A nineteen-thirties Hollywood premiere, as recreated for “The Day of the Locust.” From left, Billy Baldwin as M.C., Nancee Lafayette as Ginger Rogers, and Gregory Spencer as Tyrone Power.
Madge Kennedy, silent-era star, on set with director Schlesinger.
Billy Barty as Abe Kusich, the pugnacious dwarf (on a hillside between takes)
Jackie Haley Jr. as Adore Loomis, who’s never as sweet as he looks.
Two of the 850 extras –in a way, the film’s real stars.
Apocalypse: The final riot scene in John Schlesinger’s film of “The Day of the Locust”
Bill Atherton as Tod, the artist fresh out of Yale.
In the center of the field was a gigantic pile of sets, flats and props. While he watched, a 10-ton truck added another load to it. This was the final dumping ground. He thought of Janvier’s “Sargasso Sea.” Just as that imaginary body of water was a history of civilization in the form of a marine junkyard, the studio lot was one in the form of a dream dump. A Sargasso of the imagination! And the dump grew continually, for there wasn’t a dream afloat somewhere which wouldn’t sooner or later turn up on it, having first been made photographic by plaster, canvas, lath and paint. Many boats sink and never reach the Sargasso, but no dream ever entirely disappears. Somewhere it troubles some unfortunate person and some day, when that person has been sufficiently troubled, it will be reproduced on the lot. – NATHANAEL WEST, “The Day of the Locust.”
With the partitions removed, sound stages 31, 32 and 33, on the Gower Street side of the Paramount Pictures lot, form a single enclosure. In that dark and echoing space has been built the vast set on which are being filmed the apocalyptic final scenes of West’s classic novel of the underside of Hollywood life in the nineteen-thirties.
The centerpiece of the set is a replica of the façade and forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It is a green-and-vermillion fantasy pagoda, guarded by fire-breathing dragons. Above the entrance, an electric sign 50 feet long blazes. “The Buccaneer,” it says. At Grauman’s it is March 9, 1939. The Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza, starring Fredric March and featuring Franciska Gaal, Akim Tamiroff and Anthony Quinn, is having its world premiere.
On the set are 850 extras. A few wear evening clothes. They are the movie stars and studio executives who step out of the limousines that choke Hollywood Boulevard in front of the theater. Other extras are costumed as Grauman’s ushers in black silk skullcaps and vests, high-necked shirts and wide-legged pajama trousers. Others are pirates, wearing brilliant red and orange eye patches and fierce mustaches, and kerchiefs around their heads; or police, keeping order, in khaki riding breeches and boots.
The rest form the throng of spectators. They are seated in bleachers on both sides of the theater entrance. They strain against the velvet ropes and crowd the curbs on the other side of the boulevard, anxious for a glimpse of the stars. They hasten up Orange Drive, drawn by the glare of the searchlights that shoot their beams hypnotically back and forth across the night sky.
In their shabby windbreakers, worn, cheap suits and house dresses, cracked shoes, with their distorted bodies and empty eyes in pale, empty faces, they portray the frustrated, envious, finally murderous mob of West’s vision, lured to the westernmost edge of the country by false hopes and promises of new life, and waiting now only to die.
They are the living nightmares, the walking dead who mock the beauty and grace, the elegance, the pomp and power of those who pass before them. Unheard among the cheers and applause, the excited shouts, sinister as a cold wind blowing across a graveyard, is a scream of vengeance.
Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein on Oct. 17, 1903, at 151 East 81st Street in New York. The building had been put up by his father, a prosperous contractor who had emigrated from a German-speaking enclave of Czarist Lithuania. West had a difficult growing up. His parents were asked to remove him from two elementary schools and he dropped out of De Witt Clinton High School.
Using a forged transcript, young Weinstein gained admission to Tufts College, but was dismissed within two months with failing grades in all his courses. Providentially, there was an excellent student at Tufts who bore the same name, and West used his grades to transfer to Brown University. He did not distinguish himself academically at Brown either, but he read widely, particularly in French literature and modern poetry, and began to think of himself as at least a potential writer. He and S. J. Perelman, who cherished the same ambition, became friends. A few years later, Perelman married Laura Weinstein, West’s sister.
After his graduation in 1924, West worked for his father on construction jobs, but continued to write. In the fall of 1926, he persuaded his uncles to underwrite a year in Paris, the goal of all aspiring artists in that period. Shortly before his departure, he legally changed his name. His reasons remain obscure. West’s relationship with his family was close and he made no attempt otherwise to conceal his derivation.
In Paris, West lounged in the cafes of Montparnasse, was introduced to Henry Miller and bought several copies of “Ulysses” – which was profoundly to influence his first novel, “The Dream Life of Balso Snell” – at Sylvia Beach’s famous bookshop. His stay was brief, however. The bottom dropped out of the construction business, West’s allowance was withdrawn, and in January, 1927, he returned to New York.
For the next six years he worked as the night manager of, first, the Kenmore Hall Hotel on East 23rd Street and, then, the Sutton Club Hotel on East 56th Street. The jobs were secured by his uncles, who were creditors of the bankrupt builders. West wrote through the long quiet nights and provided free accommodations to a widening circle of writing friends.
“Balso Snell” was published in 1931 in an edition of 500 copies, 150 of which West had agreed to buy. His second novel, “Miss Lonelyhearts,” appeared in 1933. It was a critical success, but sales were poor, partly because the publisher went bankrupt just as it was being distributed. However, the film rights were purchased by Twentieth Century Fox for $4,000. West’s sardonic Christ parable of a dispenser of newspaper advice who is destroyed by those he tries to help was eventually filmed as “Advice to the Lovelorn,” a routine stop-the-presses comedy.
Columbia Pictures, in those days a “poverty-row” producer of starless, low-budget films, offered him a screenwriting job. The pay was $200 a week, four times his salary at the Sutton Club. Hoping to save enough money to permit a year or two of uninterrupted serious writing, he accepted.
Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson, the Iowa bookkeeper who is torn to bits in the film’s climax.
Karen Black as the dreamy, luscious Faye Greener. “As I play Faye,” says Miss Black, a Scientologist, “she is not destructive.”
Tod in bed with Faye, a scene that is strictly his fantasy.
Burgess Meredith as Faye’s father, Harry, an old vaudevillian.
Arriving in Hollywood in July, 1933, West moved in with the Perelmans. Perelman, whose comic sketches had been appearing in the old Life, Judge and The New Yorker, had been lured to the film capital shortly before to work on the screenplays of the classic Marx Brothers comedies. West was underwhelmed by the glamour of the place, and he found his work drudgery. In a letter quoted by Jay Martin in his biography, “Nathanael West: The Art of His Life,” he wrote to a friend in New York, “All the writers sit in cells in a row and the minute a typewriter stops someone pokes his head in the door to see if you are thinking. Otherwise, it’s just like the hotel business.
“The place is just like Asbury Park, N.J.,” he went on. “The same stucco houses, women in pajamas, delicatessen stores, etc. There is nothing to do, except tennis, golf or the movies….In other words, phooey on Cal.” As in Paris, his stay was brief. The studio dropped him after two months, common enough procedure in those days. In December, he returned to New York.”
Grauman’s Chinese Theater stands a couple of miles from the Paramount lot. It has passed into other hands since the death of Sid Grauman, but the name persists. In the absence of some sort of film-industry museum, a cultural enterprise undreamed of by the primitives who ran the big studios, the theater has become Hollywood’s Louvre and its Pantheon.
Visitors buy souvenirs from old extras in cowboy boots and worn buckskins, walk through a wax museum, and solemnly study the indentations formed in the pinkish-tan concrete of the forecourt by the hands and feet of scores of movie stars, beginning in 1927 with Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford. The autocratic DeMille placed his bootprints in the wet concrete, Betty Grable her celebrated and rather overrated legs, and Jayne Mansfield her breasts, creating declivities in which mosquitoes breed after a heavy rain.
From Grauman’s depart the limousines that carry tourists past the homes of the stars in Beverly Hills and Bel Air. I made the excursion one Saturday afternoon in company with two honeymooning young couples from places like Deathball City, Ind., and New Acne, NE. The driver, who bore a passing resemblance to Elvis Presley, turned out to be an aspiring actor from Brentwood, L. I., named Chuck Cavanagh. He told me that he had decided on a screen career after losing his job as a jet-engine mechanic at Los Angeles International Airport, and had recently worked as an extra on “Lepke,” a nineteen-thirties gangland saga.
As we rolled through winding, hilly lanes, past opulent, palm-fringed homes, many of them reflecting the taste of people who have made a lot of money in a short time, Chuck briefed us on the latest gossip of the film capital. Vivacious Debbie Reynolds and shoe magnate Harry Karl had finally called it quits, he reported. She was being squired around town by Glenn Ford. Priscilla Presley was not lacking for friends since the breakup of her marriage.
We rolled by the mansion of Hugh Hefner, the Playboy man, which was fenced with wire mesh to keep the Bunnies from getting out and breeding all over the place; the Sammy Davis Jr. house, protected by a 20-foot fence and patrolled by armed guards because of kidnapping threats by Arab terrorists and, at the summit, Pickfair, where Mary Pickford, in her 80s, lives as a virtual recluse.
Chuck divided the stars into the friendlies and the unfriendlies. Doris Day was a friendly, he said. A couple of days previously, out bicycling, she had agreed to pose for a photograph with one of his tourists and had dispensed autographs with a liberal hand. Barbra Streisand was an unfriendly, as was Robert Young. “We saw him standing in front of his house,” he said, “and he wouldn’t even wave back at us.”
“Gee, I never see anybody,” said one of the honeymooners. “I guess I’m not that lucky.”
Passing Pat Boone’s house, it seemed that her luck had changed. Through an open gate, a man in a flowered shirt could be seen placing suitcases in the trunk of a car. “Is that him?” she asked. “I think it is, “ exclaimed the other young woman. Cavanagh, ever obliging, stopped the car. She lowered the window and waved. The man turned. It might have been Pat Boone’s Filipino gardener, but it wasn’t Pat Boone.
“I could’ve told you it wasn’t him,” said one of the young husbands. “You wouldn’t see Pat Boone loading his own suitcases like that.”
The man in charge on the set of “The Day of the Locust” is John Schlesinger, the director. He is portly and rubicund. His eyes snap behind horn-rimmed glasses. His bald head reflects the light, creating an aura. When he speaks, it is in the precise accents of Uppingham and Oxford. He stands on a stepladder alongside the boom camera, gazing down at the throng of extras like Colonel Blimp surveying a mob of mutinous wogs.
Schlesinger began his career in British television and documentary films. Since 1962 he has directed six films. All but one of them, “Far From the Madding Crowd” were to one degree or another critically and commercially successful. “Midnight Cowboy,” his first film in the United States, won the Academy Award for 1969, and Schlesinger was chosen as best director.
At the foot of the ladder stand Waldo Salt, who wrote the screenplay, and Jerome Hellman, the producer. They also worked with Schlesinger on “Midnight Cowboy.” Salt has a beard like an Old Testament prophet. His face is lined and his expression is quizzical. He has little to say. Hellman is stocky, muscular and quick-moving, as only a man who was an agent for many years can be.
All three men are wearing blue jeans, the uniform of the Hollywood elite, and each pair reflects its owner’s personality to some degree. Schlesinger’s, to put it bluntly, are new-looking, for which there is no excuse, since he has been living in the film capital for a year. Salt’s, as befits a man who was a member of the Communist party in the nineteen-thirties and was blacklisted by the industry for 15 years, look as though they were broken in by a wetback bean-picker and are worn with a faded dark blue sweatshirt and scuffed construction boots.
Hellman’s on the other hand, are a perfect fit, faded to match the blue of his eyes and set off by gleaming Gucci loafers, which are to agents and producers what aluminum plates are to a racing thoroughbred. Moreover, the back of his denim jacket has been lavishly embroidered by his lovely young wife.
Schlesinger had told me between takes the day before that his interest in the “Locust” project went back to 1971. “After ‘Cowboy,’” he said, “Warner Brothers asked me to do a picture of my own choosing. ‘Locust’ had first been suggested to me by Lewis Allen, the producer. I told them I wanted to do it. I brought in Waldo. Warners dropped the project eventually – no, I don’t know why, since they never had the courtesy to tell me – and then we brought Jerry in as the producer and took it to Paramount.”
Schlesinger and Hellman convinced Frank Yablans, the young, hard-driving president of the studio, that a great movie was concealed within the dark and spiky pages of the West novel. “I knew what John had done with ‘Midnight Cowboy,’” Yablans told me. “He took a book about the friendship of an unsuccessful male hustler and a sick, homeless kid, and made it a hit.”
Yablans, whose office is in the gleaming white corporate headquarters of Gulf & Western Industries, which owns Paramount, on Columbus Circle in New York, said he was certain that Schlesinger would get performances as powerful from Karen Black, Donald Sutherland and Bill Atherton as he had from Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. Then, too, he said, “Locust” fits neatly into the present cycle of interest in films set in the period from 1920 to 1945, and movies about Hollywood itself were often highly successful, notably “Sunset Boulevard” and the three versions of “A Star Is Born.”
Most important in his thinking, perhaps, was the fact that the enormous success of “The Godfather” had provided the studio with substantial cash reserves. Moreover, a recent ruling by the Internal Revenue Service had made it more attractive for outside investors to share the risks of film production.
“’Locust’ was originally budgeted at $4,040,000,” Yablans said. “The final cost will be $4.8-million to $5-million. We laid off $1.5-million of that in return for an 8 per cent participation in the profits. For us, in terms of prestige and potential, a $3.5-million ‘Locust’ has to be very, very inexpensive.”
Robert Evans, the executive vice president in charge of production, whose offices are in Beverly Hills, was less enthusiastic. Such disagreements between New York and Hollywood go back to the film industry’s earliest days. Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during its peak years, fought continuously with Nicholas Schenck, the head of the parent concern, Loew’s, Inc., and was ultimately deposed by him. Mayer, in turn, fought with Irving Thalberg, his legendary chief of production during the early nineteen-thirties and the model for Monroe Stahr, the central figure in Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon.”
Evans, a former actor, played Thalberg in “Man of a Thousand Faces,” the film biography of Lon Chaney. As a production chief, he is said to have taken on several Thalbergian mannerisms, notably a quiet, attentive, considerate manner. He thinks like potentates of the past. The current film version of “The Great Gatsby” was begun as a starring vehicle for Ali McGraw while they were married. When she left him for Steve McQueen, she also lost the part.
In any event, the “Locust” group did not regard Evans as a friend, and at one point Hellman, confident of the support of Yablans, forbade Evans to see the daily rushes. “He was taking them home with him to show to his friends and you just don’t do that,” Hellman said. Evans denied this, and said that he was simply using “Locust” as a guide to improving the nineteen-thirties look of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” which was in production at about the same time.
In 1934 West published “A Cool Million,” a black satire of the myth of success that ends with the triumph of Fascism. Even in terms of his modest expectations, the reviews and sales were disappointing. Although “A Cool Million” was an even more unlikely property than “Miss Lonelyhearts,” it was bought by Columbia. The price paid is not known, but it can scarcely have been more than a few thousand dollars.
Even so, the money enabled West to continue writing full time for a while. By the beginning of 1935, however, he was asking his agent to find a screenwriting assignment for him. A few months later, West returned to Hollywood, hoping that something would come up. In any case, he had decided that his next novel would be set in the Hollywood of false promises and lost hopes that he had glimpsed on his first visit.
He moved into a run-down apartment-hotel on North Ivar Street near Hollywood Boulevard. Its residents were the people he would be writing about – extras and bit-players, aspiring youngsters, the old and exhausted, minor racketeers and prostitutes, to whom he loaned his car when they were going out on calls. He caught gonorrhea, not for the first time – it may have been an affectation of decadence – and it turned out to be a stubborn and painful case. He visited the Mexican and Negro districts, attended prizefights and cockfights and frequented side-street bars.
West also became a familiar figure at Stanley Rose’s bookstore and in the back room at Musso and Frank’s Restaurant, on Hollywood Boulevard. They were gathering places for writers who, like West, had been lured to films by the hope of making the money they needed to do their own work. Among them were William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Erskine Caldwell and Dashiell Hammett. In the years ahead, West was to become an occasional hunting companion of Faulkner’s and a close friend of Fitzgerald’s.
It was a difficult period for him, although invaluable in the germination of “The Day of the Locust.” For six months he was unable to find work. His money ran out and he lived on loans from Perelman. His room was stifling in the summer heat and brush fires blazed in the nearby hills. Finally, when the weather had turned cool, West was hired by Republic Productions, still at $200 a week. That was good money anyplace in the country in those days, but for a screenwriter it was coolie wages. Republic made low-budget films at a time when low-budget meant low-budget, films that played on the bottom half of double features in movie houses that smelled strongly of disinfectant.
West stayed at Republic for two years, working on a string of undistinguished films, among them “Ticket to Paradise,” about an amnesia sufferer, “The President’s Mystery,” “Gangs of New York” and “Jim Hanvey – Detective.” But he learned the craft of screenwriting and got credits on films that were as successful as such films could be. In June, 1938, he moved to R.K.O., a far more important studio, at $350 a week.
The “look-alike” extras in “The Day of the Locust” were hired because they resembled stars who might have attended the premiere of “The Buccaneer.” Day by day they took on the attributes of their originals. They wore with panache their evening gowns and tailcoats, which on close examination were old and ragged. They projected jaw-dislocating smiles when other extras who were playing press photographers and had been equipped with old Speed Graphics but no film ignited their flash bulbs.
Sitting around the set between takes, the look-alikes permitted the ordinary extras no familiarities. They spoke only to one another or to the men who had been chosen because they were either tall and distinguished-looking or short, fat and bald, to play studio executives.
The Ginger Rogers look-alike was Nancee Lafayette. Her blond hair was braided and wrapped around her ears. She wore an orange chiffon gown trimmed with red-dyed marabou, and a boxy fox jacket. Miss Lafayette, who regularly worked as a tour guide at Universal Studios, said she was suppressing the thought that she really looked more like Doris Day. The Janet Gaynor look-alike, a hoyden with a round face, tiled nose and an imposing bosom, told me that with a black wig she was a dead ringer for Hedy Lamarr.
“It’s a big opportunity for me, “ said Miss Lafayette. “I’ve got lines. That means I get a chance to join the Screen Actors Guild. When I get out of the car, I go over to the microphone and Billy Baldwin, the announcer, asks me to say something to the crowd. I say, ‘Oh, it’s an exciting premiere! I adore Fredric March and I adore old C.B.’”
A Fred Astaire look-alike having been unobtainable, Miss Lafayette was escorted by Gregory Spencer. The young actor’s chiseled features, glossy black hair and jaunty bearing provided a striking resemblance to Tyrone Power. “I was born 50 years too late,” Spencer said with actor’s rue. “No one is interested in my look anymore. If Robert Taylor or Bob Montgomery or Ty Power were young today, no one would hire them. It’s all Steve McQueen and Bob Redford and Elliott Gould.” He turned away for a moment to listen to an assistant director’s instructions. “Ty Power is buried about 50 yards from where we’re standing,” he said, “in the Hollywood Cemetery. It runs right up against the back of the lot.”
One of the look-alikes kept to herself. She was Celia Kaye, whose ivory skin, black hair and lustrous brown eyes, set off by silver lame, did indeed suggest Merle Oberon. Miss Kaye had known stardom herself, although briefly. She played the female lead, she told me, in “The Wild Seed,” an ambitious low-budget “youth” film made by Universal in 1964. She had then played the daughter in the “New Loretta Young Show” on television. Neither clicked.
“I came out here in 1959 from Wilmington, DE., to study at the Pasadena Playhouse. I was just 17. Unfortunately, my break came too soon, before I knew what to do with it. Now I’m searching for a second chance, maybe in writing or producing.”
On the corner of La Huerta Road was a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers. Next to it was a highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of the “Arabian Nights.” Again he was charitable. Both houses were comic, but he didn’t laugh. Their desire to startle was so eager and guileless. It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.
--“The Day of the Locust.”
It was at a meeting in the Polo Bar of the Beverly Hills Hotel in November, 1971, that Waldo Salt was first approached to write the screenplay for “The Day of the Locust.” “I was waiting for Ronnie Shedlo, the original producer, and I glanced into the Loggia dining room,” he said. “In a booth I saw two elderly men. They both had on blue serge suits, white shirts and silver ties, pink cheeks, manicured fingernails. There wasn’t any silverware or plates on the table. Only a white telephone. They sat there, absolutely silent, looking at it. It was as though Los Angeles had burned and the revolution had come, and they were waiting, not knowing for what. Somehow it made me terribly receptive to the proposal.”
The script was to go through four complete revisions, and parts of it were rewritten a dozen times before filming finally began last Oct. 15. “It was a real bitch of a problem to take a minor classic, make a good movie of it and be respectful of the material,” he said. “More so in this case because what West was writing was a brilliant poetic essay using every possible literary device to make his points. In the same sense, Camus never really wrote novels; he wrote essays in novel form.
“Beyond that, the central character, Tod Hackett, is obsessed with Hollywood as fake and real,” he went on. “I had to take Tod and make Tod into a real human being rather than a literary spokesman for Nathanael West, who was a man near 40 writing about himself when young.”
The dominant critical view of “The Day of the Locust” is summed up by Malcolm Bradbury in “America and the Comic Vision,” in which he writes, “West is a novelist who dealt in a world of suffering unmitigated by the traditional religious deliverances, of festering nonredemption….He goes for a comedy of almost parodied agony, of distortion, perversion and misdirected desire.”
In adapting the novel for the screen, Salt said he took a somewhat different view. His rubric was the fragment quoted at the head of this section. “I felt that West’s subtext was compassionate,” he said. “His approach to the grotesquerie and absurdity out here was almost Shakespearean. He says, ‘Don’t laugh at this. It is sad, poignant, tragic.’”
West sent the manuscript of “The Day of the Locust” to Random House in April, 1938. Bennett Cerf and Saxe Commins, his editor and one of the best of his time, asked for extensive revisions, which occupied West’s free time for most of the summer.
The novel, as it was published that December, tells in 27 brief chapters, totaling 134 pages, how Tod Hackett, a young painter hired by a film studio while still an undergraduate at Yale to work on designs for a film about the Battle of Waterloo, is caught up in the lives of several archetypal Hollywood figures. The most important are Faye Greener, the beautiful fantasy-obsessed young extra; her father, Harry, a small-time vaudevillian who sells silver polish door-to-door but can’t stop performing, and Homer Simpson, a frightened middle-aged former hotel bookkeeper in a small town in Iowa, “an exact model for the kind of person who comes to California to die, perfect in every detail down to fever eyes and unruly hands.”
Then there are Abe Kusich, the pugnacious dwarf book-maker; Earle Shoop, who “worked occasionally in horse-operas and spent the rest of his time in front of a saddlery store on Sunset Boulevard”; Miguel, “toffee-colored with large Armenian eyes and pouting black lips,” who raises fighting cocks; Maybelle Loomis, prototypical stage mother, and her son, Adore, who precipitates the final riot.
Tod has been in Hollywood for three months. He lives, as West did, in a hotel on Ivar Street, the Chateau Mirabella. “Another name for Ivar Street was ‘Lysol Alley,’” the novel says, “and the Chateau was mainly inhabited by hustlers, their managers, trainers and advance agents.”
At the urging of Abe Kusich, the dwarf, Tod inspects the San Bernardino Arms. It appears to him to be, if anything, inferior to the Chateau. He has decided against it until he sees Faye Greener. She is a long-legged platinum blonde of 17. “Her invitation wasn’t to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love,” West writes.
Tod sketches her. The callow youth from the East is infatuated by the aspiring film star – dim-witted, self-absorbed, living in a world of daydreams.
Homer Simpson enters the novel when Harry Greener collapses on his front step after selling him a tin of silver polish. He dies, and Faye, still a virgin, becomes a temple prostitute, going to work as a call girl to pay for the funeral, saving him from a grave in potter’s field.
Her employer, Audrey Jennings, was modeled on Lee Francis, a former actress who was Hollywood’s most distinguished madam at the time. Her girls were beauty-contest winners who hadn’t gotten the big break. Their clientele was restricted, prices were high, and they were kept free of contagion by Dr. Harry W. (Docky) Martin, the husband of Louella O. Parsons, the Hearst columnist. Martin was a drunk. When Miss Parsons got him a job as medical director at Fox, many employees began wearing disks on necklaces that said, “If I become ill, don’t let Docky Martin near me.”
These days, there is more con than concupiscence in commercialized vice in Hollywood. Stoned floaters who have come here to die at an early age work in massage parlors as sleazy as any in Times Square. One of these is situated in an old bungalow court on Sunset Boulevard that was used as the model for the San Bernardino Arms set, which was built outdoors on the Paramount lot. What a john got for his $25 entry fee, it turned out, was 30 minutes of desultory conversation with a young woman who told me, believe it or not, that two young men she knew were working as extras in “Locust.” “They want me to try to get hired,” she said, “but there’s no way I’m going to get up at 6 A.M.”
Faye stops hooking, moves into Homer’s bungalow and starts bleeding him for a new car, a fur coat and expensive evenings out, all to advance her career. For the first time, Homer feels alive. He seeks no intimacies – she is goddess, mother, daughter – and she offers none.
Awakening late one night after a drunken party at the house, Homer hears her cry out. Thinking she may want an aspirin, he goes to her bedroom. He finds her making love to Miguel. The next day, half insane, he packs to return to Iowa. Tod follows him as, suitcase in hand, he trudges down the hill to Hollywood Boulevard where he becomes entangled with the premiere crowd.
Homer rests for a moment on a bench on Orange Drive. Then, as now, such benches bear advertising for one mortuary or another. Adore Loomis, who has slipped away from his mother after being dragged to the premiere, teases him. When Homer, who is falling into a catatonic stupor, ignores him, Adore tosses a rock at him. It hits him in the head and sends him over the edge. In a killing rage, Homer catches Adore in a used-car lot and kicks him to death. The crowd, transformed into a lynch mob, seizes him and carries him toward the theater. The spectators there catch the scent of blood and smash through the police lines to reach him, too. Homer’s fate is left in some doubt in the novel, but in the film he is torn to pieces.
Faye does not appear in the final section of the novel, but in the film she is seen standing near the entrance of the theater, licking a chocolate ice-cream cone and gazing avidly at the stars. Tod sees her there as the riot that will engulf and lay waste to Hollywood and, by extension, the world begins. A man seizes her and begins to tear off her clothing. Tod, swept along by the mob, is unable to reach her. His leg injured, he clings to a fence, concentrating on the details of a vast canvas, “The Burning of Los Angeles,” that has been taking shape in his mind ever since his arrival in Hollywood, until he is rescued by the police.
It turned out that both Karen Black, who plays Faye, and Bill Atherton, who is Tod, had a low opinion of West and his novel, although it was not my impression that either had read it with close attention. “I don’t think he got Hollywood straight,” said Miss Black. “If I met that man today, I wouldn’t like him. He didn’t endow his characters with any beauty, generosity or the kind of life that’s in every man…the ‘beingness’ that’s in all of us. His characters aren’t cardboard, exactly, but they’re carnivalish and frightening. People are basically good, and I think the film will be better than the novel. In the film, people have impulses to help one another. As I play Faye Greener, she is not destructive. She is a girl with a lot of élan, a magnetic energy that she is not aware of.”
Atherton said, “The problem was that West wasn’t quite sure what his intentions toward Hollywood actually were. There’s a dualism there instead of a unity.”
Miss Black confirmed what I had heard – that she was a “clear,” a sort of 33d-degree Scientologist, a summit of illumination in which the mind is cleansed of harmful emotional residues. It is achieved only by arduous study and at a considerable financial outlay. Scientology has given to Miss Black an enviable self-assurance that harmonizes with the thrusting, diamond-bright, simplified planes of her face.
Atherton, a pleasant young fellow recruited from the New York stage, told me that he followed the doctrines of Aesthetic Realism. Its wellspring is a man called Eli Siegel, and the mother temple is the Terrain Gallery in the SoHo district, where seminars and dramatic productions are offered to small but discriminating audiences. “It’s the best acting being done in New York, “ Atherton said.
Elucidating Siegel’s teachings, Atherton said, “All beauty is the making of One out of opposites. To be successful in life, you have to perceive the world as beautiful and good and accept it. We all contain two people – one for ourselves and one for other people.”
Siegel and his followers believe that only a conspiracy of silence by the press has kept Aesthetic Realism from sweeping the world. In an attempt to break through, they regularly picket The New York Times because of its persistence in error.
I can’t in truth recall having asked Donald Sutherland about his opinion of “The Day of the Locust.” He might well have been critical, too, since his rock of faith at the moment appeared to be Maoist Communism, the study of which he pursues with Jane Fonda and her husband, Tom Hayden. The Hollywood left in the nineteen-thirties didn’t care for West’s work, finding it lacking in Socialist realism.
Aside from the Perelmans, who were family, West’s closest friend during his Hollywood days was Lester Cole. The two men shared an office at Republic and took hunting and fishing trips together. West was a frequent guest at the Coles’ home and met the woman he married there. Cole was a leader of the Communist party in the film capital. He and Salt, then a writer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, were also close friends, although Salt said he knew West only slightly.
Hollywood in the late nineteen-thirties was bubbling with radical political activity. It reflected concern over the rise of Fascism in Europe and the persistence of the Depression in this country. West was sympathetic but, despite his friendship with Cole, he was never really politically active. By nature, he might have been described as an anarcho-skepticalist. He was certain that what was good for M.G.M. or G.M., for that matter, wasn’t necessarily, or even probably, good for the country. At the same time, he wasn’t prepared to accept the dictatorship of the proletariat and trade his hand-loomed Shetlands and hand-lasted shoes – he had been a natty dresser in the Brooks Brothers style since his days at Brown – for a revolutionary smock.
S. J. Perelman, who has mined lodes of laughs from his experiences in Hollywood, told me he was always amused by the sight of “screen workers,” as writers making $50,000 and up a year like to style themselves, rolling up to party meetings in their Rolls-Royces. Dorothy Parker said that the only “ism” that Hollywood writers were really interested in was plagiarism.
West was defensive about the criticism he received from the left, but I sense an uncharacteristic note of falsity in a letter or explanation, quoted in Martin’s biography, that he sent to a friend in the movement:
“If I put into ‘The Day of the Locust’ any of the sincere, honest people who work out here and are making such a great, progressive fight, those chapters couldn’t be written satirically and the whole fabric of the peculiar half world which I attempted to create would be badly torn…. Another thing: I believe that there is a place for the fellow who yells fire and indicates where some of the smoke is coming from without actually dragging the hose to the spot.”
Grauman’s Chinese: A painting of Hollywood’s Pantheon (with its painter, Gregory Koos-Hutas.)
Wondering idly one afternoon what the newspapers were writing about on the day of the premiere of “The Buccaneer,” I drove to Bel Air to consult the microfilm files of The Los Angeles Times at the library of the University of California at Los Angeles. Jackie Cooper and Freddie Bartholomew, that day’s paper noted, had won special citations from Culver Military Academy for the performances in “The Spirit of Culver.” The account failed to mention that West had written the screenplay. Prominently displayed on the third page of the paper was an article that I hope West saw:
GOEBBELS PICKS NAZI HUMORISTS
BERLIN (AP) – A construction worker was singled out today by Propaganda Minister Paul Joseph Goebbels’ newspaper Der Angriff as the champion humorist among more than 1,000 competitors in a month-long contest.
Goebbels started the contest to prove there is humor in Nazi Germany after he ousted five cabaret entertainers for making quips about the National Socialist regime.
The winning entry, the account went on, was a cartoon, depicting a showgirl, naked except for a spiked Prussian helmet, belt, saber and boots, and her impresario, a fat man in a silk hat. The caption read:
“I won’t perform in this costume.”
“Why not? Does one see too much?”
“Rubbish, you old fool. Too little!”
Thinking of the hearty Teutonic laughter that must have rocked the Third Reich that day, I almost forgot to look on the movie page. When I got there, I couldn’t find an advertisement or even a mention of “The Buccaneer.” It didn’t seem likely that “Secret Service of the Air,” starring Ronald Reagan, would be advertised and a Cecil B. DeMille epic wouldn’t be. I took my suspicions to Mike Maslansky, the “Locust” publicist. He declared the 1939 date inoperative. Despite the hundreds of hours spent in checking on such minutiae as hubcaps, wristwatch designs and even the date that Ginger Rogers stopped covering the mole on her cheek with make-up, the researchers had got the date of the premiere of the film wrong by a year.
One Friday night in the “Tabernacle of the Third Coming,” a man near Tod stood up to speak…. He was probably just in from one of the colonies in the desert near Soboba Hot Springs where he had been conning over his soul on a diet of raw fruits and nuts. He was very angry. The message he had brought to the city was one that an illiterate anchorite might have given decadent Rome. It was a crazy jumble of dietary rules, economics and Biblical threats.
--“The Day of the Locust.”
The cults that flourish in Hollywood these days make those of the nineteen-thirties look as sedate as so many Quaker meetings. There are Buddhist monasteries as elaborate as anything in Kyoto, the ashrams of the Guru Maharaj Ji, encampments of Jesus Freaks, and, in the hills, migrant snake-handlers and speakers in tongues.
All of these seem harmless enough in comparison with the Satanists, for whom “The Exorcist” has been, in a manner of speaking, a godsend. Their devotees find spiritual stimulation in pentagrams traced in sand with dog’s blood, the black mass – West is said himself to have presided over a highly irregular version of the ritual at Brown – orgies, of course, and, once in a while, a ritual murder.
No matter what the object of worship, Hollywood likes to slip into a robe to do it. Wearing a robe, a necklace from which hangs the Eye of Osiris, a Zuni fertility symbol or some other arcane emblem, sandals and, in the case of the men, a beard proclaims seriousness of intent, a wish, if not to tread the path that Moses, Jesus, the Buddha and Mohammed trod, at least to go in the same general direction.
Devotion and meditation are the order of the day. Miss Black spends at least 30 minutes a day on her Scientology exercises. Even publicist Mike Maslanski does an hour or so in the lotus position before cranking up his mimeograph machines. I attended a party in Belair at which the host proudly displayed a meditation room furnished with priceless Oriental objets d’art and a roof that opened to the stars. He was drunk an hour after the party began.
Hollywood seeks the nearness of God, or the devil, as the End of Days draws near. Signs of the apocalypse that West foretold are everywhere – in the mudslides and fires, the oil spills, the smog that smothers the Los Angeles basin when the air is still, or conversely, the paralytic gasoline shortage. The heavy favorite on how it will end is by earthquake. The rumbles in the San Andreas Fault come closer together, and every few months some geomancer alerts his flock to impending doom and they set out eastward across the desert with prayer and lamentation.
The fatal magnetism of Hollywood gathers in the world’s loose wheels and oddballs, from Sirhan Sirhan to the Manson family and, finally, speeding down the freeway from San Francisco, the Symbionese Liberation Army. Only the darkest and most sinister forces could have brought Patricia Hearst to the city that her grandfather still ruled with his consort, Marion Davies, only a quarter-century ago.
One of the robe-wearing sects, which calls itself “The Religion of Ten,” operates a natural-foods restaurant, The Source, on Sunset Boulevard. Seeking God through whole grains and, I imagine, hallucinogenic drugs has an almost old-fashioned ring to it these days, like a vicar’s tea party. I went there one afternoon, drank a protein-plus cocktail, a noxious beverage similar to an Orange Julius but costing three times as much, and asked a bearded votary who said his name was Prometheus to expound the tenets of the faith.
“Our star,” he said, pointing to the emblem that stood above the restaurant, “is the six-pointed star of balance of Hermes Trismegistus. It is derived from the pyramids and the secret teachings of Pythagoras. For us, the past is a dead vibration, the future is an expectation, and ‘now’ is the balance point.”
There was a mother temple somewhere in the hills, I had heard, supported by the profits of the restaurant, which was patronized by Hollywood residents of all faiths. Rumor linked it in some undefined way to the Manson family. Visitors, particularly journalists, it was said, were not welcome. So I wasn’t surprised when Prometheus politely declined to tell me the address, but I overheard a conversation between two waitresses in which one of them mentioned “Nichols Canyon” and I decided to search along the road that bears that name. The next day I found it, a yellow house standing on a hill a couple of hundred yards from the road, at the end of a long, unmarked drive. I was not run off as I had feared but was shown around the place by two young men, who identified themselves as Aristotle and Djinn. Flowers grew in beds; wind chimes and bells hung from trees. There was a meditation room, of course, painted black, a herb garden and a dazzling view of Hollywood spread out below us.
Aristotle and Djinn next led me to the swimming pool. Several young children, naked, tanned, healthy-looking, wandered about. On a chaise, naked, lay the patriarch of the sect. Aristotle told me his name was Yod, the 10th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. He had a long grizzled beard, making him look a bit like Waldo Salt, and a pot belly that suggested conventional representations of the Buddha. Five young women, all wearing robes unfortunately, sat around him, staring at him with fixed expressions of adoration.
Not ignoring the fact that within moments these bacchantes might fall upon me with sacrificial knives concealed beneath their homespun, I touched my palms together as an indication of peaceful intent. Yod nodded in acknowledgement. “How long have you been here?” I asked.
Yod remained silent but inclined his head to Djinn. “The father has been here,” he said, “longer than the rocks of these hills.”
The reviews of “The Day of the Locust” were not all that West had hoped for, but Edmund Wilson, in The New Republic, praised him for having remained an artist despite his residence in Hollywood, for having caught the emptiness of the place and for having been the first “to make this emptiness horrible.”
West was desperately anxious for the novel to succeed commercially. He had set a modest goal of 5,000 copies. In a letter to Cerf, he suggested that the publisher try to interest Life or Look in publishing a layout on the side streets of Hollywood that would serve to promote it. He even offered to pay half the cost of an advertising campaign. Nothing came of either proposal. All told, only about 1,500 copies were sold. West’s royalties barely equaled his $500 advance. His four novels, he told friends, had earned for him, exclusive of movie sales, a total of $1,560.
At about this time, West met Eileen McKenny, a New York divorcee with a young son who was visiting Hollywood. A delicious, feather-headed blonde, she had been the subject of a series of sketches by her sister, Ruth McKenny, that appeared in The New Yorker, were published as “My Sister Eileen” and were then adapted for the stage.
The two hit it off immediately. In April, 1940, they were married and they vacationed that summer on the McKenzie River in Oregon. West’s screenwriting prospered. He collaborated on two original screenplays that were sold for a total of $35,000. His salary at R.K.O. rose to $600 a week.
In December, the couple moved into a pleasant house set on two acres planted with fruit trees in North Hollywood. They gave a dinner party on Dec. 13 and among the guests were Scott Fitzgerald and his companion, Sheilah Graham. I met Miss Graham at the party that followed the premiere of “The Great Gatsby” in New York. “I know Scott thought he was a great writer and I know he mentioned him in the preface to the 1934 edition of ‘The Great Gatsby,'” she said of West. “I believe that ‘The Day of the Locust’ was on Scott’s list of books I had to read.”
Since college days West had borne the ironic nickname “Pep,” because of his slow and shambling gait. He was a well-built 6-footer and, while not particularly athletic, had become in his adult years an ardent hunter and angler. It was his release from the tensions of writing. On the weekend before Christmas that year, the Wests drove in their station wagon to Calexico in the Imperial Valley near the Mexican border to shoot the birds of passage. West had bought a pair of Purdy shotguns, the finest made, for $750 at an estate sale.
He was known as a suicidally careless driver, and on Dec. 22, as they were starting the trip home, he ran through a stop sign, colliding with another car. West and his wife were killed. Fitzgerald had died the day before of natural causes aggravated by drink, leaving his novel, “The Last Tycoon,” unfinished. It had, it is generally agreed, been influenced by “The Day of the Locust,” just as West had been influenced and encouraged by Fitzgerald.
“I wanted West to go back to Bucks County,” Perelman told me. “He was to have gone in the fall, but he put it off to spring. He had an idea for a novel about a powerboat or a schooner on a voyage from San Francisco to the South Seas. It would have been as grotesque as ‘Miss Lonelyhearts.’”
As an artist, West remains enigmatic. He kept no notebooks or diaries, and seldom spoke of his serious work. His four novels total scarcely more than 100,000 words. Aside from a few stories and a poem, “Burn the Cities,” they account for his entire literary output. Writing came hard to him, but the very cragginess and occasional awkwardness of his prose intensified the power of his descriptions of a world from which life and hope have vanished.
The film is now being edited by John Schlesinger in England. It will not be released until next spring to avoid a promotional collision with “Godfather II,” Paramount’s Christmas-season special. Until then, the extent to which it will capture the energy that flickers around the pages of the novel and convey its images of aimless collision of souls in hell can only be conjectured.
As he stood on his good leg, clinging desperately to the iron rail, he could see all the rough charcoal strokes with which he had blocked it out on the big canvas. Across the top, parallel with the frame, he had drawn the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial. Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill street and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches. For the faces of its members, he was using the innumerable sketches he had made of the people who come to California to die; the cultists of all sorts, economic as well as religious, the wave, airplane, funeral and preview watchers – all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence.
--“The Day of the Locust.”
The number of extras hired by “Locust” was large by today’s standards in Hollywood. Virtually every member of the Screen Extras Guild worked in at least one segment of the film. The professional extras, who receive $45 a day, were augmented by a couple of hundred extra extras, hired off the street or at the studio gate, who got only $25.
The nonprofessionals were hired, by and large, for their oddities – a peculiar slump or hump, protruding ears, an expression of defeat, a glint of madness, the blank gaze of the mentally subnormal. “We’d look them over and say, ‘He’s a locust, she’s a locust, she’s not, he is,’ and so on,” one of the assistant directors, who roamed the streets of Hollywood looking for talent told me.
Although in one sense the extras are the stars of “The Day of the Locust,” the professionals tended to regard it as just another movie. None I spoke to had read the book or knew what it was about.
“It’s rough out there,” Harry Hollins, who played a cop, told me after a brief segment of the final riot scene was filmed. Hollins, tanned, clear-eyed and square-jawed, has specialized for 20 years in playing policemen. In his wardrobe are uniforms, past and present, of the country’s major police departments. Wearing uniforms so much has given his a law-and-order attitude.
“The waivers” – as the non-professionals are called – “get carried away,” he said. “I’ve got two skinned knees, a bruised rib and a sprained wrist. One guy really let go at me the other day. He hit me right in the heart. So the next time we did the scene I got rid of this thing”—he waved his feeble prop nightstick made of soft rubber – “and got myself a real billy from one of the studio cops. When he went by me, I stepped out of his way and let him have a pretty good shot right across the back of his legs. That slowed him down pretty good.”
Bill West, an old-time stunt man, one of a dozen working on the picture, joined the conversation. “The waivers are really carrying on,” he said. “Like, they’re forgetting it’s a movie. Take the guy who molests Karen Black. He’s acting really goofy. The way he grabs her and tries to lift her up. He’s just like a robot.” West shook his head. “He’s doing the job for two bits and he probably thinks he’s lucky. The fact is, he’s working with, and reacting to, a main character. He shouldn’t be doing it at all. That’s a Screen Actor’s Guild job.”
Every couple of hours the extras get time off to go outside, stretch their legs, buy coffee and sandwiches from the canteen trucks parked in the studio street. I followed the man Bill West was speaking of. He walked by himself, his head bent forward, hands clasped behind his back. He was middle-aged, bald and round-faced, and wore steel-rimmed glasses that I assumed were studio issue but turned out to be his own. He wore a starched white shirt, a dark necktie, dark trousers and a gray cardigan.
He smiled a crooked smile when I introduced myself, and replied to my questions haltingly at first, as though he hadn’t spoken to anyone in a long time. “I got here from Atlanta in February,” he said. “I arrived in the middle of the night. I didn’t know anything about the place, so I asked the cab driver to recommend a hotel. He carried me to the Hotel Figueroa. Now, from seeing ‘Dragnet’ all those years on television I knew that Figueroa Street was the longest street in the world and that people were always getting mugged, shot or flim-flammed on it. None of that has happened to me, I’m happy to say.”
He was a bookkeeper, he told me. “I worked with my father,” he said. “He died and I tried to do it all along. Last spring, I had a kind of ambulatory breakdown, and my psychiatrist and I agreed that the best thing for me to do was to sell the business and come out here and do what I had always wanted to do.”
He continued to pace, eyes fixed on the pavement. “I took piano lessons when I was young,” he said. “I had a fantasy that I would become the Kammermusiker at the Court of the Grand Dukes of Saxony.” He turned toward me. “I don’t know why that was, where I got the idea. Then later I decided I wanted to be an actor. I worked in little-theater productions in Atlanta and people said I did real well. So when everything happened, I told myself that I didn’t have anyone to worry about, or to worry about me, and I came out here.
“I think I’ll be able to make my living in the movies,” he went on. “Imagine getting a job like this on your first try. Maybe I’ll be able to get in the Screen Actors Guild.” He paused for a moment, smiling to himself. “I have to get up at 6 A.M. to get the bus to get out here on time, but for the first time in my life I enjoy getting up to go to work. My work in Atlanta was so unsuitable it was unreal. The greatest feeling I have out here is being in touch with reality. This set and the people here and the people at the Figueroa Hotel are realer to me than Atlanta ever was.”
The filming of “The Day of the Locust” was completed on April 1. By May 10, the Grauman’s Chinese Theater set had been struck. Parts of it, which had been borrowed from Universal Pictures, were returned. Paramount kept some of the flats and drops for its own scenery inventory. The rest, with the rubble of the San Berdardino Arms set, which was knocked down by a bulldozer, were disposed of at a commercial dump in the San Fernando Valley.