Something for the Birds

I finally got a copy of the movie, which was based in part on a story by Alvin Josephy, and stars Victor Mature as a Washington D.C. lobbyist and Patricia Neal as a bird lover on a mission to save California’s giant condors. The movie is nicely done—I particularly liked the old guy who passes himself off as a retired admiral and goes to all the big parties and receptions in town. In fact he works in a print shop that does fancy invitations, and, over time, follows the invitations he engraves to the parties. And of course becomes the lovable yentl in the romance between the lobbyist and the bird lover.

But the title and the movie say it all as far as Alvin and Hollywood are concerned. At least that is what I gather from recollected conversations and what he wrote about Hollywood in A Walk Toward Oregon. After the War, he had come to Hollywood thinking that there was room to write real movies about the war he and other writers had been through and the problems people were dealing with across the country. He was especially excited about a story he had picked up in the New York Times about black and white farmers working to reclaim depleted Georgia cotton land. There was initial enthusiasm for “Red Clay.” Alvin was sent to Georgia to do research and a co-writer and producer were assigned, but in the end, the story was deemed “not commercial enough” and abandoned. “Hollywood hokum,” he dubbed Hollywood movie moguls’ tastes.

Back to the birds! Alvin’s original story about the condors was called “Condors Don’t Pay Taxes,” because that was the argument used by the oil companies and their lobbyists who were trying to open condor nesting grounds to oil exploration. Alvin’s story detailed the work of a University of California scientist who found that the big birds tended one egg every two years and were very sensitive to human incursion. The movie skimmed the science and concentrated on the counterfeit admiral and the love story.

Alvin pointedly was not the screen writer on this one. And I have to think that his flirtations with fiction—the book novel and the screen plays—were frustrating not because they were fiction, but because they failed to get at the truths that the best fiction attends. His own attempt at a war novel, which Knopf was very interested in its first stages, became “too personal” when his first marriage became a war casualty. Later, he would say that fiction writers Bill Kittredge, Ivan Doig, Craig Lesley and others were giving us truths of Western history that the text books were missing.

I know too that he was proud of his work as an advisor on “Little Big Man”—one of the first screen portrayals to honor the Indian point of view, he said—and that he enjoyed working on documentaries with Ken and Ric Burns and others.  Knowing the power and pervasiveness of visual media, I think that Alvin might have been a documentarian in today’s world.

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