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Arthur Penn

American Director

Nat Segaloff

Publication Year: 2011

Arthur Penn: American Director is the comprehensive biography of one of the twentieth century’s most influential filmmakers. Thematic chapters lucidly convey the story of Penn’s life and career, as well as pertinent events in the history of American film, theater, and television. In the process of tracing the full spectrum of his career, Arthur Penn reveals the enormous scope of Penn’s talent and his profound impact on the entertainment industry in an accessible, engaging account of the well-known director’s life. Born in 1922 to a family of Philadelphia immigrants, the young Penn was bright but aimless—especially compared to his talented older brother Irving, who would later become a world-renowned photographer. Penn drifted into directing, but he soon mastered the craft in three mediums: television, Broadway, and motion pictures. By the time he made Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Penn was already a Tony-winning Broadway director and one of the prodigies of the golden age of television. His innovative handling of the story of two Depression-era outlaws not only challenged Hollywood’s strict censorship code, it shook the foundation of studio system itself and ushered in the film revolution. His next films—Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Little Big Man (1970), and Night Moves (1975)—became instant classics, summoning emotions from shock to sensuality and from confusion to horror, all of which reflected the complexity of the man behind the camera. The personal and creative odyssey captured in these pages includes memorable adventures in World War II; the chaotic days of live television; the emergence of Method acting in Hollywood; and experiences with Marlon Brando, Anne Bancroft, Warren Beatty, William Gibson, Lillian Hellman, and a host of other show business legends.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Screen Classics

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-xiv

In the middle of Arthur Penn’s magnifico Four Friends there arrives the now justly immortalized, cosmically American moment where we find ourselves with an American family playing outside with their adopted Vietnamese child,...

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pp. xv-xvi

Arthur Penn was a contradiction among American filmmakers. He was a founding father of the “Movie Generation” of the 1960s and ’70s that produced Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, and George Lucas, yet he neither hung out with their crowd nor was he seduced by the Hollywood system they rose to dominate. ...


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pp. xvii-xviii

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Prologue: The Micturating Mogul

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pp. 1-4

Jack L. Warner had to pee. He didn’t know he was watching the movie that would change movies. He just had to pee.
The picture was taking forever and it was only the first reel. It was in his private projection room, in his mansion, in his town that his vision and his tenacity had helped build. ...

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1. A Boy of Two Cities

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pp. 5-15

Sonia Greenberg and Harry Penn had little in common before they got married and less by the time their sons were born.
Sonia had arrived as a teenager in New York with her older brother, Joseph, during the great wave of pogrom-inspired eastern European immigration early in the second decade of the twentieth century. ...

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2. The Theater of War

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pp. 16-23

By the time he was drafted, Arthur Penn had decided that theater would be his future if Hitler allowed him to have one. World War II held everything at bay. America’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” which scrambled to arm itself after Pearl Harbor, was far from victory when twenty-year-old Private Penn reported for...

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3. The Teachable Moment

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pp. 24-29

Unlike mainstream colleges, the GI Bill of Rights recognized the experimental curricula that John Andrew Rice and Theodore Dreier established at Black Mountain College, fifteen miles east of Asheville, North Carolina, on Black Mountain, and paid for Arthur Penn to go there. ...

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4. Up at Eight, Off at Nine

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pp. 30-37

When he stepped off the elevator at 30 Rock in the spring of 1950, Arthur Penn wasn’t looking for a career, just a job. “I came back thinking, ‘What do I know how to do?’” he mulls. “I can fake reading Dante and I can stage manage. ...

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5. The Edge of Chaos

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pp. 38-48

It will come as a shock to those who wax nostalgic about the golden age of television to learn that the golden age of television was never meant to last. It was a marketing ploy, a loss leader contrived by television networks to first, entice people to buy TV sets and second, to confer prestige upon the new medium. ...

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6. Built for Television

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pp. 49-59

Hollywood hated television. At first the studios simply closed their eyes and wished the glowing new toy would go away. Then it was “It’s only a fad,” as they had said of the talkies. At mini- mum, the Founding Moguls agreed that they would never allow their precious product on the tube. ...

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7. Kid’s Play

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pp. 60-71

“I’m the most creative editor in Hollywood, and I’m going to edit your movie,” the stranger announced, extending his hand. “My name is Folmar Blangsted.”1
The pronouncement took Penn by surprise as he was pushing to finish his first feature film within its twenty-three-day shooting schedule and minimal $400,000 budget. ...

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8. Four for the Seesaw

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pp. 72-83

William Gibson was twenty when he realized he’d married the wrong woman. It was 1934, he had dropped out of City College of New York, and he was trying to be a writer. Instead, he’d gotten married. “I was headlong, maddeningly in love with her,” he admits, “but a year or so later I just wanted to get out of it.” ...

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9. Three Miracles

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pp. 84-98

“Whenever I get into this story,” says the author of The Miracle Worker, “I feel I’m in the presence of something supernatural.” For half a century William Gibson’s play has been celebrated as a timeless tale of love, devotion, and understanding. ...

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10. The King of Broadway

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pp. 99-107

In 1960 Arthur Penn had the kind of year that people sell their souls for. Between February 25 and November 30 he scored five hit plays, one film, and a brush with American political history. Best of all, none of it had anything to do with Hollywood. ...

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11. The Little Play That Could

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pp. 108-115

When James Rufus Agee was seven, in 1916, his father died in a car accident. In 1955, when he was forty-six, Agee himself died in the back of a taxicab. On his desk lay an unfinished semiautobiographical manuscript about his father that he had titled A Death in the Family. ...

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12. Train Wrecks

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pp. 116-127

When Penn returned to Hollywood, Hollywood was dying. The Founding Moguls were buried, retired, or forgotten, and their decades-old studios were poised to be absorbed into conglomerates that saw them as “leisure time activities” rather than entertainment kingdoms. ...

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13. Brandeux

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pp. 128-140

Jane Fonda stopped in the middle of her close-up and told Marlon Brando, who was feeding her lines from offscreen, “You’re just the best fucking actor in the world.” Directing them, Arthur Penn nodded his head in agreement. ...

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14. Foggy Mountain Breakthrough

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pp. 141-161

Bonnie and Clyde was no accident. It was the result of actor-producer Warren Beatty’s single-minded plan to generate his own screen material and guide it through the Hollywood gauntlet, and director Arthur Penn’s ability to apply the vision he’d been honing his entire career. ...

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15. Golden Boys

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pp. 162-172

The collaboration between Arthur Penn and William Gibson is one of the most fruitful in American theater. While its public milestones are Two for the Seesaw, The Miracle Worker, Golden Boy, Golda, and Monday After the Miracle, the partnership also includes their families and fifty years of shared lives. ...

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16. Curtains

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pp. 173-180

With one Broadway hit after another in the 1960s, Arthur Penn was at the top of every producer’s list. “I was offered everything,” he reports. “I can’t say it quite that broadly, but there were a lot of plays.” ...

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17. Hippie Sunset

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pp. 181-189

History may not exactly be bunk, as Henry Ford famously pro- claimed,1 but it is generally written, as Alex Haley noted, by the winners. Motion pictures have an unusual ability to contort history because they exist in time-present even when they are set in...

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18. Little Big Mensch

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pp. 190-197

Despite being able to film Alice in their backyard, the Penns were not rolling in money. UA deemed the project too American to expect wide foreign success (they were wrong), so they held Penn and Elkins to a budget that wouldn’t make anybody rich unless...

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19. A State of Great Disorder

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pp. 198-209

“No civilization in history ever survived by turning over its reins to the young,” insisted writer-director John Milius, one of the young filmmakers to whom Hollywood turned over its reins in the 1970s. Milius was in the forefront of the “film generation” that resuscitated—though some say homogenized—American...

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20. Sly Foxes

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pp. 210-218

When Sly Fox opened on Broadway on December 14, 1976, its director was 54, its author was 48, and the play was 370. Based on Ben Jonson’s 1606 Elizabethan drama Volpone, with influence from a 1924 German adaptation by Stefan Zweig,...

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21. The Studio

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pp. 219-228

The building was not much to look at, but, like what was taught to those who studied there, the important thing was what went on inside. The address 432 West Forty-fourth Street in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City had been the Old Labor Stage until 1947, when Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert...

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22. A Sea of Mud

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pp. 229-239

The story has been told so often that it has entered the Hollywood apocrypha: a Seasoned Director pitches his project to a powerful but very young studio executive. Depending on the telling, the Old Master is variously Fred Zinnemann, John Huston, George Stevens, Frank Capra, or William Wyler. ...

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23. Back to Basics

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pp. 240-253

Like the proverbial bad penny, television reenters Arthur Penn’s life at the strangest times. In July 1967, with his salary from Bonnie and Clyde spent and the film facing a profitless studio write-off, he was so strapped for cash that he took on a project that reminded him how far the once-mighty medium had fallen. ...

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pp. 254-257

They say that the artist himself is least able to judge his own work, but that rejects the very nature of the creative process. An artist deconstructs before he constructs, and often destroys in order to discover. On May 20, 1968, Arthur Penn delivered these remarks at a symposium at Dartmouth College. ...

Appendix: Arthur Penn Credits

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pp. 259-264


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pp. 265-283

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 285-288


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pp. 289


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pp. 291-307

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813129815
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813129761

Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Screen Classics

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Subject Headings

  • Penn, Arthur, 1922-2010.
  • Motion picture producers and directors -- United States -- Biography.
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