Tuesday, July 17, 2012

When Norman Mailer Met Actor Charles Laughton

By Stephen J. Gertz

Not too many years after Norman Mailer (1923-2007) published The Naked And The Dead in 1948, the screen rights were bought by actor Charles Laughton (1899-1962), who would direct, and his producing partner, Paul Gregory. Mailer received the then princely sum of $250,000. Though he was not hired to write the screenplay (ultimately written by James Agee) Laughton brought Mailer in to help with preliminary development, the two spending a week together working in Laughton's penthouse apartment in Hollywood.

The fruits of Mailer and Laughton's collaboration have survived. 

An archive of twenty-two original sketches for the film adaptation of The Naked And The Dead, in pencil on paper, and with many signed by Mailer, is being offered by Bloomsbury-London this Thursday, July 19, 2012 as part of their Printed Books Including Modern First Editions sale.

The archive's provenance could not be more sterling: from the estate of Charles Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lanchester. The lot is estimated to sell for £20,000 - £30,000 ($31,130 - $46,729).

Nine of the sketches relate to scenes in the novel, including views of the island from the invasion fleet's POV, views of the island pass, the structure of the rapids traversed by characters Croft and Wilson, and a scene from Croft's "time machine," one of a series of flash-backs interspersed within the novel.

The remaining sketches depict characters in the novel: Croft (3); Minetta (2); Cummings (3); Roth (2); Goldstein (2); Red (3); A Soldier (1); Dalleson (1); Hearn (1); Brown (1); Polack (1); Stacey (1); Ridges (1); Toglio (1); Wyman (1); Wilson (3); Hennessey (1); Gallagher (4); and Martinez (1).

In the portraits of Cummings and Croft, Mailer has drawn sketches for both their "outer" and ''inner'" aspects. Dalleson is referred to as "Wallace Beery the younger" and one of Wilson's sketches has the comment "should be more handsome." The sketches provide an insider's view into the  free and easy nature of this early leap into adapting the novel to film.

Based upon Laughton's hopes for The Night Of The Hunter, his first film directing assignment, it was expected that a Laughton-directed The Naked And The Dead would receive a studio's production green light. Sadly, alas, The Night Of The Hunter, while a critical success, was a box-office failure. Laughton dropped out of the project and The Naked And The Dead would ultimately be directed by Raoul Walsh and released in 1958.

"Charles Laughton was to do it," Mailer told interviewer Gerald Peary, "and we spent a week together at Laughton's St. Moritz Hotel penthouse. He had a great dedication to the novel, and he was coming off...The Night Of The Hunter, which he thought would do extraordinarily. It didn't. Laughton was not a young man, and it took everything out of him. He never directed again."

Images courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions, with our thanks.

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