Friday, October 31, 2014
Strange Story under the Moon
Near the dawn of his writing career, John O'Hara--who'd published his first novel, Appointment in Samarra (to fine reviews), in 1934 and, in the New Yorker and elsewhere, was publishing short stories regularly (over a hundred by the time Samarra appeared)--was lured to Hollywood by ... well, by Hollywood. As most of you know, he was hardly the first writer to hear the siren song; he was not--and will not be--the last.
He'd had a cameo appearance as a craven journalist in the film The General Died at Dawn (1936), and in 1939 he received partial screen credit for I Was an Adventureress and He Married His Wife (romantic comedies). Both films appeared in 1940. I saw them both recently, and they remain the sort of light entertainment that's popular today--though, because of 1940s standards, far more chaste and "innocent."
In 1940, a somewhat popular novel appeared, Moon Tide by Willard Robertson. Published before Pearl Harbor, the novel still began with the common casual racism of the day: Hirota, the pockmarked Jap, who lived next to the California bank, needed a man to tend his barge .... Not the kind of opening sentence you'll find in a novel from today's mainline publishers.
Anyway, Twentieth Century Fox hired O'Hara to write a screenplay based on the novel, and he did, receiving his only sole screen credit for Moontide, released in the spring of 1942, just months after Pearl Harbor. I'm not going to post here today about the film but will reserve that for a later day. Today ... the original novel, which I acquired via ABE for under $20. (The image above is of the book I purchased.) I finished reading it just the other night.
In the story, which takes on the waterfront near Los Angeles, Hirota hires a character identified throughout only as "the Swede" --a man with drinking problems, a dark past (we find out later in the novel that he and his brother had survived a shipwreck and the ensuing survivor-eat-survivor scenario only by homicide), but with a capacious heart. Hirota owns a bait barge--a docked vessel which fishermen (afoot and aboat) use for their daily needs. The Swede's job is to dole out the bait.
One day--after work--he is down the beach and dives in the surf to rescue a young woman (Ada) who is attempting to drown herself. He takes her back to the barge, where ... gee? I wonder what! Yes, they develop ... a relationship!
And for a while, things look very rosy. He helps her clean up her act (desperately poor, she owned nothing but the clothes she was wearing). Hirota emerges as a gentle, compassionate character (unlike the caricature the opening sentence has led us to expect). The Swede and Ada begin to make plans. Perhaps a floating restaurant? "Hope is the thing with feathers ...."
But then ... an odious character named Tiny reappears, a former acquaintance. And while the Swede is out at sea helping some folks in need of mechanical assistance, Tiny is left alone on the barge with Ada. Nothing good can happen now, right?
Nothing good happens.
TO BE CONTINUED ...