Before “Mank”: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Man of The Theater: Witty Critic, Obituary Writer, Playwright, Performer

“Mank,” the new film on Netflix by David Fincher focuses on Herman J. Mankiewicz, drunk and laid up after a car accident, writing the screenplay for “Citizen Kane,” one of the most lauded films in the history of cinema.

“Mank” makes clear that the screenwriter (portrayed by Gary Oldman), was an old hand in Hollywood by then, and he was; starting at the age of 29, Mankiewicz is said to have had a hand in more than 80 movies as a producer, writer or script doctor, including several of the Marx Brothers’ films, and “The Wizard of Oz” (uncredited.)  But before that, he was a playwright, a foreign correspondent…and a critic. From 1923 until he left for Hollywood in 1926, Herman J. Mankiewicz (1897-1953) wrote about theater first for the New York Times, then as the first theater critic for the New Yorker.

Here he is writing the obituary of grand theater actress Eleanora Duse on April 27, 1924

“Last Monday morning, fighting to the end, Eleanora Duse died in a Pittsburgh hotel. The life that is so hard for artists in our generation had relented and released her. Out of the heavy fog of mystery that covers even the largest outlines of her life, this much at least is quite apparent — little could have pleased her as much in this life as her leaving it. To the curious onlooker, she was an object of maudlin pity; to herself, every evidence has it, she was a mausoleum of unrealizable and torturous attempts at happiness.”

(Could one be forgiven for detecting the sort of elegiac tone that he would employ 17 years later in his screenplay?)

It is not easy to access examples of his drama criticism (much of it, I suspect, went without a byline), but here are excerpts from two book reviews, in which his wit is abundant.

Here is a paragraph of a review on April 6, 1924 of a book entitled “Crystallizing Public Opinion”  by Edward L. Bernays, now considered the father of modern public relations. Mankiewicz first establishes that Bernays calls himself a public relations counsel, and in the book “sets down the broad principles that govern his new profession –principles substantiated by the findings of psychologists, sociologists and newspaper men.”


The second is a review on April 19, 1925 of the “autobiography” (Mankiewicz’s quotation marks) of George M. Cohan.

It begins:

It concludes: “It is unqualifiedly a disappointment.”


The director of “Mank,” David Fincher, Oscar winner for “The Social Network” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” is a filmmaker through and through, with an early background in music videos, not theater or newspapers. But his father, the late Jack Fincher, who wrote the screenplay for “Mank,”  was a journalist. It’s easy, for those who care about it, to watch “Mank” and start thinking about the inextricable roots of modern filmmaking in both journalism and theater, despite the younger Fincher’s apparent lack of interest in either.

“Most of the best Hollywood writers of the thirties had a shared background; they had been reporters and critics, and they knew each other from their early days on newspapers and magazines.,” film critic Pauline Kael wrote in her 1971 article, Raising Kane.  about the making of Citizen Kane, which goes into depth about Mankiewicz. By critics, she meant drama critics; later in the article, she also lists the many dramatists, a good number of whom were also critics.

She quotes from the telegram that Mankiewicz sent to fellow newspaperman and dramatist Ben Hecht urging him to move from New York to California and work for Paramount Picture (the telegram makes an appearance in “Mank”)
“There are millions to be made and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

Orson Welles (Tom Burke) is a fleeting figure in “Mank,” and nearly a villainous one; John Houseman (Sam Troughton) serves as little more than Welles’ errand boy (or if you prefer, liaison.) But in real life both saw themselves as theater artists first and foremost, and their roots in theater arguably influenced one of the most influential movies ever made.

Welles and Houseman worked together in the Federal Theatre Project, and then co-founded the Mercury Theater. The Mercury Theater began as a legitimate theater company and went on to do radio broadcasts (the most infamous of which was The War of the Worlds in 1938, in which listeners thought the country was really being invaded by aliens from Outer Space.) Although Houseman became famous late in life as a screen actor (most recognizably as the stern professor in The Paper Chase), he never left the theater; he was the founding director of the Drama Division at The Juilliard School, and produced on Broadway into the 1980s, just a few years before his death.

What of Herman J. Mankiewicz? He had three credits on Broadway, the first two as a playwright — “The Good Fellow,” co-written with George S. Kaufman, and “The Wild Man of Borneo,” co-written with Marc Connelly. His last credit on Broadway was as a performer, in a play in 1932 called “Blessed Event.” He played a waiter.

That was his last Broadway credit. He died in 1953 at the age of 55.

But theater was in his blood. Three years before Herman died, his younger brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1909-1993), directed the quintessential film about theater, “All About Eve.”


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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