The Great Screenwriters: Part 19 – Jay Presson Allen

By Martin Keady · April 9, 2018

Jay Presson Allen was one of the finest female screenwriters of the 1960s and 1970s, successfully adapting for the screen such disparate source material as Marnie (1964), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and Cabaret (1972). At the time, she never received the credit she deserved for her contributions to those extraordinary films, but now, in the #MeToo era that the film industry has finally entered, her work is ripe for rediscovery.

JPA was born in 1922, in Texas, with her first two initials in place, as Jacqueline Presson. Like so many great screenwriters of the 20th century, her cinematic education was really the “Saturday (and Sunday) School” offered by her local movie-house in San Angelo, where she would literally sit and watch films all day. Like Mia Farrow’s character in Woody Allen’s masterpiece about cinematic obsession, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), which is set in the period that Presson Allen grew up in, she was obviously entranced by what she saw on screen and eventually left her local college to pursue a career as an actress in New York.

By her own admission, Presson was not much of an actress and soon realized that she would much rather write plays and screenplays than appear in them. However, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the doors to female playwrights and screenwriters were even more firmly shut than they are now, and she was initially unable to pursue her interest in writing.

She relocated to California after marrying her first husband, Robert M. Davis, and continued acting in small roles on the West Coast. However, she was limited to small, or even walk-on/walk-off roles, as in the marvelously named Gay Blades (1946). Meanwhile, her marriage to Davis was deteriorating and Presson, in a scene familiar to almost every aspiring screenwriter, resolved to “write her way out” of her unhappy situation. Unlike most aspiring screenwriters, however, she succeeded.

Presson’s first serious literary efforts were not scripts but novels, such as Spring Riot (1948), a romantic pot-boiler that gloried in the then-controversial tagline, “He wanted more than her body”. Certainly Presson herself “wanted more” than to be just a bit-part actress and an unhappy wife. She divorced Davis and persevered with her writing, turning to plays when her novels failed to sell in big numbers. Again, she was not initially successful in writing for the stage, but she did enjoy one remarkable stroke of luck when a reader who had rejected one of her early plays, Lewis M. Allen, ended up becoming her second husband.

Presson added Allen’s surname to her own, and having switched Jacqueline for plain old “J” or “Jay”, became Jay Presson Allen. With the change of name came another change of scene, and coast, as she and her husband returned to New York, where he found work as a Broadway producer. However, despite continuing to act occasionally and even writing the odd line or sketch for some of the live TV shows of the time, Allen eventually put her writing ambitions on hold while she lived in the country outside New York, had a child and generally did nothing creative for several years.

However, her time as a country or suburban wife, of the kind epitomized by Betty Draper in Mad Men, was not completely wasted. Eventually, it provided the inspiration for her first successful play, The First Wife, a comedy about a struggling writer and his devoted but frustrated wife. In a reversal of Presson Allen’s own real-life situation, the couple in the play celebrates the writer’s eventual success by moving to a nice house in the country, whereas Presson Allen’s own success as a playwright allowed her to return to New York and become a full-time writer.

The First Wife was made into a film, Wives and Lovers (1963), starring Janet Leigh and Shelley Winters, but Presson Allen herself did not adapt it for the screen. Instead, she continued to write for the stage and in what was probably the single most important move of her entire career she wrote a stage adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). Spark had told the story of how an influential teacher in a Scottish all-girls school initially inspired a group of pupils but is ultimately betrayed by them as they grow up and grow apart from her. Presson Allen immediately saw the story’s dramatic potential and legend has it that, in a burst of creative energy similar to that of Clifford Odets when he wrote the first draft of Sweet Smell of Success (1957), she wrote the first draft of the play in just three days.

As it was for Muriel Spark herself, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was the making of Presson Allen. Even before her stage adaptation was produced, Alfred Hitchcock read an early version and was so impressed that he flew her back out to California to work on his new film, Marnie (1964). The original novel of the same name, telling the story of a young girl who witnesses an attack on her mother and is permanently traumatized as a result, was written by Winston Graham, who is most famous for his Poldark series of novels. However, Hitchcock was adamant that he wanted the woman who had adapted Miss Jean Brodie for the stage to adapt Marnie for the screen.

Nearly sixty years on, Marnie is now generally regarded as Hitchcock’s first false move after his remarkable decade-long run of masterpieces, from Rear Window (1954) to The Birds (1963). However, for Presson Allen, it was a crash-course in screenwriting, taught by one of the great masters of cinema. She claimed that she learned almost everything she needed to learn about writing movies from Hitchcock and was so grateful that when Marnie proved to be a relative box-office failure, she insisted that it was her script that was to blame rather than Hitchcock’s direction.

Marnie may have struggled to fill cinemas, but Presson Allen’s stage version of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie filled theatres, on both sides of the Atlantic. She followed it up with another successful stage adaptation, Forty Carats (1968), which relocated to Broadway a French play about the love affair between a man in his forties and a woman in her twenties. Then, when The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was finally filmed in 1969, Presson Allen was in prime position to adapt her own play into a screenplay.

The screen version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was one of the most successful films of the late 1960s. Although the story was set in the 1930s, its themes of leadership and betrayal chimed perfectly with the end of the 1960s, when, like Miss Brodie’s students, Western youth was collectively undergoing the painful change from innocence to disillusionment. Maggie Smith won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in the film and Presson Allen herself ended the 1960s as one of the most successful and sought-after playwrights and screenwriters in the world.

However, as is often the way in the film industry generally and particularly for writers, great success was almost immediately followed by artistic failure, or at least compromise. Given her impeccable credentials in adapting Miss Jean Brodie for both stage and screen, Presson Allen was hired to work on a screen adaptation of the successful Broadway musical, Cabaret. The back-story of Cabaret is fascinating, as it evolved from the source novel (Goodbye to Berlin, written by Christopher Isherwood in 1939, on the eve of World War Two) into a Broadway play (I Am A Camera, 1951) and eventually into a Broadway musical (by Kander and Ebb, 1966). Then, when the musical was inevitably optioned as a movie, it received another shot of pure artistic adrenaline when it was announced that the great choreographer, Bob Fosse, would direct.

For all his undoubted ability as a “song and dance man”, Fosse was not a natural writer and he struggled with the script for the film. He rejected the earlier stage and musical versions of the story as the basis for the screenplay, and instead, Presson Allen was instructed to go back to the initial source material, Isherwood’s novel. The difficulty that she faced was that the novel was largely non-linear and so she had to rearrange the story into a more straightforward, chronological form. Although she largely succeeded, she received a lot of criticism from the original fans of the book and the stage versions.

Presson Allen had faced much the same type of criticism for her stage and screen adaptations of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, another defiantly anti-linear novel. Indeed, her struggles on both films illustrate the fundamental problem often faced by screenwriters in adapting material for the screen, namely fitting a long and often complex story into a mere two hours of screen-time. Eventually, Presson Allen quit working on Cabaret and the screenplay was finally completed by a close friend of hers, Hugh Wheeler, who would go on to become Stephen Sondheim’s librettist on A Little Night Music. Nevertheless, her name (albeit in the simpler form of “Jay Allen”) remained on the credits and when the film of Cabaret proved to be as big a success, if not bigger, than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she could legitimately claim to have been instrumental in the film versions of two of the most successful plays or musicals of the previous decade.

Presson Allen continued to write scripts for both stage and screen for another 20 years, but she would never again be so central to the cinematic culture. Among her later screenplays were Funny Lady (1975), a sequel to Funny Girl (1968) that, like most Hollywood sequels, was essentially unnecessary, and The Verdict (1982), where she was initially drafted in to rewrite a script by David Mamet before the director, Sidney Lumet, returned to Mamet’s original. By the end of her career, Presson Allen claimed that she no longer had any interest in writing original scripts herself and actively preferred to work as a “script doctor”, or “rewriter”, because there was no emotional attachment involved at all.

Jay Presson Allen died in 2006, of a stroke. She may be largely forgotten today, but her influence on films such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Cabaret, and in particular in wrestling often unwieldy source material into classically structured screenplays, ensures that she is entirely deserving of the title “great screenwriter”. And as Hollywood and other film and TV industries around the world finally enter the 21st century and acknowledge the importance of female storytelling, Presson Allen is likely to prove an enduring influence, as one of the first women to make it in the traditionally macho world of movie writing.

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”