Every once and a while I stumble across a book that is mired in obscurity but seems important anyway. The significance of Flowers for the Living is linked to the classically tragic life of the author. Charles Ray (1891-1943) enjoyed a major acting career in silent films. He usually played a country yokel forced to overcome his naive good-heartedness. Ray made a hundred film appearances before he began producing and directing in 1921. It was perhaps hubris that led him to seek more interesting parts and more control over his career. He set up his own production company and in 1923 sank all his money into an adaptation of The Courtship of Miles Standish. The film failed. He continued to star in films until 1928 then tried unsuccessfully to establish himself on Broadway. When he returned to Hollywood, he found only small parts. He was doing mostly uncredited walk-on roles by the time he died of an infection from an impacted tooth. Because its male protagonist is based in part on Ray's own life, the book provides an unsettling document of the transience of fame in Hollywood. (The portrait of Ray at the left, from film.virtual-history.com, is part of a 1928 tobacco card series.)
Flowers for the Living by Charles Ray. Godwin (1937), 276 pp.
Alfred Garey's agent has just dumped him. Once a promising leading man, Garey now can't land roles of any sort. Anna Hall, a beautiful and brainy starlet, has been edited out of her most recent movie. She fears her career is ending before it's begun. They meet by chance and discover they have more in common than a faltering film career: love of a pet dog, an inability to pay the rent, and thoughts of suicide. They're hungry as well, so they decide to crash a party in search of food. They find unexpected sustenance there, but it may not be enough to overcome the despair that ravages each of their lives.
Serious stories of life on Hollywood's margins are so unusual that the appearance of one demands attention. What's interesting about the two main characters here is that they appear to be doing well. They lunch at the Brown Derby, attend posh parties, and otherwise consort with the rich and celebrated. They're actors and put on a good show, but they don't understand why reality isn't matching appearances. The depression is going on, of course -- the book is set in 1933 -- but people around them seem prosperous. So their conversation avoids economic analysis and focuses instead on the pros and cons of suicide. The author's flowery writing style takes some getting used to, and his penchant for philosophical discussion is perhaps served too often. Even so, the book is required reading for anyone interested in film history.