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Book Review--Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s by Philippe Garnier

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

A most welcome surprise in this bitter year, Scoundrels & Spitballers is an outpouring of wit and rancor about writers and their often-misguided attraction to the movies. In a series of profiles of under-appreciated screenwriters of the 1930s, the jaded “schmucks with Underwoods” that cranked out B-movie scripts by the pound, the book presents a vision of Hollywood as a corrupt, chaotic, wholly unfair rat race with a glut of talent and a willful determination to fence it in. As we all stay cooped up in our own homes (and minds), it has never been a better time to alternately admire the small triumphs and snicker at the mighty failures of those who earn their keep through spinning a thread. Reigning in this vast swath of content is Philippe Garnier. Before becoming a film critic and translator, he spent his formative years as an authority on rock music (in the late 70s, he even released a couple 7” records by Roky Erickson and Boston power pop group The Real Kids on his Sponge Records label) and later wrote the definitive biography on the extremely hardboiled David Goodis. At the risk of invoking the cliché of the French having a superior grasp on the American id, just let it be known that Garnier’s nose is fine-tuned to the delightfully rotten pheromones of our popular culture. The book flows by quicker than a rainy afternoon spent in a dive bar with a buzzed film fan—the type of cinephile that can passionately defend the films of Alfred E. Green or whose eyes widen in excitement at the mere mention of Rowland Brown. A mordant, opinionated voice shines through this material that in most other hands would have read like dry Wikipedia entries. Like the best film conversations, the scope of Garnier’s work widens and meanders in unexpected directions. Keep a note pad handy for all the books and films you will be tracking down.

Some of the names covered are better known for their novels (Nathanael West, Horace McCoy), some found their most lasting impact writing for the movies (W.R. Burnett, A.I. Bezzerides), while a great many of the names would only be recognized by the most ardent film fan (Marguerite Roberts, John Bright, Kubec Glasmon). The aforementioned Rowland Brown would certainly fall into this last category. His name has been imprinted on my mind ever since seeing his magnum opus Blood Money, one of only a handful of movies he wrote and directed, in a gorgeous 35mm print at Cinevent 39 in 2007. Seeing his name as part of the advertising blurb made me pounce on this book and I was not disappointed. The chapter on Brown contains that rarest of things in film writing these days: actual primary source, shoe-leather journalism. In this case, Garnier conducted an extensive interview with Rowland’s younger brother Sam (as well as Sam’s daughter, Moya) in the 1980s and uncovered stories of a barely literate prototypical alpha male from Ohio with an uncanny ability to spin a yarn. Bolstered by the somewhat dubious story of decking Jack Dempsey in the boxing ring, Brown finagled his way into a strange and short career with rumors of ties to the underworld, assorted bouts of violence, and—the thing that allegedly got him booted from Hollywood—an anti-Semitic streak. Sam Brown is a colorful narrator in this chapter (“It is true that he punched a guy once who was Jewish, but in Hollywood the odds are pretty high…”) and, besides secretly writing much work credited to his brother, has his fair share of juicy personal stories from working grunt jobs for the likes of Tom Mix and F.W. Murnau.

While the chapters on the screenwriters are stellar and reason enough to seek this book out, the most surprising facet are the profiles of men of letters whose names hardly, if ever, graced a movie’s credits but left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Bookseller Stanley Rose is given a thorough profile, his shop occupying a central part of life among bibliophiles in a undoubtedly film-centric town. Welford Beaton and his periodical Film Spectator is recognized for a pioneering (and strictly chaste!) criticism that garnered the respect of the industry. The section on Whit Burnett and Martha Foley’s hugely influential STORY magazine (“Devoted Solely to the Short Story”) has little to do with Hollywood but is salient in establishing the milieu of 1930s writers in America. Garnier does not take a direct route in this journey and to relay all the stops along the way would spoil the fun.

This 370-page amply illustrated trade paperback is crammed with information--so much so that an index may have been beneficial (which chapter had the digression about Edward L. Cahn?) but the chapters are short enough that most information can be easily found. The publisher is Black Pool Productions, owned by Film Noir magnate Eddie Muller, whose late 90s book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir led so many of us into a an obsessive whirlpool of VHS tape trading and odd-hour Turner Classic Movies recording—anything for that pure, uncut Charles McGraw or Audrey Totter fix. Like Dark City, I expect to put some wear and tear on Scoundrels & Spitballers over the ensuing decades. For now, it will occupy shelf space along the first couple volumes of Patrick McGilligan’s Backstory, Some Time in the Sun by Tom Dardis, and Talking Pictures by Richard Corliss—essential books in understanding the scribes of cinema.

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