Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Joseph McBride on Screenwriters Who Watched California Go Up in Smoke

Just spotted the major typo on this box lid

Film historian (and my former Roger Corman colleague) Joseph McBride has the credentials to take a broad view of Hollywood history. I’ve been slowly working my way through Joe’s Two Cheers for Hollywood. It’s a massive 2017 compilation of his many articles about the film industry. As someone who has written movies (like Corman’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School), worked on movie crews, and reported on movies for major publications, Joe combines an insider’s canny perspective with an intellectual’s smarts.

Right now, all of Southern California seems to be burning. And I’ve just finished the section of Joe’s book that’s dedicated to Hollywood screenwriters who know where the fires start.. I love the fact that writers are given the lead-off position in Two Cheers for Hollywood, because they tend to be the film industry’s most overlooked treasure. (Actors and directors have the glamour jobs, and seem to get most of the public’s attention.) And yet, as screenwriters are fond of reminding us, there can be no filmmaking without them.

Through his varied film industry career, Joe has come to know personally a number of Hollywood writers, including some from the vaunted Golden Age, when the studio system reigned supreme. And he’s done deep research into many others. So he’s the right man to pay tribute to the WGA’s finest, men (and the very occasional woman like Marguerite Roberts) whose words live on in classic films. His entries in this book include profiles of Robert Riskin, who helped Frank Capra perfect what’s been called “the Capra touch,” and Frank S. Nugent, whom he calls “the Quiet Man behind John Ford.” Some of McBride’s subjects lived happy, productive, and lucrative lives, but the bulk of them seemed well aware of the nightmare side of the American dream. Like, for instance, those who ran afoul of the infamous HUAC hearings that led to the blacklisting of some of Hollywood’s best and brightest writers. One of McBride’s own favorite articles, published in 2002 in the Writers Guild magazine, Written By, is called “’A Very Good American’: The Undaunted Artistry of Blacklisted Screenwriter Michael Wilson.” For failure to cooperate with the Committee by naming names of suspected Communists, Wilson was shut out of the industry for fourteen long years. During that span he continued to write, without screen credit, contributing to such major films as Friendly Persuasion (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Another blacklist victim, Abraham Polonsky, is honored by McBride with two selections. The first is a warm obituary tribute published in 1999 under the title, “Abraham Polonsky: A Very Dangerous Citizen.” The second is a discussion of a Polonsky film (he both wrote and directed) that McBride considers to be a masterpiece: 1969’s Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. This sensitively made action flick, based on a true historic incident from 1909, explores an aspect of early California life of which none of us should be proud. The central thread is the pursuit by Robert Redford, as a local sheriff trying to live up to his father’s legend, of Robert Blake, as a Paiute Indian whose romantic longings lead him into tragedy.

If Polonsky is cynical about the romance of California, so is McBride’s longtime friend Gavin Lambert, whose scripts—like 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover—reveal the nightmare side of California Dreamin’. Lambert, a dapper Englishman fascinated by SoCal and the film industry, published in 1959 a story collection called The Slide Area, suggesting Southern California as a place that is literally slipping away from its residents. Or, of course, going up in smoke.

RIP Robert Evans; In memory of this remarkable showman (in all senses), here's a link to my tribute to the kid who stayed in the picture.  


  1. My favorite Polonsky line about the blacklist is something he said to his wife: "Let's get out of this company town and go to New York where no one cares what you are. Everybody's guilty of something in New York."

  2. Howard, what a great line! Thanks for writing!