KZN’s very own screen wizard

2011-12-22 00:00

THE classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland has been described as the world’s most popular film, seen by more people — over a billion — than any other. In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked it the 10th “Greatest Movie of All Time”.

So perhaps it’s worth remembering that the main scribe involved in the film’s screenplay was a South African, Noel Langley, who was born in Durban on Christmas Day in 1911, 100 years ago. Langley is credited with the adaptation from L. Frank Baum’s original book (itself a classic, published in 1900) and shares the script credit with Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf.

Langley’s story is told in “Noel Langley and Co: Some South Africans in Showbiz Abroad”, a paper by Stephen Gray that will be published next year.

Noel Langley’s father was schoolmaster Aubrey Samuel Langley who, according to Gray “made a name for himself as a big-game hunter and as the ferocious advocate of the manly sporting activity of rugby”. Langley senior banished soccer, which he hated, from Maritzburg College in the late 1890s and did the same at Durban Boys’ High within a year of becoming headmaster in 1909.

A great advocate of corporal punishment, Langley “was disliked and feared by the boys and I suspect the masters too”, according to a pupil. Neither did Langley spare the rod when it came to his own son, Noel, who developed a deep hatred of his father whose face — “as highly coloured as the school buildings” — was thanks to a taste for alcohol as much as outdoor sport.

Leaving DHS in 1930, Langley went on to the University of Natal, graduating with a BA in 1934. While at varsity he became active in student theatre and produced his first play, Mrs Moonlight. In 1932 his play Queer Cargo (about pirates) was performed by the Durban Repertory Theatre.

After graduation, Langley left for England, fortuitously meeting aboard ship the cousin of Charles Wyndham, owner of London’s Wyndham’s Theatre, where Queer Cargo would subsequently enjoy a seven-month run (incidentally providing Alec Guinness with his first professional role).

Langley soon had other plays on the West End stage, including For Ever, an historical melodrama set in 13th century Florence, and Farm of Three Echoes, a South African set-drama starring May Whitty, Sybil Thorndike and a teenage Jessica Tandy.

But Langley’s big breakthrough came in 1935 with the publication of his first novel, Cage Me a Peacock, a social and political satire set in Ancient Rome. A stage musical version subsequently ran for two years during World War 2. In 1959 the novel was declared “undesirable” by the newly created South African Directorate of Publications.

Ever prolific, another novel from Langley, There’s a Porpoise Close Behind Us, followed in 1936, a comedy about theatre life in London. The same year also saw the publication of Langley’s children’s book, The Land of Green Ginger, which remains popular today.

Langley was now flush with cash (his first years in London had been financed by an anonymous Durban businessman) and could send money back home. And so he did, “sending back sufficient funds to Durban”, according to Gray, “for his detested father to drown himself in whisky”.

According to a letter written by Jack Cope to former DHS teacher Hubert Jennings: “Ever since a lad Noel had sworn to kill the old man. He was now achieving his goal by sending him several thousand a year to finance his purchase of liquor.” Langley senior succumbed to drink in December 1939.

Langley had already had a hand in scripting a couple of British films, King of the Damned, a prison island parable, starring Conrad Veidt, and the espionage drama Secret of Stamboul, starring Valerie Hobson and James Mason. This experience, as well as his stage successes, saw Langley heading for Hollywood with a seven-year contract as a screenwriter.

In 1937 Langley married his “Pietermaritzburg sweetheart”, Naomi Mary Legate, in Los Angeles, and they subsequently had five children.

Langley’s first Hollywood script credit was on Maytime (1937), a musical vehicle for Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Then, thanks in part to his children’s hit The Land of Green Ginger, he was given the job of adapting The Wizard of Oz.

Langley first provided a 43-page adaptation, turning it out in 11 days. His main change from the book was to introduce the Oz characters — the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion — as farmhands in the sepia sequence set in Kansas that precedes young Dorothy and her dog Toto’s whirlwind arrival in the land of Oz. Langley also changed Dorothy’s all-important shoes from silver to ruby — a hue better suited to technicolour.

Langley then produced a final draft shooting script. Unknown to him — and he was angry when he found out — Ryerson and Woolf were hired to do a rewrite. However, MGM producer Arthur Freed was unhappy with their work and Langley was brought back on board. Langley, who later said he found their version “so cutesy and oozy that I could have vomited”, proceeded to remove as much of their work as possible, replacing it with his own.

The resultant film was released in August 1939. “I saw it in a cinema on Hollywood Boulevard at noon,” recalled Langley. “And I sat and cried like a bloody child. I thought, ‘This is a year of my life’. I loathed the picture. I thought it missed the boat all the way around. I had to wait for my tears to clear before I went out of the theatre.”

Right: Noel Langley.

Langley saw the film for a second time in England during its 1949 re-release: “Suddenly, I could see it objectively for the first time. And I thought, ‘It’s not a bad picture. Not a bad picture, you know’.”

During World War 2, Langley enlisted in the Canadian Navy and in his spare time while serving as a lieutenant successfully tried his hand at short stories. One of them, Serenade for Baboons, set in the Drakens­berg, was later reprinted in Herbert van Thal’s 1959 landmark collection, The Pan Book of Horror Stories.

War over, Langley returned to England and settled at Kingston-upon-Thames. The novels and plays kept on coming, there was The Music of the Heart, about a band of circus performers caught in Poland at the beginning of the war and the play Edward, My Son with Robert Morley (who would lead a 1976 protest outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square when John Kani and Winston Ntshona were arrested in the Transkei “homeland” following a performance of Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi is Dead).

Langley’s involvement in the film industry saw him bouncing between Britain and Hollywood. He scripted several notable films, including Tom Brown’s School Days (1951), Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953). He also wrote and directed a version of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1952). His other directorial credits included Our Girl Friday (1953), starring Joan Collins, and Svengali (1954), starring Donald Wolfit.

In California in 1954, Langley divorced his wife, obtaining custody of the children. She, it is thought, returned to Pietermaritzburg. While in the U.S. he wrote and directed The Search for Bridey Murphey (1956), based on a celebrated case of apparent reincarnation. This later saw him have a hand in the 1967 book Edgar Cayce on Reincarnation.

Earlier Langley wrote what some consider his best novel, Where did Everybody Go (1960), a “savage chronicle”, according to the Times Literary Supplement, of post-war cultural life sampled via a set of characters in Tangier. Its dedicatee was Pamela Deeming, an actress who Langley married in 1959. Two years later he became a U.S. citizen.

According to Gray: “Last heard of, Noel Langley was resident in Desert Hot Springs in Southern California. There he worked part time rehabilitating young drug addicts and there he died on November 4, 1980.”

Over the years, Langley sent many of his diaries, director’s notes and album’s of clippings to his sister Evie in South Africa. She duly deposited this material at the Campbell Collections at the University of KZN

Langley made one attempt to return to Oz, writing a screenplay based on Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz. It was never produced.

• “Noel Langley and Co: Some South Africans in Showbiz Abroad” by Stephen Gray will appear in the next edition of Current Writing published by the Southern African Literature and Culture Centre, with assistance from the English Department, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, and due out in March.

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