An Obscure Road to Hollywood
By Woody HautOctober 4, 2020
Scoundrels & Spitballers by Philippe Garnier
Given the economic conditions of the 1930s, it can’t even be said that writers fared all that badly by working there; indeed, in some cases, they saw their careers enhanced. Yes, they were exploited. Taking into account the economy, the culture of the era, and the studios for which they worked (corporate or cottage), it would be surprising if they hadn’t been. But even those working at the rock-bottom rate (around $150 per week) or on short contracts were, during the Depression, relatively well paid, leading lives at variance with most of their fellow citizens. The studios might have had a low opinion of writers, but then they had, as Garnier shows, a low opinion of all their underlings, save perhaps for their most profitable vedettes. So, naturally, they sought to keep their “schmucks with Underwoods” on the shortest leads possible. Clocking in and out might have been degrading for those hacking away in cubbyholes, but a Hollywood studio was, after all, a factory, albeit one where dreams were manufactured, to be eventually consumed by a viewing public in need of circuses as well as bread.
While Garnier concentrates on the years just before and after Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House with the promise of better times to come, some of the writers he discusses had careers that stretched far beyond the 1930s. It’s debatable whether the 1930s were, in fact, the most glittering of Hollywood golden ages; nevertheless, that decade was an opportune time for wheeler-dealers and chancers, storytellers the film establishment needed to script its newly talking movies and turn a profit for the industry. It was also a decade in which Hollywood film would solidify itself as an international art form and a prime export commodity. To emphasize the extent to which Hollywood films had already seeped into the public’s consciousness, Garnier prefaces the book with a quote from Daniel Fuchs, the formidable Williamsburg novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, saying that films are as indigenous as “our cars and skyscrapers or highways, and as irrefutable. Generations to come, looking back over the years, are bound to find that the best, most solid creative effort of our decades was spent in the movies, and it’s time someone came clean and said so.” While the first part of that quote is undeniable, the second part seems more applicable to industry types and film obsessives rather than the public at large. Film was certainly a mass preoccupation, and an effective opiate, but no more so than popular song in its various forms — though, admittedly, popular song, not to mention narrative writing, couldn’t help but reference Hollywood movies in one way or another.
The hardboiled characters in Scoundrels & Spitballers who seemed to fare best — James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, W. R. Burnett — arrived in town with few if any literary pretensions, often coming from the world of journalism, their cynicism on display for everyone, including their fellow screenwriters, to see. They were, at the very least, well schooled in meeting the demands of the market, including an ability to work with a deadline looming over their periodically hungover heads. Despite their positions, their pay, the camaraderie, and, of course, the Southern California climate, they more often than not held a dim view of the work they did. But then, so did those who were able to scam and schmooze their way into Hollywood as press agents, before fortune provided the right moment to display their narrative skills. Among the more successful PR-men-turned-screenwriters were Daniel Mainwaring, Jim Tully, Julius Epstein, and McCoy himself, who, after escaping from a Dallas newspaper, served a short sentence as press agent to golf pro Walter Hagen. Also attracted to Hollywood, and only slightly less cynical than their ex-newspapermen comrades, were populist writers like A. I. Bezzerides, George Milburn, and Jim Thompson. Despite their common-man credentials, they had few scruples when it came to selling their stories to the highest bidder — or, sometimes, to any bidder at all. What all these writers had in common was a desire to cash in on their ability to beguile an array of producers with spiels, urban vowels, and regional twangs, spinning yarns about doomed lovers, gangsters, or lawmen risking their lives to create a decent society, stories with which ordinary people could identify.
In contrast, those who found the road rocky were often the would-be literati, unable to dispense with the notion that they were slumming it among the scamsters, scoundrels, and fellow arrivistes. Tales concerning the likes of Faulkner or Fitzgerald are legendary, but Garnier’s remit makes their telling beside the point. Anyway, we’ve heard most of those stories before. Garnier does make the occasional exception, ceding space to a few of the usual suspects — such as Nathanael West, who, with his novels barely selling and his publisher descending into bankruptcy, was forced back to the studios. Hardly enamored with the working conditions in Hollywood, West could at least moan about his plight with, as one might expect, a bit of humor, writing to Josephine Herbst: “All the writers in their cubicles typing like mad, and God help you if you stop for a minute, because as soon as you do, some guy pops his head into the door checking on you to see if you’re really thinking. Otherwise, it’s like the hotel business.” Not quite alienated labor, but labor all the same.
Readers will have no trouble imagining what, in the context of Hollywood, constitutes a scoundrel, but not many will be familiar with the term spitballer as it relates to screenwriters. I’d assumed the term had to do with writers kicking around an idea or scene, putting it on paper, and, not making the grade, spitballing it into a dustbin. An understandable misinterpretation. However, as the writer of Duel in the Sun (1947), Niven Busch, tells Garnier, the term derives from the writing team of Gene Towne and Graham Baker:
They would go into the office of the victim producer, and Towne would start telling the story they had. He would leap into the room and start acting out all the scenes. From time to time, Baker would interject a criticism […] and pretty soon they’d start arguing in front of the producer. And they made sure Baker’s objections were nothing too serious or unfair. So, the producer […] caught up in the story, would invariably side with Towne and defend the story. And, magnanimous, Baker would yield, and the producer would sign the contract. They called this “spitballing” in those days.
Whether spitballers or scoundrels, those inhabiting Garnier’s book — “second fiddles rather than tenors” — are these days remembered only dimly, if at all. Nevertheless, they have obviously piqued Garnier’s interest, no doubt because they mostly inhabited Hollywood’s periphery: not just ex-journalists, pulpsters, and press agents, but second-rate critics, gag writers, and even ex-cons — all attracted by what they hoped, or believed, would be easy money. As screenwriter and ex-journalist Ben Hecht, a figure far too notorious to be given much space by Garnier, once wrote, “Hollywood held this double lure for me, tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle.” That might be the case, but those on the margins could seldom afford to be so cavalier.
The fact that Scoundrels & Spitballers revolves around an assortment of esoteric figures might, along with the subtle politics that lurks beneath such a focus, account for why it’s taken some 25 years for the book to find an English-language publisher. But then, a treatise on screenwriters that overtly neglects the likes of Hecht, Dorothy Parker, or Dashiell Hammett is likely to find it tough going when it comes to mainstream presses. That a version of Garnier’s book came out in France over two decades ago only illustrates the extent to which that country has, as Garnier has elsewhere pointed out, long harbored a fondness for obscure and underappreciated American writers, particularly those whose careers were wracked or ruined by alcohol, drugs, or suicide. The author plays on that seemingly perverse interest while at the same time critiquing it, as can be seen in the ambiguity of the original French title: Honni Soit Qui Malibu: Quelques Écrivains à Hollywood — a mot de jeu on the motto of the British Order of the Garter, “honi soi qui mal y pense” [shame be to him who thinks evil of it], a phrase F. Scott Fitzgerald had painted on his digs in Malibu, as wittily depicted (as Garnier reminds us) in Beloved Infidel, a run-of-the-mill 1959 film based on Fitzgerald’s final days in Hollywood.
There have, of course, been previous books on writers in Hollywood, such as Tom Dardis’s Some Time in the Sun (1976), Patrick McGilligan’s Backstory series (1986–2009), and Lee Server’s Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures (1987). While the first focuses on the usual suspects — Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Agee — the other two are mostly made up of interviews with various working writers. For me, however, Garnier’s book is more interesting. Not only does it concentrate on a gamut of unusual suspects, but it also combines a light-touch literariness with a sly sense of humor that manifests itself in some off-the-wall turns of phrase too rich to be mere Gallicisms. For instance, regarding the veracity of a dispute between underrated writer-director Rowland Brown and studio honcho Eddie Mannix, Garnier writes, “If the devil is a sissy, truth is very often a tramp,” or, referring to Niven Busch: “He spoke in a gravelly radio voice that could have belonged to an Oxford don or a prospector’s donkey.” Not many film pundits write like that, nor are they willing to dive so deeply into the material at hand. On the downside, as Garnier draws the reader into the commercial abyss that constituted Hollywood movie culture in the 1930s, it can sometimes feel as if the story is in danger of being subsumed by its meandering profusion of sheer detail, no matter how seductive or entertaining those details might be.
As for the chapters themselves: After devoting some early pages to the rarely examined subject of screenwriters during the silent era, Garnier jumps to 1933, hopscotching through the early days of the New Deal. Not surprisingly, he purposely avoids emphasizing the politics of the era — that’s not Garnier’s truc, even if it underlies much of what he depicts. After all, his primary preoccupation is recounting the tales of the miscast and misspent, beginning with two men — bounders more than gentlemen — of whom few will have heard: Wilson Mizner and Achmed Abdullah. Neither could be said to conform to the usual notion of what constitutes a Hollywood screenwriter, though that’s undoubtedly the purpose of their inclusion. Mizner, who also managed and co-owned the Brown Derby restaurant, contributed to films like William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale (1933) and Michael Curtiz’s 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932). A personality as much as a player, he was known for his vicious wit, at one point likening Hollywood to “a trip through a sewer in a glass bottom boat.” On the other hand, his parting shot, “I’m dying above my means,” which he dispensed during his final days at the Ambassador Hotel, was more wryly self-deprecating, an ironic echo of Oscar Wilde’s glib dissipation. For his part, Achmed Abdullah, an Eton- and Oxford-educated Romanoff, arrived with a colonial military background that included experience in espionage, Faro dealing, and prospecting. He also found time to author pulp adventure and mystery stories with titles like The Blue-Eyed Manchu (1916), which led to a series of Broadway thrillers and, finally, Hollywood. There he contributed to, among other films, Henry Hathaway’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) and Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924), ending up the go-to man for all things British. Opening the book with the stories of these two men is clearly a case of plunging into the deep end, and a sample of what’s to come.
The following chapter begins three days before Roosevelt’s inauguration, as King Kong (1933) opens at Radio City Music Hall. It’s a juxtaposition that might have derived from the one of J. Hoberman’s formidable books on 20th-century America as seen through the movies. But Garnier, more of a stylist than Hoberman, is mainly interested in what’s happening at the street and studio level. That doesn’t stop him, however, from writing briefly about the gangster Giuseppe Zangara, who assassinated Chicago mayor Anton Cermak with FDR standing close by, which feeds into a discussion of the 1933 film The Man Who Dared, before the chapter spins off into an account of the devastating Long Beach earthquake of 1933. This event also left its mark on various films and, assisted by the governor of California’s three-day bank closure, played a role in averting a Hollywood strike.
Describing his method as a “bank-shot approach,” Garnier tends to begin his chapters with a specific subject, only to take the reader on a scenic journey that might or might not return to that subject. But, as they say, getting there is half the fun, wherever there might be. Take, for example, the chapter on bookstores in 1930s Hollywood, particularly the influence of booksellers and runners on studios and screenwriters. After recollecting bookstore scenes in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) and Wesley Ruggles’s No Man of Her Own (1932), Garnier takes the reader on a tour of establishments owned by Stanley Rose, Jake Zeitlin, Louis Epstein, and Milton Luboviski. While many can still recall Epstein’s Pickwick Books, few are going to remember Rose and Mac Gordon’s Satyr Book Shop, situated for years next to the Brown Derby. It’s at Stanley Rose’s more celebrated store, however, that the reader catches a glimpse of one of the usual suspects: namely, William Faulkner, but here given only a walk-on, rather than a lead, role. In a chapter that one could more than favorably compare to Edmund Wilson’s 1941 essay “The Boys in the Back Room,” Garnier suggests that Hollywood, if not a literary city in the 1930s, contained, at the very least, a literate populace. That did not, apparently, include many directors, other than Preston Sturges, an autodidact and one of the few to ascend the ladder from studio writer to celebrated director. Even so, “[o]ne cannot stress enough how seriously writing was taken in the 1930s,” Garnier writes in a further chapter on the influential Story Magazine, which, at the time, took up where Mencken’s American Mercury had left off, with an emphasis on new and regional writers like Edward Anderson, Bezzerides, and William Saroyan.
In Garnier’s treatment, the obscure cannot help but cross paths with the better known. In the chapter on Nathanael West, for instance, the author spends considerable time on a side-trip to visit West’s childhood pal, the memoirist, novelist, and would-be screenwriter John Sanford. Something of a walking contradiction, Sanford, according to Garnier, was proof that not every communist in Hollywood was hauled before HUAC, for the simple reason that — unlike his more successful wife, the screenwriter Marguerite Roberts — he was not thought significant enough to merit such a spotlight.
Then there are chapters in which the obscure encounter the equally, if not more, obscure. That’s the case of the largely forgotten John Bright, co-writer of She Done Him Wrong (1933) and credited with the story for Public Enemy (1931), who is covered in a section that supplements a chapter on two ex-con screenwriters: Robert Tasker (the thinly disguised subject of Bright’s 1961 novel It’s Cleaner On the Inside) and his San Quentin cellmate, Ernest Booth. Both, as Garnier points out, arrived in the publishing world wearing the Mencken seal of approval, Tasker with his novel Grimhaven (1928), and Booth with his autobiographical Stealing Through Life (1928). Tasker’s Hollywood career lasted some 10 years, the apogee of which must surely be his screenplay for Rowland Brown’s unrelenting 1932 chain-gang film Hell’s Highway, for which he also served as advisor. As for Booth, he too relocated to Hollywood, only to have his screenwriting career — whose highlight was probably Men of San Quentin (1942) — cut short thanks to his recidivist inclinations. All of which, in turn, feeds into Garnier’s chapter on Rowland Brown. Initially a press agent and gag man, Brown possessed no small amount of narrative nous, directing and writing not only Hell’s Highway but the quasi-anarchic Quick Millions (1931) and Blood Money (1933). Yet his career contained more than its share of aborted projects, including failed attempts at adapting Booth’s Stealing Through Life, as well as Edward Anderson’s Depression-era classic Thieves Like Us (1937), which he purchased for $500 and ended up selling to RKO for $10,000.
Inflated myths abound in Hollywood and there are few that Garnier isn’t willing to puncture. Consequently, in the chapter “Thieves Like Us,” he questions whether Warners was, in fact, the era’s most socially conscious studio. Certainly, a case could be made for other studios, even RKO, where the right-wing Howard Hughes was at the helm. In what could be construed as evidence for the prosecution, Garnier, in his chapter on Anderson, focuses on the adaption of Thieves Like Us, from Brown’s initial involvement to Nicholas Ray’s 1948 version They Live by Night and, finally, Robert Altman’s 1974 remake under the original title. Not that Garnier was the first to gumshoe Anderson’s career. In addition to Anderson’s biographer, Patrick Bennett, there was Garnier’s late friend, the ex-Rolling Stone journalist Grover Lewis. Following Lewis’s lead, Garnier traveled to Brownsville, Texas, where Anderson had been living down on his uppers as an eccentric do-it-all newspaperman. Unfortunately, by the time Garnier got there, the author had recently passed away.
While there would obviously be no interviews forthcoming with Anderson, that certainly wasn’t the case when it came to Bezzerides, with whom Garnier spent considerable time and whom he interviewed on multiple occasions. Garnier presents Bezzerides as a writer who thrived in Hollywood, in a career lasting some two decades, beginning with Raoul Walsh’s adaptation of his 1940 novel The Long Haul (as They Drive by Night, 1940), and including screenplays for Thieves’ Highway (1949; adapted from his 1949 novel Thieves’ Market), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and others. With a background in engineering, Bezzerides seemed to approach screenwriting as a skilled worker might, his professionalism no doubt contributing to his success. In the end, his accomplishments in film gave him, according to Garnier, the name recognition that helped Thieves’ Market find a publisher, along with his Depression-set satire There Is a Happy Land (1942), which Garnier rates — debatably, I would say — as Bezzerides’s best book.
There is also a chapter focusing on John Fante and his friend Daniel Mainwaring, and another devoted to James M. Cain. These days, Cain’s notoriety is such that he could just about qualify as a usual suspect. That may be why the chapter on him is concerned not so much with his novels or his screenplays as with, of all things, the best way to cook duck. In its archness, the chapter is, at least in part, a case of Garnier playing upon the French fondness for nourriture. Even so, the chapter provides real insight into Cain as an author, ending with a Cainism that calls to mind not his fiction but his years pounding a typewriter for Mencken’s American Mercury or for The Baltimore Sun: “Reflect that you are probably a crack-brained fool. But, then, who isn’t?” This remark could be applied to various characters in Garnier’s book, but hey, it’s Hollywood, Jake.
More substantial, and less crack-brained, is the chapter on journalist-turned-publicity-agent-turned-hardboiled-novelist-turned-journeyman-screenwriter Horace McCoy, in which Garnier gives a nod-and-a-wink toward France’s high regard for the author of the nihilistic They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935). Likewise, the final chapter is devoted, appropriately enough, to the author of Little Caesar (1931), High Sierra (1941), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), W. R. Burnett, whom Garnier holds, quite rightly, in high regard, and whom he was fortunate enough to interview on various occasions. With Burnett’s fiction now available, for the most part, only in small-press editions, it’s understandable that Garnier should bemoan the fact that this once-best-selling writer should have joined the ranks of the obscure, if not the entirely forgotten.
Although Garnier claims that his book isn’t a celebration of writers in Hollywood but of writers and Hollywood, it’s difficult, for both the reader and the author, to keep the two strands separate. Yet Garnier remains quite clear-headed when it comes to the role of writers in manufacturing a range of early celluloid dreams; regarding the revisionist view of the screenwriter as auteur, he says, “No writer ever had a clear vision of the whole picture. […] Only the producer knew what was going on […] and he often kept the other writers ignorant of what the other collaborators were doing.” In the end, Scoundrels & Spitballers is a tribute to all the second fiddles who worked in the industry before it began to pander in earnest to the lowest common denominator. This is an important contribution at a time when most filmgoers are only vaguely aware of what happened last year, much less eight decades ago. As demonstrated in his book on Goodis, Garnier is adept at combing the archives and stockpiling the anecdotes. The result is a fascinating book grounded in a kind of anti-romantic romanticism that can’t help but appeal to film obsessives and anyone intrigued by the relationship between film and popular fiction. That the book makes no sweeping statements nor arrives at any real conclusions is perhaps to its credit. Garnier simply allows the stories to speak for themselves. After all, in Hollywood, as elsewhere, narratives are, these days, all that seem to matter.
Woody Haut is the author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995), Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction (1999), Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (2002), and of the novels Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime (2014) and Days of Smoke (2017).
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