- Historic Sites
Or, How to Write a Smash Hit the First Time You Try
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
The framework that immediately suggested itself to a newly admitted member of the bar was, of course, a court trial. With that established, progress was rapid. The setting is a courtroom. A man is on trial for murder. A witness for the prosecution is called. The scene changes, and the testimony of the witness is enacted: testimony that seems to leave no doubt of the defendant’s guilt. Back to the courtroom, where it is now the defense’s turn. The first witness testifies to events immediately preceding the murder, and the case takes on a different aspect. Again the courtroom, and again the enactment of still earlier events which tend to exonerate the accused. And finally the end of the trial and the inevitable acquittal. It will be seen at once that this device was nothing more nor less than the "flashback” technique, already employed in motion pictures but never before used on the stage.
All that was needed now was something with which to flesh out this sturdy skeleton: in other words, a story. So I invented one. It dealt with incidents arising out of a Kentucky feud. That is all I can remember about it, and I have been unable to locate a script. I had never been in Kentucky and knew nothing about feuds or the people who engaged in them. But that did not deter me. I had seen and read many melodramas, and what was required were melodramatic characters and situations. So without very much cogitation, I sat down at an old, battered typewriter I had acquired somewhere and began to write the play. It was titled According to the Evidence.
When I finished the play, early in May, I did not quite know what to do with it. I was not acquainted with anyone in the theatre and had no means of access. I did not even know that there were agents who specialized in the marketing of plays. So I could think only of taking the script around to the offices of the several producers with whose names I was familiar. As a beginning, I chose Selwyn & Company, who had recently produced a sensationally successful melodrama, Within the Law, in which the young Jane Cowl had appeared; and Arthur Hopkins, whose production of a fantasy, The Poor Little Rich Girl, had caught my fancy. On a Tuesday morning, I left scripts at both offices. I had been told that it took about six months for a producer to get around to reading a play. So I was prepared to turn my attention to something else: another play, perhaps. The economic pressure had eased a little. I had passed the teaching examination and had finished seventh in a list of two hundred who took the proofreading exam. (A sad commentary, by the way, on the standards of our civil service!) That meant the certainty of paid employment within a few months.
However, I did not have to wait six months to hear from my producers. On Thursday, two days after I submitted the scripts, I received a note from Hopkins and another from Crosby Gaige, then playreader for the Selwyns. Each curtly asked me to come in. I was not only disheartened but enraged. It seemed that far from taking their time to read your plays, the producers simply flung them back at you unread. So I went glumly down to Times Square to pick up the scripts.
Gaige was out to lunch. I then went to Hopkins’ office, which was located in the dilapidated Putnam Building, on the site of the present Paramount Theatre. (The building housed Shanley’s Restaurant, the Sardi’s of its day, which served an excellent sixty-fivecent lunch. Martinis were two for a quarter.) Hopkins’ offices consisted of a small reception room and a somewhat larger private room, and his staff, of a young scenic designer who was receptionist, office boy, and secretary. I was shown in at once. Hopkins, a roundfaced, double-chinned, benign man, had already gained a reputation for laconism. Our conversation was indeed brief. He asked me point-blank if the play I had submitted was original with me. I replied that it was. His next question was: “What are your terms?” Even if I had known what he meant by “terms,” I would have been bowled over by this abrupt announcement of his intention to produce my play. I mumbled something or other, and, aware of my confusion and inexperience, Hopkins told me to come back in a few days to sign the contract he would have prepared. Then he rose to indicate that the interview was over.
I left in a state of bewilderment and disbelief. But when I went back early the next week, there was the contract, ready for my signature. This was long before the days of the Dramatists Guild and its minimum basic agreement. Contracts were usually drawn by the producers’ attorneys. Unscrupulous producers often took advantage of beginning authors. But Hopkins was a man of great integrity. The contract he offered me was quite up to prevailing standards. What interested me most about it was that it called for an advance of $500. Half was paid to me on the signing of the contract; the balance was to be paid later. I did not expect that the play would ever be produced, but that $250 was a real windfall.
My skepticism about the play’s chances of production would have been even greater had I known more about the state of Hopkins’ finances. Some weeks after the signing of the contract, he sent for me and told me that while he was enthusiastic about the play’s format, he felt that the story should be improved, or that perhaps a new story should be devised. What he did not tell me was that he had no capital with which to produce the play, and that his efforts to obtain backing from more prosperous producers had been unsuccessful.