The acknowledgment of the art and craft of the screenplay, happily, was apparent from the beginning of the Academy Award ® Oscars ® in 1928, which virtually coincided with the introduction of sound and dialogue in cinema. Also important from the first Oscars ® down to the present, the Academy has understood the importance of two distinct award categories for screenwriting: Best Original Screenplay, the first award going to one of the giants of early screenwriting, Ben Hecht (1894–1964), for Underworld (1927), and Best Adaptation. The first Oscar ® for Adaptation was given in 1931 to Howard Estabrook (1884–1978) for Cimarron , based on Edna Ferber's novel.
As screen historians have noted, it was no accident that once sound films began, Hollywood rushed to entice Broadway playwrights and American novelists to move to Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. Ben Hecht was a well respected playwright before he moved to California. He wrote the stage play The Front Page , with Charles MacArthur (1895–1956), which became the hit film of 1931, ironically written from stage to screen by two other writers, Bartlett Cormack (1898–1942) and Charles Lederer (1911–1976). The list of Broadway playwrights and noted American novelists who went to Hollywood is a long one. It includes everyone from Sydney Howard (1885–1956), whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play, They Knew What They Wanted (1924), was made into three different films, and Preston Sturges (1898–1959), who became the first ever to have the credit "written and directed by" on the screen (for The Great McGinty , 1940, for which he received the Oscar ® ). It also included Robert E. Sherwood, who won an Oscar ® for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Others, such as Dudley Nichols (1895–1960), writer of award-winning hits including The Informer (1935, Oscar ® ), Bringing Up
Baby (1938), and Stagecoach (1939), became well known from the beginning of their careers as screenwriters.
Dudley Nichols was one of the most variously talented and durable of Hollywood screenwriters throughout the 1930s and 1940s, winning an Oscar ® for John Ford's The Informer (1935, adapted from Liam O'Flaherty's novel and co-written with Ford). In a career spanning thirty years and over sixty feature films, he proved a master of genres from westerns to screwball and romantic comedies to historical dramas and swashbuckling adventure films.
Coming to screenwriting from journalism, Nichols began as sound films became the norm in 1930. He worked with director John Ford on Born Reckless (1930) and went on to do eleven more scripts for Ford. His professionalism can be seen in his ability to handle adaptations and to work as a partner with other writers. Stagecoach (1939) stands out as one of Hollywood's best films. Nichols's script for the film, based on a story by Ernest Haycox, moved the western from a "B" category to the "A" list.
Nichols was aware of how easily a Hollywood writer could become a nameless cog in a near-mechanical production line. Some critics have accused Nichols of pretentiousness in some of his scripts, such as the one for For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel. Some have blamed his flaws on Nichols's talent for writing on demand for directors. Certainly there is truth to the fact that by writing three to four scripts a year, quality often suffered. Yet in 1945, for instance, Nichols wrote three fine scripts for films by three different directors: Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street , Nichols's adaptation-remake of Jean Renoir's La Chienne ( The Bitch , 1931); Leo McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's , a fetching sequel to McCarey's Going My Way (1944) that proved Nichols's gift for building on someone else's vision; and René Clair's And Then There Were None , based on Agatha Christie's long-running stage play. Nichols also directed three of his own scripts, Government Girl (1943); Sister Kenny (1946); and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play.
Nichols's journalistic background helped him to bring out both a strong sense of character developed in conflict—whether be that comedy or drama—and to develop an eye for the telling details that humanize his protagonists and avoid clichés. The Informer , for example, demonstrates Nichols's ability to open up the darker side of human nature as he brought the starving and troubled Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) into sympathetic focus in this tale of the Irish Revolution of 1922. His films tend to be morality plays, which champion a liberal perspective. Also an occasional director, Nichols ended his career with a number of interesting westerns and adventure scripts, including The Tin Star (1957), Heller in Pink Tights (1960), and Run for the Sun (1956), a variation of The Most Dangerous Game .
Born Reckless (1930), The Lost Patrol (1934), Judge Priest (1934), Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), The Informer (1935), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Stagecoach (1939), Swamp Water (1941), Government Girl (1943), This Land Is Mine (1943), The Fugitive (1947), The Big Sky (1952), The Tin Star (1957), The Hangman (1959)
Ford, John, and Dudley Nichols. Stagecoach . New York: Faber & Faber, 1988.
Gallagher, Tad. John Ford: The Man and His Films . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Nichols, Dudley. Air Force . Edited by Lawrence H. Suid. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
——. "The Writer and the Film." In Twenty Best Film Plays , edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, xxxi–xi. New York: Crown, 1943.
Renoir, Jean, and Dudley Nichols. This Land Is Mine. New York: Ungar, 1985.
Hollywood also drew in overseas writing talent, including writer-director Billy Wilder (1906–2002) from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who arrived in 1934 and whose teamwork with I. A. L. Diamond (1920–1988) produced the Oscar ® -winning scripts for The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Apartment (1960) as well as nominated scripts for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959). It is perhaps difficult to imagine how rich the cross-section of writers in Los Angeles was during the 1930s through the 1940s, when the "classical American screenplay" came to have its distinct form and substance.
The term "classical American screenplay" suggests that during this early sound period and through Hollywood's "golden age," both the profession and the form-format for screenwriting became set within certain guidelines and genres simply because the studio system demanded, consciously and unconsciously, a certain sense of both regularity and predictability given the large budgets, the strict timetables for production, and the need to systematize the whole process. To be more specific, this "classic American screenplay" is a narrative focused on a main protagonist (or protagonists) in either dramatic or comic conflict that, by the film's end, has been resolved, usually with the main character having learned something and grown in the process. Furthermore, the main characters are almost always sympathetic to one degree or another, particularly because they are in some way vulnerable rather than perfect, even if they are heroic. Thus Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca (1942) seems to have an ordered existence running Rick's Place in Casablanca while World War II rages in Europe, but the conflict comes when his old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks through the door and we realize he has never gotten over the breakup of their relationship. The main story becomes resolving the unfinished business of their past love in Paris, and Rick finally learns that love means the issues are much larger than those of personal romance. He proves his love by urging that she leave with her husband to continue fighting the Nazis.
Almost every book on screenwriting—and the number of them has grown into the hundreds—emphasizes that the basic screenplay is "Aristotelian"—that is, based on following a protagonist through a conflict with a beginning (statement of the conflict), middle (development of dealing with the conflict), and ending (resolution). Many script instructors, including Lew Hunter, the former chairman of the Screenwriting Department of the University of California at Los Angeles, emphasize "classical" structure as put forth by Lajos Egri in his 1942 book, How To Write A Play (revised in 1946 as The Art of Dramatic Writing ). This basic structure of storytelling holds true for every genre in Hollywood cinema. For example, in comedy-dramas such as Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey (James Stewart) faces personal and financial problems in his small town that lead him to consider suicide. But a "vision" of his town and family without him leads Bailey to finally accept his own life and the love of his family in a glorious conclusion in this script by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern.