The New York Times
The New York Times
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THE GOLDEN WESTHOLLYWOOD STORIES
By DANIEL FUCHS
David R. GodineCopyright © 2005 Estate of Daniel Fuchs
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWRITING FOR THE MOVIES: A LETTER FROM HOLLYWOOD, 1962
Thank you for your kind letter and compliments. Yes, your hunch was right, I would like very much to tell about the problems and values I've encountered, writing for the movies all these years. I'm so slow in replying to you because I thought it would be a pleasant gesture-in return for your warm letter-to send you the completed essay. But it's taken me longer than I thought it would. I've always been impressed by the sure, brimming conviction of people who attack Hollywood, and this even though they may never have been inside the business and so haven't had the chance of knowing how really onerous and exacerbating the conditions are. But for me the subject is more disturbing, or else it is that I like to let my mind wander and that I start from a different bias, or maybe I've just been here too long.
When I came to California twenty-five years ago, I was taken with the immense, brilliantly clean sunshine that hovered over everything. I wrote troubled pieces about Hollywood-a diary that I actually kept, an article titled "Dream City, or The Drugged Lake." The studio where I worked, RKO on Gower Street, seemed drenched and overpowered by the sun. The studio paths were empty; you heard a composer somewhere listlessly working up a tune for a musical picture: "Oh, I ADORE you, ADORE you, ADORE you-you WONDERFUL thing!" The people stayed hidden inside their offices, and what they did there, I didn't know. I was made welcome to tire community with a grace I somehow hadn't expected-by the wonderful Epstein brothers, who broke the way for me and looked out for me; by Dorothy Parker, who telephoned and introduced me to a glittering group of people, or a group I thought glittering; by John Garfield, with his honest and whole-hearted happy spirits; and by a man named Barney Glazer, now dead, at one time head of Paramount Studios. Mr. Glazer had a beautiful home on Chevy Chase Drive in Beverly Hills. It was surrounded by carefully tended grounds-gardens and strawberry patches, patios, a championship enclosed tennis court, a championship swimming pool, dressing rooms, a gymnasium. After the week's work, starting with Saturday afternoon, guests assembled there and a sort of continuous party went on until Monday morning. Mr. Glazer trotted through the assemblage, ignoring the entertainment and the championship tennis court, bent on his own pursuits. He was interested in fine china and objets d'art, in carpentry work, in watching over his dogs who were getting old and decrepit and kept falling into the swimming pool; the dogs, when they hurt themselves, would huddle motionless and just wait until Mr. Glazer came hurrying up, to scold and take care of them. With his open generosity, he took pains to make sure I felt easy among the company at those parties, and I visited his home often, appearing on most of the weekends. Many kinds of people were there, but mainly the old-timers, men who were firmly a part of the movie business-grizzled and heavy-eyed, patient, pestered by arthritis, sciatica, and other vexations. They smiled at me. They were amused by my inexperience and newness to their community. They liked me and I think they wanted to be liked. But they would never parry my questions. They wouldn't respond to my inquiries and doubts. They knew that if I was to learn anything about their way of living and working, it would be no good unless I found it out by myself. "I would argue with you," one of them said to me, "but if I win the argument, what do I win?" They had their minds set on other things, and time was short.
Not long after I came to Hollywood, I was asked by my studio-not RKO, another studio-to help work on a picture which was shot and done, which was in a rough cut, but which had gone awry along the road. The picture was a mystery spy-thriller, the kind of story the English write so expertly. Our English novelist was one of the best; his novel had been adapted by an able, conscientious screenwriter; the producer and director were also thoroughly seasoned and professional. The trouble lay in the star. If you examine these English spy-thrillers, you find that they're almost invariably concerned with an innocent: the hero is guileless and sweet, he is suddenly assaulted by a bewildering collection of circumstances; he gropes, is buffeted; he holds on, out of a perverse stubbornness; he digs in, perseveres; little by little the truths are revealed to him; he is chastened, matured, and the picture is over. That's how these stories go. But our star would have nothing to do with innocence. He adamantly refused to play the part as written. There was no use in blaming him. He had built up a personal identity over the years as a trench-coated, hardboiled character who knew the world; he believed in this characterization and had prospered with it; and from his point of view it would have been senseless to jettison everything for the sake of a single picture. Nor could you fairly blame the studio management-there are just so many stars around and you take the best one you can get. So I could understand the star, I could understand the studio; I was inside the business now, and knew these were realities that had to be met. But the essential conflict between the star and his part produced a chaos-when the picture was put together-that was amazingly complex and convoluted. Every story value was bewitched. The film raced on its sprocket holes; people glided about, as in dreams; telling points were certainly being made, except that you didn't know what they told, you didn't know what you were supposed to think or feel. I was confounded. I didn't know even how to begin. To add to my predicament, by a quirk of fortune, I was thrown into this assignment by the studio, required to work in tandem with a collaborator who was no less than one of perhaps the ten most important literary figures in the world. I was paralyzed by awe. It happened that I had a deep, longtime admiration for this man and his achievement. I couldn't blurt out my esteem. It was almost impossible for me to hold conferences with him, to exchange notions and story ideas in the free, knockabout way that is our practice in the studio. I stuttered and fumbled. I couldn't meet his eyes in his presence, and kept looking down at the floor. I addressed him as Mr. So-and-so, not as Al or Tom.
"I know why you don't cozy to me," he said softly to me one day, seeing that things were going badly. "You don't cozy to me because you think I'm anti-Semitic."
"Yes," I said. I was dismayed to hear myself saying, "How about that?"
"Well, it's troo-oo," he said, searching within himself and perplexed. "I don't like Jews-but I don't like Gentiles neither."
The director, a fastidious gentleman, as so many of them in our city are, was no help. He wore a smart, hand-embroidered cowboy suit, cowboy boots, a scarf at his throat, and had recently married a girl one-third his age-he was sixty and not easy to approach. At our first meeting, he lifted an eyelid, took a good look at my collaborator and me, saw there was nothing coming from us, and disappeared. I can't recall that he ever said a single word to either one of us. The producer was similarly out of reach. He was in hiding, incommunicado. Our star insisted on a scene in which he was given the Congressional Medal of Honor-Cagney had received one, in Yankee Doodle Dandy, the camera shooting from behind President Roosevelt's head, and our star threatened bodily harm unless the producer rewarded him in the same way at the conclusion of our picture. The producer, in consequence, stayed clear of his office and did his work in whatever sound stages happened to be idle around the lot. So my collaborator and I were left strictly to ourselves. I floundered. Scenes had to be written; some key had to be found which would toss the combinations magically aright; the retakes were waiting to be shot. And the deadlines were coming nearer and nearer.
"Where do you sneak off to every night?" my collaborator said to me one evening, drawing up softly, out of nowhere.
I stared at him. I didn't know what he was talking about.
"Comes about nightfall," he said, sly and glinting, drawing up closer -what did I have stashed away? What illicit bargainings was I up to, what devious chicaneries? "Comes about nightfall, I look out my window, and there I see you on the path, scooting along-where do you go?"
"Where do I go?" I said. "I go no place-I go home."
"Home?" he said. "Home? Every night?"
I felt disheartened and lost, ignominious or ludicrous as the terms of the situation might be. I was bereft. I liked my collaborator, and was failing him. I had seen enough of the people at Mr. Glazer's home to be genuinely respectful. I was touched by their quality; I wondered at them and was attracted and wanted some day to be part of them. And yet they were failing me, or I was failing them. Out of my haplessness and distress, I became furtive. I started keeping out of sight. I slipped off the lot. They say the first delivery is the hardest, but in our case, with my wife and me, it was the second-we were having a new baby at the time. I received sudden emergency calls, and bolted. Toward the end I stayed close to the hospital and was gone from the studio for days at a stretch. And then abruptly, miraculously, everything was calm. The fever was over. Everything that needed to be done was done. The scenes had been photographed; the picture was re-assembled; the front office was pleased. Suddenly, late one Saturday afternoon, I found myself with my collaborator sitting in the producer's office, the producer there thanking us for our contributions to the job, still apologizing because he had unavoidably neglected us. All endings are sad, no matter what they are the ending to, and few places are as peaceful and benign as a movie lot when the work has halted and everyone has left. The producer was mellow, worn and humble in spirit, as we are after a crisis.
"I'll think of you," he said to my collaborator-my collaborator was leaving us, on his way back to his home in the heart of the nation.
"I'll think of you too," my collaborator said, eyeing us both somberly, thinking no doubt of the turmoil, the business with the sound stage; my peculiar behavior, and the mysterious phone calls. "I'll think of you too," he said, implacable and without mercy to the last, "in the middle of the night."
The wonder was the picture. It was whole now, sound-the myriad nerve-lines of continuity in working order, the conglomeration of effects artfully re-juggled, brisk and full of urgent meaning. With the unsettling irrelevance of life everywhere, when I was in the Navy years later, during the war, I was assigned to the OSS, the intelligence agency, and on one of the first days this old spy-thriller movie was duly shown to us in the official course of our orientation. My collaborator, talented but benighted, had been mistrustful. He had been discomfited by the things we had seen, was affronted and disapproving, and passed on. But for me what had taken place was now in the nature of a phenomenon. I knew a massive exertion had been put forth. I knew it was a head-breaking feat of will and strength, a feat certainly beyond me. I thought of the producer, overworked and beset on all sides, doggedly bearing down on his task, never once letting himself lose heart. My mind went back to the director, with his scarf, with his erect, courtly posture and reticence, with his accumulation of who knew what special lore within him. "Isn't Fitzwilliam wonderful?" his bride had burst out impetuously to a group of us waiting in the anteroom, that morning of our first meeting. She was entranced, glowing. "He's shooting his next picture in Tahiti, and he's taking me along. He's so good to me. Oh, I love him. He is the only man in the world I could ever care for." He was sixty; he lived, we had heard, in a mansion under dark pines near the mansions of Hearst and Doheny, raced thoroughbreds from Ireland, had been to sea and had wrangled horses in Wyoming in his youth. Working in private, disregarding sightseers, outsiders, and all other distractions, this elegant, strange man had struggled with the film with a dedication and intensity that I could well imagine but couldn't fathom, and hadn't rested until he had conquered it.
We tested our pictures in Huntington Park, in out-of-the-way small towns, towns still undeveloped and straggling. This was what the studios went by-the audience's reaction. It was bedrock for them, holy writ-the rest, all other criteria, they waved aside with a blunt, contemptuous indifference. Banks of lights were set up on top of the marquee-MAJOR STUDIO PREVIEW TONITE-and the people would come gathering in the chill of evening, drifting up to the theater, to the blaze of light, in their jeans and stiff cotton house dresses, their eyes wavering and uncertain. They were field hands, workers in the citrus groves; they were miscellaneous day laborers, filling-station attendants, people newly resettled from Oklahoma and Arkansas. I saw them in our great drugstores, wandering through the gaudy aisles, staring in silence at the gewgaws and confections on the shelves, spending their money on objects which, when they took them home, they must have surely realized were unneeded and a waste. I used to stand in front of the theater and look at their loose, yielding faces, and wonder what kind of pictures could be given to them; if it was possible to reach them in any important, meaningful way; if it even made sense to try. And yet, once they were inside the movie house, a transformation occurred. Others have remarked on it. In the dark, forming a mass, they lost their individual disabilities and insufficiencies. They became informed; they became larger than themselves; a separate entity appeared, an entity that was knowing and complete. Unfamiliar and demanding as the material might be, no matter how deeply probing or delicate and sophisticated the treatment, if the picture was good, they were unfailingly affected by it and gave it its full measure of appreciation. I witnessed it again and again, with the unlikeliest pictures, so that I was soon able to understand why the studios put such store on these sneak previews, so that I began to share their faith, so that I myself have now come secretly to believe-secretly, since I know it isn't so-that good pictures will always command a mass audience; that if a picture fails to find this mass following, then it is in reality spurious and without substance. In an interview in Life magazine, Joseph L. Mankiewicz said (I quote freely, from memory): "The most electrifying thing happens in the movie house when you give the audience the truth." I knew exactly what he meant. You could almost tell the instant the picture took hold. An excitement filled into the theater, a thralldom. The people forgot they were sitting on the seats; they forgot themselves, their bodies. They lived only in the film. They were tumbled, swept along, possessed. Of course Mr. Mankiewicz didn't mean it could be just any truth. It had to be a carefully selected truth, carefully aligned and ordered. It had to be a truth that was worthy and could legitimately engage an audience. It had to have an opulence; or an urbanity; or a gaiety; a strength and assurance; a sense of life with its illimitable reach and promise. As a matter of fact, it didn't even have to be the truth. Properly stated, the sentence should have read: "The most electrifying thing happens in the movie house when you give the audience-"
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