Wednesday, November 26, 2008

John Michael Hayes, Lucky Bastard

Above is a picture of Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, and John Michael Hayes on the set of To Catch a Thief.

What a lucky bastard.

For the record and for those newbies who may not know, John Michael Hayes
passed away recently. He is the one screenwriter who has worked more often with Alfred Hitchcock than any other screenwriter, having written the scripts for Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

After reading Steven DeRosa’s
Writing with Hitchcock earlier this year, which chronicled the rise and fall of John Michael’s working relationship with Hitch, I have been on a John Michael Hayes kick ever since. I consumed his screenplays. The Man Who Knew Too Much can be read here. Rear Window can be found here. I’ve also been watching his films. I bought the restored Rear Window just so I could see the John Michael Hayes interview (and also hear the film commentary by John Fawell, which was great). I started watching many of his post-Hitchcock films, too, most recently Nevada Smith, which was good.

There would be no doubt in anyone’s mind after studying Hayes’ work how well Hayes’ style and sensibilities meshed with Hitchcock’s. He was perfect for Hitch, and they met each other at just the right time in both of their careers. It’s little known that Hitch was actually struggling at the time when Hayes came along. Their historic collaboration transformed both of their lives and careers. Of course, make no mistake about it. The auteur theory applies to Hitchcock. Those are all HIS films, and Hayes helped conceive Hitchcock’s vision of those films. However, the contribution of Hayes is not to be dismissed, particularly when it came to characters and dialogue. There are very good reasons why Hayes worked with Hitch more than any other screenwriter, because he brought a lightheartedness to some very dark concepts, which is so welcome and enriching to those films. It was GREAT FUN! Plus, at the end of every John Michael Hayes story, there was always hope. Hayes has become a model for me in those respects.

I don’t know where I’d place him in the pantheon of all-time great screenwriters, but he holds a very special place in my heart.

Here’s another image. He was a good-looking guy! It saddens me greatly how a human life is glanced over in obits in the media, like when they say, as they did
in the Times Online, “John Michael Hayes was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1919. He began as a newspaper reporter before serving in the US Army during the Second World War. He moved to California where he worked in radio before turning to Hollywood in the early 1950s…”

That is not the story of John Michael Hayes. His time in Hollywood writing for the radio was actually cut short due to a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, which kept him bed-ridden for months back in Massachusetts. Plus, his family didn’t support his writing career. But as soon as John could walk again, he snuck out of his family’s home (while they were away at the movies), left a note, and hitchhiked his way across the country from Worcester, Massachusetts, all the way to Hollywood, California, while hopping on two canes and with only $15 in his pocket. Seriously, he just left. He didn’t tell his family he was going either because he knew they would’ve discouraged him.

THAT is how much he wanted to be a writer.

Yeah, all you aspiring writers out there think you have it so rough? Tell me you want to be a writer as badly as John Michael Hayes. Tell me you would’ve done what John Michael Hayes did.

Let me quote two paragraphs from
Writing with Hitchcock:

Within a day and a half, Hayes arrived at Zanesville, Ohio, where he spent 75 cents on a telegram informing his parents that he was okay. He continued, nonstop, until he reached Flagstaff, Arizona, where he boarded a bus during a thunderstorm. Hayes finally arrived in Los Angeles with $4.50 remaining and checked into the Mark Twain Hotel for the night, planning to go the following morning to CBS, where he had worked previously. En route to CBS the next day, Hayes passed the NBC radio studios, where there was a line of people waiting to get into one of the popular quiz shows, Double or Nothing. Hayes decided to stay and see the show. While he waited on line, one of the show’s assistants saw him on canes and let him inside the studio ahead of everyone else. When he got inside, he was asked if he would like to be a contestant. Hayes said yes. The questions they asked were about English literature, and he won $640.

Hayes remembered, ‘I went down the block to deposit my money in a bank. Next door was CBS. I went in, pressed the elevator button, and ran into Ernie Martin, a friend who had since become a Broadway producer. Ernie looked me up and down and said he needed a writer for a new show with Lucille Ball and he hired me.’ The show for which Hayes was assigned on the spot was My Favorite Husband. Specializing in comedy and suspense, Hayes turned out expert scripts for many diverse series, including Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, Sweeney and March, Alias Jane Doe, Nightbeat, and Richard Diamond, Private Detector.

Can you believe that? And then he married a hot blonde model!

I can’t find where I read it, but I do recall someone calculating that John Michael Hayes wrote roughly 1,500 scripts for a wide variety of half hour radio shows before he turned to screenwriting. Even then, he STILL struggled with screenwriting, because he relied so much on dialogue for everything. Hitchcock had to retrain him on his methods of
pure cinema and visual storytelling.

To all you vain newbies out there who have read one book and written maybe two scripts and you think you’re so great – come talk to me when you've written 1,500 scripts with characters and dialogue. Just consider how much experience he had before he wrote all that great dialogue we know and love in his films with Hitchcock.

Chris Wehner reprinted
an interview with Hayes. I have always loved this story about his first meeting with Hitch, which is told in greater depth and clarity in Writing with Hitchcock, but it’s still funny here:

I was given a copy of the Woolrich story by my agent, and was told to meet with Hitchcock later that week for dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel. My job was simple: Read the Woolrich piece, and be prepared to discuss it in great detail and length. It was not unlike preparing for the most important book report of one's life.

The meeting itself was a near fiasco. It felt much more like a personal test of endurance than anything resembling a story conference. Hitchcock arrived late and, with time to sit and worry over his arrival, I had a couple of drinks, which I wasn't entirely used to. Upon his arrival, we had a feast for the ages, along with copious amounts of alcohol.

Plied by the liquor, I rambled on for much too long about Hitchcock's prior films. And I wasn't entirely complimentary. Hitchcock appeared to listen, but once the meal itself was finished he abruptly left. And we had never even spoken about Rear Window at all. Later, after returning home, my wife asked how the meeting went. I told her we'd better start packing our bags, as I felt quite strongly that my opportunity with Hitchcock had vanished along with any future career I had envisioned in the industry.

Amazingly, upon reporting for work on Monday, I was told that Hitchcock immensely enjoyed our dinner and that I was to be hired immediately.


Now get this. I have to share this, which is why I always think of Hayes as a lucky bastard. Once he got the writing assignment for Rear Window, he got to spend 5 days with Grace Kelly just to get to know her and get a feel for her range so that he could shape her character for the film. Can you believe that? 5 days with Grace Kelly! Not to mention that Hitch was already upset with her because during the last film, Dial M for Murder, she “slept with the writer.”

So you can imagine what I’m thinking, right? I've already admitted that I have spent time with
Style and Mystery. Stick around with these guys long enough and they will tell you that any pick-up artist doing everything right only needs... seven hours.

That bastard, John Michael Hayes, had 5 days to spend with Grace Kelly.

Man, they don't make films like this anymore.

Now I’m not suggesting that anything happened. She may very well have still been involved with that “writer” from Dial M and Hayes by all accounts was quite happily married with that hot blonde all the way up to her death in 1989. And she was just as breathtakingly beautiful.

But that bastard got to spend 5 days with Grace Kelly.

I’m just saying, if that was me, Kelly would’ve had second thoughts about that Prince and the world might’ve been a different place.


There’s another story I must share while they filmed To Catch a Thief:

On one of their days off, Hayes accompanied Kelly and Grant’s wife Betsy Drake on a tour of Monaco, and the writer taught Kelly how to play roulette. She won some money, after which the trio went to lunch and continued their sightseeing, ending up outside the Grimaldi museum. Kelly was delighted by what she could see of the gardens, the gates to which were locked. Hayes remembered, ‘Grace said, ‘I wonder if we could find some way to get in.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ll see if somebody can get to the Prince, or his public relations man, and get you a tour of the garden while you’re here.’ But we finished the location photography before a tour could be arranged.’ The following year, when Grace Kelly returned to the Riviera, she was a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival. This time she did meet Prince Rainier, who gave her a personal tour of his gardens. Within a year’s time, she had retired from the screen to become Princess Grace of Monaco. Years afterward, Hayes remembered, ‘Later, when she invited my wife and myself to the palace, Grace said, ‘Now I can show you the garden.’

BTW - Check out all the Life Magazine pics of Grace Kelly.

When John Michael was hired to write To Catch a Thief, Hitch asked him, “Have you ever been to the Riviera?” No, was the response, and Hitch sent Hayes and his wife to the Riviera for two weeks to do “research” on the new script.

That lucky damn bastard.

It is quite a shame about his break-up with Hitch. I don’t have anything to add to the matter except to say that I side wholly and completely with Hayes. That was about Hitch’s ego and nothing else.

I agree with what was said
in the Times: There were losses on both sides. Hayes departed for more lucrative but less distinguished films while Hitchcock rarely again enjoyed the luxury of having brilliant scripts promptly delivered. On later films, such as Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), where the scripts had run into trouble, Hitchcock’s personal assistant, Peggy Robertson, suggested calling in Hayes. Not one to swallow his pride, Hitchcock ignored her advice.

Steven Derosa has a bio available of
John Michael Hayes in pdf. Interestingly, there is a wonderful link found here where Derosa shares a cut third act scene from an early draft of To Catch a Thief, which Hayes loved but couldn’t sell Hitch on the idea.

There was also an interview with him in
Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s where Patrick McGilligan asked Hayes about the widely rumored sequel to Rear Window. I loved his response:

I was offered an absolutely monumental sum of money by the man who owns the rights... That money would help me in my old age... I don’t know. Some pictures have a magic that’s almost indefinable. Grace is gone. Hitch is gone. Jimmy’s too frail. Wendell Corey’s gone. Raymond Burr is dead. We couldn’t recapture that kind of innocence. What could it possibly be?

But I’ve done a story, just in case.


I do love John Michael Hayes. May he rest in peace.

his official website.

And also, in honor of Hayes, I reposted my article below on the
Exposition of Rear Window.

Thank you, John, for everything you've taught me this year.



crossword said...

What a great story... and a terrific tribute. Thanks MM.

mernitman said...

A lucky bastard, indeed -- many times over, as you capably point out.

We're lucky to have you in our midst, MM -- scrolling through your recent posts I'm overwhelmed by the font of information and insight so generously proffered on this site.

Happy Turkey Day, sir.

Joshua James said...

fantastic . . .

Anonymous said...

My friend Jeff shared a screenwriting credit with him on a film called "Iron Will." Hayes had actually written the original draft in the early 70's, and my friend finished it in the mid-90's. Gotta love Hollywood.

Joshua James said...

I meant, of course, fantastic tribute to a great writer . . .

Karim said...

This is a great interview with Hitchcock you'll like MM. The other parts are as good.

Matt said...

Sorry I wound up finding this so late. I didn't even know he has passed.

I read Writing with Hitchock a few years ago, and really admired him in his early days.

Was it GUNGA DIN that he watched every night as an Army projectionist? Either way, I love that by watching that film every night, he wound up knowing it back and forth, learning structure in the process.

I'll raise my glass tonight to John Michael Hayes.

Unknown said...

I've read a great number of the recent JMH obits and online mentions. Thus far, yours comes closest to capturing a sense of his life.

Thank you.

Garrett Michael Hayes
Smyrna, GA

Mystery Man said...

Len - Thanks!

Billy - Thank you!

Joshua - Thanks, man. What a strange coincidence that he should pass away just after I spent so much time studying his work.

David - I know the script you're talking about! I read somewhere that he said "Iron Will" was the script he was most proud of in his career, but it had been "Disneyfied." Hehehe...

Crumbs - Yes! I've seen that entire episode. Thank you!

Matt - Gosh, I don't remember.

Garrett - I'm so moved by your commment that I'm actually speechless. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. And my sincere condolences to you and your family.


Unknown said...

My brother Garrett didn't tell me about your article. I just found it and I thought it was lovely. Truly. It made my heart full today to read this and I thank you.

Meredyth Hayes Badreau

Mystery Man said...

Meredyth - It made my heart full just to hear from you. I must admit, I got more from John this year than I was able to give in this article. I'm speechless, I really am. So very nice to meet you.


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