Behind the Screenplay

Behind the Screenplay
documents what went on behind the scenes in the writing of the 1944 Warner Bros. feature film, “The Adventures of Mark Twain,” starring Frederic March. The central figures are playwright and aspiring screenwriter Harold M. Sherman, legendary Hollywood producer Jesse L. Lasky, and Mark Twain’s only surviving daughter, Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch.

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In the mid-1930s, Harold Sherman (1898-1987) wrote a stage play, “Mark Twain.” He submitted it to the Mark Twain Estate which, in 1936, granted him exclusive dramatic rights for stage, screen and radio, for a limited period. The play was quickly sold to a successful Broadway producer, Harry Moses, but Moses’s terminal illness forced the play to revert back to Sherman, whose rights were extended.

Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch (1874-1962) wrote Sherman that she enjoyed reading his play “enormously,” and after she and Sherman exchanged a few letters about the work, they, together with Sherman’s wife, Martha, discovered a shared interest in spiritual matters. A close friendship developed among the three. From 1936 to 1939, as their correspondence shows, Sherman continued to try to get his play produced on Broadway first, but with times being hard finally agreed on a sale to Hollywood.

Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958) was a Hollywood pioneer and founder of Paramount Studios. By 1939 he had become an independent producer whose main interest was biographies of great Americans. The life of Mark Twain was a natural, and Lasky negotiated a purchase for the movie rights, the percentages divided between the Twain Estate and Sherman, as Lasky was obliged to include Sherman’s play in the deal. In addition, Lasky hired Sherman to write the preliminary movie treatment for shopping the film around to major studios.

This book shows how Jesse Lasky worked with the ambitious but inexperienced Sherman; how Sherman had to swallow his pride when Lasky replaced him with big-name Hollywood writers; how the Sherman-Gabrilowitsch friendship disintegrated as Clara’s dissatisfaction with the contracts and the final script led her to file suit against the trustees of her own estate; and how the Laskys - Jesse and Bessie - and the Shermans grew to be personal friends while maintaining a professional distance. It is a small piece of “behind the scenes” Hollywood history.
--Saskia Block
Compiler and Editor

Visit Harold Sherman's Official Website

Jesse L. Lasky with the star, Frederic March, during shooting

The Sherman family en route to California in 1942: Martha, Marcia, Mary and Harold

Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch

Bessie Lasky in her studio