- Aldous Huxley and Film
Huxley never liked movies, neither the cultural phenomenon nor specific works. The development of "mechanized entertainment," mass-produced and mass-oriented, depressed him as a cardinal instance of twentieth-century man's [End Page 705] technological perversity: his use of scientific advances to thwart his moral growth. In 1929, combining Old Testament jeremiad with a modern parodist's ironic irreverence, Huxley branded "The Jazz Singer" an enemy to the silence necessary for serious thinking; bolstered by sound, such cinematography seemed infernally designed to promote vulgarity and decadence, twin attributes of the new mindlessness, son's "nauseatingly luscious . . . mam g" left him feeling "ashamed . . . for even being a member of the species to which such things are addressed" ("Silence is Golden," Do What You Will).
Consequently, one is surprised when Virginia Clark equates "the turning point" in Huxley's career with his arrival in Los Angeles. He went to work for MGM less than a decade after claiming "the talkies" had destroyed life's "immemorial decencies." The strange thesis that Huxley's stint in the dream factory was "time well spent"—that is, neither dishonest nor futile—is more of a diversion from reality than Huxley found Hollywood itself.
Unconvincing and poorly written, Clark's study is repeatedly done in by the facts she has reassembled from existing scholarship and then tried to give a positive twist. The "Background" chapter that opens the book ought to have been relegated to the cutting room floor. Clark confesses that Huxley took no notice of the Film Society of London (founded 1925) and presumably never saw any of the landmark silent films released coincidentially with his coming of age as a writer. The young Huxley, she writes, "went to the cinema only occasionally. An attack of blindness in 1910 at the age of sixteen had some influence on this." Less indisputable is her speculation that had Huxley seen Nosferatu, Potemkin, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, their quality "would probably have made an impression." Nowhere in the early fiction does a Huxley character have a kind word for film.
The pivotal second chapter on Huxley's "Films" reads like an unintentional parody of the credits. His "scenario entitled [sic] Success" ironically never sold, and things went downhill from there—the series of Huxley-connected projects between 1938-1957 that were either never financed, aborted, or mangled beyond recognition by lesser talents is too long to list here. Although he earned $15,000 in 1938 for eight weeks on Madame Curie, rewrites by at least four others turned the discovery of radium into a love story. Clark would like to believe that "Huxley had a large part in the literate dialogue" for Pride and Prejudice (1939), but so collaborative an endeavor precludes this assumption. Regrettably, Huxley's adaptation of Jane Eyre (1941) was altered for the worse by an overbearing Orson Welles who played the male lead and wanted the heroine's story subordinated to Rochester's. Huxley received $1,560 a week in 1947 and "his only solo screen credit" for a "competent" adaptation of "The Giocanda Smile." But being forced to change the title of one's own short story to A Woman's Vengeance in deference to viewers unfamiliar with Leonardo reveals an exceptional sensibility accommodating itself to a popular medium it distrusted.
The decision to group After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Ape and Essence in Chapter Three as "Hollywood Novels" might have succeeded if the 1939 Tait prizewinner had anything to do with film or if the explications offered for either were not so pedestrian. Clark argues for a symbiotic relationship between Huxley's film work and his later fiction, aiming to use both to examine a confrontation with California life that went on for a quarter of a century. Unfortunately, her notion of placing Huxley's films in a biographical/cultural context is to state where [End Page 706] he was living and what else he wrote while on a studio's payroll.
Enthusiasm for Huxley's decision to present Ape and Essence as a...