Miller, Seton I.
MILLER, Seton I.
Writer and Producer. Nationality: American. Born: Chehalis, Washington, 2 May 1902. Education: Attended Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, graduated. Family: Married 1) Bonita-Jessie Nichols, 1927; children: one son and one daughter; 2) Ann Marie White, 1944; children: one daughter. Career: 1926—technical adviser and actor, MGM; 1927—first film as writer, Paid to Love, first of several films for Howard Hawks; 1945—first film as producer, Ministry of Fear. Award: Academy Award for Here Comes Mr. Jordan, 1941. Died: 29 May 1974.
Films as Writer:
Paid to Love (Hawks); Two Girls Wanted (Green); High School Hero (Butler); Wolf Fangs (Seiler)
A Girl in Every Port (Hawks); Fazil (Hawks); The Cowboy Kid (Carruth); The Girl-Shy Cowboy (Hough); The Air Circus (Hawks, Seiler, and Judels)
The Far Call (Dwan)
The Lone Star Ranger (Erickson and Van Buren); Harmony at Home (MacFadden); The Dawn Patrol (Hawks); Today (Nigh)
The Criminal Code (Hawks)
Scarface (Hawks); The Crowd Roars (Hawks); If I Had a Million (Cruze and others); The Last Mile (Bischoff)
Eagle and the Hawk (Walker)
Charlie Chan's Courage (Hadden)
G-Men (Keighley); Frisco Kid (Bacon); It Happened in New York (Crosland)
The Leathernecks Have Landed (Bretherton); Bullets or Ballots (Keighley) (Bacon); Back in Circulation (Enright)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Keighley and Curtiz);Penitentiary (Brahm); Valley of the Giants (Keighley); The Dawn Patrol (Goulding)
Castle on the Hudson (Litvak); The Sea Hawk (Curtiz)
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Hall); This Woman Is Mine (Lloyd)
The Black Swan (H. King); My Gal Sal (Cummings)
The Mississippi Gambler (Maté)
The Shanghai Story (Lloyd); Bengal Brigade (Benedek)
The Last Mile (Koch)
Films as Producer and Writer:
Ministry of Fear (F. Lang)
Two Years Before the Mast (Farrow)
Fighter Squadron (Walsh)
Queen for a Day (Lubin) (co-pr)
Film as Producer:
On MILLER: articles—
Présence du Cinéma (Paris), June 1962.
Film Comment (New York), Winter 1970–71.
* * *
Seton I. Miller was one of Hollywood's finest action writers, with a flair for taut dialogue, well-drawn characters, and solid construction. As Howard Hawks's screenwriter on seven of the director's early efforts, Miller collaborated on the formation of the Hawksian cinema, yet like that of many of Hollywood's unsung craftsmen, Miller's reputation has been obscured by the high critical profile of the auteur director. A Girl in Every Port, The Dawn Patrol, and Scarface are among Hawks's most accomplished achievements; Miller's name is scarcely mentioned in the many volumes on Hawks. At Warners in the 1930s, Miller was responsible for scripting one of the best Cagney movies, G-Men, and a superior Edward G. Robinson vehicle, Bullets or Ballots, and, similarly, coauthored such Errol Flynn films as The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dawn Patrol remake, and The Sea Hawk. Miller was plagued by the vagaries of the studio system, corporate policies that saw multiple writers reworking each other's material, and debates over proper screen credit; ultimately, he became a producer to protect his work.
Miller had a curious entry into pictures. A Yale graduate, he was transported to MGM as an actor and technical advisor on the collegiate tale Brown of Harvard. He did not find histrionics to his liking, and made the move from thespian to author with the help of a bright young Fox director, Howard Hawks. The pair became close friends, and Miller stayed in Hollywood as Hawks's scenarist. Their first picture together, Paid to Love, was a contractual obligation for Hawks, and the clichéd story about a prince and a nightclub entertainer, coscripted by William Conselman, was not fondly recalled by the director. The same is true of Fazil, adapted by Miller and Philip Klein from a play by Pierre Frondaie about a Frenchwoman and an Arab shiek.
A Girl in Every Port is one of the triumphs of the late silent era, written by Miller from a Hawks idea. A raucous, delightful comedy, the film is blessed with Louise Brooks's inimitable presence as the object of Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong's rowdy affections. The ribaldry is offset by the McLaglen and Armstrong relationship, a rivalry turned to friendship that would become a staple Hawks ingredient. Hawks called A Girl in Every Port "a love story between two men" in a 1962 interview with Peter Bogdanovich. The Air Circus was caught in the transition from silence to sound; Hawks directed a scenario by Miller and Norman McLeod about a young man learning to fly, then dialogue sequences written by Hugh Herbert were added after the fact. Hawks withdrew from the project and Lewis Seiler directed the additional footage.
The Hawks and Miller partnership flowered with the Warner Bros. production of The Dawn Patrol. John Monk Saunders provided the story, "Flight Commander," which, like Wings, was based on his own experiences as a First World War aviator. Hawks shared screenwriting credit with Miller and Dan Totheroh, and injected the picture with a creative use of dialogue that would become a trademark. Hawks did not really come into his own until the advent of talking pictures, but unlike many early sound movies, the dialogue in The Dawn Patrol is sparse yet flavorful; as Gerald Mast writes in Howard Hawks, Storyteller it "seemed restrained, natural, underplayed, understated." As he would do with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River, and Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Hawks gained great effect from contrasting character types in The Dawn Patrol, in this case the war-hardened cynicism of Richard Barthelmess with the youthful enthusiasm of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The Dawn Patrol was a great success, and eight years later Warners had Miller rewrite the original script as a vehicle for Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. This consisted primarily of rewriting dialogue to fit the new players, a chore Miller did with director Edmund Goulding, but the remake followed the Hawks original very closely. With the Second World War looming, the second Dawn Patrol was especially timely with its pacifistic script, and also succeeded at the box office.
Andrew Sarris called Scarface "Hawks' greatest film, with the bloodiest and most brutal of the gangster films which embellished the American cinema of the early 1930s," and the film retains its power sixty years later. Inspired by the Al Capone saga, influenced by the villainous medieval Borgia family, the story was developed by Hawks with a stellar writing crew—a novel by Armitage Trail supplied the title and a smattering of plot; Seton Miller, John Lee Mahin, and W.R. Burnett wrote the first draft; Hawks and Ben Hecht did the final screenplay in a reported 11 days. It is hard to gauge Miller's exact contribution; as with the other Hawks pictures, it is likely he was the director's earliest sounding board on the project, and was involved in the script's construction. Scarface was made in 1930, but held up for release by the censors for two years; in the meantime, Hawks took Miller with him to Columbia for The Criminal Code, and back to Warners for The Crowd Roars.
Based on a play by Martin Flavin, The Criminal Code is one of the best prison pictures, with a sense of reality that Hawks and Miller gleaned from interviews with actual convicts. Miller did a first draft for Hawks on the director's original story The Crowd Roars; subsequent versions were scripted by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, and Niven Busch worked on revisions during the shooting. Set against the world of race-car drivers, The Crowd Roars is quintessential Hawks, dealing with rivalry and camaraderie between professionals; tough characters, both male and female, abound in the film, drawn with depth and sensitivity.
After The Crowd Roars, Miller stayed at Warners to become a staff writer, and, unfortunately, never wrote another produced film for Hawks. When Warners brass wanted a new image for James Cagney, who had starred in The Crowd Roars, they called upon Miller to fashion the screenplay for G-Men, based on Public Enemy No. 1 by Gregory Rogers. Cagney scored as the FBI agent Brick Davis in a brisk action drama. Miller teamed again with G-Men director William Keighley on Bullets or Ballots, which also cast a screen bad guy, Edward G. Robinson, on the right side of the law, as an undercover cop busting a crime syndicate. The box-office response to G-Men and Bullets or Ballots was high, and Kid Galahad, another solo writing credit for Miller, topped even these in popularity. Michael Curtiz's film is among the best prizefighting pictures ever produced, remade twice, and memorable for Miller's fast and furious narrative and wisecracking dialogue.
Warners rewarded Miller with an assignment on their epic The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. Norman Reilly Raine had completed a draft and revision before Miller was brought in to collaborate. The result is a model screenplay, directed by Curtiz and Keighley, blending dashing adventure, humor, believable dialogue, and even a plea against intolerance. A follow-up Flynn vehicle, The Sea Hawk, hastened Miller's departure from Warner Bros. The writer completed a total revamping of the Rafael Sabatini novel, calling it Beggars of the Sea; Warners assured him he would complete the job, then called in first Milton Krims, then Howard Koch, to rewrite Miller. The experience, quite common at the time, rankled Miller, and he left to freelance his services.
Miller went to Columbia, where he and Sidney Buchman won an Oscar for their adaptation of Harry Segall's play Here Comes Mr.Jordan, a mirthful comedy fantasy about a punch-drunk prizefighter (Robert Montgomery) who is killed and sent back to earth. The screenwriters expanded the confines of the original play, and Alexander Hall directed the wonderful material with great skill. Miller collaborated with Ben Hecht on a Tyrone Power swashbuckler at 20th Century-Fox, The Black Swan; the writers played up the tongue-in-cheek humor of the Sabatini pirate story, discarding most of the novel's florid dialogue.
Fulfilling a long-standing ambition, Miller signed a producing contract at Paramount in 1943. His first and best film as writerproducer was Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear, adapted from Graham Greene's spy thriller. It has some nice moments of suspense, but is a lesser Lang film; he and Miller disagreed on the script, and theirs was not a happy relationship. Miller had a more pleasant association with John Farrow on Two Years before the Mast, California, and Calcutta; unfortunately the pictures are routine. Raoul Walsh's Fighter Squadron, a Second World War drama produced by Miller and cowritten with Martin Rackin, contained action sequences worthy of Miller's previous work.
Miller's career as a producer was rather an anticlimax to his years as a major screenwriter. Paradoxically, Miller seemed to create his best work under strong filmmakers like Howard Hawks and Warners production head Hal Wallis. His place in American film history is secure with contributions on A Girl in Every Port and Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which reflect his subtle comedic talent, and his more characteristic action pictures like The Dawn Patrol, Scarface, G-Men, and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
—John A. Gallagher