Gene Fowler: Filmdom’s Fabulous Fabulist

Gene Fowler (1890-1960) is one of those figures known to show business aficionados, a friend of the famous, even if not a household word himself. Much like Ben Hecht, with whom Fowler collaborated on occasion, he was a journalist who began writing plays and screenplays, thus becoming part of the tissue of show business himself. Along the way he chronicled his doings, thus establishing in good part many of the legends we cherish. Fowler was a storyteller. Some may quibble about this or that aspect of what he put on paper, but some live and die by the portraits he painted.

Fowler was from Denver, Colorado. As a whippersnapper he spilled ink for the Denver Republican, Rocky Mountain News, and the Denver Post. Early in his career he interviewed Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody, one of the first of his larger-than-life chums. In 1918 he moved to New York, becoming a protege of Damon Runyon, who had also spent formative years in Colorado. (The reason I have not yet done posts on Runyon or Hecht but am doing one on Fowler first is that the former two are mighty big topics which I have scarcely begun to wrap my arms around, even though I’m well familiar with all their best known work.  Though I am far from being an encyclopedist on the topic of Fowler, I do feel I have a handle on him as he so often cited as a source in so many show many show biz biographies. I naturally know him best through his friendship with W.C. Fields and his circle of reprobate cohorts, a topic we’ll return to). At any rate, Fowler started out writing for the New York Daily Mirror and eventually became syndication manager for the entire Hearst chain, King Features.

Fowler crossed over into show business in 1932. Union Depot, a film based on an unproduced play he’d co-written with Joe Laurie Jr and Douglas Durkin in 1929 made it to the screen. A Warner Brothers film, it was a kind of all-star production, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Joan Blondell and Guy Kibbee topping the bill. In conception, it was not too different from MGM’s Grand Hotel — all of this drama and comedy swirling around the inside and outside of a major train station. That same year, The Great Magoo, a play he’d written with Ben Hecht, made it to Broadway, produced by Billy Rose and staged by George Abbott. It happens to be the show that introduced the song “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, and it was a huge production, but critics hated it, and it played less than a month. It was adapted into the film Shoot the Work with Jack Oakie and Dorothy Dell in 1934, and later into Some Like it Hot, starring Bob Hope, in 1939.

This is where Fowler becomes a Hollywood guy! He has 30 credits as a screenwriter; some of the ones we haven’t mentioned, on which he was the principle scribe, included State’s Attorney (1932) with John Barrymore, What Price Hollywood? (1932, which later became the basis of A Star is Born), The Mighty Barnum (1934), Jack London’s Call of the Wild (1935) and White Fang (1936), Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), Billy the Kid (1941). The 1957 Bob Hope comedy Beau James, was based on Fowler’s 1949  biography of New York Mayor Jimmy Walker. This was also turned into the Broadway musical Jimmy (1969-70).

Of Fowler 15 books, the best known are his show biz bios. They are: Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett (1934), Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore (1944); Schnozzola: The Story of Jimmy Durante (1951), and, best of all Minutes of the Last Meeting (1954), in which he describes his cutting-up and carousing with pals W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, John Decker, Sadakichi Hartmann, Thomas Mitchell, Errol Flynn, and many others. It’s a ripping good time, even as it is a cautionary tale. (Alcohol abuse killed or shortened or otherwise hurt the lives of almost all of these guys).

Fowler also wrote more introspective books about his early life and his home state of Colorado.

Fowler’s son, Gene Fowler Jr (1917-1998) was an editor and director in film and television. His career as an editor was the more notable, with over 50 credits, including such classic comedy stuff as The Abbott and Costello Show (22 episodes, 1952-53), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), five episodes of Gilligan’s Island (1966-67), Ringo Starr’s Caveman (1981) and Jerry Lewis’s Cracking Up (1983). Westerns were another staple of his editing career. Among his important credits in the genre Run of the Arrow and Forty Guns (both 1957), 10 episodes of Rawhide (1964-65), 5 episodes of The Wild Wild West (1966-67), Hang ’em High, A Man Called Horse, Monte Walsh (all 1970), and Molly and Lawless John (1972). And no less than 72 episodes of The Waltons! His directing career is less distinguished. Of 18 credits, the most notable is the AIP horror flick I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957).