Monday, April 7, 2008

John Monk Saunders: Something in the Air

"They ask me where I've been,
And what I've done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn't I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands...
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name."
~Wilfred Gibson

Living in an era when the auteur theory is dominant among film analysts, the name of a mere screenwriter such as John Monk Saunders may not be familiar to many of the viewers who enjoyed the seldom seen Wings (1927) the other night on TCM. The directors of his stories on film, Josef von Sternberg, William Wellman, Howard Hawks, William Dieterle and Edmund Goulding, are readily acknowledged as among the best of the medium.

These skilled directors undoubtedly made the work of this screenwriter come to life on the screen in Wings (1927), The Docks of New York (1928), The Dawn Patrol (1930 & 1938), The Finger Points (1931), and The Last Flight (1931), among other films, but perhaps we could take a moment to acknowledge the writer who provided the stories for these films. He was someone who "wanted to live dangerously and die young," said actress Fay Wray regretfully about him shortly before her death. Married to screenwriter John Monk Saunders for eleven sometimes sweet but often harrowing years, she knew the high cost of living in the wake of one of the more profligate members of that "lost generation."

For those who cherish the too often obscure names of screenwriters, Saunders is forever identified with aviation on film. As the author of ten films that dealt with pilot's experiences in The Great War (WWI to you and me), Saunders might be considered an authority in that field. Yet when the Armistice came in 1918, he was stationed in Florida training others to be pilots for the first aerial war. On that November night, Saunders would later recall, he went out alone onto the airfield and wept, his head resting on the wing of his plane. His grief was due to the fact that he'd never be a part of the experience that he'd hoped to share with others as a possible air ace. He never knew warfare except second hand, unless, of course, one counts the conflict that raged inside him during his brief life.

Born in Minnesota in 1895, he was the well-born son of a prominent federal attorney who grew up in the Seattle, Washington area. Attending the University of Washington when he joined the Air Service, he earned his degree, a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and eventually found his way back to New York, where he became a reporter for the New York Tribune in the early '20s.

Above: John Monk Saunders and Fay Wray on their wedding day in 1928.

He then became an associate editor at the American Magazine, (a publication that had been formed by the iconoclastic "muckraking" journalists, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, among others. Saunders, however, whose amorphous political views were quite right wing, emulated the literary spirit of those icons of the Lost Generation, Ernest Hemingway and fellow native Minnesotan, F. Scott Fitzgerald. While Saunders developed an ear for screen dialogue that Fitzgerald appears never to have mastered, John Monk Saunders could never claim to be as fine a craftsman of prose as either of his contemporaries, though he may have outdone both of them in his rush toward oblivion. Like Fitzgerald, Saunders was also strikingly handsome before becoming dissipated, an educated man and a gifted storyteller whose bitterness reflected the self-destructive impulses of the generation who'd come of age during the First World War.

Some observers thought he clung to his guilt because he survived the war, believing he wore his romantic cynicism as a badge of honor, feeling justified in pursuing the drinking and dissolution that cut short his life even as he wrote some still startling anti-war scripts that characterized and shaped the feeling of a disillusioned public after the war. Despite the notable self-destructive parallels between the course of each writer's life, Fitzgerald's struggle to live was marginally longer than Saunders by eight months. As described by his second wife, Fay Wray, Saunders' plunge into nihilism may have been more precipitous than even that of Fitzgerald at the height of the Jazz Age.

An early broken marriage to Avis Hughes, (a step-daughter to Rupert Hughes, a once famed prolific writer himself and Howard Hughes' uncle) was followed by a headlong pursuit of literary notoriety and the fame and money that went with it in some circles. His sale of his popular short story "A Maker of Gestures", first published in Cosmopolitan magazine to Famous Players-Lasky Pictures in the mid-twenties, introduced Saunders to the hurly-burly of Hollywood in the '20s. Saunders' second marriage to the luminous young actress, Fay Wray, who had already appeared in films directed by von Stroheim, Wellman, and De Mille long before her encounter with King Kong, may have been instrumental in the writer's ongoing success socially and professionally. Wray would find herself increasingly intimidated by her husband in private, but as a hostess and a companion, she often intervened to mollify those irked by her husband's sometimes erratic behavior.

Approaching Jesse Lasky (above) with a film proposal based on his story, John Monk Saunders explained that the color, excitement and scope aerial combat had never been adequately depicted in any medium. Realizing that neither the proscenium arch of the stage nor the words between the pages of a book could capture the wonder and terror of the experience of WWI aerial combat, Saunders believed that the movies were far more capable of capturing the scale of duels between pilots, planes and balloons being shot down in flames against the sky for audiences. After convincing Lasky that this project might be commercially viable, the writer soon left for Washington, where he met with Secretary of War Dwight Davis.

Above: William Wellman at 31 (seated on the scaffold), a veteran flyer of WWI, becomes best known as a remarkably adept director of action and dramatic films with his Oscar-winning silent film, Wings (1931).

After securing the support of the U.S. military as well as the cooperation of Will Hays, then the head of the Motion Pictures Producers Association, it took six months to prepare the script, secure the crew, (with the especially fortuitous assignment of the WWI veteran pilot and then somewhat obscure William Wellman as director), find a cast, and arrange for location shooting in San Antonio, Texas, as well as the Los Angeles area. When the film began to come together, Saunders' script became secondary to the whole, but without the imagination, knowledge, and coordination of the scenarist, Wings might never have been produced.

Above: The Cast of Wings (1927), Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Clara Bow, and Richard Arlen.

Under contract to Jesse Lasky, a producer known for treating his writers with some respect, he began an long open liaison with Lasky's wife, Bessie, becoming one of the most popular figures socially in that period in the film capital's history. Eventually J.M.S. even married a movie star in 1928 when he wed 19 year old Fay Wray, who wrote eloquently about her mercurial husband in her autobiography, On the Other Hand (St. Martin's Press, 1989). While willingly seduced by the material excesses of early Hollywood, he was clearly aware of the contradictions of life in the film colony. Awarded an Oscar for the Howard Hawks version of The Dawn Patrol for best story of 1930, he was entangled in a lawsuit at the time. He dryly noted, ''This is indeed a crazy business where I am being sued for plagiarism on one hand and given the statuette for originality on the other.''
Above: Fay Wray enjoys a rare quiet moment with her husband, John Monk Saunders in 1931.

John Monk Saunders is best remembered for his memorable films centering on aviation, riding the crest of the public fascination with flying that coincided with Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Though flying on film had been a lively addition to movies almost from the beginning in 1903, Hollywood, which loved to repeat its hits, may have narrowed the scope of Saunders' work by pigeonholing him. He had used some of his newspaper experiences as background for his underworld stories in Docks of New York (1928) and had based the story of The Finger Points (1931) on the real life tale of a corrupt reporter fatally involved with Al Capone. Saunders, was, to a degree, a prisoner of his own successful aerial stories.

Above: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Richard Barthelmess in a still from the original version of The Dawn Patrol (1930), directed by Howard Hawks. (Photograph by Bert Longworth).

The overwhelming success of director William Wellman's Wings (1927), soon led Saunders to sell other movie scripts concerned with the lives of World War One fliers, from The Legion of the Condemned (a lost film from 1928), which starred Gary Cooper, Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol (1930), the merits of which film buffs debate when comparing it to the effective remake by Edmund Goulding in 1938. Dawn Patrol may be the best developed dramatic ensemble of Saunders' films, in part, no doubt from the added touches provided by directors Hawks, Goulding and the cast, which was headed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the original and Errol Flynn (giving the role his quietly sensitive best).

The Eagle and the Hawk(1933), a highly effective tale of a self-destructive pilot, well played by a guilt-wracked Fredric March whose role in the war leads him to oblivion. March was cast opposite a very young Cary Grant and in too few scenes, Carole Lombard. This film, which was produced at Paramount, is quite difficult to find, and, as far as I know, hasn't been broadcast on television in some time.

The Last Flight (1931) (from Saunders' and Ace of Aces (1933), both of which have appeared on TCM in the last year, are among the most effective films made from Saunders' short stories. These latter two films are remarkably fresh in their examination of the aftermath of modern combat as well as their rejection of pat concepts of heroism and military glory.

The first American movie made by William Dieterle is The Last Flight (1931), a beautifully realized story that caught a mood similar to that of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. The Last Flight was based on John Monk Saunders book, Single Lady, first printed in 1931 after first appearing as a series of short stories that the author wrote for Liberty Magazine. His central female character, Nikki, was a blend of the personalities of a wealthy young expatriate he'd met in Paris and was also clearly that of Fay Wray as well. The author also included references to his own compulsive behaviors in several of the male characters, whose alcoholism, despair, and profligacy matched his own spiral toward oblivion.

Above: The alcoholic haze permeates the story of the characters in The Last Flight (1931).

When made into a film, The Last Flight (1931) starred, (left to right in photo on the right) David Manners, an affectingly vulnerable Helen Chandler, Richard Barthelmess as a pilot with permanently scarred hands burned in a plane wreck, and Johnny Mack Brown. Almost all the characters are alcoholics who cling to one another in post-war Europe, rambling from Paris to Lisbon.

They are unable to face the past or the future, though the momentary prospect of forming a love outside this group provides Barthelemess and Chandler with a few moments of peace. The restrained air of romance, the endearing sadness and eccentricity of Chandler's slightly fey character creates one of the more fully realized female characters in Saunders' career. Nikki (Helen Chandler) doesn't kiss, she says, because of a crooked tooth, and she claims that she wears red shoes because "I can walk faster in red shoes", and she is fond of turtles. A touching scene between Barthelmess and Chandler at the tomb of Heloise and Abelard and one of the better performances by David Manners as the doomed Shep underline the plight of these characters whose sole reason for living is to distract one another from thinking too long or too deeply about the sights they've seen in the war.

Above: Back cover of the novel, The Last Flight by John Monk Saunders. (photos of The Last Flight, courtesy of Greenbriar Picture Show)

Ace of Aces (1933), a tougher look at the corrosive effect of war, was based on Saunders' story "The Bird of Prey". The RKO movie, directed by J. Walter Ruben was a collaborative screenplay between John Monk Saunders and H.W. Hanemann deals in starkest dramatic terms with the underlying appeal of warfare, which, once described by Freud as a lid off the unconscious, allows human beings to revel in their every dark impulse via combat. Though the film is sometimes woodenly acted (by the lovely Elizabeth Allan in particular), and seems to have been made on a relatively small budget (with some noticeably cheesy aerial combat scenes), the movie is unforgettable because of the powerful dialogue Saunders provides and, if a viewer is willing to accept the abrupt transition of Dix's character, the dramatic impact of the movie is powerful still. The story focuses on a sensitive sculptor (Richard Dix) who, as a pacifist, registers as a conscientious objector when World War One breaks out, feeling that those who join the fray are lemmings "trying to reach a goal that doesn't exist." His girlfriend (Elizabeth Allan) strongly disagrees, accusing him of being afraid and shirking his debt to mankind by refusing to fight. She goes so far as to mark his coat with yellow chalk as a sign of cowardice. There is some suggestion that her own sexual frustrations with her situation and her self-involved beau may also color her beliefs.

Richard Dix, initially wanting simply to appease her, (rather unrealistically I thought) accepts that he should go to war. Abandoning pacifism in the brutal environment of aerial combat, Dix now spreads the blood he spills on his jacket (instead of the chalk), glorying in his transformation from a sensitive, civilized man into one capable of relishing the carnage that he has caused. Returning to his girlfriend on leave, she is appalled at the change in his character, though as he bluntly explains to her in a remarkably frank (if slightly stagey exchange): Nancy (Elizabeth Allan) says "You've changed. You're so different. Is this what the war has done to you?" to which Rocky (Dix) asks "Wasn't this what you wanted?" Having learned as the war went on what the human toll was of the conflict she is appalled at the squalor and misery of death in a mechanized war.

Condescendingly, Rocky (Dix) explains that for him, in the sky, "When death comes, it comes swiftly and cleanly. Ah," he exclaims, "it's a grand war. I only hope the next one is half as good. I used to think I could take clay and mold it into the semblance of a living thing. The closer it came to being alive, the greater my glory. The power of life is more than that, Nancy. Life--life for myself as I control my plane. And then death, swift and final in the squeeze of my fingers."

Richard Dix, who may be best remembered for his Oscar nominated role as the irrepressible Yancey Cravat in 1931's Cimarron, was an actor who may be unfairly perceived as lacking the subtlety of more modern actors, (Dix's style looks more flamboyant contrasted with Fredric March and Cary Grant's relatively understated work in The Eagle and the Hawk). However, he was capable of throwing himself full throttle into a role such as this that called for a remarkably brusque transformation because of that old fashioned bravado. When he brutally reunites with his mixed signal throwing girlfriend in Paris during a leave, he practically demands her to have sex with him.

Filled with bitterness, he throws her own previously expressed belief in the need for sacrifice during wartime back in her face, arguing that "This is no time for scruples, moral scruples. Everyone must make his sacrifice now. What are you in the face of the suffering of the world? How can you refuse whatever you have to give?" The end of this film, while tentatively holding out some hope for the pair once the war is ended, frankly reeks of underlying despair. The film, which was greeted by contemporary 1930s reviewers with indifference, has a bracing nihilism underneath the sometimes fustian veneer of the production. I suspect that those reviewers might be surprised to find that the film is still engaging in the 21st century.

Above: Mr. & Mrs. John Lodge with Fay Wray and John Monk Saunders at the premiere of De Mille's The Sign of the Cross (1933).

On film, at the distance of over 75 years, John Monk Saunders mastery of his recurrent themes in this seris of films has an elegiac charm, with a sometimes refreshingly adult approach to life. If the situations that were depicted--the poignant gallantry of those who've lost faith, the bravado, and the romanticized dissipation seem familiar now, it is in part because these themes, many of which originated with Saunders, have been reworked one too many times by lesser hands.

Unfortunately, the devil-may-care qualities and pursuits of on the screen proved less charming in private as Saunders descent into oblivion began in earnest by the early thirties. There were some who believed that the writer's erratic private and public behavior had made him unofficially "blacklisted" and unemployable as he approached the age of forty.

There were reports that he was sometimes openly anti-Semitic--a more common reflex among many Americans of his station and generation, despite the professional and personal help his Jewish employers and colleagues had given him--and he is said to have voiced a hope to travel to Germany to "help Hitler" at one point. Others were appalled by the increasingly dissolute writer's behavior. One such incident occurred during a party at the home of filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. Saunders took a poke at WWI veteran Herbert Marshall (left) while attending a cocktail party there in the mid-1930s.

Above: WWI veteran and actor Herbert Marshall (1890-1966), as he appeared around the time of his 1930s encounter with John Monk Saunders.

The fact that Saunders' reported fight was with a man who'd lost his leg in the First World War, and consequently made a poor choice for a sparring partner, made this evening rather notorious. It also didn't help that some of the details found their way into a column by Walter Winchell. While Saunders dried out from his longer benders from time to time, eventually, as the hard working Fay Wray learned to her chagrin, he could not avoid sinking further into a dependence on drugs as well as his alcoholism overwhelmed his life. Aware of his numerous affairs with other women, Wray expressed regret that she couldn't be as articulate as she supposed his other women were with her Oxford educated husband.

While Fay Wray went on to a different kind of immortality in small and large roles, (one memorable one opposite a certain King Kong comes to mind), she had a daughter Susan by John Monk Saunders at a time when their marriage was at its most precarious. A series of attempted reconciliations and separations culminated in a period when Saunders "injected [Fay Wray] with drugs while she slept, sold their house and pocketed the cash, sold their furniture to an antiques dealer and disappeared with their baby daughter. Miss Wray had made half a million dollars during the 11 years they were married. He had made half a million, too. Nothing was left."

Hospitalized again for treatment, Fay Wray sadly began divorce proceedings after an eleven year marriage in 1939. The following year he hung himself.

What was he driven by? Guilt over those he'd sent to war without experiencing it himself? The seeming ease with which he seduced women, or conquered the movies or squandered his own talents? Or simply a longing for peace. As Ms. Wray explained once, she never fully understood either, except that she always remembered the lines of Oscar Wilde that Saunders would murmur when trying to explain his moods to her: "Each man kills the thing he loves."

Upcoming Films on TCM Credited to John Monk Saunders

Eyman, Scott, The Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Lasky, Jesse Jr., Whatever Happened to Hollywood?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1975.
Suid, Lawrence H., Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film, University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Wray, Fay, On the Other Hand, St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Recommended Online Sources:

Jesse L. Lasky Official Site

Greenbriar Picture Show (Entry for May 2010)

Portions of this blog originally published by me at, Feb. 6, 2008. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Turner Classic Movies.

Last Updated September 6, 2010.


Charlie and Sheila Blanning said...

Thank you for researching and writing this. I have been fascinated by Saunders, and have some of his books as well as his films. I have always thought that he would be a fruitful subject for a film script of his own. I must try to find the Fay Wray autobiography.

Moira Finnie said...

You're very welcome, Charlie and Sheila.

The Fay Wray autobiography gives some very valuable insights into the talented John Monk Saunders' turbulent life. I think that you might also find Whatever Happened To Hollywood? by Jesse Lasky, Jr. to be another good resource about the writer's rise and fall. This memoir by the son of one of Hollywood's pioneer producers is one of the better written first hand accounts of that period, people and the tumult that went with the rush of success.

I think that Saunders' books and films, particularly, The Dawn Patrol (1930), Ace of Aces (1931) and The Last Flight (1931), may be particularly interesting as we approach the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, when everything seemed to change for civilization and those who witnessed it.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and for posting here. I'm most appreciative.


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