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Susan Miles Gulbransen: Beyond Books — ‘True Grit’s’ Santa Barbara Connection

Actor John Wayne made 155 films, but only one earned him an Oscar: “True Grit” in 1969. 

In one of the dramatic scenes as U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, he tells 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) about his earlier life of losing his wife and son. After they finished shooting the scene, film critic Roger Ebert quoted Wayne saying, “It’s about the best scene I’ve ever done.”

This coming Monday, Nov. 16, the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara will present this version of “True Grit” as a part of the Elmer Bernstein Memorial Film Series. The purpose of this series is to highlight “films that are important beyond their cinematic tradition for showcasing their great cinematic scores.” 

What most people don’t know is the film’s Santa Barbara connection to two vital people: screenwriter Marguerite Roberts and composer Elmer Bernstein. Both lived the latter part of their lives in the Santa Barbara area.

Each had also been loosely related to Communist groups in their early days in Hollywood. Roberts was “blacklisted” during Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the early 1950s.

About the same time, Bernstein was “graylisted,” which allowed him to work but under a dark cloud that affected his career during that period.

When “True Grit” was made, John Wayne was probably the most conservative actor in the entertainment industry. Yet Wayne considered each these two the best in their fields and campaigned for them to work on the movie.

Marguerite (Maggie) Roberts came to the entertainment industry as a secretary at Fox-Western in 1926. Shortly after being promoted to script-reader. she sold her first script in 1931.

When Roberts moved to Paramount in mid-1936, she met her second husband, author John Sanford ("The People from Heaven," 1943). They married and lived in L.A., with her working as one of the highest paid screenwriters earning $120,000 in 1951, the equivalent today of $1,127,097. 

Sanford, like many in Hollywood during the 1930s, joined the Communist Party, a time when our country suffered from the Depression and answers to recovery were not clear. Roberts went with him to two meetings and joined reluctantly. She gave up her membership in 1947.

At McCarthy’s hearings in 1951, the couple took the Fifth Amendment and refused to name names. She was then “blacklisted” and out of work for 12 years. During that time they moved to Santa Barbara.

Sanford kept writing, eventually publishing 24 books and receiving the PEN/Faulkner Award and LA Times Lifetime Achievement Award.

Roberts was asked back to work in 1963 but given mediocre assignments with minimal credits. Along came John Wayne. He insisted she be the scriptwriter for “True Grit” instead of the book’s author, Charles Portis, who asked to write the screenplay.

In Sanford’s book, “Maggie: A Love Story” (1993), he quotes a phone call between producer Hal Wallis and Roberts.
WALLIS: Wayne told me something else, Maggie. He said his pal Ward Bond was after him to kick you off the script. You were a Red, Bond said, and if more was needed, you were a woman.

MAGGIE: What did Wayne say?

WALLIS: He said that those were bad reasons.

MAGGIE: I can hardly believe it!

WALLIS: He said there was only one good reason for getting rid of a writer: a bum script.
When Wayne read the finished screenplay, he called it “the best script I’ve ever read.”

Her career once again took off. For the next ten years she wrote movies such as “Red Sky at Morning” (1971). She died at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in 1989 at age 84.

Composer Elmer Bernstein made “True Grit” sing. Literally. 

AXI Entertainment puts him up there with Ennio Morricone as a top film score composer. They wrote about Bernstein’s effect on “True Grit.”

“[It] displays Bernstein perfectly capturing the moments where the film truly needed them, and not just scoring the film wall to wall, especially in the presence of the late John Wayne. Very solid thumbs up! Very good score!”

Born in 1922, Bernstein grew up as a classical piano protégée in New York City. He gave his first performance at age 15 in New York’s Steinway Hall with Aaron Copland among his many mentors.

During World War II, he wrote music for the Army Air Force radio station. After the War he continued to perform and began writing film scores.

In 1951 the House UnAmerican Activities Committee interrupted his growing career. Like Roberts, he refused to name names at the hearings, although he never joined the Communist Party. He had written reviews for the “red” newspaper Daily Worker and associated with Party members, enough to have him “graylisted,” meaning he was not banned but could only get limited work.

In 1953, while working as a rehearsal pianist for dance sequences for a new film, “Oklahoma!,” Bernstein caught the attention of Cecil B. De Mille, who needed a rehearsal pianist for his new movie, “The Ten Commandments.”

When the original composer became ill, De Mille hired Bernstein to write the film’s score. 

He went on to compose for over 50 years, writing well over 200 film and television scores with classic hits such as “Man With the Golden Arm,” “Magnificent Seven” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The list of his awards goes on like a red carpet rolled out to the street.

Similar to Robert’s relationship to John Wayne, the actor championed for Bernstein to compose the music for “True Grit.” It not only won Wayne an Oscar, but Bernstein was nominated for best song, written along with lyrists Don Black and sung by Glen Campbell.

His widow, Eve Bernstein, still lives in Santa Barbara and is active with the performing arts community. She talks about her husband’s career.

“Elmer, who was ‘greylisted’ in the 50’s, was used and rescued by two of the most virulent anti-communists in the business. The first was Mr. De Mille, who decided to give the score of what was the biggest budget film in Hollywood at the time to Elmer for ‘The Ten Commandments,” and later by John Wayne (for the movie “The Comancheros” in 1961).

"Elmer had turned down films that John made because he disagreed with them politically, and said so to John, but the last seven westerns that Wayne starred in and produced, Elmer scored. They both loved the American Cowboy ethic, I guess!”

The Bernstein Memorial Film Series is hosted by Jon Burlingame, professor at USC’s Thorton School of Music.

For tickets to see “True Grit” at the Granada Theater or to read about their other film series also shown on the theater’s brand new cinematic system, go to the website.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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