In Search of the Great Hollywood Novel




Christopher Hitchens once wrote an essay titled “In Search of the Washington Novel,” lamenting the dearth of worthwhile literature set in the US capital. At the height of British and French imperium, London had Dickens and Thackeray; Paris had Zola, Flaubert, and Balzac. But with the exception of Gore Vidal, the United States’s major postwar novelists have avoided the task of etching the country’s Federal City in prose, abandoning the field to second-rate thriller writers, who milk Washington for all the espionage and intrigue it can offer. Hitchens had several theories as to why this was the case, tracing the origin of the problem back to the time of Jefferson and Hamilton, when New York City was the capital of the United States. By mandating the building of a new municipality to house the country’s seat of government, the founders, Hitchens argued, effectively separated the cultural capital of the United States (New York) from the political one, creating a gulf that remains to this day. Having never lived in Washington, DC, as Hitchens did, I don’t feel this loss as keenly as he must have, but I sympathize, nonetheless.

This brings me, however circuitously, to the Hollywood novel, because like Hitchens, I too have a taste for literature about my hometown and the industry at its heart. I suspect that on the whole I have been more rewarded by my fancy than Hitchens was by his. With its promise of fair weather and millions to be made dreaming up dialogue for stars, Hollywood has, over the years, siphoned off enough literary talent to produce a rather pleasant draft of its own. Here are the names of just a few of the novelists who have put their pens to describing the world of moviemaking: P. G. Wodehouse, Aldous Huxley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, John O’Hara, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, Larry McMurtry, and Joyce Carol Oates. For those who enjoy Rabelaisian wit, there’s Martin Amis’s Money: A Suicide Note (1984). Or, if you want a bit of country house mystery mixed in with your Tinseltown tale, then try Robert Lee Hall’s Murder at San Simeon (1988). The genre is broad enough to shelter quite a few other genres under its canopy, covering everything from science fiction (Harry Harrison’s The Technicolor Time Machine) to crime fiction (James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential) to Westerns (Pat Conroy’s South of Broad). Indeed, so many novels have been written about Hollywood that in 1994 historian Anthony Slide assembled a handy little reference guide to the genre that includes more than 1,200 titles.

Not all of Slide’s novels are centered in Hollywood or even its near environs. By Slide’s rather elastic standards, just about anything that brushes the art of cinema, however briefly or slightly, makes the cut. Using this logic, Slide determines that the first Hollywood novel — or at least the first novel in which a motion picture camera appears — is 1912’s Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera by Victor Appleton. Appleton was a pseudonym for Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of “Tom Swift, boy scientist,” and the first of many authors to compose stories of Swift’s adventures in Appleton’s name. Each Swift novel revolves around a gadget (a motorcycle, an airship, a submarine), and so it was only natural that the plucky young hero should at some point stumble into the world of moviemaking, which, in 1912, was as close to the cutting edge of mechanical engineering as drones and self-driving cars are today.

The real patient zero of the Hollywood novel, however, is Harry Leon Wilson’s Merton of the Movies, which was first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1919. It’s a slight but amusing novel about a Midwestern yokel (the eponymous Merton) who comes to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a great dramatic actor. Broke, near-starved, and reduced to sleeping on movie sets after hours, Merton finally hits it big when he’s cast as the hapless straight man in a slapstick comedy, all the while thinking he’s playing a serious part in a highbrow drama. The plot is as brisk as a two-reel comedy, and the characters are straight out of central casting, but the prose is still half stuck in the 19th century. Instead of writing, “He glanced at his reflection in the mirror” or something equally to the point, Wilson writes: “Forthwith he went, profaning a sanctuary, to survey himself in a glass that had never reflected anything but the discreet arraying of his employer’s lady.” It’s like hearing a boxing match narrated by Henry James. If any industry cries out for the clipped rhythms of modernism, it’s the movies, and yet Merton of the Movies established many of the tropes that would later become cornerstones of the Hollywood novel: a hero from the East, a spunky heroine who shows him the ropes, and a lesson — Hollywood ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

One of the treats of reading Hollywood fiction is spotting the actual denizens of Tinseltown beneath their pseudonyms. Some are obvious. Monroe Stahr, the sad, sickly producer in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (1941), is clearly based on Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder of MGM. Likewise, Manley Halliday, the dissolute hero of Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted (1950), is just as clearly based on F. Scott Fitzgerald. As in any scavenger hunt, the pleasure one receives from discovering such pearls is inversely proportional to how easy they are to find. One need not have a PhD in film studies to recognize the actual movie folk wandering through Charles Bukowski’s 1989 novel Hollywood because Bukowski barely bothered to disguise them (for instance, “Wenner Zergog” and “Jean-Luc Modard”).

It takes a somewhat sharper eye to spot C. Aubrey Smith — the wizened, well-mustachioed supporting player in such films as The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) and Four Men and a Prayer (1938) — sipping gin and tonics in the opening of Evelyn Waugh’s satire The Loved One. In the novel, Smith is renamed Sir Francis Hinsley and made a screenwriter rather than an actor, but his aristocratic posturing and taste for cricket give him away. Sir Aubrey, a veteran of the London stage who transplanted to Hollywood in the early 1930s, was the doyen of what later became known as the Hollywood Raj, a faux gentleman’s club of Brits working in Southern California during the Great Depression. Like his fictive counterpart, Sir Aubrey was president of the Hollywood Cricket Club and, as if to compensate for his émigré status, played up his Englishness in California, where the locals were unlikely to notice the histrionics of the performance. In the beginning of The Loved One, Sir Francis and his friend Sir Ambrose Abercrombie are having their drinks on the porch at sunset, chatting about the climate and the natives as if they’re living in some far-flung outpost of the Empire.

Likewise, Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister (1949) contains a subtly malicious portrait of film director Billy Wilder, here transformed into a seedy Hollywood agent. Chandler and Wilder spent a little more than six months, between May and November of 1943, closeted together in the writers’ building at Paramount Studios, pounding out the screenplay for Double Indemnity (1944), which Wilder was preparing to direct. The pair did not, to put it mildly, get along. Chandler was inclined to be priggish and antisocial, Wilder impish and bawdy. Eventually, Chandler composed, on several pages of legal-sized yellow paper, a list of grievances done to him by Wilder, along with demands to be met if he was going to continue their collaboration. These included: “Mr. Wilder was at no time to swish under Mr. Chandler’s nose or to point in his direction the thin, leather-handled malacca cane which Mr. Wilder was in the habit of waving around while they worked.” Needless to say, the sleazy agent in The Little Sister, during his meeting with Philip Marlowe, swishes a thin malacca cane with devious relish.

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When renowned novelists make Hollywood their subject, they tend to swing for the fences. Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde (2000), a fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe, is heavier to hold than some modern movie cameras. Gore Vidal’s Hollywood (1990) isn’t quite that thick, though it nonetheless runs to more than 400 pages. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon weighs in at a trim 60,000 words only because the author was felled by a heart attack in December 1940, before the book was finished. From his surviving notes and chapter outlines it’s clear that he intended the novel to bulk up to at least twice that length. But, of course, ambitiousness is as much a matter of style as of length. Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1970) could be breezed through in an afternoon, and yet its very spareness — some chapters are only two or three sentences long — imbues the novel with an emotional weight, hinting at the existential ennui at the heart of the heroine as well as the arid metropolis in which she lives.

Part of the allure of Hollywood for novelists is its symbolic power. It is a place of big emotions and big themes — sex, power, greed, drugs, ambition, self-worship — and the prose lets you know it:

Walls of flame twenty feet high were observed leaping across the coastal highway like rapacious living creatures. There were fields of fire, canyons of fire, fireballs like comets within a few miles of Santa Monica. Sparks, borne by the wind like malicious seeds, erupted into flame in the residential communities of Thousand Oaks, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Topanga. There were tales of birds bursting into flame in midair. There were tales of cattle shrieking in terror and running ablaze like torches until they dropped. Enormous trees, hundred-year-old trees, burst into flame and were consumed within minutes. Even water-soaked roofs caught fire, and buildings imploded in the flames like bombs.

That’s Joyce Carol Oates at the beginning of Blonde, though you could be forgiven for confusing it with the Book of Revelation. Having lived more than 20 years in Southern California, I can state, categorically, that this is hyperbole and would be even in our more climatically unstable age. (Malibu, Pacific Palisades, and Topanga Canyon are not known for their cattle grazing.) But meteorology here, as so often in literature, is less a reflection of the natural world than it is a state of mind — in this case, schizophrenia. Monroe’s mother is descending into madness, a descent that is paralleled, in reverse, as she drags her frightened daughter higher and higher into the burning Hollywood Hills.

Anyone familiar with Hollywood novels should, even from this brief excerpt from Oates’s novel, be able to identify Blonde’s species, as well as its genus, for it sprouts from a sizable branch on movieland’s literary family tree: the Hollywood gothic novel. Practitioners of the form include Nathanael West, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Michael Tolkin, Bret Easton Ellis, and Bruce Wagner, the last of whom has made a career portraying Hollywood as a latter-day sister city to Sodom and Gomorrah. Writers such as these see a drug addict behind every million-dollar smile, a predator in every producer’s chair. Where others see sunny skies and mild winters, they see hell-hot Santa Ana winds and ravaging wild fires. “At the time of the 1965 Watts riots,” Joan Didion writes in her 1968 essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse.”

Then again, as Hitchens observes of Washington, reality has a way of outpacing even the most extraordinary fiction. If Aimee Semple McPherson and L. Ron Hubbard hadn’t been real figures, no novelist could have plotted their incredible ascents. The same goes for Howard Hughes, whose exploits in business (multimillionaire at age 19), aviation (holder of multiple world records), and the bedroom (lovers include Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, and Ava Gardner), not to mention his reclusive final years, locked away in the penthouse of the Desert Inn, make him seem more like a character out of a comic book than the onetime head of RKO Pictures. Can fiction compete with a Nazi plot to assassinate Jack Warner? Or prostitutes earning more money than movie stars in a brothel on the Sunset Strip? Or a mediocre B-movie actor rising to become president of the United States?

On occasion it can. In Laughing Gas (1936), P. G. Wodehouse blends metaphysics with moviemaking when he sends a British lord to Hollywood and causes him to switch souls with a twelve-year-old movie star. The plot is perfectly ironic: in a town devoted to youth, our hero (Reginald “Reggie” John Peter Swithin, third earl of Havershot) is perhaps the one man trying to become old again. It is also a near-perfect distillation of the ethos of P. G. Wodehouse, whose heroes are so often boys trapped in men’s bodies. His Bertie Wooster displayed a similar fondness for playing with toy ducks in the bath and pranking people by slipping slippery creatures into their beds, but in Reggie’s case there’s a little more rhyme and reason to his puerility: a prisoner in a child’s body, he finds himself a prisoner of a child’s appetites, as well. It’s a lot harder to go sleuthing around Los Angeles when you’re frequently overcome with a craving for sweets and the need for an afternoon nap.

Although Laughing Gas may steer fairly clear of the actual business of moviemaking, it does, nonetheless, bear many of the familiar features of Hollywood literature, including a fish-out-of-water hero, a wised-up heroine, and a sensationally popular religious cult. This last trope, not surprisingly, is a mainstay of the genre. Among the many faiths to be either born or reared to maturity in Southern California are Pentecostalism, Scientology, the Reformed New Testament Church of the Faith of Jesus Christ, the I AM Movement, the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, and Mankind United — the last of which proclaimed that a superhuman race of little men with metallic heads dwell in the center of the earth and plan, one day, to eliminate all poverty and war. Between 1934 and 1941, more than 14,000 Californians joined this briefly fashionable religion. No piece of fiction captures the fervor of filmland faith better than this passage from Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939):

One Friday night in the “Tabernacle of the Third Coming,” a man near Tod stood up to speak. Although his name most likely was Thompson or Johnson and his home town Sioux City, he had the same counter-sunk eyes, like the heads of burnished spikes, that a monk by Magnasco might have. He was probably just in from one of the colonies in the desert near Soboba Hot Springs where he had been conning over his soul on a diet of raw fruits and nuts. He was very angry. The message he had brought to the city was one that an illiterate anchorite might have given decadent Rome. It was a crazy jumble of dietary rules, economics and Biblical threats. He claimed to have seen the Tiger of Wrath stalking the walls of the citadel and the Jackal of Lust skulking in the shrubbery, and he connected these omens with “thirty dollars every Thursday” and meat eating.

Tod didn’t laugh at the man’s rhetoric. He knew it was unimportant. What mattered were his messianic rage and the emotional response of his hearers. They sprang to their feet, shaking their fists and shouting. On the altar someone began to beat a bass drum and soon the entire congregation was singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Day of the Locust is one of the few Hollywood novels to include a scene, albeit a very brief one, on a soundstage. If there’s one place these novels resolutely avoid, it’s actual, working film sets. If you’ve never labored on a movie you might find this curious, but if you have, you’ll know why writers are so loath to visit. “Moviemaking,” as Steven Spielberg once observed, “is a long, boring, sometimes cacophonous process.” For all the drama that occurs before the camera, most of the activity behind it is rather dull busywork. This is not to suggest that Hollywood novels relinquish the task of portraying the industry as it is. It’s just that they are much better at describing the petty jealousies of executives, the insecurities of stars, and the faddish tastes of the locals than they are at describing what goes on as the cameras turn. The least plausible part of Robert Stone’s Children of Light (1986) is the movie that’s being made at the center of it: a big-budget adaptation of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Far more interesting are the characters who flit about the periphery of the story: the sexually creepy Drogue family; Dr. Siriwai, “Physician to the Stars,” who quotes Shakespeare and John McCrae while handing out Quaaludes; and, best of all, Sam Quinn, a stuntman turned drug dealer who has a death’s head etched into the cap on his front tooth and the body of an OD’d friend welded in an oil drum buried on his ranch property. “That’s the way to do your life,” Quinn explains. “Look the gray rat in the eye.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but I like the sound of it.

Children of Light, like all of Stone’s novels, is unable to live up to the potential of its opening chapters. Stone’s books are masterful at building up tension but never seem to know quite how to release it, whether in a orgy of violence, as in Hall of Mirrors or, as in Children of Light, a febrile, Lear-like tramp across the hills before collapse. Both end in bathos, and that’s the trouble with all too many novels about the movie industry. In trying to go big, they either bite off more than they can chew (Blonde, The Dream Merchants) or chew more than they bite off (After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Money: A Suicide Note). The nice thing about a junky novel like Jackie Collins’s Hollywood Wives (1983), for all its lazy similes (“She sucked him like a water pipe”) and stock characters, is that, even at 550 pages, it’s plotted as precisely at a Hitchcock thriller, with no digressions or didactic sermonizing.

Indeed, much more satisfying are the Hollywood novels that keep their ambit small. I’m thinking particularly of a little 1977 novel by Darcy O’Brien called A Way of Life, Like Any Other about coming of age in Hollywood in a family of faded movie stars. O’Brien was the son of George O’Brien, the star of F. W. Murnau’s 1929 film Sunrise, and Marguerite Churchill, who, in her heyday, played leading roles opposite Will Rogers, Spencer Tracy, and John Wayne. Neither George O’Brien nor Marguerite Churchill had the career longevity of a Tracy or a Wayne, and so, as you might expect, O’Brien’s novel is largely a story of life after celebrity, of how much colder the world becomes once the limelight has moved on. O’Brien is excellent at capturing characters succinctly, at letting them paint themselves with their own tongues. Here, for instance, is movie director Sam Caliban:

A lot of these young guys, they got too much education or too much something, I don’t know, they all wanna be Tolstoy, you know what I mean? Back when I started, all the big men were like me. Pants pressers, right? So they knew what everybody liked and they all made money. People laugh about Sol Wurtzel. They laugh like about what he said when they came to him with a script Dante’s Inferno. Sol said, “O.K. Make it. But one thing. Don’t open in the summer.” Sure it’s funny. But don’t you know something? Sol Wurtzel was a genius. There wasn’t no air conditioning in those days. A lot of these new guys think they can cram a lot of crap down people’s throats and call it art and expect people to pay two dollars for the privilege. Me, I make ’em happy. So what’s wrong with that? I pay my taxes.

Anyone who has ever studied the lives of Jack Warner, B. P. Schulberg, or Louis B. Mayer will recognize this voice immediately, marked by the hubris of the rags-to-riches movie mogul, certain that his street smarts are worth more than a whole roomful of Ivy League brains.

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That Hollywood abounds with rich characters should be no surprise, for they have been the grist of tabloids and tell-alls for decades, generating plenty of backstage interest in the industry. But the most important question about the Hollywood novel remains: How good is the reading material? While I’d be dubious about nominating Hollywood for an honorary PEN/Faulkner Award just yet, I wouldn’t exactly scoff at its canon either. The Disenchanted is a very fine book, if somewhat neglected in favor of its more crass and contentious brother, Budd Schulberg’s first Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run? Play It as It Lays has grown on me over the years. The novel takes place in the 1960s, but it feels much more redolent of the decade in which it was actually written, deftly capturing the bareness of American culture in the Nixon era. And I earnestly recommend Gore Vidal’s Hollywood to anyone thinking about sampling the genre. Be warned, though, the full title of the book is Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s, but a more honest inscription would have read: Washington, D.C.: A Novel of America in the 1910s, for Vidal, like the story’s more elderly personages — Henry Adams, Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt — is clearly most at home close to the Potomac.

But those are just the appetizers. The feast really begins with P. G. Wodehouse’s contributions to the genre, particularly Laughing Gas and The Luck of the Bodkins, which are as toothsome as any of the author’s sweet, airy confections. A very different but equally delicious dish is John Le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl (1983), which Anthony Slide somehow failed to include in his compendium, despite its offering one of the best expositions of method acting yet written, in this case used in service of a school of antiterrorist wetwork. And then, to cap it all off, there’s Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, which only crosses the film industry en passant but, thanks to its author’s playful pen, bears the telltale imprint of the cinematic image upon its prose. If ever a novelist was born to compose a Hollywood novel — if only, sadly, one Hollywood novel — it is Nabokov, a writer graced with an unrivaled gift for illuminating the visual world with his words: “the fast colors of street lights all running and dissolving” on melting snow; how the inside of a dachshund’s ears resemble “dark pink blotting paper” when folded back atop its head; how light “ripples […] on the inner curve of a bridge”; or the way darkness itself can seem to “slid[e] and sway” in a taxi, as it rattles through a city a night. If you want to see the pictorial splendor of cinema metamorphosed into prose, Nabokov is your man.

Now that’s a fine collection of books, but the truth is, in its capacity as a muse, Hollywood is much better at inspiring breezy best sellers than lasting literary masterpieces. If Wodehouse and Nabokov are the champagne and absinthe in cinema’s literary cocktail, then Elmore Leonard, Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins, and any number of roughly equivalent writers are the tonic water, mildly refreshing but unlikely to intoxicate your imagination. Which, I suppose, raises the question: Why bother with Hollywood novels at all? For those of us who thrill to the history of Hollywood as much as the movies that came out of it, Hollywood novels offers an additional pleasure: they let us see the past, not in long-shot, with the gulf of time separating us from the events they describe, but in brilliant close-up, showing us the world of yesteryear as it was seen by those who lived in it.

If you want to dine at Ma Maison when it was the restaurant for the rich and famous or stay at the Garden of Allah when the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Errol Flynn made it their home or stroll across the old studio lots at night when, as Fitzgerald phrased it, the sets look “like the torn picture books of childhood,” you’ll have to do it through Hollywood’s novels. Within their pages the city’s past still lives, and if you’re looking for Douglas Fairbanks or Marion Davies or John Ford, that’s where you’ll find them — taking a steam bath in Fairbanks’s private gymnasium or sitting by a fragrant eucalyptus fire drinking Bloody Marys. The only other place is at the movies.

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Graham Daseler’s writing on film has appeared in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, Offscreen, The Moving Arts Film Journal, and 34th Parallel.


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