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.
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.
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.