Nothing New Under the Sun – Hollywood Writers
Writers get short shrift in Hollywood. But traditionally, the pay has been good so lots of famous writers have been lured to Tinseltown by the promise of easy money. In the June 1991 issue of Movieline magazine, Stephen Farber looked back at some of accomplished literary minds who flew out West to cash a few paychecks.
A few years ago I saw a stage revival of Kaufman and Hart’s first comedy smash, Once in a Lifetime, and I was amazed at how timely it seemed. Written in 1930, the play was set in Hollywood during the transition from silents to talkies, and it observed the lunacy of the movie colony in that frenetic time. Yet the remarkable thing was how little had changed. The author’s wry observations of venality and stupidity in the executive suites seemed as relevant to the Hollywood of Ovitz and Diller as to the town ruled by Warner and Mayer.
The central character of Once in a Lifetime, an endearing simpleton named George Lewis, is first seen devouring an issue of Variety. The acid-tongued heroine, May Daniels, says to him, “One of these days you’ll pick up a paper that’s written in English, and you’ll have to send out for an interpreter.” When May comes up with the idea of starting an elocution school in Hollywood and asks George to join her, he is apprehensive. “What’ll I do?” he asks. “I don’t know anything about elocution.” And she answers him, “George, you don’t know anything about anything, and if what they say about the movies is true, you’ll go far!” He ends up running a studio.
A few new wrinkles have emerged since 1930. Kaufman and Hart might not have predicted the growing power of the super agencies, the invasion by the Japanese, or the silencing of the roar of the MGM lion. But it is astonishing how many of the pronouncements of the waspish writers who swept through Hollywood in its golden years still ring true. Whether this is a tribute to their acuity or a sad comment on Hollywood’s stubborn resistance to innovation is a moot question. But it is startling and often side-splittingly funny to read the letters, essays, and stories of the witty writers who once sliced and diced the hands that fed them.
Almost all the best writers in the world were eventually drawn to Hollywood, by the challenge of writing for a brand new art-and, of course, by the irresistible financial rewards. Particularly when the movies began to talk, the culture vulture moguls courted all the titans in arts and letters; Samuel Goldwyn even tried to persuade Sigmund Freud to write a love story for him. (The founder of psychoanalysis was one of the few who declined a ticket to Tinseltown.) When Herman Mankiewicz sent fellow writer Ben Hecht a celebrated telegram in 1926, he was dangling the promise that lured all the great writers to Southern California. “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures?” Mankiewicz cabled. “All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
Hecht took him up on the proposition, and although he professed to hate the work, he admitted that he loved the money. In 1932 William Faulkner was offered his first opportunity to write for the movies; his agent promised him at least $500 or $750 a week. Faulkner wrote to his wife, “We could live like counts at least on that, and you could dance and go about… if all that money is out there, I might as well hack a little on the side and put the novel off.” Aldous Huxley came to MGM in 1938 to work on a treatment for Madame Curie. “They have followed their usual procedure and handed my treatment over to several other people to make a screenplay out of it,” Huxley wrote to his brother. “By the time they are ready to shoot it may have been through 20 pairs of hands. What will be left? One shudders to think. Meanwhile they have paid me a lot of money….”
Even the astringent Bertolt Brecht was seduced. He wrote a memorable poem during his stay in Hollywood, one that summed up the position that he and his fellow scribes found themselves in:
Every morning, to earn my bread, I go to the market, where lies are bought.
I join the ranks of the sellers.
When these visitors from the Algonquin Round Table or the capitals of Europe stepped off the train in California, they were immediately disoriented by the surreal quality of the landscape. To Dorothy Parker movie people were an alien species. “They never seemed to behave naturally,” she wrote, “as if all their money gave them a wonderful background they could never stop to marvel over.”
In an oft-quoted interview in 1956, Parker gave a memorable description of the Hollywood personality, an ostentatious showboat whose humbler roots keep bursting through the elegant facade. “I can’t talk about Hollywood,” Parker said. “It was a horror to me when I was there and it’s a horror to look back on. I can’t imagine how I did it. When I got away from it I couldn’t even refer to the place by name. ‘Out there,’ I called it. You want to know what ‘out there’ means to me? Once I was coming down a street in Beverly Hills and I saw a Cadillac about a block long, and out of the side window was a wonderfully slinky mink, and an arm, and at the end of the arm a hand in a white suede glove wrinkled around the wrist, and in the hand was a bagel with a bite out of it.”
Evelyn Waugh was lured to Hollywood only once, in 1946, when MGM proposed turning Brideshead Revisited into a film. But when the Hays office demanded major changes in the story to make it morally acceptable, Waugh with-drew the book and returned to England. The stay was useful to him, however, in providing the setting for his scathing satire of California burial customs, The Loved One. While he was in Hollywood, Waugh wrote a letter to a friend: “MGM bore me when I see them but I don’t see them much. They have been a help in getting me introductions to morticians who are the only people worth knowing.”
Upon his return to England, Waugh wrote an essay for the Daily Telegraph called “Why Hollywood Is a Term of Disparagement.” “It may seem both presumptuous and unkind to return from six weeks’ generous entertainment abroad and at once to sit down and criticize one’s hosts,” Waugh acknowledged in his introduction, but that did not inhibit him. Like so many other visitors, Waugh was struck by the insularity of people toiling on soundstages. “Even in Southern California,” he noted, “the film community are a people apart. They are like monks in a desert oasis, their lives revolving about a few shrines-half a dozen immense studios, two hotels, one restaurant; their sacred texts are their own publicity and the local gossip columns… Artists and public men elsewhere live under a fusillade of detraction and derision; they accept it as a condition of their calling. Not so in Hollywood, where all is a continuous psalm of self-praise.”
One of the things that tickled these literary visitors was the unique language of the locals, their tendency to speak in hyperbole. Novelist Leo Rosten wrote a book about Hollywood in 1941 in which he observed, “Hollywood talks and thinks in superlatives…The revealing story is told of two movie producers meeting on the street. ‘How’s your picture doing?’ asked the first. ‘Excellent’. ‘Only excellent? That’s too bad.’ ”
Or as Gore Vidal wrote in a whimsical reminiscence, “The last time I saw Dorothy Parker, Los Angeles had been on fire for three days. As I took a taxi from the studio I asked the driver, ‘How’s the fire doing?’ ‘You mean,’ said the Hollywoodian, ‘the holocaust.’ ”
Of course then, as now, those who had grown up in puritanical middle America were struck-and often swept away-by the very different sexual mores of Hollywood. Ben Hecht delighted in reporting the licentiousness of the movie crowd and their blithe oblivion to sexual scandals that would have rocked Des Moines or Cincinnati. “News that a group of stars and caliphs have been engaging in orgies is received casually by the movie dinner parties,” Hecht wrote. “Information from a qualified source that a certain great star is perverse in her love-making and will engage in amour only in a bathtub full of warm milk, or that a local Casanova has taken to substituting electrical appliances for phallic attentions makes the smallest of ripples. You will see the lacteal siren and the sexual Edison at dinner the next evening and there will be no nudging or winking.”
Long before the age of the auteurs, writers groused about the tendency of directors to think they could compose their own movies. In 1920, on the first of many visits to Hollywood, W. Somerset Maugham remarked, “There are directors who desire to be artistic. It is pathetic to compare the seriousness of their aim with the absurdity of their attainment.” Ben Hecht reported that he had enjoyed his collaborations with several directors, but not “the humorless ones to whose heads fame had gone like sewer gas… They scowled at dialogue, shuddered at jokes, and wrestled with a script until they had shaken out of it all its verbal glitter and bright plotting. Thus they were able to bring to the screen evidence only of their own ‘genius.’ ”
These writers were just as perspicacious when skewering the loudmouth producers who hired them. “The producers, generally speaking, read nothing,” Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1947. “They employ instead a staff of highly accomplished women who recite aloud, and with dramatic effects, the stories which filter down to them from a staff of readers. The producers sit round like children while the pseudonanny spins a tale, two or three in an afternoon-classical novels, Broadway comedies, the Book of the Month, popular biographies, anything. ‘Bags I,’ says the producer, when something takes his fancy. ‘Daddy buy that.'”
Or consider S. J. Perelman’s concise description of Mike Todd, the exhausting dynamo for whom he worked on Around the World in 80 Days. Perelman had once said that producers “had foreheads only by dint of electrolysis,” but none of the others he had encountered quite prepared him for Mike Todd. Perelman wrote his impressions of the impresario in a letter to Betsy Drake, and the profile would probably not be very different if he had lived long enough to be employed by Joel Silver or Don Simpson: “Todd interfered in every conceivable department of the production, not excluding my own; indeed, so far as I know, he is now rewriting the picture as he goes along, grinding the crank, building the sets, unnerving the actors, and generally qualifying as an up-to-date Leonardoda Vinci. It’s inaccurate to describe his cyclonic conduct as energy or vitality-it’s much more a violent frenzy I’m sure the headshrinkers could classify.”
Perelman was even shrewd enough to predict, some 40 years ago, the not-so-subtle product placements that have become a routine feature of movies. “The day is dawning,” Perelman foretold, “when film and department store may fuse into a single superb medium, with mighty themes like Resurrection and Gone With the Wind harnessed directly to the task of merchandising winter sportswear and peanut-fed hams…it should surprise nobody to hear Miss Loy address Mr. Powell in some future Thin Man: ‘Why, hello, dear, long time no see. Yes, this divine mink coat, tailored by mink-wise craftsmen from specially selected skins, is only $578.89 at Namm’s in Brooklyn.'”
One habit that particularly astonished these independent-minded writers was the sycophancy endemic to Hollywood underlings. Perhaps the wittiest record of movieland servility was penned by P. G. Wodehouse in a short story from his book, Blandings Castle. Wodehouse, who made a few forays into Hollywood in the ’30s, created the character of Wilmot Mulliner, who has the less-than-exalted job of Nodder in Hollywood. What precisely is a Nodder? “It is not easy to explain to the lay mind the extremely intricate ramifications of the personnel of a Hollywood motion-picture organization,” Wode house wrote.
“Putting it as briefly as possible, a Nodder is something like a Yes-Man, only lower in the social scale. A Yes-Man’s duty is to attend conferences and say ‘Yes.’ A Nodder’s, as the name implies, is to nod. The chief executive throws out some statement of opinion, and looks about him expectantly. This is the cue for the senior Yes-Man to say ‘yes.’ He is followed, in order of precedence, by the second Yes-Man-or Vice-Yesser, as he is sometimes called-and the junior Yes-Man. Only when all the Yes-Men have ‘yessed,’ do the Nodders begin to function.. It is a position which you might say, roughly, lies socially somewhere in between that of the man who works the wind-machine and that of a writer of additional dialogue.”
The favorite theme of writers, however, their recurring lament, was the disdain for their own profession that prevailed among the bosses in Hollywood. As Anita Loos wrote in one of her volumes of memoirs, “Irving [Thal-berg] didn’t have a great deal of respect for us scribblers. We irritated him as a sort of necessary evil. ‘Damn it,’ he told me one day, ‘I can keep tabs on everybody else in the studio and see whether or not they’re doing their jobs. But I can never tell what’s going on in those so-called brains of yours.’ ”
S. J. Perelman wrote a delicious sketch about a trial held on the backlot. The studio boss Max Plushnick was presiding over the disciplinary session. “A writer had been caught trying to create an adult picture,” Perelman wrote. With a grim visage Plushnick handed down the punishment for the crime: “I condemn you to eat in the studio restaurant for ten days and may God have mercy on your soul.”
Sometimes genuine anger flared in these humorous plaints. “My chief memory of movieland,” Ben Hecht wrote, “is one of asking in the producer’s office why I must change the script, eviscerate it, cripple and hamstring it? Why must I strip the hero of his few semi-intelligent remarks and why must I tack on a corny ending that makes the stomach shudder? Half of all the movie writers argue in this fashion. The other half writhe in silence, and the psychoanalyst’s couch or the liquor bottle claim them both.” Hecht continued to write for the movies up until his death in 1964, but in his later years he devoted more and more of his time to several volumes of memoirs.
Lillian Hellman also wrote of the endless, purposeless story conferences she attended: “It was then, and often still is, the custom to talk for weeks and months before the writer is allowed to touch the typewriter. Such conferences were called breaking the back of the story.” In 1966, after a long absence from film, Hellman was hired by producer Sam Spiegel and director Arthur Penn to write the screenplay for an ambitious movie about Southern bigotry called The Chase. It turned out to be a bloated disaster, and Hellman spoke to an interviewer about team playing in Hollywood. “Decision by democratic majority vote is a fine form of government,” Hellman said, “but it’s a stinking way to create. So two other writers were called in, and that made four with Mr. Spiegel and Mr. Penn, and what was intended as a modest picture about some aimless people on an aimless Saturday night got hot and large, and all the younger ladies in it have three breasts. Well, it is far more painful to have your work mauled about and slicked up than to see it go in a wastebasket.” After that experience Hellman vowed never to write another movie script, and she kept her promise. Like Ben Hecht, she turned her attention to autobiographical prose. She returned to Hollywood occasionally to visit friends, and to consult with the producers when one of her reminiscences, Pentimento, was bought for the movies, but she refused all offers to write screenplays.
Despite their amusement at the boorishness of their bosses, most of these writers, like Hellman, began to experience a painful sense of frustration after an extended stay in Hollywood. In 1938, after a whole series of misad-ventures on scripts that were either rewritten or shelved, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter, “You don’t realize that what I am doing here is the last tired effort of a man who once did something finer and better….”
William Faulkner wrote an equally forlorn letter to Jack Warner in 1945, begging to be released from his studio contract. “I feel that I have made a bust at moving picture writing,” Faulkner complained. “During my three years (including leave-suspensions) at Warner’s, I did the best work I knew how on five or six scripts. Only two were made and I feel that I received credit on these not on the value of the work I did but partly through the friendship of director Howard Hawks. So I have spent three years doing work (trying to do it) which was not my forte and which I was not equipped to do, and therefore I have misspent time which as a 47-year-old novelist I could not afford to spend. And I don’t dare misspend any more of it.”
In another letter Faulkner expressed his deepest fears of what could happen to a writer trapped in Hollywood: “I don’t like the climate, the people, their way of life. Nothing ever happens and then one morning you wake up and find that you are sixty-five.”
Faulkner did get out of Hollywood and went back to Mississippi to resume his true vocation as a novelist. Similarly, S. J. Perelman fled California and ended his days in New York, trying to recapture the spirit of the Algonquin Round Table. Herman Mankiewicz, who had begun as a playwright and essayist, was not so lucky. He was seduced by the riches of Hollywood, and he failed to break away. Shortly before his death at the age of 56, Herman wrote his own bitter epitaph: “I don’t know how it is that you start working at something you don’t like, and before you know it, you’re an old man.” That chilling line sums up the disillusionment of writers in Hollywood; beneath their witty gibes, the alienation they felt in a town that never honored their achievements had its genuinely tragic dimension.
On the other hand, their travels among the Hollywood caliphs and commoners provided them with plenty of juicy material for their novels and plays. From Once in a Lifetime and The Day of the Locust to David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, gifted writers have found tremendous creative stimulation in the kingdom of kitsch. They all felt a mixture of attraction and revulsion toward the business that paid their bills. Or as Samuel Goldwyn once told Billy Wilder when Wilder was feeling discouraged about a picture, “You gotta take the sour with the bitter.”
Stephen Farber is the author of Hollywood dynasties, and he is our regular film critic.
Posted on June 13, 2016, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged Aldous Huxley, Ben Hecht, Bertolt Brecht, Dorothy Parker, Gore Vidal, Leo Rosten, William Faulkner. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.