Movie Countdown: 15 – 11

15: The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

In spring of 1954 Sherriff received a commission from his old friend Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios – first to write a story and then a screenplay for a film which he referred to in his cash books as the ‘Dakota Story’, but it would eventually become The Night My Number Came Up. Three payments, in May and June suggest when the script was written, but it is impossible to be sure since there is almost nothing about the movie in his correspondence files. The Cash Book suggests he received his first two payments for the work on the story, with the further (larger) payment for a subsequent screenplay.

The film was based on a short story in the Saturday Evening Post in 1951, which in turn was based on an event in the life of Air Vice Marshal Sir Victor Goddard. Just after the war, at a cocktail party in Shanghai, he encountered a Royal Navy officer who had had a vivid dream about Goddard’s death in the crash of a Dakota airplane, along a rocky shoreline. Alongside him in the plane were three British civilians, a woman and two men. Later that night, at dinner he learned that his military flight the next day would (unusually) take three civilian passengers (one woman, two men) and would be made in a Dakota. The flight unfolded exactly as the Officer had foreseen in his dream, except that it ended only in a crash landing, not in the Air Vice Marshal’s death.

The film was directed by Leslie Norman, his first film as Director, after fifteen years as an Editor and Producer. In an interview in October 1992, he noted that he had come across the story and thought it would make a good film: ‘I wanted to do the screenplay myself…I wrote a synopsis and sent it to Mick [Balcon]. He agreed for me to do it but wouldn’t let me write the screenplay.’

No version of the original script exists in Sherriff’s files, so we have to examine the film itself for evidence of how Sherriff developed the story. The broad outline is much the same – a man is trapped in an airplane apparently living out someone else’s dream, which will end in his death. The structure of the film is actually quite ingenious. It begins with the dinner party at which the dream is retold, amidst much discussion of oriental-style superstition, but a lingering unease is left with the Air Marshal and the British Consul, at whose dinner the dream is relayed. Thereafter, at each moment when we feel the dream cannot come true, some unforeseen event crops up to steer us back to the dream’s outcome. For example, towards the beginning of the movie it looks as though the Air Marshal will be travelling on a Liberator airplane; but at the last moment problems with the plane mean that a Dakota must be substituted instead. Then it appears that the number of people on the plane don’t match the number in the dream, but at the last minute some additional passengers are taken on board. Just as it appears the plane will take a route avoiding a rocky shore, a storm conspires to throw it off course. Bit by bit the circumstances of the dream are gradually put in place, until it seems inevitable that it must come true. The tension is ratcheted up steadily as the film proceeds, so that the initial idea is developed in a very original way.

The story is fleshed out by a much wider cast of characters than in the original short story, and from a diverse set of backgrounds. To what extent they were drawn from Sherriff’s pen is difficult to know, but it is hard to look at the awful businessman, Mr Rose, and not see echoes of earlier variants in Sherriff’s books and plays (think of Mr Montgomery in Sherriff’s 1931 novel  Fortnight in September, for example, or Mr Maraway in his 1923 play Cornlow-in-the-Downs). Just as the tensions rises bit by bit as each piece of the dream falls into place, so the characters gradually become aware of the dream and its implications, and much of the complexity of the movie is derived from their respective attitudes to the dream itself, and whether it can be forestalled by action on their parts. Movies in which individuals react differently to some imminent peril are not at all unusual, but what makes this one different, and much more interesting, is that it deals with the characters’ attitudes to a potential peril, one which they may or may not be convinced of, depending on their backgrounds and attitudes. It is quite a cleverly constructed piece of work.

The film featured Michael Redgrave as the Air Marshal, with Alexander Knox as the Consul, Denholm Elliott as the Air Marshal’s aide, Michael Hordern as the officer who has the unfortunate dream and a cast of other British regulars (including Nigel Stock, Sheila Sim and Alfie Bass) alongside them. It was never intended as a prestige project in the way that The Dam Busters was for Associated British, but Balcon would have been happy with the reception of the film nonetheless. It was seen as an enjoyable and well-crafted film, although Sherriff’s script was generally seen as ‘functional’ (which seems harsh, given the ingenuity in the film’s construction). But it was well-enough regarded to result in him receiving a BAFTA nomination for best British screenplay in 1956 (the same year as he was nominated for The Dam Busters): unfortunately, both lost out to The Ladykillers, by William Rose.


14: No Highway (1951)

In 1948 Nevil Shute published his latest novel – No Highway. Twentieth Century Fox snapped up the film rights, and Darryl Zanuck, the company’s founder and legendary producer (with whom Sherriff had worked before) set him to work on a screen adaptation straightaway.

The basic plot of the book is quite straightforward. The scientist, Dr Theodore Honey, fears that there may be a problem with metal fatigue in the tail section of the newly introduced Reindeer aircraft. Discovering that one has crashed in Canada he is sent by his boss (Dr Scott, who narrates the tale) to inspect the tail section, but en route he finds he is flying in a Reindeer which may be at risk of crashing. He confides his worries to two women – Marjorie Corder, the stewardess, and Monica Teasdale, an ageing movie star. They land at an intermediate destination, and while the plane is on the ground Honey retracts the undercarriage, causing significant damage, but at least preventing the plane from flying further. Marooned in Canada, he relies on Scott to look after his 12-year-old daughter Elspeth (his wife having died in the war), and in this task Scott is assisted by both Corder and Teasdale, who have developed an affection for Honey.

Scott also has to fight battles with the Air Ministry to have the planes withdrawn from service, and in this he is not helped by Honey’s known eccentricities. The one thing which would clinch the deal would be to find the missing tail section of the downed aircraft. Scott goes to Canada to look for it, while Honey returns, and finds the Russians are also on the hunt, their ambassador having been on board the downed aircraft. Just when things seem hopeless, Honey, now back in England, helps guide Scott to the spot by putting Elspeth in a trance, and having her write down the location by means of ‘automatic writing’ and a ‘planchette’ [a device used by spiritualists].

Sherriff delivered his script to Fox on 30 April 1949⁠. It hewed to Shute’s story reasonably closely, except that it (wisely) removed any reference to Russians and ‘automatic writing’. The script, up to the point where Scott goes to Canada and Honey returns from it, is compelling, with one or two outstanding scenes, in particular Honey’s flight on the Reindeer, where he meets Monica and Marjorie. But the ending was thin, with the missing Shute material not adequately replaced.

Zanuck liked the script, up to a point. He felt it was too long, and while the first half was ‘better than good’, the second half was much less so. He suggested that the search for the tail piece be discarded (‘I doubt very much if we ever want him to go on the long-drawn out hunt for the missing tail piece – they look for it, they find it; it is as flat as a pancake’), to be replaced by a series of scenes in which Honey very clearly lays his scientific reputation on the line to try to bend the Ministry to his will.

Sherriff set to work on redrafting the script, but without much enthusiasm (‘It is a dreary business rewriting something you have already given months to – what they call in Hollywood, “warming up cold haddock”. But there it is.’), and with little direction from producer Louis Lighton. He finished the work in December of 1949, and although he stood prepared to do further work, Lighton seems to have wanted to go in a different direction and hired Oscar Millard to write another script. Millard claimed later that he did so without referring to Sherriff’s script, but much of Sherriff’s script remains, and, before agreeing to receive a screen credit, Sherriff assured himself that enough of his work remained to justify it (he was not one to hog the work of others).

The movie was released (as No Highway in the Sky, except in the UK) in June 1951, about eighteen months after Sherriff finished his part of the job. It starred James Stewart as Honey (a much more sympathetic version than in the book); Marlene Dietrich, perfectly cast as the ageing movie star Monica; Glynis Johns as Marjorie, and Jack Hawkins as Dr Scott. It is an engaging movie, in large part because of the charm of the principal actors, but also because it is directed with pace (by Henry Koster). The story follows the book in much the same way as Sherriff’s script, until Honey’s return from Canada, but the ending bears much more resemblance to Zanuck’s prescription than to Sherriff’s original, and is the better for it.

Despite his frustrations at having to undertake the revisions when he was longing to work on other things, Sherriff did very nicely out of the job, receiving £9,000 for the original script, and another £4,000 for eight weeks worth of revisions. This was by some considerable margin the most he ever received for a script, so it was probably worth a few bumps along the road.


13: Mrs Miniver (1942)

In October 1940, while winding down his work on Alex Korda’s Lady Hamilton (which will come up later in the 50 Movie Countdown) Sherriff was contacted by Kenneth McKenna, story editor at MGM (to which Sherriff was shortly due to return), and asked whether he thought Metro should take up an option on Jan Struther’s book Mrs Miniver.

The Mrs Miniver character had first appeared in the Court pages of The Times in October 1937, and ran until December 1939. She was a very well-to-do upper middle-class housewife (from the ‘top drawer but one’ according to E M Foster⁠), living in Chelsea (with a second house in Kent) with her architect husband Clem and her three children. Struther’s columns had mostly been written before the war, although the last few, written in the autumn of 1939, began to mention it. The columns were collected into a book which was published in the United States in July 1940. What McKenna saw in it was ‘…somewhat of a tribute to the stirringly courageous way that the British people continue their simple daily life under the present conditions…’, and he felt that Sherriff might be interested in tackling it.

Before Sherriff had returned to MGM, producer Sidney Franklin had taken out the option, and decided that Sherriff and James Hilton would be ideal for the project, putting them to work on it together. By 6 November Sherriff had produced some initial thoughts on what the film might look like, and set them down in an outline⁠ which consisted of a ‘Prologue’, followed by a dozen suggested scenes illuminating past episodes in their lives, and then an epilogue. The scenes would show such things as the people of the village, the children’s’ schools, how they fell in love with the house and so on. The next day he provided a script for the Prologue,⁠ which began with Mrs Miniver reading from Alice in Wonderland [that old Sherriff standby], then a pan across the gas masks hung in the dugout (which amusingly showed everyone’s gas masks with their name, except for the one showing ‘Mrs’ Miniver), before leading on to a conversation between the two adults, which is peppered with typical Sherriff-style jokes. As they converse, the sounds of the air raid grow ever nearer and the strain begins to tell in their conversation, although they do their best to mask their fears.

Despite setting down the first thoughts, Sherriff was moved on from the project by mid-December (on to Cargo of Innocence), although quite why is not clear, especially since additional writers George Froeschel, Claudine West and Arthur Wimperis were brought on board, to work alongside Hilton. Much of the dugout scene did remain in the movie, although it no longer formed the prologue, instead taking place towards the end of the movie (and with the dog which he had scripted – he was something of a dog-lover, after all – becoming a cat), but it remains one of the scenes which sticks most in the memory.⁠ Sherriff has also occasionally been mooted as the author of the first scene in the final movie – where Mrs Miniver is shopping in London for a hat – but there is no evidence that he had a hand in anything other than the dugout scene.⁠

The film, starring Walter Pidgeon (with whom Sherriff had worked on Flight Command) and Greer Garson (the radiant Mrs ‘Chips’ in Sherriff’s great 1939 success) was eventually released in June 1942, and was a huge success, topping the box office charts for the year. Shortly before its release Sherriff bumped into Sidney Franklin in the street, prompting Franklin to write to him afterwards telling him much he had appreciated his efforts on the film:

‘I’m sorry it didn’t work out that you received screen credit, but this much I can do – and that is to let you know that I appreciated your work and the suggestions and thoughts of yours that did go into the final script. I hope that some day I will have the opportunity of working with you again, and that it will result in a credit.’⁠

12: Three Comrades (1938)

Three Comrades, another tale of postwar Germany written by Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back) was published in Holland in 1936. He had allowed the first two novels to go to Universal, but as he felt they had mishandled them he took his latest to MGM instead. A first draft script was prepared by Harvey Gates by October 1936, but the studio then summoned Sherriff for a redraft. He produced a synopsis when he was in Hollywood in autumn  1936 (redrafting The Road Back), but he did not complete the full script until February 1937.

Three Comrades is a tale of three old army friends – Robert (Bobby) Lohkamp (the main character), Otto Köster, and Gottfried Lenz who run a struggling car repair garage in an unidentified German city, sometime in the late 1920s, when economic conditions are harsh.  Bobby falls in love with Patricia Hollman, a beautiful woman from what was once a wealthy family, although she, too, has fallen on hard times. In due course Patricia falls ill from a recurrent lung disease (probably TB), but the young couple try to make the most of their time together, sharing their hours with Bobby’s two friends, and a cast of characters from the bars and clubs of the local demi-monde. Eventually Pat’s condition weakens and she makes her way to a sanatorium in the mountains, but after she has left, Gottfried is shot and killed following a political demonstration, although  he is quickly avenged by his comrades. When Pat takes a turn for the worst, Bobby joins her at the sanatorium, and stays with her until she dies. The final pages of the book are a melancholy portrayal of the people in the sanatorium, doing their best to live their lives in the shadow of imminent death.

This short summary leaves out many of the details and side stories which are so typical of Remarque, and which make the novel so atmospheric. Confronted with the book’s range, Sherriff opted to simplify the story considerably, judging that the romance between Bobby and Pat was its key feature. He therefore had to omit one major event: the death of Lenz. He explained his reasoning to the producer in a note he attached to the script⁠, arguing that, because the main concern of the story is the illness and death of Pat, all interest should be concentrated upon the efforts of the three men to lighten her burden. To include Lenz’s death would be to include the politics which preceded it, which the movie could not accommodate while doing justice to Pat’s story.

Franchot Tone, Robert Taylor, Margaret Sullavan and Robert Young

After he delivered the screenplay, little seems to have happened for several months, but by May the script had been sent to Joseph Breen at the Production Code Administration (the censor). Breen wrote to Louis B Mayer at MGM that, while the basic story met the requirements of the Production Code, the script was not acceptable ‘by reason of the great number of scenes and lines of dialogue having to do with liquor and drinking.’ He then itemised 48 separate cuts, 33 of them having to do with omitting references to drinking (most of the rest relating to mild oaths). In June 1937 Sherriff wrote to Remarque’s Agent in London, Otto Klement, sending him the screenplay that had been submitted to Breen, and noting that ‘I have not yet had conferences with them upon it. These will doubtless take place when I am in Hollywood in August.’⁠

Somewhere along the line, however, the producer, Joseph L Mankiewicz, seems to have had second thoughts about Sherriff’s script, and turned to F Scott Fitzgerald to rewrite it⁠. There is no explicit reason for Mankiewicz’s dissatisfaction, although there was clearly disagreement about whether the death of Lenz should be incorporated, and the inclusion in the final script of Lenz’s death, and the political upheaval surrounding it, suggests that, on that point if no other, Sherriff and his producer were not of the same mind. Of course it may just have been that Mankiewicz, a handy screenwriter himself, felt he could do better. Indeed, he even rewrote sections of Fitzgerald’s script, remarking in the process that ‘I personally have been attacked [by the literary world] as if I had spat on the flag…If I go down at all in literary history, in a footnote, it will be as the swine who rewrote F Scott Fitzgerald.’

Sherriff was paid the final instalment of his fee (for a grand total of £4000) in July 1937. If he was following the trade press, he probably reckoned he was well out of it, for at the end of June Variety was reporting that ‘The Three Comrades has political production problems believed by the studio to be fully as critical, from the showman’s angle, as had The Road Back.’⁠ That was prescient indeed, for Germany’s LA Consul, GeorgGyssling was all over the Studio and the PCA trying to find out what was going on.

The film was finally released in June 1938, directed by Frank Borzage, and starring Franchot Tone, Robert Young, Margaret Sullavan (who received a Best Actress Nomination) and Robert Taylor. While the main elements of Remarque’s plot – the Comrades, and the consumptive heroine – remained, much of the flavour of the book had been toned down to meet the censor’s demands. The changes forced by anticipation of the Nazis reaction – in particular the shifting of the time frame to the immediate post-war period – helped further to diminish the the overall thrust of Remarque’s tale. But the reviews were generally favourable, and as a film in its own right it stands up quite well. But if Mankiewicz had stuck with Sherriff’s original script – which largely eschewed any political content – the film might have ended up passing much more easily through the censor’s hands, and would certainly have retained much more of Remarque’s original.


11: This Above All (1942)

Eric Knight’s novel, This Above All was published in 1941 and is the story of an embittered British working-class soldier (Clive Briggs), and his romantic involvement with Prue, a rather sheltered WAAF⁠ from an upper-middle class family. Much of the book takes place during a trip to a south-coast town, where they quarrel over the prosecution of the war, Clive despising the ruling class that has treated him and others so badly, while Prue counters with the view that England is all they have, and it cannot be surrendered to Hitler.

The book was published while the memory of Dunkirk was fresh, and the war still delicately balanced. It was very provocative, airing arguments against Britain at the very point when morale had to be maintained, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic regarded it as a powerful and important work. It is frequently harsh and cynical, so it is surprising that it would be optioned for a wartime movie. But Darryl Zanuck, who picked up the rights, knew what he was doing and saw that the key to making the film successful at the Box Office was to play up the romance, and downplay the politics.

Zanuck and his Director, Anatole Litvak, had problems with Sherriff’s initial treatment, finding it focused too much on England, and not enough on the love story. Both men took a very active hand in the redrafting, and Sherriff was urged continually to get to the sex scenes more quickly. Trying to placate the censor was difficult, and Zanuck had a number of run-ins with the PCA before approval came through.

As in the book, an important part of the film is the clash, within the romance, between Clive and Prue’s competing views of England. Clive’s arguments are softened compared to those in the book, and Prue is given the better of the discussion, in part with a long speech (billed at the time as the longest continuous speech ever made by a woman in a movie), beautifully delivered by Joan Fontaine, in which she tells Clive (played by Tyrone Power) what England means to her. In the book she is given about three pages to make her point, but Sherriff does a masterful job of whittling the word count down to a much more cogent 361.

When the film premiered in New York in mid-May 1942, the critics were generally kind, seeing in it no faults that were not already in the book, and generally applauding its seriousness of purpose. Knight himself was not a fan of the movie⁠ (although he felt it easily surpassed Mrs Miniver), but the public did not agree with him, for the film did well at the Box Office, drawing $2.4 million – not far outside the top ten (although well short of Mrs Miniver’s table-topping $6.0 million⁠).

Knight died in January 1943, in a plane crash in Dutch Guiana (now Surinam), along with a number of other military personnel. Shortly after his death another of his books would be made into a film winning worldwide box-office acclaim, and starting up something of a franchise:  Lassie Come Home.