Alice had made up her mind that married ladies should not work, so she was not in the cast of my next picture, a re-make of Black Orchids. Lewis Stone, Ramon Samaniegos—become Novarro, Barbara La Marr, Edward Connelly and manmountain Hughy Mack headed my cast. Simian Mr. Joe Martin, of alarming proportions now and of uncertain temper, played himself. His chamberlain and trainer was Curley Steicher, the only human he respected. Mr. Martin got his scenes with greater ease than the rest of the cast, due to the advantage of having already interpreted them in his youth. Edward Connelly, who played rube deacons and French diplomats in the same manner and in spite of it generally managed to be more convincing than anyone else in a cast, was Ramon's father. He shared a Parisianized Miss La Marr's favors with, among others, his son. Mr. Martin, having passed from the age of puberty to that of sentimentality, fell hard for Miss La Marr. A primitive, he resented seeing the object of his affections manhandled instead of monkhandled. He watched in dour silence, watched in turn by Curley, while Miss La Marr permitted herself to be fondled successively by Messrs Stone and Tovarro. But when she permitted senile baronial Mr. Connelly to caress her from fingertips to armpit Joe's gorge rose. His monkhood rebelled. He stood up to his full and imposing height and threw himself at the baron's knees—not to implore him to desist, but to sink his teeth into one of them, while his strangler's paws groped for his rival's throat....
For minutes, it seemed to me, I was paralyzed. At last I grabbed a stagebrace and swung it high, but Curley had already seized Mr. Martin around the waist—the only way to choke an ourang. Mr. Connelly was carried off to the studio dispensary to have the bite disinfected. After which the doctor gave him an injection to prevent him making noises like a monkey. I raised the devil with Curley for his apparent negligence. But the rushes showed me I had spoken out of turn. I counted the exposed frames of film from where Joe Martin sprang at his victim to where Curley grabbed Joe. They numbered five.
Amorous Mr. Martin, tied to a Stanchion, got the flogging of his life from Curley. From then on no one wanted to work with the ourang, myself included. But the picture had to be finished, so it was up to me to furnish an example of nonchalance by first rehearsing the scenes with Joe myself. Before starting in I borrowed Curley's revolver. Then, holding Joe by the paw I fired two shots into the ground. Joe pulled away from me and hid behind Curley. I reloaded the pistol and put it in my pocket, tapping it significantly to show Joe he had better try no monkey business with me. Hand in hand we went to the set.
"Joe 's all right," I said to everyone. "He wouldn't hurt a fly."
As I looked down at him he bared his teeth and glanced at my bulging pocket. In a low voice I said to him:
"You doublecrossing bastard, I'd let daylight into your hairy carcass for a Lincoln penny, so watch your step."
He played a scene with the three dwarf servants of clairvoyante Miss La Marr, and appeared to have become resigned to a life of good behaviour. Suddenly I felt a hand in my pocket.... Joe had the revolver. Before Curley could grab him he was up on the Cooper-Hewitt runways with it. Carley yelled at him to come down. Joe made a disdainful noise with his mouth and placed the barrel of the revolver in it.
"Curley, for God's sake!"" I yelled. "He's going to commit suicide!"
When Curley started up the ladder Joe started down on the other side brandishing the revolver. The studio was soon emptied.
"Get me that big cushion!" yelled Curley. "He'll have to drop the gun to catch it....Catch, Joe!"
But Joe only switched the pistol from paw to foot and held out his arms. There was a big bowl of goldfish on the set. Joe made for it. Then, after trying his teeth on the pistol a few times he dropped it in the bowl. In after it he crammed the cushion ....Then he went back to work, a loaded pistol off his mind.
With The Prisoner of Zenda Ramon Novarro was launched, but as a character actor. Excepting only Ferdinand Pinney Earl's very pictorial Omar Khayyam production, Black Orchids II was the first picture in which he had played a juvenile lead. Once properly dressed (he had a habit of overlooking such details as ties and vests—and once arrived on the set in uniform, right leg fieldbooted, left foot slippered) he worked with surprising facility, and had no difficulty in holding his own with the old-timers. At times he stole their scenes—not like Stuart Holmes, with malice and forethought, but because his personality drew the eye. He was by no means another lady killer of the Francis X. Bushman, Wallace Reid or Rudolf Valentino species, rather, a born player capable of putting as fine shades of meaning into a glance or a gesture as the most accomplished veterans....
I had signed a two-year contract with Metro, at least that was the impression I had when I signed—without benefit of legal counsel. It had been my ambition for a long time to make a picture of Ben Hur. Its purchase was held out as an inducement to me to sign, but when it came to reading over the contract I could find no mention of this.
"We cannot undertake in writing to let you make a picture we don't own the rights to," said a Metro counsel.
"I understand that quite well," I said. "But you can mention, as was agreed, that it is the company's intention to make every reasonable effort to obtain the rights."
The counsel said he was leaving on the next train and there was no time to change the contract, but if I would sign he would have Marcus Loew write me a letter confirming the company's intention. The letter came in due time. I barely glanced at it. I saw the name Ben Hur and, below it, the signature of Marcus. That was enough for me. I had not been over impressed by the lawyer, but I felt sure that Marcus was a man who gave his word with the intention of keeping it. I knew, too, that Abe Arlanger, who had the rights to the Wallace story tied up, was a good friend of Marcus.
From Hollywood my unit moved to Florida and from there to Cuba for the filming of John Russell's love story of the missionary's daughter and the Kanaka pearl diver: The Passion Vine. We took John himself along with us to supervise the building of a Samoan village beneath the soaring palms of Coconut Grove. A studio of sorts had been erected by one of the airplane Curtis brothers at Hialeah. We rented it for our interiors but before we had started building them Lake Okkechobee overflowed and inundated the plant. As a result we had to use canoes to get to the laboratory, the studio grounds being under five feet of water. When the flood subsided we found a large alligator sunning himself on the studio steps. It took some time to straighten out the warped stage floors sufficiently to put up the sets, so I decided to visit Nassau, where Ernest Williamson was then filming submarine life. After one look at the thirty-five foot launch I had hired to make the 160 mile sea trip, Alice decided to remain ashore. But for some days there had been a dead calm which extended over the turbulent Gulf Stream and filled the hearts of landlubbers with a sense of security.
We got off to a bad start—fouling the hawser of an anchored coast steamer. It was midnight by the time we reached Gun Key, lighthouse station of Britain, anchorage of bootleggers. Green and red lights swayed to port and starboard of a swarm of armed speedboats: the rumrunner fleet. With me were John Russell, technical director Gordon Mayer and a company publicity man. An owner captain and a colored cook comprised our crew. Without mishap we slipped into Nassau's harbor and dropped anchor alongside of quarantine in the form of a craft less seaworthy than our own.
Of Nassau I recall mosquito curtains so full of holes that we were forced to abandon our beds to these insect pests. I recall, too, the singing head of a negress behind madhouse bars. The droning monotone of the chant, an endless reiteration of some dozen unfamiliar words, seemed to have produced in its singer a state of hypnosis. Before leaving the island I heard these words again; this time accompanied by fire-dance drumbeats...
I remember swimming with eyes skinned for the flash of Jack the Ripper's Gulf Stream prototype, the barracuda; for dorsal fins, too. And I have not forgotten the gables of a ruined mansion in a tangle of tropical undergrowth—once, says legend, the island retreat of an English Cortez who annexed the island to himself instead of to the crown of his leige lady, and sent the caravels of Her Virgin Tudor Grace to the bottom when they came to collect her share of his blackbird doubloons.
After four days we had seen what there was to be seen at Nassau, sampled bootleg whisky of the prune juice and alcohol variety bottled there and labeled with a great appearance of authenticity, and from a rumrunning commodore obtained a few bottles from his private stock to take back with us. He warned us not to put to sea; the glass was falling. That night again the mosquitos moved in on us. From the dock we rowed out to our Everglade rivercraft. The breeze was warm but it kept them away. Aft, we stretched ourselves out and slept.
A great and sudden weight on my chest crushed the wind out of me. John Russell, or a wave—or both—had rolled over and off me. I began rolling myself and kept it up, entangled in a soaking blanket, until my shoulder struck iron. I grabbed at the awning support and steadied myself. Ribbons of flame split the darkness and the thunder claps that followed split our ears. But only when sheetlightning, of the intensity and duration of magnesium torches, lit up the sky did we grasp the disquieting truth: we were no longer in port. There was no one at the tiller, the captain lay face down on the deck. Mayer grabbed the wheel and we swung about perilously until, below the binnacle light, the needle pointed in the general direction of W. by N.W. The launch rose, trembled on the crest of a wave, and as she slid down into the trough he gave her full throttle....
When the skipper came to he wanted to take the wheel. He was still in the drunken state responsible for our predicament. He grabbed Mayer's arm and came near capsizing us as a sea struck us broadside on. Mayer hit him on the jaw and we dragged him below and locked him in the toilet without waiting to consider whether passengers could be guilty of high sea mutiny. The cook figured he could, and refused to bear a hand in this operation. But he found a hammer and nails and we nailed the cork life jackets and strips of board over shattered cabin windows to keep us from being swamped.... By five in the morning we had sighted the Gun Key light. Our mast head, which served no useful purpose, was gone. Not a cabin window was intact. Only by sheer luck the galley super-structure had not been swept away. A heavy rain storm forty miles out had somewhat quieted the sea; but only Mayer and the negro knew how close a call we had had. Off Nassau the sea is shallow and the jagged teeth of submerged coral reefs bristle a fathom down, ready to keel-rip unwary craft. We had dropped more than a fathom in the trough of many a wave.
The sea was still running high in the narrow passage between the Gun Key reefs. Mayer was dead beat so the negro navigated the strait and steered us around the main reef to a sheltered bay. Three rumrunners lay there at anchor. And then our stowaway made his appearance. He had slept through it all down below: a bootlegger, wanted by the authorities at Nassau as well as Uncle Sam. After thanking us he boarded one of the rumrunners. I remember him touching his automatic as he cautioned us to keep our mouths shut. A nice quiet spoken young fellow, he was. I hope he made a getaway.
Repairs took us a day. I knew Alice would be worried to death but there was no way of getting word to her. We weighed anchor at 9:00 p.m. The sea was calmer and there was a high wind behind us. By midnight we had struck another storm. We lashed ourselves to stanchion and rails, and Mayer to the wheel. This one was worse than the last; but as long as the motor held out we had hope.
In Nassau the negro had bought a leather coat for eight dollars. He was wearing it. Around four in the morning he shouted in my ear between thunder claps:
"Looks like I'm goin' to lose dis coat!"
Suddenly he sprang at the tiller. In a flash of sheet lightning he had been the first to see a wall towering above us, not fifty yards ahead. We spun around and kept spinning, our maelstrom the wash of a Hamburg liner. We were right under her stern.... The negro had saved his coat.
Three miles out from Miami we lay-to for him to sink five cases of bootleg by a buoy—hooking the rope that held them together onto the anchor chain of the buoy, ten feet below the surface. These would be redeemed after nightfall....By nine we were alongside the jetty, a terrified Alice waiting for us. We were three days late.
When we went to Cuba to film the waterfalls at Hanabanilla nobody in the town of Cienfuegos could tell us how to get to them, though the roar of the eight cascades was audible from a considerable distance. To reach them we had to slash our way through the undergrowth with machetes, guided only by the sound. When I sighted them it was with relief: the effectiveness of our last sequence was assured. Even the liania ropes by which Motauri, John Russell's Kanaka hero, climbed up the face of the cascade to keep his tryst with Miss Matilda were there; and above the rushing water hung the rock from which this same Motauri, the pearl fisher, the high chief, would leap romantically to his death, knowing that the missionary's daughter, his 'Pale Star,' was as far beyond his reach as the stars above; that beyond the barrier of the reef a sloop was bearing her away from his native Wailoa, from its golden beaches and white man's mission, forever.
Not far from Cienfuegos I visited an estate that had been planted with most conceivable species of tropical tree and shrub. Before the Spanish-American war they had been shipped from various parts of the world to Cuba, and in the richness of its soil they were flourishing. Tropical birds stalked and flew about this semi-cultivated forest where every tree bore its Latin name on a wooden plaque. Macaws, cockatoos and parrots lived there in a wild state, and from its artificial lake flamingoes observed us, without interest or fear. Here too exotic flowers grew in abundance, and, with one exception were rooted in the earth. I encountered the exception wandering among the laurier-rose and hybiscus bushes. I judged her to be about eleven years old. She stopped and, raising a lorgnette to her eyes, examined me from head to foot. Her lips curved back from very white teeth in a way that made her look as if she were smiling. I walked around her examining her no less attentively.
"You don't seem to have a Latin tag like the rest of the plants," I said. "Do you grow here or were you imported? What species are you?"
"I'm not a species and I don't grow because I'm grown already," she answered standing very straight.
"I suppose you've got a name like everything else here?"
"I am Olga Maria-Rosa Ramirez Enamorado Garcia-Iñiguez," she stated.
"Some of the plants have pretty tough names," I said. "But you'll have a job to get all that down on one tag."
"My grandfather was General Calixto Garcia. I am supposed to look like him—only smaller and prettier," she volunteered.
"I wish you'd play a scene for me in the picture I'm filming now. You'd look like a real island belle in a lava-lava cloth and a lei of ginger blossoms around your neck and a hybiscus blossom in your hair."
"I'm sure I would," she said. "But we're leaving for Miami on Saturday."
"I'll be in Miami when I get through here," I said. "Where can I reach you?"
"Telephone the Cuban consulate. Papá won't want me to do it, of course, but I can generally manage him. It would be fun to play in the movies. I get so bored playing with the children," said this child.
"Let me get that name right," I said.
I have found few countries harder to leave than Cuba. During this first short visit I had become attached to it and to its warm blooded beautiful people. Before we sailed I asked Alice how she would like to live there on a hacienda with a river and a house with a big patio and a tropical garden.
"I wouldn't," she said. "Hollywood is more my style. If you want to live here you'll just have to look around for another little wife."
Alice was a bit disappointed with Cuba. She complained that everyone in Habana dressed like Americans. I remember one afternoon when we were driving along the waterfront she got very excited and pointed to a group of people outside a cafe.
"I don't see why all Cubans can't dress like that!" she exclaimed.
I said they looked more like Neapolitan boatmen to me. We stopped the car to get a better look at them. Then we saw it was John Robertson rehearsing a scene in The Bright Shawl with Richard Barthelmess and William Powell.
The interior of our nonconformist mission was awaiting us on the dried-out stage at Hialeah when my troup got back to Miami. Following a formal invitation addressed to the Cuban Consulate, Señorita Olga Maria-Rosa Ramirez Enamorado Garcia-Iñiguez came to the studio surrounded by the entire staff of the consulate and by uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters and cousins; three automobile loads of Garcias. Grandfather General Calixto Garcia was the only absentee, being defunct. The tribe appeared greatly alarmed when our wardrobe lady took off Señorita O. M.-R. R. E. G.-I. to array her in lava-lava, lei, hybiscus and hymnbook; after which she played a scene with Alice. When we had made some close-ups of her I asked her if such a voluminous escort did not embarrass her.
"Though I'm only a girl," she said, "I'm papá's favorite child. So he naturally sees that I'm properly chaperoned."
"He certainly does!" said Alice.
In this picture, released under the title of Where the Pavement Ends, Alice and Ramon Novarro were the featured players, Edward Connelly and Harry Morey, their support in a cast of four.