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A lotus-eater in Hollywood
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The Observer 29 August 2004

A lotus-eater in Hollywood

From the first days of the talkies, PG Wodehouse was fascinated by the movie business. Yet like many British writers since who have worked in Hollywood, from Evelyn Waugh to Martin Amis, his relationship with the American film industry ended up being a deeply ambivalent one.

His interest was originally sparked by director George Cukor who, after the film premiere of The Jazz Singer in 1928, announced: 'This is the most important event in cultural history since Martin Luther nailed his theses in the church door.' Wodehouse ('Plum' to his friends), who had never been to Hollywood before, was curious, not least because the American film industry had triggered a new gold rush. Movie-makers, desperate for Broadway talent - people who could supply dialogue and scenarios - inspired a westwards stampede of playwrights and short-story writers. As a big name on Broadway and one of the kings of the American magazine market, Wodehouse's services were at a premium.

Meanwhile, many of his showbusiness friends and associates were heading west, too. On the musical side, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin would all come to live and work in Beverly Hills. From the stage, WC Fields, John Barrymore, Fred Astaire and Leslie Howard were just some of the New York stars he knew whose names would light up Hollywood in the Thirties.

The money that was dangled in front of Wodehouse - seemingly incredible offers of $2,000 a week (about $8,000 today) - came as a welcome relief to him after he'd been severely battered in the stock market crash. After some nerve-racking negotiations with Sam Goldwyn, the upshot was princely. Metro Goldwyn Mayer would pay Wodehouse $2,500 a week for six months, with an option for a further six. Approaching 50, world famous and on top of his form, Wodehouse was about to translate himself into yet another earthly paradise. He was, as he put it later, finally 'in the chips'.

Wodehouse arrived in Hollywood on 8 May 1930, stepping into the Californian sunshine at the Santa Fe depot, the movie-stars' stop. While suitcases, golf bags and his unwieldy Monarch typewriter were handed down by the porters, the dazzled visitor looked out at the strange new land that was to be his home, a scene he described in his theatrical memoirs, Bring on the Girls!: 'Tall eucalyptus, blue-flowered jacarandas, feathery pepper trees dotted with red, and what looked like a thousand new cars.'

Hollywood in 1930 was remote, fabulous and rolling in hot money, 'a combination of Santa Claus and Good-Time Charlie' as Wodehouse put it. His movements were gossip now and there were reporters to greet him. 'I've always wanted to spend more time in California,' the 'world's highest-paid short-story writer' told the Los Angeles Examiner. 'Yes sir, we are going to buy an automobile or two... and settle down as real residents.'

California had long been a gold-rush state. Now, it seemed, the bonanza had become institutionalised by the studios which, to make the party go with a swing, had also imported plenty of drink, drugs and beautiful people, stars in the making. 'The slogan was "Come one, come all and the more the merrier",' Wodehouse later recalled. 'It was an era when only a man of exceptional ability and determination could keep from getting signed up by a studio in some capacity or other. I happened to be engaged as a writer.'

Wodehouse arranged with the studio to work from home and quickly established a Californian version of his writing routine. 'I get up, swim, breakfast, work till two, swim again, work till seven, swim for the third time, then dinner and the day is over,' he wrote. 'Add incessant sunshine, and it's really rather jolly... the actual work is negligible.'

If MGM had counted on having the famous author on hand, it reckoned without its star writer's elusive ways. Wodehouse, working away on his own, kept aloof from studio life and utterly detached from its politics. His attitude towards Hollywood was generally as ambivalent as his feelings about the projects to which he was attached. At times, it was 'the abode of the damned'; at other times, he tried hard to persuade his school friend, Bill Townend, who had knocked about the American West as a young man, to join him as a scriptwriter. But in the same letter he wrote: 'I think Californian scenery is the most loathsome on earth - a cross between Coney Island and the Riviera, but by staying in one's garden and shutting one's eyes when one goes out, it's possible to get by.'

Aside from mixing with fellow expatriates, Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, became well-established in Hollywood proper. Their circle included Norma Shearer, Edward G Robinson, Maureen O'Sullivan, WC Fields (whom Wodehouse described as 'a louse'), and several former members of the New York theatrical community. It is a measure of their new confidence in Hollywood life that, during the autumn, they moved north of Sunset Boulevard to a one-storey Spanish-style house with a lovely garden, swimming pool and tennis court. Wodehouse was still swimming three times a day. 'The swim I enjoy most is before dinner,' he confided to a friend. 'I have a red-hot bath and get absolutely boiled, and then race down the back stairs with nothing on and plunge in.'

At the same time, Wodehouse was quite capable of disappearing to work in his room if the mood took him. During the final months of his MGM contract, in the first half of 1931, he was preoccupied with Hot Water, a novel he dedicated to Maureen O'Sullivan, a young MGM contract star (Mia Farrow's mother) newly arrived from Ireland.

O'Sullivan recalled that the first time she met the Wodehouses, over English-style afternoon tea, Mrs Wodehouse gave her some blunt and sensible advice on a stormy romance she was going through. Afterwards, 'Plummie came out,' she remembered, 'blinking vaguely in the sunlight. Like many young women, Maureen O'Sullivan found it impossible to feel shy with Wodehouse. 'He was large and affable, very English and rather vague, quietly amusing rather than frighteningly witty.'

As often happened, O'Sullivan became close to Wodehouse: 'We walked all over Beverly Hills gossiping and telling each other our thoughts and feelings, as if we were the oldest of friends.' Wodehouse liked younger women and was always most comfortable in a quasi-paternal role and theirs became a great and lasting friendship. 'I can still picture him,' O'Sullivan remembered, 'floating motionless and happy in the pool, looking at his toes or at the deep blue Californian sky, while presumably working out the next bit of writing complexity.'

When, on 9 May 1931, the studio did not renew his contract, Wodehouse felt a curious sense of release. Before his feelings about his year in the sun found their way into fiction, he was to fire a more explicit parting shot at his erstwhile employers, in a newspaper interview which he himself later cited as an example of his innocent propensity for landing himself in the soup. In the course of an interview at home, Wodehouse told Alma Whitaker of the Los Angeles Times that he had been paid '$104,000 for loafing', adding mischievously: 'I feel as if I have cheated them.'

Wodehouse could not have known that his conversation with Alma Whitaker would find its way on to the front page of the Sunday edition, but he was a former journalist who had spent the previous decade giving press interviews. He must have realised the value of his words to a newspaper.

The context in which Wodehouse spoke to the LA Times certainly made his comments more newsworthy. The film industry was undergoing one of its periodic crises. The crash of 1929 had been followed by a drop in movie attendances. Hollywood seemed to be on the skids.

As well as the timing of his remarks, the studied reasonableness of his tone suggests an ulterior motive. He was settling a score and, at the same time, mythologising his Hollywood indolence, a version of his experience which does not really square with the facts. 'They set me to work on a story called Rosalie [he told the LA Times]. No, it wasn't my story. But it was a pleasant light little thing, and no one wanted me to hurry. When it was finished they thanked me politely and remarked that as musicals didn't seem to be going so well, they guessed they would not use it. That about sums up what I was called upon to do for my $104,000. Isn't it amazing? If it is only names they want, it seems such an expensive way to get them, doesn't it?'

While Wodehouse maintained that this interview had 'the effect [in Hollywood] of the late assassination at Sarajevo', prompting an immediate reappraisal of the studios' spendthrift habits by their East Coast bankers, the trade papers (Variety, the Motion Picture Herald, Film Daily) hardly noticed it, and there was rather less Sturm und Drang than Wodehouse described to his friends.

Wodehouse, for his part, perpetuated the myth of his Hollywood year, later claiming that he had been required to do so little work that he was able 'to write a novel and nine short stories, besides brushing up my golf, getting an attractive suntan and perfecting my Australian crawl'.

In Hollywood, Wodehouse's candour did give offence. In the aftermath of his LA Times interview, there was, according to Maureen O'Sullivan, a lot of resentment against Wodehouse. But he was unconcerned, almost boastful, about his pariah status. 'My career as a movie-writer has been killed dead by that interview. I am a sort of ogre to the studios now,' he told a friend. 'I don't care personally, as I don't think I could do picture writing. It needs a definitely unoriginal mind.' It was typical of his Boy's Own character that he should be hurt, but disdainful.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.