Swans Commentary » swans.com April 11, 2005  



Huxley In Tinsel Town


by Charles Marowitz




(Swans - April 11, 2005)   Of all the literati that wended their way towards Hollywood in the late 1930s and '40s, the most incongruous was Aldous Huxley.

Faulkner and Fitzgerald were both masters of narrative and it takes no leap of the imagination to conceive of them holed up in a writer's hut at Twentieth Century Fox or M.G.M. churning out dialogue or cobbling together a storyline. But it is difficult to think of Huxley, the resplendent British intellectual who customized his luggage so as to be able to cart a full Encyclopedia Britannica wherever he went, in the throes of a story-conference with Daryl F. Zanuck, Irving Thalberg or Harry Cohn. His remorseless intellectuality, one would have thought, would be fundamentally at odds with the whittled-down, commercial taste that the moguls of that period remorselessly advocated, and his spiritual outlook (he began as an agnostic then became a mystic and finally a Vedantist), as far removed from the Hollywood mentality as Jesus Christ was from W.C. Fields.

And yet with minor concessions and minimal studio strife, the novelist turned out a better-than-half-decent screenplay of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (1940) and a fiercely-dark and gripping version of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" (1943). Orson Welles, who contributed a High Gothic performance as Rochester was, as in all films in which he appeared, a ubiquitous directorial presence, constantly insinuating ideas into director Robert Stevenson's ear and stamping the Wellesian "look" on many of the film's visual effects. But the core of that picture is Huxley's screenplay; a craft he very quickly perfected as he did almost any intellectual discipline to which he put his mind.

There were abortive efforts with Christopher Isherwood such as "Jacob's Hands," which the American Medical Association successfully scotched as its theme of faith healing was seen to be a threat to their professional legitimacy, and "Below The Equator," a work that dealt with South American revolutionary violence when such subjects were of little interest to American moviegoers. Negligible efforts perhaps, but there were also about half a dozen truly tantalizing projects that gestated before they were aborted.

For instance, a version of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" which, before it slipped into oblivion, had recruited the services of Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Samuel Beckett and Melchior Lengyel, the author of the original story on which Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninotchka" was based. Significantly, Beckett's participation with this project, initiated by Lawrence's widow Frieda, drew a strong rebuke from Huxley who heatedly discouraged Beckett's involvement.

The stalled project that was closest to Huxley's heart was suggested to him by Walt Disney. It would have dramatized the life of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) through selected segments of "Alice in Wonderland." Huxley imagined an "absurd climax" such as "a visit of Queen Victoria to Oxford and her insistence on having the author of "Alice" presented to her, in preference to all the big-wigs, the scene dissolving, in Carroll's fancy, to the end of "Alice." "They're nothing but a pack of cards" wrote Huxley "and the Queen and her retinue become ridiculous cartoon figures that are scattered to the four winds." When the film eventually was made, all signs of Huxley's innovations had disappeared and it was simply another Disneyesque blancmange.

In 1945, "Brave New World" was also attempted by Huxley in a production instigated by Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith, but Huxley could never buy back his rights from RKO and when, in 1963, Samuel Bronston, the new rights-holder, offered to sell them for $50,000, the author, who was then in straitened circumstances, gently refused the offer.

His last cinematic venture was a screenplay based on his short story "The Gioconda Smile," a collaboration with Zoltan Korda. They tried to get Claude Rains for the lead, but he demanded an astronomical salary hike. The studio casting manager informed them: "In this studio, not even Jesus Christ could get a raise in salary." Which prompted a whimsical Huxley response in a letter to Anita Loos: ".....it would make a splendid subject for a religious painting," wrote Huxley "the Savior before Mannix, Katz and Mayer, pleading for a hike in his wages and being turned down cold." Once the film was finished, the studio heads had strong reservations about the title. "Gioconda?" quipped one, "it sounds like an Italian motorcycle!" The title was changed to "A Woman's Vengeance," Charles Boyer replaced Rains, and it sank quietly without trace. A couple of years later the stage adaptation, with its original title now restored, fared no better.

Other aborted efforts included a Gabriel Pascal-sponsored movie about Gandhi and a UPA animated cartoon version of "Don Quixote" intended as a vehicle for the popular and nearsighed Mr. Magoo. This too never materialized. Ironically, by this time Huxley's own eyesight, which had been partially restored by the Bates Method of eye-re-education (which Huxley had glowingly described in "The Art of Seeing"), had also begun to fail.

Every established writer who was lured into the Valhalla of Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s is able to cite ambitious projects that were bruited, even contracted, and then evaporated. But when one considers the Lewis Carroll project, the aborted films of "Lady Chatterley's Lover," "Brave New World" and "Point Counter Point," all of which flickered for a few moments on studio lots and then vanished without trace, one can't help feeling there was some irremediable conflict between intellectual quality and the Hollywood ethos which militated against the talents of men such as Huxley, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and West. Today, many authors bypass fiction altogether and write directly for the screen, but they can't hold a candle to the novelists that were lured, then abused and only occasionally fulfilled in a medium which was violently antithetical to their talent.

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Published April 11, 2005