SCREENWRITERS OF THE GOLDEN AGE
Whether they were poets, playwrights, journalists, songwriters or press agents, the generation of writers who streamed to Hollywood in the early sound era had to cope with the exigencies of “talkies” while creating the basic storytelling rules that screenwriters still abide by today.
For a new book, “Backstory: Interviews With Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age” (University of California Press), Pat McGilligan has interviewed 15 of the best screenwriters on the Golden Age of Hollywood . . . from the screenwriters’ point of view.
Here are excerpts from some of the interviews:
DRAMATIS PERSONAE Charles Bennett. In Hollywood since 1937. His 50 credited screenplays include “Foreign Correspondent” and six other early Alfred Hitchcock films.
W. R. Burnett. In Hollywood since 1930. Hard-boiled novelist of “Little Caesar,” “High Sierra,” “Yellow Sky,” “The Asphalt Jungle” and others. His 60 credited (and uncredited) screenplays range over time from “Scarface” in 1932 to “The Great Escape” in 1963. Now deceased.
Philip Dunne. In Hollywood since 1932. Writer (and occasional director) of 40 screenplays, including “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” “Pinky” and others.
Julius J. Epstein. In Hollywood since 1933. A collaborator with his brother (Philip G. Epstein) at Warner Bros. in the ‘30s and ‘40s, later a solo screenwriter, his 50 credited screenplays over as many years include “The Male Animal,” “Mr. Skeffington,” “Fanny,” “Light in the Piazza,” “Pete ‘n’ Tillie,” “Reuben, Reuben” and others. Shared an Oscar for writing “Casablanca.”
Norman Krasna. In Hollywood since 1931. “Role reversal” comedy expert responsible for two slice-of-life melodramas directed by Fritz Lang (“Fury” and “You and Me”), Alfred Hitchcock’s only screwball comedy (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) and Groucho Marx’s only screenplay collaboration (“King and the Chorus Girl”), plus 50 vintage romantic comedies, including “Bachelor Mother,” “The Devil and Miss Jones,” “Indiscreet” and “Let’s Make Love.” Won screenplay Oscar in 1943 for “Princess O’Rourke,” which he also directed. Now deceased.
Richard Maibaum. In Hollywood since 1935. His 50 credited screenplays include the Alan Ladd version of “The Great Gatsby,” “Ransom!” and “Bigger Than Life,” and 11 (and counting) of the James Bond films.
Allan Scott. In Hollywood since 1933. His 50 credited screenplays include six of the 10 Astaire-Rogers musicals and numerous vehicles for Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne and Claudette Colbert.
LIFE STYLES IN HOLLYWOOD: 1930s
Maibaum: “Our trip West was our honeymoon. We were met at Pasadena--at that time the VIPs got off there. A limousine was waiting, so you didn’t have to go through the crowd at the station in Los Angeles. An assistant of (MGM story editor) Sam Marx met us. He sat in front while Sylvia and I were in the back holding hands. As we passed the observatory, the guy says, “The Griffith Observatory--see it before you go back.” Sylvia and I looked at each other.
“That night we strolled along Hollywood Boulevard, still holding hands. We got to Musso and Frank’s and walked in. There was a place in the back where the writers gathered, and somebody was eating a salad with a lot of garlic at the next table. It smelled great, so we ordered it. A chiffonade salad. We still call it ‘our salad.’ ”
Epstein: “I came out on Friday and landed in the railroad station at 10 o’clock at night. Oct. 14, 1933. Twelve o’clock that night I was ghostwriting for two desperate people who shall remain nameless, because they had to take some stuff in (to Warner Bros.) on Monday and they had nothing to turn in. Sunday, one of them took me downtown to the Paramount Theatre--I think it was ‘College Humor’ (1933) with Bing Crosby and Mary Carlisle. He said, ‘That’s a fade-out. That’s a dissolve. That’s an iris-down! That was my education in screenwriting. I think it’s all you need.
“I learned by looking at other scripts. And I learned very early that directors pay no attention to that (technical language). You just write: ‘master scene,’ ‘cut to’ or ‘close shot'--which is very easy, you just mix it up. The master shots and the individual shots were all shot the same way.
“When I first arrived, I wrote an original story every night. In those days you didn’t have to write a screenplay to sell, you could do 10 or 20 pages of an idea. In about nine months one sold to Warners. I came in October and sold something in August. After a week Warners put me on a seven-year contract, and I was there under two seven-year contracts.”
Scott: “My first office (at RKO) was in the newly erected building called The New Writers Building--very pleasant, large paneled woodwork offices with a room for one’s secretary. Actually, I wrote mostly at home, which you were able to do after you realized you were really working. Between assignments, you’d come in, gossip, have lunch, wander around the lot, talk with the other writers, a nice life.”
Epstein: “In those days, each studio had 75 to 100 writers. They did about 50 to 60 pictures a year, and there were about six studios--about 400 pictures a year plus independents. But if you look at the credits, the same names of about 150 to 200 writers kept popping up all the time, and they kept doing 90% of all the pictures. The same writers, the same names. You were given the assignments. Today, you write something; if you sell it, it’s a picture. If you don’t sell it. . . .
“The top writers today, if they have one picture every two years, they are doing well. There wasn’t a year under Warner Bros. that we (Philip G. Epstein, his brother) and I didn’t have three pictures. Made! Credits! Not counting the pictures that weren’t made. They used to on the principle of three scripts written for every one that was made.”
Dunne: “I liked to go to the movies. I liked to take a girl to the movies on Sunday. It was just something you did. But I thought movies were quite frivolous. The older generation of my time had no feeling of respect for movies. You have to pay respect now; it’s an art. But to my parents and their friends, the movies were low-down popular entertainment. They didn’t care much for movies.
“The only time I had movies treated seriously was when a Harvard professor of mine, a fine arts professor, took his class of six--it was a class in Renaissance sculpture, of all things--to see “Flesh and the Devil” (1927) at the Paramount Theatre in Boston, so we could look on Garbo as a perfect classical face. Very interesting. It was the first I could imagine a professor being interested in the movies. It had never occurred to me.”
THE STUDIO SYSTEM
Burnett: “I don’t think any of the studios valued writers very much. If the writer could fit the Warners system, it was far and away the best places to be. And I wrote every place. Metro--you might as well be out in the middle of a desert. Nobody ever knew you were there. You could sit there for four weeks, and draw your pay and not say anything and you never heard from anybody. Paramount was always hit-or-miss--they had people coming in and out. It wasn’t a well-run place, ever. Columbia was a tight ship. Harry Cohn was tough, real tough. Republic was a joke. And Fox, I would say, was very well-run under Darryl Zanuck. Very well-run.”
Bennett: “The advantage of being a freelancer were, you could move from studio to studio, and you could increase your salary, if necessary. The disadvantages were that if you happened to run into a couple of flops, you might get your option dropped and find yourself on your ass. For example, MGM, at that time, was full of contract writers--I should think about 60 of them--and they were all desperate for the next credit they would get in order to ensure that they got their option taken up. Most of them went around with daggers behind their backs trying to stab any writer who got in their way.”
Dunne: “The script was king at 20th (Century Fox) because we had no stars to begin with. I think people started out at Warners by saying, ‘Let’s do a Bogart picture.’ I know at Metro, Thalberg always worked from the star up. Zanuck (at Fox) never had stars in the early days, and apart from that whole group that worked mostly in musicals, he didn’t have that many big dramatic stars.
“I’m not saying the great bulk of the product was great. The B pictures were a big part of the program. I’m saying, for example, that in the 20 years Zanuck was at Fox, I think there were five Academy Awards for the best director given to Fox pictures. That’s one-fourth of the directing awards (during that time span). That’s way above our average when you consider Warners, Goldwyn, Paramount, RKO, Selznick, Columbia and Universal were all making pictures. Two of the awards were won by Ford, two by Joseph Mankiewicz, and one by Elia Kazan. In a discussion like this, I tend to think of the top pictures of each studio, and there I think Fox scripts were the best.”
Scott: “At RKO, writers were treated generously. There was none of the committee writing so prevalent at other studios. (Producer) Pandro Berman permitted us to do what no other studio permitted at the time--for example, I was on the set constantly during shooting, something new for writers in those days.
“At other studios, those writers who were low on the totem pole were treated as a necessary evil but not for long once films began to talk. . . .”
“Hollywood was at its height, powerful, alone, dispensing its pictures all over the world, seemingly impregnable, and under no direct assault from outside sources. A small, almost inbred community. They kept referring to it as the ‘industry,’ and the heads of the studios kept thinking of themselves as the captains of industry. There was no question they had the buildings, the equipment, the actors, the directors, and all the machinery to make pictures. Except that without writers, they were alone with blank pieces of paper, and all the machinery stopped.”
THE CRAFT OF SCREENWRITING
Burnett: “I never had any idea of turning my novels into movies. Some of them just fell into movies and some of them didn’t. I sold 17 to them (to movies). But it was just the reverse for me--I worked in pictures to subsidize novel writing. Novel writing was what I was interested in--not pictures, for chrissakes. What happened to so many good American novelists when they came out here didn’t happen to me. They got into the big money and quit writing novels. I published some 35 novels. I was actually subsidizing myself so I could write novels.
“Films I never took seriously as an artistic endeavor, but I always did the best possible work I could do; I never brushed it off or anything. Under the circumstance, which are never any good; the circumstances are mostly poor, because writers have no control whatsoever. Screenwriting consists of rewriting, and I don’t rewrite. I don’t have to rewrite. I know what I’m writing when I write .”
Scott: “The reason I stayed in movies was to learn my craft. In the theater in those days (even worse now) you had to wait a year or more to see your work in front of an audience. In pictures, when you wrote three or four scripts a year, you’d see your work--see mostly your mistakes--because in both media, nothing is complete without an audience. The ‘30s was a great learning period for me, and what was the studio (or Pandro Berman, perhaps) was pleased to call my gift for first-class dialogue got me over the early days.”
Krasna: “There are some people who are professional writers because they wear steel-rimmed glasses and look like writers and have a whole list of credits. You can live a whole life as a writer in Hollywood without ever having written a movie, and you can still be considered one of the great ones. Such writers will do either an original story or write the screenplay of someone else’s story. The story can be so full that fleshing it out is not my idea of sensational; or they write the story, and somebody else can make something absolutely fabulous out of it. I don’t consider that you’re a real, real, screenwriter unless you sit down and do a movie from beginning to end. Or if the idea is frail enough and the contribution is just marvelous.
“I claim that if you’ve been in the business 30 or 40 years and you look back, I would think that one of the things that ought to stick out in what pictures you did that reflect what you are, your experiences. You may only have had a few, two or three or four, but you’re a writer . You write motion pictures. To make a living at adapting is a big trick; but out of 30 or 40 years, didn’t you write anything that is yours ? I use that word subjectively. I belittle the writers who took a great book and adapted it; that’s all?
“I think I wrote what showed me off--romantic comedies. In the end they were never the big, big pictures; but they were mine. At the end of the whole picture, I’m the hero’s witness.”
Dunne: “I agree with my old friend Jo Swerling, one of the earliest screenwriters, who said screenwriting is not so much an art as like fine cabinetmaking. I think that’s right. Nunnally (Johnson) used to use that analogy too. He picked it up from the same source I did, I’m sure. We never claimed to be artists, but we thought we were good craftsmen.”
YESTERDAY & TODAY
Krasna: “Here’s the big change in storytelling (today); they’ve given up the theme. Never mind the end! You see the most wonderful pictures today; scenes are just great, great, great. Then, suddenly, the crawl comes. I don’t expect the crawl to come for another 10 minutes--they haven’t resolved anything. But you know, they haven’t got any dull periods. They give you these great scenes, you’ve had a good time for two hours, and you’ve only had an unsatisfactory 30 seconds. People are accustomed to it. You go out and see this pictures, which doesn’t add up and is about nothing, and people say, ‘I didn’t like the ending, but. . . . ‘
“Now, movies can be enjoyed by people who haven’t got the only time-consuming experience, which is learning. Instruction. I’ve got thousands of books of dramatic literature. Do you see all the thousands of books I’ve got here on the shelf? Since Aeschylus. In my generation they gave up plots with character formation. I had to be born now!”
Epstein: “The constant in Hollywood, which is a terrible thing, is pandering to what they think the public wants. Today they pander to the young kids who go see a movie four or five times--I’m not even talking about teen-agers; I’m talking about kids who are 9, 10, 11 or 12 years old. That’s always been true of the studios. But not quite. In the days of the contract system, they all fought to get Ernst Lubitsch. His pictures never made it, they were all losers, but the studios all fought to get him. He could go from studio to studio. They wanted a little class in their program.
“But the pandering has never been as bad. In those days they wanted to make women’s pictures--the four-handkerchief pictures with the Crawfords and the Shearers. So they were pandering to that; today they are pandering to kids. It’s the pandering that is constant.”
Krasna: “TV has taken up the notion of a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m fascinated. It’s child’s play now. I’ll look at ‘MASH,’ ‘Alice’ or ‘The Jeffersons’ every time I can put my feet up. I know what the rules are, and I couldn’t do it as well. They’re witty in what they do and how inventive they get. But when you are talking about a whole movie, I would think by now TV has used up all the plot twists, and you need something stark and wild . Maybe the art form has advanced. But if I was Vermeer, I would be sick to my stomach that Jackson Pollack is making all this money. I would say, ‘Let me see you do a thumb!’ ”
Dunne: “The golden years of anybody’s life--you don’t realize them at the time. I don’t think we were aware of the fact that it was a golden age. You have to remember all the extraneous issues going on: The first part of it was the Depression, then the Guild fight, then World War II, then the House Un-American Activities Committee, then the threat of television. There were always those things going on that diverted your attention from what you were doing. I’m pretty sure that in the time of Augustus, Virgil has no idea that this was the Golden Age of Rome. I think we were just trying to make a living.”
Epstein: “What has changed the most? There’s no more contract system. There’s no more machine-belt production. There are no more clubs. There is no studio system, and the way of making pictures is entirely different. And much less fun. Pictures are better. I think pictures are much better today. People who say the golden age of movies was great, that’s baloney. But they’re not as much fun to make.”