Sunday, 31 July 2011

City of Angels: The Studio Era, Part 4

Nathaniel West

To stock up on talented writers, studio executives started raiding New York’s Broadway and the publishing industry, and lured by Hollywood’s tempting salaries -which far exceeded Broadway’s - the writers came in droves. The Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s reads like the Who’s Who in American literature, as virtually every major American novelist passed through Hollywood at some point, having been snatched up by one of the major studios: F.Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Raymond Chandler, Clifford Odets, Budd Schulberg, among many others, all tried their hand at screenplays, some of them being more successful at it than others. However, only a few among them ever took to Hollywood. Most of them despised the town, deploring its lack of high culture as well the working conditions. These working conditions notwithstanding, being a so-called studio slave inspired some writers to turn their experiences and observations in Tinseltown into their best work.

Budd Schulberg

Nathaniel West’s scathing The Day of the Locust paints a dark picture of Hollywood’s gold-digger years, while Budd Schulberg’s gripping What Makes Sammy Run tells the story of a fast and furious parvenu with a fire in his head, determined to become a big-time Hollywood producer whose burning ambition is a direct result of him having been born into an impoverished Jewish family living in New York’s Lower East Side. Like the majority of the moguls, the book’s hero - Sammy Glick - also wants to keep his Jewish origins under wraps, changing his name from Glickstein to Glick as he's assimilated to the point where his Jewish heritage is all but erased.

Jerry Wald

Ever since Schulberg’s novel was first published in 1941, it has been widely known that Sammy Glick’s character is but a thinly veiled portrayal of a real-life Hollywood personality and rumour has it that Jerry Wald, the producer of Key Largo (1947) and The Best of Everything (1959) was in fact the model for Schulberg’s hero. Schulberg himself was born into one of Hollywood’s foremost families, and consequently he knew the film business inside out even before he started out as screenwriter himself, his father, B.P. Schulberg, having been the head of Paramount for a short period during the 1920/ 30s.

Raymond Chandler

Although Raymond Chandler never wrote a book about Hollywood other than an essay, titled Oscar Night in Hollywood, published in Atlantic Monthly in 1948, Chandler's hard-boiled crime novels struck a chord with war audiences, resulting in a contract with Paramount for which he wrote a couple of screenplays which stood at the centre of what eventually became known as Film Noir.
Having lived and worked in Los Angeles for the better part of his life, when Raymond Chandler followed Hollywood’s call he was already well into his fifties. Akin to his fellow writers he found it difficult to adapt to life in the film community and as a result, he had frequent run-ins with his directors.

Film Noir, "where the streets are dark with something darker than night" (Raymond Chandler)

The term Film Noir originated with a number of young French film enthusiasts during the mid 1940s who were in the process of rediscovering and reevaluating the Hollywood films of the war years, namely the long list of thrillers and crime movies which, drenched in darkness and perfidy, reflected the disquieting effect the war had on America.

Some time later, French directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard would become very influential in establishing the Nouvelle Vague, which injected new life into the French film industry. Their admiration for American Cinema was boundless, for they saw and read meanings into those films that so far had been invisible to the ordinary cinema-goer. It surely is no exaggeration saying, that had it not been for people like Louis Malle, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, André Bazin, and Claude Chabrol, film criticism would be the poorer for it, for even though they all eventually became directors in their own right, they were conducive in the foundation of Cahiers du Cinéma, a periodical which unlike the better part of most film magazines around today, doesn’t resemble a publicity pamphlet from a film studio.
It all culminated, of course, in Truffaut’s book about Alfred Hitchcock, How Did You Do It, which has become a milestone in film theory.

Francois Truffaut

After Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, Hollywood’s impressive stable of writers was joined by an ever increasing number of film working immigrants from Europe - many of whom writers - who began arriving in Hollywood following the Nazi-takeover, thus adding to Hollywood’s already well established list of ex-patriots, like Marlene Dietrich, Ernst Lubitsch, Maurice Chevalier, Bertolt and Salka Viertel, Greta Garbo, Wilhelm and Charlotte Dieterle, and many others. Aided by the European Film Fund, writers like Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Doeblin, Heinrich Mann, and Walter Mehring, all ended up getting a job in Hollywood’s film industry, but found it wearisome to adjust not only to the working methods, but also to having to write in a foreign language of which most of them had little knowledge.

Bertolt Brecht

Billy Wilder on the other hand, who also spoke hardly any English upon his arrival in the US in 1934, wound up with a command of the English language which far exceeded that of his compatriots, enabling him to turn into a full-fledged screenwriter, and in time, director, thus joining a select group of talented film workers who made the successful yet difficult transition from writer to director: Preston Sturges, John Huston and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, also were among them. A writer-turned-director would later be dubbed auteur by the same group of French film enthusiasts who were also responsible for the re-discovery of the films which they classified as Noir.

This series continues next week!