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The Big Hunger: John Fante

Highlights from Issue 32: Hollywood Lost & Found

John Fante / Illustration by KEVIN CHRISTY

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The following piece appears in Issue 32: Hollywood Lost & Found. For more on this issue, click here


THE BIG HUNGER: JOHN FANTE

BY ANTHONY REYNOLDS


“God hates a man who’s poor. He stinks.”
John Fante

John Fante is one of America’s greatest writers. His finest works include the timeless and beautiful Wait Until Spring, Bandini, The Brotherhood of the Grape and the eternal Ask the Dust. To write these books was his raison d’être. Yet Fante also brought into this world a large family and a lust for the high life. The former was in part his heritage as an Italian-American; the latter was personified in a sprawling coastal home, expensive cars, reckless gambling and passionate drinking. Growing up in Colorado, John Fante indulged in his passion for baseball, dreaming as so many did then of escaping into the major leagues. But Fante was a born writer, and by the end of his teens, he knew it. In 1930, he graduated from the mountain-studded scenery of Colorado to the orange groves and golden sunlight of Southern California.

Dreaming of becoming a novelist from his Bunker Hill apartment, Fante was eventually forced to find a regular job. By his mid-20s, broke and miserable, he’d become a studio hack in Hollywood. It was a position he would never be comfortable with. “Hollywood is a bad place,” the 24-year-old Fante wrote in late 1936. “It kills writers. They die young and violently.”

Fante spent the majority of his adult working life as a screenwriter for various Hollywood studios. He even died at the motion picture hospital in Woodland Hills, California, in 1983. (His last days were poignantly penned in a handful of Bukowski poems. Bukowski, an early convert to Fante’s novels, famously said, “Fante was my God.”)

On the surface, Fante lived his life as one of the many worker bees within the rapidly sprawling Hollywood hive. Yet no matter what distractions and diversions this job and his family hoisted upon him, he never abandoned his work as a novelist. He had a desire to write stories, his blood flowed into the words that fed his novels.

But Fante grew tired of the conditions he was forced to write in: the series of doomed, humiliating and punishing jobs, the rented rooms — all endured on a diet of cigarettes and air. Long hours waiting on the mail in Bunker Hill were punctuated by the daily penance of rejection slips from publishers and magazines, anointed by just enough acceptances (among them H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury) to fuel the almost religious faith Fante held in his own talent.

“The first opportunity came when I worked in collaboration with a writer called Frank Fenton,” Fante recalled decades later. “We wrote an original story and sold it to Warner Bros. They needed someone to write a screenplay, and they selected me because they felt that I was more professional since I had published stories in magazines. I was there for 10 or 12 weeks and when the job ended, I went back to my apartment with the intention of writing another book. I got an offer from WB for a second time. … I was there four or five months. From there I went to RKO … Paramount … RKO, MGM, Columbia, Republic — almost all the studios. I had a taste of it all.”

Fante landed his first proper job in 1934. The pitch, co-authored with Fenton, was for a story called “Dinky,” which as a film became a cloyingly sentimental mother-and-son weepie featuring a young Jackie Cooper. The pay for such schlep was outrageously good and Fante, now in his early 20s, was assigned a place on the studio lot, with a desk, a couch, “in and out” trays, and a secretary. “Here I sit,” he wrote, “laughing and laughing. I have a secretary and a great big office and a lot of people bow low when I pass, all of them hating my Dago guts.”

Few studio writers were comfortable working traditional office hours, even with the opportunity of a boozy two-hour lunch every day. Fante would often pass the time writing correspondence to friends on studio letterhead. In 1932, he wrote to Mencken, “I’m writing for the studios and it’s the most disgusting job in Christ’s Kingdom.” Referring to the selling of “Dinky,” he exclaimed, “I not only made the folks swallow that bilgewater, but I did it to the tune of $1500 plus $250 a week indefinitely.” These were phenomenal amounts of money back in the Thirties, especially for a man of Fante’s background. He regularly sent large sums back home to Colorado.

Mindful of his temporary employment, he tried to keep his savings account in the black. The rest went too quickly on rent — although this averaged to only $4 a week — good clothes, fine food, cartons of cigarettes, and booze.

Fante was a prodigious drinker; it was perhaps a way of reconciling his poet’s soul with his aggressive masculinity. As the sensitive and vital young man who was reading Rupert Brooke and Nietzsche in his own time, Fante reveled in his maleness. While part of him was incurably introspective, the diminutively handsome bachelor gladly accepted many of the glamorous invites that came his way. Trawling the parties, restaurants and private drinking dens of Thirties Hollywood with “good friends, evil companions” (among them, Carey McWilliams and Ross Wills), Fante would often carouse until dawn. Come morning, on the sunny dusty lot of the studio, once the hangover had cleared, the young writer was a boisterous presence.

Hal Wallis once reprimanded Fante for “talking up a story” with Edward G. Robinson. Such pitching was meant to go through the appropriate channels. Fante had innocently bypassed such etiquette and simply engaged the movie star in enthusiastic conversation during a break between filming. Meanwhile, Dinky, Fante’s first movie, came and went. But in an age where talkies were still a relative novelty, it did brisk business and more than made its money back. In its wake, Fante was commissioned to come up with another original assignment. Under pressure from the Catholic Legion of Decency, Fante, a born if recurrently lapsed Catholic, struggled to come up with something that would offend no one and please everyone — himself included. Bandini, the story of an artful stonecutter in New York’s Little Italy, never would make it to the screen. But from this abandoned screenplay bloomed one of Fante’s most enduring novels, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, his first published book. His screenplays would occasionally make it to the cinema, but almost without exception, they made for mediocre films. Yet behind the scenes of his own life, Fante the novelist would complete quiet classics. As a screenwriter, Fante was a self-confessed mercenary. “It doesn’t take any brains to compose a movie, any idiot can do it,” he told his mother in a letter which included $100, answering the question with cold, hard cash.

From 1937 on, Fante worked as a full-time screenwriter. There were times when his faith in his talent wavered as his second son, Dan, recalled: “The old man did not write a word from 1941 through 1948. The rejection of his proposed book Little Brown Brothers hit him very hard. He drank and gambled and played golf to wash away the pain.” Writing Mencken, Fante was honest about the life he had chosen and the stilted prospects it offered: “In a town of thousands of writers, I doubt you could find more than a dozen over 55 who are still producing. … When I speak of the Hollywood writer, I mean of course, the scenarist.” With his family, he was less elaborate. “Hollywood — land of whores and Jewish tie shops,” he wrote his cousin in March of 1937.

By 1940 John Fante had published two novels to critical praise and modest sales. Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Ask the Dust reached a selective audience, alongside various short stories and a handful of screenplays. That same year Fante was married to Joyce Smart. Their first child quickly followed. He was now writing for B pictures, or “programmers,” as they were first known. These were films slated for the bottom half of a double-bill and were little more than moving wallpaper designed for munching popcorn to, and Fante knew it.

Nevertheless, they paid and later that year, two were produced: East of the River for Warner Bros, and The Golden Fleecing for MGM. Even throughout this productive period, Fante still lived feast to famine, leaning on his new wife for financial support when the work dried up.

With America poised on the brink of World War II, Fante labored intensively, landing another successful pitch to RKO, Youth Runs Wild, which was produced in 1944. Fante now had a regular agent and a solid reputation as a hardworking screenwriter. In 1941, he got a job writing for the 26-year-old Orson Welles. Citizen Kane had just been released amid a hurricane of hype, and Fante was writing from 780 Gower Street, the very RKO studio where the legendary film had been completed. The new Welles project (one of many in the air that year) was a joint venture between the Brazilian government’s motion picture division and RKO. It was to consist of a series of dramatized true stories making up one fantastic whole.

Collaborating with Norman Foster, Fante carved out two screenplays, Love Story and My Friend Bonito. The former was based on the mythical (as Fante saw it) meeting of his own parents. The Love Story script never even made it to casting, although the crystal maze scene did appear later on in customized form in Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai. Bonito — the everyday story of a boy and his bull — was canceled by RKO when Welles interrupted its filming, calling frantically on its director to work on another doomed project, Journey Into Fear.

By the time the war was over, much had changed, and the old Hollywood era had passed. Fante, with a growing family, an agent and a spacious piece of real estate in Santa Monica to support, kept on working. Various screenplays of his would make it to screen throughout the Fifties and Sixties. Full of Life, a slim novel published in 1952, was as bright as his unpublished The Road to Los Angeles manuscript was dark. Easy on the palate, it was adapted into a pleasantly homely monochrome movie starring Judy Holliday as an expectant mother who quietly exasperates her writer-husband (Richard Conte) with fairly amusing results. This easy Sunday afternoon feature, directed by Richard Quine, did well critically and was a solid hit in its brief cinematic lifetime. And yet watching it today, the film seems dated. The postwar atmosphere it conveys is heavy and oppressive. The specter of Depression-era poverty still looms behind each picket fence and the sight of Holliday’s expectant mother smoking is grim. Of all the Fante films, this is the closest manifestation of the novelist’s true work to make it to the screen.

When John Fante wrote, he gave back to the reader the world and everything in it: music, poetry, love, hate and all the laughter in between. He did this in a quiet style that is, even today, uniquely beguiling. Such works could only ever fail as films because they already exist so perfectly as books.

 

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