It was on the return trip to Tunis from Medenine, in the Troglodite country, that we met for the first time, Reb'ha and I. Tired by the long drive from Touggourt to Tunis by way of Biskra, Constantine and Biserta, Alice was resting-up for a few days at the Majestic Hotel while I went south to choose locations for our desert scenes, and interview a tribal Cheikh about collecting the five hundred bedouin horsemen needed in the last episodes of the picture.
North of the chotts—the salt marshes between Medenine and Kebili—our automobile got stuck, and remained stuck until a caravan came along. It was a modest caravan. Three camels, a few goats, cameleers and children and womenfolk. With docility the camels followed a small donkey to whose tail the leader was attached, and upon whose back rode a girl enveloped in the traditional haik of spun wool. Its whiteness stressed the clear bronze of her face, but whiter still were her teeth: a nomadic madonna, at whose breast slumbered a child and at whose side trudged her Joseph, greybearded but vigorous.
The Cheikh, who was keeping me company as far as Tozeur, opened palaver with Joseph, who was Yussef, not Joseph, and the madonna's father, not her husband; nor was the child her son, merely a nephew. Feigning interest in it I got a chance to observe this madonnesque aunt at close enough range to decide that she was indispensible to our picture. The main thing was, could she dance? At that time I was not sufficiently acquainted with nomadic North Africa to know that from the age of three on, all bedouin females are dancers. Through the Cheikh I sounded out father Yussef and learned that his daughter's full name was Reb'ha-bint-Yusser-ben-Amor; that she had been married and divorced and remarried, and had recently had a miscarriage and danced every night in spite of it. Her first husband had been a day laborer employed by a road contractor near Sfax, the second was serving a prison term, due to the disputed ownership of a chicken. They were Suazis, Yussef said, which the Cheikh said meant they were thieves and bandits. The Cheikh did all the talking and Reb'ha the dancing. In action she had a ventral movement that on Broadway would have been termed wicked, and an unbatting eye. From start to finish of a dance that interpreted with realism a certain natural function, her expression changed only once, and that was at the finish which came unexpectedly when she retired behind a reposing camel.
"Colic," said the Cheikh, after a word or two with father Yussef. "She has been afflicted since the miscarriage."
In spite of her colic I engaged Reb'ha right there, the tribe also. The Cheikh instructed them to proceed to Gamart, some five hundred kilometres north, where many of our exteriors were to be made. Upon their arrival the tribe would start on salary, not before. Yussef said if it was all right with Allah he would be in Gamart in fifteen days, and collected from Long John Daumery, who kept the company roll, 20 francs for the dance and 200 down against 400, the remaining 200 to be paid in Gamart. The Cheikh drew up a contract in Arabic on the back of an envelope, upon which father Yussef pressed his thumb after Long John had inked it with his fountain pen.
"I can absolutely count on their turning up?" I asked the Cheikh.
"200 francs?" he queried, raising his brows.
After that he went aside with father Yussef and annexed 44 francs commission (so the Maltese chauffeur told me after we had dropped the Cheikh at Tozeur). Reb'ha reappeared from behind the camel before they had squared things up. She annexed a colored silk scarf that had set me back 200 francs at Sulka's in the rue Castiglione, which she proceeded to convert into a cummerbund.
By that time the car had been pushed out of the rut by the rest of the tribe and we were ready to proceed to Tozeur. Alter looking me over for signs of anything else detachable, and finding nothing, Reb'ha turned her back on me with a contemptuous snuffle, and so we parted.
Paris again, to cast the picture and make a deal for a couple of stages in the Pathé studio near the Jardin des Plantes for our interiors.
On Scaramouche I had engaged a German friend of my German assistant, Rehfeld, to look after wigs and shoes, and bear the wardrobe lady a hand. He was very large and stood to attention so much that I often wondered if his neck was not musclebound. But he served another purpose. Rehfeld, after a bawling out from me, needed someone to vent his spleen on in German, for in anger, English failed him; and it is discouraging to say a lot of hard words at someone and then suddenly realize they have not understood. Also, having a sergeant-major soul, it gratified Rehfeld to be able to bawl out someone head and shoulders over himself who took it all with silence and clicked heels. Whenever I felt like taking a rise out of Rehfeld I used to address this robotic personage as 'Mister' Cluck. Whereupon his rigidity would become still more rigid.
"Boss, why do you gall this fellow mister for?" Rehfeld would complain. "You never mister me, you blain Rehfeld me. You'll make him think he's more important than I am."
"What you want me to call him—von Cluck?"
"Gott in himmel, nein! Gall him blain Cluck...blain Cluck!"
So blain Cluck blain Cluck would remain until the spirit moved me to pick on Rehfeld again and mister Cluck blain Cluck anew.
When Rehfeld wanted to bring blain Cluck to Paris I began to wonder how the French would react to two Germans on my staff. But I gave in, realizing Rehfeld's utility would be neutralized without a safety valve. So along came blain Cluck.
On a promontary above the Bay of Carthage, the Arab village of Sidi-Bou-Said is white against a sky eternally dark. Its ancient dwellings mount in limewashed tiers from shore to minaret. In streets which wind over the four buried, superimposed cities that were Carthage, we worked for two weeks before invading the solitude of Gamart below, where the red dunes roll down from the cupolas of a crumbling palace to the sea.
Monsieur Lucien Saint, Resident General of Tunisia, had instructed his chef-du-cabinet to see that we were given every aid, including an official interpreter from the police department, who would remain at our disposal as long as we had need of him. The member of the sûreté, or secret police, assigned to us was a step-son of Mr. Hanech, private executioner to H.H. The Bey of Tunis. Beneath Hanech junior's moustache, yellow irregular teeth protruded, and the thick lenses of his glasses exaggerated the prominence of eyes that seemed to make everyone's business their own. He was the only Moslem I have ever met or heard of who was ashamed of the Prophet's name—bestowed on him by a devout sire.
This Muhammad had become 'Pierre-Etienne', to the amusement of his French masters and the scorn of his co-religionists.
My first contact with Pierre-Etienne Hanech was in Sidi-Bou-Said. It came about through Mahmoud the dwarf. We were rehearsing a sequence on the steps of the old café maure behind the mosque when something struck me in the region of the solar plexus. Wheeling about, I saw no one within striking distance. Before I had a chance to speak, from far below me, came a guttural, authoritative voice.
"Garo," said the voice.
"Did you hit me, you runt?" I shouted, stooping toward the source of it, a yard from the ground.
"Garo," repeated the voice.
"Who is he, what is he saying?" I asked everyone.
"Mahmoud ben Mairech, ex-officio buffoon to H.H. The Bey of Tunis," said P-E. Hanech. "He solicits a cigarette."
"Garo, cigarette," said Mahmoud, upthrusting a hand with fingers so short that they appeared to have been sawed off. He was looking at me with the arrogance of a Mongol chief. I snapped open a silver cigarette-case and extended it. Mahmoud took it, selected a cigarette, snapped the case closed and slipped it into the hood of his burnous, which, worn Tunisian fashion, serves as a kind of safety deposit. He departed then with a curt nod.
Before he had taken a dozen steps he was grabbed by a couple of Tunisian cops. A right uppercut well below the belt felled one of them. Mahmoud's foot caught the other in the more private of his parts. Then, urged on by P-E. Hanech, my entire extra mob, about fifty of them, fell upon Mahmoud and, by sheer weight, bore him to the ground. He was dragged before me uttering noises I judged to be of great profanity and foulness. My cigarette-case was restored.
"Let him go," I said.
"He should be ashamed," said P-E. Hanech, "at his age, too.”
"Which is what?"
"Sixtythree," said Hanech.
I handed back the cigarette-case to Mahmoud.
"He can keep it,” I said. "It's coming to him, with a nerve like that."
"Papa!" cried Mahmoud, kissing my hands effusively.
"Djeddi," I replied (which is Arabic for grandfather)...."Got to give this hijacker a part. Know where he lives, Hanech?"
"He does not live anywhere," said P-E. Hanech, eyeing the cigarette-case enviously. "But I'll put him in prison. Then we can always get him when we want him."
"Hanech, sareq ben halouf!" said Mahmoud pointing to the executioner's son after a night of municipal hospitality.
P-E. Hanech was making threatening signs at him, but the dwarf turned his back and began addressing bystanders in a violent manner.
"Mahmoud says Hanech is a thief and his father a pig. He says that Hanech stole the cigarette-case and threatened to keep him in prison for the rest of his life if he told you,” said a voluntary interpreter.
“Hanech,” I said sternly. "Come here. Why did you steal the cigarette-case I gave Mahmoud?"
"Following arrest, the municipality formally confiscates everything in the possession of a prisoner," said P-E. Hanech.
“The 'municipality' had better hand over the cigarettecase or it will be tasting its own hospitality after I get the Resident General's office on the phone," I said.
"Well," said P-E. Hanech, "if I keep it for him it will be safe. Someone will steal it when he's asleep if I give it back."
"If they do, it will be Mahmoud's loss, not yours. Hand it over," I said.
I was informed by private executioner Hanech senior that H.H. The Bey of Tunis was greatly interested in photography, and that one of the indoor sports which intrigued him most was coloring photographs of himself by hand. If we wished to photograph him, H.H. would consider posing for us at his convenience, said Hanech senior,—depending, naturally, upon the dimensions of the photograph. When we explained to H.H. that this could be enlarged to life-size if he wished, he appeared to be very pleased. He was all for bigger pictures.
Ramon Novarro had made up his mind to prepare himself between scenes for two careers—operatic, and terpsichorean. When not actually shooting, he danced on the roof of the Majestic Hotel, or accompanied himself on a piano which he had installed in his room. I was not so keen on this roof dancing, as a dancing partner, named Louis, whom Ramon had brought to Miami with him when we were making Where the Pavement Ends, pirouetted himself off the stage of the Miami Theatre into the big drum. I had no wish to lose my leading man in the middle of the picture—the hotel being four stories high. Ramon reluctantly desisted. I told him a sparring-partner was what he needed, but he did not fall for the idea, and from then on devoted his leisure hours to singing.
"How about that sparring-partner?" I asked him a few days later.
"I've got to think of my career," he said. "Boxing would get me nowhere in grand opera."
"The next time I hear you singing I'm going to put my foot through the piano,” I said.
The same night I looked him up to check over his costumes for the next sequence. He was at the piano, playing away, but no sound came from it. He had disconnected the keyboard. He was singing, too, but only a very muffled noise came from the big bathtowel twisted about the lower part of his face.
In the window of a shop on the avenue de France I noticed one of those stubby thick-handled umbrellas that were then the feminine mode. This one was purple with a transparent composition handle of the color and texture of amber. I bought it for Mahmoud the dwarf, re-named Shorty by the troup. In the morning Shorty arrived on location with a weather-stained moth eaten umbrella.
When asked what had become of the purple splendor he made a long and vehement speech, pointing to P-E. Hanech.
"Hanech," he shouted, and then said: "Barabolla!"—which is what he called an umbrella, and turned his back on us.
It appeared that Hanech had taken the purple umbrella, presented it to his fiancée, and siven Shorty the moth eaten heirloom in exchange.
"I took it,” explained Hanech, "because all the urchins followed Mahmoud when he wore the purple umbrella. I wanted to preserve him from ridicule, knowing that you had honored him with your patronage."
After this statement Shorty Mahmoud shouted a few nore words in Arabic, from which we gathered that it gave him pleasure to be followed by a crowd of urchins; that in his opinion P-E. Hanech was a liar, a thief and a pimp, and his fiancée a ga'bha, which in Arabic means prostitute.
"How far does your fiancée live from here, Hanech?" I asked.
"Fifteen minutes, Effendi, that is, by automobile."
"Get in an automobile, Hanech," I said, “and if Shorty Mahmoud hasn't got his purple barabolla back inside of half an hour I'm going to give him your job."
In the month of March there is nothing tropical about the climate of Tunis but occasional downpours of tropical violence. One of these was holding us all in the hotel lobby one morning when I saw Shorty approaching, a flap of his burnous covering his head.
"If Hanech has taken Shorty's umbrella again he's through, by God!" I swore, and stepped out to meet Shorty.
"Barabolla?" I said.
"Fi dar," said Shorty, which is another way of saying ‘at home'.
"Go home and get it. Can't you see it's raining?" I pointed to the sky.
Shorty stared at me.
"M'shee, fissa fissa, barabolla!" I shouted clapping my hands for emphasis.
Shorty understood and scuttled away in the rain.
In the rain he came back, but without the umbrella.
"Barabollal" I yelled. "Fen barabolla!"
After some difficulty he produced it from under the folds of his voluminous gandoura, calling all to bear witness that it was still raining.
We had an important sequence to film. Our location was the tomb of a marabout or saint. Its domed roof and colonnaded court had that inimitable patine which comes after generations of exposure to the elements. Before the episode was finished a troup of bedouin horsemen arrived from the south, so I had to postpone the scenes at the marabout's tomb, as we paid our cavaliers by the day. We told the Immam, who looked after the tomb and the little mosque next door, that we would be back in a week. He asked to be paid at once. My Syrian cashier, Louey Khabbaj, was all for postponing payment. He was afraid that if we paid the Immam he would hold us up for more when we came back. I said the Immam appeared to be an honest man and to go ahead and pay him. I would be personally responsible.
When we got back a week later we found, in place of the weatherbeaten edifice we had been shooting, a building that gleamed in the sun, so white it was. The Immam had spent our money whitewashing the walls of the tomb, painting the door blue and embellishing the columns with spiral stripes of red and green.
I had made the long shots of an entire sequence in front of a XVth century horseshoe archway. When I set up my cameras a beggar was sitting against the wall. P-E. Hanech told him to get to hell out of there, but I intervened. The beggar's haik lay in folds of sculptural simplicity; he was a pretty fine job of art.
It took us three hours to finish our scenes. During that time he never moved, hand outstretched for alms. When we got through, I gave him five francs—against the advice of Hanech and Louey Khabbaj, and told him to be there at the same time the next day.
When we came back to finish the sequence there was no beggar. Hanech organized a search and discovered him in a fonduk. He refused to move. I went after him myself, followed by Hanech. But my exhortations to come along before the light changed—translated vehemently by Hanech—left him still ummoved.
"He says," explained Hanech, “that next week he will be happy to sit in front of the archway for five francs."
"Tell the sonovabitch I've an overhead of several thousand dollars a day. I can't wait a minute, let alone a week!" I shouted.
After more palaver Hanech said:
"Effendi, he says that is your concern, not his. But he repeats that next week he will be happy to sit in front of the archway for five francs. At present he is not in need of funds."
We finally got the beggar over to the archway. But we had to get the chief of police to arrest him first, which he did for five francs.
When the sequence was finished I presented our beggar with a one-hundred france note. Hanech looked at me. He said nothing, but behind their heavy lenses his pop-eyes were eloquent.
"You're wrong, Hanech," I said. "I'm not crazy. I've learned something from this bastard that may add many years to my youth.”
In Barnum style we disembarked at Marseille, that is to say, with two camels and an assortment of bedouins, including Mlle. Reb'ha-bint-Yussef-ben-Amor, Shorty Mahmoud, P-E. Hanech and Reb'ha's father, her widowed sister and some cousins,—all needed for interior scenes in the old Pathé studio. At the last moment Reb'ha's husband, just ont of jail, had flatly refused to permit his unfruitful wife to leave Tunis with the company. Seeing that it was P-E. Hanech who had broken the news, I became suspicious, and said it was too bad, but I would double her—an impossibility—and to let the matter drop. Then P-E. Hanech said he could arrange to have Reb'ha's husband divorce her on the grounds of unfruitfulness, which would leave her free to join the troupe. I said that was fine to go ahead and have him divorce her. P-E. Hanech said it was quite simple: all I had to do was give him 4000 francs for Mr. Reb'ha, whose name I cannot remember.
"What are you getting out of it, Hanech?” I asked.
"Nothing," said Hanech. "My only interest is your own, Effendi. I am a poor man but an honest one."
"That simplifies everything," I said. "I'll give you 200 francs and have Louey Khabbaj see that Reb'ha's papers, if any, are in order."
After dinner Hanech told me he had talked with Reb'ha and her husband and her father, who had been sitting outside the hotel since sunrise, and he had fixed everything for 1400 francs. I said I had located a double for Reb'ha and was not interested.
After some reflection, Hanech said if I would give him 500 francs he would see what he could do. I agreed. And so, for 500 francs Reb'ha's husband divorced her, to be spared, as Hanech said he had said, the humiliation of a wife of his earning infidel money,—which did not prevent him from re-marrying her when she got back to Tunis some weeks later, and falling heir to 2500 francs of infidel salary she brought with her from France.
In Paris we installed Reb'ha, her father and the other members of her tribe in a little pension near the studio. At Reb'ha's request I conducted her there myself.
"Atla!" I said pointing to the stairway,"—up you go!"
Reb'ha, the tentdweller, in a house for the first time, walked back twenty paces to gain momentum and took the stairs on the run, three at a bound. At the top she sat down to get her breath. I showed her the room assigned to her. She examined the bed with great interest, jumping up and down on it. Beneath it, she found a pot-de-chambre, embellished with floral motifs in pink and blue. She placed it on the mantlepiece. She was of the opinion that it would come in handy for mixing cous-cous, that dish composed principally of maize, which forms the chief item on the nomadic menus of South Tunisia. I showed her the toilet across the hall, demonstrating the use of the chain. Following the flushing of it, Reb'ha fled in such panic that she twisted an ankle taking the stairs three at a bound from above, which needs more experience than from below. Whe she finally convinced herself there was nothing dangerous about it, her principal indoor sport became toilet-flushing. She flushed for her fascinated father, for her no less fascinated married sister, for Shorty Mahmoud and for other members of the tribe, sereaming 'El ma! el ma!' which is Arabic for water, until the landlady threatened to turn her and the tribe out on the street.