Summer Movies

The King of All Formulas

The incredible true story of the man who invented the Hollywood schlock machine.

Read more from Slate’s Summer Movies special issue.

The Proposal is formulaic. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is formulaic. Imagine That is formulaic. Even Up is … “progressively more formulaic.”

But who came up with the formula?

If you want the human embodiment of Hollywood predictability, you can’t do better than Wycliffe A. Hill. A profoundly obscure writer of silent five-reelers, Hill is also the unheralded inventor of something more enduring: the attempt to engineer movies that will bring “the most satisfaction to the largest number of people—the mob, in other words.”

It was a notion borne of failure. After a hard-knocks apprenticeship in a Manhattan literary agency, Hill went to Hollywood in 1915, where his first movie pitch was summarily shot down by Cecil B. DeMille. The problem? No plot. “A dramatic plot,” DeMille’s brother patiently explained to Hill, “is where someone wants something, something stands in the way of his getting it, he tries to get it and either does or does not.”

DeMille’s prodding was perfectly timed; Hill wandered into a bookshop and found the new translation of French critic Georges Polti’s Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. If you’ve ever endured a teacher bloviating on how there are only really X number of plots in literature, blame Polti. A theatre critic, he gamely ran with the claim that Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi had once succeeded in isolating 36 “tragic situations” that formed the building blocks of drama. (Naturally, Gozzi then lost his list.) Polti had a recent and lesser-known work that had not yet been translated, The Art of Inventing Characters, which handily presented 36 archetypes. While Polti’s books were largely descriptive, Hill hit upon a notion: What if they were combined and made prescriptive?

What if together they made … a formula?

Hill’s Ten Million Photoplay Plots: The Master Key to All Dramatic Plots, a byzantine matrix of characters and conflicts designed to create endless plot combinations, was so novel when it debuted in 1919 that the slim guide sold for an eye-popping $5. Quietly lifting from Polti, Hill created mix-and-match lists of characters, settings, and dramatic situations. (An old man wrongfully accused of a mine explosion + seeks refuge from a band of outlaws + with a woman whose house he enters for a hiding place. + …) It was the perfect instrument for the silent movies being churned out on Hollywood lots.

There’s plenty of quaint advice: Throw a punch in the first 200 feet of film; introduce a love interest within 500 feet. But at the book’s core are Polti’s 36 situations, along with one more tossed in by Hill: “Plot Situation Number Three: A Miracle.” They tilt heavily toward murder and adultery but are then divided and recombined with enough variants, characters, and settings to get to 10 million plots. And these plots, Hill insists, are eternal verities: They account for all plots—past, present, or future. Yet past plots don’t fare too well by his reckoning: Situation 22A (“Discovery that one has married his own mother”) is dismissed as “very illogical.” And 21st-century stalwarts such as the coming-of-age tale or the clueless hero simply don’t exist. In Wycliffe Hill’s universe, there are no Judd Apatows or Will Ferrells.

Creaky as his apparatus now looks, Hill was onto something: Other plot wizards followed, including Plotto, the insanely complex 1928 creation of pulp novelist William Wallace Cook. (His pseudonymous memoir isn’t titled The Fiction Factory for nothing: Cook once bashed out 54 “nickel novels” in a single year.) Rare and comically user-unfriendly, Plotto required its own accompanying instruction booklet—which, invariably lost or disintegrated in the intervening eight decades, leaves modern discoverers of the unaccompanied volume bewildered. Plotto resembles a thesaurus filled with cryptic codings and narrative fragments:

1367(b) (1083) (1287)A has invented a life preserver for the use of shipwrecked persons * A, in order to prove the value of the life preserver he has invented, dons the rubber suit, inflates it and secretly, by night, drops overboard from a steamer on the high seas ** (1414b) (1419b)…1373(1027) (1418a; 1433b)A sells his shadow for an inexhaustible purse (1354a) (1357)…1379(513) (1111b)A discovers his cigar will not burn. On investigation, he discovers that the cigar is merely a rolled paper, X, camouflaged with a tobacco wrapper—the rolled paper, X, being an important message (541) (561) (1369) (1400)

Hill wasn’t about to lie down and take … well, whatever the hell this was. He responded in 1931 with an invention called the Plot Robot—an actual mechanical scriptwriting robot—that utilized “whirring gears” to mix “background, characters, and dramatic situations from a series of tapes.” When that didn’t take, he hit on the creation of increasingly dense Plot Genie books that used a board-game spinner for random plot generation. Soon Fortune magazine was covering Hill’s juggernaut; his pricey guides moved thousands of units among screenwriters and would-be writers, and endless plot guides and po-faced Poltis have followed ever since.

And so the would-be formula advice genre that Wycliffe A. Hill created lives on … as do crappy formulaic movies. But if there was ever a man whose own life beggars belief from even the most random plot generator, and that reveals the ultimate sterility of formula plotting, it was Hill himself. In chasing the chimera of 10 million plots, he never let on that life—his own life—was far weirder and richer than any Plot Robot could imagine.

Hill had a secret: He could barely sell his own screenplays. In fact, his finances had been so dire that by the 1920s the cinematic sage drifted into grinding out cheap newspaper copy. While scratching away for his nickels, he befriended a crooked lawyer named—I am not making this up—Morgan Marmaduke.

Marmaduke represented—and I am also not making this up—serial killer Bluebeard Watson. A roving bigamist who dispatched nine of his 22 wives through bludgeoning or drowning, Bluebeard was now passing time in San Quentin by strangling birds that landed too near his cell window. He let slip to his lawyer that, after killing and burying his final victim, Nina Lee Deloney, in the hills outside San Diego, he’d stuffed $86,000 worth of Liberty Bonds into Mason fruit jars and buried them nearby. Marmaduke and Watson cut Wycliffe Hill into a deal to find the jars, and the hunt was on.

Hill spent five years searching and digging for the killer’s ill-gotten gains, visiting San Quentin repeatedly and having Bluebeard Watson circle photographs to show him where to dig. Not only couldn’t Hill find the loot, but after bickering with Watson, he sued the inmate for breach of contract—an attempt at recouping funds that one Los Angeles Times reporter charitably described as “optimistic.”

Rather than exploit the story possibilities in the Barton Fink –ish hell-scape of his own life, Hill descended into the endless spiral of how-to hackery. But even Hill himself couldn’t hack it anymore. By the end of his career, he appears to have been so disenchanted with the Hollywood dream machine, the one he quite literally tried to build,that his final publications include a 1945 pamphlet titled Why the Jew Gets the Money.

Perhaps that just proves his point. Hill, I suppose, succumbed to his own Plot Situation No. 35: “Mental Derangement.”