William Faulkner's Hollywood Odyssey

Courtesy of Robert Hamblin, Center for Faulkner Studies, Southeast Missouri State University
by John Meroney - California - April/May 2014

The biggest name in Southern lit didn’t spend his whole life in Mississippi

In 1932, a rising writer from Mississippi found himself amid the bright lights and dry heat of Tinseltown, at the start of what would become a lengthy dalliance with the screenwriting biz. In the wilds of L.A., Faulkner met movie stars, found a bourbon haunt, chased true love, and tried to stay sane in a place that often seemed very far from home

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“We heard that he was coming.” That was what the head stenographer at Warner Bros. said, recalling the day the author William Faulkner set foot on the studio lot in 1942. Here was the most famous resident of Oxford, Mississippi (population 5,000), in—of all places—Tinseltown. The tweed and pipe just seemed out of place with the neon and palm trees.

But although Faulkner will forever be identified with his life among the cedars in Oxford—a man “deeply, almost mystically attached to the land,” as Time memorialized him in 1964, complete with a Delta lilt—his years as a screenwriter in Hollywood were not a mere hiccup in his biography. For it was here, working off and on for two decades in an industry that Faulkner once said was “too much for anybody raised in Mississippi to see all at once,” that he had two major affairs. One was professional—he courted a relationship with one of the most prestigious directors in the most glamorous business on earth. The other was personal—a transformative romance with a beautiful script supervisor who called him the love of her life.

Like Faulkner, I grew up in the South and moved to Los Angeles in my thirties. I had to adjust to this place of the endless summer without humidity, where people think the way to sweeten iced tea is with Equal. I was curious what L.A. must have been like for the twentieth century’s quintessential Southerner, a man whose great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy. Here he was, almost two thousand miles away from home, in a place he described as “the plastic asshole of the world.”

There have long been famous authors who did their turns in Hollywood (Didion and Dunne, Capote, Fitzgerald), but Faulkner especially seemed to have a gift for film. As fellow novelist turned screenwriter Stephen Longstreet observed, Faulkner was “one of the few real geniuses who ever wrote for the movies.” He was so skilled, in fact, that he adapted the work of two other major novelists, Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway, who also tried their hands at screenwriting.

It all started in 1932, when, riding on the success of his novel Sanctuary, Faulkner got word that Leland Hayward, a prominent Hollywood talent agent, had secured for him a $500-a-week contract (the equivalent of $8,500 today) to write scripts at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Faulkner was a modernist, and film was still a new, exciting form of storytelling. But that wasn’t the reason Faulkner accepted. It was the money.

At the same time Faulkner received the offer from Metro, he got news that his publisher, Cape & Smith, was bankrupt. Faulkner had been planning on $4,000 ($68,000 in today’s money) from the company for Sanctuary but was informed he wouldn’t see any of it. Suddenly, he was broke. Word apparently got around Oxford. When he tried writing a check for three dollars at a sporting goods store, the owner told him, I’d rather have cash. All at once, Hollywood became attractive. Faulkner didn’t even have the money to send a wire to answer yes. Eventually MGM advanced him some cash and paid for his train ticket, and days later he arrived in Culver City.

He was so naive about the industry that he entertained hopes  he would be writing for the famous movie star Mickey Mouse. But the folks at Metro informed him, No, Mickey lives at another studio out in the Valley—we want you for a Wallace Beery picture. “Who’s he?” Faulkner asked. The more he learned, the more frightened he became. “The truth is that I was scared,” Faulkner disclosed in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I was scared by the hullabaloo over my arrival, and when they took me into a projection room to see a picture, and kept assuring me that it was going to be very easy, I got flustered. I was afraid I could never do it. I could think of nothing else to do but run.” He sought refuge in Death Valley—“It was the quietest place that I could think of,” he said—and after a week of regrouping returned to the studio, ready to write.

Faulkner completed four story treatments in four weeks. That kind of productivity earned him a meeting with up-and-coming director Howard Hawks. He liked Faulkner’s writing and purchased a Saturday Evening Post short story by him that he wanted Faulkner to adapt into a script for Hawks to direct. Over a “couple of quarts of whiskey,” as Hawks recalled in an interview, they clicked and found common cause. “[Faulkner] got up the next morning and started to work, and in five or six days, he had a script,” Hawks said. “It was one of the finest scripts I’ve ever read.” Hawks showed it to Metro’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, who concurred. “Go out and make it!” he ordered Hawks. The result was Today We Live, a drama starring Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford, released in 1933. William Faulkner now had a hit movie to his credit. And, more important, the beginning of what would become an ongoing professional connection with Hawks.

“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” The quotation from Dante is what Faulkner considered a fitting road sign for drivers to see as they crossed the border into California. (For Arizona, his thought was “Science Fiction Country.”) It was a telling description of how he viewed his new home away from home. For good reason, it’s often said that when people move to Hollywood, they’re likely to lose their true identity, heritage, and sense of purpose—this is La-La Land, after all. But Faulkner didn’t. He had his pipe and tobacco, and his bourbon, and he could still hunt.