- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

“Stop being such a pompous know-it-all!” demands Jeanne Crain of Cary Grant at one point in the 1951 movie “People Will Talk.”

In context, her complaint is less than sincere: her character has fallen in love, more or less overnight, with its target, a medical-academic paragon whose bedside and consulting room manners appear enviably seductive and flattering as well as authoritative and superior.

In Hollywood, it was taken for granted that writer-director Joseph L. (for Leo) Mankiewicz had transposed the remark from his own life. Presumably, the same sentiment had been expressed by an exasperated wife, lover or colleague. Maybe all of them, repeatedly.

The movie’s title, suggested by 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck near the end of Mr. Mankiewicz’s tenure as a prestigious contract employee, was also construed as something of an inside joke. Undeniably, Joe Mankiewicz was drawn to talkative characters and prided himself on being able to simulate witty and informed conversation. That flair had culminated in a 1950 comedy-melodrama about theater people, “All About Eve,” an overwhelming critical and popular success for the Zanuck studio.

It’s fitting that another Academy Award season should coincide with the centennial of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, born on Feb. 11, 1909. His achievement as a major Oscar nominee — consecutive prizes for best screenplay and direction, in 1949 for the marital comedy-cliffhanger “A Letter to Three Wives” and in 1950 for “All About Eve” — remains an unduplicated double-double.

Last year’s Oscar decision for the Coen Brothers’ movie version of “No Country for Old Men” also calls attention to the fact that brother acts are a recurrent Hollywood phenomenon. Though never systematic collaborators, the Mankiewicz brothers became wisecracking legends in Hollywood during its most glamorous decades. Herman, the elder by 12 years, destined to supply Orson Welles with the original drafts of “Citizen Kane,” abandoned New York City journalism in 1926. He was in a position to hire kid brother Joe as a junior writer at Paramount in 1929. Herman’s reputation as a resident wit and reprobate was probably unrivaled, but Joe’s promise was evident in the telegram he sent announcing his delayed arrival by train: “Horses eaten by wolves. Gold safe, however.”

Perhaps even better was his quip about the transition from silent to talking movies: “With talk came the Jew.” While contributing to the gags needed for two comedies of the early 1930s that featured W.C. Fields, “Million Dollar Legs” and “If I Had a Million,” the precocious Joseph L. Mankiewicz coined the comedian’s immortal term of endearment, “My little chickadee.” (Among numerous interests and areas of expertise, he was a bird fancier.)

At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer a few years later, he provided Robert Montgomery with a hyperbolic nifty while sharing a campsite with Joan Crawford (soon to become Mr. Mankiewicz’s famously clandestine consort) in the romantic comedy “Forsaking All Others”: “I don’t need matches. I can make a fire by rubbing two Boy Scouts together.” Reluctantly promoted to producer in 1935, the younger Mankiewicz initially supervised a low-budget Western that flopped. On the night of a dismal preview, he overcompensated by cheerfully reminding the studio brass, “That just goes to show you. I can’t make B pictures.”

Mr. Mankiewicz’s career fell into a neat numerical pattern: 20 credits as a screenwriter in the initial phase, 16 at Paramount and a quartet at MGM; 20 credits as a producer, 19 at MGM (including the Katharine Hepburn classics “The Philadelphia Story” and “Woman of the Year”) before moving to Fox, where he was guaranteed a shot at directing after producing “The Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck; and 20 credits as a director, the first half at Fox between 1945 and 1951.

He had been champing at the bit, especially after screenwriters Preston Sturges, John Huston and Billy Wilder made successful directing debuts in the early 1940s. Mr. Mankiewicz didn’t seem to discover a compatible pretext and hit a confident stride until his fourth outing as a director, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” in 1947.

In retrospect, it seemed significant that he also discovered Rex Harrison as a vocally commanding know-it-all presence, the ghostly British sea captain who mentors widow Gene Tierney from the afterlife, providing her with a soul mate who easily outclasses the living competition. Curiously, that was a caddish George Sanders, who soon inherited the Oscar-winning consolation prize of Addison DeWitt, the peerless know-it-all cad of “All About Eve,” a theater critic who weds polished snobbery with lecherous opportunism.

The Mankiewicz-Harrison collaboration resumed in the 1960s, with mixed results. The filmmaker required vocal authority for an admiring reprise of Julius Caesar in his salvage job for Darryl F. Zanuck on the Elizabeth Taylor edition of “Cleopatra.” His best efforts are certainly preserved in the Harrison half of that wayward spectacle. The partnership had a problematic farewell in “The Honey Pot,” an alternately clever and vexatious update of Ben Jonson’s “Volpone.”

The movies of Mr. Mankiewicz are well-represented on DVD. The most recent Fox reissues of “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve” are enhanced by commentaries from his eldest son, Christopher Mankiewicz, who has helped sustain a family “dynasty” into the modern period with his slightly younger brother Tom.

Evidently, the sons’ sense of the social, marital or romantic turmoil in their father’s screenplays derives from memories of a troubled and eventually calamitous marriage. Their mother, the Viennese actress Rosa Stradner, committed suicide in 1958. As far as Christopher Mankiewicz is concerned, Margo Channing’s “bumpy night” during the party scene of “All About Eve” is a re-enactment of countless bumpy nights while his parents held court in Beverly Hills.

During this centennial year, I recommend rediscovering the other Joe Mankiewicz picture of 1950, the topical thriller “No Way Out,” which provided Sidney Poitier with his first leading role. It proved a prophetic one. He was cast as an estimable young doctor confronted with the pathological bigotry of a petty criminal played by Richard Widmark, reasserting his early prowess with psychopaths.

The most dynamic and outspoken of the race-problem films of the period, “No Way Out” also introduced Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in supporting roles and demonstrated that Linda Darnell had more to offer as a smoldering emotional instrument than Fox or Joseph L. Mankiewicz appreciated after 1950. What accounts for the waste of her sex appeal and potential pathos before the age of 30? She remains memorably imposing in both “Three Wives” and “No Way.”

Joseph L. Mankiewicz at a glance: Born Feb. 11, 1909, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; died Feb. 5, 1993, in Mount Kisco, N.Y., of heart failure; buried near his home in Bedford, N.Y.

Major credits as director or writer-director include “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” “A Letter to Three Wives,” “No Way Out,” “All About Eve,” “People Will Talk,” “5 Fingers,” “Julius Caesar,” “Guys and Dolls,” “The Quiet American,” “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “Cleopatra,” “The Honey Pot,” “Sleuth.”

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