Writing for the Movies: A Letter from Hollywood, 1962

In this classic essay about a classic American art form, legendary screenwriter Daniel Fuchs reflects on his lifetime learning the trade.

Daniel Fuchs | The Golden West | Black Sparrow Books | May 2005 | 42 minutes (8,396 words)

 

Dear Editors:

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 the 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.

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 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.


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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—”

No one knew. Wizardry was involved. The studio people, with their unrelenting practicality, held solely with the instinct of the audience. These standards were basic, material, solid; everything else was frippery and phoniness. The product here was tested, exposed. There was no opportunity for illusion or deception. You saw the proof. And yet the exasperating dilemma remained that what you were to give the audi­ence was a quantity really indefinable, ephemeral, everlastingly elusive. Here was the heart of the problem, the problem that was to plague and occupy me in all my time in the studios. It lay at the bottom of the com­motion that went on in these places. It accounted for much of the puz­zling behavior—the excesses, the hi-jinx, the strife and alarms, the wild, demented flights. It was a tantalizing, almost constantly frustrating pur­suit, and the movie people gave themselves over to it with a tenacity that amounted to a kind of devotion.

* * *

We screenwriters shifted about from studio to studio, staying on one lot for a spell until a disenchantment set in and we were let go or left of our own volition and moved on to the next. Traveling around the stu­dios, listening to the gossip at the different writers’ tables in the commis­saries, I heard stories about a certain outstanding movie executive who soon caught hold in my imagination and with whom I eventually became entangled. He was one of the industry’s pioneers, had built his studio from the street up. Like the courtly director to whom for the sake of con­venience I gave the fictitious name of Fitzwilliam, he also had come out of a dim, adventurous background. He had been a bootlegger, a prize­fighter, had participated in mean, degrading enterprises, had also roamed through the solitary towns of the Far West fifty years back. The studios, most of them, were not prepossessing establishments; they had been put together haphazardly over the years, additions stuck on to existing struc­tures, projection rooms interspersed among the wardrobe and account­ing departments, the whole clutter connected by a maze of stairways, ramps, crosswalks, balconies—and this movie executive prowled rest­lessly at all hours through the maze at his studio, looking for employees to pounce upon, for lights that should have been turned out and were left burning, to make trouble in general. He was a low-slung, pugnacious man, thoroughly hated, grasping and always dissatisfied. “Your husband’s just like me, we both don’t care for money,” he said to my wife one evening at a party—this was later, when I had become mixed up with him and he and I knew each other—and my wife shrieked with glee from the shock. It was a totally unexpected, bizarre remark, coming from him. “He put more people in the cemetery than all the rest of them com­bined,” a man once told me about him, sincerely marveling, big-eyed and solemn. The way I came to meet him, I was calling on a friend of mine, a much sought-after director who was making a picture at his stu­dio; my friend and I were weaving through the maze of staircases, going out to the street, when the movie executive, coursing on his rounds there, saw us and promptly nabbed us. It was my friend’s birthday that day, and the executive—courting him aggressively at the time, the disenchant­ment not yet having set in—insisted on celebrating the occasion, on having a drink with him, and so he dragged him back up to his office, I tagging along. Upstairs in the office, he was rattling around the room, working on my friend and putting on a show, when he suddenly broke off and turned to me. “What kind of a writer are you anyway?” he said harshly, hurriedly, getting it in. “Some people tell me you’re good, other people tell me you stink.”

And yet the exasperating dilemma remained that what you were to give the audi­ence was a quantity really indefinable, ephemeral, everlastingly elusive.

I winced, confused and dazed, not so much offended—confused to think, in the flurry of the moment, that he had heard of me, that he knew who I was, and let down because he had expressed himself so dismally. He went right on with his shenanigans, but he had seen that wince on my face and it irked him, I could tell—it was in him to be affected because I was disappointed in him, that he had been rushed and hadn’t been able to do well by himself. It stayed in his mind and rankled. From that meeting on, he kept having me brought over to his office to offer me a number of picture assignments, assignments which for one reason or another were unsuitable and I couldn’t accept. He put himself out for my benefit. He became impish, teased me, revealed the softer side to his nature. “Keep quiet,” he said to the coterie of assistants who surrounded him, shushing them. He wanted to do all the talking. “He didn’t come up here to hear you. He heard the legend—now let him see the man,” he said, and turned and faced me, grinning.

“What’s the matter, you don’t like my money?” he chided me, as I passed up his assignments. “You got a better job some place else? What are you trying to prove to me, that you’re a fine rabbi? You giving me the con, getting me fat and sweet, and then you’ll move in and make a killing?” He couldn’t believe a writer would turn down an assignment just because the material was unsuitable. He thought there had to be a deeper, intricate motivation. He thought that I was maneuvering. “Every­body that walks into this office is a prostitute,” he said. “They don’t come in here unless they’re out for something. Everybody cares only for their self-interest. Here, I’ll show you—I got it right in my desk . . .” He pulled the paper out. It was a garish act of betrayal by some close relative, a son or a brother. They had manipulated stock against him, had labored in an effort to push him out of his company. The betrayal had occurred many years ago, but he always kept the letter of dismissal with him—it was a comfort, he needed to believe that people were base and abject.

The funny thing was there was some substance to his suspicions about me. His studio owned a story, the basis of a story, which I liked very much and kept secretly angling for. During those turbulent interviews in his office, in the ebb and rise, I would persistently refer to this story property, mentioning what a fine picture I thought it would make, mur­muring how I would be pleased to be allowed to work on it.

“You don’t want to do that story,” he ground out at me. “You just want to hit me for a big pot of money. If you really want to write it, if you got your heart and soul so set on it, then why don’t you write it— who’s stopping you?”

He had me. I didn’t know how to answer him, and one day, after a difficult session, sawing back and forth, listening to his explosions and the flow of his bitter cynicisms, I finally agreed to go in with him in some loose, percentage arrangement, proceeding more or less on a speculative basis; and so that was how I came to work for him, that was why he told my wife I didn’t care for money. I did, in fact, have my heart in the story. I sometimes think a successful motion-picture story is so complex and impossibly constituted that you don’t really write them—that they already exist and that you find them, that they’re either there, somewhere, or else you’re doomed. This was one of those stories, touched with grace and blessed. It went kindly. It became vigorous and spunky with life. I found, and firmly, the dramatic incubus, that enveloping cloud of anxiety against which a man moment by moment pits himself and which thereby gives a story its never-ceasing, insidious thrust. I found the theatrical image of my hero, the humor—that dancing bundle of slants, deceits, stratagems by which a man conceals his despair and which gives him an instantaneous hold on the attention of the audience. Best of all, what delighted me, was a lyricism—I caught, and was able to show, those innermost dreams and raptures the steady dissolution of which infuses a man’s despair with meaning and a piercing, significant emotion.

“It’s a wonderful story,” he told me, when I had finished it and had turned it in. He had stayed up all night with the script, I knew; he had studied it meticulously, section by section. I sang inside of me. He knew the story perfectly, savored each value, each shading. “It’s the story of you and your wife,” he twitted me. “It’s autobiographical. You can’t make up things like this. They have to happen. It’s the best story I ever read,” he said, crashing down on me. “I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole—it’ll be a colossal flop.”

He wouldn’t touch it because nobody was interested in horse-race betting (if we assume the subject of this story had to do with the horses), but he flung that out carelessly, on the run; because it was different, fluky; because it wasn’t enough for a picture to be original—just because a picture was new and different, it didn’t necessarily mean it would go; because it was ambitious and hard to manage and fragile; because if a story like this one miscarried, it would splatter and become a hideous, total fiasco; because a screenplay was nothing but a blueprint, a decla­ration of hopes and intentions; because it needed actors, handlers, diviners who would know surely what to do with it and who could be counted on to bring it off. “Get me a big star,” he said, in spite of his arguments, reversing himself, “and I’ll do it. Get me a big director,” he told his subordinates, and they in turn came hurrying to tell me; and it struck me, so that it remains with me still, how this harsh, rampaging man, who was universally detested, whose fingers were fearfully twisted with arthritis, who just recently had undergone surgery for cancer (a secret, which I knew only through the indiscretion of a friend, a doctor), although, oddly, it was a heart seizure that took him off a year and a half later—it struck me how he fiercely persevered with his obsession, asking no quarter, staying up all night in the dead quiet of his studio.

* * *

While I was at the studio on this bout, it happened that an old acquaintance was simultaneously working there. He was brought in on a one-picture deal, a picture that he had initiated and was to produce for the management. As could be predicted, he quickly became em­broiled with the executive, and I had an inside view of their curious, intensive battle over the stretch of months. This acquaintance was a man I knew from earlier days in New York; he was a brilliant Broadway producer with a distinguished record of successes, who also at intervals busied himself in motion pictures and who—I never clearly understood why, because he said I reminded him of all his uncles—had befriended me and took a continuing, fitful interest in my welfare. He was a vivid individual, with a surging, autocratic style. He had made fortunes, had lost them, acted on fancy and was always on the move. He would come swooping down on me in Hollywood, find out what I was doing, imme­diately rant and lash out at me for wasting my time; he would call up my agent and fire him, call up the heads of the studios where I was working (people who most often didn’t even know I was in their employ), drub them in the most forceful, intemperate language—“He’s working for you? You should be working for him”—hang up and go spinning off again, to resume his journeyings. “Don’t, don’t write short stories about me,” he would say, grimacing with distaste, after he had read in a mag­azine some piece of disguised fiction I had written about him, “novels, novels!” He lived in a cocoon. “A son is a fantasy,” he would say, his eyes shining, believing in children, in whatever would enhance life. “You don’t have to excite yourself and try to show me how bright, how talent­ed you are—just listen,” he would say, when I would think of something to add to the conversation. He wanted to do all the talking too. “Read Life on the Mississippi.” “Never write about people who can’t manipulate their destinies.” And he would hustle out to the airport, get himself settled in his sleeping berth on the plane, take a dose of sleeping tablets, tuck the blankets tidily around him, and be wafted off to London or Peru.

‘It’s the best story I ever read,’ he said, crashing down on me. ‘I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole—it’ll be a colossal flop.’

But during this period I’m writing of, he was anchored, in disgrace with fortune, obliged to work out a term at the studio, and so this made two of them, my friend and the executive. They went at it hammer and tongs, the executive with a grinning relish, almost grateful, it seemed to me, to have such a willing, supple adversary at hand. They fought over the casting, over hairdressers, over gowns, over lines of dialogue, over each separate word. I watched them cut each other up almost daily when they met at lunch in the studio’s private dining room. But underneath the clash of wills and the tumulting, what was really provoking them, if the truth was known, was the old basic problem of the picture, the famil­iar welter of uncertainties and indecisions. The mind became cauterized; it was a torment to hold on to the over-all vision of the picture—the lines of the continuity, the component sequences, the proper working place of everything in the design. It wasn’t enough to go on hope or intuition or instinct. You could take nothing on sufferance. You had to know every moment what was happening in the picture; you had per­petually to control and understand each stroke and effect—and it was easier for them to hack away at themselves in these senseless spasms than to go on wrestling with the riddles. Just as Mr. Louis B. Mayer over at Metro had a sentimental attachment to chicken-noodle soup and pro­vided it at less than cost at his studio’s commissary, so, similarly, pickles meant something to our executive; once a week or once every two weeks, whichever it was, the great black truck from the pickle-works drew up to the curb with its terrible smell, bringing us fresh supplies—and my friend, boring in assiduously, fiendishly belabored the executive on the score of this human frailty, taking a ruthless advantage of every opening. “You’re common. You fill yourself with junk. You come from a low-class, first-generation tenement life and you’re still stuck away there in that Yiddish pippik. That’s why you’re worth only a measly five or six million. You have no taste, no sense of literature.”

At the time the contracts were worked up, there had been a hard wrangle over the control of the picture—my friend was determined not to let the executive have the say-so over him. The executive had craftily agreed, conceding the point, stipulating only that he, the executive, was to be brought in as arbiter in cases where my friend had differences with the other principals—the stars, the director. It proved to be a peculiarly constraining condition—a straitjacket, an affliction. My friend, who thought that he and only he alone saw the picture true, was unable to flash fire and impose orders; he had to cajole, plead—there were even excruciating instances when he had to give ground. His chest broke out in a profusion of boils. I can remember the sight of him, hurtling blindly from wall to wall in the murky maze of the staircases. I can see him now as he once went slamming over the pavement of the parking lot, pant­ing and clawing at his chest, vowing that he wouldn’t be beaten, that he would stick it out no matter what the cost. “I’ll get along with everyone,” he affirmed breathlessly, lost in his fervor. “Nobody’ll be able to say I’m temperamental. I’ll be sweet. I’ll be charming—they won’t even recog­nize it’s me.” As the weeks rolled on, his madness broke loose and he went past all rational behavior. He communicated with the executive in a series of wicked, fanatically labored-over, anti-Semitic memos. As the picture neared completion and everyone could see it would be at last a wonderful, resplendent hit, as the New York office of the film company tried to entice him and keep him at the studio for further commitments, he flared out into the most searing, impossible demands—that the exec­utive was to be forbidden ever to speak to him, that the executive was to keep himself out of view. “If I walk into the private dining room and he’s sitting there eating, he has to get up and leave.” He wanted that put into the contract. But the New York office, in courting him, trying to keep him at the studio, was only speaking for the executive; it was the execu­tive who was really courting him—in spite of the vilification, in spite of the pickles and the wretched memos.

* * *

It was a strange preoccupation they had, my friend and the executive, and it chivvied them in countless ways, without let-up. Passing along through the studios in the game of musical chairs we played, I continu­ally met with this ferment, with this reckless expenditure of energy and clamor. I never knew Mr. Mayer, was only introduced to him three or four times; but he was of course a stalwart figure, no doubt the most obstreperous of the breed, and I often glimpsed him in action, moving here and there with his retinue, vigilantly attending to everything. He walked like a czar. Jules Dassin—then beginning as a director, treading carefully—once made a photographic study of his leading lady, shading her face with the flickering play of leaves, and Mr. Mayer swiftly had him on the carpet for the shot, upbraiding him for the shadows, wanting nothing that would mar the clear, crystalline beauty of his company’s stars. He lectured Jules severely on the point, so that Jules told me of the incident, startled by the older man’s vehemence, by his notions, by his odd possessive insistence. It was deep personal involvement with Mr. Mayer, a seemingly life-and-death concern. When I returned to Metro on an assignment after the war, they were making The Postman Always Rings Twice, a picture of the violent category to which Mr. Mayer was power­fully opposed; and I was seriously cautioned for my own good never to speak of this picture aloud—it was in production on the lot and we were all to behave as though it wasn’t there, he wasn’t to hear of it. Years later, when the dice had taken another roll and he was out of the studio, fallen from favor, I saw him one evening at a party—idling by himself on the fringes now, no one any longer obliged to listen to him. I was again intro­duced to him, Miss Lillian Burns plucking me by the sleeve and bring­ing me over to him. He smiled graciously, in spite of adversity; he started to offer me his hand; and then Miss Burns, a vivacious lady with an impu­dent, mischievous bent, went on to mention the name of a picture I was at that particular time associated with, a big hit which was also of the category he despised—and he instantly took his hand back, turned on his heel and stalked off, still haughty, still fierce, indomitable. . . .

I knew of a certain director, a veteran, master moviemaker, well-tempered and suave, who one day—in the heat and struggle—suddenly went raving wild at his writer (thank God, not me), raging that the writer didn’t know his craft, that he hadn’t applied himself, that he hadn’t been willing to dig into the bones of the work, that he hadn’t broken his head enough at those devastating sneak previews which were our testing grounds.

‘If I walk into the private dining room and he’s sitting there eating, he has to get up and leave.’ He wanted that put into the contract.

I remember a curious experience with Billy Wilder: I had seen his Sunset Boulevard twice, was greatly moved by this work of art, sent him a fan letter. A little while later it happened that I met him for the first time, and to my astonishment he spent the greater part of our meeting inquiring into a section of the film—the section in which the hero first wanders into that gauzy, soft-lit mansion of Norma Desmond, the faded movie star. The picture was out, playing in the houses, acclaimed, but the sequence still vexed Mr. Wilder. He didn’t know what was working there, why it should be sound. He wasn’t on top of it, couldn’t rational­ize it; and he worried away at the problem, probing and trying to reas­sure himself. In another case, not far from the studio where Sunset Boulevard was made, a writer-director—who had finally rationalized his picture, who knew in his heart he controlled and was on top of it—was nevertheless engaged in a furious running feud with the head of his stu­dio (always the same pattern, always somehow that grueling, drawn-out battle between the two). “I’m so sure this will be the biggest disaster we’ve ever had in the history of the studio, that I’m putting it in writing,” the head of the studio wrote him, dating and signing his memo. The writer-director swept on, uncaring. They tested their picture in some small town up north, Sausalito or San Anselmo—and the audience howled it down, they ripped it to pieces. Everything went wrong. The writer-director disappeared for days. No one knew where he was or what was happening to him. But then there he was back at the studio again, locked up in the cutting room, working over the Moviola, grim and spinning and searching, never pausing until he got it right. He won out in the end—the picture became one of the all-time classics, the studio was festooned with honors. . . .

It was always surprising how underneath the outcries and confusion the work steadily went on. They never slackened; fighting the malach ha-moves and the dingy seepage of time, they beat away to the limits of their strength and endowments, striving to get it right, to run down the answers, to realize and secure the picture. I was once brought in with a producer and director, a famous mismatched pair who were noted for their rows and the rigors of their professional efforts, and so this time I was in the eye of the storm, caught up in the middle between them. This producer’s trouble was his compassion, his kindliness and understand­ing. He had lived five lifetimes in one, was intelligent, sensitive, and had a ready, inundating sorrow. “Darling, sweetheart, why are you blue?” he would beseech his gifted partner, pursuing him. “Do you want my beach house? Do you want my boat, my car?” In retaliation, the director—who was the one I was supposed to work with—savagely turned himself inside out to think up new ways of torturing him. He was harrowed enough with the dilemmas of the script—“they expect us to work up a screen­play out of a ketchup label.” He contrived mean, elaborate practical jokes. We took off in all directions, traveling by train and plane—osten­sibly for purposes of research, to scout locations. We crisscrossed the country. We were gone for weeks and the weeks turned into months. The director entertained royally wherever we went, holding big drink­ing parties every day before and after dinner, sitting down thirty and forty guests at a clip for dinner, everything charged to the producer. The producer wept and fumed at long range, laying the blame on me.

“That’s why I put you in with him—to watch out and be a restraining influence,” he reproached me piercingly over the phone, all hot and scrambled. “Him we knew for a lunatic, that was foregone. But you are a family man, with responsibilities—why do you conspire with him against me?”

I’ll speak to him,” the director said to me that day in the hotel room, taking the phone from me. “Ben,” he declaimed into the mouthpiece, speaking in his hearty, royal way, “how are you?”

“Don’t ask me how I am; never mind how I am!” the producer railed at him, his voice whirling aloft, and for a minute or two I could hear him carrying on there in his frenzy three thousand miles away.

“Ben, I’ve got good news for you and bad,” the director boomed, unperturbed.

“Don’t tell the bad!” the producer wailed. “Bad news I got, all I can use. I don’t need more. Only tell me the good—what is the good?”

“Ben, we are leaving New Orleans tonight.”

“Darling, sweetheart!” the producer cried, ecstatic, gushing, every­thing changed—bygones would be bygones; they would forget what transpired; they would go forward now only in harmony. “So what is the bad news—what can be bad?”

“We’re going to New York,” the director said.

It went on like that on that trip and on other trips, for a number of years, in great capitals and over four continents. I dropped out, to work for other directors and producers, but they skirmished along, harassing each other day by day, the director systematically making the producer’s life a hell, the two of them evolving in the meantime between them a group of the most beguilingly rare, iridescent productions—until at last the director shamed himself irreparably before the producer and was forced to bring their relationship to a permanent end. “Darling, sweet­heart,” I can still hear the producer crying, desolate and engulfed, his eyes hungering to forgive, to forget, to let bygones be bygones. But the director had offended too deeply and there was no going back for him. “If I could only find an honest Ben So-and-so,” he often mutters to him­self, pining for his friend, disconsolate and wretched.

They knew the wandering lassitude of the will, the essential human servitude and unworthiness. They knew how loathsome it was to be obliged to transgress, to commit iniquity and betray, and that the pity was with the wrongdoer. They were a chastened crew, with a wry, flicker­ing wisdom. Coming out of their raw, bustling background, combing the earth with their energy and avid need for pleasure, they had the kind of education you get in the prize ring—not from hearsay or from precept. They knew the guderim. Isn’t it true that a good deal of what we know of the world comes from these men—from their pictures, from their lore? Isn’t it true that they have had an amazingly penetrating effect, people in countries all over the globe running eagerly to see their pictures, to share in their virility, in their realism and gusto and command of life? I think it is a foolish scandal that we have the habit of deriding these men and their industry, that it is the mode. Is it fitting to pass by so indiffer­ently the work of Ford, Stevens, Wilder, Mankiewicz, Huston, Zinne­mann, William Wellman, Howard Hawks, Sam Wood, Clarence Brown, Victor Fleming, William Van Dyke, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh, Henry Hathaway, Henry King, Chaplin, Lubitsch, Goldwyn, Selznick, Mile­stone, Capra, Wyler, Cukor, Kazan? They were a gaudy company, ram­bunctious and engrossed. What they produced, roistering along in those sun-filled, sparkling days, was a phenomenon, teeming with vitality and ardor, as indigenous as our cars or skyscrapers or highways, and as ir­refutable. Generations to come, looking back over the years, are bound to find that the best, most solid creative effort of our decades was spent in the movies, and it’s time someone came clean and said so.

* * *

There is no RKO any longer. The studio on Gower Street is given over to other pursuits. The child who was born that day, when I was strug­gling with the mystery-thriller with my distinguished collaborator, is now full grown, busy with his own affairs, away from home. In the mid­dle of the night the phone rings and we rouse from sleep. “It’s Adele,” my wife says to me, carefully covering the mouthpiece with her hand to spare the caller’s feelings, and then she removes her hand and they go on talking over the phone. Adele is a once famous star, now inactive, un­wanted, the years having flown. We don’t know Adele and she doesn’t know us. Originally she was looking for some people named Ridgway, a family who used to live in our house. She knows the Ridgways aren’t here, my wife tells her; but she likes the sound of my wife’s voice, it is a solace, and in the dead hours of the night she continues to phone, pro­longing this curious friendship that has formed between us. “Is this Mr. Ridgway’s residence?” she begins shyly, and my wife says no, soft and solicitous, and they commune.

How illusory is the nature of desire; how wonderfully strange and various are the strivings of the hidden heart. Long ago, I was assigned (by the same diligent, untiring producer who was involved in the mystery-thriller upset, not that it matters) to help with a story of backstage life which was supposed to be fictitious but was actually based on the true experiences of another star, an actress then at the height of her success, fresh and vibrant, with that incredible shining beauty they have. When she was fourteen years old, she had been tampered with by a passing entertainer. Her aunt, with whom she lived, was an ambitious woman. She immediately took hold of the opportunity; forced the entertainer to marry her niece; left her own husband and latched on; and in this way the two of them, the aunt and the niece, escaped from their depression-ridden New England industrial town and gained a foothold in show busi­ness. The entertainer, burdened with a wife he didn’t want and with this overbearing aunt in the bargain, ducked and weaved, eventually man­aged to shake free; he drifted off. The two went on by themselves. The girl scored, going straight to the top in one of those dazzling overnight leaps. The entertainer made a rapid turnabout, clamored after his wife, publicly protested he was being abandoned, slashed his wrists a little. A settlement was arranged; the matter was taken care of.

Generations to come, looking back over the years, are bound to find that the best, most solid creative effort of our decades was spent in the movies, and it’s time someone came clean and said so.

This was the story behind the star’s rise to fame. These were the facts, bedraggled and humanly forlorn, as they were commonly known, as we had them to deal with. We improvised. We glossed. We inserted a few nobilities. The entertainer became a tragic figure, genuinely in love, gen­uinely bereaved; when he attempted suicide, he succeeded. The fourteen year old—now seventeen—was purely a victim, innocent and unthink­ing. We changed New England to Oklahoma; we made the aunt a sister, so that she might be more readily cast, sisters being less aged than aunts. We were having enough trouble trying to cast the leading role. For a long time we were stumped, it seemed altogether impossible to find the right actress. Acting on a sudden, desperate brainstorm, we decided to offer the part to the star herself. She read the script—astonishingly, it went straight past her. She never recognized herself in the drama. “You know,” she said to us at lunch, as we were wooing her, “this might almost be the story of me and my aunt.”

She turned us down, the part disturbing her, and in any case she was much too grand in those days for our modest project; the picture went out with another player. But the years passed by, twelve or fourteen, and it happened that we fell in with one another again, the actress appear­ing in another picture I was concerned with, amenable now, subdued. She knew by this time the backstage story had been about her—someone had told her or she had come to it herself; I often caught her glance upon my face—rueful, bemused. “Do you want to know what really happened, sonny?” she said to me one day on the set, when there was a lull in the activity, when we all stood by and everything idled.

She was dead game, conceding nothing to time. The legs were muscled, hard and used, the hard, unkind lines showing. That pearly, short-lived radiance was gone. I remembered the stories I knew about her, how when she used to make public appearances in the big movie houses, she would go darting up to the balcony between shows with a compan­ion, to look at the picture, to neck.

There had been no tampering, no seduction. No one had had his way with her. There had been no hasty marriage. It had been all her own idea, on her own initiative. It was odd how the facts were scrambled. The entertainer had been a friend of the family, was going with an older cousin, was engaged. When she was fourteen years old, she had watched the courtship from the distance, had quietly set her cap for him. “I thought he was the handsomest man I had ever seen in my life,” she told me that afternoon. “I wanted him. I made up my mind. I went for him. I got him. I knew how. And then, later . . .” She shrugged, her voice fell away; she turned aside, smiling and helpless, dreaming. “You change,” she said. “Time passes . . .” She wandered off and left me—someone called her name. It was the time of day on the set when the mood grows gray, when the electricians and grips yawn and the work goes soft, when extras and bit players—out of monotony, to beguile the moments away —face one another and start jiggling on their feet, dancing by them­selves in this unspoken, sleepy mockery, the faces of the girls flushed and wicked and tempted, when the air is filled with longing and the promise of better things seems just around the bend.

***

Born in New York City in 1909, Daniel Fuchs published dozens of short stories, essays, articles and four novels, including Summer in Williamsburg (1934) and Homage to Blenholt (1936). He also wrote screenplays, and in 1955 received an Academy Award for his work on Love Me or Leave Me. He died in Los Angeles in 1993.

Excerpted from The Golden West: Hollywood Stories by Daniel Fuchs. Copyright © 2005, The Estate of Daniel Fuchs

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