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.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Between Hell’s Highway and The Big House: Robert Tasker and Those Who Knew Him.

Part 2

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 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.”