"Mank," For the Memories
Fincher film earned the most nominatons for Oscars but provides a false narrative of key sub-plot: Upton Sinclair's wild race for governor of California. Plus music from the Stones and The Police.
As we did Monday with Part II of my Vonnegut epic, we are taking another departure from “short take” weekdays for this deeper probe of the story behind the alleged prime (cinematic) motivation for Herman Mankiewicz going after William Randolph Hearst in his Citizen Kane script. I know a thing or two about this thanks to my “classic” book on the Upton Sinclair race, which was cited just this week in The New Yorker. So we’ll start with the usual cartoon and a few shorts and end with two song picks, but mainly it’s Mank You, Very Much. Then subscribe, please, it’s still free.
News & Politics
Stephen Colbert: “This administration is delivering pricks in arms. As opposed to the last administration, which delivered armed pricks.”
Jimmy Fallon: “Despite warnings from health experts, the Texas Rangers had a full crowd of more than 38,000 people for their home opener. All of the fans got a Dr. Fauci bobblehead that only shook its head ‘no.’” Jimmy Kimmel: “Many of the fans were defiantly maskless. I like that men will wear a glove the whole game—for the one in 98,000 chance they might catch a foul ball—but a mask? Out of the question!”
Headline of the Day, from Rolling Stone: “Ozzy Osbourne, William Shatner to Join WWE Wrestling Hall of Fame.” Runner-up, from NY Times: “That Night 46 Million Grasshoppers Went to Vegas.” And from Hollywood Life: “Dave Chappelle Claims He Saw Celebs Leaving ‘Dirty Notes’ For Trump Staff At White House Party.”
Caitlyn Jenner is exploring a run for California governor, according to Axios.
As I’ve warned for months: Pelosi’s margin for Dems in House is incredibly thin—and almost disappearing. There are now FIVE vacancies so the original 222-213 is currently 218-212, with special elections weeks or months off.
Wash Post’s media writer Erik Wemple argues that John Boehner was "way too kind" in his description of Sean Hannity: "Boehner called him a 'nut', as if Hannity were just an eccentric who likes pineapple on his pizza..."
The venerable Yahoo Answers question-and-answer service will be wiped off the internet on May 4.
NYT: In the final weeks of Mr. Trump’s term, [Matt] Gaetz… privately asked the White House for blanket pre-emptive pardons for himself and unidentified congressional allies for any crimes they may have committed, according to two people told of the discussions.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki: “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”
The Not-So-EPIC “Mank”
As you no doubt know by now, David Fincher's film Mank, which now leads the Oscar field with ten nominations, explores how Herman Mankiewicz came to co-write the celebrated screenplay for Citizen Kane. I looked forward to watching the movie on Netflix last December—and in the end it gave a nice little boost to one of my books—but found it disappointing, even depressing in spots. (Loved Amanda Seyfried and the great Charles Dance, though.) Maybe I just knew too much, or perhaps I’m allergic to cinema characters who are drunk most of the time.
Spoiler alert: Maybe part of the Oscar love for Mank stems from its final scene which dwells on the Academy Award verdict on the writer and Welles back in the day.
The central question, however, posed by Fincher: Why did Mank stick with Citizen Kane despite pressure from actress Marion Davies, director Orson Welles and others to drop the project, or at least leave his name off it? Surprisingly, his primary motivation (in the movie) seems to be author Upton Sinclair's race for governor of California in 1934, and how it was sabotaged by MGM producer Irving Thalberg and media baron William Randolph Hearst.
But how accurate is that central plot point beyond the fact that Sinclair, a former socialist, captured the Democratic primary in a landslide running on an End Poverty in California (EPIC) platform, and appeared headed for victory that November leading a mass movement?
The film, written by the director's late father, Jack Fincher, portrays Mankiewicz favoring Sinclair in that race about five years before he answered Welles' call to write Kane. The movie's Mank (Gary Oldman) refuses MGM chief Louis B. Mayer's order to hand over a donation to Sinclair's Republican opponent--and he appears to be the only holdout at the studio. Then he tries to get Thalberg to kill the phony newsreels the producer had devised to destroy Sinclair. “Upton just wants you to apportion some of your Xmas bonus, Irving, to the people who clean your house," Mank pleads. Thalberg, naturally, asks what Mank has done for the poor lately (well, nothing).
It's true that Mankiewicz played a key role in the 1934 campaign. That Mankiewicz, however, was not Herman but his brother Joseph. There is no evidence that Herman took any stand for Sinclair, let alone a nearly heroic one, or even voted for him. His brother, on the other hand, wrote outrageous anti-Sinclair radio dramas, he admitted when I interviewed him for my award-winning book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century.
There is a scene in Mank where Herman and his wife hear a broadcast on the radio, much like the ones his brother penned. An elderly woman, purportedly an average citizen, tells an interviewer that she fears for the future under the radical Sinclair. Herman informs his wife, "Why, that's Maude Anderson," an actress he knows at the studio, reading a script. But there's no mention of his brother's work against Sinclair in Mank.
Joseph Mankiewicz does appear fairly often in the film, which portrays him in 1934 as still wet behind the ears in Hollywood and beholden to his brother. Actually, by then, he had already written several hits for the studio while his brother's star was fading.
As for the anti-Sinclair exertions by Hearst: While it's an effective narrative device in Mank, no on has ever suggested this played any role in Herman Mankiewicz's decision to write Citizen Kane (with Welles) as a kind of "payback." Yes, the monstrous Charles Foster Kane was surely based on Hearst. But there's not a shred of proof that Hearst actually financed those phony newsreels, as Mank suggests in a key scene, nor that Mankiewicz objected.
Charles Dance as Hearst does get a fun line when he yells at his party guests not to take Sinclair serious as a candidate: “Good people, the man is an author!" (See my recent piece here on Sinclair’s pre-1934 career and influence.) Much is then made by a drunken Mank that Hearst and Sinclair were once rather closely aligned politically in many ways, with Upton at one point suggesting that the publisher might one day lead a “socialist revolution.” Now, in this campaign, Hearst decided “to look into the mirror of his youth and break this glass,” Mank charges, “a maddening reminder of who he once was. Assisted by his faithful Sansho”—that is, Louis B. Mayer—”armed with all the black magic.”
Hearst did play a crucial role against Sinclair in ordering his newspapers, including his Examiners in San Francisco and Los Angeles, to mock him every day in stories, cartoons and with twisted quotes from his novels. But the Los Angeles Times, barely mentioned in Mank, proved far more pivotal (even exceeding the Hearst papers in its creative malevolence).
On the other hand, Mank's fidelity to MGM's role in stopping Sinclair is, broadly speaking, fairly accurate. Employees at most of the studios, from drivers to stars, really were docked one day's pay to be funneled to the GOP candidate, and only a few actors or writers protested, among them James Cagney and Albert Hackett. (Charlie Chaplin was a rare star who supported Sinclair but said almost nothing in public.) Some of the movie moguls did threaten to move their studios to Florida if Sinclair got elected. Mayer and Thalberg did celebrate Sinclair's demise at the Trocadero nightclub on election night.
Other details are also fact-based. Mankiewicz vehemently opposed the fledgling Screen Writers Guild. He was friendly with Marion Davies, a fellow alcoholic, and attended parties at Hearst's San Simeon castle, some of them requiring lavish costuming (and yes, there were giraffes and monkeys outside). Davies in Mank quotes word-for-word a savage depiction of her affair with Hearst penned by Sinclair. She did leave MGM when denied the chance to play Marie Antoinette in a major movie but this happened after the phony newsreels hit the screen, not before (as the movie claims).
Just three years before the 1934 race, Thalberg purchased the rights to a Sinclair novel (The Wet Parade). The author used the money to help finance a film in Mexico--but it was not, as the movie asserts, "about the Russian revolution" but rather the aborted Sergei Eisenstein epic, Que Viva Mexico. Unmentioned in Mank is that a year after that, Thalberg paid him another huge sum for an original film idea, but quickly killed it, and no wonder: Sinclair had titled it The Gold-Spangled Banner.
Now, what about those phony newsreels--or "fake news" as we might call them today?
They existed only as a memory, even a rumor, until I discovered them in an off-site MGM archive in Los Angeles in 1990 while researching The Campaign of the Century. Thalberg had ordered a film crew to shoot two Inquiring Reporter shorts with voters weighing in on the governor's race. Many of the subjects, however, were bit actors from the studio reciting scripted comments. The more respectable ones supported Merriam or tagged Sinclair as a dangerous radical. Others, often poorly dressed, hailed Sinclair. One with a heavy accent asserted that Sinclair's plans "vorked very vell in Russia" and surely could also "vork" in America.
A couple months ago, C-SPAN aired a special airing large portions of the newsreels, with extensive commentary by yours truly.
Mank recreates the the first two newsreels faithfully, but it virtually ignores the final, and most impactful, Thalberg newsreel. It showed boxcars filled with hobos flocking to California to take advantage of Sinclair's promised utopia. Some of the scenes were staged or taken directly from obscure MGM movies.
The Fincher film shows Mankiewicz driven by guilt for accidentally giving Thalberg the idea for these newsreels when he reminded him that the studios were capable of creating their own reality--making audiences believe, for example, that their mechanical King Kong "is ten stories tall." Soon Thalberg assigns one of Mank's pals named Shelly, a middle-aged cameraman, to direct the shorts. Shelly views this as the chance of a lifetime, but later recognizes that they were used to destroy a worthy candidate. After Sinclair blames them for his defeat, Shelly commits suicide.
This, of course, is almost pure fiction. The "Shelly" who actually directed the newsreels was Felix Feist, Jr., far younger at just twenty-four, who had shot film tests and short subjects at the studio but was desperate to direct features. A conservative, he likely never regretted creating the newsreels for Thalberg, especially since he went on to direct several B-movies in the 1940s and 1950s and dozens of episodes for TV series.
One final note: Bill Nye--yes, "The Science Guy"--might seem like an unlikely choice to portray Sinclair. He doesn't get Sinclair's voice right, but he is suitably slight, combative and intelligent. Long before Nye filmed his one scene for Fincher he posted one of Sinclair's most famous quotes on his Facebook feed: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
Song Picks of the Day
On this day in 1962, at a jazz club in West London, Mick and Keith met Brian Jones for the first time. Jones was calling himself “Elmo Lewis” and was playing guitar with singer Paul Jones, who was performing under his real name of P. P. Pond. Here’s Brian at his best, with trademark guitar, in all 17 minutes of the classic TAMI Show barnburner.
And on this day in 1978: The Police released “Roxanne” as the first single from their debut album Outlandos d'Amour. The title, of course, came from the name of character in Cyrano de Bergerac, which Sting saw on an old poster hanging in a hotel foyer in Paris.
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Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including the bestseller The Tunnels (on escapes under the Berlin Wall), the current The Beginning or the End (on MGM’s wild atomic bomb movie), and The Campaign of the Century (on Upton Sinclair’s left-wing race for governor of California), which was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of five greatest books ever about an election. For nearly all of the 1970s he was the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. Later he served as longtime editor of Editor & Publisher magazine. He recently co-produced a film about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.California), which was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of five greatest books ever about an election. For nearly all of the 1970s he was the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. Later he served as longtime editor of Editor & Publisher magazine. He recently co-produced a film about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony