January 16, 2018

Faulkner in Hollywood

On this day in 1932 William Faulkner reluctantly arrived in Hollywood to begin work as a screenwriter, a labor that would last, on and off, for twenty years. Faulkner was thirty-four years old at the time, and had already published four of his Yoknapatawpha County novels (including The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying). Though far from a popular success, he was regarded by his peers as one of America's most talented young writers. He had lived most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, had recently married and recently bought Rowan Oak, his faded antebellum mansion. He was not a social man, nor a team worker. These arguments against the MGM offer of a six-week contract at $500 a week were overmatched by a bank account so overdrawn that the clerk in the local sporting-goods store had just refused to honor Faulkner's three dollar check. "That signature will be worth more than three dollars," said Faulkner; "Don't let that Faulkner boy charge anything," said the owner to his staff later.

As told by biographer Joseph Blotner, Faulkner's first days in Hollywood were portentous. He arrived on a Saturday, not long before quitting time. His boss, Sam Marx, noticed that he had been drinking, and that he had a bleeding cut on his head. Faulkner said he had been hit by a cab while changing trains -- in New Orleans -- but that he was fine and wanted to get right to work:
    "We're going to put you on a Wallace Beery picture," Marx told him.
    "Who's he?" asked Faulkner. "I've got an idea for Mickey Mouse."
After explaining that Mickey Mouse films were made at Disney Studios, Marx had his office boy take Faulkner to the screening room to see Beery as a prizefighter in The Champ, as the new film, Flesh, was to feature Beery as a wrestler. Faulkner did not want to watch, preferring to talk to the office boy:
    "Do you own a dog?" he asked the boy, who said no. Faulkner said, "Every boy should have a dog." He should be ashamed not to own a dog, and so should everybody else who didn't own a dog.
Faulkner soon walked out, saying that he knew how the story was going to end. When alerted, Marx initiated a search, but Faulkner had disappeared. When he showed up again, nine days later, he explained that he had been wandering in Death Valley, but that now he really was ready to work.

By autumn, Faulkner was back home – correcting galley proofs of Light in August, "eating watermelon on the back porch and watching it rain." He wondered if a squabble over his contract would have M.G.M. "coming down here and taking a tithe of my pigs and chickens and cotton," but he seemed happy with his precautions: "I made enough jack in Hollywood to do a lot of repairs on the house, so all the floors will be out of it next month, and we will be living with kinfolks."

Faulkner's screenplay credits include adaptations of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Many aspects of his own life in Hollywood are incorporated into the 1991 movie, Barton Fink.

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