Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:
JAMES JONES – Some Came Running. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1957. Signet, paperback, abridged edition, 1958.
SOME CAME RUNNING. MGM, 1958. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy, Nancy Gates, Franklyn Farnum, Denny Miller, James Jones. George E. Stone . Written by John Patrick and Arthur Sheekman. Directed by Vincente Minnelli.
As I read this I kept wondering if it was indeed a Great American Novel — on the order of Look Homeward Angel or Sometimes a Great Notion — and when I finished I had to conclude: Not quite, but you can see it from there.
I was prompted to read the original full-length edition by George Kelley’s article which I recommend to your attention. Running covers a few post-war years in small-town mid-America (1947 to 1950 to be exact) and it captures a sense of ordinary people struggling to come to terms with their lives in the midst of the post-war boom — and mostly failing.
The center of the novel is Dave Hirsch, a late-arriving veteran home from the wars, failed writer and a perennial ne’er-do-well. Inadvertently returning to his home town of Parkman Illinois, he quickly manages to become the center of local gossip by insulting his respectable brother Frank (who sent him away years ago with five bucks to make his start in life) and hooking up with ’Bama Dillert, a local gambler and all-around low-life, who is also one of the greatest creations in 20th century fiction.
There are in fact, quite a few all-around low-lifes in Running: easy women, feckless young men, town tramps and unredeemed bums, all observed by Jones with a passionate objectivity that makes them real and poignant on the page. There’s also Parkman’s “better element”: the upwardly mobile Frank and his family, a minor poet and his college professor daughter, local politicos and landed gentry—not merely background characters, but vital parts of a vivid and complex story.
In fact there are no minor characters in Some Came Running, or damn few, anyway, and this is the novel’s greatest strength. When Jones brings someone on stage, he brings on a person, not a character. His people are complex, ambitious, troubled, and all too prone to screw up their lives. And when they converse, it’s a real conversation: rambling, lengthy, and real-sounding.
Which may be one reason why the novel flopped; all that depth and realism takes a lot of ink to put across: 1266 pages of it in fact, a daunting prospect for any but the most avid reader. The main problem with the book though, is that it’s a bit of a downer; without giving away too much, let me just say that most of the characters manage to mess up their lives pretty thoroughly, and by the end Jones’ gloomy outlook actually starts to seem somewhat gratuitous — as if he were trying for Melancholy and overshot the mark rather badly.
Along the way though, there’s some damn fine writing: a searing love story, a compelling look into the mind of a writer and the creative process, a road trip to make Kerouac envious, and an overall structure that keeps the reader hooked and wanting more. Despite its flaws and overall despondency, Some Came Running has a lot to reward the patient reader willing to risk a bout of clinical depression at book’s end.
MGM filmed this in 1958 and, scenting profit but wary of a bespoke flop, Signet put out an abridged edition with pictures of the movie stars on the back cover. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Lee Sandlin described the paperback as “brutally abridged” but it ain’t that bad. And at 620-some pages, it’s hardly a negligible read. I found that it cut a lot of the depth from Jones’ novel, but it added a certain momentum and focus. You needn’t be ashamed of reading it, if you don’t feel like mortgaging your summer with the unabridged text.
I suspect MGM bought the book sight unseen after the success of From Here to Eternity and only belatedly realized they had Moby Dick on their hands. Nothing daunted, producer Sol C. Siegel (whose credits range from the 1930s Lone Ranger serial to Ben-Hur) hired a Pulitzer-winning writer and a gagman for the Marx Brothers to wrest something commercially acceptable out of it, ensured box-office returns by casting Sinatra, Martin and MacLaine, then wisely hired Vincente Minnelli to balance the artistry and melodrama as only he could—and oh yes: they slathered a wonderful Elmer Bernstein score all over it to accentuate the moody quality of the thing.
Any film based on a book like this is bound to cut something out, and this one cuts more than its share. The result is a fine drama, with here and there a line or two from the book. Writers Patrick and Sheekman change the ending with a cavalier attitude, but more than that, they make subtle but important changes to the characters and overall tone of the tale. Dave Hirsch in the book is fat, awkward and a born follower. In the film, he’s “Ladies and gentlemen…. Frank Sinatra!” cool, self-assured, with a stacked deck of smooth lines he deals out with the assurance of a Big Star. Dean Martin is ideal as “Bama Dillert — one of the best bits of casting Hollywood ever did — but the biggest change comes in the character of Ginnie Morehead.
In the book, Ginnie is… well, instead of me doing all the work, why don’t you pick up a thesaurus and look up “dull”, “bland”, “repellent”, and maybe “loathsome.” You got it. Shapeless, shallow and intellectually lazy, she garners some sympathy at first as we see her, obviously starved for affection, sadly giving out sex for a few minutes of something that looks a little like love. As the book progresses though, she becomes less of a waif and more of a shrike. By novel’s end, you may actually hate her.
But that’s in the book. In the Movie, she’s Shirley MacLaine at her best: vibrant, vulnerable, and carrying the greatest purse ever in the Movies. This is more than just a Star Performance; it’s a concept that radically transforms the story.
To say they changed the ending here, is a bit like saying Custer had a bad day, but the alterations are completely in keeping with the moody tone of the film itself. Where the folks in Jones’ novel seek acceptance and find alienation, the characters in the movie seek love and find acceptance. Important characters in the book die alone, but in the film death brings them together.
I don’t know how Jones felt about the movie (he has a bit part in it.) Maybe he felt betrayed, maybe he was just glad to get the money. But Some Came Running is an easy film to enjoy.