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Ian Hamilton. Writers in Hollywood 1915-1951. New York: Harper, 1990. 326 pp. $25.00.

Ian Hamilton devotes three pages to determine who put a drunken Dashiell Hammett on a plane back to New York and Lillian Hellman. Was it writer Charlie Brackett or the writing team of Albert Hackett and his wife Frances Goodrich? Maurice Zolotow, author of Billy Wilder in Hollywood, credits Brackett, Hamilton—scrupulous about identifying his many sources—informs us; but Diane Johnson, Hammett's biographer, gives the nod to the Hacketts, Hamilton states. According to another Hammett biographer, Richard Layman, Brackett together with his alcoholic wife played the good Samaritans. There is even some question as [End Page 259] to the year—1937 or 1938. Does anyone care? "In the end," concludes Hamilton, after adding the name of writer Leigh Brackett for more confusion, "it is a Hammett story . . . , not about the likes of Hackett and Brackett." Hamilton does not employ the anecdote as an introduction to an examination of the famed mystery writer's film career. Instead, the story leads into four-and-a-half pages on Raymond Chandler's unhappy Hollywood days. Hamilton's point seems to be that Hollywood writers were frequently pissed—hardly an earth-shattering revelation.

Hamilton's entire book, as unfocused as his telling of the Brackett-Hackett-Hammett affair, is a hit-or-miss study that may disappoint all its readers. Movie buffs in search of gossip have heard the stories before, and students of American literature will learn nothing new about Fitzgerald and Faulkner in Hollywood. Hamilton admits that the film career of the former has already been well documented, that for three decades "scholars have been poring over" his adaptation of Remarque's Three Comrades, the only film for which Fitzgerald actually received credit. But literary historians have finally been defeated for the very reason Hamilton offers: scripts go through countless revisions at the hands of so many writers that attribution for a particular scene or line is a matter of guesswork. Writers in Hollywood is less an analysis of the screenwriter's craft than an account of writers' problems with powerful producers.

The successful film writer like Ben Hecht, who plays a prominent role in the early part of the book, was not overly concerned about credits. Hecht, who had an uncredited hand in Gone With the Wind, gave value for the enormous salary he commanded. He understood that movies were a collaborative affair and did not overestimate his contribution to the finished product. Part of his success was his acceptance of a cold fact that many other writers could not cope with: in film-making, the image takes precedence over the word. This too presents the historian with a problem. The coin-flipping that defines the George Raft character in Scarface may have been Hecht's invention, but other candidates are director Howard Hawks and the actor himself. As Hamilton states, "Once an argument about attribution begins, there is almost no point in pursuing it," but he adds, "it's the way Hawks employs the coin device that captures our attention."

Yet Hamilton does not analyze how Hawks employs it. Instead, he includes a lengthy quote from a more essential book than his own, Gerald Mast's Howard Hawks, Storyteller. Mast's analysis is incisive, one of the many extensive, enlightening quotes liberally sprinkled throughout the book that suggest that the reader is spending time with the wrong work. One might profit more from a perusal of the Fitzgerald Letters and Hecht's Child of the Century, among the numerous works that touch on Hollywood writers, than a careful reading of Hamilton's book, which finally is culled from better, more informative works.

Hamilton reveals himself to be an assured, intelligent critic when—too infrequently—he gives his own appraisal of a particular film. He does not make the mistake of those who indiscriminately praise every film by writer-director Preston Sturges, recently elevated to the pantheon of the greats. Of Unfaithfully Yours he writes, "Nowadays the film is hard to watch. . . . [It] trudges, then leaps about, then tries to stroll, but the governing rhythms are all wrong." AMCs...


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