Butchering Brains

Sept. 1928
Page Range
28-29, 110-11
Document Type

Butchering Brains


Butchering Brains

An Author in Hollywood Is as a Lamb in an Abbatoir

The train from New York is due. Hollywood prepares to make one of its typical publicity gestures. Not, it is true, of the magnitude or hysterical and blatant quality such as is accorded a Star, a Movie Executive or a Peaches Browning,1 but taken all in all, a nice refined little hullabaloo. After all, it is only an Eminent Author who is arriving in Hollywood. He is met at the train by cameramen, reporters, a star or two, maybe a director, perhaps even the Mayor and a bunch of minor and major Movie folk that the publicity director has managed to round up for the occasion.
For a few days at least our Eminent Author basks in the sunshine and favor of the City of Props. He is wined and dined, photographed, touted, exploited, interviewed, quoted, misquoted. Every prospect pleases. He has a remarkable contract in his pocket. Five hundred dollars a week for the first three months; seven hundred and fifty dollars for the next six; one thousand dollars a week for the next year and so on ad nauseam. Small wonder that he gives forth an interview to the effect that he is charmed with Hollywood and intends to devote the rest of his literary life to the Great Art of Motion Pictures.
Like fun he is! At the end of the three months, he will get a little note to the effect that the option on his contract is not to be exercised by the Producer.
To one author who remains in Hollywood, there are a score who make their silent exit at the end of the three months. Not all go silently. Many fare forth shooting verbal fireworks behind them.
“The survival of the fittest” does not apply in Hollywood, so far as authors are concerned. The touchstone to success is not creative brains, talent, or inventive genius. The inspirational writer, however big his dreams and his product, cannot hope to compete with those possessed of sharp wits, craft, salesmanship, pull, politics, and the thousand and one petty tricks that contribute to one’s influence in this game.
About a week after his arrival our Eminent Author finds himself parked in an ugly little office in a noisy rackety- 29 packetty building. (Some studios are beginning to grant the authors offices as good as the secretaries of the executives.) The refined hullabaloo aforementioned has become a thing of the dazzling past. Our author has been patted on the back for the last time.

An Original by Susy Swipes

He sits in his office and scans, with bulging eyes, his first assignment. He is presently either convulsed with wild mirth or is stricken dumb with incoherent wrath. He has been assigned to adapt and treat an “original” by one Susy Swipes or Davy Jones of Hollywood. It is an amazing, an incredible document. Its language is almost beyond credence. It is a nightmare patchwork that contains incidents and characters and gags and plots of a hundred or more stories that are horribly reminiscent to the Eminent Author.
A wise and prudent Eminent Author will set right to work upon Susy’s or Davy’s story. Sometimes, however, he bolts out of his office and dashes across the lot to the opulent administration building, where in ornately luxurious offices the favorites and powers that be hold forth.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” “Whom the gods destroy they first make mad.” Alas! How sadly these adages apply to the Eminent Author in Hollywood as he forces his way into the sanctum sanctorum of a supervisor, or even such movie royalty as the producer.
Let us draw a kindly veil over what ensues. We will change the subject.
Talking about supervisors. Some are human beings, speaking the author’s own language, possessed of a sense of humor, keen, sympathetic, and kind. Others belong to that clan that a departing author (was it not Will Irwin?2) quaintly dubbed “the dese and dose and dem boys.” These bright young fellows sometimes mistake Maeterlinck for a patent medicine and have been known to reject a story by Victor Hugo because he “keeps a restaurant down town.” Usually they have a low opinion of authors, consider them pests and bugs and duck out of their way when they see one coming. 110 They are the big guns that the author must propitiate, defer to, conciliate, flatter, beguile, if he would remain in Hollywood.

Golden Rules for Writers

Gladys Unger, playwright and author of “Romance,” “Starlight” and many other well-known plays, gives the following recipe to aspiring movie writers:
“Study pantomime, fencing, boxing, Yiddish, Russian, and German. Forget English, American, reading, and writing.”
The situation is not devoid of edification to the author. He is filled with unholy joy and admiration as he scans the patent medicine advertisements of his new contemporaries. “I AM AN AUTHOR AND I CAN PROVE IT!” Thus ingenuously proclaims Bennie Balonsky in a full-page ad in a film trade paper. “I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW THAT IT WAS I WHO WROTE: ‘I AM YOUR WIFE!’
Thus another Susy Swipes. Her number is legion in Hollywood. She is perched on the softest and plumpest of the seats of the mighty, and sometimes, so I have heard, she is perched upon the knee of a movie executive.
Irvin Cobb3 is credited with a classic utterance at the end of a chaotic conference. I dare not misquote him, but I do know that his words conveyed a cordial invitation to the manhandlers of his brain product to cut a chunk of their throats and take the trail to a certain city whose temperature is high.
Michael Arlen left Hollywood gasping and smarting.
Hergesheimer studied Hollywood through his shining specs, with resulting excellent publicity for the charming Aileen Pringle. Clever girl, Aileen. The first of the stars to become known as “The Authors’ Friend!”
George Jean Nathan dodged the limelight in the company of a modest blazing star.
Laurence Stallings chucked his tongue in his cheek. Occasionally gargantuan laughter proclaimed his appreciation of the whole large humor of Hollywood.
Once, as scenario editor, I recommended Ellis Parker Butler’s classic: Pigs Is Pigs. I was shouted down with the objection that the censors and Will Hays4 would never stand for a picture about hogs.
Dixie Wilson blew into Hollywood—if one of bouffant form may be said to blow, waving triumphantly an extraordinary contract. No mere scenario writer was this girl from the Ringling Circus to be, but a full-fledged director—so said Dixie. Three or six months later, Dixie exited as silently as a mouse.
Carl Van Vechten peeped in at the window, cocked a quizzical eyebrow and, tongue in cheek, extolled the virtues of the movie city, which he proposed to send down to posterity via the pages of his next book.

Edmund Goulding Prospers

Edmund Goulding5 dropped in merely to have a look around. He expected to stay a day or two. He remained to become one of its greatest scenarists and directors. Now he is back in New York, with two of his plays in rehearsal and a novel on the press. He will return to Hollywood. Hollywood is not Hollywood without him, and there are a score of down-and-outers who miss the lift, the encouraging, snappy word and the dollar or two that Eddie was wont to slip into their hands so generously.
“Well, how do you like it?” asked a fa- 111 mous producer of Clarence Budington Kelland, after he had permitted the author to see the screen version of one of his stories. Falling into the producer’s own idiom, Kelland replied:
“I ain’t a-going to kiss you!”
Dorothy Farnum reminds one of Anita Loos.6 She looks like a schoolgirl, a very pretty blonde one, and has the brain of a literary Napoleon. She tripped out of magazine writing and insinuated her way deftly to the very peak of scenario writing. Only master scripts are assigned her. “Beau Brummel,” “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” the Garbo opuses, are from her pen. Like Frances Marion, she is possessed of exceptional beauty and brains. Frances Marion, incidentally, is without a doubt the greatest of the scenario writers. She is also a novelist.
Winifred Dunn, who wrote for the better class magazines before the movies captured her, looks like what we imagine Jane Eyre did. It seems incredible that this fragile girl is responsible for that epic of a pug, “The Patent-Leather Kid.” “Sparrows” is another original of Miss Dunn’s.
Donald McGibney stayed long enough to adapt his Saturday Evening Post story, “Two Arabian Knights,” and hurried back to New York. But Hollywood had gotten into his blood. He is back now. He says he is competing with the butcher, the janitor, the mayor, the plumber and every other person in Hollywood as a scenarist.

Doty Thought Dotty

Douglas Doty, be-spectacled, scholarly high-brow writer and editor of the Century Magazine startled the sober and respectable world of which he was a prized ornament by suddenly breaking the chains and shackles that bound him to his editorial chair and home. He shot out for Hollywood. There he appeared with all the bubbling spirits and jazzy clothes of a college youth. What an exhilarating season followed. The former editor dropped ten years of his age, and even acquired height. He no longer indites high-brow editorials, but sparkling scenarios, and, moreover, he has acquired the prettiest little movie wife imaginable and an adorable Doty Junior.
This, however, is only one and an unusually exceptional instance of a professional writer’s successful assimilation into the motion picture industry. The average literary man finds himself quite unable to cope with the viewpoint of the film-makers. Too, he is not infrequently aghast at their conception of him and his work.
Was it not Arthur Stringer7 who submitted “Perils of the Deep” to a well-known producer, and was nearly paralyzed when said producer threw it back at him with:
“Naw! Don’t want no more stories about pearls!”
Said an Eminent Author to an Eminent Producer:
“May I have the honor of dedicating my new book to you?”
“Certainly,” replied the flattered producer. “When do you wish me to be ready and where does the ceremony take place?”
The author was young and he had been born in Australia. The supervisor was also young, and he had been born on Ellis Island. Said the supervisor:
“You come from Australia?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Hm. Speak Austrian, heh?”
“Why, no, sir.”
“How long have you been in this country?”
“One month.”
“What! Where you learn to speak English so quick?”


Actress Peaches Browning (1910-1956), born Frances Belle Heenan, married 51-year-old real estate tycoon Edward Browning when she was only fifteen years old. Only a year later, she sued for divorce; the case became a nationwide sensation.
Will Irwin (1873-1948), well-known journalist and author of numerous books including Pictures of Old Chinatown (1908; with photographs by Arthur Genthe), Columbine Time (1921), Herbert Hoover: A Reminiscent Autobiography (1928), and The House that Shadows Built (1928). Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), playwright, a Belgian by birth and active in France, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911.
The authors listed in this section were all popular—some exceedingly so—at the time this article was published.
Will Hays, head of the Studio Relations Committee, the arm of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) that issued the 1930 “production code” that attempted to regulate film content over concern over illicit language and subject matter.
Edmund Goulding (1891-1959) was an actor and playwright in his native England, but gained fame as a screenwriter and director in Hollywood, where he was credited with establishing MGM’s reputation as a producer of elegant and tasteful films such as Grand Hotel (1932), starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford.
Anita Loos (1893-1981) and Frances Marion (1886-1973), mentioned later in the paragraph, were two of the grande dames of Hollywood screenwriting beginning in the 1910s.
Arthur Stringer (1874-1950), one of the best-known Canadian authors of his day, was a friend of Eaton’s.

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People Mentioned

Jean Lee Cole

Jean Lee Cole is Senior Consultant on The Winnifred Eaton Archive, author of The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity (2002), co-editor of A Japanese Nightingale and Madame Butterfly: Two Orientalist Texts (2002, with Maureen Honey), and editor of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive (2004). She is Professor of English at Loyola University Maryland.

Greg Murray

Greg Murray is the Director of Digital Initiatives at Princeton Theological and has a MA in Literature and Religion from University of Virginia. He assisted in the development of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

Ethan Gruber

Ethan Gruber is the Director of Data Science at the American Numismatic Society and has an M.A. in Art and Architectural History from University of Virginia. He assisted in the development of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

John Ivor Carlson

John Ivor Carlson is the Digital Production Editor at Yale University Press and has a PhD in Medieval Literature from University of Virginia. He assisted in the development of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

Jolie Sheffer

Jolie Sheffer is Associate Professor in English and American Culture Studies and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society at Bowling Green State University. She was a research assistant on the original Winnfired Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

Diana Birchall

Diana Birchall is the author of Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton and the granddaughter of Winnifred Eaton. She is a collaborator on this project.

Author of Headnote

Winnifred Eaton

  • Born: August 21, 1875
  • Died: April 08, 1954
See the Biographical Timeline for biographical information on Winnifred Eaton.

Pseudonyms used in this text

Joey Takeda

Joey Takeda is the Technical Director of The Winnifred Eaton Archive and a Developer at Simon Fraser University’s Digital Humanities Innovation Lab (DHIL). He is a graduate of the M.A. program in English at the University of British Columbia where he specialized in Indigenous and diasporic literature, science and technology studies, and the digital humanities.

Mary Chapman

Mary Chapman is the Director of The Winnifred Eaton Archive, a Professor of English, and Academic Director of the Public Humanities Hub at University of British Columbia. She is the author of the award-winning monograph Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and US Modernism (Oxford UP) and of numerous articles about American literature and women writers. She has also edited Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton (McGill-Queen’s UP) and published essays on the Eaton sisters in American Quarterly, MELUS, Legacy, Canadian Literature, and American Periodicals. Her current research project is a microhistory of the Eaton family. For more information, see http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/mchapman/.

Ken Ip

Ken Ip is a graduate of the M.A. program in English at the University of British Columbia and was a research assistant for The Winnifred Eaton Archive. During this time, his research interests were focused towards digital humanities and Indigenous literatures. During his time with the project, he contributed mainly as a transcriber and encoder for several of Eaton’s works. He is currently working with the International Society of Cell and Gene Therapy as Coordinator, Training and Education.

Organizations Mentioned

Motion Picture Magazine

An American movie fan magazine published from 1911 until 1977 under various names. Similarly named Motion Picture Classic Magazine was its sister publication. Headquartered in New York.
Written by Samantha Bowen


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January 2008Greg Murray, University of Virginia Library: Migration. Programmatically updated TEI header markup (but not header content) for minimal compliance with current QA requirements.
September 2007Ethan Gruber, University of Virginia Library: Migration. Converted XML markup from TEI Lite to uva-dl-tei (TEI P4 with local customizations).
July 2005John Ivor Carlson: Corrector. Converted SGML to XML. Fixed tagging.
July 2004Jolie Sheffer, Electronic Text Center: corrector. Added TEI header and text.