Between the night I got back and the quake I’d made many observations.
About Father, for example. I loved Father-in a sort of irregular graph with many low swoops—but I began to see that his strong will didn’t fill him out as a passable man. Most of what he accomplished boiled down to shrewd. He had acquired with luck and shrewdness a quarter interest in a booming circus—together with young Stahr. That was his life’s effort—all the rest was an instinct to hang on. Of course he talked that double talk to Wall Street about how mysterious it was to make a picture but Father didn’t know the ABC’s of dubbing or even cutting. Nor had he learned much about the feel of America as a bar boy in Ballyhegan nor have any more than a drummer’s sense of a story. On the other hand he didn’t have concealed paresis like ——; he came to the studio before noon, and with a suspiciousness developed like a muscle it was hard to put anything over on him.
Stahr had been his luck—and Stahr was something else again. He was a marker in industry like Edison and Lumiere and Griffith and Chaplin. He led pictures way up past the range and power of the theatre, reaching a sort of golden age before the censorship in 1933. Proof of his leadership was the spying that went on around him—not just for inside information or patented process secrets—but spying on his scent for a trend in taste, his guess as how things were going to be. Too much of his vitality was taken by the mere parrying of these attempts. It made his work secret in part, often devious, slow—and hard to describe as the plans of a general—where the psychological factors become too tenuous and we end by merely adding up the successes and failures. But I have determined to give you a glimpse of him functioning, which is my excuse for what follows. It is drawn partly from a paper I wrote in college on “A Producer’s Day” and partly from my imagination. More often I have blocked in the ordinary events myself, while the stranger ones are true.
In the early morning after the flood, a man walked up to the outside balcony of the Administration Building. He lingered there some time according to an eyewitness, then mounted to the iron railing and dove head first to the pavement below. Breakage—one arm.
Miss Doolan, Stahr’s secretary, told him about it when he buzzed for her at nine. He had slept in his office without hearing the small commotion.
“Pete Zavras!” Stahr exclaimed, “—the camera man?”
“They took him to a doctor’s office. It won’t be in the paper.”
“Hell of a thing,” he said, “I knew he’d gone to pot—but I don’t know why. He was all right when we used him two years ago—why should he come here? How did he get in?”
“He bluffed it with his old studio pass,” said Catherine Doolan. She was a dry hawk, the wife of an assistant director. “Perhaps the quake had something to do with it.”
“He was the best camera man in town,” Stahr said. When he had heard of the thousands dead at Long Beach he was still haunted by the abortive suicide at dawn. He told Catherine Doolan to trace the matter down.
The first Dictograph messages blew in through the warm morning. While he shaved and had coffee he talked and listened. Robby had left a message: “If Mr. Stahr wants me tell him to hell with it I’m in bed.” An actor was sick or thought so; the Governor of California was bringing a party out; a supervisor had beaten up his wife for the prints and must be “reduced to a writer”—these three affairs were Father’s job—unless the actor was under personal contract to Stahr. There was early snow on a location in Canada with the company already there—Stahr raced over the possibilities of salvage reviewing the story of the picture. Nothing. Stahr called Catherine Doolan.
“I want to speak to the cop who put two women off the back lot last night. I think his name’s Malone.”
“Yes, Mr. Stahr. I’ve got Joe Wyman—about the trousers.”
“Hello Joe,” said Stahr. “Listen—two people at the sneak preview complained that Morgan’s fly was open for half the picture… of course they’re exaggerating but even if it’s only ten feet… no, we can’t find the people but I want that picture run over and over until you find that footage. Get a lot of people in the projection room—somebody’ll spot it.”
Tout passe.—L’art robuste
Seul a l’eternite.
“And there’s the Prince from Denmark,” said Catherine Doolan. “He’s very handsome.” She was impelled to add pointlessly “—for a tall man.”
“Thanks,” Stahr said. “Thank you, Catherine, I appreciate it that I am now the handsomest small man on the lot. Send the Prince out on the sets and tell him we’ll lunch at one.”
“And Mr. George Boxley—looking very angry in a British way.”
“I’ll see him for ten minutes.”
As she went out he asked:
“Did Robby phone in?”
“Call Sound and if he’s been heard from call him and ask him this. Ask him this—did he hear that woman’s name last night. Either of those women. Or anything so they could be traced.”
“No, but tell him it’s important while he still remembers. What were they? I mean what kind of people—ask him that too. I mean were they—”
She waited, scratching his words on her pad without looking.
“—oh, were they—questionable? Were they theatrical? Never mind—skip that. Just ask if he knows how they can be traced.”
The policeman, Malone, had known nothing. Two dames and he had hustled ’em you betcha. One of them was sore. Which one? One of them. They had a car, a Chewy, he thought of taking the license. Was it—the good looker who was sore? It was one of them.
Not which one—he had noticed nothing. Even on the lot here Minna was forgotten. In three years. So much for that then.
Stahr smiled at Mr. George Boxley. It was a kindly fatherly smile Stahr had developed inversely when he was a young man pushed into high places. Originally it had been a smile of respect toward his elders, then as his own decisions grew rapidly to displace theirs, a smile so that they should not feel it—finally emerging as what it was, a smile of kindness sometimes a little hurried and tired but always there, toward anyone who had not angered him within the hour. Or anyone he did not intend to insult aggressive and outright.
Mr. Boxley did not smile back. He came in with the air of being violently dragged though no one apparently had a hand on him. He stood in front of a chair and again it was as if two invisible attendants seized his arms and set him down forcibly into it. He sat there morosely. Even when he lit a cigarette on Stahr’s invitation one felt that the match was held to it by exterior forces he disdained to control.
Stahr looked at him courteously.
“Something not going well, Mr. Boxley?”
The novelist looked back at him in thunderous silence.
“I read your letter,” said Stahr. The tone of the pleasant young headmaster was gone. He spoke as to an equal but with a faint two—edged deference.
“I can’t get what I write on paper,” broke out Boxley. “You’ve all been very decent but it’s a sort of conspiracy. Those two hacks you’ve teamed me with listen to what I say but they spoil it—they seem to have a vocabulary of about a hundred words.”
“Why don’t you write it yourself?” asked Stahr.
“I have. I sent you some.”
“But it was just talk, back and forth,” said Stahr mildly. “Interesting talk but nothing more.”
Now it was all the two ghostly attendants could do to hold Boxley in the deep chair. He struggled to get up; he uttered a single quiet bark which had some relation to laughter but none to amusement, and said:
“I don’t think you people read things. The men are dueling when the conversation takes place. At the end one of them falls into a well and has to be hauled up in a bucket.”
He barked again and subsided.
“Would you write that in a book of your own, Mr. Boxley?”
“What? Naturally not.”
“You’d consider it too cheap.”
“Movie standards are different,” said Boxley hedging.
“Do you ever go to them?”
“Isn’t it because people are always dueling and falling down wells?”
“Yes—and wearing strained facial expressions and talking incredible and unnatural dialogue.”
“Skip the dialogue for a minute,” said Stahr. “Granted your dialogue is more graceful than what these hacks can write—that’s why we brought you out here. But let’s imagine something that isn’t either bad dialogue or jumping down a well. Has your office got a stove in it that lights with a match?”
“I think it has,” said Boxley stiffly, “—but I never use it.”
“Suppose you’re in your office. You’ve been fighting duels or writing all day and you’re too tired to fight or write any more. You’re sitting there staring—dull, like we all get sometimes. A pretty stenographer that you’ve seen before comes into the room and you watch her—idly. She doesn’t see you though you’re very close to her. She takes off her gloves, opens her purse and dumps it out on a table—”
Stahr stood up, tossing his key-ring on his desk.
“She has two dimes and a nickle—and a cardboard match box. She leaves the nickle on the desk, puts the two dimes back into her purse and takes her black gloves to the stove, opens it and puts them inside. There is one match in the match box and she starts to light it kneeling by the stove. You notice that there’s a stiff wind blowing in the window—but just then your telephone rings. The girl picks it up, says hello—listens—and says deliberately into the phone ’I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.’ She hangs up, kneels by the stove again, and just as she lights the match you glance around very suddenly and see that there’s another man in the office, watching every move the girl makes—”
Stahr paused. He picked up his keys and put them in his pocket.
“Go on,” said Boxley smiling. “What happens?”
“I don’t know,” said Stahr. “I was just making pictures.”
Boxley felt he was being put in the wrong.
“It’s just melodrama,” he said.
“Not necessarily,” said Stahr. “In any case nobody has moved violently or talked cheap dialogue or had any facial expression at all. There was only one bad line, and a writer like you could improve it. But you were interested.”
“What was the nickle for?” asked Boxley evasively.
“I don’t know,” said Stahr. Suddenly he laughed, “Oh yes—the nickle was for the movies.”
The two invisible attendants seemed to release Boxley. He relaxed, leaned back in his chair and laughed.
“What in hell do you pay me for?” he demanded. “I don’t understand the damn stuff.”
“You will,” said Stahr grinning. “Or you wouldn’t have asked about the nickle.”
A dark saucer-eyed man was waiting in the outer office as they came out.
“Mr. Boxley, this is Mr. Mike Van Dyke,” Stahr said. “What is it, Mike?”
“Nothing,” Mike said. “I just came up to see if you were real.”
“Why don’t you go to work?” Stahr said. “I haven’t had a laugh in the rushes for days.”
“I’m afraid of a nervous breakdown.”
“You ought to keep in form,” Stahr said. “Let’s see you peddle your stuff.” He turned to Boxley. “Mike’s a gag man—he was out here when I was in the cradle. Mike, show Mr. Boxley a double wing, clutch, kick and scram.”
“Here?” asked Mike.
“There isn’t much room. I wanted to ask you about—”
“There’s lots of room.”
“Well,” he looked around tentatively. “You shoot the gun.”
Miss Doolan’s assistant, Katie, took a paper bag, blew it open.
“It was a routine,” Mike said to Boxley “—back in the Keystone days.” He turned to Stahr. “Does he know what a routine is?”
“It means an act,” Stahr explained. “Georgie Jessel talks about ’Lincoln’s Gettysburg routine.’”
Katie poised the neck of the blown up bag in her mouth. Mike stood with his back to her.
“Ready?” Katie asked. She brought her hand down on the side. Immediately Mike grabbed his bottom with both hands, jumped in the air, slid his feet out on the floor one after the other, remaining in place and flapping his arms twice like a bird -
“Double wing,” said Stahr.
—And then ran-out the screen door which the office boy held open for him and disappeared past the window of the balcony.
“Mr. Stahr,” said Miss Doolan, “Mr. Hanson is on the phone from New York.”
Ten minutes later he clicked his Dictograph and Miss Doolan came in. There was a male star waiting to see him in the outer office Miss Doolan said.
“Tell him I went out by the balcony,” Stahr advised her.
“All right. He’s been in four times this week. He seems very anxious.”
“Did he give you any hint of what he wanted? Isn’t it something he can see Mr. Brady about?”
“He didn’t say. You have a conference coming up. Miss Meloney and Mr. White are outside. Mr. Broaca is next door in Mr. Rienmund’s office.”
“Send -- in,” said Stahr. “Tell him I can see him only for a minute.”
When the handsome actor came in Stahr remained standing.
“What is it that can’t wait?” he asked pleasantly.
The actor waited carefully till Miss Doolan had gone out.
“Monroe, I’m through,” he said. “I had to see you.”
“Through!” said Stahr. “Have you seen ’Variety’? Your picture’s held over at Roxy’s and did thirty-seven thousand in Chicago last week.”
“That’s the worst of it. That’s the tragedy. I get everything I want and now it means nothing.”
“Well, go on explain.”
“There’s nothing between Esther and me anymore. There never can be again.”
“Oh, no—worse—I can’t bear to mention it. My head’s in a daze. I wander around like a madman. I go through my part as if I was asleep.”
“I haven’t noticed it,” said Stahr. “You were great in your rushes yesterday.”
“Was I? That just shows you nobody ever guesses.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you and Esther are separating?”
“I suppose it’ll come to that. Yes—inevitably—it will.”
“What was it?” demanded Stahr impatiently. “Did she come in without knocking?”
“Oh, there’s nobody else. It’s just—me. I’m through.”
Stahr got it suddenly.
“How do you know?”
“It’s been true for six weeks.”
“It’s your imagination,” said Stahr. “Have you been to a doctor?”
The actor nodded.
“I’ve tried everything. I even—one day in desperation I went down to—to Claris. But it was hopeless. I’m washed up.”
Stahr had an impish temptation to tell him to go to Brady about it. Brady handled all matters of public relations. Or was this private relations. He turned away a moment, got his face in control, turned back.
“I’ve been to Pat Brady,” said the star, as if guessing the thought. “He gave me a lot of phoney advice and I tried it all but nothing doing. Esther and I sit opposite each other at dinner and I’m ashamed to look at her. She’s been a good sport about it but I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed all day long. I think ’Rainy Day’ grossed 25,000 in Des Moines and broke all records in St. Louis and did 27,000 in Kansas City. My fan mail’s way up and there I am afraid to go home at night, afraid to go to bed.”
Stahr began to be faintly oppressed. When the actor first came in Stahr had intended to invite him to a cocktail party but now it scarcely seemed appropriate. What would he want with a cocktail party with this hanging over him. In his mind’s eye he saw him wandering haunted from guest to guest with a cocktail in his hand and his grosses up 28, 000.
“So I came to you, Monroe. I never saw a situation where you didn’t know a way out. I said to myself even if he advises me to kill myself I’ll ask Monroe.”
The buzzer sounded on Stahr’s desk—he switched on the Dictograph and heard Miss Doolan’s voice.
“Five minutes, Mr. Stahr.”
“I’m sorry,” said Stahr, “I’ll need a few minutes more.”
“Five hundred girls marched to my house from the high school,” the actor said gloomily. “And I stood behind the curtains and watched them. I couldn’t go out.”
“You sit down,” said Stahr. “We’ll take plenty of time and talk this over.”
In the outer office two members of the conference group had already waited ten minutes—Wylie White and Rose Meloney. The latter was a dried up little blonde of fifty about whom one could hear the fifty assorted opinions of Hollywood—“a sentimental dope,” “the best writer on construction in Hollywood,” “a veteran,” “that old hack,” “the smartest woman on the lot,” “the cleverest plagiarist in the biz,” and of course in addition a nymphomaniac, a virgin, a pushover, a lesbian and a faithful wife. Without being an old maid she was like most self-made women rather old maidish. She had ulcers of the stomach and her salary was over a hundred thousand a year. A complicated treatise could be written on whether she was “worth it” or more than that or nothing at all. Her value lay in such ordinary assets as the bare fact that she was a woman and adaptable, quick and trustworthy, “knew the game” and was without egotism. She had been a great friend of Minna’s and over a period of years he had managed to stifle what amounted to a sharp physical revulsion.
She and Wylie waited in silence—occasionally addressing a remark to Miss Doolan. Every few minutes Rienmund the supervisor called up from his office where he and Broaca the director were waiting. After ten minutes Stahr’s button went on and Miss Doolan called Rienmund and Broaca; simultaneously Stahr and the actor came out of Stahr’s office with Stahr holding the man’s arm. He was so wound up now that when Wylie White asked him how he was he opened his mouth and began to tell him then and there.
“Oh, I’ve had an awful time,” he said but Stahr interrupted sharply.
“No you haven’t. Now you go along and do the role the way I said.”
“Thank you, Monroe.”
Rose Meloney looked after him without speaking.
“Somebody been catching flies on him?” she asked, a phrase for stealing scenes.
“I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” Stahr said. “Come on in.”
It was noon already and the conferees were entitled to exactly an hour of Stahr’s time. No less, for such a conference could only be interrupted by a director who was held up in his shooting; seldom much more because every eight days the company must release a production as complex and costly as Reinhardt’s “Miracle.”
Occasionally, less often than five years ago, Stahr would work all through the night on a single picture. But after such a spree he felt bad for days. If he could go from problem to problem there was a certain rebirth of vitality with each change. And like those sleepers who can wake whenever they wish, he had set his psychological clock to run one hour.
The cast assembled included besides the writers Rienmund, one of the most favored of the supervisors, and John Broaca, the picture’s director.
Broaca, on the surface, was an engineer—large and without nerves, quietly resolute, popular. He was an ignoramus and Stahr often caught him making the same scenes over and over—one scene about a rich young girl occurred in all his pictures with the same action, the same business. A bunch of large dogs. entered the room and jumped around the girl. Later the girl went to a stable and slapped a horse on the rump. The explanation was probably not Freudian; more likely that at a drab moment in youth he had looked through a fence and seen a beautiful girl with dogs and horses. As a trademark for glamor it was stamped on his brain forever.
Rienmund was a handsome young opportunist, with a fairly good education. Originally a man of some character he was being daily forced by his anomalous position into devious ways of acting and thinking. He was a bad man now, as men go. At thirty he had none of the virtues which either native Americans or Jews are taught to think admirable. But he got his pictures out in time and by manifesting an almost homosexual fixation on Stahr, seemed to have dulled Stahr’s usual acuteness. Stahr liked him—considered him a good all around man.
Wylie White, of course, would have been recognizable in any country as an intellectual of the second order. He was civilized and voluble, both simple and acute, half dazed half saturnine. His jealousy of Stahr showed only in unguarded flashes, and was mingled with admiration and even affection.
“The production date for this picture is two weeks from Saturday,” said Stahr. “I think basically it’s all right—much improved.”
Rienmund and the two writers exchanged a glance of congratulation.
“Except for one thing,” said Stahr, thoughtfully. “I don’t see why it should be produced at all and I’ve decided to put it away.”
There was a moment of shocked silence—and then murmurs of protest, stricken queries.
“It’s not your fault,” Stahr said. “I thought there was something there that wasn’t there—that was all.” He hesitated, looking regretfully at Rienmund. “It’s too bad—it was a good play. We paid fifty thousand for it.”
“What’s the matter with it, Monroe?” asked Broaca bluntly.
“Well, it hardly seems worth while to go into it,” said Stahr.
Rienmund and Wylie White were both thinking of the professional effect on them. Rienmund had two pictures to his account this year—but Wylie White needed a credit to start his comeback to the scene. Rose Meloney was watching Stahr closely from little skull-like eyes.
“Couldn’t you give us some clue?” Rienmund asked. “This is a good deal of a blow, Monroe.”
“I just wouldn’t put Margaret Sullavan in it,” said Stahr. “Or Colman either. I wouldn’t advise them to play it—”
“Specifically, Monroe,” begged Wylie White. “What didn’t you like? The scenes? the dialogue? the humor? construction?”
Stahr picked up the script from his desk, let it fall as if it were physically too heavy to handle.
“I don’t like the people,” he said. “I wouldn’t like to meet them—if I knew they were going to be somewhere I’d go somewhere else.”
Rienmund smiled but there was worry in his eyes.
“Well, that’s a damning criticism,” he said. “I thought the people were rather interesting.”
“So did I,” said Broaca. “I thought Em was very sympathetic.”
“Did you?” asked Stahr sharply. “I could just barely believe she was alive. And when I came to the end I said to myself ’So what?’”
“There must be something to do,” Rienmund said. “Naturally we feel bad about this. This is the structure we agreed on—”
“But it’s not the story,” said Stahr. “I’ve told you many times that the first thing I decide is the kind of story I want. We change in every other regard but once that is set we’ve got to work toward it with every line and movement. This is not the kind of a story I want. The story we bought had shine and glow—it was a happy story. This is all full of doubt and hesitation. The hero and heroine stop loving each other over trifles—then they start up again over trifles. After the first sequence you don’t care if she never sees him again or he her.”
“That’s my fault,” said Wylie suddenly. “You see, Monroe, I don’t think stenographers have the same dumb admiration for their bosses they had in 1929. They’ve been laid off—they’ve seen their bosses jittery. The world has moved on, that’s all.”
Stahr looked at him impatiently, gave a short nod.
“That’s not under discussion,” he said. “The premise of this story is that the girl did have dumb admiration for her boss if you want to call it that. And there wasn’t any evidence that he’d ever been jittery. When you make her doubt him in any way you have a different kind of story. Or rather you haven’t anything at all. These people are extraverts—get that straight—and I want them to extravert all over the lot. When I want to do a Eugene O’Neill play I’ll buy one.”
Rose Meloney who had never taken her eyes off Stahr knew it was going to be all right now. If he had really been going to abandon the picture he wouldn’t have gone at it like this. She had been in this game longer than any of them except Broaca with whom she had had a three day affair twenty years ago.
Stahr turned to Rienmund.
“You ought to have understood from the casting, Rieny, what kind of a picture I wanted. I started marking the lines that Carroll and MacMurray couldn’t say and got tired of it. Remember this in future—if I order a limousine I want that kind of car. And the fastest midget racer you ever saw wouldn’t do. Now—” He looked around. “Shall we go any farther? Now that I’ve told you I don’t even like the kind of picture this is? Shall we go on? We’ve got two weeks. At the end of that time I’m going to put Carroll and MacMurray into this or something else—is it worth while?”
“Well naturally,” said Rienmund, “I think it is. I feel bad about this. I should have warned Wylie. I thought he had some good ideas.”
“Monroe’s right,” said Broaca bluntly. “I felt this was wrong all the time but I couldn’t put my finger on it.”
Wylie and Rose looked at him contemptuously and exchanged a glance.
“Do you writers think you can get hot on it again?” asked Stahr, not unkindly. “Or shall I try somebody fresh?”
“I’d like another shot,” said Wylie.
“How about you, Rose?”
She nodded briefly.
“What do you think of the girl?” asked Stahr.
“Well—naturally I’m prejudiced in her favor.”
“You better forget it,” said Stahr warningly. “Ten million Americans would put thumbs down on that girl if she walked on the screen. We’ve got an hour and twenty-five minutes on the screen—you show a woman being unfaithful to a man for one-third of that time and you’ve given the impression that she’s one-third whore.”
“Is that a big proportion?” asked Rose slyly, and they laughed.
“It is for me,” said Stahr thoughtfully, “even if it wasn’t for the Hays office. If you want to paint a scarlet letter on her back it’s all right but that’s another story. Not this story. This is a future wife and mother. However—however—”
He pointed his pencil at Wylie White.
“—this has as much passion as that Oscar on my desk.”
“What the hell!” said Wylie. “She’s full of it. Why she goes to—”
“She’s loose enough,” said Stahr, “—but that’s all. There’s one scene in the play better than all this you cooked up and you’ve left it out. When she’s trying to make the time pass by changing her watch.”
“It didn’t seem to fit,” Wylie apologized.
“Now,” said Stahr, “I’ve got about fifty ideas. I’m going to call Miss Doolan.” He pressed a button. “—and if there’s anything you don’t understand speak up—”
Miss Doolan slid in almost imperceptibly. Pacing the floor swiftly Stahr began. In the first place he wanted to tell them what kind of a girl she was—what kind of a girl he approved of here. She was a perfect girl with a few small faults as in the play but a perfect girl not because the public wanted her that way but because it was the kind of girl that he, Stahr, liked to see in this sort of picture. Was that clear? It was no character role. She stood for health, vitality, ambition and love. What gave the play its importance was entirely a situation in which she found herself. She became possessed of a secret that affected a great many lives. There was a right thing and a wrong thing to do—at first it was not plain which was which but when it was she went right away and did it. That was the kind of story this was—thin, clean and shining. No doubts.
“She has never heard the word labor troubles,” he said with a sigh. “She might be living in 1929. Is it plain what kind of girl I want?”
“It’s very plain, Monroe.”
“Now about the things she does,” said Stahr. “At all times, at all moments when she is on the screen in our sight she wants to sleep with Ken Willard. Is that plain, Wylie?”
“Whatever she does it is in place of sleeping with Ken Willard. If she walks down the street she is walking to sleep with Ken Willard, if she eats her food it is to give her strength to sleep with Ken Willard. But at no time do you give the impression that she would ever consider sleeping with Ken Willard unless they were properly sanctified. I’m ashamed of having to tell you these kindergarten facts but they have somehow leaked out of the story.”
He opened the script and began to go through it page by page. Miss Doolan’s notes would be typed in quintuplicate and given to them but Rose Meloney made notes of her own. Broaca put his hand up to his half closed eyes—he could remember “when a director was something out here,” when writers were gag men or eager and ashamed young reporters full of whiskey—a director was all there was then. No supervisor—no Stahr.
He started wide awake as he heard his name.
“It would be nice, John, if you could put the boy on a pointed roof and let him walk around and keep the camera on him. You might get a nice feeling—not danger, not suspense, not pointing for anything—a kid on the roof in the morning.”
Broaca brought himself back in the room.
“All right,” he said. “—just an element of danger.”
“Not exactly,” said Stahr. “He doesn’t start to fall off the roof. Break into the next scene with it.”
“Through the window,” suggested Rose Meloney. “He could climb in his sister’s window.”
“That’s a good transition,” said Stahr. “Right into the diary scene.”
Broaca was wide awake now.
“I’ll shoot up at him,” he said. “Let him go away from the camera. Just a fixed shot from quite a distance—let him go away from the camera. Don’t follow him. Pick him up in a close shot and let him go away again. No attention on him except against the whole roof and the sky.” He liked the shot—it was a director’s shot that didn’t come up on every page any more. He might use a crane—it would be cheaper in the end than building the roof on the ground with a process sky. That was one thing about Stahr—the literal sky was the limit. He had worked with Jews too long to believe legends that they were small with money.
“In the third sequence have him hit the priest,” Stahr said. “What!” Wylie cried, “—and have the Catholics on our neck.” “I’ve talked to Joe Breen. Priests have been hit. It doesn’t reflect on them.”
His quiet voice ran on—stopped abruptly as Miss Doolan glanced at the clock.
“Is that too much to do before Monday?” he asked Wylie. Wylie looked at Rose and she looked back not even bothering to nod. He saw their week-end melting away, but he was a different man from when he entered the room. When you were paid fifteen hundred a week emergency work was one thing you did not skimp, nor when your picture was threatened. As a “free lance” writer Wylie had failed from lack of caring but here was Stahr to care, for all of them. The effect would not wear off when he left the office—not anywhere within the walls of the lot. He felt a great purposefulness. The mixture of common sense, wise sensibility, theatrical ingenuity, and a certain half naive conception of the common weal which Stahr had just stated aloud, inspired him to do his part, to get his block of stone in place, even if the effort were foredoomed, the result as dull as a pyramid.
Out the window Rose Meloney watched the trickle streaming toward the commissary. She would have her lunch in her office and knit a few rows while it came. The man was coming at one-fifteen with the French perfume smuggled over the Mexican border. That was no sin—it was like prohibition.
Broaca watched as Rienmund fawned upon Stahr. He sensed that Rienmund was on his way up—not yet. He received seven hundred and fifty a week for his partial authority over directors, writers and stars who got much more. He wore a cheap English shoe he bought near the Beverly Wilshire and Broaca hoped they hurt his feet, but soon now he would order his shoes from Peal’s and put away his little green alpine hat with a feather. Broaca was years ahead of him. He had a fine record in the war but he had never felt quite the same with himself since he had let Ike Franklin strike him in the face with his open hand.
There was smoke in the room and behind it, behind his great desk Stahr was withdrawing further and further, in all courtesy, still giving Rienmund an ear and Miss Doolan an ear. The conference was over.
[Stahr was to have received the Danish Prince Agge, who “wanted to learn about pictures from the Beginning” and who in the author's cast of characters is described as an “early Fascist.”—Edmund Wilson's explanation note]
“Mr. Robinson called in,” Miss Doolan said, as he started for the commissary. “One of the women told him her name but he’s forgotten it—he thinks it was Smith or Brown or Jones.”
“That’s a great help.”
“And he remembers she says she just moved to Los Angeles.”
“I remember she had a silver belt,” Stahr said, “with stars cut out of it.”
“I’m still trying to find out more about Pete Zavras. I talked to his wife.”
“What did she say?”
“Oh, they’ve had an awful time—given up their house—she’s been sick—”
“Is the eye trouble hopeless?”
“She didn’t seem to know anything about the state of his eyes. She didn’t even know he was going blind.”
He thought about it on the way to luncheon but it was as confusing as the actor’s trouble this morning. Troubles about people’s health didn’t seem within his range—he gave no thought to his own. In the lane beside the commissary he stepped back as an open electric truck crammed with girls in the bright costumes of the regency came rolling in from the back lot. The dresses were fluttering in the wind, the young painted faces looked at him curiously and he smiled as it went by.
Eleven men and their guest Prince Agge sat at lunch in the private dining room of the studio commissary. They were the money men—they were the rulers and unless there was a guest they ate in broken silence, sometimes asking questions about each other’s wives and children, sometimes discharging a single absorption from the forefront of their consciousness. Eight out of the ten were Jews—five of the ten were foreign born, including a Greek and an Englishman—and they had all known each other for a long time: there was a rating in the group, from old Marcus down to old Leanbaum who had bought the most fortunate block of stock in the business and never was allowed to spend over a million a year producing.
Old Marcus functioned with disquieting resilience. Some never-atrophying instinct warned him of danger, of gangings up against him—he was never so dangerous himself as when others considered him surrounded. His grey face had attained such immobility that even those who were accustomed to watch the reflex of the inner corner of his eye could no longer see it—nature had grown a little white whisker there to conceal it; his armor was complete.
As he was the oldest, Stahr was the youngest of the group—not by many years at this date, though he had first sat with most of these men when he was a boy wonder of twenty-two. Then, more than now, he had been a money man among money men. Then he had been able to figure costs in his head with a speed and accuracy that dazzled them—for they were not wizards or even experts in that regard, despite the popular conception of Jews in finance. Most of them owed their success to different and incompatible qualities. But in a group a tradition carries along the less adept, and they were content to look at Stahr for the sublimated auditing and experience a sort of glow as if they had done it themselves like rooters at a football game.
Stahr, as will presently be seen, had grown away from that particular gift, though it was always there.
Prince Agge sat between Stahr and Mort Flieshacker the company lawyer and across from Joe Popolous the theatre owner. He was hostile to Jews in a vague general way that he tried to cure himself of. As a turbulent man, serving his time in the Foreign Legion, he thought that Jews were too fond of their own skins. But he was willing to concede that they might be different in America under different circumstances, and certainly he found Stahr was much of a man in every way. For the rest—he thought most business men were dull dogs—for final reference he reverted always to the blood of Bernadotte in his veins.
My father—I will call him Mr. Brady as Prince Agge did when he told me of this luncheon—was worried about a picture and when Leanbaum went out early he came up and took his chair opposite.
“How about the South America picture idea, Monroe?” he asked.
Prince Agge noticed a blink of attention toward them as distinct as if a dozen pair of eyelashes had made the sound of batting wings. Then silence again.
“We’re going ahead with it,” said Stahr.
“With that same budget?” Brady asked.
“It’s out of proportion,” said Brady. “There won’t be any miracle in these bad times—no ’Hell’s Angels’ or ’Ben-Hur’ when you throw it away and get it back.”
Probably the attack was planned, for Popolous, the Greek, took up the matter in a sort of double talk that reminded Prince Agge of Mike Van Dyke except that it tried to be and succeeded in being clear instead of confusing.
“It’s not adoptable, Monroe, in as we wish adopt to this times in as it changes. It what could be done as we run the gamut of prosperity is scarcely conceptuable now.”
“What do you think, Mr. Marcus?” asked Stahr.
All eyes followed his down the table but as if forewarned Mr. Marcus had already signalled his private waiter behind him that he wished to rise, and was even now in a basket-like position in the waiter’s arms. He looked at them with such helplessness that it was hard to realize that in the evenings he sometimes went dancing with his young Canadian girl.
“Monroe is our production genius,” he said. “I count upon Monroe and lean heavily upon him. I have not seen the flood myself.”
There was a moment of silence as he moved from the room.
“There’s not a two million dollar gross in the country now,” said Brady.
“Is not,” agreed Popolous. “Even as if so you could grab them by the head and push them by and in, is not.”
“Probably not,” agreed Stahr. He paused as if to make sure that all were listening. “I think we can count on a million and a quarter from the road-show. Perhaps a million and a half altogether. And a quarter of a million abroad.”
Again there was silence—this time puzzled, a little confused. Over his shoulder Stahr asked the waiter to be connected with his office on the phone.
“But your budget?” said Flieshacker. “Your budget is seventeen hundred and fifty thousand, I understand. And your expectations only add up to that without profit.”
“Those aren’t my expectations,” said Stahr. “We’re not sure of more than a million and a half.”
The room had grown so motionless that Prince Agge could hear a grey chunk of ash fall from a cigar in midair. Flieshacker started to speak, his face fixed with amazement, but a phone had been handed over Stahr’s shoulder.
“Your office, Mr. Stahr.”
“Oh yes—oh, hello Miss Doolan. I’ve figured it out about Zavras. It’s one of these lousy rumors—I’ll bet my shirt on it…. Oh, you did. Good…. Good. Now here’s what to do—send him to my oculist this afternoon, Dr. John Kennedy, and have him get a report and have it photostated—you understand.”
He hung up—turned with a touch of passion to the table at large.
“Did any of you ever hear a story that Pete Zavras was going blind?”
There were a couple of nods. But most of those present were poised breathlessly on whether Stahr had slipped on his figures a minute before.
“It’s pure bunk. He says he’s never even been to an oculist—never knew why the studios turned against him,” said Stahr. “Somebody didn’t like him or somebody talked too much and he’s been out of work for a year.”
There was a conventional murmur of sympathy. Stahr signed the check and made as though to get up.
“Excuse me, Monroe,” said Flieshacker persistently, while Brady and Popolous watched, “I’m fairly new here and perhaps I fail to comprehend implicitly and explicitly.” He was talking fast but the veins on his forehead bulged with pride at the big words from N. Y. U. “Do I understand you to say you expect to gross a quarter million short of your budget?”
“It’s a quality picture,” said Stahr with assumed innocence.
It had dawned on them all now but they still felt there was a trick in it. Stahr really thought it would make money. No one in his senses -
“For two years we’ve played safe,” said Stahr. “It’s time we made a picture that’ll lose some money. Write it off as good will—this’ll bring in new customers.”
Some of them still thought he meant it was a flyer and a favorable one but he left them in no doubt.
“It’ll lose money,” he said as he stood up, his jaw just slightly out and his eyes smiling and shining. “It would be a bigger miracle than ’Hell’s Angels’ if it broke even. But we have a certain duty to the public as Pat Brady says at Academy dinners. It’s a good thing for the production schedule to slip in a picture that’ll lose money.”
He nodded at Prince Agge. As the latter made his bows quickly he tried to take in with a last glance the general effect of what Stahr said, but he could tell nothing. The eyes not so much downcast as fixed upon an indefinite distance just above the table were all blinking quickly now but there was not a whisper in the room.
Coming out of the private dining room they passed through a corner of the commissary proper. Prince Agge drank it in—eagerly. It was gay with gypsies and with citizens and soldiers with the sideburns and braided coats of the First Empire. From a little distance they were men who lived and walked a hundred years ago and Agge wondered how he and the men of his time would look as extras in some future costume picture.
Then he saw Abraham Lincoln and his whole feeling suddenly changed. He had been brought up in the dawn of Scandanavian socialism where Nicolay’s biography was much read. He had been told Lincoln was a great man whom he should admire and he had hated him instead because he was forced upon him. But now seeing him sitting here, his legs crossed, his kindly face fixed on a forty cent dinner, including dessert, his shawl wrapped around him as if to protect himself from the erratic air—cooling—now Prince Agge, who was in America at last, stared as a tourist at the mummy of Lenin in the Kremlin. This then was Lincoln. Stahr had walked on far ahead of him, turned waiting for him—but still Agge stared.
— This then, he thought, was what they all meant to be.
Lincoln suddenly raised a triangle of pie and jammed it in his mouth and, a little frightened, Prince Agge hurried to join Stahr.
“I hope you’re getting what you want,” said Stahr feeling he had neglected him. “We’ll have some rushes in half an hour and then you can go on to as many sets as you want.”
“I should rather stay with you,” said Prince Agge.
“I’ll see what there is for me,” said Stahr. “Then we’ll go on together.”
There was the Japanese consul on the release of a spy story which might offend the national sensibilities of Japan. There were phone calls and telegrams. There was some further information from Robby.
“Now he remembers the name of the woman was Smith,” said Miss Doolan. “He asked her if she wanted to come on the lot and get some dry shoes and she said no—so she can’t sue.”
“That’s pretty bad for a total recall—‘Smith.’ That’s a great help.” He thought a moment. “Ask the phone company for a list of Smiths that have taken new phones here in the last month. Call them all.”