Hollywood Teaches Hugh Walpole How to Write (1934) 🇺🇸
A great writer has come to Hollywood. For the screen, of course! The famous British novelist is shattering all studio precedents.
by Ruth Rankin
“Writing for the screen is a highly specialized art and a most difficult one. A few days after my arrival, I sat down all by myself and wrote what I considered to be a very choice bit of sentiment — a scene described just as I would do it in a novel.
“A few days later, I saw my tender but verbose little treatment with a large blue ‘Lousy’ inscribed across its face! No one has written anything like that on my copy for thirty years.”— Hugh Walpole
At the age of fifty-two, he is already a figure of tradition in English letters. He has achieved the stature of an immortal while he is still very much alive to enjoy it.
The arrival of Hugh Walpole is an epic event in the history of pictures. He is the first classicist to be actively engaged in the formation of a motion picture from its most important and fundamental point, the story. The greatest living authority on Dickens, and vice-president of the Dickens Fellowship, he is engaged in the adaptation of David Copperfield. And he will be technical supervisor of the picture.
The works of other great classic novelists have been visualized on the screen. John Galsworthy’s “One More River,” Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim,” Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” H. G. Wells’ “Invisible Man” and “Island of Lost Souls,” Tolstoi’s “Resurrection,” to name the few that come to mind from the pens of novelists contemporary with Walpole.
The writers, those who are living, simply sold the film rights to their work. That seemed to be that. No one of them has ever taken an active part in the actual translation from word to screen. None has ever seen fit to lend the dignity of his presence and his talent to the actual application of screen technique to either his own or another’s work.
Hugh Walpole has blazed the trail. He who is the author of those words among the most quoted in the English language — “It isn’t life that matters — it’s the courage you bring to it.” (From “Fortitude,” his first successful novel.)
Since 1909, when he was a busy schoolmaster who miraculously created the time to write “The Wooden Horse,” he has authored twenty-five novels. The ones most familiar to American readers include “The Young Enchanted,” “ The Cathedral,” “The Old Ladies,” the “Jeremy” trilogy, “Portrait of a Man With Red Hair,” “Vanessa,” and the “Rogue Herries” series.
Walpole is the son of the Rt. Rev. G. H. S. Walpole, Bishop of Edinburgh. He has a rich scholarly background.
It has been generally agreed that the most vulnerable weakness in pictures lies in the writing... That there are too many skimpy literary cats trying to look like tigers. The advent of a man of authentic letters should strike terror among them. And a trend, if and when started by him, should send them scattering. For if Walpole comes, can Wells be far behind?
Mr. Walpole was discovered in his office adjoining that of Irving Thalberg on the M-G-M lot. He was coat-less, his shirt sleeves were rolled up, and he said he had been working harder than ever before in his life. He is a powerfully constructed man, sunburned, and radiates a sense of restrained but hearty well-being, not typically British nor typically anything. You find it in all healthy, profound men of achievement who are not bored with what they are doing. He is a dynamic person of vast controlled energy, and he has an unerring sense of human proportion as well as literary proportion. Incidentally, he is unmarried.
Mr. Walpole anticipated my first question — Hollywood and his response to it.
“Writing for the screen is a highly specialized art and a most difficult one, as I find it. I wish to learn it from the basic fundamentals, and I have had many things to unlearn first.
“For instance, a few days after my arrival, I sat down all by myself and wrote what I considered to be a very choice bit of sentiment — a scene described just as I would do it in a novel. As you know, I am one of the most voluminous and wordy writers in the world. A few days later, in the office of a certain executive, I saw my tender but verbose little treatment with a large blue ‘Lousy’ inscribed across its face!
“No one has written anything like that on my copy for thirty years. I had to come to Hollywood to have it happen to me. Of course, I might have taken a train right then, had not my fears been calmed and my tears wiped away by those three stalwart worthies, Selznick, Cukor and Estabrook. I pay them the highest tribute for their generous cooperation.
I am being trained and looked after with the most monumental patience, and that is the only way any novelist will ever learn to write for the screen.
“Many writers have preceded me, to depart with tales of being isolated in some remote office and told to write a story for so-and-so, a cherished star. Naturally, having not the remotest idea of the modus operandi, they have come away embittered, and have seen their story massacred.
“I have learned to say ‘I see’ before every sentence. Everything must be visual, and writing for the eye and the mind is quite a different thing than writing for the mind, alone. I am learning to curb myself, to condense, to write screen dialogue — which means to select the only right word from any number of possible ones. To write briefly, and to effect, to save words. To arrange for characters to be doing something while they are talking.
“I am very happy here, working under these ideal conditions. I do not say I would be happy under different ones. For instance, I would be excruciatingly miserable working on a story called, let us say, ‘Three In A Bed.’ In fact, so miserable that the very next train would bear me away.
“The thrill and excitement of seeing a carefully and lovingly produced picture come together from all sides is comparable with none I have ever experienced. This studio has been nearly a year in the preparation of ‘David Copperfield.’ The passion for authenticity surmounts all obstacles. The little drawing on the top of Peggoty’s work-basket, which will be glimpsed in one shot, was found to be not quite perfect. Everything waited until this was remedied.
“Of course, the good pictures are remembered for years, but there are too many ephemeral results in the lesser ones to justify all the trouble taken.
‘There has to be a division made soon between the art of the cinema and the mere, sheer entertainment, which only two or three in the audience will remember for more than an hour. This division is made in all other art — why not on the screen?
“There is no departure made from the letter of Dickens, in this picture. The concentrated aim is to recreate David Copperfield, and I am proud to be taking part in this great enterprise. Any man would be proud.
“And I am speaking for many who want to share in the artistic creation of pictures. But not ever in shoddy pictures, unworthy of all the effort.
“I have never known people to work so hard, so ceaselessly — and it should be to some end. I thought novel-writing was hard work until I came here. I came over originally for two weeks, thought I would be asked a few questions, and go home. Now it will be the end of the year before that will happen.
“The element that has been neglected most is the script. Writers are shy of coming to Hollywood because they know they have not studied picture technique. They hear of others who have had their stuff torn up and destroyed, and been disgusted. It is useless for any writer to try without at least six months’ apprenticeship, instruction and practice. He must be here to learn the technique and see the machinery. When he learns it and forgets it, as a pianist does, he can put himself into his work as well as he does in a novel. A novel, as a novel, is seldom adaptable for the screen, without drastic changes. It is not for the novelist to lament.
“Let him learn how, and then see his essence preserved. Paul Morand, H. G. Wells, Thomas Mann, should be asked to write something definitely and individually theirs — created for this medium.
“As for the physical Hollywood — there is a constant nervous feeling here. All on the quiver. Pictures are quickly coming and going, there is always a new one tomorrow. This influences the temperament of the place. A door opens and maybe it’s a fortune or maybe you’re fired.
“It is as if we were all marooned on an enormous ship in the middle of a vast sea, where the entire population has one aim and ambition to accomplish — the making of moving pictures. It has its own life, makes its own laws, and lives dreadfully close. This whole sex and divorce business and cheap glamour plays a very tiny part, and it is monstrous the way private lives are violated in the public prints.
“Hollywood is not a cheap place, or even a glamorous place. It is a community of hard-working, self-sacrificing people, working together in a common art. It is a heart-breaking example of all kinds of people of different strata of birth, intelligence and beliefs, getting along together, without undue discrimination, in extraordinary harmony. It is full of beauty and mockery and courage. And a wit relentlessly sustained.
“This outside-world reputation is a Frankenstein monster you, yourselves, have constructed — and it is up to you to destroy it!”
I could have listened the rest of the afternoon, the week — or the year, for that matter — but on Mr. Walpole’s desk was urgent work to be done. He talks with the utmost ease, with choice discrimination between fractions of meaning, with a solicitude for words, and with never a pause to find one. He is eloquent enough to be a great orator, which is an exceptional gift in the frequently inarticulate writer.
He writes every word in exquisite script, and it is inconceivable to him that anyone could accomplish a novel on the typewriter. The mechanics would come between the characters and himself. He loves the feeling of the good paper, the pencil in his hand. He dictates only articles and letters. He says if you really have to write, you can’t be stopped, and the ability to write cannot be taught. Your uniqueness may be in your weakness and it should not be trained out. Writers are born to write, and couldn’t do anything else if they tried. All arts, he continued, should be the revelation of a unique personality, which is the only excuse for being a writer or a painter or a musician.
The combination of personality and ability is necessary to success.
Mr. Walpole deplores the fact that so few contemporary writers are building solid and lasting reputations with consistent work. It is a whole-time job, and the writer must have seclusion and solitude. But he should not become anti-social.
“What a man is, he writes. What he writes, he is.”
Hugh Walpole (left), with Howard Estabrook and George Cukor of M-G-M, arriving from England to begin his work in Hollywood.
Fritz Lang (left) and Dave Selznick, two of the men who went abroad for data on “David Copperfield” and brought back Walpole.
Walpole is working on the screen adaptation of “David Copperfield”.
Collection: Photoplay Magazine, November 1934