Writer, Producer, and Director. Nationality: American. Born: James Nunnally Johnson in Columbus, Georgia, 5 December 1897. Education: Attended Columbus High School. Family: Married 1) Alice Love Mason, 1919 (divorced); one daughter; 2) Marion Byrnes, 1927 (divorced); one daughter; 3) Dorris Bowden, 1940; two daughters and one son. Career: 1915–16—newspaper reporter in Columbus and Savannah; 1916–18—served in the Mexican Border Service of the United States Army; 1918–19—reporter, New York Tribune, then reporter and columnist, Brooklyn Eagle, and columnist and writer for New York Herald-Tribune and Saturday Evening Post; 1933—writer for Paramount; 1934–43—writer and producer-director for 20th Century-Fox; 1943–48—worked at International Pictures; 1948–59—returned to 20th Century-Fox; freelance writer after 1960. Awards: Writers Guild Laurel Award, 1958. Died: 25 March 1977.
Films as Writer:
It Ought to Be a Crime (A. Ray—short); Mlle. Irene the Great (Cline—short)
Twenty Horses (A. Ray—short)
A Bedtime Story (Taurog); Mama Loves Papa (McLeod); The House of Rothschild (Werker)
Moulin Rouge (Lanfield); Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (Del Ruth)
Baby Face Harrington (Walsh); Thanks a Million (Del Ruth)
The Prisoner of Shark Island (Ford); Banjo on My Knee (Cromwell)
Tobacco Road (Ford)
The Keys of the Kingdom (Stahl) (co)
Along Came Jones (Heisler)
The Long Dark Hall (Bushell and Beck)
"The Ransom of Red Chief" ep. of O. Henry's Full House(Full House) (Hawks)
Flaming Star (Siegel) (co)
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (Koster)
Take Her, She's Mine (Koster)
The World of Henry Orient (Hill) (co)
The Dirty Dozen (Aldrich) (co)
Films as Associate Producer:
The Country Doctor (H. King); The Road to Glory (Hawks); Dimples (Seiter); Cardinal Richelieu (Lee)
Nancy Steele Is Missing (Marshall); Cafe Metropole (E. Griffith); Slave Ship (Garnett); Love under Fire (Marshall)
I Was an Adventuress (Ratoff)
The Gunfighter (H. King)
Films as Producer and Writer:
The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (Roberts) (assoc pr)
Jesse James (H. King) (assoc pr); Wife, Husband, and Friend (Ratoff) (assoc pr); Rose of Washington Square (Ratoff) (assoc pr)
The Grapes of Wrath (Ford) (assoc pr); Chad Hanna (H.King) (assoc pr)
Roxie Hart (Wellman); The Pied Piper (Pichel); Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (The Light of Heart) (Pichel)
The Moon Is Down (Pichel); Holy Matrimony (Stahl)
Casanova Brown (Wood); The Woman in the Window (F. Lang)
The Dark Mirror (Siodmak)
The Senator Was Indiscreet (Mr. Ashton Was Indiscreet) (Kaufman)
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (Pichel)
Everybody Does It (Goulding)
Three Came Home (Negulesco); The Mudlark (Negulesco)
The Desert Fox (The Story of Rommel ) (Hathaway)
Phone Call from a Stranger (Negulesco); We're Not Married(Goulding); My Cousin Rachel (Koster)
How to Marry a Millionaire (Negulesco)
Films as Writer and Director:
Night People; Black Widow (+ pr)
How to Be Very, Very Popular (+ pr)
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (+ pr); The Three Faces of Eve (+ pr)
The Man Who Understood Women (+ pr)
The Angel Wore Red
By JOHNSON: books—
There Ought to Be a Law, and Other Stories, New York, 1931.
The Grapes of Wrath (script), in Twenty Best Film Plays, edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, New York, 1943.
The Letters of Nunnally Johnson, edited by Dorris Johnson and Ellen Leventhal, New York, 1981.
By JOHNSON: article—
"The Long and Short of It," in Films and Filming (London), June 1957.
On JOHNSON: books—
French, Warren, Filmguide to the Grapes of Wrath, Bloomington, Indiana, 1973.
Flashback: Nora Johnson on Nunnally Johnson, New York, 1979.
Stempel, Tom, Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson, San Diego, California, 1980.
Hulse, Ed, The Films of Betty Grable, Burbank, 1995.
On JOHNSON: articles—
Bluestone, George, on The Grapes of Wrath in Movies into Film, Baltimore, Maryland, 1957.
Kino Lehti (Helsinki), no. 1, 1969.
Corliss, Richard, in Talking Pictures, Woodstock, New York, 1974.
Obituary in New York Times, 27 March 1977.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 30 March 1977.
Obituary in Boxoffice (Chicago), 11 April 1977.
Obituary in Cinéma 72 (Paris), May 1977.
Film Dope (Nottingham), December 1983.
Bohn, Thomas, in American Screenwriters, edited by Robert E. Morsberger, Stephen O. Lesser, and Randall Clark, Detroit, Michigan, 1984.
Cineforum, no. 313, April 1992.
"How to Be Very, Very Popular!" in Reid's Film Index (Wyong, New South Wales), no. 17, 1995.
Bisplinghoff, G.D., and C.J. Slingo, "Eve in Calcutta: The Indianization of a Movie Madwoman," in Asian Cinema (Drexel Hill), no. 1, 1997.
* * *
Like most writers, Nunnally Johnson desired complete control over his work. Unlike most writers in Hollywood, he got it. He accomplished this by producing and, later, by directing his own screenplays. Johnson's true talent was in writing, however, and it was in this capacity that he made his greatest contribution to the cinema.
In his dramatic work, Johnson portrayed characters that were faced with obstacles which they had to overcome to survive. Some were imprisoned (The Prisoner of Shark Island, Three Came Home), others were threatened with death (Jesse James, The Grapes of Wrath, Flaming Star, The Desert Fox), and still others faced mid-life crises (Phone Call from a Stranger, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) or mental problems (The Three Faces of Eve, The Dark Mirror). On the lighter side, Johnson's comedies involved characters, such as Roxie in Roxie Hart, facing imprisonment, the three women in How to Marry a Millionaire facing the dreaded single life with no money, the senator in The Senator Was Indiscreet threatened with scandal, and bored husbands flirting with adultery in The Woman in the Window and Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid.
The characters themselves were much more interesting than the traumas that they encountered, however, because Johnson was fascinated with good and evil and the ambiguities of life. Many of his "villains" were not entirely evil—they were doing jobs they felt were right, or that circumstances forced them to do. The "enemy" was a human being, whether Japanese (Three Came Home), Indian (Flaming Star), Russian (Night People), or Nazi (The Desert Fox). The trait that most of Johnson's characters shared and which made them more human was their love of family, and particularly their adoration for their children. They judged themselves by their success or failure as parents. Colonel Suga, head of the brutal prison camp in Three Came Home, tenderly describes his children to Mrs. Keith, and General Rommel is heartbroken knowing that he is seeing his son for the last time at the end of The Desert Fox. Jesse James gives up robbery (which he is prodded into doing because of his mother's murder) to take care of his beloved son, and Dr. Mudd, who set John Wilkes Booth's leg by circumstance, is equally devoted to his family in The Prisoner of Shark Island.
Johnson's fascination with good and evil traits was demonstrated further in The Dark Mirror with twins—one good and one evil. This duality was explored again in My Cousin Rachel (both films starred Olivia de Havilland) in which the main character at times seemed quite capable of murder and, at other times, was a kind, caring woman. One step beyond this premise was Eve in The Three Faces of Eve. Eve was inhabited by three personalities—the first, repressed and dowdy, the second, noisy and uninhibited, and the third, calm and stable.
Nunnally Johnson was, above all, an optimistic writer: he believed in the basic goodness of humanity despite its faults, and that eventually good would triumph over evil. Even his doomed characters, such as Rommel in The Desert Fox, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Pacer Burton in Flaming Star, and Jesse in Jesse James, all leave behind a family who will carry on and attempt to achieve what they could not: to make a better world or, at least, gain an understanding and an acceptance of others, no matter how different from themselves.
—Alexa L. Foreman