13 July 2011

Raymond Chandler in Hollywood

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:12 am


Raymond Chandler went to Hollywood in the 1940s and wasn’t too impressed by the studio system, the way it treated screenwriters or the films they produced together:

An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon. An art which is capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived, all but the very best novels verbose and imitative, should not so quickly become wearisome to those who attempt to practice it with something else in mind than the cash drawer. The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.

It’s a terrific angry read and fantastic that a piece written for The Atlantic in 1945 is again available in full on the Internet. It gives us a great chance to see how things were back then—expressed in full throat by one of the writers most important to film as well as literature—and think about what’s changed. Certainly it’s still true that a screenwriter can’t expect to maintain much purity of vision through the long and collaborative process of getting a story to screen; though film is now at least seen as a director’s medium rather than a producer’s medium, whatever the financial reality might be. And it’s still almost always true that:

On the billboards, in the newspaper advertisements, [the writer’s] name will be smaller than that of the most insignificant bit-player who achieves what is known as billing; it will be the first to disappear as the size of the ad is cut down toward the middle of the week; it will be the last and least to be mentioned in any word-of-mouth or radio promotion.

…though there have been a handful of reasonably famous screenwriters and television writers since 1945. It’s still true that many movies are being made from terrible screenplays and terrible stories—even though one of the main things Chandler blames for this state of affairs has changed almost completely:

If there is no art of the screenplay, the reason is at least partly that there exists no available body of technical theory and practice by which it can be learned. There is no available library of screenplay literature, because the screenplays belong to the studios, and they will only show them within their guarded walls. There is no body of critical opinion, because there are no critics of the screenplay; there are only critics of motion pictures as entertainment, and most of these critics know nothing whatever of the means whereby the motion picture is created and put on celluloid. There is no teaching, because there is no one to teach.

Well, now there’s plenty of technical theory and practice, there are plenty of teachers, and thanks again to the Internet you can get various drafts of just about any movie you like. Has it made us better screenwriters? I’m sure it has. Has it led to better films? That’s a bit trickier. Everything I’ve learned about writing suggests that there are few if any shortcuts, even with all the best tools and techniques you need a lot of time to rework and refine, and that kind of support is hard to find.

The Falcon Takes Over was the second sequel to RKO’s 1941 B-movie The Gay Falcon, and was the first adaptation of Chandler’s work: in this case Farewell, My Lovely, the second Philip Marlowe novel, replacing Marlowe with the titular Gay Falcon. This kind of thing still happens all the time, of course, most recently when Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides was shoehorned into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, earlier when Walter Wager’s 58 Minutes became Die Hard 2, and probably a lot of others. Luckily Farewell, My Lovely was adapted twice more with Marlowe restored to the lead, and Chandler’s series became its own film phenomenon after Bogie in The Big Sleep. I don’t know whether anybody else’s novels ever became screen Marlowes—that would have been poetically just, though no doubt appalling.