“This is Hollywood, old man,” he said, “where morality never crosses the city limits.”
Last year, I read and enjoyed Horace McCoy’s (1897-1955) masterpiece They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? This was one of those novels I’d intended to read for some time, a title that had crossed my path more than once, so when I saw I Should Have Stayed Home by the same author, I knew I had to read it. When I say that the two novels are connected, I Should Have Stayed Home does not carry the punch of McCoy’s masterpiece. How could it? Nonetheless I Should Have Stayed Home is another look at exploitation–and once again it’s the exploitation of young would-be actors and actresses who’ve arrived in Hollywood and are desperate to be discovered. The big question in both books is how far are they prepared to go for fame, but while Gloria and Robert in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? opt for a dance marathon, Mona and Ralph in I should Have Stayed Home are still hoping for bit parts that segue into brilliant careers.
The story is told by Ralph a young, naïve small town theatre actor from Georgia lured to Hollywood by a talent scout who promised a screen test. Once there, the promised screen test was taken, but there were no calls and now he lives in a small bungalow, barely able to make the rent, with bit part actress, Mona. Disillusionment has begun to set in but it’s not deep enough to make Ralph return home. While he acknowledges that Hollywood is “the most terrifying town in the world,” he’s not ready to give up, and that’s partly because he’s sent letters home bragging about his Hollywood success. With lies, he’s fabricated a scenario of success, and now he’s done that, he keeps hoping for that big break so that he won’t have to go home and admit the truth. Once again, McCoy paints a very bleak picture of Hollywood:
Feeling the way I did, alone and friendless, with the future very black, I did not want to get out on the streets and see what the sun had to show me, a cheap town filled with cheap stores and cheap people, like the town I had left, identically like any one of ten thousand other small towns in the country–not my Hollywood, not the Hollywood you read about. This is what I was afraid of now, I did not want to take a chance on seeing anything that might have made me wish I had stayed home, and this is why I had waited for the darkness, for the night-time. That is when Hollywood is really glamorous and mysterious and you are glad you are here, where miracles are happening all around you, where today you are broke and unknown and tomorrow you will be rich and famous.
When the novel begins, the days of not being called for a part have morphed into a crisis. Mona and Ralph’s friend, Dorothy–who lives in the same bungalow complex–has been arrested for shoplifting and sentenced to the women’s prison at Tehachapi for three years:
She had come out to Hollywood to crash the movies too, but she had crashed a department store instead.
Dorothy’s arrest sets off a chain of events that mark a turn in Ralph’s fortunes and also a bitter shift in Mona’s attitude, but whether these are good or bad changes remains to be seen. As a naïve and sexually inexperienced protagonist, Ralph doesn’t understand a great deal of what goes on behind closed doors, and he certainly is no match for the man-eating, wealthy socially prominent, “nymphomaniac” Mrs Smithers, an obnoxious woman who uses a series of men as her gigolos. As Mona, who is a big sister figure to Ralph warns:
As innocent as you are, a woman would have to start taking your pants off before you got suspicious.
After a few hours in the company of Mrs. Smithers, Ralph realizes that “nobody can beat the movie game without help–and the quicker you play ball, the quicker you succeed.”
The story includes rumblings of trouble in Hollywood. In one scene, an actress mentions the Scottsboro Boys, so this places the story in 30s. There’s also discussion about the Communist party, the Anti-Nazi league, censorship, blacklisting & anti-union sentiment. In one scene, for example, a publicist walks off his job over the film The Road Back (1937)–a very real film based on a novel by Erich Marie Remarque:
“This was in the Los Angeles Times yesterday” he said. ‘”This is from the movie column in that great reactionary journal. Listen ‘The German Consul, incensed at final scenes in The Road Back’–that’s one of our big pictures–‘incensed at final scenes in The Road Back, showing German youngsters being drilled as soldiers, has induced Universal to revise the film’s editing. At the same time, the studio will try to work in some more love interest.’ He took a few more sips of his coffee, looking at me. “That’s why I quit,” he said. Wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t see anything in that article to make you quit.”
“You don’t? Haven’t you seen any of those pictures in Life or Fortune about all the German youth being drilled in uniforms with guns and wearing signs across their breasts: “We were Born to Die for Hitler?”
“I don’t believe so,” I said.
“Well it’s true anyway. That Hitler’s going to start another war and why should the German consul get his bowels in an uproar because we show German kids drilling? I didn’t get sore about that, you understand, because the German consul’s bowels are always in an uproar about something. What I got sore about was the studio letting him tell ’em where to get off.”
I should Have Stayed Home was written in 1938. That was 5 years after Goebbels had Remarque’s books publicly burned and the year Remarque, who was living in Switzerland, had his German citizenship revoked, and it’s interesting to see McCoy infuse his novels with topical subjects. This is a weaker novel than They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Ralph isn’t a strong enough character to carry the narrative, but it’s still a prescient tale of exploitation and corruption, and the insider’s view of the flexible politics of the studios gives great insight to Hollywood of the 30s. Review copy.