Watch on the Rhine
The work of playwright Lillian Hellman continues to inspire the modern theater. An online search leads to the following sampling: Toys in the Attic played in midtown Manhattan in 2007; The Little Foxes was revived in Chicago earlier this year; and The Children's Hour played in London in 2011 with, among others, Keira Knightley, Elisabeth Moss, Carol Kane and Ellen Burstyn. As a Hollywood screenwriter, Hellman adapted some of her work and wrote original material as well, and she even survived a blacklisting from the anti-Communist crowd in Washington during the 50s.
A New Orleans native, she first came to Hollywood in 1930 with her first husband after studying at New York University and Columbia, as well as touring Europe. She was a reader for MGM, and while trying to unionize her fellow readers, she met and fell in love with Maltese Falcon writer Dashiell Hammett. Eventually, she divorced her husband and began a long-term affair with Hammett, despite him being married. It was he who encouraged her to try her hand at writing, and Hour was her first professional work. In her subsequent plays and screenplays, she found outlets in which to express her liberal views on society.
Watch on the Rhine, in particular, addressed World War 2 before America was drawn into the conflict. The play opened on April 1, 1941 and ran for 378 performances. A Washington, DC society woman marries a German and raises a family with him in Germany. Along comes the Nazis, and hubby joins an underground resistance group. When the heat gets too hot, he decides to take a vacation back to America to see her family. Little do they know, however, that forces are at work even there to flush him and his comrades out.
Warner Brothers bought the film rights and Hellman's lover Hammett was recruited to write the screenplay when she herself was unavailable. Much of the stage cast was brought on board for the film, including Eric Roberts, Frank L. Wilson, George Coulouris, Lucille Watson (no relation) and star Paul Lukas.
Bette Davis was super-excited about Hellman's play and was eager to appear in the film adaptation, but she was less sanguine about having her part built up just for her. She was okay with taking a supporting role because she believed strongly in the story, but in the end, she got star billing anyway.
Rhine first came to my attention when Jacqueline wrote a piece about it earlier this year, with an emphasis on Coulouris' role as the heavy. I liked the film, though it took me awhile to get into it. I didn't expect it to begin like just another snooty high society family drama. I guess I wanted to see Nazis from the get-go, and I didn't care about Watson's character fluttering around her mansion bossing everyone in sight. Once the situation became clearer, and I recognized what Coulouris' agenda was, then I became more interested. Lukas was very good. He reminded me a little bit of Gary Cooper if he were European.
Hellman wrote several successful autobiographies later in life, but was dogged by accusations of inaccuracy and misrepresentation in her work by third parties. Indeed, by her own admission, Hellman wrote what she considered a highly subjective version of the truth in her autobiographies. Regardless, she remains a highly influential and respected playwright of the twentieth century, and a pioneering woman in what was, at the time, a male-dominant field.