When we got back to New York I stayed there to do the final cutting and titling of The Arab. Alice went on to visit her mother in California. Her sister, who had been abroad with us, went with her.
Meanwhile the story for my next picture had to be decided on. Of all available material the Ibanez novel, Mare Nostrum, was the one subject that appealed to me. But I was frankly worried about tackling it in California, not only because I knew that my return to the coast would mean the return of stomach ulcers—in Hollywood my nerves were continually on edge—but because so much depended on transferring to the screen the realism of the book. This was one picture that would have to be made in the actual locales where the action of the novel took place.
While I was in New York I got in touch with the stomach specialist who had suggested opening me up and clipping the tops off my ulcers before I embarked for North Africa. After checking over a dozen X-rays made by Houdini's X-ray brother, he said the ulcers had healed; and admitted that, from the date of my embarcation he had given them about six months to eat through the walls of my duodenum. That they had not done so was a miracle for which I apparently had Africa to thank.
"The trouble with you movie-makers is that you never know when to quit,” he said. "All you think of is the dough, and you can't take it with you."
"That's not the way I feel," I said.
"Why not quit, then? If...You have enough."
"Maybe I will," I said.
Marcus Loew spread his hands helplessly.
"Our legal advisor says Europe is out of the question," he said. "We got to forget about it."
"I can't make this picture the way I want to in Hollywood, Marcus," I said.
"You know how much I think of you, Rex. You know I want to keep you happy, but as a friend I ask you to make Mare Nostrum on the coast."
“Why not let me make it where I want to for someone else, then? I'll come back to you when you say the word."
"When you talk that way, you make me feel bad," Marcus said.
"It's the only way to talk, Marcus. If you're dead set on having it made at the coast, you have other directors."
"You're the only one likes it. They don't like unhappy endings in Hollywood. I'd never have bought it if it hadn't been you wanted it, and you're letting me down."
"All you got to do is have the Spanish sea captain marry the spy instead of letting her get shot," I said.
"How can she marry him—with his wife?" asked Marcus.
"Hollywood will fix that."
"I don't get you, Rex," Marcus said. "You have me guessing. I want to do everything for you and you won't let me. What's the matter? You got me guessing."
And then I explained to him that as far as California was concerned I was temporarily at the end of the rope—as was silent Hollywood. The prospect of competing with it in a frantic effort to hold the interest of a public already surfeited with production extravagance, with more of it in the guise of bigger and better sets, bigger and better mobs, bigger and better wardrobes, left me cold. Trying to out-Griffith D.W. struck me as rather futile, especially as the rest of us lacked his genius for handling great ensembles. It was not, I explained, this kind of treatment that Mare Nostrum called for. The Ibañez novel was a problem to be attacked from an entirely different angle, was in fact the same problem that would confront me with every production I might make in the future, if I was to carry on with any degree of success. For the old formulas, excellent in their way, had become anaemic. Production had become reproduction. A means of infusing it with new life had to be found—or they would soon be converting all the big picture houses into miniature-golf courses.
It was the choice of this Ibanez novel that definitely decided me which way to turn. Documentary films, that is to say, the news-reels and travel pictures, had always interested me more than films of studio fabrication. It was a Mediterranean newsreel which finally convinced me that if I filmed the exteriors of the picture sur place, making use of local characters, the result would give that same feeling of actuality the book possessed.
The people of the Mediterranean basin have a type of their own. They look and act unlike those picked to represent them in Hollywood films. And when it came to reproduction of Mediterranean towns, our outdoor settings lacked conviction. Centuries of exposure to the elements ravages and corrodes timber and masonry in a fashion difficult to imitate in a week or two with the aid of sandblasting, trick plaster work and artificial ageing. And then, vibrations seem to cling to ancient walls and affect those who work within and around them.
Mercus said I was putting him in a turrible position, He did not know which way to turn. He wired Alice to come to New York. Louis B. Mayer had just arrived, and Marcus felt that with Alice's cooperation Louis could make me see things in a reasonable light.
Alice, tired after a tedious trip on which steam heat had superseded desert heat, said she wondered why she had married an Irishman when there were so many rational Americans on hand. We saw Marcus. She told him without preamble that she knew he knew his wisest course would be to fire me, and hers to divorce me.
"Alice, I want Rex to talk to Louiecorrect spelling Lois - as above and below.," Marcus said—adding significantly: "I know I can count on you."
"You certainly can," Alice sald with undue emphasis, "California is good enough for me."
After listening to Louis Mayer's California sales-talk, the thought of passing up the lure—esthetic, intellectual and physical of Hollywood should, I know, have reduced me to a state of near-maudlinity.
Alice told me Louis met her in the corridor after this unproductive interview.
"All I got to say is, thank God it's you got to live with him, not me!" was his only comment.
"You need a rest," said lawyer Nathan Burkan to me, "and they need your pictures. You've been talking about Cuba. Why not go there? Tell Marcus if he wants to get in touch with you to communicate with me."
To Cuba I went. Louis Mayer meantime had signed up Alice to do a picture on the coast with Victor Seastrom, thinking, perhaps, that the fish would follow the bait. But this time the bait was to do the following, for after one production Alice came on to Europe to play Freya in Mare Nostrum.
It was Nick Schenck and Nathan Burkan who finally got together and smoothed out the differences between Metro and me.
Nice was decided on as my production headquarters. Geographically it was centrally situated, and in 1924 the Riviera climate was pretty much the same as California's. Since then, like California's, it has annually been getting worse. During my first year on the Riviera people were swimming and sunbathing from January to December, so an idea can be formed of the number of exterior shooting days a film company could count on.
Once established in Nice we were bombarded with local publicity. The local journals, the Eclaireur de Nice and the Petit Nicois carried daily articles about the studio and what was being done there. Nice was, according to them, already a rival of Hollywood. Visiting celebrities inundated us. Our publicity-man photographed them with Alice against studio backgrounds. Among others I remember Isadora Duncan, H.M. The Sultan of Morocco, The Pasha of Marrakech, French Premiers Pierre Laval and Albert Sarraut, Chief of Parisian Police Chiappe, Maréchal Petain, T.P. O'Connor, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Basil Zaharoff, Lord Rothermere, Hackenschmidt, The Duke of Connaught, Frank Harris, The Prince of Monaco, Elsie DeWolfe and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary.