THE WRITERS : A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SCREENWRITERS AND THEIR GUILD
By Miranda J. Banks
Rutgers University Press. 328 pages. $34.95. ISBN 978-0-8135-7139-3
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Most writers in Hollywood were never really valued highly. “Schmucks with Underwoods,” was how Jack Warner described them, and he didn’t just mean the anonymous hacks who churned out the routine scripts for films made with limited budgets and actors hardly anyone recognised. Plenty of successful novelists and playwrights turned up in Hollywood, keen to take some of the money that the studios seemed to have in abundance, but they soon found their contracts terminated if they couldn’t produce what was wanted. There are numerous stories about how well-regarded authors – well-regarded in the literary world, that is – were just one of many once they set foot in the writers’ blocks at MGM, Warner Brothers, or any of the other big studios. Their work was just as likely to be re-written, or even scrapped, as that of any of the hundreds of others who tried to make a living in the studios. Screenwriting had its own rules and requirements.
When the Depression began to bite in the early-1930s many writers were at an even greater disadvantage. Pay cuts were brought in by the studios and writers, hardly organised at that time, were in no position to oppose them. There was a surfeit of writers in Hollywood and the competition for assignments was intense. Some of the more-successful writers were conservative by nature and didn’t like the idea of belonging to a union. Unions were fine for carpenters, electricians, and other tradesmen, but not for writers. They were also conscious of the fact that appearing to favour the formation of a union might affect their relationship with management.
Still, there were sufficient writers who did think that having a union would help them in terms of being able to negotiate favourable rates of pay and better working conditions. Questions relating to the status of writers in the film industry, and the way in which their work was acknowledged, were of importance. Writers needed credits (a proper display of their names on screen as contributors to the making of a film) if they were to secure further writing jobs. Miranda Banks says that, initially, the Screen Writers Guild (SWG), as the union was called, “did little to support writers’ grievances” regarding credits, which “usually went to the last writer brought in to do a rewrite.” Very few scripts were ever the product of a single writer and it wasn’t unusual for several to be employed at the same time, sometimes without even knowing that they were, in effect, part of a writing team. Perhaps F.Scott Fitzgerald had it right when he got to Hollywood and said, “This is no art. This is an industry.” His wonderful Pat Hobby stories about the misadventures of a broken-down hack writer catch much of the atmosphere around the studios in the 1930s.
The SWG got into its stride in 1933 when it drafted its first contract that it wanted the studios to agree to. John Howard Lawson had been elected as the SWG’s first president. He had been a successful playwright in New York and, as later events were to show, he was also a member of the American Communist Party. That was something his opponents in the SWG, and the studio bosses, would hold against him. They were determined to break the SWG, if they could, and couldn’t understand why writers wanted to belong to it. Irving Thalberg, a legendary producer, declared: “Those writers are living like kings. Why on earth would they want to join a union, like coal miners or plumbers?”
There were also right-wing screenwriters who, though belonging to the SWG, were of the opinion that it was veering too much to the left, especially when it was proposed that it amalgamate with the New York-based Authors League of America, an organisation that was viewed in some quarters as controlled by “Reds.” There was soon a split in the SWG and a breakaway union was formed with the name of the Screen Playwrights (SP). It attracted over one hundred former SWG members. Was it the genuine product of writers concerned about the militancy of the SWG, or was it, in effect, a company union and possibly the brainchild of Irving Thalberg? As Banks says, “Either way, the association’s allegiance was to management. The professional success and plum writing assignments that were awarded to its core members during those ensuing months, as well as the new opportunities that arose for writer-producer or writer-director contracts for the SP members, reinforced the arguments that theirs was a sweetheart deal.” When SWG members’ contracts came up for renewal they included wage reductions. And rumours were spread about the SWG being under the control of communists. Despite all the stumbling blocks put in the way of the SWG when the National Labour Relations Board held an election to determine which organisation should be recognised as representing writers in Hollywood, the SWG won by a substantial number of votes.
The war years effectively put a stop to many of the problems arising from the writers’ struggles to achieve status as both employers and employees agreed, albeit perhaps reluctantly, on the need to devote their energies to turning out films that would both entertain and enlighten. But once peace returned to the world at large hostilities soon broke out again in Hollywood. There were major strikes among the craft unions in the studios. And in 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee started to investigate supposed communist influence on the film industry. It needn’t be denied that there were communists in Hollywood, especially among the writers, and J.Parnell Thomas, HUAC’s chairman, declared that “Ninety percent of Communist infiltration in Hollywood is to be found among screenwriters.” To prove it the Committee rolled out a number of right-wing actors, directors, and writers to testify to the correctness of Thomas’s claim. For some writers it was, of course, an opportunity to resurrect the old battles of the 1930s and the conservative Rupert Hughes claimed that the SWG was “lousy with Communists,” and added that “They’ve been powerful in Hollywood for years, both secretly and openly.” Old scores were being settled with a vengeance.
It was with the 1947 hearings that the blacklist which was to affect so many people, not just writers but also some actors, technicians, and others, began to come into force. The story of the Hollywood Ten (mostly writers) is too well-known to need repeating here, but hundreds of others were affected by either the blacklist or the graylist, the latter focusing on those who couldn’t easily be shown to be communists, but who were, perhaps, known to mix with them and had expressed left-wing or liberal opinions. It’s interesting to note that, when the Hollywood Ten were questioned, they were asked first of all, “Are you a member of the Screen Writers Guild?” and then, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?” As Banks says, “The juxtaposition of the questions was designed to imply that membership in the SWG was just as sinister as membership in the Communist Party.”
The role of the SWG during the 1947-1953 period in Hollywood was not a proud one. It failed to support writers who were black or graylisted, and even made its records available to HUAC. There was a split in the SWG and a group which favoured a non-political role for the organisation took over the leadership of it. As they put it, they wanted to “restore control to the people who would use it for the purpose for which it was intended, the protection of writers’ economic interests.” There was a belief among some writers that the Communist Party members in the SWG had brought it into disrepute with their intransigence and their allegiance to Party policies rather than those of the SWG and the people it represented.
The hearings and purgings of the early-1950s coincided with the rise of television in the USA and its consequent effect on the number of people going to the cinema. In addition, foreign outlets for American films were limited due to currency restrictions. And the studios lost the monopoly they had previously held on cinema chains, so that they were no longer guaranteed distribution of the films they produced. Banks says: “With the marketplace for cinema shrinking, the blacklist became a means for the studios to downsize.” And she adds: “The studios collusion with HUAC provided an easy means to terminate a number of longstanding employees’ contracts, to phase out the first generation Jewish studio moguls, to attack the unions, and to move toward a more corporatized, conglomerate model.” It should never be forgotten, either, that, no matter how much money seemed to be around in Hollywood, the purse strings were ultimately controlled by bankers in New York. Philip Dunne, a writer and non-communist political activist, was firmly convinced that it was pressure from the banks that finally pushed the studios into instituting a blacklist.
It was obvious that writers would be increasingly employed by television, and there was a struggle between the SWG and the Television Writers Association (TWA) regarding negotiating rights. There were various problems associated with this situation, including the fact that some television writers felt that the SWG had a poor reputation following its failure to support its members during the blacklist period. And the question of “hyphenates” increasingly cropped up. A “hyphenate” was someone who combined roles as a writer-producer or writer-director. There had been “hyphenates” in Hollywood – Philip Dunne was both writer and producer, for example – and the SWG hadn’t expected them to give up their membership when they became, as producers, part of management. But it was an increasing problem in television where writer-producers were prevalent. And the nature of television sometimes meant that a writer-producer could also be the creator of a series. Fans of afternoon television will recognise the names of Richard Levinson and William Link from the credits on old episodes of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote.
There was, on the part of some established writers of films, a certain amount of snobbishness when it came to television, the reasoning being that somehow a screenplay was superior to a teleplay. But not all screenplays had been wonderful, and a sampling of the minor films of the 30s and 40s, and even some of the major ones, will soon show that routine writing was always present in many scripts. Likewise, not all writing for television was necessarily inferior, though the pressure to produce sufficient material to meet the increasing demands of the networks could lead to work that lacked energy and imagination. But Banks quotes Erna Lazarus as saying: “Television brought the writer’s name into prominence. Suddenly people spoke of the Rod Serlings and Paddy Chayefskys…..Prior to this nobody ever knew who wrote the screenplays. Never (knew) who wrote the picture…..But television did bring importance to the writer, and I don’t think we would have had it today if there had never been television.”
The developing importance of television eventually forced writers from both the SWG and TWA to realise that they needed to amalgamate into the Writers Guild of America (WGA) if they were to be effective in their negotiations with management. The amalgamation also included the Radio Writers of America (RWA) whose membership had been declining steadily as radio began to turn more and more to music: “The number of writing jobs in New York had also diminished substantially with the introduction of music formats at radio stations. Many series and serials that had been mainstays on radio were transitioning to the small screen – and their writers were moving with them.”
It’s obvious that television, and later developments such as home video games, brought all kinds of new problems for the WGA to resolve. Questions of ownership of written work, fees for repeats, for video sales of TV programmes, and other matters, became contentious issues between the WGA and the networks, and there were strikes by writers as they pushed for better pay and conditions. The problem of “hyphenates” raised its head, and strict instructions were issued regarding what, for example, a writer-producer or story editor could and could not do during a writers’ strike if they were members of the WGA. Writing about the new fields in which writers could function, Banks says: “As games became increasingly complex and their story worlds more advanced, game production houses recognised that they could no longer focus solely on game play and graphics. They now needed skilled writers to build narrative and dialogue.” And, in a further comment, she points out: “No matter the medium, writing creative content, telling stories, and crafting characters will be central to the work of screenwriters.”
So, the WGA has had to adapt to changing circumstances to ensure that “questions of authorship, ownership, and control; and the significance of the writer’s name,” could be properly dealt with. It’s true that a few maverick writers, working in films, could sometimes be offered large fees for a screenplay – Banks refers to the $3 million paid to Joe Eszterhas for Basic Instinct – but most of those working in television, or the home games field, could best be described as “creative labourers.” and needed an organisation like the WGA to protect their interests. This is not to suggest that the writing done for television is automatically of a lesser-quality, and Banks quotes Frank Pierson as saying that “Most of the really good writing now is being done in television.” There’s also the opinion of Ronald Bass, described as “one of the most prolific screenwriters in Hollywood,” who, when asked about the WGA, replied: “It’s a television union, I think. I mean, that’s where all the work is, that’s where the money is, that’s where the power is.”
For anyone interested in the history of Hollywood, and in particular its writers, this is an essential book. It’s also extremely useful when it deals with the later activities of the SWG and the WGA in relation to the role of writers in television and the games industry. I suppose it’s inevitable that a kind of fascination attaches itself to the twenty years between roughly 1930 and 1950 when Hollywood was turning out hundreds of films of varying quality, writers were struggling to assert their presence and gain some respect, and politics came to play a major part in what happened to many of them. But we shouldn’t under-estimate the role that writers have performed in television since the 1950s.
One final point occurs to me. As with other books, The Writers does seem to suggest, or rather allows some of the people interviewed to suggest, that when the blacklist and graylist came in the quality of the films being produced declined, or they at least failed to deal with controversial subjects, many of the best writers being on one or other of those lists. Is this true? Alan Casty, in his Communism in Hollywood : The Moral Paradoxies of Testimony, Silence, and Betrayal (Scarecrow Press, 2009), a book not listed in Miranda Banks’s otherwise useful bibliography, provides some informative lists of quality films produced between 1948 and 1961 which did touch on such matters as race, politics, crime, and various social matters. Some of them (High Noon and Spartacus, to name a couple) were written by blacklisted writers, but others of comparable quality were not. I’m not attempting to set up an argument about this and merely raise the question out of curiosity. The blacklist was a terrible thing, and many people suffered because of it, but not everyone who fell foul of the investigating committees was a major screenwriter with a track record of impressive screenplays. And not every writer who continued to be employed in Hollywood was a mediocrity who was afraid to be controversial.