People and Places of Scoundrels & Spitballers
In the summer of 2020, I spoke with Philippe Garnier about his book Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s, available for the first time in English from Eddie Muller’s Black Pool Productions. The book introduces a rogues’ gallery of screenwriters and novelists, ranging from cult heroes to obscure also-rans, and brings to life a Hollywood where bookstores were still community hubs, writers held court in the backrooms of bars, and a restaurant shaped like a hat was the place to see and be seen. Here is a guide to some of the people and places we spoke about.
Edward Anderson (1906–1969): An itinerant newspaperman from Texas, Anderson was also an occasional prizefighter, deckhand, and hobo, this last experience providing fodder for his first book, Hungry Men, which won a prize from the prestigious STORY magazine. His second novel, Thieves Like Us, came out in 1937; this Depression-era tale of lovers on the lam was critically acclaimed on its release, and has retained its status as a classic. In 1936 Anderson went to Hollywood but had little success as a screenwriter. He sold the rights to Thieves Like Us to Rowland Brown for a mere $500, apparently believing he would get additional work on the picture, but by the time a film finally emerged more than a decade later—as Nicholas Ray’s film debut, They Live by Night (1948)—Anderson was scraping by working for a newspaper in Fort Worth. He spent the rest of his life as an embittered, heavy-drinking, drifting newsman, never publishing another book. His best-known book was adapted again, under its original title, by Robert Altman in 1974.
A. I. (Albert Issok) “Buzz” Bezzerides (1908–2007): Born to a Greek-Armenian family in Turkey, Bezzerides grew up in Fresno, California, and worked as a truck driver, mechanic, and electrical engineer before publishing his first novel, Long Haul, which was adapted by Warner Bros. as They Drive by Night (1940). Thieves’ Market, his novel about truckers and the San Francisco produce market, became the film noir Thieves’ Highway (1949), and he wrote the screenplays for Desert Fury (1947), On Dangerous Ground (1951), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), among many other films. He also wrote for TV series including The Barbara Stanwyck Show and 77 Sunset Strip, and created the pilot for Stanwyck’s hugely successful western series The Big Valley (1965–1969). His companion from the late 1940s on was the screenwriter Silvia Richards. Living to the age of ninety-eight, Bezzerides was the subject of two documentaries, both released in 2005.
John Bright (1908–1989), Kubec Glasmon (1897–1938), and Robert Tasker (1903–1944): Bright claimed to have worked as Ben Hecht’s office boy in Chicago before getting a job as a soda jerk in Glasmon’s drugstore, a popular mob hangout. Beer and Blood, their lurid account of the Chicago underworld, became Bright and Glasmon’s ticket to Hollywood, where they adapted the unpublished novel as The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931). In the wake of that film’s phenomenal success, the team worked on a number of other pictures for Warner Bros., many starring James Cagney or Joan Blondell, or both: Blonde Crazy, Union Depot, Three on a Match, Taxi! So potent was their brand that the studio prominently displayed Bright’s and Glasmon’s names on publicity posters, a rare level of recognition for screenwriters at the time. Bright later teamed up with Tasker, who began publishing stories in H. L. Mencken’s the American Mercury while serving time at San Quentin for robbing a dance hall in Oakland around 1922. Paroled in 1929, he served as an unofficial adviser on MGM’s The Big House (1930) and began working as a screenwriter, eventually collaborating with Bright on San Quentin (1937) and Back Door to Heaven (1939). Tasker also made an appearance on-screen in Rowland Brown’s Quick Millions. Tasker died under mysterious circumstances—possibly suicide—in a swank Mexico City hotel. Bright himself would later spend much of the 1950s south of the border after he was blacklisted in Hollywood for his communist ties.
Rowland Brown (1900–1963): One of the first writers in Hollywood to direct movies from his own scripts during the sound era, Brown made three extraordinarily original crime pictures: Quick Millions (1931), Hell’s Highway (1932), and Blood Money (1933). He also originated stories for other directors’ films, including The Doorway to Hell (1930), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and Kansas City Confidential (1952), and cowrote the screenplays for What Price Hollywood? (1932) and State’s Attorney (1932). Though recognized as a major talent (by, among others, his frequent antagonist Darryl F. Zanuck), Brown was too much of a maverick to operate smoothly within the studio system. Legend has long held that his career fizzled after he struck a producer, but it may have been his penchant for walking off projects, and for borrowing money he failed to repay, that brought him down. In 1939, Brown purchased the screen rights to Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us and wrote an adaptation, but was unable to get it produced, and sold the rights to RKO, where it would eventually become Nicholas Ray’s first film. Brown’s 1942 stage play Johnny 2x4 featured Lauren Bacall in her first starring role. His brother Sam Brown was a propman and sometime scriptwriter who assisted F. W. Murnau on his final film, Tabu (1931).
Niven Busch (1903–1991): The son of a man who served as the treasurer for Lewis J. Selznick’s production company, Busch came from a higher rung of the social ladder than many of his fellow screenwriters, attending Princeton and writing for Time and the New Yorker before heading to Hollywood in 1931. He worked as a screenwriter at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, became story editor for Samuel Goldwyn in 1941, and wrote the screenplay for MGM’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). With his novels Duel in the Sun and The Furies, and his original screenplay for Pursued (1947), Busch pioneered the Freudian, Greek-tragedy-inflected psychological western. From 1942 to 1952 he was married to actor Teresa Wright, the third of his five wives. He owned a cattle ranch in Northern California and continued to write novels, many of them dealing with the history of California, until 1989.
W. R. (William Riley) Burnett (1899–1982): At least twenty-nine movies have been adapted from Burnett’s novels, including Little Caesar (1931), High Sierra (1941), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Arriving in Hollywood from Chicago in 1929, he worked first as a consultant on gangster movies and cowrote the original screenplay for The Beast of the City (1932). The lean, proto-noir western Law and Order (1932) was adapted from Burnett’s novel Saint Johnson by John Huston (and starred his father, Walter Huston), beginning a long friendship and collaboration between Burnett and the younger Huston. In the early 1940s, Burnett spent five years as a top screenwriter at Warner Bros., and the studio paid in advance for screen rights to his novels. In addition to his prolific output of books and screenplays, during the 1930s Burnett owned and raced a kennel of greyhounds. Well-versed in French literature, he nursed a “secret ambition,” Garnier writes, “to become the American Balzac.”
Silvia Richards (1915–1999): Born Silvia Hope Goodenough, she spent part of her youth in Colorado and worked as a model before marrying radio producer Bob Richards and getting her start writing for radio dramas. After settling in Los Angeles, the couple split acrimoniously, and Richards testified against her ex-husband before the House Un-American Activities Committee, an act that burdened her with lasting guilt. In 1947, she got a job at Warner Bros. writing the Joan Crawford vehicle Possessed, followed by Secret Beyond the Door (1947) for her then-paramour Fritz Lang. Using her knowledge of the West, she also supplied Lang with the original story for Rancho Notorious (1952). She wrote the screenplay for Ruby Gentry (1952) and worked on television into the 1960s. From the late 1940s until her death she was the companion of A. I. Bezzerides.
Marguerite Roberts (1905–1989): For more than four decades, Roberts was a successful, respected, and well-liked screenwriter, scripting pictures for Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Robert Mitchum. Born Maggie Azota Smith in a tarpaper shack in Nebraska (her father took her middle name from a cigar band), she got a job as a secretary at Fox in 1931 and soon rose to script reader and, by 1933, writer, known for her touch with rough-and-tumble, masculine subjects. In 1938, she married writer John Sanford, a childhood friend of Nathanael West, and supported his career with her own far more lucrative work. In 1951, Roberts was fired by MGM over her refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee; due to contractual obligations, the studio paid her $250,000 to leave. She began working openly again in the 1960s, scripting True Grit in 1969.
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