Respect for Nunnally Johnson

I find myself increasingly interested in the work of Nunnally Johnson (1897-1977) who combined the cracker-scribe identity of guys like William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe with the journalistic orientation of Ben Hecht, the visionary producer instinct of Selznick, and for a while was even emulating Alfred Hitchcock.

Hailing from Columbus, Georgia, Johnson started out working for the local Columbus Enquirer Sun, and then traded up: the Savannah Press, the Brooklyn Eagle, the New York Evening Post, and the New York Herald Tribune (which used to be more important than the Times). He began to get stories published in magazines. One of them was adapted into the film Rough House Rosie (1927) starring Clara Bow. In 1930 his stories were published in book form as There Ought to be a Law. The following year another of his stories was made into the film Mlle. Irene the Great starring Al St. John, and he also contributed to Heywood Broun’s Broadway revue Shoot the Works with George Murphy, Imogene Coca, and Percy Helton. He started toiling regularly in the vineyards of Hollywood in 1933. Some early efforts include Eddie Cantor’s Kid Millions (1934, with the team of Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin), Baby Face Harrington (1935) with Charles Butterworth, Thanks a Million (1935) with Dick Powell, Fred Allen, and Ann Dvorak, and Rose of Washington Square (1939).

By 1935 Johnson was already also a producer, and so he had a hand in producing most of his own screenplays, allowing him some control over his own voice. He became known for certain types of projects, notably ones with rural and western themes: these pictures include Banjo on My Knee (1936), Jesse James (1939), John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Tobacco Road (1941), The Southerner (1945), Along Came Jones (1945), and The Gunfighter (1950). Other notable projects that show his handiwork include Roxie Hart (1942, co-written with Ben Hecht, it became a basis for the musical Chicago, along with earlier sources); and Casanova Brown (1944).

I mentioned Hitchcock in the opening paragraph. I am thinking specifically of Johnson’s 1952 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, and the fascinating Black Widow (1954), both of which I wrote about here, and to a lesser extent, The Three Faces of Eve (1957), which includes a lot of the Freudian-speak of the type Hitchcock put in things like Spellbound and Pyscho. Johnson directed Black Widow and The Three Faces of Eve himself. For a brief period 1954-60, he was that rarest of things in Hollywood, a total auteur. The other well known picture of his from this period is The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) — a valuable snapshot of postwar America.

Some themes of his late work? He worked with Marilyn Monroe twice, first on How to Marry a Millionaire (1952), then on her unfinished last film Something’s Got to Give (1962). He worked on the Elvis picture Flaming Star (1960). There are the late Jimmy Stewart comedies Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962), Take Her, She’s Mine (1963) and Dear Bridgette (1965), all directed by Henry Koster who’d also directed My Cousin Rachel. In 1964 he helped his daughter Nora Johnson adapt her novel The World of Henry Orient into the classic Peter Sellers comedy directed by George Roy Hill. They later adapted it into the short-lived Broadway musical Henry, Sweet Henry (1967). Johnson’s last project was a major one: he wrote the screenplay for Robert Aldrich’s smash hit The Dirty Dozen (1967).