Authors: Jack Kirkland

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright and screenwriter

Author Works

Drama:

Frankie and Johnnie, pr. 1928

Tobacco Road, pr. 1933 (adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s novel)

Tortilla Flat, pr. 1938 (adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel)

I Must Love Somebody, pr. 1939 (with Leyla George)

Suds in Your Eye, pr., pb. 1944 (adaptation of Mary Lasswell’s novel)

Georgia Boy, pr. 1945 (with Haila Stoddard; adaptation of Caldwell’s novel)

Mr. Adam, pr. 1949 (adaptation of Pat Frank’s novel)

The Man with the Golden Arm, pr. 1956 (adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel)

Mandingo, pr. 1961 (adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s novel)

Screenplays:

Fast and Loose, 1930

Zoo in Budapest, 1933

Now and Forever, 1934

Adventures in Manhattan, 1936

Sutter’s Gold, 1936

Nonfiction:

“How Long Tobacco Road,” 1939 (in The New York Times)

Biography

Jack Kirkland was a member of the hard-living, no-nonsense school of professional writers (as opposed to artists) epitomized by such figures as Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Like them, he began his career as a reporter, working for such papers as The Detroit News, the St. Louis Times, and the New York Daily News, and like them, he turned his talents to both film and stage. From this background, he brought to his drama a scorn for sentimentality, a tendency toward sensationalism, and a penchant for a kind of vulgar black comedy that seems to have characterized his view of the world. He was not so much interested in art as in effect, and the subjects he chose often came from the demimonde familiar to the streetwise reporter.{$I[AN]9810001801}{$I[A]Kirkland, Jack}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kirkland, Jack}{$I[tim]1901;Kirkland, Jack}

Kirkland was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 25, 1901 (or possibly 1902, since there was no official birth record and other sources conflict on these dates); he was the son of William Thomas and Julia Woodward Kirkland. In his teens, he roamed about the country, working from state to state at odd jobs and often living with and observing the kind of people about whom he would later write. He claimed to have developed a kinship with the poor and homeless that enabled him to understand and sympathize with them in such works as Tobacco Road. Soon thereafter he began his newspaper career and made his way to New York, where he attended Columbia University and worked at the New York Daily News. In 1924, he married Nancy Carroll, the first of his five wives. (His subsequent wives were Jayne Shadduck, Julia Laird, Haila Stoddard, and Nancy Hoadley.) Carroll was a noted Broadway chorine, and when she was called to Hollywood, Kirkland accompanied her and began to write films, among them Fast and Loose, with Miriam Hopkins, and Now and Forever, with Gary Cooper, Shirley Temple, and Carole Lombard. Nancy Carroll became one of the most popular stars of the 1930’s and was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in The Devil’s Holiday in 1930. She and Kirkland were divorced in 1935.

Kirkland’s main interest lay in the theater. His first play was Frankie and Johnnie, which he wrote in 1928. In 1929, during its Chicago performance, it was attacked as obscene and was closed. Kirkland brought the play to New York in 1930, where, once again, it was closed on charges of obscenity; Kirkland was arrested. He and the theater owners took the case to court, and in 1932, in a landmark ruling, the play was judged not to be obscene. Kirkland would be involved in many such court cases throughout his career.

In 1931, while in Hollywood, Kirkland was given a copy of Erskine Caldwell’s scandalous new novel Tobacco Road, which dealt with the almost subhuman existence of a family of Georgia sharecroppers. In the spring of 1933, Kirkland (having spent much of his film earnings on the legal battles surrounding Frankie and Johnnie) retreated to the island of Majorca to write a dramatic treatment of the book. He took the play to New York, where it was turned down by almost every Broadway producer. Kirkland put up his last six thousand dollars as investment and coproduced it. The play opened at the Masque Theatre in New York on December 4, 1933, the day Prohibition ended. Despite praise of the acting, initial reviews were generally negative (although not as awful as theater lore has it). To keep the play alive, ticket prices were reduced, the cast took pay cuts, and Kirkland and the others (except Caldwell) waived their royalties. After this shaky start, Tobacco Road established itself as a crowd-pleaser, and its popularity continued largely unabated during its record run of 3,180 performances. Since Kirkland held more than half ownership (approximately 66 percent) and sold the film rights to Twentieth Century-Fox for $200,000 plus a percentage of the earnings, he became a rich man.

Kirkland never repeated the success he achieved with Tobacco Road, but he remained active on the New York theater scene for the next thirty years. In 1936 he coproduced two unsuccessful plays; in 1938, he adapted and coproduced John Steinbeck’s short novel Tortilla Flat for the stage. I Must Love Somebody proved to be Kirkland’s second hit, although its run of 191 performances did not challenge the success of Tobacco Road. For the next two decades Kirkland continued to write and produce, but none of these efforts was particularly memorable.

When Kirkland died of heart trouble, he was remembered primarily for Tobacco Road. Indeed, he never wrote anything as good, and he returned to the material at various times in his career, through revivals (in 1950 it was revived with an all-black cast) or revisions (at his death he had recently completed a musical version called “Jeeter”).

BibliographyCaldwell, Erskine. Introduction to Tobacco Road: A Three Act Play. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1952. Caldwell’s introduction to Kirkland’s adaptation recalls Tobacco Road’s origins, reception, and ultimate success. Beginning as “an unwelcome intruder in the American theater” and often censored or banned in performances throughout the United States, the play nevertheless captured the imagination of the American people and the world.Caldwell, Erskine. “Two Years on the Road.” The New York Times, December 1, 1935. Essay that sheds light on the genesis and reception of Kirkland’s most famous work.Fearnow, Mark. The American Stage and the Great Depression: A Cultural History of the Grotesque. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Contains a discussion of how Kirkland’s Tobacco Road combined sex and poverty to create what the author called a “burlesque of anxiety.” Details audience reaction and changes in the subsequent film version.Howard, William L. “Caldwell on Stage and Screen.” In Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered, edited by Edwin T. Arnold. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. In this article about adaptations made of Caldwell’s novels, Kirkland’s interpretation of Tobacco Road is compared unfavorably to the original novel. Howard believes that the play distorted Caldwell’s intentions, turning sympathetic understanding and a respect for the social realities of poor whites into slapstick comedy and sentimentality.“Jack Kirkland Is Dead at Sixty-six; Was Tobacco Road Adapter.” The New York Times, February 23, 1969, p. A73. This obituary is a good source of biographical facts and includes a list of the most notable writings.Krutch, Joseph Wood. “Poor White.” Review of Tobacco Road, by Jack Kirkland. The Nation 137 (December 20, 1933): 718. This review by a distinguished critic is a probing analysis of Tobacco Road’s mood of “grotesque and horrible humor.” Noting that the “emotional meaning” of the work is ambiguous, Krutch nevertheless categorizes it as a comedy, explaining that the spectator’s detachment from the characters is a necessary ingredient of the comic mode.Rigdon, Walter. The Biographical Encyclopaedia and Who’s Who of American Theatre. New York: J. H. Heineman, 1965. A compilation of basic facts about Kirkland’s life, including information about his family, marriages, education, career as a journalist, service in the military, and the conflict surrounding his birthdate. Lists the plays and work for the film industry.
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