With Brideshead Revisited a 1946 bestseller in America, Evelyn Waugh informed his agent AD Peters that he was willing to subject himself to officially visiting “the bloody Yanks”, as he called them, for the first time. “I should like to take Laura [his wife] for a jaunt to Hollywood,” he wrote, “a tax-free trip, lecture-free, with a minimum of work of any kind at the other end. Luxury not lionisation is the thing”.
An invitation – including $2,000-a-week expenses – was duly secured from MGM who had offered $140,000 for the movie rights to Brideshead. Yet it was to be another 34 years before a screen version of Waugh’s tale of upper-class decadence about the mysterious operation of God’s “grace”, was to appear with Charles Sturridge’s 1981 mini-series version for ITV, adapted by John Mortimer.
Another film version – with most of the religion cut out – was made in 2008. With another big-budget TV version reportedly in the works (with Ralph Fiennes as Lord Marchmain, Cate Blanchett as Lady Marchmain and Andrew Garfield as artist-soldier Charles Ryder), it’s worth recalling why Waugh’s 1947 trip to LA was such a disaster.
“He successfully antagonised ‘most of the English colony who were guiltily sensitive to criticism”
As I discovered when I dug into the studio archives, Waugh quickly bored of MGM’s round of story conferences and successfully antagonised “most of the English colony who were guiltily sensitive to criticism”. After six weeks, he gladly returned to London with ripe material for The Loved One, his acrid black satire on American mortuary customs and ex-pat English life in LA.
The Loved One was, ironically, adapted into an MGM movie – it was showing in cinemas in England when Waugh died in 1966 – but the Brideshead project was never made. Although Waugh biographers Martin Stannard and Selina Hastings have done a rigorous job of excavating the Waugh papers at the University of Texas, the full story as to why the 43-year-old novelist refused to let Louis B Mayer adapt his most popular novel remains in a “Waugh” MGM file that I located – when I worked in LA – in a storage warehouse in East LA.
Waugh never made any secret of the fact that he held MGM – mocked as the Megalopolitan studios in The Loved One – in contempt from the moment they agreed to fund his American jaunt. On arriving in New York on 31 January 1947, Waugh recorded that a “feeble young man” sent by MGM failed to locate him until the “battle” with customs was over. The next day the studio fouled up again, believing he would enjoy a theatre show riddled with “socialist propaganda”. The Waughs walked out during the interval.
But despite Waugh’s posture of indifference to Hollywood, it would be wrong to imagine he was not serious about making Brideshead into a film. This is made clear by the fact that in 1950, when Gone With The Wind producer David O Selznick wanted to adapt the book, Waugh became readily involved with casting suggestions such as Joan Fontaine as Julia Flyte, Laurence Olivier as Charles Ryder and even persuaded his friend Graham Greene to do the screenplay (the project fell through because Selznick couldn’t raise enough money).
In 1946, Waugh thought that Brideshead was his best book (an opinion he was to revise) and was keenly aware of how a movie could boost sales. As screenwriter Ivan Moffat, who had dinner in 1947 with Waugh on several occasions in LA, told me: “He had a very jaundiced eye about him, he was always looking for the ridiculous or absurd. But he was perfectly straight about the film.” He told Moffat – a family friend of Lady Diana Cooper who had known Waugh since he was a teenager – that part of the “deal” would be getting MGM to pay the price of a Georgian house in Ireland.
It was, of course, adapting himself to America that was Waugh’s problem. Even before embarking across the Atlantic, he found such habits as smoking during meals and the lack of reserve insufferable. Writing in Life magazine in response to the sacks of unsolicited US mail he had received after Brideshead became a bestseller, he scoffed: “I have momentarily become an object of curiosity to Americans and I find that they believe my friendship and confidence are included in the price of the book.” While in LA, Waugh had to train his chauffeur not to ask personal questions.
Waugh’s curmudgeonly baiting of the “Yanks” continued throughout his life. Asked by the Paris Review whether he had ever found any professional criticism of his work helpful – such as by Edmund Wilson – Waugh asked (knowing full well who Wilson was) if he was an American. When the interviewer replied “yes”, Waugh replied: “I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?”
On a later visit to New York, Waugh calmly described his New World antipathy to the Catholic writer Anne Fremantle. “Every human being is born in sin. Original sin. But every American is born in extra sin – the sin of treason to the British Crown. Of course, many are unaware of their dreadful condition: this is the reason for the well-known, oft-commented but never sufficiently explained American inferiority complex.”
Sensing “ructions” from the start, AD Peters had tried to put Waugh off his American trip (his client had briefly once stopped in New York before crossing the Atlantic) warning him that, “You would suffer the most extreme forms of boredom, irritation and frustration. I know nobody who would hate Hollywood as intensely as you.” But Waugh, always fascinated with what most appalled him, seemed to relish the idea, viewing LA as a safari trip to one of the dark places of the earth. “I mean to do business with the Californian savages if it is possible,” he wrote to Peters before departure.
For Waugh, California was an exotic Congo – and he was taking no chances with vital supplies. In New York, he stocked up with “champagne, brandy and sherry for use in the West”, which he smuggled aboard his train in specially disguised cases. He arrived in LA on a sweltering 6 February 1947, stepping off the train at Pasadena station in a stiff white collar, bowler hat and rolled umbrella.
From the moment the MGM limousine chauffeured him to the Bel Air Hotel, the studio could do nothing to Waugh’s satisfaction. Informed by the “flabby” manager that his suite was unavailable because its elderly occupant had been struck down with rheumatic fever, Waugh finally retorted that, “Your guest’s health is no concern of mine!” Finally, he reported to AD Peters, they were switched from an attic room at the Bel Air to a fancy suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel due to the intervention of Sir Charles Mendl, a prominent member of the British colony – and “no thanks to MGM”.
Waugh had special reason to be pleased with securing Graham Greene’s services to adapt Brideshead in 1950 after his intolerable experience with Keith Winter, the 41-year-old MGM screenwriter allocated to the project in 1947. Although the studio went to careful lengths to ensure that Waugh was handled only by Oxbridge-educated expat Brits under contract to MGM, their choice of Winter turned out to be deeply unfortunate.
Winter had been at Berkhamstead School with Greene – whose father was headmaster – and both went on to Oxford with literary aspirations. Like Waugh, Winter followed Oxford with a stint as a schoolmaster and published a novel. He had also been a successful West End playwright. Although Winter and Waugh drifted in the same literary waters, Waugh viewed him with cool disgust. Writing to a bright young friend in 1931, Waugh said that the one good thing about London is that “one doesn’t see Winter or anyone like that”. A few months later in Villefranche, he wrote to novelist Henry Yorke that his holiday had been ruined by the arrival of an “awful afternoon man called Keith Winter”. He later described him as “Willy Maugham’s catamite”.
Waugh had always been unimpressed by Winter’s homosexual style of dress and once loudly shouted abuse at him for favouring a willowy red shirt with white spots. Enduring him again in LA in 1947 was almost too much. On Waugh’s second day in LA, Winter appeared for a “conference” in what Waugh (his own LA get-up, it should be noted, was pin-striped suit with a tartan waistcoat and watch and chain) distastefully described as “local costume – a kind of loose woollen blazer, matlet’s vest, buckled shoes. He has been in Hollywood for years and sees Brideshead purely as a love story.” A week later Waugh was complaining that “Keith Winter shows great sloth in getting to work. He came to luncheon with us in native costume and was refused admittance to the restaurant until I provided him with a shirt”.
Keith Winter clearly became Waugh’s working model for Dennis Barlow, the young British expat who disgraces the British colony in LA by working in a pet’s mortuary in The Loved One. In the novella, Barlow is a penniless poet who comes out to Hollywood to script a life of Shelley; Winter was an ex-novelist/playwright who had written a movie about the Brontë sisters.
Winter symbolised everything that Waugh – who never worried excessively about the sloth of his aristocratic friends – found most sterile and debased about the expat “artistic colony” in California. As a middleclass, homosexual, trendy screen-hack, Winter held no interest for Waugh either socially or intellectually.
Leon Gordon, the MGM producer, fared little better in Waugh’s estimation. Born in Britain, he “prospected” in South Africa and ended up in Hollywood after breeding racehorses in Australia. Waugh thought he was plain dull. When Gordon and his wife gave a dinner party for him, Waugh was not amused to find the other guests were “medical men and women” who were meant to represent the “intellectual elite of MGM”. When Gordon “proudly” showed Waugh his latest film, called The Green Years, Waugh described it in his diary as “awful”. The moment Gordon left the screening room, Waugh promptly pushed the projector “stop” button.
Still, while his wife Laura shopped and lunched, Waugh found time to write 12 pages of “story notes” on Brideshead. MGM were quite aware that the subject matter of the novel was “an immediate problem”. According to an unpublished letter unearthed in the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Leon Gordon wrote to Joseph Breen, head of the Hays censorship office, on March 3 explaining that the studio was obligated to either accept or reject “this distinguished novel” at a “very high figure” in the next couple of weeks. He wanted his advice on whether the censorship obstacles could be surmounted or if “the cuts necessarily go so deep as to destroy the story”.
“As a middle-class homosexual, trendy screen-hack, Keith Winter held no interest for Waugh”
“You will find this a very unusual work,” Gordon added, “and the religious implications extremely controversial and perhaps dangerous. I am very worried concerning the divorce angle. The homosexual angle, of course, has been eliminated.”
Waugh’s “story notes” – one item from the MGM file that has been released – detailing the approved “concessions which the author is willing to make” are surprising. In the proposed MGM film, Waugh advised that the chapel should be changed from being a “new one”, which in the book was a gift from the “half-hearted convert” Lord Marchmain to Lady Marchmain, to being “small and medieval” and containing the ancestral tombs of the Flyte family, who, in an intriguing departure from the novel, Waugh now envisages as “one of the English noble” recusant Catholic families who kept their faith during the Reformation.
This is a crucial change, thankfully ignored by John Mortimer when adapting Brideshead for Granada TV. In the novel, of course, there is a significant difference between the Flyte family, who are portrayed as dispossessed Catholics whose declining fortunes symbolise an ancient country’s own lapse into neo-pagan Anglicanism, and Lady Marchmain’s side of the family who are genuinely “old Catholic”. By eliminating the difference, Waugh seems to be rethinking his theme that Britain’s spiritual and social decay dates from the 16th-century schism with Rome.
Perhaps Waugh just assumed the Yank “hordes” wouldn’t get it. From his first “conference” with MGM, it was certainly evident that the studio didn’t understand his novel. Waugh, much aggrieved by MGM’s inability to see the theological implication of his work, noted in his diary that a producer called McGuinness spent ten minutes “talking balls”. Gordon’s letter to Breen mentioned that the novel had received mixed reviews in the Catholic press.
Joseph Breen – Hollywood’s Mr Clean – was himself a serious-minded Catholic who was made a Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory by Pope Pious XII. Breen ordered scenes in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V to be reshot because of use of the word “bastard”. His “considered judgement” on Brideshead sent to Louis B. Mayer on March 13 stated: “This story, in its present form, is unacceptable in that it is a story of illicit sex and adultery without sufficient compensating moral values.”
“When Waugh insisted on “full Molotov” veto rights to the final script, the MGM deal finally folded”
Breen detailed his objections. “With Charles and Julia, who are guilty of double adultery, there seems to be no recognition taken by them that their relationship is wrong. Rather sympathy is created that seems to make their relationship appear neutral and acceptable, if not justified… The characters in the book seem to have an unacceptably light attitude toward the sanctity of the institution of marriage.”
When Waugh finally decided he had better quietly explain to Gordon “what Brideshead was about”, the producer “lost heart” and used the censorship objections “as an easy excuse for abandoning the whole project”.
Waugh had already reported to Peters that he was hugely bored by MGM – their only use was in driving him to Forest Lawn cemetery, satirised as Whispering Glades in The Loved One. When Waugh insisted on “full Molotov” veto rights to the final script, the MGM deal finally folded, leaving Waugh to enjoy himself for the remainder of his jaunt in “effortless luxury”.
The more agreeable highlights of LA included visiting Walt Disney’s studios and a “secret” sneak viewing of the new Charlie Chaplin film followed by a party at his house. Waugh always felt obliged to accept invitations to speak to Catholic schools. In LA, he was “trapped” by nuns to lunch at Mount St Mary’s College in Brentwood and exposed to a “brains trust” before the school.
The student newspaper reported that when asked about his brother Alec’s novels, Waugh said he could say little because he had not read them. Asked to recommend some favourite authors, he listed TS Eliot, Max Beerbohm and Graham Greene. When a girl raised the name of John Masefield, Waugh replied: “A bore”.
By an unfortunate coincidence his friend Randolph Churchill happened to be in LA to deliver a lecture – the two were together for a “rather disgusting three days”. Harold Acton was also in California; when his Oxford friend – to whom he dedicated Decline and Fall – attempted to explain the appealing side of America, Waugh retorted: “The trouble with you is that you’re really a Yank.” Waugh made himself unpopular with David Niven by loudly calling his black housekeeper “your native bearer” when she was in the room.
Restaurants in LA were always potential trouble (as they proved to be for Waugh’s son, “Bron”, whom I was with when he was “removed” by the maître d’ from an LA restaurant with David Hockney for daring to smoke). Ivan Moffat remembers having dinner with Evelyn at a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard called Don the Beachcomber. When one of the owners, of “swarthy” complexion, came up to their table and introduced himself as a “Colonel”, Waugh replied “Colonel? Don’t look much like a colonel to me.” Then Waugh said it was “Lenten” and that he didn’t want too much food. As the portion duly arrived, Waugh took one disapproving look and said: “Even for Lenten that’s not very much.”
“He didn’t try to make himself likeable,” said Moffat. “Americans just didn’t get his drollery, his rather acrid attitude to everything. He spoke in a certain manner. The tone of voice was tongue-in-cheek but you had to know when he was being tongue-in-cheek. He was never self-important or high-horse.”
Before setting off for America, AD Peters had warned Waugh that he had the reputation at MGM of being “a difficult, tetchy, irritating and rude customer”. After six weeks loose in what Waugh described as “the reserve where the great pachyderms of the film trade bask and browse complacently”, his agent in London was probably not surprised to get the following LA visit report from Carol Brandt, his former American business partner who had accompanied the Waughs to California:
“I have found Evelyn delightful, gracious and appreciative in every sense of the word. But I must say I seem to be alone in this land of sunshine. Evelyn has been so constantly arrogant and rude apparently as to have left a trail of bloody but unbowed heads behind him. Some of this, I gather, has been utter mischief on his part and some of it has been a complete misunderstanding of his particular variety of humour and wit.”
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