‘Henry, Please Come Home’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #2 in the series.


‘M*A*S*H: The Pilot’ had a successful screening, and the show was duly picked up by CBS for the 1972–73 season. When the cast and crew reconvened to begin filming the first season proper, they began with an establishing script, ‘Henry, Please Come Home’, written by Laurence Marks. Marks was an old hand at comedy writing: he and Larry Gelbart had worked together on scripts for Jack Paar and Bob Hope in the 1940s. Among many other credits, Marks went on to write no less than 68 episodes of Hogan’s Heroes. He would eventually receive a writing credit on 28 M*A*S*H scripts, second only to Gelbart himself.

‘Henry, Please Come Home’ laid important groundwork for the series. It was the first of several episodes to put Frank Burns in temporary command of the 4077th, fuelling and justifying the long feud between him and the other Swampmen. At ordinary times, Pierce and McIntyre took no notice of Burns’s superior rank, and noticed Burns himself only to insult him, abuse him, heckle him, and (on one memorable occasion) crate him to be shipped out of the country. As cartoonish as Burns was, this was a heavy weight of misbehaviour for the official Good Guys of the series to bear. Gelbart and his writing staff made amply certain that Burns’s actions as temporary C.O. fully justified the Swampmen’s retaliation. He gave as bad as he got. On this particular occasion, one of his first actions is to have an M.P. confiscate Hawkeye and Trapper’s distillery at gunpoint. This drives the other surgeons (still including ‘Spearchucker’ Jones at this point) to the brink of insurrection.

I reconstruct the relevant bits of the script, going by the finished episode. (My apologies for the formatting: HTML was not designed to display screenplays.) This is not only good television writing, and good comedy writing; it is good writing, period, and displays a number of techniques useful even to those of us who write solely for print. I shall go into those a bit later. Meanwhile, the script, from the point at which the surgeons rebel:

          HAWKEYE
Gentlemen, that man has got to go. It’s either him or us. That’s final.

          TRAPPER
How we gonna do it? Shoot him?

          SPEARCHUCKER
Stab him!

          TRAPPER
Poison him!

          HAWKEYE
No, no! We gotta think this over. We have to give it careful, considered, intelligent thought.

          TRAPPER
Okay.

          HAWKEYE
Then we’ll shoot him, stab him, or poison him!

They do none of the above, of course, but conspire with Radar to bring Col. Blake back from his new assignment in Tokyo. Radar, at this point, is still the unshaven schemer and borderline delinquent that Gary Burghoff played in the Robert Altman film. Hearing that Hawkeye’s scheme requires two passes to Tokyo, Radar pulls a sheaf of official papers out of his pocket:

          RADAR
Okay, let’s see what we got. Hardship leave, sister pregnant—

          HAWKEYE
You don’t see many of those anymore.

          RADAR
—transfer to Germany—

          TRAPPER
Hey, you got a bacon, lettuce, and tomato on rye, hold the mayo?

          RADAR
Very funny.
     (smirks)
Two passes to Tokyo. Should have looked under T in the first place.

Armed with the forged passes, the Swampmen set their trap for Henry. Radar fakes a serious illness, and Lt. Leslie Scorch calls Henry in Tokyo, by arrangement, to see that Henry accidentally-on-purpose hears the news. He hands the phone to Hawkeye, and Leslie hands hers to Radar:

          RADAR
Hi! This is the call you wanted, right, where I got one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel?

          HAWKEYE
     (concerned)
Oh, yeah?

          RADAR
Listen, I hope I don’t have to come up with any fake symptoms. You know, I got a weak stomach.

          HAWKEYE
Oh, the white count’s up, huh?

          RADAR
We had S.O.S. again for lunch.

          HAWKEYE
All right. Yeah, he can’t hold food down.

          RADAR
Just missed the four o’clock barf.

          HAWKEYE
Look, tell Spearchucker to get some blood chemistries and start him on I.V. We’ll be right there. Okay.
     (hangs up)
Get your shoes on, we gotta go back. We got a tough case, Henry. Diagnostic problem.

          HENRY
Uh huh?

          HAWKEYE
Abdominal pain, elevated white count. I can’t nail it down.

          TRAPPER
White count’s up?

          HAWKEYE
Yeah, it’s bad.

          TRAPPER
That’s all right. Radar’s strong.

          HAWKEYE
You dummy, can’t you keep your mouth shut?

          HENRY
Radar?

Henry falls for it, hook, line, and sinker. He insists on returning to the 4077th to treat Radar himself. After examining his patient, he announces that he will be doing exploratory surgery right away. The Swampmen try to talk him out of it: this is carrying a joke too far.

          HENRY
Look, this kid’s got severe abdominal pain with rigidity. Now, it could be a perforated ulcer. I’m going in. Who wants to assist?

          TRAPPER
Henry, I think you’d better slow down, huh?

          HENRY
Look, I’ll know the story five minutes after I open him up.

          RADAR
     (alarmed, but still faking delirium)
He’s gonna open me.

          HAWKEYE
     (to Radar)
You’ll be fine, son.

HENRY leaves Radar’s side and heads towards the O.R. The other surgeons hurry after him.

          HENRY
Now, let’s get on the stick. Who’s going to scrub with me?

          TRAPPER
Henry, look—

          FRANK
Henry, I’m in command here, and nobody does an exploratory without my O.K.!

          HENRY
I’ll explore anybody I want to.

          FRANK
You back off! This happens to be my responsibility.

          HENRY
Stay out of my way, Frank, or I’ll have you busted down to male nurse.

HENRY shoulders past FRANK and heads for the other exit.

          HAWKEYE
Oh, come on, fellas—

          FRANK
Now, this is my outfit, and I make the decisions.

          HENRY
Your outfit? I built this outfit with my own hands. When we first came over that hill, we didn’t even have a bedpan to our names.

          FRANK
Well, there’s not going to be any operation, and if you don’t like it, you can call General Hammond!

          HENRY
I might just do that.

          RADAR
     (sitting up in bed)
You want me to get General Hammond for you, sir?

          HENRY
Yeah, do that!

RADAR gets out of bed and goes to the phone to place the call. HENRY and FRANK continue arguing as they head back towards the phone.

          HENRY
See if Ugly John is available. Even if he isn’t, pull him away from whatever or whoever he’s doing, and tell him that I’ve got a…

HENRY falls silent. He and FRANK do a slow take and stare at RADAR, who is doing his job with no sign of sickness or distress. RADAR looks over his shoulder at them, realizes his mistake, and sinks into the nearest chair, crestfallen.

          RADAR
Oh! The pain…

          FRANK
Look at that! He was goldbricking, I told you so.
     (stifles a giggle)

          HENRY
Radar, are you sick?

          RADAR
Well, I feel a lot better than I did.

          HAWKEYE
Now I don’t feel so good.

          TRAPPER
Now let’s get some air.

HAWKEYE and TRAPPER turn to sneak out.

          HENRY
Hold it! Nobody move! Now what is going on here? Pierce? McIntyre? Jones? Somebody talk to me!

          HAWKEYE
Okay, Attila the Hun was pushing us around playing soldier, so we tried to get you back in the front office.

          HENRY
By making Radar fake an illness?

          HAWKEYE
Yeah, well, it was intended to make you feel needed. It’s all very psychiatric.

          HENRY
The word is ‘crazy’!

          FRANK
I’ll get the M.P.s.
     (Picks up the phone)
Then you can try being psychiatric in the stockade.

          HAWKEYE
Oh, fine, then after we’re gone you can roller-skate from table to table and do all the surgery by yourself.

          HENRY
He’s right. Put the phone down.

          FRANK
Henry, as commanding officer I—

          HENRY
Correction, you were the commanding officer. I’m taking over as of now!

Mission accomplished, for the Swampmen and the show.

I quote these scenes at such length because they provide a fine example of Laurence Marks’s writing style, as well as the working methods of Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart. Like Robert Altman, they strove hard for naturalistic effects in acting and dialogue, but their approach was completely different. In the film, Altman used Ring Lardner, Jr.’s script as a rough treatment, and encouraged his actors to talk over each other, to mumble and hem and haw, and to ad-lib whatever lines they thought would put across the point of each scene. This so infuriated Lardner that he later disowned the movie – too late, however, to have his name removed from the credits.

M*A*S*H, the TV series, was not like that. The law, as brought down from Mt. Sinai by Moses and Larry Gelbart, was that every actor had to deliver every line exactly as written. There was no ad-libbing, and even the hems and haws were carefully scripted and rehearsed. If an actor disliked a line as written, or wished to suggest an improvement, the time and place to do that was at the initial read-through on Monday. Any changes were sent out to be re-typed and copied for the whole cast. Once shooting started on Tuesday, the script was set in stone. If a line or a scene positively would not work as written, Gelbart would work with the writer to fix it, and they would do pickup takes of the revision later.

This method had important advantages over Altman’s for all concerned. It guaranteed a steady rate of progress in shooting, which was vital in a medium where twenty-five minutes of film had to be put in the can every week without fail. It prevented the sort of bloopers and blunders that could get a show-runner in trouble with the network censors. It gave each actor the freedom to work on the best delivery of his own lines, not having to worry about reacting to something unexpected. And it gave the writers a degree of respect and freedom rare in American television, bringing them much closer to the final product than the usual procedure in which everyone from the producer’s wife to the star’s dog’s hairdresser leaves their sticky fingerprints on the script. The consistent quality of work done on M*A*S*H, I believe, would not have been possible without it.

It also has a side benefit, entirely unintended by Gelbart and Reynolds (and Moses), I am sure. It makes M*A*S*H a much more profitable thing to study for those of us who write stories for print. In written fiction there is no ad-libbing, because there are no actors. If the reader is even marginally sane, he will read the words that we have written, and if he is not sane, all bets are off; we cannot count on him to be insane in the right direction. To a surprising extent, the characterization in M*A*S*H is conveyed by the actual words of the screenplays. Even without blocking or camera instructions, the bare dialogue I quoted above leaves little doubt about the intent and effect of the scenes. Of course, the effect was heightened by the vocal delivery and body language of the actors, and by the various tricks of the director’s and cameraman’s trades. But the effect is there to be heightened, and that, for our different purpose, is almost enough.

It is possible to fill a written story with stage-directions and ‘business’; and it is easy to overdo it. If the emotional meaning of the dialogue is clear, a scene can be written with hardly any blocking or dialogue tags. (This is the real meaning of the stricture, often exaggerated into a commandment, against adverbial tags or ‘said-bookisms’.) A little goes a long way. Along with the dialogue above, I inserted just the bare minimum of directions about who was talking specifically to whom, and when the characters made serious moves towards the exits or the phone. The minor details of body language and vocal expression, the screenwriter leaves for the director; the writer for print can usually leave these to the imagination of the reader. An unusual dialogue tag, or a bit of physical description, may be helpful to establish a new character, or to signalize that somebody is behaving in a different way than we have previously come to expect. But once the characters are vividly drawn and firm in the reader’s mind, we have little need to keep reminding our audience of how our dramatis personae move, or what their voices sound like. Their emotional state should usually be guessable from their words alone.

In short, there is little need for all the flashing of eyes, throwing-up of hands, lighting of cigarettes, stamping across rooms, and other verbal rubbish with which novice writers are sadly encouraged to fill up their scenes. There ought to be action as well as talk in a scene, or it will come across as static and undramatic: this, by the way, is a fault that M*A*S*H frequently committed in later years, when the original writing staff had left. But we should not need the action merely to help us make sense of the talk. In the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas repeatedly committed a terrible directorial sin: he shot scene after scene with two or three characters standing and talking, or walking and talking, in front of a green screen, giving them nothing to actually do. But he would not have been a better director if he had told them to gesticulate and ‘emote’ in front of the same green screen. In Ralph Bakshi’s abortive film of The Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf is explaining the nature of the Ring to Frodo, Bakshi makes him get up and walk about the room, put his hands up in the air and clench and unclench his fists – a gesture that drama students are taught to laugh at, and call ‘milking the giant cow’. It puts movement of a kind into an otherwise static scene, but it is ludicrous movement and the effect of the scene is ruined. Stage business for its own sake is generally a waste, and you will find very little of it in the early seasons of M*A*S*H.

A point worth noting is the indirection of the best M*A*S*H scripts. Laurence Marks trusts his audience’s intelligence (a tolerably rare thing in Hollywood). Instead of spelling out every detail of the characters’ actions and motivations in dialogue, he lets them talk evasively, often at cross purposes, and reveal half of the story by what they don’t say. The third excerpt quoted above is a fine example. Hawkeye is putting on a show for Henry’s benefit, pretending to be the concerned surgeon inquiring about a critical patient. Radar, back at the 4077th where Henry cannot hear, is talking about the scam and making sure he has his own role down pat. In the fourth scene, Henry is talking about what he believes to be a necessary operation; Hawkeye and Trapper are trying to talk him out of it without letting the truth slip out; Frank is blowing hard about regulations and insisting on his prerogatives as commanding officer, with no concern for medical matters at all. Their lines hardly intersect, except in point of time. But each character follows his own motivations precisely where the story needs him to go, and the audience follows it all without any trouble.

Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell exploit this technique to brilliant comic effect in their third-season script, ‘Life With Father’. Colonel Blake suspects that his wife is having an affair back in the States, and goes to Father Mulcahy to unburden himself. Mulcahy, meanwhile, is distraught because his sister, the nun, wants to renounce her vows and start a family. Each one talks entirely about his own problem without listening to a word the other one says, yet both go away satisfied. ‘It certainly helps to talk about these things to someone who’s sympathetic,’ says Henry. And so it does; even if the sympathetic someone isn’t listening.

With this very strong episode in the can, M*A*S*H, the series, was off to a flying start. What is more, it had already begun to move beyond the range of its source material. None of the incidents in ‘Henry, Please Come Home’ are taken from Hooker’s novel. In its very first week of regular production, the series has found a voice of its own: sure, confident, quick-moving, and marvellously funny. Marks’s first script sets a high bar, and more often than not, the series will live up to it for years to come. The foundations have been well built; the structure is sound. Now comes the fun of putting Larry Gelbart’s three double acts through their paces.

Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

Comments

  1. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Well, that certainly explains a lot about why MASH and Hogan’s Heroes often had a similar feel! I knew that Marks worked on Hogan, but I don’t really remember any of the MASH writers’ names, because I was a few years younger when I was interested in MASH reruns than in Hogan reruns.

  2. Just as advertised – I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

Speak Your Mind

*