- Joyce in Hollywood in the 1930s: A Biographical Essay
Sometime in 1932, Warner Brothers wanted to translate James Joyce’s epic Ulysses onto the silver screen. That fact is known, if not well known, by Joyceans. Paul Léon, Joyce, Giorgio Joyce, and Ralph Pinker, Joyce’s agent in London, discussed the matter in a few published letters. Léon told Pinker that “Mr. Joyce has been approached by Warner Bros. in view of obtaining his consent to the filming of Ulysses” (LettersIII 262). Léon “went to see the . . . manager of their Paris Office,” who was “very eager to have the film done as quickly as possible” (LettersIII 262). Joyce told Léon “to give a dilatory answer” (LettersIII 263). Though Bennett Cerf, Joyce’s American publisher, thought a film would be great publicity, Léon insisted that publicity was hardly a consideration for Joyce, who took what Léon called “the literary” rather than the “material point of view” (LettersIII 263). It was not entirely clear that Joyce owned the film rights to his own novel, but should they belong to him, Léon explained unequivocally to Pinker on 26 October 1932, “he would absolutely refuse” to allow a film to be made (LettersIII 263). A few days later, Léon equivocated: if Joyce owned the American film rights, then Léon would authorize “negotiations[,] and if they run satisfactorily,” he wrote, “I can promise you that I will do my very best to prevail upon Mr Joyce to alter his present attitude” (LettersI 326).
Such is the general impression left to us, and Richard Ellmann confirms what Léon implied: Joyce “discountenanced the idea” of making a film “on the ground that the book could not be made into a film with artistic propriety” (JJII 654). At best, he “allowed” Léon to let the matter percolate and “did not discourage” Stuart Gilbert from writing scenarios (JJII 654). More recently, critics have taken Joyce’s interest in film more seriously, persuading us that Joyce thought film was a sister to the new kind of literature he was inventing.1 Critics today take it for granted that film techniques and Joyce’s techniques in Ulysses are connected, and most will admit the resemblance between Joyce’s method of narration and the montage of Sergei Eisenstein.
I am interested here not in questions of narrative methodology but in the less subtle issue of biography. In particular, I want to dispute [End Page 521] the general impression left by Léon and Ellmann that Joyce scorned the kind of bowdlerizing required by the film industry and the easy profits to be made from Hollywood; that in his brief romance with the film industry, Joyce selflessly declined to submit art to the vulgarity of commerce; and that others tried to film Ulysses with, at best, Joyce’s sufferance.
In other words, Joyce only pretended to be heroic. Really, he was eager to get Ulysses on the silver screen, a fact that the Paul Léon Collection at the National Library of Ireland reveals. When the Warner Brothers scheme fell through, Joyce began a long collaboration with the New York poet Louis Zukofsky to film the novel independently; unpublished letters about this attempt are also at the National Library and the University of Texas at Austin.2 This collaboration went so far as to produce a screenplay, a copy of which is today housed at Texas. Few critics in the last twenty-five years have read this script, and no one I am aware of has written about it since Joseph Slate published a long, informative article about it in 1982 in a fairly obscure journal.3 Altogether, this comprehensive, unpublished cache of material chronicles Joyce’s five-year struggle to get Ulysses into theaters. The Joyce that emerges in these materials is less brave than he is human and more comic than heroic. He is a salesman conniving to manipulate his reputation to his best advantage. The episode is important to Joyce’s biography because it clearly shows just how carefully he stitched his public persona—and how different that costume was from his plain clothes.4