Tuesday, February 20, 2024

John Steinbeck Motion Picture Screenplay Writer

Mention John Steinbeck and his 1939 novel, "The Grapes of Wrath"usually comes to a persons mind. In fact, I wrote an article about that title, "John Steinbeck, John Ford, Henry Fonda and Woody Guthrie: 'Tom Joad", found at:


However, this article isn't really about John Steinbeck's novels and short stories. It's about the overlooked motion picture screenplay writer.

As of this writing, the website, "IMDb" lists 66-writing-credits for John Steinbeck through 2021, and two other proposed films that have been announced. Seeing that he passed away in 1968, only one-half of those 66-credits took place during his lifetime.

Although, John Steinbeck's actual screenplay writing is a much smaller number than 33.

The story of John Steinbeck starts not in California, or. even the United States, but Palestine in the Middle East. There, his paternal, Prussian, grandfather, Johann Adolf Großsteinbeck, and other Protestant Christians from both the United States and Prussia founded "Mount Hope". A farming community designed to teach Palestine Jews to farm and in these settlers "Hope", prepare for the second coming of Christ. Instead, this community was attacked by Arab raiders, Johann's brother murdered, his brother's wife and mother-in-law were both raped, and his dream broken. Below is a photo taken in 1933 of the remains of "Mount Hope".  


Johann Großsteinbeck returned to Prussia, but in 1858, he left the family farm in Heiligenhaus, in Mettman, Prussia (Germany), that is still there to be visited, changed his last name to the more American sounding "Steinbeck", and settled in Salinas, Monterey County, California. Below is part of a 1875 map of the town.

Moving forward, the author's father, John Ernest Steinbeck, who served as the county's treasurer, married former school teacher, Olive Hamilton.

Below is their house, which today is a museum and restaurant.

The two shared a passion for reading, which they would pass onto their son, John Ernest Steinbeck II. 

John the second was born in Salinas, Monterey County, California, on February 27, 1902. He was his parent's third child, their first two were his two older sisters, Beth and Esther. There would be a third sister, his younger sibling, Mary.

At the time of his birth, Salinas had a population, according to the two-years-earlier 1900 census of
3,304. This was beautiful California rural wine country located only eight-miles from the Pacific Ocean. The 1910 census showed that including the two younger Steinbeck's, the population of Salinas had only increased by 432 residents over the ten-year period.

Below the City of Salinas in 1907.

Below, John and Mary Steinbeck in 1909.

John would graduate from Salinas High School in 1919, below is a photo of the track team and he will be found in the back row at the far right.

The high school was would be moved the following year to its current location apparently across town. I could not find any information about that original high school and its original location. Below, is a photo of the laying of the cornerstone for the current high school in 1919.

After graduation, the future writer studied English literature at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Below a photo of the University at this time.

However, John Ernest Steinbeck II left the university before getting a degree. The young writer moved to New York, but could not find anyone interested in publishing his work. He would leave New York and become a tour guide at Lake Tahoe, both sides of the town in California and Nevada, and meet his first wife, Carol Henning. They would marry in 1930, the second year of what became known to the world as "The Great Depression", and live for a while in his parent's summer home, in Pacific Grove, California. The couple remained together into 1941, and officially divorced in 1942, without having children.

Which brings me to the end of my straight biographical portion of my article and the publication in 1929 of John Steinbeck's first novel, a pirate story entitled, "Cup of Gold: A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History".

"Cup of Gold", would be followed by fourteen novels through 1947. Of those fourteen, six would become motion pictures and John Steinbeck would be directly involved with the screenplays for those novels through 1949. Although there would be other screenplays not directly related to his written novels, or short stories.

1939 Through 1949:


Among the places John Steinbeck worked at, was the "Post Family Ranch" in Big Sur. Along with at their Salinas landing for the ships that took away the grain grown on the farmland outside of the town. Below, the "Post Family" ranch house in the early 1930's.

The author also worked in the beet picking fields with migrant Mexican and Filipino workers for "Spreckels" sugar. 


These experiences and others as a teenager, and after leaving Stanford, became the basis for the first novel of what is known as "John Steinbeck's Dustbowl Trilogy". It was published in 1936, entitled, "The Dubious Battle". According to the author himself:

This is the first time I have felt that I could take the time to write and also that I had anything to say to anything except my manuscript book. You remember that I had an idea that I was going to write the autobiography of a Communist ... There lay the trouble. I had planned to write a journalistic account of a strike. But as I thought of it as fiction the thing got bigger and bigger. It couldn't be that. I've been living with this thing for some time now. I don't know how much I have got over, but I have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man's eternal, bitter warfare with himself.

The second novel of the trilogy was published one-year later in 1937, "Of Mice and Men". In a September 27, 1992 article in "The New York Times" by Jay Parini.

John Steinbeck is quoted as saying:

I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn't kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times. I saw him do it. We couldn't stop him until it was too late.

The novel was still on the "Best Seller List". When John Steinbeck's play version opened at "The Music Box Theatre" on Broadway, and ran from November 23, 1937 through May 1938.

As written by Steinbeck, the role of:

George Milton: A quick-witted man who is Lennie's guardian and best friend. His friendship with Lennie helps sustain his dream of a better future. He has been friends with Lennie since they were children. He is described by Steinbeck in the novel as "small and quick," every part of him being "defined," with small strong hands on slender arms. He has a dark face and "restless eyes" and "sharp, strong features" including a "thin, bony nose", and was portrayed by Wallace Ford. Among Ford's motion picture credits prior to this play were director Tod Browning's, 1932, "Freaks", and both director John Ford's, 1934, "The Lost Patrol", and 1935, "The Informer.

Lennie Small: A gigantic physically strong imbecile who travels with George and is his constant companion. He dreams of "living off the fatta' the lan'" and being able to tend to rabbits. His love for soft things is a weakness, mostly because he does not know his own strength, and eventually becomes his undoing. Steinbeck defines his appearance as George's "opposite", writing that he is a "huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes" and "wide, sloping shoulders". Lennie walks heavily, dragging his feet a little, "the way a bear drags his paws," adding that his arms do not swing at his sides, but hang loosely, was portrayed by Broderick Crawford. The actor had only been in one movie at this time, 1937's, "Woman Chases Man", a comedy starring Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea.

Above left to right, Broderick Crawford, Wallace Ford, and Claire Luce portraying "Curley's Wife".

"Of Mice and Men" would be turned into a motion picture by Hal Roach Productions and released through United Artists", on December 30, 1939.

On the above poster, neither of the actors portraying "George", or "Lennie" are seen. They are Betty Field portraying "Mae", and "B" Cowboy star, Bob Steele portraying "Curley Jackson".

The two leading actor roles were: 

Burgess Meredith portraying "George Milton". He had just appeared in the Norma Shearer and Clark Gable, 1939, "Idiot's Delight", and would follow this picture with the John Garfield, Ann Sheridan, and Pat O'Brien, 1940, "Castle on the Hudson".

Lon Chaney, Jr. portrayed "Lennie Small". Chaney had been appearing in the Los Angles production of the play and his performance got him the film role. He would follow this role, portraying "Akhoba", in the Hal Roach production, 1940's, "One Million B.C.".

John Steinbeck received two credits, one for writing the novel and one for writing the Broadway play, but he did not write the motion picture screenplay. 

That was written by Eugene Solow, I could not find out what he did between only one other movie, 1940's, "The Bowery Boy", starring actor Dennis O'Keefe, and the second episode of televisions "The Adventures of Superman", "The Haunted Lighthouse", on September 26, 1952.

Above left to right, Lon Chaney, Jr., Burgess Meredith, and Betty Field portraying "Mae".

The third book of the "Dust Bowl Trilogy" was 1939's, "The Grapes of Wrath", for which John Steinbeck received the "Pulitzer Prize", but the only credit he received for the 1940 motion picture was writing that original novel, see my above article.

I mentioned that John Steinbeck wrote several screenplays not related to his novels, or short stories. The following is a unique example.


This was a sociological documentary from producer, director, and cinematographer Alexander Hammid, and co-producer and director Herbert Kline. Which premiered in New York City on September 9, 1941. 

The above book is the non-fiction script for the documentary written by John Steinbeck. It's about an isolated Mexican village, seen through the eyes of a small boy and his family, living in 1941 with witch doctors and other ancient customs. They're now faced with the coming of modern medicine, and the impact of modern religion on centuries of living their lives one way. When one boy dies and others get sick, the local witch doctor is forced to fight the modern doctors who arrive. The book contains 136-photos from the documentary. What makes this documentary much more interesting is the use by Alexander Hammid of a pen-camera.

On March 29, 1943, the 41-years-old John Steinbeck married twenty-two-years-old, Gwendolyn Louise Conger, and over their five-years of marriage, the couple would have two sons, Thomas "Thom" Myles Steinbeck, and John Ernest Steinbeck IV. 

Gwendolyn Steinbeck would divorce her husband in October 1948. Twenty-seven-years-later she would pass away leaving an unpublished and apparently unknown manuscript describing her life with a "Sadistic" husband. The following is from the website, "Project Muse",

Gwyn Conger, John Steinbeck's second wife, died in 1975. Douglas Brown, the journalist she hired and fired to ghost-write her memoir, died in 1997. Brown's unpublished manuscript of the interrupted project, left to a relative in England, eventually came to the attention of a businessman named Bruce Lawson, who has chosen to resurrect the abortive effort as a self-published book using Gwyn's byline. Issues of ownership and ethics aside, the result represents a compendium of errors, inconsistencies, and indiscretions fully justifying Steinbeck's insistence that he be judged by the quality and truthfulness of his own writing rather than the half-truths and false memories purveyed by others. Cashing in on "the story of John Steinbeck's forgotten wife," Lawson's book presents a challenge to reader patience and credulity, with a preface and cover blurb by Jay Parini praising its "authenticity" and significance as a "genuinely important literary discovery"— claims undercut by the troubled history of the material it contains.

In 1942, John Steinbeck's 1935 novel, "Tortilla Flat", became a feature film starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, and John Garfield, and the following year, Steinbeck's, 1942 novel, "The Moon Is Down", became a 1943 feature film staring Sir Cedric Hardwick, and Lee J. Cobb. The author was not involved with writing the screenplays.

However, he became a war correspondent for the "New York Herald Tribune", and worked for the "Office of Strategic Services (OSS)", later to be called, "The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)". At this time he also participated in commando raids with the "Beach Jumpers", created and led by United States Naval Lieutenant Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Who was assigned to the staff of British Lord Louis Mountbatten and received decorations from both the British and United States. 

Returning to the United States, John Steinbeck wrote the classic Alfred Hitchcock motion picture.

LIFEBOAT premiering in New York City on January 11, 1944

Above the United States poster and below, the original British quad poster.

Looking at either poster, two names stand out over the others. The first is Alfred Hitchcock and the second is John Steinbeck. Who was nominated for the "Best Original Story Academy Award". However, Steinbeck had wanted his name removed from the motion picture.

Hitch had come-up with the story idea, but he needed someone to write the story. Before settling on John Steinbeck, he had interviewed A.J. Cronin, James Hilton, and Ernest Hemingway. Steinbeck wrote the screenplay planning to do the same thing as with "The Forgotten Village", publish his screenplay as a book with photos to make more money. The motion picture was filmed and the story's author went to see it in a local movie theater.

John Steinbeck's original story was turned into a screenplay by Jo Swerling, his previous screenplays included director William Wyler's, 1940, "The Westerner", starring Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan, and the Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Rita Hayworth's, 1941, "Blood and Sand".

According to Emily Temple, in a February 4, 2012, article on the website, "The Wayback Machine": 

Steinbeck wrote the following letter to 20th Century Fox:

New York
January 10, 1944

Dear Sirs:

I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro there was a Negro of dignity, purpose and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.

John Steinbeck

A month later, he sent this telegram to his agent, Annie Laurie Williams:

FEBRUARY 19, 1944



The studio ignored this request.

The role of "Seaman Joe Spencer", was portrayed by ex-boxer, jockey, and musician turned Shakespearian actor for Orson Welles,  Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata, stage name, Canada Lee. He was an activist for African-American rights during the 1930's and 1940's. Canada Lee was "Blacklisted" and was scheduled to appear before the "House Committee on Un-American Activity", but died suddenly at age 45, May 9, 1952.

"Life Boat" was followed with a request by John Steinbeck's friend Jack Wagner to assist him in creating a story for a feature film he wanted to write. Let me return my reader to Steinbeck's grammar school days in Salinas and his home, seen above with newer exterior colors, as we walk - - -
a block away, Steinbeck spent happy hours playing with the Wagner brothers, whose mother Edith, an aspiring writer in who Steinbeck confided his own ambition, provided material for Steinbeck's story "How Edith McGillicuddy Met R. L. S.". One brother was involved in the throwing of a roast beef through the glass door of city hall, an act attributed to Steinbeck, who recalled that "(Max) worked so hard and I got all the credit." Steinbeck and the Wagner boys eventually made their way to Hollywood - - -

The above is from the website, "STEINBECK NOW":


The "Wagner Boys", were Jack, Max, and the twins, Blake and Bob. According to the website "Hollywood Oblivion":

The Wagner family, though hardly royalty, nonetheless had a remarkable run in Hollywood from 1910 to 1975, working in front or behind the camera in nearly 800 films and television episodes. Known as the Wagner Boys, and to their intimates the Mexican Wagners because they grew up in Mexico, they had worked on most of the studio lots. They hardly qualified as a dynasty and their influence probably extended no further than the end of DeLongpre Avenue in the heart of Hollywood, where they lived in an enclave presided over by their mother, Edith. With the exception of perhaps Bob, a family man, the other boys – Jack, Blake and Max – were a hard-drinking and brawling bunch.

Below, on the left, Assistant Director Jack Wagner setting up shot of John Barrymore for 1926's, "The Sea Beast", the first American film version of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick".

Above, Blake on the far right, Bob is in center, with an unidentified man on far left setting up a puppet show in 1933. Below, John Steinbeck with Max, who was serving in North Africa in 1943.

The three "hard-hard-drinking and brawling bunch" were always joined by John Steinbeck when he was around. Which brings me to Jack Wagner and the motion picture, "A Medal for Benny", released on April 16, 1945. 

The newspaper publicity photo and caption above is misleading. It seems to imply that the story was written solely by John Steinbeck. The original story idea was Jack's and he asked John to help him improve it, but when the posters came out with the film's credits, they read:
From the story by JOHN STEINBECK and Jack Wagner

This was a touching story about the effect on the people of a small town. By the death of an unseen young man named "Benny Martin". Who had joined the army to avoid being jailed, was killed in action, and is to be awarded the "Congressional Medial of Honor". 

Both writers were nominated by the "Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences" for "Best Story".


John Steinbeck and Jack Wagner teamed-up for the motion picture that followed "A Medal for Benny". In 1947, John Steinbeck published his novella "The Pearl", about a poor Mexican pearl diver, "Kino", and his discovery of a large pearl. The story explored greed, the defiance of social norms, and evil.

Steinbeck was approached, through Howard Hughes' "RKO Pictures", to turn "The Pearl" into a co-production of Mexico and the United States with director, actor and co-writer Emilio Fernandez. Along with John and Jack, Emilio wrote a screenplay originally in Spanish, but translated into English. The result was the same screenplay being shot as two motion pictures. 

The original Spanish language version, "La Perla", was released in Mexico, on September 12, 1947, at a running time of 85-minutes.


The English language version, "The Pearl", was released in the United States on February 17, 1948, with a running time of 77-minutes. Note the tag line: "Filmed in English - - -in Mexico". 

Above, Pedro Armendariz portraying "Kino", and Maria Elena Marquez as his wife, "Juana".

Between 1933 and 1936, John Steinbeck published in different magazines, the first three-episodic-chapters of what became his episodic novel, 1937's, "The Red Pony". On March 29, 1949, the motion picture version was released.

The screenplay was written by John Steinbeck, but with changes to the two-episodes (chapters) he used from his novel. Names were changed, including the young boy, "Jody Tiflin", the focus of the stories, who became "Tom Tiflin". His parent's first names were changed from "Carl" and "Ruth", to "Fred" and "Alice". The real violence of life in the novel caused by and experienced by "Jody", was toned down to make this more of a "family film". 

Thirty-miles south west of Salinas is the California community of "Carmel by the Sea". In June 1949, John Steinbeck was relaxing and went into a local restaurant. He struck-up a conversation with a legitimate stage-manager, Elaine Anderson Scott, the wife of actor Zachary Scott, who was not there, but is seen below with Elaine.

John and Elaine would start a relationship that would turn into their marriage, one-week after Elaine's divorce to Zachary Scott became final.Their wedding date was December 28, 1950, and the two are seen together, below, in December 1950.


Two-years after this third marriage, which lasted until his death, John Steinbeck wrote an "Academy Award" nominated screenplay for director Elia Kazan's "VIVA ZAPATA", that premiered on February 7, 1952, in New York City.


By this motion picture, Elia Kazan had directed and won both the "Best  Director Academy Award", and "Golden Globe Award", for 1947's, "Gentleman's Agreement". The year before this feature, Kazan was nominated for the "Best Director Academy Award", the "Director's Guild of America Award", and won the "New York Film Critics Circle Award", for 1951's, "A Streetcar Named Desire". Yet, in all of the publicity and on the posters for "Viva Zapata", the tag line read:


On some of the posters, there was the added credit line, behind Elia Kazan's name as directed by, of, written by John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck did not originate the story for his screenplay, but used the 1941 novel, "Zapata, the Unconquerable", by Edgcumb Pinchon, as source material. It took me awhile to find out even the slimmest biographical material on Pinchon, and reading the following from the website, "AbeBooks", about another of his works. I can see why John Steinbeck might have been attracted to this author's historical fiction. .


Edgcum Pinchon (1883-1945) was born in England. He had a varied writing career as a Socialist journalist (in the 1910s), a novelist and biographer, and in the 1930s, a writer for Paramount Studios. His most famous book, which was made into a movie, was Viva Villa, about Pancho Villa. A NYTimes review describes Until I Find as a "story of boyhood adventure and conflict of soul, romantic gypsy inheritance at odds with a more staid temperament drawn from Anglo-Saxon forbears." The claim is made that Pinchon had gypsy blood himself, but perhaps that is Hollywood PR. In his thirties he was General Secretary of the International Workers Defense League of Los Angeles, a left-wing association interested in economic justice. He was convicted in August 1918 under the Espionage Act for helping to smuggle another man into Mexico to evade the draft, sent to McNeil Prison, Washington State, and paroled October 1918 (per the L.A. Herald and records on Ancestry). His first name is sometimes spelled Edgecomb. 

Note that I used a third-version of Pinchon's first name. 

Below, is a still from the "20th Century Fox" trailer for the motion picture. It reminds the potential audience of another motion picture made by the studio based upon a John Steinbeck novel.

Below, from the "Bauman Rare Books" website:



"Viva Zapata", was also the last time John Steinbeck wrote for the motion pictures. Although, several of his short stories became scripts by other writers for television anthology series and his three novels, 1945's, "Cannery Row", 1947's, "The Wayward Bus", and 1952's, "East of Eden",  became motion pictures with screenplays by other writers.

In1962, John Steinbeck, to harsh criticism from around the world including the United States, was awarded the "Nobel Prize for Literature". The citation stated that he received the prize for his: 

realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception

Part of his acceptance speech reads that:

the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.

For an example of the criticism over the award, I go to the website for the British newspaper, "The Guardian":


Giant of American letters John Steinbeck beat the British authors Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1962, according to newly opened archives in Sweden – but he was not a popular choice.

The Swedish Academy keeps secret for 50 years all information about the authors nominated for the Nobel, only releasing their shortlist for the 1962 prize yesterday. The names of 66 authors were put forward for the prize that year, with the shortlist consisting of Steinbeck, Graves, Durrell, French dramatist Jean Anouilh and Danish author Karen Blixen.

Although Steinbeck was praised by the committee "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception" when his win was announced, the newly declassified documents show he was actually chosen as the best of a bad lot.

In September 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson awarded John Steinbeck the "Presidential Medal of Freedom". 

In February 1966, JOHN STEINBECK CAME FULL CIRCLE, and with Elaine, the two visited Tel Aviv, Israel, and the site of "MOUNT HOPE"!

On December 20, 1968, John Ernest Steinbeck II died while in New York City. The following is a photo taken in 1955 by his friend, motion picture director,  Elia Kazan.


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