The Astounding Leigh Brackett
"Would it help if I got out and pushed?"
—Princess Leia to Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back
"She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up."
—Private detective Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep
From sharp-tongued space princesses to Bogey's grim gumshoe, some of Leigh Brackett's most enduring legacies are the scripts she wrote for movies that are considered among the 20th century's very best.
Born December 7, 1915, in Los Angeles, Leigh Brackett was an athletic young woman who took a job as a swimming instructor at Muscle Beach to pay the bills while she churned out adventure fiction for the pulp magazines. Inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the radio dramas of the 30s and 40s, her stories filled with tough guy heroes and sometimes dangerous heroines. The stories might be set in dark and windy city or on the gleaming sands of Mars, but the quick-witted characters and cleverly crafted plots were consistent whatever the scenery.
Famed forties film director Howard Hawks was looking for another screenwriter for his soon-to-be-smash film, The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Hawks remembered reading Brackett's story, No Good from a Corpse. The legend goes he shouted to his assistant, "Get me that guy, Brackett." Brackett—Leigh Brackett—turned up. She and Howard Hawks went on to have a beautiful friendship, turning out more movies such as Rio Bravo, Hatari!, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo.
While filming The Big Sleep, Bogey called her to complain that some of the lines were too soft for hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. Leigh explained that those weren't her words. They belonged to another of Hawk's script writers—William Faulkner. Faulkner's idea of collaboration was to take Raymond Chandler's book, split it down the middle, hand half to her and retreat into his office without further ado.
Suddenly busy working for Hawks, but in the middle of writing a promised science fiction piece, Leigh got assistance with its completion from a young beach-goer and fellow scribbler named Ray Bradbury. Their collaboration became a well-regarded novella, Lorelei of the Red Mist, for Planet Stories.
She married Edmond Hamiliton, dubbed "World Saver" for his SF plot lines, on January 1, 1947. Ray Bradbury stood as best man and the writers continued their friendship through the decades.
In 1973, Philip Marlowe was back on the screen in The Long Goodbye, this time played by Elliott Gould and directed by the up-and-coming Robert Altman. Based on the book by noir legend Raymond Chandler, Leigh once again created the screenplay.
Leigh Brackett Trivia:
- Her first published science fiction story was "Martian Quest," which appeared in the February 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.
- Her first screenplay was for The Vampire's Ghost.
- The character in the movie Halloween, Sheriff Leigh Brackett, is named for her.
- Her well-known SF trilogy, The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, and The Reavers of Skaith were collected in one volume entitled The Book of Skaith.
- New Wave SF author Michael Moorcock credits her with influencing many of the best-known writers of the Golden Age and New Wave of science fiction.
Her body of work for print and screen is impressive. Her short stories can often be found in anthologies, and collections of just her work, including The Best of Leigh Brackett, Martian Quest: The Early Brackett, and Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories, can be picked up at used book sales.
Leigh Brackett died March 18, 1978, of cancer at the age of 62, a little over year after her husband passed. She had just completed the first draft of the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back. That last bit of writing may be her most famous. Though it was reworked by other authors in the course of production—a process Leigh understood all too well—it is considered to carry a lot of her genius, and she received a Hugo Award for it, posthumously, in 1981.
Read More by and about Leigh Brackett at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library
Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, edited by Pat McGilligan
Look for the chapter entitled, "Leigh Brackett: Journeyman Plumber." An excellent first-person account that is available in print and as an eBook.
A short story, "The Last Days of Shandakor," appears in The Good Old Stuff: Adventure SF in the Grand Tradition.
The Big Sleep
Philip Marlowe is hired by millionaire Gen. Sternwood to learn who is blackmailing his young, loose daughter, Carmen, with pornographic pictures. Hard-boiled private eye Richard Marlowe has his hands full when he gets involved in a web of sex, blackmail and murder.
A Civil War soldier tracks two traitors who are responsible for the death of his best friend to the lawless town of Rio Lobo, Texas.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Luke Skywalker seeks out the mysterious jedi master Yoda while Han Solo and Princess Leia outrun the Imperial fleet en route to Cloud City.
On the Web
Fantastic Metropolis: Queen of the Martian Mysteries
Michael Moorcock, author of the famed Elric series, writes this appreciation of Leigh Brackett's influence on her fellow writers of SF and fantasy.
The Leigh Brackett Solar System
Informative journal entry on the author with a place for discussion.
Leigh Brackett: Much More Than the Queen of Space Opera!
The online journal Bewildering Stories has a two-part article on Leigh Brackett's life and her writings for print and film as well as her influence on writers Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorecock, Andre Norton, and Philip Jose Farmer.
Quotations from Leigh Brackett
"Never tell me the odds."
Some memorable quotes from Leigh Brackett scripts.
The Unclassifiable Leigh Brackett
Boston Globe book columnist James Sallis writes of Brackett's life, career, and her influences on the 60s New Wave of science fiction.
"Women in Science Fiction," in The New York Times, May 2, 1982.
Susan Schwartz, SF and fantasy writer, gave her take on the state of women in science fiction in this article from the early '80s.