This Day in Jewish History Hard-drinking, 'Sell-out' 'Wizard of Oz' Screenwriter Is Born

Ex-U.S. Marine and reporter Herman Mankiewicz also co-wrote the script for the cult favorite 'Citizen Kane'

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

November 7, 1897, is the birthdate of Herman Mankiewicz, one of the most prolific and acclaimed American screenwriters of the 20th century.

Mankiewicz worked, sometimes without credit, on more than 70 different films during his career, including “Citizen Kane” (for which he shared the screenwriting Oscar with Orson Welles), “The Wizard of Oz,” “Dinner at Eight” and “Pride of the Yankees.”

Herman Jacob Mankiewicz was born in New York to Franz Mankiewicz and the former Johanna Blumenau, both of them German-born Jewish immigrants. Johanna was a dressmaker, and Franz an editor and teacher who moved the family to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, when he received a job editing a German-language newspaper there.

Herman’s younger brother, Joseph, also an Oscar-winning screenwriter, and a sister, Erna, were both born there, before the family moved back to New York, in 1913.

Herman attended Columbia University, graduating in 1916. He worked briefly as managing editor of the American Jewish Chronicle before becoming a flying cadet with the U.S. Army, and then joining the Marines. By 1920, Mankiewicz was married, to Sara Aaronson, of Baltimore, and living in Berlin, where he worked as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune until 1922.

From then until 1926, when he left for Hollywood, Mankiewicz, hard-drinking and an inveterate gambler, served as deputy theater critic (to George S. Kaufman) at The New York Times, and as the first theater critic for The New Yorker. He also contributed frequently to many magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post and Vanity Fair, as well as co-authoring several plays.

Sell-out extraordinaire

When Paramount offered Mankiewicz a contract as a writer, he headed west. It was the end of the silent-film era, and his first job was writing titles. Even here, he was able to demonstrate the wit that led his friend and colleague Ben Hecht to call him the “Central Park West Voltaire,” turning out such title cards as “Derely Devore, the star, rose from the chorus because she was cool in an emergency - and warm in a taxi."

Shortly after his arrival in Hollywood, Mankiewicz, according to Hecht, sent him a telegram in which he informed his friend that “Millions are to be grabbed out here, and your only competition is idiots,” adding the warning, “Don’t let this get around.” Hecht came, and so did Dorothy Parker, and Robert Benchley, and a number of other New Yorker colleagues and Algonquin Hotel drinking companions.

Pauline Kael, writing about Mankiewicz in The New Yorker in 1971, described him as “a giant of a man who mongered his own talent, a man who got a head start in the race to ‘sell out’ to Hollywood.” He became one of the highest-paid writers in the world because, suggested Kael, “he brought good-humored toughness to the movies and energy and astringency,” all of which were welcomed by a public that had become exasperated with the artistic pretensions of much of the silent fare available until then.

Mankiewicz turned them out at an incredible pace, and he could write movies of almost every genre. One rare exception was Westerns, and when a studio tried to force him to write a Rin Tin Tin screenplay, he came up with a script that began with the noble dog being frightened by a mouse and reached its peak with a house on fire, and Rin Tin Tin dragging a baby into the flames.

Enter Randolph Hearst

Though Mankiewicz received no screen credit for his work on “The Wizard of Oz,” as the first of 10 writers who had a hand in the film, in 1938, it was he who proposed expanding the Kansas sequence from the minor role it had in the original book by L. Frank Baum, as well as filming the film’s opening scenes there in black-and-white, before switching to color, after Dorothy lands in Oz.

Mankiewicz was a frequent weekend visitor to San Simeon, the home of William Randolph Hearst and his companion Marion Davies, and there’s no doubt that many of the things he saw there ended up in “Citizen Kane,” which he and Orson Welles began work on in 1939.

Hearst, clearly the model for Charles Foster Kane (though Welles denied it), did his best to prevent the film from ever being screened, and Welles did his best to take sole credit for the screenplay, but Mankiewicz went to the Screen Writers Guild, which prevailed upon Welles not only to share the credit, but to give Mankiewicz top billing as writer. Although the film was nominated for Oscars in nine categories, the only Academy Award it actually won was for screenplay. (At the time of its release, in 1941, “Citizen Kane,” despite the critical acclaim it received, did not remain long in the theaters, and didn’t recoup its costs. Only in the 1950s was it revived in art houses and dubbed one of the great films of all time.)

Mankiewicz produced the 1932 comedy “Million Dollar Legs” (co-written by his brother, Joseph), which concerns the scheme of the president of the tiny and bankrupt country of Klopstokia, played by W.C. Fields, to win the Olympic weightlifting competition, as well as the Marx Brothers’ “Horse Feathers” and “Monkey Business.” In producing, he generally helped write the scripts, though without receiving credit.

Mankiewicz’s self-destructive tendencies caught up with him on March 5, 1953 (the same day that Joseph Stalin died), when he died of uremic poisoning, caused by kidney failure. The last two films he wrote were “The Pride of St. Louis,” about baseball player Dizzy Dean (not to be confused with his 1942 screenplay for “Pride of the Yankees,” about Lou Gehrig), and “Enchanted Cottage,” a romantic fantasy picture starring Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

Poster for the original "Wizard of Oz" movie, for which Herman Mankiewicz had some original ideas.Credit: AP
Herman Mankiewicz Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Herman Mankiewicz didn't always get credit for his work, for instance in the case of the cult movie "Citizen Kane".Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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