Everyone who knew Sidney Howard (1891-1939) testified to his exuberant vitality. Barrett Clark said he had an “irrepressible youthfulness, a tremendous enthusiasm for life.” He was admired for his generosity to other writers, and his own plays were described as “among the best ever written in America.” He was one of the first important Broadway playwrights to go to Hollywood.
Born in Oakland, Sidney Howard came to Berkeley as a student in 1911. His undergraduate poems and stories appeared in Occident, and he wrote two pageants which were performed on campus. He also took Leonard Bacon’s English 106, probably the first seminar in creative writing ever offered at Cal. Under Bacon’s guidance he wrote a blank verse tragedy which used the Black Death at Avignon as a background for the love story of Petrarch and Laura. After considerable revision the tragedy became a pageant, The Sons of Spain, and was produced in 1914 by The Forest Theater Society at Carmel. The scene was changed from Avignon to Monterey; Laura and Petrarch became mission Indians, Tiga and Raphael, protected by Fr. Serra from the lecherous Gov. Fages. The pageant’s success spurred Howard’s desire to become a playwright.
World War I
But in June, 1916, he put aside thoughts of Broadway and joined an American volunteer ambulance unit with the British army in Greece. Later he served on the Western Front and became a pilot in the French air force, transferring to the U.S. Army in 1917.
Initially he loved flying. “It’s sport,” he wrote to his sister, Jean McDuffie, “and, by God, it’s poetry.” But he soon learned differently. Once, after he was shot down and managed somehow to land safely, he found his co-pilot dead in the seat behind him. Elizabeth Sergeant left us a glimpse of him on active service in 1918: “Moving heavily instead of with his usual light ease ... he cannot eat in the restaurants he visited with his dead friends. It seems that he does nothing but look up [their] families—or write to them.”
Howard received two citations for gallantry in action and a Silver Star. After the armistice he returned to Berkeley to pick up the threads of his life, worked as a journalist in New York, and resumed writing plays. For the next 15 years he wrote nothing about the war.
Swords, Howard’s first Broadway play, was a melodrama in verse. It opened in September 1921, and closed in October. He set it in Italy, “during the struggle between the Popes and the Emperors, a little after the height of the Crusades, a little before the revival of learning.” Femmina, the protagonist, is “an altogether human empress, devoted to her servants, none too scrupulous, temperamental, exacting, very feminine, wholly glorious.” She is the first of many strong female characters in Howard’s work.
Femmina’s story seems an odd subject for a soldier home from the wars, but a natural one for a student of Leonard Bacon’s. Howard dismissed its failure, saying it was “instructive;” he never again wrote verse for the stage. What redeemed Swords for him was its star, Clare Eames, a tall, slender actress with a regal presence. She became famous for playing fearless modern women as well as historical figures like Femmina. (In 1923 she played Queen Elizabeth in Mary Pickford’s Dorothy Vernon of Hadden Hall.) “The real purpose of the play,” Howard said, “was to marry us.” They were “gloriously happy” for several years.
His next play, S.S. Tenacity, opened in January 1922, and ran twice as long as Swords. A comedy about two young Frenchmen waiting for a ship to take them to Canada, it tells how one meets a girl and decides to stay at home, while the other sails away. The setting is contemporary and the behavior of the characters, simple and direct. From then on Howard wrote as a realist.
‘They Knew What They Wanted’
In 1920 playwrights who respected Victorian conventions still dominated the American stage. Their work was swept away so completely by the rebellious younger generation—Howard, O’Neill, Barry and others—that their plays have almost totally disappeared. The only one still performed is David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly—in Puccini’s operatic version. A few others survive on DVD as “picturized” silent movies, like The Squaw Man and D. W. Griffith’s amazing Way Down East.
In their plays, as one Victorian wrote, “The wife who has once taken the step from purity to impurity can never reinstate herself in the world of art this side of the grave.” Sidney Howard demolished this dogma in his first mature work, They Knew What They Wanted. Within hours of her marriage, the heroine commits adultery and emerges at play’s end not only alive, but with her marriage intact. Material the Victorians could only handle as tragedy, he treats as comedy.
The Knew What They Wanted is based on a story Howard found in Dante. He made it “a treatise on the obsessions which make the world go round. The woman’s obsession for security—the man’s for a dynasty.” Brooks Atkinson described the play as a “romantic and savory story of love and magnanimity in a California vineyard.” And, Atkinson added, Howard “presented with warmth and sympathy some of the best characters he ever created.” This rich comedy ran for over a year, was filmed three times and returned to Broadway in the 1950s as a musical, The Most Happy Fella.
When his marriage to Clare Eames ended in 1928, Howard returned to Berkeley, residing for two years at his sister’s home on Roble Road in the Claremont area. He endured a period of despondency and said his heart had gone out of writing for the stage. By an unforeseen chance, this made him available for Hollywood just as movies began to talk. In April, 1929, he signed a contract with Samuel Goldwyn, who promised to make him a millionaire, and he became the best paid screenwriter of the 1930s.
For the rest of his life Howard alternated between writing films in Hollywood, plays in New York, and living on his farm in Massachusetts. He made a happy marriage with Polly Damrosch in 1931, and arranged his life so that he could spend large amounts of time at home with her and their children.
Howard’s screenplays for Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith and Dodsworth won Academy Awards. Dodsworth also became Howard’s biggest Broadway hit. While they were collaborating on a screenplay for Lewis’s anti-fascist It Can’t Happen Here, they received a request from the Reich Theater Chamber in Berlin for permission to produce Dodsworth, provided they supplied “evidence of Aryan descent.” They replied, “Who knows what ancestors we may have had in the last few hundred years? We really are as ignorant of them as even Hitler is of his. In answering please use our proper legal names: Sidney Howrowitz, and Sinclair Levy.”
Howard’s only work explicitly on World War I, an adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, failed on Broadway in 1935. A ghastly tale of suffering and injustice, he dramatized it cinematically in scenes so harsh that they alienated the audience. S. H. White believes the play’s energy came from Howard’s own military experience. Urging that the novel be filmed, Howard wrote, “It seems to me that our motion picture industry must feel something of a sacred obligation to make the picture.” Least his motives be misunderstood, he added, “I am not involved in the picture rights for this book.”
In the winter of 1936 Howard wrote the screenplay for a widely loved, widely reviled and wildly romantic novel of the Old South, Gone With the Wind. In the preliminary treatment he wrote, “For screen purposes it is, I think, well to think of the book as Scarlett’s story, and of Scarlett herself as a character whose actions are consistently motivated by what she conceives to be the tragedy of an unrealized love.” In five months he reduced the densely printed 1,000-page novel to a typewritten script of only 240 pages. His choices as to what to omit, what to keep, and how to present the material had a decisive impact on the film. For example, he decided (echoing, perhaps, Paths of Glory) to give GWTW the sobriety of its unflinching look at the horrors of war.
David O. Selznick, the film’s producer, tinkered with the script compulsively, ultimately hiring 10 other writers to revise it. Some softened the story, removing such astringencies as the sight of masses of wounded soldiers, while others suggested strange changes in the plot line. (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contribution consisted mostly of restoring Howard’s and Margaret Mitchell’s original words, and justifying them to the anxious producer. Ben Hecht helped to shorten the script.) In a moment of self-indulgence after GWTW was completed, Selznick claimed to have written it all himself, but later decided Howard should get credit for the script. According to Andrew Sinclair, who edited and published Howard’s original screenplay, a comparison of Howard’s original text and the actual film, shows that GWTW is 85 percent Howard’s work.
Sidney Howard’s life came to a sudden, shocking end in August, 1939, when he died in an accident. GWTW had its premiere in Atlanta four months later. At the February 1940, Academy Awards, Sinclair Lewis presented Howard’s posthumous Academy Award for the GWTW screenplay.