As actor and Hollywood chronicler David Niven puts it, the golden age of Hollywood included “the greatest convention of writing brilliance ever assembled but so much was watered down, wasted or filtered out … that tragically little of the output of these flashing brains ever reached the screen.” Among the opportunistic pilgrims to descend on Hollywood at this time were some of the greatest prose writers of the day. Here are their takes on the experience and some snippets of advice that still ring true.
1. F. Scott Fitzgerald
Despite his success with short stories and novels, Fitzgerald’s day job became screenwriting. Throughout this period he struggled with alcoholism, was fired several times and developed an output that was sketchy, to say the least. One of Fitzgerald’s final jobs was a light-hearted crime-caper. Despite the gentle tone, he confided that: “No writer worth a damn misses a chance to utilise his own experiences, however painful.” This might seem like a reference to his turbulent family or professional life, but he went on to explain that he was talking about giving up his favourite car. In the picture the male lead is “desperate because he’s just hocked his convertible.”
Fitzgerald was eventually kicked off the picture before it was finished. The last straw came when he was revising a love scene in which the male lead needed to say something romantic while looking into the eyes of the smiling heroine. Fitzgerald came up with the line “Darling, who is your dentist?” His response to being fired was calm and to the point: “It always happens.” His final thoughts on the experience weren’t greatly positive either: “Isn’t Hollywood a dump … a hideous town, pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement.”
2. Raymond Chandler
Chandler was brought into Hollywood during the explosion of film noir. This was partly under the misapprehension that he was a hard-boiled detective in the Dashiell Hammett mould — Billy Wilder claimed that what he got instead was more like a quiet accountant. In Chandler’s words: “The challenge of screenwriting is to say much in little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement.” He was a great proponent of the natural style; when working with Wilder on Double Indemnity he fought to eradicate the much-praised dialogue of the novel on the grounds that it would become too forced and wordy once acted out. Wilder disagreed and had some actors brought in for a reading, but as soon as he heard the results, he was forced to switch over to Chandler’s way of thinking.
Chandler was also part of the classic mould of heavy drinking writers from this period. For his work on The Blue Dahlia, he had apparently agreed to work for free, only to find that as a result of avoiding drink for medical reasons, he had a serious case of writer’s block. Instead he asked for payment in the form of a bottle of scotch, disappeared with it and promptly completed the script.
3. James Hilton
Hilton perhaps isn’t as well known as his contemporaries theses days, but in the ‘40s his novels, such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, were greatly respected, and his work on the film Mrs. Miniver won him an Oscar. He narrowed his experiences down to a simple rule: “A movie writer must make his own reckoning as to whether he would rather say a little less exactly what he wants, to millions, or a little more exactly, to thousands.” It's a prediction of today’s prevailing Hollywood mentality, where most projects are compromises to attain the largest possible audience — although in Hilton’s case he used the crowd-pleasing aspects of his films to sneak controversial messages into the mainstream, such as presenting a realistic view of the war in Europe at a time when America was pursuing isolationist policy.
4. Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway was something of an anomaly in Hollywood. While many other famous prose writers came to work humbly behind the scenes for good pay, his name and books were used to great success in movies while he received relatively little in the way of profits. This strange scenario is probably best explained by his reticence towards the whole notion of becoming involved with movies in the first place. His advice towards writers selling their works was highly pragmatic: “You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came.”
5. William Faulkner
It seems fitting to give the last word on writing for Hollywood to someone who worked hard there and made it work for him too. Faulkner famously asked producers if they minded him writing “from home,” while keeping it to himself that by “home” he meant Mississippi rather than the writers’ shacks in L.A. that he was supposed to inhabit. Faulkner is far and away best known for his prose work, but you can also see snippets of his great ear for hard and heavy language in movies such as The Big Sleep. The way he puts it:
“I get sick of people who say if they were free of Hollywood what they’d do. They wouldn’t do anything. It’s not the pictures that are at fault, the writer is not accustomed to money. It goes to his head and destroys him — not pictures. Pictures are trying to pay for what they get. Frequently they overpay, but does that debase the writer? Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first class writer. If he’s not a first class writer … there’s not anything can help it much.”
George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.
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