On Edna Ferber: Page, Stage and Screen


Today is the birthday of that key member of the Algonquin Round Table Edna Ferber (1885-1968). Like many popular American writers, Ferber wasn’t so much any kind of literary genius in terms of being a wordsmith, but she excelled in crafting highly effective scenarios, characters and plots that made for great populist entertainments. Not a humorist per se, it’s a little hard to imagine what she contributed to the Algonquin repartee in terms of wit, but she probably had a saucy, rude tongue. She is said to have modeled the Mercedes McCambridge character in Giant on herself, a homely, short, blunt, aggressive old maid.

Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, her works are steeped in Americana, and her aesthetic is a holdover from the old school melodrama. One of the major themes of her work is a liberal instinct, with strong female heroines at their center, and overt messages of sympathy for blacks, mulattoes, Indians, Mexicans and Jews ( of which she was one). But her good intentions are often undermined (to modern eyes and ears) by unconscious racism of a patronizing sort, which is a common enough foible in writers of earlier eras. Her works also tend to be “epics”, tales spanning many years, often many generations tracing the growth of America from a frontier state to the (then) present day in the early 20th century.

I’ve read four of her best known novels (and seen many or most of the film versions) and read three of her plays (also having seen the film versions) so I feel fairly conversant on the subject of her writing, though there is a ton of it I haven’t tackled yet. Her career spanned the years 1911-1963. There are dozens more works to her credit, including a few more popular enough to have been made into movies, so I have some more work to do. These are the ones I know:

So Big (1924). Based on the real life story of Antje Paarlberg, it concerns a young woman who goes west to be a schoolteacher, and suffers because of the culture clash. (The farmers scoff at books and art). She marries a farmer and bears him a son, but her husband dies, forcing her to manage the farm herself, which she does, becoming substantial enough to send her son (affectionately known as “So Big”) to college to be an architect. The irony (there always is one) is that she (who had been deemed unfit for farm life and hated it, always vowing to escape) is far better at it than any of the people around her who’ve done it for generations, so she makes a fortune. The irony is then compounded by the fact that her son becomes a snob, who looks down on the source of his wealth and is scornful to his mother, who dotes on him. A parallel theme has to do with art. The heroine loves a young man who turns out to be a famous sculptor, and her son, who’d started out to be an architect, abandons art to become a money-grubbing stock broker. The book has had three film adaptations; a silent 1924 version starring Colleen Moore; a 1932 version starring Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent (this is the film version I’ve seen); and a 1953 one directed by Robert Wise, with Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden. 


Showboat (1926) Apart from Giant, this is Ferber’s best known work on account of the musical (which happens to be on my short list of personal favorites). The story of a traveling theatre troupe on a river showboat run by the lovable Cap’n Andy, his terror of a wife Parthenia, and their daughter Magnolia, who later marries a gambling wastrel named Gaylord Ravenal who leaves her in the lurch. A memorable subplot concerns the mulatto woman Julie, who has been passing for white as they travel through the south, and her white husband Steve. The book spans the years 1880 to the (then) present. There is a kind of genius to this story — set amongst folks whose job is performing old time 19th century melodrama, the tale has the FORM of a 19th century melodrama. And Ferber also very intelligently draws imagery and themes from Mark Twain — these American waterways are a metaphor for the great river of life.

The musical version was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld in 1927, with music by Jerome Kern, book by Oscar Hammerstein II, and lyrics by Hammerstein and P.G. Wodehouse. The cast included Charles Winninger, Edna May Oliver and Helen Morgan; Paul Robeson for whom the part of Joe was written, appeared in later productions. This is a stellar line-up of talent, and they ended up producing a landmark, pivotal Broadway show, one of the first of the so-called integrated musicals (meaning the songs are integrated into the show, i.e., they help tell the story. Although this has to have been one of the first racially integrated shows, too). The (still) popular songs from the show include “Ol’ Man River”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “Make Believe”, and Helen Morgan’s show stopper as Julie, “Bill”.

There are three major film versions of the novel, the latter two based primarily on the musical. The 1929 version is based strictly on the novel and is essentially a silent, with non-sync sound, music, a little audible dialogue and a couple of numbers from the show. It features Laura La Plante as Magnolia, Alma Rubens as Julie, Otis Harlan as Cap’n Andy, Neely Edwards as Schultzie and Stepin Fetchit as Joe.  It has stuff the musical doesn’t, like the death of Capt’n Andy and an extended sequence off the boat in Chicago, depicting the married life of Magnolia and Gaylord, as his gambling makes them progressively poorer. The 1936 version (the best all ’round) was directed by James Whale and has much of the Broadway cast, with the notable addition of Irene Dunne and Allan JonesThe 1951 updated, color version to my mind has far less charm, although we do have the bonus of Joe E. Brown as Cap’n Andy and Agnes Moorehead as Parthy (the rest of the cast, Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner are fairly snoozeville). And the impulse to shoot it in real-world locations is grossly misplaced in this distinctly idealized musical.


Cimarron (1929) My guess is that, after Show Boat and Giant, Cimmaron is the third well-known Ferber novel. This too because it was adapted into films, and fans of the western genre will know it best. It is an epic of the founding of Oklahoma, starting with the territory’s opening to settlers in 1889 through the Oil Boom in the (then) present. The hero is a lawyer/ newspaper editor and a slightly wild “Man’s Man”. And probably part Indian  (Cimarron means wild). He is kind to the black, the Indian, the Jew and the wronged woman, throughout the story. He also shoots a man while he is delivering a sermon. Gradually he comes to educate his wife, who is more prejudiced than he is.  She becomes a congresswoman. He has long since disappeared, becomes a drifter, and dies saving some people from an oil rig accident just as she is nearby, a melodramatic but effective device. The 1931 film version directed by Wesley Ruggles, was RKO’s biggest production to date (the scene where the Sooner’s race into the territory to make their land claims , riding every conveyance known to man, is most impressive for its time, a total spectacle). The film’s screenplay by Howard Estabrook won an Oscar (as did the art direction and the picture itself!); the cast included western star Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Nance O’Neill, William Collier Jr, Edna May Oliver, and Rosco Ates.  The 1960 remake, directed by Anthony Mann is less memorable.


Come and Get It (1935) I haven’t read the book yet but I watched the 1936 film adaptation, co-directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler, and starring Edward Arnold, Mary Nash, Joel McCrea, Frances Farmer and Walter Brennan. This is an epic of the logging industry, set in Wisconsin (where Ferber actually grew up). Arnold’s character, who got in on the ground floor when the industry was young, is a ruthless tycoon. His son has a moonbeam idea about investing part of the profits into planting new trees, which the father keeps rejecting. And there’s romance! The logger marries for money, forsaking his true love who later goes on to marry one of his buddies. The meat of the story concerns his creepy efforts to woo the daughter of his true love…who of course looks just liker her mother. Arnold, who’s usually about 3rd or 4th in the billing as a character actor, is terrific in the role as the logging tycoon, perhaps one of the few stars who could have played him.


Giant (1952) Of Ferber’s novels this may the one I enjoyed the most as a reading experience. Her prose seems simpler (less forced) and more in tune with her ability, and the tension in the plot is very strong. And the 1956 film version, directed by Oscar-winning George Stevens, may be the best screen adaption of her work– it certainly gets at the epic scope and grandeur she describes, helped no doubt by the film’s 201 minute running time (3 hours, 21 minutes). The story is of course the sweeping tale of a spoiled Texas cattle millionaire (Rock Hudson), his ball-busting sister (Mercedes McCambridge), his fish out of water socialite wife (Elizabeth Taylor), their studly handyman (James Dean), and their screwed up children (Dennis Hopper, Fran Bennett and Carroll Baker). The popularity of this film I think is symptomatic of what Ferber’s peculiar genius was. Her stories are soap opera usually set against a rugged, forbidding backdrop — thus pleasing (traditional) female and male audiences simultaneously. I grew up thinking of this film as a classic since both my parents loved it. (my mother had a serious thing for Rock Hudson; my father had a serious thing for Texas).


Of course, Edna Ferber also wrote for the stage and she co-wrote with George S. Kaufman several plays I consider among his best. These, too, were all made into films. These included:


The Royal Family (1927)

Characters loosely based on the Barrymores and the Drews. Ethel Barrymore was asked to play in it, but found it too close to home and actually considered suing. It’s about a family of hams (always funny), always making cracks about each other. Two of them briefly retire for love but of course come back to the fold. It ends, poignantly on the debut of an infant, and the passing of the matriarch. The 1930 film version, adapted by Herman Mankiewicz, is called The Royal Family of Broadway, and was directed by George Cukor and starred Fredric March and Ina Claire


Dinner at Eight (1932)

The premise is comic – a dinner party in which every conceivable aspect goes wrong. But it takes it much farther…just about everything that goes wrong is tragic: a suicide, a man with only a few days to live, an old family business failing, a fist fight over a girl, bigamy, adultery, financial swindle, a young girl’s disillusionment and dissipation. In light of all this, all the main character is concerned about is her dinner party! It is melodramatic and implausible of course, but it still works on the level of art. The 1933 film version, also directed by Cukor, is magic, starring Billie Burke, Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy et al. (It’s impossible not to associate it with Grand Hotel, which came out the previous year and sported an all-star cast that also included both Barrymore Brothers and Beery).

Stage Door (1936)

Set in a boarding house for struggling actresses…almost a sorority feel, with about fifteen women running in and out, going to work and going on dates. Some despair that they never get work (one commits suicide). Some work. One becomes a famous Hollywood star. The heroine of course is the one who is spoken of as the best actress, and sticks to her guns in the theater. She turns down Hollywood’s siren call twice: once when she passes her screen test and a studio wants her to be a contract player, and a second time when her boyfriend, an Odets-like socialist playwright, gets a contract and invites her to go with him. She remains in the theater despite the struggle. In the end, she gets a great part in an important play. One admires the sentiment that one should stick to artistic ideals, of course. There are several things wrong with that notion as presented in this play, however.  Cinema as an art form is not inferior to theater, particularly the commercial theater, which happens to be the form in which Ferber and Kaufman are writing. This very play is as different from art theater as any Hollywood movie (which it also became). SUCCESS — not Hollywood — is the bugaboo that prevents one from doing one’s best work. One must fight against its temptations. When one is starving, one is forced to be as excellent as possible – and one has the freedom to do so with no interference from the numbskulls who spend all their time making money, which any fool can do. But, beyond that, one should do whatever makes one happy. I can’t think of anyone, ultimately, who wants to make art and not be a success. Does success kill art? Sometimes. But starvation kills YOU.

The 1937 film version, directed by Gregory La Cava, is once again all-star magic, featuring Katharine Hepburn, Gail Patrick, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller, Constance Collier, Adolphe Menjou, Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton and Jack Carson. 


Next on my list of Ferber books to read/ movies to see:

Saratoga Trunk (1941) – -a romance of a Texas gambler and his Louisiana creole consort, made into a 1945 film, and a 1959 musical entitled Saratoga

Ice Palace (1958), an epic of Alaska, timed to celebrate its statehood, and made into a 1960 film.


Ferber’s last book was a 1963 memoir A Kind of Magic. 


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