Documenting the Director: Delbert Mann, His Life, His Work, and His Papers

Border States Home Page Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 10 (1995)


Sarah Harwell
Vanderbilt University Library

The Papers of Delbert Mann at the Special Collections Library of Vanderbilt University provide not only a rich chronicle of the award-winning television and motion picture director's life and work, but also document the history of aspects of American popular culture and motion picture art in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Delbert Mann was born in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1920. He moved to Nashville, which he considers his home town, as a young boy when his father came to teach at Scarritt College. He graduated from Hume-Fogg High School and Vanderbilt University, where Dinah Shore and Mann's future wife, Ann Caroline Gillespie, were among his classmates. Also in Nashville he developed a lifelong friendship with Fred Coe through their mutual involvement in the Nashville Community Playhouse. Coe would play a very important role in Mann's life. A few months after his graduation from Vanderbilt in 1941, Mann joined the Eighth Air Force, for which he completed thirty-five missions as a pilot of a B-24 bomber. After the end of the Second World War he attended the Yale Drama School, followed by two years as director of the Town Theatre of Columbia, South Carolina.

In 1949, Fred Coe, already a producer at NBC television network, invited Delbert Mann to come to New York to direct live television drama on the "Philco Television Playhouse." Then in its infancy, television offered many fine original plays to its relatively small viewing audience. During the 1950s, now known as television's "Golden Age," Mann directed many critically acclaimed television dramas for the "Philco Playhouse," which later alternated weeks with the "Goodyear Television Playhouse," and "Producers' Showcase." Some of his productions during this period included Vincent Van Gogh, Sense and Sensibility, Anything Can Happen, October Story (with Julie Harris and Leslie Nielsen), Middle of the Night (with Eva Marie Saint and E.G. Marshall), two productions of Othello (one with Walter Matthau as Iago), The Petrified Forest (with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Jack Klugman), Darkness at Noon, a musical version of Our Town (with Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, and Frank Sinatra), and Marty (with Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand).

Marty was so successful as a television drama that in 1954 Mann, at playwright Paddy Chayefsky's insistence, went to Hollywood to direct a cinema version. This production, starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as Best Director and Best Leading Actor awards for Mann and Borgnine. Delbert Mann directed several more live television productions after Marty, but, in the second half of the decade, moved increasingly into directing feature films. During his long and distinguished career he has directed Separate Tables (with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and David Niven), The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (with Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire), The Outsider (with Tony Curtis), A Gathering of Eagles (with Rock Hudson), Lover, Come Back (with Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall), That Touch of Mink (with Doris Day and Cary Grant), and Dear Heart (with Glenn Ford and Geraldine Page).

Toward the end of the 1960s Mann turned his attention to television films, directing a variety of productions: Heidi (with Maximilian Schell, Michael Redgrave, and Jean Simmons), David Copperfield (with Robin Phillips, Richard Attenborough, Laurence Olivier, Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, Wendy Hiller, and Ralph Richardson), Jane Eyre (with George C. Scott and Susannah York), No Place to Run (with Herschel Bernardi, Tom Bosley, and Stefanie Powers), The Man Without a Country (with Cliff Robertson, Robert Ryan, and Beau Bridges), Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Plane Incident (with Lee Majors), All Quiet on the Western Front (with Richard Thomas, Patricia Neal, and Ernest Borgnine), Love Leads the Way (with Timothy Bottoms, Eva Marie Saint, and Arthur Hill), The Last Days of Patton (with George C. Scott and Eva Marie Saint), April Morning (with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Urich), and Ironclads (with Alex Hyde-White and Virginia Madsen), among many others.

Mann has prove himself adept at a great variety of genres, be they comedy, drama, literary classics, historical epics and vignettes, or stories drawn from contemporary headlines. He continues to work, although at a somewhat more relaxed pace. His most recent production, was Lily in Winter, starring Natalie Cole, released in December, 1994.

The Papers of Delbert Mann, which cover the period 1947-1993, consist of forty-five cubic feet of materials, and are primarily concerned with the professional life and career of the director. Major series in the papers include the Production Papers, General Correspondence, Script Reports, Writings, Personal and Biographical Material, Events and Activities, Theatre and Opera Collection, Photographs, Videotapes and other Special Media, and Scrapbooks.

The Production Papers form the heart of the collection. Most of the motion pictures, television films, and plays directed by Delbert Mann are well documented in the papers, although there is less material for the beginning of Mann's career, during which he directed live television drama. For later productions a Script is almost included. Cast Lists are quite common. Many of the Scripts are annotated by the director and reveal his views on character and action, as well as approaches to the technique of directing. Often included with the Script is a prose outline that provides a summary of the story, a description of the characters, and a delineation of the structure of the project. Cast Lists often include notes on interviews and auditions with people being considered for acting roles. Biographical details and physical characteristics may be part of the Cast Lists.

Another important component of the Production Papers is the sub-series simply called Notes. The Notes are quite substantive and comprise one of the best sources, in addition to the annotations of the scripts themselves, by which the user can gain insight into the director's thought processes as he works through the story that will become a motion picture or television film. Notes on music and sound are separately designated and placed after the general Notes.

Background papers reveal the research that goes into making a picture. They are most useful and voluminous for the historical or real-life productions, such as April Morning or A Gathering of Eagles, or in the productions based on classical literature, such as David Copperfield or Jane Eyre.

Documents on filming, with titles like Scene and Actor Breakdown or Scene and Timing Breakdown, provide information about the structure of each scene along with a list of characters in the scene or a notation of how long the scene should take. Other scene-related documents include plans for setting up and filming scenes, the program format for television films, lists of scenes to be cut or added, and the like.

A vital part of the Production Papers, Schedules tell the cast and crew members where they should be, how long they will be there, what they will be doing on any given day, and, in many cases, how much of the script should be filmed on that day. Related to Schedules are the Daily Production Reports. These reports tell how much of a production was filmed, note any special occurrences, and describe any problems encountered. The Daily Diary gives an hour-by-hour accounting of how the time was used during the shooting period.

Set documents include Set Lists, Set Designs, Illustrations, Sketches, Prop Lists, Wardrobe Lists, Wardrobe Notes, and even Animal Lists. Location Information is related the Set materials, and includes details about places in which a production is to be filmed.

The last grouping of the Production Papers consists of Publicity, Reviews, and Correspondence. The correspondence, both to and from Mann and others, consists of letters exchanged in planning the production, and congratulatory letters from viewers after the release of the production.

The General Correspondence is located after the Production Papers. It is comprised of letters not directly related to any one production, though it often includes letters from people with whom Delbert Mann has worked. Prominent correspondents include Steve Allen, Carol Burnett, Frank Capra, Paddy Chayefsky, Doris Day, Greer Garson, Lillian Gish, Julie Harris, Angela Lansbury, Anthony Hopkins, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power, Lee Remick, and Eva Marie Saint, among many others.

The Script Reports, 1960-1992, written by Mann about scripts that he was asked to consider, offer another perspective on the director's insight into the process of motion picture production. Mann's thoughts on what makes a good story, comments on character, structure, plausibility of story line, and various nuances, are revealed through his comments on the script under consideration.

The major component of Mann's Writings is the autobiography, entitled Looking Back. Mann's memoirs are remarkable in their thoroughness, providing detail and analysis on his career as a director. Writing in a conversational and graceful style, Mann relates stories of how productions were made, provides substantive information on productions for which there is little or no material elsewhere in the papers, and reminisces affectionately about his family, friends, and associates. He recounts the excitement and challenges encountered in exotic and rugged locales, the many elements that must be orchestrated to bring fragments together into the whole cloth of a film, the technique of directing, and amusing anecdotes about famous people.

Personal and Biographical Materials, which follow Mann's memoirs, provide a wealth of information about his life and work. Included are summaries and lists of his directing activities, biographical sketches, and articles. Various awards and honors won are also in this series. The Events and Activities series is closely related to the Biographical Material in that this series documents Mann's participation, usually as a panelist, in film and theatre festivals all over the world, including the Cork International Film Festival in Ireland and the Manila International Film Festival. Also of interest will be materials for the recent contest in which Mann served as a judge--

"The Search for Scarlett," for the film sequel to Gone With the Wind.

The Theatre and Opera Collection includes many programs from theatrical productions performed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville during the 1930s and early 1940s. They are usually signed by one or more of the actors, many of them legends of the stage: Helen Hayes, John and Ethel Barrymore, Judith Anderson, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Maurice Evans, Katherine Cornell, and Gertrude Lawrence, are just a few of the luminaries represented. Other theatres and companies are represented by the program: the Metropolitan Opera, The Theatre Guild, the New York City Opera Company, and the Ben Greet Players.

The Photographs, Videotapes, and Scrapbooks are placed at the end of the Papers because of their special storage requirements. Many of the photographs were taken from Mann's own productions; others are publicity pictures and informal shots of people with whom he has worked. Among the people represented in the photographs are Ernest Borgnine, Tony Curtis, Doris Day, Edith Evans, Grace Kelly, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, and David Niven. Videotapes of several Delbert Mann productions are in the collection, including The Marriages, The Medea Cup, The Red Mill, Wish on the Moon, and Without Fear or Favor. Finally, the Scrapbooks contain a treasure of information compiled over a career of some four and a half decades, include clippings, reviews, photographs, and correspondence about most of Delbert Mann's productions.

The hallmarks of Delbert Mann's directing style and philosophy are character development and realistic drama over plot and spectacle, the redeeming nature of personal relationships, an interest in portraying the lives of normal everyday people, and a naturalistic approach to directing. No director could have been better suited for bringing to life the human dramas of such writers as Paddy Chayefsky and Tad Mosel. Their work--Marty, Middle of the Night, The Bachelor Party, Dear Heart, Ernie Barger Is 50, All the Way Home--have as their themes various universal human concerns: loneliness, loyalty, redemption, acceptance, love, aging. They focus on small stories about the everyday lives of people and their relationships.

Delbert Mann has always made it easy for his actors to relate to these basic human issues. He recently said:

I've got to try to set an atmosphere of harmony and love and relaxation, as relaxed as one can make a set, because...there's going to be enough tension to go around, even under the best of circumstances....When, however, we have rehearsed the scenes and the actors are ready to work, I want discipline and I insist upon absolute silence...[I] prefer to work loosely and easily at first, letting the actors move rather freely and examining together with the actors the emotional content of the scenes and the physical movement that results therefrom...The good director...must make everything the actor does stay with in the framework of reality and truth for the characters in the script and their particular situation...Every move and position must be motivated truly.1
Delbert Mann is not a director known for imposing his world view or suffusing his productions with idiosyncrasies and flamboyant technique. As he points out: "I am not a great believer in the so-called 'Auteur' theory of film-making." Rather, he is a craftsman, imbuing his work with close attention to narrative, realism, balance, and continuity. As Tommy Lee Jones, who worked with Mann in April Morning, wrote:
He has a clear and open mind that leads him and his actors to the kind of preparations that will cause a story to propel itself rather than being laboriously pushed or pulled. As an example, I will cite his reconstruction of Lexington Green. The architecture, landscaping, armory, costumes, and blocking placed me in a quiet New England Commons staring squarely into the teeth of a drum-beating, red-coated, imperialist military force and left me with three choices: liberty, death, or flight. It took no work whatsoever on my part to experience the fear and humiliation of seeing my home overrun by a foreign army or to understand why people, again and again all over the world, have chosen liberty or death in the face of tyranny. Delbert's ability to prepare a day's work placed the sight and touch and smell of American patriotism all around us; it was real, deadly, and glorious--free of jingoism and sentimentality. The story told itself. This made my work as an actor easy and set the finest possible example, should I ever be lucky enough to direct a classical American story.2


1. Delbert Mann, interview by Gorham Kindem, 1993, The Delbert Mann Papers, Special Collections, The Jean and Alexander Heart Library, Vanderbilt University, Nashville.

2. Tommy Lee Jones, "Perspectives on the Director: V," in Sara Harwell, ed., The Papers of Delbert Mann (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1993), 48.

Copyright © 1995, 1999, Middle Tennessee State University.
Border States On-Line is hosted by Georgetown College.
This page was last updated on 4/5/99. | Border States On-Line | Site Map

This web page is maintained by
Dr. Harold D. Tallant, Department of History, Georgetown College
400 East College Street, Georgetown, KY 40324, (502) 863-8075