The Great Screenwriters – Part 5: Herman J. Mankiewicz

By Martin Keady · May 9, 2016

In many ways, Herman J. Mankiewicz was the ultimate screenwriter – but that is not an entirely positive accolade to bestow on someone.  Mankiewicz was a truly great screenwriter, having co-written Citizen Kane, which is still widely regarded as the finest film ever made, but like almost every other screenwriter he does not enjoy the fame he should.  Kane is usually thought of as the creation of its director and star, Orson Welles, and Mankiewicz’s contributions to many other classic American movies of Hollywood’s first golden age – including The Wizard of Oz, The Front Page and Duck Soup – were uncredited at the time and are now largely forgotten.

Like many of the great early screenwriters in Hollywood (including the equally brilliant Ben Hecht), Mankiewicz had worked as a newspaper reporter before entering the film industry, first working as a Berlin correspondent for a Chicago newspaper after World War One and then as the drama critic for both The New York Times and The New Yorker.  These achievements alone would have marked him out as an important figure, but they pale into relative insignificance when compared to his astonishing output as a screenwriter and writer-producer in Hollywood in the period before World War Two.

The exact contribution of Mankiewicz to so many films of the 1920s and 1930s is impossible to establish definitively, because at that time Hollywood was the “wildest west”, a dream factory churning out so many films that even the greatest talents (such as Mankiewicz) would often work on several films simultaneously, writing and rewriting and even occasionally stepping into the breach as the producer when the original producer of a film either quit or was fired.  Thus, Mankiewicz’s filmography includes “involvement” with nearly a hundred films in the quarter-century or so between 1926 (when he first arrived in Los Angeles) and 1953, when he died.  Indeed, such was “Mank’s” prodigious output that some of it was even posthumous, as he is credited with being the writer of at least one episode of an early TV soap opera in 1955, two years after his death.

Mankiewicz, like Hecht and his own brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who followed him to Hollywood, first as a writer and then as the director of such classics as All About Eve and Guys and Dolls), was the embodiment of the fast-talking, wise-cracking, street-smart New York dialogue that became the lingua franca of Hollywood movies in the age of the talkie. Indeed, Mankiewicz was considered its finest exponent, almost the wisecrack made flesh, and from early on in Hollywood he was earning not only a staggering reputation but a staggering salary. Despite this material success, however, he could still be treated just as shabbily as any other screenwriter.

This is perhaps best illustrated by his work on The Wizard of Oz.  The original novel by L. Frank Baum had been published at the very start of the 20th century and having become an enormous seller had long been considered ideal for cinematic adaptation.  When a deal was finally struck to film it in the late 1930s, Mankiewicz was the first screenwriter (allegedly the first of 10 in total) to get a crack at adapting it.  He thought it a long and wordy book and. Like all screenwriters, sought to translate the words into imagery.  In particular, he is regarded as being responsible for the famous opening section of the film, in which the monochrome of Kansas eventually gives way (under the strength of a hurricane) to the dazzling colour of Oz. Nevertheless, despite making this breakthrough, which is fundamental to the structure of the film, Mankiewicz was eventually replaced and his work was never formally credited.

But at the end of the thirties the old master, Mankiewicz, met the young tyro, Orson Welles, and movie history was made.

Welles, having conquered both the stage (with his seminal Shakespeare productions in New York, including a voodoo Macbeth) and radio (with an adaptation of The War of the Worlds that supposedly scared the east coast of America stupid) was seeking to pull off the most extraordinary artistic hat-trick imaginable by conquering cinema, too.  However, like many newcomers to Hollywood, his early experiences were not especially productive as he laboured over his “dream” project of filming Joseph Conrad’s great novel, Heart of Darkness, but found it impossible to get his studio – RKO – to share his enthusiasm.

The great and fateful meeting of Mankiewicz (by then in his late forties) and Welles (who, despite his prodigious achievements, was still in his mid-20s) has been the subject of huge speculation ever since.  Indeed, the extraordinary tale of the making of Kane, which was almost scuppered by the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (who was convinced, with some justification, that Charles Foster Kane was based on him), was the subject of a fine TV movie (one of the few truly fine TV movies) in 1999. It was entitled RKO 281, which was the original production number given to Kane in an attempt by Welles to conceal its production from Hearst.  Welles was played by Liev Schreiber and Mankiewicz by his near-namesake, John Malkovich, and the film suggested that Welles seized upon Mankiewicz’s early draft of an epic screenplay, entitled American, and then rewrote it (partly with Mankiewicz, partly on his own) until it became Kane.

The exact nature of the authorship of Kane was also the subject of a fascinating and controversial New Yorker essay by one of America’s finest ever film critics, Pauline Kael, in the early 1970s, entitled Raising Kane, in which she argued (extremely persuasively) that Mankiewicz’s contribution to the original screenplay had been largely overlooked and that in many ways he, and not Welles, was the true author of the film.

Whatever the precise division of labour between Welles and Mankiewicz, two things are not in doubt: one, that they were both credited as the co-screenwriters of the film, and consequently both won Academy Awards for their writing (even though the film itself was passed over as Best Picture in favour of How Green Was My Valley); and, two, that together they produced a film that, particularly in its structure, is undoubtedly one of the most imaginative and influential ever made.

It has been said that anyone interested in American cinema since World War Two really needs to see only two films: Citizen Kane; and The Godfather (with the first two Godfather films being regarded as essentially one film, divided into two parts). There is much that unites the two: they are both basically character studies of remarkable, powerful men (Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane and first Vito Corleone, then his son Michael, in The Godfather); they are both truly epic in scope, covering many decades and encompassing dozens of other characters in addition to their main protagonist; and at the heart of both is a profound examination of the fabled American journey from innocence to evil, which itself is a retelling of the original story of the Fall of Man.

However, beyond even these obvious comparisons, what Citizen Kane and The Godfather really have in common is a remarkable story structure that is simultaneously experimental and entirely appropriate for the stories they are telling.  The Godfather, especially Part Two, is probably more famed for its structure, being a unique combination of both sequel and prequel to the original story told in Part One, as it simultaneously tracks Vito’s rise to power and Michael’s descent into moral depravity, cutting between New York’s Little Italy (where Vito carries out his first assassination) and 1950s Las Vegas (where the Mafia’s dream of a city of their own finally comes to fruition).

But Citizen Kane is no less inventive – in fact, Kane suffers the fate of many truly great works of art in that its innovations have been imitated so widely and so often that some people encountering it for the first time wonder what all the fuss is about.  The “fuss” is justified, as Welles and Mankiewicz begin with the “official” version of a great man’s life (as told by the newsreels of the time), before discarding that ersatz version to dig around for the true story, and in particular the secret behind Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”.  Of course, as any cineaste knows (ultimate spoiler alert!), Rosebud refers to the beloved sledge that little Charles Foster had to leave behind in the Midwest snow when he inherits his fortune and has to travel East to collect it.  However, in its journey towards that final revelation the film adopts elements of many of the major movie genres of its time: biopic; musical (even if Kane’s opera-singing second wife is no great singer); newspaper drama; satire; and even buddy movie (the story of Kane’s supposed betrayal by his best friend, Jedediah Leland, played by Joseph Cotten, is almost an entire movie in its own right).

Even more importantly, nearly 10 years before Akira Kurosawa stunned the world (or at least the Western cinema-going world) with Rashomon, which told the same story in four different ways and from four different perspectives, Citizen Kane told the same story from at least five different perspectives: the official story, as told in the newsreels; the very subjective viewpoints of Kane’s two friends and business partners; the unreliable drunken memories of his second wife; and finally the Butler’s story. In so doing, it showed that cinema – supposedly the great recorder of truth, as it had been largely considered since its inception at the end of the 19th century – could also be the greatest fabricator of invention.

Whatever his precise contribution to Citizen Kane, Mankiewicz is one of the two credited co-writers and it is impossible not to conclude that so much of his own experience as a writer – first as a newspaper man, then in the film industry (both writing scripts and producing films) – and so much of his own ability (especially the marvellous and often hilarious dialogue) went into the story.  And so Citizen Kane is not only Orson Welles’s finest achievement but Herman J. Mankiewicz’s greatest tale.