The strange and savage world of Hollywood
HUTCHISON IN HOLLYWOOD
BRUCE HUTCHISON, concluding his report on the world’s film capital, watches stars like Debbie Reynolds, Leslie Caron, Susan Hayward, James Cagney and Henry Fonda struggle and sweat for cinematic perfection. The cost, he discovers, includes “a shocking waste of time, talent and money”
Miss Debbie Reynolds was literally singing and dancing like crazy, as her part required, when I saw her on the huge Twentieth Century-Fox sound stage just before 1 p.m. She had been doing so, with minor interruptions, since 8 a.m. The scene photographed in the studio would last about three minutes on the screen. It had been repeated in front of the camera for nearly five hours.
Still it didn't suit the director, a genial moose of a man named Frank Tashlin, who wasn’t in the least surprised, excited or impatient. Among that company of actors, extras, camera men and mechanics Mr.Tashlin alone appeared serene and tireless.
“The trouble," he told me as he ordered another take, "is with the words. She could sing them a month ago. She can’t get them right today. She’s lost something. Besides, in the last take she jumped clear out of the camera.”
I watched the performance several times and it looked fine to me. Miss Reynolds (grinning bravely though her idyllic marriage had just blown up and she was going to court for a divorce next day) tripped out on the stage of a French cabaret. Her flaxen head was covered by a professor’s mortar board hat, her body by an absurd blue garment like a tight bathing suit. With Mr. Robert Wagner, who wore evening clothes and an overgrown mop of hair, she sang a funny little song that you will hear frequently later on — I’m the Girl Most Likely to Succeed. But she wasn’t succeeding at that moment.
While the director watched them patiently and the famished camera crew impatiently, she and her partner pranced around the cabaret, giggled at the customers, repeated
the chorus and took a bow. That’s all there was to the scene, three minutes of celluloid but an infinity of labor, an agonizing search for perfection and the true secret of the motion picture.
It is sometimes art, it is usually entertainment but it is always the best product that men like Mr. Tashlin can create out of the available materials against difficulties inconceivable until you have seen them at first hand.
Half an hour on the sound stage told me more than years of reading about the real Hollywood of dull, slogging toil behind the façade of false glamour — the workshop where miracles are not inspired but painfully manufactured by a system of machine production unbelievable complex.
There is inspiration, too, as I would soon discover in some queer places, but it had long preceded the mechanics now under way. Inspiration had made the blueprint and specifications of the miracle in the first place. Only toil could build the picture out of disjointed fragments like the bricks in a skyscraper.
Most of that toil goes unnoticed in all the publicity, gossip and scandal pouring out of Hollywood in daily torrent. A smile, a wink, a casual gesture which we take for granted in the theatre and immediately forget needs hours or days of experiment, trial and error. In its writing even a simple comic scene like the one before me now might have begun months or years ago.
The magic had been conceived elsewhere by others. Mr. Tashlin’s responsibility was to prevent it leaking out in transit between originator and consumer; if possible to add a touch of his own magic in the process.
No doubt he hid his private inspiration under a careless air but you wouldn’t suspect it as he stood, relaxed in his shirt sleeves. For the present he was the boss of an assembly line and had no time for the luxury of temperament. All he wanted today was that song and dance, turned out according to specifications. It must be a minute but reliable, factory-made part of the greater whole, a picture billed as Say One For Me.
One reason Mr. Tashlin had been toiling since eight o’clock was that, in the exact sense, he didn't know what he was doing or how he did it. Nor did Miss Reynolds. No artist ever does. Nevertheless, from this pain, confusion and drudgery, as in organic birth, would come perfection, or rather the nearest thing to percontinued on page 44
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“I felt like an intruder at the blood rites of barbarous idolators”
fection that Mr. Tashlin could contrive.
Why should all his intellectual resources and lifetime of experience, all the commercial resources of a great industry and all the talent of its artists be lavished on a scene not worth a nickel as art? Because, of course, it was worth millions of nickels in commerce. And to make it commercial a high degree of art was needed.
Never in history. I reflected, had so much pure art gone into pure commerce to satisfy so many inartistic customers; never so much brain power used to distract the multitude from thought; and never so much unreality dressed up to look real until its creators believed in their own make-believe. So they must if the customers are to believe it.
Yet the waste of time, talent and money shocked me. 1 protested that Miss Reynolds' voice sounded great, she danced well, the words of her song were amusing and the dumb-blond expression on her rather homely face was just right.
"Not good enough,” Mr. Tashlin replied. "She can do it better. She can put more into it.”
So the whole machine was stalled once more, as it had been stalled repeatedly all morning, while Miss Reynolds and Mr. Wagner, like a pair of beginners on Amateur Night, sang the song over and over again to each other with no trace of self-consciousness, with only a determined, workmanlike concentration on the job. They must have loathed each other by this time.
Mr. Bing Crosby, cast as a Catholic priest, in civilian disguise, sat at a table among the extras, as he had sat all morning. the very image of hideous boredom.
I could think of no more disagreeable a way to make a living, even Mr. Crosby's not inconsiderable living, and no more depressing environment for an artist.
The sound stage was a dark and empty warehouse save for a small patch of light and the flimsy replica of a cabaret, which looked like cardboard now but would look real enough on film. 1 felt like an intruder who watches some ghastly blood rites in the cavern of barbarous idolators, but actually the idolators would assemble in another cavern, the movie theatre. Meanwhile Miss Reynolds was certainly undergoing a form of human sacrifice.
"I want them to finish it before lunch.” said Mr. Tashlin. "If they don't, it'll be an unhappy lunch for all of us."
When I left the sound stage the mechanics were grimly watching the two stars put on their stage smiles like Halloween masks to resume their synthetic abandon. The iceberg and the motion picture. I began to realize, hide most of their bulk below the surface.
Why, I wondered, will actors gladly work harder than day laborers? And why does most of Hollywood live, as any visitor can see, in a state of tension, insecurity and gnawing fear under its bright makeup and public grin? Because, of course, the actor’s business is the most precarious of these precarious times. He must be good to endure the fiercest competition known in the North American economic system.
As a motion picture executive put it to me: "In this town you are only as good as your last picture. Even a big star can t survive many tlops at the box office. The rate of casualty is appalling. |¡L»
But the public hears little of that. It hardly notices that some star who was around yesterday just isn't around any more.”
Few visitors are admitted to any sound stage nowadays but the managers of Twentieth Century-Fox — as nice and intelligent a group of men as you could ever hope to meet — had provided their best red-carpet treatment for our party. That was solely a tribute to their old friend — my sponsor, James H. Richardson. the veteran Los Angeles editor.
No part of that teeming lot being closed to us, we moved on, with our wives, to another sound stage where an even more painful job of work was in progress — a surgical job.
The uniformed guard standing inside the door peered out suspiciously through a narrow glass peephole. A big red light flashed on and off beside him. Even the executive who accompanied us could not enter until the light stopped flashing and then only after he had presented a pass which the guard examined with care and noted down in a ledger.
As we stumbled through the darkness a plain but healthy-looking lady in a mink coat passed us hurriedly on the way to her dressing room. 1 vaguely recognized the face of Gigi, older than it had appeared on film and a little distraught.
A moment later we were observing an operating room and Mr. Henry Fonda prostrate on a steel table, his head encased in a white plaster cast, his body covered by a hospital gown.
Mr. Nunnally Johnson, the famous director and also the writer of The Man Who Understood Women, coached Mr. Fonda in an undertone. Elderly and
dignified in sports coat and flannels, Mr. Johnson did not seen worried about anything. His spectacles were thrust up on his forehead, he smoked a cigarette, chewed a peppermint drop and spoke in a whisper.
Satisfied that Mr. Fonda knew his part, the director stepped hack to the camera and blew a whistle, whereupon everyone fell silent and Miss Leslie Caron, no longer Gigi but a grown woman, walked lightly into the operating room and approached the table on tiptoe.
Her words of love to Mr. Fonda were enough to make anyone cry. They made her cry anyhow. I saw the glistening moisture around her luminous eyes.
Mr. Fonda's weak reply (he had just fallen off a Mediterranean cliff) was gallant and affecting. He recalled, in lines that only a master like Mr. Johnson could have written, the mess of his life and his hope of spending the rest of it, with Miss Caron, in a vine-covered cottage somewhere in the Deep South.
The scene was heart-breaking but 1 didn't want to cry. 1 wanted to sneeze and that was worse. For if I had sneezed at that moment into the sound track the whole take would have been ruined at huge loss of money.
Pressing a handkerchief to my nose, 1 slunk silently into the remote shadows behind a hundred-foot, painted backdrop of the Riviera. From my memory of the place, it seemed highly authentic. There 1 sneezed quietly at the Mediterranean, without damage.
Mr. Johnson was not satisfied with the first take. Miss Caron, having applied more glycerine to her eyes, entered the operating room again, Mr. Fonda repeated his repentance and Mr. Johnson swal-
lowed another peppermint, presumably in sign of his displeasure. He ordered another take after Miss Caron had removed surplus glycerine with tissue paper. But this time, just as she was pouring out her affection for the patient, a tly settled on her nose and spoiled everything.
I couldn’t bear to watch this pathetic episode any longer and. since it seemed rude to question the actors after such an ordeal, I suppressed my curiosity until we found ourselves on another sound stage, beside a log cabin, in the Canadian north.
Outside the cabin some real poplar and spruce trees had been anchored somehow to the floor and behind them more trees were painted on canvas. Miss Susan Hayward's stand-in, a lady with red hair, was lying in bed and knitting to pass the time while the camera crew adjusted their equipment.
“This picture’s called Woman Obsessed." an official informed me. “The woman’s Hayward, see, and there’s a guy, see, a lumberjack, comes along up north—we were on location at Great Bear Lake last month and was it cold— and her son, he’s a boy of fifteen, see, gets jealous of the guy and his mother, see? It's complicated. You know, psychological. Good for Hayward. She’s an actress.”
As I was pondering this intricate psychology Miss Hayward herself happened by—a trim and tiny person in a yellow dressing gown—and I was introduced to her. She struck me as a lady by the old-fashioned definition.
These introductions of visiting firemen must be a horrid nuisance to stars like Miss Hayward, but she greeted me with every sign of interest, being an accomplished actress. Then, as the ritual requires, we were posed beside a shabby cubicle, her dressing room, for a still picture. The seasoned trouper asked me to stand on her right so that only the left side of her hair would show in the photograph. The right side, she said, needed combing. Again, make-believe and perfection.
Now was my chance, but a brief one, to ask her how, in these dismal surroundings, with no spectators but the camera crew, no audience to inspire her and nothing but a minor incident wrenched out of the script, she could impersonate a Woman Obsessed.
“I always think,” she said, “of the person I’m representing. I try to be that person. I don’t think of anything else. The cameras, the director and the rest of it. they're none of my business. I am the person.”
She smiled sweetly as if it were all easy. I wanted to ask her more about this disembodied and most difficult form of acting but at that moment she was called back to the Canadian north and we moved to another sound stage where Mr. Clifton Webb was at leisure.
He received me in his dressing room with almost embarrassing cordiality, made me sit down on a chesterfield and insisted that he had all the time in the world. A set, a director and a earner? crew were awaiting him anxiously somewhere in the outer darkness to complete Holiday for Lovers.
Mr. Webb wore a blue silk robe protected from grease paint at the neck by a band of tissue paper. He looked exactly like his public counterpart, the aging pixie, and he spoke, off stage, in that same crisp, half-British, immaculate accent which is the trademark of his films. I liked him at once. If he was acting off stage as on. the act had become a part of him. The make-believe had hardened into reality. Here was an authentic old
pro, a cold, brilliant intellect and a lifetime of study applied to tragedy or comedy, or even to visitors, as occasion demanded.
He lit a cigarette and relaxed in an armchair beside a blazing mirror to which he had pasted a faded Valentine card. Its legend was pleasant and accurate: “You're Thweet.” I thought he was sweet, too, under the world-weary look.
"I love Hollywood,” Mr. Webb affirmed emphatically in that familiar, impeccable voice. “I’ve no lime for knockers who come here for a few' months and go away sour. Hollywood has treated me very well. Oh, yes, I like the stage, of course. Spent most of my life on it. you know. And I’d like to go back to Broadway if 1 could be sure of a short run but I’m too lucky. My runs were always long, till I was sick of them, and you can’t quit when the money keeps pouring in. You have to consider your backers."
I could understand how an actor did his best work in a theatre, before an audience, in a complete play of two hours progressing logically from start to climax. There make-believe would become believable to its maker. But how. I asked, could Mr. Webb feel his role when it was acted in dismembered, unrelated segments over a period of a month or more, with no audience, no sense of denouement. only some cardboard scenery in a clingy barn?
“You get used to it,” said Mr. Webb. “You forget your surroundings completely. You concentrate on the part and the moment. Everything else is excluded. That’s not a difficult trick most of the time. It’s not so easy with comic stuff, though. In the theatre you can gauge your jokes by the reaction of the audience, changing them a little, improving them, from night to night. Here you have nothing to judge them by except the reaction of the camera crews and the grips—stage hands, you know.
“Sometimes,” he admitted, “I’m not satisfied with the rushes and they let me dub in new lines. They're always very kind out here. Yes, it’s a weary business now and then, but not as weary as a long run on Broadway. There nothing changes. Here you’re up against something new every day. I like it."
I asked him whether he followed The Method as they call the esoteric, souldeep school of acting invented in Russia and now widely used in America.
“You mean.” said Mr. Webb, with a disparaging gesture of his delicate white hand, “the theory that an actor should try to think of himself as some kind of psychological problem and project it subconsciously anyway he likes? They tell me The Method actors can even make themselves feel like a whale or a jelly fish. That’s fine for them, but not for me. I have to do it my own way—consciously.”
His own way, he thought, was the result of his long experience as a singer and dancer. “I guess,” he added, “that gave me a certain sense of rhythm. Who knows?”
Nobody knows, of course, as I was to discover by more inquiry, but as I prepared to press Mr. Webb further his immediate attendance was required before a huge screen on which a motion picture of a race-track crowd was being projected as in a theatre. Photographed against this picture, Mr. Webb would appear on film as one man among a shouting multitude. He apologized for the interruption, ushered me ceremoniously to the door and, removing the tissue paper, patted some makeup on his throat.
The executive then took us to see the newest and most financially promising of
Hollywood's offspring. In yet another barn Mr. Raymond Burr, a handsome young giant from New Westminster, B.C., was putting the distinguished detective. Mr. Perry Mason, on film for television. He had just finished a scene laid in a barroom and was about to begin another laid outside a dressing room. Television, on its pathetically small budget. cannot afford delays.
For an entire show the director, Mr. William Russell, is allowed a scant six days as against the six weeks* shooting of a theatrical motion picture. Mr. Burr,
still painted a dull pins and winded by his last scene, told me he had made thirty-nine installments of the Mason saga last year and would be lucky this year to get three weeks of vacation with his folks in New Westminster, whereas a motion picture actor, making two pictures a year, may rest for nine months.
Despite its difficulties and far from perfect product, Mr. Burr was proud of his craft. An educated, earnest man. he took me aside from the litter of the barroom set to emphasize the integrity, as he called it, of the Mason series. He
regarded his job as a grave social responsibility.
It was essential, he said, that the procedures and atmosphere of the courtroom, where the legendary lawyer-detective operates, be as authenitc as study could make them. The process of American justice must never be misrepresented — however improbable the plot — lest public confidence in the courts be undermined. Hence Mr. Burr spent his days before the camera and his nights over scripts and books of law.
Mr. Russell, a large, friendly and like-
able man, quite unruffled like all good directors, said he rather preferred television to ordinary motion pictures. He had no time for perfection but every day brought something new, a change of pace, the spice of variety.
After the customary photographs of the visiting firemen had been shot, I was introduced to Della Street, Mr. Mason's long-suffering secretary, who is always trying to marry her boss but has remained a spinster for many fictional decades.
In real life Miss Street is Miss Barbara Hale, or at any rate that is her professional name and she is the facsimile of the wholesome, athletic American girl. It seemed too bad, she said, that Mr. Mason’s secretary never managed to capture him but that was the story line anti not her affair. She hurried away to look after her children at home, having managed. off stage, to achieve Miss Street's frustrated ambition.
In her absence from the sound stage Mr. Russell whisked Mr. Burr off to a corner and there, after one hasty rehearsal, shot a scene of him talking to an obscure character at the door of a dressing room, for what purpose ! couldn’t imagine. It was all over in less than five minutes.
In television, as one of its assistantinformed me, they don’t want it good, they want it Tuesday. This disparagement was unfair, since a TV show like the Mason series is amazingly good, considering its financial limitations and will improve as more money is put into it.
A wiser man, who wrote scripts, assured me that television, while it seemed so new, was really quite ancient.
“It's only the old-time medicine show in modern guise.” he explained. “Instead of a fellow in a top hat. an Indian in feathers and a bum with a guitar selling snake oil, now we have a Perry Mason selling anything the advertisers specify."
This also seemed unfair to Mr. Burr, a fine actor. Anyffow, after the flimsy, inside sets, the back lot of Twentieth Century-Fox. though nothing but a more elaborate make-believe, looked like stark and solid reality.
It took a full hour merely to drive between the bulging warehouses of scenery and props of every conceivable sort, the French village complete with running stream, stone bridge and growing willow trees, the cowtown burned to the ground last week for a Western spectacle, the railroad siding, locomotive and oldfashioned Pullman car. the English village of Elizabethan architecture, the New York street of brownstone houses, the German suburb recently bombed, the southern mansion spruced up for one picture and then smeared with decay for another, the three huge concrete tanks in which ships are frequently sunk at sea, the southern swamp, the African jungle, the nursery of trees and shrubof every species all set in moveable tubs, the prairie road so carefully rutted by a hose that our car stuck in the mud.
The whole world and all its contents were in that back lot or could be quickly reared up there by the innumerable designers, carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and painters. Everything looked as substantial as life until you turned a corner and saw that there was nothing behind the front walls. Once a picture is finished the set is left untouched in the hope that it can be refurbished and used again some day by technicians who can study an architect’s plan and figure the cost ot an earthquake, a cyclone or a battle, to the last dollar.
As if Twentieth Century-Fox had not already crowded enough of the world in to its backyard, the sense of reality ifinally confirmed by actual oil wells
pumping oil from the earth as a profitable studio sideline.
By the time we had finished this inspection and bade our hosts farewell the working day was over, the whole lot silent and deserted, all the iron gates locked. We wandered from gate to gate, half expecting to spend the night in captivity, until at last we found a helpful guard. He let us out after he had examined our passes.
That night I met James Cagney, who turned out to be one of the most attractive men 1 had ever encountered, certainly the most amusing. The tough guy. singer and hoofer you have seen so often on the screen is. in life, a quiet, modest, almost bashful person whom you would never recognize as an actor if you didn't know that granitic face.
Accompanied, as always, by his charming little wife, whom he married in their early vaudeville days and now calls "Bill.” Mr. Cagney arrived for dinner at the Richardson home, greeted me diffidently and withdrew silently into a corner as if company alarmed him. But something unspoken but palpable and more communicative than words seemed to How out of him — the unconscious power of projection, I suppose, which makes him an actor by birth and training.
It was only when I began to badger him with a reporter’s ruthless curiosin that he became the bristling, electric creature of the screen. He would touch no alcohol but after a good dinner (relaxing his strict diet for the evening) he warmed up to give us a private performance better than anything I had ever seen him do in motion pictures. I shall not attempt to describe it. for it was indescribable.
I can only tell you that without props, costume or makeup, with only a change of expression and accent, he could be in one moment a dignified statesman, in the next a half-witted dowager, or an Indian warrior or a doddering professor, as the feelings of his characters, tragic or comic, passed across his face like ripples on a pond. Every motion of his hands, every twist of his body, had something to say.
He didn't like showing off. however, and as quickly as he could, switched the talk to farming, his real interest. Here he revealed an expert’s knowledge of soil, crops and cattle and an urgent concern with the problems of conservation. These he had studied deeply in books and on the three farms where he lives most of the year in overalls.
Like ail the other actors, he was at a loss to explain his art. One negative point was clear, though: he had no use for The Method. It might work for others but not for him. He tried to explain his own method but for once communication failed him, since he was no longer acting. He could only deny, so far as he was personally concerned, that acting came from within.
No, he didn't necessarily feel any of the emotions registered by his face, accent and gesture. What concerned him was the external effect on the audience. He was aware of the audience all the time and how he affected it; aware, for example, that on the screen any role must be under-played, as it was overplayed on the stage, because the camera close-up caught even the most minute change of expression and the sound apparatus recorded every inflection of tone. The net result, he said in a telling phrase, was “artificially natural,” and he added the final dictum of an old pro: “Even an actor’s ears must work.” His own worked all right.
As Mr. and Mrs. Cagney drove home at two a.m., I concluded that it was useless to pursue my enquiries in the field
of actor’s magic and turned instead to the writer's magic on which all actors and the whole industry of Hollywood absolutely depend.
You can’t imagine the agony that goes into a movie or television script until you have witnessed its birth. I saw it while living for a week with a successful writer and old hand, who told me an illuminating story of his apprentice days.
After working for three months on the same script, with two fellow’ writers whom he was never allowed to see. he noticed for the first time a sign near his
office. It read: "Talent Department."
"Just think!" my friend said more in sorrow than in anger. "They called it the Talent Department as if we writers were just another item in a supermarket like gents’ furnishings or kitchenware. Talent! Good God. we were just mechanics trying to put a broken machine together.
"After I got to meet my collaborators by mere chance in a restaurant, we put the machine together in a fashion but it fell to pieces on the screen. I looked at that sign again and started to laugh until 1 cried and then 1 threw up and then I
resigned. There were thirteen writers in our crowd. Twelve of them died before they were fifty years old."
The survivor worked now in the peace of his home, far from Hollywood, but he worked as hard as ever. While I lolled on a sunny patio I could hear him hammering his typewriter upstairs and trying his written lines aloud to test their ring.
"And you call that love!" he shouted in a woman's falsetto voice. Then, in a harsh male tone: "No. I call it farce, my sweet!" Five minutes later the air was rent by a piercing shout: "Kill him.
kill him!” And presently I heard a solemn voice announce: "We find the prisoner guilty.”
I crept upstairs to the writer's disorderly workroom and found him pacing up and down in his shirtsleeves, gesticulating violently and muttering to himself.
"That’s it!” he suddenly cried and rushed to his typewriter. The inspiration must be set dowm before he lost it.
When he emerged at lunch time, white and shaky, I asked him to show me a completed script. He gave me several to read but I could make no sense of them.
They were just a mass of meaningless dialogue and technical stage directions. Somehow a director had taken such a sterile blueprint and turned it into comedy or tragedy. Actors had brought the lines to life—only because the writer had put the stuff of life into them. No audience had suspected its origins in a dark upstairs room full of one man’s secret blood, sweat and tears.
Actually the origins of any motion picture are hard to find for often the w riters themselves cannot remember them. A story idea may spring up anywhere, any
time, in the least likely circumstances.
Not long ago, for example, my friend answered a knock at his door before breakfast to find a fellow writer panting on the porch under the weight of an overnight revelation which wouldn't jell. He had encountered, he said, a young alcoholic addressing a mongrel cur in a French accent. Only a trained technician would have seen any possibilities in that absurd incident but it grew into a highly successful motion picture.
While we were discussing these improbable things another writer came in
for a drink and mentioned casually that he had just seen a loutish bridegroom slapping his bride in an automobile.
“Can I have that?" my host demanded.
“You're welcome,” said his friend, “but what for?"
“Never mind,” said the other. “It’ll work.” And having retired late at night, after submitting the idea to his subconscious “as a prayer to God. almost a command,” he rose next morning and went to work on a new script. I can't imagine what it's about and he wouldn’t tell me.
If it does work it will be first set out in a brief summary or “treatment” and discussed with a Hollywood producer. If it seems promising it will be expanded in a first draft, revised in a second draft and finally set down in a working script—a labor of weeks or months.
Even then a writer’s job is not complete. He must attend the director on the set and if any scene seems inadequate as it is acted it will be rewritten on the spot, perhaps in a few' frantic minutes, while the cameras wait at high cost per minute and the w'riter goes slowly mad.
A man may be a genius in the writing of books but useless for this sort of work. Great writers have failed over and over again in the movie industry because they require a special and rare bent of mind, “just the right mixture of avarice and dementia,” my friend called it.
All the motion picture scripts of Hollywood make a small trickle beside the torrent of television writing which pours out of this town day and night.
Commercial writers who once filled the pulps and slicks with short stories have arrived here to become the prisoners of a little electrical box and a mysterious set of rules calculated to destroy their sanity.
Since these men talk to most North American families every night and probably influence our continental thoughtways more than any other single group, I sought out one of the ablest among them and put him through a long inquisition.
The poor fellow was weak after his second literary birth in a fortnight and the compulsory stomach ulcer of his trade was acting up. but he received me kindly in his hide-out.
Though a learned student of literature, he wrote mostly crude westerns, about two dozen a year, for the usual fee of $1,500 apiece, a killing schedule. Usually he found the germ of a story in some obscure diary of the Old West, in a faded dime novel or in a classic like “The Virginian," which, he told me, was the "papa” of all westerns and had been worked and re-worked endlessly like an old gold mine. His bookshelves were crammed with such Americana and he respected it as the true repository of his nation's ethos.
"You can do almost anything with a western,” he said. "You can put a philosophical story in hair pants. Or you can move an old detective story out on the range. The western is a kind of omnibus that will carry any passenger you like. There’s no end to its possibilities so long as you preserve the old cowboy myth, the most powerful myth in America. It can say anything.”
There were drastic limitations, however, on television because it was restricted by its penurious budget.
“You may want a big spectacle like a battle scene or a mob of people,” the writer explained, “but you can't afford it. So you have to write the story without it. Or, if you’re lucky, you may find a battle scene or a mob. a flood or a train wreck or whatever, in some old motion
picture or a news reel. They 'have all this stuff indexed in the film libraries and you can buy a few' feet of it. at so much per foot, and sandwich it into your show. It's a kind of cannibalism but the public never suspects it."
"You have to work fast.” he added. "You take a rough idea to a producer and if he likes it he'll give you two weeks to put it into a shooting script of thirty minutes, including commercials, and then two more days for a final rewrite. Roughly you have twenty minutes of dialogue and ten minutes of action. The dialogue is fixed but action gives the director a cushion. It can be expanded or contracted quite a bit to make the liming right.
"But don't expect perfection," he warned me, “when the whole show is shot in three days or so. About eighty-five shows a week are made in this town. The public may not think much of them but it's a wonder they're as good as they are. They won't be much better anyway until we get more money from pay-TV and a big screen on the wall instead of a little box in the corner."
1 left that man with a half-finished script on his desk for delivery next morning (also a glass of bicarbonate and a carton of cigarettes, the essential tools of his trade) and 1 drove up the California coast for a last look at the motion picture outside Hollywood, in its most deceptive form.
On the way 1 happened to see at first hand what the executive had meant by saying that the rate of personal casualty in his business was appallingly high. A stout bedraggled woman of middle age was puttering about in the garden of a pleasant bungalow. 1 didn't recognize her, but only a few years ago she had been one of America's movie darlings. Her girlish face, lithe figure and musical voice were as well know;n to this continent as the Rocky Mountains and more popular. My host told me her name but 1 could hardly believe it and in charity do not mention it here.
"She's not a drunk,” he said. "She has m) domestic trouble, no husband, no men. She just wants to be alone, 1 guess. Lives with an old housekeeper and never seems to see anybody else. If she goes to the post office for her mail nobody pays any attention to her. As a public character she's dead. But she seems to enjoy it."
She was enjoying her garden that day anyhow. By her girth 1 judged that she also enjoyed her food, now that her figure was no problem.
The next morning, at seven o'clock, 1 drove out to the Monterey airport and found Warner Brothers in full possession. With sound trucks, dazzling lights, a portable power plant, derricks, cameras, dressing rooms on wheels and two airplanes—about an acre of equipment—a crew of a hundred actors and technicians was about to make a scene for a picture called A Summer Place, laid on the other side of the continent, in Maine, which at that season, lay deep in snow.
Everything w'ent exactly on schedule as in many a well-managed factory. At eight o'clock the director arrived (I knew him because he wore a long woolen scarf in the hot California sun, had a gay. commanding air and addressed everyone as “Kids”). After him came a famous girl star ot another day now graduated, with her honest wrinkles, to a mother's part, and then a handsome young man whose face had been already painted for the day's work.
As one workman hurriedly slapped grey paint on the railings of the airport ramp, to prevent glare on the film, and another drew chalk lines on the floor to
guide the actors, the director talked earnestly to his Kids and ordered a rehearsal.
Five times the mother and the young man walked along the ramp and down the stairs, pretending to follow' with their eyes an imaginary airplane about to land on the runway. The whole thing was incomprehensible to me, of course — a small fragment or perhaps a minute on the screen—but it was terribly important to the director. By his look of concentration and his private mutterings you might have thought he was about
to film the end of the w'orld instead of a brief scene in Monterey for a picture set in Maine.
At last he was satisfied with the rehearsal, everyone fell silent, the script girl wrote furiously on a pad of paper, the lights glared, the camera men wheeled through the air on their derrick, the actors tripped across the ramp and, so perfect was the timing, a real airplane swooped down at that precise moment upon the runway. The director apparently was happy for he hugged the actress in a nice fatherly way.
All this had occupied more than three hours, a hundred workers and probably a million dollars’ worth of apparatus for a momentary flash that might never reach the screen. The perfectionism of the motion picture is taken for granted but it comes high.
' A gigantic Negro w ho drove one of the trucks had leaned against a post throughout the performance, his eyes glazed, his fine white teeth bared in a grin of admiration.
“It’s crazy.” he confided to me, “but, boy, it’s fun!" ★