Jesse Lasky was a cordial host, and we had a lot in common. We talked about automobile racing, aviation, boxing and other sports and professions that interested us mutually—except motion pictures.
"Jesse, isn't there something Rex could do at the studio?" said Bessie at lunch a day or two later, seeing how well Jesse and I were getting along together.
"Well, well," said Jesse. "I never thought of that...of course....There certainly ought to be something. I'll have to check up."
Bessie's foot touched mine under the table.
"How about that Houdini picture?" she said. "Have you found a director for it yet?"
"To tell the truth, I can't answer that definitely. I've got to have a talk with C. about it," said Jesse.
"Who's C?" I asked.
"Cecil de Mille," said Jesse. "He keeps an eye on all production as well as making his own pictures."
"Well Jesse, you just tell C. that Rex is the person to direct Houdini or anybody else that hasn't a director," said Bessie.
"Yes, yes, indeed, I certainly will. You're quite right, Bess," said Jesse.
I had never felt so sure of the good results of an encounter as I did now. The luck appeared to be turning.
"When do you want to see Rex?" persisted Bessie as we went into the drawing room.
"Whenever he likes," said Jesse.
"How about tomorrow?" said Bessie.
"Of course," said Jesse, "If that suits Rex."
"Rex," said Bessie, "you be in front of the Hotel Hollywood in the morning at 9:30. Jesse will stop by for you and take you to the studio with him."
In the morning I drove to the studio with Jesse. I spent a couple of hours wandering around the stages and then went up to see art director Wilfred Buckland whose stage settings and light effects had done so much to give Belasco productions their distinction.
When Jesse sent for me he said there was no immediate chance of directing, but he was going to put me in the scenario department until something turned up. It was being run by D.W. Griffith's former scenarist, Frank Woods. Frank gave me a Saturday Evening Post story by Byron Morgan to put into continuity. Wallace Reid was to be the star. But when it was finished Frank did not think so much of my scenario. He said it was too short. I reminded him he had told me to follow the story closely, which was very slight. I said I could add a reel, but the episodes I had in mind were not in the Post story. He told me to go ahead.
I often saw William de Mille these days, on the lot and at his house. Anna had been keeping after him about me. He took the time to read the Morgan story and then my scenario. He was impressed with neither, but said the continuity was as good as could be expected seeing the material I had to work with—dialogue and another automobile race. I dined with him that night.
"I had a talk with C. about you," he said. "We're running that print of Black Orchids in the morning. I've arranged for you to meet him some time in the afternoon."
I worked at my scenario until about six o'clock. Then a business like young lady with sharp features sent for me and said Mr. C.B. de Mille would receive me. She pointed to a heavy panelled door.
"Go right in," she said.
I stepped into a spacious vaulted setting. It struck me as the sort of place Amelia Bingham and Allan Quartermain might have fixed up together, a mixture of stage setting and big game hunter's trophy room. Below a gunrack stood a Savanerola chair with yards of Italian brocade draped over one of its arms. I seem to remember ecclesiastical trophies too, tusks, skins and mounted heads displayed on the walls behind them. At one end of the room Mr. de Mille was seated at a long table covered with papers. Behind him soared what appeared to be the salvaged east windows of a nonconformist church. He was wearing puttees and received me in a friendly manner,
"William asked me to see Black Orchids," he said. "He is under the impression that you have possibilities. How long ago did you make this picture?"
"More than two years ago," I said.
"You realize, of course, the industry has made great strides ahead since then," he said.
"God, you sure hand out an original line, all of you—except Holubar," I thought, but did not say.
"Great strides ahead," he repeated. "I might say production has been revolutionized, not only from the standpoint of organization, but from the standpoint of art."
He paused. I waited for him to say it—'I am the Revolution', but he fooled me. Instead he said:
"I ran Black Orchids. You have imagination and a flair for drama, but you've got a lot to learn."
"Who hasn't!" I exclaimed ingenuously. At that Mr. de Mll1e's manner became less friendly.
"I'll keep you in mind," he said, bringing our interview to an end, "but for the present I can't hold out much hope."
"In any case I'm obliged to you for taking the time to run my old picture," I said.
I did not hold my job in the scenario department for long. At the Lasky studio they had a cut and dried way of writing continuities. Before I started in on mine Frank Woods had given me two examples of what he considered ideal scenarios. The work of two different writers. The scenarios read as if the same person had done them both, using the same plot, changing only the settings and the names of the characters. I was unable to fall into this way of writing, and wrote as if I were going to produce the picture myself. Before long Frank and I had an argument, from which we gathered that neither one of us thought much of the other.
Efficient Milton Hoffman had become studio manager, which did not help me either. He held up my salary for the week I had worked, on the grounds that my scenario had not been accepted. To no avail I pointed out to him that Mr. Lasky had engaged me at a weekly salary, not by the continuity. Nothing had been signed. In spite of these efforts to hasten my death by starvation, I was saved from such a fate, thanks to Elizabeth Waggoner, the William de Milles, Bessie Lasky and Beth Fairbanks. With each of them I dined at least once a week. Willlam de Mille wanted to lend me some money but I told him I could get by for the present, which was true, having sold my tuxedo to a waiter who roomed in the same house.
I heard on the lot that the company was going to produce Hartly Manners' play, Peg O'My Heart, with blond little Wanda Hawley in Laurette Taylor's part. I had decided to get after Jesse to let me direct this Irish story when I learned that William de Mille was going to make it. William eventually engaged me at $50. a week to work on the sets with Wilfred Buckland, dress them and keep everything straight as far as Irish atmosphere was concerned.
I had a next door neighbor at the rooming house where I was staying, but had never bothered to find out who it was. One 6:30 a.m. we met at the door of the only bathroom. Her hair was combed back straight and twisted into a loose knot at the nape of her neck. Her face was shiny. I reached the bathroom first, but told her to go ahead, and rap on my door to let me know when she was through. She smiled but did not speak. Her teeth were large and white, the canines pronounced. There were a lot of small freckles under her eyes and on her nose, I noticed. Bundled up in her oversized bathrobe she was nothing much to look at.
There was a door between my room and the next that was bolted on both sides. On my side the dresser was backed up against it. It was on this door she rapped.
"All through," she called. "Thanks a lot."
Hearing her voice for the first time I did not at once realize who was speaking. It was low-pitched, a little hoarse. Quite unlike what I would have expected her voice to be.
After that I met her on the stairs a couple of times coming from work. She had a job as stenographer with some lumber company in L.A. She smiled at me and looked as if she would have liked to stop and speak, but each time I was in a hurry and went ahead. She dressed so badly too.
The night I found her looking at the stills outside the Hollywood Theatre where they were running a lumberjack picture she looked pretty forlorn, and as frowzy as ever.
"Going in?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, "there's a friend of mine in the picture."
I sensed she would have liked to come in with me, but I did not invite her.
I left her and went over to the box-office window. Before I realized it, I had paid for two tickets. I was on the point of turning back one of them when I saw she was at my elbow.
"Come on in," I said.
She nodded as though it were a matter of course. I was not aware of it at the moment, but this was the second time she had made me give in to an unexpressed desire on her part.
The lumberjack picture made her restless and homesick. It was her country they were screening, Oregon. She had been raised in a logging camp.
As we came out of the show I met a friend, a flying officer in the U.S. Aviation. He had an open Packard and wanted me to go for a joy ride. There were a couple of smart looking girls with him. I wanted to go but I could not leave the freckle-faced girl on the sidewalk, and I remembered I had said some thing about a Coca-cola after the picture. While we were talking she had been standing a few paces behind me, apparently studying the stills, waiting for me to join her.
"Where did you dig that up—can you shake it?" the flyer said glancing in her direction.
"Not so loud," I said, "I probably can. I'll try and join you in a little while. Need to shave and doll up a bit first," I added giving his snappy uniform the once over.
"Come on, you're fine the way you are," he said.
"No, let him shave and doll up, he'll be so much cuter," said one of the girls, an attractive brunette.
"We're going to Graham's for a drink," he said. "Come down when you get through."
"Don't be long," the brunette said.
"In half an hour," I said, glancing at my watch.
I walked toward our rooming house with the freckle-faced girl. At the door she hesitated.
"Going to bed?" I said as though it went without saying that she was.
"Saturday night," she said. "And you?"
"Date with some friends," I said. "Got to shave first."
Together we went upstairs. On the landing she held out her hand.
"Goodnight," she said, raising her head a little, looking straight at me. "Thanks for the movie."
For the first time I noticed some thing curious about her eyes.
I gave myself an army shave with cold water. One of the girls with my friend—the brunette I was dolling up for—had made a hit with me. I was almost ready before I thought of Freckle-face again. I had treated her shabbily, her Saturday night too. As I thought of her I noticed that my slacks needed pressing badly. The knees were baggy and just as threadbare as the patched seat. In front of my window was a narrow terrace, more ledge than terrace. That morning I had cleaned my whipcord breeches with gasoline and hung them out there to air. I decided to wear them even if they still smelt like a filling station, and climbed out on the terrace to collect them. There was a light in the window next to mine. The curtains were not entirely pulled to and the blind was not down. I could see in.
She was standing with her funny bathrobe around her, looking toward the door between our rooms. As I watched, she raised her arms behind her head, running her fingers through her hair. I felt guiltier than ever at having shaken her off so abruptly and decided to ask her to come out with me the next night. Before rapping on the window I took a look around to make sure I could not be seen. Reassured—no windows, only vacant lots were back of me—I raised my hand, but did not knock. She had stepped before a long mirror framed in the door of the wardrobe and was unfastening the cord that held her bathrobe at the waist. Her back was to me, but in the mirror I caught a glimpse of flesh....with a single movement she let the bathrobe slip to the floor. In leisurely fashion she turned, glancing back over her shoulder at her reflection in the mirror. It was hard to believe she was the same frowzy girl I had taken to the picture. The reflection in the mirror was smiling back at her. An electric bulb hanging to one side over the dresser accentuated the modeling of the two nudes turning so languidly before the glass. And then she was not smiling any more. She was staring across at the door to my room. Suddenly she burst into tears, and started toward the couch, but stopped abruptly, crossing her hands over her bosom. The next moment the light had been switched off.
I put my ear to the window, waited a while, and then rapped gently against it...Silence...I rapped again.
"Who is it?" Her voice was quite close to me.
"I've changed my mind about going out," I said. "Have something to tell you."
The window was raised a little.
"I'm in bed," she said. "Wait a minute, I'll put something on."
"You don't have to," I said. "Can't see in the dark."
I was already in the room, groping my way toward her....I caught her around the waist and drew her close to me. From the waist she leaned back, away from me.
"No, no," she was saying.
I could not reach her lips. She was holding me off, arms braced against my shoulders.
"Your friends, they're waiting for you!" she gasped.
"To hell with them!" I said.
"The girl you were dolling up for—"
"The hell with her!"
She wilted. Her arms relaxed. I took her face in my hands and pushed my mouth down on hers....
She was lying over me, breathing in my breath like a cat. I liked her breath. It was warm, sweet. Her eyes, of a nondescript color, had become luminous in the semidarkness. Her nails were pressing into my flesh, her teeth too. I pushed her away.
"They're waiting for you below," she said.
I caught hold of her again.
"Why don't you dress so people can see?" I asked.
Her lips were at my ear:
"When I want them to see, they see. When I want them to come to me, they come. Tonight you came"
"Wild-cat...timber-wolf," I said. "Timber-witch."