As a screenwriter, Agee may have had his run-ins with directors who changed his scripts, but he still received sole credit for writing two of the great...
“James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family and Shorter Fiction”
Library of America, 818 pp., $35
“James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism”
Library of America, 748 pp., $35
As a film critic, James Agee could say the meanest things in the nicest way.
“I can recommend ‘Lassie Come Home’ to any dog who will check his interest in films in the theater lobby,” he wrote in 1943.
Reacting negatively to rave reviews of “Casablanca” in the same year, he did grant that “it is obviously an improvement on one of the world’s worst plays.”
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When he really liked a movie, he could be nice in a manner that was distinctly his: “Tardily, I arch my back and purr deep-throated approval of ‘The Curse of the Cat People.’ “
As a screenwriter, Agee may have had his run-ins with directors who changed his scripts, but he still received sole credit for writing two of the great American films of the 1950s: John Huston’s “The African Queen,” which earned an Oscar for Humphrey Bogart and a nomination for Agee, and Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter,” starring Robert Mitchum as a homicidal preacher and Lillian Gish as the scripture-spouting lady who sees through his hypocrisy.
As a novelist, Agee could be intensely personal, using his own memories as the basis for “A Death in the Family,” which won him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize; it was later staged, filmed and produced for television as “All the Way Home.” His most famous nonfiction work, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a 1941 report on Alabama sharecroppers, was illustrated by Walker Evans’ vivid photographs.
All but “The African Queen” and a few other scripts are republished in the Library of America’s new two-volume edition of Agee’s work, which includes Evans’ photographs. It was edited by Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow. Like Beacon Press’ 1958 collection, “Agee on Film,” it includes the movie reviews he wrote for both Time and The Nation; frequently he wrote about the same films for both publications, emphasizing a less personal approach in the Time reviews.
Also included in the Library’s collection are essays he wrote about Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck and the groundbreaking Italian films of the late 1940s, plus short stories, book reviews and the 1951 novella, “The Morning Watch.” Especially interesting are a 1951 story, “A Mother’s Tale,” a barnyard allegory that suggests the Holocaust, and “Death in the Desert,” a 1930 tale of religion-fueled racial prejudice.
As is standard with Library of America editions, Sragow provides a chronology at the back of both volumes; it begins with Agee’s birth in 1909 and ends with his death from a massive heart attack in 1955. It’s helpful, though it stops before Agee attained his greatest fame with the 1958 Pulitzer, the publication of his film reviews and the 1960 reissue of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Sragow’s chronology is the way it places certain works in context, especially the extraordinary “A Death in the Family,” which now seems more like a plotless document than a novel. Much of it focuses on a traumatized boy named Rufus (Agee’s middle name) who is forced to cope with the sudden death of Jay, his father, who introduced him to the movies (Agee’s father, nicknamed Jay, died instantly in a traffic accident when Agee was 6.). The stage, film and television versions cannot touch its wrenching beauty.