W. R. Burnett

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William Riley Burnett (November 25, 1899 – April 25, 1982) was an American novelist and screenwriter. He is best known for the crime novel Little Caesar, the film adaptation of which is considered the first of the classic American gangster movies.

W. R. Burnett
William Riley Burnett

(1899-11-25)November 25, 1899
DiedApril 25, 1982(1982-04-25) (aged 82)
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale)
Years active1931–1972
SpouseWhitney Forbes Johnston (1943–1982) (his death) (2 children)[1]
ChildrenJames, William

Early lifeEdit

Burnett was born in Springfield, Ohio, and attented Miami Military Institute in Germantown, Ohio. He left his civil service job in Springfield to move to Chicago when he was 28, by which time he had written over 100 short stories and five novels, all unpublished.

Writing careerEdit

In Chicago, Burnett found a job as a night clerk in the seedy Northmere Hotel. He found himself associating with prize fighters, hoodlums, hustlers and hobos. They inspired Little Caesar (novel 1929, film 1931). Little Caesar's overnight success landed him a job as a Hollywood screenwriter. Little Caesar became a classic movie, produced by First National Pictures (Warner Brothers) and starring little known Edward G. Robinson. The Al Capone theme was one he returned to in 1932 with Scarface. Burnett had won the 1930 O. Henry Award for his short story "Dressing-Up" published in Harper's Magazine in November 1929.

Burnett kept busy, producing a novel or more a year and turning most into screenplays (some as many as three times). Thematically Burnett was similar to Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain but his contrasting of the corruption and corrosion of the city with the better life his characters yearned for, represented by the paradise of the pastoral, was fresh and original. He portrayed characters who, for one reason or another, fell into a life of crime. Once sucked into this life they were unable to climb out. They typically get one last shot at salvation but the oppressive system closes in and denies redemption.

Burnett's characters exist in a world of twilight morality — virtue can come from gangsters and criminals, malice from guardians and protectors. Above all his characters are human and this could be their undoing. In High Sierra (1941), Humphrey Bogart plays Roy Earle, a hard-bitten criminal who rejects his life of crime to help a sexually appealing crippled girl. In The Asphalt Jungle (1949), the most perfectly masterminded plot falls apart as each character reveals a weakness. In The Beast of the City (1932) starring Walter Huston, the police take the law into their own hands when the criminals walk free due to legal incompetence, foreshadowing Dirty Harry by almost 40 years.

Film workEdit

Burnett worked with many of the greats in acting and directing, including Raoul Walsh, John Huston, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Michael Cimino, John Wayne (The Dark Command), Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Paul Muni, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. He received an Oscar nomination for his script for Wake Island (1942) and a Writers Guild nomination for his script for The Great Escape. In addition to his film work he also wrote scripts for television and radio.

Later yearsEdit

In later years, with his vision declining, he stopped writing and turned to promoting his earlier work. In his career he achieved huge popularity in Europe, where his anti-hero ideology was enthusiastically embraced.

On his death in 1982, in Santa Monica, California,[2] Burnett was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Critical receptionEdit

Heywood Broun described Burnett's novel Goodbye to the Past as "written with all the excitement of Little Caesar, and ten times the skill".[3]



  • Little Caesar (Lincoln MacVeagh/The Dial Press - 1929)
  • Iron Man (Lincoln MacVeagh/The Dial Press - 1930)
  • Saint Johnson (Lincoln MacVeagh/The Dial Press - 1930)
  • The Silver Eagle (Lincoln MacVeagh/The Dial Press - 1931)
  • The Beast of the City (Grosset & Dunlap - 1932) [not properly a Burnett novel; credit on the book reads "novelized by Jack Lait, from the screen story by W.R. Burnett"; the book was published concurrently with the release of the M-G-M film, circa March 1932]
  • The Giant Swing (Harper - 1932)
  • Dark Hazard (Harper - 1933)
  • Goodbye to the Past: Scenes from the Life of William Meadows (Harper - 1934)
  • The Goodhues of Sinking Creek (Harper - 1934)
  • Dr. Socrates (O'Bryan House Publishing LLC - 2007) [Originally serialized in Colliers Weekly Magazine in 1935]
  • King Cole (Harper - 1936)
  • The Dark Command: A Kansas Iliad (Knopf - 1938)
  • High Sierra (Knopf - 1941)
  • The Quick Brown Fox (Knopf - 1943)
  • Nobody Lives Forever (Knopf - 1943)
  • Tomorrow's Another Day (Knopf - 1946)
  • Romelle (Knopf - 1947)
  • The Asphalt Jungle (Knopf - 1949)
  • Stretch Dawson (Gold Medal - 1950). The film Yellow Sky (1948) was based on an early version of the novel.
  • Little Men, Big World (Knopf - 1952)
  • Adobe Walls: A Novel of the Last Apache Rising (Knopf - 1953)
  • Vanity Row (Knopf - 1952)
  • Big Stan (Gold Medal - 1953) - written under pseudonym "John Monahan"
  • Captain Lightfoot (Knopf - 1954)
  • It's Always Four O'Clock (Random House - 1956) - written under pseudonym "James Updyke"
  • Pale Moon (Knopf - 1956)
  • Underdog (Knopf - 1957)
  • Bitter Ground (Knopf - 1958)
  • Mi Amigo: A Novel of the Southwest (Knopf - 1959)
  • Conant (Popular Library - 1961)
  • Round the Clock at Volari's (Gold Medal - 1961)
  • The Goldseekers (Doubleday - 1962)
  • The Widow Barony (Macdonald - 1962)
  • The Abilene Samson (Pocket Books - 1963)
  • Sergeants 3 (Pocket Books - 1963)
  • The Roar of the Crowd: Conversations with an Es-Big-Leaguer (C.N. Potter - 1964)
  • The Winning of Mickey Free (Bantam Pathfinder - 1965)
  • The Cool Man (Gold Medal - 1968)
  • Good-bye, Chicago: 1928: End of an Era (St. Martin's - 1981)

Short storiesEdit

  • Round Trip (1929)
  • Dressing-Up (1930)
  • Travelling Light (1935)
  • Vanishing Act (1955)



  1. ^ Obituary in the New York Times: W.R. BURNET, 82, THE AUTHOR OF 'LITTLE CAESAR' AND 40 FILMS
  2. ^ "Milestones: May 10, 1982". Time. Time Inc. May 10, 1982. Archived from the original on December 2, 2008. Retrieved May 24, 2010.
  3. ^ Advertisement for "Goodbye to the Past", The American Mercury, November 1934, (p. 225).

External linksEdit