Kenneth MacGowan was a film producer and director whose credits include Little Women (1933) and Anne of Green Gables (1934). In 1947, he became chairman of the UCLA theater department, where the theater is named for him.
May 18, 1934.
Mr. Kenneth MacGowan,
Dear Mr. MacGowan,
Having heard that you are interested in my story—“RED PAWN”—I am taking the liberty of writing to you a few words in connection with it. There are a few ideas which I had in mind when I wrote that story and I have been very anxious to express them to someone in a position to understand them. It is not so much in regard to the value of the story itself, as to a certain new theory of mine about motion pictures, which this story exemplifies and which, I believe, would be valuable and worth trying out.
In brief, my theory relates to making motion pictures appeal to all types of audiences. I know that it has been tried. I know also that it has not been tried successfully.
We have all heard a great deal about the fact that motion pictures in their present form do not appeal, as a rule, to the higher or so-called intellectual type of audiences. Without a doubt, there is a large and valuable public which does not patronize motion pictures at present, for we must admit that few pictures have, or intend to have, any intellectual appeal. On the other hand, the majority of so-called purely “artistic” films have been inexcusably dull. The unfortunate opinion is still prevalent that to be artistic a picture has to be so vague and plotless as to become insufferable even to the highest of audiences. I am firmly convinced that no amount of the best acting, directorial “touches” and camera work alone will ever hold anyone.
There is only one common denominator which can be understood and enjoyed by all men, from the dullest to the most intelligent, and that is plot. Everybody goes into a theatre to enjoy primarily what they are going to see and not how it is going to be presented to them. If they are not interested in what they see, they do not care how it is shown. The best manner of presenting nothing still makes it remain nothing.
That much is not new. The novelty of what I propose to do—and I believe it is a novelty, for I have never seen it done deliberately—consists in the following: in building the plot of a story in such a manner that it possesses tiers or layers of depth, so that each type of audience can understand and enjoy only as much of it as it wants to understand and enjoy,
in other words so that each man can get out of it only as much as he can put into it. This must be done in such a manner that one and the same story can stand as a story without any of its deeper implications, so that those who do not care to be, will not be burdened with any intellectual or artistic angles, and yet those who do care for them will get those angles looking at exactly the same material.
If the plot of a story is simple and understandable enough to be interesting, alone, by itself, to even the lowest type of mentality, if it has the plain elements that can appeal to all, and if, at the same time, that plot carries a deeper meaning, a significance which can be reached only by the highest, then the problem is solved. I must emphasize once more that it is not merely a matter of a plain story—for the sake of the “lowbrow”—artistically presented for the sake of the “highbrow”. It is a matter of the plot, the story, the very meat of the film arranged ingeniously enough to satisfy both. Is there any reason why a story cannot be built in such a way that it is convincing and interesting to those who cannot analyze it and yet just as convincing to those who can?
Let me illustrate just exactly what I mean on the example of “RED PAWN”. If you recall its plot, it is, on first glance, merely the story of a woman who comes, at the price of a great sacrifice, to rescue her husband from a life sentence in prison and of her worst enemy’s great, unhappy love for her. There is nothing very intellectual or difficult to understand about that. All the incidents of the plot are motivated by reasons and emotions which are common and sympathetic to all men. It does not require a great deal of intellectual effort to be held by the suspense, first, of the woman’s mystery, then of her growing predicament, then of her solution of the problem. Those who cannot go any further will be held merely by these physical facts of the plot as it develops, merely by the most primitive suspense of the story, by the quality they would enjoy in a plain serial.
But those who can see further, will have before them the spectacle of a rather unusual emotional crisis involving the three characters of the story, and the picture of a life and conditions which they have not seen very often.
Those who want to go still further, will see the philosophical problem of the main figure in the story—the Commandant of the prison island—, the clash of his belief in a stern duty above all with the belief in a right to the joy of living above all, as exemplified in the woman. And this clash is not merely a matter of details and dialogue. It is an inseparable part of the very basic plot itself.
As a rule, a consideration such as this last one would be enough to kill the chances of a story right then and there and to frighten everyone away from it. It does sound odd, to say the least, an attempt at philosophy in a motion picture. But if that philosophy is there only for those who want it, if it
does not intrude for a single moment to bore those who do not care for any thinking in their entertainment, if the story is still there, intact, unchanged, for those who will never suspect any breath of thought in it, then it can only add to the ranks of people enjoying the picture a vast, untouched, unsuspected number of men who do ask something besides puns and seduced virgins from their entertainment, those countless people who have been, so far, neglected and forgotten by the movie world. This higher type of public may not be as numerous as the average kind, and I admit that one could not make pictures for their tastes alone. But if a picture can be made to satisfy them as well as the average audience, well then, why not?
Most pictures have some kind of an idea behind them. Only, usually, the idea is inferior even to the plot. But if we can make a plot for everyone and an idea for the “highbrows”—well, again, why not?
Such is my theory of building a story in “tiers”. It is, in a way, the same principle as that of an airplane carried by three motors. If two of them fail, the third one is still enough to carry the plane safely. But how much safer the plane is, starting out with the three! As a matter of fact, in the example in question, I am more than sure that neither of the three motors would fail.
This is a principle which I have applied to every story I have written so far, but I have never developed it as plainly and obviously and, if I may say so, as skillfully, as in “RED PAWN”. Also, I’ve never had a chance to attempt to explain my theory to anyone, as I have done it here. I have no doubt that it will work. No doubt, but also no proof, for I have not seen it tried yet. It is my anxiety to see it tried which prompted me to write this letter. It is, of course, difficult to have any new theory tried, for there is always an element of chance in the attempt. But in this case, it occurs to me that there is hardly any chance at all, for disregarding all my considerations, the story, I believe, is good enough to stand on its own just as any movie. It can go on, as all pictures, with just the one motor. What the other two motors, which it carries, will do—that is what the experiment will show.
I have not the slightest doubt that this story will be made eventually, and that it will be one of the greatest hits ever made, and that it will give an entirely new field to motion pictures. I do not say it merely because it is my story, for I would not dare to say it about all the things I’ve written. But I have such faith in this one, that I am willing to stand any accusations of presumptuousness, arrogance or bad taste for making this statement.
I have no doubt that this story will be made. But it is only natural that I would like to see it made soon.
I must apologize for something that does approach bad taste in writing to you all this which may sound merely as an involved “sales talk” in favor of my story. In a way, of
course, it is a sales talk. But I intended it to be and have tried to make it more than just that. It is not a sales talk for a story, but for a story and for an idea. If you find that the story lives up to the idea, so much the better. If not—perhaps the idea itself may be of value to you.
And, speaking for a moment of the story alone, I would like to bring to your attention one fact which may, but should not, be considered against the story. It is the political angle, the fact that it may be considered as anti-Soviet and thus, perhaps, unsuitable for production at the present moment. I would like to say that it is not a political story. The fact that it is led on a prison island could offend the Soviet government no more than pictures of Devil’s Island offended the French government, and such pictures have been made successfully. All the political implications can be softened or removed from the story entirely. And, if even then there remain doubts on the subject, the story can be transferred to any other island in any other country or part of the globe. For the story, essentially, is neither Russian nor political.
Needless to say, I would be only too happy to see my story in your hands and to see you make it. But if you will find that impossible, I hope that you will forgive me for taking your time with this lengthy communication and allow me to thank you for granting it your attention.
1750 N. Serrano Ave.
There is no reply from MacGowan in the Ayn Rand Archives. AR’s synopsis of Red Pawn, edited by her into novelette form, was reprinted in The Early Ayn Rand. Neither her sixty-page treatment nor her complete screenplay has been published, nor has a movie been made.