Friday, August 25, 2017

Screenwriter Talbot Jennings: From Mutiny on the Bounty to the The Sons of Katie Elder [otd 8/25]

Talbot Jennings, ca 1935
Screenwriter Talbot Lanham Jennings was born August 25, 1894 in Shoshone, Idaho. The family moved first to Caldwell and then Nampa. He graduated from Nampa High School and started at the University of Idaho (UI). However, he left to join the Army, where he fought in five major World War I battles as part of the field artillery.

After the war Jennings married, worked a couple years, and then returned to the University. In 1924, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in English. He went on to earn an M.A. from Harvard and then studied at the Yale School of Drama.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.
In 1934, Jennings moved to Hollywood and almost immediately landed a plum assignment: to help salvage the screenplay for the grand MGM epic, The Mutiny on the Bounty. Talbot worked with two experienced writers and the three shared the Oscar nomination for the resulting script. The 1935 film, starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, won the Best Picture Oscar. That version is still – despite its historical inaccuracies – generally considered the best dramatic treatment of the story.

Talbot received another big job the next year: the film adaption of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. John Gallagher, who wrote the Jennings obituary for Variety magazine, asserted that the result was “certainly the best adaptation of Shakespeare in Hollywood history.” The film garnered four Oscar nominations, although the screenplay was not so honored.

The writer next created the screenplay for Pearl S. Buck’s classic novel, The Good Earth. Jennings missed another Oscar nomination, but the film received five nominations altogether, winning for Best Actress and Best Cinematography. From 1936 to about 1940, Jennings worked for both Paramount and MGM, writing scripts for a number of big-name productions, with major stars: John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Henry Fonda, Dorothy Lamour, George Raft, Spencer Tracy, and others.

After that, he worked as a freelance writer, and his skills remained in demand in Hollywood for twenty years. Stars and co-stars in the productions he wrote for read like a who’s who of Hollywood stardom: Lee J. Cobb, Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger, Jack Hawkins, Susan Hayward, Janet Leigh, Virginia Mayo, Joel McCrea, George Montgomery, Agnes Moorehead, Maureen O’Hara, Tyone Power, Basil Rathbone, Michael Rennie, Robert Ryan, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Orson Welles, and on and on.

In 1946, he wrote the screenplay for the lush romantic drama, Anna and the King of Siam, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. Jennings received his second Oscar nomination for the scrip; the film garnered five nominations in all, winning two.
Paramount Pictures.

In 1959-1961, Talbot wrote four scripts for television episodes. He closed his career in 1965 with the story for the John Wayne movie, Sons of Katie Elder. Besides Wayne, he added Dean Martin, George Kennedy, and Dennis Hopper to his list of stars.

The Internet Movie Database lists 24 films or TV productions for which he wrote, plus five where he is shown as “uncredited.” He generally specialized in historical and western themes, for which his scripts were considered “more realistic than most.”

In 1960, Talbot also wrote a script for a film to commemorate the Idaho Territorial Centennial of 1963. It’s not clear if such a film was ever produced, however.

Jennings passed away in May, 1985.
References: Richard J. Beck, Famous Idahoans, Williams Printing, (© Richard J. Beck, 1989).
John A. Gallagher, “Obituary: Talbot Jennings,” Variety, New York (June 12, 1985).
“Talbot Jennings,” Internet Movie Database.
“Talbot Jennings Script Collection, 1926-1960,” Manuscript Group 186, University of Idaho archives (1960).

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