When Hollywood Was a Writers’ Town: A Conversation with Philippe Garnier

When Hollywood Was a Writers’ Town: A Conversation with Philippe Garnier<span class="redactor-invisible-space"></span>

In Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s, veteran French journalist Philippe Garnier brings to life an enchantingly raffish community of typewriter-pounders who headed west to try their luck in the verbal gold rush set off by the rise of the talkies. Published in France in 1996 as Honi soit qui Malibu, the book is now available for the first time in English from Eddie Muller’s Black Pool Productions. The project emerged from more than a decade of passionate and idiosyncratic research starting in the early 1980s, as Garnier hunted through archives and talked with some of the last living witnesses to Hollywood in its freewheeling, boomtown years before World War II. He conjures a fertile literary culture, mapping its well-lubricated meeting spots and honoring its democratic spirit with a nonhierarchical approach that spotlights overlooked masters like Rowland Brown, W. R. Burnett, and A. I. Bezzerides, and spins colorful tales of scribes who were also “adventurers, carnies, vaudevillians, gamblers, and crooks.” Their stories reveal the fluid relationship between journalism, literary fiction, and screenwriting, and illuminate secrets of that craft, from “spitballing” (the art of verbally pitching a story) to script doctoring. The book challenges the cliché of serious authors ruined by the crass movie industry, while laying bare the compromises and adjustments writers had to make as they toiled for the studios. Evoking a world of liquid lunches at Musso & Frank, rendezvous at Stanley Rose’s bookstore, late nights at the Brown Derby, and writers sneaking off the Warner Bros. lot to play polo, Scoundrels & Spitballers invites us to sit down and have our ears bent by a loquacious crew of ink-stained wretches, who grant us glimpses into the wellsprings of one of cinema’s most glorious eras.

In August 2020, I emailed with Garnier about the origins of the book, the adventures of research in pre-internet days, some of his key subjects, and the place of writers in Hollywood. Here are highlights of our conversation. We discovered many shared enthusiasms for obscure corners of 1930s lore; a guide to some of the people and places we discussed is here.

Tell me about your background and how you came to write this book.

Although the French version of the book was published in 1996, it was the result of research I had done as early as 1984. I had been employed by an influential rock magazine in France, but I was living in Los Angeles, and as I grew bored with writing about music, and since I had almost carte blanche with the magazine, I started to write about writers. Because of the Série noire editions, hard-boiled writing had been popular in France since the war, so I started seeking out writers who were still living, like Jonathan Latimer and W. R. Burnett. Also, the hard-boiled stuff could be coupled with movies. I wrote long pieces on Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and did a lot of reading on Los Angeles fiction.

Around the same time, I became the Los Angeles guy for a French TV magazine show on movies. Cinéma, cinémas was an almost legendary show, very popular in France, and I did interviews with Sterling Hayden, Abraham Polonsky, Robert Mitchum, Frank Capra, etc. As we had a pickup crew and a budget and no scripts or constraints, we grew bold and from time to time did things on writers. One on A. I. Bezzerides. One about John Fante. One about Nathanael West—we shot inside the Pa-Va-Sed apartment building!

Old Hollywood was very real to me during these years. It was funky still, a pre-redevelopment, pre-tourist zoo. Even though most of the buildings on the Boulevard had not yet shed their fifties-sixties plastic fronts, you could feel the marble behind it, and the history. And of course the bookstores. It really came to life, talking to these old men. The bookstores were almost on the way out then, but the way they talked about them was something else. When they tore down the big white apartment building east of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, I was there during the protests against the wrecking ball. I met an old woman who carried a sign; she’d lived in it when D. W. Griffith was also a tenant. She was Gertrude Lawrence’s baby sister, eighty-four! You still could have old-Hollywood experiences like that. Closest to a Sunset Boulevard experience I had was visiting crooner–movie personality Rudy Vallee’s house in the Hollywood Hills. We knew his housekeeper, and one time she invited us over to the house, as Vallee and his wife or companion were away in Palm Springs. Well, they returned early and he started to make a fuss because we were blocking his driveway, then he calmed down. The last picture I have of him, he was sitting in the dark in front of the TV looking at an old picture of his. Downright spooky.

I started my research on the noir novelist and screenwriter David Goodis under these circumstances: because he was still remembered and cherished in France, we made a documentary for Cinéma, cinémas about my search for the traces of his life. Two years later this became my first book, less a conventional biography of a paperback writer than a look at popular culture, as he’d written for the pulps as well as paperbacks, and also film as an employee of Warner Bros. It was during that time that I had the idea of looking at scholar Jay Martin’s papers at the Huntington Library. I was enamored of his Nathanael West biography and wanted to see if there was more, maybe unused interviews. He had donated his research notes and reel-to-reel tapes to the library. Although I initially intended to write about the big names, sifting through Martin’s ash pile gave me the idea of looking at the subject of Hollywood screenwriters in another way.

So there you have it: writing for the rock magazine and Libération on hard-boiled writers. The TV show. The Huntington Library. It took a long time to brew, more than ten years. I write fast, but I have to discover the form of the book. Once I’d decided on a kaleidoscopic, democratic—no hierarchies—approach, then I wrote it fast.

Can you talk a little more about the way the book is organized, and how your research process contributed to this “kaleidoscopic, democratic” approach?

Looking in corners has always been my MO. I love getting lost in details—to the risk of losing readers, but I’m willing to take the chance. So, hearing names that did not mean anything to me at the time, being tossed by this or that interviewee, got me going. Robert Tasker was the first lead. I couldn’t believe these things I was discovering about jailbird writers. Tasker’s crime and prison stories were published in H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury while he was still serving time in San Quentin. He and some of the boys made more money inside than working for the studios, once released!

You dig out the story of Robert Tasker, you even find the novel his pal John Bright wrote about him (It’s Cleaner on the Inside, what a title!), find out it is not very reliable. Find out that the conditions of his parole were he couldn’t write on crime or associate with criminals for the duration of his parole. Then you get to watch Rowland Brown’s Quick Millions and see Tasker, in a bit role, give money to George Raft for a quick getaway and gun him down in the back and get nabbed by the cops who were watching him. I remember having to pay $200 to a collector in the Hollywood Hills to play me his illegally obtained 16 mm print of the film. All throughout the picture his Doberman growled, and I also had to endure the owner’s disparaging comments on Spencer Tracy, though he admitted in the end that he was rather good in this.

Now, what are the chances of finding the film still showing that bird Tasker being handcuffed at that very moment? Remember, this is before the internet, where the search is easy. That still came, I believe, from Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, a really funky mom-and-pop video store that dabbled in memorabilia and posters. If you couldn’t find something, you went to Brandt and they’d dig out a godawful VHS of the flick taped from some New York local station. Or, most likely, something local—they were in the San Fernando Valley, of course—with Cal Worthington and his “My Dog Spot” ads thrown in. But that was the source. You could find all kinds of info, scripts, and contemporary articles at the Margaret Herrick Library, but I was more the Eddie Brandt kind of guy, at least at the time.

I also remember spending a lot of time in the stacks of the USC and the UCLA libraries. You’d go from book to book, ones that struck your fancy or curiosity. I discovered lots of things that way. Of course it took time. This is why it took me ten years. A lot of the research was haphazard. This is probably why the book has this weird form. You can almost read chapters haphazardly. If you get bored with one character you can skip to the next.

Tasker in Quick Millions

The book also takes a lot of its flavor from the personal interviews you conducted. You even came to know some of these people fairly well. And you draw attention to the way that you sometimes became interested in the people whom you were interviewing about more famous subjects: for instance, the chapter on Nathanael West ultimately winds up being as much about John Sanford and Marguerite Roberts; and in talking to Sam Brown about his brother Rowland, you discover Sam’s connection with Tom Mix and F. W. Murnau’s Tabu.

I would never have wanted to meet John Sanford if we hadn’t been doing this thing on West for TV. But I needed people to interview who could speak about him. It’s only when you start listening to the tapes that you hear other things, like envy, sadness, hostility. Then the witness, the source, takes a life of his own—and becomes one of the book’s characters. For the Brown brothers, the chapter is about the whole family, really; Rowland’s niece also qualifies what her father is telling me. This gives a certain tension to the piece, almost a fictional aspect. I only became aware of this while writing, and once I tumbled onto it, I looked for more ways to do the same. Some chapters are straighter than others, of course; it depends on the material available.

Some of these people I interviewed at length became friends, like Bezzerides, whom I cultivated for a period of fifteen, twenty years. I got his novels Long Haul and Thieves’ Market published in France for the first time, took him to festivals, at a time when he was very distressed because of [his companion] Silvia’s health, and then death. The recognition seemed to perk him up for a while.

I also vividly remember when Mrs. Whitney Burnett asked to see me, after Bill [W. R. Burnett] died. It was all unexpected, I’d even lined him up for a TV interview, very much anticipated. He was scheduled for that next week, and he went to the hospital on the weekend for a small procedure and never came out. When I saw her, maybe six months, a year later, it was friendly but also formal. We sat under Bill’s huge portrait, painted in the thirties style. You had this sense of a vast fortune all squeezed into this comfortable but poky Marina del Rey condo. Anyway, she wanted to set things straight for me, I think, tell me things her husband, she knew, would not think of telling me . . . But she gave me another dimension of his life, the extent of it, a life that had been rather fabulous—the dogs, the horses, the money made—but which did not seem to mean a thing to him. The only thing that mattered to him was to pound that typewriter. The only thing that mattered to him was to get someone to publish his stuff, even when he very well knew he did not matter to anyone anymore.

That was also a recurrent thing with those writers, like Cain, Bezzerides, and to a lesser degree Niven Busch: this sense of having nothing relevant to say anymore, this sense of being out of sync with the half-century that was left for them to live. A tragic thing, really. Once they had been solidly plugged into their time, they’d expressed the angst or the hopes of a generation. Then they did not matter anymore, even when they kept on plugging. It happened to all of them. Arthur Miller. Steinbeck. Saroyan.

Jean Harlow in The Beast of the City, written by W. R. Burnett

Tell me more about why you focused on the 1930s. What is it about the writers of that decade or the culture/politics/social scene of the time that attracts you?

First, it really is the thirties and forties, which the original French subtitle stated. Some writers like Bezzerides did not start working in film until the forties. But you’re right, they all started writing at that time when it seemed to matter more. I was caught up by this fervor, reading the literary magazines, for instance for the chapter on [the literary review] STORY. And it made me think about how these people could reconcile those ideals with the film work. Of course they didn’t. But the reverence for literature was in the air nonetheless, like when I state that Musso’s backroom was democratic that way—it was one of the rare places where a highly paid scriptwriter could not lord it over a barely published but talented novelist—and that at Rose’s bookstore talent was gauged by what you published, not by Hollywood salaries.

And let’s face it, I gorged myself on thirties movies as soon as Turner opened the can of worms. I loved the way, especially in the early days of TNT and TCM, there was no hierarchy, no curation to speak of. They were airing out everything they found in the vaults, sometimes films that hadn’t been shown for forty or sixty years. And those heavy doses of watching everything from those studios, not just the star vehicles or the classics, convinced me that this was a much more worthy subject of study than the Hollywood canon.

Also, and surely more to the point to answer your question, the “run-of-the-mill” thirties movies seemed to address social problems of the times, never more so than the awful and shocking conundrum for working or independent women. All these films like Employees’ Entrance (1933) and the dozens with Warren William as predator—a favorite of mine as well, I have to say—are very enlightening. And I am a bit like the early Manny Farber, only more so: I’d rather watch something like a no-name Paramount flick called Strictly Personal (1933), a Marjorie Rambeau vehicle directed by Ralph Murphy, than, say, The Grapes of Wrath or The Good Earth.

Another way to answer your question: yes, at one point I decided to concentrate on that period because it seemed the studio system hadn’t completely gelled yet, or at least there was still room for characters like Rowland Brown and individual artists who had their own way of working and who were allowed to do so. The moguls had cut the Stroheims and the Griffiths at the knee, but they allowed guys like Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey, James Whale, or Todd Browning to have their way, as long as their films were successes. So it was a more lively period, more rogue figures, more fun to write about. Also, it all was very young. People, studios, film.

I don’t know, maybe I was just lured by the romance of it. It just seemed more romantic and fun and outrageous in the thirties than in any other decade.

An issue of STORY
I’d like to ask you about the writer and filmmaker Rowland Brown, whose name has come up a few times and who is such a mysterious and fascinating figure. You had the chance to speak with his brother and niece, but it seems that some facts about him remain elusive, including the truth of the story that his career was cut short when he struck a producer. Brown’s films are unlike any others of the period, and Quick Millions is for me one of the great directing debuts, totally distinctive in its style, pacing, and humor. Brown almost reminds me of Jacques Becker in the way he is interested in “dead time,” the background of people just behaving, not the action and plot. He seems very modern in his lack of sentimentality, and ahead of his time in presenting the idea that there is no great difference between capitalism and organized crime—an idea that becomes so common in postwar film noir.
Did your research and conversations with his family give you any insight into how he developed his extraordinarily distinctive style? And do you think that Brown had any lasting influence on other filmmakers, or is he too obscure?

His brother tried to explain in what ways Rowland was unique. He had this way with endings, which he saw as his signature. He had the ending, then he wondered what might have happened to lead to this. I have several sources stating that you could tell a Brown story from the way it was told. He was just this original.

I recently watched John Barrymore in State’s Attorney (George Archainbaud, 1932), and I think we could make a case that it is a Rowland Brown film, even though he only did the screenplay, with Gene Fowler. It made me realize that his film direction was almost all in the writing. Even the pace is Brown’s.

In spite of the admiration Quick Millions drew from most of the directors who were working at Fox at the time, he does not seem to have influenced anybody. First, none of the three pictures he directed were successes. Critical praise, yes, he got. But nobody wanted to see his films. They were too quirky, too unusual for the times. A real rupture with the Hollywood style. And since they were not successful with the public, nobody was in a hurry to imitate him. Also, he was doing sentimental stories unsentimentally, in an unsensational way. You’re right in pointing out the lack of sentimentality, the matter-of-factness of the lines. But his subjects were often sentimental, or old-fashioned. Like The Devil Is a Sissy. Or Angels with Dirty Faces, for that matter. And again, like many, he was out of touch with the times during the war and after, even though he kept on pitching till the end. Also, he didn’t adapt, he generated. The only thing he ever adapted was Thieves Like Us, which I think is kind of a miracle, though he never got to direct his screenplay. It must have been in the air at the time, finding that bankers were bigger thieves than bank robbers. Because Brown was really in sync with Edward Anderson.

As for striking a studio executive: yes, he did, but he could have punched five producers and still could have worked in this business. He just borrowed money he never paid back and people got tired of this. But Zanuck called upon him years and years after Brown called him a rat, to his face. As long as he needed him to fix something, the rest did not matter. Much.

As for influencing other generations of filmmakers, as someone like Joseph H. Lewis or André de Toth may have done, Brown’s films just were not visible. Only recently have they become somewhat available and visible online or on TCM. The films are so dry, the humor so twisted, they do not lend themselves to modern interpretations.

You’re right on the money when you talk about “dead time” and not worrying too much about story or action, just building characters with vignettes. Very modern in that sense, yes . . . My favorite moment in Quick Millions is when they have this impromptu party in the hotel suite, with the guy playing the piano and George Raft dancing: getting into it, hitching his pant cuffs. Such marvelous moves. This was Brown: knowing not to overburden Raft with too much dialogue. None at all, actually, just a few lines. And, oh, when he opens the drawers to select a gat that would match his cuff links, before stepping out!

Rowland Brown

We’ve talked about your penchant for “looking in corners” and pursuing side-paths. Two of the digressions I was especially intrigued by were the stories of Marguerite Roberts and Sylvia Richards (who were the partners of John Sanford and “Buzz” Bezzerides, respectively). Both were successful screenwriters, and both in very different ways intersected with HUAC and the blacklist. To what extent were women still able to thrive as writers in Hollywood during the period you cover? I think there’s a common misconception that women were largely driven out by the Hollywood studios after the silent era.

Yes, you’re absolutely right about this. I must admit I was a bit in the wrong about it in the original version and I guess I kept it here; at least one could get this impression that women fell by the wayside with the advent of the talkies. But what of [producer] Virginia Van Upp at Columbia? Or ex-plainclothes-policewoman Virginia Kellogg giving all those stories, from T-Men to Caged to White Heat? The queen of the undercover cop yarn! Joan Harrison, Ida Lupino. But even scriptwriters, there were many. I met one at the Huntington Library, Catherine Turney, who told me lots of anecdotes about Warner Bros. writers, and the famous wartime carpool—to Musso’s for liquid lunches—driven by Bezzerides.

Marguerite Roberts, I was impressed by the way she made her way up from a very poor upbringing in hardscrabble Nebraska. She made her way a bit like Crawford or Stanwyck in those pre-Code films, through men, but she also backed it up with talent as soon as she could prove her mettle.

Richards, she was tragic. She may have had good reasons to give her ex-husband Bob Richards’s name to the [House Un-American Activities] Committee (she told me he beat her up a lot), but it destroyed her. She was in analysis ever after. She and Buzz made a fine pair, scratching their guilt—real or invented—any way they could think of. Some of Buzz’s guilt was over his first wife, Yvonne, who’d supported and believed in him when he still hesitated between writing and engineering. It was not just leaving her for Silvia, but the fact he had never included her in his Hollywood life. When I knew them, Buzz and Silvia were addicted to newscasts and would discuss the news endlessly, almost reveling in the bad stuff. But they had their good sides too. Just like there was not a car or a piece of furniture Buzz couldn’t “fix,” with Silvia there was not a stray dog or cat or a human that could not be sheltered or given a chance. They took in a couple of young junkies who left their kids with them while they were doing time up north. Buzz even drove the getaway car for their inane two-bit bank robberies. He claimed he never tumbled to what they were up to.

In the book, you reveal a lot of ways in which the studios disempowered writers or treated them dismissively: assigning multiple writers to a project without letting them know what was going on (this makes it very hard to untangle who really deserves credit for screenplays, as in the case of Out of the Past, which you discuss); giving writers no control over the way their scripts were filmed; not inviting writers to previews of their movies; not letting them park their cars on the lot; Jack Warner calling them “schmucks with Underwoods,” etc. In exchange, they were paid very high salaries, which you suggest many of them felt guilty about.

I’ve often wondered whether the studios went out of their way to keep writers down precisely because as the originators of stories they were so essential to Hollywood’s narrative cinema. I also wonder whether this treatment contributed to the way writers tend to be overlooked and undervalued in film history and criticism.

How would you characterize the status of writers in Hollywood during this period? Am I falling for the traditional narrative that writers were badly treated or “ruined” by Hollywood?

I wrote the book to go against all the idées reçues and clichés on the subject, so I went out of my way to make the point that Hollywood was largely beneficial to writers, their survival, and even, sometimes, their development. Not only would Nathanael West not have written The Day of the Locust had he not gone to Hollywood, he would not have written it this way either; his Republic and RKO days had liberated him from the intellectualism that characterizes his earlier books. But of course, I probably overstated it. Nevertheless, writers were “badly treated” only compared to studio executives and producers, who made all the money. Reading memos from Hal Wallis or Jack Warner, you find that they had even lower esteem for directors—see what they thought of Raoul Walsh, at the top of his game! Writers were the coal, the iron, the oil of this industry town. They were for the moguls a necessary evil. But they did not treat them any worse than the whole production ladder. Niven Busch was invited to Mrs. Goldwyn’s famously snobbish and highbrow dinner parties. Capra could cajole a writer if he saw any benefit. Harry Cohn would have a writer in his office, if he thought he could get something out of him.

Also for Cinéma, cinémas, we interviewed Meta Carpenter, who was an important script supervisor then, but had been Howard Hawks’s secretary and Faulkner’s main squeeze when he was in town. She’d written a memoir and was very moving when commenting on the Brownie snapshots she took of the great man in his BVDs in his room at the Knickerbocker, or in his swimsuit at the beach. He looked so happy. A lucky dog, and maybe the whole book was written just to counter all the guff that has been written about ruined writers and humiliated writers. Faulkner had been very well treated by Hollywood. Apart from the WWII period at Warner, he always was well-paid, mostly because Hawks saw to it. And he was a fast and capable film writer as well, when he was sober. And, when you read his early stories, you see that they were exactly the kind of pablum Hollywood needed: airmen stories, romantic WWI stories with Brits speaking through their teeth. Whereas his Mississippi stuff never made the grade as film, not even the respected ones like Clarence Brown’s Intruder in the Dust (1949). I love the comment made by Ben Maddow, who was given the job to adapt the novel: “This is the worst goddamn structured story I ever read. Badly written too.” I guess it’s a plus for an adapter, when you don’t think much of the original.

I just wanted to point out in this book that almost everybody writing in the thirties tried Hollywood at one point, even if many tanked out pronto. It’s an East Coast and a San Francisco notion that writers did not want to go there. They all did, give or take a few like Nelson Algren or Hemingway—and both did go once, to raise money for causes or themselves, even if they did not work there per se. Even a very marginalized author like Edward Anderson had his chance to make good. Many were not cut out for the work, because it was a specific work and you had to learn it. Veterans told the newcomers willing to listen to have a few of the studio’s big successes projected for themselves, and try to see what made them work. Many wouldn’t, trusting their novelistic chops. As basic as this sounds, many thought they were above that. And did not last.

I love your image of writers as the raw material of this industry town—storytelling being Hollywood’s real industry. In the book, you convey the romance of the place, without romanticizing it.

I am not a theoretician, barely an intellectual. In a way I am like those bozos; I like to tell stories. If they can illuminate a few things on the subject, fine, but they are just that, stories, hopefully good enough to interest and amuse people and lead them to their own conclusions, or further exploration. All my life I liked to light fires and get the hell out of there.

I got my bad writing habits early (no training), and it took me a lifetime to shed a few of them. But I never lost the curiosity, or the taste for backrooms, corners, the places where the work got done. This is why I like to write about people who view their trade as craft and talk about it accordingly, without grand views and opinions. [The musician] J. J. Cale liked to talk of nothing but electrical plugs, building sound studios, tricking out an instrument. He’d talk you under the table with that. Burnett and some others would talk about this or that character that they tried and tried to put in stories or novels, but never managed. Like plumbers.

The romance: I love finding that for just about any writer there is the guy who turned him on and gave him pointers. Like for Rowland Brown, there was the guy who wrote penny westerns, lived above a garage, and drank himself to death. And if I can have his name, it makes me happier, even if no other living soul gives a shit. But I wonder about that. Maybe twelve people will care, and that is surely enough.

All photos courtesy of Black Pool Productions. Special thanks to Eddie Muller.

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