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I'd Hate Myself in the Morning: A Memoir Hardcover – 18 Oct 2000
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Ring Lardner, Jr. 's memoir is a pilgrimage through the American century. The son of an immensely popular and influential writer, Lardner grew up swaddled in material and cultural privilege. After a memorable visit to Moscow in 1934, he worked as a reporter in New York before leaving for Hollywood where he served a bizarre apprenticeship with David O. Selznick, and won, at the age of 28, an Academy Award for Woman of the Year, the first on-screen pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. In "irresistibly readable" pages (New Yorker), peopled by a cast including Carole Lombard, Louis B. Mayer, Dalton Trumbo, Marlene Dietrich, Otto Preminger, Darryl F. Zanuck, Bertolt Brecht, Bert Lahr, Robert Altman, and Muhammad Ali, Lardner recalls the strange existence of a contract screenwriter in the vanished age of the studio systeman existence made stranger by membership in the Hollywood branch of the American Communist Party. Lardner retraces the path that led him to a memorable confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee and thence to Federal prison and life on the Hollywood blacklist. One of the lucky few who were able to resume their careers, Lardner won his second Oscar for the screenplay to M. A. S. H. in 1970.
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("Gulags what gulags?") So much for Lardner's political savvy. You'll notice that Lardner did not remain in the Stalinist worker's paradise but got his privileged ass back to Beverly Hills. For the truth about Lardner and the other Hollywood commie-creeps read HOLLYWOOD PARTY by Kenneth Billingsley. I notice that we are about to get a film kissing the behind of that other pinko-dupe Dalton Trumbo. I won't waste my money on that trash. I shall spend my time searching for the Lardner and Trumbo graves and I shall relieve myself upon them.
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This book has some great highlights which should be cherished by the readers. Dalton Trumbo may be the most celebrated of the Hollywood 10 and his humorous attempts to write and get credit for writing are quite interesting during the Blacklist period. The book correctly conveys the lives which were altered or damaged by this horrible period in America freedom.
Another interesting subject is the few movies that are mentioned showing how the screenwriting process changed the movie completely from the original story. For example, I had read the great sports novel, "Semi-tough", by Dan Jenkins. Lardner wrote a screenplay and a new director had it completely rewrote focusing not on football but on mystical self-improvement gurus. I had always wondered how a movie could so butcher a very funny book so it was nice to get closure on a 30 year old question.
Lardner wrote and won an Academy Award for "Mash". This provides more interesting reading on a movie which is still significant in the landscape of American cinema.
The next to last chapter provides a look not at history but directly into the soul of this interesting man. What starts out as a description of growing old turns into an exceptional essay on his beliefs or nonbeliefs in religeon. Regardless of your feelings, this is fascinating chapter that may challenge your own beliefs.
In closing, I believe you will enjoy this read of a man who led a full life suffering through the Hollywood 10 tragedy and early deaths of brothers in Spain and WWII. I recommend this book specifically to readers interested in Hollywood, American history in the 20th century, or biographies of famous writers.
He begins with his 1947 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), whose chair, J. Parnell Thomas, would not allow him to present his prepared remarks, which included the sentence, "We are already subject in Hollywood to a censorship that makes most pictures empty and childish." Incidentally, the title of this book is taken from the brief statement he was able to give. Addressing the committee, he said he could theoretically answer their questions, "but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning." (pg. 9)
For Lardner, movie-making was a way to bring about social change, not primarily a means of personal enrichment. His career as a screenwriter went hand in hand with his political agenda. "Many of us had entered our professions with hopes, which we still harbored in varying degrees, that the great new medium of motion pictures would be a force for change, not in the crude way that such a thing might have been conceived in the Soviet world, but in the sense of allowing us to portray some of the not so beautiful realities of modern life and to gently illuminate areas of possible improvement." (pg. 7)
After the dramatic curtain raiser of the hearings, he takes us back to his childhood and youth. Among the highlights: As a student at Andover in 1932, he won first place in the categories Most Original, Wittiest, and Biggest Bluffer in the Classroom. At daily chapel service, he once hid an alarm clock in the drawer of the lectern, timed to ring twenty minutes into the sermon. When it went off, he was highly amused when the drawer got stuck and the alarm continued to ring on and on as the clergyman kept speaking, until finally it ran down.
Like many young people at the time, he was fascinated by the Soviet Union as an experiment in creating a more just society. Among his more unfashionable opinions is his defense of New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, who painted a generally favorable picture of life there, notoriously downplaying reports of starvation in the Ukraine and other parts of the USSR. In retrospect, Lardner engages in some self-criticism for lending credence to the Moscow show trials, calling himself "woefully naïve."
Soon enough he was able to acquire first-hand experience of life under socialism. The USSR he visited in 1934 still had something of a revolutionary spark about it. Back then, when one could swim in the Moscow River without getting a lethal dose of chemicals, he notes: "The waterfront was segregated into four separate, fenced-off beaches: male nude, female nude, mixed in bathing suits, and mixed nude." (pg. 46)
He had come to Russia as a student, enrolling at the Anglo-American Institute of the University of Moscow, "a center established to encourage young Americans to support the Soviet system," according to his long NY Times obituary. One day, after he put up a satirical wall newspaper, the authorities called him to account. Lardner provides an amusing take on the hearing, from which, however, some important details are missing.
He identifies his chief inquisitor as the humorless "Professor Pinkevich." This is likely Albert Petrovich Pinkevich, who – according to Wikipedia – was the rector of Moscow State Pedagogical Univ., "an important educationist and author of The New Education in the Soviet Republic, who became a victim of Stalin's Great Purge, 'disappearing' in 1937 to a Gulag labour camp." If Lardner had known of his fate, perhaps he would have accorded him somewhat more respectful treatment.
Lardner was imbued with a spirit of defiance from a young age, and this is what drew him to Marxism, though at the time he believed it purely the result of rigorous intellectual inquiry. Looking back, he confesses to some anxiety about developments in the USSR after the war: "We also expected that under Marxist socialism, Russia would become more, rather than less, democratic, and the failure of that to happen was beginning to stir doubts among some of us even as we faced the committee [HUAC]."
Eventually he was convicted of the crime of not answering questions ("Are you now, or have you ever been…?") to the committee's satisfaction. When he was led away to prison in Danbury, Conn., Lardner had to act as guide to the US Marshals escorting him; they were unfamiliar with the train stations, so he led them to the proper platforms. Ever the helpful sort, he would later get 15 days off his sentence as a reward for improving the English of the Federal Correction materials it was his job to type up – thus proving that a command of style can be both practical and profitable. By the way, one of his fellow inmates proved to be none other than former Representative J. Parnell Thomas himself, serving nine months on a conviction for corruption. The righteous communist-hunter from New Jersey had put non-existent workers on the payroll and collected their salaries himself.
Born in 1915, Lardner died in 2000, shortly before the publication of this memoir. His obituary lists two Oscars, one for best original screenplay ("Woman of the Year"), the other for best screenplay adapted from another medium ("M*A*S*H*"). The NY Times hailed him as a "wry screenwriter and last of the Hollywood 10." To phrase it the way he himself would have preferred, he was the last survivor of the original group who never cooperated with the authorities.
Two drawbacks: He does not say much on something he obviously knew a lot about, the art of script writing. And the lack of an index is especially lamentable, as he mentions well over 200 individuals, some famous (Dalton Trumbo), others largely forgotten.
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