Posted by moirafinnie on March 25, 2009
“Don’t look at me in that tone of voice” ~ Dorothy Parker
My attempts to look at women’s contributions to film this month have focused so far on a variety of females who found a way to make the patriarchal structures, frivolity, foolishness and opportunities in Hollywood’s studio era work for them. Today, I’ll be taking a look at Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), one woman whose contradictory film career, and, indeed, entire discontented life, seems to have been spent in opposition to the bright, guilty world that she thoroughly enjoyed, yet rejected.
My mixed feelings about Parker come to me as a legacy from my mother. Mom left me her silverware, a set of china, and, along with her love of books, some individual first editions of Dorothy Parker‘s poetry. From an early age, Mother’s conversations would be peppered with her own trenchant observations as well as the verse and wit of Parker, including her recitation of the following funny and truthful poem, which Mom could recite at the drop of a hat, especially when following an obtuse inquiry from her youngest daughter questioning one of her decisions. The tendency to express wonder about Mom’s verdicts, such as why we never seemed to have cereal in our house, (unlike everyone else on the planet), or why we had to wear white gloves when she was corralling us into getting dressed up for some quasi-formal occasion, were usually met with this cryptic, affectionately delivered declaration:
In youth it was a way I had
But now I know the things I know
Believe me, hearing this poem certainly shut me up, though my father would look bemused if wary when these words dropped from his flustered wife’s lips sarcastically. All the same, as I’ve gotten older, having Parker‘s words as part of my family’s literary DNA has become alot more useful, (though the white gloves have long gone, never to return, Mom). As I’ve learned more about Dorothy Parker, my feelings about her and respect for her writing has grown in complexity and ambivalence. Two things I know for sure. Parker would loathe being remembered as a screenwriter or simply the author of the oft-quoted line from her 1937 verse collection, Not So Deep As a Well: “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses.”
Dorothy Rothschild, born of Scottish and Jewish parents in West End, NJ in 1893, grew up unhappily to marry a stockbroker during the First World War, Edward Pond Parker II, whose legacy to her was what she termed “a nice clean name” and a lingering disillusionment with romance that informed all her subsequent work. Dorothy married again in the 1930s, in a union that lasted, with several wrenching separations, until the death of her second husband, the actor and screenwriter, Alan Campbell, in 1963. In between all this, she was involved in a series of affairs that usually ended badly, prompting her to write about the differences between romantic notions and the realities of life and to make enough half-hearted suicide attempts to irk her manipulated daily companions, though not, strangely, it seems, to prompt anyone into much action to actually help her, perhaps, I wonder, because she still managed to be mordantly funny at the same time. This tendency to find something appealing about making a ladylike exit from the world seems to have faded a bit as she grew older, eventually prompting her to write:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Today Parker may be remembered best as one of the wittier and acid-tongued members of the 1920s Algonquin Round Table , an initially casual gathering whose fame overshadowed just about everything after it, including her poetry, her gift for short stories, and her lacerating penchant for le mot juste, which found its first expression when she went to work at Vogue, writing literate and funny copy such as “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” She soon moved on to other, tonier magazines, becoming the drama critic at Vanity Fair in 1918, a then unprecedented achievement for a woman. Her acerbic wit was soon on prominent display, recommending about one intolerably dull play that theater patrons “who don’t knit, [should] bring a book”. Though Parker‘s acid comments soon alienated management, and got her fired, she would persist on the fringes of theatrical, despite her occasional claims to have little interest in the theater. This didn’t stop her from eventually writing four plays nor did it prevent her from commenting; at a later date, that in an early stage appearance in The Lake, Katharine Hepburn “ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B.” Another job as a book reviewer writing under the heading of Constant Reader for The New Yorker magazine from 1927-1933. One review featured her comment on A. A. Milne’s rather oversold, somewhat twee children’s book The House at Pooh Corner by archly stating that “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
Her membership in the informal group that got together regularly at the Algonquin, composed largely of journalists and playwrights who wound up as famous as the people they first skewered in print, seemed to haunt her, and eventually she usually refused to discuss it further, commenting that she “had little interest in thinking about a meal she had digested 45 years previously.” Throughout the 1920s, the members of this band of friends included her friend Robert Benchley, Robert E. Sherwood, Alexander Woolcott, Edna Ferber, and George S. Kauffman, among many others. The gathering began as Benchley, Sherwood and drama critic Parker sought some place near their Vanity Fair offices on West 44th Street to hide out from their spouses and their bosses. They tended to spend their time playing word games, something that Parker was particularly good at, as when she coined the following when asked to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence: “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.”
Dorothy and her friends also tended to drink far too much, contributing to the development of an addiction to alcohol that would last throughout her life, as it did the lives of many of her fellow “lost generation” of Prohibition-weaned “jazz babies” (as the popular press liked to describe the gaiety of her contemporaries). After rereading her work recently, some of it is truly scathing. Yet, what shines through in her poems and stories, is an understanding of life’s injustices. Using her own bitterness and rebelliousness, she translated much of her own pain into entertaining and touching poems, essays, scenarios for the stage and screen and short stories, (particularly in the O. Henry Award winning “Big Blonde”)–all of which are distinctly, unapologetically feminine in their viewpoint. Throughout her life, this perception extended beyond the limitations of a life being lived on the fringes of love and marriage, and society at large, especially if one were the wrong race, religion, country or sex. The sharpness of her keen perception didn’t prevent her from writing about inequality, putting her money where her heart was, or having a good laugh at the absurdity of it all–especially since she herself knew what a mass of contradictions she could be. Her emotionally charged activism, which was an inner siren song she listened to throughout her life, was in contrast to her more widely recognized public cynicism.
In the 1920s she was arrested for “sauntering and loitering” on the sidewalk while marching for the release of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti on the streets of Boston. In later years, she went to Spain to work against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, (an act that she described as “the proudest thing” she ever did), helped to organize a viable Hollywood screenwriters’ union, support of the Scottsboro Boys defense, and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League to raise money and consciousness about the threat posed by fascism. At one fundraising party at Fredric March and Florence Eldridge‘s house where the Ernest Hemingway-narrated film The Spanish Earth was shown, Parker, whose paycheck was minuscule compared to many of the attendees, eagerly paid for an ambulance to help the Republican side against the Franco forces. Even at her most serious, Parker could see the irony of trying to talk about social issues in the dream factory, noting that “the only ‘ism’ Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.”
An emotional socialist rather than a doctrinaire Marxist, she knew many avowed Communists, though I’ve come across no evidence that she was a formal member of any legal political party. Eventually in 1949 she testified before HUAC, and was informally blacklisted in the 1950s for her pro-Left views. While all this occurred over the period of several decades, Dorothy Parker enjoyed the company and pleasures offered by the very rich on both coasts and in Europe. Her fiercely voiced opposition to many of the trappings of gilt edged capitalism did not prevent her from enjoying first class travel accommodations, fine clothes, good booze, and living in some pretty tony neighborhoods in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and Bucks County. Even then, she couldn’t help commenting that “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
As a proudly undomesticated woman who never drove, initially refused to own a radio, and who found movies boring, paradoxically, Los Angeles became the site of her greatest financial success–though Miss Parker‘s official, on-screen credits are relatively slim. First venturing to Hollywood in the late ’20s at the behest of MGM, Parker was tempted to visit Mammon for the money, which seemed too good to pass up. Thinking to herself, she later reported, “Why, I could do that with one hand tied behind me and the other on Irving Thalberg‘s pulse.” Just before embarking on her Hollywood trip, she gave an interview to the Brooklyn Eagle explaining that movies were dreadful, and that she really hoped the film industry would collapse. She even felt compelled to insult the palm trees that dotted the landscape in tinseltown in print, declaring them “the ugliest vegetable God created.” Writing to her friend the columnist Alexander Woollcott, Parker said that she hated the work she was hired to do “like holy water”, but could not refuse the dough.
Dorothy Parker was first hired to write dialogue for Madame X (1929), one of the many versions of that theatrical war horse about an unwitting son defending his own long-lost mama from the cold, cruel world when she’s on trial for murder. This outing featured Ruth Chatterton, (who has her redeeming moments, despite the glacial pace of the movie), and was directed by Lionel Barrymore at a time when a dithering MGM took a flyer on the accomplished actor’s ability to evoke something cinematic from their stable of actors during the early talkie era. This melodramatic material hardly seems a natural fit for Parker. She was further discouraged to meet Irving Thalberg and have him ask her what she was working on, only to have her eventual submissions rejected by the producer, chiding the author “that you have to be careful in writing for the pictures. You always have to think of the Little Totties”, (meaning children). No one seemed to have ever described the plot to Parker nor did it seem odd to anyone that children would be attending a movie dealing with the decline and fall of an adulteress. Left largely to her own devices while taking home a tidy weekly check, Dot enjoyed the company of many friends looking for gold in LA, including Robert Benchley, whose unlikely on-screen career was just beginning at Fox studios then.
Finally, during this frustrating stage, Dorothy was able to contribute something to the first Cecil B. DeMille talkie, the woozy Dynamite (1929). During a bizarre sequence when Kay Johnson marries Death Row inmate Charles Bickford in prison, (don’t ask, the plot is too byzantine to describe), the presiding minister’s platitudinous murmurings are almost eradicated by by the sound of the gallows being constructed and musical accompaniment by a fellow convict playing the mournful theme composed by Jack King, “How Was I To Know”, with lyrics by none other than Dorothy Parker. This film, which occasionally appears on TCM, is lousy with sound, though it is a fascinating antique. Btw, Dot’s earlier attempts to write songs for the movie included the titles “Dynamite, I Love You” and “Dynamite, Blow My Sweetie Back to Me”. These were, unfortunately, rejected, and may be lost to posterity. After completing this assignment, Parker embarked hurriedly for New York.
While many biographers and critics seem to enjoy documenting Parker‘s alleged unhappiness and “selling out” by pulling the yoke of screenwriting during her sojourns in Hollywood, like her many contemporaries, she was only too glad to take the relative fortune she was paid–especially if the money helped her to occasionally help herself and others. As the madcap twenties faded into the gritty thirties and the arrival of the Depression made it harder to make a living in New York, Parker returned again to lotusland. Though she claimed to “require only three things of a man. He must be handsome, ruthless and stupid”, she chose as her second life companion, one Alan Campbell, a minor stage actor eleven years her junior. Campbell, who became her screenwriting collaborator and husband (twice over), traveled with her to Paramount Studios, which was one of several berths the pair nestled in out in Hollywood. Though the unlikely pair lived happily together for a time, especially when Alan cossetted Dorothy through the world, eventually Parker found herself increasingly critical of her mate. Campbell had one out of three requirements mentioned above by the celebrated writer: he was handsome, after a fashion. The Virginia-born Campbell was also the offspring of Jewish and Scottish parents, but unlike Parker, he chose to spend his life appeasing those around him rather than skewering them in print. Living the high life (in large part due to the domestic skills of her husband) while trying to pay attention to the turbulent social issues that rocked the world in that decade, Parker would probably have had a difficult time sustaining a career without the structure and support provided by Campbell. Some saw him as a bisexual opportunist, but, his efforts to–as we would characterize it today–”enable” Parker in her dysfunctional life are still impressive to me. Organizing the household, putting up with his wife’s short attention span and contempt for her work in Hollywood, he nevertheless helped to keep her afloat and solvent. As a team, they earned up to $5,000 a week during their years in Hollywood. Many would denigrate his contributions to this team. Reading of the excoriation he endured regularly and his gradual inability to succeed as Dorothy‘s “appeaser in residence”, I suspect that Alan Campbell earned everything he enjoyed–the hard way. Her alcoholism, lack of what she would regard as sustained literary effort and self-contempt–despite her worldly success, only contributed to her ongoing bouts with depression, prompting her to ask her husband to move soon after they became ensconced in some posh digs in Hollywood. By way of explanation, she mentioned that “a suicide light” had appeared on the hill of a back yard.
It is difficult to discern a clear thread of Parker‘s incisive wit in the fifteen movies that the pair were credited with, though a few of the films, such as The Big Broadcast of 1936, Hands Across the Table (1935) The Moon’s Our Home (1936), Mary Burns, Fugitive (1936), A Star is Born (1937), Trade Winds (1938) and Smash Up (1947) share an antic humor and sense of the absurdly quixotic nature of life, with some effective suggestions of real, unruly emotions glinting through the glamour. This is particularly true of the still moving tale of the ever-changing fortunes of the Hollywood movie star, the sarcastically likable, self-destructive souse played by Fredric March in A Star is Born. The figure of “Norman Maine” in this movie closely parallels some of the traits shared by a friend of Dorothy Parker, the doomed actor John Gilbert, who died in 1936, just before the Selznick production of A Star is Born began. Gilbert, a drinking buddy of the Algonquin crowd when in New York, was described by Dorothy during her first trip to Los Angeles as “a dear but he never wants to go to bed”. He had sent her a congratulatory telegram that cheered her “having gone Hollywood” in the late ’20s. When, back in New York, the impecunious Dorothy had an emergency appendectomy, the actor had generously sent the writer thousands needed to pay a debt owed to the hospital. After his career hit the skids, he gently asked if it might be possible to collect on some of the loans he’d made in the past. A newly flush Parker immediately sent him the funds, receiving in reply a bouquet of roses accompanied by the words,”Thank you, Miss Finland” (Finland was the only country that had paid its war debt to the U.S. after World War I). No one else had repaid the actor. I like to think that she took the heedless generosity and fecklessness she’d observed first hand in her friend and put a little of it on the screen.
This film strangely, which won an Academy Award for William Wellman and Robert Carson‘s story, but in the arcane AMPAS categories of that time, only earned Parker, Campbell and Carson a nomination for Best Writing of a Screenplay for the same story. Smash Up (1947), written with Frank Cavett, won Parker a Best Writing for Original Story nomination, though, without Campbell, who had broken up with Parker by this time, she could not sustain her career. Much of Parker‘s work in Hollywood never saw the light of the silver screen, and some never earned her and Campbell any on-screen credit.
In a few instances, such jobs as script doctoring, and adding spritely dialogue to completed scripts became happy experiences. For Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), Dorothy Parker (without Campbell, apparently), was asked to spruce up the finished Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison script about the wrongly accused factory worker (Robert Cummings) running for his life from the police and the real fifth columnists. A memorable scene featuring some vexatious circus freaks debating whether or not they should hide the fugitives (a reluctant Priscilla Lane and Cummings), the dialogue among the romantically minded Bearded Lady, the argumentative Siamese Twins and the belligerent dwarf was written by Parker, to Hitchcock’s delight. Parker was even persuaded to appear in the film as a passenger in a scene with Hitchcock in a car passing by as the desperate kidnap victim Lane struggled with Cummings by the side of the road (seen above). “My”, Dorothy‘s character murmurs, “they must be terribly in love.”
At other times the work on projects included providing inspired if uncredited additional dialogue, such as she provided for her friend Lillian Hellman‘s movie version of The Little Foxes (1941). However, the behind the scenes machinations when working at the Goldwyn Studios do seem to have prompted some dramatic pronouncements from the writer. Trying to inject some realism into a production, the obstinate writer pointed out to Samuel Goldwyn a truth that Hollywood spent years of effort hiding when she finally turned on her employer and said “I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn, but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.”
Her excursions in the flesh trade of Hollywood weren’t all this honest or unpleasant. While the life she led in Hollywood allowed her to keep everything but her self-respect, even these outbursts could not silence her conscience about her talent and her life. At times, particularly when drinking, friends spoke of coming across her at a Hollywood party in the corner, weeping into her drink, murmuring that “I used to be a poet.” Though her last book of verse, other than compilations, was published in the ’30s, and her Hollywood career was nil during the worst period of McCarthyism, Parker eventually returned to the theater, writing the insightful play about lonely women in a residential hotel, Ladies of the Corridor, with Arnaud d’Usseau. She also wrote a book column for Esquire magazine from 1957 to 1963, (even if she and Alan Campbell did sell the review copies when money was tight).
To round out this very brief portrait of a writer whose words I admire, (but whose life sounds like a nightmare), I’d like to include two quotations from essays she wrote. The first, from Directions magazine in 1940 was her response to the arrival of Martin Dies and the House Un-American Activities Committee in Hollywood during one of that committees early forays into the entertainment business. Though paid to use the sharp edge of her tongue for the entertainment of millions, this is what she wrote:
“The people want democracy – real democracy, Mr. Dies, and they look toward Hollywood to give it to them because they don’t get it any more in their newspapers. And that’s why you’re out here, Mr. Dies – that’s why you want to destroy the Hollywood progressive organizations – because you’ve got to control this medium if you want to bring fascism to this country. “
This second piece is a self-lacerating evaluation of screenwriting as a career:
“When I dwelt in the East I had my opinion of writing for the screen. I regarded it with a sort of benevolent contempt, as one looks at the raggedy printing of a backward six-year-old. I thought it had just that much relationship to literature.
“Well, I found out, and I found out hard, and found out forever. Through the sweat and the tears I shed over my first script, I saw a great truth – one of those eternal, universal truths that serve to make you feel much worse than you did when you started. And that is that no writer, whether he writes from love or from money, can condescend to what he writes. What makes it harder in screenwriting is the money he gets.
You see, it brings out the uncomfortable little thing called conscience. You aren’t writing for the love of it or the art of it or whatever; you are doing a chore assigned to you by your employer and whether or not he might fire you if you did it slackly makes no matter. You’ve got yourself to face, and you have to live with yourself.”
Not surprisingly, after all the restless turmoil of her life, when Dorothy Parker died alone in the Volney Hotel in Manhattan in 1967, she had the presence of mind to leave her estate to Martin Luther King, whom she had never met, but admired. Following his untimely death, the estate was to go to the N.A.A.C.P. However, the executrix of Parker‘s estate, the writer Lillian Hellman appears to have been rather lax about the disposal of her friend Dorothy’s cremated remains. They were stored, in an irony that would not have been lost on the deceased writer, in the drawer of a filing cabinet in the law office of Paul O’Dwyer for over twenty years. Fortunately, in 1988, the N.A.A.C.P. created a memorial garden at their headquarters in Baltimore, placing Dorothy‘s dust within a circle enshrining her place of rest with these words:
Meade, Marion, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?, Villard Books, 1988.
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