Between Hell’s Highway and The Big House: Robert Tasker and Those Who Knew Him.
Though Tasker was hardly a threat to society, the same could not be said of his fellow-inmate Ernest Booth, aka Ernest G. Granville and Roy W. Reeves. In a letter to John Fante, Mencken concluded that Booth was “probably an incurably dangerous man.” Born in 1899, Booth began his criminal career in 1912, quickly moving from house burglary to bank robberies. He would be imprisoned on five separate occasions. In his book, also published by Knopf, Stealing Through Life, he makes no attempt to apologise for his life, yet remains eloquent in his defence, saying, “We are the odd ones. The criminals, the geniuses, the builders of Utopias.”
A prison doctor, and an acquaintance of John Fante’s, sent Booth’s fiction to Mencken (though, in Grimhaven, Tasker claims he was responsible for convincing Booth to send his work to Mencken). While Fante had little regard for Booth as a writer or as a criminal, he was of the opinion that he had been badly treated. Particularly since Booth, having spent time in the prison infirmary feigning TB, actually ended up contracting the disease. Unlike Fante, Mencken had been impressed by Booth’s writing, as well as by the circumstances surrounding his life. Even so, Mencken, ever the reformer, thought it would be a good idea for the unreconstructed Booth to remain in prison.
While in Folsom, Booth was interviewed by Tully for American Mercury. Like Mencken, Tully also left with the belief that Booth should remain inside. But, according to Fante, who was not known to be unnecessarily magnanimous towards fellow writers, Tasker and Booth were both “phonies,” while Tully’s article was “so unfair and inaccurate that from the date of its appearance the prison writers to a man have hated Jim Tully’s guts.” Fante even maintained that, after reading Tully’s article, Warden Court Smith stopped all such interviews and barred prisoners from publishing in periodicals outside the prison walls.
Mencken not only helped Tasker, but provided Booth with the necessary contacts that allowed him, between convictions, to make a substantial amount of money in Hollywood. In 1930 he sold his story, “Ladies of the Mob,” to Paramount for $15,000. It would be turned into Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets, a film best remembered as being Dashiell Hammett’s first screenwriting credit. He was also able to peddle his autobiographical novel Stealing Through Life to MGM for $11,000. On conditional release- a proviso to his parole was that he could not write about prison life- Booth, in 1937, moved to Placerville where he wrote treatments for Warner Brothers, and the occasional screenplays about gangsters. Though he did contribute to Ladies of the Big House (1931), starring Sylvia Simms, and was an adviser at $100 per week, on Men of San Quentin. Meanwhile, Horace McCoy penned a script based on Booth’s Women Without Names, which Robert Florey directed at Paramount (1940).
Booth was destined to become one of L.A.’s most sought after suspects, to the degree that whenever a major crime was committed in the area, the police would automatically seek him out. In 1941 he was interrogated for a murder, but eventually released. However, in 1947, while leaving everyone’s favourite Hollywood watering hole, Musso & Frank’s, he was arrested and charged with committing a hold-up in another part of Los Angeles. He was subsequently found guilty of a string of robberies stretching from Seattle to Pasadena, and was dispatched to San Quentin where he died of tuberculosis in 1954.
Stealing Through Life’s dedication reads “To Robert Joyce Tasker, who said, ‘Jim Tully isn’t the only Bum who can write- why don’t you have it a try?’” The dedication indicates Tasker’s willingness to encourage other writers. It was a trait that Tasker would demonstrate throughout his life. It was this sense of generosity combined with his self-destructiveness and a touch of megalomania that made him such an interesting personality. With the presence and physique of a movie star, the charismatic Tasker had, according to Bright, an uncanny resemblance to the debonair actor of the 1920s, Lew Cody, and, at the same time, said Bright, “the air of a man determined to commit suicide.”
Paroled in 1929, Tasker, most likely with Mencken’s help, landed a job writing for Photoplay, the same periodical that had employed Tully. Like Booth’s restrictions, one of the conditions of Tasker’s parole was that he was supposed about prison life. Working for Photoplay meant Tasker was able to peruse the margins of Hollywood film culture, where he met screenwriter Frances Marion. At the time married to director George Hill, Marion took Tasker under her wing and taught him the finer points of scriptwriting, while paying $300 him a week for the privilege. It wasn’t long before Marion was Tasker’s mistress. Notorious for having a way with women, particularly if they had money, Tasker’s relationship with Marion gave him with an entrée into the movie industry. But Marion also benefited from their arrangement. According to John Bright, she was able to get Tasker to ghost write The Big House, a movie for which, in 1930, she, rather than Tasker, would receive an Academy Award for best screenplay. Though she had been writing films since 1915, The Big House, directed by her husband, and starring Wallace Beery, established Marion’s career. The following year she would win another Academy Award for The Champ, which, like The Big House, was a vehicle for the pugnacious Beery.
But Marion’s relationship with Tasker did mean that criminals would suddenly be depicted in a compassionate manner. Though, with Tasker’s assistance, she was able to add a glimmer of reality to gangster and prison movies. As Carlos Clarens, in Crime Movies, has noted: “Marion...wasted no sympathy on hoods,” and, further on, “Marion’s underworld was an assortment of misfits, mental defectives, stoolies, the vermin of society; and she let them have it.” Either she learned about such creatures from Tasker, or was making an ungainly attempt to parody Tasker’s world.
When Knopf rejected his second novel, Tasker decided to give up writing fiction and, in 1931, landed a small part playing a hit-man opposite George Raft and Spencer Tracy in Rowland Brown’s first film, Quick Millions. At the time, he was also giving advice to men recently released from prison. Come December of the same year, after parting company with Marion, he married Lucille Morrison, a sometime actress and heiress to the Fletcher’s Castoria fortune. Accordingly, Tasker, to his friends, called her “the Shit Pill Heiress.” As far as Bright was concerned, Morrison was not only vulgar but emotionally disturbed, while, in a letter to Mencken, Fante reports refers to her as “a handsome blond animal in her middle thirties. Her eyes ooze sex.” In that same letter, Fante said of Tasker, “with plenty of dough his brain has gone soft on him,” “His literary output...is done orally at night clubs,” and “when he says he and Ernest Booth were members of the same gang of crooks, and were sent up on the same charge, it’s a patent lie to anyone who knows the facts.”
Why shouldn’t Tasker have stretched the truth? After all, he was in Hollywood, a city renown for truth stretching. On the other hand, his collaboration with Samuel Ornitz on the screenplay for the influential Hell’s Highway would reach a level of truthfulness rarely seen in Hollywood. Working again with Rowland Brown at RKO, the film, released in 1932, concerns a convict’s attempts to escape from a forced labour gang. It was released two months before its celluloid doppleganger, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, but is harder-edged and marginally superior to Leroy’s film. Though Brown would direct only three films: Quick Millions, Hell’s Highway and Blood Money. Constantly at odds with the studios, Brown was his own worst enemy. Not only did he punch his producer in the face, but, in Quick Millions, he portrayed a strike in sympathetic terms, perhaps the first Hollywood movie to do so. Highly talented, he was fond of portraying ruling class idiosyncrasies, like the nymphomaniac society woman in Blood Money or the fiddling warden in Hell’s Highway. In Quick Millions, he depicts a working-class trucker who climbs the economic ladder, moving from trucker to organising a protection racket for garage owners, the profits from which he uses to obtain a fleet of trucks that enables him to enter the construction business. With help from Tasker, Brown, in Hell’s Highway, and then in Quick Millions, provided audiences with a different perspective regarding gangsters and prison life.
Tasker teamed up with Ornitz on other occasions, writing screenplays for Edward Sutherland’s Secrets of the French Police (1932), and J. Walter Ruben’s The Great Jasper (1933). It was Ornitz who introduced Tasker to John Bright. Before teaming up with Tasker, Bright, with the more conservative Kubec Glasmon, had penned a half-dozen successful movies at Warner Brothers, most of them with James Cagney (Public Enemy, Blonde Crazy, Smart Money) and contributed to the multi-storied If I Had a Million. But Bright, a former Chicago newspaperman, had quarrelled with Zanuck, who not only fired him but attempted to run him out of Hollywood.
Both Bright and Tasker were active members of the Communist Party. According to screenwriter and blacklist victim, Allen Boretz, Tasker and Bright attended his Marxist study group along with the likes of Hammett and John Howard Lawson, but did not join the party until 1934. Besides a political perspective, Tasker and Bright shared a penchant for gambling, horse races and all things Mexican. They made a good team. Bright, who would also be blacklisted, had a substantial Hollywood track record, while Tasker knew the penal system and the criminal class. Outside the studio, they socialised and did political work together. When Tom Mooney was released from San Quentin, Tasker and Bright chauffeured him around town. Tasker had tried to tell Bright that, despite his status amongst the left, Mooney had been universally disliked by fellow convicts. This was in an era when other political prisoners in San Quentin, such as the McNamaras (convicted of blowing up the L.A. Times building), had been amongst the most popular of inmates. Bright did not want to believe that Mooney was just “’a half-educated celebrity who...picked up a few Marxist phrases and looks upon himself as a real martyr.’” But Bright realised Tasker was right: “The way he behaved...was just dreadful. He insulted everyone.”
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