Page-to-Screen: Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard

Join Brian Greene as he explores the life and work of Malcolm Braly, who after spending over two decades behind bars, wrote the famous book, On the Yard, which he later adapted into a film starring John Heard.

Background

They say write what you know. Malcolm Braly (1925-80) knew prisons. Orphaned as a teenager, the Oregon native spent the majority of his years aged approximately 17-40 behind bars. A career burglar and multiple parole violator, he was in a reform school at 17 and in the facility at San Quentin for the crux of his time in adult detention.

But when he wrote the working draft of his novel On the Yard (published 1967), things in Braly’s life were looking comparatively rosy. A connection to influential editor Knox Burger–a staunch ally of Braly’s and a believer in his talent–led to Braly’s first two novels being published while he was still in prison. Felony Tank (1961) won a Mystery Writers of America second prize, and Shake Him Till He Rattles (’63) remains a cult classic to this day. A third novel, It’s Cold Out There, appeared in ’66.

Also at the time that he put down the words to On the Yard, Braly was serving his very final days as a prisoner. He was riding out the last part of a third parole violation charge in a cushy, low-security wing of San Quentin. He was around 40, was a published author with a promising writing career ahead of him, and he was about to be a free man. He felt he’d evolved past the reckless behaviors that led to his original offenses and first two parole violations (the third and final one was a comparatively bogus charge) and he was determined to stay out of jail from then on. He succeeded in this. A discussion of Braly’s post-incarceration life follows below.

Photo of Malcolm Braly, courtesy of Miriam Braly.

The Book

It’s interesting to read Braly’s autobiography, False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons (1976) and On the Yard back-to-back. As its subtitle suggests, much of the former involves the author describing life in lockup as he knew it. And when you go from that to the latter, you see how he utilized his keen storytelling skills to take that knowledge and shape it into a gripping novel. False Starts was championed by Nelson Algren.

Originally published by Little, Brown, On the Yard was Braly’s first book to appear in hardcover, the earlier three all paperback originals put out in the Fawcett Gold Medal line. Set in San Quentin, the novel offers a panoramic view of prison life. Braly introduces a wide variety of inmate types, from hot-tempered men to moody ones to disturbed geniuses, etc.  We see the sexual relations among the inmates, the friendships and adversarial relationships, the favors and the threats, the illicit business and trade world within the system, the gangs, the battle among the prisoners for good jobs and other privileges, and so on. Some of the detainees are common burglars while others among the main characters include sex offenders and a man who beat his wife to death, albeit unintentionally. We get to know the convicts’ daydreams along with their perversions, and we see the pecking order of power among them. Some have mundane names and others go by colorful handles such as “Society Red”, “Chilly Willy”, and “Cool Breeze.”  Braly also offers portraits of various prison officials, from the warden to the job bosses to the psychiatric counselors within the walls. If you’ve read False Starts, you’ll recognize that he worked in details of his own personal story. One of the redeeming qualities of the book is that its author never gets sentimental in attempting to make any of the characters especially likable. He just shows them as they are and lets readers decide what to make of them. There’s no easy, comforting good guy/bad guy construct in play.

Through the slow-build story, Braly purposefully and successfully uses a flat tone–even when describing dramatic events–which effectively makes the reader see and feel the long, slow, monotonous days of life in the prison. There are several subplots that occur throughout the tale, but the big one involves the guy who’s in for killing his spouse. This man, Juleson, is a detached sort of fellow who’s an avid reader and something of a philosopher. On his birthdays, Juleson usually gets a letter with some money from an aunt. As his birthday is coming up, he borrows five packs of cigarettes from another prisoner who functions like a loan shark, believing he’ll be able to pay the guy back when auntie’s letter arrives. But it never does, and now Juleson has a debt on which he can’t make good. The loan shark and his associates can’t allow him to get away with stiffing them, so they start making plans to bring violence onto Juleson. The prison authorities catch wind of all this and offer Juleson protection until the drama can blow over, but the deep thinker is too proud to accept their assistance and opts to battle the gang on his own.

In authoring this book, Braly deftly walked a balance between being philosophically meditative and a describer of volatile actions. For this reader, Shake Him Till He Rattles is his finest work of long-form fiction. But Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. called On the Yard “surely the great American prison novel,” and it’s hard to argue with that assertion.

 

The Movie

Braly wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his book, which shares its title and was originally released in theaters between 1978-9. It was overseen by the husband-wife team of director Raphael Silver and producer Joan Micklin Silver. It was the first directorial effort by Raphael, who only held that position on one other feature film in his career. But he often acted as producer on titles Joan directed. Among Joan’s more notable directorial works are Hester Street (1975) and Crossing Delancey (1988).

The film, which was shot on location in a Pennsylvania prison over roughly eight weeks, and which includes some actual convicts as extras, mirrors the novel in terms of atmosphere. It’s a gritty, realistic, deadpan motion picture which is absolutely devoid of sentimentality. Braly never went too far away from his own source material in crafting the script, but there are nuances that separate the two. One interesting omission is a set of scenes involving homosexual relations between two cellmates; perhaps that would’ve just been too much for moviegoers in the late 1970s. Another distinction between the two versions of the tale is the details around a hot air balloon escape attempt by a convict; both are affecting each in their own way, but they differ in specifics. The film’s most significant absence of content from the novel is the book’s account of a fire that erupts as a result of the balloon escape effort–it’s a dramatic set of passages and a key segment in the written iteration of the tale. According to members of Braly’s family, this change was dictated by the Silvers.

Truth be told, there is plenty of taut tension in the On the Yard film, which manages to get that across while also making the dullness of prison life evident.

The main conflict remains the problem between Juleson (expertly portrayed by John Heard) and the prisoner loan shark Chilly (Thomas G. Waites) and some cigarettes the former borrows from the latter and cannot replace because his aunt doesn’t come through with money he’s been expecting. Just like in the book, Chilly has a small team of enforcers who do his dirty deeds. In a departure from the novel, Chilly is willing to forgive Juleson’s debt if Juleson will simply use his influence within the prison jobs system to get one of Chilly’s generals a cherished spot in the print shop. Juleson is defiantly determined to not engage in corruption and refuses to do this favor, so a war starts to build between the proud loner and the loan shark’s firm. In a replication of the written version of the story, Juleson also dismisses the offers of help from sympathetic prison authorities in his dispute with Chilly.

Critical reviews–either from the time of release or since–of the On the Yard film are hard to come by. Roger Ebert seems to not have critiqued it, unless I’ve just missed that citing. It holds only a 5.9 user star rating out of a possible 10 on IMDB, and it has no critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes (but a 67% favorability rating from lay people there). But legendary film scribe Vincent Canby praised the movie without any real complaints in the pages of The New York Times in 1979. Canby credited Braly’s writing, Silver’s direction, and “superb” acting by Heard, Waites and all other main cast members in a film he said contains “surprising humanity.”

My personal opinion is the movie is strong and deserves a much better rating than 59% positive. Maybe it tests some viewers’ film-watching sensibilities by being too moody and not action-packed enough. But the case can be made that the somber tone only makes the explosive scenes more affecting when they come. The story has good pacing, and never really bogs down. The script, like the words in Braly’s novel, probes into the complex psychology of prisoners. In another parallel with the novel, it manages to be philosophical without being pedantic. The acting, as Canby stated, is spot-on. Is it the best prison movie ever made? No. But something like an 8.2 out of 10 is a fairer rating than 5.9. Regarding the overall moodiness of it, Braly said this about prison movies to Washington Post writer Henry Allen in a 1979 interview: “There’s a message of tension in them. There’s a not a lot of tension, really. Who’s going to get up the energy to kill somebody?” Truth be told, there is plenty of taut tension in the On the Yard film, which manages to get that across while also making the dullness of prison life evident. The Scorpion Releasing DVD includes a 30-minute talk by actor Waites, who plays Chilly.

 

Malcolm Braly in the Late 1970s

Braly’s literary output, at least in the form of full-length books, was scarce for the decade after the publication of On the Yard. He spent much of the late 1960s through mid-‘70s living with his second wife, Beverly, in a small town in the Catskills. They had one child together, a daughter, Braly having fathered a son from his first marriage, which came and went over his two times out on parole. Prior to False Starts’ ’76 release, the only Braly book that got published since On the Yard was 1973’s The Master, a novelization of the film Lady Ice. But a short story of his got high recognition by being published in Playboy in 1975 (a short story by Vladimir Nabokov appears in the same issue), and with the release of False Starts, he seemed to be gaining momentum again. This positive trajectory continued when Penguin issued a new paperback edition of On the Yard in ’77.

Not long after the publication of False Starts, a fan letter Braly received from a woman from Baltimore–a musician named Kris, then playing with the Baltimore Symphony–led to a love affair and ultimately his third marriage. In 1979 the couple had a daughter, Miriam Braly. Having recently revisited some letters Malcolm wrote to Kris during their courtship, Miriam discusses below how she sees where her father was in his life in the era leading up to, and during, the filming of On the Yard.

**Note: Miriam tells that Braly received a lump sum payment of $25K for his work on the film, and that he didn’t protect himself with a contract or agent representation in his dealings with the Silvers.

“What I’ve learned from my father’s personal letters is that despite his rising success as a writer, he continued to struggle financially. I’d imagine people think/thought he was doing well due to the popularity of his books. On The Yard and False Starts had just been sold to Penguin books for reprint but my dad, still living in New York while dating my mother in Baltimore, was struggling to scrape together train fare to manage a visit. There must have been some money, but I’d speculate either his lack of life experience or the excitement of finally having some cash of his own, caused him to squander it away too quickly.  He brings up money so often in his letters: his lack of, his new article that will bring some… I feel safe saying he did not feel financially safe.

“I believe the prospect of the On The Yard film/screenplay and the large monetary award associated with it, was both a beacon of hope and a source of anxiety.  My father feared tripping, creating any misstep that might cost him this proverbial carrot on a stick, a huge check. In conversations with my family, I learned that this fear was behind his choice to offer full compliance in negotiations with those involved in creating the film. To be clear, my father did not crave fame or wealth, he craved the ability to properly support himself and his family.  In the end, he got his lump sum and donated every cent to the care of his first daughter and greatest love, Ananda.

“While my father worked on the screenplay for On The Yard, he was dating my mother in Baltimore and living with his wife and toddler daughter in Roxbury, NY; an odd situation, for sure, but a surprisingly honest one. I see in his letters a palpable joy and love for my sister, a building passion for my mom, excitement and gratitude for his growing career, and wonder. ‘God truly works in mysterious ways’…”

Tragically, Braly died in 1980, so soon after the release of the film. In his final days, he was a beloved teacher as a writer-in-residence at the University of Maryland-Baltimore Country. That school’s English department now hosts the annual Malcolm C. Braly Creative Writing Awards in fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.

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