Gone With the Wind's Sidney Howard on Screenwriting
Seventy-one years ago today, Gone with the Wind premiered in New York City. Faber & Faber’s Walter Donohue presents an essay by Sidney Howard, the film's screenwriter.
Gone With the Wind is considered the pinnacle of the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s.
All that was best in that system was embedded in David O. Selznick's epic production. The screenwriter was the Pulitzer Prize-winning theater writer Sidney Howard, the best of whose screen credits is Dodsworth, in which the understated relationship between Walter Huston and Mary Astor is beautifully played.
Howard was awarded an Oscar for writing the script of Gone With the Wind, though tragically he was killed in an accident on his farm so was unable to receive it – nor did he live to see the film during which he had to suffer the irrational whims of David O. Selznick, but which in the end was a remarkable achievement.
In his essay “The Story Gets a Treatment,” Sidney Howard has this to say about screenwriting:
“If one goes to the root of the matter, motion pictures are neither written nor acted, but made. It is the combination of director with cameraman which, more than the writer, more even than the beloved screen personality, gives the finished picture its life. Apart from the original story material, the writer's function in the making of pictures is a secondary one. Since the screen as we know it draws the vast bulk of its story material from books, periodicals and the stage – with a few imaginative excursions into biography – the screenwriter's task is really a job of adaptation hack writing, cut to the dimension of the director's demands. The screen does not yet ask of its writers much more than technical ingenuity.
In my opinion, novels make better pictures than plays. The playwright selects for his material a story which is most effectively told within the scenic limitations for the stage and is likely to suffer from over-elaboration on the screen. The screening of a play requires expansion, which is bad for a work of art. The screening of a novel, by contrast, requires contraction, which is apt to be good.
The motion-picture form lies somewhere between the novel and the play. It rejoices in at least the geographic freedom of the novel because it can move easily from place to place as a play cannot. However, the motion picture must do without the repose of either novel or play, and therefore without the reflective expansion of either idea or emotion. It has its own and most rigorous technique, which is best described by saying that a moving photograph must move and keep moving. In other words, its story, to be well told, must be told continuously in action. What the characters think or feel on the screen must be expressed by doing, and only strong and clear thoughts and emotions can be expected to pierce through a medium which, even in color, lacks the reality of the flesh and blood of the stage, on the one hand, and of the novelist's personal spell on the other.
The talking picture should, if possible, never pause to talk about itself. This is a lesson which many directors and writers in Hollywood have still to learn. One still sees too many picture scenes which are no more than photographed play scenes. By this I mean scenes in which the director has deluded himself into the belief that he is satisfying the action demands of the picture medium by moving his camera round and about a theater stage and cutting from close-up of A to close-up of B.
Dialogue scenes of talking pictures should be written as though each were a full-rate cable, for every word of which the writer has to pay out of his own pocket.
Length hangs like doom over any picture. All producers and directors seem to have one weakness in common. They are unwilling to face the fact that their scripts are too long, and proceed in the delusion that they will not need cutting after the film has been shot and put together. The picture which is cut to length in script can be smoothly cut and the cuts blended over so that they will not afterwards be apparent. The picture which is shot from an over-length script and cut after it has been put together will always show the bad joints of crude carpentry.
The day of important original screenplays is near, when our O'Neills and Kaufmans will be writing for the screen as independently as they now write for the stage and arranging for their productions, not out of deference to the higher weekly salary, but with the same greed for the best artistic conditions of cast and direction which they now impose upon the theater. This is inevitable because the best talents for producing, directing and acting have already been drawn to the screen. In the screen drama that is to come, the director will continue his domination, at least until the screen has welded director and screenwriter into a single individual. But the writer's side of this superman will still play second fiddle and screen drama will not be literature but something else, something new. It is always a sound idea in art, as in life, to welcome anything new when it is good, and motion pictures seem bent on growing better and better.'
Extracts from “The Story Gets a Treatment” by Sidney Howard are from Projections 4: Film-makers on Film-making, edited by Tom Luddy, David Thomson, John Boorman and Walter Donohue.