David Goodis in Hollywood
David Goodis' years in Hollywood (roughly 1946 to 1950) were the high point of his life, though his most productive writing came after his return to Philadelphia. Except for his work on the movie, Dark Passage, his time at Warner Brothers yielded frustration more than success. Goodis' zany Hollywood lifestye is described by his friend Leonard Cobrin:
“In February 1947, Marvin Gould, Gene Beechman and I drove to California to see David. We wanted to see the studios. At this point, David was earning $1100 a week. After several requests, David finally broke down and showed us the studios.”
“David, Marvin, Gene and I set out to crash a dance of the waiters and waitresses union. It was a chilly night. David drove a 1936 Chrysler phaeton. It had four doors and a cloth top. The eisenglass windows were missing. David was heavy into Army surplus. To keep our heads warm, he gave us gas masks. We drove around Hollywood wearing gas masks!”
Insight into Goodis' decline in Hollywood is given by Jeff Weddle in his new book, Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press. The book concerns publishers Louise and Jon Webb. Webb wrote the prison novel, "Four Steps to the Wall." Goodis had been assigned to write the screenplay..
Weddle wrote for davidgoodis.com:
To be honest, I had not heard of David Goodis before I began researching my book. I was conducting a telephone interview with Louise Webb one evening about five years ago and we were talking about her husband’s prison novel, Four Steps to the Wall, which was published by Dial in 1948. Lou told me that the book almost became a movie and that Goodis had the first crack at writing the screenplay. Even all those years later, Lou was incensed that Goodis was paid one thousand dollars a week by the producers to write the script. When Goodis’s script was ultimately rejected, Jon took on the task but was paid only seventy-five dollars a week with a promise of several thousand dollars after the movie was shot. There was much intrigue between Jon and the producers which led to hard feelings all around and the movie was eventually shelved.
As an interesting aside, though Goodis apparently had enough money to live wherever he chose, Lou remembers that he lived in the Crown Hill Hotel, a skid row establishment that was operated by a couple of hookers. (Louise Webb told davidgoodis.com that you could not stay at the Crown Hill Hotel unless you had a pimp. The Webbs had a connection which got them around this admission policy.) The Webbs also lived there while they were in LA, but out of necessity. They had very little money and several cats and the Crown Hill was the only place within their budget that would admit the cats. Lou told me that when they got down to their last pennies Jon asked Goodis for a small loan so that they could buy some food. “That’s against my principles,” Goodis told Jon. “Imagine,” Lou said, “Here was a guy getting paid one thousand dollars a week to do the screenplay of Jon’s book. He couldn’t afford a few bucks? Come on.”
From the chapter, “Four Steps to the Wall and Hollywood Dreams,” in Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press, by Jeff Weddle. Copyright 2007 by the University Press of Mississippi. Used by permission of the author.
Sallis notes that Goodis’s novels share a common structure and a similar protagonist, a noble loser who once had everything. It is likely that Goodis put this formula to work on Four Steps to the Wall. Perhaps for this reason, Goodis’s script proved unsatisfactory to both Monte Prosser and Jon. Jon was unhappy that Goodis kept nothing of his novel but the title, the names of the major characters, and the prison setting. The general disappointment with Goodis’s script brought Jon back into the project as a writer.
By October 1949, Jon was faced with the difficult task of trying to fix Goodis’s script, even as Goodis was still turning out pages. Jon worried that the best he could hope to do was bring more authenticity to the prisoners’ dialog and perhaps make some scenes more exciting. Since Goodis was not following an approved treatment, Jon could not predict the storyline. He was convinced Goodis was making a hash of the job. “From the beginning, in the story he’s writing, Ditto is a softie and a dope, regardless of how much Goodis thinks he is making him a shrewd, cool character. So there’s little I can do about rearranging Ditto’s makeup – like all the rest of the characters in Goodis’ script, Ditto is a B-picture stereotype. So, if I must stick to Goodis plot line, all I can do is to put a little life into these stereotypes. Like doping an old horse, or giving a dead man a transfusion.” Jon saw Goodis’ script as “corn from way back,” suffering from a coincidence-driven plot in which it was impossible for realistically drawn characters to work. Jon aimed much higher.
Goodis’ script appears not to have survived, but Jon gave a succinct, if sneering, synopsis in a letter to George Joel, his editor at Dial:
The screenplay has just been completed by David Goodis, a professional Hollywood hack. Maybe you recall his DARK PASSAGE, Sat Eve Post story. With Four Steps he took only names of characters, little else. He did make Ditto an editor, but made him quite a mollycoddle, and an innocent man behind bars. Clara he made a glamorous bitch whose father is behind bars, in this prison, see? So she’s digging a tunnel into the prison to get him out. He’s digging a tunnel out of the prison and as the story opens they are coming together underground, only eight feet apart, but they hit a big rock. So that night Clara on leaving her tunnel near the prison is accosted by a road cop who says, ‘Looka here, Miss, what you all doin in that there woods.” The prison is surrounded by a woods. ‘Why officer, sir, I was – I was----‘ The cop snorts. ‘That’s no excuse, lady – get in your car and I’ll foller you to the station. So Clara gets in her car and he follows her. But the lady speeds up and the cop chases her. She turns a corner on the highway and there in front of her on the side road is a car. In the car sits John Ditto, and ex-newspaper man who pulled off the highway because he was drunk and couldn’t go on. Clara just misses his car, but the dumb cop hits the curve going 100 or so and whams into the back of Ditto’s car, jolting Ditto to soberness. The girl stops, Ditto gets out, they look down – the cop is dead. Just then a squad car comes along (on this deserted highway), and does not see the girl run to her car, get in and beat it. They find Ditto and obviously it was he who was being chased. Stopped his car so the cop would run into it. He gets seven to ten years for manslaughter. So that’s how he’s in prison. From then on all plot – the girl wretched with guilt for not coming forward, the father entreating her to keep quiet – Ditto finding out the father is in prison, etc., has a tunnel, etc.
Jon didn’t like Goodis’s work, but he had faith in his own novel and in the film that it could become. Prosser eventually asked him if he could step in and write a new script. “Of course I could,” he answered. “I wrote the book.” Once it appeared that he might take Goodis’s place, he made it plain that he intended this to be something special. “So what I definitely would prefer to do (despite the fact that it would be ten times harder work) would be to write a kind of prison Snake Pit, with accent on PRISON and not on a boilerhouse and tunnel.” Jon was referencing the acclaimed 1948 film, The Snake Pit, with its screenplay by Millen Brand. This story of a woman’s descent into madness and her slow recovery won an Academy Award for sound recording and Oscar nominations for star Olivia De Havilland and director Anatole Litvak, as well as a Best Picture nomination. Jon was convinced that properly done, Four Steps to the Wall could be Oscar material, too. For Jon, realism was the key to artistic success. “If only we could get a real prison for location, any old prison, no matter how small, we’d be able to do the job really right.”
By November, Jon had agreed in principle to replace Goodis’s work with an original script of his own. The deal called for Jon to receive seventy-five dollars per week, plus “$5000 when shooting starts, $5000 after the picture is distributed, and finally 5% of the producer’s share of the profits.” His agent, after the fact, warned that Jon had settled for too little. At Dial, George Joel wondered how Jon had made a deal without a release from the publisher.
Louise and Jon Webb
Bohemian New Orleans
In 1960, Jon Edgar and Louise "Gypsy Lou" Webb founded Loujon Press on Royal Street in New Orleans's French Quarter. The small publishing house quickly became a giIn 1960, Jon Edgar and Louise "Gypsy Lou" Webb founded Loujon Press on Royal Street in New Orleans's French Quarter. The small publishing house quickly became a giant. Heralded by the Village Voice and the New York Times as one of the best of its day, the Outsider, the press's literary review, featured, among others, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Walter Lowenfels. Loujon published books by Henry Miller and two early poetry collections by Bukowski. Bohemian New Orleans traces the development of this courageous imprint and examines its place within the small press revolution of the 1960s.
Drawing on correspondence from many who were published in the Outsider, back issues of the Outsider, contemporary reviews, promotional materials, and interviews, Jeff Weddle shows how the press's mandarin insistence on production quality and its eclectic editorial taste made its work nonpareil among peers in the underground. Throughout, Bohemian New Orleans reveals the messy, complex, and vagabond spirit of a lost literary age. ant. Heralded by the Village Voice and the New York Times as one of the best of its day, the Outsider, the press's literary review, featured, among others, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Walter Lowenfels. Loujon published books by Henry Miller and two early poetry collections by Bukowski. Bohemian New Orleans traces the development of this courageous imprint and examines its place within the small press revolution of the 1960s.
Drawing on correspondence from many who were published in the Outsider, back issues of the Outsider, contemporary reviews, promotional materials, and interviews, Jeff Weddle shows how the press's mandarin insistence on production quality and its eclectic editorial taste made its work nonpareil among peers in the underground. Throughout, Bohemian New Orleans reveals the messy, complex, and vagabond spirit of a lost literary age.
Review by Susan Larson in Times-Picayune
Jeff Weddle, Ph.D.
School of Library and Information Studies
The University of Alabama