Saturday, June 23, 2007

Between Hells Highway and The Big House

Part 3

Together, Tasker and Bright, in 1933, worked on a precursor to Ship of Fools, entitled Luxury Liner, followed by Here Comes Trouble for Sol Wurtzel. In 1936, Ben Schulberg (Bud’s father) hired Tasker and Bright in a deal brokered by Marx brother Zeppo. Recently bankrolled by Adolph Zukor, Schulberg was a compulsive gambler- he had once lost $500,000 at single gambling house- and notorious womaniser. But at least he had the sense to hire writers like William Saroyan and Edward Anderson- never mind that both turned out to be screenwriting failures. Though he talked about signing-up left-wingers Lillian Hellman and Clifford Odets, he settled Tasker and Bright. While Tasker thought this might ensure a lucrative future, Bright hoped the deal would lead to the fulfilment of his long-held dream of adapting B. Traven’s The Death Ship. Unfortunately, both would be disappointed.

A right-winger who considered FDR a communist, Schulberg surrounded himself with leftists because he thought that through them he could cash-in on the vogue for films with a social conscience. His first assignment for Tasker and Bright was an adaptation of a book, Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives for actor Edward Arnold. It turned out to be a biography of Allan Pinkerton, a man whom Tasker and Bright hated, the same Pinkerton whose job it had been to break up some of America’s most heated strikes. Ironically, neither Tasker nor Bright was aware that Pinkerton, the son of a Glasgow blacksmith, grew up as a Chartist agitator. It was only during an 1839 strike, when he himself was informed upon, that the now disillusioned Pinkerton shipped out to the New World, where he would become the boss of an entire army of informers. It might have made an interesting film. But the two screenwriters wanted nothing to do with it. Fortunately, Schulberg received a letter from a woman who had heard the studio was planning to make a film on Pinkerton’s life. She wrote that Pinkerton had been responsible for her husband’s murder, and if the studio were to make such a film, they would have his blood on their hands. Schulberg relented, saying, “Do you think I would knowingly contribute to the death of this poor woman’s husband? Or glorify his murderer? Cancel the picture as of now.” Schulberg was never to know that it was Bright who had written the letter, and had given it to his mother to send to the studio.

Following the aborted Pinkerton project, Tasker and Bright put their hand to a message movie- tycoon marries farm girl- for Schulberg entitled John Meade’s Woman. Directed by Richard Wallace, with a script by future Citizen Kane writer Herman Mankiewicz, and also starring Edward Arnold, it became a small box office success and was well received by critics. The writing team then moved to Universal, where they worked on The Notorious Gentleman and, in 1937, The Accusing Finger for Paul Hogan.
In 1939, Tasker and Bright were credited with writing San Quentin- a subject with which Tasker was obviously familiar- for Warner’s. By this time Tasker and Bright were making $900 a week, with an added clause stipulating they were to receive an extra $2000 should their scripts meet with studio approval. Yet their salaries did not quite match their division of labour, for Tasker was getting only $300, while Bright was pulling-in $600 a week.

They also worked on a script for Back Door to Heaven, directed by William K. Howard, about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to go straight but is arrested on a murder charge, exonerated, then killed by gangsters. Howard had been at Fox, then at Paramount where, as a director, he was once considered the equal of F.W. Murnau. A misjudgement perhaps, but Howard had at least known the great director and was a pallbearer at his funeral. A one-time anarchist, Howard had known Jim Tully at school. While the latter took to the road, to become a petty criminal, circus worker and boxer, Howard went a step further, and took up with John Dillinger’s gang, opting for a more profitable, if criminal, existence. Another indication of just how close the criminal world was to the world of making movies. Back Door to Heaven was inspired by Howard’s early years in Ohio.

A copious drinker, Howard would eventually be fired by Louis B. Mayer from MGM’s The Power and the Glory after he was caught imbibing on the set. At the time Howard had been one of Mayer’s highest paid directors, making $3,000 to $4,000 per week, and one of the few to have his own personal cinematographer. But the producer had put a clause in the director’s contract forbidding alcohol on the set. It was Tasker who suggested to Howard that he put his whiskey in a bottle of Coca Cola.

No doubt Tasker had the best of intentions when he suggested this small deception, for this was someone who simply liked to lend a helping hand, regardless of the consequences. Alfred Lewis Levitt, who wrote The Boy With Green Hair, and who would also be blacklisted in the 1950s, maintained that, when he first came to Hollywood, Tasker and Bright were the only writers willing to give him pointers. He also recounts their fondness for Mexican culture, particularly when it came to women: “John was then married to Josefina Fierro and Bob was also married to, or living with, a woman who was Mexican.” There is no indication as to the identity of Tasker’s girlfriend, but Fierro, at the time, had been a mainstay in the Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples, a leading Popular Front organisation representing the rights of Mexican-Americans. During the McCarthy era, and following her divorce to Bright, she would be deported to Mexico. Interestingly, Levitt claims that Tasker’s “social conscience developed as a result of the response that the novel [Grimhaven] elicited from the public,” and that his “background fit in with John’s experiences in Chicago.”

According to Levitt, Tasker and Bright got into trouble at Paramount not because they refused to do the Pinkerton film, but because they wrote a story about an older man in love with a younger woman. Without realising it, the story called to mind the adulterous relationship between Schulberg and Sylvia Sidney. When they gave the script to Schulberg, he was convinced they were portraying him and promptly fired them. Levitt said, after that “They found it difficult to get a job… and this was long before the blacklist.”

Having divorced “the Shit Pill Heiress,” Tasker, with no work coming his way, moved to Mexico in 1942, thanks to John D. Rockefeller, who had begun to send those in the arts to foreign countries as part of his Good Neighbor Policy. Tasker saw his trip as a means of escaping the draft, which, despite his politics, he considered just another prison sentence. Once in Mexico, he said he wanted to work on a script about the torpedoing of the petroleum tanker Porfidio Laredo by the Nazi’s in the Gulf of Mexico. Writing the script was, for Tasker, a way of remaining in Mexico for much of the war. There he worked on domestic films like Dama de las Camelias and Los Miserables, and married Gladys Florez, the granddaughter of the former Costa Rican president. Together they lived in a large house in Mexico City’s ritzy Chapultepec district. When Tasker discovered that Gladys was having an affair with the son of the chief of police, he became paranoid that, if he objected, it might lead to some trumped up charge and a prison sentence. Whether this had anything to do with his decision, in December 1944, to kill himself by mixing seconals and tequila, is not known.

According to newspaper reports, Tasker, age forty-one, had been heard quarrelling with his wife two days before his death, and had threatened to kill himself. Because of his politics and the war, there would be various rumours surrounding his death, and the possibility that it was not a suicide at all. Sam Brown, brother of Rowland, was the last American to see the writer alive. Brown spoke of shady circumstances. Not only had Tasker been found with a pillow over his face, but, adding to the mystery, a Mexican actor, who was also known to be a homosexual, had been present when the body was discovered. Though Bright thought it was a matter of Tasker preferring suicide to the possibility of returning to prison. After all, he had always had a depressive streak. “I should have killed myself in San Quentin,” Tasker had said to Bright before leaving the country. Whichever, it was a sad end to someone who skirted the edges of Hollywood, where he reaped some success while succumbing to the industry’s excesses. To this day, mystery still surrounds his life. Tasker may not have been a great writer, but he did produce one interesting book, and, in Hell’s Highway, an important and memorable screenplay. What’s more, he was one of those Hollywood characters who, however peripheral, lived the life of a protagonist in a film noir of their own making.

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