Zinsser on Friday

The Writer Who Stayed

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By William Zinsser


Two weeks ago, in “The Perils of Pauline Kael,” I wrote about my stint as movie critic for the New York Herald Tribune in the 1960s, reviewing films that were largely a product of the Hollywood studio system. That column got me thinking further about those often-derided movies.

Many of the founding moguls in Hollywood’s golden age were immigrants or the children of immigrants, uncertain of their cultural footing in the new world. To give their movies a touch of class they often hired well-known writers and playwrights from the Eastern literary establishment—near celebrities like Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner—to write or rewrite a screenplay.

The sums they offered were unimaginably large to the writers and playwrights, and they flocked to Los Angeles to grab the riches of Tinseltown. The moguls were ill rewarded for their largesse. When the scribes completed their assignment they toted their swag back home and thereafter seldom lost an opportunity to trash the studio chiefs for their philistine values and boorish ways.

One New York author transcended that churlish state of mind. Daniel Fuchs was a writer who had published three critically acclaimed novels while he was still in his 20s and had also sold stories to The New Yorker. But the novels didn’t sell, and in 1937 Fuchs accepted a screenwriting job at RKO Pictures and stayed for 34 years. He found himself unexpectedly caught up in a community of dedicated craftsmen not unlike himself. Embracing that world, his novelist’s eye and ear fine-tuned to the outsized dreams and vanities of its inhabitants, he would write one of the best of all books about the movie industry: The Golden West: Hollywood Stories.

“You get absorbed in the picture-making itself,” Fuchs wrote. “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 … was the intensity with which they worked. … They were artists [and] photographers, set designers, editors and others whose names you see on the credits. 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, not mar it.”

The Golden West was not conceived as a book. It was posthumously compiled from fictional stories—all recognizably true—that Fuchs wrote about his movie-writing years and was published in 2005 with an admiring introduction by John Updike. In his preface Updike can hardly contain himself from quoting passages by Fuchs that have an Updikean elegance of their own. I felt that I was watching two thoroughbred horses on the final leg of a racetrack, each straining to outrun the other, every muscle fully stretched.

Fuchs [Updike writes] sees no shame in shaping a product for a mass audience; rather, he sees wizardry and a special kind of truth. “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.” … [Fuchs] 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.”

During my stint as a movie critic, Hollywood was an assembly line. All the studios kept under contract a platoon of stars and producers and directors who had to be employed 12 months a year to amortize their salaries. Inevitably, many of the 500-odd movies I reviewed were not very good, and some were terrible. But even the worst of them had been painstakingly manufactured. When I once toured the major studios I marveled as a small army of artisans and technicians fussed with infinite patience to assemble a jigsaw puzzle that would be correct in every last period detail. The most fatuous Virginia Mayo pirate movie got the same finicky attention that would have been given to Gone With the Wind. Today, when I think of Daniel Fuchs’s book, I think of those men and women fondly.

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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