Hollywood Shorts: Writer’s Cramp

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.

*    *    *
Writer’s Cramp
Mr. Howard J. Morris was a dramatist. He had three successful plays to his credit on the Gay White Way. New York had acclaimed him properly by bowing to all three. Quite an enviable position.
Talkies had taken the country by storm. The end of the silent drama had come. Writers of even insignificant offerings were grabbed for contracts by the studios on the Coast, who vied with one another for signatures. Hollywood had gone “legit,” with a battle cry: “The play’s the thing.” It was a writer’s year.
Hollywood went after Mr. Harold J. Morris. Subtly Mr. Morris went after Hollywood. They sparred frantically like pugilists. At last a mutual contract was agreed upon which thrilled Mr. Morris. He left Broadway for his first trip to Los Angeles, with a California-here-I-come attitude, and on arrival, met a welcome which warmed his heart. A major corporation had bid for and won his services. He was as happy as a bride.
But not for long. loneliness crept into his world. After he was made exceptionally comfortable in a pretentious office, no one spoke to him. He didn’t even see anyone, except when he gazed out his window onto the expanse of the studio grounds, or when he went to lunch. Often he took a stool at a counter or rudely sat at a table marked “reserved,” in the hope of finding out what might be going on in the sea of activity about him.
Now and then, on the walks between the huge stages, through sheer desperation he said “nice day” to someone—anyone. But a nod in recognition was all he received. All who ever passed him seemed to be in a frantic hurry, like ants bent on some important mission, seriously concentrating on its accomplishment. Only he went and came with nothing to do. Exasperating.
Time began to hang heavily on his hands. No assignment having been given to him, he wondered if he might have offended someone—someone they always called “big shot” cautiously, and by his first two initial respectfully. How could he find out? But after pondering deeply upon the subject, he reasoned that he could not have offended anyone if he did not see anyone to offend. An excellent hypothesis, a true deduction. Preposterous. Yes—nuts!
He exhausted the current magazines and took up solitaire. Then he reread the book of rules on bridge, got melancholy, and longed for New York.
After three weeks of loneliness, an idea flashed into his mind as to how to gain attention. After weighing the matter mentally for an hour, he decided. He went out and got what is commonly called drunk.
Three days later, with head hanging sheepishly and brain crowded with remorse, he went to an executive’s office to apologize. Humiliating.
The executive was in solemn conference, had been for some time; but the secretary advised that she would try to arrange an appointment at the earliest possible moment. However, it might be a day or two, perhaps three. She would be nice and “squeeze him in.”
A week went by.
Torn with emotions, Mr. Howard J. Morris made a final decision which calmed him somewhat. His resentment toward the firm for not giving him an assignment was bad enough, but to be ignored utterly was the last straw. He would leave it all and go where he was appreciated. He’d laugh it off on the train back to New York. If they thought “to hell with him,” then he’d think “to hell with them.” Fifty-fifty. No malice, no hard feelings. Just nuts!
Old Broadway was a cheering sight to Mr. Morris, until he swung into a telephone booth to say “cheerio” to close pals. When he found that the first three he called had recently left for Los Angeles, he relented to a quick impulse to get away from everyone and hurriedly made arrangements for passage to Europe.

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Hollywood Shorts: The Double’s Cross

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 stories from his book, Hollywood Shorts, a collection of stories set in Tinseltown.

*    *    *
The Double’s Cross
“You’ll pull through all right,” the doctor lied.
“Yes, I know I will,” a girl answered in the same forced tones that he had used.
The nurse patted her cheek. “Yes, the doctor’s convinced,” she parroted, smiled mechanically, and departed.
In a stunt which was just a little too much for the human frame, the double had replaced the star. Now she lay inert on a hospital bed with a white face and a broken bone somewhere; the doctor wouldn’t designate the location. From that she concluded that it was her back. There were severe, sharp pains to contend with if she so much as moved an inch or two.
The hospital room was filled with flowers. The tables were heavy with them, and huge vases lined the floor like a garden. Gorgeous red roses, pink ones, white ones, and some as yellow as the sun, shed dewdrops of sympathy. The studio had sent most of them.

The yellow ones came from the star for whom she had doubled in the stunt. Each afternoon for the last three days, the actress had come to visit her and remained at the bedside for hours. At times, she held the invalid’s hand; and when tears welled in her eyes, she feigned to look out of the window while wiping them away, and spoke of the sunshine outside.
But the star wasn’t to blame. No one was. Stunts were demanded by a waiting public. The age was speedy, the populace neurotic, and the show must go on.
The girl’s mind stopped arguing about the circumstances of her injury as the pain in her back increased.
The morning had been a long one. A dreaming feeling was enveloping her, and a ringing had started in her ears, like great Sunday-morning church bells. Against her will, objects about the room began to swing asunder.
Occasionally her blinking eyes reestablished the objects; but they sprang out again, as if on rubber strings, and commenced weird movements with new dance partners.
She discovered the trick of closing one eye to stop the kaleidoscopic show. Her reflection was plain in the polished surface of the water jug; and it relieved her to know that her face wasn’t distorted. Only her eyes seemed to be covered with a film, whenever she could focus them at all.
Shortly, a mist started covering everything in the room, like fog effects she had encountered in picture making. Then, oddly to her, she saw a man on a high platform shouting for more fog. Of course, it was the director, calling to his assistant, trying to improve the scene with more smoke pots which represented the fog.
Yes, she could see more clearly now. They were making a scene for a picture she had been working in—a retake. They were using the big studio gates as a background. But the gates weren’t really familiar. They were wider by far, and a great deal taller than any she had ever seen. They were painted to represent gold, a lot nicer than the ones at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.
Presently the administration building came into view. She saw someone hurrying in her direction, shouting that there was plenty of work for everyone, that they should go inside and register. Everything was strange; it had never been so before.
“They want you for a part,” the kind-faced attendant informed her.
“You must be mistaken,” she answered confidently. “Not a part. You must mean a part doubling, don’t you?”
“No,” the man assured, “you’re through with that work.”
As she moved past the doorman, she turned back to leave a message with him; but he surprised her by anticipating her thoughts.
“I’ll tell your mother and Mr. Wayne where you are,” he stated omnisciently.
The inside of the building was so large that she could not see the end of the halls. Their perspective reached to infinity. Immediately on her right and left were colossal doors. The most beautiful had a name on it which she could hardly distinguish—a Mr. Gold something-or-other.
Then she instantly felt stupid, remembering about the merger. Everything was under one head now. That wasn’t Mr. Gold something-or-other inscribed on the first door. It was Mr. God. He was the new producer.
The next instant the hospital room faded in over everything. The ocean waves of monotony started annoying her again. Her parched lips seemed to curl, swelling up with an intense heat.
“Water!” she cried fiercely, or thought she did.
Bestial forms ran into the room, forming themselves in lines pruriently against the walls. To block out the hideous images, she closed her eyes tightly; but a frightening ptosis compelled her to aid the levator muscles by holding her eyes open with her two fingers. An increasing stomatitis caused her to grind her teeth, until the vise-like security indicated paralysic of the jaw.
Suddenly the whirling in her head stopped. A gradual relaxation ensued. Composure enveloped her. She heard the assistant’s tread; then saw him stick his head into the room to give her a call.
“Hey, Double!” he yelled goodnaturedly. “The Chief sent me after you. You all set to go again? He’s ready for that big scene now. Feel okay about it? Let’s step on it. This new director’s sure speedy, an’ rarin’ to go. he claims that he’s got a new stunt that nobody in the whole world has seen. Stage two.”
Peacefully she watched jolly scene-shifters enter and move the walls of her room away.

A tiny icon of a potted shrub

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Hollywood Shorts: Once A Baby

Charles Ray was a popular juvenile film star for the Thomas Ince studio in the 1910s who eventually broke away to form his own production company so that he might break away from the rural youth roles in which he’d been typecast. His 1923 production, The Courtship of Myles Standish (1923, now considered a lost film), was an expensive bust, and Ray lost everything.

Ince helped Ray get back on his feet by offering him some roles, but Ince’s death in 1924 forced Ray to resort to working in low-budget “Poverty Row” productions, and he had trouble finding a niche after the advent of talking pictures. In the 1930s, he settled for minor, unmemorable roles to pay the bills, and launched various other endeavors, among them the Beverly Ray Cultural School (located at 5537 Hollywood Blvd. and named after Ray’s wife), where Ray promised prospective students he would “personally analyze your talent and chart a practical program for you.”

In 1936, Ray began publishing Charles Ray’s Hollywood Digest, a compendium of Tinseltown-related “stories or story excerpts, a full page of knock knock jokes, puns, odd, random facts or trivia, recipes, small film reviews, cartoons, etc.” (The Daily Mirror). The cost of the 96-page first issue was 40 cents (a 13-month subscription could be had for $5). And that issue featured an advertisement for Hollywood Shorts, Ray’s book of short stories (it could be had for a mere $2.50).

Sadly, there was to be just one more issue of Hollywood Digest. Thereafter, Ray continued to muddle through playing only occasional small roles in pictures until his death in 1943 of an infection caused by an impacted tooth. Ray was 52 years old and all but forgotten.

But we remember him. And we’re pleased to bring, on a weekly basis, the stories from Hollywood Shorts.

*    *    *
Once a Baby

“A baby! A baby” the director demanded. “We’ve got to have a cute baby. It’ll make the picture!”
“Get a baby,” the assistant commanded of the casting office.
Mothers came and mothers went. Babies came and babies went. Tests were taken—laughing, crying, goo-gooing, and driveling. Then a choice was made.
The picture was to be spectacular—“colossal,” to use the producer’s enthusiastic expression, born of hope.
“Yes,” all employees agreed, and whispered, “The picture of the year,” to any listener.
Violent activity began. Romans hurried about the lot in togas, in armor, and in the near-nude painted a swarthy brown. Greeks carried huge spears. Fiery steeds hauled gilded chariots. Wise men stroked long, false beards, assimilating their characters after true information from the research department.
Enthusiasm reigned. The studio became an ant hill of activity.
Cameras finally began to grind. Battle scenes were shot and
crossed by sweeping hordes. Castle walls crumbled and drawbridges collapsed at the command of the forces plying the battering rams and catapults. The successful engines of war cleared the path for a new master. The city fell. Then a king rode a white horse through the conquered streets while the populace bowed mutely in obeisance. Former first citizens were made slaves. Replacing horses, they drew heavy chariots containing the conquerors, and silently bore their cross.
“Now the baby!” the director shouted. “That intimate touch will get them. That heart appeal!”
“Call the baby!” the assistant commanded.
“Call the baby,” the casting office relayed.
“Okay, the baby,” the mother responded.
Innumerable scenes were shot with the baby crying, laughing, gooing, and playing at the feet of the king.
The king was human; he melted. Life’s great miracle, in a cradle, had done it. The city was restored. The monarch rode away at the rear of his armies, signifying his sackcloth-and-ashes repentance.

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How to succeed in Hollywood, ca. 1921

Mae Marsh was a movie star whose heyday occurred in the era of silent pictures. She appeared in more than 100 pictures before 1928, including D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and The Birth of a Nation (1915), and made another 90 or so once the switch had been made to talking pictures.

In 1921, in response, she claimed, to thousands of requests for advice from her fans, she authored a short book, “Screen Acting” that is one part memoir and two parts instruction book for those hoping to find work acting on the screen.

We were particularly intrigued (and, we’ll admit, amused) by the book’s third chapter, in which Ms. Marsh addresses, among other salient matters, the need for actors to be , er, clean-living and pure of heart and mind.

Does that describe the Hollywood of legend and lore? No, bless Ms. Marsh’s earnest heart.

Chapter III
Seven qualities that indicate fitness for a screen career
—Why they are important—An illustration of vitality.

As I have said, I have been asked by thousands of correspondents for the formula for screen success. I have never felt able to answer. I don’t believe there is any such formula.

Putting the proposition another way: If I were requested to choose from among ten beginners the one who would go farthest in motion pictures I should unhesitatingly lay my finger upon the one who possessed the following qualifications:

(1) Natural talent.
(2) Ambition.
(3) Personality.
(4) Sincerity.
(5) Agreeable appearance.
(6) Vitality and strength.
(7) Ability to learn quickly.

I’m sure I would not go far wrong if I were to place my trust in one endowed with these qualities.

A natural talent for acting implies more than a mere desire to act. It is the art, usually discovered during childhood, of mimicry, and the joy in that art.

How many of us have been convulsed in our earlier years at some school girl friend’s take-off of our teacher? I seem to remember that in my grammar school days I was called upon more or less to take-off one of our teachers.

If not called upon I volunteered. None of my school chums got more enjoyment out of my “imitation of Miss Blank” than I did. I never dreamed at that time —or, if I did, they were vague dreams—that I was to become an actress. Since then I have come to the conclusion that I was actually taking my first steps toward what I chose as a career.

Natural talent, as I have called it, is no more than a tendency toward, or an aptitude for, some form of endeavor. In youth my first artistic loves were for mimicry and painting—the latter of which took the form of sculpturing—and both of these loves have been enduring.

For that reason unless my candidate for screen success previously shown some love for acting or mimicry I should come to the conclusion that he or she was intoxicated merely with the glamour of the profession, with no especial love for the fundamental thing itself.

This is an important point. If its significance were duly impressed upon the thousands of girls and boys, who would like to choose the screen for a career, perhaps, some of them would abandon their dreams and turn to things for which they have displayed some natural aptitude.

Ambition must, of course, go hand in hand with natural talent. In any form of vocational training it is assumed that the student has a feverish desire to succeed in the particular line that he has elected to follow. It is the same on the screen.

Possibly I might have written down enthusiasm in place of ambition. After one has attained stardom and thus, perhaps, achieve his or her ambition the ability sustain enthusiasm in one work becomes more important than ambition. But ambition and enthusiasm are closely correlated.

They mean that one has an ambition to gain the top, and that to reach that position one has the enthusiasm to practice all the forms of self-denial, discipline and study that are important to artistic success in any line.

Personality is important for the reason that the camera has a way of registering it unerringly. It is keen in detecting the weak or vapid.

In my eight years before a motion picture camera I have never met a person of inferior fibre whose inferiority was not accentuated by the camera. For that reason to sustain success on the screen I believe there is nothing more important than clean thoughts and clean living. They do register.

It is precisely the same with sincerity. In any line there is probably little hope for those who lack this salient quality. But a motion picture camera seems especially to delight in exposing insincerity.

I think considerable of the success of Mary Pickford and Charles Ray—to name but two stars—is due to their absolute and abundant sincerity. The camera, finding so much that is clean and real, has joyously reproduced it. It is the love that Miss Pickford radiates from the screen and the obvious manliness of Mr. Ray that are among their biggest assets. This is sincere love and sincere manliness, or it would never been so emphasized by the camera.

My candidate for screen honors, therefore, must have the God-given quality of sincerity. Only that kind can feel deeply, think cleanly and develop the sterling traits without which neither a camera or a public can be very long deceived.

I now come to the matter of personal appearance. This is a topic in which every man under 65, and every woman under 100 years seem interested. I sometimes wonder if it is not the desire to see how they would look on the screen, rather than how they might act, that fills so many boys and girls and men and women with an ambition for a screen career.

I have found the subject of such universal interest that I believe it deserves a chapter to itself. Therefore I shall dismiss this matter until the next. I may say, however, that in my candidate I should rank agreeable appearance and an expressive face as superior to mere beauty.

To paraphrase, nothing succeeds like good health. Of itself it is the most valuable thing that we should own. Good health can be translated into terms of capacity for work. Therefore since a screen career means both hard and trying work I should insist that my candidate possess or develop the qualities of strength and vitality.

I am aware that in my forms of art such artists as Chopin, Stevenson and Milton, have become famous in spite of great physical handicaps. I do not believe the same can be done in pictures.

It seems to me that healthy persons like to see and be among well people. Motion picture audiences being invariably in first-class physical shape themselves, desire that those who appear before them on the screen be likewise fortunate. It is my belief that an audience is usually bored to tears by a convalescing hero or heroine. If I were in charge of all the played I should cut such episodes very short. They beget more impatience than sympathy.

But it is not only because good health radiates from the screen that is important. In point of nervous and muscular strain, and the often long studio hours that are necessary when production has begun, good health is essential.

To illustrate: While we were filming “Polly of the Circus” in Fort Lee one morning I reported at the studio at nine o’clock. We were working on some interior scenes that were vital to the success of the story. My director at that time was Mr. Charles Horan. Mr. Vernon Steel was playing the male lead.

That day we became so engrossed in playing some rather delicate scenes that before we knew it—or at least before I could realize it—it was six o’clock and we weren’t half done.

“What do you say to continuing?” asked Mr. Horan.

“Good; we’re right in the spirit of it,” I replied. We had a bite to eat and worked on until midnight. In spite of our hard and earnest efforts there were several scenes with which we were dissatisfied.

“Well,” said Mr. Horan ruefully. “Tomorrow will be another day.” As he spoke it dawned on me how one of the scenes on which we felt we had failed could be done with probable success.

“Why tomorrow?” I replied. “Let’s make a night of it if necessary. We simply have to get that scene.”

Mr. Horan grinned. That had been his wish. But he had feared breaking the camel’s back.

We worked until four o’clock that morning. Things went swimmingly. It was broad daylight when I ferried across the Hudson but if I was very tired I was equally happy.

Several times during “Polly of the Circus” we had experiences which, in the number of hours put in, were similar to that which I have related. But in the end it was worth while. We had a picture.

At that time I was feeling in the best of health but, even so, the long hours had been a severe drain upon my none too great vitality. For anyone lacking strength and vitality such hours would have been impossible.

It is not my intention to write a booklet on health. But all of us should be very careful of our most precious possession. I know of so many young girls in motion pictures who have let their health get away from them. And some of the cases are so pitiful. . . .

My candidate, then, will have strength and vitality and, equally important, he or she will cling to both, whatever social sacrifices may have to be made to preserve them.

The ability to learn quickly will save anyone going into screen work so much trouble and possible humiliation that it may well be listed as an essential qualification.

The screen is no place for the mental laggard. The beginner, particularly, must be alive to learn the new lessons that each day will bring, and learning them he must remember.

During the course of production in a studio things are at high tension. Time is money. Each of us constitutes a more or less important cog in a great machine. Those clogs that inexcusably forget to function are eliminated.