With the arrival of the Talkies, numerous possibilities opened up for the film industry. The late thirties were, Wodehouse recalls, “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”.1
As an Englishman in Beverly Hills, Wodehouse was not really an outsider. Hollywood, after all, was a place inhabited by displaced individuals. Nobody in Hollywood was really at home. Where Wodehouse stood out was in his wry indifference to the whirl of activity. Throughout [his] letters, one sees a sense that the role of the writer in Hollywood had diminished to that of an insignificant bit-part. Showered with money, Hollywood scriptwriters were almost entirely expendable, forced to write in ‘little hutches’ like so many battery-farmed animals, while their product was regarded with some contempt.2
As Wodehouse’s Hollywood years unfold, one sees increasingly his sense of the place as one of mirages and illusions. In the end, it was Wodehouse’s inability to keep the conventional mask up that led to the end of this period of his Hollywood career.
TO DENIS MACKAIL3
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios
June 26. 1930
Frightfully sorry I haven’t written before. I have been in a whirl of work. After three months absolute deadness, my brain began to whirr like a dynamo. So you see one does recover from these blank periods. I hope yours is gone. I have written three short stories, an act of a play, and the dialogue for a picture in three weeks, and have got six brand new plots for short stories!!! I believe our rotten brains have to go through those ghastly periods of inertness before getting a second wind.
Susan is dead.4 Did Ethel tell you? Apparently she just toppled over quite quietly in the Park, and it was all over in a minute. She had no pain, thank goodness. It’s just like losing part of oneself. The only thing is that everything is so unreal out here and I feel so removed from ordinary life that I haven’t yet quite realized it.
Mrs Patrick Campbell came to dinner the other night and talked a lot about you. It made me feel I wasn’t so far from civilization, after all.5 This is the weirdest place. We have taken Elsie Janis’s house.6 It has a small but very pretty garden, with a big pool. I have arranged with the studio to work at home, so I sometimes don’t go out of the garden for three or four days on end. If you asked me, I would say I loved Hollywood. Then I would reflect and have to admit that Hollywood is about the most loathsome place on the map but that, never going near it, I enjoy being out here.
My days follow each other in a regular procession. 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. When I get a summons from the studio, I motor over there, stay there a couple of hours and come back. Add incessant sunshine, and it’s really rather jolly. It is only occasionally that one feels as if one were serving a term on Devil’s Island.
We go out very little. Just an occasional dinner at the house of some other exile – e.g. some New York theatrical friend. Except for one party at Marion Davies’s place, I have not met any movie stars.7
They set me on to dialogue for a picture for Jack Buchanan. I altered all the characters to Earls and butlers, with such success that, when I had finished, they called a conference and changed the entire plot.”
The second day out on the liner I developed a terrific attack of neuritis, and spent the rest of the voyage in bed. I managed to get rid of it about two weeks later. One of the rules, when you have neuritis, is that you must knock off drink, so I got a flying start with that two weeks and kept on the wagon for another six. Then I had to go to a party, and I couldn’t go through it without cocktails. They have the damnable practice here of inviting you to dine at seven-fifteen. If you are a novice, as I was, you arrive at seven-fifteen. You then stand round drinking cocktails till nine-thirty, when the last guest arrives. Then you go in to dinner. At Marion Davies’s, I refused all drinks and it nearly killed me. By dinner time I was dying on my feet. Poor old Snorky had to talk to the same man from seven-fifteen till 9.30 and then found she was sitting next to him at dinner!! Fortunately, it was such a big party that we were able to sneak off without saying goodbye directly dinner was over. Gosh, what an experience.
On the other hand, teetotalism certainly makes one frightfully fit. Also slim. I have become a lean-jawed, keen-eyed exhibit, like something out of Sapper.8
The actual work is negligible. They set me on to dialogue for a picture for Jack Buchanan. I altered all the characters to Earls and butlers, with such success that, when I had finished, they called a conference and changed the entire plot, starring the earl and the butler. So I am still working on it. So far, I have had eight collaborators. The system is that A. gets the original idea, B. comes in to work with him on it, C. makes a scenario, D. does preliminary dialogue, and then they send for me to insert Class and what-not. Then E. and F., scenario writers, alter the plot and off we go again.
I could have done all my part of it in a morning, but they took it for granted I should need six weeks. The latest news is that they are going to start shooting quite soon. In fact, there are ugly rumours that I am to be set to work soon on something else. I resent this, as it will cut into my short-story-writing. It’s odd how soon one comes to look on every minute as wasted that is given to earning one’s salary. (Now, don’t go making a comic article out of this and queering me with the bosses!!)
Let’s have a line soon. Tell me all the news. I hear nothing out here. Have you resigned from the pest house yet?9
From Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, edited by Sophie Ratfcliffe, published by Arrow
Copyright © 2011 by the Trustees of the Wodehouse Estate
1 P.G. Wodehouse, ‘The Girl in the Pink Bathing Suit’, Hollywood Omnibus (London: Hutchinson, 1985), p. 9 (first published as ‘Slaves of Hollywood’, SEP, 1929).
2 P.G. Wodehouse, ‘The Hollywood Scandal’ (1932), Louder and Funnier (London: Vintage, 1997), p. 16.
3 Wodehouse and fellow novelist Mackail frequently exchanged letters. Denis had a long and happy marriage to Diana Granet, and Wodehouse’s wife Ethel was also close to the couple.
4 Wodehouse’s beloved Pekingese dog.
5 Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865–1940), British stage actress, born Beatrice Stella Tanner, who appeared in several motion pictures, best remembered today as being the original Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (1914).
6 Elsie Janis, stage and film actress and writer, who had starred in Miss 1917 and Oh, Kay!
7 Marion Davies (1897–1961), American film actress, known for her relationship with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. She made a number of comedies and musicals during the 1930s, and had appeared in PGW’s Oh, Boy! (1917) and Miss 1917. She maintained a long relationship with Hearst, though the two were never married.
8 Herman Cyril McNeile (1888–1937), British author, who published under the name of ‘Sapper’, best known for creating hearty, sportsman-like characters such as Bulldog Drummond – a former officer of the First World War who spends his post-war leisure time as a private detective.
9 The Garrick Club. PGW was persuaded to join it in 1922, but soon came to dislike it and had resigned his membership.