February 10th, 2008

carole lombard 07
  • vp19

From headline writer to headlined writer

What does this...

...have in common with this?

The answer: the same person wrote both of them.

His name was Claude Binyon, and he was a prolific, yet relatively forgotten Golden Age screenwriter. Born in 1905, Binyon -- like many of his contemporaries -- had a newspaper background...but one slightly different than Ben Hecht or others of the era. For one thing, Binyon worked not for a regular daily newspaper, but for the trade publication Variety. For another, while he occasionally wrote reviews, most of his seven years there were spent doing desk work, especially as a headline writer. Legend has it that he was the one who came up with the "WALL ST. LAYS AN EGG" headline (in showbiz lingo, "lays an egg" means flop or disaster) following the "Black Tuesday" stock market crash of October 1929.

Binyon, who aspired to write for magazines, was eventually dismissed from Variety, but soon found work as a screenwriter at Paramount. His first work there was uncredited, co-writing the "Three Marines" segment of "If I Had A Million" in 1932. He wrote several films for Paramount over the next few years, including "Girl Without A Room" (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/6840.html), but he knew it wasn't much of a script and advised Carole Lombard -- whom he was on good terms with -- to pass it up. She did.

Binyon's first notable success came in early 1935 with "The Gilded Lily." That Claudette Colbert film put Fred MacMurray on the map, and it cemented the writer's working relationship with director Wesley Ruggles. (Later that year, Binyon would write another Colbert romantic comedy, "The Bride Comes Home.")

As stated earlier, Lombard was friendly with Binyon, whom one film book describes as "easygoing, portly and self-effacing." According to the Internet Movie Database, Binyon assisted -- without credit -- on two of Carole's 1936 films, "Love Before Breakfast" (made not at Paramount, but Universal) and "The Princess Comes Across."

Binyon wrote only two films in 1937, but both are fine examples of screwball. "I Met Him In Paris" stars Colbert in a romantic triangle with Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young. Then came "True Confession," this time a script for which Lombard was eager to appear in.

According to biographer Larry Swindell, Lombard asked Binyon to enlarge the John Barrymore supporting role, which he did, and Barrymore -- who had been struggling in the three-plus years since he helped build Lombard's career in "Twentieth Century" -- made the most of this opportunity.

Here's a rare photo of Binyon, instructing Lombard how to skeet shoot while they were filming "True Confession" at Lake Arrowhead (that's co-star MacMurray in back). According to the Paramount publicists, Carole "shot rings around" them.

Binyon's output declined during the 1940s, though he helped write both "Holiday Inn" and "Take A Letter, Darling" in 1942. After the war, he wrote a remake of "True Confession" called "Cross My Heart," designed as a vehicle for Paramount's hottest female star at the time, Betty Hutton:

The energetic Hutton, brilliant in "The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek" a few years before this 1946 release, was out of her realm in a Lombard-type role.

By 1948, Binyon had progressed to directing, but none of the seven films he directed were anything special (with the possible exception of the 1953 Bob Hope vehicle, "Here Come The Girls"). His later writing assignments included the adaptation of Max Shulman's satire "Rally 'Round The Flag, Boys!", "North To Alaska" and his final film, the 1964 political comedy "Kisses For My President" (yep, it's about a woman in the Oval Office). Binyon died 30 years ago Thursday, on Feb. 14, 1978. (His son, Claude Binyon Jr., was a longtime assistant director on films and TV, including "Get Smart" and "Star Trek"; he died at age 76 in January 2007.)

Here's what Binyon had to say about his craft in a 1945 issue of Variety:

"Writing for motion pictures is so simple and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

"Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn't everyone write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl."

Were it only so easy, thousands of aspiring screenwriters might reply.