Merton of the Movies by Harry Leon Wilson - HTML preview

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19. The Tragic Comedian

Penetrating the Holden lot he was relieved to find that he created no immediate sensation. People did not halt to point derisive fingers at him; he had half feared they would. As he approached the office building he was almost certain he saw Baird turn in ahead of him. Yet when he entered the outer room of the Buckeye offices a young woman looked up from her typewriter to tell him that Mr. Baird was not in.
She was a serious-eyed young woman of a sincere manner; she spoke with certainty of tone. Mr. Baird was not only out, but he would not be in for several days. His physician had ordered him to a sanitarium.
The young woman resumed her typing; she did not again, glance up. The caller seemed to consider waiting on a chance that she had been misinformed. He was now sure he had seen Baird enter the building, and the door of his private office was closed. The caller idled outside the railing, absently regarding stills of past Buckeye atrocities that had been hung upon the walls of the office by someone with primitive tastes in decoration. He was debating a direct challenge of the young woman's veracity.
What would she say if told that the caller meant to wait right there until Mr. Baird should convalesce? He managed some appraising side- glances at her as she bent over her machine. She seemed to believe he had already gone. Then he did go. No good talking that way to a girl. If it had been a man. now-"You tell Mr. Baird that Mr. Gill's got to see him as soon as possible about something important," he directed from the open door.
The young woman raised her serious eyes to his and nodded. She resumed her work. The door closed. Upon its closing the door of Baird's private office opened noiselessly to a crack that sufficed for the speaking voice at very moderate pitch to issue.
"Get Miss Montague on the 'phone," directed the voice. The door closed noiselessly. Beyond it Mr. Baird was presently speaking in low, sweet tones. "'Lo, Sister! Listen; that squirrel just boiled in here, and I ducked him. I told the girl I wasn't to be in unless he was laughing all over, and he wasn't doing the least little thing that was anywheres near laughing. See what I mean? It's up to you now. You started it; you got to finish it. I've irised out. Get me?" On the steps outside the rebuffed Merton Gill glanced at his own natty wristwatch, bought with some of the later wages of his shame. It was the luncheon hour; mechanically he made his way to the cafeteria. He had ceased to rehearse the speech a doughtier Baird would now have been hearing.
Instead he roughly drafted one that Sarah Nevada Montague could not long evade. Even on her dying bed she would be compelled to listen. The practising orator with bent head mumbled as he walked. He still mumbled as he indicated a choice of foods at the cafeteria counter; he continued to be thus absorbed as he found a table near the centre of the room.
He arranged his assortment of viands. "You led me on, that's what you did," he continued to the absent culprit. "Led me on to make a laughing-stock of myself, that's what you did. Made a fool of me, that's what you did."
"All the same, I can't help thinking he's a harm to the industry," came the crisp tones of Henshaw from an adjoining table. The rehearsing orator glanced up to discover that the director and the sunny-faced brown and gray man he called Governor were smoking above the plates of their finished luncheon. "I wouldn't worry too much," suggested the cheerful governor.
"But see what he does: he takes the good old reliable, sure-fire stuff and makes fun of it. I admit it's funny to start with, but what'll happen to us if the picture public ever finds that out? What'll we do then for drama--after they've learned to laugh at the old stuff?"
"Tush, tush, my boy!" The Governor waved a half--consumed cigarette until its ash fell. "Never fear. Do you think a thousand Jeff Bairds could make the picture public laugh at the old stuff when it's played straight? They laughed last night, yes; but not so much at the really fine burlesque; they guffawed at the slap-stick stuff that went with it. Baird's shrewd. He knows if he played straight burlesque he'd never make a dollar, so notice how he'll give a bit of straight that is genuine art, then a bit of slap-stick that any one can get. The slap-stick is what carries the show. Real burlesque is criticism, my boy; sometimes the very high-browest sort. It demands sophistication, a pretty high intelligence in the man that gets it. "All right. Now take your picture public. Twenty million people every day; not the same ones every day, but with same average cranial index, which is low for all but about seven out of every hundred. That's natural because there aren't twenty million people in the world with taste or real intelligence--probably not five million. Well, you take this twenty million bunch that we sell to every day, and suppose they saw that lovely thing last night--don't you know they'd all be back to-night to see a real mopping mother with a real son falsely accused of crime--sure they'd be back, their heads bloody but unbowed. Don't worry; that reliable field marshal, old General Hokum, leads an unbeatable army."
Merton Gill had listened to the beginning of this harangue, but now he savagely devoured food. He thought this so--called Governor was too much like Baird. "Well, Governor, I hope you're right. But that was pretty keen stuff last night. That first bit won't do Parmalee any good, and that Buck Benson stuff--you can't tell me a little more of that wouldn't make Benson look around for a new play." "But I do tell you just that. It won't hurt Parmalee a bit; and Benson can go on Bensoning to the end of time--to big money. You keep forgetting this twentymillion audience. Go out and buy a picture magazine and read it through, just to remind you. They want hokum, and pay for it. Even this thing of Baird's, with all the saving slapstick, is over the heads of a good half of them. I'll make a bet with you now, anything you name, that it won't gross two thirds as much as Benson's next Western, and in that they'll cry their eyes out when he kisses his horse good-bye. See if they don't. Or see if they don't bawl at the next old gray-haired mother with a mop and a son that gets in bad.
"Why, if you give 'em hokum they don't even demand acting. Look at our own star, Mercer. You know as well as I do that she not only can't act, but she's merely a beautiful moron. In a world where right prevailed she'd be crowned queen of the morons without question. She may have an idea that two and two make four, but if she has it's only because she believes everything she hears. And look at the mail she gets. Every last one of the twenty million has written to tell her what a noble actress she is. She even believes that.
"Baird can keep on with the burlesque stuff, but his little old two- reelers'll probably have to pay for it, especially if he keeps those high-priced people. I'll bet that one new man of his sets him back seven hundred and fifty a week. The Lord knows he's worth every cent of it. My boy, tell me, did you ever in all your life see a lovelier imitation of a perfectly rotten actor? There's an artist for you. Who is he, anyway? Where'd he come from?" Merton Gill again listened; he was merely affecting to busy himself with a fork. It was good acting.
"I don't know," replied Henshaw. "Some of the crowd last night said he was just an extra that Baird dug up on the lot here. And, on the subject of burlesque, they also said Baird was having him do some Edgar Wayne stuff in a new one." "Fine!" The Governor beamed. "Can't you see him as the honest, likable country boy? I bet he'll be good to his old mother in this one, too, and get the best of the city slickers in the end. For heaven's sake don't let me miss it! This kid last night handed me laughs that were better than a month's vacation for this old carcass of mine. You say he was just an extra?"
"That's what I heard last night. Anyway, he's all you say he is as an artist. Where do you suppose he got it? Do you suppose he's just the casual genius that comes along from time to time? And why didn't he stay 'straight' instead of playing horse with the sacred traditions of our art? That's what troubled me as I watched him. Even in that wild business with the spurs he was the artist every second. He must have tricked those falls but I couldn't catch him at it. Why should such a man tie up with Baird?"
"Ask me something hard. I'd say this bird had been tried out in serious stuff and couldn't make the grade. That's the way he struck me. Probably he once thought he could play Hamlet--one of those boys. Didn't you get the real pathos he'd turn on now and then? He actually had me kind of teary a couple of times. But I could see he'd also make me laugh my head off any time he showed in a straight piece.
"To begin with, look at that low-comedy face of his. And then-- something peculiar--even while he's imitating a bad actor you feel somehow that it isn't all imitation. It's art, I grant you, but you feel he'd still be a bad actor if he'd try to imitate a good one. Somehow he found out his limits and decided to be what God meant him to be. Does that answer you? It gives you acting-plus, and if that isn't the plus in this case I miss my guess."
"I suppose you're right--something like that. And of course the real pathos is there. It has to be. There never was a great comedian without it, and this one is great. I admit that, and I admit all you say about our audience. I suppose we can't ever sell to twenty million people a day pictures that make any demand on the human intelligence. But couldn't we sell something better to one million-- or a few thousand?"
The Governor dropped his cigarette end into the dregs of his coffee. "We might," he said, "if we were endowed. As it is, to make pictures we must make money. To make money we must sell to the mob. And the mob reaches full mental bloom at the age of fifteen. It won't buy pictures the average child can't get." "Of course the art is in its infancy," remarked Henshaw, discarding his own cigarette.
"Ours is the Peter Pan of the arts," announced the Governor, as he rose. "The Peter Pan of the arts--"
"Yes. I trust you recall the outstanding biological freakishness of Peter." "Oh!" replied Henshaw.
When Merton Gill dared to glance up a moment later the men were matching coins at the counter. When they went out he left a half- eaten meal and presently might have been observed on a swift-rolling street-car. He mumbled as he blankly surveyed palm-bordered building sites along the way. He was again rehearsing a tense scene with the Montague girl. In actor parlance he was giving himself all the best of it. But they were new lines he mumbled over and over. And he was no longer eluded by the title of that book he remembered on the library shelf at Simsbury. Sitting in the cafeteria listening to strange talk, lashed by cruel memories, it had flashed upon his vision with the stark definition of a screened subtitle. He rang the Montague bell twice before he heard a faint summons to enter. Upon the parlour couch, under blankets that reached her pillowed head, lay Sarah. She was pale and seemed to suffer. She greeted him in a feeble voice, lids fluttering over the fires of that mysterious fever burning far back in her eyes.
"Hullo, Kid," he began brightly. "Here's your watch." Her doubting glance hovered over him as he smiled down at her. "You giving it to me again, Merton?" She seemed unable to conquer a stubborn incredulity.
"Of course I'm giving it to you again. What'd you think I was going to do?" She still surveyed him with little veiled glances. "You look so bright you give me Kleig eyes," she said. She managed a wan smile at this.
"Take it," he insisted, extending the package. "Of course it won't keep Western Union time, but it'll look good on you."
She appeared to be gaining on her incredulity, but a vestige of it remained. "I won't touch it," she declared with more spirit than could have been expected from the perishing, "I won't touch it till you give me a good big kiss."
"Sure," he said, and leaned down to brush her pale cheek with his lips. He was cheerfully businesslike in this ceremony.
"Not till you do it right," she persisted. He knelt beside the couch and did it right. He lingered with a hand upon her pale brow.
"What you afraid of?" he demanded.
"You," she said, but now she again brought the watch to view, holding it away from her, studying its glitter from various angles. At last she turned her eyes up to his. They Were alive but unrevealing. "Well?"
"Well?" he repeated coolly.
"Oh, stop it!" Again there was more energy than the moribund are wont to manifest. There was even a vigorous impatience in her tone as she went on, "You know well enough what I was afraid of. And you know well enough what I want to hear right now. Shoot, can't you?"
He shot. He stood up, backed away from the couch to where he could conveniently regard its stricken occupant, and shot gaily.
"Well, it'll be a good lesson to you about me, this thing of your thinking I was fooled over that piece. I s'pose you and Baird had it between you all the time, right down to the very last, that I thought he was doin' a serious play. Ho, ho!" He laughed gibingly. It was a masterful laugh. "A serious play with a cross-eyed man doing funny stuff all through. I thought it was serious, did I? Yes, I did!" Again the dry, scornful laugh of superiority. "Didn't you people know that I knew what I could do and what I couldn't do? I should have thought that little thing would of occurred to you all the time. Didn't you s'pose I knew as well as any one that I got a low-comedy face and couldn't ever make the grade in a serious piece? "Of course I know I got real pathos--look how I turned it on a couple o' times in that piece last night--but even when I'm imitating a bad actor you can see it ain't all acting. You'd see soon enough I was a bad actor if I tried to imitate a good one. I guess you'd see that pretty quick. Didn't you and Baird even s'pose I'd found out my limits and decided to be what God meant me to be? "But I got the pathos all right, and you can't name one great comedian that don't need pathos more'n he needs anything else. He just has to have it--and I got it. I got acting-plus; that's what, I got. I knew it all the time; and a whole lot of other people knew it last night. You could hear fifty of 'em talking about it when I came out of the theatre, saying I was an artist and all like that, and a certain Los Angeles society woman that you can bet never says things she don't mean, she told me she saw lots of places in this piece that I was funnier than any crosseyed man that ever lived. "And what happens this morning?" Hands in pockets he swaggered to and fro past the couch.
"Well, nothing happens this morning except people coming around to sign me up for three hundred and fifty a week. One of 'em said not an hour ago--he's a big producer, too--that Baird ought to be paying me seven hundred and fifty because I earned every cent of it. Of course I didn't want to say anything the other day, with you pretending to know so much about contracts and all that--I just thought I'd let you go on, seeing you were so smart--and I signed what you told me to. But I know I should have held off--with this Bamberger coming over from the Bigart when I was hardly out of bed, and says will three hundred and fifty a week interest me and promising he'll give me a chance to do that spur act again that was the hit of the piece--"
He broke off, conscious suddenly that the girl had for some time been holding a most peculiar stare rigidly upon him. She had at first narrowed her right eye at a calculating angle as she listened; but for a long time now the eyes had been widened to this inexplicable stare eloquent of many hidden things. As he stopped his speech, made ill at ease by the incessant pressing of the look, he was caught and held by it to a longer silence than he had meant to permit. He could now read meanings. That unflinching look incurred by his smooth bluster was a telling blend of pity and of wonder.
"So you know, do you," she demanded, "that you look just enough too much like Harold Parmalee so that you're funny? I mean." she amended, seeing him wince, "that you look the way Parmalee would look if he had brains?"
He faltered but made a desperate effort to recover his balance.
"And besides, what difference does it make? If we did good pictures we'd have to sell 'em to a mob. And what's a mob? It's fifteen years old and nothing but admirons, or something like that, like Muriel Mercer that wouldn't know how much are two times two if the neighbours didn't get it to her--"
Again he had run down under her level look. As he stopped, the girl on the couch who had lain with the blankets to her neck suddenly threw them aside and sat up. Surprisingly she was not garbed in sick-bed apparel. She seemed to be fully dressed.
A long moment she sat thus, regarding him still with that slow look, unbelieving yet cherishing. His eyes fell at last.
"Merton!" he heard her say. He looked up but she did not speak. She merely gave a little knowing nod of the head and opened her arms to him. Quickly he knelt beside her while the mothering arms enfolded him. A hand pulled his head to her breast and held it there. Thus she rocked gently, the hand gliding up to smooth his hair. Without words she cherished him thus a long time. The gentle rocking back and forth continued.
"It's--it's like that other time you found me--" His bluster had gone. He was not sure of his voice. Even these few words had been hard. He did not try more. "There, there, there!" she whispered. "It's all right, everything's all right. Your mother's got you right here and she ain't ever going to let you go--never going to let you go."
She was patting his head in rhythm with her rocking as she snuggled and soothed him. There was silence for another interval. Then she began to croon a song above him as she rocked, though the lyric was plainly an improvisation. "Did he have his poor old mother going for a minute? Yes, he did. He had her going for a minute, for a minute. Yes, he had her going good for a minute. "But oh, he won't ever fool her very long, very long, not very long, because he can't fool his dear old mother very long, very long; and he can bet on that, bet on that, so he can, bet a lot of money on that, that, that!" Her charge had grown still again, but she did not relax her tightened arms.
"Say," he said at last.
"Well, honey."
"You know those benches where we wait for the cars?"
"Do I know them?" The imperative inference was that she did.
"I looked at the store yesterday. The sign down there says 'Himebaugh's dignified system of deferred payments.'"
"Yes, yes, I know."
"Well, I saw another good place--it says 'The house of lucky rings'- -you know-rings!"
"Sure, I know. That's all right."
"Well," he threw off the arms and got to his feet. She stood up then. "Well, all right!"
They were both constrained now. Both affected an ease that neither felt. It seemed to be conceded without words that they must very lightly skirt the edges of Merton Gill's screen art. They talked a long tune volubly of other things: of the girl's illness from which she now seemed most happily to have recovered, of whether she was afraid of him--she professed still to be--of the new watch whose beauties were newly admired when it had been adjusted to its owner's wrist; of finances they talked, and even, quite simply, of accessible homes where two could live as cheaply as one.
It was not until be was about to go, when he stood at the door while the girl readjusted his cravat, smoothed his hair, and administered a final series of pats where they seemed most needed, that he broke ever so slightly through the reserve which both had felt congealing about a certain topic.
"You know," he said, "I happened to remember the title of a book this morning; a book I used to see back in the public library at home. It wasn't one I ever read. Maybe Tessie Kearns read it. Anyway, she had a poem she likes a lot written by the same man. She used to read me good parts of it. But I never read the book because the title sounded kind of wild, like there couldn't be any such thing. The poem had just a plain name; it was called 'Lucile,' but the book by the same man was called 'The Tragic Comedians.' You wouldn't think there could be a tragic comedian would you?--well, look at me."
She looked at him, with that elusive, remote flickering back in her eyes, but she only said, "Be sure and come take me out to dinner. To-night I can eat. And don't forget your overcoat. And listen-- don't you dare go into Himebaugh's till I can go with you."
One minute after he had gone the Montague girl was at the telephone. "Hello! Mr. Baird, please. Is this Mr. Baird? Well, Jeff, everything's jake. Yeah. The poor thing was pretty wild when he got here. First he began to bluff. He'd got an earful from someone, probably over on the lot. And he put it over on me for a minute, too. But he didn't last good. He was awful broke up when the end came. Bless his heart. But you bet I kissed the hurt place and made it well. How about him now? Jeff, I'm darned if I can tell except he's right again. When he got here he was some heart-broke and some mad and some set up on account of things he hears about himself. I guess he's that way still, except I mended the heartbreak. I can't quite make him out--he's like a book where you can't guess what's coming in the next chapter, so you keep on reading. I can see we ain't ever going to talk much about it--not if we live together twenty years. What's that? Yeah. Didn't I tell you he was always getting me, somehow? Well, now I'm got. Yeah. We're gonna do an altar walk. What? Oh, right away. Say, honest, Jeff, I'll never have an easy minute again while he's out of my sight. Helpless! You said it. Thanks, Jeff. I know that, old man. Good-by!"