Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s (2020) Philippe Garnier
(originally published as Honni soit qui Malibu: quelques écrivains à Hollywood in 1996)
Black Pool Productions
Book and cover design by Michael Kronenberg
Paperback, 370 pages
Includes Foreword (Eddie Muller), Introduction (Philippe Garnier), Chronologies, Acknowledgements, Notes (blank), photos
When you’re “present at the creation” of just about any new thing, you often forget the small events and players as larger events and prime movers become the talking points and touchstones of history. It’s certainly true in Hollywood history and nowhere more so than with Hollywood screenwriters. Philippe Garnier tells us right up front in his introduction, this book
peers into little-seen corners, rather than staring squarely at its subject, a book more concerned with colorful second fiddles than with the tenors. So - no Ben Hecht, no Charles MacArthur, no Dudley Nichols, No Anita Loos or Dorothy Parker. James M. Cain only cooks ducks here, William Faulkner figures only insofar as he drank, one dry weekend, all the hair tonic in Buzz Bezzerides’ wife’s bathroom.
In the 1930s, the movie industry was still young and inexperienced, learning as they went how to produce profitable motion pictures for audiences. It was a time when a writer (a designation which could be loosely interpreted here) could walk into the office of a Zanuck or Goldwyn, begin a tale complete with character voices, descriptions, and sound effects, a real roller coaster ride of a story the narrator could spin long enough to get a check from a studio executive. With the money in their pockets on the way to a bar or racetrack, these writers would usually forget everything they’d just divulged. This was called “spitballing.”
Some of these writers came from vaudeville, some were gamblers, some con artists, and some bonafide criminals. And for many years, they provided the stories movie audiences wanted to see. Case in point: Wilson Mizner, the youngest son of a well-to-do San Francisco family, searched for gold in the Klondike, became a professional gambler, sold art forgeries, and fleeced rich widows, all before contributing to scripts such as 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), The Mind Reader (1933), and The Little Giant (1933).
Garnier introduces readers to many such writers, people not necessarily of questionable skills, but of questionable dealings. Two of the book’s most colorful characters - both of whom served time in California penal systems - are Ernest Booth and Robert Tasker.
Booth began his criminal career at 14 with a break-in, leading to grand theft auto at 18, and knocking over a bank on his wedding day (spending his honeymoon alone in Folsom). It just so happened that writer John Fante knew Folsom’s doctor and wrote to the then editor of The American Century, H. L. Mencken, telling him of Booth’s outrageously ridiculous criminal exploits. Booth began writing treatments for various studios before writing the screenplay for Men of San Quentin (1942) and contributing to others. But according to the New York Mirror, upon one of his arrests, “Booth always had difficulty deciding whether to write about crime or go out and commit one. He tried both, and both occupations paid him well.”
In and out of prisons, Robert Tasker’s writing also impressed Mencken (Did Mencken have a thing for convicts?), who secured a job for Tasker at Photoplay magazine, but he wasn’t there for long. Tasker was soon hired as a technical advisor on The Big House (1930) before providing story material for films (San Quentin, 1937) and writing screenplays (Doctor X, 1932; The Accusing Finger, 1936). One could make a legitimate case for Tasker’s providing the framework for all prison pictures.
Yet this just scratches the surface, not only of Booth and Tasker, but many other writers featured in the book, names such as Marguerite Roberts, John Bright, Rowland Brown, Niven Busch, A. I. Bezzerides, Horace McCoy, W. R. Burnett, and others. Lest we revel in only their shenanigans, remember that these people were also talented. Their life experience - for good or bad - led to some terrific material that found its way to the screen.
Garnier conducted many of his interviews for the book over thirty years ago when the families and friends of these writers were still alive. The vibrancy of their stories leap off the page from a time when Hollywood was trying to figure out how to make it through the Depression with a new sound medium that was still learning how to crawl before it could run. The book also provides a short but essential history of Hollywood bookstores, where stars, producers, scriptwriters, and other industry people gathered, networked, and sometimes engaged in shenanigans. (Only one such bookstore still survives, Larry Edmunds Bookshop. You should support it!)
No one who loves movies will want to be without Scoundrels & Spitballers. It is essential Hollywood history as well as a page-turning good time. You won’t find the book on Amazon, but you can order it from Black Pool Productions. But don’t wait around: Black Pool’s previous publication, Goodis: A Life in Black and White recently sold out and is out of print.
This review is part of the 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!