Legendary film director John Huston wrote to poet James Agee, his collaborator on “The African Queen,” “Maybe friends shouldn’t write about each other until they’re dead—both of them.”
Those were heady days, when literature’s finest were utilized to create scenarios for the Silver Screen. Many of them felt exploited, but the pain was doubtlessly lessened at the bank.
Many people are unaware of Agee’s first screenplay, sent to silent movie legend Charlie Chaplin. It is a dark comedy set in a post-apocalyptic New York, prompted by the atomic bombings that (supposedly) hastened the end of WWII, and the Red-baiting years of relentless investigations, led by Senator McCarthy.
Agee wrote for Time magazine that had sent him to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the war. He returned with, shall we say, a certain disillusionment and anger about US policy. He turned that anger into the screenplay, in which Chaplin’s tramp survives nuclear war, only to be ruled over by political technocrats, who want total control over the world via science.
The screenplay first came to light in 1981, but Agee’s heirs objected to it being published, as possibly detrimental to his legacy. A fascinating book about it “Chaplin and Agee” contains their correspondence as well as the screenplay itself. The project never made it to the theater. It’s an “early treatment” of an idea, and probably would have been heavily refined, but Chaplin passed on the idea anyway, so it became “lost.”
Agee’s idolization of Chaplin is evident, as is Chaplin’s bitterness to figures such as Ed Sullivan, who many people don’t know was a rabid Commie hater. He was instrumental in the persecution of many entertainment figures, even if they were only faintly “suspected” of any liberal biases.
“ . . . win the world by simplicity, forcelessness, and love.”
© 2013 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs