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 any streetwise reporter.
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 (1930), with Miriam Hopkins, and Now and Forever (1934), 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, however, 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, and 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 Georgian 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 every Broadway producer whom Kirkland approached. Finally, producer Harry Oshrin agreed to cosponsor the play. Kirkland put up his last six thousand dollars as investment and went into partnership with Oshrin and Sam H. Grisman, who became his lawyer and personal representative. The play, directed by Anthony Brown, 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), and the play lost thirty-eight hundred dollars in the first five weeks. To keep the play alive, ticket prices were reduced, the cast took pay cuts, and Kirkland and the others (except Caldwell) waived their royalties. “I had a hunch after that first night at the Masque that the show would click,” Kirkland later remembered. “It left me all in a heap.” After this shaky start, Tobacco Road established itself as a crowd-pleaser, and...
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