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Two For the Show: Academy Award Filmwriters Harry Brown and Robert Pirosh

by James White

When Robert Pirosh left New York City for Hollywood in 1935, he mailed this letter to directors, producers, and story editors: Dear (name of recipient):

I like words. I like fat buttery words such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words such as mortician,liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave "v-words" such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Good-Heavens-my-gracious-land's-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp. I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around. I have just returned and I still like words. May I have a few with You?

He had sent the same letter around to top advertising agencies in New York when he landed his first copywriting job. Three Hollywood executives agreed to interviews, and one made Pirosh an offer as a junior writer at MGM with a salary of $35 a week. In his unfinished memoir "Mixed Bag," Pirosh says he responded to the offer by plagiarizing Groucho: "Thirty-five a week. That's the most ridiculous offer I ever heard of. I'll take it." Pirosh soon discovered that the Junior Writer's program apprenticed hopefuls to experienced screenwriters without time for them.

Pirosh writes in his memoir: Whoever created the Junior Writer Program had a wonderful idea. Since there were no screenwriting courses at colleges then, the studio delegated one of their writer-producers to teach promising young writers the craft. As an adjunct to this, each would serve an apprenticeship with an established writer on the script that writer was preparing for the studio. The J.W. would, of necessity, be more or less of a silent partner so he or she (and from now on, the "or she" will be taken for granted) would not become a nuisance, but he would be free to ask questions during breaks,offer suggestions, try his hand occasionally at writing a scene, sit in at conferences with the producer and director, and follow through by spending some time on the set and in the cutting room later on when the picture was in production. The J.W. would,of course, get no screen credit no matter how much he contributed, but that was all right. There was only one thing wrong with the concept. It didn't work.

Most of the writers who were supposed to be our mentors didn't want to be bothered. We got in the way, asked too damn many questions, slowed them down. An exception to this was Zelda Sears who really wanted to help me. She taught me when to capitalize and when to dissolve and how to handle flashbacks, but that's as far as she got because her producer started screaming for pages. Another well-meaning mentor started giving me pointers on construction one afternoon, but the next day he was axed. Then there was a rather haughty Englishman who had never before been in the United States. He completely ignored me until one day he asked me to get him some tea. I returned from the commissary with a pot of hot water, a cup and a tea bag. Staring bleakly at the tea bag, he muttered: "Some day God will smite America."-- and then went back to ignoring me.

Within a year, however, Pirosh worked on The Winning Ticket and in 1937 Pirosh and fellow junior writer George Seaton invented a situation comedy for Groucho Marx eventually titled A Day at the Races. Pirosh, Seaton, and George Oppenheimer got the final credits. Other writers contributing to the script included Moss Hart, George Kaufman, Max Siegel and Will Johnstone as well as Irving Thalburg. Pirosh and Seaton, along with the Marx brothers and Marget Dumont, took live scenes from the movie on the road--to places like Duluth, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Chicago.

Pirosh's next important assignment was writing I Married a Witch (1942) with director-writer Preston Sturges and Rene Clair, the French director. In 1949 Pirosh won the Academy Award for his work on Battleground and in 1951 he again was nominated for writing Go For Broke, a film relating World War II experiences of Japanese-American soldiers. Pirosh directed this film. He also wrote and directed Washington Story (1952) a Dory Shary film, and Valley of the Kings (1954) with Eleanor Parker. Later Pirosh scripts include the war sagas Hell is for Heroes (1962) starring Steve McQueen and A Gathering of Eagles (1963) with Rock Hudson. He also wrote The Girl Rush (1955), Spring Reunion (1957), and Don't Feel Bad About Feeling Good (1968).

Harry Brown meanwhile came to Hollywood with a popular novel already being made into a Lewis Milestone directed film, A Walk in the Sun. Brown had worked on Stars and Stripes during the war and before that, had been a Harvard student whose main interest was writing poetry which often got published. He also had worked at Time and at the New Yorker. Later he was to publish five books of poetry with distinguished presses. Although Brown had no input on A Walk in the Sun, writer Richard Rossen relied far more heavily than normal on dialog in the book, making it unusual as an adaptation.

Brown was hired to work on The True Glory (1945), the extravagantly applauded story of the last year of World War II, from D Day to the fall of Berlin, as told by carefully edited newsreels. One reviewer called the film, "a magnificent piece of reporting, retold by edited newsreels, worth a dozen fiction films in its exhilarating Shakespearean fervour...One of the finest of all compilations."

Among Brown's early writing credits is Arch of Triumph (1948), a Lewis Milestone film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In 1949, The Sands of Iwa Jima, starring John Wayne, was released, with Brown as co-writer. The script was nominated for an Academy Award, but Battleground by Pirosh, won. In 1951 he and Michael Wilson shared Academy Award credits for their script of A Place in the Sun which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. The movie was based on the Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy. This same year Pirosh was nominated for Go for Broke.

Brown, as Pirosh, became well known for films about the military: Bugles in the Afternoon (1952) and D Day. The 6th of June (1956). His Broadway play The Sound of Hunting was filmed as Eight Iron Men. His novel The Stars in Their Courses was filmed as El Dorado, starring Kirk Douglas. Notable among his other films are The Virgin Queen starring Betty Davis, Only the Valiant (Gregory Peck), Many Rivers to Cross (Robert Taylor), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (James Cagney), Wake of the Red Witch (John Wayne), The Man on the Eiffel Tower (Charles Laughton) and Ocean's 11 (Frank Sinatra).

Brown's literary career distinguishes him from Pirosh. Brown wrote four novels: A Walk in the Sun, A Quiet Place to Work, The Stars in Their Courses, and The Wild Hunt.. He published five collections of poetry, his work often strongly influenced by his study of the classics. An example of Brown's poetry is "Reptile, Mammal," taken from Poems, 1941-44, published by Secker and Warburg, London, 1945. His other volumes of poetry include The Violent, 1944 and The Beast in His Hunger, 1949.

Reptile, Mammal

The serpent on the summer bough,

The sinuous middleman of death,

That coils its baleful length around

That crisp, disinterested branch

And eyes its quarry on the ground,

Destroys the summer with its breath.

Destroys the winter with its voice

The wolf that howls upon the hill

Its sad and dangerous advice

And hems with violence the town.

It has the virtues of the ice,

Its frigid force, its frozen will.

The voices of all murdered things

Rise up like smoke and choke the air,

And send the mountains tumbling down,

And raise the sea in tidal waves.

Stricken, the inundated drown;

Dying, the poisoned dig their graves.

I met Harry Brown through Christopher Isherwood's recommendation. In 1980 I was hired as the Director of an MFA program in writing that I was to revise and name (Master's in Professional writing at USC). The former MFA in Professional Writing had been rightly dropped by the University, each student having to write three final projects--a screenplay, a novel, and a non-fiction book. One hundred fifty graduate students already were in the pipeline. USC wanted a strengthened, prestigious program or none, although all faculty but myself were part-time.

I often called Isherwood when I needed to hire new faculty. Isherwood would usually say, "I'll call you back," and when he did, he "remembered" someone whom I knew he already had called and asked. "How about Harry Brown?" he suggested, "he has an Academy Award and I think he may have a Pulitzer." Harry didn't have the Pulitzer. "I think he may need the money," Isherwood said.

"I'll call," I told Isherwood, unaware of any American writer with successes in all four genres--filmwriting, fiction, poetry, and drama. He was to be the first screenwriter I hired for the program.

A few days later Harry and I lunched at the USC faculty club. The instant I saw him I felt that he was nervous. I introduced myself, adding immediately that I was impressed with his work and hoped he'd accept my offer to teach in the writing program. He'd certainly add to our prestige. His tension eased, and we ordered a glass of wine before deciding what to eat.

If I had expected Harry to talk my arm off, he didn't. He volunteered that he'd never taught or wanted to. He'd lived in Mexico for ten years and recently returned with his wife and son to LA where the polluted air was bad for his emphysema. He smoked none the less, his fingers shaky. Occasionally he paused and gasped for breath. He had written two novels in Mexico, fewer than he had hoped, but the climate, the culture, and the other emigres in the small town where he had settled, preoccupied him.

He was negotiating with some producer about a screenplay, but expected it to come to naught. Yes, he wanted to try teaching. He appreciated the offer.

"Twenty five hundred a semester is our highest stipend, hardly enough," I said, "but it's yours." He accepted.

During lunch, he mentioned his friendship with various authors--Robert Lowell, T S Eliot, William Inge, W H Auden, Christopher Isherwood. He described the filming of A Place in the Sun as a mad two months with Elizabeth Taylor, Monty Clift meeting with him, his co writer, and the director, trying to write and rewrite scenes for the next day. Filming had started before any script was approved. He didn't mention his other films, nor did I.

A week after school began that spring semester, a student from Harry's seminar came into my office with a complaint. "Before I listen to it," I told him, "answer this question: do you want an Academy Award?" "Yes," he answered. "Then go back and listen to or at least look at Harry. He has one. He's the real thing. If you still have a complaint, come back." A week later the student returned.

"You haven't given it long enough," I said. "Go back and after another week, come see me if you want."

A week later, he did. "All right," I said, asking him to sit. "What's wrong?" I meant with him, not Harry.

"We're all afraid of Professor Brown. No one will ask a question. He walks into the class, asks if anyone has a question, and no one raises his hand. He dismisses class. We haven't had class yet."

"He doesn't say anything?"

"He just dismisses us."

"Why didn't you say so?" I asked. "Don't worry. I'll talk to him." The student left and I called Harry, setting up lunch. That appointed day, as we ate, I said, "Do you have a problem with the teaching?" The relief on his face made him and me happy.

"Yes," he said.

"From now on you can teach one on one and I'll get a substitute for this class. Do you want that?"

"Oh yes."

He was the only writer I ever hired who had nothing to say to a captive audience of students. There was no doubt that he had much to teach. This inner tension was characteristic of Harry.

"How could you not be rich," I asked, "considering the successful films you wrote?"

"Women," he said. "My ex-wife. And if I got two thousand a week, which was a lot of money in 1950, it was for only a certain number of weeks. Once the production was finished, I was off the payroll and could go months with no income. And I drank."

didn't meet Robert Pirosh until after Christmas the next year when I invited him to join our faculty. First a Dean had called to recommend him, a recommendation I ignored, then Bob's wife called, asking if I could interview him. It was extraordinary to have a wife call, but I decided to meet him at lunch. He did not talk about his films or his famous friends--of which I was mostly ignorant--instead, he spoke of writing the screenplay, and specifically how he would teach screenwriting. He had brought several sheets of paper on which he showed how to teach dramatic structure. In the classroom, he was an instant hit.

Although Harry and Bob had been nominated for Academy Awards the same years, they had never met and I invited both to lunch, not on campus but at the Egg and I, close by where Harry Brown lived and not far from Pirosh's Beverly Hills apartment. It struck me as a privilege to introduce these two distinguished writers to each other.

The day of the luncheon we arrived at the restaurant on time. Neither Harry nor Pirosh was ever late for anything I knew about. We were drinking tea and had ordered when Bob introduced a subject that would dominate the luncheon: how and why he'd failed in Hollywood. Harry quickly joined in. Bob spoke of recently meeting with a young television producer who had never heard of,much less seen any of his films. The producer listened impatiently to Bob's idea for a movie of the week, then told him it was "soft." He added that Bob was too old to know the modern generation and should quit trying ideas for TV. "You're old fashioned," he had told Bob.

"And I had to walk embarrassed out of that jerk's office."

It had been the same for Harry. Harry had had one recent offer, but to write about incest flagrantly, which he refused to sink to. "There's no place for me," Harry said. "I used to come in from Mexico, rent a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel and wait. Nothing happened."

"Just a minute," I broke in, "you two are both successful. You are what success is."

"I'm afraid not," Harry said.

I reminded them of their Academy Awards, but neither listened long. They aren't really talking about failure, I thought. But they were.

Much later, not long before Harry Brown's death, we were talking on the phone and he said, "I failed because I didn't do enough."

"Oh Harry," I said.

After I hung up, I called Isherwood and repeated Harry's comment.

"He's right," Isherwood said gravely.

An important situation in Harry Brown and Bob Pirosh's lives during these later, less productive years (in terms of films) was this facing what they called failure. They meant failure in the context of their previous successes. Looking back now, I should have asked at the luncheon, "Why did you think you'd stay on top forever? And isn't, in an important sense, your work still there? (Today, the Daphne, Alabama video store close to where I live, has five of Harry's films and three of Bob's for rent.)The films are successful, you aren't. Quit competing with yourself."

Of course my comment would be superficial because they weren't talking about their works having failed, either. Harry did, later, volunteering that when he was very sick shortly before he died, he spent many afternoons watching reruns of some of his films on TV. None of these were good any longer, he said. Nothing else he saw was, either.

Part of what they called failure was caused by how the younger generation of producers and directors treated them. And by their not being flush.

Harry kept his Academy Award downstairs, on an end table, in the living room of his two story garden apartment near the L.A. Museum. Pirosh's stood upstairs on a bookshelf in the small office ofhis two bedroom apartment located behind I Magnin in Beverly Hills. Of the numerous times I was with either of them, neither mentioned the award or the Oscar ceremonies. Nor did they ever mention each other to me, other than after one time when they and their wives came to dinner with us in Santa Monica.

Unfortunately, both were to experience even more petty rejection. Several years later, for instance, Pirosh decided to co-author a screenplay with a female graduate student. They met often and decided to pursue a romantic comedy idea for their script. Bob told me that while he did most of the work, it "got him going" again and he was glad to collaborate. "What a lucky student," I told him, considering how she'd sold nothing. Yet after months of work, when the script was nearing completion, Bob called, upset, and told me that his co-author had told him she was unable to continue. She was too busy. He confided that another student had repeated to him that she said he didn't know how to write a screenplay. "That's what happens when you deal with amateurs," I told him, but it didn't help.

Harry Brown, meanwhile, faced rejection of his poetry as well as his filmwriting. In contrast to his early years when he was able to publish individual poems in the most prestigious literary reviews and volumes of work with well known poetry publishers, his poems were now rejected. When I suggested he write a memoir then people might be interested in his poetry because they were interested in him, he wrote back on October 25, 1983: "If I can't get a volume of my poem published, what makes you think that anyone would want to read about me? I wouldn't want to read about me, that's for damn sure."

Both of these writers were the kind of professionals that only long years of solid experience make.I established a small software firm in 1985and asked Bob to write a text for the screenwriting program. Throughout this three disk program, Pirosh emphasizes the importance of professionalism. The margins must be exact, the paper, the cover, and all correspondence with anyone. An example of his professionalism and dedication to what works is evident in this passage from his memoir:

What will work and won't is usually hard to predict. In a rehearsal of an examination scene (while on the road show for ADay at the Races), Harpo surprised us by using a candy thermometer, which he chewed up and swallowed. "Now we'll have to operate to see if he has a fever," was Al Boasberg's suggestion for a Groucho comment."That's the fastest I ever saw a temperature go down," was mine.

Groucho used Al's line in the supper show and mine in the next.Al hated to lose contests of this sort, and when he lost this one, he huffily retired to the solace of his cold tub and didn't rejoin us for over an hour. Tough guy to work with. But funny.In the next show Groucho tried, "I never saw a temperature go down that fast before," and it didn't get quite as big a laugh. He tried several other variations, and the winner was: "Well, that temperature certainly went down fast!" Don't ask me why it got the biggest laugh. It just did and the public's reception is almost always accepted without question. Testing new lines, changing the wording of old ones to try for a bigger laugh, show after show, day after day...we hardly ever stopped working."

Harry Brown worked on a poetry writing program for the Software Teacher, Inc. In his introduction, he writes:

You know what prose is, of course. You write it, you speak it, you even think in it. Prose is merely putting a poem into paragraphs and changing the words that rhyme. Right? Right.

But what, then, is poetry?

Like electricity, it is basically indefinable. You can be dazzled by a flashlight beam, but what universal force makes the brightness? You can be stunned by the impact of a great poem, but what mental force wields the club? Dictionaries only describe what poetry looks like on the outside, and poets themselves beg the question. A.E. Housman said that he could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.

Well, if nothing else, we can say that on the printed page it's right-hand margins are not very neat.

Harry Brown was tall and dignified looking, whether in a suit or pajamas. He wheezed from emphysema and frightened me when he cleared his lungs with a machine, then casually hunted another cigarette. He first showed me one of his books back jacket up, showing an early photograph of him as a published novelist: handsome, dark haired, brown eyes staring into the camera. Later, he wore a short beard and when his illness grew worse, he lay on a sofa, his medicines nearby, the TV in easy view. There, he watched reruns of his films and read, particularly history books. He always spoke of literature and writing, of the books he'd collected, many signed. Brown died of emphasema November 2, 1986 at the age of 69.

Robert Pirosh had a different voice, as Groucho did, but not like his. In 1986 Pirosh began to suffer from a strained voice and made an appointment with a throat specialist. The doctor found a nodule on his vocal cards and emphasized the importance of keeping quiet. For several weeks, Bob tried not to talk and when he had to, to keep his gravelly voice at a whisper. The throat improved and Bob went back to teaching. The throat flared up again and he had to rest his voice even longer.This pattern continued until he died--of heart failure. He wore glasses and was short and sturdy. He retained a little of his New York accent. He dressed well. I picture him walking on Rodeo Drive, pointing out his favorite stores and cafes, him balding and Hollywoodish, in an excellent mood, talking all the while about something that is going to get a laugh out of you.