Writers in Hollywood

To the writing of his detective stories RAYMOND CHANDLER brings the experience and the skepticism of a newspaper reporter, the narrative gifts of a born storyteller, and a mastery of pungent American dialogue. His leading character, Philip Marlowe, is a professional detective who has held the spotlight thus far in four novels, all of which have been purchased by the movies. One of them, The Big Sleep, in which Lauren Bacall plays the lead, is soon to be released. In his screenplays as in his books, Mr. Chandler has scored a personal success, but he has done so without losing sight of the difficulties encountered by the creative writer in the studios. For this is the anomaly: the producers pay their authors large fees apparently for the purpose of disregarding their advice and their text.
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HOLLYWOOD is easy to hate, easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon. Some of the best lampooning has been done by people who have never been through a studio gate, some of the best sneering by egocentric geniuses who departed huffily - not forgetting to collect their last pay check – leaving behind them nothing but the exquisite aroma of their personalities and a botched job for the tired hacks to clean up.

Even as far away as New York, where Hollywood assumes all really intelligent people live (since they obviously do not live in Hollywood), the disease of exaggeration can be caught. The motion picture critic of one of the less dazzled intellectual weeklies, commenting recently on a certain screenplay, remarked that it showed "how dull a couple of run-of-the-mill $3000-a-week writers can be." I hope this critic will not be startled to learn that 50 per cent of the screenwriters of Hollywood made less than $10,000 last year, and that he could count on his fingers the number that made a steady income anywhere near the figure he so contemptuously mentioned. I don't know whether they could be called run-of-the-mill writers or not. To me the phrase suggests something a little easier to get hold of.

I hold no brief for Hollywood. I have worked there a little over two years, which is far from enough to make me an authority, but more than enough to make me feel pretty thoroughly bored. That should not be so. An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon. An art which is capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived, all but the very best novels verbose and imitative, should not so quickly become wearisome to those who attempt to practice it with something else in mind than the cash drawer. The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.

Hollywood is a showman's paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made. The publisher and the play producer are showmen too; but they exploit what is already made. The showmen of Hollywood control the making – and thereby degrade it. For the basic art of motion pictures is the screenplay; it is fundamental, without it there is nothing. Everything derives from the screenplay, and most of that which derives is an applied skill which, however adept, is artistically not in the same class with the creation of a screenplay. But in Hollywood the screenplay in written by a salaried writer under the supervision of a producer - that is to say, by an employee without power or decision over the uses of his own craft, without ownership of it, and, however extravagantly paid, almost without honor for it.

I am aware that there are colorable economic reasons for the Hollywood system of "getting out the script." But I am not much interested in them. Pictures cost a great deal of money—true. The studio spends the money; all the writer spends is his time (and incidentally his life, his hopes, and all the varied experiences, most of them painful, which finally made him into a writer) - this also is true. The producer is charged with the salability and soundness of the project - true. The director can survive few failures; the writer can stink for ten years and still make his thousand a week - true also. But entirely beside the point.

I am not interested in why the Hollywood system exists or persists, nor in learning out of what bitter struggles for prestige it arose, nor in how much money it succeeds in making out of bad pictures. I am interested only in the fact that as a result of it there is no such thing as an art of the screenplay, and there never will be as long as the system lasts, for it is the essence of this system that it seeks to exploit a talent without permitting it the right to be a talent. It cannot be done; you can only destroy the talent, which is exactly what happens - when there is any to destroy.

Granted that there isn't much. Some chatty publisher (probably Bennett Cerf) remarked once that there are writers in Hollywood making two thousand dollars a week who haven't had an idea in ten years. He exaggerated—backwards: there are writers in Hollywood making two thousand a week who never had an idea in their lives, who have never written a photographable scene, who could not make two cents a word in the pulp market if their lives depended on it. Hollywood is full of such writers, although there are few at such high salaries. They are, to put it bluntly, a pretty dreary lot of hacks, and most of them know it, and they take their kicks and their salaries and try to be reasonably grateful to an industry which permits them to live much more opulently than they could live anywhere else.

And I have no doubt that most of them, also, would like to be much better writers than they are, would like to have force and integrity and imagination enough of these to earn a decent living at some art of literature that has the dignity of a free profession. It will not happen to them, and there is not much reason why it should. If it ever could have happened, it will not happen now. For even the best of them (with a few rare exceptions) devote their entire time to work which has no more possibility of distinction than a Pekinese has of becoming a Great Dane: to asinine musicals about technicolor legs and the yowling of night-club singers; to "psychological" dramas with wooden plots, stock characters, and that persistent note of fuzzy earnestness which suggests the conversation of schoolgirls in puberty; to sprightly and sophisticated comedies (we hope) in which the gags are as stale as the attitudes, in which there is always a drink in every hand, a butler in every doorway, and a telephone on the edge of every bathtub; to historical epics in which the male actors look like female impersonators, and the lovely feminine star looks just a little too starry-eyed for a babe who has spent half her life swapping husbands; and last but not least, to those pictures of deep social import in which everybody is thoughtful and grown-up and sincere and the more difficult problems of life are wordily resolved into a unanimous vote of confidence in the inviolability of the Constitution, the sanctity of the home, and the paramount importance of the streamlined kitchen.

And these, dear readers, are the million-dollar babies—the cream of the crop. Most of the boys and girls who write for the screen never get anywhere near this far. They devote their sparkling lines and their structural finesse to horse operas, cheap gun-in-the-kidney melodramas, horror items about mad scientists and cliffhangers concerned with screaming blondes and circular saws. The writers of this tripe are licked before they start. Even in a purely technical sense their work is doomed for lack of the time to do it properly. 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. Such a technique requires experiment and elimination. The cheap pictures simply cannot afford it.

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LET me not imply that there are no writers of authentic ability in Hollywood. There are not many, but there are not many anywhere. The creative gift is a scarce commodity, and patience and imitation have always done most of its work. There is no reason to expect from the anonymous toilers of the screen a quality which we are very obviously not getting from the publicized litterateurs of the best-seller list, from the compilers of fourth-rate historical novels which sell half a million copies, from the Broadway candy butchers known as playwrights, or from the sulky maestri of the little magazines.

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