An old friend is back in town, and the timing couldn’t be better.
Perhaps 30 years ago, Andy Dowdy, proprietor of the legendary Other Times bookshop on Pico Boulevard, took a copy of Jane Allen’s “I Lost My Girlish Laughter” off his shelves and gently suggested I buy it. “You don’t know this book,” he said, “but you should.”
Andy, as always, was right. First published in 1938, “Laughter,” was a rarity. It was a splendid Hollywood novel written by women. The Jane Allen pseudonym disguised the fact that one of the authors, Silvia Schulman, was formerly the personal secretary of renowned “Gone With the Wind” producer David O. Selznick and, thus, a genuine movie business insider.
Long out of print even when I bought it, “Laughter” has made a triumphant reentry into the marketplace with a handsome Vintage paperback edition. The new edition is complete with an illuminating and informative introduction by film historian J.E. Smyth (“Nobody’s Girl Friday”), who calls it “the most important Hollywood novel that most people have never read.”
Prompted by the reissue, I reacquainted myself with the book, which Schulman cowrote with Jane Shore, and found that, like many memorable volumes, it appeals today for reasons that are both of our era and timeless.
A roman à clef crossed with a kind of cracked epistolary novel — letters, memos, telegrams, column items and even entries “From a Secretary’s Private Journal” are used — “Laughter” is a privileged glimpse into how the studios worked in Hollywood’s golden age. It’s also the story of how a very savvy young woman gained her wisdom.
That would be Madge Lawrence, who comes out to Hollywood from the East and by the luck of the draw ends up as the personal secretary to Sidney Brand, the most powerful producer on the Super Films lot, and a dead ringer for Selznick, ensconced at MGM at the time.
Though Schulman gave herself and her boss pseudonyms, plenty of real folks are name-checked in the book, such as Clark Gable. (Brand is as eager to put Gable into a picture as Selznick was with the actor and “Gone With The Wind.”)
And fans of old Hollywood will enjoy the section where some of the era’s top writers — Ben Hecht, Gene Fowler, Charles MacArthur, Francis Marion, Robert Riskin and more — figure in one of Madge’s amusing memos.
It is Madge herself, naturally, who is the book’s protagonist. She’s a smart and sassy narrator blessed with a subversive, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, someone whom you can see Jean Arthur playing in a heartbeat.
Madge gives as good as she gets in all manner of verbal exchanges and draws romantic attention from two very different men, studio publicity head Jim Palmer and an up-and-coming actor named Bruce Anders.
Aside from Madge’s adventures in the screen trade, “Laughter” also focuses on the making of one particular movie, from the acquisition of a hot Broadway play called “Sinners in Asylum” through multiple changes to a finished film called “That Gentleman From the South” for reasons readers are advised to discover for themselves.
That kind of inside look has the wonderful tang of reality, echoing the spirit of genial madness found in such savvy fictionalizations as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories and the opening sequences of Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels.”
Especially fascinating, and something that few if any other works from the period provide, is a sense of what it was like for women trying to make careers in Hollywood.
Smyth points out in her introduction, as she did in her book, that women such as Madge were more present in studio positions and had more power than conventional wisdom indicates.
Not surprising, they also had to fight off, as we see Madge adroitly doing, the advances of their amorous bosses, giving “Laughter” very much of a contemporary feeling.
Andy Dowdy, sadly, did not live to see the republication of a book he so admired. His recent Seattle Times obituary ended with the following suggestion: “In his honor please visit a bookstore in search of an unconventional read.” It’s a description that “I Lost My Girlish Laughter” fits exactly.
I Lost My Girlish Laughter
Vintage: 224 pages; $16