February 26, 1949
This is to remind you of our discussion about THE ISLE OF LOST SHIPS and to present my views on it for your consideration.
I believe that THE ISLE OF LOST SHIPS, which is owned by Warner Brothers, is one of the best screen stories of all time, and I want to urge you most enthusiastically to make a new, modern version of it.
This story has a real and extremely dramatic central conflict—the kind of idea that contains all the elements of a real plot. Such ideas are very rare, the best of writers do not hit upon them often, and this is one that any writer who understands plot construction, as I do, would give his eye-teeth to have invented.
A real dramatic plot is the one sure-fire element for a great popular success, in a novel, a stage play or a picture—most particularly in a picture. Few stories have a real plot; most of them have to be faked dramatically and, therefore, their success is a gamble; real plot ideas are the rarest and hardest of all to devise. When one does find such an idea, then it is priceless beyond calculation—artistically and financially—because its success is certain.
If you remember my advance predictions about the success of THE FOUNTAINHEAD, if you remember that I never had the slightest doubt or fear about its “intellectual” quality being “too much” for an audience, you may, I hope, be convinced now that I do know the secret of a picture’s success. Of course, a writer is not the only one responsible for a success on the screen. A picture has to have a good production, direction and cast. But these elements have a high degree of perfection in Hollywood—and most certainly in your pictures. These elements are a constant. It is your writers who let you down. And they do, because most of them have no idea of what constitutes a real plot structure.
Yet plot is the one absolute must in a story. Characterization, dialogue, mood and all the rest are only secondary “gravy.” They help and they have value only when based on a good plot. Without it—they are worthless. The plot of a movie is its motor. It is not an accident that people call pictures “vehicles” for stars. A vehicle has to move. A plotless story is like an expensive car with a wonderful body design, luxurious seats, upholstery, headlights (production, direction, cast)—and no motor under its hood. That is why it gets nowhere.
I think I was probably the least surprised person at our preview of THE FOUNTAINHEAD—the least surprised by the wonderful reaction of the audience and the fact that they behaved as if we held them on strings. We did. They simply reacted as I intended them to react; it was in the script—and God bless you for the magnificent way in which you carried it out! I am not boasting or taking sole credit. I only want to convince you (if you are not fully convinced, although I hope you are) that I knew, foresaw and planned that audience reaction in advance—and my only fear was of any tampering with the script, which would have destroyed it. I did not write that script by guesswork or “inspiration.” I gave the cast a chance to hold the audience bridled—by conscious, deliberate, calculated intention. The secret of it was plot structure. I am not an “artist”—I am an engineer.
Can you imagine what would happen to an automobile factory, if its motor designers had to guess whether a motor would run or not? If they had to find it out only after a car was made? Yet that is precisely the way in which most writers approach script writing in Hollywood. They have no plot sense—and a writer without a plot sense is like a blind cameraman. I am not the only writer in Hollywood who does know plot—but I am one of the very, very few.
Well, this is a long introduction in order to tell you what an exceptional plot value you have in THE ISLE OF LOST SHIPS. If this story is given your kind of beautiful production—I will go on record, here, on paper, to predict that it will be a multimillion dollar hit.
This story has the same elements of appeal as THE FOUNTAINHEAD. No, not literally the same in specific surface detail, but the same in general principle—and that’s what counts. It is not “realistic” (the audiences are sick of sordid realism), it belongs to my school and style of writing—romanticism. It is not a story of trite, homey, “every day” people and events (and are audiences sick of that!)—it is a story of strong, unusual characters in unusual, exciting events and in a real, dramatic conflict. Its sex angle is,
in spirit, exactly the Roark-Dominique romance—sex through antagonism, the love story of a society girl and a convict. Of all forms of romance, this is the most powerful one and the sure-fire one. This form is difficult to write—that is why we don’t see it often on the screen nowadays. But the audiences are starved for it. People are sick of the lukewarm, sentimental, “mushy” treatment of most love stories on the screen. That is why they now laugh at love scenes. Observe that they did not laugh at our “rape” scene. The time is right for a real, strong sex story. But few stories have the elements needed for it. THE ISLE OF LOST SHIPS has them all. As a sex story, it’s tops.
I saw the silent version of THE ISLE OF LOST SHIPS (with Milton Sills and Anna Q. Nielsen) when I was a child in Europe, and I have never been able to forget it. It was a tremendous hit and I remember the delighted excitement with which everybody talked about it. A good story is timeless. It cannot be dated. Its essential appeal will always remain the same. One merely has to modernize the surface details, such as the dialogue. A good story is like a beautiful body. A beautiful body is beautiful to any audience in any day, age or century; the only thing that changes is the fashion in clothing. THE ISLE OF LOST SHIPS needs a writer to modernize its clothing, which is its treatment, technical details and dialogue. The body is there.
Needless to say, I am most eager to be that writer. This is the kind of story I love and can do well. I will not be available for screen work for about a year, not until I finish the novel which I am now writing. But if you decide to make this story and if we can agree on its treatment and on other conditions, as I think we can, I would be delighted to undertake the job when I am free.
As a warning and for the record (and not just in order to cinch the job for myself), I must say that I cannot guarantee any of the predictions I make here about the success of this story—if you entrust it to a writer who is not a plot specialist. I dread to think what he would do to it. In fact, I would predict a disastrous flop, almost for certain. It is the lesser, the medium kind of story that can survive a bad script treatment. A good story cannot.
But if this story is made as I see it, as a great romantic drama, I will guarantee another audience reaction such as we had in Huntington Park. I am so sure of it that I would back my judgment even in material terms, if the studio wanted me to—I would take a percentage of the picture in place of any payment for the script. I don’t mean to say that I want
or would ask a percentage—I merely mean that if the studio wanted me to, I would do this as proof of how sure I am of what I am saying.
With all my love and gratitude to you for the past—and with great hopes for the future,
There is no record of Blanke’s response. The 1923 silent film that AR discusses had been remade as a 1929 sound movie, but has not been remade since.