Monday, October 8, 2012

Jim Tully, Forgotten Hobo Novelist, Finally Gets His Due

by Stephen J. Gertz

This week, Jim Tully (1886-1947), the hobo novelist who wrote hard-boiled before hard-boiled became Hard-Boiled and a distinctly American and unique prose style, is the subject of a long overdue celebration of his life and books.

The Tully festival, occurring in in Los Angeles, kicks-off on Wednesday evening October 10, 2012 with a 7:30 PM screening at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood of Laughter in Hell (1933), based upon Tully's novel of the same title, and, until recently, thought long-lost. Starring Pat O'Brien and a young, gorgeous pre-Titanic Gloria Stuart in this chain-gang melodrama, it's only one of two films adapted from Tully novels, the other being the early Talkie, Beggars of Life (1928). 

Tully, the Ohio-born son of an Irish ditch-digger,  hit the road in 1901 at age fifteen, spending most of his teenage years in the company of hoboes. While chasing his dream of becoming a writer, Tully rode the rails and worked as a tree surgeon, boxer, and newspaper reporter. All the while, he was crafting his memories into a dark and original chronicle of the American underclass. He ultimately exploded onto the scene with a stream of critically acclaimed novels, among them Beggars of Life (1924), Circus Parade (1927), Shanty Irish (1928), Shadows of Men (1930) and Blood on the Moon (1931). Tully’s novel Ladies In The Parlor (1935) was declared obscene and most copies were destroyed,

Authentic and the real deal, Tully drew Hollywood's attention and he became friends with W. C. Fields, Jack Dempsey, Damon Runyon, Lon Chaney, Frank Capra, and Erich von Stroheim. Tully was a treasury of colorful anecdotes on two legs and what he didn't commit to paper spilled out of his mouth. Everyone in town wanted to share the company of this colorful individual.

By the mid-1940s, however, crippling physical ailments and personal heartbreak had the writer on the ropes. With his death in 1947, his name slipped from the front ranks of American Letters and into obscurity.

No more.

The Tully festival continues on Thursday, October 11th. Tully is subject of the Bonnie Cashin Lecture at UCLA (4 p.m.), in conjunction with the opening of an exhibit devoted to Tully,  The Life and Times of Jim Tully: From Drifter to Celebrated Author, in the UCLA Special Collections Dept., which holds Tully's papers.

On Sunday, October 14th at 3PM, starting out at Larry Edmunds Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard, Tully biographers Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziaka will conduct a walking tour of Hollywood to show off Tully-themed locations.  

The festival wraps on Monday, October 15 from 6-11 PM at the Los Angeles Visionary Association's (LAVA) salon at Musso & Franks, the famed Hollywood Blvd restaurant and writers hangout, with a formal dinner themed "Jim Tully: A Hobo in Hollywood," and presentations by his biographers,  literary historian and rare book dealer Howard Prouty, and Hollywood historian Philip Mershon. Attendance  is limited; reserve your seat at the table now. This is a trés cool event.

The Jim Tully revival has begun in earnest. Prices for Tully first editions in dust jacket currently range from $175 - $1050. As of this writing an European dealer is currently offering a copy of Tully's banned and print-run destroyed Ladies of the Parlor w/o DJ for only $356; he doesn't know what he has. 

I expect that, like the first editions of once-obscure novelist John Fante after Charles Bukowski declared his love for the writer, Tully firsts will rise in value.

Jim Tully,  a missing link in the evolution of modern American literature, is no longer missing in action.
• • •

In an amusing aside, the legendary "lost" status of Laughter in Hell turned out to be a case of  lazy researchers rather than gone-forever film.  A print had been sitting on a shelf in Universal's vault the whole time; nobody bothered to check. Enter Howard Prouty, ABAA proprietor of ReadInk and Acquisitions Archivist at The Academy Foundation / Margaret Herrick Library, who simply picked up the phone and called Universal. Voíla! Lost film found.

"Many saw the dark side of the American dream,
but none wrote about it like Jim Tully."


All images courtesy of Howard Prouty, with our thanks.

Tully's novels are now, finally, being reprinted, published by Black Squirrel Books, a division of Kent State University Press.

1 comment:

  1. Just in from Mr. Prouty:

    "Small correction: I didn't just pick up the phone and call Universal. What I did was just pick up the phone and call my colleague Fritz Herzog at the Academy Film Archive, and *he* picked up *his* phone and made the call to Universal. (It really was that simple.) But now somebody needs to correct the Wikipedia page on the film, which still says it's "lost," citing a statement to that effect in a book published in 1999."


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