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Fellow’s Find: Screenwriter Warren Skaaren

What do Batman, Top Gun, and Beverly Hills Cop II have in common? All were rewritten by versatile screenwriter and “script doctor” Warren Skaaren. As a fellow at the Ransom Center last summer, Alison Macor, independent scholar and former film critic for The Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman, immersed herself in the Ransom Center’s Warren Skaaren collection. Macor shares her experiences working in the collection in preparation for her upcoming biography of Skaaren:

This summer I spent five weeks at the Ransom Center with the support of a Mayer Filmscript fellowship. I worked in the Warren Skaaren collection in preparation for my new book, In Batman’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren.

In addition to writing original screenplays, the Austin-based Skaaren worked as a script doctor—rewriting screenplays by other writers—on many 1980s blockbusters, including Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and Batman (1989). By the time of his death in December 1990, he was one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood.

I approached the collection chronologically because I thought it was important to trace Skaaren’s development as a writer. In some cases he spent years nurturing projects like The Freddie Steinmark Story, a biopic about The University of Texas safety who lost a leg to cancer, only to see them never get made. But with each new project Skaaren perfected his writing process and style. He drafted finely detailed character sketches and elaborate “intensity” charts that measured a story’s dramatic highs and lows. Ultimately it was his ability to create multifaceted characters that caught Hollywood’s attention.

I spent most of my time reading multiple drafts of each screenplay. This can be an exciting but also painfully slow process, and the beauty of the Ransom Center fellowship is that it gave me the luxury of time in an environment conducive to such work. Because Skaaren was often hired as a script doctor and reworked screenplays initially created by others, the assignment of writing credit became a particularly delicate issue and influenced his future assignments, pay rate, and reputation. Every studio project that Skaaren worked on went to arbitration, and he kept voluminous notes and copies of all correspondence pertaining to each case. The arbitration of Beverly Hills Cop II, for instance, was especially heated because, as a sequel with a built-in audience, the film was expected to do very well, and literally millions of dollars were at stake for the writers. Indeed, the writer who worked on the screenplay prior to Skaaren (and who received a shared credit with Skaaren) sued the Writers Guild over its decision to split the writing credit. The case was still being appealed at the time of Skaaren’s death—three and a half years after the film’s initial release.

Thanks to the Ransom Center’s Steve Wilson and Katie Risseeuw, who oversaw the digitization of some of the collection’s sound recordings, I was able to hear Skaaren on tape interviewing retired British and Nepalese soldiers and even a witch doctor in preparation for his original screenplay Of East and West, a sweeping coming-of-age story set in England and Nepal. Not only did this provide the opportunity to “hear” Skaaren for the first time, but it also gave me a sense of the intense preparation that he cultivated throughout his writing career. These recordings offered a glimpse of the charm and confidence that so many of his friends and colleagues have mentioned when describing his personality and, ultimately, his success.

Watch this video as Macor further discusses her work in the Skaaren collection:

Cassini's moon map

Before “Where’s Waldo?” there was the “moon maiden,” a shadowy figure hiding in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works.

One of the exhibition’s highlights is a first edition map of the moon rendered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini from 1679, the rarest edition of the first published moon map. The “moon maiden,” “a tiny female silhouette,” is most likely the playful work of Cassini or his engraver. To produce this detailed map, Cassini relied on the latest telescopic observations of the moon’s craters and mountains, among other features.

Darwin and Herschel: The Fossil Record of a Relationship

2009 marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Ransom Center owns several copies of the first edition, the most interesting being the one sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, a famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.”

Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries” —as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.

From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.

We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg recently noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.

The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:

Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]

My dear Sir John Herschel

I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge

With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin

The copy of the Origin volume mentioned in this blog is on display in the Ransom Center Reading Room lobby from November 19 through January 15, 2010, during Reading Room hours.

Music inspired by Poe's works

While vacationing in Rome in 1907, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter from a cello student whom he had never met. An admirer of Rachmaninoff and of Edgar Allan Poe, the student urged Rachmaninoff to set Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” to music. Rachmaninoff read a Russian translation of “The Bells” and was won over. He completed his choral symphony (“The Bells”) in 1913 and later deemed it his personal favorite of all his compositions.

Rachmaninoff based his composition on a Russian translation of “The Bells” by Konstantin Balmont, which took several liberties with Poe’s poem. Most notable is Balmont’s additions to the “Silver Bells” stanza, in which he adds a meditation on death as a “universal slumber—deep and sweet beyond compare” (retranslation by Fanny S. Copeland). Basing his composition on Balmont’s translation, Rachmaninoff composed cheerful rather than solemn music for the “Silver Bells” stanza.

Rachmaninoff is not the only composer to find inspiration in Poe’s works. Claude Debussy began composing an opera, “La chute de la maison Usher,” based on Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” A leaf from the libretto of this opera is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Debussy worked on the opera between 1908 and 1918 but never completed it. More recently, minimalist composer Philip Glass completed an opera based on “The Fall of the House of Usher” that premiered in 1989.

English composer Joseph Holbrooke also caught Poe fever. He set several of Poe’s poems to music, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and created a ballet based on “The Masque of the Red Death.”

Holbrooke’s works and Poe-inspired works of several other composers can be viewed in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

These works are part of the William H. Koester collection, acquired by the Ransom Center in 1966 and the source of most of the items featured in the Ransom Center’s current Poe exhibition.

The ballet performance that sparked a riot

It is 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and the audience is screaming, cat-calling, and fist-fighting. It’s the most famous riot in classical music history at the premiere of the ballet The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and premiered by the Ballets Russes.

Accustomed to more “palatable” ballets such as Swan Lake, the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring was shocked by the dissonant and jarring music, the violent and unnatural choreography, and the depiction of a Russian pagan tribe celebrating the arrival of spring by choosing a sacrificial virgin to dance herself to death. Upon hearing the opening bassoon solo played in an unrecognizably high register, French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens is said to have fumed: “if that is a bassoon then I am a baboon!” He then stormed out of the theater.

The Ransom Center holds one of the costumes that no doubt helped to spark the legendary riot. The costumes were designed by archeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich. The costume is part of the Ransom Center’s current display in honor of this year’s centenary of the Ballets Russes, located in the Director’s Gallery on the third floor of the Center through December 18.

Explore the New Publication "Magic, 1400s–1950s"

The Ransom Center’s performing arts collection documents several popular entertainments, including vaudeville, the circus, pantomime, puppetry, and magic. TASCHEN Books recently published Magic, 1400s–1950s, and included more than 30 images from the Center’s collections. Edited by Noel Daniel, the 650-page book is a multilingual edition, with content in English, French, and German. The book is authored by Mike Caveney and Jim Steinmeyer, with contributions from Ricky Jay. Below are excerpts from the book, alongside images from the Center’s holdings.

From the chapter “From Black Magic to Modern Magic,” explained by Mike Caveney.

During the mid-19th century, the most influential magician in the world was a Frenchman named Jean Eugéne Robert-Houdin. On this advertisement for his appearance at St. James’s Theatre in London, he is seen producing a seemingly endless quantity of military plumes from a scarf. A skilled watchmaker as well as a magician, he often employed an artful combination of techniques to produce the astonishing results that made him famous.

From the chapter “The Supernatural and the Spirit Worlds,”
explained by Jim Steinmeyer.

At the Egyptian Hall theater, Maskelyne and Cooke produced a humorous play lampooning Spiritualism. Mrs. Daffodil Downy’s Light and Dark Séance parodied the excitable or suspicious characters in a Bloomsbury, London, séance parlor. At the climax of the play, Maskelyne’s illusions eclipsed those of any supposed medium when he produced a glowing skeleton that rattled its jaws and floated over the audience.

From the chapter “Chains, Blades, Bullets, and Fire: Daring and Danger in Magic,” explained by Jim Steinmeyer.

Houdini’s Milk Can Escape, first performed in 1908, reignited his career. It was a brilliant invention that allowed him to bring the excitement of his water escapes to a vaudeville stage. This poster captures the nail-biting terror. The central image is a special cut-away peek at the can’s interior, offering a view that was never seen onstage.

Ransom Center Celebrates Tennessee Williams's Induction into Poets' Corner

Tennessee Williams visiting the Ransom Center reading room, November 2, 1973. Photograph by Frank Armstrong.
Tennessee Williams visiting the Ransom Center reading room, November 2, 1973. Photograph by Frank Armstrong.
Tennessee Williams will be inducted into the Poets’ Corner in The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, with celebrations beginning today. Previous inductees include Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.

The Ransom Center holds materials that document the family, life, and work of the American playwright Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams. The collection contains numerous manuscript drafts, including those for the plays The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Also included are large amounts of newspaper clippings, correspondence, and photographs.

The Tennessee Williams collection was built from four major acquisitions in the 1960s with smaller amounts of material added over the years. The nucleus of the collection began with Williams’s own papers, acquired by the Ransom Center from 1962 to 1969. These materials included over 1,000 separately titled works, numerous clippings, and several boxes of correspondence. In 1964, the Center expanded the collection with the purchase of the correspondence between Williams and his agent, Audrey Wood. In 1965, the Center acquired a large number of manuscripts, including Williams’s first full-length play, Candles to the Sun, from Williams’s official bibliographer, Andreas Brown. Brown’s materials also included a complete run of Williams’s publications, and Brown’s own correspondence, notes, and drafts from his work on Williams’s bibliography.

The Williams family papers were also acquired in 1965 from Williams’s mother, Edwina Dakin Williams. These materials included original manuscripts and works of art by Williams, over 700 letters, scrapbooks, personal memorabilia, and 650 photographs.

From the Galleries: Halley's Comet

Halley’s Comet was last spotted by the unaided human eye in 1986, and isn’t estimated to be visible again until 2026. For those who can’t wait another 17 years, the Ransom Center’s exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, offers visitors an early glimpse of Halley’s Comet, as rendered by John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.

Halley’s Comet was no novelty for Herschel; she discovered no fewer than eight comets in her lifetime. She drew these four illustrations of Halley’s Comet in her late eighties, after being awarded a gold medal and honorary membership from the Royal Astronomical Society. Also on display are pencil sketches of Halley’s Comet by Herschel’s astronomer nephew, John F. W. Herschel, and six illustrations of comets by various other astronomers.

Hearing Music in the David O. Selznick Collection

Occupying almost 5,000 document cases, the archive of film producer David O. Selznick is the Ransom Center’s largest archive. Nathan Platte, a Musicology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, navigated through this enormous collection last year with a dissertation fellowship jointly sponsored by the Ransom Center and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies. Platte shares his experiences conducting research at the Ransom Center for his dissertation, “Musical Collaboration, Coercion, and Resistance in the Films of David O. Selznick, 1932–1948.”

While writing a dissertation on the films of David O. Selznick, I had the fortunate opportunity to conduct extensive research in the Harry Ransom Center’s gargantuan David O. Selznick collection. When one thinks of a film producer’s archive, images of contracts, correspondences, scripts, photographs, storyboards, and costumes might come to mind. The Selznick collection contains all of these items, but my project focused on a different facet. As a musicologist, I was most interested in the musical scores of Selznick’s films—the famous “Tara” theme that plays as Scarlett and her father watch the sun set in Gone with the Wind (1939), the eerie electronic sounds that waft through spooky sequences in Rebecca (1940) and Spellbound (1945), the brass fanfares that gild scenes of pageantry in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and even the piano piece performed by the icy murderess of The Paradine Case (1947).

What exactly is the archival footprint of film music? The list is actually quite daunting: instructions from Selznick detailing musical ideas and impressions, pencil sketches made by the composer, full orchestral scores arranged by orchestrators, orchestral parts and “short” scores rendered by copyists, recording logs that state when the score was recorded, who played in the orchestra, and how many performances it took before the conductor was satisfied… There are also standard studio documents related to music: contracts for composers, correspondences between Selznick and music directors, and occasional photographs of the musicians who worked behind the scenes. Put simply, the Selznick collection is a treasure trove for the film musicologist.

My dissertation examines the process of scoring a film. This involved documenting many steps, including the collaboration (and arguments) between Selznick and composers. I also studied the input of directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Cromwell, whose ideas on music differed from Selznick’s. Music editors also influenced the musical content of Selznick’s films even though they did not compose new music. Audray Granville, for example, reshaped Miklós Rózsa’s score for Spellbound through artful cutting and pasting. Reading her correspondences with Selznick is illuminating; the producer trusted her judgment more than the composer’s!

I was always excited to find music not used in the final film. These rejected passages tell stories of their own, and the reasons for their exclusion reveal more about the musical effects intended by Selznick, his composers, and music staff. At times like these, the process of film scoring changed my understanding of music’s relationship to story and visuals. With the rich sources of the Selznick collection and the generous support of a Ransom Center dissertation fellowship, I found this research to be both exhilarating and revelatory.