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Balthasar

A Star Is Born (1937) Wonder

A Star Is Born (1937) Wonder
Balthasar, Aug 13, 2018
    • Balthasar
      In New York in 1932, the celebrated wit and writer Dorothy Parker met the man who would be the most instrumental in her future Hollywood career: Alan Campbell. Campbell was an actor who had published a few short stories. He was beautiful, like a young, much better looking Scott Fitzgerald. He was 29 and Parker was 40, and they were smitten with one another. Campbell was Parker’s physical type, and she was flattered that such a young man desired her, although their age difference made her nervous enough that she usually didn’t mention it. Campbell loved Dottie’s wit, and saw immediately that she was kind of a mess when left to her own devices; he wanted to take care of her. He started by suggesting she change her hair, and when she did, she was so taken by her new look that she kept it until she died. In 1934, they married. Soon thereafter, they met an agent who suggested they go to Hollywood and sell themselves as a husband-and-wife writing team. They were offered a combined $1,250 a week to work at Paramount. That was a small fortune at a time when the Depression was still being felt. Parker was against it, but her debts had mounted to unconscionable levels, and Campbell talked her into it.

      “I don't know much about being a millionaire, but I'll bet I'd be darling at it.” ― Dorothy Parker

      Parker’s might have been the name that got the Campbell-Parker team work, but it was Campbell who ensured that they were able to produce work. Parker’s first, solo sojourn in Hollywood in 1929 had ended without a produced screenplay, and there were indications at the beginning of her second sojourn that she was incapable of writing a whole movie. Parker was a master at firing off-one liners, and she had built a body of poems and reviews stringing together a dozen of the same, and she had started developing a talent for writing short stories of limited incident, that crusted acidic wit around a gooey core of melancholy. But she had never been much good at sustained writing or developed narrative. She hadn’t written novels because she couldn’t manage to concentrate on any one thing for that long; even a magazine article posed a serious challenge, and so much prodding from editors that the result seemed hardly worth their effort. In the language of modern Hollywood she would have been someone you called for a punch-up—to provide a dozen new lines in order to give an existing character a sense of humor or to liven up a few scenes. You would probably not think to hire her to take a blank page and a concept and turn them into a screenplay.

      If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy. ― Dorothy Parker

      That’s where Alan Campbell came in. Though himself new to screenwriting, Campbell was able to see what his wife could do, and train himself to do what she couldn’t. Thus they developed a system: Campbell would structure the screenplay and sketch out the action of the scene, and then Parker would come in and pepper the structure with snappy dialogue.

      Between 1933 and 1938 the writing team got credit for 15 films, but worked on many more. Dottie wished some of them would vanish forever. The couple spent three months at MGM working on Suzy, a comedy with Jean Harlow and a young Cary Grant. Some of the other movies they worked on were Here is My Heart, One Hour Late, The Big Broadcast of 1936, Mary Burns, Fugitive, Hands Across the Table, Paris in the Spring, Three Married Men and A Star is Born.

      If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to. ― Dorothy Parker

      With their weekly screenwriting incomes ranging from $2,000 to $5,000, Dottie and Alan lived a lavish lifestyle. Parker insisted that Hollywood money wasn’t real money, but “congealed snow that melts in your hand.” The couple melted their snow on a new house in Beverly Hills, a Picasso, a Packard, and servants, who kept quitting because Campbell and Parker were prone to drinking all night and sleeping most of the day and expected the help to be on call whenever they were needed.. They were big drinkers, too. Parker drank Manhattans and Campbell Scotch on the rocks, or they would share pitchers of Martinis. In retrospect, one would think that they were both doing field research for A Star is Born.

      The story for A Star Is Born was originally based on an idea by director William Wellman, who apparently lifted major plot points from a little-noticed film, What Price Hollywood? made five years earlier. A script outline by Robert Carson and Wellman was pedaled from studio to studio by the director for years before David O. Selznick finally agreed to finance the film. It also helped that Selznick's wife, Irene (the daughter of Louis B. Mayer), thought the story had box-office potential. After giving Wellman the green light for production, Selznick became more involved in the creative process, requesting that the film be made in the new three-color Technicolor process and demanding a title change from It Happened In Hollywood which was rumored to be the name of a competing project at Columbia Studios. Selznick also ordered numerous re-writes behind Wellman's back, enlisting veteran writers Ben Hecht, Adela Rogers St. Johns, Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner, Jr., and John Lee Mahin to each take a turn at it. Selznick's meddling finally ceased only when Wellman threatened to sue through his agent, Myron Selznick, the producer's own brother.

      Still, even with all of those fingers in the pie, the script for A Star Is Born became an ideal vehicle for Parker to aim some of her famous wit at Hollywood, and her influence is all over it. Just one example of how much of Parker herself is in the script is found in the early part of the film where Esther takes a room at a boarding house. The sequence mirrors a similar event in Parker's life, as she told the Paris Review in 1956: "I lived in a boarding house at 103rd and Broadway, paying $8 a week for my room and two meals, breakfast and dinner. Thorne Smith was there, and another man. We used to sit around in the evening and talk. There was no money, but Jesus we had fun."

      And of course, some of the dialogue is pure Parker, as then Grandmother Lettie tells Esther, "If you've got one drop of my blood in your veins, you won't let Mattie or any of her kind break your heart, you'll go right out there and break it yourself."

      I hate writing, I love having written. - Dorothy Parker

      A Star Is Born got seven Academy Award nominations, including a nomination for Best Screenplay for Dorothy Parker, her husband Alan Campbell, and Robert Carson, who had done the first script outline. The sole award the movie won that evening, however, was for Best Writing, Original Story - which went to the director, William Wellman and Robert Carson.

      Dorothy Parker was also nominated, but didn't win, once more in 1947, for the film, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947). Parker and Campbell divorced after World War II, but were reunited a few years later and remarried in 1950.

      “The only “ism” Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.” - Dorothy Parker

      And then in April 1951, the doorbell rang, and Parker answered, and she immediately clocked the two men in suits standing on her doorstep as FBI agents. They started asking questions. Was so-and-so a friend of hers? Did she know that so-and-so was a Communist? What about such-and-such? Did she ever see such and such at a Communist Party meeting? Parker knew better than to incriminate her friends, or herself, and apparently so did her dog, who started barking the moment the Feds crossed the threshold and didn’t stop throughout the whole interrogation. When asked point-blank if she had conspired to overthrow the government, Parker responded, “Listen, I can’t even get my dog to stay down. Do I look to you like someone who could overthrow the government?”

      Nonetheless, Mrs. Parker landed on the Blacklist. Among other jobs she found during this period was a stint as movie reviewer for Esquire magazine. The remake of A Star is Born in 1954 helped to rehabilitate her earning capacity.

      Parker, in her sixties, moved back and forth between Los Angeles and New York, until she settled down with Campbell again in a tiny bungalow in West Hollywood on Norma Place. The last script they worked on was slated for Marilyn Monroe, who died when it was being developed. Not long afterward, Campbell died of an overdose.

      Lillian Hellman, a good friend of Dottie's, told a story about nosey neighbor who came over and asked the grieving widow if she needed anything.

      “Get me a new husband,” Dorothy told the woman with little emotion.

      Shocked, the neighbor was aghast, and angry. She berated Dottie.

      “I’m sorry,” Dorothy told her neighbor. “Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye. And tell them to hold the mayo.”


      That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment. ― Dorothy Parker


      Once she'd returned to back New York for good, Dorothy didn't look back on her time in Hollywood fondly. Hollywood, Parker said, "was a horror to me when I was there and it's a horror to look back on."

      "When I got away from it I couldn't even refer to the place by name," she said, " 'Out there,' I called it. You want to know what "out there" means to me? Once I was coming down a street in Beverly Hills and I saw a Cadillac about a block long, and out of the side window was a wonderfully slinky mink, and an arm, and at the end of the arm a hand in a white suede glove wrinkled around the wrist, and in the hand was a bagel with a bite out of it."

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    Aug 13, 2018
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