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The Best Revenge : Writers and Hollywood

August 23, 1992|DAVID FREEMAN | Freeman's "A Hollywood Education" has just been reissued by Carroll & Graf with an introduction by Times film critic Kenneth Turan

When the movies learned how to talk, something innocent was lost. Modernity filled the void. An army of novelists, journalists and playwrights left New York on the Super Chief and came to Los Angeles to "dialogue it in," as they occasionally still say in Burbank. All those tweed jackets and shell-rimmed spectacles, their wearers and bearers no doubt dazed under the relentless sun.

For 60 years that modernist army and its descendants have written the scripts that shaped the world's view of America. When they weren't doing that, they wrote books that have become the source of the world's sense of the movie makers themselves: Nathanael West's "The Day of The Locust," about Hollywood's tendency to waste talent and finally to waste itself. Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run," the story of Sammy Glick, the man who would do anything to get ahead, a character in whom a kind of American ambition was defined.

The first significant Hollywood novel arrived with all those Easterners in 1930. "Queer People" by brothers Carroll and Garrett Graham set a pattern for much of what came after. It is the story of a newspaperman who blunders into a movie career. Much of Hollywood fiction is about outsiders arriving and trying to make their way; it is a particularly apt Southern California construct. The pace is fast, the tone screwball.

"You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up" by Richard Hallas (actually Eric Knight, the author of "Lassie, Come Home") was published in 1938. Although it's dark, with a serious tone, rather than the comic world of "Queer People," both have thematic similarities that inform almost all the Hollywood fiction that has come after: Success is accidental; directors are manipulative; actors are so self-absorbed as to be beyond comprehension; an outsider may achieve transient success but eventually flees the asylum. The Grahams surely thought of their work as comic fiction; Hallas was writing Depression-era noir .

Nineteen thirty-eight was the year John O'Hara published "Hope of Heaven." O'Hara usually was cynical, even contemptuous of the movie business. (In the 1960s he published "Natica Jackson," a ovella set in the 1930s that seemed to equate marrying an actress with miscegenation). "Hope of Heaven's" Peggy Henderson is the prototype of a sort of woman who recurs in Hollywood fiction. She's a little blowzy, a little fallen, but she turns out to be made of moral steel, with an ethical core stronger than that of the man who thought he was using her. Such women move through Hollywood novels the way comic rustics appear in Elizabethan plays or feckless husbands turn up in feminist fiction.

Horace McCoy's "I Should Have Stayed Home" (1938) is about people who chase their dreams to Hollywood and find only despair under the Palms. Hollywood's elusive promise is a metaphor for America. McCoy is better known today for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" His books didn't sell during his lifetime, but he found some financial stability as a screenwriter.

The first enduring Hollywood novel came from a screenwriter who made a few pictures, none of them very good. He made a little money, but not enough. Nathanael West died young and left four books. "The Day of the Locust" with its apocalyptic vision is one of those indelible works of American fiction that seem to define a genre as well as a time and place.

What might have been the greatest of Hollywood novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon," was unfinished at the author's death. Edmund Wilson, working from Fitzgerald's notes, put together the published version. "The Last Tycoon" isn't about baffled outsiders or little people struggling on the fringes. Where most of the other books, enduring or ephemeral, see the larger issues through failed writers and actors and small-time operators. "The Last Tycoon" flies unafraid into the belly of the beast with a theme that is astonishingly modern: business success in Hollywood; power at it speak. It is of Monroe Stahr, and referring to Irving Thalberg, that Fitzgerald wrote, "He could hold the whole equation of movie making in his head."

The narrator of "The Last Tycoon," Cecilia Brady, is the daughter of a studio executive, and her words open the novel: "Though I haven't ever been on the screen, I was brought up in pictures." For Cecilia, Fitzgerald borrowed the childhood of Budd Schulberg, whose father was head of production at Paramount during the 1920s. Schulberg repaid the favor 10 years later in "The Disenchanted," in which Manley Halliday, the drunken novelist, is based on Fitzgerald.

Toward the end of his life, Fitzgerald wrote a series of short stories for Esquire about Pat Hobby, a bumbling screenwriter who "was hot when the movies were dumb." Poor Pat, on top during the silent era when dialogue demands were minimal, had a rough time making the transition to sound. It's hard not to see Pat Hobby as a comic metaphor for his author--flush with fame and money in one decade, on the skids in the next.

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