Clifford Odets on Stage and Screen

Adapted from my notebooks, written between 2006-2011

I can’t crow enough about how much I love playwright Clifford Odets (1906-1963). He is one of the few American writers of realism of whom it can truly be said that his dialogue rises to the level of poetry. It is an alchemical feat…indeed, for me, anyway, he takes his writing beyond poetry and into the babble of music. His genius is to take simple, commonplace language (often modern slang or Yiddish inflected) and hone it into malaprops, epigrams, one-liners, metaphors and just plain interesting ways to say things. While it is true that I am often outspoken against “political art”, it’s not the politics per se that I’ve ever had a problem with. What I can’t stand is a mediocre or a terrible artist who uses popular political messages as a crutch to shore up their shitty art, or even as a substitute for art. Odets is first and foremost a great artist, a romantic, an idealist. His great passion for life led to socialism as an outgrowth of the times in which he lived. When one of his characters waxes poetic about the possibilities for mankind it’s not awfully different from when one of his characters waxes poetic about the girl he loves. The common denominator is “poet”. Anyone who reduces him to “socialist” is a doofus, though that’s certainly a FACET of his personality. But anyway, all great American writers have taken a page from “folk song” and sung the praises of “the People”. It’s only natural that that would get wedded to socialism during the Great Depression. Almost alone among all American playwrights, Odets expresses this great metaphysical love, and understanding of, the common people. If you tell me Arthur Miller shares that, I’ll scream. Miller’s strictly middle class and one detects a certain scorn for the vulgar in his work. Odets, to his credit, embraces such vulgarity, the only sign of a true philosophical democrat.

Like many who are excellent at getting the DETAILS of nature, Odets is weaker on structure. Plot is a necessary evil with him one feels…there’s so much LIFE in his plays it’s almost like a plot is a straightjacket for him. Not his strong suit.

More context on the genesis of these plays in my post on the Group Theatre. 

Now, the major plays and screenplays:


Awake and Sing (1933, produced 1935). I love the first line in this play so much I thought about it for days afterward when I first read it: “Where’s advancement down the place?” It’s Odets’ style in a nutshell. It’s JUST how people talk, and yet it’s alien somehow…because it’s very specific. It’s how SOME people talk. On the public forum of the stage it’s almost disorienting in the way Elizabethan English is. It’s how Odets gets poetry from realism. It’s completely invigorating, intoxicating.

The play calls for a large-ish ensemble in which everybody gets to shine. A Jewish family crammed into an apartment. The mother is strong-willed and controlling to a fault. She runs the family, and she does so with an iron fist. Her husband is sweet and loveable but a virtual non-entity. This being the height of the Depression, their adult kids still live at home, as does the matriarch’s father, an outspoken socialist. The son is bursting at the seams because he doesn’t even have his own room, and his mother won’t let him marry his girlfriend, because she is too poor. Hovering on the sidelines is a gangster, who has the hots for the daughter, and the mother’s brother Uncle Mortie, a rich factory owner, who is very stingy with the amount of help he gives. The daughter gets knocked up and the mother forces her to marry an innocent schlub to support her. The baby is the gangster’s, however. In the end the grandfather jumps off the roof to his death, leaving his life insurance to the grandson. The play seems mostly a portrait of the unsavory life choices poverty forces on people – romantic happiness for either of the children seems impossible, though a good deal of their unhappiness comes from the compromises the mother forces them to make. If they didn’t listen to her and just followed their hearts, maybe they’d be poor and happy? Or perhaps poor and unhappy like everyone else. It is a question.

Waiting for Lefty (1935): Odets’ one example of unalloyed agit-prop. It caused him to burst onto the public scene. It is structurally his most interesting play. It takes the form of a union meeting of taxi drivers, run by a corrupt leadership. It is punctuated by flashbacks of various characters whose poverty is fucking up their lives, and have every reason to strike for better conditions (and not much to lose by doing so). It ends with a clarion call to workers to strike.

Till the Day I Die (1935): Very interesting deviation for Odets, and important, to boot – WAY ahead of its time. It is about some underground communist agitators in Nazi Germany…an ever dwindling group of hunted individuals whose days were numbered, as we know. This feels like a courageous play to have written in ’35. A good deal of the audience would have been indifferent to the brutalities of the Nazis at this stage. People who followed politics cared. People with relatives in Germany cared. So, in 1935, indifference. But beyond this, to describe the struggles of communists there in such heroic terms would be further alienating to some. This would have been a terrific play to present in the early 40s. I wonder if anyone did? I wonder if Brecht and other German communists knew of it? At any rate, Odets naivete about communism at this stage in history is charming and forgivable. At the very hour at which he was writing this play, Stalin’s communist police were rounding up political dissidents and subjecting them to the very same sort of persecution. And when the communists finally assumed power in East Germany in the mid-late forties, they would do the same.

Paradise Lost (1935): This is an interesting play. Odets called it his favorite, but from my perspective, of the early 30’s plays, it is his worst constructed one. He attempts to graft a Waiting for Lefty type exhortation to the end of another ensemble family drama much like Awake and Sing…but it is completely inorganic and unearned. This is a play about a businessman who is a very nice guy and as a result, gradually goes broke, and loses everything…to the point where the family is evicted and their furniture is on the sidewalk.

Golden Boy (1937): This might be Odets’ best known play. He stumbled on something very powerful here. The image of a boxer is very iconic…it embodies much: ancient notions of gladiators and knights updated, taking on an American, democratic form. It is impossible for the boxer not to be the “hero” in that old literary sense. Our eyes are on him. He is the focal point of this whole story. This makes this play different from his previous ones, which were strictly ensemble pieces. While all the supporting characters are very fully realized here, too, it’s really the story of Joe Bonaparte. He is faced with a stark choice…either make easy money as a boxer…or be a violinist — a much riskier financial proposition. Though he is talented at both, he can’t be both because the boxing will ruin his hands. The boxing folks all connive to convince him to choose boxing – because it is in their own financial interest to do so. And so, music – a powerful symbol for Odets the poet, the romantic to employ – is sacrificed. Purity is sacrificed, and materialism wins out. When Joe accidentally kills a man in the ring he vows to get out. Unfortunately the play is marred by a deus ex machina – a car crash – which is about the cheapest way to end a play imaginable. Another thing Odets does beautifully in this play is humanize all the boxing folks – they’re not just monsters, they have their reasons, their rationalizations for being the way they are, and we find ourselves sympathizing with them at moments…almost as though they are as much victims of this world as Joe is. It was made into a 1939 movie with William Holden, and a 1964 musical with Sammy Davis Jr.

Rocket to the Moon (1938). Unless I’m mistaken this is the first Odets play that has very little to do with poverty, socialism, etc. It’s the story of a dentist who is having a mid-life crisis and so has a fling with his secretary. Clurman calls it one of Odets’ best plays, but I don’t see it. Feels relatively conventional. The theme of choosing between the “romantic” and the “bread and butter” is certainly present, but the events of the play feel minor.

Night Music (1940) was Odet’s stab at a commercial comedy that was supposed to save the financially failing Group Theatre, but closed after a couple of weeks. Then Odets turned it unto a screenplay that didn’t get produced.

Clash by Night (1941). I’ve seen the film version, directed by Fritz Lang, a couple of times. Paul Douglas is a fishing boat captain in Monterey, CA. He winds up marrying the wayward sister (Barbara Stanwyck) of one of his fishermen, who seems determined to go straight. Unfortunately, wild man Robert Ryan (a movie projectionist) comes between them. Eventually she and Ryan are about to leave Douglas and their new baby but she decides not to do it. Marilyn Monroe is in the film as the brother’s girlfriend. Lots of great language and texture in the film. Feels like a noir in the early parts, but without the tragic ending one expects and wants. A bit to neat and “1950s” at the end.

Deadline at Dawn (1946) A screenplay by Odets, adapted from Cornell Woolrich, directed by Harold Clurman (his only film). The script cracks and bubbles with Odets’ hilarious lines, but the vehicle seems pretty shaky as plotted. A wide-eyed but drunken sailor (Paul Lukas) realizes he has accidentally (or maybe intentionally) walked out of a woman’s apartment with a wad of bills. In the meantime he has hooked up with a streetwise dance hall girl (Susan Hayward). He decides he should return the dough and gets Hayward to go with them. When they get back though the girl is dead. The balance of the film concerns them and an increasing number of rubber neckers and involved parties trying to solve the murder (though there’s a police station right across the street). The whole film is too much stuck in the apartment, and though they leave briefly they always come back to it. in the end, the killer is the blind man we saw in the beginning of the film, and because that’s been obvious throughout the entire movie, there’s no tension.

The Big Knife (1949) This is a powerful play, undoubtedly inspired by Odets’ own experiences and dilemmas in Hollywood. The fact that the main character is an actor (and one who does gangster pictures) rather than a playwright makes me also think the character might be based on John Garfield, whom he knew from the Group Theater. The stakes are very strong and it reminds me somewhat of Golden Boy although we are now at a different stage in the hero’s life. The man has been a star for awhile. His dilemma is that his wife threatens to leave him if he renews his lucrative new Hollywood contract. She wants a divorce because he is no longer the man she married (allusions to theater and ideals etc). He is now turning into a typical Hollywood monster…at least part of him is. Inside, he is struggling. Turning the heat up is a bit of blackmail. A year ago, he had drunkenly killed someone in a car accident and the studio hushed it up. He doesn’t want to go to jail, he doesn’t want to be poor…on the other hand he loves his wife and he doesn’t want to be a monster. The wild card is a pretty bit player who is ready to blow the whistle. The studio executives are totally evil. Their plan is to encourage the divorce, getting the wife out of the way…and getting the star to marry the talkative girl. When the star and his wife reconcile, they then plot to kill the other girl. But then the star makes a big stink. He is so disgusted with their behavior that he throws his Hollywood career, and possibly his freedom, away. The news arrives that the bit player has been hit by a car, but it’s too late: the star has himself committed suicide. This ending is a bit melodramatic for my tastes, not to mention a stretch, and somewhat unnecessary. I think there must be ten better endings for this play. But the tension, the dialogue, etc is all wonderful. It truly paves the way for the likes of Hurlyburly and Speed-the-Plow decades down the line. The all-star movie version is terrific! Rod Steiger (in a preposterous wig!), Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Everett Sloan!

The Country Girl (1950) This one feels so different from the other plays of Odets I’ve encountered thus far that it’s hard to process without some effort. Little turns of phrase unmistakably have Odets’ voice. Only with effort though can I tie it to the other plays I know. It feels most like Rocket to the Moon; its subject is personal and without social ramifications. It is about a washed-up actor who, having guilt about the death of his son (having let go of his hand, the kid ran into traffic), has become washed-up, alcoholic and bereft of confidence. Egging him on is a stage director who has given him a shot at a lead in a Broadway show; the director character feels reminiscent perhaps of the boxing handlers in Golden Boy, keeps pressuring the main character to get off the fence and perform. And there is the title character, the alcoholic actor’s wife, who first comes off as one of Odets’ domineering females, and then gradually we learn that this perception of her has been painted by the actor, whom, like all alcoholics, is manipulative. She emerges to be more like Odets’ romantic females, only here we have more of an Antony and Cleopatra situation than Romeo and Juliet. The director falls in love with her because of her character, but in the end she chooses to stay with the husband, which is more evidence of her character. Ultimately, I don’t think I enjoy this play and can’t quite say why. It feels bleak, without the humor and humanity that normally characterizes his work. People are depressed, angry, unhappy, scared, and there’s no real let-up. The film features some of the best acting Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby ever did and one of my favorite actors William Holden completes the trio. I’m tempted to wonder—is the script based on some personal experience? It IS set in the theater. And if so, was he the director or the broken down alcoholic? Will have to learn more.

Did Odets have the feeling that the historical moment has passed him by, prompting such non-ideological writing? Because the moment HADN’T exactly passed him by. Scripts like On the Waterfront or The Crucible and Odets’ own Sweet Smell of Success came out in the fifties. But note that these came after this play. Perhaps things with HUAC and American anti-communist sentiment were still too strong in 1950 for him to risk rabble-rousing. He testified before the committee in 1952.

The Flowering Peach (1954) It is a testament to Odets’ vivid, metaphorical style of writing that I actually read several pages before I realized that the play was literally about Noah and the building of the ark. This is because the characters speak in the usual Yiddish inflected dialect, but also because his characters ALWAYS say things like “a big rain’s gonna come”, only usually it’s not so literal. It seems to me the play reveals the (in this case) baleful influence of Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Arthur Miller was to try the same thing a few years later with Adam and Eve play. It is a one-joke idea and gets tiresome 30 seconds into it. It not only sells the myth it is based on short, it sells the art of comedy short. No real comic playwright would do anything so gimmicky. It’s full of great lines. IT also has a great plot that has nothing to do with Noah…the family dynamics he draws are true and great. He should have done an East of Eden thing like Steinbeck. Transpose the Biblical narrative to an American setting. Worst of all, I have no idea why he calls the play by this name. who would ever know it’s about Noah’s Ark? There goes half his ticket sales right there. The musical version, Two By Two, is much better. By the way, apparently Tony Randall revived this play for his repertory company—rather a symptom of his poor judgment as an impresario.

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) Odets cowrote this screenplay with Ernest Lehman and it’s fun to try to figure out who wrote what. Truth to tell, Odets’ pawprints are all over it, and it’s hard to pick out what Lehman might have written (though Lehman wrote the original story, so there you go). For starters the whole thing is written in this beautiful patois that sounds so much like Odets – as in most of his plays of the 30s, nearly every line is quotable…something to be savored. Of course, Lehman is also a witty writer. The situation is also pure Odets…reminds me a lot of Golden Boy…a study of how materialism corrupts (or can corrupt) everything it touches. As with Golden Boy, there are plenty of decent, or half-decent characters, but the deck is stacked, and you can see they all have to struggle against a million pressures and temptations to REMAIN decent. As in The Big Knife, you have people ruined and corrupted by show business and public relations. Another Odets-like element is the idea of a couple of idealistic lovers struggling to make a world together in this sewer. For somebody like me, a movie like this is a jackpot. Even if you put aside the great writing, the gorgeous photography and the awesome be bop soundtrack, the cast is a mother lode. It is perhaps the ONLY movie I’ve ever seen where it made sense to me that Tony Curtis was cast. Sidney Falco, the sleazy, immoral p.r. guy is the role he was born to play. Burt Lancaster is also brilliant casting because he is most often the all-American hero. Here (as in The Cassandra Crossing) it is cool to have him as an all-American villain, the opportunistic megalomaniacal columnist…there is a symbolism to this casting. It also features Martin Milner of Adam 12 as the world’s only clean, wholesome jazz musician, and David White  (“Larry Tate” of Bewitched) as a lecherous rival columnist. And above all, the great Joe Frisco as an old vaudeville comic!

Wild in the Country (1961) It’s really true! Clifford Odets wrote an Elvis movie! I already blogged about it. Read it here.

Odets’ final credits were a couple of episodes of The Richard Boone Show. He died of stomach cancer at age 57.