From Here To Eternity

September 28, 2009

Classic Scenes from Classic Films

Kerr-Lancaster-Kiss

If I were asked to pick a perfect movie I’d quickly name From Here to Eternity, starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. The 1953 drama was adapted from the best selling novel by James Jones, screenplay by Daniel Taradash, and directed by Fred Zinnemann. I consider this film cinema gold from start to finish, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus only on the relationship between the Lancaster and Kerr characters. Sergeant Warden and Karen Holmes’ love affair is the spine of the story and is introduced and developed by screenwriter Taradash in two perfect scenes, both of which come in the first twenty minutes of the film. Neither of them involve sand, sea or sex — at least not graphic sex.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about vintage movies is familiar with the erotic scene of Sergeant Warden and Karen kissing on the beach, the one with the wave breaking over their bodies. It’s an iconic film image, and the video is very popular on YouTube, even with people who have never seen the movie. Unlike couples in most movies, this wet duo enmeshed in a torrid embrace did not meet “cute.” You might even say they met “ugly,” or at least not very “pretty.” For me, their first scene together, which comes about ten minutes after the opening credits, is sexier than the beach scene by at least a factor of ten. No blatant fireworks, but there are sparks, a subtle display of sexual tension, mixed with an interesting undercurrent of dislike, even distrust. In that short scene there is strong attraction but also implicit conflict between the characters, and conflict, as we know, is the lifeblood of drama. For me, at least in dramatic terms, conflict is sexy. The smoldering and somewhat sarcastic banter between Karen and Warden in the scene foreshadows adultery to come. Karen, we quickly learn, is married to Warden’s commanding officer.

I’ve transcribed the two scenes by using a combination of Daniel Taradash’s second draft script, which I found on the Internet, and the movie. Both scenes as shot differ somewhat from the script, and I’ll point out how the first one is changed after we read it. In that first scene we discover Sergeant Warden in front of the company supply room talking to Leva, the supply clerk (as played by Mickey Shaughnessy in a great character rendering). They watch as Karen arrives in the area looking for her husband.

LONG SHOT KAREN HOLMES FROM WARDEN AND LEVA’S ANGLE as she walks toward them. She is at a considerable distance. Karen is about thirty. She wears a sweater and skirt. She is aware the men are studying her.

MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT WARDEN AND LEVA watching Karen.

LEVA : Shooish! — her and them sweaters.

LONG SHOT KAREN FROM WARDEN AND LEVA’S POV as she continues toward them. Warden’s and Lava’s voices, loud at first, get softer and softer the nearer Karen gets to camera. At end of the shot, as she is only a few yards away, they are practically whispering.

WARDEN’S VOICE: I’ll bet she’s colder than an iceberg . . .

LEVA’S VOICE: Not her, Top, she knows the score like I been tellin you.

WARDEN’S VOICE: (sarcastic) Is that right?

LEVA’S VOICE: Listen, not around here, but I was back at Fort Bliss with Holmes. I heard plenty about this lady then. Plenty.

WARDEN’S VOICE: You did, huh?

LEVA’S VOICE: Okay, not me — but I know some of them she played ‘round with, so don’t tell me.

WARDEN’S VOICE: I ain’t tellin you. You’re tellin me.

Karen stops a few paces from camera.

KAREN: Good morning, Sergeant.

WARDEN: Morning, ma’am.

MEDIUM SHOT. Lava watches, listens avidly but discreetly in background. During the dialogue, Karen seems irritated by Warden, who looks at her coolly, appraisingly, physically.

KAREN: I’m looking for my husband.

WARDEN: Captain Holmes just went in town, ma’am. On business.

KAREN: Oh. He was to have left some things for me; do you know anything about them?

WARDEN: No I don’t, ma’am. Anything I can do for you?

KAREN: No, thanks.

WARDEN: I’d be glad to help. Ma’am.

She makes a slight move to go, then pauses.

KAREN: My husband’s been telling me a lot about you, Sergeant. He says you’re very efficient.

WARDEN: Yes, ma’am.

KAREN: What is it that makes you so efficient, Sergeant?

WARDEN: I was born smart, ma’am.

Karen laughs suddenly, quietly.

KAREN: I love that. Well goodbye, Sergeant.

Karen turns and walks back toward her car. Warden and Leva watch her. When she is out of earshot Leva speaks.

LEVA: Man, she sure is one, ain’t she?

WARDEN: One what?

LEVA: One woman.

WARDEN: (unconvincingly): I’ve seen better.

As performed, the first scene in the movie between Karen and Warden differs only slightly from the Daniel Taradash second draft script. Most of the tweaks involve a word change here and there, changes that perfectly sharpen and clarify the dialogue between the characters. The first scene is an excellent example of what experts agree are the three things an effective dramatic scene should do: Advance the story, develop (deepen) character, and establish (and/or deepen) conflict. I would add a fourth thing. A good scene should also “entertain.” The entertaining aspect may be the result of the quality of the writing or the performances or, as in this case, a combination of both. In From Here To Eternity I believe we’ve given all four elements in just about every scene throughout the movie — and that, in my opinion, is what makes it a great film.

SceneKerr-Lancaster two between Sergeant Warden and Karen also has several departures from the draft script. These changes are more extensive. In fact, several lines of dialogue are cut from the end of the second draft version. I’ll talk a bit more about that after we’ve read the scene as filmed, which comes at about the twenty minute point in the movie:

EXT. BACK PORCH OF HOLMES’ HOUSE. DAY. MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT WARDEN standing outside in the rain. He wears a GI rain hat and coat. He pauses, then knocks briskly on the door of the screened porch. Karen opens the kitchen door onto the porch. She is in shorts and a blouse.

KAREN: Well, if it isn’t Sergeant Warden. You better step inside or you’ll get wet.

INT. PORCH OFF KITCHEN – DAY MEDIUM SHOT She opens the screen door and he steps onto the porch. He removes his rain hat, shaking off the raindrops.

WARDEN: I am wet.

KAREN: If you’re looking for the captain, he isn’t here.

WARDEN: (taking the long chance) And if I’m not looking for him?

KAREN: (unsmiling) He still isn’t here.

WARDEN: (quickly) Well, I’m looking for him. Do you know where he is?

KAREN: I haven’t the slightest idea. Perhaps he’s in town on business. That’s the way you put it the other day, isn’t it?

WARDEN: (fishes in his pocket, brings out papers) I got some papers it’s important for him to sign.

KAREN: (turns) I’ll try phoning him at the Club. Maybe he’s there.

WARDEN: Don’t do that. I never like to disturb a man when he’s drinking. I could use a drink my self. Aren’t you going to ask me in?

Karen finally smiles, faintly. She goes into the kitchen, leaving the door open. Warden follows her.

INT. KITCHEN HOLMES HOUSE – DAY MEDIUM SHOT The kitchen is small and undistinguished.

KAREN: (gestures): The liquor’s there, Sergeant — in the cabinet.

Warden takes a whisky bottle from the cabinet and pours a straight, stiff drink, puts the bottle on the table. He puts the papers down and drinks. Karen leans against the sink counter.

KAREN: You’re taking an awful chance, you know. My maid is liable to be home any time.

WARDEN: No she won’t. Thursday’s her day off.

KAREN: You think of everything, don’t you, Sergeant?

WARDEN: I try. In my position you have to.

KAREN: (goes to table and picks up the papers) Are these really important?

WARDEN: Yes. But not important they get signed today. Tomorrow’s okay.

Karen suddenly, deliberately, rips the papers in half, then crumbles and throws them into the wastebasket.

WARDEN: I got copies at the office, so it won’t be much work to fix them up.

Warden’s control has begun to affect Karen’s now. She is losing her poise.

KAREN: That’s what I like about you, Sergeant. You have confidence. It’s also what I dislike about you.

WARDEN: It’s not confidence, ma’am. It’s honesty. I just hate to see a beautiful woman goin all to waste.

He moves close to Karen, is on the verge of embracing her. Greatly tempted but greatly disturbed, she turns away. During her monologue she pours herself a drink. Her tone is no longer brittle. It is bitter.

KAREN: Waste, did you say, Sergeant? Now that’s a subject I might tell you something about. I know several kinds of waste, Sergeant. You’re probably not even remotely aware of some of them. Would you like to hear? For instance — what about the house without a child? There’s one sort for you. Then there’s another. (Karen takes a drink) You’re doing fine, Sergeant. My husband’s off somewhere, it’s raining outside, and we’re both drinking now. But you’ve probably got one thing wrong. The lady herself. The lady’s not what she seems. She’s a washout, if you know what I mean. And I’m sure you know what I mean.

WARDEN: You gonna cry?

KAREN: (turning away): Not if I can help it.

Warden takes a drink and puts the glass down on the table, hard enough for her to hear.

KAREN (turning back to him): What are you doing?

WARDEN I’m leaving. Isn’t that what you want?

KAREN (slowly) I don’t know, Sergeant. I don’t know.

They stare squarely at each other, both puzzled and a little afraid of their emotions. This is something neither had counted on. He goes to her and they kiss. Music up. The camera pulls back and out the window, into the rain.

FADE OUT

Now that’s one sexy scene, the sexiest in the movie, in my opinion. It’s much more erotic than that sea-soaked episode on the beach, the one that everyone remembers. Toggling back and forth between the second draft script and my tape of the movie was a revelation. I came to appreciate even more the writing skills involved, but also the contributions to the project that Kerr and Lancaster make — how subtly the nuance of facial expression, gesture, and body language communicate and reinforce emotions only hinted at on the page.

And remember that section of dialogue KerrLancaster2I mentioned that was cut from the second scene — removed either by the screenwriter in a later draft, or perhaps by the director as he shot the movie? In the Daniel Taradash second draft there was no kiss. In its place there is the following exchange, which comes after Karen says, “I don’t know, Sergeant. I don’t know.”

WARDEN: I know a beach near Diamond Head. Nobody ever goes there. The cars on the highway pass above and they never know it’s there. You feel like you used to feel when you were a kid, hiding by yourself in a cave, watching the others hunting you.

Karen turns, goes to the sink, puts the whisky bottle back in the cabinet.

KAREN: Maybe . . . why not?

WARDEN: How about Payday?

KAREN: You don’t have to spend money on me, Sergeant.

WARDEN: I just like to have some on me when I take out a woman. Can you get away?

KAREN: Maybe.

Warden grins. He goes to the door to the porch, pauses there.

WARDEN: I’ll be in Kuhio Park. Say, nine o’clock. Payday.

Karen leans back against the sink, watches him go out to the porch. A moment later the sound of the door is heard as he leaves. She turns on the faucet, starts to rinse the glasses they have used. Suddenly she turns the faucet on full force, watches it pound into the sink.

FADE OUT.

What is wrong with this second draft version of the scene? A more apt question is, What’s right with it? Take the blatant symbolism of the faucet water pounding into the sink, that’s downright corny. And the dialogue is too explicit, from Warden’s crude planning of their first “date” and it’s useless (to the audience) details. It’s all pure exposition that lacks even a suggestion of emotional nuance. Nothing is left for us to think about. Worse still, we feel nothing. We have been talked down to, led by the hand (nose) so that every thing is made perfectly (awfully) clear. Basically, we are disrespected and our intelligence is demeaned. We are insulted by being given TOO MUCH DIRECT INFORMATION.

You don’t have to be a professional screenwriter to figure out which of the two versions of that second scene between Karen and Sergeant Warden is best. It’s simple. The cuts and word changes made by the screenwriter and/or the director, enables us to connect to the story in a personal way. The same is true for the complete film. Throughout we are shown, not just told. We are allowed to feel our way into figuring it out for ourselves. The filmmakers permit us to collaborate in the creative process, and that’s what makes these two scenes — and the rest of the movie, all of which is treated with the same artful craft — so powerful. As I say, it’s a perfect film.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

If you have a classic scene from a classic movie that you’d like to share with the world, write it up (500-1,000 words) and send it along to jimscartoons@aol.com. I’d like to consider it for publication on the blog. Failing that, I’d at least like to know what you think of my choice in this case, pro or con.


Do You Love Me Or What?

November 6, 2008

Scene From A Failed Play

There are times when failure is more interesting than success, especially to the person who created the mess—which in this case is me. Of the five plays I’ve written, three have been produced in the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival, but the one I like best—the one that I think is the most original and accomplished—is one of the two that were rejected. The following is a scene from that play.

SETTING: A modern living groom.

CHARACTERS: ALUNA, female; SKILLET, male; and PASSIE, female; all three attractive thirty-something’s.

ALUNA ENTERS with PASSIE close behind. ALUNA pauses to pick up a gift-wrapped package from the coffee table. She opens it and looks at the contents with mild disgust, then drops it in a wastebasket. PASSIE arranges herself on the sofa as ALUNA straightens the magazines on the coffee table, then she goes to the door and peers through the peephole. After a beat ALUNA turns to face PASSIE and speaks.

ALUNA: Damn—you’re still out there!

PASSIE (nods and smiles): Yep.

ALUNA (again looking through the peephole): You’re hugging the wall, trying to blend in with the paint. This lens makes you look all distorted—thin on top, fat in the middle, thin again at your legs and feet. (ALUNA turns to face PASSIE, continuing): And your face is red and puffy like you’ve been crying.

PASSIE (formal): I expect that’s because I’m concerned about the nature of your interest in my husband.

ALUNA: Your husband? Where did you get him—at the Husband Store in the mall? Was he on sale?

PASSIE (quiet, mean): Bitch. Slut. Maggot.

ALUNA: When it comes to men, all I get is the eccentric, half-baked, pussy-whipped, mother-dominated—and/or married.

PASSIE: Lust is all it is, just animal lust.

ALUNA (laughs): That’s the best fucking reason there is—pun intended. (pause) Can’t help it if a man follows me home, wants and needs what I have. Not my fault the guy only has one brain cell with my name on it.

PASSIE: You lure him. Lure him! (pause) Skillet was raw when I found him, like something that’s been dug out of the ground, some root that when it’s refined you have something wonderful—coffee perhaps, some narcotic even—but first you have to grind it up.

ALUNA: Look, he’s a grown man—mind of his own. I know he’s not mine, but he ain’t yours, either. He’s nobody’s, right? Fair game. Nobody owns nobody.

PASSIE: He’s innocent, like a baby animal in the zoo. No history. (pause, then continuing in dreamy baby-talk) He’s my pumpkin, squeezums, honey cuddles—my duckie, my poopsie. (continuing, adult voice) At night, waking from a deep dream, he’s beside me. Lying there, I nourish him. We drift in and out of sleep. A film of moisture covers our naked flesh. (pause) There’s nothing original in that. We are ancient, repetitive. We could be any two out of millions, billions—even trillions. (pause, defensive) Hey, I don’t kid myself—I know that being a mother is one big vanity, but so what?

SKILLET ENTERS dressed only in trim boxer shorts. He’s carrying a video camera and the women ignore him as he tapes the following action:

PASSIE (continuing): I’m upholding traditional values here—sanctity of the family unit—that sort of thing. It’s my job. Some have to breed, or then what? Zero-population growth—curtains for the human race, right? (pointed, sarcastic) Not every woman is up to it, right?

ALUNA (sarcastic): Never trust a man raised by a woman.

PASSIE lunges and grabs ALUNA by the throat with both hands. They struggle and wind up on the floor, PASSIE’s knees pinning ALUNA’s arms. ALUNA squirms free and they now sit facing each other, glaring.

SKILLET continues taping for a beat but when it’s clear the fight is over he loses interest and EXITS.

ALUNA (fingering her throat): You . . . you tried to kill me! (pause, looks around ) Where’s my mirror? I’ll bet there’s marks. And they’re expecting me to show up at that damn party! (picks up mirror from end table and inspects her neck)

PASSIE (joining ALUNA on sofa, softer) I was a little angry, yes, but in complete control—didn’t mean to hurt you. (smiles) Enjoyed seeing the tip of your tongue, though, between your teeth. (pause) At least we got to know each other a bit better. (laughs) Should be friends, right?—with all we’ve got in common.

ALUNA (pointing to her neck): Look at this! Christ! (pause, then out to audience) Would you look at this?

PASSIE (shifting closer to ALUNA on the sofa): Want some tea?

ALUNA (surprised, shifts away): What?

PASSIE (after a beat, dreamy): There are people I couldn’t stand when I first met them, but now we’re friends. That happens. Loved some others and now they’re mortal enemies. You never know. (sweet smile) Who knows—maybe we’ll become fast friends. (pause) So, can I get you something? Coffee, tea or Coke? I’ve got milk. (she picks up a glass ashtray from the coffee table, distracted) We bought this on our honeymoon at Niagara Falls. (calls upstage) SKILLET! Come here and feel the ashtray! (hands ashtray to ALUNA) Feel it. (ALUNA inspects the ashtray as PASSIE continues): Nice, huh? All smooth and cold like that? Look at the bottom, what it says. (ALUNA turns the ashtray over and PASSIE continues, reciting): “Niagara Falls—Where Love Reigns.” Isn’t that sweet? Touch it to your cheek.

ALUNA (starts to the raise ashtray to her cheek, then checks herself): Just a damn minute—this is MY ashtray! (continues, pointing) MY coffee table! MY magazines! (gestures around living room) All of it! All of it! (points off) MY coffee and tea and milk in the goddamn kitchen!

PASSIE (takes an envelope from her purse and hands it to ALUNA): Snapshots. We’ve traveled all over, Skillet and me. Documented everything. (ALUNA looks at the pictures as PASSIE continues): Shots in front of every vertical object in the world, seems like—statues, fountains, cathedrals—

ALUNA (overlapping): Ha! Towers, smokestacks—a rocket on the launching pad at Cape Kennedy, and—

PASSIE (overlapping): You name it.

ALUNA (continuing): Mosques, the Washington Monu—

PASSIE (overlapping, digging in purse again): We lived in Florida for awhile. Everglades. Did a lot of stuff with gators down there. Got married up here and went down there so Skillet could meet my family of origin. (she pulls some items from her purse and hands them to ALUNA, continuing): Them’s decals from the states we traveled through—Virginia, the Carolinas’, Georgia—check ‘em out.

ALUNA (soft, humoring her): Sure. (she flips through the decals and hands them back, continuing): Nice.

PASSIE: Skillet was fun and full of surprises. He’s kiss me in unexpected places—moving conveyances, mostly. Elevators, helicopters, airport vans. We enjoyed many mutual experiences back in the day, like the time I woke up in a beach house in California, Cheese Whiz squirting from a can into my bellybutton.

ALUNA: Skillet?

PASSIE (sad, distracted): Some friend of his. Some naked woman. She smiled and kissed me. (pause, brighter): I collect state flags, too!

ALUNA (losing patience, mild sarcasm): Wonderful. You may need that memorabilia later—in case you forget who you are.

PASSIE: Exactly! That’s what it’s for. Or I’ll get a tattoo! For purposes of identification—name, rank and serial number on my arm or ankle, or . . . or . . . (trails off, then recovers with false bravado): You know, I’ve decided that unhappiness is inevitable.

ALUNA (soft): Happiness also.

PASSIE: Is that your story, you happy?

ALUNA: Hope to be, some day. Got my hopes up. (the phone rings and PASSIE leans over to answer it but ALUNA clamps her hand over it) This is MY goddamn phone!

PASSIE (freezes) But, but . . . it’s ringing!

ALUNA: So? Don’t have to respond when some stranger—god knows who—rings your goddamn bell.

ALUNA gets up from the sofa and begins to pace like a caged animal, looking at the phone with fear. It keeps ringing throughout the dialogue.

PASSIE: It’s a sin what you’re doing.

ALUNA: Fuck ‘em. They just want me for my luminosity. My goddam luminosity. They need the light. They invite me, they get the benefit. It’s a trick, a goddamn joke. (ALUNA paces for a beat or two more, then continues) Is it snowing out? (pause) If it is, they’re probably canceling the fucking party. (brighter) Hey, that’s it—don’t you think?

PASSIE: It’s summer.

ALUNA: Hurricane?

PASSIE (negative): Huh-uh.

ALUNA: Damn, damn, DAMN! (sad) Do you know what it’s like to enter a room of strangers and wonder who they think you think you are? That moment of dread? You don’t know how to act, what to say, so you stand off to one side, in a corner, back against the wall, watching. A cute guy on his way to the john tells you that you should be out in the middle of things, dancing, out there with the music and bright lights and all. (pause, angry) I hate that, him telling me that, because there’s sights to see and sounds to hear on the edge, also—alone—feelings to feel. (long pause, brighter) So he struts back out of the john, acting confident, but I know better. I know that Truth wears a mask. He’s got this damp spot on his pants leg, near the crotch. (pause) See, right there I know who he really is—just another man. So I relax, smile. He sees my smile and smiles back. ( pause, shrugs) That’s it—boy meets girl.

PASSIE: And you wind up here.

ALUNA: It was romantic. Cold spinach quiche for brunch. (giggles) Never saw the sunrise but I figure they must have had one.

PASSIE (assumes wrestling pose, hands clawing the air in front of her) You’re disgusting!

ALUNA (assumes a similar pose, sarcastic) If you wanna be virtuous, it helps if you’re ugly. (they circle for several beats, grabbing and slapping at each other)

PASSIE: Slut! Maggot! Degenerate witch!

ALUNA: Restraint is the enemy of instinct. (she stops, suddenly soothing) That’s just a line in the mind, you know—it can be crossed.

PASSIE: Bitch!

LIGHTS BANG OUT. End of scene.

The Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival assigns five readers to each new play, and they are required to fill out a four page critique to explain the pros and cons of the piece as they perceive them, and then conclude—based on their comments—whether or not the submission should be recommended for a staged reading, and a possible full production in the festival. On the last page of their critique, each reader is asked to summarize their overall opinion of the submitted play; the following are the final comments they made about Do You Love Me Or What?:

“The playwright’s idea has merit, but the piece is disjointed and confusing. Unfortunately, I feel it needs a complete rewrite. Perhaps it should be be expanded into a two act piece with the first act describing the relationship between the husband and wife in order to give insight into the conflicts the author is trying to present.”

“Good dialogue, credible situations, but the through line is not clear.”

“I’m sure the author feels he has written a very profound play. Unfortunately, I found it merely obscure.”

“I am going to score this play as ‘recommended with severe reservations,’ hoping it will be given a hearing with the playwright given the opportunity to prove me wrong.”

“With a bit of line trimming, could be a tour-de-force.”

I sort of understand their reactions, but on the other hand I did clearly say in my play notes that Do You Love Me Or What? was an attempt to tell a conventional triangular love story in an unusual way. I explained that it is a surrealist/absurdist comedy/drama in one act, and that the action takes place in “real” time, as it is perceived by the male character—it’s all in his head. In his confused mind he and the two female characters combine and change to become still other characters. Past, present and future are compressed. There is no exposition, no explanation of who the characters are—we know them only by their behavior. Everything is contained in the action, what the characters say and do. But their words alone cannot be trusted; the characters (and the writer) are all unreliable narrators. The play is pure action. If the audience goes away confused, that’s O. K., as long as they are also entertained. In my notes I said that I believe that confusion, combined with entertainment, will lead the audience to thoughtfulness, and in that way they will be collaborators in the creative process.

All well and good, but upon reading the play after all this time (I wrote it in 1999), I find myself agreeing with the critiques, at least for the most part. So I’m considering a major rewrite and—perhaps—a resubmission to the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival. Wish me luck.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.