Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Shoshone, Idaho, 1905 (some sources give 1895). Education: Attended Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, M.A.; Yale Drama School, New Haven, Connecticut. Career: Author of plays No More Frontier , 1931, and This Side of Idolatry , 1933; 1935—first film as writer, Mutiny on the Bounty . Died: Of cancer in East Glacier Park, Montana, 30 May 1985.
We Live Again (Mamoulian) (uncredited)
Mutiny on the Bounty (Lloyd)
Romeo and Juliet (Cukor)
The Good Earth (Franklin)
Spawn of the North (Hathaway); Marie Antoinette (Van Dyke)
Rulers of the Sea (Lloyd)
Northwest Passage (K. Vidor); Edison the Man (Brown)
So Ends Our Night (Cromwell)
Frenchman's Creek (Leisen)
Anna and the King of Siam (Cromwell)
The Black Rose (Hathaway)
Across the Wide Missouri (Wellman)
Knights of the Round Table (Thorpe)
Escape to Burma (Dwan); Pearl of the South Pacific (Dwan); Untamed (H. King)
Gunsight Ridge (Lyon)
The Naked Maja (Koster)
The Sons of Katie Elder (Hathaway)
No More Frontier (play), New York, 1931.
The Light upon the Mountains , music by Hall McIntyre Macklin, Moscow, Idaho, 1939.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 12 June 1985.
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Talbot Jennings was one of Hollywood's most intelligent screenwriters, a protégé of Irving Thalberg who enjoyed a profitable career on prestigious films. Jennings specialized in historical drama and worked on the screenplays for some of the best in the genre, such as Mutiny on the Bounty , Northwest Passage , and Rulers of the Sea . He was also skilled at adaptation, as witness Bounty , Romeo and Juliet , The Good Earth , and Anna and the King of Siam .
At MGM, Thalberg chose Jennings to script his personal productions, a heady debut for a 30-year-old playwright. Mutiny on the Bounty was designed as Metro's roadshow epic for 1935, based on the Charles Nordhoff and Norman Hall novel inspired by the 1787 mutiny on board the H.M.S. Bounty . Carey Wilson and John Farrow had already written an unsatisfactory adaptation when Jennings was assigned to work with director Frank Lloyd on an acceptable draft. The veteran screenwriter Jules Furthman was brought in to work with the neophyte Jennings and the pair was further aided by the humorist Allen Rivkin. The Oscar-nominated screenplay was ultimately credited on screen to Jennings, Furthman, and Wilson. The film won a Best Picture Oscar, and has become a perennial with its drama between Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) and the martinet Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton), martial justice, and survival at sea, inspiring two remakes (in 1962 and 1984).
Thalberg loaned Jennings to Samuel Goldwyn for an uncredited polish of Preston Sturges's adaptation of Tolstoy's Resurrection (released as We Live Again ), to be followed by a solo job of adapting Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet . It was a formidable task, but Jennings retained the best of the play's narrative, and remained faithful to the dialogue. While Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard were much older than the playwright intended, George Cukor directed with great taste, and Jennings's work is certainly the best adaptation of Shakespeare in Hollywood history.
Jennings also contributed to two of Thalberg's last productions, The Good Earth , based on Pearl Buck's novel, and Marie Antoinette . His primary chore on The Good Earth was on the script's structure, while the predominant feminine focus on the material was provided by Tess Slesinger and Claudine West. He worked uncredited (along with F. Scott Fitzgerald) on Marie Antoinette , a sprawling showcase for Norma Shearer.
After Thalberg's death, Jennings signed with Paramount at the behest of The Good Earth 's coproducer, Albert Lewin. He was reunited with Jules Furthman for Spawn of the North , an extravagant adventure set in Alaska detailing the salmon wars between Russians and Americans. Jennings coauthored an original, Rulers of the Sea , with Frank Cavett and Richard Collins, then scripted the film for Bounty director Frank Lloyd. The result was a superior drama about the first steamship to make the Atlantic crossing.
Jennings returned to Metro to write two of Spencer Tracy's finest vehicles, King Vidor's Northwest Passage (with Laurence Stallings) and Edison the Man (with Bradbury Foote). Northwest Passage was based on the Kenneth Roberts novel about Roger's Rangers, the intrepid scouts of the French and Indian War. The film is a model of historical adventure, with stunning action setpieces such as the raid on the Abenaki village, and the trek through the wilderness balanced with superb characterization and period flavor. Edison the Man is one of the best film biographies, a sincere drama that succeeded in humanizing the legendary inventor.
Jennings freelanced throughout the rest of his career. He adapted Erich Maria Remarque's novel Flotsam , one of his few contemporary scripts. Filmed as So Ends Our Night , it was a powerful tale about refugees from Nazi Germany. Other adaptations during the mid-1940s included a nonmusical version of Margaret Landon's book Anna and the King of Siam (later popularized as The King and I ), and the lush romantic drama Frenchman's Creek , from the Daphne du Maurier novel about the love between a Lady (Joan Fontaine) and a pirate (Arturo de Cordova). Jennings dealt with the middle ages in Henry Hathaway's The Black Rose , based on Thomas Costain's novel, and Knights of the Round Table (coscripted with Jan Lustig and Noel Langley), from Books VI and XI of Sir Thomas Malory's epic poem Le Morte d'Arthur , directed by Richard Thorpe as a follow-up to Ivanhoe .
Jennings ended his career writing the stories for The Naked Maja , a disappointing account of the love affair between the Spanish painter Goya and the Duchess of Alba, and the rousing John Wayne western The Sons of Katie Elder , a revenge story directed by Hathaway with great vigor. Jennings was something of a rarity among Hollywood screenwriters in that his period pictures were much more realistic than most, his dialogue rarely florid or anachronistic. Throughout his career he adhered to a seasoned formula of integrating romance, action, and history, bound together by his unerring sense of narrative.
—John A. Gallagher