by Tony Medley
There have been
many stories told of Hollywood, most by actors and directors. A few
writers have told what it’s like in modern day Hollywood, but I can’t
think of a writer from the Golden Era of the ‘40s and ‘50s who has told
the story. That’s what Albert “Buzz” Bezzerides does here. This is not
only his story, but it’s him telling it.
Never heard of
Buzz? You aren’t alone. Have you heard of noir? Buzz is generally
credited with having written the story which some claim to be the first
American noir, “They Ride By Night” (1940) adapted from his novel “Long
Haul.” And that story, which doesn’t come until well into the film, more
about that later, comes with another story. Buzz wrote the novel (at the
urging of his wife, Yvonne), and made around $500 on it. An agent came
to him and said he could get him more money from Warner Bros., who
wanted to make a movie out of it. The agent got him $1,500, and Warner
Bros. signed him to a contract. On his first day at the studio he was in
the office of the producer, Mark Hellinger, he saw Hellinger stick a
script in the drawer. Buzz asked to see it and it turned out it was a
complete script based on his book. They had been working on the script
before they got the rights to the book. He had already signed a contract
with Jack Warner for seven years, which Warner offered to avoid a
lawsuit, paying him $300 per week, “but that was a lot of money for me.”
Buzz said he
could have gotten much more for it because he had them over the barrel.
They had already started on the movie and didn’t have the rights. He
said he was sold down the river by the agent who traded his obligation
to Buzz for better continued relations with the studio. He said someone
found a letter in the file saying they should pay him $20,000, but he
said it didn’t bother him too much because that “would have spoiled me.
I wasn’t writing for money; I was writing to write.” This was the first
of deals where Buzz felt he was “swindled,” which he said continued
throughout his career.
This is only
one of the many stories told in this fascinating study of a man who
could be an icon but who is known only by the most devoted of movie
fans. During his career, great actors came to him to polish their
dialogue. Humphrey Bogart was the first, in “They Drive by Night” (the
script was credited to Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay), to ask Buzz to
improve his dialogue. He liked what Buzz did so well that he continued
to ask Buzz to do uncredited work throughout his career and recommended
him to others who did the same. Eventually people like Edward G.
Robinson and George Raft paid him as much as $5,000 to polish their
For a man given
lots of credit for creating noir in the United States,
Buzz’s life imitated his art. To hear him tell it, his career was just
one swindle after another. Nobody ever treated him fairly, and he
remembers and tells about each in detail.
aspect of this film is that it shows trailers used to promote these
films in the ‘40s. They are so far superior to the trailers of today
that it bears commenting. In the ‘40s the trailers were teases, showing
short clips but mostly voice-overs telling a bare outline of a plot.
Trailers today not only tell almost the entire story, they show all the
great lines. Once you’ve seen a trailer today there’s not much need to
see the movie, and when you do see it, the trailer has spoiled the
suspense and spontaneity.
The film has
its weaknesses. Among them, it’s too long at 118 minutes and it spends
far too much time on Buzz’s upbringing, not getting into his Hollywood
years until about 45 minutes in. I would start the film with some
Hollywood reminiscences and then have a flashback to tell about how he
got to Hollywood,
and I’d only spend not more than 15 minutes on his upbringing and
education. While his hardscrabble upbringing is slightly interesting,
it’s what happened in Hollywood
that makes this an entertainment worth watching.
weakness is the story Buzz tells about how Ronald Reagan switched from
being a member of the democrat part to the republican party, which
sounds like sheer fantasy to me. In fact, Reagan was a member of the
democrat party long after the anecdote Buzz relates allegedly took
place. If the rest of Buzz’s remembrances are as accurate as this story,
maybe this film is more fiction than fact.
He tells of his
left-leaning political views and touches on the
(or Unfriendly) Ten and the McCarthy era, which apparently affected his
career. He had a dispute with John Howard Lawson, one of the more
notorious of the Unfriendly Ten, over “Action in the
North Atlantic,” (1943), which Lawson
wrote. Although this movie doesn’t mention it, Lawson was such a
Communist zealot that he said, “As for myself, I do not hesitate to say
that it is my aim to present the Communist position, and to do so in the
most specific manner.” Buzz spent so much time polishing “Action in the
he wanted a credit, which Lawson refused to share. He took Lawson to the
Screen Writers Guild, which was dominated by Lawson’s Communist
comrades, and lost.
interesting aspect of the film is how he came to be William Faulkner’s
savior while the Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist was in
during World War II. Jack Warner was paying the world famous Faulkner
$250 a week when Buzz was being paid $1,200 per week.
There is very
little narration. Most of the story is told by Buzz himself with
personal remembrances voiced by Director Jules Dassin (“very few
screenwriters are remembered, very unfair”), and actresses Cloris
Leachman, Gloria Stuart (“he wasn’t an artist; he was an engineer. He
always wanted to fix scripts”), and Terry Moore, among a few others
Coming out of a
screening for “Juke Girl” (1942), a crippled lady said, “Whoever wrote
this sure knew his folks.” And it made Buzz feel great. Jack Warner
didn’t hear it because he had left, saying, “I don’t know why everyone
likes this picture.” But Buzz says nobody wrote realistic pictures.
Buzz states a
truth that many writers will recognize, that you don’t just work 9-5 and
go home. “You work on it day and night. Sometimes you work on it in your
dream and wake up with a solution.”
constant carping about being victimized by so many swindles (“The world
stinks because the men in it stink; they’re pigs”), he admits that
“money didn’t solve my emotional problems. Writing did.”
scratched the surface. Even though it’s too long and needs editing, for
anyone interested in Hollywood folklore this is a must-see.