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The Ashes of Hollywood I: The Bottom 4 of the Top 10

Shit has its own integrity.” The Wise Hack at the Writers’ Table in the MGM commissary used regularly to affirm this axiom for the benefit of us alien integers from the world of Quality Lit. It was plain to him (if not to the front office) that since we had come to Hollywood only to make money, our pictures would entirely lack the one basic homely ingredient that spells boffo world-wide grosses. The Wise Hack was not far wrong. He knew that the sort of exuberant badness which so often achieves perfect popularity cannot be faked even though, as he was quick to admit, no one ever lost a penny underestimating the intelligence of the American public. He was cynical (so were we); yet he also truly believed that children in jeopardy always hooked an audience, that Lana Turner was convincing when she rejected the advances of Edmund Purdom in The Prodigal “because I’m a priestess of Baal,” and he thought that Irving Thalberg was a genius of Leonardo proportion because he had made such tasteful “products” as The Barretts of Wimpole Street and’ Marie Antoinette.

In my day at the Writers’ Table (mid-Fifties) television had shaken the industry and the shit-dispensers could now…well, flush their products into every home without having to worry about booking a theater. In desperation, the front office started hiring alien integers whose lack of reverence for the industry distressed the Wise Hack who daily lectured us as we sat at our long table eating the specialty of the studio, top-billed as the Louis B. Mayer Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls (yes, invariably, the dumb starlet would ask, what do they do with the rest of the matzoh?). Christopher Isherwood and I sat on one side of the table; John O’Hara on the other. Aldous Huxley worked at home. Dorothy Parker drank at home.

The last time I saw her, Los Angeles had been on fire for three days. As I took a taxi from the studio, I asked the driver, “How’s the fire doing?” “You mean,” said the Hollywoodian, “the holocaust.” The style, you see, must come as easily and naturally as that. I found Dorothy standing in front of her house, gazing at the smoky sky; in one hand she held a drink, in the other a comb which absently she was passing through her short straight hair. As I came toward her, she gave me a secret smile. “I am combing,” she whispered, “Los Angeles out of my hair.” But of course that was not possible. The ashes of Hollywood are still very much in our hair, as the ten bestsellers I have just read demonstrate.

The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of what the new illiterates want to believe is the only significant art form of the twentieth century. An entire generation has been brought up to admire the product of that era. Like so many dinosaur droppings, the old Hollywood films have petrified into something rich, strange, numinous-golden. For any survivor of the Writers’ Table (alien or indigenous integer), it is astonishing to find young directors like Bertolucci, Bogdanovich, Truffaut reverently repeating or echoing or paying homage to the sort of kitsch we created first time around with a good deal of “help” from our producers and practically none at all from the directors—if one may quickly set aside the myth of the director as auteur. Golden age movies were the work of producer(s) and writer(s). The director was given a finished shooting script with each shot clearly marked, and woe to him if he changed MED CLOSE SHOT to MED SHOT without permission from the front office, which each evening, in serried ranks, watched the day’s rushes with script in hand (“We’ve got some good pages today,” they would say; never good film). The director, as the Wise Hack liked to observe, is the brother-in-law.

I think it is necessary to make these remarks about the movies of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties as a preface to the ten bestselling novels under review since most of these books reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years, while at least seven of the novels appear to me to be deliberate attempts not so much to re-create new film product as to suggest old movies that will make the reader (and publisher and reprinter and, to come full circle, film maker) recall past success and respond accordingly. Certainly none of the ten writers (save the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn and the classicist Mary Renault) is in any way rooted in literature. For the eight, storytelling began with The Birth of a Nation. Came to high noon with, well, High Noon and Mrs. Miniver and Rebecca and A Farewell to Arms. Except for the influence of the dead Ian Fleming (whose own work was a curious amalgam of old movies in the Eric Ambler-Hitchcock style with some sadomasochist games added), these books connect not at all with other books. But with the movies…ah, the movies!

Let us begin with Number Ten on your Hit Parade of Fiction, Two from Galilee by Marjorie Holmes. Marjorie is also the author of I’ve Got to Talk to Somebody, God and Who Am I, God?. Two from Galilee is subtitled significantly, “A Love Story of Mary and Joseph.” Since the film Love Story really took off: what about a love story starring the Mother and the Stepfather of Our Lord? A super idea. And Marjorie has written it. We open with the thirteen-year-old Mary menstruating (“a bloody hand had smitten her in the night”). ” ‘I am almost fourteen, Father,’ she said, ‘and I have become nubile this day.’ ” She is “mad for” Joseph, a carpenter’s son; he is mad for her.

Shrewdly Marjorie has taken two young Americans of the lower middle class and placed them in old Galilee. I recognize some of the descriptions as being from the last version of Ben Hur to which I made a considerable contribution. “The couches covered with a silken stuff threaded with gold. The glow from a hanging alabaster lamp….” Luckily, I was on the set at the beginning of the shooting and so was able to persuade the art director to remove tomatoes from Mrs. Ben Hur Senior’s kitchen. Otherwise Marjorie might have had Hannah prepare a tomato sandwich for her daughter Mary.

Since Miss Holmes is not an experienced writer, it is difficult to know what, if anything, she had in mind when she decided to tell the Age-Old Story with nothing new to add. True there are some domestic crises and folksy wrinkles like Joseph’s father being a drunk. Incidentally, Joseph and Mary are known by their English names while the other characters keep their Hebrew names. Mary’s mother Hannah is fun: a Jewish mother as observed by a gentile housewife in McLean, Virginia, who has seen some recent movies on the subject and heard all the jokes on television.

Hannah worries for her daughter. Will Joseph get into Mary before the wedding? “Hannah had no idea what it was like to be a man—this waiting. No woman could comprehend physical passion.” Helen Gurley Brown and Germaine Greer will no doubt set Miss Holmes straight on that sexist point. But perhaps the author is reflecting her audience (Who are they, by the way? Where are they? Baptists in Oklahoma? Catholics in Duluth suburbs?) when she writes that Hannah “did not have the faintest concept of the demon-god that entered a youth’s loins at puberty and gave him no peace thereafter.” Yes, I checked the last noun for spelling. Joseph, incidentally, is such a stud that when Mary is with him “the thing that was between them chimed and quivered and lent discomfort to all.”

Suddenly between that chiming, quivering thing and Mary falls the shadow of the Holy Ghost. “Mary’s flesh sang,” as she experienced “the singing silence of God.” Miss Holmes rises to lyricism. “The Holy Spirit came upon her, invaded her body, and her bowels stirred and her loins melted.” Obviously entry was not made through the ear as those Renaissance painters who lacked Miss Holmes’s powerful realism believed. Mary soon starts wondering why “the blood pumps so painfully in my breast and my bowels run so thin?” She finds out in due course. Joseph has a hard time believing her story until the Holy Spirit tells him to get it together and accept his peculiar role as the antlered saint of a new cult.

At census time the young marrieds set out for Bethlehem where the local Holiday Inn is full up or, as a passer-by says, ” ‘The inn? You’ll be lucky to find a corner for the ass at the inn.’ ” As these quotations demonstrate, Miss Holmes’s style is beyond cliché. But when it comes to scene-making, she is sometimes betrayed by the familiarity of her subject matter. If the Story is to be told truly there must be a birth scene, and so she is obliged to write, ” ‘Some hot water if you can get it,’ ” adding, ” ‘Go no further even to fetch a midwife.’ ” To which a helpful stranger replies, ” ‘I’ll send one of them for one.’ ” Reminding us of the Joan Crawford interview some decades ago when the star asked with quiet majesty, “Whom is fooling whom?” Finally, “Each night the great star stood over the stable’s entrance. Joseph had never seen such a star, flaming now purple, now white….”

I am told that religioso fiction has a wide audience around the country, and though these books rarely appear on bestseller lists in sinks of corruption like New York City their over-all sales in the country remind us that the enormous audience which flocked to see Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments is still waiting to have its simple faith renewed and stimulated with, as the sage at the Writers’ Table would say, teats and sand.

Number Nine, The Eiger Sanction, by Trevanian (just one name) is light years distant from Two from Galilee. For one thing it is sometimes well written though hardly, as the blurb tells us, “vintage Huxley.” Actually The Eiger Sanction is an Ian Fleming by-blow and of its too numerous kind pretty good. Fleming once remarked that he wrote his books for warm-blooded heterosexuals. I suspect that Mr. Trevanian (Ms. Trevanian?) is writing for tepid-blooded bisexuals—that is to say, a majority of those who prefer reading kinky thrillers to watching that television set before whose busy screen 90 percent of all Americans spend a third of their waking hours.

Mr. Trevanian’s James Bond is called Dr. Jonathan Hemlock. A professor of art, he “moonlights” as a paid assassin for the Search and Sanction Division of CII, an aspect (presumably invented) of the CIA. Dr. Hemlock is engaged to kill those who kill CII agents. With the proceeds from these murders, he buys paintings to hang in the renovated church where he lives on Long Island. He drinks Pichon-Longueville-Baron, worships his “beloved Impressionists” (his taste in pictures is duller than the author suspects), and as for sex, well, he’s a tough cookie and finds it temporarily satisfying, “like urination” or “a termination of discomfort, not an achievement of pleasure.” This drives women mad.

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