A Hollywood success story, featuring the great Mr. Halliday and two young employees who are still gasping.
LISTEN, boys... I'm Julius Caesar. When you come in, I'm busy. You're kind of breathless, agitated—you've been riding all night—you rush up and say: 'Your Majesty, the army's in revolt...' No... maybe you hand me a paper and I read it and say: 'The army's in revolt...'
"Then you bow and walk backward out of the room. Then Betty comes in and starts her stuff, but I'm not in the mood—I push her off and say: 'Don't bother me, can't you see I got affairs of state to attend to?'... Just a minute... Hello... that you, Freddie?... Yes... yes, I see... The dauphin's the little fellow, isn't he?... Well, now, listen, Freddie... I'm Joan of Arc and I tell you I'm going to lead your armies to victory... What's your reaction? That's what you've got to ask yourself...
"Why, of course, you just think I'm nuts—you laugh... you laugh... Gee! how you laugh... so there you are—you've got your scene—it's pure comedy... Okay, then, go ahead, and don't forget the little bit between Molly and the Earl of Warwick... Goo'by... Now, boys, sorry for the interruption. Where were we?... Oh, yes, I push her off and she falls on her knees and says: 'To hell with the army—I love you, Julius...' In other words, of course. Get the idea?"
If you had overheard all this through an open window in any other part of the world, you would probably have wondered why the window was open and why there were not bars across it instead of screens. But as the window was that of Mr. Halliday's office in the producers' building of Suprematone Pictures Corporation in Hollywood, you would doubtless realize that Mr. Halliday was holding a story conference.
Mr. Halliday was nothing if not modest. (His enemies said he was nothing.) At any rate, he admitted his own deficiencies, and that was something. "Boys," he would say to his writing teams, "I can't write dialogue—that's your job... Funny thing you can and I can't, isn't it?... But I do understand human nature. And why? Because I believe in human nature. And I know how those fellows in history felt because I know how I'd feel if I was in their place... That's what you've got to ask yourselves, boys. Maybe they dressed different, maybe they talked different, but their feelings... that's what makes the picture. Take Caesar, for instance... When a man's building an empire, he puts his job first and women second."
That certainly was true of Mr. Halliday. He put his job first, women second, and his wife third.
Not that Mr. Halliday was really a bad sort. He was, in fact, a type of film producer rapidly becoming extinct—to the lasting loss, at any rate, of the more picturesque side of Hollywood life. Most producers nowadays are quiet- voiced, impeccably accented, and altogether studious-looking men who might, on the Century, be mistaken for judges. Harvard graduates, or the Joko-Slithuanian minister. But Mr. Halliday ran small risk of any such error. He looked, and was a colorful—not merely a technicolorful—personality.
AS FOR his affairs, they were very mild, very numerous, and very fleeting. His wife was a bit of a snob and had been out of love with him for a quarter of a century. His interest in magazine-cover girls was eighty-five per cent paternal, and the other fifteen per cent was easily balanced by what they felt for him, for he was generous, good-hearted, good company, and at fifty-seven much more attractive (as a result of sun baths and daily massages) than he had ever been before. He was, as most women (except his wife) said, rather a darling. And if he did, out of pure kindness, give out a lot of minor movie contracts to pretty girls, why worry? Occasionally it was discovered that one or the other of them possessed real acting ability. Less occasionally they even blossomed out into stars.
But the chief point about Mr. Halliday (and this, you really must agree, is what matters) is that he kept on making thundering good pictures. Heaven knows how he did it, but he did. Sometimes he made several good pictures at once.
It must be admitted, too, that Mr. Halliday worked hard. There was no nonsense about him in his office, or on the sets, or in his projection room. The sole concession to private pleasure that he made during story conferences was to refer to the ladies always by their own names, whereas to the men he would give the names of the characters they portrayed. Maybe you have noticed this already.
AMONG the people who considered Mr. Halliday not such a bad sort were two of his writers: Jeffrey Carver and Bill Kent. Mr. Halliday could never remember the name Carver and always called him Davenport; but this did not greatly matter, since he usually called both of them "boys." Bill had been a newspaper reporter in Georgia; Jeffrey had composed cigarette ads in New York until it had been discovered that other people could do it far better. His ambition was to write a novel.
Bill, on the other hand, had an itch for seafaring and spent every week end pottering up and down the coast on his yacht. (It was only a very small yacht.) Hollywood is full of people who would rather be doing something else, but who keep on doing the same thing because it is hard to give up seven hundred a week. Well, not quite seven hundred. There was seventy to the agent and various deductions for this and that, to say nothing of state and federal income tax—maybe it came to four-fifty net. Bill had often said to Jeffrey during lunch in the studio commissary: "I'll give up when I've saved five thousand—I'll tell Halliday I'm through—then I'll sail away... to the South Seas... Tahiti... the Marquesas... you ought to come with me—you could write your novel there..."
Jeffrey had always said that he would, as soon as he had saved ten thousand. He was twice as cautious as Bill.
There came a day when they had both saved enough, but it was in the middle of a picture job, and by the time the script was finished Bill had bought stocks and Jeffrey had married and it was already clear that the market and Myrtle were equal disappointments.
The boys did not immediately admit this to each other. They said: "Well, if Halliday wants us to do another job I suppose we'll have to. Can't very well let him down. He's not such a bad sort..."
AND so it had gone on, this writing of script after script—throughout the Great Depression, and the Small Recovery, and until the Great Disillusionment. One of the features of this disillusionment was a sudden decision by the public that they need not go to cinemas unless they liked the pictures, and this amazing exhibition of independence, becoming known to Hollywood during the latter half of 1938, had staggered everybody, including Mr. Halliday. "Boys," he had said, "the public's tired of triviality, tired of froth and nonsense, tired of little stories about little people. What it wants is big stories about big people. Big-brained people, big-hearted people. That's why I've hit on a grand idea—a hell of a grand idea... Listen, boys... A strong man in love. What d'ye think of that? Is there any more terrific theme in the world? And if you admit that there isn't, can you think of any character in history or fiction stronger than Caesar?"
"Tarzan," whispered Bill to Jeffrey, but Mr. Halliday, who was slightly deaf, did not heed the interruption.
"Of course you can't... Caesar's the personification of—no, not personification—what's the word I want, Davenport?—you know the word I want—"
"Archetype," said Jeffrey.
"Apotheosis," said Bill.
"Personification," corrected Mr. Halliday. "He's the personification of the strong man everywhere—in war, in politics, in business..." And at the mention of the word "business" Mr. Halliday pressed the buzzer by his desk and spoke into the machine: "Blaines, bring in those books I sent for, will you?"
There were about sixty of them, and when they were neatly stacked in three piles on the floor, Mr. Halliday patted them affectionately. "Take 'em away and read 'em, boys. You'll find the whole story's here... Get to work on it. Human emotion, that's what I want. Feel it yourselves—then write it... Gee, if only I could write..."
People who cannot write almost always assume that if they could they would write masterpieces. This assumption is hardly warranted by the fact that so many people who can write do not write masterpieces.
ALL this had been at the beginning of the Caesar picture. After the first hammering out of a script there had been two entire revisions and a period of six weeks during which Bill and Jeffrey were loaned out to help another writer who had hopelessly entangled himself in the plot of a new musical called Darling, Be Mine. When they finally went back to Caesar, they found they were a little bored with Caesar. It was also very hot weather. The hotter it got the more bored they got, and the more bored they got the more Mr. Halliday told them what they had to ask themselves.
"What we've got to ask ourselves," said Bill desperately one day, "is why the hell we hang on at this job when we'd both be happier out of it... after all, we don't have to stay... My yacht's at Santa Monica and I've got a little bit in the bank again."
"Yes, but I've got Myrtle," said Jeffrey.
That was unfortunately true. Myrtle was willful, extravagant, unreliable, fascinating if you thought so, stupid if you thought so, and exceedingly pretty whether you thought so or not. All her natural instincts were well developed, especially that of self-preservation. During their first year of marriage she had insisted on Jeffrey's insuring himself for one hundred thousand dollars in case he got killed. Then she insisted on a cash settlement in case he didn't get killed. All the rest of his savings vanished in the down payment on a mink coat, after which she had nothing to live on but his income.
HER ambition was to get into movies—of course. She had left an office job in Oklahoma for that, and had married Jeffrey for the same reason, thinking in her innocence that anyone employed in a picture studio could hand out jobs as easily as dollar tips. Jeffrey, in his own even more remarkable innocence, had thought that a girl accustomed to earn her own living would prove not only a loving but also an economical wife. So there they were, after five years, hard up on about ten times the income that comes into the household of the average happily married American doctor, preacher, lawyer or schoolmaster.
Of course Myrtle went around to all the smart parties she could get invited to and of course she didn't exactly advertise the fact that she was married at all, not to strangers, anyway; but still, try as she might at party after party, no producer, director, agent or other important person ever offered her more than a cigarette on the patio.
It was too bad. Clearly there was nothing to be done but to buy another hundred-dollar evening frock and try again at the next party. So the bills kept piling up, and presently there came a time when Jeffrey and Myrtle had that first bitter quarrel that they ought to have had long before.
There also came a time, during the slow progress of the Caesar picture, when Bill, having backed a winner at Santa Anita and had a few drinks to celebrate, suddenly felt inspired. He said: "Look here, Jeff, it's none of my business and you may be mad at me for butting in... but why do you stand so much from Myrtle? You know she runs around everywhere—takes all your money and doesn't give you a cent's worth of happiness—how long does it have to go on? Why don't you leave her?"
"Yes... why not? You're not having your ideal of a perfect life, are you?"
"Well, are you? Working for Halliday when you might be on a yacht... why don't you leave him?"
Bill brought down his fist on the desk with a bang. "Jee- hosaphat—you're right! Why don't we both leave both of 'em?... Why don't we? Why the hell do we stay here doing things we don't want to do?... Come on, man—let's act while we're in the mood—you phone Myrtle you're through with her while I go and tell Halliday we're both through with him!"
"But, isn't it rather—"
"No, it isn't—whatever you're going to say." Bill was already dialing a number. "No answer—I suppose she isn't in... Well, let's go together and tell Halliday—that'll be one thing done..."
But Mr. Halliday wasn't in, either. They waited for over two hours in his outer office, playing pinochle and talking about Malpelo. Malpelo, Bill explained, was a small island about two hundred miles off the coast of Panama—nobody had visited it since the seventeenth century. "We might do a bit of exploring... and you could write your novel there." Jeffrey said he thought he might. They cheered each other up a lot by talking about Malpelo. Then at last, Halliday marched in, beamed on everybody, and looked over their shoulders at the cards. He was evidently in a good humor.
"Well, boys, you're entitled to a little relaxation—gee, that was a swell scene you sent in yesterday... Come along and I'll tell you about another scene I've just thought of." They followed him into the inner office. "Funny thing, boys—I can tell by your faces you're in the mood for some good writing—you both look kind of pepped up... Now, listen. This is Egypt. The army's marching through the desert. I'm Caesar and you're a dying Gaul. I give you a cheerful greeting as I pass by in my chariot... Now what would you say to me in reply?"
Bill muttered under his breath what he would say to him in reply, and Jeffrey signified agreement by an emphatic nod.
But they stayed on...
For, after all, as Jeffrey said, they couldn't very well let Halliday down in the middle of a picture. He wasn't such a bad sort. But as soon as the picture was finished...
They both swore an oath that something would happen when the picture was finished.
ONE night a few weeks later, alone in his rented bungalow in the twistier part of Hollywood, Jeffrey tried hard to begin a novel. But he found he could not concentrate. Through the window the panorama of the film city sparkled with innumerable neon-lighted words, not one of which gave him any inspiration. He also found that his mind was full of dialogue, good dialogue, a punch in every line, but unfortunately not about anything that could conceivably form subject matter for a novel. It was a pity, yet what could he do except try hard to break himself of the habit of thinking dialogue out of office hours?
He smoked a pipe, turned on the radio, then glanced through the mail that had arrived that afternoon. Mostly circulars—and a telephone bill for fifty- nine dollars and thirty-five cents—twenty-seven dollars and twelve cents of which was for a call to Lansing, Michigan. Myrtle's brother lived in Lansing. Family affection could go no further—except to Lynn, Massachusetts, where her uncle ran a drugstore.
At last she came in. It was past two in the morning. She said nothing as she threw down her mink coat and switched off the radio. If he had used judgment he would have seen that she was in no condition to take part in any reasonable argument. Nevertheless he began, mildly: "I've been looking over a few bills, Myrtle."
"Oh, you have, have you? Nice job for a quiet evening, darling."
"I don't want to nag, but you really will have to help me bring down our expenses."(That was tactfully put, surely.) No answer.
"It's not only clothes—but things like this—this telephone account—I've gone through it and I find—"
"I know what you found, dear. That I actually called up my own brother to ask how he felt after his operation."
"Operation? I didn't know he'd had an operation."
"Oh, don't, apologize—I know you don't care—but, after all, I care—he's my brother—I'm only human—"
"Myrtle, for heaven's sake, stop sniveling and don't keep on misunderstanding me. I never said... Oh, well, let's not argue. If you say that was the reason, all right... Where did he have the operation?"
"Shan't tell you."
"All right, then. Don't."
But suddenly she went on with it:
"I suppose you want to write to the hospital people to find out whether I'm telling you a lie?"
"No—I never thought of such a thing..."
"Then why did you ask me where he had the operation?"
"I didn't mean where in that sense—I meant where in him—what part of his body—what was the matter with him?"
"Shan't tell you. You've no claim to know anything about him at all."
"Well, I can guess it wasn't his tongue, since the call cost twenty-seven dollars!"
"Oh, you beast—how can you say a thing like that? I know you think poor Teddy's a nasty thing—I know you hate all my family! I hate you, too... and I'm going to call Beatrice and tell her..."
"Thank heaven she only lives at Long Beach."
"All right, then, save your money—I won't call her. I'll get out the car and go."
"Just as you wish. Mind how you drive out of the garage. I heard you bash the fenders as you went in..."
"It wasn't the fenders, it was one of the lamps. I'll have to take your car."
"Oh, no, you won't—I need it to go to work tomorrow."
"You can drive to the studio in mine—it's all right for the daytime—"
"Except that I happen to prefer my own car and I intend to keep it... so if you've smashed up yours that's just too bad."
"Then I'll go out first thing tomorrow and buy another car!"
"Oh, no, you won't!"
"Oh, yes, I will! Just you wait..."
The dialogue got worse and worse, he reflected.
Then she picked up her coat and marched out of the room, banging the door. Not a bad exit, he had to admit. But it had been a pretty lousy scene, on the whole. A few minutes later he heard her leave in a taxi.
WHEN Jeffrey recounted all this in the morning Bill was delighted. "Well, that settles it—as soon as we're through with this picture we'll get away and make for that island—Malpelo—you remember—"
Jeffrey remembered. "It's just what I'd like if only I knew what do to with Myrtle."
"Well, she's left you, hasn't she?"
"Yes, but she's left me before and she's always come back inside a week."
"Cheer up—maybe it's for good this time... and anyway, if the picture's finished before she does come back... nothing to keep you then, is there?"
"Oh, no, not if that were to happen..."
So it was just a simple matter of waiting till the picture was finished. And that, in Hollywood, means anything you like to hope for or fear.
A few days later the script was getting along nicely and Myrtle hadn't yet come back and both Bill and Jeffrey were in a decidedly cheerful mood when word came that Mr. Halliday would like to see them in his office. They went along and were immediately aware of a curious and slightly sinister atmosphere of cordiality.
"Have a cigarette, won't you. Davenport? You, too, Kent... Well, I dare say you boys have both been finding this Caesar picture a pretty tough problem... eh? Great story, of course, but... but... Just a minute... Hello... Hello... That you, Freddie?... Yes... yes... I see... Oh, yes, I read it, but you've got a lot to do on it yet, y'know—fact is, I'd give it a complete rewrite if I were you... see how it is, Freddie—people want heart-interest nowadays—simple boy- and-girl stories—human—natural—fresh as spring water...
"Gee, if only I could write... but that's your job. Freddie... yes. I know—but why not—it's a boy-and-girl story, isn't it, the way we've made it?... Now, listen, Freddie—I'm Crusoe—what would I say when I first saw Isabel's footprint in the sand—a girl's, mind you—and I haven't seen a girl for ten years?... That's what you've got to ask yourself, Freddie... Be human... Well, try it out, anyway... Okay, goo'by... Now, boys, sorry for the interruption. No cigarettes? Sure?... Quite sure?...
"Well, where were we? Ah, yes, about Caesar... Of course, as I always said, it's a great story—it's a hell of a great story—but—for these days—it's not human enough... People aren't interested in all this what-have-you about empires—what they want is a yarn about folks like themselves—something natural—human—a simple love story—fresh as spring water... Y'see?"
BILL and Jeffrey thought they saw, and their downcast faces showed it. "D'you mean you want another rewrite?" Bill asked bluntly.
"Boys... I'm sorry to have to disappoint you. Believe me, I am. I know how you've lived in this job. Gee, I wish I didn't have to do this. But it's always my way—and the best way, in the long run—whenever I'm convinced a thing isn't going to work out, then I cut the—the—what's the word I want, Davenport?"
"Painter," said Jeffrey.
"Gordian knot," said Bill.
"Cackle," said Jeffrey.
"Well, I just cut out the whole thing," said Mr. Halliday. "And that means that—for the time being... if you boys feel like having a little vacation..."
"Few weeks, maybe—"
"You mean we can go now?"
"'Fraid so, boys. Can't keep you on the pay roll when you aren't actually working on a picture. New rule from the front office... But I'll want you both again soon—don't worry. Listen—I'll let you into a secret—there's a new girl I've discovered—I've an idea I might star her if I can get the right kind of script—what I want is a simple love story about a struggling modern couple—how the boy has to work for twenty bucks a week while the girl economizes at home and does all the housework—how they face life's battles together... Gee, when the public sees Myrtle in a part like that they're going to fall for her right down flat on their faces..."
"Myrtle?" exclaimed Bill and Jeffrey.
"Myrtle Carver, that's the name," said Mr. Halliday, gloatingly. "But of course we'll change the Carver. Sort of a word you can't remember—don't you think?"
So Myrtle got her chance to become a star, and Bill got his chance to explore Malpelo, and Jeffrey got his chance to write a novel. And though all these chances didn't wholly and completely fulfill themselves, there was one other, at any rate, that did: for Jeffrey and Myrtle were divorced and lived fairly happily ever after.