SAUNDERS, John Monk
Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Hunckley, Minnesota, 22 November 1897. Education: Attended the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, B.A.; Oxford University (Rhodes scholar), M.A. 1923. Military Service: 1914–18—served in the United States Flying Corps. Family: Married 1) Avis Hughes, 1922 (divorced 1927); 2) the actress Fay Wray, 1927 (divorced 1939); one daughter. Career: Journalist with Los Angeles Times , 1922, New York Tribune , 1923; associate editor, American Magazine , 1924, and regular contributor to Cosmopolitan and Liberty ; 1925—first film as writer, Too Many Kisses . Award: Academy Award for The Dawn Patrol , 1930–31. Died: (Suicide) in Fort Meyers, Florida, 10 March 1940.
Films as Writer:
Too Many Kisses (Sloane); The Shock Punch (Sloane)
The Legion of the Condemned (Wellman); The Docks of New York (von Sternberg)
She Goes to War (H. King)
The Dawn Patrol (Hawks)
The Finger Points (Dillon); The Last Flight (Dieterle); Dirigible (Capra) (uncredited)
The Eagle and the Hawk (Walker); Ace of Aces (Ruben)
West Point of the Air (Rosson); Devil Dogs of the Air (Bacon and Keighley); I Found Stella Parrish (LeRoy)
The Dawn Patrol (Goulding); A Yank at Oxford (Conway) (story idea); Star of the Circus ( Hidden Menace ) (de Courville)
The Four Feathers (Z. Korda) (uncredited)
By SAUNDERS: books—
With George Palmer, Brain Tests , New York, 1925.
Wings (novelization of script), New York, 1927.
Single Lady , New York, 1930.
Nikki (play), New York, 1931.
On SAUNDERS: articles—
Slide, Anthony, in American Screenwriters , edited by Robert E. Morsberger, Stephen O. Lesser, and Randall Clark, Detroit, Michigan, 1984. * * *
The best known of John Monk Saunders's contributions to the cinema is the original story for the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Wings . This drama of comradeship between two members of the Aviation Section of the Signal Reserve Corps during the First World War is a film which both glorifies war and also depicts its horror. It is a pacifist film which is not overtly pacifist. As Wings very clearly and skillfully illustrates, Saunders never—thankfully—lived up to his claim that "Action is the thing" in screenwriting. Certainly there is plenty of the latter, but Wings also examines the emotional relationship between two men. Both love the same woman, but, ultimately, they love each other more.
Wings is the quintessential John Monk Saunders story, based on an unpublished novel of his, and it led to the writer's creating a succession of dramas dealing with flying and the First World War, none of which had quite the same intensity as Wings ( The Legion of the Condemned , The Dawn Patrol , West Point of the Air , and Devil Dogs of the Air ).
The later lives of First World War pilots was the basis for Saunders's most highly personal film project, The Last Flight . It is based on a series of short stories by Saunders which appeared in
Liberty magazine, and deals with a disillusioned group of flyers failing to come to grips with their lives in postwar Paris. The central character is an eccentric and wealthy American girl, Nikki, whose favorite expression is "I'll take vanilla," and who makes ridiculous statements, such as claiming that she can walk faster in red shoes. The Nikki character is obviously based on Saunders's second wife, the actress Fay Wray, and, indeed, she starred in a short-lived stage musical based on the stories, titled Nikki and produced in 1931.
Aside from reflecting some of the disillusionment which Saunders must have felt with his own life, The Last Flight illustrates his deep affection for Wray (she starred in one of his films, The Legion of the Condemned , and in two films to which he made uncredited contributions, The Four Feathers and Dirigible ). The break-up of the couple's marriage obviously had such a profound effect on Saunders that eventually he committed suicide.
Despite the overwhelming theme of flying in Saunders's screenplays, it should not be overlooked that he contributed the original story for Josef von Sternberg's first major film, The Docks of New York , and utilized knowledge of his early career as a journalist in The Finger Points , and of Oxford University, from which he graduated, in A Yank at Oxford .