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  • Sold to HollywoodTennessee Williams & “The Gentleman Caller”
  • Kristine Somerville and Speer Morgan

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Tennessee Williams, 1940, Don Grossi, New York City,

© Don Grossi/AP/Corbis

[End Page 119]

“Make voyages!—Attempt them!—there’s nothing else.”

—Camino Real

In his private office, with the California sun streaming in between slits in the blinds, Tennessee Williams sat behind his spacious desk and slick new typewriter and thought about the oddity of it all. A few days earlier, he had been in his hometown of St. Louis, where he was taking a break from his life as one of New York’s many starving artists. He’d been working a number of odd jobs—usher, waiter, busboy, elevator operator—anything that offered a few dollars and allowed him to work nights while he labored by day—as much as eight hours—at his writing. He was always in a jam about money. To feed himself and pay for a room at the YMCA, he had hocked or sold everything he owned, including his typewriter. Friends occasionally invited him to stay at their apartments, but he was a bad houseguest, failing to turn off ovens and stovetops, leaving his dishes unwashed, his threadbare dirty clothes in heaps and his rejected typed manuscript pages strewn on the floor. Invitations became more infrequent and his welcome more short-lived. At best he saw his future as a blank space and relied on the conviction that “this is a one-way street I have chosen, and I have to follow it through with all the confidence and courage that necessity gives you.” Other times he worried that he was a has-been that never had been. After all, he was thirty-two and still accepting $10 checks from his mother, Edwina. His agent, Audrey Wood, a chic, petite woman who thought him “highly promising,” floated personal loans he either forgot about or made no effort to repay.

But then a telegram arrived from Wood: “Come at once to New York. Have arranged writing deal.” Williams scratched in his journal: “Sold to Hollywood.” It was 1943. He had only one produced play to his credit: Battle of Angels, which had been a fiasco. But the war had decreased the ranks of employable writers while the popularity of film as escapism had surged. So within days he found himself at the Culver City Lot of MGM, taking his lunches at the commissary, where he was surrounded by movie stars and making a salary of $250 week. His mother couldn’t have been happier; though she disliked the movies, she was thrilled that her middle-aged son had a regular salary, which she encouraged him to save. He had signed a standard seven-year commitment with a [End Page 120] six-month option. If the studio heads found his work satisfactory, they would keep him. If not, they had a stable of writers to take up the slack.

Williams liked the money—he referred to his employer as “Metro Goldmine Mayer”—but he was less enthusiastic about his writing assignment, which was to rewrite a clichéd script intended for Lana Turner. He wrote to friends that he was fashioning for the movie star a “celluloid brassiere.” He knew without spending much time on the material that the best it would be, despite his efforts, was a B picture. Just looking at the pages gave him amnesia. He was discovering that he couldn’t write “to order.”

Throughout the ’30s and ’40s, Hollywood lured some of the country’s best writers, including William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder, Elmer Rice, Ben Hecht and Herman Mankiewicz. Williams wasn’t the first of them to trek to Hollywood and find himself demeaned by the work. He wrote that a screen treatment “passes through so many hands, minds, and tastes” that the concepts of single authorship and autonomy didn’t exist. At the MGM dream factory, half-a-dozen writers worked simultaneously on a single script or performed a “frontal lobotomy” on the work of their predecessors. According to Dorothy Parker, who made upward of $5,000 a week freelancing, screenwriters were treated like “schmucks...


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