“The wondrous figure of that genius had long haunted me, and circumstances into which I needn’t here enter had within a few years contributed much to making it vivid … More interesting still than the man—for the dramatist at any rate—is the S. T. Coleridge type; so what I was to do was merely to recognise the type, to borrow it, to re-embody and freshly place it; an ideal under the law of which I could but cultivate a free hand. I proceeded to do so; I reconstructed the scene and the figures—I had my own idea, which required, to express itself, a new set of relations—though, when all is said, it had assuredly taken the recorded, transmitted person, the image embalmed in literary history, to fertilise my fancy … Therefore let us have here as little as possible about its ’being Mr. This or Mrs. That. If it adjusts itself with the least truth to its new life it can’t possibly be either… “—HENRY JAMES; from his preface to “The Lesson of the Master and Other Tales.”
It’s the waiting, Shep was thinking. You wait to get inside the gate, you wait outside the great man’s office, you wait for your agent to make the deal, you wait for the assignment, you wait for instructions on how to write what they want you to write, and then, when you finish your treatment and turn it in, you wait for that unique contribution to art, the story conference.
Older Hollywood writers knew how to get the most out of this three- or four-week lag. They caught up on their mail or did a little proselytizing for the Guild or wrote an original against the rainy season or went in for matinees or worked out the bugs in their tennis game (with secretaries trained to page them promptly at the Club if the call should come).
Shep just waited. At first he had brought in a couple of books, Red Star Over China, Malraux’ Man’s Hope, but it was no use. Not with that phone at his elbow about to ring any moment. For over three weeks now Shep had arrived at his cubicle on the top floor of the Writers’ Building at nine-thirty and departed at six: 105 hours. He had kept track of them with the desperate patience of a prisoner in solitary—with nothing to do but await the verdict of Victor Milgrim, known on the lot as “The Czar of All the Rushes.”
Six months before, young Shep had come home to Hollywood from the hills of New England and the ivy-covered walls of Webster with a summa cum laude in English and the conviction that movies, as the great new folk art, needed young men with his combination of talent and ideals.
But nobody had been deceived. As his agent had explained, somewhat petulantly, “Look, kid, they won’t even make It Can’t Happen Here when they bought it already and that’s got a name behind it. So if you wanna put yourself in a selling position, go write yourself a hunk a pure entertainment.”
Shep had a girl he was interested in marrying and his old man had a studio car-rental business he was interested in avoiding. So, for the moment, he had knocked out a slick little trick called Love on Ice. It was not exactly what Professor Crofts had predicted for him when presenting him with the Senior Prize for Literary Composition, but it was, in Shep’s young and optimistic mind, that most convenient of apologetics: the means to an end. Hired to develop his story for a brief trial period as a “junior writer” (Shep found sardonic pleasure in his official title) at a sub-respectable hundred dollars a week, he had been encouraged when word filtered through to him that “the Boss is hot on the idea” and wanted to know how rapidly Shep could “do a treatment.” Shep had received five calls from the front office in the last ten days to learn how soon Mr. Milgrim could have it. He had staggered across the finish line at ten-thirty one Saturday night under pressure of a Red Arrow messenger who had arrived at seven to rush the scenario to Mr. Milgrim in Palm Springs by motorcycle. Then this feverish tempo had abruptly slow-timed into three weeks without any reaction, three weeks of maddening silence. This was what oldtimers had learned to accept as they accepted the great man’s eccentric hours and his erratic outbursts of good taste.
Now another fruitless day had passed and Shep was on his way to the little self-operating elevator when he heard his phone ringing. One minute to six. Just time to meet his girl, grab a bite and go on to the rally for the Lincoln Brigade. That damn phone. Should he go back? It was just possible that it could be—
At last. Miss Dillon herself, the great man’s secretary. “Well, young man, congratulations. HE just mentioned your name. He wants you to …”
“Don’t say it—stand by.”
“Lucky you. He says he definitely wants to get with you tonight.”
“Any idea what time I’ll get in?”
“Oh. You naughty boy.” It was Joe Penner now. Miss Dillon liked her conversations to brush lightly here and there the electrified fencing of sex. It was a form of corruption, Shep recognized, these little verbal sops to His secretary’s inclinations. “Now be a stout fella and stand by.”
So Shep was to keep himself available for a conference that might take place in ten minutes or ten hours. The best Milgrim could do was to promise “to work you in” some time during office hours that always lasted until midnight and frequently extended until daybreak.
Shep felt a twinge of disgust at the sense of panic that fluttered in his stomach, the sense of impending crisis. He had pretended to laugh at the “option jitters” that almost always seized the writers as they went into conference with the head man. Shep and his girl even had a phrase for it: “The final degradation of the artist.” Children of depression, guided by hearsay knowledge of Marx and Freud, they were always having to sum things up and fit them neatly into cubby holes.
Now that word had come at last, Shep tried to fight down over-anxiousness. He wanted Miss Dillon to hear the little shrug in his voice. “Okay, dig me at the pub across the street.”
At the curb outside the studio entrance, Shep glanced at the headlines:
COWBOY ACTOR RUNS AMUCK
SMASH REDS IN BARCELONA
Another republic was going down in blood; the whole precarious structure of peaceful living was threatened now. Shep wondered at himself for clinging to Love on Ice, this flimsy raft that would float or sink at the word of a very big man in a rather small pond.
Uneasily, he entered “Stage One,” hangout for Hollywood’s version of the hewers of wood and drawers of water, the vital but anonymous cogs whose names never win mention in the celebrated columns, whose romances or indiscretions are never set forth between mischievous dots. These were assistant directors, cutters, bit players, second cameramen, sound men, juicers, grips, special effects men, Hollywood’s exclusive proletariat, earning three to ten thousand a year, whose hands literally make pictures.
Shep had his usual Scotch with a finger of soda and listened idly to the chatter along the bar. It was all solid shop-talk from technicians who could never quite relax from the pressure of their jobs, a blowing off of steam against superiors with whom they dared not publicly disagree. But here in the privacy of their own place, with two-drink confidence, it was:
—“That lucky bastard, if he’s a director I’m Shirley Temple!”
—“So I says, listen you bitch, I says, I don’t give a flop if you are Box Office Queen for 1938—you’ll be Queen of my S-list if you don’t move your keester out of that dressing room and take your place for the next scene.”
—“Three times I try to tell him about the mike shadow but the stubborn Lymie nipplehcad just goes ahead and shoots it anyway.”
Shep looked up over the bar at that stock embellishment of all studio bistros, the collection of publicity stills autographed by stars present and past. Together on the top row were Phyllis Haver, Sue Carol and Sally O’Neill. He leaned forward and squinted to make out the name of a fourth beauty with the bangs and spit-curls that were glamour in the Twenties. Marie Astaire. The old names, the old styles in feminine lure never lost their fascination for Shep. At Hollywood High back in Twenty-nine he had momentarily caught the coat-tails of an era. Like the college boys, some of whom already had given up these hi-jinks, he had waited impatiently for each new issue of College Humor and had felt the compulsion to inscribe those witty sayings of the period on his slicker, his cords and his second-hand Chewy. His first faint flush of adolescent desire had been aroused by Jacqueline Logan in The Bachelor Girl and Midnight Madness. Midnight Madness. Ah, there was a film to stir the blood of awakening high-school freshmen.
In the corner, quietly scoring Shep’s mood, an unobtrusive little man played a portable organ that the customers acknowledged only by raising their voices to drown it out. This instrument, like its musician, Lew Luria, had been salvaged from the silent days when the organ, accompanied by a soft violin, was indispensable for summoning from the actors the emotions demanded by the script and the director. If you bought Lew a drink he would tell you how he used to get Clara Bow ready for her crying scenes by playing “Rockabye Baby.” But just as Lew’s real profession had died with silent pictures, so had his repertoire. His favorites were “Mary Lou” and “Avalon Town.” When he wanted to play something more up to date, it was usually “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” or “Broadway Melody.”
Shep had another drink and went to call his girl, working late at another studio farther up the boulevard. “Damn it, Shep” (never darling or sweetheart or honey because she said the movies had worn the shine off the sweet words), “I’ll be a little late, at three o’clock, a whole stinking magazine novel to read and synopsize—of course they had to have it tonight, wouldn’t you know?—Faith Baldwin—Four Daughters all over again without the Epstein dialogue—God, I hate women writers— Parker and Hellman of course, they don’t count, they’re just writers—won’t it be awful when my grandchildren ask me what I was doing the day Barcelona fell and I have to say I was synopsizing Faith Baldwin!”
All of this took less time to say than most people would need for Hello, how are you. She talked her own kind of shorthand. There was never quite enough time to fit in all the different ideas.
Snap judgments, damning criticisms, whopping generalizations were part of her charm, signs of the form youthful vitality had taken in a year when crisis was everybody’s breakfast food.
“Listen, Sara, I can’t make it at all. Milgrim called. I’ve got to stand by.”
“Hooray. You mean he’s actually read it?”
“I suppose so. But Christ knows what time he’ll see me. Let’s just hope he likes it.”
“Now don’t be a worrier. Milgrim will love it. Why shouldn’t he? He’s made the same story at least twice before.”
“Nice talk,” Shep said, half aware of the increasing influence of the studio idiom. “Think I’ll trade you in for a woman who looks up to me.”
“That’d be dull,” she said. “Gotta go now. Faith Baldwin’s leaning over my shoulder. Call me after you’ve had your audience, no matter how late.”
Shep wandered back to the bar. He sent a highball over to Lew Luria and Lew played some old Rodgers and Hart things he had always admired: “I took one look at you …”
There was a call for Shep from Milgrim’s office. He showed his youth in his effort at nonchalance.
“The Great White Father is looking at rushes now.”
He smiled at Miss Dillon’s familiar mockery. There was always that air of amused boredom in her voice from having to white-lie and alibi and brush off so many suitors for Milgrim’s attention.
“Peggy, I’m pining for you. How long would you say it’ll be?”
Studio life prescribed set patterns of behavior. Stylized flirtation was the rule of the game. Miss Dillon was so accustomed to flattery and elaborate sweettalk that she would think she were being insulted if addressed with ordinary courtesy.
“Shep, for you, darling, I’ll try my best to get you in by 10.30.”
“I love you,” he said automatically, as, six months ago, he would have said “Thanks.”
At the bar familiar faces were saying familiar things. “So I said … I went right up and told him … I’m the kind of person who …” The atmosphere vibrated with the first person singular. Egos, like corks submerged by studio routine and held down by stronger personalities, were bobbing up all over the place now that the pressure had been removed.
Half an hour later Miss Dillon was on the phone again.
“Can you stand a small shock, darling? The boss-man has just started running Hurricane. He wants to make sure his sand storm is bigger, louder and more destructive than the Goldwyn blow. So stand by, honey-chile.”
“My God, he’s going to run the whole thing? Couldn’t he just see the last reel?”
“You know my Boss. Celluloid-happy. He just loves to watch them moom-pitchurs … Hello, are you there old boy?”
“I didn’t say anything. I just sighed.”
“Want me to send you over some bennies?”
“Had two already. I’m vibrating like a hopped-up Ford.”
“Relax, relax. Who’s Victor Milgrim? What’s he got that God ain’t got except three Academy Awards?”
“May the Lord—I mean Milgrim—bless you, Peggy. You’re God’s gift to a persecuted minority—the junior writer.”
“Pul-lease,” Miss Dillon hammed it. “Do not take the name of my Boss in vain.”
Peggy Dillon was a good kid, Shep conceded. Just too many late nights, too many benzedrines and too many witty or would-be witty gentleman callers who practiced their art of seduction on her to sharpen their technique for their real quarry, Victor Milgrim.
This time the bartender, who picked up bit parts in pictures, said “What can I do you for?” It made Shep conscious of how much Hollywood talk fell into familiar speech patterns. It disturbed him when he caught the Hollywoodisms in his own speech. “How do you LIKE that?” “Good—it’s but terrific!” The social and financial extravagance was reflected in verbal extravagance. People were forever calling pictures sensational that were just all right; men called each other honey and sweetheart when they weren’t lovers or even friends. It’s a world fenced in with exclamation points, Shep thought, a world where hyperbole is the mother-tongue.
We haven’t made men out of celluloid, we screen writers—we’ve made celluloid out of men. We’re both Prometheus and the vulture who feeds on his liver.
Shep was indulging a young man’s dream of rescuing this captive giant when the phone called him back once more to studio reality.
“Shep darling, I hope you’re in an awfully good mood.” It was a little late in the evening for Miss Dillon’s whimsies but Shep played along. “You mean … as they say in the movies.”
“The boss-man was just about to have me buzz you when Yvonne Darre called. Seems she’s all in a tizzy over the Empress Eugenic script and she can’t get her beauty sleep until she comes down and cries on his shoulder. My poor boss. Sometimes I almost feel sorry for him.”
“I feel a helluva lot sorrier for me. When do I get in? Some time in July, 1945?”
“Just stand by, Buster. He’ll probably get to you around midnight.”
“A junior writer,” Shep said, “is such a low form of animal life that it reproduces by mitosis.”
“I don’t know what that means but I doubt if you could get it by the Hays Office.”
“Mitosis, my dear Miss Dillon, is the least pleasurable method of reproducing oneself. You just swell up and split in two.”
“Is that what you learn in college?”
“You learn all kinds of reproductive methods in college.”
“You go right home and wash your mind out with soap.”
“Suppose I try Scotch?” he said.
Taking his place at the bar, he drank strategically, trying to reach just that right peak of confidence without sliding down the other side into self-delusion. The waiting, his mind groaned, the interminable waiting. He sent another drink over to Lew Luria and the little, almost-forgotten man smiled formally and began to play “Sweeter Than Sweet.”
Shep was chasing his Scotch with coffee to keep awake when, a little before one, just seven hours after the initial call, Miss Dillon phoned him to hurry over.