Discover more from Frank Beacham's Journal
Film Director Richard Brooks was born 111 years ago today
Brooks with Elizabeth Taylor in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958
Richard Brooks was born 111 years ago today.
A screenwriter, film director, novelist and occasional film producer, Brooks directed Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960), In Cold Blood (1967) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977). He won an Academy Award for Best Writing of an adapted screenplay for Elmer Gantry.
Brooks wrote sports for the Philadelphia Record and later joined the staff of the Atlantic City Press-Union. He moved to New York City to work for the World-Telegram newspaper, but soon took a job at WNEW-AM for a larger paycheck.
As a newsman for the station, he reported and read stories on the air and provided commentary. Brooks also began writing plays in 1938 and tried directing for Long Island's Mill Pond Theater in 1940. A falling out with his theater colleagues that summer led him to drive to Los Angeles on a whim, hoping to find work in the film industry. He also may have been trying to escape a marriage — a legal document indicates he was married at least part of the time he lived in New York.
He didn't find film work, but was hired by the NBC affiliate to write original stories and read them for a daily 15-minute broadcast called Sidestreet Vignettes.
His second marriage in 1941 to Jeanne Kelly, an actress at Universal Studios, may have helped to open the door to writing for the studio. He contributed dialogue to a few films and wrote two screenplays for the popular actress Maria Montez, known as the "Queen of Technicolor."
With no prospect of moving into more prestigious productions, Brooks quit Universal and joined the Marine Corps in 1943. He never served overseas during World War II, instead working in the Marine Corps film unit at Quantico, Virginia, and at times at Camp Pendleton, California. In his two years in uniform, he learned more about the basics of filmmaking, including writing and editing documentaries.
Brooks also found time to write The Brick Foxhole, a searing portrait of stateside soldiers tainted by religious, racial and homophobic bigotry. Published in 1945 to favorable reviews, The Brick Foxhole was made into the Oscar-nominated film, Crossfire (1947), the first major Hollywood film to deal with anti-Semitism. The novel drew the attention of independent producer, Mark Hellinger, who hired Brooks as a screenwriter after he left the Marines.
Working for Hellinger brought Brooks back to the film industry and led to a long friendship with actor Humphrey Bogart, a close friend of the producer. Brooks provided an uncredited screen story for The Killers (1946), which introduced actor Burt Lancaster, and wrote the scripts for other Hellinger films, notably Brute Force (1947), also starring Lancaster.
After Hellinger's unexpected death in 1947, Brooks wrote screenplays for three Warner Brothers films, including Key Largo (1948), starring Bogart and wife, Lauren Bacall. The film was directed and co-written by John Huston, another Brooks mentor, who would be the only co-writer Brooks would ever have. Huston allowed Brooks to be on the Key Largo set during shooting so that he could learn more about directing a Hollywood film.
Brooks wrote two more novels shortly after the war, The Boiling Point (1948) and The Producer (1951), a thinly disguised portrait of Hellinger that may have had autobiographical elements for Brooks, too. Success as a screenwriter with Hellinger and Warner Brothers led Brooks to a contract with MGM and the promise of a chance to direct a film.
Brooks came into his own when he directed an original screenplay, Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), a 20th Century-Fox film that starred his friend, Humphrey Bogart. Based on the closing of the New York World, the film was part gangster picture and part newspaper drama.
At its core was an issue Brooks cared about, the consolidation of the newspaper industry and its impact on the diversity of voices in the press. The film remains one of the more highly regarded dramas about American newspapers.
Brooks directed four more films before achieving an unqualified hit with Blackboard Jungle (1955), starring Glenn Ford. Based on a best seller by Evan Hunter, the film was shocking for its time in its presentation of juvenile delinquency. It also offered a career-making supporting role for a young black actor, Sidney Poitier, and early roles for actors Vic Morrow, Jamie Farr and Paul Mazursky.
Brooks chose to begin and end the film with the song "Rock Around the Clock," thus bringing rock 'n' roll to a major Hollywood production for the first time and sparking a #1 hit for Bill Haley and the Comets. Blackboard Jungle also brought Brooks his first Oscar nomination, for its screenplay, and was MGM's top moneymaker that year.
Thanks for reading Frank Beacham's Journal! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.