Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Who Is Robert Smith?

I admit I don’t know much. I know he was originally an advertising exec in Oregon, but then in 1944 he wrote a story that got sold to a major studio. He packed his bags and moved to Hollywood, where he worked for the next decade and a half, writing TV pilots and feature films, before dying (too young) of a heart attack in 1959.

I know this because I’ve seen the lease of his house and the signed contract that dissolved his ad agency, as well as the sympathy notes sent to his wife after his death. And I’ve read so many of his scripts and stories in between. I know for every credit he has listed on IMDb, I’ve read two or three stories that likely never made it to the screen.

This is my latest research project at work… when you work for a film/television studies professor, even the tasks that seem like mere data entry take on a new spin. My boss came into possession of Robert Smith’s files, and she wants them archived for research & study. So that’s why I have two giant storage tubs on the floor of my office, full of dusty copy paper and crumbling manila envelopes. That’s why I read through these screenplays and notes each day, figuring out about Robert Smith.

It’s one of the neatest things I’ve done at my job so far—because in a way, it’s like I’m getting a tiny glimpse into completely different lives. Like reporting, but harder—at least when I’m reporting a story, the source is usually there to answer direct questions. Here, I have to put the story together from only the clippings and pages I have in front of me.

It was a different world in 1950s Hollywood, that’s for sure. I’ll here are things in the letters and stories that make me cringe. The sexism, for instance—these stories are chock-full of long-suffering, self-sacrificing wives, and damsels in distress who drop everything for the handsome stranger who walks in the door. And let’s not forget the Japanese girl who likes being raped…

Ha. Typing this out makes me realize—and Drew would probably remind me of this—that these are hardly archetypes/stereotypes that have disappeared. Maybe they’re just more subtle about it now.

I’ll keep my eye out as I go for clippings I can share—that shed some light on what I’m learning about Hollywood, and about Smith. Mostly, I’m glad I’m getting a chance to be creative again. If my storytelling (fiction) mind wants back in the game, no better source for inspiration then hundreds of pages of crazy screenplays. Between the lines of the cheesy stories there’s usually one worth telling.

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