Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Silver Screen

By Kevin Comer

Before I began my metamorphosis into a world-class John D. MacDonald scholar, I wasn’t aware of Travis McGee having appeared on the silver screen. Although I’m still merely a scholarly pupa, I’ve learned two movies have been based on McGee novels. Darker than Amber was made into a theatrical film released in 1970. And The Empty Copper Sea was the basis for a 1983 TV movie. I also know why I was unaware of the existence of either film.

The 1970 film adaptation of Darker than Amber was intended to be the first in a series bringing the McGee novels to the big screen. The hope was to build a franchise like Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had done with Ian Fleming’s James Bond canon. A new film was to be released every eighteen months. The only problem was Darker than Amber, the film, was a complete flop. As a result, a second film was never made and, to his relief, the movie rights reverted to JDM.

Although JDM had been cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the film version of Darker than Amber, he said of the final product: “[it] was feral, cheap, rotten, gratuitously meretricious, shallow, and embarrassing.” I watched Darker than Amber on YouTube. I’m not sure it was cheap. If you’d like to judge for yourself, click here.

The film stars Rod Taylor as McGee and Theodore Bikel as Meyer. JDM was pleased with the casting. He said of Rod Taylor: “I like the guy. He has a face that looks lived in, and he projects a masculinity that can glaze the young female eye at seventy paces. But what matters to me is that he understands what McGee is all about—the anti-hero, tender and tough, with many chinks in the armor.” And he declared: “…Bikel is Meyer, a large hairy gentle watchful thoughtful man.”

JDM wasn’t as keen on the script. After reading the initial version presented to him, he rewrote the first 40 pages and sent it back. One of the problems was the depiction of Meyer. JDM, critiquing the script in a letter to his friend, comedian Dan Rowan, complained: “For example, they turned Meyer into a fat clown, clumsy and dumb. Degrade a man’s closest friend and you do not enhance him by comparison—you only degrade him too.” After some effort, JDM was able to get the script revised more or less to his satisfaction. Any lingering concerns he may have harbored were reportedly met with assurances that film is a director’s medium and everything would be fine.

JDM did get excited, especially after spending some time on set. He was impressed with how effectively the furious activity swirling around him was being managed. He compared it to watching a crack battalion in operation.

He particularly delighted in seeing the Busted Flush. He commented in a letter to his publisher: “It is very very weird to invent a big houseboat in your mind, write about it in eleven books, and suddenly walk onto a dock and come upon it in the flesh, so to speak. Big and solid and fast. And that bathtub aboard is exactly what you think it would be …”

So JDM was chagrined and bitterly disappointed when Darker than Amber hit the screen. He told an interviewer: “If I had it to do over again I would never let Mr. McGee out of my hand. Not for a movie, not for television. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t even sell stereopticon rights to McGee.” Unfortunately, JDM had to do it over again.

In 1979, JDM was informed his estate contained a time bomb in the form of an inheritance tax liability. Due to the previous sale, he was told, if he didn’t sell the movie rights to the McGee novels, the IRS would assign a value of $8 million to the rights for each and every book when it came time to pay his death duties. JDM protested, but as they say, nothing is as certain as death and taxes. So he quickly sold the movie rights to Warner Bros. and the studio eventually decided to make a TV movie based on The Empty Copper Sea, starring Sam Elliot as McGee.

However, some minor changes were necessary: The studio thought Travis McGee would make a better title than The Empty Copper Sea; Los Angeles would make a better home base than Fort Lauderdale; a sailboat called Bequia would make a better floating home than a houseboat called the Busted Flush; and, most shocking to me, McGee would sport a mustache that would be at home on a walrus, a creature unknown in the tropics.

Despite this unthinkable degree of sacrilege, the 1983 movie apparently got decent ratings and could have been the basis for a series of TV movies if Sam Elliot hadn’t had other commitments by the time the studio made up its mind to move forward. JDM commented about the whole business: “I have never met or talked to any studio people, but they must really be congenital incompetents. I should never have peddled McGee ….”

I’ve searched high and low for Travis McGee. At this time, it is not on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or Warner Archive Instant. It’s not even on YouTube. It does not appear to be available on DVD either. I’m sure it would only upset me, so it is probably just as well.

The movie rights to McGee are still out there. Recently, there’ve been reports that Deep Blue Good-by is in pre-production. Leonardo DiCaprio was slated to star as McGee, but dropped out. Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, has written the latest draft script. James Mangold (Wolverine) “is in negotiations” to direct. DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, Chernin Entertainment, and Amy Robinson are involved in producing.

In many things I practice what I call “expectation management.” In regard to the possibility of Blue becoming a (possibly good) movie, I’m managing my expectations, despite the big names attached.

In my opinion, even good film adaptations are very rarely as good as the books they’re based upon. It could be argued that satisfactorily translating a complex first person protagonist like Travis McGee to celluloid is impossible given the story-telling limitations of film. As a reader, you always know what McGee is thinking. Even in a fight, you see the world through his eyes, you’re never observing him from afar. And then there’s those studio people.


The Other JDM: Where Is Janice Gantry?

Whenever you run across a JDM novel with a first-person narration that was written prior to 1964, it’s tempting to speculate whether or not this particular protagonist was one of the prototypes for Travis McGee. That’s certainly the case with Where Is Janice Gantry? (1961). In many ways, the pre-echoes of McGee are fairly strong in this novel.

Sam Brice is a husky ex-pro football player. (Check.) He’s living in Florida. (Check.) An ex-girlfriend is in deep trouble, having vanished under mysterious circumstances. (Check.) He’s determined to get to the bottom of things. (Check.) He has a touchy relationship with the local law. (Check.) He has a brainy pal off whom he bounces ideas. (Check.) He sweeps a gorgeous lady right off her feet. (Check.) He’s pretty darned canny and physically capable, even when he’s bound hand and foot with wire and about to be sent to the bottom of the Caribbean. (Check.) He has a nose for shady characters and crooked plots. (Check.)

Where Is Janice Gantry? jumps off the line of scrimmage when an escaped convict from the local area arrives at Sam’s shack up off the beach. He figures the ex-footballer might be sympathetic and wouldn’t turn him in. Sam lets him recuperate then drops him off in town. Out of curiosity, he stays to see what the escapee is up to. The fellow makes a phone call and by and by along comes someone to pick him up—Sam’s old girlfriend, Janice “Sis” Gantry. Sam tries to follow them but runs afoul of a militant (and dangerously competent) version of Barney Fife. That’s the last anyone sees of Sis.

Sam and his brainy pal think the whole affair has something to do with the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Weber living a comfortable, isolated life in a big house near the beach—the very same house burglarized two years earlier by the escaped con. Sam connives to meet the lady of the house on the beach, but happens to encounter her sister instead.

The sister, Peggy, is providentially a gorgeous amalgam of Sam’s ex-wife and Sis. Of course, love at first sight ensues and the two of them become allies in figuring out what Peggy’s sister and “husband” are up to. Through some canny and very dangerous detecting work the pair figure out that Peggy’s “brother-in-law” and some hired thugs probably killed Sis and the escaped convict. Why? It seems “Mr. Weber” paid for his retirement by blackmailing powerful politicians up north, while blackmailing his own “wife” with information that would put her in the electric chair. The lovestruck ex-con was attempting to liberate the woman. Both he and Sis ended up sleeping with the fishes.

With a bit of the clumsiness redolent of the early Travis McGee, Sam Brice stupidly sends Peggy back into the lion’s den and stumbles in there himself. Soon, the two of them and the drunken sister are heading out to sea bound and gagged. The boat will be scuttled, prisoners and all, the bad guys will vanish, and no one will be the wiser. Of course, in the meantime, the thugs have “a fate worse than death” planned for the lovely Peggy. But Sam snaps his wire binding, knocks out Peggy’s would-be ravisher not a moment too soon, and they leap into the waves.

But Sam, in the end, is definitively no Trav.

Would Trav run a little insurance adjusting business? Would Trav propose marriage? Would Trav travel north to get vetted by the bride’s family? Would Trav actually get hitched? Would Trav lovingly caress Peggy’s baby bump and wonder dreamily about their little one’s aquatic proclivities?

Heaven forbid!

Nonetheless, Sam Brice surely was part of the R&D JDM unintentionally did for Travis McGee. And for that we should be grateful.



Guest Post: Travis McGee & Higher Education

By Kevin Comer

In 1964 JDM could not have imagined the reality of 2014, any more than I can imagine how things will be in 2064. JDM would never have imagined the cost of college rivaling that of a modest suburban house. Nor would he in the midst of the post-war boom have foreseen hordes of debt-shackled kids emerging, one way or another, from American colleges into a blasted landscape of opportunity. It is likely JDM never heard the phrases: Outsourcing, technological displacement, or STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics).

I have no idea what JDM might think of our current national circumstances or what his prescriptions might be. But JDM has left us clues to how he might feel about the state of higher education in America in 2014. The evidence suggests he’d think things were still heading in entirely the wrong direction.

JDM would strongly disagree with the popular proposition that the purpose of higher education is to land a better paying job. Way back in 1964, he already felt colleges were putting too much emphasis on preparing students to enter the work force. We’ll find evidence in the pages of A Purple Place for Dying (1964).

A Purple Place for Dying puts McGee somewhere in the American Southwest, when his prospective client is suddenly blown away in mid-sentence by a distant sniper as she’s trying to convince Travis to recover money she claims her estranged husband has stolen from her trust fund. A shaken and mortally offended McGee resolves to find her killer, and his ensuing investigation takes him to State Western University, a brand new institution of higher learning recently extruded onto the desert wastes.

Arriving on the sprawling campus, McGee surveys the crowds of students scurrying across the black acres of parking lots and along sun-bright walkways coursing through the immature landscaping separating the hulking concrete structures of SWU, and offers us this critical observation:

…They all seemed to have an urgency about them, that strained harried trimester look. It would cram them through sooner, and feed them out into the corporations and the tract houses, breeding and hurrying, organized for all the time and money budgets, binary systems, recreation funds, taxi transports, group adjustments, tenure, constructive hobbies. They were being structured to life on the run, and by the time they would become what is now known as senior citizens, they could fit nicely into planned communities where recreation is scheduled on such a tight and competitive basis that they could continue to run, plan, organize, until, falling at last into silence, the grief-therapist would gather them in, rosy their cheeks, close the box and lower them to the only rest they had ever known.

It is all functional, of course. But it is like what we have done to chickens. Forced growth under optimum conditions, so that in eight weeks they are ready for the mechanical picker…

 It isn’t particularly surprising to hear this sort of opinion voiced by semi-professional rebel and rat-race dropout, Travis McGee. But we might be a little surprised when McGee continues:

Education is something which should be apart from the necessities of earning a living, not a tool therefor. It needs contemplation, fallow periods, the measured and guided study of the history of mans reiteration of the most agonizing question of all: Why? Today the good ones, the ones who want to ask why, find no one around with any interest in answering the question, so they drop out, because theirs is the type of mind which becomes monstrously bored at the trade-school concept. A devoted technician is seldom an educated man. He can be a useful man, a contented man, a busy man. But he has no more sense of the mystery and wonder and paradox of existence than does one of those chickens fattening itself for the mechanical plucking, freezing and packaging.

Holy smokes! McGee declares flat out that an education even partially geared to earning a living is merely a “trade school concept”. And he isn’t overly impressed by people with marketable technical skills, either.

I know of no factor in McGee’s back story to account for his harsh opinion concerning college providing the sort of practical skills upon which careers are built that contribute to society’s goal of achieving optimum aggregate demand. Maybe this is simply justified pushback at the expectations of Keynesian macroeconomists—Meyer was not yet in the picture—but I suspect McGee may have been subtly influenced by the mind of his creator.

It seems JDM shared Travis’opinion that the unstated goal of the American educational establishment is to “…feed [consumers] out into the corporations and the tract houses, breeding and hurrying, organized for all the time and money budgets…” During an interview on the radio program Library Edition, long after A Purple Place for Dying was published, JDM had this to say:

Right now the schools are raising a good batch of consumers and maybe thats what theyre there for. These people, they can find their way around supermarkets and they can find their way around showrooms … they know how to run their credit cards.

Despite an undergraduate degree in business and MBA from Harvard, JDM was a committed champion of a rigorous liberal arts education. He demonstrated that commitment in 1969 when he joined the board of trustees of New College, a tiny elite liberal arts college located in the town where he lived—Sarasota, Florida. He sold autographed copies of his work to help fund the school. He served briefly as executive director and taught creative writing for a time. JDM explained the goal of a liberal arts education in a letter to Albert Mittal, a young fan with whom he conducted an 11-year correspondence:

I am a trustee of New College …which has become in eight years one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the country. I have been deeply involved with it, and have come around to an elitist attitude re education. Of 600 of the brightest young people in the country, we can provide the resources for one out of fifty to hone his own mind to an edge of sharpness he could not achieve by himself … The brain is a muscle in the sense that the more demanding use made of it, the better it functionsWe can turn out one out of fifty. It is a waste.

 JDM’s elucidation of the value of reading to the listening audience of Library Edition reflects his liberal arts priorities:

[Readers] stand in the middle of a landscape that were familiar with. We know about those great swamps and marshes which are all of the religions and philosophies and all of the psychological identifications of whats going on in the bottom of mans mind Lets say there are rivers running through our landscape. Those would be the arts, literature, painting, all of the things that you learn from books that sharpen and enhance your mind …A nonreader is somebody standing there in a blindfold. They dont see the history of anythingThey dont know what the world is like, because they havent read what history is, what geography is. They dont know Lima [Peru] from lima [bean].

 It shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice that there are no STEM tributaries flowing through the geography of JDM’s mind. He is concerned with human expression; the inner life; things of the spirit. Concerns that stand in stark contrast to job prospects.

JDM clearly felt the broader educational establishment had been falling down on the job for a long time. This concern leaks through to McGee again in A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965). Explaining his handling of reporters, Travis informs us:

…news accounts of almost anything make sense to all ages up to the age of twelve. If one wishes to enjoy newspapers, it is wise to halt all intellectual development right at that age. The schools are doing their level best to achieve this goal. For the first time in history it is possible to earn doctorates in obscure professional techniques without upsetting the standard of a twelve-year-old basic intellect.

It seems pretty clear that JDM and McGee would be none too pleased to find the sky-high cost of college justified as an investment in a career in 2014. They could conclude there are loads of young people attending college who might be better served by actual trade schools. Given their proclivities, I bet they’d wonder whose interest is really being served by the current state of affairs. I can hear Meyer advising, “Follow the money.”

But what do I know? I’m a technician.