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The Religious Affiliation of Oscar-winning Screenwriter
Ring Lardner, Jr.
From: JCP et al, "Ring Lardner Jr." article, last modified 23 April 2005, on "The Celebrity Atheist List" website (http://www.celebatheists.com/wiki/index.php?title=Ring_Lardner_Jr.; viewed 28 July 2005):
Lardner is best known for writing the Oscar-winning screenplays to Woman of the Year and M*A*S*H. He was also a member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of directors and screenwriters blacklisted for their political beliefs during the McCarthy era. In the February 21, 1994 issue of the Nation, Lardner published a column titled, "The Age of Reason, 1794-1994." In the column, Lardner paid tribute to Thomas Paine's the Age of Reason and compared belief in God to astrology and snake charming.
From: Deborah Yaffe, "Blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. '36: A reissue of the book he researched in prison commemorates the 50th anniversary of the blacklist" in "Class Notes" section of Princeton Alumni Weekly, 10 February 1999 (http://www.princeton.edu/~paw/archive_old/PAW98-99/09-0210/0210cns.html; viewed 28 July 2005):
In 1947, Lardner became one of the first victims of the Hollywood blacklist, which forced left-leaning screenwriters -- some, like Lardner, members of the Communist Party -- to hide behind false names, if they worked at all. A year ago, to mark the blacklist's 50th anniversary, Prometheus Books republished Lardner's comic novel, The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, which he researched while serving 10 months in federal prison. His crime was contempt of Congress -- like his fellow members of the "Hollywood Ten," Lardner refused to tell the House Committee on Un-American Activities whether he was a Communist. "I could answer the question the way you want, Mr. Chairman," Lardner told his questioner, "but I'd hate myself in the morning."
From: Matthew J. Bruccoli, "A Literary Friendship" in The New York Times, 7 November 1976 (http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/24/specials/fitzgerald-lardner.html; viewed 28 July 2005):
The HUAC hearings braked an accelerating career. Within nine years of dropping out of Princeton -- he had spent his two years there playing cards and getting Cs -- Lardner had shared the Oscar for Woman of the Year, and the $100,000 writers' fee Hepburn had negotiated. When the HUAC subpoena arrived, Lardner had recently signed a $2,000-a-week studio contract.
In 1950, the Hollywood Ten exhausted their appeals, and Lardner began his relatively painless prison term. "Most of the prisoners, who didn't quite understand what we had done, knew it had something to do with not talking to the cops, and they approved of that," Lardner says.
In the years between his testimony and his imprisonment, Lardner had kept writing, under aliases, for producers who disapproved of the blacklist -- or who knew that because of it they could get top writers for bargain prices. "When we came back to Hollywood in 1951, it was an entirely different situation," says Lardner, who by then had drifted away from the Communist Party. "Nobody would touch us. McCarthy had come on the scene, and the hysteria was at its worst."
Over the next few years, Lardner and his family lived in Mexico and then Connecticut, as he worked on Owen Muir. The novel, a black comedy about the marriage between a less-than-observant Catholic-born woman and a zealous convert, was rejected by American publishers -- one told Lardner parochial schools might boycott that publisher's textbooks if it bought his book. Although an English company finally published it in 1954, "it all convinced me that I was not going to make a living, or the kind of living I needed to make, by writing novels," Lardner says. He turned to television, writing under aliases until the late 1950s, when the Hollywood blacklist softened enough for him to return -- anonymously -- to screenwriting.
When Lardner died in 1933 at the age of 48, [his friend, F. Scott] Fitzgerald wrote an elegy "Ring," for The New Republic:
From: Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, St. Martin's Press: New York (1989), pages 320-322:
"At no time did I feel that I had known him enough, or that anyone knew him - it was not the feeling that there was more stuff in him and that it should come out, it was rather a qualitative difference, it was rather as though, due to some inadequacy in oneself, one had not penetrated to something unsolved, new and unsaid. That is why one wishes that Ring had written down a larger proportion of what was in his mind and heart. It would have saved him longer for us, and that is itself would be something. But I would like to know what it was, and now I will go on wishing - what did Ring want, how did he want things to be, how did he think things were?
A great and good American is dead. Let us not obscure him by flowers but walk up and look at that fine medallion, all abraded by sorrows that perhaps we are not equipped to understand. Ring made no enemies, because he was kind, and to many millions he gave release and delight."
When he read those words, John O'Hara wrote to Fitzgerald: "Lardner must that as reverently as I can mean that as reverently as I can mean anything." A Catholic who takes mean anything." A Catholic who takes Communion on nine successive First Fridays of the month is promised the opportunity to enter eternity in a state of grace. Lardner was not a Catholic - as Ohara knew - but that does not prevent one from hoping that Ring Lardner and F. Scott Fitzgerald are together in a celestial Great Neck where the booze is not 3/4 water. And maybe Joseph Conrad is dancing with them.
Many of Altman's best touches [in M*A*S*H] are in the nature of emphasis... The anticlericalism, for example. Altman had been brooding about Catholicism for a long time. (Ring Lardner [the screenwriter of M*A*S*H, who won an Academ Award for his script], too, had been mulling the Catholic religion, and while Blacklisted in the 1950s, he wrote a satirical novel on the subject, The Ecstasy of Owen Muir.) Though Altman remained a sort of Catholic (he had his children baptized), he bridled at the tenets of the Church. Here, in M*A*S*H, his assult on the Church was blistering.
Major Frank Burns's (Robert Duvall) self-righteous beliefs, Dago Red's (Rene Auberjonois) dazed cleric), the simulation of "The Last Supper," the chorale of "Onward, Christian Soldiers"--these are all in the book and in the script. But as with Hot Lips, these characters and scenes touched on some of Altman's own areas of interest, and he embellished them. Major Burns's and Hot Lips's Christianity is undercut and ridicules via the overwrought intensity of their mealy-mouthing. In the script "The Last Supper" is a simple testimonial dinner described by Lardner as a "stag banquet." It was Altman who staged it brilliantly like the da Vinci painting with sacrilegious symbolism.
And as funny as Ring Lardner is--this is a man with funnybones in his genes--Altman and the M*A*S*H cast did in the heat of the moment contribute some of the dialogue high points unaccounted for in the script. From book to final script draft, Hot Lips has the line that practically sums up the thesis of the film: "I wonder how a degenerate person like you could have reached a position of responsibilty in the Army Medical Corps." To which Hawkeye replies, "Sister, if I knew the answer to that, I sure as hell wouldn't be here."
Not bad, but not good enough. In the movie, Hawkeye replies not at all, and Dago Red looks up from his priestly bewilderment long enough to utter the immortal: "He was drafted."
Webpage created 28 July 2005. Last modified 20 September 2005.
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