Today a blast from the past: An excerpt from the shooting script for the movie The African Queen (1951), adapted from the C.S. Forrester novel by James Agee and John Huston (Peter Viertel’s name is on the script, but he received no formal credit). This script was written six decades ago and is a stark reminder of how different current screenwriting style is than that of yesteryear, particularly re scene description.
Here is how the script introduces one of the two lead characters, Rose (Katherine Hepburn):
EXT. A NATIVE VILLAGE IN A CLEARING BETWEEN THE JUNGLE AND THE RIVER. LATE MORNING LONG SHOT -- A CHAPEL Intense light and heat, a stifling silence. Then the SOUND of a reedy organ, of two voices which make the words distinct, and of miscellaneous shy, muffled, dragging voices, beginning a hymn: VOICES (singing) "Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah..." INT. CHAPEL -- LONG SHOT -- THE LENGTH OF THE BLEAK CHAPEL PAST THE CONGREGATION, ON BROTHER, AT THE LECTERN, AND ROSE, AT THE ORGAN BROTHER, a missionary, faces CAMERA near center; ROSE, his sister, is at side, her face averted. Everybody is singing. "Pilgrim through this barren land..." MEDIUM SHOT -- BROTHER: middle-aged, rock-featured, bald, sweating painfully, very much in earnest. He is very watchful of his flock. He sings as loud as he can, rather nasally, and tries to drive the meaning of each word home as if it were a nail. He is beating with his hand, and trying hard to whip up the dragging tempo: "I am weak, but Thou art mighty..." CLOSER SHOT -- ROSE early thirties, tight-featured and tight-haired, very hot but sweating less than Brother. She is pumping the pedals vigorously, spreading with her knees the wings of wood which control the loudness, utilizing various stops for expressiveness of special phrases, and rather desperately studying the open hymnal, just managing to play the right notes -- a very busy woman. She, too, is singing her best and loudest, an innocent, arid, reedy soprano; and she, too, is very attentive to the meanings of words: "Hold me with Thy powerful hand." INSERT -- HALF-WAY THROUGH THE FOREGOING LINE, AN EXOTIC AND HORRIBLE CENTIPEDE-LIKE CREATURE SLITHERS INTO VIEW BETWEEN TWO OF THE ORGAN KEYS. WITHOUT INTERRUPTING HER PLAYING, AS METHODICALLY AS SHE WOULD PULL OUT A NEW STOP, ROSE SWIPES IT AWAY. ROSE -- AS BEFORE -- completes "Thy Powerful Hand"; o.s. Voices of singers. Unperturbed, Rose finishes her casual disposal of the bug and pulls out a new stop.
And here is how the script introduces the other main character Allnut (Humphrey Bogart):
We close on the old dame with the bone singing -- "...my journey through." o.s., on "...fiery, cloudy pillar", a queer SOUND, steadily louder: the absurdly flatulent, yammering syncopation of a rachitic steam motor. Eyes begin to wander from hymnals: CUT IN Brother frowning and singing harder trying to impose order; attention to the hymn begins to fall apart a little; FOLLOW the white, veering eyes to FRAME, through the open window. LONG SHOT -- THE AFRICAN QUEEN whose WHISTLE lets out a steamy whinny, then REPEATS it, with great self-satisfaction. She is squat, flat-bottomed -- thirty feet long. A tattered awning roofs in six feet of her stern. Amidships stand her boiler and engine. A stumpy funnel reaches up a little higher than the awning. ON SECOND WHINNY, CUT TO: MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT -- ALLNUTT -- ON HIS BOAT He is in worn, rather befouled white clothes. He is barefooted and his feet are cocked up and he is sitting on his shoulder blades, smoking a bad cigar. He wears a ratty boater, slantwise, against the sunlight. He is attended by two young Negroes so tall, thin and gracile they suggest black macaroni. One is proudly and busily puttering at the engine, which requires a lot of attention: the other is fanning ALLNUTT, who is feeling just fine. Allnutt speaks to the fanner in Swahili. The young man without breaking the rhythm of his fanning, licks out one long, boneless arm and alters the lashed tiller; the Queen begins to swerve toward shore. o.s., the hymn continues, all but drowned by motor noise. LONG SHOT -- INT. CHAPEL Rose pulls out all the stops, spreads her knees, and pumps like mad in her effort to drown out the ENGINE SOUND. Brother sweats and sings even harder, scowling, shaking his head. The singing is fraying out half to hell; the congregation is a solid black wall of wandering eyes; a few pious converts frown or nudge at the less pious; a little group is coalescing toward the window. The hymn, meanwhile, continues: "Feed me with the heavenly manna in this barren wilderness, Be my sword, my shield, my banner, be the Lord my righteousness." Rose's sense of artistic propriety is too much for her. To keep things going, she ought to play loud, but on the next line -- "When I tread the verge of Jordan..." she shuts down to the vox humana and the tremolo and maintains that through -- "Bid my anxious fears subside." On this line, Allnutt appears and lounges against the front door frame still drawing on his cigar. Rose lets everything rip fortissimo on the closing lines: "Death of death, and hell's destruction land me safe on Canaan's side." By the time of "hell's destruction," Allnutt becomes aware that a lighted cigar in church is bad manners, and, nodding casual apology to Brother, tosses it away onto the packed dirt, out of our sight.
Rather than dissecting the scenes myself, let’s open it up for discussion. Critiquing these pages, what elements of scene description do you see as being similar and dissimilar to contemporary style guidelines?
I’m posting this to end our series on scene description to make a point: style and format changes. It is not sacrosanct. It evolves. Your goal, as a writer, is simply this: Do what you need to do to tell the most entertaining yet clear iteration of your story.
[Originally posted June 3, 2010]