Raymond Chandler and the Blue Dahlia Gambit

I learned about drinking whiskey, specifically bourbon whiskey, from Raymond Chandler. Actually, I recently read in his letters that Chandler was more of a gin man. So I really learned about drinking whiskey from Chandler’s alter ego, Philip Marlowe.

Actually, “drinking” is not the best description of how Marlowe imbibed his Four Roses or Old Forester. He was more of a self-medicator, administering a slug of booze from the office bottle before going downtown to talk to the cops, or after a rough night on a case, or just because. No mixing or pouring it over ice. Just powering it down neat and strong as God intended.

Needless to say, this is not a good way to learn how to drink, at least not in a socially acceptable way. When I first read the Philip Marlowe stories, I was enamored of his hard-boiled lifestyle, and I tried having a slug of bourbon a la Marlowe from time to time, but I soon realized that it was better to have bourbon on ice, or in a Manhattan. It is much easier on the liver that way.

But Chandler knew what he was talking about, because he was an alcoholic, and probably no stranger to bottles in the deep drawer of his office desk, and slugs of drink to keep him going when blocked on a writing project, or maybe just down in the dumps.

I recently thought about Chandler and drinking when I saw a showing of the film The Blue Dahlia, starring Alan Ladd (who also once played a now-forgotten Jay Gatsby) and Veronica Lake, and based on an original screenplay by Chandler. It was made in 1946, and by this time Chandler was working in Hollywood as a screenwriter, having had had some success collaborating with Billy Wilder on the script for Double Indemnity. Film noir was hot, and Chandler was the man to turn out the product.

At the same time, John Houseman was a producer at Paramount, where Chandler had worked on Double Indemnity and was also still under contract. Houseman had a long career as a theatrical and film producer, but he is probably best known to us today as Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase.

Working on some initial films with Houseman, Chandler realized that they were both products of the English Public School system. Chandler as a boy had lived in England and attended Dulwich school. Houseman was a product of Clifton. This gave the two men a common bond, and Chandler felt that he had an ally in Houseman.

In early 1945 Paramount received the news that Alan Ladd, the studio’s top star, would be entering the Service in three months’ time. Paramount had no Ladd product to release in conjunction with this event, and it cast about desperately for a film to produce prior to Ladd’s departure for the Army. Seeing that a feature film normally took a year and a half to make in those days, the idea of turning out a finished product in three months seemed absurd.

However, as Paramount was searching for a Ladd vehicle, Houseman, during a lunch with Chandler, discovered that Chandler had a novel in progress that he was considering selling as a screenplay. Houseman read what Chandler had already written and saw it as the answer to the Ladd problem. He pitched it to the studio, the studio bought it (for a considerable sum), and Raymond Chandler started work on the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia.

At first the work went quickly. Chandler turned out about half the script in an astounding three weeks. This was actually no miracle, as he had already written it as a novel, and he was merely converting it to a screenplay. The studio quickly cast the film and hired a director. Shooting began immediately, and by the fourth week of filming, the studio had filmed almost all of what Chandler had written. It was at this point that things took a turn for the worse. Chandler was having trouble with the ending of the film, and as shooting caught up with the script, he was blocked.

The film is about a navy officer, played by Alan Ladd, who returns home to find that his wife, Helen, has been cheating on him. When he confronts her, she admits her infidelity. In addition, she reveals that their son did not die of diphtheria as she had written him during the war, but rather in a car accident that she caused after getting drunk at a party. Outraged and disgusted, Ladd pulls a gun on her, but then decides she isn’t worth going to prison for. He drops the gun and leaves.

Later, Helen ends up dead, and Ladd is the prime suspect, even though other characters in the story could have committed the murder, including Helen’s boyfriend, owner of the Blue Dahlia nightclub. Ladd’s navy buddy Buzz was also in contact with Helen shortly before her death, but he can’t remember what happened. He has come back from the war with a metal plate in his skull and what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He is subject to blackouts and fits of anger. The house detective at the place Helen was staying was also nearby at the time of death.

Chandler had originally plotted the killer as Buzz, who is played by William Bendix. Chandler fancied an ending where for psychological reasons Buzz murdered Ladd’s unfaithful wife in a blackout rage. Then, his memory of the incident was to be meticulously pieced together so that he would finally remember what happened and confess to the crime. However, the Navy disapproved of this ending, as it would show Navy personnel in a bad light (these were the War years, after all). So Chandler’s output came to a halt.

To make matters worse, the head of production at Paramount met with Chandler behind Houseman’s back, impressed on Chandler the importance of meeting the deadline, and told him he would be given a check for 5,000 dollars on timely completion of the screenplay.

The production chief’s plan backfired. Chandler was in Houseman’s office the next day, saying that he could not and would not finish the picture. He was outraged, as a Public School boy, that a studio head would go around Houseman’s back and try to make such a deal, and he was disgusted by the offer of more money to finish a job he had already contracted to finish.

Houseman was now in a panic. Without Chandler to finish the screenplay there would be no film. Chandler, however, had a plan. He re-iterated to Houseman that he could not finish the screenplay under the current circumstances. He could, however, finish the screenplay drunk. Houseman was a bit taken aback at first, due to Chandler’s age and notoriety as a drinker. But Chandler had worked out the logistics of his plan and had typed them out on a piece of yellow paper, which he handed to Houseman.

Chandler’s plan read like something out of a Philip Marlowe novel. Houseman was to have two limousines, with drivers, stationed night and day in front of Chandler’s house. These would be used to ferry script pages to and from the studio, fetch a doctor for Chandler or his wife if needed, and drive their maid to the market. The studio was also to provide six secretaries in teams, to be on hand at all times for dictation, typing and corrections. Finally, Chandler insisted on a direct line to Houseman’s office during the day and to the studio switchboard at night.

Chandler would then go home, get drunk, and find the inspiration to finish the screenplay. Houseman got approval for this plan from his immediate superior at the studio, and he and Chandler repaired to the most expensive restaurant in Los Angeles, where Chandler proceeded to get shit-faced. Houseman drove him home, and Chandler remained drunk for the entire eight days that remained of shooting.

Chandler came up with a cheesy, Perry Mason ending to the film, in which the house dick confesses to the killing. It wasn’t a dark, psychological ending as Chandler would have wanted, but the studio liked it, and the film was finished in record time.

If you watch the film today you can see where the punches were pulled at the end. In the beginning, the move is a taught noir thriller with lots of atmosphere and tension. The ending looks grafted on, as indeed it was.

So, did Raymond Chandler risk his life to save a film for his friend John Houseman, or did he perpetrate an elaborate scam on Paramount to have them underwrite a massive bender? From this distance in time it’s hard to say. But the behind the scenes machinations necessary to produce this film are arguably more interesting than the film itself.

In the film, Alan Ladd had two navy buddies. The first of course was played by the aforementioned William Bendix. The second buddy, called George Copeland, was played by Hugh Beaumont, who went on to fame as Ward Cleaver of the Leave it to Beaver series.

And what about Chandler — what did he get out of this besides credit for an original screenplay and the chance to work at home, drunk? Raymond Chandler was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Writing, Original Screenplay) for The Blue Dahlia.

4 Responses

  1. Such an enjoyable piece,
    Such an enjoyable piece, Michael. Thanks. The more things change in Hollywood, the more they stay the same, eh? It IS amazing to go back, as I coincidentally did this summer, and read some of the hardboiled auteurs: Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, David Goodis etc. As you say, we think we know dark, but most of what passes for dark in today’s thrillers can’t hold a candle to the psychological intensity and utter bleakness that those post-war writers reproduced in their fictional noir worlds. For me, only The Hurt Locker comes even remotely close among today’s films. (Perhaps also The Dark Knight.)

    You’ve inspired me to try and catch The Blue Dahlia on the big screen out here if I can. In turn, I hope you got to follow it up with The Big Sleep, one of my absolute faves. Thanks again (and to Levi, for alerting me to your piece.)

  2. By the way, the
    By the way, the drinking/writing scenario you described sounds very much like a similar incident involving Hunter S. Thompson in a Thompson biography, the author of which I can’t seem to find online for some reason. The author’s theory was that when Thompson requested a steady supply of drugs and alcohol to fuel his writing, it was, in great part, the attention and camaraderie of the supplier that fueled his writing, as much as the libations themselves.

    On another note, I used to confuse Hugh Beaumont with Frank Faylen, who appeared as the hospital orderly in The Lost Weekend.

  3. Dedi – Jim Thompson is a good
    Dedi – Jim Thompson is a good one – not as well known as Chandler or Hammett, but he really wrote some very dark stuff. The Getaway, which was made into a disappointing movie, had a particularly creepy scene where the protaganists were hiding out in a tunnel and took sleeping pills to endure the claustrophobia – I still have nightmares about that sometimes.

    Bill – Hunter Thompson was in a class by himself when it came to imbibing substances and still being able to work. The only other person I can think of who surpasses him is Keith Richards. The French novelist Francoise Sagan was in the same territory, as of course were Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Of all of them though, Hammett had by far the best mustache. 😉

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