The Screenplay and The Actor

One regret I have about my book The Screenplay as Literature was that I did not give enough attention to the contribution of the actor in the production of a film.  We all know that the casting of a particular actor in a film can overshadow almost everything else, making it impossible to conceive of the film without him or her.  For example, who could think of the film noir classics The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep without Humphrey Bogart?  Or The Godfather without Marlon Brando?   Furthermore, the influence of the casting of a particular actor in a film can even affect the underlying  screenplay, especially if the actor is a major star, as the two following examples illustrate.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a 1944 film musical set during the time of the1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.  The story of the film concerns a family living in St. Louis and the anxiety and uncertainty caused by the husband/father’s decision to move his family to New York in order to start a new job.  The star of the film was Judy Garland, who was then 22 years old.  At the time Judy Garland was “America’s Sweetheart,” and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

In the film Judy was to sing a song entitled “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  The lyrics to the song began like this:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It may be your last

Next year we may be living in the past

When Judy Garland was first given the lyrics to read, she protested that she could never sing them.  She is quoted as saying, “If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll (the audience) think I’m a monster.”   (Margaret was Margaret O’Brien, who played Judy’s younger sister, to whom she was to sing the song.)

The lyricist of the song, Hugh Martin, was unmoved, telling Judy that the lyrics he had written perfectly fit the screenplay, no matter how depressing they sounded.  Finally, one of the other actors in the film said to him, “Do what she asks and change the lyrics; if you do you’ll have a huge hit.”   Martin did change the lyrics, which began as follows:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Let your heart be light

Next year all our troubles will be out of sight

I am not familiar with the source material (a novel) for the film, so I cannot comment whether or not the changes made to suit Judy were an improvement or a detriment; but in any event the audience did not seem to mind:  Meet Me In St. Louis turned out to be the second highest grossing film of the year.  And as for the song in question: it has become an American standard—played again and again at Christmas time.

In 1976 John Wayne made a Western entitled The Shootist.   Wayne was an enormously popular actor who had appeared mostly in Westerns for over five decades.  In most of these films he portrayed  a hero, who although often violent and sometimes uncouth, was nevertheless “a straight-shooter.”  In The Shootist, Wayne deviated somewhat from his usual roles; here he is an ex-gunfighter with an unsavory past who was dying of cancer.  When Wayne read the screenplay for the first time, he noted to his chagrin that his character was to shoot someone in the back.  Wayne is then alleged to have said, “Mister, I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back.  Change it.”  Well, the script was changed: someone was shot in the back, but not by John Wayne.  Since I am not conversant with the source material for the film (a novel), I cannot say that this was an improvement.  But in any event Wayne’s multitude of fans never had to witness their beloved hero shooting someone in the back.  This turned out to be Wayne’s last film; he passed away three years later.

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