one very brief) not used in the final picture and only two scenes subsequently transferred to different locales. In addition, the writers who were brought in after Wilder departed only added two short scenes of their own. Had Wilder not committed himself to World War II service starting in June 1942, there is no question he would have remained involved in the Hitchcock film through to its 1943 completion.

In reading through the Wilder screenplay drafts, I observed with awe how effortless the playwright appeared to make his task of creating a Hitchcockian narrative masquerading as a homespun comedy of small town manners. For an academic playwright who had once puzzled over the “peculiar technique” of film writing, Thornton Wilder showed no signs in his handwritten text of having anything other than a total comprehension of the medium and the underappreciated craft of screenwriting.

And then sadness set in as I remembered that Wilder wrote no more screenplays after he turned in his final Shadow of a Doubt draft to Hitchcock. It was, I imagine, the same sadness theatre aficionados experience when realizing that Wilder essentially abandoned the theatre after The Skin of Our Teeth premiered on Broadway in 1942. Wilder had begun his three-year stint in the Army Air Force Intelligence in Italy and North Africa and never reignited his playwriting and screenwriting careers upon his release. Wilder biographers have not presented satisfying evidence as to why this was the case, but one must consider the matter of post-war disillusionment which had plagued a generation of artists. Whatever the reasons, Wilder’s career sidetrack was to be our loss.

I can only imagine how much richer our cinematic heritage would have been had Wilder remained active as a professional storyteller in Hollywood. What insights could he have given us about small town life after World War II and during the 1950s? Would he have collaborated with Hitchcock on other thrillers or would he have preferred non-crime comedies or melodramas? Such questions will continue to vex me, particularly when I consider the remarkable contributions of playwrights in Hollywood during and after the years Thornton Wilder was engaged as a screenwriter.

The year I discovered Shadow of a Doubt, for example, was the same year I encountered another Hitchcock drama, this time from a screenplay co-written by playwright Robert E. Sherwood, a prolific contemporary of Wilder’s. That film was the classic Rebecca (1940), and it was only one of an estimated 20 Hollywood movies Sherwood wrote during the 1930s and 1940s. A year later, at age fifteen, I was introduced to the most famous film Sherwood ever penned, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Could Thornton Wilder have made that Oscar®-winning film of World War II soldiers returning unhappily to peacetime existence even more unforgettable?

On the other hand, I ask myself whether Wilder would have felt out of place in the post-World War II Hollywood where such playwrights-turned-screenwriters as Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams were revolutionizing adult dramas through adaptations of their own plays and those of other authors. How would Thornton Wilder as playwright and screenwriter have fared against the 1940s and 1950s stage and film versions of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Big Knife?

For a medium not known for respecting writers, the cinema offered generous employment to playwrights like Wilder and Sherwood throughout the past century, and there were the occasional playwright-filmmaker teams that worked as efficiently and harmoniously as Thornton Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. I am reminded of John Osborne/Tony Richardson, Harold Pinter/Joseph Losey, Neil Simon/Herbert Ross, Jim Allen/Ken Loach, and, more recently, Tony Kushner/Steven Spielberg.

In a majority of situations, however, the commercial cinema has not offered writers what the theatre has offered. In the world of movies, the writer is not God but merely a transcriber of the director’s vision. From the personal correspondences I read during his time writing for Alfred Hitchcock, Thornton Wilder appeared to have no objections to this aspect of the Hollywood creative process. “Mr. Hitchcock and I get on fine together,” he wrote a friend at the time his Shadow of a Doubt work. “In long story conferences we think up new twists to the plot and gaze at one another in appalled silence: as much as to say ‘Do you think an audience can bear it?’”

But such collaborations are not for all playwrights. The cinema in the end is a director’s medium, and for a playwright to match the film director’s power he must do what Woody Allen, David Mamet, and Neil LaBute eventually did—seize control of the director’s chair.

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Excellent article! What a fantastic childhood! I was unaware of Wilder's contributions to film until now. I was first enticed by the article due to the relationship between Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan. I am particularly interested in an analysis of the style that Wilder was able to adapt from playwriting to cinematic storytelling. Also, I am interested in how you would further discuss the concluding thought about playwrights becoming film directors like in the work of Martin McDonagh.

Wonderful article and recollection, thank you. Wilder did work on the screenplay of "It's a Wonderful Life," though he remained uncredited. We can see and appreciate the obvious connections between Grover's Corners and Bedford Falls, and how the supernatural and earthly intersect to help our beloved main characters see life's preciousness -- Emily Webb too late, George Bailey just in the nick of time.