Search the Archive:

October 14, 2005

Back to the Table of Contents Page

Back to the Weekly Home Page


Publication Date: Friday, October 14, 2005

The Scholar and the Screenwriter The Scholar and the Screenwriter (October 14, 2005)

A life long passion leads to solving a mystery

by Julie Nostrand

Everyone tells a story about the "one that got away." It could be a big fish, the perfect job, the beautiful girl or an under-priced home in a great school district.

For Pleasanton resident and independent scholar John Wranovics, the 'one that got away' was a story never told, a manuscript that never saw the light of day.

Wranovics, who grew up in Chicago and Berkeley, was first introduced to the work of writer James Agee while haunting used book stores with his dad in the 1960s. His dad taught Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley, and Wranovics frequently heard his dad discussing Agee's work, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," with his colleagues. As a teen, John noticed Agee's titles on bookshelves. He became curious about the writer and started reading his work.

Many years later, when it came time for Wranovics to write his undergraduate thesis at Cal, he decided to research the multifaceted writer. Agee was successful in many forms of writing: He won a Pulitzer Prize for "A Death in the Family," garnered respect as an influential film critic of the 1940s and wrote a couple of very successful screenplays. However, Wranovics focused his thesis on the posthumous editing of the classic Agee novel "A Death in the Family." It was while researching his thesis that he stumbled upon a mystery. The Charlie Chaplin connection

In his studies, Wranovics found several references to a screenplay Agee was writing at the time of his death. There were hints that the missing script was written for Charlie Chaplin's character, The Little Tramp, but nothing concrete.

The mystery captivated Wranovics' imagination. A long-time silent film fan, Wranovics grew up enjoying the antics of Chaplin's 'Tramp' character, but solving the mystery was not the focus of his thesis and he put aside his findings.

After graduating with a degree in literature, Wranovics was free to explore all aspects of Agee's life and career. He poured himself into finding the lost screenplay with the dream of publishing "something" literary about the writer someday.

His investigation led Wranovics to believe the rumors were true. According to his findings, Agee held Chaplin in high regard and frequently lavished praise on the silent screen star in his film reviews. Chaplin and Agee were in Hollywood at roughly the same time, although Chaplin was not at his peak of popularity. There was little evidence that Chaplin and Agee knew each other, but their political views were similar, so anything was possible. Chasing a hunch

On a hunch, Wranovics followed up a research lead and obtained many Agee documents from the University of Texas at Austin's (UTA) collection. Included in the file was a disorganized, barely legible photocopy of an untitled, hand-written script. After spending a year transcribing the script, it became clear the script was the fabled missing work. However, there were problems. Several sections were missing or illegible and he needed the help of the Agee estate to further his efforts. He contacted the Agee Trust for consent to do "something" with the portions of the transcribed work.

The Trust's answer was an emphatic "No." Not only did the Trust refuse to cooperate with Wranovics or grant him any publishing rights, the trustee contacted UTA and advised the library to stop providing independent scholars with access to Agee's work. With research avenues closed and consent denied, the project was dead in 1987.

"I was frustrated at that point," said Wranovics of the early roadblocks. "In the back of my mind, this was the springboard into a writing career."

With his dreams dashed and student loans coming due, reality dictated that Wranovics find a job. While he never forgot about the project, he moved on. He took a job in the communications industry and went about building a life - getting married, having a couple of kids and buying a house in Pleasanton.

Despite the barriers, Wranovics remained an avid Agee scholar, collecting articles and books on the writer, and researching the writer extensively as more and more information became available on-line. His passion remained a hobby and the unrecovered Agee screenplay became the "one that got away." Hope revived

Then in 2001, 15 years after his initial inquiry, there was an interesting message on Wranovics' answering machine. The new trustee of the Agee Trust, Paul Sprecher, wanted to know if John was still interested in the project proposed in the mid-'80s.

"Scared" was Wranovics' initial feeling when he heard the message. "It is one thing to dream, but another to try to pull it off. But blowing it or not following up on the project," he said, "would have haunted me worse than not trying."

Knowing that closed doors rarely re-opened, Wranovics jumped on the chance to pursue his dream of publishing the Agee script and received the publishing permissions he had sought 15 years earlier.

Over the next three years, Wranovics' research efforts intensified, leading him on an odyssey into Hollywood of the 1940s. With the help of the Internet, Wranovics uncovered numerous letters between Chaplin and Agee that had never before been compiled. The correspondence painted the picture of a flourishing relationship.

Wranovics also contacted the Chaplin family. Through the Chaplin estate, he discovered that Agee had not only completed his script, but had delivered it to Chaplin. Nearly 20 years after his initial efforts, the Chaplin estate provided Wranovics with the complete Agee script.

"It happened when it was supposed to," said Wranovics of the many-year delay in finding the script. "It would have been impossible to find the correspondence and manuscript without the Internet." But is it a book?

At the beginning of 2001, Wranovics didn't know if he had the material for a book. He established a relationship with a publisher who was interested in his research and the script, but the scope of his project remained undefined. For a while it looked like the project might be a magazine article. But by early 2004, he knew he had enough material to deliver his first book.

And deliver he did. With the pressure of a publishing schedule to meet, Wranovics wrote his book in six months in the study cubicles at the Pleasanton Library, tables at the old Coffee Roast Express and booths at the Hop Yard Ale House and Grill. He submitted "Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer and the Lost Screenplay" to the publisher last fall. It was published in May of this year.

The book offers an account of the relationship between Agee and Chaplin through a collection of letters between the men and other notable Hollywood figures. It also provides a narrative that outlines the histories of the men, their careers and personal lives. For the first time ever, the screenplay James Agee wrote with The Little Tramp in mind is published in the back of the book. And the critics say

The book is receiving positive reviews, too. It was listed as a Critics Choice in the New York Times Sunday Book Review in June. Of the book, the New York Times states, "The spirit of James Agee comes through these pages beautifully, as do his passions."

Now that he has netted the "the one that (almost) got away," Wranovics is enjoying his success. He is speaking at local bookstores about not only his book, but also about his journey to publish this work. He has met friends from Agee's and Chaplin's lives and been a guest of "West Coast Live" on National Public Radio. He is now counted among the top scholars and writers on Agee.

"It just shows never give up on a dream," said Wranovics. "It took 18 years, but it happened." He hopes that he can be a role model for his two sons, ages 14 and 11, on the importance of tenacity and having the confidence that dreams do come true.

With sales of Chaplin and Agee going well, Wranovics has a new dream: Bring the script to life. Smiling, he said, "Getting it produced is the next fantasy."
The Screenwriter: Who Is James Agee?

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1909, James Agee is a critically acclaimed writer who practiced his craft in the first half of the 20th century. After completing his education at Harvard, Agee spread his work among many genres of writing including journalism, poetry, fiction and film.

Like many writers, Agee lived a hard life. Married three times, Agee was a heavy smoker and drinker who suffered a series of heart attacks beginning in 1951. His life was cut short by a heart attack in the back of a taxicab in 1955 at the age of 45. His broad-reaching success coupled with an early death created a cult-like following.

During his life, his work received modest praise. But since his death, his importance as a writer has emerged. In honor of the 50th anniversary of his death, Library of America is releasing two volumes of his work: one that includes many of his published film reviews and one that includes "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," "A Death in the Family" and "The Morning Watch." He is also credited with writing the screenplay for the Humphrey Bogart classic, "African Queen."

Voted one of the 'Books of the Century' by the New York Public Library, Agee's book with Walter Evans, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," was first published in 1941. This work is a must read for anyone interested in Agee's career. Of that work, the New York Times Book Review states that it is, "renowned for its fusion of social conscience and artistic radicality and for the way Evans' spare, tautly composed images and Agee's more extravagant prose complement and enhance each other."
The Scholar: Who Is John Wranovics?

Born in Chicago in late 1959, Wranovics grew up in literary circles. His dad taught college, first at the University of Chicago and later at the University of California at Berkeley. Through his early exposure to intellectual circles in the 1960s, Wranovics grew curious about Agee and started reading his work while still a teen.

His undergraduate thesis at Cal led him on an 18 year search for a long-lost Agee screenplay, written for Charlie Chaplin. Finding the screenplay and publishing it for the first time was the fulfillment of a life-long dream for Wranovics.

Wranovics is a marketing executive who currently lives in Pleasanton with his wife, Christine and their two sons, Jack, 14, and Matt, 11. He plans to continue his research on Agee and is working on a second book. Ironically, Wranovics wrote this book while he was 45, the same age Agee was when he died.

E-mail a friend a link to this story.

Copyright © 2005 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.