WILLIAM SLAVENS McNUTT, who wrote a great many short stories for The Saturday Evening Post, provided that magazine with a brief biography of himself written in the third person. He had a buoyant style and a light touch. He didn't invite anyone's sympathy for the hard years of his youth when he told the story thus:
His father was a Presbyterian minister, which explains much. He had a hate of public schools and educated his son at home... When young McNutt was thirteen his father went to work incog in an Indiana factory, to find out what people did between Monday morning and Saturday night. He expected to continue this investigation for only the duration of a few weeks, and so, just for a lark, took his son with him.
The lark lasted four years.Just prior to his fourteenth birthday young McNutt went to work as a finishing boy in a lamp chimney factory in Alexandria, Indiana. His ex-preacher father was picking them up and laying them down in a tin-plate mill.
Four queer years of working and bumming all over the country. Factories, farms, box cars, flop houses, Salvation Army wood yards, jungle camps, back doors, railroad bulls, park benches, etc. Intermittent study with his father meanwhile.
At the end of that time McNutt Sr. went to chautauqua, and McNutt Jr. went to a private preparatory school in Hartford, Connecticut. Not so hot. He stuck the year out and began entering colleges. Again not so hot. He entered several in the space of a few months and then went back to work as a carpenter near Boston. The following fall he drifted into the Emerson College of Oratory in Boston. He had seen something of lyceum and chautauqua and thought that he might grow up to be a reader with a quartet, or a Swiss bellringer or something.
This is excellent capsule biography; it implies a great deal that it doesn't actually tell. For example: the father's unique ideas about educating a son, while the mother and younger son remained at home. If young Bill McNutt couldn't get into college and stay, it appears that he learned things in the end that no college could have taught him. To resume with his biography:
There was a dramatic course at Emerson. Plays and everything. McNutt fell for that hard. Move over, Mansfield! Here comes a real actor! Two years at Emerson. Three years acting. Road shows, vaudeville sketches, stock. Terrible!
At liberty, by request, in the West, he went up to Northern British Columbia and Alaska. Back to hard work. Lumberjack, rough carpenter, longshoreman, mucker, timber toter, and so on. He was a big man, and varied in weight from 190 to 258.
Wrote a short story. Sold it to McClure's. Back to New York. Wrote for a year. Short stories. Ran dry. Back to Alaska for material. Got callouses instead. Stowed away to Seattle. Happened to have stories in five different magazines on the stands at the same time. Showed them to the city editor at the Post-Intelligencer and talked him out of a cub job at $10 a week. Great!
Two years on the Post-Intelligencer. Short stories on the side. Written after midnight in the city room. Back to New York in 1914. Three years of short stories and novelettes. Got all smoked up about the war. Went out to Camp Upton when the first draftees arrived and wrote a piece about it. Finley Peter Dunne, then editor of Collier's, sent him to France as a war correspondent on the strength of it.
With the American army through the war and at the first of the occupation. Came home the spring following Armistice, having enthusiastically writ, fed, and lied for his country for the duration of the Great Propaganda.
Four years of magazine articles and newspaper syndicate reporting. Fights, politics, golf, strikes, baseball, gang wars, border troubles, bootlegging, conventions, soldier-settlement matters, and so on. Back to fiction. Shirt stories. More short stories. Pictures. Hollywood. Ouch! Pictures. New York. Double the ouch!
Likes all sports from polo to ping-pong; craps preferred. Likes to listen to gabby taxi drivers, mouthy hustlers, windy fight managers, confidential waiters, sport-wise barbers, egotistical vaudevillians, humorous crooks, big gamblers, little suckers, and all women who work for a living.
One might conclude from his own account of himself, and his "ouches," that he was "not so hot." But it was reported later in the newspapers that he was the best writer of screen dialogue in Hollywood . No wonder; he talked much with many people of every kind, and he knew life. He was a leader in Screen Playwrights, Inc., started by writers who broke away from the Screen Writers Guild when they thought it was beginning to act like a labor union.
He was teamed for a while with Grover Jones, who knew movie technique from long experience. McNutt had imagination, the creative gift, and the art of popular writing. With Jones and others he wrote screenplays so outstanding that they will be long remembered. Among them were "Lives of Bengal Lancer," "Tom Sawyer," "Huckleberry Finn," "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch," "I Cover the Waterfront," "So Red the Rose," "Rhythm on the Range" (for Bing Crosby), and "Ladies of the Big House." His last script was "Stolen Honeymoon" for Ginger Rogers and Charles Boyer.
During the later part of 1937 his health was poor and he took a vacation of three months from the RKO Studios. He was ready to return in January, but before going back he took a special newspaper assignment to write about the Paul A Wright murder trial in Los Angeles. This was his last work.
The newspapers of the United States carried dispatches from Hollywood dated January 26, 1938, with long biographical stories beginning thus:
William Slavens McNutt, fifty-two, playwright, war correspondent and scenarist, died last night of bronchial pneumonia at his San Fernando Valley home after a long illness. His wife, Louise, was at his bedside... Besides his his wife, he is survived by his brother, Patterson, also in the movies as a writer and producer, and his father, George McNutt, who lives on a nearby ranch. He had no children.
The father lived but a few months after his son's death.
from "A Minister and His Sons" in The McNauchtan Saga
by V.V. McNitt, privately published, 1951.