30 August 2020

Austin Strong

This is a photograph of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, on Samoa in May 1892.

The woman sitting on the porch in front of them is Fanny’s daughter from her first marriage, at that time Isobel (Belle) Strong.

The eleven-year-old boy at the front, barefoot and wearing his mother’s flowered hat, was Belle’s only child. His name was Austin Strong, which sounds like a fictional hero or a civic slogan, but it really was.

Austin was thus R. L. Stevenson’s step-grandson. The writer, along with other members of the family, took responsibility for the lad’s schooling while they were on Samoa. As a result, his mother later wrote, Austin memorized a lot of poetry, was told that most important British history took place in Scotland, and learned very little math and spelling since his tutors understood it very little themselves.

Eventually Austin Strong went away to boarding school in California and New Zealand. Stevenson died on Samoa in 1894. By then Isobel Strong had divorced her philandering and drinking husband. The family seeped back to the US.

After NAME died, Isobel married her mother’s secretary (and, some speculate, lover). In the 1920s oil was detected on land the couple owned in America, giving them prosperous comfort.

Meanwhile, in 1906 Austin Strong and Isobel’s younger brother Lloyd Osbourne had collaborated on a play titled Little Father of the Wilderness. (Lloyd had written three novels with his stepfather back in the 1890s and continued to publish fiction. Based on the quality of his solo work, many critics think Stevenson must have written all the good parts of those three early books.)

The play by uncle and nephew was a success, and it made Strong interested in the theater. He wrote many more Broadway plays on his own, with the most successful being Seventh Heaven in 1922. That drama of the Parisian demimonde was adapted for the movies in 1927, winning Academy Awards for director, lead actress, and adapted screenplay. Ten years later the studio remade the movie with sound and a young actor named James Stewart in the lead.

Austin Strong settled on another island, Nantucket, where he was known for sharing his graphic and theatrical talents. He died in 1952, one year before his mother.



Silent movie


Longest runs on Broadway for Three Wise Fools and Seventh Heaven.

EVEN the members of the drama jury must feel rancorous about the Pulitzer Prize for "Men in White." For several years now the drama jury has consisted of Walter Prichard Eaton, Clayton Hamilton and Austin Strong.

Although formal announcement of the award was made last night, the fact that Kingsley’s play had been designated was known early last week when a newspaperman divulged the information in his column. At the same time it was learned that the Advisory Board of the School of Journalism had overruled the selection of its jury. The jury had picked for the award “Mary of Scotland,” by Maxwell Anderson, winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize.

The controversy that raged last Spring over the award of the Pulitzer Prize to Sidney Kingsley’s “Men in White” had reverberations yesterday when it became known that the Pulitzer Prize Play Committee of last year has declined to serve in the same capacity this year.

The committee, whose members were Austin Strong, Clayton Hamilton and Walter Prichard Eaton, last year selected Maxwell Anderson’s “Mary of Scotland” for the award. Shortly thereafter, they were overruled by the Advisory Board of the School of Journalism who chose the Kingsley play.

Columbia University officials expressed amazement at the news that the committee had resigned. Mr. Hayden, in the office of Secretary Frank D. Fackenthal, explained that the committee had nothing to resign from. He told a Jewish Daily Bulletin reporter that “the committee is appointed for a year and there is nothing in the nature of a hold-over in the appointments. Therefore they had nothing to resign from, having completed their work last spring when they submitted their report to the Advisory Board of the School of Journalism.”

Belle’s memoir

Osbourne books

Stevenson on writing

Joseph Strong


Kingsley obit, including Dead End and Detective Story and The Patriots

26 August 2020

Christie Exercises the Little Grey Cells

Reading Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, for the first time, I was struck by how she used dialogue to give hints about action that she never described.

Examining those passages further, it seems clear that Christie uses that technique to make readers’ brains work a little harder—to different purposes.

During an early visit to a pharmacy department of the sort Christie herself was working in, the pharmacist says:
“If you people only knew how fatally easy it is to poison someone by mistake, you wouldn’t joke about it. Come on, let’s have tea. We’ve got all sorts of secret stories in that cupboard. No, Lawrence—that’s the poison cupboard. The big cupboard—that’s right.”
By making us perform a little extra effort to understand that Lawrence is interested in the poison cupboard, Christie implants him in our minds as a suspect. Actual culprit or red herring? We find out in the end.

About midway through the book comes another example of the same technique as our narrator, Col. Hastings, interviews a local rustic.
“Why, do the gentlemen from the Hall come here often?” I asked, as carelessly as I could.

He winked at me knowingly.

One does, mister. Naming no names, mind. And a very liberal gentleman too! Oh, thank you, sir, I’m sure.”
Christie never tells us outright that Hastings has responded to the farmer’s hint by giving him a little tip for his information. We have to recreate that bit of business from the farmer’s words.

And our brains are so occupied with reassembling that interaction from clues that we don’t notice the farmer hasn’t actually specified which gentleman from the hall has been visiting. Hastings is sure he knows, but, of course, he’s barking up the wrong tree entirely.

13 August 2020

Looking Back on Return to Oz after 35 Years

When Return to Oz came out in 1985, I was just the wrong age for it.

I was at the end of my teens, busy with college and summer jobs. Even though I still considered myself an Oz fan, I didn’t find time to spare for an Oz movie that lots of early reviews called a dark disappointment.

If I’d been five years younger—and maybe even if I’d been five years older—I’d have gone to Return to Oz that first year. But I was at a crest of being intellectually serious, and was among the many who stayed away.

Return to Oz wasn’t a success at the box office or with most critics, but some of its first viewers loved it. And more fans developed through the VHS releases and repeated showings on the Disney Channel. Now, thirty-five years after the movie’s release, it’s considered a cult favorite. Furthermore, the intervening years have brought more Oz adaptations to make it look good.

This year the International Wizard of Oz Club was due to hold its national convention this upcoming weekend. Then came the pandemic. The in-person gathering had to be canceled, and organizers turned their energy into creating a virtual convention titled “To Oz? To Oz!” It will run from the afternoon of Friday, 14 August, through Sunday, 16 August, and registration is free.

As part of OzCon International’s contribution to that Oz Club online event, I just finished chatting with three people who were just the right age to appreciate Return to Oz in the 1980s and to view it with new eyes today.

First I hosted an online panel with Sarah Crotzer, professor of English and Film and editor-in-chief of The Baum Bugle, and Eliza Wren, a filmmaker and musician who composed her own rock score to Return to Oz. Our topic was “Return to Oz at 35.”

Then I chatted with Freddy Fogarty about how Return to Oz made him an Oz fan and about some of his favorite movie memorabilia. Freddy’s collection was one of the bases for the El Segundo Museum of Art’s terrific Oz display last year.

The recording of those conversations is scheduled to premiere in the “To Oz? To Oz!” lineup on Saturday afternoon. As at any good fan convention, there are plenty of other things happening, too. To view the videos and live events this weekend, one has to be registered in advance, but I believe that eventually all this 2020 content will be available online.

06 August 2020

Hondo from Story to Screenplay to Novel

In a collection of Louis L’Amour stories, I came across this passage in Jon Tuska’s introduction, explaining how L’Amour’s first sale in the western genre eventually produced his first bestseller:
L’Amour sold his first Western short story to a slick magazine a year later, “The Gift of Cochise” in Collier’s (7/5/52). Robert Fellows and John Wayne purchased screen rights to this story from L’Amour for $4,000 and James Edward Grant, one of Wayne’s favorite screenwriters, developed a script from it, changing L’Amour’s Ches Lane to Hondo Lane. L’Amour retained the right to novelize Grant’s screenplay, which differs substantially from his short story, and he was able to get an endorsement from Wayne to be used as a blurb, stating that Hondo was the finest Western Wayne had ever read. Hondo (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1953) by Louis L’Amour was released on the same day as the film, Hondo (Warner, 1953), with a first printing of 320,000 copies.
Making the Hollywood connection was clearly important to L’Amour’s career path, which at this critical point hardly followed the model of a lone author sticking to his creative vision, unswayed by money and celebrity.

The movie Hondo couldn’t match up to George Stevens’s Shane, a masterpiece released a few months earlier. Jack Schaefer’s novel Shane is quite good as well. As with L’Amour, it was Schaefer’s first successful foray into the western genre, and it defined his career.