Fellow Passengers: Moffat and Steinbeck
Born this day in Havana, Cuba, British screenwriter Ivan Moffat (1918-2002) is best remembered through his long association with producer-director George Stevens, assisting the Hollywood icon on his formidable films I Remember Mama (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953). In his earlier years growing up in London and coming from a privileged show business background (he was the grandson of legendary actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree), he entered the British film industry during World War II aiming to make documentaries that chronicled the British war efforts. He subsequently joined the U.S. Signal Corps, which brought him to Stevens’ attention – and then to Hollywood. Stevens was a staunch friend to Moffat during a brief period when, due to his earlier membership in the Communist party, he was blacklisted. That supportive friendship led to exoneration and a particularly prolific mid-1950s period, when he co-wrote the screenplays for Bhowani Junction (1956), D-Day the Sixth of June (1956), Boy on a Dolphin (1957) and his most famous gig, collaborating with Fred Guiol on the Oscar®-nominated screenplay of Stevens’ massive Edna Ferber adaptation Giant (1956). His next project, which had kicked around Twentieth Century Fox for a few years and which led to his first solo writing credit, was an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1947 novel The Wayward Bus (1957). When the film rights were originally secured, it was reported that Moffat’s mentor Stevens would direct and William Saroyan would do the adaptation. Three years later, as AFI.com notes in its catalog listing, Variety noted that Fox bought the rights and “Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Susan Hayward and Gene Tierney were considered for leads in the film, and Henry Hathaway was to direct.” By 1956, it evolved into a quirky and affecting showcase for two freshly burnished Fox contract stars, Joan Collins and Jayne Mansfield, acting alongside long-time Fox stalwart veteran Dan Dailey and up-and-coming talents Rick Jason and Dolores Michaels, with the esteemed Charles Brackett producing and Russian-born filmmaker Victor Vicas directing (one of only two Hollywood movies Vicas would make, the other being Fox’s wartime thriller of that same year, Count Five and Die). Moffat’s skilled adaptation of Steinbeck’s intriguing road tale of a motley crew of travelers on a motorbus making the treacherous drive in storm-tossed rural California offered fine opportunities to Collins, downplaying her signature glamour as the frustrated wife of the bus’s roving-eyed driver (Rick Jason), and Mansfield, playing a good-hearted party girl whose search for something better may improbably lie with a fellow passenger, a world-weary salesman (Dailey) looking to settle down. It becomes – with an assist by Charles G. Clarke’s gorgeous black-and-white Cinemascope cinematography – the ride of their lives as they encounter drenching rain, floodwaters and a rockslide. And, in Moffat’s preservation of Steinbeck’s themes, it also may lead to the salvation of their battered souls. Moffat’s subsequent solo screenwriting credit five years later, the 1962 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, also dealt with storm-tossed romantics. Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray excursion of The Wayward Bus, featuring an incisive Audio Commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, is worth booking.