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BENTLY BROWN DOES NOT APPRECIATE COMEDY
Luck unhooked his hat from his knee, brought his laughing jaws together with that eloquent, downward tilt to the corners of his mouth, sat up straight, considered swiftly the possibilities of the next half hour, and paid tribute in one expressive word of four letters before he went crawling over half a dozen pairs of knees to do battle for his picture. His picture, you understand. For since he had made it irresistible comedy instead of very mediocre drama, he felt all the pride of creation in his work. That was his picture that had set the Acme people laughing,--they who had come to carp and to talk knowingly of continuity and of technique and dramatic values, and to criticize everything from the sets to the photography. It was his picture; he had made it what it was. So he went as a champion rather than as a culprit to face the powers above him.
Martinson and Bently Brown were waiting for him near the door. They were not going to stay and see the next picture run, and that, in Luck's opinion, was a bad-weather sign. But he came up to them cheerfully, turning his hat in his fingers to find the front of it before he set it on his head. (These limp, wool, knockabout hats are always more or less confusing, and Luck was fastidious about his apparel.)
"Ah--Mr. Brown, this is Mr. Lindsay, ah--director who is producing your stories." Martinson's tone was as neutral as he could make it.
Luck said that he was glad to meet Mr. Brown, which was a lie. At the same instant he found the stitched-down bow on his hat, and from there felt his way to the front. At the same time he decided that there was going to be something doing presently, if Mart's manner meant anything at all. Mart was a peaceable soul, and in the approaching crisis Luck knew he would climb hurriedly upon the fence of neutrality and stay there; and Luck could fight or climb a tree as he chose.
They went outside, and Luck turned his eyes sidewise and took a look at Bently Brown. He measured him mentally from pigskin puttees to rakish, stiff brimmed Stetson with careful dimples in the crown and a leather hatband stamped with horses' heads and his initials. In a picture, Luck would have cast Bently Brown, costume and all, for a comedy mining engineer or something of that sort. You know the type: He arrives on the stage that is held up, and is always in the employ of the monied octopus, and the cowboys who pursue and capture the bandits have fun afterwards with the engineer,--so much fun that he crawls out of an up-stairs window in the night and departs hastily and forever from that place. You are perfectly familiar with the character, I am sure.
Luck, after that swift, comprehensive glance, was not greatly alarmed. In that he made his greatest blunder. He should have reckoned with the wounded vanity of the little author who believes himself great. He should have reminded himself that Bently Brown was not a comedy mining engineer, but that touchiest of all mortals, the nearly successful author. He should have taken warning from the stiff-necked, stiff-backed gait of Bently Brown on the short walk to the office. He should have read danger in the blinking lids of his pale eyes, and in his self-conscious manner of looking straight before him.
In the office, then, luck basely deserted one Luck Lindsay, and left him to fight a losing battle. For Bently Brown was incensed, insulted, and outraged over the manner in which The Soul of Littlefoot Law had been filmed. The story had been caricatured out of all semblance to its original self. Littlefoot Law had been shown as having no soul whatever. Instead of being permitted to make the final, supreme sacrifice of his life for the honor of his enemy,--which would have revealed to the audience his possession of a clean white soul in spite of his bad character,--he had been made out a little fiend who would shoot you on the slightest provocation. The girl had been thrust into the background, and the hero had been made into a coward and a paltry villain; they were all desperadoes upon the screen. Never in his life had Bently Brown been made to suffer such an affront. Never had he dreamed that his work would be made a thing to laugh at--
"They certainly did laugh," Luck lazily interrupted. "And believe me, Mr. Brown, it takes real stuff to collect a laugh out of that bunch. It will be a riot with the public; you can bank on that. By the time I get a few more made and released, you can expect to see your name in the papers without paying advertising rates." Whatever possessed Luck to talk that way to Bently Brown, I cannot say. He surely must have seen that the little, over-costumed author was choking with spleen.
"It was a farce!" The small, yellow mustache of Bently Brown was twitching comically with the tremble of his lips beneath. "A bald, unmitigated farce!"
"Surest thing you know," Luck agreed, with that little chuckle of his. "At first I was afraid the crowd wouldn't get it; I didn't know but they might try to take it seriously. Now, I know for certain that it will get over. It will be the cleanest, funniest, farce-comedy series that has ever been filmed." Luck sat up straight and pulled a cigar from his pocket and looked at it absent-mindedly. "Say, those boys of mine are certainly real ones! I wouldn't trade that bunch for the highest-salaried actors you could hand me. Do you know what made that picture such a scream? It was because there wasn't a bit of made-to-order comedy business in the whole film. Those boys didn't think about acting funny just to make folks laugh. They were so doggoned busy having fun with the story and showing up its weak points that they forgot to be self-conscious. If I'd had a regular comedy company working on it, believe me, Mr. Brown, it might have turned out almost as rotten a farce as it would be as a drama!"
Had Bently Brown owned under his pink skin any of the primitive instincts which he was so fond of portraying in his characters, he would have killed Luck without any further argument or delay.
Instead of that he spluttered and stormed like a scolding woman. He lifted first one puttee and then the other, and he shook his fist, and he nodded his head violently, and finally was constrained to lift the leather-banded Stetson from his blond hair and wipe the perspiration from his brow with a lavender initialed handkerchief. He said a great deal in a very few minutes, but it was too involved, too incoherent to be repeated here. Luck gathered, however, that he meant to sue the Acme Company for about nine million dollars damages to his feelings and his reputation, if The Soul of Littlefoot Law was released in its present form. He battered at Luck's grinning composure with his full supply of invectives. When he perceived that Luck's eyes twinkled more and more while they watched him, and that Luck's smile was threatening to explode into laughter, Bently Brown shook his fist at the two of them, shrilled something about seeing his lawyer at once, and went out and slammed the door.
"Lor-dee! He'd make a hit in comedy, that fellow," Luck observed placidly, and lighted the cigar he had been holding. "What's he mean--' sue the company'?"
"He means sue the company," Martinson retorted grimly. "That clause in the contract where we agree to produce his stories in a manner befitting the quality and fame of these several stories in fiction; he's got grounds for action there, and he's going to make the most of it. He's sore, anyway. Some one's been telling him he practically made us a present of his stuff."
"Hell!" said Luck. "Why didn't you say so?"
"Why didn't you say that you were turning that stuff into farce-comedy?" Martinson came back sharply. "I could have told you it wouldn't get by. I knew Brown wouldn't stand for anything like that; and I knew he could put the gaff into us on that 'manner befitting' clause."
"It's a wonder you wouldn't have jarred loose from some of that wisdom," Luck observed tartly. "You never gave me any dope at all on this Bently Brown person. You handed me the junk he stung you on--and believe me, as drama he'd have stung you with it as a present!--you handed it to me to film. I made the most of it."
"You made a mess of it," Martinson corrected peevishly.
"You laughed," Luck pointed out laconically. Then his eyes twinkled suddenly. "'Laugh and the world laughs with you,'" he quoted shamelessly, and took a long, satisfying suck at his cigar.
"The world won't step up and pay damages to Bently Brown," Martinson reminded him, "if that picture is released as it stands. How many have you made, so far?"
"I'm finishing the third; getting funnier, too, as they go along."
"You've got to cut out that funny business. You'll have to retake this whole thing, Luck; make it straight drama. We can't afford a lawsuit, these hard times--and injunctions tying up the releases, and damages to pay when the thing's thrashed out in court. You'll have to retake this whole picture. Nice bunch of useless expense, I must say, when I've been chasing nickels off the expense account of this company and sitting up nights nursing profits! We'll have to cut salaries now, to break even on this fluke. I've left the payroll alone so far. That's the worst of a break like this. The whole company has got to pay for every blunder from now on."
Luck's eyes hardened while he listened. He did not call his work a blunder, and the charge did not sit well coming from another.
"Buy off Bently Brown," he advised crisply. "Offer him a new contract, naming this stuff as comedy. Advertise them as the famous comedies of Bently Brown, the well-known author. Show him some good publicity dope along that line. Give him the credit of making the stories live ones. This series will be a money-maker, and a big one, if ever they reach the screen. You're old enough in the business to know that, Mart. You saw how this film hit the bunch, and you know what it takes to rouse any enthusiasm in the projection room. And take it from me, Mart--this is straight!--that's the only way in God's world to make that series take hold at all. As drama the stuff is hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. It's only by giving it the twist I gave it that it will get over. You do that, Mart. You kid this Bently Brown into being featured as the humorist of the age, and pay him a little something for swallowing his disappointment as a dramatic author. I'll go ahead with my boys, and we'll deliver the goods. You do that, and you'll be setting up nights counting profits instead of nursing them!"
Martinson began to stir up the litter on his desk,--another bad-weather sign. "I can't waste time talking nonsense," he snapped. "I've got plenty to do without that. That stuff has got to be retaken; every foot of it, if you've gone on burlesquing the action. I happen to know that Brown wouldn't consider such a compromise. You've made a bad break, and I believe you made the first one when you brought that bunch of cowboys back with you. If they can do straight dramatic acting, all right; if not, you'd better let them out and start over with professionals."
For a peaceable man, Martinson was angry. He had taken some trouble in smoothing down the ruffled temper of Bently Brown, even before viewing the trial run of the picture. Martinson hated disputes as a cat hates to walk in fresh-fallen snow, and the parting tirade of Bently Brown had affected him unpleasantly.
For a full two minutes Luck smoked and did not speak, and as he had done once before, Martinson repented his harshness when it was too late. "Personally, your version struck me as awfully funny," he began placatingly.
"Who gives a cuss how it struck you personally?" Luck stood up with unexpected haste. "You trim and truckle to every one that comes along with a gold brick, and that's why you have to sit up nights to nurse the profits. If you had a little stiffening in your back, the profits would show up better. You paid good money for this bunch of rot, and turned it over to me to whip into a profitable investment. You can make the rounds of the studio and get a vote on whether I've done it or not. Put it up to your Public; they'll mighty soon let you know whether the film's a money-getter. If it is, your business as general manager and president of the Acme Film Company is to get Bently Brown in line for the production to go on. A clause such as you mention in the agreement with him shows a bigger blunder on your part than anything I've done or ever will do. If you'd had as much sense as Ted, you'd have kept that clause out. If you'd had half as much brains as the comedy burro out in the corral you'd never have loaded up with that stuff, anyway; you'd have seen at a glance that it was rotten.
"Now, I've shown what I can do with those stories. I've taken your bad bargain and put it into a money-making shape. As to the break I made in getting those boys out here, you'll have to show me--that's all. They seem, to have made good all right, judging from the way that film took with the crowd. And if you ask my opinion as a director, they beat any near-professional on the Acme pay roll. My work, and their work, goes right along as it has started--or it stops. If you want those stories worked up in a lot of darned, sickly, slush melodrama, you can set some simp at it that don't know any better." Luck stopped and shut his teeth together against some personal remarks that he would later feel ashamed of having uttered. He turned to the door, swallowed hard, and forced himself to a dignified calm before he spoke again.
"You know my phone number, Mart. By seven in the morning I'll expect to hear from you. You can tell me then whether I'm to go ahead with these stories the way I've started, or whether to pull out of the Company altogether. One or the other. I'll want to know in the morning." Then he went out.
"Dammit, who's running this company--you or I?" Martinson called after him heatedly. But Luck was already standing on the steps and hoisting his umbrella against the drizzle, and he did not give any sign that he heard.
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