Nothing New Under the Sun - Hollywood Writers

If you think that Hollywood is full of crass producers, arrogant directors, and kinky actors--guess what? So did F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, and a ton of other writers who did time in Tinseltown.

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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.

Hopefully

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."

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