Alan LeMay

Active - 1940 - 1956  |   Born - Jan 3, 1899   |   Died - Apr 27, 1964   |   Genres - Western, Action, Adventure, Drama

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Alan LeMay was one of a relative handful of published authors -- Richard Brooks, Niven Busch, and James Edward Grant are others in the same -- who found a permanent and highly lucrative home in Hollywood, and, who also made further contributions to movies as a producer and director. LeMay was born in Indianapolis, IN, in 1899, and attended Stetson University in Florida and the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in 1922. He went into ranching in California, but the economic upheavals of the '30s forced him into bankruptcy. Luckily, he had his literary career to fall back on, which eventually led him to Hollywood. He began writing fiction during the '20s, generating a novel each year for more than a decade. Although he was born in the Midwest and educated in Florida and Chicago, most of LeMay's writing and a large portion of his screenplays would be set in Texas. His fiction included Painted Ponies (1927), Old Father of the Waters (1928), Pelican Coast (1929), One of Us Is a Murderer (1930), Bug Eye (1931), Gunsight Trail (1931), Winter Range (1932), Cattle Kingdom (1933), Thunder in the Dust (1934), The Smokey Years (1935), Deep Water Island (1936), and Empire for a Lady (1937).

It was in 1940 that Hollywood beckoned, and LeMay was soon working at Paramount as a specialist in adventure stories. He was assigned right from the starting gate to co-author the screenplay for Cecil B. DeMille's epic Northwest Mounted Police (1940), a sprawling story of conflict on the Canadian frontier. He followed up a year later with work on Reap the Wild Wind (1941), a two-fisted adventure tale set in the early days of the American republic which was also produced and directed by DeMille. LeMay completed his hat trick for the legendary filmmaker in 1944 with co-authorship of the screenplay for the topical World War II drama The Story of Dr. Wassell. That same year, LeMay also co-wrote the screenplay for The Adventures of Mark Twain, produced by Jesse L. Lasky at Warner Bros. with Irving Rapper directing. Apart from his occasional shift into historical biographies, most of LeMay's writing and screenplays were rooted in fiction and focused upon self-motivated loner heroes, whose most obvious loyalties seldom extended far beyond family and their very closest friends, and often took some violent and perverse turns along the way. Another fixture in many of his scripts was the presence of tempestuous, independent-minded women who frequently challenged the men around them in such areas as fighting prowess, marksmanship, or authority.

LeMay resumed writing fiction in 1943 with Useless Cowboy, the screen rights to which were picked up by Cinema Artists Corporation with Gary Cooper starring and produced the resulting movie Along Came Jones (1945). Nunnally Johnson's script walked a fine line between comedy and melodrama, and the resulting movie was a good deal lighter in texture and tone, as well as shorter than the films that LeMay himself had written to date. This soon changed as LeMay began writing a short string of more modestly proportioned Westerns for Warner Bros., none of which were terribly distinguished cinematically, although one of them, San Antonio (1945) (co-written with W.R. Burnett), did star Errol Flynn and offered the novel denouement of a shootout in the deserted Alamo. After 1948, LeMay made the rounds of the major studios, writing the screenplay for Tap Roots at Universal and The Walking Hills (1949) at Columbia. At the close of the '40s, LeMay formed a film company of his own, Arfran Productions, with director George Templeton. This gave him the opportunity to direct the psychological Western drama High Lonesome (1950) and to do some directing for Eagle Lion Films. From his own screenplay starring John Drew Barrymore, he also adapted one of his novels, Thunder in the Dust, into The Sundowners (1950) (also at Eagle Lion), a drama of deadly sibling rivalry on the frontier, co-starring Barrymore and directed by Templeton. He was back at Warner Bros. that same year for Rocky Mountain (another Errol Flynn vehicle) and wrote the screenplay for Quebec, a historical drama dealing with the province's rebellion against British rule, starring Barrymore and directed by Templeton at Paramount. LeMay returned to the field of historical biographies with I Dream of Jeannie (1952), based on the life of Stephen Foster and, that same year, worked on Raoul Walsh's colorful and somewhat fact-based swashbuckler Blackbeard the Pirate. A year later, he turned up as the screenwriter for Flight Nurse, directed by Allan Dwan.

The mid-'50s saw LeMay back in Westerns again, writing the script for Republic Pictures' release of The Vanishing American (1955), a remake of the 1926 silent Paramount hit directed by Joseph Kane. LeMay's big success during this period, however, was with his novel The Searchers (1954), a tale of one family during a tragic interaction between whites and Native Americans on the Texas frontier in the 1860s. The rights to the novel were purchased by John Ford and Warner Bros., and the story was transformed by Frank Nugent into one of the best screenplays that Ford ever had to work with. The resulting film, though not perfectly true to LeMay's book, is generally regarded as the best of Ford's late films and a high point of his career. Two years after The Searchers, LeMay published The Siege at Dancing Bird, which was later retitled The Unforgiven. The rights to that novel (which essentially told the story of the preceding novel in reverse) were purchased by John Huston and he turned it into one of his very best films, The Unforgiven (1960), starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn. LeMay published one more novel, By Dim and Flaring Lamps (1962), but by the late '60s, his bleak, lonely vision of the West had been squeezed out by the more violent sensibilities of the Italian-made Spaghetti Westerns and the growing liberalism of audiences. Alan LeMay died in 1964 after an extended illness, and in the decades since, has been largely forgotten apart from his authorship of the source novels for The Searchers and The Unforgiven.

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