Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s - 10/21

October 6, 2020
Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers And Hollywood In The 1930S - 10/21

Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s provided an often-temporary home to some of the best young American writers that found a fertile playground in the land of sunshine and within the creative possibilities created by a relatively new medium: the movies.

Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation and host of TCM's Noir Alley, introduces a quartet of films inspired by Philippe Garnier's Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s. The book was edited and published this year by Muller, who also wrote the foreword.

Garnier, a veteran French journalist who lives in Los Angeles, has contributed to the daily newspaper Libération for 30 years and also to the TV series Cinéma Cinémas as well as magazines like Vogue and Gentlemen's Quarterly (GQ). He has published seven books in France including Honni Soit Qui Malibu (1996), the original French version of Scoundrels & Spitballers, and Caractères (2006), about classic Hollywood character actors.

Novelist/critic Thomas Burchfield describes Garnier's book as "a fantastically entertaining, 370-page impressionist parade of those wild characters and eccentric toilers known as screenwriters - the men and women whom Warner Brother Jack once sneered at as 'schmucks with Underwoods' as they gave shape to some of Hollywood's most Golden Moments."

Shown below are the films in this TCM tribute. The first three on our list were made during the pre-Code era, when screenwriters were allowed an uninhibited freedom that made their work even more exhilarating. The fourth selection is from the 1940s, when Production Code restrictions were firmly in place, but inventive writers of the day found ways of getting around them.

The Beast of the City (1932) is an MGM crime film that was created when President Herbert Hoover persuaded studio head Louis B. Mayer to make a movie stressing the need for greater respect for law-enforcement officers. For the screenplay, Mayer turned to W.R. Burnett, who is featured in Scoundrels & Spitballers; John Lee Mahin; and an uncredited Ben Hecht.

The film stars Walter Huston, Jean Hersholt and a young Jean Harlow, with Mickey Rooney in his MGM debut as Huston's son. Charles Brabin directed. Mayer got rather more than he bargained for in a screenplay that is shockingly violent - especially in a final shootout that predates such films as Dirty Harry (1971). W.R. Burnett (1899-1982) was a prolific novelist whose protagonists often came from a twilight world inhabited by gangsters, hustlers and hobos. He is best remembered for his 1929 novel Little Caesar, which became a celebrated 1930 film starring Edward G. Robinson. Burnett worked on a long line of classic screenplays ranging from Scarface (1932) and High Sierra (1941) to The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Great Escape (1963).

One Way Passage (1932) is a Warner Bros. romance featuring William Powell and Kay Francis as star-crossed lovers on an ocean liner - each unaware that the other is facing death. Direction is by Tay Garnett. Robert Lord won an Oscar for his original story, which is filled out in a screenplay by Wilson Mizner and Joseph Jackson.

Mizner, who is featured in Garnier's book, is credited by critic Ken Hanke with providing the film's "comedy content involving unscrupulous but lovable con artists," noting that it "has all the earmarks of being the work of noted cynic and part-time con artist Mizner."

Hard to Handle (1933) is another Warner Bros. film that involves a con artist (James Cagney this time) and was written by Mizner and Robert Lord. The original story is by Houston Branch and the direction by Mervyn LeRoy. In this one, Cagney plays the organizer of a Depression-era dance marathon.

In addition to working on some 20 screenplays, Mizner (1876-1933) was a playwright and an entrepreneur who managed and co-owned the famous restaurant the Brown Derby. Along with his enterprising brother Addison Mizner, he is the subject of the Stephen Sondheim musical Road Show.

They Live by Night (1948) is a film noir from RKO about a "Bonnie and Clyde"-type couple who share a tempestuous romance while on the run as bank robbers. The screenplay, by Charles Schnee and director Nicholas Ray, is based on the 1937 novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson. The movie marked the directorial debut of Ray, who later made such films as Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Schnee (1916-1963) worked as a screenwriter from the mid-1940s until shortly before his death, with time out in the mid-1950s to serve as a producer at MGM. Among his notable screenplays were those for Red River (1948), The Furies (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), for which he won an Academy Award.

Featured Films

Hard to Handle (1933)
The Beast of the City (1932)
They Live by Night (1948)
One Way Passage (1932)