Merton of the Movies/Chapter 13
GENIUS COMES INTO ITS OWN
Merton Gill, enacting the part of a popular screen idol, as in the play of yesterday, sat at breakfast in his apartments on Stage Number Five. Outwardly he was cool, wary, unperturbed, as he peeled the shell from a hard-boiled egg and sprinkled salt upon it. For the breakfast consisted of hard-boiled eggs and potato salad brought on in a wooden dish.
He had been slightly disturbed by the items of this meal; it was not so elegant a breakfast as Hubert Throckmorton's, but he had been told by Baird that they must be a little different.
He had been slightly disturbed, too, at discovering the faithful valet who brought on the simple repast was the cross-eyed man. Still, the fellow had behaved respectfully, as a valet should. He had been quietly obsequious of manner, revealing only a profound admiration for his master and a constant solicitude for his comfort. Probably he, like Baird, was trying to do something distinctive and worth while.
Having finished the last egg—glad they had given him no more than three—the popular screen idol at the prompting of Baird, back by the cameras, arose, withdrew a metal cigarette case, purchased that very morning with this scene in view, and selected a cigarette. He stood negligently, as Parmalee had stood, tapped the end of the cigarette on the side of the case, as Parmalee had done, lighted a match on the sole of his boot, and idly smoked in the Parmalee manner.
Three times the day before he had studied Parmalee in this bit of business. Now he idly crossed to the centre-table upon which reposed a large photograph album. He turned the pages of this, pausing to admire the pictures there revealed. Baird had not only given him general instructions for this scene, but now prompted him in low, encouraging tones.
"Turn over slowly; you like 'em all. Now lift the album up and hold it for a better light on that one. It's one of the best, it pleases you a lot. Look even more pleased—smile! That's good. Put down the album; turn again, slowly; turn twice more, that's it; pick it up again. This one is fine——"
Baird took him through the album in this manner, had him close it when all the leaves were turned, and stand a moment with one hand resting on it. The album had been empty. It had been deemed best not to inform the actor that later close-ups of the pages would show him to have been refreshed by studying photographs of himself—copies, in fact, of the stills of Clifford Armytage at that moment resting on Baird's desk.
As he stood now, a hand affectionately upon the album, a trace of the fatuously admiring smile still lingering on his expressive face, a knock sounded upon the door. "Come in," he called.
The valet entered with the morning mail. This consisted entirely of letters. There were hundreds of them, and the valet had heaped them in a large clothes-basket which he now held respectfully in front of him.
The actor motioned him, with an authentic Parmalee gesture, to place them by the table. The valet obeyed, though spilling many letters from the top of the overflowing basket. These, while his master seated himself, he briskly swept up with a broom.
The chagrined amusement of Harold Parmalee, the half-savage, half-humorous tolerance for this perhaps excusable weakness of woman, was here accurately manifested. The actor yawned slightly, lighted another cigarette with flawless Parmalee technique, withdrew a handkerchief from his sleeve-cuff, lightly touched his forehead with it, and began to open the letters. He glanced at each one in a quick, bored manner, and cast it aside.
When a dozen or so had been thus treated he was aroused by another knock at the door. It opened to reveal the valet with another basket overflowing with letters. Upon this the actor arose, spread his arms wide in a gesture of humorous helplessness. He held this briefly, then drooped in humorous despair.
He lighted another cigarette, eyed the letters with that whimsical lift of the brows so characteristic of Parmalee, and lazily blew smoke toward them. Then, regarding the smoke, he idly waved a hand through it. "Poor, silly little girls!" But there was a charming tolerance in his manner. One felt his generous recognition that they were not wholly without provocation.
This appeared to close the simple episode. The scenes, to be sure, had not been shot without delays and rehearsals, and a good two hours of the morning had elapsed before the actor was released from the glare of light and the need to remember that he was Harold Parmalee. His peeling of an egg, for example, had not at first been dainty enough to please the director, and the scene with the album had required many rehearsals to secure the needed variety of expressions, but Baird had been helpful in his promptings, and always kind.
"Now, this one you've turned over—it's someone you love better than anybody. It might be your dear old mother that you haven't seen for years. It makes you kind of solemn as you show how fond you were of her. You're affected deeply by her face. That's it, fine! Now the next one, you like it just as much, but it pleases you more. It's someone else you're fond of, but you're not so solemn.
"Now turn over another, but very slow—slow—but don't let go of it. Stop a minute and turn back as if you had to have another peek at the last one, see what I mean? Take plenty of time. This is a great treat for you. It makes you feel kind of religious. Now you're getting it—that's the boy! All right——"
The scene where he showed humorous dismay at the quantity of his mail had needed but one rehearsal. He had here been Harold Parmalee without effort. Also he had not been asked to do again the Parmalee trick of lighting a cigarette nor of withdrawing the handkerchief from its cuff to twice touch his forehead in moments of amused perplexity. Baird had merely uttered a low "Fine!" at beholding these bits.
He drew a long breath of relief when released from the set. Seemingly he had met the test. Baird had said that morning, "Now we'll just run a little kind of test to find out a few things about you," and had followed with a general description of the scenes. It was to be of no great importance—a minor detail of the picture.
Perhaps this had been why the wealthy actor breakfasted in rather a plainly furnished room on hard-boiled eggs and potato salad. Perhaps this had been why the costume given him had been not too well fitting, not too nice in detail. Perhaps this was why they had allowed the cross-eyed man to appear as his valet. He was quite sure this man would not do as a valet in a high-class picture. Anyway, however unimportant the scene, he felt that he had acquitted himself with credit.
The Montague girl, who had made him up that morning, with close attention to his eyebrows, watched him from back of the cameras, and she seized both his hands when he left the set. "You're going to land," she warmly assured him. "I can tell a trouper when I see one."
She was in costume. She was apparently doing the part of a society girl, though slightly overdressed, he thought.
"We're working on another set for this same picture," she explained, "but I simply had to catch you acting. You'll probably be over with us to-morrow. But you're through for the day, so beat it and have a good time."
"Couldn't I come over and watch you?"
"No, Baird doesn't like to have his actors watching things they ain't in; he told me specially that you weren't to be around except when you're working. You see, he's using you in kind of a special part in this multiple-reeler, and he's afraid you might get confused if you watched the other parts. I guess he'll start you to-morrow. You're to be in a good, wholesome heart play. You'll have a great chance in it."
"Well, I'll go see if I can find another Parmalee picture for this afternoon. Say, you don't think I was too much like him in that scene, do you? You know it's one thing if I look like him—I can't help that—but I shouldn't try to imitate him too closely, should I? I got to think about my own individuality, haven't I?"
"Sure, sure you have! But you were fine—your imitation wasn't a bit too close. You can think about your own individuality this afternoon when you're watching him."
Late that day in the projection room Baird and the Montague girl watched the "rush" of that morning's episode.
"The squirrel's done it," whispered the girl after the opening scene. It seemed to her that Merton Gill on the screen might overhear her comment.
Even Baird was low-toned. "Looks so," he agreed.
"If that ain't Parmalee then I'll eat all the hard-boiled eggs on the lot."
Baird rubbed his hands. "It's Parmalee plus," he corrected.
"Oh, Mother, Mother!" murmured the girl while the screen revealed the actor studying his photographs.
"He handled all right in that spot," observed Baird.
"He'll handle right—don't worry. Ain't I told you he's a natural born trouper?"
The mail was abandoned in humorous despair. The cigarette lighted in a flawless Parmalee manner, the smoke idly brushed aside. "Poor, silly little girls," the actor was seen to say.
The girl gripped Baird's arm until he winced. "There, old Pippin! There's your million, picked right up on the lot!"
"Maybe," assented the cooler Baird, as they left the projection room.
"And say," asked the girl, "did you notice all morning how he didn't even bat an eye when you spoke to him, if the camera was still turning? Not like a beginner that'll nearly always look up and get out of the picture."
"What I bet," observed Baird, "I bet he'd 'a' done that album stuff even better than he did if I'd actually put his own pictures in, the way I'm going to for the close ups. I was afraid he'd see it was kidding if I did, or if I told him what pictures they were going to be. But I'm darned now if I don't think he'd have stood for it. I don't believe you'll ever be able to peeve that boy by telling him he's good."
The girl glanced up defensively as they walked.
"Now don't get the idea he's conceited, because he ain't. Not one bit."
"How do you know he ain't?"
She considered this, then explained brightly, "Because I wouldn't like him if he was. No, no—now you listen here" as Baird had grinned. "This lad believes in himself, that's all. That's different from conceit. You can believe a whole lot in yourself, and still be as modest as a new-hatched chicken. That's what he reminds me of, too."
The following morning Baird halted him outside the set on which he would work that day. Again he had been made up by the Montague girl, with especial attention to the eyebrows so that they might show the Parmalee lift.
"I just want to give you the general dope of the piece before you go on," said Baird, in the shelter of high canvas backing. "You're the only son of a widowed mother and both you and she are toiling to pay off the mortgage on the little home. You're the cashier of this business establishment, and in love with the proprietor's daughter, only she's a society girl and kind of looks down on you at first. Then, there's her brother, the proprietor's only son. He's the clerk in this place. He doesn't want to work, but his father has made him learn the business, see? He's kind of a no-good; dissipated; wears flashy clothes and plays the races and shoots craps and drinks. You try to reform him because he's idolized by his sister that you're in love with.
"But you can't do a thing with him. He keeps on and gets in with a rough crowd, and finally he steals a lot of money out of the safe, and just when they are about to discover that he's the thief you see it would break his sister's heart so you take the crime on your own shoulders. After that, just before you're going to be arrested, you make a getaway—because, after all, you're not guilty—and you go out West to start all over again——"
"Out there in the big open spaces?" suggested Merton, who had listened attentively.
"Exactly," assented Baird, with one of those nervous spasms that would now and again twitch his lips and chin. "Out there in the big open spaces where men are men—that's the idea. And you build up a little gray home in the West for yourself and your poor old mother who never lost faith in you. There'll be a lot of good Western stuff in this—Buck Benson stuff, you know, that you can do so well—and the girl will get out there some way and tell you that her brother finally confessed his crime, and everything'll be jake, see what I mean?"
"Yes, sir; it sounds fine, Mr. Baird. And I certainly will give the best that is in me to this part." He had an impulse to tell the manager, too, how gratified he was that one who had been content with the low humour of the Buckeye comedies should at last have been won over to the better form of photodrama. But Baird was leading him on to the set; there was no time for this congratulatory episode.
Indeed the impulse was swept from his mind in the novelty of the set now exposed, and in the thought that his personality was to dominate it. The scene of the little drama's unfolding was a delicatessen shop. Counters and shelves were arrayed with cooked foods, salads, cheeses, the latter under glass or wire protectors. At the back was a cashier's desk, an open safe beside it. He took his place there at Baird's direction and began to write in a ledger.
"Now your old mother's coming to mop up the place," called Baird. "Come on, Mother! You look up and see her, and rush over to her. She puts down her bucket and mop, and takes you in her arms. She's weeping; you try to comfort her; you want her to give up mopping, and tell her you can make enough to support two, but she won't listen because there's the mortgage on the little flat to be paid off. So you go back to the desk, stopping to give her a sad look as she gets down on the floor. Now, try it."
A very old, bent, feeble woman with a pail of water and cloths tottered on. Her dress was ragged, her white hair hung about her sad old face in disorderly strands. She set down her bucket and raised her torn apron to her eyes.
"Look up and see her," called Baird. "A glad light comes into her eyes. Rush forward—say 'Mother' distinctly, so it'll show. Now the clench. You're crying on his shoulder, Mother, and he's looking down at you first, then off, about at me. He's near crying himself. Now he's telling you to give up mopping places, and you're telling him every little helps.
"All right, break. Get to mopping, Mother, but keep on crying. He stops for a long look at you. He seems to be saying that some day he will take you out of such work. Now he's back at his desk. All right. But we'll do it once more. And a little more pathos, Merton, when you take the old lady in your arms. You can broaden it. You don't actually break down, but you nearly do."
The scene was rehearsed again, to Baird's satisfaction, and the cameras ground. Merton Gill gave the best that was in him. His glad look at first beholding the old lady, the yearning of his eyes when his arms opened to enfold her, the tenderness of his embrace as he murmured soothing words, the lingering touch of his hand as he left her, the manly determination of the last look in which he showed a fresh resolve to release her from this toil, all were eloquent of the deepest filial devotion and earnestness of purpose.
Back at his desk he was genuinely pitying the old lady. Very lately, it was evident, she had been compelled to play in a cabaret scene, for she smelled strongly of cigarettes, and he could not suppose that she, her eyes brimming with anguished mother love, could have relished these. He was glad when it presently developed that his own was not to be a smoking part.
"Now the dissipated brother's coming on," explained Baird. "He'll breeze in, hang up his hat, offer you a cigarette, which you refuse, and show you some money that he won on the third race yesterday. You follow him a little way from the desk, telling him he shouldn't smoke cigarettes, and that money he gets by gambling will never do him any good. He laughs at you, but you don't mind. On your way back to the desk you stop by your mother, and she gets up and embraces you again.
"Take your time about it—she's your mother, remember."
The brother entered. He was indeed dissipated appearing, loudly dressed, and already smoking a cigarette as he swaggered the length of the shop to offer Merton one. Merton refused in a kindly but firm manner. The flashy brother now pulled a roll of bills from his pocket and pointed to his winning horse in a racing extra. The line in large type was there for the close-up—"Pianola Romps Home in Third Race."
Followed the scene in which Merton sought to show this youth that cigarettes and gambling would harm him. The youth remained obdurate. He seized a duster and, with ribald action, began to dust off the rows of cooked food on the counters. Again the son stopped to embrace his mother, who again wept as she enfolded him. The scene was shot.
Step by step, under the patient coaching of Baird, the simple drama unfolded. It was hot beneath the lights, delays were frequent and the rehearsals tedious, yet Merton Gill continued to give the best that was in him. As the day wore on, the dissipated son went from bad to worse. He would leave the shop to place money on a horse race, and he would seek to induce the customers he waited on to play at dice with him. A few of them consented, and one, a coloured man who had come to purchase pigs'-feet, won at this game all the bills which the youth had shown to Merton on entering.
There were moments during this scene when Merton wondered if Baird were not relapsing into Buckeye comedy depths, but he saw the inevitable trend of the drama and the justification for this bit of gambling. For the son, now penniless, became desperate. He appealed to Merton for a loan, urging it on the ground that he had a sure thing thirty-to-one shot at Latonia. At least these were the words of Baird, as he directed Merton to deny the request and to again try to save the youth from his inevitable downfall. Whereupon the youth had sneered at Merton and left the place in deep anger.
There followed the scene with the boy's sister, only daughter of the rich delicatessen merchant, whom Merton was pleased to discover would be played by the Montague girl. She entered in a splendid evening gown, almost too splendid, Merton thought, for street wear in daylight, though it was partially concealed by a rich opera cloak. The brother being out, Merton came forward to wait upon her.
"It's like this," Baird explained. "She's just a simple New York society girl, kind of shallow and heartless, because she has never been aroused nor anything, see? You're the first one that's really touched her heart, but she hesitates because her father expects her to marry a count, and she's come to get the food for a swell banquet they're giving for him. She says where's her brother, and if anything happened to him it would break her heart. Then she orders what she wants and you do it up for her, looking at her all the time as if you thought she was the one girl in the world.
"She kind of falls for you a little bit, still she is afraid of what her father would say. Then you get bolder, see? You come from behind the counter and begin to make love, talking as you come out—so-and-so, so-and-so, so-and-so—Miss Hoffmeyer, I have loved you since the day I first set eyes on you—so-and-so, so-and-so, so-and-so, I have nothing to offer but the love of an honest man—she's falling for it, see? So you get up close and grab her—cave-man stuff. Do a good hard clench—she's yours at last; she just naturally sags right down on to you. You've got her.
"Do a regular Parmalee. Take your time. You're going to kiss her and kiss her right. But just as you get down to it the father busts in and says what's the meaning of this, so you fly apart and the father says you're discharged, because his daughter is the affianced wife of this Count Aspirin, see? Then he goes back to the safe and finds all the money has been taken, because the son has sneaked in and grabbed out the bundle and hid it in the ice-box on his way out, taking only a few bills to get down on a horse. So he says call the police—but that's enough for now. Go ahead and do that love scene for me."
Slowly the scene was brought to Baird's liking. Slowly, because Merton Gill at first proved to be diffident at the crisis. For three rehearsals the muscular arm of Miss Montague had most of the clenching to do. He believed he was being rough and masterful, but Baird wished a greater show of violence. They had also to time this scene with the surreptitious entrance of the brother, his theft of the money which he stuffed into a paper sack and placed in the ice-box, and his exit.
The leading man having at last proved that he could be Harold Parmalee even in this crisis, the scene was extended to the entrance of the indignant father. He was one of those self-made men of wealth, Merton thought, a short, stout gentleman with fiery whiskers, not at all fashionably dressed. He broke upon the embrace with a threatening stick. The pair separated, the young lover facing him, proud, erect, defiant, the girl drooping and confused.
The father discharged Merton Gill with great brutality, then went to the safe at the back of the room, returning to shout the news that he had been robbed by the man who would have robbed him of his daughter. It looked black for Merton. Puzzled at first, he now saw that the idolized brother of the girl must have taken the money. He seemed about to declare this when his nobler nature compelled him to a silence that must be taken for guilt.
The erring brother returned, accompanied by several customers. "Bring a detective to arrest this man," ordered the father. One of the customers stepped out to return with a detective. Again Merton was slightly disquieted at perceiving that the detective was the cross-eyed man. This person bustled about the place, tapping the cooked meats and the cheeses, and at last placed his hand upon the shoulder of the supposed thief. Merton, at Baird's direction, drew back and threatened him with a blow. The detective cringed and said: "I will go out and call a policeman."
The others now turned their backs upon the guilty man. Even the girl drew away after one long, agonized look at the lover to whose embrace she had so lately submitted. He raised his arms to her in mute appeal as she moved away, then dropped them at his side.
"Give her all you got in a look," directed Baird. "You're saying: 'I go to a felon's cell, but I do it all for you.' Dream your eyes at her." Merton Gill obeyed.
The action progressed. In this wait for the policeman the old mother crept forward. She explained to Merton that the money was in the ice-box where the real thief had placed it, and since he had taken the crime of another upon his shoulders he should also take the evidence, lest the unfortunate young man be later convicted by that; she also urged him to fly by the rear door while there was yet time. He did these things, pausing for a last embrace of the weeping old lady, even as the hand of the arriving policeman was upon the door.
"All for to-day, except some close-ups," announced Baird when this scene had been shot. There was a breaking up of the group, a relaxation of that dramatic tension which the heart-values of the piece had imposed. Only once, while Merton was doing some of his best acting, had there been a kind of wheezy tittering from certain members of the cast and the group about the cameras.
Baird had quickly suppressed this. "If there's any kidding in this piece it's all in my part," he announced in cold, clear tones, and there had been no further signs of levity. Merton was pleased by this manner of Baird's. It showed that he was finely in earnest in the effort for the worth-while things.
And Baird now congratulated him, seconded by the Montague girl. He had, they told him, been all that could be expected.
"I wasn't sure of myself," he told them, "in one scene, and I wanted to ask you about it, Mr. Baird. It's where I take that money from the ice-box and go out with it. I couldn't make myself feel right. Wouldn't it look to other people as if I was actually stealing it myself? Why couldn't I put it back in the safe?"
Baird listened respectfully, considering. "I think not," he announced at length. "You'd hardly have time for that, and you have a better plan. It'll be brought out in the subtitles, of course. You are going to leave it at the residence of Mr. Hoffmeyer, where it will be safe. You see, if you put it back where it was, his son might steal it again. We thought that out very carefully."
"I see," said Merton. "I wish I had been told that. I feel that I could have done that bit a lot better. I felt kind of guilty."
"You did it perfectly," Baird assured him.
"Kid, you're a wonder," declared the Montague girl. "I'm that tickled with you I could give you a good hug," and with that curious approach to hysteria she had shown while looking at his stills, she for a moment frantically clasped him to her. He was somewhat embarrassed by this excess, but pardoned it in the reflection that he had indeed given the best that was in him.
"Bring all your Western stuff to the dressing room to-morrow," said Baird.
Western stuff—the real thing at last! He was slightly amazed later to observe the old mother outside the set. She was not only smoking a cigarette with every sign of relish, but she was singing as she did a little dance step. Still she had been under a strain all day, weeping, too, almost continuously. He remembered this, and did not judge her harshly as she smoked, danced, and lightly sang,
Her mother's name was Cleo,
Her father's name was Pat;
They called her Cleopatra,
And let it go at that.