BBC Radio 7, 2 February 2011
Based on John Houseman’s own memoir, this play focused on
how Raymond Chandler (Peter Barkworth) was persuaded by his good friend Houseman (David Bannerman) to adapt his own manuscript
“The Blue Dahlia” into a film of the same name, with Alan Ladd in the title role. The screenplay had to be written,
and filming completed, at great speed, as Ladd was about to go into active service during the Second World War, and Paramount
Pictures wanted a vehicle from him to ensure that his name would be kept in the public gaze. Paramount’s boss, a bearlike
man called Y. Frank Freeman (Bob Sherman), was prepared to pay Chandler a vast sum of money to ensure the screenplay was completed,
but woe betide the author if he failed to deliver the goods. Unfortunately Chandler developed a writer’s block, which
was only resolved when he decided to fall off the wagon and complete the screenplay at home while drunk. Houseman was forced
to agree to an elaborate scheme, where the studio provided six secretaries, who took it in turns to sit by Chandler’s
couch, take down his ideas and type them up. The resultant pages of script were rushed by Cadillac to the set of The Blue Dahlia, where director George Marshall (John Hartley) was eager to complete the project on time. The
film was eventually completed as the cost of Chandler’s health; he took many years to recover from the ordeal.
Chandler and Houseman were unique in the sense that they had both been to British public schools: Chandler had been to Dulwich
College, while Houseman had attended Clifton. This background not only made them feel like outsiders in the Hollywood rat-race;
it also gave them a belief in old-fashioned virtues such as honour. Chandler resolved to complete the script, not because
Paramount had offered him a huge fee, but because he had promised Houseman; to do otherwise would be a ‘dishonourable’
act. Such integrity seemed rather incongruous in a world of illusions, where most of the waitresses were starlets desperately
hoping for an audition, where actors fell in love with their respective screen personae
(Ladd believed himself a tough guy, even though he was under five feet six inches tall), and the studio bosses treated their
writers like cannon-fodder producing scripts to order with very little concern for imaginative coherence. However it was Chandler’s
(and, to a lesser extent, Houseman’s) tragedy that both of them could not escape the Hollywood rat-race. The lure of
money kept them in thrall to the studio bosses. This kind of lifestyle destroyed Chandler’s illustrious contemporary
William Faulkner; Chandler survived, even though his subsequent screenwriting career was patchy, to say the least. He had
very little involvement in Howard Hawks’ adaptation of The Big Sleep, and
much of his work on Strangers on a Train (1951) was junked by Alfred Hitchcock.
Houseman, on the other hand, continued his movie career, but subsequently returned to the theatre as a director.
Jenkins’ production lovingly recreated the atmosphere of Hollywood during the studio period, using sound-effects as
well as encouraging larger-than-life performances from Sherman and Hartley. This was ably contrasted with the two characterizations
of Chandler and Houseman as British gentlemen.