Obituary: Wells Root
Saturday 10 April 1993
IN THE 1950s the University of Southern California asked the veteran screenwriter Wells Root to teach Film and Television Writing Technique for a term. Twenty years later he was still teaching it, his course having become legendary.
Root brought a wealth of experience to his classes; he had been writing since childhood and had edited the college magazine at Yale. After graduation he worked in various capacities on the Pulitzer newspaper the New York World, after which he joined the staff of a fledgling news weekly called Time. In its early days the magazine operated on a shoestring, and Root was in charge of four departments: aviation, sports, theatre and cinema. Eventually he became an associate editor, but was wooed away from Time and New York by Hollywood and the new talkies. It was 1928 and the studios badly needed people who could write dialogue that wasn't unspeakable.
His first film was a part-talkie called Varsity. Root set the story at Yale, but his Alma Mater refused to allow its name to be associated with such a trifle, and the setting was changed to Princeton. The film's one hold on immortality is its desperate theme song, 'My Varsity Girl, I'll Cling to You'.
He worked on Bird of Paradise (1932, Dolores Del Rio jumping into a volcano) and I Cover the Waterfront (1933, United Artists advertised it as 'a story of greed, fear, murder and human contraband]').
A Wells Root screenplay was constructed to stand the test of time; his 1932 script Tiger Shark (which starred Edward G. Robinson as an obsessively jealous tuna fisherman) became the basis of many Warner Bros films, including Manpower (1941), in which Robinson plays an obsessively jealous power lineman. The screenplay Root co-wrote for the 1937 Ronald Colman vehicle The Prisoner of Zenda was durable too; it was used almost word-for-word, shot-for-shot in the Stewart Granger remake 15 years later.
In the mid-1930s, Root's career began to suffer because of his involvement with the Screen Writers Guild, the formation of which was bitterly opposed by the anti-union studios. For over a decade, good filmwriting assignments played hard to get. He wrote potboilers for Wallace Beery, wrote the worthy but dullish biopic Tennessee Johnson (1943), even directed a couple of minor movies.
In the 1950s Root turned to television, turning out more than 70 scripts for such series as General Electric Theatre, Maverick and Cheyenne. After more than a decade spent teaching his UCLA students the cliches to eschew, he concocted a screen story that spoofed many of them. In his western Texas Across the River (1966), an Indian raid is punctuated by a stock shot of the same brave being shot and failing off his horse.
In 1979 Root wrote Writing the Script - a practical guide for films and television, a book combining '30 years of professional writing with a thousand nights of teaching'. His book was at pains to emphasise the truth behind the old 'inspiration/perspiration' maxim.
'Most successful professional writers,' Root told his readers, 'report to work soon after breakfast and quit around sundown to go home to dinner. Like ditch diggers.'
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