Fortune. Scandal. Romance. Debauchery. Together, they seem like the perfect ingredients for a surefire box office hit.
No wonder Robert Wilder’s 1946 novel Written on the Wind was selected by Universal International Pictures for its racy plot-line that loosely depicts elements of Zachary Smith Reynolds’ marriage to Libby Holman and suspicions surrounding his suicide. Wilder’s novel was reviewed previously on the blog here. Reynolds’ life and his relationship with Holman also inspired another, earlier musical from 1935 entitled Reckless, which starred Jean Harlow.
The screenplay, which was not adapted by Wilder, revised three key components. All of the characters’ names change. The family tobacco fortune transformed into oil in the film. And, perhaps most significantly, the setting is relocated from North Carolina to Texas. The core focus of the story remains intact — two self-indulgent and self-destructive siblings, a disappointed father, and complicated romantic attractions — and there are many similarities between the two versions, but there are also noticeable absent or altered details.
In the translation from page to screen, Laura Whitfield’s character (mother of Ann-Charlotte and Cary) was lost. Marylee and Kyle’s mother isn’t present. Additionally, Lilith/Lucy is recast from actress to secretary. Despite the change, her character serves the same purpose. The deaths of Cassius/Jasper are different in style, but related in their connection to their daughters. And the endings, novel versus film, are quite different.
The film adaptation, directed by Douglas Sirk, starred Hollywood heavy-hitters like Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall, as well as Dorothy Malone, Robert Stack and Robert Keith. German director Douglas Sirk worked on eight films with Rock Hudson and was known for his melodramas and use of vibrant colors. Written on the Wind was filmed in lush, bright Technicolor and is noted for its artificial appearance and flamboyant performances. Although he reached great commercial success during his career, Sirk only gained greater critical appreciation two decades later, during the 1970s. Written on the Wind was nominated for three Academy Awards and one Golden Globe. Dorothy Malone won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Marylee, the sultry daughter of an oil tycoon.
The trailer from TCM, shown above, includes a variation on the quote that appears at the beginning of Wilder’s novel. Where the original quote says “What a man tells a woman and a woman tells a man should be written on the wind,” the quote in the trailer is a total reversal, “What a woman tells a man… What a man tells a woman… Are words — Too often Written on the Wind.”
To read more about the film, consult Peter William Evans’ analysis, which is available through the UNC-Chapel Hill Library catalog, or read Wilder’s original novel, which is likewise available through the UNC-Chapel Hill Library Catalog. Criterion re-released the film in 2001. Robert Wilder’s novel, however, is currently out-of-print.