Biopics: The Sequel


Carl Rollyson

I received a number of responses to my column on biopics that I want to address in this sequel.

First, an anecdote from a fellow biographer: “When Warners suggested a picture about Burma (Objective Burma) to Alvah Bessie, he told the producer (Jerry Wald): ‘But there are no American soldiers in Burma.’ Wald said, 'Oh that’s OK. It's just a movie.’ Bessie received an Oscar nomination for original story.”

That anecdote reminded me that Dana Andrews did a film with Tyrone Power called Crash Dive (available on dvd). It’s about an American submarine that infiltrates a German base, after which the crew gets off the sub and blows up the German complex.

Nothing like the Crash Dive mission ever occurred during World War II—except for the famous morale boosting Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, an early effort to retaliate after the attack on Pearl Harbor. American bomber crews took off from an aircraft carrier in the western Pacific (a feat in itself for such heavy planes) and had only enough fuel to make it back to China, where the Japanese captured the pilots who had ditched their ships. Of course, in that case the captured American aviators were executed for their exploit—the subject of another Dana Andrews film, The Purple Heart (also available on dvd), which is itself largely a fiction. At the time the film was made (1943), no one knew what happened to the crew the Japanese had captured. This film is well worth watching for the ensemble performances of Dana, Farley Granger, Richard Conte, and Sam Levene.

The cast of Crash Dive also includes Anne Baxter, who is supposed to marry Dana’s character but falls in love with Tyrone Power. When I looked up Crash Dive on while working on Dana’s biography, one of the user reviews said the only thing that could have saved the film would have been putting Anne Baxter into the submarine. I thought that crack was worth putting into the biography. If Crash Dive is still worth watching, it is for the action sequences that earned it an Academy Award nomination. World War II buffs also have a good time pointing out the film’s goofs. Here is one listed on the imdb website:

Continuity: As Lt. Ward Stewart arrives on the dock to meet his new command, two Gato class submarines are seen leaving the dock. From the camera on the dock, they are traveling at, roughly, full reverse (stern first) the shot then alternates several times to the boats obviously moving at, more or less, full ahead (bow first). It’s pretty easy to tell which end is which on a WW2 era submarine.

Of course, both Crash Dive and The Purple Heart have more to do with American knowhow and a never-say-die attitude in service of wartime propaganda than with verisimilitude. It is as if the filmmakers said, “Damn the facts, full speed ahead!”

Facts can be a major inconvenience to a filmmaker, even as they are a treasured resource for the biographer, who handles them with reverence. While writing my screenplay about Dana Andrews, I have been amused at myself because I am constantly tempted to fudge the facts. As Dana’s daughter Kathy told me: “And now there is more than one process at work. I’m curious about artistic license. It appears that screenplays ‘based on’ the lives of famous people include scenes that the writers couldn’t be around for and situations that seem to fit their characters and flesh them out, whether or not anything remotely similar ever took place.”

Why does this happen? Because of story values. For example, in my draft screenplay about Dana Andrews, I have a scene set in Uvalde, Texas, which fuses some of what happened in Uvalde and in Rockdale, Texas, because the drama is made much more intense that way. I want to show how Dana’s Baptist preacher father, Charles Forrest Andrews (CF), was on the one hand, an intolerant man and a Klan supporter, and on the other hand a fierce democrat, who felt compelled to resign his pastorate in Rockdale because prominent townsmen felt he had rebuffed their influence in church activities. He supported the Klan’s anti-immigrant campaigns, but also supported its pro-Prohibition stance. The Klan even contributed financing to a proposed new church in Uvalde that CF was planning to build. Thus in my film the Klan marches into church (true story) just as CF is defending himself against the claims of wealthy congregants that he is including the poor in church activities (true, but part of the Rockdale period). Do I have to do this? That is the question. I suspect that, at least in some respects, I do—at least in a feature film. Not in a documentary, of course. Biographies by and large take a strictly linear approach, whereas films compress time and are synoptic. The feature film has to have a dramatic arc and work scene by scene in ways that biographies, much as one tries, usually do not. Some biographers have been guilty of making things up. I’d never do so, as such fudging would destroy the integrity of my work. And yet, that kind of integrity is usually sacrificed in small and sometimes large ways in feature filmmaking.

Just saw the trailer for an HBO film, Hemingway and Gellhorn. It is truly atrocious. The Martha Gellhorn who appears is just not the woman I wrote about. Not even close. And I could tell as much in just one minute! I wouldn’t do that to Dana Andrews. Such a makeover would destroy my own work in the biography. But I am tempted to bring out certain features of Dana’s character and background by creating scenes that never quite happened in the way my proposed film presents them. Thus we will have a script “based on the life of Dana Andrews.”


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.



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