Ben Mankiewicz Interviews Herman Mankiewicz—A What If
Renowned as the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane (1941) celebrates its 80th anniversary this month with a special run in theaters Sunday, September 19 and Wednesday, September 22 presented by TCM Big Screen Classics. In advance of the Citizen Kane screening, this week TCM host Ben Mankiewicz offered his perspective on the film that awarded his grandfather Herman Mankiewicz, along with Orson Welles, the 1942 Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay.
Imagine if as TCM host Ben Mankiewicz could interview his grandfather Herman Mankiewicz. What would he ask? Well, Classic Couple asked Ben just that.
Regarding his grandfather Herman Mankiewicz and uncle Joe Mankiewicz, both Hollywood screenwriters, Ben says, “Both Herman and Joe had this struggle that what they were doing wasn’t good enough. If they had written plays, that would have been good. If they had written a novel of substance, that would have mattered. Theater critic—that would have mattered.”
Ben continues, “But writing these silly movies for the masses, these popcorn fillers, Herman took that, internalized it and thought it sort of made his life worthless. I am sure I would ask him questions about if he still thought that and why he thought that.”
Ben conveyed that Herman’s idea that what he was doing wasn’t worthwhile clearly came from his father Franz Mankiewicz, a professor and a strict disciplinarian. “We have his portrait, that my brother Joe had for a long time, now hanging in our house again,” he explains, “We just hung it up this week, and it looks like he’s just staring at you and disapproving. He just follows you: ‘I wouldn’t do that now. That seems like a waste of time, don’t you think?’”
And so, Ben says he would ask his grandfather Herman, “Are you finally able to recognize that what you’ve done is worthwhile? And why do you hate it so much? It would probably be a terribly boring interview, but we’d spend a long time talking about his dad.”
Herman Mankiewicz was a prolific screenwriter, often uncredited as a contributor writing everything from titles to dialogue across an astounding number of films spanning the 1920s-1940s. Among the screenplays he wrote or worked on, besides Citizen Kane, were The Wizard of Oz, Man of the World, Dinner at Eight, Pride of the Yankees, The Enchanted Cottage and scores of others.
He was also notorious for getting fired by the Hollywood studios, a topic Ben would like to probe asking Herman, “How do you manage to reconcile how you loathe and resent authority and keep a job in a world where these authority figures are the only ones who are going to hire you?”
Ben continues, “Herman got fired again and again and again. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. There is this great story that is such a great story that it can’t be true. But the story is that Herman was hired to write The Spanish Main and they had this big end to The Spanish Main where we would see the ship sunk. That scene was going to cost a lot. The studio decided you know what, we’re not going to write about it, just talk about it and say it caught fire and sank. And Herman said that was outrageous. Truly, they were just going to fire him and hire someone else to write the last scene. So, what was his point? What was his win? But he couldn’t get out of his own way.”
Oscar Lore Moment: So, what happened to the 1942 Oscar Herman Mankiewicz won, along with Orson Welles, for Best Writing, Original Screenplay for Citizen Kane? Ben Mankiewicz recounts.
“My father had the Oscar for years. It was so much to insure, that he put it in a safe deposit box. Someone in the family needed money and my dad sold the Oscar at auction so he could give some of the money to someone who needed it. My dad was very generous and didn’t care about money. Herman was too; he was always borrowing money and then lending it simultaneously. I wish we still had the Oscar, but it’s a slippery slope with memorabilia.”
What does Ben think Herman would think of his grandson as host of TCM? Ben imagines a conversation between his dad and Herman going something like this:
“My dad would say to Herman that they were paying me to talk about these movies.
Herman would be like, ‘So he just talks about the other people’s movies, and they pay him? That’s fantastic! That’s very good—well done! I mean, it’s worthless, but well done!”
What would Ben say to his grandfather given the chance? “I want go back in time and tell my grandfather, stop wallowing you moron. What you are doing is great. This is art,” Ben says, “But he did not see it that way. And that’s really to me the tragedy.”