The WGF Blog:

Dispatches from the far reaches of the WGF.

Tad Mosel: From Golden Age TV to Calvin Coolidge High

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Working at the WGF Library for the past few months has given me the opportunity to discover many writers whose names are new to me. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that one of these writers is the brilliant Tad Mosel, whose 1967 film Up the Down Staircase will screen this Sunday as part of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s film series “Golden Age Television Writers on the Big Screen,” co-presented by the Writers Guild Foundation. 

Tad Mosel was born in Ohio in 1922, but moved to New York at the age of nine. He developed an early interest in the theater, and went on to study drama at Amherst College, completing his degree after serving three years in the Army. After the war, Mosel attended Yale and Columbia, landed a non-speaking role in the 1949 Broadway show At War With the Army, and started writing plays. Along with so many other young writers at the time, Mosel heard that television producers were desperate for material, so he studied the shows on the air and began writing and submitting television scripts.

Cover photo of Tad Mosel from Other People’s Houses: Six Television Plays by Tad Mosel (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956)

Mosel finally found success in 1953, when several of his teleplays — including Ernie Barger is 50, Other People’s Houses, and The Haven — were produced for the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, and Mosel started working with producer Fred Coe, who became his mentor and close collaborator. This was the heyday of live television drama, and Mosel’s thoughtful character-centered stories were an ideal fit with the new medium. Over the next ten years, Mosel wrote many more original and adapted plays for television, including four for the prestigious anthology program Playhouse 90. Mosel also went back to the stage, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for his play All the Way Home, adapted from the novel A Death in the Family by James Agee.

Highly acclaimed for both his television and stage work, Mosel was a bit of a latecomer to the big screen, and in the end, had only two feature films produced. The first, Dear Heart (1964), was an adaptation of Mosel’s The Out-of-Towners, a television play that originally aired on Studio One in 1957. Directed by Delbert Mann, the movie version starred Geraldine Page as Evie Jackson, the lovelorn postmistress who falls for a traveling salesman played by Glenn Ford. (On television, the role of Evie was played by Eileen Heckart, a friend and frequent actress-collaborator of Mosel’s who also appears in Up the Down Staircase as Henrietta Pastorfield.)

The second film credit for Mosel was Up the Down Staircase, based on the first novel by Bel Kaufman, a longtime teacher who tapped into the zeitgeist with her brilliant account of life inside a public high school.  In an interview with the Archive of American Television in 1997, Mosel talked about getting the opportunity to write the screen adaptation of Kaufman’s runaway best-seller. He had been working on developing another project with producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan, and happened to be with the producing partners when they learned that Warner Bros. had won a bidding war and secured the rights to the Kaufman book for their company. Mosel recalled, “I was in the hotel room, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, when Alan and Bob got the rights. And the dears, they turned away from the telephone, and they said, ‘Will you write it?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ I hadn’t even read it! But to work with those two men, I would have dramatized the telephone book.”

Soon however, Mosel realized he had a real challenge on his hands:

It was a tough job, it really was. The movie was very successful, but it was very hard to do. It was an epistolary novel. It was all letters and notes in wastebaskets and in suggestion boxes and directives from the Board of Education and from the library. There was no straight narrative except in some letters that the young teacher wrote to her friend.

Well, this was very hard to pull into a viable screenplay. And it was Bob one day who said, “The main character in this movie is a building. It’s Public School Number 181, whatever it is, Calvin Coolidge High School.” He said, “We will open with a medium shot of the school, we will close with a medium shot of the school, and between we will never leave the school. We will go to the corner so that you can see the leading character in the background. But we’ll spend most of the picture inside and the school will talk, it will make noises. Bells will ring. Doors will slam. Windows will break. And that was the basis on which we did the movie. And it was a wonderful basis, it really was. And it shows in the movie, because the movie has a wholeness to it, which it wouldn’t have if it didn’t have that solid, hideous building, that you were forced to look at about every ten minutes.

It worked. Mosel’s screenplay puts Calvin Coolidge High School front and center from page one, and almost makes you forget that all of the action is confined to the school building and the mean streets surrounding it. Here are the first two pages of Mosel’s script, which set the scene:

But it wasn’t only the building that had to be established as a character — it was also the teachers and students who showed up at school every day. Kaufman’s eclectic novel was made up of written communication of every form (letters, memos, notes, diary entries, circulars, directives), but by design it didn’t include descriptions of people and settings beyond what could be gleaned from those writings. Mosel had to find a way to create characters and situations and form them into a storyline while still capturing the chaotic spirit of the book, which was infused with both comedy and pathos.

One way that he did this was by going to the source. In his oral history, Mosel said that he “had to spend a lot of time in ghetto schools in New York City, visiting and listening to kids, because we had 300 of them in the movie. I wrote all through the filming, because I would hear the kids say something and I would want to get it into the screenplay.” This willingness to express what kids are really saying and thinking, from their own point of view, closely mirrors what Bel Kaufman accomplished in her book, and shows why Tad Mosel was an inspired choice to write the screenplay for the film. His empathy for all of the characters — the teachers, the students, even the administrators — comes through on every page. This is especially true in the scenes where Sylvia Barrett struggles to make a connection with her students, both individually and in class, as well as in the painful love letter scene between the heartbroken Alice Blake and the arrogant Mr. Barringer.

Of course, Bel Kaufman’s book was first and foremost a critique of a system that puts paperwork and regulations over people, and the film needed to incorporate in a good number of the ridiculous edicts that Kaufman lampooned so expertly. Mosel doesn’t let Kaufman’s readers down in this department. The petite Sandy Dennis, who plays Sylvia Barrett, is buried in paper from the first moment she walks into the office and punches her time card, and Mosel makes sure that Sylvia and her fellow teachers are constantly besieged with forms, reports, applications, permission slips and other useless items that need to be filed with the harried school secretary. All of that detail pays off in Mosel’s satisfying final scene, when Sylvia tears up that resignation form and heads up the down staircase. In the end, things aren’t perfect — but maybe they’re getting better.

If you would like to spend some time reading Tad Mosel’s remarkable work, visit us at the Writers Guild Foundation Library. In addition to the screenplays for Up the Down Staircase and Dear Heart, our collection includes Mosel’s published teleplays, as well as scripts for three of his Playhouse 90 episodes. I also highly recommend taking a look at Mosel’s Archive of American Television interview.