Friday, November 17, 2006

McWilliams and Chinatown

Fanatical readers of this blog already know that Carey McWilliams inspired Robert Towne's original screenplay for Chinatown, the neo-noir classic set in pre-war Los Angeles. But you may not know that Towne confided to McWilliams that Southern California Country (1946) "really changed my life. It taught me to look at the place where I was born, and convinced me that it was worth writing about." Funny to think now that an L.A. native, even 30 years ago, would need convincing that his hometown was a worthy subject, but there you have it.

At the time, Towne was a well-paid script doctor; when he was hatching Chinatown on spec--he eventually received $25,000 for it from Paramount--he was also earning $175,000 to salvage Truman Capote's script for The Great Gatsby. His passion for the undervalued project paid off for him and film fans everywhere. For more details, see David Thomson's The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. The relevant passage is excerpted on the Random House website:

http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375701542&view=excerpt

Like many movie-lovers, McWilliams thought the film was brilliant, but it also worked for him at the autobiographical level by dramatizing the scope of his own life and career. In effect, McWilliams was the bridge between writer Mary Austin, who personally witnessed the Owens Valley water swindle in the early 1900s, and Towne, the A-list Hollywood screenwriter of the 1970s who really made that swindle famous.

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