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Nugent, Frank S.

NUGENT, Frank S.

Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Frank Stanley Nugent in New York City, 27 May 1908. Education: Attended Columbia University, New York, degree in journalism. Family: Married 1) Dorothy Rivers, 1939 (divorced 1952); 2) Jean Lavell, 1953; one son. Career: 1929–34, reporter, and film critic, 1934–40, New York Times; 1940—first filmwriting work, as script doctor; 1948—first film as writer, and first of several films for John Ford, Fort Apache; 1957–58—President, Screen Writers Guild. Died: 29 December 1965.

Films as Writer:


Fort Apache (Ford); Three Godfathers (Ford)


Tulsa (Heisler); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford)


Wagonmaster (Ford); Two Flags West (Wise)


The Quiet Man (Ford)


Angel Face (Preminger)


The Paratrooper (Young); Trouble in the Glen (Wilcox); They Rode West (Karlson)


Mister Roberts (Ford and LeRoy); The Tall Men (Walsh)


The Searchers (Ford)


The Rising of the Moon (Ford)


Gunman's Walk (Karlson); The Last Hurrah (Ford)


Flame over India (Lee Thompson)


Two Rode Together (Ford)


Donovan's Reef (Ford)


Incident at Phantom Hill (Bellamy)


On NUGENT: articles—

Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1966, translated in Cahiers du Cinéma in English, January 1967.

Film Comment (New York), Winter 1970–71.

Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.

Film Dope, no. 48, July 1992.

* * *

Frank S. Nugent, who worked as a Hollywood screenwriter for nearly 20 years, started as a news reporter at the New York Times, and moved to the film department as an assistant, then top reviewer. In the latter capacity Nugent sang high praise for some of the biggest hits of Hollywood's waning Golden Age (Modern Times, Stagecoach, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, A Star Is Born, Gone with the Wind), as well as the growing number of imports that were to help internationalize filmmaking in the postwar years (Grand Illusion, Pygmalion, The Lady Vanishes).

Among the movies Nugent panned were those starring such romantic leads as Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power. Nugent's review of The Story of Alexander Graham Bell praised the film for not including Power in its cast, and resulted in a serious reduction of 20th Century-Fox's advertising in the New York Times for nearly a year. Then, after Nugent's effulgent re-review of that studio's The Grapes of Wrath, he received an offer from Darryl F. Zanuck to work there as a script doctor. (Zanuck's maneuver was privately called "a tacit exercise of the theory that if you can't fire 'em, hire 'em," the Times obituary of Frank Nugent stated 25 years later.)

At 20th Century-Fox, Nugent worked on scores of scripts, and there was talk of his becoming a producer there. However, that didn't materialize, and he returned to journalism, writing freelance movie articles for such magazines as Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, and the New York Times Magazine. One such assignment for the latter took Nugent to Mexico where John Ford was directing The Fugitive. Nugent later reported that Ford "knocked me right off my seat by asking how I'd like to write for him. . . . He gave me a list of about 50 books to read. . . . Later he sent me down into the Old Apache country to nose around." Ford also asked Nugent to write complete biographies of every character in the film, from childhood to the moment he or she entered the screenplay. It was a practice that Nugent continued throughout his screenwriting career.

Eleven of the 21 scripts Nugent wrote were for Ford films, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagonmaster, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. The story of the Nugent-Ford association is somewhat befogged by the report, which has been published in numerous sources, that Nugent was married to John Ford's daughter, Barbara, the same year that Ford asked him to write his first script, Fort Apache. But the obituaries of both Barbara Ford and Frank Nugent mention two marriages each, but not to one another.

Nugent had been an ardent Ford fan since his days as the New York Times film critic, writing in his review of Stagecoach for example, that Ford had "swept aside the years of artifice and talkie compromise and . . . made a motion picture that sings a song of camera . . . a movie of the grand old school, a genuine rib-thumper and a beautiful sight to see." That Nugent and Ford should eventually meet and work together seems as predestined as the meeting and collaboration of James Agee and John Huston, a few years later.

Richard Corliss, in his chapter on Nugent in Talking Pictures, writes that Nugent's work "culminated in his brilliant and self-effacing script for The Searchers—that rare Hollywood film that can be called indisputably ineffable cinema." Corliss points out that The Searchers is the "ultimate 'door' movie, with more than a score of shots in which doors describe or extend the psychological milieu." The film also helped create a new persona for the aging John Wayne, as Ethan Edwards, the outsider who thinks and feels on an essentially inner psychological terrain before he acts.

—Cecile Starr

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