7 films written by Herman J. Mankiewicz to watch after Mank
Mank is the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, renowned screenwriter, raconteur, and drunk. More specifically, it’s the story of how Mank penned what has been called the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane (for those that argue Orson Welles deserves more credit, well, this movie isn't for you probably).
Today, Mank is perhaps not as well-known as his brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a screenwriter and the director behind hits like All About Eve and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Yet, Mank had an indelible impact on Hollywood history. He came to Hollywood first, and he played an essential role in establishing its voice as a cultural force in the world.
In the late 1920s, he wrote the titles (a.k.a. the printed dialogue) for dozens of silent films. He recruited and hired some of the industry’s best writers, including Ben Hecht. This all came after already establishing himself as a reporter and a wit in the New York theater world, belonging to the legendary group of writers known as the Algonquin Round Table.
Until his death from uremic poisoning in 1953, Mank was a force in the filmmaking industry, doctoring and contributing to countless scripts without credit, including Marx Brothers comedies Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. He was also the first screenwriter (out of 10) to tackle adapting The Wizard of Oz for MGM, and his prime contribution remains one of the film’s most memorable moments – it was Mank who suggested the Kansas sequences be shot in black-and-white to make the Technicolor transition to Oz even more striking.
But we wanted to call out some of the scripts Mank did get credit for. So here are 7 Mank films you should know after you catch David Fincher's Mank, now available on Netflix.
Man of the World (1931)
Mank’s ribald wit was best put to use in pre-Code comedies, many of which are difficult to track down today. But this tale of the press, blackmail, and romance is pure Mank. One-time Hollywood “It” couple William Powell and Carole Lombard star as a former newspaperman dabbling in extortion and the wealthy niece of one of his marks. The plot wobbles between the possibility that Powell’s Michael is using her in one of his schemes or that the two are actually falling in love, making for a delicious script that is a showcase for Mank’s skills as a comedian.
Available on: DVD
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Adapted from a 1932 play of the same title, Dinner at Eight is a sterling pre-Code dramedy with an eye-popping ensemble cast. Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, and Lionel Barrymore are just some of the stacked cast here. The plot circles around a dinner party being thrown by a New York society matron, but it touches on everything from infidelity to alcoholism to the economic impact of the Depression. It’s renowned for showcasing John Barrymore in a wrenching, comically sad performance as a suicidal alcoholic, reflecting his own decline and struggles with addiction (and arguably Mank's as well). Jean Harlow’s role as a socially ambitious, beautiful wife became one of her most enduring. But the acidic humor mixed with biting social commentary is pure Mank.
Available to buy or rent on: Amazon, iTunes, and more
Citizen Kane (1941)
We probably don’t even need to include this one, since the entire plot of Mank hinges on how this script was written, but it is truly the most essential Herman J. Mankiewicz screenplay there is. The film follows the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a young man who turns his unexpected inheritance into a media empire, only to transform into the type of men he once excoriated. Mankiewicz is credited as co-authoring the script with star/director Orson Welles, but the question of who wrote what has raged for years. Critic Pauline Kael even wrote a famous 1971 essay arguing Mank deserved the sole screenplay credit, which Mank emphasizes. Ultimately, Mank shared his Oscar for it with Welles.
Available on: HBO Max, DIRECTV, WatchTCM
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Mank worked with writer Jo Swerling to adapt this classic tearjerker tale of baseball hero Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper). Gehrig died only one year prior to the film’s release from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the film proved a tribute to him and his career. It featured some of his real Yankee teammates, including Babe Ruth. Today, the film is best remembered for its recreation of Gehrig’s famous 1939 farewell speech at Yankee stadium. Its final piece of dialogue, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” is consistently ranked among the best/most memorable movie lines.
Available on: Amazon Prime, Tubi
The Spanish Main (1945)
This swashbuckling pirate tale appears a far cry from Mank’s more typical intellectual comedy. But actor Paul Henreid recruited Mank himself to rewrite the script as a vehicle for Henreid to star in after his dissatisfaction with earlier drafts. Henreid stars as a pirate off the coast of the Spanish settlement Cartagena who is embroiled in a series of adventures. When he kidnaps Contessa Francisca Alvarado (Maureen O’Hara), who is engaged to the villainous governor Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak), the two fall in love as Henreid’s pirate works to take down Don Juan. Mank ultimately left the project over a dispute involving his chosen ending that included a slave revolt, but it’s still a fun outlier for understanding his range in Hollywood.
Available to buy or rent on: Amazon
The Enchanted Cottage (1945)
This romantic fantasy film was the second adaptation of a 1923 play, and yet again, Mank was brought on to touch up a screenplay first penned by another. Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young star as a homely young woman and a wounded veteran who come to fall in love and see each other as more beautiful each day. They believe it’s the magic of the forest cottage that alters them, but it’s meant to be a commentary on the transformative power of love. It’s perhaps one of the more sentimental projects to Mank’s name.
Available on: DVD
A Woman’s Secret (1949)
Mank also produced this melodrama about Marian (Maureen O’Hara), a singer losing her voice, and the young protégée, Susan, (Gloria Grahame) she confesses to attempting to kill. Directed by Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), it lends the more traditional women’s picture a hint of noir. It wasn’t particularly well-received, but it’s still a fascinating time capsule of Mank’s work at the end of his career, as well as a springboard for interesting performances from O’Hara and Grahame. This would mark one of his last screenplays.
Available on: DVD