This Depression-Era Hollywood Robot Was Built to Write Screenplays

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Today moviegoers complain about films being too formulaic. But in 1931, one Hollywood writer of now largely forgotten movies thought that turning screenwriting into a formula was a pretty good idea. So he invented the Plot Robot.

From the March 1931 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine:

Formerly robots were merely mechanical devices that could perform a variety of stunts under the guidance of a human being, but now a robot has made its appearance that thinks, has a soul of a kind, creative imagination, and other qualities necessary for writing a modern stereotyped short story. This robot, the invention of Wycliffe Hill, a Los Angeles scenario writer, is declared to be able to build up millions of plots, no two alike, for magazine stories or movie plays.

Mr. Hill has equipped his robot with an index chart, divided into eight sections, one devoted to each of the eight elements of a story — background, character, obstacle, problem, predicament, complication, crisis and climax—and with an assortment of variations. The robot selects the material as required from this inexhaustible source and builds plots that could never be imagined by the author without the aid of the mechanical brain. Now if you want to become a successful author simply obtain a robot and put it to work.


Hill and his Plot Robot got a fair amount of press in 1931, right around the same time that robots were becoming a symbol for the degradation of the movie-going experience.

In 1930, the Music Defense League — a union of theater musicians — even launched a campaign to convince movie-goers that pre-recorded music was part of the robot takeover. Or, at least, that recorded music could never have the soul that the art of cinema demanded. They spent over $500,000 (in 1930 dollars) in an effort to keep the talkies at bay. Recorded sound eventually won out, but given Hollywood's output sometimes, one has to wonder if some great-grandson of the Plot Robot isn't still hanging around the movie studio lots.


In completely unrelated news, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction hits theaters June 27th.


Image: scanned from the book Wasn't the Future Wonderful by Tim Onosko