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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Clifford Odets: July 18, 1906 – August 14, 1963

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

"We could have made wonderful music together."

The General Dies at Dawn, Clifford Odets

Where am I starting with a line from a movie you might never have heard of? Just hang on. I'm going somewhere, and maybe, just maybe, I'll turn you on to some good shit. I'm writing about a writer, so today's entry is "QUOTE-TASTIC!"

Clifford Odets: July 18, 1906 – August 14, 1963.

He was an American playwright, screenwriter, and actor. In the 1930s, he was expected to become the successor to Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O'Neill. (O'Neill has grown unhappy with the financial pressure of mounting productions on Broadway. Odets, to give him credit where credit is due, somehow became more influential than O'Neil. Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, and David Mamet owe Odets a debt. 

In as few words as possible, here is his life: He was born in Philadelphia to Jewish immigrants and raised in Philadelphia and the (Boogie-Down) Bronx, New York. (Not Brooklyn, but not bad.) He dropped out of high school after two years to become an actor and a writer—a pursuit he attacked with great vigor. He somehow found work as an itinerant disc jockey around the city. Odets would play records and ad-lib snappy comments filled with overheard lingo he picked at the Jazz clubs he would frequent after hours. At some point, he convinced a local station to appoint him as a drama critic, allowing him free theater tickets and access to all Broadway had to offer. 

As a young man, he worked summers at various Borsht Belt holiday camps as a drama teacher and show director. He yearned to act and, in 1931, helped found the Group theater. They became very influential, being the first American Theater group to utilize the teachings of Constantin Stanislavski taught during his tour of the country in the early 1920s. The Stanislavsky system became known as the Method and was the focus of The Group Theatre's director Lee Strasberg. 

Note #1: 

The Group Theater was vital to the theater and American acting. The two major forces in the Method School of Acting are Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio and the Stella Adler Studio. Both were born from the Group Theater. Strasberg taught James Dean, Sally Field, Dustin Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier, to name some unknowns. Stella Adler taught Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Salma Hayek, Diana Ross, Martin Sheen, and Christoph Waltz. Losers! Unless you count all the Oscars, Emmys, and Tony awards. 

Note #2:

The Group Theater was, amongst other things, a liberal, pro-union, pro-little guy theatre troop inspired by an actual card-carrying Russian communist, Constantin Stanislavski. In later years many of their actors, directors, and writers would become victims of the dreaded Blacklist. More on that is below.

Our boy Clifford became the first playwright to come out of Method training. His first produced play, Waiting for Lefty, was explosive. The whole theater world got woken up by Clifford Odets, the playwright. At this time, Hollywood was always looking to Broadway for talent, and it wasn't long before Odets had train tickets to Hollywood on the 20th Century. 

His first film, The General Dies at Dawn, goes a little something like this: American 'soldier of fortune' and reporter O'Hara (Gary Cooper) is on a dangerous mission. Hidden in his money belt is enough gold to choke a horse. He is trying to get to Shanghai, where he will meet the arms dealer (Fred Mertz, err, I mean William Frawley) to support an oppressed peasant uprising in the province. As Mel Brooks eloquently said in the History of the World Part One, "the peasants are revolting!" Why, may you ask? They are being terrorized by the savage and completely bat-shit crazy warlord General Yang (Oscar-nominated Akim Tamiroff). 

The tricksky and evil Yang is interested in controlling all the northern provinces of China. He attempted to assassinate O'Hara and, when that failed, had him lured onto the last train to Shanghai. The train takes forever; as it turns out, the American gunrunner Brighton has an affinity for alcoholic beverages. The inebriated Brighton waits in the bar where their business is to conclude. He entertains/annoys the patrons by drunkenly singing, "I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you!" (Hundreds of times. You will get annoyed too, but leave the movie theater singing it.)

Somehow, O'Hara foils his own abduction by meeting and falling in love with the beautiful spy Judy Perrie (Madeleine Carroll). Her shady dad, who might be addicted to the poppy, Peter Perrie (Porter Hall), is secretly in league with General Yang. Dad pressures an unwilling Judy to betray O'Hara. Peter dreams of escaping China and returning to the U.S. to die in his own damn country.

The balance of power seesaws to a dangerous conclusion. If Yang can't get the gold and the guns, all is lost. Everyone is captured by Yang and taken away on his junk. (An old-fashioned Chinese Sailboat.) The General intends to torture O'Hara to locate the gold. During the brief moments of their ill-fated love affair, O'Hara speaks to Judy that incredible line that launched a million cliches: "We could have made wonderful music together."

Judy is overcome by self-loathing and devastated by her and her father's double-crossing betrayal of O'Hara. "Why, dad, why?"

So good so far. Now, we get to the climax. The drunken gunrunner, Brighton, has tried to escape, and between choruses of "I'll be glad when you are dead, you rascal you," he gets his hand on a shiv and manages to fatally wound the evil General. It looks like General Yang is lost. But, before he goes, he wants to see these thorns in his side dead. 

When I saw this film for the first time, I was probably 12 years old. O'Hara actually saves the day by talking his way out of their executions. (Remember, he is a soldier of fortune/ REPORTER. So he's good with words.) The following monologue knocked me out. You're gonna get the whole thing because we here at It Came From Hollywood are all about value:

"You're a brave, great man, and so are your guards, but who will know it if they die with you? Who's left to tell the story?" O'Hara pleads with his captor,  "...Yang, what will your enemies say? They'll say river pirates assaulted you or Nanking surprised you in the night. Your enemies will never know the glorious death that was yours and your men's." 

O'Hara presses his case as earnestly as Gary Cooper could muster.

"Yang, listen to me. Such great honor should not live in a closet. It needs the open air and daylight. Your enemies must not laugh at the memory of General Yang. Coolies must not laugh. Peasants, old men, women must not spit on your name..." 

Yang begins to listen. Comprehension dawns in his evil mind. This O'Hara chap might be on to something. 

"Someone must be left, Yang. Someone who has seen this last, glorious page in the history of General Yang's life! If you stop all our mouths, who will be left to speak tenderly of Yang? No one, I tell you, no one!" 

Here comes the kicker. As O'Hara says, "Yes, I will tell it. Yes. Of your greatness and the obedience of your men. Gentlemen in clubs will hear it. Crowds at the dog races will talk of your guards. Shanghai diplomats will know it. Gunboat captains will tell it by radio... Every great paper in the world must tell how Yang's guard went to death with him. The London Times, The New York Times..." 

It's working? Yes, this speechifying is working!

"Let us go... All of us, to see no stain or blemish is left on the memory of Yang. Will it be worth it? I swear, this is one true thing... yes. Yang, before you fall asleep!"

What a speech. I still get shivers. Gary Cooper knows how to make an impassioned speech. (Don't think so? Try him in  Meet John Doe. Wow, talk about speechifying!) And then General Yang orders his entire army to kill themselves. And they do! Yang drifts off the mortal plane into the ether, satisfied that his legend will go on. 

This thrilling oratory was a bone of contention with contemporary reviewers who felt the speech ruined an otherwise excellent film. I'm afraid I have to disagree. That speech is so over the top it sets my heart soaring!

The General Dies at Dawn, directed by Lewis Milestone (close to 60 features and two best directors Oscars), was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Music Score, and Akim Tamiroff, that chameleon-like performer, was nominated for the Oscar for best-supporting actor. This happened twice in his career, the first time for this film and the second time for playing the Spanish guerrilla leader Pablo in  For Whom The Bell Tolls. The Armenian actor came to America with Stanislvsky and defected. As General Yang, he was the first performer anywhere to sport foam-based appliques to his face to look more Asian. (Does he?) That was the start of the future of prosthetic makeup. He was, by accounts, a joy to work with, and he managed to act for virtually every important director of his lifetime, including Jean-Luc Godard in Alphaville. He plays The Boss in Preston Sturges' The Great McGinty, and that character is rumored to be the inspiration for Boris Badenov on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

Back to Clifford Odets. Like many of his theater pals, Odets was a member of the Communist Party. He maintained, "It was only for a year! I was young, and the girls were easy!" He could have sucked it up and taken his punishment, which would have been tough. Instead, he chickened out and named names. A squealer. Usually, I might be motivated to not think of him anymore. A rat is dead to me. Instead of saving his career, it ruined Odets’ life and made him unwelcome in most Hollywood and Broadway circles. A blacklist of another kind. He was a smart cookie and learned his lessons, and thankfully, he continued to write. 

Note #3: 

Or yet another note: A brief, overly simplified bit about the Blacklist, communists in Hollywood, and Broadway in the 1930s. The unions were growing in America, especially in the entertainment industry. Wherever workers' rights are discussed, you get some communists and socialists. Those guys are all about the workers, so they join the discussion. "Workers of the world unite!" and all that jazz. Also, in Europe, you had the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. America is supposed to hate fascism, fascists hate communists, and communists hate fascists (in theory). American communists did what they could to help those fighting fascism in Spain. They raised money, circulated petitions, sent supplies, and even helped send soldiers to Spain. 

Unfortunately, the communists are organized. They kept all their documents. The petitions and papers made it look like every person who wanted to fight fascism or join a union was also pro-communist. It shouldn't be a problem, but Congressman Dies and Senator McCarthy made it one and focused their ire on Unions, Show Biz, Jewish people, gay people, and some black people. A large swath of folks you find in the entertainment industries. If you were red, out. If you weren't red but knew guys that were and wouldn't say, you were out. If you were out, you were on the Black List and couldn't work. There is so much more to discuss. They went after politicians, teachers, all sorts. This has been just a taste of a terrible time. And thus closes the historical portion of this essay.

"J.J. it's one thing to wear your dog collar... But when it gets to be a noose... I'd rather have my freedom."

Sweet Smell of Success  is a 1957 quasi-noir film directed by Ealing Studios, Alexander Mackendrick. In my favorite performance, Burt Lancaster stars as J.J. Hunsecker, a doppelganger for newspaper and radio gossip columnist and would-be kingmaker Walter Winchell. Tony Curtis is down on his luck press agent Sidney Falco, Susan Harrison, and Martin Milner, and written by Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman (North By North West, who got sick after his draft and left the project), and some stuff from Mackendrick from the novelette by Lehman. The shadowy noir cinematography, filmed on location in New York City, was shot by James Wong Howe. His use of chiaroscuro lighting to heighten the mystery and gritty realism of after-hours New York is breathtaking, like so much of his work. The picture was produced by James Hill of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions and released by United Artists. The musical score was arranged and conducted by Elmer Bernstein, and the film also features jazz performances by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. It's a grade-A picture. 

It tells the story of influential and sleazy newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (portrayed by Lancaster and based on Walter Winchell), who uses his connections to ruin his sister's relationship with a man, an up-and-coming jazz guitarist, played with aplomb by the highly odd casting choice of Martin Milner ("One-Adam 12, One-Adam 12") as Steve Dallas, he deems unworthy of her. To that end, J.J. Hunsecker bullies Falco to put his skills to work, and this is the result: "The dreamy marijuana smoke of a lad who had the high-brow jazz quintet, is giving an inelegant odor to that elegant East Side club where he works. That's no way for a card-holding Party member to act. Moscow won't like it, you naughty boy." 

A rival columnist gets blackmailed into placing that twisted item by Sidney Falco, who coerces a pretty hat check girl who digs him into doing the do with the columnist. This isn't just bad. This poor shmoe wasn't his first choice! Hunsecker wanted him to go for another columnist who likes the ladies, "Everybody knows Manny Davis - except Mrs. Manny Davis." It turns out Manny has more integrity than most of the other characters.

It's not dirty enough for Hunsecker, his fear of losing his sister to marriage makes him an even worse bully. Sidney is afraid of him and also jealous of his success and power. J.J. has more dirty tricks for Falco to do. Husecker slowly sucks Falco's soul from his body. When he asks what's the plan? J.J. responds,  "My right hand hasn't seen my left hand in thirty years." 

Susan loves her musician and introduces him to her brother, after a few moments of polite conversation, Dallas observes, "Mr. Hunsecker, you've got more twists than a barrel of pretzels! 

Innuendo is not enough for J.J. Husecker. He wants Steve Dallas ruined. Destroyed! Decimated! So that Susan will never see him again. She breaks it off with him to save Dallas's career and promises her brother it's over. But not for J.J. He wants him gone, so he hatches a plan by offering Sidney his column while he takes his sister to Europe to forget about Steve Dallas. Sidney will have to plant some marijuana on the guitarist and have him arrested for possession.  

This is low, even for Sidney. But he needs the money, the prestige, and all the extras that will come with filling in for J.J. he describes the futures he sees like this, "Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, "Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!" Or, "Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts." I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players. My experience I can give you in a nutshell, and I didn't dream it in a dream, either - dog eat dog. In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me."

And so he heads to the Jazz club. This club is situated on the south side of the 59th Street bridge, where at one point, one might feel groovy. This location has stayed the same practically since the film was shot. The spot was also used in the film, They Might Be Giants and several others. The whole structuring and use of the location are not just beautifully shot and composed by James Wong Howe but are of particular importance to me. I spent much time on the block as a high school student. Art and Design was a couple of blocks away. I would stand in the camera positions, play back the scenes in my memory, and try to follow the coverage. It's not a lot of shots, but it's tasty.

When he checks Steve Dallas out at the club to plant the weed. Steve catches him in the club and tells him, "The next time you want information, don't scratch for it like a dog, ask for it like a man!"

Falco sheepishly leaves but, on the way out, calls J.J., "The cat's in a bag, and the bag's in a river."

I don't want to give it all away. Needless to say, (I know I'm saying it), we're coming to a big conclusion. I have presented just a hint of the film's dialog and twists and turns. About Ernest Lehman's original script and Clifford Odets's contribution, according to Alexander MacKendrick, "What Clifford did, in effect, was to dismantle the structure of every single sequence in order to rebuild situations and relationships that were much more complex, had much greater tension and more dramatic energy" Oh boy, did he!

The over-ripe dialogue was an Odets hallmark, and he doesn't skimp. 

As the poster's tagline says, "The motion picture that will never be forgiven…or forgotten!

You will need a drink by the time this film is over. Or better yet, might I suggest a drinking game? While watching, whenever an animal is mentioned, take a shot of booze. If that animal is a dog, take two. Hopefully, you won't have passed out before the end. 

When the film came out, the reviews were a little rough. Beloved actors like Tony Curtis, generally in those days, wouldn't get a chance at a part this vile. He fought for it, and audiences were repelled just a little bit. It lost money. The stars loved it. Burt Lancaster felt that Tony Curtis should have won the Oscar for it. But like a fine wine it takes some time to reach its prime, A.O. Scott, film reviewer for the New York Times, wrote in March 2002 of the film's dialogue, "Courtesy of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, a high-toned street vernacular that no real New Yorker has ever spoken but that every real New Yorker wishes he could." And how!

Clifford Odets, died of stomach cancer in Los Angeles in 1963. He left us fifteen plays, eight screenplays, and two teleplays. Four of his plays, Golden Boy, Clash by Night, The Big Knife, and The Country Girl, were made into films, but Odets did not write the screenplays. Academically speaking, he is most often compared to Irish writer Sean O'Casey. They both had an ear for their times' vocabulary, the spoken word's rhythm, and the drumbeat of life. Paddy Chayefsky summed it up this way, "There isn't a writer of my generation, especially a New York writer, who doesn't owe his very breath, his entire attitude toward theatre, to Odets." And that guy won three screenwriting Oscars for Marty, The Hospital, and Network. "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" That's some serious praise. 

I love this mean, nasty film. You can watch it as a twisted drama or freaky dark comedy. It works both ways. The wordplay feels like bebop as they push and pull words into sentences with multiple meanings and yet manage to convey the truth behind them. It tells a story we can all relate to, unfortunately. 

J.J. Hunsecker sizes up Sidney Falco, 

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic. "

Follow George Seminara and other Movies He Likes in the pages of It Came From Hollywood! It Came From Hollywood is available anywhere books are sold, including: Abebooks Amazon Barnes&Noble BooksAMillion HalfPriceBooks Walmart

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