Malibu Screenwriter and Political Activist Left Lasting Legacy
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
The newly remodeled Malibu Library is scheduled to open its doors on April 22. In anticipation of the event, the Malibu Surfside News is taking a look at some of the amazingly diverse writers who have made Malibu their home and shaped its literary landscape.
Philip Dunne made Malibu his home for 45 years. Longtime Malibu residents remember Dunne as a gentle man, with a wickedly sharp sense of humor, who was passionately committed to the environment and to preserving Malibu.
He is best remembered for his screenplays for "How Green Was My Valley," "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," "The Robe," "The Agony and the Ecstasy," "Stanley and Livingstone," "Forever Amber," "Johnny Apollo," and "Last of the Mohicans."
Dunne received two Academy Award nominations, the Writers Guild's Lifetime Achievement Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his screenwriting, but he also wrote numerous syndicated newspaper articles, contributed articles and short stories to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, wrote speeches for the presidential campaigns of Adlai E. Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, penned two plays, and wrote a biography of his father and his own autobiography.
Dunne was also an important political activist. He was co-founder of the Writers Guild and vice-president of its successor, the Writers Guild of America, from 1938 to 1940 and, together with William Wyler and John Huston, he helped organize the fight to oppose the Hollywood Blacklist in the 1940s and 1950s.
"The blacklist these witch-hunters forced on our industry remains to this day the dominant feature of Hollywood's political history," Dunne wrote in 1979.
Dunne, who died in 1992, chronicled his life in an autobiography entitled "Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics," published in 1980.
"I tell this story mainly to emphasize my total lack of preparedness for the career in which, somewhat to my surprise, I eventually found myself," he wrote.
Philip Dunne was born on Feb. 11, 1908 in New York City. His father was Chicago syndicated columnist Finley Peter Dunne. His mother was Margaret Ives Abbott Dunne, daughter of journalist and novelist Mary Ives Abbott. She was one of the first women golfers and won the first gold medal for women's golf at the second Olympics in Paris 1900.
Dunne had an extraordinary childhood. His father's creation, Mr. Dooley, a Chicago Irish barkeeper with a thick brogue and canny observations on politics and the human condition, who appeared in cartoon form and more than 700 "sketches" in the syndicated papers and later anthologized in a series of best selling books, was so popular and so accurate in assessing the mood of the nation that President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly had them read each week at the White House cabinet meetings. Famous "Dooleyisms" include the advice to "trust everybody, but cut the cards."
"[My father] expressed a life-long empathy with society's unfortunates," Dunne wrote. "[There is] a leavening of melancholy in my father's work, of black Irish humor and occasionally stark tragedy."
Finley Dunne and Roosevelt became friends and the family moved in influential literary and political circles.
Dunne attended Harvard, graduating in 1929, the year of the great stock market crash. Unable to find work in New York, he headed to Hollywood and landed a job as a script reader. By 1932 he had written his first screenplay. In 1937 he signed with 20th Century Fox, where he would continue to write for 25 years.
Dunne chronicles many Hollywood adventures—and misadventures—in his autobiography, included renting an apartment from Harpo Marx, having drinks with Hemingway and offending British humorist P.G. Wodehouse.
"In 1937 I was chairman of the Screenwriters Guild's membership committee—in effect, chief organizer for the union at a time when it was fighting desperately not only for recognition but for it's very survival. A competing organization called the Screen Playwrights took the field against us and was immediately recognized by the producers. We in the Guild considered it a company union, and I said as much in a letter to Wodehouse, who had been publicized as one of its members.
"My letter was intemperate, to say the least. In effect, I asked Wodehouse if he realized that he was consorting with scabs and scalawags in an organization whose sole malign purpose was to break our virtuous guild."
Wodehouse showed the letter to the officers of the Playwrights. Fireworks resulted.
The letter was published. Producer Darrel Zanuck, the mogul of 20th Century-Fox, called Dunne the following morning demanding that Dunne leave the studio. The writer stood his ground. "My father had taught me that if I ever needed a grievance redressed, I should always go to the top," Dunne wrote. He requested "an audience" with Zanuck, was "ushered into that long, long office, painted Zanuck green" and decorated with the trophies of many African safaris, "and found myself facing the great man in person. I remember thinking how small he looked sitting behind that great big desk. I suppose that I had expected a giant."
Dunne reported that at the end of the interview, Zanuck said, "Forget it. Go back to work."
In 1938, Dunne met Amanda Duff, a young actress who had just signed with 20th Century-Fox. Thier first date was at King Gillette Ranch, now part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
"It had taken me all of two weeks from the time we started going out together to summon up enough nerve to ask the question," Dunne wrote.
In July of 1939 the couple were flown by a friend to Nevada, where "they were married by a justice of the peace in Mark Twain's famous Comstock Lode ghost town."
"We found the J.P. in the bar next to the courthouse, so it isn't too surprising that Amanda promised to endow me with all her worldly goods, while I promised to love, honor and obey her, which I have," Dunne wrote.
By 1940, Dunne had written six pictures in three years for Twentieth. His seventh assignment came "as an afterthought" on Zanuck's part. "He sent me a studio-written script based on Richard Llewellyn's best-seller 'How Green Was My Valley,'" Dunne wrote. He describes the draft he received as "long, turgid and ugly."
Dunne, discarding the screenplay in favor of the book, crafted his own script for what many critics regard as one of the greatest films ever made. It was shot at what is now Malibu Creek State Park, the Santa Monica Mountains doubling as Welsh coal-mining country.
The Dunnes both volunteered during WW II. Amanda was with the Red Cross. From 1942 to 1945, Philip Dunne served as chief of production for the Motion Picture Bureau, U.S. Office of War Information, Overseas Branch.
In 1947, Dunne and his wife purchased a bluff top property on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and began building the home where they would raise their three daughters and live for the rest of their lives.
"Their house was kind of an ad hoc center for liberal Hollywood," screenwriter and novelist David Freeman, a longtime friend, remembered in an article that appeared in the L.A. Times shortly before Dunne's death. "Political meetings were held there for both local issues and big national issues—the war in Vietnam, for instance. It's a way of Hollywood life that we just don't have now, and I don't think it will come again."
"Reading from left to right, I have been called, in and out of print, a crypto-fascist, social-fascist, quack, rightist, reactionary, undercover FBI agent, pseudo-liberal, bleeding heart liberal, leftist, socialist, radical, Marxist, fellow traveler, comsymp, Communist stooge, Communist, and radical Jew actor, this last in 1939 in Adolph Hitler's journalistic outlet in Los Angeles, the Weckruf und Beobachter, whose reporter clearly failed to do his homework: I am not now and have never been an actor," Dunne wrote.
In addition to his numerous screenwriting credits, Dunne went on to direct several films. He died at his Malibu home in 1992. He was 84.
"I have few private regrets. I have good reason to be proud of my family and the fact that none of us has emerged from the normal rough-and-tumble of family life with visible scars.
"I cherish the friendships Amanda and I have formed over the years and which bear flowers in autumn as they did in spring and summer….I have done the best I could, and all that is left for me to say is "'Print it-and that's a wrap,'" Dunne wrote.