The Day of the Locust, published in 1939, is set on the fringes of the film business in 1930s Hollywood. The story centres around two characters who are new to Tinseltown – a young artist starting work as a set designer, and a repressed hotel accountant taking an extended holiday on his doctor’s advice. Both are pulled into the febrile, chaotic circle of a young woman desperate to make it as an actress.
The Day of the Locust is a bleak read, suggesting that everything in Hollywood life is artificial. People are either pursuing delusional ambitions, or working in shambolic movie production. Scenes set on studio lots paint an unflattering picture of even the heady heights of the film business. At a recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, a huge army of extras charge up a hill before carpenters have finished building it.
As an extension of this caricature of Hollywood, I think we are meant to reflect on life in America generally, and see how much of it is driven by artificiality. In some ways, this seems a prescient observation. After all, movie stars and reality TV celebrities have become presidents of the United States; and America’s current reality-star president manufactures illusions on a daily basis.
However, even against the background of a reality TV presidency, I baulked at the book’s relentless negativity. My frustrations centred around a famous scene depicting a riot outside Kahn’s Persian Palace Theatre where an unnamed new film was premiering. I got the feeling that author Nathaniel West thought that cinema, with its huge audiences, must necessarily appeal to the worst, lowest common denominator instincts in people. This just doesn’t ring true when you start to wonder what the unnamed film might have been in reality. In contrast to West’s sour portrayal, the 1930s were in fact a golden era in Hollywood film making, with Alfred Hitchcock, Laurel and Hardy, Frank Capra, John Ford, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin all hard at work. Creativity peaked, ironically, in 1939, the year that Nathaniel West published his book, with premieres for – amongst many other excellent movies – Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and Mr Smith Goes to Washington. So the movie showing at the Persian Palace Theatre, rather than pandering to mob tastes, could conceivably have been a classic. Actually, Gary Cooper is mentioned by one of the vile film goers; so this could have been the Hollywood premiere of Mr Deeds Goes to Town from 1936, directed by Frank Capra, for which Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award. Thinking about specific movies makes you see how unrealistic it is to dismiss Hollywood as nothing more than the home of tawdry mass entertainment and frustrated fantasists. Perhaps what we are seeing here is not so much a perceptive portrayal of the debasement of modern culture, more the snobbish outlook of a writer who doesn’t accept that cinema has produced masterpieces rivalling anything in literature.
In my view, for all the quality of its writing and it’s accurate depiction of important aspects of America’s situation, the cultural snobbery implicit in The Day of the Locust results in a book that has not aged well.