365 Nights in Hollywood: The Twenty-Foot Kiss, Part 1

Jimmy Starr began his career in Hollywood in the 1920s, writing the intertitles for silent shorts for producers such as Mack Sennett, the Christie Film Company, and Educational Films Corporation, among others. He also toiled as a gossip and film columnist for the Los Angeles Record in the 1920s and from 1930-1962 for the L.A. Herald-Express.
Starr was also a published author. In the 1940s, he penned a trio of mystery novels, the best known of which, The Corpse Came C.O.D., was made into a movie.
In 1926, Starr authored 365 Nights in Hollywood, a collection of short stories about Hollywood. It was published in a limited edition of 1000, each one signed and numbered by the author, by the David Graham Fischer Corporation, which seems to have been a very small (possibly even a vanity) press.
Here’s Part 1 of “The Twenty-Foot Kiss,” a not-so-short story from that 1926 collection.

THE TWENTY-FOOT KISS

 
 
“Seems sorta funny to see them playing together again, doesn’t it?” asked a slim girl, in the extras’ dressing room of the Peerless Pictures Studio.
“First time in five years,” said her companion, smearing on the pink make-up.
Then the conversation about Jewel Joseham, famous star, and Thomas Smythe, her former husband and leading man, ceased. The girls had other things more important to occupy their minds. It was eight-thirty and they had to be on the set, made up, at nine.
The grey room had three tiers of long benches and make-up tables, fastened to which were mirrors lined with blazing electric lights. That peculiar smell of grease paint and rice powder was pungently evident. There was the usual chatter of their past efforts and famous roles before clicking cameras.
In this room probably a dozen girls were skillfully applying the necessary cosmetics before they could present themselves to a grouchy, callous director and a battery of motion picture cameras.
In the room above, an exact copy of this one, the scuffle of feet could be heard. It wsa the men’s dressing room.
At nine o’clock a loud bell sounded. Then came the sudden scurrying of patent-leather and satin shod feet. Thirty couples of extras, to be used as atmosphere in a society scene were rushing to the entrance of the large enclosed stage.
They were greeted by the blue-green of the Cooper-Hewitt lamps, placed closely together about a large ballroom of a well appointed mansion. On the floor was the imitation hard-wood linoleum. This had been well oiled and gave back the reflection of the shining lights.
Prop men were busy placing expensive-looking chairs along the walls of the set. Electricians were swinging large overhead lights into place above. Camera boys were arranging the tripods for a long shot of the entire dance floor. A colored jazz orchestra was tuning up in a flower bedecked alcove. The extras grouped themselves among the heavy black cables which connected the Sun-Arcs with a portable switchboard. The drumming hum of the electric motors near the end of the stage only added to the already busy atmosphere.
The stage door slammed and a round little man in golf knickers and soft white shirt entered. His ruddy face held deep wrinkles, his small quick eyes peered through heavy shell-rim glasses, his hair was curly and black, but there was very little of it—nothing but a small patch on the back of his round head. As he walked toward his canvas chair near the camera tripod, the large stage became almost silent, and everyone stood as if awaiting his command—they were. He was George de Masson, the great director.
He glanced over his staff with the air of a man gazing at so many cattle. Then snorted contemptuously:
“Well, come on,” he growled. “Let’s get busy. What are we waiting for? Where’s Jewel and Smythe. Why the hell aren’t the lights in place? Have that floor polished in the center. Whoever heard of a dirty ballroom floor? Why wasn’t this attended to?”
George de Masson stopped when he was out of breath. He had asked a great many questions, but he expected no answers, and his staff knew better than to attempt to answer. A new member had been instantly discharged upon offering to answer the great director only the day before.
Again the stage was a scene of activity, while George de Masson consulted the script. Today’s work would finish the last scenes of a new Peerless feature. They had been six weeks on the story and the director was rushing things along. The company had five thousand dollars overhead expenses on scenes like this. It must not run over one day; there must be no retakes; and they must work fast. The president had impressed these facts on George de Masson’s mind the week before.
“Will someone be kind enough to find Jewel and Smythe for me?” The Great Director sighed wearily.

Almost immediately the two appeared at the entrances of the stage. The many eyes of the extras were upon them. Here were two people who had once declared their undying love for each other. They had married and lived together for a short time. Jealousy of each other’s positions in the film world had caused them to quarrel and finally to seek their freedom in the divorce courts. They had afterwards gone separate ways, always leaving a trail of bitter remarks which each knew would reach the ears of the other.
The strange, hateful situation between these two equally famous artists had remained the same for five years. Their names had held column after column in the scandal sheets of the film cult. Both had become greater in the eyes of their public since their domestic differences. Probably, many thought, because each was trying to out-do the other. And, strange to say, both had amazingly.
Then came the drop. In their days of prosperity they had spent freely and saved little. AT present, production in Hollywood was in a turmoil; there was little being done; money was scarce and many of the biggest in the game were looking for employment—and at a very low figure.
The days of care-free spending and recklessness in Hollywood were over. There were no more over-night successes. The once fascinating game was now played on efficient, factory-like basis and money was no longer thrown to the winds.
Their financial condition alone was the sole cause of the appearance of Jewel Joseham—pronounced Zay-ham—and Thomas Smythe in the same production. During the past five years they have avoided each other, even if they happened to be working in the same studio. But now they were appearing together simply because their contracts did not permit them to withdraw, without losing said contracts and a great deal of money.
Neither had felt that they could afford to withdraw.
They had now endured each other for six weeks, and this was the last day. Both were glad—hate seemed to hold fast on their hearts. The first day had been a little awkward, but both soon recovered from their nervousness. From then on they had endeavored to out-act each other. The result was very gratifying to the director. Undoubtedly their popularity would increase—only under the condition of their re-appearance together.
Yet each had both openly and silently declared that they would never play opposite the other again. And each meant to keep the promise.
“Well, come on, you two,” shouted George de Masson at the top of his lungs, which he had greatly strengthened by crying “Fore!” on Sundays and afternoons when he could escape work at the studio.
Together they approached the center of the stage, where the set of the large ball-room stood, crowded with couples in evening clothes. The assistant directors werre busy grouping the extras and preparing the cameraman for the scene. After they had finished, George de Masson arose and arranged everything to his satisfaction. He always did this, yet the assistants always began their work before him. He had explained this once by saying that their work served as a background for him, which gave one a glimpse into the inner workings fo this directional mind.
“All ready now?” asked George de Masson. “Well, let’s go. Now Jewel and Smythe, you’re dancing. Start over on the side by your right and work around in front of the camera. Make it slow when you get in the camera lines. Now, everybody, for God’s sake, stay out of their way and don’t bump into them. We don’t want to shoot this a dozen times. let’s see you go through it once.”
He settled forward in his canvas chair, script falling to floor, megaphone clasped loosely in one hand, while his arms hung limply down.
Jewel Joseham was a well formed person, small, with dainty, miniature features, pleasing to the most critical eyes. Her face, demurely pretty, held deep, wide-set brown eyes with heavy lashes, a well-shaped, even nose, and tiny rosebud mouth, now fairly dripping with redness. Her chin indicated that she had a temper and was spiteful, and was also very capable of taking care of herself.
Thomas Smythe was the flapper’s dream of a real hero. Just barely over six feet, he was keenly handsome, not too sharp-featured, well built, cleverly dressed and with an air of ease about him. He had a mass of dark brown, curly hair, which he permitted to flow carelessly; dark eyes, a perfect nose, a firm mouth and skin almost as fine as Jewel’s own. Perhaps that was the reason for their disagreements. Their temperaments were too similar.
Thomas Smythe was holding his former wife in his arms and preparing to dance with her, as they had often done when they were sweethearts. It seemed strange that they should be doing this—just because they were told to, and for money.
Starting near the back of the set, they went through the action just as if the cameras were clicking. The orchestra was playing and other couples were dancing near them.
They moved slowly when within the camera lines and went through the action of a couple just realizing they were in love and should be engaged, or were engaged and should be married at once. It mattered not to George de Masson; his theory was that the public would not know the difference unless a sub-title relayed the fact.
Thomas Smythe looked down at Jewel with all the simulated devotion of a lovesick boy, sa she stood there in his arms, and she smiled winsomely back the equally lovesick adoration of a young man’s sweetheart.
The action had been perfect and beyond reproach, yet anger, which surges in the hearts of enemies, was in theirs.
“That’s what I call good stuff,” called George de Masson. And each took the compliment as a personal one.
“Now,” the director continued, “we’re gonna shoot this time, and I don’t want any mistakes. Remember your action—everybody! All right. . . . Lights. . . . Action. . . . Camera!”
Again the players moved through their parts, with Jewel and Smythe repeating the same action to even better advantage this time—if that could be possible.
The scene was taken three times, and then de Masson ordered a close-up of Jewel and Smythe with a background of just a few extras. The others wandered around the stage back of the cameras. There in low voices they exchanged the latest gossip of the film folk.
Vergie Vann, a coming young actress, was talking to Paul Montgomery, a rising young chap. Both had small parts in the picture and were making the most of them for the sake of future engagements.
Vergie, whose real name had been Virginia Vannessi—a name too long for the screen—was a dainty little creature with a face of childlike innocence. Her blue eyes were large, her nose was perfect and her tiny mouth had caused many a youth’s heart to flutter. Her hair was a deep honey color, bobbed and naturally curly.
She, alone, had done wonders in Hollywood with casting directors. When she entered their offices in quest of employment, they always remembered to forget their freshness and get down to business. She had somehow made this understood on her first rounds of the studios.
The blase press agents had written truthful articles—for once in their lives—about her. They said, all of them, that she was the nicest girl in pictures. At the time that was a rare compliment.
Recognizing her eagerness and sincerity to learn acting from the very beginning, directors who were famous for “making” stars, pushed her ahead and lent a helping hand wherever they could.
Practically the same thing had been done with Paul Montgomery, who had just been graduated from Stanford University less than two years before. He was of medium stature, clean looking, quiet and always pleasant. His manner alone won him instant favor wherever he went.
Through their earnest endeavors to succeed, they had become acquainted, and later grew to be excellent friends. Paul secretly hoped that soon they would be more than just friends.
“Honestly, Paul, I don’t see how they can do it. There must be a spark of love somewhere, yet it does seem impossible after the mean things they’ve said about each other, doesn’t it?” Vergie fluffed her evening gown a bit at the sides.
“They certainly can act; that is a sure test for them. Just think, six weeks ago was the first time in five years that they had even spoken to each other. Wonder what that quarrel was about?”
“What difference does it make? I wonder if they will ever make up?” Vergie asked thoughtfully.
“Oh, they might . . . I guess. Be a good thing, too, because really they are good together, don’t you think so?”
“I should say they are! Meant for each other.”
“He’s got a mean temper—but so has she, as a matter of fact. You know up on the boulevard the other night at dinner he said some pretty rotten things about her. What I didn’t like was that he said them loud enough for those sitting near him to hear. I think that was awfully small, don’t you?”
“It surely was, Paul. Don’t you ever say anything about me,” she threatened laughingly.
“Why, honey—Oh! Pardon me, dear—“
“Paul! You’ve broken your promise! Well,” she sighed, “I never thought I could trust you—for long.”
“Honest, Vergie, I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”
She knew he was speaking the truth, so teasingly, she forgave him.
“Come on, Paul, we have to go on again.” With a winsome smile she danced away and went to a small balcony, with a painted background of a garden. This was used on interior scenes.
Vergie and Paul played the younger sister and brother to Jewel and Smythe, and were caught in each other’s arms at the end of the picture.
Their roles were very romantic, which helped a great deal in the serious courtship of these two youthful aspirants.
De Masson was arranging for a short close-up of them now. Jewel left the stage hurriedly for a few minutes’ rest in her dressing room. Thomas Smythe spent his leisure in smoking on the gangway between the stages.
The morning passed quickly, and lunch time came. George de Masson dismissed his company and staff at twelve-thirty, with an exasperated sigh. Why should they want to eat? He wasn’t hungry. Then, too, he was in a great hurry to finish up.
It was nearing four o’clock when the extras were dismissed for the day. There remained only a few shots with Jewel and Smythe. He held Vergie and Paul for the last scene with their “picture” brother and sister. The rest of the company hurried from the set to their respective dressing rooms. The assistant directors were busy for the next half hour signing the pay checks and filing names with the cashier.
It was almost six o’clock when they were ready for the last scene to be shot. Jewel Joseham and Thomas Smythe were to make a twenty-foot kiss with Vergie and Paul dimly in the background repeating their action. It was a clever ending, George de Masson declared. He had conceived the idea himself.
Paul also admitted it was good, after four rehearsals. Thomas Smythe, however, could not say the same. Neither could Jewel.
“Now, are you ready? We’re gonna shoot this time. Don’t forget to hold it. I’m making this twenty feet, so take your time and make it long and slow.”
“Just a minute, please, Mr. de Masson,” interposed Jewel. “I’ll have to rouge my lips; they are quite smeared.” She cast a scornful glance at Thomas Smythe.
“All right, all right, but hurry, Miss Joseham.”
De Masson fidgeted and fretted while she was gone.
When Jewel returned her lips were a deep red, shining and inviting. She smiled her thanks to the director and took her place in Thomas Smythe’s arms for the last scene.
George de Masson clapped his sturdy hands together with approval after they had completed the action twice.
“Hoorah! We’re all through! The picture is finished!”
Vergie and Paul watched Jewel and Thomas go their different routes to the dressing rooms. Even that last scene had not helped to bring them closer together. If anything, it had driven them further apart.
“Such a life!” sighed Vergie, as Paul held open the stage door for her.
The cameramen left their cameras for their assistants, and walked out of the dark stage with the director. The bright lights were snapped off, and the order to hold the set in case of a retake was already posted. Everyone was in a hurry to leave the studio. It had been a hard day. George de Masson when in a hurry to finish a picture always created a strain on the company, and they were uneasy until he was out of sight.
At about seven-fifteen Paul knocked on the dressing room door of Thomas Smythe, but received no answer. Strange, Paul thought, Smythe would hardly leave the studio without him. They had been going up to the boulevard together ever since the picture started. He wouldn’t be likely to leave without Paul this one evening. They nearly always dined together.
Vergie lived just a block from the studio and always hurried home to her mother, thus leaving Paul to himself.
As Paul stood there, he heard the whirl of Jewel’s large motor car on the driveway. Could it be possible that they were going home together? He dashed out to the driveway just in time to see the motor leave the grounds. No, Thomas Smythe was not with Jewel Joseham in the tonneau, nor was anyone else.
Paul wandered back to the dressing room. He knocked again. Still no answer. He tried the door. It was unlocked.
“Tommy!” he cried. The form of Thomas Smythe lay stretched out upon the floor.
Paul reached his side in one leap. Bending over, he felt for the actor’s pulse. He shuddered. Then he laid a hand on Tommy’s heart. A cold chill ran up his spine. He knelt there for a moment dazed. There could be no doubt about it—Thomas Smythe was dead!
Before Paul’s mind flashed a picture of Jewel’s departing motor. Would she have dared? He then made a quick search of the motionless body—still warm—for marks of violence. His search was unrewarded. Tommy’s street clothes held no strange marks of any kind. It was apparent that he had dropped to the floor on the way to the door. There was no trace of violence on the body that Paul could see. What should he do?
Finally his nerves calmed as he bent over the body. First, he thought, he must inform the studio officials. He hurried out of the dressing room and rushed to the administration building and to the office of the president, Adolph Kahn.
Here Paul pushed aside the janitor and knocked on the door. It was just probable that Kahn would be there this late in the day.
“Well?” Paul heard a gruff voice behind the door.
He entered excitedly. “Mr. Kahn, I’ve just found Thomas Smythe dead in his dressing room.”
“Vhat?” Adolph Kahn rose suddenly from his soft swivel chair with wide eyes bulging.
“Yes, sir. I just found Thomas Smythe dead in his dressing room!” Paul repeatedly hurriedly.
Adolph Kahn sat as if petrified. Thomas Smythe dead? Why it was impossible, he declared, as he started for the door.
The fat little president walked as fast as his short legs could carry him, and at the dressing room door a strange squeak escaped his thick lips, as he saw the prone figure of Thomas Smythe at full length on the floor. “My God! Vhat has happened? Who did this?”
Old man Kahn knelt and felt in vain for signs of life. He drew his hand quickly away and rose suddenly when he admitted Paul had been correct.
“Tell me, how did you happen to find him?” … (Part 2 to come)
 
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