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Karl Tunberg and his Contribution to Twentieth Century Cinema

A career in the art of cinema

This Website is devoted to Karl Tunberg and his career as a screenwriter, and offers information about the more than forty major motion picture screenplays of which he was either co-author or sole author. Members of Karl Tunberg's family are creators and caretakers of this Website, and are making every effort to present the most accurate information available. The details offered here about Karl Tunberg's life, professional activities, and film credits have been derived from records kept by the Writer's Guild of America, legal documents, conversations with Karl Tunberg himself, information provided by family members, and Karl Tunberg's unpublished and unedited written memoirs.
 
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Webmaster:    ktunbergwebmaster@gmail.com

 
Karl Owen Tunberg, 1907 (Spokane, Washington U.S.A) - 1992 (London, England, UK)



 
Karl Tunberg: photo taken between about 1946 and 1950.




Karl Tunberg (extreme left) With Some of the Cast of
The Scarlet Coat
ca. 1955

Born in Spokane, Washington, on March 11, 1907, Karl Tunberg migrated at an early age to California with and his older brother William (who also became as screenwriter as an adult), and with his mother ‘Cenna’ (her maiden name was actually Centennial Independence Firebaugh, and she was so named because she was born on 4 July 1876, the first centennial 'birthday' of the United States of America!). Karl Tunberg's birth certificate (in the records of Spokane County Health District, State of Washington) records two children as having been previously born to Cenna. We only have information pertaining to William Tunberg, and have so far encountered no additional trace of this other sibling. 

The family lived for a time in Santa Barbara, but eventually settled in Los Angeles. There Karl attended Hollywood High School, UCLA and USC. Karl Tunberg was destined to spend much of his life in Los Angeles, though he also lived and worked for many years in London, England.  Largely in connection with his film making projects, Karl also traveled throughout Europe, visited China, Malaysia, Japan, and the West Indies. 
He was married three times and had five children. He served president of the Screen Writers Guild from 1950 to 1951.

His earliest writings included short stories, and a novel entitled While the Crowd Cheers, which was published in 1935 by the Macaulay Company. Very soon, Karl Tunberg turned his story-telling talents to screenplays. Starting in 1937 Karl was on contract as a screenwriter for Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation under Darryl Zanuck. In the early 1940s Karl Tunberg moved his seat of operations to Paramount Pictures. In the first phase of his career Tunberg typically collaborated with other writers, especially with Darrell Ware, a deft composer of musical comedies. Eventually (in the later 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s) Karl worked more frequently on his own. In the late 1940s he made two films for Universal Studios, with a brief return to Fox (Love That Brute, 1950). This was followed by a series of large films for MGM in the 1950s, including historical epics such as Beau Brummel, the Scarlet Coat, and Ben Hur, and two big-production films for United Artists in the early 1960s (Taras Bulba [in collaboration with Waldo Salt], The Seventh Dawn). During this period he occasionally functioned as producer as well as writer – as in the case of Count Your Blessings (1958). In the 1960s Karl also wrote screenplays for two major MGM productions, I Thank a Fool (1962) and Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1967).  Finally, in the early 1970s Karl Tunberg began writing segments for television series, but he never felt as much at home in the television medium as he had in the creation of large-screen motion pictures. The most famous screenplay authored by Karl Tunberg was probably the one he wrote for the 1959 epic, Ben Hur, but Karl Tunberg always told those close to him that he regarded Beau Brummel (1954) as his best work.
 

Karl Tunberg 1950s
 

Motion Picture Credits 
 

 

Sole Author:

1. Masquerade in Mexico. Karl Tunberg, 1945: story by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Spencer.


Directed by Mitchell Leisen
: Starring Dorothy Lamour: Production Company Paramount Pictures

Synopsis & Analysis


2. The Imperfect Lady. Karl Tunberg, 1946/1947: story by Ladislas Fodor.

 

Directed by Lewis Allen: Produced and written by Karl Tunberg: Starring Ray Milland, Teresa Wright, Cedric Hardwicke: Distributed by Paramount Pictures: Release date April 25, 1947


Synopsis & Analysis


3.  Up in Central Park. Karl Tunberg, 1948: with contributions by Iam McLellan Hunter, based on the musical play by Herbert Fields, Dorothy Fields, and Clyde Finch


Directed by William A. Seiter: Produced and written by Karl Tunberg: Starring Deanna Durbin, Dick Haymes, Vincent Price: Production Company Universal Pictures

 

Synopsis & Analysis


Some Remarks by Karl Tunberg on Up in Central Park


4. You Gotta Stay Happy. Karl Tunberg, 1948: based on a serial by Robert Carson.

Directed by H.C. Potter: Produced and written by Karl Tunberg: Starring James Stewart, Joan Fontaine: Production Company Universal Pictures

Synopsis & Analysis

Some Remarks by Karl Tunberg on You Gotta Stay Happy

5.  Beau Brummell. Karl Tunberg, 1954: based on a play by Clyde Fitch.

Directed by Curtis Bernhardt: Produced by Sam Zimbalist: Starring Stewart Granger, Robert Morley, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov: Production Company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Synopsis & Analysis

Some Remarks by Karl Tunberg on Beau Brummell

6. The Scarlet Coat. Karl Tunberg, 1955: based on a story by Hollister Noble and Sidney Harmon.

Directed by John Sturges: Produced by Nicholas Nayfack: Starring Anne Francis, George Sanders, Cornel Wilde, Michael Wilding: Production Company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Synopsis & Analysis

7. The Seventh Sin. Karl Tunberg, 1957: based on “The Painted Veil,” a novel by W. Somerset Maugham.

Directed by Ronald Neame: Starring Eleanor Parker, George Sanders, Bill Travers: Production Company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Synopsis & Analysis

8. Count Your Blessings. Karl Tunberg, 1959: based on “The Blessing,” a novel by Nancy Mitford.

Directed by Jean Negulesco: Produced and written by Karl Tunberg: Starring Rossano Brazzi, Maurice Chevalier, Deborah Kerr: Production Company    Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Almost the entire film can be viewed here

Synopsis & Analysis

9. Ben Hur. Karl Tunberg, 1959: based on a novel by Lew Wallace.

Directed by William Wyler: Produced by Sam Zimbalist: Starring Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Haya Harareet, Jack Hawkins, Charlton Heston: Production
company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Synopsis

Controversies over Screen-Writing Credit

Some Remarks by Karl Tunberg on Ben Hur

10. I Thank a Fool. Karl Tunberg, 1962: based on a novel by Audrey Erskine Lindop.

Directed by Robert Stevens: Produced by Anatole de Grunwald: Starring Diane Cilento, Cyril Cusack, Peter Finch, Susan Hayward: Production companies De Grunwald Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Synopsis & Analysis

Some Remarks by Karl Tunberg on I Thank a Fool

11. The Seventh Dawn. Karl Tunberg, 1964: based on a novel by Michael Keon.

Directed by Lewis Gilbert: Starring Capucine, William Holden, Tetsuro Tamba, Susannah York: Production company United Artists

Synopsis & Analysis

Some Remarks by Karl Tunberg on The Seventh Dawn

12. Harlow. Karl Tunberg, 1965.

Directed by Alex Segal: Starring Carol Lynley, Ginger Rogers, Barry Sullivan, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.: Production by Magna

Synopsis & Analysis


Co-Author:
 
1. You Can't Have Everything. Harry Tugend, Karl Tunberg, Jack Yellen, 1937: based on a story by Gregory Ratoff.

Directed by Norman Taurog: Starring Don Ameche, Alice Faye: Production company 20th Century Fox

2. Life Begins in College. Karl Tunberg and Don Ettlinger, 1937: based on stories by Darrell Ware.

Directed by William A. Seiter: Starring Joan Davis, Tony Martin, Gloria Stuart, The Ritz Brothers: Production company 20th Century Fox

3. Sally, Irene and Mary.  Don Ettlinger, Karl Tunberg, Jack Yellen, 1938: first made as a silent film in 1925: based on play by Eddie Dowling.

Directed by William A. Seiter: Starring Fred Allen, Joan Davis, Alice Faye,  Tony Martin, Gregory Ratoff, Marjorie Weaver: Production company 20th Century Fox

4. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  Don Ettlinger, Karl Tunberg, 1938: based upon the children's book Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin.

Directed by Allan Dwan: Starring William Demarest, Jack Haley, Bill Robinson, Randolph Scott, Shirley Temple, Helen Westley: Production company 20th Century Fox

5. Hold that Co-ed.  Don Ettlinger, Karl Tunberg, 1938.

Directed by George Marshall: Starring John Barrymore, George Murphy, Marjorie Weaver: Production company 20th Century Fox

6. My Lucky Star.  Screenplay by Harry Tugend and Jack Yellen, 1938: from a story by Don Ettlinger and Karl Tunberg.

Directed by Roy Del Ruth: Starring Richard Greene, Sonja Henie, Cesar Romero: Production company 20th Century Fox

7. Shipyard Sally.  Don Ettlinger, Karl Tunberg, 1939-1940 : from a story by Gracie Fields, Thomas J. Geraghty, Val Valentine.

Directed by Monty Banks: Starring Gracie Fields, Sydney Howard, Norma Varden: Production company 20th Century Fox

8. I Was an Adventuress.  Don Ettlinger, John O’Hara, Karl Tunberg, 1940 : based on a French film “J'étais une aventurière (1938)”.

Directed by Gregory Ratoff: Starring Richard Greene, Peter Lorre, Erich von Stroheim, Vera Zorina: Production company 20th Century Fox

9. Public Deb No. 1.  Don Ettlinger, Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1940.

Directed by Gregory Ratoff: Starring Ralph Bellamy, Brenda Joyce, George Murphy: Production company 20th Century Fox

10. Down Argentine Way.  Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1940 : based on a story by Rian James and Ralph Spence.

Directed by Irving Cummings: Starring Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda: Production company 20th Century Fox

11. Tall, Dark, and Handsome.  Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1941.

Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone: Starring Virginia Gilmore, Charlotte Greenwood, Caesar Romero: Production company 20th Century Fox

12. A Yank in the R. A. F. Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1941: from a story by Melville Grossman.

Directed by Henry King: Starring Betty Grable, Tyrone Power: Production company 20th Century Fox

Watch the movie here

13. Weekend in Havana. Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1941.

Directed by Walter Lang: Starring Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, John Payne, Cesar Romero: Production company 20th Century Fox

Watch the movie here

14. My Gal Sal.  Seton I. Miller, Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1942 : from a story by Theodore Dreiser.

Directed by Irving Cummings: Starring Rita Hayworth, Carole Landis, Victor Mature: Production company 20th Century Fox

Watch the movie here

15. Orchestra Wives. Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1942 : story by James Prindle.

Directed by Archie Mayo: Starring Lynn Bari, Marion Hutton, George Montgomery, Cesar Romero, Ann Rutherford: Production company 20th Century Fox

Watch the movie here

16. Lucky Jordan. Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1942 : story by Charles Leonard.

Directed by Frank Tuttle: Starring Alan Ladd, Sheldon Leonard, Helen Walker: Production company Paramount Pictures

17. Standing Room Only. Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1943 (released 1944?) : story by Al Martin.

Directed by Sidney Lanfield: Starring Paulette Goddard, Fred MacMurray: Production company Paramount Pictures
 
18. Dixie. Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1943: adapted by Claude Binyon; story by William Rankin.

Directed by A. Edward Sutherland: Starring Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour: Production company Paramount Pictures

19. Bring on the Girls. Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1945: story by Pierre Wolff.

Directed by Sidney Lanfield: Starring Eddie Bracken, Veronica Lake, Marjorie Reynolds, Sonny Tufts: Production company Paramount Pictures

Watch the movie here

20. The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. George Seaton, 1946 (in some sources the release date is given as 1947): story by Ernest Maas and Frederica Maas, with contributions to screenplay by Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware.

Directed by George Seaton: Starring Betty Grable, Dick Haymes: Production company 20th Century Fox
 

21. Kitty. Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1945/1946: based on novel by Rosamund Marshall.


Directed by Mitchell Leisen: Starring Paulette Goddard, Ray Milland: Production company Paramount Pictures


22. Love that Brute. Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware, 1950: with contributions by John Lee Mahin.

Directed by Alexander Hall: Starring Joan Davis, Paul Douglas, Jean Peters, Cesar Romero, Keenan Wynn: Production company 20th Century Fox

Watch the movie here

23. Night into Morning. Leonard Spigelgass, Karl Tunberg, 1951.

Directed by Fletcher Markle: Starring Nancy Davis, John Hodiak, Ray Milland: Production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

24. The Law and the Lady. Leonard Spigelgass, Karl Tunberg, 1951: based on the play “The Last of Mrs. Cheyney,” by Frederick Lonsdale.

Directed by Edwin Knopf: Starring Greer Garson, Fernando Lamas, Michael Wilding: Production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

25. Because You’re Mine. Leonard Spigelgass, Karl Tunberg, 1952: based on a story by Ruth Brooks Flippen and Sy Gomberg.

Directed by Alexander Hall: Starring Mario Lanza, Doretta Morrow, James Whitmore, Bobby Van: Production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

26. Scandal at Scourie. Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass, Karl Tunberg, 1953: based on a story by Mary McSherry.

Directed by Jean Negulesco: Starring Donna Corcoran, Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon: Production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

27. Valley of the Kings. Robert Pirosh, Karl Tunberg, 1954: inspired by Gods, Graves and Scholars by C. W. Ceram.

Directed by Robert Pirosh: Starring Eleanor Parker, Robert Taylor: Production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

28.  Libel. Anatole de Grunwald and Karl Tunberg, 1959: based on a play by Edward Wooll.

Directed by Anthony Asquith: Starring Dirk Bogarde, Olivia de Havilland, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Paul Massie, Robert Morley: Production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

29.  Taras Bulba. Waldo Salt and Karl Tunberg, 1962: based on a novel by Nikolai Gogol.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson: Starring Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis: Production company Harold Hecht Productions & United Artists

Watch the movie here

30. Where Were You When the Lights Went Out.  Everett Freeman and Karl Tunberg, 1968: based on a play by Charles Magnier. 

Directed by Hy Averback: Starring Lola Albright, Jim Backus, Doris Day, Robert Morse, Patrick O'Neal, Terry Thomas: Production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer



Television Credits

1. How do I Love Thee. Everett Freeman and Karl Tunberg, 1968: based on book by Peter Devries. 

2. Woman in the Shadows (Mannix). Karl Tunberg, 1971.

3. Frenzy (Bonanza). Karl Tunberg and Preston Wood, 1971.

4. The Moving Target (Mannix). Karl Tunberg, 1971.

5. Murder by Moonlight (Cannon). Karl Tunberg, 1972.

6. Doctor and Mister Harper (Medical Center). Karl Tunberg, 1972.

7. Tio Taco, M.D. (Medical Center). Karl Tunberg, 1972.

8. End of the Line (Medical Center). Karl Tunberg, 1972.

9. A Life at Stake (Medical Center). Donald Brinkley and Karl Tunberg, 1973.

10. Edge of the Web (Mannix). Karl Tunberg and Terence Tunberg, 1974.

11. The Quasar Kill (Cannon). Karl Tunberg and Terence Tunberg, 1975.

12. Interception (Bronk). Karl Tunberg and Terence Tunberg, 1975.

13. A Home is not a House (Movin' On). Jimmy Sangster, Karl Tunberg and Terence Tunberg, 1975.

14. The Drone (Spencer's Pilots). Karl Tunberg and Terence Tunberg, 1976.

15. The Crop Duster (Spencer's Pilots). Karl Tunberg and Terence Tunberg, 1976.

16. The Curandero (The Blue Knight). Karl Tunberg and Terence Tunberg, 1976.

17. The Cult (Kingston). Karl Tunberg and Terence Tunberg, 1977.

18. In Hot Weather the Crime Rate Soars (Lanigan's Rabbi). Karl Tunberg and Terence Tunberg, 1977.

19. Hitch-hiking Hitch (Chips). Bruce Shelly, Karl Tunberg and Terence Tunberg, 1978


SYNOPSES, ANALYSES AND OTHER MATERIAL PERTAINING TO INDIVIDUAL SCRIPTS


Up in Central Park: A Musical Comedy

Karl Tunberg produced and wrote the screenplay for this film adaptation of a Broadway musical play.  The stage version was authored by Herbert Fields and Dorothy Fields, with music by Sigmund Romberg, and produced by Michael Todd. 

The film, filled with songs, dances, and amusing scenes, is a story of the Irish immigrants Rosie Moore (played by Deanna Durbin) and her father Timothy, who almost immediately after their arrival at Ellis Island get involved with the henchmen of the corrupt racketeer Boss Tweed (played by Vincent Price). The Tweed ring is prepared to pay Timothy (and, we understand, many other immigrants as well) to cast fake votes for Oakley,Tweed’s puppet candidate for mayor of New York.  But the connection between Tweed and the Moores doesn’t stop there.  Tweed fears that Rosie has overheard some of his illicit schemes for the ‘improvement’ of Central Park. As it happens,Tweed is uneasy about the spread of rumors, because he knows that John Matthews, a crusading reporter for the New York Times, is determined to expose the illegal actions of the Tweed ring. So Tweed decides to cultivate the Moores by making Timothy the superintendent of Central Park with a high salary. John Matthews, the ever inquisitive reporter, senses a new source of information in person of the new Park superintendent, who is a simple man, unused to urban manners – and has never even learned to read!  Matthews also makes the acquaintance of Rosie, with whom he falls in love.  When Matthews entices from Timothy the unsavory information that Tweed uses animals from the Central Park zoo to supply food for his personal table, and Matthews publishes this information, Tweed retaliates by removing Timothy from his position as Superintendent of Central Park.  Rosie intervenes personally with Tweed to restore her father to his post, and from this point there develops a potentially romantic connection between Tweed (who is married, but estranged from his wife) and Rosie. Gradually Rosie is inclined towards Tweed and away from Matthews, especially when Tweed uses his connections to promote Rosie to the operatic stage. This is a fulfillment of dreams for Rosie, who has always won praise for her natural ability in singing.

Meanwhile Matthews succeeds in bringing to Timothy’s attention some of the stories of woe told by those who have been the victims of Tweeds rackets. Timothy turns against Tweed and fears for his daughter’s future. After several complications, Matthews and Timothy manage (with the aid of a liberal supply of whiskey) to gain the confidence of Oakley, mayor of New York in name only, but in fact puppet and mouthpiece for Tweed. Oakley confesses all he knows, and with his help the New York Times publishes a wide ranging exposé of the Tweed ring. All of Tweed’s associates flee, and Tweed himself, though his precise intentions are never revealed, seems at the end to be about to follow them when he urbanely takes his leave of Rosie and explains that the big plans he had conceived for her cannot be fulfilled.

In the end, Rosie, her father, and Matthews are reunited.

The Broadway musical drama, which was a charming tale in its own right and well adapted to the theatrical stage, differs in many ways from the film version. We may view these differences partly as a result of the need to adapt the story to the motion picture medium, but partly also as a manifestation of the film writer’s interest in developing four lead characters Rosie, Timothy, Tweed, and Matthews.  The relationship between Rosie and her father is highlighted early in the film, when we see them arrive as immigrants and learn about Timothy’s love for Rosie’s mother, now deceased. In the stage play, we meet Rosie and her father already established in New York and the friendship between Rosie and Bessie (daughter of another man who works for Tweed) is foregrounded. The character of Bessie is entirely missing in the film, in which the attention of the audience is focused more directly on Rosie. In the stage musical, moreover, the character of Matthews as adversary of Tweed is paired with that of Matthews’ associate and fellow opponent of Tweed, the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who worked for Harper’s Weekly. But Nast is missing entirely in the film and the writer focuses on the persona of Matthews.  We note too that in the film the character of Timothy, Bessie’s father, is greatly developed. We seem him struggle against his illiteracy – and actually attend a school with six year old children in order to learn to read! We seem him change from a supporter of Tweed, his patron from an early date, into an adversary of Tweed,  as Timothy he learns about Tweed’s racketeering and twisting of the laws in order to increase his power and fill his coffers. Perhaps the most significant difference in the two dramatizations may be found in the love interests of Rosie. In the stage version, Tweed engineers Rosie’s career as a singer, but Rosie is wooed away from Matthews by Peters, one of Tweed’s satellites, and she actually marries Peters. In the film, Matthews’ rival for Rosie’s love is Tweed himself. The film version, therefore, not only offers a somewhat more straightforward development, it also presents the antagonism between the two males in a more fundamental light. The male leads are the two essential antagonists in the battle over the exposure of political corruption – as well as being contenders for the love of the same woman.  Consequently, the character of Tweed is much larger in the film version.  Tweed appears as a ruthless opportunist, who has no real thought for the conventions of fair play -- yet he is almost likeable in his never-failing politeness and urbanity, his imperviousness to verbal assaults from others, his love for beauty, and his ability to retain composure in adversity.  The engaging and vivid film character of Tweed is partly due to the skillful acting of Vincent Price, and in even larger part due to the screenwriter, who almost entirely redesigned this character and created his dialogue.

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You Gotta Stay Happy: based on a serial by Robert Carson published in the Saturday Evening Post.

A well structured comedy with skillful dialogue. Marvin Payne, played by James Stewart, is a World War II army air force veteran who runs an air-freight business. On an overnight stay in New York he becomes embroiled with newly married Dee Dee Dillwood, played by Joan Fontaine, and her rather rigid and insensitive just-created-spouse. Dee Dee, about to experience her wedding night, has sudden “cold feet” and decides flee her new husband. Marvin Payne, thrown into the situation by chance proximity, becomes Dee Dee’s avenue of escape. She persuades Marvin to take her to California on his up-coming return flight. Once on board the plane, the plot thickens.  Dee Dee’s travelling companions are a cigar-smoking chimpanzee, a corpse in a coffin, a embezzler on the run, and two newly married lovers.  In the course of the journey, romance develops between Marvin and Dee Dee. During these adventures, Marvin has no idea that Dee Dee is a wealthy heiress and that she actually married the man from whom she fled in New York. When he learns the truth about Dee Dee, he tries to break off the romance, but the force of circumstances and attraction prove too strong to resist.  

The plot and characters of “You Gotta Stay Happy” subvert some of the conventions so typical of films of the same era. Contrary to what audiences might expect of the macho hero (even in a comedy), Marvin always comes off second-best in physical confrontations with his adversary, yet emerges the victor anyway because of his empathy for others. And although Marvin scoffs at the idea of being controlled by a woman (even by a woman he loves), it is a woman nevertheless whose control of the situation shows him the way to success and happiness.

The film is based on a story by Robert Carson, published as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post in April, 1948, under the title “You Got to Stay Happy.” Carson’s story is well-written and funny.  Karl Tunberg’s adaptation of the story for the film medium was no less adept, and involved some significant changes in plot and characterization.  

The most important of these changes pertain to the personal situation and character of the heiress and the development of her relationship with Marvin.  In the Post serial story the heiress is engaged to the aristocratic and menacing Count Alexey, from whom she flees to run away to California on Marvin’s plane. Alexey follows her to California and confronts Marvin on arrival at Burbank.  But romance develops between Marvin and the heiress en route, and on the journey Marvin learns about her wealth, family and connections. Although Marvin is highly attracted to the girl, he steadfastly resists the idea of marriage, which she proposes, because he is unwilling to marry a woman who has all the money, while he has none. Marvin’s resistance to marriage is only weakened and finally broken, when his colleagues, who are stockholders in Payne Aire (this is the spelling of the title of Marvin’s financially struggling air-freight company in the Post serial), threaten to leave the company unless Marvin drops his scruples and marries the heiress.  

In Karl Tunberg’s screenplay the artistocratic count has been replaced by the wooden and insensitive fiancé, whom the heiress actually marries in the beginning of the story. While the story in the Saturday Evening Post serial opens from Marvin’s point of view as he flies into New York, makes his way to the hotel, and is caught up in an encounter with the heiress and her suitor, the film opens with the heiress’ story and her very reluctant wedding (forced by family pressures) to her intended. The audience therefore is fully aware of her true situation from the start, even while Marvin is kept in the dark about her background and identity.  Both in the screenplay and in the Saturday Evening Post story romance develops between the two on the flight to California. But in the screenplay, Marvin’s discovery (during a sojourn at a farmhouse after an emergency landing in bad weather) of the fact that the heiress is already married is the reason for an abrupt breaking-off of the romance, and also for the heiress to discontinue her trip to California with Marvin, and to find other means of transport to finish her journey there. From this point on, the development and resolution of the love story in the film differs markedly from that in the Post serial.  After Marvin’s arrival in Burbank, he finds that the stockholders in the  air-freight company are selling out, and that the hieress has actually bought a controlling interest in the company. Marvin seeks her out to protest this action, but when they actually meet, he cannot resist her. Her former marriage is annulled. She and Marvin will tie the knot – with the hope that the air-freight company, now supported by her wealth, will be able to flourish.

The screenplay diverges from the original in a number of other ways. For example, a forced landing near a farmhouse, followed by hospitality on the part of the farmer towards his unexpected guests, is a feature of both versions.  In the Saturday Evening Post story this event is set in South Carolina: in the film it takes place in Oklahoma.  The episode in the film is the occasion for added comedy, when a group of native Americans, who are the only people in the region wealthy enough to own a tractor, offer their help in towing Marvin’s plane out of a mud-filled declivity, but only on condition that they can witness the chimpanzee smoke a cigar!

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Beau Brummell.  Karl Tunberg, 1954: based on a play by Clyde Fitch
     
      George Brummell, an upstart cavalry officer, alienates prince George, the future King George IV, first by his outspoken criticism of military uniforms designed by the prince (for which he is expelled from his regiment), and then by his public attacks on the prince’s extravagant life-style and the state of the kingdom.  Later, however, Brummell and the prince are reconciled, especially when Brummell becomes the prince’s supporter and advisor in his conflict with the William Pitt, the prime minister.  Part of the conflict revolves around the prime minister’s pressure upon the prince to abandon his mistress, the catholic widow Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, and to make a marriage that would promote political alliance with a foreign dynasty. 
      In the dramatization of the screenplay, the prince’s attachment to Mrs. Fitzherbert is paralleled with Brummell’s attraction to Lady Patricia  Belham, who is engaged to the prince’s advisor Lord Edwin Mercer.  The strong attraction felt for each other by Brummell and Patricia Belham simmers through a large part of the play and bursts into the open during a fox hunting expedition, when Brummell and Patricia (not unlike Dido and Aeneas) are separated from the rest of the party in the forest and begin to embrace passionately.  Though the rest of the encounter is left to the imagination, there is little room for doubt as to what transpired.  Lord Mercer, aware that something has happened between Brummell and Patricia on the hunting expedition, insists that he and Patricia should cancel their engagement.  Patricia, however, vows never to see Brummell again.  The engagement is restored.  Although Patricia does not quite live up to the letter of her promise never to see Brummell (there are several subsequent meetings between Patricia and Brummell in the play), she chooses the safe path of marriage with Lord Mercer, and not with Brummell.
      Caught up in the web of these complicated events, the friendship between the headstrong and emotional prince regent and the outspoken, high-living Brummell grows stronger.  Brummell rises to eminence not merely as the prince’s favorite, but also the arbiter of fashion and elegance in the royal court, introducing new styles of clothing for men, including stove-pipe trousers and unpowdered hair.  Events come to a head when Brummell devises a plan to help the prince gain independence from William Pitt, who, in order to keep  the prince from assuming the role as regent, has been concealing the fact that the prince’s father, the aged king George III, has become insane.  At Brummell’s urging, the prince decides to counteract Pitt by having his father officially declared incompetent. The prince is powerfully motivated by the hope that as regent he can change the marriage act, by which a royal prince is prohibited from marrying a Catholic, and thereby make a legal marriage with Mrs. Fitzherbert. Together with Brummell and several doctors, he pays a call on the old king, who not only fails to recognize his son, but actually attempts a violent attack upon him.  As a result the king is declared insane.  
      But William Pitt is equal to the challenge: Parliament does not award the prince full powers as regent, even though it does grant him the right to alter the marriage law.  When Brummell urges the prince to reject the conditions proposed by Pitt and to demand full rights, the prince flies into a rage and accuses Brummell of using his position to advance himself.  The prince and Brummell are henceforth alienated.  On the death of George III, the prince succeeds to the throne as George IV. Brummell lacking royal protection and pursued by creditors flees to Calais, where he sinks into poverty and ill health.  But he adheres to his principles, even refusing to make money by publishing his memoirs, in fear that such memoirs might harm the king’s reputation. The new king learns of Brummells condition, and decides to visit him while in Calais on state business.  The king’s visit is the setting for a reconciliation between the two former friends.  But it comes late, because Brummell is deathly ill, and dies shortly thereafter.
      The screenplay for the 1954 film was loosely based on the play by Clyde Fitch entitled Beau Brummell, which was first produced in Madison Square Theatre in New York in 1890.  Also based on the same play was the silent film production Beau Brummell, which had appeared in 1924, starring John Barrymore and Mary Astor. This 1924 film version, which was directed by Harry Beaumont and built on a screenplay by Dorothy Farnum, differed considerably from the 1890 stage version in its development of plot and characters. However Karl Tunberg’s screenplay for the 1954 departs vastly from both previous dramatizations. First, the friendship between Brummell and the Prince Regent, which is tragically transformed into a rift between them, is more deeply developed and plays a much more central role in Tunberg’s 1954 version.  Brummell’s involvement as a confidant and advisor in the Prince’s conflict with William Pitt and parliament, his role in the plot to have the old king George III certified by doctors as insane, and his advice pertaining to the Prince’s long-standing love affair with Mrs. Fitzherbert – all crucial factors in Karl Tunberg’s dramatic development of Brummell’s relationship with the Prince – are quite absent from the stage play and from the 1924 film.  Moreover, the character of Lady Patricia  Belham and the development of her romance with Brummell are entirely a development of Tunberg’s screenplay: Brummell’s love interests in the 1890 play and in the 1924 film are very differently portrayed and involve quite different female characters.

     
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Ben Hur: Synopsis

The epic story of Judah Ben Hur was the invention of Lew Wallace, who had achieved prominence in mid and late nineteenth-century America as a general in the American Civil War, as governor of the territory (as it was then) of New Mexico, and as U.S. Minister to Turkey. His novel entitled Ben Hur, which tells a wide-ranging tale set in the ancient Roman world at the time of Christ, proved to be a huge success. At the very end of the nineteenth century (1899) a play based on Wallace’s novel had its premiere on Broadway. This play ran for twenty years, not only in American cities, but also outside of America. By the end of the 1920s there had been two silent films based on Wallace’s epic, the second of which (released 1926) had great success and featured scenes of epic grandeur -- especially the renowned chariot race – which rivaled those in the classic 1959 epic, the subject of the present discussion.

The plot of the 1959 film differs in major ways from that of Wallace’s novel, and from the novel’s dramatic and silent movie offsprings. Indeed the script itself which emerged as a movie in 1959 was a tangled evolution involving years of rewrites, changes and disputes (see Controversies over Screen-Writing Credit). The summary presented here makes no attempt to trace those changes: it is intended to be merely a convenient synopsis of the film released in 1959.

The time is the early first century A.D. The leading characters are  Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish aristocrat, Miriam, Ben Hur’s mother, and Tirzah, his sister. Esther, the daughter of Ben Hur’s loyal servant Simonides, loves Ben-Hur, although she is promised to another man.

Ben-Hur, devoted to the freedom of the Jewish people finds himself at odds with Messala, the commander of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, who had been Ben-Hur’s friend in boyhood. Open conflict arises when Gratus, the governor of Judaea is severely injured by tiles accidentally falling from the roof of Ben-Hur's house. Ben-Hur is wrongly blamed for the incident. His mother and sister are imprisoned and Ben-Hur is condemned to be a galley slave.

Ben-Hur’s fortune changes, however, when the galley in which has been condemned to row is sunk in a sea battle with pirates. Ben Hur not only manages to escape, but saves the Roman commander Quintus Arrius. Moreover, as they float on a fragment of wreckage, Ben-Hur prevents Arrius (who wrongly believes the Romans had been defeated in the sea fight) from committing suicide. They are rescued. Arrius learns that the Romans won the battle, gets credit for the victory and adopts (in Roman fashion) Ben-Hur as his son. But Ben-Hur is determined to return to Palestine and to secure the liberty of his sister and mother.  

On his way back to Judaea he encounters Ilderim, an Arab noble, who has heard of Ben-Hur’s skill with horses. Ilderim has splendid horses, which he requests that Ben-Hur drive in a chariot race as part of official games in honor of Pontius Pilate, the new governor of Judaea. Initially Ben-Hur rejects this request, even though the project offers the potential of humiliating the powerful and arrogant Messala, who himself competes in the circus. But Ben-Hur changes his mind after his unsuccessful attempt to win from Messala the freedom of his mother and sister. In fact, the two women had been infected with leprosy in prison, and the Romans have them taken to the outskirts of the city. Esther, however, tells Ben-Hur they have died. In so doing, she follows the wishes of the two women, who do not want Ben-Hur to see them ruined by the disease, but to remember them as they were.

Ben-Hur, consumed with hate and desire to undermine Messala, enters the chariot race. Despite the fact that Messala has armed his wheels with scythes, and by this means destroys several of his opponents, Ben-Hur outmaneuvers Messala. As the two opponents vie for the lead, Messala’s chariot overturns and he is dragged by his horses. After Ben-Hur is crowned the victor, he visits the dying Messala, who reveals to Ben–Hur that his mother and sister are not dead, but consumed with leprosy and living in a secluded valley with other lepers.

Ignoring the danger of catching the disease, Ben-Hur visits the valley of the lepers. There he encounters Esther (whose love relationship with Ben-Hur has developed openly since Ben-Hur’s return to Jerusalem), who, together with the mute Malluch, the caretaker of her now blind and crippled father, is taking food to the lepers. Despite Ben-Hur’s anger at being deceived by Esther, he yields to her pleas that he not show himself to his mother and sister, who could not bear the idea of Ben-Hur actually seeing them in their leprous condition. After watching in hiding, while Esther gives them food, he accompanies Esther and Malluch back to the city.

On their journey back they encounter a crowd on a hill gathered to hear a sermon given by the Nazarene. Although Ben-Hur is not convinced when he is told the Nazarene is the “son of God”, he is reminded of a kind Nazarene man, who, ignoring the threats of a Roman guard, had given Ben-Hur water, when Ben-Hur was being led to the galleys years before. Moreover, after Ben-Hur’s return to Jerusalem as the adopted son of Arrius, Esther had spoken to him of a young Nazarene who preached a doctrine of love.

After his return to Jerusalem from the valley of the lepers, Ben-Hur rejects the gift of Roman citizenship offered by Pilate, and even, as an expression of his opposition to Rome, gives up the ring of adoption received from Arrius. This is the occasion for Esther to tell him again of the doctrine of forgiveness she has learned from the Nazarene. Ben-Hur ignores the suggestion of forgiveness, but follows Esther back to the valley of the lepers. There Miriam reveals to Esther that Tirzah is dying. At this point Ben-Hur refuses to conceal himself any longer from his mother and sister. Stepping forward, he embraces his mother, and carries Tirzah back to the city, accompanied by Miriam. They follow Esther, who wants to take them to the Nazarene. 

But when they reach the city they find people gathered for the trial of the Nazarene. Ben-Hur now recognizes the Nazarene, and follows him to the actual crucifixion. After the death of the Nazarene, there is an immense storm. The epic ends with a miracle – Miriam and Tirzah are freed from leprosy. As Ben-Hur embraces Esther, the viewer is left with the impression that Ben-Hur will now follow the example of the Nazarene in forgiveness of those who persecuted him.


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Ben Hur Writing

Controversies over Screen Writing Credit                                                                                                   

(See Bibliography below)

As mentioned in our synopsis of the plot, the screenplay which lies at the heart of the 1959 movie Ben-Hur was the product of a complicated evolution involving years of rewrites, changes and disputes. These changes and disputes gave rise to a very public and bitter controversy over screen writing credit. Indeed, this controversy is most likely the reason for the fact that out of the twelve categories in which Ben-Hur was nominated for Academy Awards, the only category in which the award was not actually given was for “Best Screenplay”.

From the release of the film until the present day (the year 2015) the overwhelmingly dominant point of view represented in the large literature pertaining to this controversy has been that of the film’s director, William Wyler. The views of Charlton Heston, who mostly took Wyler’s side, have played a role too, though to a lesser extent than those of Wyler. Since the 1990s another voice has come to the fore – that of the novelist Gore Vidal, who worked on the script of Ben-Hur for a short period. The views of Sam Zimbalist, the MGM producer, who had instigated the remake of Ben-Hur in the mid-1950s, have been filtered through the various perspectives of Wyler, Heston, and Vidal, since Zimbalist had suddenly died in mid-production and before the public controversy over screenwriting credit. Once that controversy had emerged, Wyler and Heston, of course, presented Zimbalist’s views as entirely congruent with their own – as did Gore Vidal in a later period.

The statements of Wyler and/or Vidal (and their accounts are not always in full agreement) permeate not only the scholarly material and the formally published printed books relating to the 1959 Ben-Hur movie, but also much of the material on the subject available on the internet, such as the confused and often inaccurate account of the screenwriting for the 1959 Ben-Hur movie available on Wikipedia, or some of the incredibly misinformed statements about the writing of the movie to be found among the “Trivia” on IMDb (Internet Movie Database).

But Karl Tunberg, the writer who ended up receiving sole credit for the screenplay, also had a point of view. Members of Karl Tunberg’s family, among whom are the authors and custodians of this website, heard his point of view in detail and often, and they believe it has considerable merits. It certainly deserves a place in the historical presentation of how this epic film was made.  

It was Sam Zimbalist who originally chose Karl Tunberg as the writer for the project to remake Ben-Hur. He did so after the very positive reception of the well-crafted Beau Brummel in 1954, on which film Zimbalist had been the producer and Karl the sole screenwriter.  Although Karl had a special inclination towards comedy and had built most of his earlier reputation on comedies, Beau Brummel showed he could also write historical epics. And right after Beau Brummel, Tunberg had scripted The Scarlet Coat, another large historical drama. Did Zimbalist already have a script for Ben-Hur, which he asked Karl Tunberg to rewrite? Or did he simply ask him to undertake a new adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur? All evidence known to us indicates that Karl Tunberg wrote a new script from scratch, and we can add that earliest scripts preserved in the Margaret Herrick Library of the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bear Karl Tunberg’s name. In any case, there is no doubt that the script completed by Tunberg departed vastly from the novel (see, for example, the discussion by Morsberger and Morsberger, Lew Wallace, p. 482). Tunberg delivered his script to Zimbalist quite some time before Wyler had any connection with the project. In fact, MGM shelved the Ben-Hur project, not because anyone at that point objected to the script, but because the studio was in financial trouble, and everyone could see that it would cost a lot of money to make Ben-Hur. But the Ben-Hur project was finally revived by Zimbalist, who managed to convince MGM that it was worth the financial risk. He was prepared to bet that the revenues generated by Ben-Hur could solve MGM’s financial problems. The majority of published sources indicate that Zimbalist was dissatisfied with the script even at this stage and brought in writers (notably Maxwell Anderson and S. N. Behrman) to revise it (see, just for example, the discussions by Madsen, pp. 341-342; Heston, In the Arena, p.186; Miller pp. 360-361; Herman, 394; Kaplan, p. 440).

Karl Tunberg, however, always asserted that Zimbalist’s readiness for changes in the script came after Wyler was induced to take on the project. A memo from Zimbalist (now in the Margaret Herrick Library collection: MHL,Turner/MGM Scripts, 278-f. B-944) dated 14 March 1957 reveals Wyler already at work on the project and conducting a screen test for Cesare Donova (even though Wyler did not sign a contract until September). But the earliest indications we have found for the involvement of Anderson or Behrman date from the second half of that year (these include versions of screenplays and notes). Before Wyler joined the project Zimbalist seems to have been sufficiently contented with the script to show it to the prestigious directors he wanted to attract to the project. In fact, the only major dispute between Karl Tunberg and Sam Zimbalist pertained not to the script, but to the director. Karl openly favored Sidney Franklin, and was never enthusiastic about Wyler. In the early stages of the project’s development Franklin, working with Karl Tunberg and Sam Zimbalist, put a lot of time into planning his approach to scene structure and emphasis, and submitted these plans in the form of a 200 page outline (material dating from 15 December 1954 to 3 August 1955: MHL,Turner/MGM Scripts, 274-f. B-919)  But Zimbalist, when the Ben-Hur project was revived again by MGM after a period of shut-down, was by this time advocating William Wyler on the basis of Wyler’s very high reputation, and the very young Wyler’s involvement with the 1926 silent film Ben-Hur. Franklin morever became ill; so Karl reluctantly yielded to Zimbalist’s preference for Wyler.

When Wyler read the script, he hated it and demanded changes. Most sources agree that he particularly objected to its “modernist” dialogue (although Jan Herman [A Talent for Trouble, p. 394] makes all aspects of the script, including its conception and characterization, equally the objects of Wyler’s aversion). Wyler wanted dialogue that sounded slightly archaic, which he thought would evoke a distant period in the past. Tunberg believed that, because the language people spoke 2000 years earlier sounded contemporary to them, the modern audience should relate to it as contemporaries would have done – since the film in any case would necessarily be made in a modern language, not an ancient one. This was a legitimate philosophical difference, and Karl Tunberg would never have claimed that his dialogue had any sort of archaic flavor. Zimbalist, anxious to bring the huge project to fruition, and equally anxious to have Wyler direct the film (and to this end he had persuaded MGM to offer Wyler an unprecedented salary), was ready to comply. By this time Karl Tunberg was already embarking on another film project, Count Your Blessings, for which he was not only the screenwriter, but also the producer. It is easy to suspect – though we have found no concrete evidence for this – that Zimbalist expedited Karl’s assignment to a new project on which he would also be producer (a role which Karl at this stage of his life wanted to play more often, together with being writer) so that Wyler could have a free hand to adapt the Ben-Hur script to his liking unhampered by resistance from Karl Tunberg, a resistance that would have been inevitable had Karl been on the Ben-Hur set while the film was being shot in Italy. In any case, Karl trusted Zimbalist, with whom he was on very good terms, to prevent radical changes to the script.

It was at this point that S. N. Behrman and Maxwell Anderson were brought into the project. Notes by Behrman on previous versions of the script, along with comments by Zimbalist, dating from December 1957 are preserved in the Margaret Herrick Library collection (MHL, Turner/MGM scripts, 281-f. B-962). In the same collection are several drafts of the script dating from late 1957 or early 1958 that include, in addition to Karl Tunberg’s name, the names of either Behrman or Anderson (MHL, Andrew Marton Papers, 2-f. 19; MHL, Turner/MGM scripts, 280-f. B-954; 280-f. B-955; 281-f. B-963; 282-f. B-964; 282-f. B-965).There are also revisions by Karl Tunberg alone dating from early 1958 (MHL,Turner/MGM scripts, 282-f. B-971; 283-f. B-972; 283-f. B-973). Changes in the structure of the script seem to have been quite small. It is very difficult to isolate which revisions come from Behrman or Anderson, but probably they contributed – in response to earlier criticisms of ‘modernist’ dialogue – a more archaic-sounding diction. Indeed, Charlton Heston reports that by the time he, with Wyler’s approval, was hired to play the part of Ben-Hur, the language seemed to be excessively “medieval” (Heston, In the Arena, p. 186).

Wyler is said not to have read the revised script until early in 1958. He apparently did so when he was actually on the plane to Italy to begin work on making the film. He rejected this version of the script too, but (if we believe the statements of Heston) he did so for reasons more or less opposite to those which had caused him to dislike the earlier version of the screenplay. Now the dialogue was too archaic. Zimbalist is said to have agreed. More rewriting was needed – and quickly. At this point Gore Vidal was brought onto the project. There is disagreement in many of the secondary sources as to whether he was hired before Christopher Fry, or at the same time. But the correspondence of Wyler himself kept in the Margaret Herrick Library collection resolves the issue. Vidal worked as a writer on the set from 23 April 1958 to 24 June 1958; but Fry was on the set from 29 April 1958 to 19 January 1959 (MHL, William Wyler Papers, 2-f.21). Vidal had been asked somewhat earlier by Wyler (perhaps in late 1957?) to participate in Ben-Hur, but had refused. In 1958, however, Vidal changed his mind, and he started working with Wyler on the set in Italy to revise the screenplay’s dialogue.

Gore Vidal’s role in the revising of the screenplay of Ben-Hur came under the spotlight in the 1990s as a result of several documentaries and articles in newspapers and magazines. Controversy arose when Vidal, who by the 1990s was interested in publicizing how gay men had managed to survive in the artistic world of the 1950s - a period, of course, when gay people in all walks of life were subject to incredibly unfair discrimination - claimed to have rewritten a crucial scene featuring Ben-Hur and Messala to include subtle hints of a homosexual relationship between them. Moreover, as Vidal tells it in the Celluloid Closet (1996) and elsewhere, he had discussed this approach to the scene beforehand with Wyler, who had not rejected the idea outright, but warned him to keep it toned down.

In fact, the claims about Vidal’s participation seem to have grown over time. In Axel Madsen’s 1973 biography of Wyler, the so-called “authorized” biography, Vidal’s role is not even mentioned.  But in the biographies of Wyler by Jan Herman (1995) and Gabriel Miller (2013) Vidal’s account is reported, though both authors agree that Wyler himself in later years had no recollection of a conversation with Vidal about the Ben-Hur and Messala scenes. Vidal, moreover, asserted in the 1990s that he substantially rewrote the first half of the screenplay, and in more than one source he is stated to have changed the presentation of the reunion of Ben-Hur and Messala from one scene into two. Indeed, in the well-respected documentary entitled Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, narrated by Christopher Plummer, Gore Vidal is styled as “author” (
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChPXI1gJ-yo). The presentation of Gore Vidal as a major (or the major) contributor to the Ben-Hur screenplay is echoed in all the main biographies of Vidal, and is reinforced by an article by film historian F. X. Feeney (“Ben-Gore: Romancing the Word with Gore Vidal”), who argues, after examining “the shooting script” saved in the library of the Motion Picture Academy (Margaret Herrick?), that the whole conception of scenes in which Ben-Hur and Messala face each other individually, and especially the reunion scene in involving the throwing of javelins (which takes place before the two are alienated), is that of Vidal.  

We have examined in the Margaret Herrick library multiple copies of the Ben-Hur script in various stages of revision, and it is difficult to isolate one single ‘shooting script’. All the scripts are dated. All, except for one folder, bear the name of Karl Tunberg, and in a few drafts of late 1957 and early 1958 the names of Behrman or Anderson are added to that of Tunberg (see above). Vidal’s name is absent (as is that of Fry).  The copy which lacks specific indication of author is an incomplete script (MHL, Charlton Heston Papers, 5-f.49) containing 160 pages of changes made from 30 June 1958 (after Vidal had left the project) to 26 June 1959. Much of the material in this folder is identical to the rewrites made by Tunberg himself in the final stages (see below).  There is no doubt that Feeney had immersed himself in the works of Vidal before studying the script (or scripts?), but his assertion of Vidal’s conception and authorship of scenes dramatizing the relationship between Messala and Ben-Hur (in the form they were shot) is hard to verify. We should point out that the reunion scene between Messala and Ben-Hur involving javelin throwing is already present in early versions of the script produced long before 1958. Moreover, the whole conception of the relationship between Messala and Ben-Hur (without the homo-erotic overtones which Vidal undoubtedly did see in this scene, when he worked on the set) is actually typical of Tunberg.  This subplot and basic conflict – a deep friendship between two leading male characters that is compromised by political factors – is employed by Karl Tunberg in other films: consider the relationship between Brummell and the prince-regent in Beau Brummell, or the relationship between Ferris and Ng in The Seventh Dawn. Charlton Heston, who was a partisan of William Wyler during much of the stormy process of making Ben-Hur, asserts that Vidal rewrote an early scene between Ben-Hur and Messala, but insists that it was clear to everyone, after one rehearsal of this scene, that the scene had to be re-done, and Vidal was off the film. Heston also recalls (correctly) that Vidal was on the film for a very short time, and he characterizes Vidal’s claim that he substantially rewrote the first half of the script as “incredible” (Heston, In the Arena, p. 187).

When Vidal left the project in late June 1958, the only writer left to work on the set was Christopher Fry. Heston, in his autobiography, is almost effusive in his praise of Fry’s rewriting of the screenplay’s dialogue. Much of this work consisted of retaining a slightly archaic quality to the diction, while retreating from the excessive and stilted archaism which had infiltrated earlier attempts to revise the “modernist” dialogue. An example quoted in numerous sources was Fry’s changing of the too “modern” (from the viewpoint of Wyler and Heston) “How was your dinner” into “Was the food not to your liking” (one of the few dialogue changes which actually remained in the final drafts of the script).  There is consensus among Wyler’s biographers that Wyler admitted Fry’s changes were not extensive in quantity. Heston agrees, adding that Fry’s changes were seldom structural, but nearly always linguistic.

A major force which had restrained and controlled the considerable antagonisms among the leading figures in the Ben-Hur project was suddenly removed in November 1958, when Sam Zimbalist died of a heart attack in Italy while overseeing the film’s production. We should note in passing that the relationship between Wyler and Zimbalist in all the biographies of Wyler and Vidal, as well as in Heston’s autobiography, appears to be one of consensus and concord. Karl Tunberg’s memoirs, however, suggest this relationship was eroded by constant discord and dissension – that Zimbalist constantly had to exert all of his diplomatic skills to keep the project on track. It will not be out of places to note a surviving letter from J. J. Cohn to Zimbalist’s widow dated 28 November 1958 which also hints a difficult relationship between Zimbalist and Wyler during the actual shooting of the film (MHL, Sam and Mary Zimbalist Papers,1-f.9). Be this as it may, with Zimbalist gone, preliminary shooting on Ben-Hur finished with Wyler in command.

In 1959 Karl Tunberg was still involved with the production of Count Your Blessings. By the early part of this year, Tunberg was back in Los Angeles and, along with other MGM executives and Wyler himself, he viewed screenings of rough cuts of Ben-Hur. There was agreement among all parties concerned that many of the scenes – and these mainly comprised the scenes which had been reworked by Fry and others – were unsatisfactory. Karl describes the screenings and their aftermath in his unpublished and unedited memoirs. Karl's account shows Wyler as chastened and ready to re-do much of the work. The need for re-working had been clear to MGM executives from the beginning of that year, and perhaps even earlier -- as is indicated by a letter from J. J. Cohn to Zimbalist’s widow dated 13 January 1959 (MHL, Sam and Mary Zimbalist Papers,1-f.9).

Karl Tunberg had been off the Ben-Hur project from 5 May 1958 to 14 April 1959 (dates are specified a letter of 6 July 1959: MHL,William Wyler Papers, 2-f.21), but he had continued, at Zimbalist’s request, to contribute material to Ben-Hur (for more on this, see below). Now he agreed to rewrite Wyler’s changed material and to compose some added scenes, all of which went into the final version of Ben-Hur – something which is clearly confirmed in the Writers Guild’s position statement made after arbitration. Many of these changes amounted to restoring what had been in place before Wyler’s interventions in the script while on the set. These changes and restorations, however, receive no mention in virtually all of the large literature published since the release of Ben-Hur about the controversies over authorship of the screenplay.

Wyler, supported by Heston, still wanted Fry to get co-credit for the screenplay because of the work Fry had done while on the set. For a brief period in 1959 Karl Tunberg, whose first impulse was usually to avoid conflicts, seems to have been willing to compromise with Wyler and to accept joint credit (this is suggested by a letter of Wyler dated 8 July 1959: MHL, William Wyler Papers, 2-f.21).  But Karl soon changed his mind, either because the Writers’ Guild officials, who were very sensitive in this period about their recently won rights to determine and protect writers’ credits, urged him not to yield, or because he decided himself that agreeing to a joint credit for Ben-Hur was unfair.

In his memoirs, Karl himself makes no mention of his momentary readiness to yield, and in any case his resolve must have been strengthened when the Writers Guild initially investigated the claim and pointed out that the contributions of Fry which had survived in the final version of the screenplay were not nearly enough to warrant co-credit. Guild rules required a minimum of 25% of a finished product to be the work of a writer entitled to co-credit. But Wyler was determined to press his case, and the matter was submitted to a formal arbitration of the Screen Writers Guild. The Guild’s arbitration board (consisting of experienced writers, each working without knowledge of the others) unanimously awarded full and sole credit for the script to Karl Tunberg. Wyler appealed the decision – offering to submit new material. After hearing the appeal, and inspecting the “new” material, the Guild reiterated its arbitration decision: the final product was overwhelmingly the work of Karl Tunberg, and he must be awarded sole screenwriting credit. When Christopher Fry learned of the Guild’s arbitration, he indicated that he was prepared to accept it.

Wyler reacted by launching a publicity campaign against Tunberg, implying that the Guild’s decision was biased and corrupt, since Tunberg had been a past president of the Guild. Wyler, moreover, enlisted help from every quarter in his wide circle of Hollywood contacts. Among the material Wyler left to Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (currently in the Margaret Herrick Library) one can even find a letter to the Guild written by Sam Zimbalist’s widow dated 2 November 1959, in which she urges the Guild to reconsider and suggests that her late husband would have favored a shared credit (MHL, William Wyler Papers, 2-f.21). While this letter may have been a spontaneous expression from Ms. Zimbalist, we wonder what role J. J. Cohn, a good friend of Wyler, who had befriended Ms. Zimbalist since her husband’s death (a considerable part of their voluminous correspondence is available in the Herrick Library) could have had in soliciting this letter.

In response to this pressure, the Guild published a formal statement, which reiterated the method and results of the arbitration itself, and which accused Wyler of attempting to undermine the unbiased nature of the arbitration process. We reproduce here the full statement of the Guild, published in the Hollywood Reporter, on Friday, November 20, 1959 (p. 5).

On 24 November 1959 Wyler published in Hollywood Variety a response to the Guild’s statement published four days earlier. While accepting the Guild’s first ruling that Tunberg was the only writer who had written a complete screenplay for the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, Wyler rejected the second and third rulings. In other words, Wyler denied that Tunberg had continued throughout the filming to contribute material that remained in the final product (ruling 2), and that Tunberg alone had done the rewrites needed for the final four months of retakes (ruling 3). This response by Wyler is surprising because it is so much at odds with other evidence. Perhaps in anger and in the heat of the controversy, Wyler had actually forgotten some of the details of recent events. Whatever the explanation, in Wyler’s own correspondence there is clear allusion to the fact that Tunberg even while “off assignment” in late 1958 had been called upon to contribute script material (MHL, Sam and Mary Zimbalist Papers, 1-f.5; William Wyler Papers, 2-f.21)! Moreover there are five different sets of retakes still saved in the Herrick Library dating from April to July 1959. Each of them consists of very extensive handwritten rewrites on a section of script, and a fair copy which incorporates these handwritten changes into a clean copy of revised script. The handwriting is exclusively that of Karl Tunberg, and Karl Tunberg is the only authorial name specified on each of these sets of rewrites (MHL,Turner/MGM scripts, 286-f.B-1004; 286-f.B-1005; 286-f.B-1006; 286-f.B-1007; 286-f.B-1008). A collection of retakes left to the same library by William Wyler contains suggestions by Wyler, but virtually no other retake material (MHL, William Wyler Papers, 2-f.17; 3-f.33).

Wyler’s campaign, however, had its effect. As mentioned at the beginning of our narrative – “Best Screenplay” was the only category in which Ben-Hur was nominated for an Academy Award, but did not receive it. And when Heston received his Academy Award for “Best Leading Actor”, he made a point of publicly thanking Christopher Fry for Fry’s work on the script. Heston’s speech provoked the Screen Writers Guild to send Heston a letter accusing him of ignoring the Guild’s fair process and trying to denigrate Tunberg’s reputation. But the damage had been done.

Was the Guild’s arbitration corrupt, as Wyler and Heston (and later Vidal) implied, and influenced by the fact that Karl Tunberg some years earlier had been a Guild president? Such an assumption would require us to ignore the anonymous nature of the arbitration process itself, and to pay no attention to the fact that people involved in movie production in Hollywood in the late 1950s, including many or most of the screenwriters, would have been much more intimidated by powerhouses like Wyler than by a former president of the Screen Writers Guild, as the Academy Awards of that year showed! The script for Ben-Hur may indeed not have pleased all the people involved in the project all of the time, but the Screen Writers Guild’s investigation and arbitration clearly offers us the best final judgement. The final script for Ben-Hur – the script that was actually represented in the epic film that was released in theaters – was overwhelmingly the work of Karl Tunberg.


 

Selected Bibliography

Belton, John. American Cinema/American Culture. New York: 2008.

"Ben-Hur Rides a Chariot Again." Life. January 19, 1959.

Canutt, Yakima and Drake, Oliver. Stunt Man: The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt. Reprint ed. Norman, Okla.: 1997

Cole, Clayton. "Fry, Wyler, and the Row Over Ben-Hur in Hollywood." Films and Filming. March 1959.

Coughlan, Robert. "Lew Wallace Got Ben-Hur Going—and He's Never Stopped." Life. November 16, 1959.

Cyrino, Monica Silveira. Big Screen Rome. Malden, Mass.: 2005.

Dowdy, Andrew. The Films of the Fifties: The American State of Mind. New York: 1973.

Eagan, Daniel. America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry. New York: 2010.

Eldridge, David. Hollywood's History Films. London: 2006.

Feeney, F.X. "Ben-Gore: Romancing the Word With Gore Vidal." Written By. December 1997-January 1998.

Hall, Sheldon and Neale, Stephen. Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History. Detroit, Mich.: 2010.

Herman, Jan. A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler. New York: 1997.

Heston, Charlton. In the Arena. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Hezser, Catherine. "Ben Hur and Ancient Jewish Slavery." In A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Sean Freyne. Boston: 2008.

Joshel, Sandra R.; Malamud, Margaret; and McGuire, Donald T. Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture. Baltimore, Md.: 2005.

Kaplan, Fred. Gore Vidal: A Biography. New York: 1999.

Kinn, Gail and Piazza, Jim. The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History. Rev. and updated edition. New York: 2005.

Madsen, Axel. William Wyler: The Authorized Biography. New York: 1973.

Malone, Aubrey. Sacred Profanity: Spirituality at the Movies. Santa Barbara, Calif.: 2010.

Miller, Gabriel, William Wyler. The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Most Celebrated Director. Lexington, KY.: 2013.

Morsberger, Robert Eustis and Morsberger, Katharine M. Lew Wallace, Militant Romantic. New York:1980.

Parish, James Robert; Mank, Gregory W.; and Picchiarini, Richard. The Best of MGM: The Golden Years (1928-59). Westport, Conn.: 1981.

Pomerance, Murray. "Introduction." In American Cinema of the 1950s: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick, N.J: 2005.

Raymond, Emilie. From My Cold, Dead Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics. Lexington, Ky.: 2006.

Sennett, Ted. Great Movie Directors. New York: Abrams, 1986.

Solomon, Jon. The Ancient World in the Cinema. New Haven, Conn.: 2001.

Steinberg, Cobbett. Film Facts. New York: 1980.

Stempel, Tom. American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing. Lexington, Ky.:2001.

The Story of the Making of 'Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ'. New York: 1959.

Thomas, Gordon. "Getting It Right the Second Time: Adapting Ben-Hur for the Screen." Bright Lights Film Journal. May 2006.

Vidal, Gore. "How I Survived the Fifties." The New Yorker, October 2, 1995.

Winkler, Martin M. Classical Myth & Culture in the Cinema. New York: 2001.

Wyler, William. "William Wyler." In Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute. George Stevens, Jr., ed. New York: 2007.

 

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Karl Tunberg’s memoirs on Ben-Hur


(typescript pp. 280-281 )

[About 1954 -1955….]

… The film < Beau Brummell> was finished…. Sam… asked, How about writing Ben-Hur? I see it as a great spectacle.  He went on describing his vision of the planned film before I could say anything.

                Finally I got a word in.  Sam, I said, I’ve never read the book.

                Neither have I, he said. What’s that go to do with it?

                At the time I thought he was joking. Later on I learned he was telling the truth. He had not read the book!  

It’s a classic, he explained. Probably nobody has read it. We can do what we want with it!

                Sam Zimbalist was a man of strong likes and dislikes, and he wasn’t shy about letting the world know what they were. His career was the traditional American success story – a poor, uneducated boy makes it to top producer at MGM. He was aggressively and blatantly American; he was prejudiced against anything foreign, particularly Britain, which he regarded as decadent and effete.  I loved England and wanted to live there, and I used to argue with Sam, trying to make him change his viewpoint at least a bit…

(typescript pp. 311-313 )

[About early 1958 (with reference to events in 1956-1957)….]

                …. While I was still writing the script <of Ben-Hur>, I’d had many discussions with Sam about who was capable of directing Ben-Hur. Sam had consistently favored William Wyler, who had a long and distinguished record. I had been for Sidney Franklin of Good Earth fame. But now Sam was bad-mouthing his own choice.

                “Wyler’s too short,” Sam said dryly. “Never trust a short man. Did you ever check Napoleon’s credits?”

                I was disturbed. The director could destroy a film, and I could not understand Sam’s light-hearted attitude. He laughed at my troubled face.

                “Not to worry,” he said. He tapped his temple with a wise forefinger. “I’ve got five second units working behind Wyler, mopping up. We call them second units, but the chipmunks running them are first unit. For instance, Richard Thorpe directed the naval battle.”

                I was amazed. “Jesus! He’s one of the best.”

                “And the big chariot race was shot by a friend of yours, matter of fact. You recommended him long ago.”

                “Andrew Marton?”

                “The same…. ”

                Sam ran the chariot race for me. “Great, isn’t it?”

                I had to agree.

                “Every time I run it,” Sam continued, “I feel like getting a bet down on Messala, but of course I know the race is fixed for Ben-Hur.”

                “What about Wyler?” I asked. “Doesn’t he object?”

                Sam dismissed Wyler with a wave of his hand…

                I found later that Sam was glossing over the trouble. Wyler did object. Fiercely. He and Sam engaged daily in violent quarrels, and the constant battling took its toll. Sam enforced his way of shooting but, as it turned out, at a terrible cost….

(typescript pp. 314-314D)

[events of 1958-1959]

“… Sam Zimbalist was dead.  He died on the set as had had lived. There were no more particulars, but that was particular enough. Sam was dead….

                The shooting on Ben-Hur was finished with Wyler in command. I was completely engaged with my production <on Count Your Blessings>, but I heard ominous rumors that Wyler was tampering with the script of Ben-Hur. He had hired Christopher Fry to make changes as they went along. I was alarmed, but there was nothing I could do except hope that the rumors were exaggerated, as rumors usually are. I didn’t get a chance to see for myself until some time later, back in Hollywood, I ran the rough cut of Ben-Hur with Siegel and Wyler.

                It was awful!

                I am speaking of the footage shot by Wyler himself. The work of the second unit directors like Thorpe and Marton was magnificent, but it was nullified by Wyler’s surprisingly inferior stuff. He was sufficiently chastened, however, to agree to retakes and added scenes which I would write. Again I found myself working night and day, and after four months we assembled a rough cut. It was essentially what we had before Wyler came up with his “variations”.

                What we saw now was a film, which was destined to make motion picture history…”

“….         Wyler was pleased and clearly willing to take bows.

                A few days later he dropped in at my office. The fact that he did the “dropping” was significant. Directors of Wyler’s stature did not go to other guys’ offices: other guys came to them. Wyler strolled in with an amiable face that in no way suggested the contentious fellow who had haunted Sam’s last days.

                “I guess we’ve got a winner,” he said. “ The word is out – we’ve got a big one.”

                “I hope so. Sit down, Willie.”

                He did. “As you may have heard, Sam and I had our differences, but that’s water under the bridge. I hope wherever he is, he knows we’ve got a hit.”

                I said nothing. I was sure he knew Sam and I had been close friends, and that I was on Sam’s side.

                “Actually,” he said, “I’m here on behalf of someone else – one of your fellow writers: Christopher Fry.”

                Again I said nothing. I was pretty sure now what he wanted. He came out with it. “The writing credit on Ben-Hur – you certainly wouldn’t object to sharing it with a writer like Chris.”

                “I wouldn’t?”

                “Your name first, of course.”

                “That’s good of you,” I said, “ in view of the fact that I wrote the only script ever written: and the retakes, and added scenes.”

                “Look,” he said, “nobody is putting you down, but certainly you can be generous with a writer of Fry’s caliber.”

                “I can’t even if I wanted to,” I told him. “The Guild adjudicates writing credits – has for years. The rule is: a writing credit should be a true and accurate statement of authorship. By that measurement Fry’s contribution is zero.”

                He got mad. He jumped up and shouted. “You can’t judge a writer’s contribution by a word count! I’ll protest to the Guild!”

                “Be my guest.”

                He went out, slamming the door.

                He did protest to the Guild, and the arbitration machinery went to work. Writing credits in dispute are determined by three arbiters drawn from a panel of experienced, qualified writers. Each arbiter has no knowledge of the other two. The hold no meetings or conferences. They arrive at their decisions independently and adjudicate the credits solely on the merits of the written material. In the case of Ben-Hur, the unanimous decision of the three judges was that the sole screenplay credit was to be awarded to me.

                Wyler protested this decision and was then heard in a full meeting of the Executive Board of the Guild. He now claimed there was additional material which appeared in the film, but which had not been submitted to the arbitration committee. He was invited to submit this material…  After painstaking examination, it was discovered that this material was not new; that it had – except for minor variations – been previously submitted to the arbiters, and that, in essence, it was the same material that I had written….

                The day after the decision Wyler once again appeared in my office. He didn’t “drop” in this time. He stormed in before the secretary could announce him.  And he yelled at me: “You’ve got the credit, but it won’t do you any good! I’ll see to that! I’ll see that the world knows you don’t deserve it!”

                He certainly did his best, or perhaps I should say his worst. He hired publicists to spread the word that I had “robbed” a fellow writer, and personally bad-mouthed me whenever and wherever he could.  The result was unpleasant. Many people climbed on Wyler’s band-wagon, and appeared eager to ‘yes’ his comments. At a preview of Ben-Hur in Denver I found myself sitting alone, while previously friendly executives pointedly took seats at a distance from me. Not all Hollywood was so fickle, however. Writers like James Webb, Dan Taradash, Ed Hartmann, and others were outspoken in their support… “


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