Q & A: DEATH IN HER FACE
Q: Lauren’s back in Hollywood and back in trouble.
A: She figured she was better off back in Hollywood where she’d been shot at than in New York, where she’d been shot. Of course, it takes her about 24 hours to get neck-deep in another case.
Q: In Death in Her Face, a beautiful starlet’s vanished and she was having a not-too-secret affair with a gangster, who’s been murdered. Why don’t we talk a bit about what inspired the story.
A: Gangsters were very popular in Hollywood society back in the 1940s (and probably still are). And more than a few actresses found them tempting even though the women could get into big trouble with the studios. Actresses’ lives—and actors’, although to a lesser extent—were ruled by studios during the days of the “studio system”. There was plenty of pressure to adhere to a conservative moral code. Or to appear to adhere at any rate. Studios even arranged marriages to prevent gossip. And they forbade actresses to pursue certain affairs, as Marathon Studios does in Death in Her Face.
Mala Demara, the starlet who vanishes, is involved with a former boxer called Mickey Triton. Mickey isn’t based on any particular gangster, but is a compilation of several attractive young men who had mob connections and enjoyed actresses’ favors. Mala was inspired by two actresses of the period who were already big stars by 1946: Hedy Lamarr and Rita Hayworth. Hedy was an immigrant with rumors of a salacious past. The studio required Rita to make the same “adjustments” to her appearance that are required of Mala in Death in Her Face.
Q: What about any real-life events?
A: The killing of a small-time hoodlum named Johnny Stompanato in the home of the movie icon Lana Turner back in the 1950s. Until I read about that case as a girl, I believed movie stars lived the lives of their publicity. I thought their world was perfect. How could a woman get herself entangled with a volatile, dangerous man? Why would she stay with him? Why would she refuse the studio’s demand to cut off the affair? Was it fear? Love? Or was it something else?
It was the fictional possibility of that “something else” that intrigued me when I began to think about Death in Her Face. Unfettered by reality, I found a much more complicated reason for my starlet’s affair with the gangster. The plot bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Stompanato case. But its revelation of what lies beneath the beautiful mask of Hollywood certainly inspired me.
Q: Are the 1940s your favorite decade for film?
A: I love movies, from all decades, but I admit I’ve always found the late 1940s particularly intriguing. There are so many changes coming to Hollywood that are just at the edge of the studios’ peripheral vision. 1946—the year Death in Her Face takes place—was the best box office year ever. And Hollywood wouldn’t reach that level of profit again (adjusted for inflation) for almost 30 years, with the advent of the “blockbuster.” The late 1940s are truly the last hurrah of the great golden age of film. I couldn’t resist it. And heck, I love the clothes, although I wouldn’t want to go back to having to figure out how to secure some of those hats to my head or how to keep the seams straight on my stockings.
Q: What happened to the box office after 1946?
A: Mostly television. It’s the biggest reason for the sharp drop in attendance and therefore revenue. But in addition, the studios lost their monopoly on distribution. They owned the theaters in which their movies were shown, so they had a ready-made place to exhibit whatever pictures they made. The government forced divestment. The third cause in my opinion was the Congressional investigation into communist infiltration of American institutions. A lot of people today think it was just Joe McCarthy in the early 50s. But before he came along and after he’d been censured by the Senate, people lost their jobs all over the US, and sometimes for just being accused of having attended some left-wing meetings years earlier. Out of proportion to their numbers in Hollywood, those who were blacklisted in the movie business were screenwriters. You can’t throw away that much talent and it not affect the product.
Q: Lauren’s a screenwriter. Is she in trouble?
A: Not yet.
Q: That sounds ominous.
A: [Laughs] Stay tuned.
Q: Often readers want to know whether authors identify with their protagonists. You and Lauren are both tall blondes. Do you share any other of Lauren’s attributes?
A: Pig-headedness. I understand stubborn. But Lauren’s stubborn streak works in the interest of justice. Once she decides to do something, she won’t let go. We share a tendency to want to “fix” things. As a screenwriter who’s largely a script doctor, she has a gift for fixing what’s wrong. Lauren and I are both funny, but she’s funnier in the moment than I am. It often takes me an hour to think of the clever line I should have delivered. The French have a phrase for it: l’esprit d’escalier. It’s hard to translate properly, but roughly it’s coming up with the quip, but not until you’re on the stairs later, after the party. As Raymond Chandler said, “The French have a word for it. Those bastards have a word for everything. And they are always right.”
Q: That’s from The Long Goodbye, isn’t it? Right after Philip Marlowe says goodbye to the woman he ends up marrying in another book.
A: Don’t get me started. There’s no way that man marries that woman. I treat that marriage like the famous Dallas episode—it was just a bad dream. Even great writers of the period had trouble shaking off some peculiar notions about the kind of woman who was right for a guy. Peter Winslow, my P.I., has managed to shake them off—well, most of them. It’s still hard for him to accept Lauren’s being in danger now and then. But he respects her opinion; he knows she’s good at solving crimes. Of course, he’s fond of parts of her other than her mind. And he’s not overly burdened with ego. If he were, their solving cases together would be impossible.
Q: How hard is it to work with both an amateur sleuth and a professional?
A: Oh, boy. It’s a challenge to figure out how to let Lauren ultimately solve the crime while not making Peter look incompetent. He’s good at what he does. He’d have made a great cop. But as a P.I., he can be less corrupt. The Los Angeles police were notoriously corrupt back then. I use that corruption to my advantage, as the reason Lauren and Peter have to think twice before getting the police involved in cases. The cops might be on a gangster’s leash.
Q: Let’s talk about censorship and the Production Code for a minute. The Code plays a part in Death in Her Face.
A: Yes, Lauren’s signed to rewrite the script for another actress should Mala end up being a killer, and she has to deal with the censors. The Production Code Office ruled American movie content for almost thirty years, roughly from the mid 1930s to the mid 1960s, though by then, the influence of the Code had waned. The silent movie era was a free-wheeling time—silent films had no controls, no censorship—and some towns and states appointed local censors. New York City and Boston had two of the most powerful, due in large part to the influence of the Catholic Church, a member of which eventually wrote the Production Code. It wasn’t written by the studios. When movies began to talk, things got even more complicated. To avoid having to ship different prints of a film to different cities and to avoid the risk a local censor would cut up your film to remove portions they found offensive—sometimes to the point of incomprehension—studios finally agreed to be ruled by the Code. They also needed the revenue help. If they could assure audiences that any film could be seen by any member of the family, they could improve box office during the Depression.
Q: A film had to be acceptable to everybody?
A: It couldn’t be deemed offensive to anyone. The Code rules actually said that a movie shouldn’t lower the moral standards of those who saw it. How do you judge that? The heavy censorship stifled creativity in American films and far too often presented an infantile view of the world. The hoops that writers had to jump through to even suggest adult themes.
Q: Give us an example.
A: Sure. Let me give you an example. It demonstrates how surreal some of the revision demands could be. Watch on the Rhine was a Lillian Hellman play from the late 1930s that was produced as a movie in 1943. (Hellman’s sometimes lover Dashiell Hammett wrote the screenplay.) In the script, which is set in Washington DC, a Nazi sympathizer named Teck endangers the hero, Kurt, who has been involved with an underground organization in Germany opposing the Nazis. Teck is on the brink of reporting Kurt's presence in Washington to the German embassy, and Kurt might well be killed and the underground movement destroyed. [Spoiler Alert] After reviewing the draft of the script – all scripts had to get approval – the Code Office told the producers some changes would be required, one of which concerned the killing of Teck, a change that infuriated Hellman. Let me read you a quote from her letter to Joe Breen, who was the Hollywood chief of the Code Office:
"Your office says that, in order to have Teck killed by Kurt, it must be established that Kurt will be assassinated if Teck reports him and that, having killed Teck, it must be clearly established that Kurt has been finally killed by the Nazis. It seems to me scandalous that we, who are a country at war with Nazis, need to say that a man must himself be killed if he kills a Nazi."
One of the Production Code rules was that the law could never be defeated; crime could never go unpunished. The Office took the position that the killing of one private citizen by another was murder, and the killer would have to be punished. This seems astonishing today, but you’ll notice that in films of the Code era, heroes rarely killed people unless the villains were armed and actively threatening the hero or others. This is why at the end of Casablanca the German officer actually has to raise his gun and point it at Humphrey Bogart before Bogart is allowed to shoot him and get away with it.
Q: How did the script fight turn out?
A: In this case, the Code Office changed its mind and allowed the play's original ending. Kurt disappears into Europe to help the cause, but there is still hope he could be alive. The Code Office was more likely to allow some leeway to "prestige pictures" with big themes and major stars. But Watch on the Rhine is a wonderful example of how serious they were about the movies upholding the law.
Q: Before we wrap it up, what were some of the other rules you find interesting?
A: No prostitution, so you had lots of women who were prostitutes in novels ending up as taxi dancers in the movie version. Adultery could never be justified. You’ll notice that if sympathetic characters have an adulterous affair, it almost always ends in tearful breakups—or death. You couldn’t show cleavage. You had to be very careful about showing the inside of a woman’s thigh. And drinking. Liquor was illegal in much of the country back then. So the Code discouraged showing or talking about it too much. In fact, in films of that era, people could stand around at parties or sit at bars with glasses in their hands and never once take a sip. The next time you watch a Golden Age film, pay attention to some of these elements. It’s fun to see how the screenwriters and directors could imply so much more than what you’re actually seeing.
Q: Last question. Would you give us a list of some of your favorite movies of the 1940s?
A: Love to. If you’re not familiar with the movies of the 1940s, start here:
The Big Clock (48)
The Best Years of Our Lives (46)
The Big Sleep (46)
Brief Encounter (45)
Citizen Kane (41)
Double Indemnity (44)
He Walked by Night (48)
His Girl Friday (40)
The Lady Eve (41)
The Blue Dahlia (46)
Palm Beach Story (42)
They Were Expendable (45)
The Third Man (49)
To Be or Not To Be (42)
To Have and Have Not (44)