Hollywood's Write Stuff

By , Frederic Hunter is a screenwriter and a former Home Forum editor of the Monitor.

IN the beginning was the image. And the image moved. In silence. The images were first seen in penny arcades, ``nickel-in-the-slot Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes,'' as Ian Hamilton notes, ``with their two-minute vaudeville routines, their circus turns and boxing bouts.''

Later, around the turn of the century, motion pictures were delivered in small movie houses rather than through slot machines. A bill might include a half hour of chases, comedy routines, even bits of staged and photographed historical events, explained, where necessary, with title cards.

Then early moviemakers began to place several sequences into a single film, suggesting a narrative flow. They varied camera angles; they introduced close-ups and inserts; they explored storytelling techniques.

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Their images really were worth a thousand words in what they revealed of characters, locales, actions. As film made a visual record of these, there was little need for word men.

And so, in a sense, writers were a kind of afterthought in a business aptly called ``picture-making.'' This may explain, in part, why Hollywood has treated writers like second-class citizens.

There are other reasons, too.

In the early years, writers scorned ``pictures.'' A ``scenarist'' was not really a writer. Few writers took seriously the notion that screenwriters were exploring a new medium and reaching new audiences.

Instead, writers felt they would be factory hands producing junk in a cultural desert, surrendering artistic control (an accurate assumption) and ``prostituting'' themselves and their art for money (not necessarily accurate).

Although Hamilton does not stress the point, his readable ``Writers in Hollywood, 1915-1951'' suggests that writers who worked best in ``pictures'' were those like Anita Loos and Billy Wilder, who grew up in the business.

Of the recruits to Hollywood, newspaper reporters adapted best to the studio system's demands. Reporters were used to collaborating with editors, rewrite men, and other reporters. They were accustomed to being shifted off one story and onto another. They acquiesced to publishers interfering in pursuit of their own interests, just as studio heads did.

Newsmen like Ben Hecht, Nunnally Johnson, and Dudley Nichols, whose credits are familiar to most of us even today, made first-class screenwriters. Hamilton profiles all three.

Although neither is profiled, playwrights like Lillian Hellman and Robert E. Sherwood seem to have fared well enough. They were used to the collaboration required by dramatic writing. To some extent they also understood about visualizing scenes.

Novelists like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald had trouble with screenwriting. It seems that the better the novelist, the more accomplished the artist in creating special worlds, peopling them with characters, controlling and establishing mood, the more difficulty he or she had writing for the screen. ``I can't see things,'' Faulkner complained; ``I can only hear.''

``Writers in Hollywood'' offers a grand tour of its territory. It hits the high spots and moves on. If this is Tuesday, it must be ``Big Name Wrecks'' - that is, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, and Nathanael West, all of whom Hamilton profiles.

The tour starts with D.W. Griffith's ``Birth of a Nation,'' ``the first American movie that can be talked of without condescension as a work of art.'' It continues with the studios' recruitment of writers, once they realized they would need word men, especially after the advent of sound.

The book discusses how the studios developed and how they established their identities. 20th Century-Fox was known as a writers' studio, for example, because Darryl Zanuck cared about scripts. By contrast, Paramount catered to directors and MGM to producers.

The clash of creativity and commerce has always provided hilarious and improbable anecdotes. Hamilton offers a delightful sampling. He even usefully attempts to assess the authenticity of some.

The book looks repeatedly at screenwriting's political issues: censorship (the Hays Office, the Legion of Decency, et al.) and writer efforts to live with it; the fight to establish what is now the Writers Guild of America, in which politics intertwined with economics; World War II propaganda and the Bureau of Motion Pictures, staffed by government bureaucrats who dictated wartime content; as well as the postwar idealism that soured into the misguided patriotism of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.

The tour concludes on this sorry affair with its witch hunts and blacklists, its loyalty oaths and craven betrayals. At about the same time they occurred, a Supreme Court decision outlawed Hollywood's theater ownerships and block-booking methods. This destroyed the studio system and ended in the early '50s what has come to be known as ``Hollywood's Golden Era.''

That era seems golden only when bathed in the light of nostalgia. Hamilton performs a useful service by readably showing that era in the light of scholarship and historical research.

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