Ian Hamilton: Writers in Hollywood 1915-1951. Minerva, 1991. 326 pages, £5.99.
reviewed by Otto Steinmayer.
"Oh son, I wish you hadn't become a scenario
writer!" she sniffled.
"Aw, now, Moms," I comforted her, "it's no worse than playing the piano in a call house."
This snippet from S.J. Perelman's story "Strictly from Hunger" pretty much sums up one way a lot of scriptwriters felt about their job. Okay, maybe the public really does want trash, but even the most uncritical Saturday-night-at-the-drive-in screen freaks will admit that the Hollywood product is pretty uneven. For every work of art, Tinseltown churns out hundreds of slash-'em-ups, gooey musicals, and torpid adventure movies, ranging from the amiable to the repulsive. Some flicks, like the notorious "Heaven's Gate," are so horrible they hardly get previewed before they are rushed back to the producer's vault like the Marquis de Sade back to the Bastille.
Hamilton begins his history at the time film-length jumped from one or two reels to many. The silent film was, naturally, non-verbal, and the scenarists were technicians, not (as Hamilton quotes from Perelman) "...writers in the traditional sense, but persuasive, voluble specialists adept at contriving trick plot situations."
With the invention of sound a wave of panic swept
Suddenly, words were necessary, and in the absence of screenwriters
trained to order, wordmongers had to be imported.
Many were the scribes that toiled obscurely to contrive scenarios for the celluloid shadows. Hamilton does not linger on them. The gruelling work of turning out the foundations for the movies that entertain us day in and day out must be familiar to anyone who has had to come up with an essay a week before end of term, and is as ephemeral, as anonymous a chore. Who of us can name the man who wrote even our favourite movie?
The moguls, every eager to cash in on a name, rushed to hire literary lights, and Hollywood seemed the horn of plenty to writers newly finding their income from novels and poetry reduced to a melancholy pittance by the depression. It was either write for Warner Brothers or starve, take it or leave it. "Schmucks with Underwoods," that's what Jack Warner called writers.
How much money would they have to pay you before
you left off emulating
Henry James (I know that you too, reader, have literary ambitions) and
skyed off to Hollywood to hack out another Rambo sequel?
Writing is a tough racket. Dorothy Parker
(contributor to "Sweethearts"
with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald) quickly found out that despite
the temptation to condescend, you couldn't. Movie scripts, like
literature, were written with sweat and tears.
Real writers had various fortunes in the movie business. They were a mixed lot, from the cynical and facile like Herman Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht, to the mystical Aldous Huxley.
F. Scott Fitzgerald actually came out to Hollywood before sound. He slaved away on many surprising projects, including a romance on the life of Mme. Curie, and finally was viewed by the studio heads as having no knack for the business. The great novelist really could not understand that the studios had hired him to write garbage. He tried hard but to his immense puzzlement failed to sink down to the required standard. His failure to make it as a hack contributed to his tragedy, but his personal problems and drinking, a vice not peculiar to Hollywood screenwriters, were its main causes.
William Faulkner, who never watched movies, also tried his hand. Cineasts may remember him as the author of "To Have And Have Not" which he supposedly wrote following a boast to Hemingway that he could make a smash screenplay out of Hemingway's worst novel.
Equally alcoholic and nearly as inept as
Fitzgerald, Faulkner seems to
have brazened out his screenwriting career à la diable. The only
thing that kept him working was his firm friendship with Howard Hawks.
It never crossed the minds of the congenitally
deluded to question their
function. A man like Dalton Trumbo wrote Hollywood formulae as
naturally as a cow pisses. The movies were a flag that blew the way the
wind shifted across America in the 30s to the 50s. In such
circumstances, most screenwriters became confused about their own
stands. Their behaviour at the House Un-American Activities Committee
hearings, as Hamilton describes them, makes great black comedy.
Curiously, the hero here is the German poet Berthold Brecht---one other
writer hired in who failed to sink.
Part of the Hollywood mystique (exploited by the
industry itself in "Sunset
Boulevard") is its reputation as Sodom-on-the-Pacific, whose militant
mediocrity destroys the bright talents it lures in to work. Hamilton is
skeptical. The studio owners saw the movies as nothing more than an
industry dedicated to making money through the production of saleable
The moral of Writers in Hollywood, if you
need one, is that a
great literary talent survived in Hollywood only if he or she raised a
wall between writing literature and writing for the screen; if he
stayed sober and saw the movies as a job, and embraced the conventions
and foolishness he was paid to produce.
Nathaniel West understood this well, and was eventually able to make a decent living and support his serious writing. At length he was earning $600 a week, more than twice what he made from total sales of The Day of the Locust, the novel in which he had his revenge on the whole business.
Nunally Johnson ("The Grapes of Wrath") was
another who thrived in his
own way, a model professional. Skilled, with an ironical sense of
humour, and no axe to grind, he made himself no threat to anybody, and
compared himself, when pressed, to a cabinet maker.
Writers in Hollywood is neither entirely
popular, nor entirely
scholarly, but somewhere comfortably in between the two. Read it while
watching some of the films he refers to, no difficult thing in this age
[Editor's note: This
review's author's film experience includes 2 youthful horror
scripts, and a silent comedy that failed to win first prize at the 1970
Kodak Young Filmmaker's Festival.]