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Gentleman Tough Guy

 

"I can’t imagine Niven out of Hollywood, although I have heard from people whose word is to be relied on that he has been seen in New York, and I have often received letters from him dated from places in Texas and Arizona."

C.S. Forester

Gentleman Tough-Guy: Niven Busch
by C.S. Forester
Town & Country, Vol. 100, No. 4290, November 1946

Niven Busch - image

It has been much more than ten years since the first time I saw Niven Busch, and I suppose that is definite proof that he was much more than ten years younger then, although it is hard to believe, seeing that he hasn’t aged a day since that encounter . (For that matter I don’t think he’s a day older than when he first put on long pants.) We met in the office of Arthur Hornblow, who was a producer at Paramount then, and Niven sat in a dark corner and glowered at the supercilious Englishman who was being foisted on him as a pupil in the art of screen writing, to whom he would have to explain the intricacies of Hollywood life, and over whom he would have to waste a great deal of time which might otherwise be put to more profitable uses.

The friendship that began in such inauspicious circumstances has endured to this day, and may even survive the publication of this article. At first it wasn’t easy. Niven is not merely tough, he has a definite desire to be considered tough; he even puts on airs of added toughness. At the least provocation he will assume a Lower-East-Side Toity-toid Street accent, lest anyone think his Princeton education has had any effect on him, and chew gum more aggressively than anyone I have ever met. He can drive as hard a bargain as any agent in Hollywood (that means a very hard one) — and woe betide any waiter who tries to short-change him or any tradesman who tries to palm off an inferior article on him! He is so successful in conveying the impression he desires that even to me it is always something of a new shock to read his excellent prose and to note the veins of tenderness and sympathy running through the granite of his realism. You have only to read They Dream of Home to understand what I mean.

I have had plenty of opportunities for close observation. I shared a honeymoon with him once. (It wasn’t his present wife, Teresa Wright, but one of the preceding ones — in those days it was hard to keep count of them.) There was a very urgent job to be done (I’ve yet to find the Hollywood job that is not desperately and frightfully urgent according to Hollywood), and as Niven had rashly contracted both to marry and to do the job, and was stonily determined upon a Palm Springs honeymoon there was nothing for it but that I should accompany the happy pair. So Niven and I sat in the February sunshine and collaborated while the unfortunate bride battled in solitude with food poisoning and waited for the evening hour when we, the brutes, would decide that we had done enough for the day and had earned our cocktail.

The work in hand was making a screen play out of an extraordinarily bad play by Stallings and Anderson entitled The Buccaneer. There wasn’t really enough content in that play to make three acts, let alone two hours of fast action on the screen, and it had to be expanded and rounded out. It dealt with an incident in the life of Sir Henry Morgan, the buccaneer, so we decided to draw additional material from the numerous fairly accurate sources of information regarding him. Motorcars tore up and down the long road between Palm Springs and Hollywood bearing all the books that were obtainable on the subject, while the telephone wires grew hot as Hornblow at Paramount cursed us for the delays. We slaved and we toiled, completed our first treatment, brought the manuscript and the neglected bride back to Hollywood, and set half the typists on the lot to work to meet our deadline. One afternoon it was finished, and we wearily corrected the last line and sent a message through to Hornblow that we would deliver the thing to him in the morning.

It was then that Niven crumpled the last scrap of yellow paper and said “I have a couple of invitations to a premiere tonight. You’d better come along. Warners’ have a new star — his name’s Errol Flynn or something like that — the picture’s called Captain Blood and it’s based on a novel of Rafael Sabatini’s.”

By this time, as you may gather, Niven had abandoned his early hostile attitude and was taking an artist’s delight in rounding out my Hollywood education, taking pains to make me acquainted with everything from gambling hells to the right method of placating an angry starlet, and a Hollywood premiere would, of course, bulk large in this program. We went up the steps of the theater, shouldered our way through the mob of Hollywood great, eventually found our seats, and sat down to witness the birth of a new star.

Even after this length of time it still makes me uncomfortable to remember it. Not that Mr. Errol Flynn was not a colossal success, nor that the picture was not up to Hollywood standards. But the first six episodes we saw on the screen were exactly the same — exactly the same — as the first six episodes in the treatment we were to show Hornblow next morning. I must repeat: they were exactly the same. You see, Captain Blood was avowedly an historical novel, and it dealt with the life of Sir Henry Morgan, and Rafael Sabatini had quite legitimately, gone to the same sources of information regarding his hero as we had just been drawing upon. That didn’t save us the next morning, though. Hollywood never listens to excuses, however it may try to excuse itself. We ought to have known what was cooking at Warners’, and even if we couldn’t have known we should have known, and we certainly would have known if we had stayed in Hollywood instead of going off for a triangular honeymoon in Palm Springs. We were fired, with all Hollywood’s remorselessness and finality. (It may us well be added now as one of the curiosities of Hollywood that the play, which started by being about Morgan and the West Indies, ended as a screen play about Lafitte at New Orleans a hundred and fifty years later, starring Fredric March, with nothing left of the original except the title. But Niven and I had nothing to do with that, being, as I have said already, fired.)

To me it was more of a shock than it was to Niven. I had never earned an honest penny before in my life: my bread and butter up to then had come from such tainted sources as the writing of novels and the composition of plays. And here I was fired from the first job I had over had with a regular weekly salary attached to it, and I felt it all the more because I was imbued with the old British tradition of going into a job at twenty and retiring from it with a pension at sixty-five. Even getting a fresh job (as peculiar as any in Hollywood, I might say) with Irving Thalberg hardly reconciled me to my failure, and eventually I drifted away to Central America and the writing of Captain Hornblower.

 

Niven of course stayed in Hollywood, and there I have since seen him on the frequent occasions when curiosity or necessity has dragged me back. I can’t imagine Niven out of Hollywood, although I have heard from people whose word is to be relied on that he has been seen in New York, and I have often received letters from him dated from places in Texas and Arizona. Even in Hollywood you could get a glimpse of this Arizona phase of his whenever he went through a period of devotion to horse exercise in cowboy boots and frontiersman’s trousers, swaggering as bowlegged as a jockey when he remembered to do so. (Perhaps the swagger can be excused on the grounds that he is a brilliant horseman and a sound polo player.) You could forget that, though, easily enough, the next time you saw him, if the mood had taken him to dress up in one of the more outré of his seventy-five Hollywood suits with tie and collar and shirt and handkerchief like a paint mixer’s nightmare, and all proclaiming loudly to the world — too loudly — that he didn’t care a hoot for the world’s opinion.

I wish I could get away from Niven Busch for a moment and say something about his career. I have started to several times, but each time his personality has interposed. We left him fired from Paramount and being philosophic about it. He had been fired before, and without a doubt he would be fired again. At one time or another he has been deep down in the lowliest Hollywood stratum. In the early days, soon after Hollywood had first called him from New York journalism, there was even a period of restaurant dishwashing, I believe. When Niven starts talking he will sometimes emit a stream of reminiscences about hoofers and bums, and Hollywood rooming houses with kitchen privileges, which its every bit as amusing as his other stories of picture production and picture finance in the loftiest Hollywood altitudes. He has made his way up by the aid of his originality and his ability and his prodigious capacity for hard work, and despite his frequent indulgence in the expensive luxury of losing his temper and telling people exactly what he thinks of them — and more. The result is that he has worked, I fancy, in more studios in Hollywood than any other writer, just as, now that he writes novels, he flits from publisher to publisher. Publishers like being flitted to, though they simply detest being flitted from. Studios, incredible to relate, are more long-suffering.

The novels were squeezed in, one way or the other, in the intervals of an active and busy motion picture career. Niven in his one-against-the-world mood will maintain stoutly that Hollywood is a good school for writers. Perhaps he believes it. At least it hasn’t spoiled him. They are good novels — Duel in the Sun and They Dream of Home and The Conquerors — carefully planned and painstakingly written with the plot and the characters which make a good novel and will make a good film. They are revealing in their occasional tendernesses. (I have a suspicion that Niven is like a coconut, hard on the outside and full of the milk of human kindness inside.) Some of the portraits of the eminent, originally written for the New Yorker published as Twenty-One Americans show insight and sympathy leavened with mischievous humor. The novels have all been sold to Hollywood for prodigious sums which is no more than you expect. Simple arithmetic will show that at the moment of writing Hollywood has invested about $8,000,000 in work entirely or partly from Niven’s pen. Some of that money comes to him, and some of it sticks to him. He says he spends it all, or loses it all in unsuccessful investments, but I don’t believe a word of it. I can’t imagine Niven making an unlucky investment more than once in his life. Perhaps he says things like that lest some one should try to borrow money from him. But if that is so, it doesn’t work, because people do borrow from him.

 

So marked an individualist was bound to be either highly successful or a downright failure in Hollywood. Of course he took exception to the studio idea (one of Hollywood’s numerous misconceptions) that a writer should work an eight-hour day. No creative worker worth his salt can create longer than two hours in the twenty-four, and not every twenty-four at that, but Hollywood in its yearning for systematization usually decrees that the writer should check in at nine-thirty and check out at five-thirty. Some writers submit to this with docility, with the result that more ingenious schemes for whiling time away have been invented in Hollywood writers’ offices then anywhere else except perhaps in the solitary cells of the Bastille. I myself owe Hollywood a debt of gratitude because it was there that I acquired the habit of an afternoon nap which has stood me in good stead to this day. I remember once promising to do a job for Walter Wanger of even more than the usual Hollywood emergency; one of the unwritten clauses of the contract was that Wanger was to trust me to get it done and not worry me while the work was in progress. Wanger was a gentleman and kept his promise but his anxiety would not allow him to refrain from peeping into my office occasionally to see what was doing. My sectary kept count that he looked in forty-eight times during the period of the contract and found me asleep on the couch forty-seven of them. He never said a word, he only sighed too lightly to wake me. Niven would sleep in the afternoon too, sometimes — there is a classic story of how Sam Goldwyn once deduced that Niven had been asleep during the time he was being paid to work from the simple fact that the hair on the back of Niven’s head was ruffled upwards. But no man of his ebullient temperament could sleep every afternoon; moreover, the idea of compulsory sleep worked on Niven like the caging of a lion. I have an idea that he used to get out of the Twentieth Century lot with the aid of a ladder over the back wall. Whatever means he employed to get out, he used the time so gained in working off that superabundant energy at golf at the Rancho Country Club. He contrived an elaborate system by which if anybody of importance wanted him his secretary would call the clubhouse, and someone there would drive a car across the course, pick him up, and rush him back to the studio. He carried on in this way undetected all through his writer’s career. Darryl Zanuck boasts that he once had Niven nervous and scared of him, but Zanuck doesn’t know that the reason Niven came so awkwardly into his office, streaming with sweat and plucking at his coat, was that just two minutes earlier Niven had been rushed away from a bunker on the way to the thirteenth hole at Rancho.

But I saw poetic justice overtake Niven. I sat in his office once laughing myself silly, because Niven, now an executive, was in charge of writers for Sam Goldwyn. Those writers were most irregular and had no consideration at all for Niven’s feelings when he was being chivied by Sam to produce the work the writers were supposed to be doing. They were off to Santa Monica beach, they would get involved in marriage or divorce, they would only produce two pages of script when they were asked for twelve — in fact in every way they behaved just like writers. There was Niven, in the gilded cage of his executive’s office, pleading into the telephone, cajoling, beseeching, begging those writers to be good boys and come through with their work; and from what Niven was saying I could deduce perfectly well what was being said to him at the other end of the line — just, the same sort of lies and tarradiddles that Niven and I used to invent and say into telephones that had a harassed executive in a gilded cage at the other end. It took me quite a time to persuade Niven to see how funny it was.

There was one important result, however, from his period of bondage to Sam Goldwyn, for he met Teresa Wright on the United Artists lot. On one visit of mine to Hollywood I arrived without a car when taxis were at their lowest depth of wartime shortage. Niven asked me to lunch at his apartment, and I accepted on the condition that I should spend the whole afternoon there because I had an appointment for dinner just round the corner from his apartment house and did not want the trouble and fatigue of getting a taxi all the way back to my hotel and back again in the evening. It was a nice lunch (Niven always manages to eat like a wolf and to remain as hollow-cheeked as a consumptive) and a pleasant afternoon, until just at teatime who should drop in but Teresa unexpectedly early off the lot from the shooting of The Little Foxes. They were newly engaged, they were much in love, and one of the things neither of them wanted at all was the presence of a third person at teatime. But I looked out at the sweltering streets, I thought of the toil and trouble of finding a taxi, and I hardened my heart and stayed and stayed and stayed, while Teresa made polite conversation and Niven glowered.

They were married a week or two later, but there never was, and never will be, any danger of Niven’s becoming the Prince Consort of a Queen of the Screen. He may be Teresa Wright’s husband, but I don’t think people will refer to him much as that. It is a happy marriage, and now Niven and she are in partnership calling themselves Hemisphere Pictures, Inc. The assets at the moment are a screen play by Niven called The Pursued and Teresa Wright, both of them pretty valuable properties.

So Niven has been in a good many jobs in Hollywood, washing dishes and writing and producing and promoting. Even I can’t guess what will be the next phase. I suppose he will be a cameraman, which must be about the last job left, because I can’t imagine Niven being an actor. Not on the screen. Not just for money.