Reading For the Movies by Ray Olson 2
Reading After the Movies: William Wister Haines
By Ray Olson
Every so often, instead of reading a book before I see the movie made of it, I’ll read it afterward because I want to see whether it’s as good or better. Often the same kind of clue that gets me to read before—the writer’s reputation, the book’s, or even, in the case I’m going to present, a name—boosts my curiosity to read after.
In Command Decision (1948), bomb group CO K. C. Dennis (Clark Gable) is sending his planes deep into Germany to destroy three separate facilities involved in producing jet aircraft. B-17 and crew losses are high. Dennis’s superior, Roland Kane (Walter Pidgeon), blows in from Washington to high-pressure Dennis to let up. In case he refuses, Kane has brought along Dennis’s West Point classmate Clif Garnet (Brian Donlevy) to replace him. Finding out the reasons for the casualties—namely, an operation Kane had OK’d Dennis to launch on his own initiative—brings Kane up short. Then bombs figurative as well as real descend. A clutch of Congressmen arrives to get to the bottom of the losses, and the second mission takes out the wrong target. Add a few subplots, and you have the makings of a very talky movie.
The talk is good, though—engrossing, passionate, spiked with humor, restrained by friendship, and eventually sobered by wrenching sorrow. Only one significant sequence, in which Dennis talks down a damaged plane in the unready hands of a wounded bombardier, really breaks up the palavering before the gratifying denouement of the last scenes. But it is the weakest part of the film, the most artificial in a movie that is essentially a (very thoughtfully) filmed play.
The playwright was William Wister Haines, a feature journalist, a screenwriter, and, most enduringly, I think, a novelist who’d served 41 months in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the war. The movie was his fourth time around with Command Decision. He wrote it first as a play that failed to find backers, then, at a publisher’s suggestion, as a novel that became a best-seller, reviving interest in the play. A big hit of the 1947 Broadway season, the play closed in September 1948; the movie premiered in December.
I decided to backtrack Command Decision because of Haines’s middle name. Was he related to Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, the progenitor of the western novel? If he was, it was through his mother, Ella Wister Haines. But her biography at the LaSalle University (of Philadelphia—Owen’s hometown) website doesn’t mention Owen, and other sites’ sketches of Owen either mention no siblings or say he was an only child. So the answer to the relationship question is, Probably not closely.
For giving William Wister Haines a literary bent, kinship to Owen may have meant less than the fact that Ella Wister Haines was a feature journalist and novelist of middling success from 1914 to 1930. Her second son graduated from the University of Pennsylvania as an engineer in 1931. Unable to find professional work, he became a night electric lineman on a railroad between Chicago and the East Coast. That experience gave him something to write about in his first two novels, Slim (1934) and High Tension (1938).
The kind reception of Slim culminated in a ticket to Hollywood, where Haines wrote the screenplay for the 1936 movie, Slim, and launched a long sideline of screenwriting. The movie’s available, I haven’t seen it, but the novel is the rare story of a skilled laborer that is unsullied by leftist ideology. The title character is a red-haired north Georgia farm boy who decides to join the line crew whose daredevil-like labor mesmerizes him during one day’s plowing. He thrives and in the course of the novel rises in the ranks and the respect of his fellow workers. He takes a couple of serious falls but recovers from both; during his first spell of mending, he encounters a nurse, they hit it off, and eventually marry; meanwhile, they cohabit, which is treated discreetly (Slim is frank, not salacious). Haines’s style is reporterly to the point of phonetically rendering Slim’s vernacular (which to me suggests Louisiana, but I’m no Southron) and describing his work in sometimes daunting technical detail. Slim is said to be a high-demand collector’s item among railroad mavens and linemen. It deserves to be, and to be much more widely appreciated for its engrossing portrayal of dangerous physical labor.
While it got good reviews, High Tension wasn’t as successful as Slim and so became an even pricier collector’s item. Haines’s next novel would be Command Decision, which, as it fleshes out the play, inspires the movie. Many characters in the movie are more rounded than the play in any way suggests they are. Tech Sergeant Evans (Van Johnson), General Dennis’ virtual majordomo, and war correspondent Elmer Brockhurst (Charles Bickford), in particular, become, because of Haines’s expositional limning of them, more memorable and credible on film—Evans as a guy who’s come up the hard way and relies on personal liking, in the immediate situation for Dennis’s decent, determined leadership, to get along and ahead; Brockhurst as a truth-seeking newsman who knows when to question and when to listen, how to discern the truth as it unfolds, and when the cause that the uniform he’s wearing trumps the mixed bag that is the full truth. The novel gives the actors important tips on how to comport themselves in character.
Play, novel, and movie seem to be equally available. Together, they represent perhaps the earliest high-quality American imaginative work about any aspect of World War II. I recommend reading the novel, then seeing the movie. But in any event, see the movie.
And don’t drop Haines. He wrote another engrossing novel more than a decade later, which won a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America as the best historical novel of 1961. The Winter War conjures a campaign conducted at the end of 1876; that is, in the wake of the Custer debacle. Of the principals, only one, General Nelson Miles, is not fictional. The main characters are Colonel David Selkirk, 32, who joined the army for the war between the states, and Lita Littleton, about 20, who grew up among the Sioux after being captured as a child but has had American education in St. Louis, too, and who, respected by soldiers and Indians alike, becomes a go-between for negotiating peace. It’s a tough-minded book with a hard ending, intriguing for its thoroughgoing literary economy in limning much appalling violence and deeply penetrating the characters’ hearts and minds. Owen Wister couldn’t have written it any better.