One of the most honored wordsmiths during the first half of the 20th century was from North Dakota.
Maxwell Anderson began his writing career as a columnist for newspapers and magazines, but he became most known and honored for his theater plays, screenplays, poems and song lyrics. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1933 and received the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1935 and 1937.
A play that Anderson co-wrote in 1924 became a movie and received an Academy Award for best motion picture in 1926, and a screenplay he co-wrote in 1930 was nominated for an Academy Award. The lyrics to a song he wrote in 1938 reached No. 8 on the Billboard charts in 1946 when it was recorded by Frank Sinatra.
In 1923, Anderson came to the realization that he could write better plays than many playwrights whose works were purchased at very good prices by Broadway producers. He wrote his first commercial play, "White Desert," a tragedy about a young married couple living on their homestead in eastern North Dakota during the severe winter of 1888, and although it received favorable reviews from most of the prominent theater critics, it closed after only 12 Broadway performances.
Two theater professionals, George Abbott and Laurence Stallings, were very impressed with this play and let Anderson know that they wanted to be involved with him on future plays. Abbott was a co-star in "White Desert," and Stallings was the entertainment editor of the New York World.
Soon after Anderson and Abbott finished with the short run of "White Desert," they began writing another play, "The Feud." When it was completed in 1923, it was purchased by John Golden, a Broadway producer. However, I could find no evidence that it was ever performed on stage.
Anderson then teamed up with Stallings on his next play, "What Price Glory." Stallings was “a marine veteran of World War I who had lost a leg in the conflict,” and was familiar with the horrors of war. Anderson was a pacifist, and the two men became the first playwrights “to approach war from a non-romantic perspective.”
The play, which introduced two marine sergeant pals, Flagg and Quirt, opened on Broadway on Sept. 3, 1924, and was a huge success. It ran for 433 performances, and the box office rewards “enabled Anderson to retire from journalism and become a full-time dramatist.”
Anderson and Stallings co-wrote two plays in 1925, "First Flight" and "The Buccaneer," and neither play was a success. Anderson then wrote a play on his own titled "Outside Looking In," which was an adaptation of Jim Tully’s autobiography, "Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography." It ran for 113 performances at the Greenwich Village Theater in New York City and marked the professional stage debut of actor Jimmy Cagney. In 1925, Anderson also published his book of poetry, "You Who Have Dreams."
In 1926, Anderson and Stallings sold the movie rights of "What Price Glory" to Fox Studios, and Anderson began working on his next play, "Saturday’s Children," a comedy about a fun-loving, Jazz Age couple who decided to get married and then felt trapped. It was a big hit and ran for 316 performances at the Boothe Theater on Broadway. The couple was played by Humphrey Bogart and Ruth Gordon, and the play was the basis for three motion pictures.
Anderson wrote two more plays in 1927, "Gypsy" and "The Marriage Recipe," but they proved to be “disappointing efforts.” In 1928, he again resorted to using co-writers on the plays "Gods of the Lightning" and "Hell on Wheels," but again, these were disappointments.
At this time, Stallings was also struggling with the plays he had written, so he and Anderson decided to team up on a sequel to "What Price Glory" in a play "Tropical Twins." When they finished writing the play, they were approached by Raoul Walsh, the director of "What Price Glory," who purchased it for his next motion picture. Walsh renamed it "The Cock-Eyed World," and after it was released in 1929, Variety Magazine reported that “the film beat every known gross for any box office attraction throughout the world.” It became the first official movie sequel, and Flagg and Quirt were once again the central characters.
Because plays written by Anderson proved to be motion picture box office bonanzas, he was quickly summoned to Hollywood in 1930 to again work with George Abbott. Abbott and Anderson had co-written a play in 1924 and they were now being hired as co-screenwriters for the movie "All Quiet on the Western Front." The film was released in 1930 to critical acclaim and was nominated for an Academy Award for best motion picture of the year.
Anderson was now regarded as both an excellent playwright and screenwriter. We will continue the story of Maxwell Anderson next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.