These days I was seeing quite a lot of Jesse Lasky and Bessie. I spoke to Jesse again about work. He appeared to be bursting with good will, but he was impossible to pin down. From talks with him I gathered that he was not the only one with something to say at the studio, and that if he decided to take a chance on me he would be forced to do so on his own responsibility, something he was opposed to doing on general principles. Since his sister Blanche had left the company and married and divorced Samuel Goldfish, Jesse shirked taking the decisions Blanche would have taken for him. In a company where everyone passed the buck this attitude was not difficult to understand. Thanks to it, Jesse was able to collect a lot of credit and escape a lot of blame. The ex-piccolo player who had given his name to the most successful motion picture company of that time, Lasky-Famous Players, had become the human eel, the hedger par excellence, the man incapable of giving a yes or no answer. But he had a way of avoiding the issue with everybody that won them to his side at once. His apparent helplessness aroused the sympathy even of those who were bound to suffer by his unwillingness to take responsibility.
He had everything lined up for me to make a kid picture written by an elderly lady with a youngerly Scandinavian husband, when one of my well-wishers at the studio pointed out to him that the sum of $25,000 was at stake. At this figure the cost of production had been estimated. Jesse talked to me of these figures which talked for themselves. A big chance to take with a director who had not produced anything for more than two years: $25,000. I saw he had his wind up. What was more, the story was lousy, the continuity worse.
"Forget about it, Jesse. I wouldn't for anything compromise you, or William de Mille, who's been rooting for me ever since I got back, because the story is not there, and even if I made it the picture couldn't be any good."
"Rex," said Jesse, gripping my hand, relieved beyond words, "I'm so happy you take such a sensible view of the matter."
"Why not?" I said. "only beggars can pick and choose. When I do start I'm going to pick something myself."
"We're dining together tonight," he said, "aren't we?"
I left furious with him, and liking him as much as ever in spite of myself.
I met Allan Holubar again. He told me there was a new manager at the U, a Jewish boy who had been in the show business all his life. A livewire.
"I'm going to have a talk to him, " Allan said, "and if I were you, I'd drop & line to P.A.Powers. It can't hurt any."
I did so that night. A week later I drove out to the U with Holubar. I stuck around on his set for a while. It was the interior of a theatre. In the first scene the patent-leather haired juvenile man, who was in a box, had to be shot and fall out of it. He got shot very well but when it came to falling out of the box onto a mattress, he jibbed. They brought a few more mattresses and he finally did it.
"Who's the juvenile?" I asked.
"His name," said the propman, "is Rudolfo Guglielmi. His screen name is Rudolf Valentino."
While they were fixing the mattresses Holubar and I stepped out to get some air. The new studio manager came over to talk to Holubar. Douglas Gerrard, back on the lot directing, was with him.
"Here's a man made a bloody fine picture," said Douglas, introducing me.
"What was that?" asked the studio manager.
"Black Orchids," said Douglas.
"We held it over two weeks in a theatre I was running," said the manager. "What are you doing now?"
"Been sick in bed three months," I said. "Just able to get about again."
"When you feel like work come out and see me," he said.
"Thanks for the boost, Doug," I said when he left.
Holubar promised to keep after this new manager for me.
Thanks to him and, I think, though I am not sure, a letter from P.A. Powers, I got word a few days later to come out to the U.
Elmo the Mighty, in private life Mr. Elmo Lincoln, serial star, rival of Eddie Polo, the diamond and circus king, was graduating into feature productions. No director had been chosen for him. Before seeing anybody I got Holubar to take me over on the set where Henry MacRae was finishing up the last episode of mighty Elmo's last serial. Elmo was a gentle guy with a tough looking chin and a tougher looking chest. Expanded it should have measured about 54 inches. We had a talk and I found out the kind of things he liked. The kind of stories he read, the kind of parts he wanted to play. Elmo saw himself as a beachcomber, not knowing any more about them than I did myself, which was what I had learned from Joseph Conrad and Jack London. I said I thought a good beachcomber story would go over with the fans. He agreed, and promised his moral support if I found a suitable South Sea subject. I told him I had one.
The atmosphere at the U had changed. Mr. Laemmlae had gone back to New York and taken his youthful secretary with him—it was rumored on the lot that this ambitious young man was contemplating strengthening his position by marrying into the Laemmlae family. Executive Swigstrom was warming another, less eminent, chair, so we did not come in contact with each other.
I held out for my old salary, $300, and got it. Work started with goodwill on the part of all, which continued throughout the picture.
When I had fixed up everything with Klein I went over to Holubar's office to get the lowdown on collecting an efficient staff. He was out. In his office I found Lew Cody, with him, seated astride a chair, was the young man with patent-leather hair who had balked at falling out of ringside seats without nets. He was wearing riding breeches of an unusual cut and with big pearl buttons on them, and though his legs were heavy, there was lots of room to spare between calf and boot. Lew and he were having a heated argument—at least his side of it was heated. Their dialogue sounded like one of those inquiries in the Paris New York Herald's letter-box column: If a gentleman with a walking-stick in one hand and a parcel in the other meets a lady of his acquaintance, which hand should he take off his hat with?
Equestrian etiquette was the subject under discussion.
"You know Mr. Rudolf Valentino?" said Lew to me.
"No," I said, "but I was over on the set one day he was having trouble about a net."
"Yes," he said, "I have to be very careful. If anything happen to me the picture would be held up. I have one of the principle parts."
He spoke slowly and with a heavy south Italian accent. I figured he was Sicilian or Neapolitan.
"Listen," said Lew, winking at me. "If you were riding in Central Park and a lady you knew passed you on horseback, what hand would you take off your hat with?"
"The hand farthest from the lady," said Rudolf. "I know what I'm talking about. Norman Kerry says he always takes off his hat with the hand farthest from the lady."
"What the hell does Norman know about it, anyway?" said Lew in a tired voice.
"Let me tell you something," said Rudolf, "Norman Kerry is the best dressed man on the screen and he knows equestrian etiquette."
"Equestrian bollocks," said Lew ungraciously, resenting that best dressed man allusion. "What would you do, Rex?" he asked, winking at me again.
"About what?" I said.
"If you are riding a horse in Central Park and a lady come toward you on another horse, what hand do you take off your hat with?" said Rudolf, "—I'm not asking you," he added, to Mr. Cody.
Not wishing to take sides I said:
"If I was on a mean horse I'd keep my hat on and wink. If my horse was tame I'd take off my hat with both hands....Has anybody seen Holubar?"
Nobody had seen him. The argument began all over again. In the runway outside the offices I saw the property man.
"I want to see Holubar about a cameraman and assistant," I said. "Seen him around?"
"Don't need a propman?" he said. "I'll be laid off for six weeks Monday when Mr. Holubar starts cutting and preparing the next script."
"If it's okay with him, okay with me," I said. Having been on the lot a long time, this propman was able to give me the lowdown on the studio personel: cameramen, cutters and technical men; and after a talk with Holubar I got a tentative staff lined up. I was already busy on the continuity of the story Klein and Elmo and I had decided on: Under Crimson Skies.
The propman said there was a juvenile leading man waiting in the casting office to see me, and would I see him. I said I would, in the restaurant. The propman came back with sloe-eyed Rudolf Guglielmi Valentino. Rudolf was after a job. While we ate I explained that I had only parts for beachcomber and mutinous sailor types, and he looked too young and sleek. But I told him to leave his address and a photo in my office and I would bear him in mind for another picture. He gave me two photographs right away. When the propman had gone Rudolf said there was a personal matter he wished to speak about: Would I consider selling the breeches I was wearing? I said if he had asked me a week sooner I would have fallen on his neck; but at the moment my breeches were not for sale—seeing I had a job, and anyway, they wouldn't fit him.
"We could let them out at the knees," he suggested.
"Not without ruining the cut."
"I like them because they button on the inside of the knees. It is more chic that way," he said. "Norman Kerry's breeches button on the inside."
"More practical," I said. "The buttons are in the hollow of the calf and don't press into the bone when the boots are close fitting."
"You're quite sure we couldn't let them out at the knees?" he insisted.
"Not unless the U lets me out before I draw a week's salary," I said.
"Would you consider lending them to me?" he asked gravely. "I could have them copied."
Sure," I said. "Some time when I'm not wearing them. The seat of my other pants is worn through. Next week, please God, I'll have enough dough to buy a suit of clothes. I'll let you have them then."