Henryk Hoffmann on Hollywood Legends in Literature

Posted on July 12, 2016 at 3:49 pm

Henryk Hoffmann’s Four Hollywood Legends in World Literature: References to Bogart, Cooper, Gable and Tracy is an extraordinary resource, grounded in massive research and filled with insights about the way four iconic Hollywood figures have inspired and influenced an astonishing range of literary and creative works. In an interview, Hoffmann described the qualities that made Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and Spencer Tracy uniquely influential, and the ways that their lives and their work were reflected in books by writers from Larry McMurtry to Elmore Leonard.

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What is it about these four men that makes them such timeless and iconic figures?

Each of them possessed a rare kind of charisma, each developed an unusually attractive and appealing persona and each appeared in an impressive number of outstanding, essential (for one reason or another) and unforgettable films. And, of course, we must not forget about the great acting talent with which each of the four men was—in a varying extent—endowed. If you feel that the same can be said about some actors of the younger generations, then I would have to refer to the sociological and cultural criteria that clearly define the times of Bogart, Cooper, Gable and Tracy as something absolutely unique in America and in the world, the times of magic nonexistent ever after.

What would you say are the distinctive qualities that make them so appealing to authors and the characters they create?

It is closely related to the previous question. Most of the authors that have (intentionally, I assume) mentioned one of the four names in their works of fiction are quite aware that a certain legendary or mythological qualities would be automatically entailed, understood or evoked by any reader even remotely familiar with the history of the American cinema. Why? Because the collective or individual image of those four movie stars, either as symbols of the great American hero or as foremost examples of the Golden Era of Hollywood, prevails in the mentality of the devoted moviegoers—certainly those contemporary with the actors, but also those representing younger generations, which is proven by the age of numerous authors quoted in my book.

What are the most frequent uses of references to these stars in literature? As metaphor or as historical/cultural context?

The references discussed in my book play a variety of roles in literature, including those that you mention in your question. It is almost impossible to recount all types, but I tried to categorize/classify them in the Epilogue, where I list thirty-one different uses along with my favorite examples of each. In terms of frequency or any other statistics, it would take a separate time-consuming study to find out which types are most common in literature and which are rather rare or accidental.

How do references to the performances differ from references to the actors themselves?

When an actor’s name is mentioned together with a title of one of his films, the reference usually pertains to a specific scene or the storyline of that movie. A rare (and nice) exception is the reference to Gary Cooper and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in Elliott Roosevelt’s Murder in the Red Room, where the purpose of the allusion is to emphasize the perfect match between the actor’s persona and the character he portrays. On the other hand, when an actor is mentioned without any movie title, then the purpose of such a reference is usually to capitalize upon his status or prestige as an actor or celebrity.

Do you think that today’s more intrusive, more omnipresent, and less managed presentations of actors’ personal lives in the media will prevent literary use of contemporary stars in the same way these four legends were used?

I would not like to sound prejudiced, but my research points out that references to younger generations of actors (including those with careers longer than Bogart’s or Cooper’s) are by far less numerous, with a pattern showing almost nonexistent interest in the actors of the very young generation, anyone born after 1960. I said “almost,” because I did find some references to Tom Cruise and the like, but they tend to be clearly less complimentary, less positive, sometimes even derogatory. I have my own theory about this phenomenon, but I do not think this is the place to reveal it.

Your work is remarkably comprehensive but there are no databases for these references. What kinds of resources did you use for your research?

Right! There is no database; I have been building it as a pioneer. It started a long time ago when I read books like From Here to Eternity, The Blackboard Jungle, The Catcher in the Rye, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and several others, where I noticed the first movie references in fiction and decided to record them for no particular reason. Sometime later I discovered Larry McMurtry with his numerous and rich allusions, but the writer who gave me the idea of turning the data into a book was Elmore Leonard. Since both McMurtry and Leonard, but also some other favorite writers of mine (such as John Updike, Robert B. Parker, Lawrence Sanders, Loren D. Estleman and Tim O’Brien), frequently allude to westerns, my first book on the subject (published by McFarland in 2012) was Western Movie References in American Literature. Upon completion of that book I already had a substantial data base for my next project on references (to the four legends, tentatively), but my subsequent research (based primarily on intuition) expanded it to unexpected proportions. Thus, I had no doubt who it should be focused on. I got in touch with two children of the famous actors and received blessing, guidance and support from Maria Cooper Janis and Stephen Humphrey Bogart.

What movie role is referred to most often in literature?

Copyright Gazeta Wyborcza 1989
Copyright Alehistoria 1989

Two films, Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, have accumulated the biggest number of references (both mentioned in more than 100 works). However, the focus of those allusions is spread over a number of characters, scenes and themes. Consequently, it is Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane that gets most attention from writers, and it is the scene of Coop walking tall while looking for help in High Noon (referenced in eighty-one works) that is most frequently mentioned in books. By the way, that particular image was used on the side of the Gary Cooper postal stamp issued in 2009 in the “Legends of Hollywood” series, and, before that, in the Polish post-World War II first free-election poster designed by Tomasz Sarnecki in 1989. The cover of “Gazeta Wyborcza” (Poland’s foremost newspaper) of June 6, 2016, with Sarnecki’s poster announcing an extensive article on the 27th anniversary of the election, can be treated as one more vivid reminder of the incredible impact of one of the Four Hollywood Legends outside the movie world.

Do you have a favorite literary reference to one of these legends or performances?

Here I would like to refer again to my list of 31 items in the Epilogue. All those references are special to me. I have a hard time choosing one, but if I were to pick out three, I would say #13 (Distant Drums referenced in McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers—most vivid), #15 (High Noon referenced in Martha Grimes’s The End of the Pier—most personal) and #31 (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner referenced in Herman Koch’s The Dinner—most complex and informative).

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

A Movie With A Prayer for Peace: ‘Friendly Persuasion’

Posted on September 21, 2009 at 8:00 am

As we observe today’s International Day of Peace and A Million Minutes for Peace, an initiative to get 1 million people to pledge to pray for peace, I would like to recommend a film called Friendly Persuasion, set in the United States Civil War. It is the only movie I know where the characters not only pray for peace, they pray for guidance on how best to achieve it. Gary Cooper plays a farmer who struggles with his religious commitment to non-violence when his neighbors risk their lives for his family and property. All he asks is that “the will of God be revealed to us and we be given the strength to follow his will.” It is a beautiful depiction of a loving and respectful family who find strength in their faith during one of this country’s direst and most divisive moments. And it recognizes that prayer is important, but that it is the choices it inspires that make a difference.

Here is the peace pledge:

I will unite with people all over the world in observing the United Nations International Day of Peace. On September 21, I will pause at noon and, in my own way, pray for peace for one minute. May my one minute, magnified a million times, create a culture of peace that will change the future of humanity. My name will appear in the Peace Pledge Book to be presented at the United Nations on September 18.

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For Your Netflix Queue Movie Mom’s Top Picks for Families Rediscovered Classic Spiritual films

Friendly Persuasion

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: This is the story of the Birdwells, a loving Quaker family in the midst of the Civil War. Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), a devout woman, is the moral center of the family. Jess (Gary Cooper) is a thoughtful man, not as strict as Eliza on prohibitions like music and racing his horse, but with a strong commitment to his principles. Their children are Joshua (Anthony Perkins), a sensitive young man who opposes violence but feels that he must join the soldiers; Mattie (Phyllis Love), who falls in love with Gord, a neighbor who is a Union soldier; and Young Jess, a boy who is fascinated with the talk of war and battles.

A Union soldier comes to the Quaker prayer meeting to ask the men to join the army. They tell him that they cannot engage in violence under any circumstances. “We are opposed to slavery, but do not think it right to kill one man to free another.” Even when the soldier points out that this means others will be dying to protect their lives and property, no one will support him.

The Confederate army approaches, and Joshua and Enoch, a freed slave who works on the Birdwell’s farm, decide to join the Union. Eliza does everything she can to keep Joshua from going, even telling him that in doing so he will not only reject what he has learned in church but he will reject her, too. Jess says that Joshua has to make up his own mind. “I’m just his father, Eliza. I’m not his conscience. A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans unless he lives up to his own conscience. I’ve got to give Josh that chance.” Joshua prays for guidance, and leaves to join the army the next morning. At first Eliza won’t respond, but then she runs after him to wish him well.

As the war gets closer, Jess and Eliza refuse to run away from their farm as others are doing. When Josh’s horse comes back without him, Jess goes looking for him. He finds his good friend Sam mortally wounded by a sniper. When the sniper shoots at Jess, too, Jess takes his gun away, but will not harm him; he tells the sniper, “Go on, get! I’ll not harm thee.” Josh is wounded, and deeply upset because he killed a Confederate soldier. Jess brings him home.

In the meantime, the Confederates ride into the farm, and in keeping with her faith, Eliza welcomes them and gives them all her food. But when one of the soldiers goes after her beloved pet goose, she whacks him with the broom, amusing her children and leaving herself disconcerted and embarassed. Jess and Josh return, and the family goes off to church together, to continue to do their best to match their faith to their times.

Discussion: This is an exceptional depiction of a loving family, particularly for the way that Jess and Eliza work together on resolving their conflicts. They listen to each other with enormous respect and deep affection. Jess does his best to go along with Eliza’s stricter views on observance, because in his heart he believes she is right. Nevertheless, he cannot keep himself from trying to have his horse beat Sam’s as they go to church on Sunday, and he decides to buy an organ knowing that she will object. In fact, he doesn’t even tell her about it. She is shocked when it arrives and says that she forbids it, to which he replies mildly, “When thee asks or suggests, I am like putty in thy hands, but when thee forbids, thee is barking up the wrong tree.” Having said that if the organ goes into the house, she will not stay there, she goes off to sleep in the barn. He does not object — but he goes out there to spend the night with her, and they reconcile and find a way to compromise.

All of this provides a counterpoint to more serious questions of faith and conscience. In the beginning, when the Union soldier asks the Quakers if any of them will join him, one man stands up to say that nothing could ever make him fight. Later, when his barn is burned, he is the first to take up a gun. Even Eliza, able to offer hospitality to the same men who may have just been shooting at her son, finds herself overcome when one of them captures her beloved pet goose.

Jess is willing to admit that the answer is not so simple. All he asks is that “the will of God be revealed to us and we be given the strength to follow his will.” He understands the difficulty of finding the right answer for himself and for Joshua. He resolves it for himself in his treatment of the sniper, and he respects Joshua and the issues involved enough to let Joshua make his own choice.

The movie is a rare one in which someone makes a moral choice through prayer, which many families will find worth emphasizing. Josh, who was able to respond without violence to the thugs at the fair, decides that he cannot benefit from risks taken by others unless he is willing to take them, too. He cries in battle, but he shoots.

The issue of how someone committed to non-violence responds to a violent world is thoughtfully raised by this movie.

Questions for Kids:

· How is the religious service in the movie similar or different from what you have experienced?

· How was the faith of the characters tested in this movie? What did they learn from the test?

· How should people who are opposed to violence respond to violence when it is directed against them? When it is directed against others?

Connections: The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson, who received no screen credit because he was blacklisted during the Red Scare. His involvement makes the issues of conscience raised in the book even more poignant. The book on which the movie is based, by Jessamyn West (a Quaker, and a cousin of Richard Nixon) is well worth reading. Cooper faces some of the same issues (and has a Society of Friends bride) in “High Noon.” “Shenandoah,” with Jimmy Stewart as the father of a large family who tries to keep his sons out of the Civil War, raises some of the same themes without the religious context. It later became a successful Broadway musical.

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Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical War

High Noon

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries Amy (Grace Kelly) and turns in his badge. She is a Quaker, and he has promised her to hang up his gun and become a shopkeeper. But they get word that Frank Miller is coming to town on the noon train. Kane arrested Miller and sent him to jail, and Miller swore he would come back and kill him.

Will and Amy leave town quickly. But he cannot run away, and he turns around. He knows that they will never be safe; wherever they go, Miller will follow them. And he has a duty to the town. Their new marshal does not arrive until the next day.

Will seeks help from everyone, finally going to church, where services are in session. But he is turned down, over and over again. Amy says she will leave on the noon train. Will’s former deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges) refuses to help, because he is resentful that Will did not recommend him as the new marshal. Will’s former girlfriend, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), now Harvey’s girlfriend, will not help him, either. She sells her business and leaves town. Others say that it is not their problem, or tell him to run, for the town’s good as well as his own. The previous marshal, Will’s mentor, says he can’t use a gun any more. The one man who promised to help backs out when he finds out that no one else will join them. The only others who offer to help are a disabled man and a young boy. Will must face Miller and his three henchmen alone.

At noon, Frank Miller gets off the train. The four men come into town. Will is able to defeat them, with Amy’s unexpected help. As the townsfolk gather, Will throws his badge in the dust, and they drive away.

Discussion: This outstanding drama ticks by in real time, only 84 tense minutes long. Will gets the message about Frank Miller at 10:40, and we feel the same time pressure he does, as he tries to find someone to help him. We see and hear clocks throughout the movie, and as noon approaches, the clock looms larger and larger, the pendulum swinging like an executioner’s axe. In the brilliant score by Dimitri Tiomkin (sung by Tex Ritter) the sound of the beat suggests both the train’s approach and the passage of time.

This is like a grown-up “Little Red Hen” story. Will cannot find anyone to help him protect the town. Everyone seems to think it is someone else’s problem (or fault). Teenagers may be interested to know that many people consider this film an analogy for the political problems of the McCarthy era. It was written during the height of the Hollywood “red scare.” After completing this screenplay, the writer, an “unfriendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was blacklisted. But this unforgettable drama of a man who will not run from his enemy, or his own fears, transcends all times and circumstances.

Questions for Kids:

· Everyone seems to have a different reason for not helping Will. How many can you identify? Which reasons seem the best to you? Which seem the worst? What makes Amy change her mind?

· Why does Will throw his badge in the dirt?

· Do you think the screenwriter chose the name “Will” for any special reason?

· How do you decide when to stay and fight and when to run? How do you evaluate the risks? What should the law be?

Connections: This movie was the first attempt at an “adult” Western, its stark black and white images a contrast to the gorgeous vistas in the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks. It was included in the first list named to the National Film Registry, established by the Library of Congress to identify films that are “culturally, historically, or esthetically important.” It has had tremendous influence, and has inspired many imitations and variations. “Outland,” starring Sean Connery (and rated R) is a not-very-good attempt to transfer this plot to outer space. “Three O’Clock High” moves it to a high school, with a new student challenged by the school bully. Despite some directoral pyrotechnics, it is not very good, either. “The Principal” has another “High Noon”-style confrontation in a school, but this time it is the title character who must show his mettle. “The Baltimore Bullet” moves the confrontation to a pool hall.

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Classic Drama Western
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