The story of Under Crimson Skies was a very melo affair by Thomas Ince's Mr. Hawks, with one of those Gardner Sullivan strong silent man themes. But it was not the theme that intrigued me. It was what I knew I could do with the subject in the way of movement, atmosphere and characterizations. I fell for the negro beachcomber king whose castle was the fo'c's'leAbbreviation for forecastle. From Wikipedia: "The forecastle is the upper deck of a sailing ship forward of the foremast, or the forward part of a ship with the sailors' living quarters." of a derelict hull beached in a halfmoon bay, and for his fight in the surf with the shipwrecked sea captain, Elmo the barrelchested. Mutiny on the high seas, typhoon, shipwreck, revolution in an island republic: high points in the story, these... And then the mustering of the beachcombers under barrelchested Elmo and his vanquished negro foe—become his Man Friday—to rescue the gentle wife and gentle child of the ungentlemanly villain from the besieged town. All this smacked of Conrad—snatches of Nostromo, An Outcast of the Islands and The Nigger of the Narcissus. I could not wait to get started.
My beachcombers' stronghold lay no further from the pavements of Hollywood than Laguna Beach, but its imbedded hull, rearing fo'c's'le and shattered foremast struck the south sea note. Up on this strip of studio-palm-girt beach one stood below the equator.
The company put up at the old Laguna Beach Hotel of creaking verandas and draughty rooms. I had Noble Johnson with me to play the negro, and beautiful Mexican Beatrice Dominquez, who later tangoed her way to success in the Four Horsemen with Rudolf Valentino—only to die on the operating table—for Noble's native young lady. Mighty Elmo was himself plus a real beard, which he shaved off one night to play Don Juan to an island belle from the Central Casting office, and thereby came near crabbing the works.
Before finishing at Laguna we had to send for some people to make cuts of the revolution scenes, tying up the beach with the old Latin-American street set at the Universal ranch. Two of its houses had been duplicated near the sea and a huge bananapalm that grew in a barrel and rustled its leaves alternately at Laguna Beach and at the ranch made the tie-up indetectable.
On the list of names of those I wished to be called for these scenes was that of Miss Alice Taaffe. When my extras turned up at Laguna I scanned the contents of the autobus. But there was no Miss Taaffe. I bawled out my assistant, who had done the calling, but her absence was due to no fault of his. Mrs. Taaffe's daughter had told him over the phone that her mother disapproved of location work under certain conditions. Being one of these conditions I watched the waves by moonlight alone that night.
I was living at the Hollywood Hotel. To its cohorts of elderly females we were four males, Messrs Cedric Gibbons, Clarence Brown, Charles Kenyon—author of Broadway's Kindling, and myself. After dinner we would sit and criticise the old ladies and they would sit and criticize us, and on Saturday nights, when there was dancing in the hall, the young women who danced with us.
It was an eventful Saturday night for Carl Laemmlae and the U. Von Stroheim's picture, The Pinnacle, rechristened The Peanuckle on the lot, and Blind Husbands for release, was having its premier in L.A. I seemed to be the only one interested enough to go and see it. Clarence, Gibby and Charlie flatly refused to leave the lounge and come in to Los Angeles with me, so I went alone.
When I got back after midnight they were still lounging on the lounge.
"Lousy?" said all three at once.
"No," I said.
"No?" said all three at once.
"Stroheim has a knockout, and he's great himself on the screen," I said. "Don't miss it. Griffith at his best, but more sophisticated."
"He was Griffith's assistant," said Clarence.
"Nothing got by him," I said. "See this one."
They all did the next night.
While the New York office's report on Under Crimson Skies was favorable, it was a question whether Mighty Elmo was going to have the same appeal for feature audiences as he had for those of the nickelodeons. Instead of starting me in on another Elmo picture the U handed me a Fanny Hurst story, trite in plot but human in treatment. It had a name they changed to The Day She Paid. For me, its merits were due to four Jewish characterizations, but Jewish Mr. Laemmlae felt that his gentile public was not interested in Jews or their domestic gambols, and insisted on perverting them to Christianity. But in spite of the proselytism, this picture turned out to be box-office. However, before it was released I was told that my services would no longer be required at the U. Elmo the Mighty's barrelchest apparently lacked the sex appeal that drew the women in to see J. Warren Kerrigan and Herbert Rawlinson, so his next—if any—feature would be postponed until the small town reports came in on Under Crimson Skies
One of the last scenes in this Fanny Hurst story took place in a middle western dress-making establishment where the married heroine, Francillia Billington, had worked—and played—in pre-marital days. I called for six beautiful mannequins. They arrived on the set—little Miss Alice Taaffe among them, Miss Armstrong also, later the von Stroheim star of The Devil's Pass-Key.
Miss Taaffe was unsmilingly polite to me. I realized at once that she had come without knowing I was the director. Her aloofness, or indifference, annoyed me. I made a few caustic remarks of a personal nature. She began to weep. Miss Armstrong came to me and said I was an unfeeling brute and Alice a sweet child. My assistant came to me with Miss Taaffe's check. She was going home. I went to the dressing room and found her still in tears, and put my arms around her.
"I'm sorry"," I said, "But I couldn't help it—the way you acted."
"You're the meanest man I know," she said, "talking to me like that in front of everyone. I'll never work for you again."
"I couldn't help it," I said,—"The way you acted, anyone would think you'd never set eyes on me before."
"What does that matter to you?" she said.
"Just this," I said: "I've a terrible crush on you."
"Oh?" she said, drying her eyes.
"Come back on the set and I'll behave like a lamb," I promised.
She pushed me out of the dressing room. I got hold of Miss Armstrong and told her to go and help Alice fix her makeup and get her back on the set.
"Her makeup is ruined," she said.
"I know," I said, "but I don't care. We know where we stand now."