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

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