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Screenwriters Of The Golden Age

December 28, 1986|PAT McGILLIGAN

Whether they were poets, playwrights, journalists, songwriters or press agents, the generation of writers who streamed to Hollywood in the early sound era had to cope with the exigencies of "talkies" while creating the basic storytelling rules that screenwriters still abide by today.

For a new book, "Backstory: Interviews With Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age" (University of California Press), Pat McGilligan has interviewed 15 of the best screenwriters on the Golden Age of Hollywood . . . from the screenwriters' point of view.

Here are excerpts from some of the interviews:

DRAMATIS PERSONAE Charles Bennett. In Hollywood since 1937. His 50 credited screenplays include "Foreign Correspondent" and six other early Alfred Hitchcock films.

W. R. Burnett. In Hollywood since 1930. Hard-boiled novelist of "Little Caesar," "High Sierra," "Yellow Sky," "The Asphalt Jungle" and others. His 60 credited (and uncredited) screenplays range over time from "Scarface" in 1932 to "The Great Escape" in 1963. Now deceased.

Philip Dunne. In Hollywood since 1932. Writer (and occasional director) of 40 screenplays, including "How Green Was My Valley," "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," "Pinky" and others.

Julius J. Epstein. In Hollywood since 1933. A collaborator with his brother (Philip G. Epstein) at Warner Bros. in the '30s and '40s, later a solo screenwriter, his 50 credited screenplays over as many years include "The Male Animal," "Mr. Skeffington," "Fanny," "Light in the Piazza," "Pete 'n' Tillie," "Reuben, Reuben" and others. Shared an Oscar for writing "Casablanca."

Norman Krasna. In Hollywood since 1931. "Role reversal" comedy expert responsible for two slice-of-life melodramas directed by Fritz Lang ("Fury" and "You and Me"), Alfred Hitchcock's only screwball comedy ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith") and Groucho Marx's only screenplay collaboration ("King and the Chorus Girl"), plus 50 vintage romantic comedies, including "Bachelor Mother," "The Devil and Miss Jones," "Indiscreet" and "Let's Make Love." Won screenplay Oscar in 1943 for "Princess O'Rourke," which he also directed. Now deceased.

Richard Maibaum. In Hollywood since 1935. His 50 credited screenplays include the Alan Ladd version of "The Great Gatsby," "Ransom!" and "Bigger Than Life," and 11 (and counting) of the James Bond films.

Allan Scott. In Hollywood since 1933. His 50 credited screenplays include six of the 10 Astaire-Rogers musicals and numerous vehicles for Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne and Claudette Colbert.


Maibaum: "Our trip West was our honeymoon. We were met at Pasadena--at that time the VIPs got off there. A limousine was waiting, so you didn't have to go through the crowd at the station in Los Angeles. An assistant of (MGM story editor) Sam Marx met us. He sat in front while Sylvia and I were in the back holding hands. As we passed the observatory, the guy says, "The Griffith Observatory--see it before you go back." Sylvia and I looked at each other.

"That night we strolled along Hollywood Boulevard, still holding hands. We got to Musso and Frank's and walked in. There was a place in the back where the writers gathered, and somebody was eating a salad with a lot of garlic at the next table. It smelled great, so we ordered it. A chiffonade salad. We still call it 'our salad.' "

Epstein: "I came out on Friday and landed in the railroad station at 10 o'clock at night. Oct. 14, 1933. Twelve o'clock that night I was ghostwriting for two desperate people who shall remain nameless, because they had to take some stuff in (to Warner Bros.) on Monday and they had nothing to turn in. Sunday, one of them took me downtown to the Paramount Theatre--I think it was 'College Humor' (1933) with Bing Crosby and Mary Carlisle. He said, 'That's a fade-out. That's a dissolve. That's an iris-down! That was my education in screenwriting. I think it's all you need.

"I learned by looking at other scripts. And I learned very early that directors pay no attention to that (technical language). You just write: 'master scene,' 'cut to' or 'close shot'--which is very easy, you just mix it up. The master shots and the individual shots were all shot the same way.

"When I first arrived, I wrote an original story every night. In those days you didn't have to write a screenplay to sell, you could do 10 or 20 pages of an idea. In about nine months one sold to Warners. I came in October and sold something in August. After a week Warners put me on a seven-year contract, and I was there under two seven-year contracts."

Scott: "My first office (at RKO) was in the newly erected building called The New Writers Building--very pleasant, large paneled woodwork offices with a room for one's secretary. Actually, I wrote mostly at home, which you were able to do after you realized you were really working. Between assignments, you'd come in, gossip, have lunch, wander around the lot, talk with the other writers, a nice life."

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