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Sunday 14 April 2013

Typewriters in American magazine

Gloria Swanson and William Holden and a Noiseless portable in Sunset Boulevard. From the March 2013 edition of Vanity Fair.
Vanity Fair is the only journal to which I still subscribe. I sense a guarantee of at least one or two enlightening features and usually a decent chance of some typewriter images. I suspect editor Graydon Carter actually has a soft spot for typewriters.
The latest edition of Vanity Fair on Australian newsstands is a good example. Labelled a "Special Collector's Edition" with movie-related spreads, it includes an article on "The Industry" of Hollywood, titled "When the Spec Script was King". The go-first reads, "Once derided as 'schmucks with Underwoods', [Vanity Fair sub-editors should really learn where the commas go] screenwriters saw their stock soar to seven-figure heights with the advent of the frenzied 'spec'-script market. That bubble burst in 2008, but will the schmuck rise again?"
Vanity Fair's March 2013 edition has this image reversed and directed away from the right-hand edge of the page. Which is right, I wonder. Which has Barton Fink typing on a Hebrew language Underwood?
Margaret Heidenry wrote, "When the visual novelty [of the first movies] waned, early directors recognized that movies were missing an essential ingredient to sell tickets: a story. And yet, beginning with the earliest screenplays, in the 1910s, writers usually found themselves at the bottom of the totem pole, dismissed as 'schmucks with Underwoods', a reference to the screenwriter’s typewriter of choice."
Scenes from Barton Fink.
The question is not so much whether the schmucks will rise again, Vanity Fair, but whether the Underwoods will rise again among the screenwriters.
The typewriter that will most certainly NOT rise again is the East German Robotron used in the set-up shot at the head of this article (see above).  I very much doubt any Hollywood screenwriter ever used a Robotron in the first place. (This one is a topless 1970s Optima, by the way.) Imagine the McCarthy-era frenzy if any Hollywood screenwriter had touched a Communist Bloc typewriter?
The "Hollywood screenwriter's" Optima with its top on.
Heidenry's article is illustrated with images of John Turturro at an Underwood in Barton Fink, Nicolas Cage at a sort of typewriter (an IBM?) in Adaptation and William Holden at a Noiseless portable (Remington or Underwood? Who would know?) in Sunset Boulevard.
Another Vanity Fair March 2013 edition feature, "Weekend in the Sun", concerns the Billy Wilder-directed movie adaptation of Charles Jackson's 1944 bestselling novel The Lost Weekend.
What a brilliant book cover design!
Welsh-born Ray Milland's performance in the lead role in this movie won him an Oscar. Milland played alcoholic writer (Wales has produced some notables in this area) Don Birnam, who tries to pawn his Remington portable typewriter on Third Avenue during Yom Kippur. After leaving it behind in a drunken stupor, the Remington is later returned to Birnam by the barkeep at Nat's (based on P.J.Clarke's), apparently marking the beginning of Birnam's rehabilitation.
Don Birnam (played by Ray Milland) mixes his Scotch with coffee in a non-licensed diner in this publicity shot for The Lost Weekend. The Remington portable typewriter's case is at his unsteady elbow.
A desperate Birnam rests on the Remington case as Nat the barkeep (Howard Da Silva) refuses to barter for Rye.
Birnam puts the Remington in its case before trying to hock it.
The shooting of The Lost Weekend. Milland has the Remington's case in hand.
From the March 2013 edition of Vanity Fair.
Remington portables have that effect on people, of course. But as author Blake Bailey points out in his story, this was definitely not the way Jackson wanted The Lost Weekend to end. 
BTW, in the 1947 Bugs Bunny cartoon Slick Hare, a caricatured Milland/Birnam is shown sitting at a bar and paying for his drink with a typewriter. He gets small typewriters as his change.
Vanity Fair has a good track record of featuring typewriter images, dating back to 1934:
This blog has previously posted images from Vanity Fair, of Joseph Heller at his Corona electric and Ernest Hemingway's Corona 3.
Here are some more Vanity Fair typewriter-related photos:
George S. Kaufman, at the typewriter with Moss Hart, in 1937, the year their play You Can’t Take It With You won the Pulitzer Prize.
Sam Shepard with his Hermes 3000 typewriter, in New York City.

Walter Cronkite works at a typewriter in his cluttered office as he writes copy for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, on May 6, 1970.


teeritz said...

When I flicked through this issue of Vanity Fair the other day, I was struck by how odd that set-up shot was for the article. Maybe it's just me, but I never pictured Hollywood screenwriters of the 1940s chomping away on cigars with a crystal decanter nearby. And don't even get me started on the hat! I'd have thought that Vanity Fair"s stylists would have had access to more appropriate props. And although I know of "The Lost Weekend" and its reputation in the annals of film noir, I've yet to see it...which is a good thing. Something to look forward to.
And sadly, selling a screenplay in Hollywood these days is even more difficult than it was fifteen years ago.

Ray said...

Thanks for sharing these images to those of us without Vanity Fair subscriptions.

Richard P said...

This is all very entertaining stuff.

I agree, the photo with the Robotron is ridiculous!

I had to look up Slick Hare. Here's one place to see it. The "Lost Weekend" scene is at 1:20. Great gag!

Thanks for providing further material for my "Writers and Their Typewriters" page!

TonysVision said...

Thanks for ferreting out a great article from a magazine I likely would not otherwise think to open. I loved the typewriter photos, of course, and agree that cover graphic for "The Lost Weekend" is great - liked it so much I found a used copy for $1.99 plus $3.99 on Amazon. It could also be an illustration of of one of us "hysterical types" looking in vain for some typewriter we thought we bought on eBay last month.

Bill M said...

Thanks for the fine post Robert. Vanity Fair is one of the few magazines I have never read. I know it has been available in libraries, but for some reason I never picked up a copy.

You've got me interested in a magazine and a book to add to my "I need to read this" list.