Monday, July 25, 2005

Book: The Golden West: Hollywood Stories, by Daniel Fuchs (2005)

Novelist Daniel Fuchs went west in 1937 to become a screenwriter, and a damn good one. He worked on Elia Kazan’s PANIC IN THE STREETS and won an Academy Award for 1955’s LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, a musical bio of mobbed-up singer Ruth Etting. He not only wrote the legendary noir CRISS CROSS but received script credit on the remake that came almost half a century later, THE UNDERNEATH.

Thanks to TCM, I recently caught one of his first efforts, 1942’s THE HARD WAY. It’s an engrossing backstage melodrama with Ida Lupino stopping at nothing to turn her sister into a star. The film makes great use of the comedy team of Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. Carson puts his antic mannerisms in service of a dramatic performance, while Morgan is a revelation as a cynical showbiz sharpie. They truly don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Fuchs continued writing short fiction as well as occasional columns for Commentary about life in the movie business. Now those pieces have been collected in a book that’s a bracing take on the writer’s lot in Hollywood.

His stories show uncommon sympathy for stars (Fuchs knew his share) and for their behavior, motivated by the fact that “they didn’t know what they had ... or whether in fact they had anything at all.” In ‘Triplicate,’ he offers screenwriting advice that ranks with William Goldman’s: “Never write about people who can’t fiddle with their destinies.”

But it’s Fuchs’ non-fiction that makes the book essential. He tells of his encounters with William Faulkner, Frederick Faust (Max Brand), Harry Cohn and Samuel Goldwyn. He’s forthright about the question of money and addresses “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 that wind up on the shelf.”

In a somewhat despairing introduction, John Updike wonders why a writer as gifted as Fuchs would abandon fiction for the movies. In one way or another, every piece in THE GOLDEN WEST is about that conundrum. Fuchs himself admits that his novels, which Updike greatly admires, didn’t sell until they were reprinted decades later, resulting in what he calls “a respectable following somewhere in the country.” In the meantime, the films he wrote afforded him a comfortable life and continue to find audiences even now.

Fuchs has a character in one of his short stories make the radical suggestion that perhaps that outcome is enough: “The whole idea is not to make great pictures but to enjoy life in the sun.” I’ve heard worse philosophies.

Miscellaneous: Link

Critic David Thomson recounts the fascinating tale of how he transformed an aborted collaboration between Marlon Brando and PERFORMANCE director Donald Cammell into a novel. Via Greencine Daily.