When films ceased to be silent, a migration of eastern writers, playwrights, and wits swarmed to the Golden State, to write scripts for the studios. Though it wasn’t exactly the Donner Party, its annals are not happy ones. One thinks of Fitzgerald and his quixotic, dashed hopes of bringing his brand of literary refinement and glamour to film; of Faulkner sneaking back to Mississippi as soon as one of his raids on the studio coffers had yielded its loot; of Dorothy Parker complaining that Hollywood money melted like snow and embracing communism, perhaps in protest. Novels from Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939) to Bruce Wagner’s Force Majeure (1991) and I’m Losing You (1996) portray a nearly apocalyptic community of grotesque losers—schemers and dreamers driven mad by the wealth and fame apparently to be had all around them. The insider’s view, as painted by Hollywood offspring Budd Schulberg and Leslie Epstein, is scarcely rosier. Even as benign a visitor as Ludwig Bemelmans struck off a novel, Dirty Eddie (1947), despairing of the screenwriter’s lucrative but thankless lot.
What can we make, then, of long-term Tinseltown denizen Daniel Fuchs, who in 1937 left behind a schoolteacher’s job in Brooklyn, three quite brilliant novels produced in his twenties, and a career of frequent acceptances of his short fiction by The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, and Collier’s, to become one of RKO’s scribbling minions, and who never looked back with regret? In the story “The Earthquake of 1971,” Fuchs extols southern California as he found it in 1937,
still undeveloped…fresh and brimming and unawakened, at the beginning….everything in this new land wonderfully solitary, burning, and kind.
For him, at the time, “the studios exude an excitement, a sense of life, a reach and hope, to an extent hard to describe.” With delight he wanders the studio back-lots, their elaborate fabrications of western streets and bygone fishing villages, and watches “the studio bravos in their costumes at their perpetual play, folk coming from backgrounds unknown to me, people with a smiling, generous style.” He relishes, as the years go by, the uncanny cleanliness and health of his growing, tanned children. Looking back on thirty-four years of residence, he thanks the gods of filmdom
for the boon of work, for the joy of leisure, the happy, lazy days; for the castles and drowsy back-lots; for the stalwarts I’ve come to know, John and Bob and Sam; for the parties at Barney’s, the times at Phil’s; the flowers, the sycamores, the blessings of the sun.
No sour grapes on these vines. In his long story “Triplicate,” Fuchs lets a character assert with admitted exaggeration but without contradiction,
What people don’t understand about this place is that the whole idea is not to make great pictures but to enjoy life in the sun. They keep asking for works of art, but the picturemaking from the beginning was secondary, starting with the Fairbanks–Pickford days when they entertained visiting royalty and statesmen. That’s why the pictures had their worldwide success. They were made without strain by happy, unneurotic people who were busy having a good time and who worked naturally out of their instincts, and audiences everywhere were intelligent enough to perceive this and treasure it. It’s the climate, the desert. It comes with the locality.
Fuchs’s fiction tells a somewhat more complicated and qualified story, of feverish rises and falls, rousing successes and creeping failures, of neurosis and frustration amid the sunshine and bougainvillea. The three stories he wrote in the 1930s, soon after his arrival, are Kafkaesque, showing the screenwriter’s Hollywood as a nightmare of aborted projects and inscrutable higher powers. But the longest of them, “Florida” (originally titled “Toilers of the Screen”), ends with a decision to stay in this “screwy, heartbreaking” place, and Fuchs remains a rarity, a literary easterner who never opted out or badmouthed the crass hands that fed him. The equanimity, the pervasive amused sympathy, with which he regarded the waifs and gangsters of Brooklyn’s tough Williamsburg section and of New York’s racing crowd—Low Company, one of his novels is titled—extended to the movie crowd, whose brand of flamboyance and voiced desperation fills to overflowing the party scenes of “Triplicate” and “The Golden West.”
Fuchs resembles Bellow in his admiration of energy, however ill-expended. He anticipated Bellow’s rapid easy tumble of imagery and dialogue, with its sometimes breathtakingly fresh adjectives: “this world of celebrity, of fast movement and shiny living”; “the larceny in his eyes, as he devoted himself to the girl, wooing her and getting her rosy.” There is the same acceptance, both offhand and religious, of people as the messy, troublesome spirits they are. Bellow, however, sometimes takes positions, presses a point—Herzog writing all those querulous letters to the mighty—where Fuchs maintains an unblemished cool, an unblinking, unblaming candor, and, with all his street smarts, an innocence.
His alter ego Rosengarten, the detached writer-witness of “Triplicate,” explains that
what was of most importance in a piece of writing was a certain exhilaration, a life, a liveliness, a sense of well-being arising from the scene and the people, hard for him to describe or even to understand clearly, and yet the thing that gave him a sinking terror when it was missing, when he knew it wasn’t there.
Farther down the page, he falls into self-exhortation:
“Make something that didn’t exist before,” he said to himself, “a thing, a fact, your own, absolute, unassailable. Do something with it. Don’t let it just stand there. Make something happen—an elation, a joy.”
The first thing by Daniel Fuchs I ever read was a paragraph typed and posted on the bulletin board of William Maxwell, a fiction editor at The New Yorker, when I worked in the magazine’s offices in the mid-Fifties. Maxwell, Fuchs’s editor, had loved this paragraph—something about clowns and balloons, in my fading memory—enough to type it up and pin it up as an epitome of elation and joy in prose. (It was Maxwell, I believe, to whom Fuchs was referring, in the introduction to his collection The Apathetic Bookie Joint, as “the most urbane and kindliest man I have ever known.”)
The copyright credits for The Apathetic Bookie Joint list a number of New Yorker short stories after 1937, but they stop in 1942, to resume, briefly, with four titles, in 1953–1954. Brendan Gill, in my hearing, exclaimed of this resumption, “Boy, didn’t he come out of the West with his six-guns blazing!” They were wonderful stories, especially “The Golden West.” Fuchs’s demonstration, after a decade’s silence, of so much vitality, subtlety, clairvoyance, and edginess in the short story form made him something of a legend in eastern literary circles. How could the writer of such fiction be content with the drudgery, the compromises, the abasement of screenwriting?
In 1989, in a long letter from Hollywood, published in Commentary as “Stricly Movie,” he wrote:
Critics and bystanders who concern themselves with the plight of the Hollywood screenwriter don’t know the real grief that goes with the job. The worst is the dreariness in the dead sunny afternoons when you consider the misses, the scripts you’ve labored on and had high hopes for and that wind up on the shelf, when you think of the mountains of failed screenplays on the shelf at the different movie companies; in all my time at the studios, I managed to get my name on a little more than a dozen pictures, most unmemorable, one a major success.
Little more than a dozen pictures, most with shared credits, in all those decades seems a bleak harvest. The “major success,” for which Fuchs received an Academy Award, was Love Me or Leave Me. Fuchs credits its success to Joe Pasternak’s getting James Cagney to act the part of the crippled thug Moe Snyder; he doesn’t mention the sensation of the picture, what the crowds paid to see—Doris Day’s playing a tough girl, the singer Ruth Etting, smoking and drinking and getting knocked around and standing spread-legged in a spangly little flapper dress and singing, “Come on, Big Boy—ten cents a dance!”
Fuchs follows his description of the screenwriter’s sorrows with the demur,
It’s the same when you write for publication, on your own…. Of course, the difference is that in the movies you get paid when you fail and there is that to carry you over.
This ignores the likelihood that the print-writer, if he possesses Fuchs’s distinction and contacts, will wind up with a published book, a work all his own, warped by no actor or director or producer, or studio head, available for years to come in libraries if not in bookstores, a virtually everlasting personal testament.
In fact, Fuchs was dissatisfied with writing for print before Hollywood beckoned. His three novels had received some good notices but didn’t sell, and would have sold less if his fellow schoolteachers hadn’t loyally bought a number. He accepted an ill-fated invitation from the Broadway producer Jed Harris (who appears in “Triplicate” as the provocative, self-destructive Rogers Hammet) to adapt his novel Homage to Blenholt, and the experience, though it ended in rejection, left Fuchs with an appetite for outscale, show-biz personalities:
He had put on a continuous show. It had been a revelation, all new to me—the recklessness, his commitment to his star, the fierce expenditure of energy and the turbulence he created around him.
This quotation comes from a remarkably full account of himself that Fuchs wrote in 1987 for Gale’s Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. In the same piece he describes his growing distrust of his own writing, its humor, its comedy:
The brave jollity—it increasingly seemed to me—was an evasion; it dodged and skidded around the truth and would not meet it fairly…. I was, in the end, in the peculiar position of a writer whose forte was a quality he secretly disliked and wanted to lean on less and less and not at all, and who, on the other hand, had no other special talent or great idea to offer in its place.
Fuchs found refuge, it would seem, in the collaborative craft of movie-making. Like few other veterans of the script mills, he unfailingly communicates his respect for the industrial proc- ess, the many-sided group effort. His 1962 letter from Hollywood, published in Commentary under the title “Writing for the Movies,” compellingly describes an early assignment, trying to save a film already in rough cut, Background to Danger, directed by Raoul Walsh, from the stubbornly unsuitable acting of the lead, George Raft. In this salvage operation the youthful, awe-struck Fuchs had as his collaborator a writer “who was no less than one of perhaps the ten most important literary figures in the world”—William Faulkner. The two can’t communicate, the task seems impossible, and yet, at last,
abruptly, miraculously, everything was calm. The fever was over. Everything that needed to be done was done…. The wonder was the picture. It was whole now, sound—the myriad nerve-lines of continuity in working order, the conglomeration of effects artfully re-juggled, brisk and full of urgent meaning.
Fuchs sees no shame in shaping a product for a mass audience; rather, he sees wizardry, and a special kind of truth:
It had to be a truth that was worthy and could legitimately engage an audience. It had to have an opulence; or an urbanity; or a gaiety; a strength and assurance; a sense of life with its illimitable reach and promise. As a matter of fact, it didn’t even have to be the truth.
He finds good words to say about tyrants of the industry like Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn, men who, however misguided, lived for the movies, who demanded the work:
It was always surprising how underneath the outcries and confusion the work steadily went on. They never slackened; fighting the malach-ha-moves [the Hebrew Angel of Death] and the dingy seepage of time, they beat away to the limits of their strength and endowments, striving to get it right, to run down the answers, to realize and secure the picture.
Twenty-seven years later, in his 1989 letter from Hollywood, he still praises the work:
You get absorbed in the picture-making itself. It’s a large-scale, generous art or occupation, and you’re grateful to be part of it…. What impressed me about the people on the set as I looked on was the intensity with which they worked…. They were artists or talented people—the photographers, set designers, editors, and others whose names you see on the credit lists. They worked with the assiduity and worry of artists, putting in the effort to secure the effect needed by the story, to go further than that and enhance the story, and not mar it.
The fiction writer works as a solitary, to please himself and, usually, a modest audience; the “large-scale, generous” corporate enterprise of motion picture–making touched, amid all the scuffling of egos, an idealistic chord within Fuchs, a yearning for absorption in something bigger, something mass-oriented. In an ideological decade, with fascism and communism both urging the sublimation of individual identity, Fuchs’s renunciation of New York–style fiction for the Hollywood mills was a political act, a vote for the everymen and everywomen who filled the seats of the movie theaters. At the same time, it provided him with bourgeois comfort in an idyllic climate and exposed to his admiration the vivacity, intensity, and fantasy of Hollywood’s immigrants from the East and Europe. There were “shenanigans and excesses” on the studio lots; there were endless, free-form weekend parties that figure in his fiction as Chekhovian orgies of lamentation (and hope) and comically confessed folly.
The longest piece of fiction in the new collection of his Hollywood writings, the short novel West of the Rockies, concerns one of the technical problems that arise in the industry and threaten to mar the work—the star breakdown, the overload of narcissistic anxiety and self-medication that short-circuits the Marilyn Monroes and Judy Garlands of the film world and stops production. Adele Hogue, overwhelmed by “the clamor in her,” has fled the set and holed up in Palm Springs. Fuchs, both tender and impatient with his heroine, limns her humble beginnings and fierce scramble into celebrity, her “fanatic energy” and “the fury in her, the rage of disbelief and bewilderment, now that all this which she had fought for so desperately was so soon to be taken away from her.” She is aging, fattening: her body is guilty of
the widening at the waist—that thickening which, it had been surveyed and studied in the business, the young people in the movie houses spotted and resented, perhaps without even knowing what they resented, which from their vantage point and youth they found repellent and wouldn’t accept.
Yet she still “was a big name, one of the handful who really brought people into the movie house.” A jaded talent agent, a former athlete and her sometime lover, Burt Claris, sees her as worth rescuing, and at the novel’s end she silently mouths “I love you, I love you, I love you” at him as they announce their engagement to the press. The author closes by musing on how “we are each of us precious to ourselves and wouldn’t exchange ourselves, the being in us, with any other.”
The novel, published when Fuchs was in his sixties, feels hurried, written in uncharacteristic run-on sentences, and the author’s manner of glimmering diffidence verges on boredom when the plot arrives at its well-prepared climactic scenes; and yet this tale of deals forged out of weaknesses is his most limpid attempt to plumb movie magic—its human essence, the sway stars hold over an audience when mounted in a sufficiently well-engineered story, one lubricated with what Fuchs calls (in a passing homage to the obstreperous Harry Cohn) “those secret elixirs, hideously slippery and intangible, that make a work of the imagination go.” The word “elixir” recurs in a brief fit of literary introspection in 1989—“What is the secret elixir that we must look for, the thing that gives a story life…. It’s the melodic line—when it all comes together, when it sings.” Fuchs in his modesty and optimism construed his tortuous Hollywood labors, with their dozen credited scripts, as a species of singing.
Copyright © 2005 by John Updike