As the story goes, Paddy Chayefsky and Bob Fosse were good friends. In the course of their relationship Chayefsky made Fosse promise that he’d dance at his funeral and, as friends will occasionally do, Fosse readily agreed.
And made good. In 1981, at Chayefsky’s funeral, the great choreographer honored his friend with a two minute soft shoe routine.
To a person who revels in the marriage between principle and the written word, Chayefsky is a name to conjure with. A novelist, playwright and screenwriter, he always pushed realism beyond the envelope of convention. Courageous, he never shirked from showing the warts which grew on the face of Polite Society. An example of what the medium of television could have and should have been in this country, Chayefsky eventually turned away from a system dominated by networks more interested in selling automobiles than in promoting quality.
On top of that, Chayefsky could be darn entertaining.
In 1963 Chayefsky produced a screen adaptation of William Huie’s 1959 novel “The Americanization of Emily” (which, if you haven’t had the opportunity to read, I would highly recommend). Both novel and movie share the same story, but Chayefsky’s personal stamp on his screenplay is unmistakable and, barring my starting a fiction column, I’ll concentrate on the movie in this space.
The story takes place in England during 1944. With World War II in full swing, the Allies are gearing up for the invasion of the European continent. In the meantime, Charlie Madison, an aide to Rear Admiral William Jessup, is concentrating not on the war but on keeping his Admiral happy. In the course of his efforts he becomes attracted to Emily Barham: a motor pool driver and widow who admits to “falling in love too easily” and who has already lost a father and brother, along with her husband, to the war. Their blossoming romance becomes threatened when Jessup, in a move to bolster the Navy’s reputation, decides that the first man to die on D-Day must be a sailor, and he selects Charlie to document the event.
Chayefsky’s screenplay would be filmed for MGM in 1964, directed by Arthur Hiller and produced by Martin Ransohoff (who seems to have produced a lot of my favorite films. I’d go over and mow his lawn if I knew where he lived). Although modestly received and honored it still manages to attract a respectable following to this day.
The roles of Charlie and Emily went to James Garner and Julie Andrews. I personally happen to like Garner as an actor. One of those fortunate types who has managed to age gracefully, Garner has always been adaptable to whatever genre he’s found himself in. Dramatic, funny, action-oriented . . . Garner has always delivered. Saying this as kindly and as complimentary as possible, Garner to me has always been the Cary Grant for people on a budget (and people will still read that the wrong way, I bet). He always considered the role of Charlie Madison to be one of his favorites, and small wonder as it seems to have been tailor made for him. Possessing elements of the role he played the year before in “The Great Escape”, Garner’s Madison is a smooth-talking but gold-hearted thief whose left hand doesn’t know what his right is doing. Along with this he possesses an eye for the ladies (who certainly don’t mind being under examination).
“The Americanization of Emily” came out a few months after “Mary Poppins”, and a year before “The Sound of Music”, which goes far to explain how the film managed to slip between the cracks in the minds of the movie-going audience. Sort of a pity because, out of the three, I’d much rather see Andrews cavort about with Garner. She actually cavorts rather well, revealing the little-recognized fact that Julie Andrews could be sensuous and sexy when the situation calls for it. Or perhaps it could be put down to Chemistry, seeing as how the same sparks would be generated between her and Garner eighteen years later in “Victor Victoria”. But Andrews also nimbly walks the razor’s edge between the young woman wanting to love and the very human person who’s been injured by tragedy. When Garner accuses her of preferring “lovers to husbands, hotels to homes” and that she’d rather “grieve than live”, her face clearly reflects the pain of the awful truth (and a hell of a lot more sincerely than she did under Hitchcock’s direction in “Torn Curtain” years later).
There’s a lot of other decent talent to be seen in the film, although Chayefsky’s writing and Hiller’s direction doesn’t spread thinly enough to cover everyone. William Windom and Keenan Wynn pretty much wander in and out. Receiving much better shrift is James Coburn, shining as Garner’s best friend who gets caught up in Admiral Jessup’s megalomaniacal scheme (and, as he would in films like “The President’s Analyst” and “The Last of Sheila” teach us that Jim Carrey did not invent expressive faces in actors). Joyce Grenfell, one of the treasures of the British acting community, is well-cast here as Andrews’ mother (three cups charm, stir in a teaspoon of dottiness and serve). But almost serving as the third leg in the acting tripod of the film is Melvyn Douglas as Admiral Jessup. Kindly, ambitious and at times mad as a hatter, Douglas’ characterization of Jessup at times threatens to outshine both Garner and Andrews (not that I feel either party would’ve minded much. As had been proven so often during his career, a bit of Melvyn Douglas was just what a film needed).
“The Americanization of Emily” was billed as a “comedy drama”, which is Hollywoodese for “Chayefsky wrote the script”. There’s nothing one can really point at in the film as knee-slapping hilarious. Rather, all the humor is lighthearted or, for want of a better term, pleasantly warm (another good example of this would be Mark Rydell’s 1969 film “The Reivers”). Truth be told, a lot of the tone of the film is rather dark, what with a mad Admiral literally ordering a trusted crewman to his death just for the sake of Navy prestige. But out of this darkness the main characters manage to enter into a rather sweet relationship, and of course that brings about the sort of emotional speed bumps which bring familiar smiles to the faces of lovers who’ve traveled on similar roads. The most whimsical scenes seem to involve a lack of clothing: Garner running around in his underwear while on the verge of being shipped off to war, and Garner bursting in on Coburn’s hotel room as Coburn is attempting to improve American-British relationships between himself and a scantily clad girl.
But the chuckles come more often as a result of Chayefsky’s snappy dialog, and more often than chuckles is the knowledge that Chayefsky is dead stone serious about venting his feelings concerning war. The opening credits aren’t even finished when the first shots are fired: showing scenes of commanding officers being surrounded in luxury (in the midst of an England suffering under wartime shortages . . . not to mention what the common troops are having to face). Many of the lines which Madison delivers yank the rug out from under the supposed nobility of war. For all his thievery Madison is a worshipper of honesty, and his cruelest sneers are directed at those who defend sentiment for its own sake. It’s the underlying subject of the film (as well as the love of a good woman) which teaches Madison that it’s not the war which is evil, but the virtues which are attached to it. Few Sunday morning sermons have been delivered so eloquently (and so entertainingly).
And few (in any) have been filmed so neatly. Relieved from having to film a battle epic, Phillip Lathrop and Christopher Challis’ cinematography is lean and focused (as befitting the script of a classic television writer). The emphasis is on the characters rather than the settings. It is also in black-and-white, allowing (consciously or otherwise) the audience to concentrate on the soul of the story.
(Not only that, but I personally feel Chayefsky is one of those authors whose work should always be filmed in black-and-white.)
Chayefsky will best be noted for triumphs like “Marty”, “Network” and “The Hospital”. But even his least efforts would leave a mark as small and enduring as Glinda’s kiss. “The Americanization of Emily” is, to my point of view at least, an excellent way to adapt an existing novel by another author and still make it one’s own. It’s also a smooth and well-fashioned collection of talent that feels for the heart and, as such, will comfortably last quite a while.
I rather Enjoyed the Movie!