The year 1953 was a major one in the life of Dorothy Parker. She was living in Manhattan again after years spent in California. In June she was subpoenaed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, along with Lillian Hellman and Rockwell Kent. On August 22 Parker turned sixty. In October her last Broadway play, The Ladies of the Corridor, co-written with Arnaud d’Usseau, opened to critical praise but weak ticket sales. In 1953 Parker delivered a blistering speech about life in Hollywood. The location and audience is unknown, but it’s possible it was at the Vanderbilt Theatre. This speech, three-thousand words, is the most Parker ever said about her twenty years as a screenwriter. It appeared in print only once, in 7 Arts in 1955.
Hollywood, the Land I Won’t Return To
I should have written my speech out to be a little more coherent, but you see what happened. I had a broken wrist. When I go offsides, I want to tell you about it. I have a little dog, a little poodle named Misty, and was taking her for a walk. Well, she stopped suddenly and I didn’t. And so when I was in a great cast, and slings and bandages, and all the appurtenances, a lady who lives in the same building I do came up to me and said, “What happened to you?” I said, “Well, I fell over Misty and broke my wrist.” And you know, people say the damndest things. You know what she said? She said, “Ah, poor little Misty.”
I think it is an enormous impudence of me to come here and talk to you today. It got me coming down in the cab–the enormity of what I am doing, getting up here and talking to you people. I thought what in heaven’s name am I doing, doing this. Then I had one glorious moment when I thought, I can take just a minute, and I don’t have to speak but I was stuck here. That’s not nice to say because a long time ago the gentleman who runs the theatre said for me to come down here. Well I thought it just great. I don’t know what gets into you as you say that. I suppose it was that in this very room Geraldine Page was discovered. So I said to the gentleman, well, yes, but what shall I talk about. And he said, just talk about things like writing in Hollywood. And so if you will let me, I’d like to talk about Hollywood. You see, I can talk about Hollywood only from the position of a writer there… ‘cause I was supposed to write for many, many years. I wasn’t there the whole time. It really was a year on and off, but it seems to me I was there for centuries. Now, I must tell you that the writer goes to Hollywood and just calls himself a writer like those out there. Oh, no, some people leave, and come back, but they write there. You can call yourself a writer, which is a great name, you know, but in Hollywood you can be a writer. You don’t need any talent–the last thing you want is talent. You need two things: you need skill and you need a fine memory so that if you know what they did in that wild picture in 1938… you’re in! You also need, I can’t do it, but you need a manual process, which is polishing apples.
Well, I first… is this boring you? … I first went out to Hollywood oh, many many years ago. Soooooo long ago that the movie actresses looked flat-chested. When I went out there I found they were doing very curious things. I went out there the way everybody goes out there, with sheets of paper folded. You know… I went out. It was a time so long ago they were having what is called “theme songs.” They did a picture called… “I came after to write a theme song.” They told me there had been a picture called Woman Disputed and that the theme song was “Woman Disputed, I Love You.” But I came out to work on a picture called Dynamite and you can’t very well say “Dynamite, I Love You.”
So anyway I thought, I was young and prudent, I might go into the producer and see what the picture was about. The producer was Mr. Cecil DeMille. So I got in, well, it was like riding a camel through the eye of a needle. But I finally did get in and I said, “Just tell me what this picture’s about.” Well, it was so long and so involved I couldn’t possibly remember it to tell you. I do know one thing, that the hero had been accused and convicted of murder–of course, unjustly. He was in the death cell, you see, but luckily had his guitar with him. So I was asked to write the song he would sing.
I got a little nervous while Mr. DeMille was telling me all these things and I went back to my office. First, I had said, “Mr. DeMille, the details of these pictures must be…my goodness, it’s just staggering.” He said, “Ah, yes, zebras in the King of Kings.” So I went back to my office and I got a Bible and I felt what in heaven’s name are zebras doing in that picture about the life of Christ. I thought maybe he said “Hebrews?” I couldn’t stand it and you can understand why.
Later when I ran into him I asked, “What are you doing with zebras?’ He said, “Oh, the zebras. They were pulling the chariots of the Magdalene.” He said, “Terrible, they kick so easily but their legs broke.” You know, well, that was pretty fancy. I should have known this.
Again, I went back to my office. Oh, I had a wonderful office. If you don’t mind as big as this room. I had a great desk. You know those desks that have a great long drawer in them–deep. It was lovely. It was a lovely office but the air was oppressive, and even though I opened the windows and opened the doors, it was still depressing. It turned out that the gentleman who had it before me got a little upset and wanted to have a… you know, a place. Well he wanted a little escape. He was raising mushrooms. And he was raising mushrooms by a correspondence system, a system that raised them anywhere. So they had to be in liquid manure.
Again, the first time I was there, if you don’t mind my saying, there used to be a system, now I don’t know if it still exists–they would get a title for a picture and somebody would say, no, it’s not too good. And they would send around a slip to the people working, “See if you can get a better title. You’ll get $50 for it.” And they would send you a tracing of the picture. Well, when I was there, they were doing a picture with Greta Garbo. It was called “Heat.” Some master-mind said, “You can’t have a marquee with designs on Heat.” So they sent it around to these writers to get this title and they had to send, as I told you, a tracing of what the picture was about. It was a desert, I think in Africa. Oh, boy, it was a hot desert! She and Mr. Gilbert, it was that long ago, on the desert, and they were on their hands and knees… by then, five days, no water. Well, Mr. Gilbert then had a flask hung around him on a strap and she thought it was full of water. Well, poor soul, it was full of spirits. And so the plot was that Garbo pulled herself through the sand to him and said she would give herself to him if he would give her a drink of water. Now I don’t know about you gentlemen, but I should think a man five days in the desert without water, that’s the last thing he would want. In any event, the picture was called Black Oakie.
No, I know… but you know, it isn’t much better nowadays. I have just heard lately they are doing, at one great studio, a picture of Huckleberry Finn. They are doing it as a musical. Well, maybe it makes music. I don’t know. But you see what happens there… they can’t let anything alone, and they have to fix up Huckleberry Finn. They have to do it! So that voyage down the river, and the raft. Do you think they could leave one of the greatest characters in American literature on it? No. There was a little blond girl with no brassiere. Now you think things are better than they used to be? I heard, oh a very short time ago, they bought a book. I can’t tell you the name of the book because I don’t know. It was one of those books about convicts and Devil’s Island, and there were five of them and they cut down a tree and hollowed it out, and made a canoe of it. And in the night, five got away. As the day dawned there was a sixth. He was tall and lean and dressed in white and there was a glory around his head. And the five convicts got out and escaped in the canoe, and in the morning there were six… but it was Joan Crawford. Oh the hell! I don’t think we are getting any better.
Now I want to talk, I can talk about it say, from a writer’s standpoint. The actors… it seems to me they have an awfully good time. They keep giving one another prizes and they have all this. The writers I think have a fairly tough time, except I didn’t. They go out there as I told you. They don’t need any talent. They used to. I don’t know… things are different. You used to get an awful lot of money. Ladies and gentlemen, there was one time I was so rich I thought that detective stories were wonderful. I think things are different now. Nonetheless, they think they will go out there and they will get this much money, then they will come back east, south or wherever they live, and write that great play about coal miners. They don’t… something happens. Nothing comes out of that place. I think, I’m really fairly sure in saying, nothing does. Surely, some people who are really poor writers go out. They’re sent for to do a certain thing.They do it. They get out. They go there day after day in groups. I tell you, nobody can do anything alone. You are given a script that eight people have written from a novel four people have written. You then, they say, write dialogue. What a curious word. Well you know you can’t dialogue without changing scenes. While you are doing it, eight people back of you are writing beyond you. Nobody is allowed to do anything alone. I think that’s most of the trouble with the movies. I don’t know what to say. It was just like that. I don’t do it any more. I used to get money as I told you. It isn’t real money. It isn’t. I think it’s made of compressed snow. It just melts in your hands. They go out there and they go to get it, and they… I suppose that you give a great deal in exchange for it. You get the money. Give each other fame, but I earnestly believe that if a screen writer had his name across the Capitol Theatre in red, white, and blue letters fifty feet tall, he’d still be anonymous. But they say, you see there’s something about that money, even though it is money, you get a little more, and you get a little more. You see, when you’re broke, you’re broke, but you get a little money then you want a little more money, and more, and so on. Now I think that nothing comes out of Hollywood. People have been there and back. People who started either here or in the south or wherever. But has anything come out of that? There is only one word in Hollywood. It has enormous popularity, and that word is “another.” Let’s do another. Let’s do another… you know? There are too many people involved!
Oh, I forgot to tell you, everybody writes. Everybody writes. I was watching a producer who shall be nameless… it’s David Selznick. But anyway, he would come in bashfully, never got in til 6 o’clock in the afternoon and the poor people had to stay on working. And he would say, “No, not this.” So you change it and the world was made for you and I. No, I just think that you can’t do it. You can’t write out there, unless they send you someplace else and then you’ve made your name someplace else. I would start this little fashion by saying, If I hear one say one good word about Hollywood, I hope you’ll all do me the courtesy to get up and go home but you know, I find that I can’t. Because a place besides Hollywood, or a place besides anything… there must be some people who are brave, gentle, courageous and intelligent, and they are in Hollywood, but oh my God, they are a minority group. I don’t know, I think the great great trouble is the terrible fear. And I don’t mean that just politically. They were scared before. When you say, “do another” that means fear, doesn’t it? Now there they are and look what comes out of it. Well look what once came out of it… a man who made that place a name in history. A man who made that place a glory, spread that glory around the world. So they kicked out Charlie Chaplin. I don’t know if you have the misfortune to read the Hollywood columnists, but I do. What they say about him is so much bunk. They say that he made a great deal of money in America. Well, he’s earned a great deal of money in America. Possibly his pictures made money that was almost proportionate to the pleasure they gave. They say America gave him money… oh, they didn’t give him money. He worked for years and years and years. He employed people loyally and generously. So they say he’s been given money and a letter with parsley around it. Oh that’s the kind of thing they do… they throw out the only good person they can.
Now I cannot get up here and say they won’t do a good picture. Oh, they have once or twice. I say they can. So maybe they can again. You know, The Informer was a pretty good picture. Do you think they could do that now… in that sunshine and amid the plaintive cooing of stool pigeons? The Informer would now be given a silver loving cup, and a life membership in the American Legion or the D.A.R. I don’t know. I think they can do it. I don’t know why they won’t do it. It’s again… I think the trouble is too many people, not letting one person do something, and that terrible word “another.” I don’t know. The musicals… have you followed the musicals? I can only quote Marc Connelly who said he had an idea that would revolutionize, you should pardon the expression, musical comedies on the screen. This was his plot… the understudy takes sick and the leading lady plays the part. They haven’t done it yet.
Do you know that a few years ago, at my age… ouch!… I was called in to work on something… The life of Eva Tanguay called “The-I-Don’t-Care-Girl.” Now how would you feel about that? I was fired but I meant to be. It seems that Miss Tanguay… well, she liked a colored gentleman, but the man who was producing it said, well, that don’t look so good in Technicolor. I don’t know. I don’t know, things may be different in Hollywood. I don’t think… I think they’re worse. I didn’t get there in time… when it was the Klondike, you know? When there wasn’t a party that was any good unless there were two dead bodies on the lawn. They are all getting genteel, and now God help us, all their coaches. Everybody buys paintings. They don’t buy a painting the way you buy a painting, something you love to see, that you want to look at. They want to know how cheap you can get it. I heard one writer, five years ago living in an inverted herring barrel, say to his agent, “Hey, if you can, pick up another Braque as cheap as you got one for Joe.”
So, that’s what they do now–they buy paintings! I don’t know, the culture part is awfully tough to take. Again, I say there is a minority group, the gentle, intelligent erudite group, but they… well, they are naturally pushed out.
But I have never in the years I was there, I never saw anybody who had read a book published before 1920. I talked one night to a very great, very rich man. It was the time The Naked and The Dead had come out.
I said, “Did you read it?” And he said, “Yeah, read last night after dinner. I went to bed about 10 o’clock.” I said, “Do you mean you read that book then?” He said, “Well I started from the back and just looked through it.” And that’s the way they read. What do they do for entertainment? It’s all money! They go out to play golf, but anyhow they don’t come back and say, I did pretty well… it was a nice day… good to be out. None of that nonsense! “Well, I lost $50 on the fifth and on the sixth tee I got back $27.” You see? And that’s all you ever hear… is money. And as I told you, the money ain’t so good. I don’t know. I tell you I think they could do something. They’re not doing it. There is a stench of fear over that place that is like the smell of a Black Plague. What are they afraid of? I don’t know. It may be 3-dimensional pictures. I haven’t seen them… I haven’t caught up with the radio yet but I don’t particularly want to. I’m told facts fly out at you. The writers are out of work. They can’t get anybody. Well, the infallible Sam Goldwyn said, “How can I do decent pictures when they good writers are gone to jail?” He quickly added, “Don’t misunderstand… I think they ought to be hung.” Mr. Goldwyn too has been caught up in this thing of buying pictures. He had a beautiful set of Lautrecs.
I don’t know what more to say about Hollywood. I just say it is a Stagnation. It is a Horror. The palm trees have been brought in, the poor dears, they died on their feet. Brilliant flowers smell like old dollar bills. Those enormous vegetables taste as if they had been grown in old trunks. That way of having no seasons… it’s just terrible, you can’t have any dates. They haven’t Easter. Except at Christmas your agent sends you a blotter. I don’t know. It’s much worse than that now. When I was there–it was pretty bad then. I can only give to you, this message–anybody who isn’t living in Hollywood is having a good life!
More lost pieces written by Dorothy Parker will be presented in 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of her death. The Dorothy Parker Society published a lost 1916 Vanity Fair article last month.