Effective screenplay writing is a distinctly different skill than the craft required to compose novels and stories. No one understood this better than the late William (Bill) Bowers, who was among the elite screenwriters and script polishers in Hollywood for many years. According to Bill, in a 1980 interview with Jean W. Ross, heralded novelists including F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, never could write good screenplays on their own because of an inability to, “….to visualize things, to imagine how it was going to play”. He added, “They never had to confront that in writing novels.”
Bowers’ work has been on display at the 8th Annual Festival of Film Noir with the epochal Pitfall (1948), last evening with The Mob (1951) and closing the festival next Wednesday with Abandoned (1949). Bill’s best work was characterized by witty, biting and often dyspeptic dialogue. His prose proved to be a perfect match for the obsessive motif of film noir with a distinguished and lengthy resume of dark films: The Web (1946), Larceny (1948), Criss Cross (1949), Convicted (1950), the wonderful Cry Danger (1951), Split Second (1953), Five Against the House (1955), Tight Spot (1955). Watching The Mob last night, I was struck that the most entertaining segments of the picture were several smart-assed exchanges between the tough-as-mails Brod Crawford playing an undercover copper and a basset-eyed Jay Adler as a lowly waterfront hotel clerk. These choice bits were always a Bowers specialty.
Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1916, Bill attended the University of Missouri journalism school and got a day job with UPI. He wrote and produced a play based on his fraternity house, “Where Do We Go From Here” in California. When Oscar Hammerstein took the play to New York for pennies – some of the cast hitchhiked to New York – Bill became the only screenwriter signed by RKO who had a play running on Broadway.
Bill quickly became one of the most sought after dialogue writers and script doctors in Hollywood. His wit and style graced westerns and comedies as well as noir. His official legacy includes an Oscar nomination for The Gunfighter (1950): “The whole thing took place in a saloon. I could have written it as a play and I don’t know why I didn’t.” along with the uproarious Support Your Local Sheriff (1971). Many of Bill’s credits continue to fly under the radar such as wonderfully satiric Let’s Live Again (1947). I recently discovered that Bill performed considerable work on one of my favorite films, Criss Cross (1949) and after a review of the film’s production files, did my small part for posterity by submitting a correction to IMdB to reflect his contributions.
Bill Bowers was a fulsome character who loved life, enjoyed taking a drink and was devoted to his family. Bowers still has many friends around the industry (Dick Erdman, Francis Coppola among others) who remember him fondly. It was sweet to see the Bowers clan, led by wife Marjorie and sons Tony, Andy and daughter Amanda, along with their friends attend last night’s screening en masse to appreciate Bill’s work and revere his memory.
I attended a screening of Abandoned four years ago where the late director Joseph Newman was asked about the terrific dialogue in the film (one memorable line in the picture has Dennis O’Keefe responding to Raymond Burr’s disclaimer about turning honest: “You going legitimate is like a vulture going vegetarian.”).
Newman responded, “Well, when you have Bill Bowers working for you, you have the best, so naturally the dialogue was terrific.”