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253

Hollywood—Illusion and Reality[*]

John Howard Lawson

Hollywood is consistently, relentlessly publicized; yet most of the people who know the motion picture industry as their means of livelihood and the focus of their lives will agree that the general public is uninformed, or blatantly misinformed, even by well-intentioned commentators, concerning the realities of motion picture production, the problems that face the craftsmen in the industry, and the community in which they live. I am not referring primarily to the expensive foolishness about the stars that fills the fan magazines—a comparatively unimportant by-product of the system of stereotypes and illusions which creates a false perspective concerning everything pertaining to the production of pictures.

Let us consider, as an example, an article by Raymond Chandler on "Writers in Hollywood" in the November Atlantic. Chandler has much that is pertinent, and indeed imperative, to say about the importance of the script as the key to the process of picture making, the failure to make effective use of writing talent, and the straitjacketing of creative freedom under the present studio system. But Chandler's useful comments on the underestimation of the writer are invalidated by his own underestimation of everything that concerns Hollywood. He begins by observing that "Hollywood is easy to hate, easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon." He notes the danger of exaggeration, citing a critic's casual reference to "run-of the-mill $3,000-a-week writers." He very properly stresses the fact that "50 per cent of the screen writers of Hollywood made less than $10,000 last year."

Having set himself the task of describing the real Hollywood, the author finds himself drawn irresistibly within the gates of the illusory Hollywood,


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the never-never-land of spendthrift zanies and comical incompetents. Having warned against the danger of economic exaggeration, he proceeds to walk into the trap: "There are writers in Hollywood making two thousand a week who never had an idea in their lives, who have never written a photographable scene, who could not make two cents a word in the pulp market if their lives depended on it." The actors are also easy to lampoon. Hollywood makes "historical epics in which the male actors look like female impersonators, and the lovely feminine star looks just a little too starry-eyed for a babe who has spent half her life swapping husbands." As for the producers, "Some are able and humane men and some are low-grade individuals with the morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine, and the manners of a floor-walker with delusions of grandeur."

It is not my purpose to argue about these characterizations. Every community has its quota of frivolous, ill-mannered and evil persons. The point I wish to make relates to the repetition of clichés; Chandler even uses the old one that "nearly every sleeve conceals a knife"; the repetition creates a cumulative distortion. Since screen writers are "a pretty dreary lot of hacks," and since they are content to live in an "atmosphere of intellectual squalor," it seems fatuous to suggest that they be granted greater artistic freedom. There is no indication that they would know how to use this freedom if they had it.

Writers may derive some comfort from the fact that they are becoming increasingly prominent in the strange hierarchy that is supposed to inhabit the Hollywood wonderland. Emil Ludwig describes the makers of screen plays in a recent issue of a French newspaper; the article is translated from the German, but it may be permissible to quote a passage as it appears in French, in order to preserve its Gallic flavor. The writers, according to the eminent historian, "ont la taille svelte, portent volontiers des chandails bariolés, changent de maîtresses plus souvent encore que de studios." Perhaps none of us in Hollywood have seen these "svelte" writers, wearing their gaudy sweaters and changing mistresses more frequently than they change studios, but we can welcome them without rancor as additions to the interminable gallery of fictitious Hollywood portraits.

The Hollywood stereotype, like other stereotypes, has not been manufactured accidentally. It is a significant social phenomenon. Those who perpetuate the myth may have diverse purposes and viewpoints. But the


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cliché retains its power, whether it appears as an unabashed harlequinade of the Once in a Lifetime sort, or under the guise of sober "scientific" investigation with appropriate statistical tables as in Leo Rosten's Hollywood, or in the subtleties of Christopher Isherwood's Prater Violet. The net result is the building of an ungainly Rube-Goldberg-cartoon edifice, which stands between the serious craftsmen who are the majority of the industry's workers and the audience they seek to serve. It is probable that most of the members of that audience—which covers the world—know nothing of the problems of the industry or of the social awareness and invigorating concern with the creative potentialities of the medium that are characteristic of the real Hollywood.

An analysis of the mythology that has grown up around the American picture industry would involve a difficult research job, but it is to be hoped that some scholar will undertake the task. It would be an invaluable contribution to our understanding of social attitudes toward the motion picture. It might also reveal the underlying forces and pressures that shape these attitudes. At a time when the freedom of the screen is under attack by powerful political and economic interests, it may not be amiss to note that mockery and illusion can cushion the attack and divert attention from the issues of public policy that are involved. As long as the average citizen thinks of Hollywood as a glamorous funny house, he cannot think of it as a place where a public trust is fulfilled, and where the most sacred of our traditional liberties—freedom of thought and freedom of communication —must be preserved.


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