WEIRDLAND: Cornell Woolrich, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler in Hollywood

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cornell Woolrich, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler in Hollywood

Film-noir retrospectives are a specialty of the house at Film Forum. The venue marks the holidays by reviving two dozen classic films, most from the 1930s and ’40s, adapted from the fatalistic prose of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. The series goes beyond staples like “Mildred Pierce” and “Strangers on a Train” to present less-exposed films, such as a 1931 version of “The Maltese Falcon,” with Ricardo Cortez instead of Humphrey Bogart, and the racier tilt of pre-code Hollywood. Source:

Cornell Woolrich From Pulp Fiction to Film Noir (2006) by Thomas C. Renzi: "Cornell Woolrich began writing for movies during the period between 1928 and 1930 —The Haunted House, Seven Footprints to Satan, Children of the Ritz, and House of Horror, and he penned short stories for the pulp magazines Argosy, Dime Detective Magazine, Black Mask, etc., where detective, suspense and crime became his specialty. Although his stint as a screenwriter in the early ‘30s proved unfruitful, Hollywood discovered in the 1940s that Woolrich’s stories and novels were fertile ground for film, especially for film noir, and many of his works were adapted for the screen. “Woolrich isn’t in the league of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler as a weaver of mood through the precise or voluptuous phrase,” wrote Time magazine in 2003. But, they concluded, “You don’t read Woolrich for the writing, exactly. You read it for the atmosphere, the smoky, urban settings that enshroud his helpless or conscienceless characters… Woolrich deals in moral ambiguity on its way to becoming moral invisibility. In Woolrich, love and death — the act of love and the act of death — can be the same thing. The author’s triumph is to make the subjects and stories so varied while the tone is constantly dark, menacing, inescapable. This world-view is so consistent, it must be personal. In his fiction, the mystery man wrote his own autobiography, one page at a time.”

At the time of his death, he was working on a novel called The Loser; fragments have been collected in Tonight, Somewhere in New York (2005). To get a more detailed look into his personal life, read Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die by Francis M. Nevins, Jr. In Cornell Woolrich From Pulp Fiction to Film Noir by Thomas C. Renzi, twenty-two stories and thirty films are discussed: “The Corpse Next Door” (January 23, 1937; film, Union City [1979]); “Face Work” (October 1937; film, Convicted [1938]); “I’m Dangerous Tonight” (November 1937; film, I’m Dangerous Tonight [1990]); “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes” (March 12, 1938; film, I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes [1948]); “All at Once, No Alice” (March 20, 1940; film, The Return of the Whistler [1948]); “C-Jag” (October 1940; film, Fall Guy [1947]); The Bride Wore Black (1940; film, The Bride Wore Black [1967]); “He Looked Like Murder” (February 8, 1941; film, The Guilty [1947]); “Nightmare” (March 1941; films, Fear in the Night [1947], Nightmare [1956]); The Black Curtain (1941; film, Street of Chance [1942]); “Rear Window” (February 1942; films, Rear Window [1954], Rear Window [television, 1998]); Black Alibi (1942; film, The Leopard Man [1943]; “Dormant Account” (May 1942; film, The Mark of the Whistler [1944]); Phantom Lady (1942; film, Phantom Lady [1944]); The Black Angel (1943; film, Black Angel [1946]); Deadline at Dawn (1944; film, Deadline at Dawn [1946]); The Black Path of Fear (1944; film, The Chase [1946]); Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945; film, Night Has a Thousand Eyes [1948]); Waltz into Darkness (1947; films, Mississippi Mermaid [1969], Original Sin [2001]); “The Boy Cried Murder” (March 1947; films, The Window [1949], Cloak & Dagger [1984]); I Married a Dead Man (1948; films, No Man of Her Own [1950], J’ai epouse une ombre [1982], Mrs. Winterbourne [1996], etc.

Renzi is adept at scrutinizing the works, comparing them with other films, and investigating thematic elements and stylistic techniques. . Just one standout is his interpretation of Fear in the Night’s homosexual subtext; his attention to detail is fascinating; his persuasive breakdown makes perfect sense. Also handled well is his explanation of the perverse added elements put into the film Original Sin (2001), taken from Woolrich’s 1947 novel Waltz into Darkness. He argues that one of the reasons “extremely outrageous things” creepily creep into some movies — and, believe me, that is a gross understatement concerning the vile Original Sin — is to “satisfy the private perversions of the director.”

For a complex movie like The Chase (1946), Renzi gives us different ways of approaching the storyline; food for thought. There are some very minor blips here and there, none of which should deter you. The Shadow didn’t say, “Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men?” Throughout the book he deftly references other, non-Woolrich, films if he found parallels in their stories; so I was surprised that he didn’t see the similarities in Woolrich’s novel I Married a Dead Man to While You Were Sleeping (1995), which starred Sandra Bullock.

Speaking of I Married a Dead Man, for the first film adaptation, No Man of Her Own (1950), he makes this interesting comment about star Barbara Stanwyck: “As a gifted actress, Stanwyck has the incredible ability to produce a blank stare that paradoxically conveys an impressive exterior while telegraphing a dark, turbulent malevolence roiling behind the mask.” Renzi’s approach here is authoritative, with several neat surprises in store for noir fans. This is a meticulous evaluation of the films and the author proves that he really knows his noir and Woolrich. Highly recommended. —"Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel...Again: More of the Best of Laura Wagner's Book Reviews from Classic Images" (2014) by Laura Wagner

The idea of a 1929 crash which was personal as well as national had already been worked out, although not in such detail, as early as 1931 when Fitzgerald wrote “Babylon Revisited.” But then he had not dreamed how bad the crash would be or how long the Depression would last. In fact, Scott’s short story had really been about Zelda’s crash, not his own. It was she who had gone into a mental institution in 1930, just as many of America’s corporations were going into receivership. Scott felt a great loss, but in some ways it was the kind of loss a man feels when a stock hits bottom: his treasure had been smashed to bits but he himself was still intact. Four years after “Babylon Revisited” was published, however, the incredible happened: Scott’s own head cracked. Arthur Mizener writes that Fitzgerald began by writing stories about “the sadness of the lost past,” but that in later stories, like “Babylon Revisited,” “the past is used only for exposition; they are about the grim present.”

For love, life, and drama to become confused past all untangling, the only thing that remained was for Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to act out their real-life love in play form, and that is exactly the job one movie producer offered them. He wanted Scott and Zelda to play their fictional alter egos, Amory Blaine and Rosalind Connage, in the movie version of This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald’s editor Maxwell Perkins, with ancestors buried in Puritan New England, was horrified by the idea. The author tried to win him over by promising that this would be his “first and last appearance positively.” But before Fitzgerald could give the producer a definite yes or no, the project was shelved. Scott and Zelda did not star in This Side of Paradise because the picture was never made.

Carmel Myers, the star, opened the door and welcomed the Fitzgeralds to a party and to Hollywood. Graciously, she guided the newcomers from celebrity to celebrity the way Jay Gatsby guided Tom and Daisy when they came to his party. The Fitzgeralds had earned their invitation several years before in Rome where they met Carmel Myers on the set of Ben Hur and watched as cameras recorded her diminutive beauty against a backdrop of “bigger and grander papier-mache arenas than the real ones.” On Miss Myers’ bookshelf stood a copy of The Great Gatsby, a souvenir of those days in Rome; it was inscribed, “For Carmel Myers from her Corrupter F. Scott Fitzgerald. ’Don’t cry, little girl, maybe some day someone will come along who’ll make you a dishonest woman.’” The Fitzgeralds had shown the star a good time in Europe and now she wanted them to have a good time in California. As Fitzgerald wrote his daughter Scottie, “Hollywood made a big fuss over us and the ladies all looked very beautiful to a man of thirty. This is a tragic city of beautiful girls— the girls who mop the floor are beautiful, the waitresses, the shop ladies.”

One of the ladies who looked the most beautiful was a young actress named Lois Moran. Miss Moran wanted Fitzgerald to be her leading man in a film and he seems to have wanted the same thing, so she arranged a screen test for him just as Rosemary Hoyt would later arrange one for Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night. Dick, profiting from his creator’s hindsight, is allowed to take a superior attitude, but Fitzgerald himself went before the cameras. The studio, however, decided not to make him a star. Unlike William Faulkner and other novelists who went to Hollywood only for the money, Fitzgerald wanted much more: he had come to believe that he could no longer write novels and short stories, but he thought that he could write pictures.

To reach the MGM commissary, known as the Lion’s Den, Fitzgerald had to leave the Thalberg Building and walk along a fenced-in corridor which led to the main lot, a sprawling, crowded place that looked like a blind city: almost none of its buildings had windows. There were rows of huge structures which from the outside were as shapeless and uninteresting as four-story cardboard boxes but were actually the sound stages where movies were being made. There were also a few office buildings, which in his unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald described as “old building[s] with… long balconies and iron rails with their suggestion of [a] perpetual tightrope.” In Tycoon Fitzgerald remembered this huge dining hall as being “gay with gypsies and with citizens and soldiers, with the sideburns and braided coats of the First Empire.”

After Three Comrades (1938), Fitzgerald wrote Infidelity (1939), his best script yet; it was an original screenplay which looked back to the luxurious New York apartments and fashionable Long Island estates where Gatsby had loved a woman and lost his life. But the industry censor stopped the film because infidelity simply was not allowed in the movie houses in the thirties. Inexplicably, his chance to conquer Hollywood was already behind him, lost somewhere back in the vast obscurity of the Hollywood machine. —"Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood" (1972) by Aaron Latham

Raymond Chandler was a romantic, more like F. Scott Fitzgerald than the worldly Hammett, and through the character of Marlowe he became a haunting poet of place, this place, Los Angeles, whose split personality of light and dark mirrored Chandler's own. He caught the glaring sun, the glittering swimming pools, the cigar-stinking lobbies of seedy hotels, the improbable mansions, the dismal apartment buildings, the sound of tires on asphalt and gravel, the sparkling air of the city after rain and how the fog smells at the beach at night. "To take care of Cissy. That was his driving life force," Judith Freeman writes. Chandler worked in the oil business for Cissy, and he turned himself into a crime writer for his wife, while feeling he never "wrote a book worthy of dedicating to her." Source:

After the success of John Huston’s 1941 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, other studios started looking for hardboiled crime novels to put on the screen. Raymond Chandler never courted Hollywood but, in 1943, Hollywood came to him. Movie studios had been curious about his fiction from the start. RKO picked up the rights to Ray’s Farewell, My Lovely but, in what now seems a strange and rather ridiculous move, ditched both Philip Marlowe and the title.

The Falcon Takes Over (1942) uses Chandler’s plot, retains Moose Malloy and Anne Riordan, but relocates the action to New York City. Marlowe’s place is taken by the eponymous Falcon, a low-rent imitation of the Saint, played in this film by George Sanders. At roughly the same time, the plot of The High Window was being casually bent out of shape by an undistinguished screenwriter called Clarence Upson Young and reformed as Time To Kill (1942). In that film, Marlowe’s place was taken by detective Michael Shayne. Any reputation these all-but forgotten B-movies have today is because of their connection to Raymond Chandler. In the early 1940s, his carefully wrought novels were stripped of their plot and characters by film makers desperate for ideas and short on time. At any rate, to have adapted his fiction with any sort of care – to project the flickering, silvered image of Philip Marlowe on to a big screen and to show the seedy world of sex and corruption he inhabited – would have been impossible in 1943. At that time, Hollywood was in the grip of the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC). This debilitating convention had come about in the early 1920s when fears that the lewd behaviour on screen would result in lewd behaviour off it. —"A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler" (2013) by Tom Williams

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