Charles Ray was a popular juvenile star in the 1910s and ’20s, but by the ’30s, his career was on the rocks, and he turned to writing. Here’s another in a series of offerings from his book, Hollywood Shorts, a collection of short stories set in Tinseltown.
“It does not stink! I guess I know when a thing stinks!”
A motion-picture scenario conference was in session.
Horatio Van Elf was responsible for the first outburst. Of course, if any of the Van Elfs had heard it, they certainly would have been horrified at such ribaldry. His Bostonian mother would have been shocked, had she heard the expression at any time since his birth, at which moment, she had given him the noble name of Horatio. But as he was now in his forty-fourth year, wizened and sarcastic, it was a long stretch back to the moment of his christening. Nor had his mother ever dreamed that Horatio would serve as gag man in the scenario department of a motion-picture studio.
Seven members sat about a long conference table. Five of them were watching Horatio and Edgar glare at each other, eagerly hoping that the outburst would develop into a long argument which might ease the mental effort from the toil of story writing.
“What a crabby killjoy you are, Horatio.” Edgar spat at the cuspidor disgustedly. “Always puncturing anybody’s idea-bubble, with that lousy pet line of yours, before it gets the slightest chance for life. Order!” he yelled.
Edgar Savage was the scenario chief and could yell back at anyone. Plus his position, he was proud of several brain children in the form of what he called original stories, which were declared boxoffice successes.
“Furthermore,” Edgar continued with some dignity, “that pet line used to be funny when you first pulled it. Now it’s shopworn. Get somethin’ new.” After snapping his black eyes around the table, he concluded commandingly: “Now let’s have quiet an’ get going. Am I right, boys?”
“Right as hell, Edgar!” Ham Edwards exclaimed through uneven gold. “Somebody’s goin’ tuh give Horatio a permanent wave sometime for that crack of his.”
Ham Edwards was a short, squint-eyed, canny individual who always wore a tattered straw hat when in conference—for luck, he declared. But in reality it afforded him an opportunity to lean back in his comfortable chair with the luck hat over his eyes, and while assuming the attitude of thinking, to snatch a nap of forty winks many times during the long afternoons. He was second in command; was also a successful writer, even if his stuff was drivel. The name Ham had stayed with him since his acting days, when he had been much younger and less rotund.
“Now listen, an’ get it, Horatio!” Jay chimed in, a thin, red-haired man of forty-two—a lesser light, fearful of his job. “We
chair, with one foot dangling against the water-cooler drain bucket.
“Now all of you pipe down!” Edgar demanded. “Whatcha think this is, an arena? We just gotta turn in a Special, the boss wants to call it. We’ll be lucky if we get even a lousy idea before night, the way you’re actin’. Furthermore, the boss’ll break up this staff, surer ‘n hell he will, if we don’t have somethin’ to offer. Most any minute he’ll be askin’ for an outline. Now everybody get quiet while I think!”
Horatio just had to say: “What with?”
Edgar’s eyes snapped fire. His hands drummed an exasperating tattoo on the table.
“No more cracks, Horatio, or so help me, I’ll go stool pigeon an’ inform the boss.” Thinking better of his remark on exposé, Edgar temporized, “About your sneakin’ out on us whenever that blonde stenographer passes our door to go nose powderin’. Now quiet! Everybody think!”
Violent silence ensued.
The long conference table bore the weight of human hulks. Some leaned forward on it; some placed their feet upon it; many elbows rested upon it, supporting tired chins in welcome palms. The silence grew thick, oppressive, like the moment before a table begins to move at a midnight seance.
A waiting public would have stood in awe, had they seen such thoughtful postures ready to create their entertainment at such mental cost. Tightly pressed lips. Palms cupped in foreheads. Postures in caricature, postures in throes of concentration, postures, noble in the rough, that would outthink Rodin’s famous masterpiece. God’s man was penetrating the occult. Those who had to wrinkle to think, wrinkled—everyone wrinkled. The silence was broken only by Horatio’s foot tapping hopeful moments away against the water-color bucket.
Those who had to wrinkle to think, wrinkled—everyone wrinkled. The silence was broken only by Horatio’s foot tapping hopeful moments away against the water-cooler bucket.
Like a restless schoolboy’s, Ham’s eyes roamed up the facing of the door, around the moulding of the ceiling. For a moment he was watching a fly at the window pane. Then his gaze focused upon the cool green outside, between stages one and two. Midway on the picture lot a couple commanded his attention.
“Lookit, fellas!” he exclaimed and grinned. “Lookit the boss strollin’ with that new fem star of his.”
Quite as if a recess bell had sounded, thinking was abandoned. The conference broke up at the table and convened at the window.
“Where?” Edgar demanded eagerly. “Gimme a look!”
“The other way, you mug!” Ham informed proudly. “Between the stages, cuttin’ across the lawn to the sidewalk.”
Contemptuously Horatio sneered: “Lookit th’ screwy boss! Why, Mr. Schmaltizing!” he kidded. “How could yuh be so chipper?”
“Now where do you suppose the boss has been with that dame?” Jay chimed in, shading his eyes with a wide palm. “Musta been showin’ ‘er the lot. They just came from the laboratory. Lookit the goof swell up. You’d think he was the papa already. Wonder if he’s showed ‘er how nice and cool it is in the projectin’ room?”
Just to have something to say, Edgar rebuked his insinuations.
“Right!” Ham agreed. “How can you talk about our boss in that manner?” Hoping to prolong the window conference in relief from the story conference, he thrust: “Why, you guys are crazy! She’s a nice girl, swell looker, with a foreign aspect.”
“So that’s what they call it?” Edgar refocused his eyes to ascertain his true convictions. “So she’s an importation, eh? From where?”
“Nuts!” Horatio laughed. “Brooklyn’s still got things we ain’t seen yet!” Much pleased with his statement, he stuck his tongue a half-inch out of his mouth and blew.
The unpopular noise disturbed the others because they had not thought of doing it . Ostracizing Horatio with harsh mock glances, they shifted positions like a football squad, affecting moral attitudes.
“What d’ think,” Jay coughed to sink his sarcasm, “do they really call that femininity?” It’s ba-lon-ee to me! Wonder what the publicity department will write in alibi?”
“Feminine my—my eye!” Ham cried, trying to top Jay. “There’s a masculine streak in that dame or I’m a pansy.”
“Pipe down. Everybody knows you’re a pansy,” Horatio gulped happily!
“You’ll have to prove them words, mah partnah!” Ham announced, and dramatically left the window to strut his false anger. When his attempted comedy got no response, he elbowed his way back to his position at the window, concluding: “No foolin’, fellas, that dame’s got it, and it ain’t it I mean when I say it. Our girls had better watch out. I won’t be responsible,” he insinuated for fun.
He got a small supper-show laugh.
Waxing moral for effect, Jay spouted: “Oh, for cryin’ out an’ scarin’ yuh! You guys would ruin any reputation that stepped onto this lot, even before a columnist could get a break. You keyhole everyone before they get a room. I say it’s wrong, boys. Let the girl alone! She too may have had a mother.”
“Just give ‘er time, just give ‘er time,” Ham advised humorously.
“What do you mean by that?” one of the silent members made the mistake of asking.
“Oh, you!” Ham replied, rolling his eyes pansy-like. “Go read your Freud! Learn about women from ‘im.”
“Hey! Have a heart!” Edgar advised seriously, pushing everyone away from the window. “Before you know it, you’ll start somethin’. Lots of busted reputations have started that way. Besides, the boss’ll look up here any minute and think that we’re laughin’ at him, which we are. But we oughta have sense enough not to look down the barrel of a cannon.”
Reluctantly the staff moved toward the conference table, all but Horatio, who lingered, peeping around the edge of the window, much to Edgar’s disgust.
“All right, Horatio,” Edgar added sarcastically, “you got a bigger eyeful than we did. Tell us what you think of the gal.”
Horatio exploded a bomb shell. “I think she stinks!”
Edgar took the initiative. “We’re bad enough with our insinuations, Horatio, without you tryin’ to top us with that damned crack of yours. Boy, what a lousy expression! An’ I’ll tell you what.” His eyes snapped fire. “I’m goin’ to break you of it, or—“
“Or what?” Horatio growled.
Edgar’s face went instantly red.
“Oh, yeah?” Horatio parried.
“Oh, yeah, right back at you!”
“Says me! And here’s my money to back it up.”
Edgar threw a wallet on the polished surface of the table; then he started spreading ten-dollar bills out in fan-shaped elegance. When the ten-dollar compartment was emptied, he continued with the lesser denominations, demanding:
“Just tell me when to stop! I’m bettin’ that I cure you of sayin’ ‘It stinks!'”
Contemptuously Horatio aimed a bushy eyebrow at him and snorted: “Stop when your damned wallet’s empty!” Then he bellowed: “Then I’ll match it, and—“
“And what? I got some very nice blank checks handy, and I’ll bet your hand shakes when you start writin’.”
Dramatic and impressive, the wager was another help in postponing the story conference. All eyes transferred quickly from one contestant to the other.
“Put up or clamp down!”
Much pleased with himself, Edgar was acting the gambler role he had once written for Tom Mix, playing it all over again with more fervor and satisfaction.
Unable to think of a snappy retort, Horatio glared his contempt and laughed raucously.
“Hey! Pipe down, fellas,” Ham whispered nervously. “If the boss should be passin’ by, he’d bound in on us and fire everybody. I’ll just flip the latch on th’ door till you get that money put away.”
“Ham’s right!” Jay agreed thoughtfully. “Too near Christmas tuh lose a job.”
“Okay,” Edgar sanctioned cunningly. “An’ speakin’ of the boss, I’ve got to see ‘im before he scrams from the lot. There’s the bet!” he said with what he thought to be a true gambler’s gesture. “Count it while I’m gone. Be back in less than ten minutes.”
Elatedly he moved toward the door.
“Count it for ‘im, Ham,” he sneered. “Maybe Horatio’s too nervous to count that much money.”
Very conscious that it was a good dramatic exit, Edgar slammed the door.
Horatio glared his contempt; then extended it once around the table. As neatly as any sheriff had ever pulled a gun, he extracted a check book from his pocket. A similar gesture produced a fountain pen. Then he sat like a poser viewing ticker tape in a broker’s office, while he studied his check stubs.
The atmosphere was stimulating. The whole staff felt it. It was much better than scenario writing. Respectful attitudes sustained the suspense. To goad Horatio on toward bigger and broader betting, Ham exclaimed:
“Lord, you’ve doubled his bet,” and slapped him on the shoulder.
Grinning his sarcastic best, Jay barbed: “How ’bout a little side bet, Horatio, that this check of yours is bouncy?”
Horatio lifted a bushy eyebrow, said, “Nuts!” and spat at the cuspidor.
Ham scratched the few hairs he had in his head, wondering how he could possibly prolong the argument. A little coaxing, he reasoned, might make it all end happily in a trip to Tony’s Bar. The three silent members of the staff edged in. They were livening up. It was the first good fun they had experienced in some time. They had been permitted to talk concerning the bet, which they frantically until the hall door opened uncannily, as in a mystery play, commanding the attention of every eye.
In a moment, Edgar revealed himself. Standing upon the threshold, he squinted accusingly at his staff, assuming the very dramatic attitude the Indian chef had used in his recent story—the scene where he stood with his arms folded, demanding white squaw.
The staff gave Edgar his dramatic moment, which they knew he desired, all but Horatio, who impudently lit a cigarette and blew the match out with the smoke.
When the pose and the silence had absorbed its theatrical value, Edgar slammed the door and strutted to the table, advising:
“Well, the boss is wild. Of course, he asked how the story was roundin’ out , and naturally I had to lie like hell and say: ‘Just fine, Governor.’ I had to tell ‘im that we could outline it ‘most any time now. He’s crazy to hear it. So let’s get goin’ an’ save our necks. Hot-foot it and get somethin’ started, finished if possible. One thing’s sure: we gotta make a showin’, I’m tellin’ yuh!”
“Hey! Finish this first, Big Boy!”
Vehemently Horatio flung his check across the table, which slid, careened, and fell to the floor.
“Bet it’s a bad check,” Jay moaned. “It damned near made the cuspidor in one. Whata golfer! Whata golfer.”
Everyone laughed but Horatio, who snorted: “Read it and weep!”
Edgar wrote a check to meet the additional amount and indicated that Jay should hold the stakes. Eagerly he did so, mentally recalling his last trip to Tia Juana at a crap game.
“Now we work!” Edgar bellowed. “An’ no foolin’! Get story-minded quick! Somethin’s gotta happen!”
Assuming thoughtful attitudes, as fast as firemen respond to the first vibrations of the bell, the seven members convened quietly. The three silent members copied Edgar’s thoughtful posture. They frowned properly, imitating his lip movement.
Presently, with eyes closed, Edgar began speaking a word or two at a time through tight, distorted lips.
“Now—I was thinkin’,” he mumbled on, “of a swell idea—that is—well—take th’ same theme that they used in All Quiet on the Western Front, f’r instance—exceptin’ instead of havin’ the story about war, it—“
Edgar glared across at Horatio. His eyes snapped, but he controlled his temper cunningly, as if he had some better retort for Horatio at a later moment.
“All right,” he said simply. “You tell one, Horatio, an’ we’ll listen. That’s more than you ever do for us.”
Knowing that it would be quite some time now before he would be able to glimpse Tony’s Bar, Jay sidled over to the water cooler. On resuming his table position, he closed his eyes and worked his mouth peculiarly, as Edgar always did.
Suddenly Edgar coughed, which meant that he was actually thinking. Everyone informed the boss that he too was thinking, by clearing his throat and coughing. Then everyone coughed. The coughing got to be rhythmical, syncopating and then synchronizing like a locomotive barely able to make a steep grade.
After a brief silence, Ham happened to grunt.
Expectantly everyone opened his eyes, waiting. A grunt always meant at least the starting of an idea. When Ham saw the gaze of the entire staff riveted upon him, he felt compelling to utter something in revelation.
“Ah,” he began with no heart in it, then added quickly: “Naw, that wouldn’t do! Sorry.”
Relieved, he closed his eyes again, making a mental note never to grunt again in a story conference.
Five members of the staff evidenced great disgust for the interruption by changing positions and closing their eyes. The three silent members closed their eyes without changing positions.
The wall clock ticked on, the only harmonious mechanism in the room. To Horatio it was dissonant, always seeming to say “plot-plot, plot-plot,” annoyingly. He cast a busy eyebrow up at it.
Ham lit a cigarette, burned his fingers, and snapped them.
The snapping of fingers meant a plot for anybody’s money. The whole staff sat up, alert, stimulated, expectant. Sensing himself on the spot, Ham began mumbling.
“Here’s a plot that’s—f-f-f-fair,” he stuttered. “That hasn’t been used. I mean, in quite some time. Of course, it’s not new.”
“Bet it’s th’ one about th’ lost little girl with th’ locket around her neck,” Horatio snickered. “An’ her poor father hasn’t seen ‘er fer twelve years, ’cause of th’ Indian raid on the fort.”
“Nuts to you, Horatio!” Edgar snapped. “I’m runnin’ this conference, if you don’t mind.” Cooling his temper quickly, he spoke professionally “Now, here’s an idea. I was thinkin’ that—take the wrestler idea. You know, the wrestler and his cute little son. Now, he drinks. The wrestler drinks, an’ he—“
“Wouldn’t steal a plot, would yuh, pal?”
Ignoring Horatio’s thrust, Edgar narrowed his eyes to the appearance of almonds.
“To continue the wrestler idea,” he reprimanded forcefully.
“To interrupt—an’ beggin’ your pardon,” Ham broke in, with an eye for business, “can I ask now if everybody’s got their tickets for the wrestlin’ match at the Hollywood Stadium for Thursday night? I got a few left which I get a commission on. What say? Gimme a break?”
Hoping he could work up an argument which might last until quitting time, Jay sneered: “Ah, yuh mean that lousy match. That goof Swede who’s neckin’ it with the Grand Herstock? Hes weak as Horatio’s gags. The match’ll be a complete washout. The Swede smells! He’s a cluck without a quack.”
“Guess I ain’t so dumb,” Ham began eulogizing. “I got a straight tip on ‘im. Got thirty bucks placed, an’ don’t laugh. I woundn’ta brought up the subject if it hadn’t been for Edgar mentionin’ the wrestler plot,” he alibied.
An argument got quickly under way, pleasing the three silent members and annoying Edgar exceptionally.
“Aw, it’ll be a screwy match!” Horatio contended. “This guy Herstock’s a foreigner who’s tryin’ tuh mucle in on th’ Hollywood fans with lotta hooey publicity. I calls ‘im yellow, an’ when I calls ’em, they stay called,” he finished with a wry smile toward Edgar. Edgar’s silence gave him courage and he ventured: “Now, what yuh think of that fer a mouthful?”
“I think we ought to work,” Edgar returned calmly.
Regardless of admonitions from the chief, the argument waxed hot, loud and boisterous. Much incensed, Horatio commanded the situation by pacing the floor like a panther, firing his views in verbal salvos, wielding windmill gestures.
Suddenly the hall door opened.
Mr. Emanuel E. Schmaltzing, president and general manager of the studio, stood like a little Napoleon in the frame of the door. He seemed to be happy, appreciating activity in the room. He rubbed his hands parsimoniously, adjusted his bifocal glasses, looked left and right in anticipation, and asked with a threat in his tone:
“Vel, boys, how’s de story coming?”
The staff gulped like students surprised by a professor. No one seemed capable of answering Mr. Schmaltzing’s inquiry. His bifocal glasses rendered them speechless.
Horatio had been gesticulating so terrifically concerning the wrestler that he stood poised like a ball player who has just struck a foul. Ham rattled the pages of an old manuscript on the table, as if its contents had a bearing on the present plot. Jay drew his handkerchief ostentatiously, as if to stifle a probable sneeze. The three silent members of the staff knew enough to turn toward Edgar, but were astonished to see him calmly and meticulously picking diminutive bit of lint from his coat sleeve.
“Why,” Ham heard himself say and was immediately sorry, for all eyes turned questioningly upon him.
At that moment a miracle saved him. Jay coughed, drawing the fire of their gaze. After moistening his dry lips he started mumbling incoherently.
“Gee, it’s goin’ to be a great story!” he managed, and forced a sickly smile. Additional courage caused him to add: “You’ll love it.”
With a prop smile, Mr. Schmaltzing looked from one member to the other, finally resting his bifocals upon Horatio. Using more force in his tone than Jay had been able to evidence, Horatio assured:
“It’s a pip, Governor. Sure is okay!”
This was Edgar’s moment. With a calm voice which surprised his staff, he announced:
“Yes, Governor, as Horatio says: ‘It sure is okay1′ Swell, in fact. But it would be unfair for me to relate it, unfair to Horatio. After all, he was the originator. Fact is, he worked harder, generally speakin’, than any of us. Got us all upset at times with the weight of his remarks. We all tried hard enough, but it was Horatio who rounded it all out after we got stuck. You know, that does happen now and then in the best of families.”
With the pride of a teacher, he fixed his attention on Horatio, causing Mr. Schmaltzing to take a seat at the table and do likewise.
“Don’t be sensitive, Horatio,” Edgar said ambiguously. “The boys won’t be jealous if you tell the story, will you, boys? No, of course not,” he added quickly to relieve their worried minds. “Go on, tell the Governor, Horatio. I was going to say: tell him the climax, but that’s no good. Why not begin right where I wanted you to earlier in the afternoon, right at the beginning, eh, Governor?”
While Mr. Schmaltzing smiled his answer, the rest of the staff received assuring glances from Edgar and turned poker faces upon Horatio.
On the spot and knowing it, Horatio moved toward the water cooler, as if making preparations for what promised to be a long recital. He drank copiously, stalling, trying to remember the opening of any story. But his mind wouldn’t function. Beads of perspiration sprang out on his brow, and he took his chair appearing every inch a dunce without the cap. He squirmed and twisted, slid about and wiggled, coughed and cleared his throat many times. Then like one saying goodbye to hope, he began mumbling in a contrite tone which was an SOS for Edgar’s ears.
“You see, Governor, it’s a story,” he stammered. “You see—well, it ain’t no ordinary story. It’s hard to begin.”
“Yes?” Mr. Schmaltzing inflected with a hiss.
“Yes,” Horatio repeated. “This story ain’t no common one.” He moistened his lips and smacked them emphatically. “And, boy, has it an opening!” With something resembling lost hope, he turned toward Edgar. “Grand opening, eh?”
Watching the sickly smile about his gills, Edgar replied: “You know what I think, Horatio, but I don’t want to say a thing until the Governor gives his reactions. So outline it carefully. Just make us listen, like you did all afternoon. Be patient, Governor. In a few moments he’ll make you stand up and shout.”
Horatio groaned inwardly.
After catching each other’s expressions, Ham and Jay closed their eyes, posing as if listening to sweet organ music.
“Vel, let’s get goin’,” Mr. Schmaltzing urged. “Time is money!” he concluded in the tones of a judge.
“Okay, Governor.” Horatio gulped. “Well, th’ Alps is our locale. Swell openin’, he? Yes, sir, swell! An’ the girl—she’s wonderful. You know, wistful. We get away from the commonplace, see? No chance for censorship. She’s an orphan. See how smooth we open?” His predicament stimulated emotion. Forcefully, he added: “Yes, an orphan an’, boy, is she lonely!”
Heat waves made his brain weary. Vaguely he saw the fawning faces of the staff enjoying his last round-up.
“Yes, yes,” he stuttered on, “she’s an orphan. You know, Governor—no mother, no father!”
Mr. Schmaltzing frowned. His lip curled a little.
“Now this guy that’s after th’ girl is a heavy, see? Well, he ain’t exactly a heavy at first. A complex character, that’s what he is.” His bony finger emphasized the statement like a metronome. “Yes,” he whispered in reverence, “neither good nor bad. I mean, he ain’t no goody-goody. The lousy side predominates.”
With a weakness pervading him, Horatio slowed down. The immovable executive sat like the Sphinx. To Horatio, his fox eyes looked bigger than those which had frightened Little Red Riding Hood. Horatio, his brain seeming a vacuum, squirmed on his chair like a little boy whose hand the teacher failed to see. And like the little boy, he wanted to shout, “May I be excused?” but when his mouth opened, it said:
“So far, Governor, whatcha think?”
Rising to his full height, the dignified Mr. Schmaltzing answered as Edgar has secretly rehearsed him.
“I think it stinks!” he shouted, slamming out of the room like a maniac, leaving Horatio with bank-account vibrations in his knees.