Thursday, March 7, 2019

Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951 (1990)

by Ian Hamilton

I used to be very disappointed by older history books. The sources and quotes used in them always seemed a bit random and caused much of the work to seem slightly unfocused. But when I eventually began writing my own histories I came to have an overwhelming admiration for people writing in the pre-Internet days. Of course their sources were going to seem fairly random because they had to take what they could get, be it tangential or even slightly off topic, and still had to tie everything together into a unified whole. Writers in Hollywood, by Ian Hamilton, certainly fits that mold, but it is still one of the seminal works on screenwriting in Hollywood. Hamilton begins his work with an interesting introduction, dealing with his earnest desire to get a copy of the screenplay to The Sweet Smell of Success. To his dismay, his cinéaste friends ridiculed him for not focusing on directors the way they did. As these things mostly do, it was his intense interest in screenwriting and the paucity of information available that made him take on the project. The epigram that opens the book is wonderfully ironic. It is a lengthy, descriptive passage from James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose’s screenplay for King Kong, going into great detail about the colors seen on Skull Island, all of this for a black and white film.

Another irony is obviously the role of the screenwriter in the days of silent cinema. At first it was simply a matter of coming up with scenarios and ideas of what to shoot, but eventually that developed--as did the literacy of films--into the writing of title cards. The two big names in the early days were C. Gardiner Sullivan and Anita Loos. Hamilton also touches on the failed attempt of Samuel Goldwyn to attract major writers to Hollywood, especially after the ones who were eventually tempted saw their works churned up by the collaborative efforts of the various departments and spit out onto the screen in a form nearly unrecognizable to the author. With the brevity and wit needed for title cards, Hollywood eventually turned to New York, with Herman Mankiewicz and his friend from Chicago, Ben Hecht, making the biggest names for themselves. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the last of the great writers to come to Hollywood during the silent era. In his mind he was doing them a favor, but he found the slog every bit as tough as his predecessors, who realized that it was Hollywood doing them the favor by hiring them. It wasn’t until the transition to sound that the studios felt underequipped in the writing area and began purchasing novels, stories, and Broadway plays, “dialogue by the ton” in Hamilton’s words. But sheer quantity did not equal quality and Joseph M. Schenck quipped at the time, “the trouble with the whole industry is that it talked before it thought.”

Of course the stock market crash drove many writers out to California as well, the snobbish ones because they had lost their fortunes and the rest because the money was too good not to try for it. Crime writer W.R. Burnett made a name for himself in films like Little Caesar and High Sierra, while P.G. Wodehouse was more than happy to let the newspapers know just how little he actually did to earn his one-hundred-thousand dollar a year salary from MGM. Hamilton describes the petulance with which Theodore Dreiser took on Hollywood over An American Tragedy . . . and predictably lost, as well as the stultifying effect of censorship on writers who had never before had to consider what religious groups or middle America thought of their work. The reality was, however, that there wasn’t much censoring going on at the beginning of the thirties. It wasn’t until 1935, and the Legion of Decency, that Hollywood was forced to clamp down, and there were only a few writers, like Mae West, who were unable to make the transition. This also necessitated a new kind of writing, one at which Ben Hecht was particularly adept at: script doctoring. With some of the high-priced writers the studios had under contract, they didn’t need them to concoct original stories for their screenplays. They had their lesser lights do that, and then paid the good writers a much smaller fee to fix it up and give it a more polished overhaul. And for some, like Hecht, they found that the more they gave up screen credit the more work they could get.

It wasn’t until the mid-thirties, with the Depression in full swing, that writers, like other members of the abused Hollywood underclass, began to unionize. The Screen Writer’s Guild was formed, and one of their battles was over who was given screen credit for writing. At the time, not unlike rock and roll records of the fifties, the studios could give screenwriting credits on films to pretty much whoever they wished. The Guild was almost destroyed when many of its members wanted to merge with New York playwrights, but the government stepped in and the SWG was saved. Naturally, however, this pre-war show of strength in numbers was spurred on by many left-leaning writers who could see the power of communist principals in action as the Guild began to thrive. Writers tended to be a left-leaning group anyway, and their eagerness to support the Soviet Union as American allies during the war would come back to haunt many of them in the immediate post-war period as communist hysteria took hold. But that would not be for another decade. In the meantime, the writer in Hollywood had to contend with one very omnipresent fact that was probably articulated best by Aldous Huxley:

          A good subject to talk about, cinematography. But is it a good medium to work in? I say no,
          because you can’t do it by yourself. Without co-operation your ideas can’t become actual. You
          are at their mercy. I shall stick to an art in which I can do all the work myself, sitting alone,
          without having to entrust my soul to a crowd of swindlers, vulgarians and mountebanks.

But Huxley’s foray into screenwriting could at least be considered a success, where many others weren’t. For one thing, Huxley needed the money, and once teamed with a studio veteran, was able to produce within the Hollywood system with a firm understanding that his work there would never be his own. F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, was never able to make that transition. “Huxley didn’t mind this; Fitzgerald minded it intensely, believing as he did that being left alone, he would have something splendidly original to offer.” But Fitzgerald was even worse off financially than Huxley, and yet he continued to believe that Hollywood should reward him for deigning to work there. “From MGM’s point of view, he wasn’t good enough . . . Scott just didn’t have the ‘the knack,’” while at the same time, “Fitzgerald himself believed that he was worth more than he was being paid.” Nathaniel West, on the other hand, was under absolutely no illusions about the place of the writer at the studios, but with no literary success behind him he found it even more difficult to find work, and did most of his writing on B-pictures as a result. And that was just fine with him--a job was a job. In fact, in his final year he made far more money writing original treatments, essentially fleshed-out story ideas, than working on actual screenplays. But in December of 1940 both Fitzgerald and West died, within a day of each other, symbolizing that the kind of writing in vogue during the depression was on its way out. Hollywood, like the rest of the country, was steeling itself for an inevitable sequel to the European war that had closed just over two decades earlier.

Dudley Nichols was one of the new breed of writers. Nichols specialized in that, now hoariest of all Hollywood clichés: the transfiguration. The idea was not new even then, a perfect example being the ending of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities--which had been made into a popular film by MGM with Ronald Coleman back in 1935. With war on the horizon, and especially during the war, the idea of the noble, redemptive sacrifice nearly guaranteed success at the box office. Nichols’ greatest achievement, however, was the twelve films he made with John Ford, including Stagecoach and The Informer. Nunnally Johnson was another of these writers but his specialty was literary adaptation, especially the works of John Steinbeck who had a short stint in Hollywood as well. Johnson began his career as a newspaper columnist and short story writer after the First World War, but when the markets for his stories began drying up he made the move into films. Johnson was a humorist and was assigned a number of B-films films at Paramount in the early thirties, one of which, Mama Loves Papa, was a big success, and when Darryl Zanuck made the move from Warner Brothers to form 20th Century he decided to hire Johnson away from Paramount. It was a great move for Johnson because Zanuck loved his work. Best of all, Zanuck’s friendship assured that he, unlike most of his other colleagues in the business, rarely had to wrangle with directors. “Under Zanuck’s patronage, Johnson progressed to associate producer, then producer, and in the end he was in a position to produce, direct, and write films of his choice.”

William Faulkner, of course, was one of the biggest names in literature to work in Hollywood, and the stories of his time there are legend. Every studio he worked for claimed some version of the author’s desire to work from home rather than an office on the lot. The studio head would agree, and then learn a few weeks later that Faulkner was indeed at home . . . in Oxford, Mississippi. Stories of drunkenness, disappearances, collecting checks without working, and engaging in an affair also collected around the author during his screenwriting years. Howard Hawks befriended him, and hired him for a number of films, few of which used his material at all. “But there had been binges and disappearances and in twelve months he had notched up merely one half-credit,” on Today We Live, a script made from his own short story, “Turn About.” He left Hollywood then, essentially a failure. But like so many other literary screenwriters, his perilous financial situation drove him back to the movies a few years later. What he never counted on was mismanagement by an inexperienced agent and he found himself tied for seven years to Warners for a fraction of what he had been making before. Beggars, however, as the saying goes, and Faulkner threw himself into his work for the remainder of the war, mostly writing for Hawks, and most significantly on To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, but being asked to lend a hand on a number of other studio projects as well. Faulkner never completed his contract, severing with Warners and working on only one more picture after the war . . . again, for Hawks.

By the time the United States had been catapulted into World War Two at the beginning of December 1941, Hollywood writers had already been hard at work on anti-Nazi and pro-Allied pictures at Warner Brothers, from the literal, like Confessions of a Nazi Spy, to the allegorical, like The Sea Hawk. Even Charlie Chaplin had climbed on the bandwagon with The Great Dictator. But while these films roused anti-German sentiment and American patriotism, they weren’t necessarily good box office. Once the Nazi’s took over Western Europe, however, they banned American films altogether, and that put an entirely new spin on things.

          With no customers to lose, a number of movies that had been kept on hold during the first half
          of 1940 began to trickle out. MGM made its first anti-Nazi statement in The Mortal Storm (re-
          leased in June 1940), 20th Century-Fox weighed in with Four Sons (June 1940), and Paramount
          contributed Arise, My Love (November 1940). And it was this trickle that Culminated in Gary
          Cooper’s momentous change of heart in Sergeant York (September 1941).

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt’s White House set up Lowell Mellet to coordinate a propaganda effort that could now proceed without hindrance. What Mellet and his colleagues at the Bureau of Motion Pictures didn’t expect--and were horrified by--was the vehement racism presented in so many of these films, especially when it came to the Japanese. Mellet’s bureau urged the studios to produce more positive message films like Mrs. Miniver and Since You Went Away instead. Once the BMP began demanding script approval, however, and even went so far as to rewrite screenplays, the studios had enough. “The producers could live with the Hayes Office . . . [but it would never] tell the studios that they ought to make better pictures. The BMP did, and that is why it had to be shut down.”

Of course any book on writers in Hollywood is eventually going to come to the Communist witch-hunts, but what most people don’t know is that the process began well before the war was over. “By 1943, over two hundred screenwriters were serving in the armed forces.” But for those who stayed, it was because many of them didn’t have a choice. “Each of them was the subject of an FBI dossier stamped ‘PAF’—Premature Anti-Fascist. Later on, the Hollywood Nineteen would have one thing in common—none of them served in the armed forces during the war.” And yet for many of the leftist writers during the war, they discovered their own political inclinations suddenly lining up with the prevailing view from Washington. The great shame of the BMP--and Hollywood itself--as well as the cruel irony of the whole sad chapter in American history, is the propaganda pieces about Russia that Mellet’s bureau urged the studios to film. “The most repugnant distortion of the facts” came in Mission to Moscow, a whitewash of the Stalinist purges. “There were other pro-Russian films in 1943, though none so solemn and shameless as Mission to Moscow.” Not only were leftists writers trapped in Hollywood, unable to participate in the war effort by joining the armed forces, they were led to believe that the exposing of their sympathies by being assigned these films was in the country’s best interest. But to then have people like Richard Nixon come along after the war and attempt to portray them as some sort of artistic fifth column, simply as a way to advance their own political careers, and whip up fear of Communist infiltration in the country just as the Nazis had done--and with even less justification--it demonstrates just how closely the political right in this country was, and continues to be, aligned with fascist ideology.

Easily the best summation of the whole sordid period comes from actress Patricia Neal, even though she mistakenly uses Senator Joseph McCarthy as the representative for HUAC, though he was part of a Senate committee rather than Martin Dies’ House committee. And while her comments do not appear in Hamilton’s book, they do bear repeating.

          I thought it was just a revolting, hideous, disgusting thing that happened to Hollywood in those
          days. McCarthy was a revolting man, he and the two men with him. Peoples’ careers were just
          destroyed. It was really a horrible thing he did. I don’t think Communism was a big, serious
          threat; I really don’t. People love to be radical and that sort of thing, but Communism didn’t
          have a chance in this country, and I just think it was disgusting what McCarthy did to people’s
          careers, their lives, their everything . . .

Despite whatever sympathies the writers and other Hollywood employees may have had at the time, there was never a systematic pro-Communist agenda at work among them . . . ever. For the most part, these people were simply doing what they were told to do as part of their jobs. And any qualms they may have had about repercussions after the war were surely assuaged by the general tenor of the propaganda coming from the rest of the country’s media as well. “With Life magazine naming Stalin as its “Man of the Year” for 1943 and describing the Russians as ‘one hell of a people . . . [they] look like Americans, dress like Americans and think like Americans’ it is perhaps surprising that leftists screenwriters were so restrained.” For those writers who were determined to use their films as a vehicle for political change, however, “even in a period of license, the screenwriter could do little more than slip in the odd line here or there, or at best attempt a civilizing scene or two.”

Hamilton uses Dalton Trumbo as a case study for the way all of this played out during and after the war, almost in spite of the writers themselves. “In 1938, the near-pacifist Trumbo wrote a novel called Johnny Got His Gun,” which tried to realistically depict the devastation of modern warfare on helpless populations. During the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, “Trumbo was at first labeled as a faithful [communist] party-liner. After Hitler’s invasion of Russia, he was relabeled--by the right--as a hero of isolationism.” The U.S. Army censored the book, and at the same time he became a right-wing hero to all kinds of racists and anti-Semites. But the book was not strictly pacifist, and did support the idea of “a good and worthy war [and] he himself was now pro-war . . . By 1942 Dalton Trumbo was acknowledged to be one of Hollywood’s most sonorous word warriors.” In 1943 a national writers’ conference was held at UCLA to outline “the social obligations of the mass media during and after war-time.” It seems innocuous enough, and just the sort of thing that would please the Legion of Decency and other reactionary groups. But instead, the New York Times reported that the writers had, “in effect served notice on the entertainment industry that they are about to take over Hollywood.” As the creative position at the studios with perhaps the least amount of power or pull, the idea that writers were going to “take over” anything was laughable. But from there it was just a short step to Martin Dies’ lackey Jack Tenney declaring that the conference was being “promoted and controlled by the communists.” In response, another group was formed a short time later, full of right-wing zealots in Hollywood and calling themselves the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. And before the war was even over, the slippery slope began to tilt from under the feet of writers--Dalton Trumbo among them--who were being set up as scapegoats for Communist hate groups, chief among them the legislative branch of the U.S. government.

Another important development during the war is that the Screen Writers’ Guild was finally given the sole responsibility of determining screen credit for writers, complete with an arbitration panel to sort out disputes. Hamilton then goes on to detail two of the most highly contentious battles, over the films Citizen Kane and Casablanca. On Kane the fight was between Orson Welles, who had been given virtually carte blanche by RKO, and was thus resented by nearly every filmmaker in town, and Herman Mankiewicz, each of whom claimed to be the author of the screenplay with only marginal assistance from the other. The whole thing would seem to be a moot point, as they wound up sharing screenwriting credit on the picture, but the film eventually became a masterpiece and the more accolades it received the more each of the participants wanted all the credit for themselves. The fact that the only Oscar the film was awarded was for the screenplay only made matters worse. Far more murky--at least in 1990 when the book was published--was the pedigree of the Casablanca screenplay at Warners. In a terrific line, Hamilton characterizes the screenplay as an “anthology . . . not so much a story as a stringing together of great moments to remember.” Julius and Philip Epstein, twin brothers on the writing staff at Warners, were originally given the assignment by producer Hal Wallis, then Howard Koch was brought in when the Epsteins went to Washington for a few weeks to work on Frank Capra’s Why We Fight. Later on Casey Robinson was said to have contributed much of the romance that was missing from the earlier drafts. Though none of the screenwriters denies participation by the others, they all tend to diminish the extent of that participation in the final product.

Hamilton opens his next chapter by delving into a different kind of writing style that emerged during and after the war: collaboration. Of course writers in Hollywood had always been forced to work with other writers in the studio system, but some writing partnerships in this period functioned almost like songwriting teams. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett are one example of just such a duo, credited with scripting the Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend among others. Another team was Albert Hackett and his wife France, who penned the series of Thin Man mysteries for MGM. Since both of those film plots revolve--at least partially--around drinking, Hamilton uses the occasion to segue into the career of another heavy-drinking “Hollywood wreck,” Raymond Chandler. When Brackett refused to work on James M. Caine’s Double Indemnity, Wilder was forced to co-write with Chandler. Despite their “hate at first sight,” as Wilder called it, the two managed to turn out an impressive screenplay, Wilder because he was also the director of the film, Chandler, no surprise, because he needed the money. Wilder’s rise from writer to director was presaged by Preston Sturges, who had done something similar during the Depression, and Hamilton details the specifics Sturges’s work on Sullivan’s Travels as an example of his popular style.

Hamilton then returns to the 1943 writers’ conference, but this time contrasting their urge to edify the public, especially necessary they believed because the soldiers returning from the front would have had their eyes opened to the real world, with the hard facts that the function of the movies has always been to entertain--even more important to soldiers who had seen enough reality to last a lifetime. His example is Daryl Zanuck’s message film about the need for the United Nations, especially after the failure of the League of Nations after the last war. Wilson, however, a major production, was also a major flop.

          With the war over, Zanuck and his co-visionaries had to revise their notions of what the new,
          changed audience might swallow in the way of entertainment. It seemed clear that the return-
          ing veteran--not to speak of those to whom he was returning--might not, after all, wish to be
          preached at by morale-builders or urged to fight the peace as heroically as he had fought the war.

Other post-war films that dealt directly with the aftermath were more successful, like the Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives. And yet in a bizarre twist, it was one of the films the fascist MPAPAI listed as a subversive film. Suddenly all of the teamwork and sacrifice depicted in the movies in order to unite Americans in the war effort was somehow turned on its head and charged with being blatant examples of a screenwriter’s allegiance to Communism. It would have been comical had the results not been so tragic.

The book ends, naturally enough, with the HUAC hearings that take the story to its grim conclusion in 1951. Reactionary right-wingers of all stripes fomented the belief in a Communist plot in Hollywood that was entirely fictional. It resulted in blacklisting and jail sentences for writers, directors and producers, and to this day has never properly been repudiated by Republicans in the way it should have. It’s an embarrassment and a stain on the history of a nation that seems bent on repeating the same mistakes in this century for no other reason that to be able to say it was right all along--which it clearly wasn’t. And as bad as the phony accusations and demands for naming names in Washington were, almost worse was the utter abandonment of the writers by nearly everyone, both within Hollywood and without. It’s a sobering end to a vibrant and fascinating story of one section of the movie-making process during the first half of the twentieth century. While the story is arranged chronologically, it benefits tremendously from Hamilton’s decision to eschew a strict year-by-year chronology in the telling. The book is about “Writers,” after all, and it is the personal stories of the people themselves, and the evolution of the craft, that is at the heart of the tale. As a piece of history, it is also written with real style, not quite informal but clear that the author refuses to cast himself as the infallible source of all cinematic wisdom. Writers in Hollywood is a terrific book, and one of the most entertaining film histories I’ve read in a long time.

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