Friday, October 17, 2008

William Faulkner meets Clark Gable

The most fateful thing that happened to Faulkner on his first Hollywood sojourn was meeting Howard Hawks. Hawks was already a successful director and he sought out Faulkner to develop a script for him. The two men were one year apart and shared similar tastes. They were both avid fans of Joseph Conrad and hunting. Unlike most Hollywood types, Hawks was able to talk intelligently about literature, and it was with Hawks that Faulkner would have his most rewarding experiences -- creatively and professionally -- while working in the movie business. Meeting Hawks was fateful in a darker way too. Hawks' secretary was a divorcée from Mississippi named Meta Carpenter. She and Faulkner would soon begin an affair that would end in heartbreak for her and fairly well wreck his marriage -- though he and Estelle Faulkner would never actually divorce. Hawks invited Faulkner into his circle of hunting buddies which included Clark Gable. This resulted in an amusing anecdote recounted in Joseph Blotner's biography.

One of the director's friends, Clark Gable, had a .410 over and under shotgun that Faulkner admired so much he wanted one like it. The first time they had driven into the Imperial Valley for some dove-hunting, Hawks began to talk about books. He would remember the conversation clearly. Faulkner entered into it, but Gable remained silent. Finally he ventured a question.
"Mr. Faulkner," he said, "what do you think somebody should read if he wants to read the best modern books? Who would you say are the best living writers?"
After a moment, Faulkner answered. "Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and myself."
Gable took a moment to absorb that information. "Oh," he said. "Do you write?"
"Yes, Mr. Gable," Faulkner replied. "What do you do?"

Later, Faulkner would strike up a friendship with the writer Nathanael West who, like Faulker, was in Tinseltown to make some quick cash in between novels. West was a modernist writer from New York City who was compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wonder if the Coen Brothers had him in mind when they created the character Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) in their dark comedy of the same name. Fans of the film will recall Barton's friendship with the character W.P. Mayhew who's quite obviously modeled on Faulkner...though Mayhew never took him pig-huntin'. Anyway, here's another hunting story that may be apocryphal, but was too entertaining for Blotner to pass up. He kept to the dictum, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

He [Faulkner] had settled in at the Beverly Hills, a quiet Spanish-style hotel which catered to elderly permanent guests. By the time spring came, he needed a change from its particular ambience. He found it with Nathanael West, whose minor masterpiece Miss Lonelyhearts had made no money two years before, and who was writing scripts for Republic Studios (called Repulsive Studios by veterans). "I'm goin' pig-huntin'," Faulkner told Dave Hempstead [a producer for Twentieth Century-Fox]. Later he would describe a rugged sport on Santa Cruz Island, where he and West would struggle through narrow tunnels of underbrush to hunt dangerous wild boars. When Hempstead met Faulkner and drove him back to the Beverly Hills, he was unshaven, clad in hunting shirt, and carrying a borrowed weapon under his arm. As he crossed the lobby to pick up his room key, the clerk dropped to the floor with a cry, a salesman bolted from the lobby, and two spinsters fainted. The hotel had been robbed in his absence, and his entrance was taken to be the gunman's return. By the time Hempstead's story filtered back to Oxford and Moon Mullen printed it in the Eagle, it had become a part of the steadily accreting lore of Faulkner in Hollywood.

Ironically, West would die a few years later in a car accident...on the way back from a hunting trip. Of course Faulkner wasn't in Hollywood solely to hunt and terrorize hotel clerks. He was there to lend his name and skills to whichever studio was signing his checks at the time. Mostly he found it unrewarding work, but in 1944 Howard Hawks presented him with an unusual opportunity -- the chance to help adapt the work of his great contemporary and rival Ernest Hemingway. The result would be screen magic. More on that next week.

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