Booth Tarkington and the Movies

I am a huge fan of midwestern authors and poets from a century and more ago, guys like Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, George Ade, and others. One shouldn’t wonder. They wrote during the vaudeville period; they wrote of the same America, of small towns, and train travel, and “new-fangled contraptions”, as well as the pitfalls of too-rapid progress. Most of these gents wrote when my grandparents were young people, and they influenced that generation. Many have been forgotten, perhaps because their work was percieved as too narrowly regional, though I saw plenty in my small New England town that resembled their portraits. The writers from their crop who tend to be better remembered are guys like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who left the midwest and wrote about the wider world. But part of the appeal for me is visiting THAT world, ya know, Winesburg, Ohio. And any jerk can climb on a bandwagon to read what everybody else reads.

Anyway, this is all prologue to declaring Hoosier scribe Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) to be one of the chief of these authors I like. How extraordinary to think how his profile has waned. Tarkington is one of only four authors to win two Pulitzer Prizes. Now, nobody reads him. Orson Welles, a midwesterner himself, took Tarkington’s fame for granted when he made the best-known screen adaptation of one of his works into his second feature The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). That movie was certainly my pathway in to the author and remains the book of his I know best (I can even quote lines from it). And yet that was to be one of the last screen adaptations of his writing. It was followed by Norman Taurog’s 1943 musical Presenting Lily Mars with Judy Garland; the 1946 version of Monsieur Beaucaire with Bob Hope; and the Doris Day musicals On Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953). By then, there is a strong whiff of nostalgia in the vehicles, and one comprehends what became of Tarkington’s popularity. He was percieved as old-fashioned (ironic, given the themes of Ambersons).

Prior to this, though, there were numerous movies made of Tarkington’s novels, stories, and plays. George Stevens’ 1935 version of Alice Adams with Katharine Hepburn is doubtless the best remembered (it happens to be my favorite Hepburn performance). A decade earlier there had also been a silent version starring Florence Vidor. There had also been a 1924 silent version of Monsier Beaucaire with Valentino and Bebe Daniels. The movie Mississippi (1935) starring W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby was based on the Tarkington novel Magnolia. The novel Gentle Julia was made into a silent in 1924 with Bessie Love and a talkie in 1936 with Jane Withers. Tarkington’s first play The Man From Home (1908) became the 1923 John Ford film Cameo Kirby starring John Gilbert. And the 1922 screen version of The Flirt starred the old Keystone comedy hand George Nichols.

But easily the most fruitful cinematic franchise to spring from Tarkington’s pen was his Penrod series of children’s books. When they were published (1914-1929), Tarkington was hailed as a successor to Mark Twain, and indeed there are some echoes of Tom and Huck and even Jim in these books about mishievous little boys, 11 year old Penrod, his best friend Sam, and their African American confederates Herman and Verman. While the stereotyped dialogue strikes a discordant chord to the modern ear, the very IDEA of an integrated friendship when these books came out (a time of a revitalized Ku Klux Klan) was groundbreaking and laudatory. I think it likely that Tarkington influenced Hal Roach in this regard. And it’s worth noting that Our Gang and the first Penrod screen adaptation launched the same year (1922).

Wesley “Freckles” Barry played the title character in that first film, and Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, of Our Gang is in it as Herman. The following year William Beaudine directed Penrod and Sam, starring Ben Alexander, who was to play Frank Smith on Dragnet three decades later. This one has Eugene “Pineapple” Jackson as Verman.

In 1931 Beaudine directed a talkie remake for Warner Brothers, this time with Leon Janney in the lead. That same year and into the next, Warners also released a series of Vitaphone comedy shorts directed by Alf Goulding based on the books, with a kid name Billy Hayes as Penrod, and Sam played by Bobby Jordan and David Gorcey, both later of the Dead End Kids. Orson Welles’ regular Ray Collins (later of Ambersons) plays Penrod’s dad. Hayes screen career was short-lived. After the Penrod series, he did one Fatty Arbuckle talkie short called Hey, Pop, and then left films.

In 1937 and 1938 Warner Brothers tried yet again, with a series of three features starring the twins Billy and Bobby Mauch, best known from the 1937 screen version of The Prince and the Pauper (they took turns playing Penrod). Frank Craven and Spring Byington played his parents.

At any rate, it’s easy to trace the forces that displaced those above named midwestern writers, including Tarkington: the advent of guys like Sinclair Lewis, who was also from that part of the country, but whose satirical portraits starting with Main Street were far less gentle. Nostalgic musicals of the early ’50s like those two Tarkington adaptations would be rare going forward as truly disgruntled outsiders like William Inge and Tennessee Williams began to be adapted to the big screen. I love them all, of course. But one’s sensibilities always spring from one’s own time. There is plenty to be learned from exposing yourself to those of another era, so long as you do so with your eyes open.

I found Robert Gottlieb’s 2019 New Yorker survey of Tarkington’s writing to be condescending and shallow, but you may consider it worth a look for a different (more conventional) perspective on the author. S’here.

For more on classic and silent film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.