Ian Hamilton, author of the definitive biography of Robert Lowell, is having fun this time out.
Obviously no book that is only 330 pages long, and covers the history of motion pictures from 1915 to 1951, can hope to do justice to its subject. "Writers in Hollywood" must be seen as a sort of primer on the subject.
If you want to learn something about the writer in the silent era, Hamilton's got a chapter or two for you. If you're interested in the man they called "The Writing Machine," Ben Hecht, there are more than a few good anecdotes and some interesting discussions about the way Hecht and his partner, Charles MacArthur, worked and played (and how they did play! ). The same goes for Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler.
Or perhaps you're looking for a short, neatly packaged history of the formation of the Writer's Guild, or writers' responses to the restrictions of the Hays Code. If so, Hamilton's done a nice job capsulizing the arguments, pro and con.
In fact, the entire book is a kind of Writers in Hollywood's Greatest Hits. You won't find any of these subjects written about in great depth here; for that you'll have to look at the primary texts. After all, hundreds of pages have been written about Chandler's and Fitzgerald's Hollywood experiences alone. However, that being said, I must confess that I found "Writers in Hollywood" a joy from start to finish.
First of all, the book debunks the myth that directors are the true creators of the medium. Anyone, including any honest director, knows that the script is the single most important ingredient in the making of a movie. A bad script with a cast of Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher is still going to be arotten movie. Hamilton understands this only too well, and in his introduction does a neat scalpel job on the myth of the \o7 auteur\f7 :
"I remember conversations in Oxford, circa 1960, when I used to go to the cinema five times a week. Outside the darkened theaters, in junior common rooms across the land the 'auteur theory' was beginning to take hold. On one occasion, I was particularly struck by the dialogue in 'Sweet Smell of Success' (the 'Match me, Sidney,' 'You're dead, go get buried' sort of thing), and I was eager to acquire a copy of the script. To disdainful cineastes of my acquaintance this seemed a pretty low response. I should have been concentrating instead on the 'voice' of the director, the recurrences and antinomies by which he had made the narrative 'his.' "
Hamilton attempted to do just that. He looked up the other works of the director of "Sweet Smell," Alexander MacKendrick, but found only one other picture, some horrid "soft focus tear-jerker about a deaf-and-dumb juvenile." The two pictures have nothing in common; one of them is good primarily because Ernest Lehmann and Clifford Odets wrote a great script.
After reading the introduction, one might think that "Writers in Hollywood" is going to be a book that rescues the names and reputations of writers who have had to play second fiddle to actors and directors, but Hamilton is too sophisticated to take this tack.
Things are never as simple as good guys and bad guys except in the movies. Many writers discussed in this book were either literary men just looking for a payday to help get them past rough times or screen writers who felt as though what they did was second-rate, that if they were "real writers" they would be either novelists, short-story writers or playwrights.
Everyone knows with what loathing Scott Fitzgerald took on the job of screen writer, and how Faulkner suffered, but few people realize that Dudley Nichols, the great scenarist who worked with John Ford, also desired to be a playwright. Even though he won an Oscar for "The Informer," he still dreamed of taking off and doing his own work. As Hamilton explains it, one can hardly blame him. Here's a first-hand account of how The Great Ford treated Nichols while they "collaborated" on "The Informer":
"Nichols often found himself standing up and shouting to make himself heard. John's typical response if they didn't agree was that Nichols didn't 'understand the Irish temperament' or that 'he had no first-hand experience with the Irish people.' When that didn't work, John exploded in a tirade of personal insults, calling the writer 'a supercilious egghead' who wanted to write 'a doctoral thesis on the origins of the Irish proletariat.' When they finally did agree on a scene, Nichols would write it down, and John would go over it, making brutal cuts in Nichols' dialogue."
Given this brutal, bullying method of work, who can blame Nichols for wanting out? Hamilton tells us that Nichols actually made it to a farm in Connecticut, where he intended to write plays, but he lasted only a year and came back to the money and security of Hollywood once again.