Sunday, July 30, 2023

Book Review: Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman wrote the scripts for two of my favorite movies, WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), along with many other excellent films.

When I learned there was a new biography of Lehman, I was thus very interested to read it. ERNEST LEHMAN: THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS was written by Jon Krampner and published by the University Press of Kentucky.

This biography is an impressive work of research; the end notes alone run for over 50 pages! It provides great insight into Lehman's work alongside his personal life.

Lehman experienced great career success but had a sad life. He was a nervous hypochondriac; had an unfaithful, troubled long-term marriage; was a distant father; and had an eventual remarriage to someone 51 years younger who gave birth to his youngest child when he was 86.

I'm glad for history's sake when the facts of a filmmaker's life are well researched and accurately recorded, but as the book went on that aspect became increasingly hard to read about. There's quite a paradox between his very fine work, with additional films including SABRINA (1954) and NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), and his sad mess of a home life.

That said, I quite enjoyed the sections which focused on Lehman's writing, such as the fine job he did translating THE SOUND OF MUSIC from stage to screen.

I was long aware of how Lehman rearranged the story placement of a couple songs such as "The Lonely Goatherd" and "My Favorite Things," but I hadn't really thought about the fact that most of the songs "fade to black" afterwards, avoiding any potential awkwardness with the cast resuming dialogue. And in one notable moment when that doesn't happen, Eleanor Parker's character punctures the sweetness of the moment with a sarcastic remark.

It was Lehman who cut the lengthy stage performance of "Do-Re-Mi" in the von Trapp living room to a much shorter but more exciting sequence staged all over Salzburg. Lehman also suggested some notable camera shots such as the camera panning up in the cathedral at the wedding and then dissolving to ringing bells.

Lehman similarly rearranged numbers in WEST SIDE STORY from stage to screen in a way which I felt improved on the original production. His success seemed even more apparent when watching the recent remake of that musical, which returned to the order of songs as they were sung on stage. I feel that Lehman's choices were better in every regard.

In the end, this is a very worthwhile book which provides great insights into the making of a number of classic films, though viewers might find themselves reading hurriedly past Lehman's train wreck of a personal life.

ERNEST LEHMAN: THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is a hardcover which is 372 pages. The acknowledgments, index, and very extensive footnotes take up around 90 pages, beginning on page 283. (I’d add I always love to see the enthusiastic thanks to retired USC archivist Ned Comstock in books; he was very helpful not only to our daughter when she was at USC but to my husband as well.) The book weighs about a pound and a half.

Thanks to the University Press of Kentucky for providing a review copy of this book.


Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

I don't know much about Ernest Lehman but I am eager to dive into my review copy. Thanks for your review!

12:48 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older