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From Barnes & NobleEdith Wharton: Hollywood and the Writer
The year of Edith Wharton was undoubtedly 1993, which saw not only the wide release of film versions of The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome but also a return of Wharton to the bestseller lists. But despite the contemporary image of Wharton as a strictly "literary" author, Hollywood and the bestseller lists were with her throughout her career. In fact, Wharton may have been among the first modern writers to find herself caught between the pressures of art and the pressures of the market, particularly in an era when the "market" meant the film industry.
Wharton saw only one movie in her life, just before the outbreak of World War I, and she seems to have been unimpressed. But despite this apparent lack of feeling for the products of Hollywood, Wharton developed strong impressions of the film industry as a whole. In Summer (1917) she acknowledged film for the first time -- and it is without question her least critical reference. In it, Lucius Harney takes Charity Royall to see a silent film, which is represented as a window on another world:
"For a while, everything was merged in her brain in swimming circles of heat and blinding alterations of light and darkness. All the world has to show seemed to pass before her in a chaos of palms and minarets, charging cavalry regiments, roaring lions, comic policemen and scowling murderers; and the crowd around her, the hundreds of hot, sallow candy-munching faces, young, old, middle-aged, but all kindled with the same contagious excitement, became part of the spectacle, and danced on the screen with the rest."
The film reflects seemingly endless possibilities for Charity. But from this point on, Wharton's impressions of film as a medium and Hollywood as an entity only get worse.
The following year, 1918, Hollywood released The House of Mirth, the first of the films adapted from her novels. In 1923 Paramount produced The Glimpses of the Moon, with dialogue by F. Scott Fitzgerald, followed in 1924 by a Warner Bros. production of The Age of Innocence, both seven-reel silents. In all, Hollywood produced six films based on Wharton's novels while she was still alive and writing.
And Wharton made a bundle from the film industry. The prices recorded by Wharton's biographer, R.W.B. Lewis, for the purchase of the film rights to her novels are huge by the standards of their day: $13,500 for The Glimpses of the Moon, $15,000 for The Age of Innocence, $25,000 for The Children (released as The Marriage Playground in 1929). For a writer who was concerned with the necessity of supporting herself by writing -- and who faced accusations that she "wrote down" to meet the desires of the market -- these numbers cannot be considered negligible. We can only speculate about Wharton's conflicted emotions surrounding that money: money earned, yes, and evidence of a successful career, but money earned at what expense to art?
Wharton refrained from comment on the Hollywood machine -- in her fiction, at least -- until 1927, in Twilight Sleep. This novel, originally written for serialization in The Pictorial Review, was a smashing bestseller but has been out of print for decades. This month Scribner rereleases the novel, giving us the opportunity to look at this first comment of the writer on the industry that had paid her so well but may have served her so poorly.
And what a comment it is. The novel, which revolves around the tangled marriages and romantic involvements of the Manford clan, explores what Wharton saw as the decadence of the Jazz Age, in which the young and old alike sought to variously numb and amuse themselves through wild parties and dancing, excessive drinking, casual marriage and divorce, unthinking devotion to ridiculous "causes," and any set of spiritual beliefs that might relieve them of the necessity of considering the world's real problems. And into this milieu comes Hollywood.
Lita, the young wife of Jim Wyant (the son of Pauline Manford by her first husband), is determined to run off to Hollywood to become a film star. And she is, in fact, being enticed in that direction by a mysterious film director, who appears in only one scene, and anonymously at that:
"A short man with a deceptively blond head, thick lips under a stubby blond moustache, and eyes like needles behind tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses, stood before the fire, bulging a glossy shirtfront and solitaire pearl toward the company. 'Don't this lady dance?' he inquired, in a voice like melted butter, a few drops of which seemed to trickle down his lips and be licked back at intervals behind a thickly ringed hand."
Upon discovering that the name of this Hollywood mogul is Serge Klawhammer, further comment on Wharton's opinion seems unnecessary.
In her next novel, The Children, Wharton continues to unleash her growing disgust. We meet here the vapid Lady Wrench, formerly the film star Zinnia LaCrosse. The names Wharton gives her Hollywood functionaries, reminiscent of hardware, convey (and not especially subtly) her growing disapproval of film as an artistic medium. In the words of one of the novel's characters, "Life's a perpetual film to those people. You can't get up out of your seat in the audience and change the current of a film."
Here resides the center of Wharton's conflict with the film industry. Film, she claims, renders its audience passive, leaving them dumb spectators both within the context of the movie theater and outside in their larger lives. As she put it much later, in her preface to Ghosts (now republished by Scribner as The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton), the American mind was "gradually being atrophied by those two world-wide enemies of the imagination, the wireless and the cinema."
Nonetheless, Hollywood had been a major part of Wharton's career. A film version of her novella The Old Maid was released in 1939, two years after Wharton's death. And then silence. Between 1939 and 1981 only one production based on the work of Edith Wharton was completed: 1960's Ethan Frome, the first of her work to be produced for television.
In 1981, however, Wharton's return began. The House of Mirth, Summer, and Looking Back (a biographical film loosely based on A Backward Glance) were produced under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Two years later, a British company produced three of her ghost stories for PBS's Mystery! series. In 1990, an international production entity released "The Children." And then, in 1993, the full-scale return of Edith Wharton to the Hollywood scene began.
But it is the return of her novels to center stage that we most celebrate here, and for which, in no small measure, Hollywood is responsible. In 1960 Ethan Frome was the last of Wharton's novels still popularly read; now, following Martin Scorsese's loving screen translation of The Age of Innocence, and as Scribner works toward returning all of Wharton's work to print, we can at last rejoice that Hollywood has resurrected one of America's most powerful novelists.