10: Journey’s End (1930)
In February 1929 Sherriff sold out his share of the film rights in Journey’s End to Maurice Browne, Producer of the Savoy Theatre production of the play, for £2,000. Browne then auctioned the rights off to the highest bidder, eventually securing £16,000 (at a time when Sherriff’s monthly salary was £27). The bid was won by the combined forces of Michael Balcon at Gainsborough and Tommy Welsh at Welsh-Pearson. Neither company had a studio equipped for sound, so they joined forces with Tiffany-Stahl Pictures in America, with the stipulation that, although the film would be made in Hollywood, it would be co-ordinated by someone acceptable to the British producers (in the event, George Pearson (of Pearson-Welsh), who went out to Hollywood for six months).
As far as Browne was concerned, Sherriff was to have no involvement whatsoever, so a script was produced by V Gareth Gundry, but it was excoriated by everyone (and in particular James Whale, who had the job of Director): thereafter the screenplay was tended to by Whale and the experienced screenwriter Moncure March. There is no evidence that Sherriff was ever consulted about changes made to the play (although these were relatively minor, mainly opening it out at certain points, in particular the trench raid). The movie was cast largely from British actors in Hollywood, but it proved difficult to find a suitable Stanhope, so Colin Clive was eventually shipped out from the West End production of the play (on condition he be back by 13 January).
Clive arrived in the United States on Thanksgiving (28 November) and went straight to work with the rest of the company. The others had been in rehearsals for a week and a half by then, and Clive had to work hard to fit in. He set to, working six days a week until his last scenes were shot on 30 December, whereupon he returned to England. There were a few further interior scenes to be shot, and five days worth of exterior shooting, which was disrupted by bad weather – but eventually the film wrapped on 22 January, some three weeks behind schedule. After that, just the editing remained – but as Whale was a slow editor, it would be several more weeks before it was ready to be screened.
The film opened in New York on 8 April, at the Gaiety Theatre, and ‘a seemingly stunned audience remained seated and inarticulate for a full minute after the picture had been completed and the lights had been turned up.’ Six days later – just enough time for Whale to cross the Atlantic and arrive in London – the film opened at the Tivoli cinema in the Strand. Sydney Carroll, in The Sunday Times, called it ‘a triumph…technically first class, emotionally effective, dramatically powerful…’. Like many others, he celebrated the fact that the film, although made in Hollywood, was the product of a British studio, made almost entirely with British talent, including acting, direction (Whale) and production (Pearson). But Sherriff’s contribution to the launch consisted of little more than supportive quotes and stories.
Two months later the film was demolished at the box office by All Quiet on the Western Front, which was seen as much more innovative, modern and dynamic than the rather stagey Journey’s End. But the latter has actually held up remarkably well with time, and is well worth seeking out, for the performance of Colin Clive if nothing else. His Stanhope is a more tortured, snarling, self-pitying and bullying character than is typically seen in more modern versions of the play; yet despite the many faults that he shows us in Stanhope, we sympathise deeply with the young boy whom the war has so affected.
9: The Invisible Man (1933)
After his success with the script of The Road Back, Universal Pictures contracted Sherriff to write 3 screenplays a year. The first of these was The Invisible Man, to be directed by his old friend James Whale.
By the time he was called in to write the film the project had been bouncing around Universal for a year and a half. Despite employing a succession of writers, the Studio seemed unable to settle on a satisfactory script. By the time Whale cabled from Hollywood in early 1933 to ask him to develop the latest screenplay, there had already been a dozen versions, according to the story given to the press. The Daily Herald, for example, reported that:
‘Universal Pictures have had 12 scenario writers on the task of adaptation since last summer. But every one of the scripts has been rejected as not good enough. Lately, the company cabled Sherriff…begging him to go to Hollywood at a handsome fee to put the story into screen shape. Mr Sherriff declined to leave England, but consented to write the script in London…It is expected that this, the thirteenth scenario, will be the lucky one.’
Wells’ book is fairly straightforward in its structure. A stranger – named later as Griffin – arrives in winter in the village of Iping, swaddled in clothing, and takes a room at the local Inn. He is abrupt and rude, easy to anger, and the villagers are wary of him. Once his baggage arrives, full of books and equipment, he begins to experiment, causing much muttering among the locals. Eventually they provoke him beyond the point of endurance, and he removes his clothing: underneath he is completely invisible. This causes a furore in the village, which he flees, leaving a trail of incidents in his wake. Having left behind his diaries and notebooks, he recruits a tramp to help him recover them, and after some adventures it is the tramp who is the cause of his being shot and wounded, and seeking refuge in a nearby house, which happens to be owned by Dr Kemp, an old colleague. He explains to Kemp the principles behind his invisibility and how he has come to this point, but in due course Kemp reports him to the police, who eventually catch and kill him. Essentially the book is an extended chase, leavened with humour at the expense of the locals, and punctuated by Griffin’s maniacal narcissism.
According to Sherriff, his problems with the previous versions of the script were mainly in the ‘fabulous events’ and ‘unreal characters’ that they had invented. He saw a screenplay as ‘halfway between a stage play and a novel’ – in that it could be opened up more than a play, but should not wander as far afield as a novel. The key was ‘to prune away the side-shoots and keep to the main stem, and every line of dialogue was there to drive the story on.’ He dramatised it, he tells us, ‘chapter-by-chapter, and it was mainly a matter of turning narrative into dialogue.’
But here he does himself a disservice, for he took quite considerable liberties with the book, and the picture is likely the better for it. The beginning of the movie follows the book quite faithfully – the angry stranger, the curious locals, the removal of clothing, the run-in with the police – all are well handled. But, presumably to humanise him, the movie gives him a girlfriend (Flora) – the daughter of his kindly employer/mentor (Dr Cranley). Kemp is then changed from a decent fellow chemist to a coward and love-rival, and he meets a grisly end in a fiery car crash.
There is one other even more significant change in the script. Sherriff felt that ‘an invisible lunatic would make people sit up in the cinema more quickly than a sane man’, so he came up with the idea of ‘Monocane’, a substance ‘which draws colour from everything it touches’ (according to Dr Cranley), but which might well make him ‘raving mad’. This was the one aspect of the film with which Wells declared himself dissatisfied, telling the press that ‘there was a difference in the sympathetic interest one could take in an invisible man and in an invisible madman’. But in practice the madness was already there in the book – together with the rage and the monumental solipsism.
Sherriff delivered the screenplay of The Invisible Man in June of 1933, and filming took place in July and August. After the routine filming wrapped there was to be much more work on producing the special effects in which Claude Rains became invisible, with the result that the film took another two months before it was ready to be shown.
It was first shown in trade previews in October 1933, but was not officially released until 13 November, when it opened at the Palace Theater in Chicago. It was a sensation, universally applauded in the US press. Audiences in Britain had to wait a few weeks before it made its way across the Atlantic, but it was finally previewed to the press at the Tivoli on 24 January 1934, with a celebratory lunch afterwards, where Wells said how pleased he was with the adaptation. The reviews of the movie were almost entirely in sympathy with the praise it had garnered in the US, with most of the praise directed towards the ‘wizardry’ behind Rains invisibility.
Sherriff’s reputation emerged enhanced, and he was pleased enough with his efforts that, when approached by the writer Elizabeth Mackintosh (who went by the pen-name Gordon Daviot) for an example of a script that might help her understand how to write for the movies, he sent her the Invisible Man, noting that it ‘..was shot almost word for word and scene by scene in the form in which I wrote it…’ – something almost unheard of in the movie business, and that he would rarely enjoy in the future.
8: Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939)
James Hilton’s classic story is a short and simple one. A Latin master at an unremarkable public school looks back over his life. While many of the memories are about aspects of life at the school, he also remembers with great fondness the young woman whom he met and married, and who had a profound effect on his personality, even though she was with him for a relatively short time before dying in childbirth. Sherriff was keen to adapt it, and corresponded with Hilton for about a year before he was handed the job by Irving Thalberg at MGM.
Sherriff’s first script was dated 3 March 1936, and it does an excellent job in some respects of capturing the character of Mr Chipping (known to his boys as Chips), although his tendency to strictness before he meets his wife makes the character more isolated from his peers than he is in the book. Sherriff adds a number of scenes rather than simply dramatising the book, largely to amplify Chips’ character, and he also invents three generations of the one family (the Colleys), to establish a thread of continuity during Chips’ time at the school. But the framework of the film is Hilton’s, as are many of the jokes. He also follows the book in having Chips’ chance meeting with Katherine (his future wife) in the Lake District, rather than in Austria (that particular alteration in the movie would come later, and by a different hand).
Hilton thoroughly approved of the script; Thalberg also liked it, but asked for a large number of changes. By the end of April Sherriff had completed the redraft, and sent copies to Hilton telling him he was much happier with it, and that he hoped Hilton would ‘fight hard to keep it in its present form.’ Thalberg liked the script well enough to offer Sherriff a three picture deal at the end of August that year.
Although Thalberg, the leading light at MGM, died in September 1936 Sherriff was kept on by MGM and quickly moved on to other projects (Three Comrades (No.12 in the Countdown), Spur of Pride (No.27) and then Shadow of the Wing(No.33)), leaving Chips to be developed by other studio writers in Hollywood (notably Claudine West and Eric Maschwitz). But he kept a paternal eye on the development of the script, and, in July 1938, exploded at the changes that had been made, writing angrily to the Head of MGM-British, Victor Saville. Saville urged him to document the differences between the two scripts, which he did, whereupon Saville tried to mollify him: ‘I think you will find after certain revisions we have made when preparing for production, that the similarity of feeling is now identical.’
But Saville was wrong: the feeling in Sherriff’s script is quite different from the later versions (and the movie itself), which are much more sentimental. Sherriff’s original school scenes were much watered down, both in terms of time, and authenticity, so that the school is no longer the one envisaged by Hilton (which mostly ‘turned out merchants, manufacturers and professional men, with a good sprinkling of country squires and parsons’), but is now the home of barons and knights. The time that Chips (brilliantly portrayed by by Robert Donat in the movie) spends with Katharine (the radiant Greer Garson) is expanded significantly, and they now no longer meet in the Lake District, but in Austria, where Chips is accompanied by his friend Staefel. Chips’ own character is also altered – his disciplinarian tendencies exaggerated at the beginning to highlight more vividly the transformation wrought on him by Katharine’s personality.
Despite Sherriff’s fears, the changes in the script – enhanced its box office success, on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in the United States. Alexander Woollcott, who was quoted in the ads for the film, cabled Hilton telling him ‘No film has ever moved me so deeply as Goodbye Mr Chips’, while Frank Nugent (the New York Times critic who would go on to become a pretty decent screenwriter himself, writing John Ford’s cavalry trilogy and The Searchers among many others) described it as ‘one of the nicest pictures we have seen this year’ (he meant it as a compliment). The British critics were occasionally a little sniffy about the portrayal of England, but the spirit of the movie won the public over and the film did very well at the box office.
After the movie came out, Hilton wrote to congratulate Sherriff, who poured his heart out in reply: ‘I have not seen the film yet, but I am very glad to hear you like the result. I went through the most awful time over it, and was completely heartbroken with what happened.’ He felt, in particular, that the school scenes were badly done in the re-write, and that they were ‘not only out of spirit, but rank bad screen writing.’ On the whole, though, he felt that ‘my protest had some degree of effect, because a good many scenes which had been cut from the script were returned, and I think some of the worst of the additions removed…’.
Despite his concerns, however, the film was a critical success as well as a commercial one, and Sherriff received his only ever Academy Award nomination for the screenplay (along with West and Maschwitz). Unfortunately they were not to win the Oscar – in fact, other than Robert Donat for Best Actor, the film lost out in six other categories to Gone With the Wind.
7: One More River (1934)
Over The River was John Galsworthy’s last ever book, published shortly after he died in January 1933. It was a big hit in both the UK and the US (where it was published as One More River, Galsworthy fearing that the American vernacular would equate the title of his book with ‘over the hill’). The story is seen largely through the eyes of Dinny Cherrell, who carries a torch for her departed lover Wilfrid, and who is being wooed by David Dornford, the local MP. The other, and primary, storyline concerns her younger sister Clare Corven, who leaves her sadistic husband and is eventually hauled through the divorce courts.
Galsworthy’s book was full of adult themes and adult dialogue – fine for the publishing industry, not so much for the movie business. Sherriff started work on the script as soon as he had completed A Trip to Mars (Movie Countdown No.52) and drew as much as he could from the book’s source material. First, though, he trimmed the second plot line, about the romantic entanglements of Dinny, the older sister, instead making her simply a sounding board for her sister Clare. Clare is just twenty-four years old and married to a man seventeen years her senior. He describes himself as ‘an experimentalist…a sensualist’, and part of his pleasure comes from abusing her. The last straw is when he beats her with a riding crop, causing her to leave him in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and return to England. On board the boat home she meets Tony Croom, a young man just a year or two older, and they form a (strictly platonic) friendship.
Corven pursues her to England, and insists she return as his wife. Her father at first appears to side with Corven, but when she mentions the riding crop incident he is horrified. Corven wants her back, and, despite her distaste for him, forces himself upon her in her apartment one evening. He employs investigators to follow her, and when she and Croom are found to spend the night in a car (when their lights fail on the way back from Oxford), the worst possible spin is put on it: Corven sues her for divorce, and Croom for compensatory damages.
The climax of the tale is a dramatic court scene, in which Clare attempts to defend herself, pointing to the innocent nature of her relationship with Croom, and declining to speak of the abuses she had suffered in her marriage. The most dramatic moment is when Corven is recalled to the stand to testify that ‘the marital relationship [between him and his wife] had been reestablished’. Clare denies Corven’s suggestion – believing that marital relations do not include rape – but Croom (and everyone else) believes that she is perjuring herself. The trial goes against them, and costs are awarded against Tony (although damages are not). She attempts to make amends to Tony, but he struggles with the thought that Corven has had his way with her, and also with the idea that she would offer herself to him only because she feels indebted to him, rather than because she loves him.
Sherriff delivered the script on 6 March 1934, drawing much of his dialogue from Galsworthy’s pen. But when the script was offered to Breen at the PCA, there were fireworks. The PCA had only recently been installed as the new movie censor, whose writ was compulsory (compared to the previous Hays’ Code, which had been voluntary). They took the view that any story concerning sadism was unacceptable – they would permit Corven to be a brutal man, but not a sadist – and had a long list of detailed criticisms. James Whale, the film’s Director, sought to reassure Joe Breen at the PCA by embracing a number of changes, and by telling him that he had cast ‘really gentle folks’ in the main roles – Diana Wynyard as Clare, Colin Clive as Corven, and Frank Lawton as Croom. But Breen was not so easily impressed and told Universal that the PCA would be monitoring filming very closely.
Filming began on 11 May 1934, but Whale ran over on schedule and on budget. When Breen viewed the film on 12 July he insisted on further changes, which required re-dubs (which can be clearly seen in the print), re-editing or even re-shooting. By the end of July he had signed off on what he saw, but after a Preview in Santa Barbara (at which the audience found the pacing a little slow), Whale , Sherriff and Producer Junior Laemmle agreed some further cuts.
When the finished movie was premiered at Baltimore’s Keith’s Theatre on 6 August the American papers were impressed, praising Sherriff’s script and Whale’s direction. It was received less warmly in Britain (where it was titled Over the River) a few months later, with critics particularly unhappy with its faux-Englishness. But it is an excellent movie, and well worth hunting down (although copies are few and far between). Diana Wynyard plays a remarkably modern and independent woman (for the ’30s), Colin Clive is alternately menacing and charming as her sadistic husband, C Aubrey Smith fits the role of a retired General perfectly (as always), and Mrs Patrick Campbell – not everyone’s cup of tea even when the film was released – has some very funny moments as well. Despite the British critics’ diffidence, the film actually streamlines Galsworthy’s novel very deftly (thanks to Sherriff’s pruning), and offers a fascinating glimpse of the English upper middle class.
6: Odd Man Out (1947)
At the beginning of 1946 Sherriff received an unexpected phone call from Carol Reed, asking him if he could take on some script doctoring work. Reed was still only 40, but a highly respected director with an impressive track record, including classics such as Kipps, The Stars Look Down, and the successful wartime propaganda picture The Way Ahead. Reed had come across Odd Man Out, a novel by F L Green about the troubles in Northern Ireland and optioned it for Two Cities Films. Green then stayed at Reed’s flat for a week, and the two knocked a screenplay into shape, but once the draft was complete, he asked Sherriff to ‘give it a criticism and a polish up.’
The film is the story of Johnny McQueen (played by James Mason), an important man in ‘The Organisation’ (an unnamed terrorist group), who is wounded while stealing the payroll from a local mill. He and his companions make their getaway, but he falls from the car, and spends the next eight hours on the run from the police, growing steadily weaker. Part of the film examines the fate of his co-conspirators, but mostly it focuses on Johnny, and the people who help him along the way. In the end he is tracked down by his girlfriend Kathleen, who engineers their death at the hands of the police.
There are various script fragments in Sherriff’s papers relating to the film, and one complete script with his manuscript amendments. The latter appears to come from fairly early in the process, and may well be the one prepared by Reed and Green and then passed to Sherriff for comment. In some of the fragments, and in his letters, Sherriff made a number of suggestions regarding the ordering of scenes, and the best way to approach specific aspects of the drama, but most of the suggestions that can be identified do not seem to have made it into the final film. He was, however, being consulted by Reed, and was clearly discussing the film with him: indeed, even as late as June, when Reed was shooting at Denham, Sherriff was responding to his request for assistance and promising to come to the studios so they could talk over ideas for the opening of the movie in between shots.
Besides Mason the film has an impressive cast, including Robert Newton as the drunken painter Lukey, Cyril Cusack as Pat, William Hartnell, F J McCormick and Robert Beatty. Reed’s direction certainly showed the style which would serve him well later in The Third Man, the camera swooping through the glistening streets and outhouses as it follows the wounded Johnny on his journey. The film was well reviewed by critics – although it was felt to lose its way towards the end, when the focus shifted from Johnny to a range of largely symbolic characters – and did reasonably well at the box office, although its subject matter was never likely to make it an audience favourite. Although the exact extent of Sherriff’s influence is difficult to gauge, Reed obviously valued it highly, since he was paid £3,000 for his efforts (more than would be expected for simple script doctoring) and earned a screen credit into the bargain.