Writers in Hollywood, 1915-1951

A book entitled Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951 promises a certain amount of comedy. The scenario — the triumph of temptation over those who most eloquently recommend resisting it — is pure slapstick. We’re talking, of course, about the Golden Age of Hollywood, which at the time no one thought particularly golden. Pure brass was more like it, especially in the opinion of writers who had a sense — not always earned — of literary vocation and integrity. The process of bargaining, bootlicking, pandering, cringing, and death by a thousand cuts that is screenwriting was in that dim antiquity still considered undignified. It was also considered well-paying, so lots of writers succumbed, cursing all the way to the bank.

Hollywood, according to S.J. Perelman, who reluctantly served time there, was ”a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth.” ”Thank God you escaped alive!” wrote H.L. Mencken (prematurely), who didn’t go there, to Scott Fitzgerald, who did. ”I was full of fears for you. If Los Angeles is not the authentic rectum of civilization, then I am no anatomist.” In 1926 Aldous Huxley caustically warned a fellow English writer against getting anywhere near the place; in 1938, finding himself in need of easy extramarital sex and easier money, Huxley decided that hell had a nice climate and settled there for the rest of his life.

Ian Hamilton rounds up the usual suspects while describing what the writers were up against in lotusland: Jack Warner declaring ”I don’t want it good, I want it Tuesday.” Harry Cohn shouting, amid the silence emanating from the Columbia writers’ building, ”You people in there are supposed to be working!” and then, when the clatter of typing abruptly begins, adding, ”Liars!” Directors ”grimacing and grunting.” Studio bosses suddenly changing ”the locale of your movie from Brooklyn to Peking” (in Ben Hecht’s cheerful summary). Vendettas between writers and other writers over who wrote what. The Production Code, the Hays Office, the Legion of Decency, Wall Street, the House Un-American Activities Committee. And drink, curse of the writing class.

The reader is shocked — shocked — to learn that one of the writers who quarreled over credit for Casablanca, Julius Epstein, considered it ”slick shit,” ”a completely phony picture.” The Germans never set foot in Casablanca, there were no such things as ”letters of transit,” etc. But the movie is the perfect example of what could be achieved within the constraints and stupidities of the studio system and the Production Code: classically witty, cynical-sentimental romantic comedies and adventures. Not exactly art on a level with the work of Dreyer, Eisenstein, Vigo, Bergman, et al., but gold among the prevailing dross.

This is a sporadically entertaining but oddly inconclusive book. Hamilton is ironic about the more colossal grotesqueries he encounters, but while leading us over the well-trodden ground, pointing out the landmark anecdotes, the storied drinking bouts, feuds, and debts, he often seems merely dutiful. The main question raised by his accounts of Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, Dorothy Parker, and so on — did Hollywood ever really live up to its sinister reputation of ruining good writers? — is never answered. The evidence here suggests that it was more a refuge for spendthrift or spent major writers and a convenient excuse for minor ones than a leviathan that chewed the promise out of promising writers and spat them out. For some — West, Fitzgerald, Perelman, Chandler — it was a source of satirical material for their best work.

The book can serve as a useful introduction to the unsung and often unsingable heroes of the movie business, but readers who have already absorbed the anecdotes from other sources will probably find the less familiar material on the silent era most compelling. In those days, when writers had only to come up with plots, slapstick gags, and florid subtitles (And then from the mothering sky came the baby dawn, singing as it wreathed the horns of the mountains with ribbons of rose and gold), the name of Shakespeare, as in ”Shakespeare of the cinema,” was frequently, optimistically invoked; Hamilton tells us that as sound came in, and writers began handing in complete screenplays, it wasn’t heard much anymore. The talk had turned to money.

Writers in Hollywood, 1915-1951
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