Teaching Sweet Smell of Success: Bringing Students to the Archive

Patrick Keating


In Spring 2013, I took a group of students to visit the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, where we studied multiple drafts of the screenplay to the 1957 film noir Sweet Smell of Success (USA, Alexander Mackendrick, 1957). As an instructor, this exercise helped me think through several larger pedagogical questions about the role of primary-source research in a film history class. How does one structure a first-time archival research project for undergraduate Communication students? How might the project serve to spark deeper thinking about historiography? What choices should the instructor make to help students develop their own original arguments about a specific film?

First, a little context. The course was “History of Mass Media,” a 3000-level survey of American media history from the colonial period to the present, covering print, radio, television, film, and the Internet. Most of the students were juniors and seniors majoring in Communication. My university had recently completed a strategic plan that emphasized experiential learning, encouraging hands-on lessons and teaching outside the traditional classroom. We also had invested considerable resources in promoting information literacy. A trip to an archive offered an experiential approach to information literacy: students would get out of the classroom and tackle a problem, and then we could use class time to reflect on what they had learned about working with primary documents. One of my goals was to teach hands-on research skills, like sorting through a mass of folders, distinguishing between important and unimportant information, and taking efficient but informative notes. An equally important goal was to make visible the work that goes into crafting a historical argument, thereby sharpening students’ ability to think about the use of evidence in our class readings.

Trinity University, where I teach, is only 75 minutes from Austin, close enough for a one-day field trip to the Ransom Center. The archive’s collection includes the papers of several prominent screenwriters, and I decided that it might be interesting to follow the course of a screenplay draft from its early stages to the finished film. This brought me to my first choice: Should I have separate groups working on different films? Or should all the groups focus on the same film? With only nine students, I decided on the latter strategy. Focusing on one film supported my pedagogical goal of teaching historiography; we could see how different arguments emerged from the same set of evidence.

For the film, I selected Sweet Smell of Success, based on a novella by Ernest Lehman, whose archive is at the Center. Having read James Naremore’s splendid history of the film, I knew that Lehman had written several drafts of the script before leaving the project due to illness, and possibly to frustration from working with the demanding producers.[1] The playwright Clifford Odets was brought in to polish Lehman’s last draft, and he ended up making substantial revisions. The archive’s holdings for this film consist of three large boxes and a folder, a perfect size for three small groups to examine, as each group could look at one box at a time. The film’s production history was complicated enough to merit further research, but not so complicated as to be overwhelming. As an added benefit, the tone and setting of Sweet Smell of Success served to foreshadow Mad Men, which we would be studying in the last week of class.


Structuring the Assignment

The assignment had five components spaced out over a few weeks. First, we watched the film in class and discussed its themes and style. Second, students completed some preliminary readings: the novella and the two short stories on which Lehman had based the original script, along with several chapters from a book on directing by Alexander Mackendrick, the film’s director.[2] Third, working in small groups, students gave preliminary presentations comparing the film to one of the stories. The fourth and crucial stage was the visit to the archive itself: working in small groups, students had several hours to examine primary documents. Fifth, students gave a final presentation about the film, incorporating research they had found in the archive. Crucially, this last presentation had to be argumentative. I did not want students merely to summarize what they found. I wanted them to make an argument about the film, using archival evidence to support their claims. I also asked that each presentation include a reflective component, addressing broader historiographic questions. What evidence did they expect to find? What evidence did they actually find? How did their thinking about the film change as a result of their research? To encourage greater intellectual risk taking, I made this a “low stakes” project (grade-wise) and asked students to present their findings in a group presentation instead of a written paper.

This visit involved considerable logistical work on my part. I applied for and received two grants from my university to help cover the cost of gas and meals; I met with Risk Management to ensure that we complied with appropriate regulations about driving students; I talked to my film librarian and asked him to accompany me on the trip. Visiting the Ransom Center ahead of time, I laid the groundwork for the class visit, working with staff to determine where a group of nine students might be accommodated comfortably with minimal disruption to other researchers. Happily, the Ransom Center was able to set aside a separate workroom for us, and they kindly supplied an assistant curator to be in the room with us at all times. A second preparatory trip enabled me to review the holdings personally and prepare a detailed list of all the relevant files in the archive. Among the highlights: Lehman’s first full draft, Lehman’s last draft, the first draft by Odets, the last draft by Odets, and a special folder containing early notes by Lehman, including some scribbled ideas for making the film a Joan Crawford vehicle. (Crawford would have played the Burt Lancaster part.) With this list in hand, and all the logistics taken care of, I felt ready for the trip.


Our Day at the Ransom Center

Several times, I told students that the field trip was the centerpiece of the class, and everyone assured me that they were available on the day we selected. On the morning of the trip, I received e-mails from two separate students, saying they were unable to make the trip due to “illness.” I was pretty sure that one of the students had a hangover. I thought of quoting J.J. Hunsecker (“Conjugate me a verb. For instance, ‘to promise.’”). I thought of quoting Steve Dallas (“That’s fish four days old. I’m not buying it.”). Instead, I wrote a polite but terse reply, letting them know they would have to complete an alternate assignment and telling them that I hoped they felt better soon. The group now comprised seven students, one auditing alumnus, the librarian, and me. We split into two cars. One of the attending students seemed to have a hangover, too, and he got carsick. The other students were all in great form, eager to participate. Arriving at the Ransom Center, we watched the orientation video and entered the room where the Lehman materials were ready for us.

I divided students into three groups and encouraged them to grab a folder and start looking. At first, my instructions were minimal; rather than tell the students what to look at, I wanted to give them an authentic experience of searching. About an hour into the exercise, I began to worry that this instructional strategy might have backfired. Students seemed overwhelmed by the amount of material available to them and unsure of how to focus their efforts. One group seemed to be reading every single page of a complete 150-page draft, a task that could have taken the rest of the day. Another group, through no fault of their own, had picked a folder that I knew was unpromising. Should I tell them to put it back and get another one? Or should I lay back and let them figure it out for themselves? After all, historical research is like that: sometimes, you find useless folders and you have to wade through them until you figure it out.

In the second hour, I decided to give more active instruction. From my previous trips, I knew that one item was particularly useful: this was the folder containing director Alexander Mackendrick’s comments on a Lehman draft, along with Lehman’s handwritten, angry responses (“NO!”). Nobody had looked at it yet, so I gave that folder to one group and told them that each team would get one hour to look at it. Still, I tried not to be overly dictatorial. I never sat down with a group to read over their shoulders. Instead I occasionally rotated from group to group just to observe and check-in, and I encouraged my colleague, the librarian, to do the same.

After the lunch break, things started to come together. All three groups had developed a specific research question to pursue, and suddenly they became like detectives hunting down clues to solve a mystery. They got better at opening up a folder and finding information directly relevant to their questions. For instance, one group had decided to focus on the changing nature of the film’s tricky final scene. They didn’t waste time reading unnecessary early scenes and instead took detailed notes on a laptop about the specific wording that Lehman, and later Odets, had used to write the finale. Now that each group had developed a targeted research question, I got more specific in my instructions, guiding students to the exact folders that they should examine next. This was the most exciting part of the project, as the groups were coming together and “thinking like historians.”

A couple of hours later, the mood of the room shifted again. Most of the groups were feeling satisfied that they had answered their questions and began to grow a little restless. So I visited each group one last time, and I looked over my list of documents to make sure that nothing had been overlooked. We ended up leaving Austin around 4 pm, about 6 hours after we had arrived.


After the Archive

The next week, students gave their presentations, and I am happy to say that they were all thoughtful and on-point. One group talked about the representation of the film’s major female character, Susan. They argued convincingly that she had grown weaker–and, in their view, less interesting–over the course of the script’s successive drafts. This group did a great job supporting their argument with well-chosen quotations, from Lehman’s first version to Odets’s last. Another group discussed the issue of morality, noting that Lehman’s early drafts included a character who served as the voice of integrity.  The character, usually a close relative of Sidney’s, was eliminated from later drafts; in the finished film, the role of Frank D’Angelo quietly fulfills the same function. This group used Mackendrick’s notes particularly well, quoting passages where the director had criticized these moralizing portions of the script as elements that were important to Lehman and to no one else. A third group picked up on Mackendrick’s idea, articulated in the director’s own writings (which the class had read previously), that most characters wear a “social mask.”[3] They proposed several scenes where the writers may have incorporated that idea. I was happy that the three groups constructed three different arguments. Heading into the project, one of my pedagogical goals was to encourage students to think about the role of interpretation in history. Historians interpret the evidence they find, and their interpretations shape their decisions about which facts seem important and which facts seem irrelevant. All three groups were working with the same set of documents, but they developed three different interpretations and highlighted three different aspects of the screenplays they examined.


History and Storytelling

Looking back, I could have pushed the students to discuss the idea of historical argument as a form of storytelling more fully. Throughout the archive, there appear notes by Lehman, providing context for each document–naturally, a context favorable to Lehman himself. Introducing Sweet Smell of Success, he makes it clear that he likes the finished film, but he thinks it would have been even better if a group of scoundrels hadn’t driven him nearly to insanity, eventually forcing him to take a trip to Tahiti to restore his mental health. Indeed, the collection as a whole can be seen as an attempt by Lehman to tell a story about himself–the “screenwriter as auteur.” One group gave a presentation that was largely sympathetic to Lehman. This group preferred Lehman’s Susan to the one who appears in the finished film; implicitly, they told a story of a “good writer betrayed,” casting Mackendrick and Odets as villains who weakened a potentially more interesting script, with a potentially more complex female character. The other two groups treated Lehman rather more skeptically. For the group studying the morality angle, the tale was just the opposite: not the good writer betrayed, but the “bad writer saved.” Lehman had insisted on including voices of morality in the script, and Mackendrick had fought vigorously against him, eventually getting his wish through the more cynical Odets draft. It was as if Mackendrick had saved Lehman from his most pedantic impulses. The third presentation tilted the balance even more heavily toward Mackendrick, almost to the point of advancing a traditional auteurist reading of the film, privileging the director as a guiding force. They suggested that Mackendrick was responsible for the social mask idea, planting the idea in his writers’ heads and seeing it through to the finished film. Each group of students told a story, situating documents within a larger narrative arc. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the nature of the assignment itself–a production history. As a genre, the production history pushes scholars to think in narrative terms, with various historical agents competing against each other to control the structure and meaning of the finished film.

Of course, I approached these documents with my own narrative in mind. In my view, Lehman was responsible for the characters and for the architecture of the plot, but Odets was responsible for all the best lines, contributing a thoroughgoing dialogue polish that elevated a good script into a great one. I looked at the research and saw a tale of “potential fulfilled.” Nobody advanced that argument in class, and it is just as well. Watching the students construct three different arguments–all compelling, none in agreement with my own–provided a good reminder that my own account of the production of Sweet Smell of Success was just as much an interpretation as theirs.


Patrick Keating is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University, where he teaches courses in film and media studies. He is the author of Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir (2010) and the editor of Cinematography (2014).




[1] James Naremore, Sweet Smell of Success (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[2] Ernest Lehman, Sweet Smell of Success: The Short Fiction of Ernest Lehman (New York: The Overlook Press, 2000); and Alexander Mackendrick, On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director, ed. Paul Cronin (New York: Faber and Faber, 2004).

[3] Mackendrick, On Film-Making, 17.

The Cine-Files, Issue 9 (fall 2015)

Leave a Reply