The General Died at Dawn is a drama film from Paramount, based on a story by Charles G. Booth, with a screenplay by Clifford Odets, his first writing for the screen. Released towards the end of 1936, it was written during Odets’ burgeoning relationship with Luise Rainer, who read drafts and gave feedback to her soon-to-be husband during the writing process.
Odets’, like Luise, was not starstruck by the lure of Hollywood but he was intrigued with the mechanics of film-making and writing for a different medium. In 1936 he was still smarting from the poor reception of his play Paradise Lost and with his ego bruised he saw an opportunity to make a name for himself on a bigger stage. This manifested itself in his screenplay too, with the Chinese warlord, General Yang, similarly attracted to the promise to “making a name for himself” if he agrees to give up his warring ways.
Odets’ initial nervousness about writing for the screen was quickly abated by the film’s director, Lewis Milestone, who advised him to simply “write as if you were writing a play; leave the rest to me.” Odets got down to the business with enthusiasm and optimism, working through 1936 to create a work that was important to him, one that was real and had meaning. He wanted to make a personal statement and threw himself into the work, adapting the speeches of Adolf Hitler and drawing on newspaper reports to lend an authenticity to the drama.
There has been speculation that Odets’ had Luise in mind for the lead female role in the film whilst he was writing the screenplay. I have found little concrete evidence of this, although it isn’t beyond possibility, even if only the shadow of Luise is cast over the part. MGM had already refused to loan their new star to 20th Century Fox for The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo the previous year; if Luise was considered for the role in The General Died at Dawn, then they refused to loan her to Paramount too. The female lead was taken by Madeleine Carroll, playing opposite Gary Cooper. This was, perhaps, the closest Luise came to playing a part written by her first husband.