Two Letters from George, a short essay
For as long as I can remember I have loved film; I have loved good stories expertly told through the cinematic process. As a student at the USC School of Cinema-Television, as it was then called, I was exposed to most of the best films ever produced. Viewing old but significant films was part of the curriculum. From the silents to the talkies, the school provided at least two screenings weekly, and often more, of a large variety of film of every genre.
The professors at the school all encouraged new thinking and innovation in the cinematic arts, but they also strongly believed that it was important for every student to know what had “come before.” They taught that a strong understanding of the classic, and often iconic films produced in the first fifty years of the industry would form a solid foundation upon which to form new, creative ideas.
Long before actually attending the film school at USC I was certain I wanted a career in filmmaking and to that end I came up with a variety of ways to get myself in to most of the major studios in Los Angeles. In those days, before this era begun by the events in September 2001, it really wasn’t all that difficult. I discovered in most cases, if I looked like I knew where I was going, if I looked like I belonged there, I could simply walk past the gate guards. For the one or two studios that enforced stricter security I found ways to sneak in. Once inside I would explore the back lot, production offices and sound stages looking for names I recognized, names I had seen on the big screen for years, names that I hoped might let me work with them in some small capacity.
I would usually just leave my credit list with a secretary or personal assistant. Now and then while strolling around a studio property I would encounter a director, producer or actor I recognized. On those occasions I would work up my nerve, introduce myself with as much false confidence as I could muster, shake their hand and then quickly explain what I wanted. No one ever dismissed me; some of them directed me to their office to leave my credit list and some took it with them.
Very shortly after graduating from film school, in early March 1975, I was on one of these forays at Universal Studios. While working my way through several offices located in bungalows on the back lot I came across a name on a door that I recognized immediately, George Seaton. He was a first class writer-director and I had seen many of his films screened in the film school at USC.
For readers who may not be familiar with the name, George Seaton ventured into the entertainment industry directly upon graduating from college, first working as a voice actor at a Detroit radio station. Early in 1933 the station was test broadcasting a new show called The Lone Ranger. John Barrett voiced the Ranger during the test phase but when the decision was made to make the show part of the regular schedule George Seaton took over the title role. Much later in his career he would explain to interviewers how he devised the phrase “Hi-yo Silver” because he couldn’t whistle for his horse as written in the early scripts.
Mr. Seaton entered the film industry as a writer, first penning stories for films starring Jimmy Durante and Leo Carrillo. At 20th Century Fox he wrote an uncredited draft of the screenplay for the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. The whacky brothers liked his work enough that they encouraged him to write something else for them; Mr. Seaton responded with the original story and screenplay for A Day at the Races. After another uncredited contribution to The Wizard of Oz, he went on to write The Doctor Takes a Wife, Charley’s Aunt, and The Song of Bernadette, just to name a few of his forty writing credits.
|George Seaton, 1955|
Included among George Seaton’s 23 directing credits (the majority of which he wrote as well) are Junior Miss, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, The Counterfeit Traitor, The Pleasure of His Company, and The Country Girl. The Country Girl not only garnered Mr. Seaton an Academy Award in the Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay category, but also won Grace Kelly the Oscar for Best Actress.
My favorite George Seaton film is a charming, timeless Christmas fable titled Miracle on 34th Street. Mr. Seaton wrote and directed this 1947 release, adapting the screenplay from a short story by Valentine Davies. This marvelous film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies), and Best Writing, Screenplay going to George Seaton.
Miracle on 34th Street captures the joyful innocence of childhood along with the warmth and traditions of the holiday season. It portrays American life encompassing strong values and a large degree of wholesomeness. Of course, it is “just a movie” but it is a movie that reflected a way of life and a set of values that has been almost completely lost in the United States. I believe Miracle on 34th Street still charms and resonates strongly with audiences today, over 65 years after it was produced, because they hunger for that way of life and those values, often whether they realize it or not.
Before these last few paragraphs of background material on George Seaton I was standing at his office door on the Universal Studios back lot. I went inside, and after explaining my mission to the secretary at the front desk, asked if I might leave my credit list with her for Mr. Seaton. She told me I could certainly leave my credit list but then suggested that I also write Mr. Seaton a personal letter. Handing me a business card she explained that Mr. Seaton enjoyed getting letters from aspiring young people. I was very young at the time.
So, home I went and that very afternoon composed a letter to George Seaton. My letter was very basic but articulate. I introduced myself, explained my career goals and then assured him I would gain a great deal by working with him in any capacity (I didn’t know very much about job hunting back in those days). My letter concluded requesting a meeting with him to discuss my career possibilities. I mailed my letter (this was long before email, folks) and then waited in anticipation for a reply.
I never got to meet with George Seaton, but ten days after mailing my letter I received a reply. Here is the letter in its entirety.
March 20, 1975
Dear Mr. Kassel,
I only wish that I could answer your excellent letter by giving you some hope. I’m forever saddened by the lack of opportunities open to someone of your experience and ambition.
If I were actively engaged in a production I would be more than happy to talk with you and try to arrange some working arrangement. Unfortunately I am now in the throes of writing an original which if it eventually goes into production will not be before the summer of ’76.
Since you are a writer as well as a director, cameraman and editor my only suggestion would be for you to attempt a feature length script. From my experience, with dozens of young filmmakers, this seems to be the only open door. It’s worked with others and might do the same for you.
Studios are not so willing to evaluate someone’s talent by viewing short subjects but they are more than anxious to latch onto a script with possibilities. If, and when, they find something with a potential they might (and, indeed, have) allowed the writer to direct his own script.
The only other avenue of entry into a studio is by starting in the mail room – not a job of prestige for someone of your background but at least it provides an opportunity to climb the ladder. This is especially true at Universal where they make an effort to advance those who are truly interested in making films.
Since I notice that you are a graduate of U.S.C. it might be helpful if Dr. Kantor would write a letter to Universal pleading your case. He knows to whom to write.
[signed] George Seaton
Of course I was disappointed that there would be no immediate employment with a notable writer-director at a major Hollywood studio. But I was still encouraged by Mr. Seaton’s letter and appreciated that he had taken the time not only to write, but to make suggestions as to how I might accomplish my goals.
As for his suggestions, I was relatively certain I did not want to work in the Universal Studios mail room. I was relatively certain that I didn’t want to work in any mail room. As for Dr. Bernard Kantor, then dean of the USC School of Cinema-Television, he knew me only as an undergraduate who had pestered him incessantly to sign a registration card granting me entrance to the school one semester earlier than the rules allowed. Dr. Kantor did eventually sign that card but beyond that he was completely unaware of me or my work at the school. A recommendation letter from him seemed unlikely.
That left Mr. Seaton’s first suggestion of attempting to write a feature-length screenplay. At that point in my life I had never written anything but short films, but I had been required to write a screen treatment for a feature-length film in an undergraduate writing class. I dusted off that treatment and began transforming it into a screenplay. I had to work on it in my spare time and it was my first feature-length screenplay, so it took a while.
1975 came to an end and I was still working on my screenplay. I was also still trying to get my first “real” job in the film industry. I remembered from his letter that George Seaton had been working on a new script he predicted might go into production the summer of 1976. Hey, it was 1976. It was only February but I thought it best to get a jump on all the other aspiring filmmakers. I wrote another letter. A few weeks later I received the reply that follows.
February 26, 1976
Dear Mr. Kassel,
I’m afraid that this letter is not going to be any more encouraging than my other one.
Unfortunately the project on which I was working (and referred to in my note to you) was considered not commercial enough by the studio. Since the dialogue was based on words in the English language and not copied from the walls of men’s toilets, and since it did not include a giant shark devouring a 747 that crashes in the Bermuda Triangle with 110 passengers aboard, it was judged too tame for today’s market.
I am now writing another original which, I’m afraid, will be rejected for the same reasons. However I keep trying in the hope that one day audiences will grow tired of sadistic brutality, tidal waves, earthquakes, holocausts and man-eating spiders. I’m beginning to believe that Oscar Wilde was right when he said: “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
So until Oscar turns out to be wrong I’m afraid that I won’t be active and consequently not in a position to consider a production, let alone a production assistant.
[signed] George Seaton
At the time I was just disappointed. I wanted a job but there was no job to be had. That was pretty much all there was to it for me. Furthermore, I didn’t think the language I heard in feature films was all that bad, I enjoyed disaster films with awesome special effects and I was often fascinated with how filmmakers could make shootings, beatings, and stabbings look so convincing. After all, it was only entertainment, it was just the movies. The issues addressed by Mr. Seaton had been completely lost on me. By the way, George Seaton is credited with having originated the disaster film genre when he wrote and directed Universal’s 1970 release, Airport.
Mr. Seaton had no way of knowing it but by the time he first corresponded with me he had already directed his last motion picture; the film was titled Showdown and it was released in 1973. Three years after writing his second letter to me in 1976, he would be dead from cancer at the young age of 68.
Under the circumstances one might be tempted to say that George Seaton had just hung on too long. He was left over from an era in Hollywood that produced motion pictures much more wholesome in content than those being produced in 1976. And when that old Hollywood was inclined to produce a picture dealing with unwholesome subject matter they did so tastefully. Maybe George Seaton just didn’t understand that times were changing, that he was living in a progressive, more accepting society.
By the time I rediscovered Mr. Seaton’s letters in my files, sometime in the 1990s, I had a different perspective. I was considerably more mature and experienced in life; I had been working in the motion picture industry in a variety of capacities for over 20 years. I had experienced a few successes and a whole lot more disappointments. I had married and had produced two wonderful children. Like most children mine enjoyed seeing a good movie from time to time. My job as a parent was to make sure the movies they saw were appropriate for them. Having children makes one look at a lot of things differently.
I found that George Seaton’s letter of February 26, 1976 carried a deeper meaning now. I began comparing the contemporary films I had seen to the films of the 1970s. The newer films were clearly more permissive in subject matter, much more liberal in all uses of language, and considerably more graphic in depictions of violence. Then there was the question of tastefulness in how all of the aforementioned elements were handled. I can only imagine how Mr. Seaton perceived the films of the 1970s when compared to those of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
The issues addressed by Mr. Seaton in his letter were not new to our society in 1976. Whether he was consciously addressing it or not, growing permissiveness and the increasing abandonment of Bible-based values have been present in the motion picture industry from the moment Thomas Edison successfully demonstrated the Kinetosope in 1891.
The film industry, as we know it today, probably began in 1902 with the completion of Talley’s Electric Theater in Los Angeles, California, the first theater built with the specific purpose of projecting films. By the 1920s there was increasing pressure on the Federal government to censor movies. It obviously didn’t take long for filmmakers to discover that exploiting the darkest, weakest elements of human existence, and pushing every imaginable boundary drew an audience.
Hollywood responded to the threats of government wielded censorship by establishing the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in 1922, a trade organization with former Postmaster General William H. Hays as president. The Hays Code regulated how sex, nudity, drug and alcohol use, and all forms of violence could be displayed on the screen. It prohibited the use of on-screen profanity, “ridicule of the clergy, and willful offense to any nation, race or creed.” These are just a few examples; it was an extensive list of regulations.
The Hays office kept a watchful eye on motion picture content well into the 1960s. This is how the Motion Picture Association of America describes what happened next in their web site’s “History of the MPAA.”
“In the late 1960s our nation was changing, and so was its cinema. Alongside the progress of the civil rights, women's rights and labor movements, a new kind of American film was emerging - frank and open. Amid our society's expanding freedoms, the movie industry's restrictive regime of self-censorship could not stand. In 1966, former Special Assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, Jack Valenti, was named MPAA President. That same year, sweeping revisions were made to the Hays Code to reflect changing social mores. In 1968, Jack Valenti, who went on to hold the position for 38 years, founded the voluntary film rating system giving creative and artistic freedoms to filmmakers while fulfilling its core purpose of informing parents about the content of films so they can determine what movies are appropriate for their kids. More than forty years later, the system continues to evolve with our society and endures as a shining symbol of American freedom of expression.”
To me this MPAA paragraph is a message from motion picture producers that essentially translates to, We aren’t going to be told what we can and can’t do anymore. We are going to make films about anything we want in any way we want, and we’re going to keep making them as long as our audience keeps buying tickets.
Yes, the audience is part of the problem. We are all responsible. Filmmakers and audiences alike are moving further and further away from what is true, good, solid and dependable. We are moving closer to the darkness and further from the light. The majority of filmmakers frequently produce morally, ethically, and spiritually questionable products, and the audience flock to the theaters, stream it into their living rooms and download it to their iPhones. The real issue is how we, as a nation are steadily drifting away from a solid foundation of Bible-based values.
Today, if you don’t like the “frank and open” nature of the American film you should be prepared to be labeled as a prude or close-minded. You are blind to the way life really is. You are stuck in the past, you are too religious, and you aren’t keeping up with our rapidly changing society. But films influence our culture and morality and the range of influence is immense. With the technology of today even a small, independent film can potentially reach tens of millions of people. Amateur film and video efforts posted on YouTube routinely reach even greater numbers than that.
George Seaton realized from professional experience that motion pictures greatly amplify everything we are as human beings, both the good and the bad. Movies reflect what our society believes, our morals and ethics, our measure of faith, our reverence or lack thereof for God. Movies are a giant mirror of who we are as a people.
|George Seaton with Ross Hunter|
When you buy a ticket or pay to stream a film depicting recreational sex or drug use without any responsibility attached, how do you like the reflection you see? When you look in the movie mirror to learn how to expertly traffic drugs as taught by the “cool” drug dealer, how does that reflection look to you? Sit down to watch the contemporary horror and slasher films displaying the darkest, most perverse aspects of the human psyche while striving to shock audiences with unthinkable gore and brutality. Do you like the reflection you see?
For the record, I still love films and the art of filmmaking. Granted, I’m much more discerning in the films I choose to see, but I still believe in the potential motion pictures have to educate, uplift, and heighten social awareness, as well as entertain.
I cannot claim to know the depths of George Seaton’s thoughts based simply on the two letters he wrote to me. Based on the films he wrote and directed, I think he believed it was far nobler to make a film that uplifted and gave hope to his audiences, even if he was dealing with dark, violent or ugly subject matter. Just from looking at how Mr. Seaton handled the wide range of topics in his long list of films it is clear that he realized the power of film can make audiences aware of important issues, suggest solutions, and sometimes even point to a better way. All of his films were made with taste, dignity and a respect for his audience.
George Seaton’s letters tell me that he thought filmmakers should strive to do better, to be more responsible, and to move away from the darkness and towards the light. And he had worked long enough in the entertainment industry to realize that audiences can powerfully influence the films that are produced simply by not buying a ticket. We can all benefit from behaving more responsibly, filmmakers and audiences alike. It’s something to strive for.
© 2012 Philip Kassel