The Siren likes screenwriters; she's said that before. But there's one screenwriter she never knew had anything to do with the movies until the wonders of the Internet told her so some years back: Samuel Hoffenstein. Hoffenstein was, to the Siren, a poet. A funny poet, which is an uncommon gift.
Long ago the Siren bought a thrift-store copy of Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing, copyright 1941, originally published in 1928. Right away, the Siren felt the lure of a kindred spirit.
I'd rather listen to a flute
In Gotham, than a band in Butte.
We understood each other, Mr. Hoffenstein and I.
Now, alas, it is too late
To buy Manhattan real estate,
But when my father came to town,
He could have bought for fifty down,
And I should not be where I am:
Yet does my father give-a-damn,
Or ever say, "I'm sorry, boy,"
Or looking at me, murmur, "Oy"?
He does not grieve for what I've missed,
And yet I'm called an Anarchist!
The poems are both louche and nerdy, a combination the Siren finds as irresistible in art as she does in life. Exhibit A is a section called "The Mimic Muse": parodies of other poets, executed with the kind of precision that comes only from knowing what you're mocking really, really damn well. Here we have a favorite, "Miss Millay Says Something Too":
I want to drown in good-salt water,
I want my body to bump the pier;
Neptune is calling his wayward daughter,
Crying 'Edna, come over here!'
It's not Keats, but all the same, the Siren loves this book dearly. It has that devil-may-care Jazz Age vibe, described so well by Raymond de Felitta as "a jangly, up and down and extremely kinky sense of reality."
Some years later, upon the advent of Google, the Siren looked up Hoffenstein and discovered his other career as a screenwriter. A darned impressive career, at that.
And so the Siren loped off to find out more about Hoffenstein and found...
All right, that's an exaggeration. The Siren found the filmography and several tributes to the man's poetry. She read his Wikipedia stub, which says that Hoffenstein was born in Russia in 1890, the child of Lithuanian parents. The Siren had long ago taken a flying deductive leap and decided that the name is Jewish, and one does not have to have an overly active imagination to come up with reasons why a brilliant young Jewish man would leave Russia in the first part of the 20th century to come to the U.S. He wrote for Vanity Fair, among other outlets. Wiki claims that in addition to co-writing the book, Hoffenstein helped compose the music for the Broadway version of The Gay Divorce, a claim of which the Siren is skeptical considering the credited composer is Cole Porter, but hey, maybe. He moved to Los Angeles in 1931, wrote many screenplays and was nominated for an Oscar for Laura and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. No marriages mentioned, no kids recorded. Hoffenstein died much too soon, in 1947. The Siren can't tell you what killed him.
Any photos? Just this one, on this Website, date unknown, although the style and his evident age suggest early 1930s. If indeed this is Hoffenstein, he seems to have a bit of a self-dramatizing streak, as befits a poet. Oh no, wait; it's Maurice Chevalier. Would that amuse Hoffenstein, or annoy him no end?
The Siren went to her old friend City of Nets, and found this marvelous story about Hoffenstein's first screen credit, an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy.
Once the contracts were signed, Hoffenstein set to work writing a script, and Dreiser, who had discovered a new girl, set off with her for Cuba, leaving no forwarding address. When Hoffenstein finished his script and wanted to get Dreiser's approval, Dreiser could not be found. Paramount sent out official notices that filming would soon begin. Dreiser reappeared in New Orleans, and denounced all previous correspondence as 'the usual Hollywood swill and bunk.' He demanded the right to discuss Hoffenstein's script. With some trepidation, Hoffenstein sent his screenplay to New Orleans and asked if he could meet Dreiser there. 'IF YOU CAN DISCUSS THIS AMICABLY OTHERWISE NOT,' Dreiser wired back. Amicable as could be, Hoffenstein flew to New Orleans, to find at his hotel a note from Dreiser saying that the script was 'nothing less than an insult,' and that 'to avoid saying how deeply I feel this, I am leaving New Orleans now without seeing you. You will understand, I am sure.'
Hoffenstein understood. Paramount understood. The studio went ahead and started making the movie.
This told the Siren that Dreiser, whose Jennie Gerhardt she read in college convinced that the man wrote prose with the express intention of killing her, was at one point trying to kill his screenwriters too. But the anecdote told her little about Hoffenstein, other than that he must not have been the type to get discouraged about a little thing like a famous author throwing a hissy fit over your screenplay of his book.
The Siren combed through the rest of her film books. No luck.
The Siren ordered The Complete Poems of Samuel Hoffenstein online. When it arrived she tore into the padded envelope, convinced there'd be a magisterial introduction that would tell her about Russia and whether Edna St. Vincent Millay was p.o.'d about "The Mimic Muse" and which uncredited lines of The Wizard of Oz were Hoffenstein. The Siren cracked open the book to find--you guessed it--nothing. It's a Modern Library edition. They're wonderful books, those old Modern Library hardcovers, light and perfectly sized. But they're no-frills, and usually no intros, either.
The sensible approach was the library, of course, but the Siren isn't always sensible. Now in possession of a book that included two later poetry volumes, Year In, Year Out and Pencil in the Air, the Siren was more inclined to let biographical criticism run riot. The poems were so blatantly personal that it was more fun, and more romantic, to piece Hoffenstein together line by line. For example, he was definitely Jewish, and wrote several melancholy poems about life back in Russia and as an emigre.
A tree that walked, but never grew,
A living semblance, but a Jew,
Lost in the United States,
Lost behind the Ghetto gates,
No bird yet wingless, lost in air,
Alone and alien everywhere.
And he also (rather startling, this next bit) probably converted to Christianity.
Now I am a large and mellow,
Mild and philosophic fellow,
Of amiable thought and speech,
Sweetly disposed toward all and each,
A stanch disciple of Saint Paul,
A friend of sparrows as they fall...
He still got a kick out of teasing his poetic betters, with a 9-page, er, tribute to T.S. Eliot:
Old Mother Hubbard she made my bed.
But what good is it
Since Ivan the Terrible
The Brooklyn Bridge
And Staten Island
Fell on my head?
Hoffenstein has many poems devoted to liaisons with women, who drove him crazy
Lovely lady, who does so
All my waking haunt,
Tell me, tell me, do you know
What the hell you want?
and of whom he didn't have a terribly high opinion.
She walks in beauty, like the night
And so she should, the parasite!
By the time of Pencil in the Air, he's sadder and more serious. He writes a lot about insomnia
At night, when you should sleep, you can't sleep yet;
By day, when you shouldn't, you laugh at sheep yet...
I paid my taxes, I got sick.
The doctor said I was going quick
Of double multiple complications,
Confirmed by seven consultations.
and postwar despair.
Fear not the atom in fission;
The cradle will outwit the hearse;
Man on this earth has a mission--
To survive and go on getting worse.
Yet his filmography seems to show continuing success. And Hoffenstein was a practical sort, as poets go.
Tax me not in mournful numbers,
Come and make a total haul,
For the residue that slumbers
Is no good to me at all.
Pencil in the Air does find him finally commenting on his day job, as it were, and he felt as deeply appreciated as most screenwriters do. From "The Notebook of a Schnook":
So what happens? The usual factors--
The studio simply can't get actors,
Directors, cutters, stagehands, stages,
Or girls to type the extra pages:
The way it ends, to put it briefly,
Is what happens is nothing, briefly.
Unfortunately, none of this nailed down what the Siren wanted to know. Look at that filmography, studded with so many witty, sophisticated films: Desire. Tales of Manhattan. Lydia (the Siren adores that one). Cluny Brown.
But these are co-writing credits, and it's hard to find out which part of a screenplay came from which writer, even if it's as celebrated a duo as Brackett and Wilder. Maybe one wrote a line, and the other edited it, or flipped it, or gave it to another character. Maybe they passed the pencil back and forth a lot. Who could tell the Siren which part of a Hoffenstein screenplay was Hoffenstein? Did the man who wrote
Maid of Gotham, ere we part,
Have a hospitable heart.
Since our own delights must end,
Introduce me to your friend.
come up with this exchange in Love Me Tonight:
Jeanette MacDonald: What are you doing now?
Maurice Chevalier: I'm thinking. I'm thinking of you without these clothes.
Jeanette MacDonald: Open your eyes at once!
Maurice Chevalier: Oh no, pardon madam. With different clothes. Smart clothes.
Years after imagining A.E. Housman's doleful mien at the circus
I think of all the corpses
Worm-eaten in the shade
I cannot chew my peanuts
Or drink my lemonade.
Good God, I am afraid!
was Hoffenstein the one who had Charles Boyer tell Jennifer Jones, "In Hyde Park, some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels. But if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?"
At last the Siren checked out a database to which she has occasional access, and found a Toronto Star article from 1993, about Laura, Hoffenstein's second Oscar-nominated screenplay. The Siren knows some people don't like Laura, but as for her, it's the only Otto Preminger joint she'll drop everything to see once more. And no wonder.
Preminger remembered that Samuel Hoffenstein was imported to pep up the script. Hoffenstein practically invented the part of Waldo for Webb (adding lines like "sentiment comes easy at 50 cents a word!").
Hoffenstein was a contemporary wit of Alexander Woolcott's at the famous round table luncheons in the 1920s.
Aha! So if he wrote Waldo's part as we know it, that means Hoffenstein came up with most of the movie's best lines. And indeed, the Siren can hear it:
"I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor's children devoured by wolves."
"Laura, dear, I cannot stand these morons any longer. If you don't come with me this instant I shall run amok."
"My dear, either you were born in a extremely rustic community, where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from a common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct."
"Ordinarily, I am not without a heart...Shall I produce X-ray pictures to prove it?"
And a key scene of Laura takes place at the Algonquin, the Siren's favorite place for a quiet drink these days. Hoffenstein at the Round Table? He must have fit right in.
A delighted Siren continued, but found only one other article that didn't discuss Hoffenstein as a talented purveyor of light verse and oh-yes-he-wrote-screenplays. Still, the article was a good one: The Los Angeles Times, from 2000. Sylvia Thompson discusses the dinners her mother made at the Garden of Allah villa complex in the early 1940s. Her mother was Gloria Stuart, her father was writer Arthur Sheekman, and the guests often included Groucho Marx, Julius Epstein and Humphrey Bogart. And one more:
Cooking for writers could bring special rewards. Samuel Hoffenstein, writing the screenplay for Laura with his true love, Betty Reinhardt, composed a poem to Ma's "Goose with Kirschwasser Aspic."
The Siren at last had a scene starring Hoffenstein the man, even if it was a cameo. Enjoying himself at a wartime dinner party, composing a poem for the hard-working hostess--Kirschwasser aspic, wonder how he rhymed that. Hoffenstein would only be alive for about three more years, but he and Betty Reinhardt created the Laura script together, and Hoffenstein put Waldo's best lines on the page, and they were in love.
Of course, Hoffenstein's poetry and Hoffenstein's screenplays--no matter which lines of the latter you attribute to him--are pretty cynical. He had a sophistication that said there's no such thing as happily ever after, kiddo, so happy right now better be good enough. Laura's a fleshly movie, there's depravity in the romance--all those heedless, dissolute people rattling around the penthouses.
And if you think finding out stuff about Samuel Hoffenstein is hard, just try looking up Betty Reinhardt. Who knows, thought the Siren, maybe that affair was over as soon as someone on the Laura set called, "that's a wrap."
No--she double-checked the filmographies--surely not. All of Hoffenstein's subsequent screenplays were written with Reinhardt. Together they wrote the adapted screenplay for Cluny Brown, with its exquisitely funny declarations of love: "I would build you the most beautiful mansion, with the most exquisite and complicated plumbing. I would hand you a hammer, and say 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Madame Cluny Belinski is about to put the pipes in their place.'"
By the time they wrote that movie, Betty was credited as "Elizabeth Reinhardt." The Siren pulled out her introduction-less Modern Library edition of The Complete Poetry of Samuel Hoffenstein, and turned to the title page for Pencil in the Air, published in 1947, just after he died.
There it was below the title: "To Elizabeth."