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A BUNCH OF ONE-REELERS FROM BENTLY BROWN
The Manager of the Acme Film Company cleared his throat with a rasping noise that sounded very loud, coming as it did after fifteen minutes of complete silence. Luck, smoking a cigarette absent-mindedly by the window while he stared out across two vacant lots to a tawdry apartment house,--and saw a sage-covered plain instead of what was before his eyes,--started from his daydream and glanced at Martinson inquiringly. "Well, what do you think of it?" he asked.
Martinson cleared his throat again, and shuffled the typed sheets in his hands. "Seems to lack action, don't it?" he hazarded reluctantly. "Of course, this is a rough draft; I realize that. I suppose you'll strengthen up the plot, later on. Chance for some good cattle-stealing complications, I should think. But I'd boil it down to two reels, Luck, if I were you. There's a lot of atmosphere you couldn't get, anyway--"
"I can get every foot of that atmosphere," Luck put in crisply.
"Oh, I suppose--but you don't want that much. Too expensive, where it doesn't carry the action along. I'd put in some dance-hall scenes; you haven't enough interiors. Make your lead a victim of card sharps, why don't you, and have his sister come there after him? You could get some great dramatic action--have her meet the heavy there--"
"After the tried-and-tested recipe. Sure, Mart! We can take the middle out of that Her-Brother's-Honor film and use that; and if you're afraid the public may recognize it, we'll run it backwards. Or we can mix it with some Western-Girl's-Romance film, or take--"
"Now, Luck, wait a minute. Wait-a-minute!" Martinson's hand went up in the approved gesture of stopping another's speech. "You can give it an original twist. You know you can; you always have."
Luck swore, accustomed though he was to the makeshifts of the business. The street cars had stopped running the night before, while he was still hammering that scenario out on the typewriter; the street cars had stopped running, and the steam heat had been turned off in the hotel where he lived, and he had finished with an old Mexican serape draped about his person for warmth. But his enthusiasm had not cooled, though his room grew chill. He had gone to bed when the typing was done, and had dreamed scene after scene vividly while he slept. Still glowing with the pride of creation, he had read the script while his breakfast coffee had cooled, and he had been the first man in the office, so eager was he to share his secret and see Martinson's eyes gleam with impatience to have the story filmed.
Knowing this, you will know also why he swore. Martinson thrust out his under lip at the oath, and tossed the script neatly into the clear space on the desk. "Oh, if that's the way you feel about it!" His tone was trenchant. "Sorry I offered any suggestions. There are some good bits, if they're worked up right, and I naturally supposed you wanted my opinion."
"I did. I never saw you square up to anything but the same old dime-novel West before. I wanted to see how it would hit you."
"Well, it don't." Martinson waited a minute while that sunk in. When he spoke again, his manner was that of a man who has dismissed a disagreeable subject, and has taken up important business.
"We've made quite a haul since you left. A bunch of one-reelers from Bently Brown. You'll eat 'em up, Luck,--all those stories of his featuring the adventures of the XY cowboys. You've read 'em; everybody has, according to him. They'll be cheap to put on, because the same sets and the same locations will do for the lot. Same cast, too. He blew in here temporarily hard up and wanting to unload, and we got the whole series for next to nothing." He opened a desk drawer, and took out a bundle of folded scripts tied with a dingy blue tape. Martinson was a matter-of-fact man; he really did not understand just how much Luck's new story meant to its author. If he had, he surely would not have been quite so brisk and so frankly elated over that untidy lot of Bently Brown scenarios.
"I had all the synopses numbered and put on top here," he went on, "so you can run them over and see what they're like. A small company will do, Luck. That's one point that struck me. Two or three die, on an average, in the first four hundred feet of every story; so you can double a lot. I've had Clements go over them and start the carpenters on the street set where most of the exterior action takes place; we're behind on releases, you know, and these ought to be rushed. You'd better go over and see how he's making out; you may want to make some changes."
Luck hesitated so long that Martinson was on the edge of withdrawing the proffered scripts. But he took them finally, and ran his eye disparagingly over the titles. "Bently Brown!" he said, as though he were naming something disagreeable. "I'm to film Bently Brown's blood-and-battle stuff, am I?" He grinned, with the corners of his mouth tipped downward so that you never would have suspected it of ever producing Luck's famous smile. "I might turn them into comedy," he suggested. "I expect I could get a punch by burlesquing--"
"Punch!" Martinson pushed his chair back impetuously. "Punch? Why, my godfrey, man, that stuff's all punch!"
Luck curved a palm over his too-expressive mouth while he skimmed the central idea from two or three synopses. Martinson watched him uneasily. Martinson claimed to keep one finger pressed firmly upon the public pulse--wherever that may be found--and to be ever alert for its warning flutterings. Martinson claimed to know a great deal about what the public liked in the way of moving pictures. He believed in Luck's knowledge of the West, but he did not believe that the public would stand for the real West at all; the public, he maintained, wanted its West served hot and strong and reeking with the smoke of black powder. So--
"Well, the market demands that sort of thing," he declared, arguing against that curved palm and the telltale wrinkles around Luck's eyes. "It's all tommyrot, of course. I don't say it's good; I say it's the stuff that goes. We're here to make what the public will pay to look at." Martinson, besides keeping his finger on the public pulse and attending to the marketing of the Acme wares and watching that expenses did not run too high, found a little time in which to be human. "I know, Luck," the human side of him observed sympathetically; "it's just made-to-order melodrama, but business is simply rotten, old man. We've just got to release films the market calls for. There's no art-for-art's-sake in the movie business, and you know it. Now, personally, I like that scenario of yours--"
"Forget it!" said Luck crisply, warning him off the subject. To make the warning keener-edged, he lifted the typed sheets over which he had worked so late the night before, glanced at the top one, gave a snort, and tore them twice down the length of them with vicious twists of his fingers. He did not mean to be spectacular; he simply felt that way at that particular moment, and he indulged the impulse to destroy something. He dropped the fragments into Martinson's waste basket, picked up the bundle of scripts and his hat, and went out with his mouth pulled down at the corners and with his neck pretty stiff.
He went swinging across the studio yard and on past the great stage where the carpenters halted their work while they greeted him, and looked after him and spoke of him when he had passed. Early idlers--extras with high hopes and empty pockets--sent him wistful glances which he did not see at all; though he did see Andy Green and his wife (who had been Rosemary Allen). These two stood hesitating just within the half-open, high board gate fifty yards away. Luck waved his hand and swerved toward them.
"Howdy! Where's the rest of the bunch?" he called out as they hurried up to him. Whereupon the group of extras were sharp bitten by the envy of these two strangers, spoken to so familiarly by Luck Lindsay.
"Do you know, I feel sure the boys are being held in the lost-child place at the police station!" Rosemary Green, twinkled her brown eyes at him from between strands of crinkly brown hair. "I had tags all fixed, with name, age, owner's address and all that, and I was going to hang them around the boys' necks with pale blue ribbon--pale blue would be so becoming! But do you know, I couldn't find them! I feel worried. I should hate to waste thirty-nine cents worth of pale blue ribbon. I can't wear it myself; it makes me look positively swarthy." Rosemary Green had a most captivating way of saying swarthy.
The corners of Luck's mouth came up instantly. "We'll have to send out scouting parties. I need that bunch of desperadoes. Let's look over by the corrals. I've got to go over and see what kind of a street set they're knocking together, anyway.
"Hello! I have sure-enough crying need for all you strays," he exclaimed five minutes later, when they came upon the Flying TJ boys standing disconsolately at the head of the street "set" upon which carpenters were hammering and sawing and painters were daubing. Luck's eyes chilled as he took in the stereotyped "Western" crudeness of the set.
"Well, we sure need you--and need you bad," Pink retorted. "We want to know what town was peeled so they could set the rind up like that and call it a street? Between you and me, Luck, it don't look good to me, back or front. You walk into what claims to be a saloon, and come out on a view of the hills. They tell me the bar of that imitation saloon is away over there on that platform, and they say the bottles are all full of tea. That right?"
Luck nodded gloomily. "Soon as they get the set up, it's going to be your privilege to come boiling out of that saloon, shooting two guns, Pink," he prophesied. "You'll have the fun of killing half a dozen boys that come down from this end shooting as they ride." He put his cigarette between his lips and began to untie the dingy blue tape that bound the scenarios together.
"Ever read any of Bently Brown's stories? They wished a bunch of them on to me while I was gone and couldn't defend myself," he said, as one who breaks bad news. "I'm certainly sorry about this, boys. It's a long way from what I brought you out here to do; and if you want to, you can call the deal off and go home. Rip-snorting, rotten melodrama--cheap as ice in Alaska. Stuff I hate--because it's the stuff that cheapens the West in pictures."
"What about our range picture?" Andy Green began anxiously.
Luck choked back an oath because of Andy's wife. "Ah--they're married to the idea that this rot is what sells best. They don't know what a real Western picture is: they never saw one. And they're afraid to take a chance. I was in hopes--but Mart's the big chief, you know. He'd gone and loaded up with this trash, and so he couldn't see my story at all. I get his viewpoint, all right; he's keen to pry off some real money, and he's afraid to experiment with new tools. But it does seem pretty raw to put you boys working on this cheap studio stuff after getting you out here to do something worth while."
"We're to stay right here, then?" Weary spoke the question that was in the minds of all of them.
"That's the present outlook," Luck confessed with bitterness. "I don't need real country for this junk. I was all primed to show him where I'd have to take my company to New Mexico, but I didn't say anything about it when he sprung this Bently Brown business. This will all be made right here at the studio and out in Griffith Park."
Down deep in Luck's heart there was a hurt he would not reveal to any one. It was built partly of disappointment and an honest dislike for doing unworthy work; it had in it also some personal chagrin at being compelled to put the Happy Family at work in the very class of pictures he had often ridiculed in his talk with them, after bringing them all the way from Montana so that he might produce his big range picture. He stood looking somberly at the set which Clements had planned to save time--and therefore dollars--for the Acme Company. He thought of his range story, as it had first grown out of the night away up there in the plains country; he thought of how he had hurried so that he might the sooner make the vision a reality; how he had talked of it confidently to these men who had listened with growing enthusiasm and interest, until his vision had become their vision, his hopes their hopes.
They had left the Flying U and come with him to help make that big picture of the range. By their eager talk they had helped him to strengthen certain scenes; they had even suggested new, original material as they told of this adventure and that accident, and argued--as was their habit--ever scenes and situations. That was why Andy had spoken of it as their picture. That was why they were here; that was what had brought them early to the studio. And in his hand he held a half dozen or more of those cheap, lurid stories he had always despised; they must let the public see their faces in these impossible, illogical situations, or they must go back and call Luck Lindsay names to salve their disappointment.
The dried little man--whose name was Dave Wiswell--came walking curiously up the fresh-made "street," his sharp eyes taking in the falsity of the whole row of shack-houses that had no backs; bald behind as board fences, save where two-by-fours braced them from falling. He saw the group standing before a wall that purported to be the front of a bank (which would be robbed with much bloodshed in the second scenario) and he hurried a little. Luck scowled at him preoccupiedly, nodded a good morning, and turned abruptly to the others.
"Listen. If you boys are game for this melodrama, I'd like to use you, all right. You'll get experience in the business, anyway, so maybe it won't do you any harm. And if the weather holds good, we'll just make a long hard drive of this bunch of drivel; we'll rush 'em through--sabe? And I'll make it my business to see that Mart doesn't unload any more of the same. You may even get some fun out of it, seeing you're not fed up on this said Western drama, the way I am. Anyway, what's the word? Shall I hop into the machine and go down and buy you fellows a bunch of return tickets, or shall I assign you your parts and wade into this blood and bullets business?"
Weary folded his arms and grinned down at Luck. "I'm all for the blood and bullets, myself," he said promptly. "I'm just crazy to come shooting and yelling down this little imitation street and do things that are bold and bad."
"I should think," interjected Rosemary Green, with a pretty viciousness, "that you'd be ashamed, Luck Lindsay! Do you think we are a bunch of quitters? Give me a part--and a gun--and I'll stand on a ladder behind that hotel window and shoot 'em as fast as they can turn the corner down there." Her brown eyes twinkled hearteningly at him. "I'll pull my hair down, and yell and shoot and wring my hands--Pink, you keep still! I'm positive I can shoot and wring my hands at the same time in a Bently Brown story, can't I, Luck?"
"You certainly can," Luck told her grimly. "You can do worse than that and get by. Well, all right, folks. You prowl around and kill time while I get ready to start. There won't be anything doing till after lunch, at the earliest, so make yourselves at home. I'd introduce you to some of these folks if it was worth while, but it ain't. You'll know them soon enough--most of them to your sorrow, at that." He turned on his heel with a hasty "See yuh later," and plunged into the work before him just as energetically as though his heart were in it.
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