The Day of the Locust may have been the best novel ever written about Hollywood, but Nathanael West and his publisher Random House miscalculated. They believed an acerbic satire of the film industry and it’s insidious confusion of illusion and reality would sell, but it did not. Now we are blasé about Hollywood fakery, but in 1939 no one wanted to believe West’s satire of the studio backlot: “On a lawn of fiber, a group of men and women in riding costume were picnicking. They were eating cardboard food in front of a cellophane waterfall.”
Another downer is Tod Hackett, the novel’s focus. Though he seems to have a promising future, being young, having an Ivy League degree, and solid talent as an artist, he is misplaced in Hollywood. Hackett’s pun is that he can’t “hack it,” and even his given name, Tod, means death in German. Confused by the film industry’s illusions, Hackett stumbles upon the picnic where he’s “stopped by a man who scowled and held up a sign–“Quiet, Please, We’re Shooting.” When Tod took another step forward, the man shook his fist threateningly.” He ought to take this as serious warning about what he is doing in Hollywood; an ominous sign of what lies ahead. Uncomprehendingly, he moves on from the picnic, stumbling into one misfortune after another until he unravels.
See: Nathanael West. The Day of the Locust. New York: Random House, 1939; John Schlesinger. The Day of the Locust (1975). Screenplay by Waldo Salt based on Nathaniel West’s novel (1939). Paramount Pictures; Jonathan Vetch. American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997
Featured Image: First edition dust jacket for The Day of the Locust (1939)
PS: John Schlesinger. The Day of the Locust (1975). Schlesinger’s screenplay by Waldo Salt omits the picnic but not a set that collapses while filming a battle scene at Waterloo. While Hackett watches, according to West, “The armies of England and her allies were too deep in scenery to flee. They had to wait for the carpenters and ambulances to come up. The men of the gallant Seventy-Fifth Highlanders were lifted out of the wreck with block and tackle. They were carted off by the stretcher-bearers, still clinging bravely to their claymores.”