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Hollywood’s Second Fiddles: Screenwriters in the 30s

Given the scary nature of pretty much everything these days (a raging pandemic amidst widespread disbelief in science; a ruling oligarchy dead set on destroying anything worth living for; Attorney General Barr’s “anarchist jurisdictions,” which are at once ominous-sounding and nonexistent), it’s a relief to escape into a past that was if not always kinder or gentler at least a hell of a lot more entertaining than late 2020. Such blissful escape is provided in spades by Philippe Garnier’s Scoundrels and Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s, a new release from the independent publisher Black Pool Productions, an imprint run by film noir historian, exhibitor, and preservationist Eddie Muller. It’s a wildly passionate guide to largely forgotten history that most books on the period have barely touched upon.

Scoundrels and Spitballers is a treasure trove of anecdotes, author profiles, and hilarious, gossipy asides worthy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Garnier’s book was partly culled from interviews with older Tinseltown wordsmiths the cinephile did for French TV in the 1980s. He also spent long hours digging through studio archives, tracing the development of screen stories through letters, memos, script revisions, and other original source material.

Near the beginning of Scoundrels and Spitballers, Garnier explains, “I wanted to stress the vibrancy and free-for-all giddiness of a period when the film industry was young, and its workers even younger.” He succeeded, and also effectively shows how, in his words, “Hollywood broke a few writers’ souls, but it also helped many—and definitely inspired a few.”

Garnier mostly eschews standard academic approaches; though he cites some sources in the book, it lacks footnotes or an index. As a disclaimer, Garnier explains, “Many of the facts and details hauled in for this book have been trawled and sifted from (…) oddball sources ranging from original research and personal interviews to strangely boring publications like Screen Writer, the monthly magazine of the Screen Writers Guild, as well as the trade journals and fan magazines of the period. The details are all true, verified as much as humanly possible. But in spite of these efforts, when it comes to truth in Hollywood—who’s to know for sure? Was the picture shot on location or in front of a matte painting? Hollywood anecdotes, especially the good ones, should always be enjoyed with the proverbial grain of salt.”

Scoundrels and Spitballers certainly has attitude and narrative drive (if not always in a straight line) to spare. Garnier’s knowledge of Hollywood’s early sound era is impressive, and his curiosity about and enthusiasm for the work and lives of the writers he introduces us to makes for an engaging, invigorating read. In Garnier’s words, “It’s a book that peers into little-seen corners, rather than staring squarely at its subject, a book more concerned with colorful second fiddles than with the tenors.” Though famous names like James M. Cain and Nathaniel West do appear, Cain is mostly described making elaborate preparations to cook and serve a duck (this was Los Angeles before quinoa), while the section on West is largely about the great writer’s less famous, and less talented, off and on friend John Sanford. Even the most obsessive film history buff is unlikely to be familiar with movie writers Burt Kelly, Rowland Brown, Wells Root, or Wilson Mizner, who was reputed to have said from his deathbed in an upscale hotel, “I’m dying above my means.” Los Angeles booksellers Lewis Epstein and Edward Gilbert, whose stores were frequented by both famous and barely-known writers, are equally obscure and equally interesting.

Garnier doesn’t mince words when discussing figures in his purview who underwhelm him. The comic actor Guy Kibbee is “insufferable”; a biopic of F. Scott Fitzgerald was “flaccidly directed by Henry King”; now-forgotten painter Fletcher Martin’s portraits of Charles Laughton and Sylvia Sidney are “horrible.” He also calls a Guggenheim Fellowship “the surefire kiss of death for any writer’; hence he feels Nathaniel West was lucky to have been turned down for that award, which provided “a sheltered life [that] led [writers] to produce a kind of hothouse literature, at best.” To some this disinterest in pulling punches will be jarring, but I found Garnier’s strong opinions and candor a kick even when I didn’t agree with him (e.g. I love Guy Kibbee).

Too many film historians and critics revert to bland, formulaic prose, which nobody will ever accuse Garnier of doing. For example, “In spite of Hollywood and its glamour, Los Angeles remained largely a community of yokels uprooted from the Bible Belt.” Further: the actors in one film “all speak as if on Quaaludes.” Garnier also refuses to sanitize the people who populate this book, never hesitating to quote them when they are at their most caustic, as when the screenwriter and novelist W.R. Burnett complains that a movie (I Died a Thousand Times) made from one of his scripts starred Jack Palance and Shelley Winters, whom Burnett called “two of the most repulsive people in pictures.”

Yet Garnier clearly has great affection for many of his subjects. The more outrageous of them had chutzpah to burn, especially the “spitballers” who were expert at pitching story ideas on the fly to studio big-wigs. As Garnier describes, “They’d waltz into the office of Zanuck or Goldwyn and start spinning a yarn, impersonating characters, telling a smashing story—which they’d more often than not forget on their way to the track as the ink was drying on the check (…) Those early writers often were carnies or vaudevillians; all were gambling men, some outright crooks.”

One writer frequently on the wrong side of the law was San Quentin regular Ernest Granville Booth, who made more than $28,000 from the film industry while still imprisoned. Another jailhouse writer, Robert Tasker, wrote movie scripts with the left wing screenwriter John Bright and was described in H.L. Mencken’s magazine The American Mercury as “24, tall, good looking, a sheik type for society girls and stenographers, with black hair carefully combed.” (For a taste of the scriptwriting magic Tasker and Bright worked together, watch the unbeatable team of Joan Blondell and James Cagney as a pair of dynamic hustlers in Blonde Crazy, available for streaming via the Criterion Channel.) Tasker was, not surprisingly, most successful working on stories with penitentiary settings, including Hell’s Highway and Backdoor to Heaven. These and other tantalizing, hard to find movies touched on in Scoundrels and Spitballers left me wishing some crackpot millionaire would fund Garnier to stage a weeks-long festival of titles from this book, perhaps at a socially-distanced drive in.

Though Garnier touches upon the careers of Marguerite Roberts, Sylvia Richards, and Frances Marion, it would have been nice to have more on them and some of the other women screenwriters who show up in the pages of Scoundrels and Spitballers. That caveat aside, this wildly entertaining book is a most worthy follow-up to Blackpool’s earlier Garnier book, the excellent David Goodis biography Goodis: A Life in Black and White. It’s an important addition to the history of writers behind the Hollywood films of the 1930s.

Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

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