Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Hollywood Screenwriter

"Writers are a necessary weasel."
--comment allegedly made by Harry Cohen, chief of production at Columbia Studios

"Help! I'm being held prisoner in a Chinese laundry."
--Anonymous note thrown out the window of a screen writer's office building in Hollywood

The role of the screenwriter is one of the more mysterious parts film making process. The fact that the screenwriter works in a medium that is visual rather than literary seemingly marks him as an odd wheel, yet his work is the essential first step that must be taken before a director or cinematographer is hired. Historically, the the screenwriter has been treated as a dispensable part of the creative process and it was not unusual for one screenwriter to find himself rewriting the work of another screenwriter who was, likewise, ghost writing another writer's script. In short, the Hollywood screenwriter was an all important part of the film industry and nobody in their right mind would admit to being one.

The plots of Hollywood films were not, however, magically invented during the film's shooting. Likewise, the actors did not make up their own dialogue. Without the screenwriter, many directors would have wandered lost through their narratives and countless "stars" would have mumbled incoherent, monosyllabic lines. While the history of the Hollywood screenwriter would fill many volumes, this festival tribute at least pays homage to some of the major writers whose wit, vision, and sheer determination has shaped the American cinema.

As both a writer and director, Preston Sturges redefined the American comedy film during the 1940s. His unique combination of broad slapstick and verbose verbal humor allowed him to create a series of cinematic portraits of America in which an energetic sense of naivete was mixed with a well seasoned cynicism. As a hyphenate (that is, a writer who became a writer-director), Sturges achieved virtually total control over his films and was able to pursue his most idiosyn­cratic of whims.

Sturges first directorial effort, The Great McGinty (USA 1940), amply represents his view of American politics as a lively bag of hooey. In lampooning both political corruption and reform movements, Sturges surveys the gap between democratic ideals and the realities of American society. Further, Sturges maintains a curious sympathy with corruption and the superficial impression of worldly knowledge attached to the corrupt.

While Sturges sense of satire was thoroughly American, Billy Wilder retained his native Viennese respect for stylish decadence. Wilder was often fascinated by the American capacity for simplistic ideals, but he also viewed parts of the American sensibility has being both puritanical and a little bit crazy.

As a writer-director, Wilder was able to maintain, like Sturges, a strong control over his material. Unlike Sturges, his influence carried well past the 1940s and he was able to work equally well in both comedies and dramas. His comedies, however, represents some of his most important contributions as Wilder was most freely capable of flaunting the contradictions that existed between his sentimental tendencies and sophisticated appreciation for worldly delights. In the film A Foreign Affair (USA 1948), he plays havoc with these irreconcilable differences between America and Europe.

One of the major screenwriters of the 1930s and 1940s was Dudley Nichols. Though his work would range from farce to melodrama, his vision tended toward a moody and fatalistic view of the human condition. He often worked best as a collaborator with strong directors as demonstrated in John Ford's production of The Long Voyage Home (USA 1940) and Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (USA 1947) and in each film he successfully adapted himself to Ford's tragic sense of Irishness and Lang's Teutonic notion of predestination.

More often than not, a screenplay is a collaborative effort and the credit-line for some scripts reads like the starting lineup for a ball game. That is often especially true with a director like Alfred Hitchcock who traditionally viewed screenwriters as the people whose job it was to explain how the main characters ended up dangling from Lincoln's nose. For Hitchcock, the screenplay's main function was to make the highly improbable seem almost possible. The writing team responsible for Foreign Correspondent (USA 1940) consisted of two of Hitchcock's more trusted collaborators, Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, as well as James Hilton and Robert Benchley. While Bennett and Harrison were responsible for wrangling sense out of the film's wildly convoluted plot line, Hilton assisted with the extensive rewriting that took place during the filming as Hitchcock attempted to keep pace with the rapidly changing political conditions of Europe at the beginning of World War Two. Likewise, the humorist Benchley contributed to the film's jaundiced presentation of journalism.

Despite their importance to film making, screenwriters are largely ignored by the viewing public. During the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, and the industry blacklist that ensued, screenwriters were an easy target. Studio executives found it convenient to appease reactionary organizations by blacklisting the more anonymous figure of the screenwriter rather than an actor or director and nearly half of the original Hollywood Ten, a group of subpoenaed witnesses who refused to testify before the House on Un-American Activities Committee, were writers.

One of the original Ten was Albert Maltz, who was often responsible for creating tense thrillers such as This Gun For Hire (USA 1941). The overt political subject matter of the film, especially its critical presentation of a traitorous industry magnate, was as indicative of the film's time period as it was of Maltz's politics. While Maltz was later accused of "premature anti-fascism," Pearl Harbour took place during the film's production.

The blacklist, and the general degree of moral cowardice displayed in Hollywood during that period, was the basis for Carl Foreman's screenplay High Noon (USA 1952). During the time he was writing the screenplay, Foreman was himself being investigated by the House Committee and, after completing the film, was blacklisted from the industry. His sense of "standing alone" against over­whelming forces was fueled into the film's bitter observations on the failure of integrity.

One of the most notable victims of the blacklist was Abraham Polonsky. His two most important screenplays, Body and Soul (USA 1948) and Force of Evil (USA 1949), presented an overall scathing view of American society that led to him being dubbed "the most dangerous man in America" by a U. S. congressman. In turn, he was blacklisted until well into the 1960s. Yet his early screenplays represents a powerful legacy that details the betrayed hopes and ambitions of a generation.

One screenwriter who did "name names" was Budd Schulberg. Schulberg's brief membership in the American Communist Party was most notable for its acrimonious ending and, by the 1950s, he was welling to testify though his reasons for doing so are not quite clear. Schulberg would later claim that he didn't trust secret societies and felt that these names should be brought out into the open. Others felt that it was Schulberg's way of getting back at Party members who attacked his novel What Makes Sammy Run. A mix of both reasons is possible. Yet during the 1950s, Schulberg would both directly and indirectly provide the cinema with two extremely bitter attacks on the corruption and mercenary state of living in America during this time period. Both On the Waterfront (USA 1954) and The Harder They Fall (USA 1956) presents portraits of morality warped by greed and power. In this respect, Schulberg successfully created a more critical and nasty view of American society than most of the blacklisted screenwriters would have ever attempted and the contradictory nature of Schulberg's art and personal actions remains the subject of intensely heated debate.

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