Review of THE WRITERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SCREENWRITERS AND THEIR GUILD

Written for the Fall 2015 issue of Film Quarterly. — J.R.

The Writers jacket

The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and

Their Guild by Miranda J. Banks

 

This is clearly a creditable, conscientious, intelligent, and

useful book, but I feel obliged to confess at the outset that

I don’t feel like I’m one of its ideal or intended readers. The

subtitle loosely describes its contents, but “A Business

History of Hollywood Screenwriters and Their Guild

would come much closer to the mark, even if it might make

the book less marketable to me and some others. And the

unexceptional simplification of the title and subtitle is part of

what gives me some trouble: it’s the business of Hollywood,

after all, to convince the public that “American screenwriters”

and “Hollywood screenwriters” amount to the same

thing. And the moment that any meaningful distinction

between the two collapses, then the studios, one might argue,

have already won the battle.

 

I don’t expect my own bias about this matter to be shared

by many of Film Quarterly’s readers. Writers who blithely

and uncritically toss about terms like “Indiewood” designed

to further mystify the differences between studio work and

independent work probably don’t think they’re working for

the fat cats, but from my vantage point as a journalist who

thinks that these distinctions deeply matter, they’re the worst

kind of unpaid publicists. This isn’t to say that my own two

decades of weekly film reviewing for the Chicago Reader

weren’t bracketed by the same sort of market forces — only

that it’s important to provide some clarity about who is being

hustled, who (or what) is doing the hustling, and why.

 

Not that Miranda J. Banks is being in the least bit cagey

about her focus in The Writers. A key line in her Introduction

explains: “I define screenwriters as industry professionals

who write for screened entertainment, whether their

work appears on film, television, a video game, or streaming

video” (3). This obviously rules out a lot of screenwriters

who aren’t for one reason or another regarded as industry

professionals, and even though Banks plainly appears to be

on the side of all screenwriters, and not on the side of their

actual or prospective industry bosses, it’s still these bosses and

not their actual or potential employees who decide who is

and who isn’t an “industry professional.” And unavoidably,

this condition winds up determining much of the history

and workings (past, present, and future) of the Writers

Guild, however exalted as well as reasonable its aims might

be. The unreliability of a good many writers’ screen credits

as they’re given today — and the rapidity with which they

flash by in trailers, designed to satisfy neither the audience’s

curiosity nor the vanity of those writers lucky enough to be

named, but only the lawyers and other bureaucrats who are

running the show — is only one example of what I mean.

 

Both because of and in spite of this brutal fact, the story of

the Writers Guild that Banks recounts is a rocky and rather

torturous one, and not a tale in which the writers always or

necessarily emerge as the heroes. If, on the one hand, the formation

of the Motion Picture Academy was motivated by a

desire to steal thunder from the Guild and obfuscate as well

as undermine its power by replacing it in the mid-1930s by

what Banks correctly calls an “ersatz Guild” (32) — the

Screen Playwrights, a group that “plotted to gut the union

and lure away writers” (55) — the true-blue Guild, “by agreeing

to the MPAA’s loyalty requests . . . effectively aided in the

institution and enforcement of the blacklist” (105) for more

than two decades (1951–1973).

 

For all of Banks’s discernment in teasing out the paradoxes

inherent in the Guild’s formation and implementation, history

invariably gets written by the victors, so the Academy of

Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, however dubious its origins

and ongoing motivations, is far more respectable in contemporary

mainstream culture than the Guild itself, which is more apt to be

regarded as a special-interest group of lobbyists by comparison.

By the same token, figures such as Elia Kazan who cooperated

with the blacklist are viewed ambivalently at best, while the

studio heads who actually put it into practice are more likely to

be commemorated today as demigods and role models. Given

such a climate, it’s small wonder that Banks can classify

Citizen Kane as “classical [sic] Hollywood filmmaking . . .

at its finest in 1941,” along with How Green Was My Valley,

The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Dumbo, and

Sullivan’s Travels, regardless of how it was regarded both

inside and outside the industry in 1941 (74–75). But if Citizen

Kane with its unorthodox techniques was (or is) “classical”

Hollywood filmmaking, one can only wonder what her nonclassical

examples might be. (Easy Rider, perhaps?)

citizenkane-light

 

Banks, an assistant professor of visual and media arts at

Emerson College, draws on her own detailed interviews with

sixty screenwriters (including such figures as Mel Brooks and

Ring Lardner Jr.), as well as the archives of the Writers Guild

Foundation. Even though her text occasionally contains

overstatements — not quite “every studio head in Hollywood

during the studio system was Jewish” (24), as she credits Neal

Gabler for asserting — and stylistic infelicities, she has produced

a book that comes across as both careful and comprehensive,

at least to a layperson such as myself. She’s especially

informative about the different sort of labor struggles encountered

and resolved in writing for movies and television, and even the

significant differences between writing for television on the East

Coast and the West Coast.

 

For readers who find the subject of Hollywood as a business

fascinating, this book undoubtedly has many treasures to offer.

Banks even rounds off her study with two appendices —

twenty-one pages devoted to “Screenwriters and Selected

Credits” (complete with Academy and Emmy awards and

nominations and various Writers Guild of America and

Screen Writers Guild awards) (243–64), and four more to her

“Methodology” (265–68). But for someone like me who finds

business and career credits dull and unrewarding unless they’re

tied to other subjects and interests, not even the lucid and

considered prose of this book can prevent it from being a bit

of a slog. The exceptions are the terrific illustrations devoted to

pages from scripts, studio correspondence, and other ephemera.

These include, among other nuggets, a 1937 warning letter

by Jack Warner addressed to “all writers” about their lax

working hours, which reportedly led to Julius and Philip

Epstein coming up with the “perfect” ending to Casablanca at

8:30 AM (41), a light-verse parody of “Jabberwocky” by I.A.L.

Diamond that was published in the June 1947 issue of

The Screen Writer (66), and Frank S. Nugent penciling in the

dialogue “Let’s go home!” on page 140 of his script for The

Searchers (116). For me, they provide a series of oases in the

midst of Banks’s grand American subject, which usually — and

perhaps inevitably — turns out to be other people’s money.

 

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM is the former lead film critic for the Chicago

Reader and the author, most recently, of Goodbye Cinema, Hello

Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (2010). Much of his writing

can be found at www.jonathanrosenbaum.net.

 

BOOK DATA Miranda J. Banks, The Writers: A History of American

Screenwriters and Their Guild. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University

Press, 2015. $34.95 cloth. 329 pages.

This entry was posted in Notes. Bookmark the permalink.