Chapter 19: The “Child Writer” Grows Up

Summary: Working for Thomas Ince, Aggie writes successful pictures for actor Charles Ray and director Jerome Storm. She finally hears from Frank Dazey, who is working in New York. Initially ignoring him, she finally relents, begins corresponding, and takes off the summer to return to Stony Brook.

***************

Not long after “23 1/2 Hours’ Leave,” Sully stuck his head in the door of my office.

“Aggie,” he said. “I’ve told Ince you’re the one to write Charley Ray’s next scenario. Come on. I’ll take you down to his set and introduce you.”

“Gosh, Sully!” I cried. “I’m thrilled to my bones.”

Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Charles Ray were the “big four” in pictures—top stars in popularity and top moneymakers at the box office. Before going to meet such an important person, I made Sully wait while I redid my hair and powdered my nose.

The set was a country store. Waiting his turn before the camera was Charley Ray himself, a boyish figure in blue jeans squatting on the floor playing mumble-de-peg with one of the prop boys. When Sully called to him, he stood up and looked at me so shyly that when we were introduced I rather expected him to stutter. Right then and there I got an idea. In my first story for him, Charlie would stutter whether he did in real life or not.

I also met the director, Jerome Storm, a ruddy-faced, pleasantly grinning young man who didn’t look much older than Charley. He put me into his own canvas director’s chair so I could watch the scene being shot.

“All set, kids!” Storm boomed.

The company orchestra struck up “Turkey in the Straw,” none too tunefully. The studio had music on every set to put the actors in the right mood for their scenes. Hiring the finest musicians would be a waste of money. All that mattered was the rhythm and the choice of tune that would best arouse emotion.

With his gingham-clad leading lady, Charley began the scene on a note of comedy, which built into a sad “goodbye.” The orchestra did an abrupt shift to “Hearts and Flowers.” I don’t know how much the off-key musicians had to do with setting the mood, but Charley, with his boyish, wistful-eyed face and his awkward pathetic gestures, soon had me in tears.

My stuttering story I called “Alarm Clock Andy” and I found Jerry Storm wonderful to work with. He was full of enthusiasm and very generous with praise. We turned out our scripts in a way that would seem strange today. I’d talk an idea over with Jerry, write the scenario under his guidance, and then we’d send the script to Tom Ince, who would make a few cuts and suggestions. Easy, relaxed, and fun, it was hardly work at all.

How different things are nowadays when a writer has to please so many, including the star, the director, the chief producer, and the assistant producer. And then the script goes on to a whole battery of studio executives. On its way it is “sniped at”—pardon me, I should have said, “critiqued” —by various story experts and analyzers. One studio, known in the industry as “the Iron Lung” because of its massive, air-conditioned writer’s building, had each script gone over by 82 people before it was considered ready for production. Is it possible that the uniformity, not to say mediocrity, of so many Hollywood products is due to this “too many cooks” method? Most of the really good pictures bear the imprint of a single personality such as Stanley Kramer, Sam Goldwyn, Daryl Zanuck, or one of the really big directors like Clarence Brown, William Wyler, Frank Capra, Henry King or Alfred Hitchcock.

After “Alarm Clock Andy,” Jerry and I turned out “Homer Comes Home,” “The Village Sleuth,” and “An Old Fashioned Boy.” All went smoothly, with just one complaint. Before I started a new story, Charley would always come to my office and plead mournfully, “Oh, Aggie, please, in this one could you make me more sophisticated?”

Charley had been discovered when he played the frightened young soldier in “The Coward” which starred Frank Keenan, the big stage actor. Ince, while shooting this story, had built up Charley’s part until he stole the picture from Keenan. Then came “The Clodhopper,” Charley’s first comedy success. And Ince, the wise showman, now had an adamant rule that his simple, bashful, “country boy” characterization must never be varied.

If Charley couldn’t be sophisticated on the screen, he made up for it in the way he lived. What a surprise the first time I went to his home for dinner and found him living in a mansion of Louis XIV grandeur, expensively decorated and furnished with French antiques. Charley and his pretty, doll-faced wife, Clara, were like two kids plunked down in a candy store and told to eat all they wanted. How proud they were as they took me on an inspection tour of the house. The highlight was an ornate guest bathroom with a toilet cover of real ermine from which a fringe of little black-tipped tails dangled. Clara told me, “I still can’t believe I’m not dreaming. Such a short time ago, Charles was just an extra. We lived in one room, drove a horrible rattling old car, and I’d always fix him a box lunch to take to the studio. We pinched pennies till they screamed. Now it’s such fun to spend money.”

I really had a grand time at Ince. A special friend was a brilliant young publicist, Hunt Stromberg, who later became very famous as the producer of “The Firefly,” and other films with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Hunt was the last to call me by that lovely appellation, “child writer.” He pounced on me as good copy, and always found me ready and willing for his stunts.

When Ince put me on a prison story, Hunt thought it would be great publicity for me to spend the night in a penitentiary. We picked San Quentin, which was clearly the wrong one. When I arrived, I was met by a committee of furious prison officials. Hunt’s story had already broken in the newspapers.

“Stay all night here? Don’t you know this is a men’s prison? How dare you let that get into the papers!” their spokesman roared at me. “A scandal has started already. You won’t set foot in the place.” I trembled as he shouted at me. Was I going to be sued? Arrested perhaps? And Thomas Ince—it had taken a lot of argument to get him to fork over the expense money for my trip. I burst into tears and told the committee I was the sole support of my mother and sister. I might be fired if I didn’t get to see enough of the penitentiary to give me atmosphere for my story. Softened, they let me make a tour of the prison yard in the company of two stern guards.

Another stunt Hunt pulled was to arrange for me to call on Mary Roberts Rinehart while she was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel—on the back of a prancing white horse. I found Mrs. Rinehart to be one of the most charming and intelligent women I’d ever met. She didn’t seem surprised that I’d come calling on horseback. She gave me an autographed copy of “23 1/2 Hours’ Leave,” and with this under my arm I rode the five miles back to Culver city and right up the steps of the white-columned studio past Hunt’s picture-snapping cameramen.

A letter came from Frank Dazey. He was out of the Army now, he wrote, and had a job as editor at the newly formed World Film Company’s New York studio. How was I getting along in my work? And when was I coming East? He made not a single comment about our interrupted correspondence.

I didn’t answer this letter or the several that followed. Then came a telegram. “Aggie can’t understand why you haven’t written. Are you sick? Worried. Frank.”

A fine how-do-you-do! Frank, the dumb ox, couldn’t understand why I hadn’t written. Still, if he was worried about me, I ought to at least reassure him. Our correspondence started up all over again. Before long, he began signing his letters “with love.”

One May morning, I marched into Ince’s office.

“I’m tired,” I announced. “I need a vacation.”

“That’s baloney!” Ince said. “If ever a girl was in the pink, it’s you!”

“That’s just my California tan,” I protested, trying to look wan. “Really, I’m all written out. Unless I get a rest, I’m afraid my work will be just be drivel. Not worth a cent to you.” I knew this would hit him. One thing Ince was never guilty of was paying money for bad work.

“I don’t believe a word of what you’re saying,” he declared. “But if you’re really determined to take time off, I can’t stop you. Take three months—without pay.”

As I was dancing out of the room, he shouted, “Who’s the man?”

What a devil! How could he have known that I’d made up my mind to go East to get myself engaged to Frank?

A short time later, I was arriving in Stony Brook again. As the train jolted into the sleepy little station, my eyes blurred. It had been so long and so much had happened since I’d left in the wild scurry for my Pickford job. Izzy, now a Vassar graduate and prettier than ever, was on the platform to meet me. And Mamma—I was shocked to see how white her hair had turned. She was pathetically thin, too. But her arms, when she clasped me in them, were strong.

“It’s wonderful to have you home again, Aggie,” she cried. “Just think! You, Izzy, and me, we three together again! That’s the way it ought to be, always. We three together!”

I didn’t tell her I’d already written Frank and invited him out for the weekend.

***

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