Chapter 23: “The Jungle Goddess” Comes Alive

Summary: With no studio job offers and the money running low, Frank and Aggie manage to sell a serial idea to Colonel Selig, who was famous for his wild animal films. As that job winds up, Frank gets a job as story editor for the Selznicks in New York. He struggles at the job, but while taking long lunch-hour walks, he comes up with an idea for a play.

***********

One Sunday afternoon, Frank and I took the baby down to the warm, bright Santa Monica beach. There were other couples with their children–happy couples. The parents looked on proudly while the little ones splashed in the foaming edge of the incoming breakers. Sometimes a father would hoist a child on his shoulder and stride boldly into the water while his offspring clung tight and squealed in ecstatic terror.

Frank and I were not happy. The past week had been a bad one. We’d had two rejections of original stories. I’d spent the morning cleaning house. Frank had promised to do the breakfast dishes, but he’d settled down to the Sunday paper and forgotten everything else. I’d done them, hoping to shame him, but he hadn’t even noticed. Now, stretched out on the sand, he was still deep in his newspaper. Little Ruth began to squeal. Frank didn’t seem to hear. Finally, I said, “She needs changing.”

“Well, change her.” Frank shoved the diaper bag toward me with his foot.

“Change her yourself,” I retorted. “I’m tired.”

Frank gave me a cross look and set about the changing. I watched between half-closed eyelids.

“It will never stay on if you pin it so loosely,” I complained. “Sometimes I think you’re awkward on purpose so you won’t have to change diapers. I don’t see why I always have to do all the work …”

Suddenly I stopped. Frank wasn’t listening. His eyes were fixed on the part of the newspaper where he had put the moist diaper.

“You’re not even listening to me,” I wailed.

“Hold on a minute, Aggie,” Frank said. “Look at this.”

He shoved the damp paper toward me. It was the cover of the Sunday Examiner magazine supplement, the “horror section” as we called it. The cover was particularly terrifying, with a great Moloch-like statue of some heathen idol and, chained to its lap, the almost naked figure of a young woman. Fierce lions and tigers were striving to leap up and rend her to pieces.

“Huh,” I grunted, “The gal seems to be having a bad time.”

“She’ll have worse,” said Frank. “We’re going to make this into a serial.” He closed his eyes a moment, then said proudly, “’The Jungle Goddess.’”

“You’re crazy! What do we know about serials?”

“I know Colonel Selig makes them,” said Frank. “And I think he likes me. I sure gave them the right dope on that ‘Rosary’ picture.” I was already gathering the baby’s things together.

“Come on,” I said, “let’s go home and start writing.”

We worked up a five-page prospectus and took it in to Colonel Selig on Tuesday. His office was in the bungalow next to the large zoo where he kept the animals he used for his picture serials. The Colonel was a chubby, bushy-maned man with the sleepy, shy look of his own lion cubs. He told us he’d broken with Sam Roark and that he wished they’d taken Frank’s advice on “The Rosary.”

“Well,” said Frank, “here’s a masterpiece of an idea for a serial.” And he handed the Colonel not the five-page prospectus but the gaudy print of the half-naked girl beleaguered by tigers and lions.

“Say!” the Colonel beamed. “That’s something!”

Frank handed over the prospectus. Colonel Selig read it while we waited, quaking. After a while, his face broke into a regular Billikin smile.

”This sounds good, and I like the title,” he said at last. “But what do you kids know about writing a wild animal serial?”

“Nothing,” Frank admitted. “But I’m sure we can catch on. A good writer can write anything.”

“But a serial has a different technique from the usual picture,” said the Colonel. He explained that there must be two punches in every installment, two hair-raising, spectacular moments, one in the middle and one at the end, the latter a “cliffhanger” so audiences would come back to the theater for the next week’s installment. And all these punches had to be concerned with the wild animals housed in the Selig zoo.

“It’ll be a cinch,” Frank said. “It’s just good dramatic construction stepped up a bit.”

“And how much easier,” I said, “when we can use fierce, dangerous animals!”

The colonel wrinkled his brow thoughtfully. “I just bought a secondhand treadmill at a bargain. I’d like to figure out some way to use it, say in a race sequence, a race between a horse and a wild animal.”

“I’ve got just the idea that will do it,” Frank promised. “But I don’t want to tell you about it until we’ve worked it out.”

“Okay. I’ll give you kids a try,” the Colonel said.

It was arranged that we were to do fifteen episodes of two reels each, and be paid $300 an episode. After months without work, the words had the sound of heavenly chimes.

“What’s your big idea about the treadmill race?” I asked as Frank and I walked to the car.

“I don’t know. I was just bluffing. But I’ll think of something,” he said grinning. “You know, Aggie, honey, I’ll bet what clinched the deal with the Colonel was the thought that he could use that bargain treadmill of his.”

Some of our “punches” for “The Jungle Goddess,” if I do say so, were dillies. For instance, just as our hero was stepping into his private airplane, a wicked rajah presented him with an enormous rug. As our hero soared upward, its fold parted, and a man-eating lion that the rajah had temporarily drugged, crawled out. With the beast pursuing our hero around the wildly gyrating plane, the episode ended. Then there was the underwater fight between our durable hero and both a hippopotamus and a crocodile.

Colonel Selig was especially pleased when we had our heroine, in Godiva-like nudity, strapped to the back of a horse that raced neck and neck with a Bengal tiger—on the Colonel’s beloved treadmill of course. The only trouble was that when they actually shot the scene, the tiger caught his tail in the cogs of the treadmill. Enraged, as what animal wouldn’t be, he clawed his way up a forty-foot safety barricade and wasn’t caught until he was halfway to Pasadena.

It was fun at first, this serial writing. But just try to think up thirty different wild animal ideas, and “punchy” ones too! My dreams were haunted by lions, monkeys, elephants and man-sized eagles.

While batting our wild animals around, we acquired a servant, a French Mademoiselle. She was a cook supreme, but what won me to her was her way with Ruth. She’d hold the baby in her arms, and chatter on in honeyed tones: “Charmante, petite mignon, la pauvre!” The last (the poor) was said with a reproachful glance at Frank and me, which we thought amusing at the time.

As we were struggling with the last of our serial, a telegram came from the East. It was from Harry Rapf. The Selznicks were expanding, he said. They would give Frank a three-month contract at $250 a week to be their story editor. Later we learned where the money came from. The Selznicks had a dream girl of a star named Olive Thomas, who was married to one of my friends from the Hollywood Hotel days, Jack Pickford, Mary’s brother. As Olive was a valuable property, the Selznicks had taken out a huge insurance policy on her. While in Paris, however, she died from accidental poisoning when she could not read the French label on a medicine bottle. Poor Ollie! We had seen her and Jack together in Hollywood, and their happiness had glowed. Now it was because of her death that Frank had a job.

Frank said we must take M’selle to New York with us. “She’s so wonderful with the baby and, for once, Aggie, I don’t want you to have one care or responsibility in the world. You’ve got that coming to you.”

In New York we found a four-room apartment at what we were told was a bargain, $300 a month. Frank happily set off every morning for the Selznick studio, and I settled down to my much-anticipated life of ease—no responsibilities and no cares in the world. It just didn’t work! With no stories on my mind, my imagination settled on anything and everything. M’selle was spending too much on our food, or she wasn’t giving us the right things to eat. And the baby—I took her temperature at least three times a day. I sometimes decided that M’selle was spoiling her, other times not giving her attention enough.

What with my meddling with her cooking and interfering with her care of the baby, M’selle, not unnaturally, became my enemy. The tight little four-room apartment was much too small to hold both of us. Frank would come home to find me fretting and sometimes in tears. When he asked the reason, I couldn’t tell him. Pure nerves, of course. My mind had been accustomed to writing for such a long time, it just didn’t know how to stop. All my creative urge went into stirring up trouble for myself. It was a lesson for me. Ever since that ghastly time in New York, I’ve always had some story “in the works.”

At the Selznick studio, Frank made friends with a giant of a young man, E.V. Durling, editor of the Selznick newsreel under the personal supervision of David Selznick, who was at that time still not twenty. Frank thought that Durling’s newsreel was very good. David didn’t and told this to E.V., known as Ned, frequently and emphatically.

Ned confided to Frank that he was going to get the hell out at the very first chance. Toiling at night, Ned had been writing fiction story after fiction story. Finally, Collier’s bought one. The Selznick job was given up immediately and, encouraged by his wife, Joan, an old Studio Club pal of mine, Ned resolved to devote himself to fiction. But, alas, months passed and finally a year, and not another story did he sell. Finally, Joan had to take a job in a department store. For a man as proud as Ned, this must have been a crushing humiliation. But Joan had faith in her husband and insisted that he keep on with his writing. Then he began a gossip column, which he and Joan syndicated themselves. They’d have it mimeographed and mail it to newspapers all over the country, charging a few dollars every time it was published. Some weeks fat sums came in, other times the take was hardly enough to pay for the stamps. Now, of course, Durling is sitting on the top of the world as one of the most popular columnists in America, and he and Joan are as devoted a couple as we have among our friends. The moral seems to be that wives should be loyal and have faith in their husbands. Not a bad moral, as I think it over—providing the husband is worth it.

As time went on, Frank became almost as unhappy at Selznicks as Ned. As story editor, he had a staff of readers, including Myron Brinig, who later became a successful novelist. But the insurance money was running out and the Selznicks bought no stories. I think that during the entire term of Frank’s contract just one purchase was made. Bewildered and frustrated, Frank took long walk on his lunch hour through the Fort Lee countryside. One night, he came home and told me, “Aggie, I’m going to write a play.”

“What about?” I asked.

“I don’t quite know yet,” he said.

The next day on his noon ramblings, a first act shaped itself. The next day, a second. Before the week was over, he was able to tell me the complete plot of “Peter Weston.” I typed a synopsis up over the weekend. Frank called in an experienced playwright friend, Leighton Osmun, to work with him.

I sat in on the conferences and, as I listened to Frank and Leighton discuss the desirability of limiting the action to a single set and the necessity of keeping down the number of actors in the cast, I became convinced about something I’d begun to suspect at Professor Baker’s workshop. The motion picture can and should be a finer field for an author’s imagination than the legitimate theatre because the scenery is limited to the stage even in the most expensive production. Motion pictures can call on all outdoors. Given the right cast, a sensitive director, and a camera attuned to beauty, I believed motion pictures could be the finest art form there is.

By the time Frank’s Selznick contract was over, he and Leighton had a play. I had something on my own account. A doctor told me I was pregnant again.

Back in California, we found that our fantastic animal epic was shooting. Colonel Selig phoned and asked us to come in and talk about some changes that were needed. We went at once, and found that the Colonel had bought an enormous chimpanzee named Mary. He wanted her worked into the story. The Colonel fairly bubbled about the merits of his new purchase: “So intelligent! So gentle!” Mary was allowed the run of the studio, with no keeper on guard. As we talked, we sat on the porch of the Colonel’s office bungalow. Suddenly, I felt great hairy arms steal around my neck. Mary had made use of her freedom by climbing up on the veranda rail, and was now embracing me, her blubbery lips moving over my cheek.

“That’s Mary for you!” beamed the Colonel. “Isn’t she affectionate? And playful as a kitten. But don’t move and startle her—she might break your neck.” I smiled sweetly, the way you do at a producer. But I was sure my coming baby, if it didn’t actually sprout a tail, would have a furry little behind.

We planned to pile up a lot of money from Frank’s Selznick salary, but we hadn’t been able to save any more in New York than we’d saved in so many other places. We had even spent most of the money Colonel Selig had sent us as he produced each installment of “The Jungle Goddess.”

Of course, we immediately made the rounds of the studios, with no success whatsoever. If people said before that “Agnes Christine Johnston has lost her spark,” now the picture producers seemed to doubt that I’d ever had any spark at all. Also, we had somehow demeaned ourselves by writing an animal serial. We’d thought that turning out work like that would show we had agile minds. But no! An animal writer was considered an animal writer, and was no more welcome in the big studios than one of the lions or tigers would be. “Oh well,” we consoled ourselves. ”Wait until ‘Peter Weston’ is a smash New York hit. That’ll show ‘em!”

We’d left the play with Frank Reicher, an old friend of Frank’s father, and then very influential in the newly formed Theatre Guild. After two months, he sent it back to us. It was powerful, he said, but the guild had no actor fit for the main role. And as for the commercial managers, he didn’t believe any of them would be interested in a play in which the lead character was an old man and what little love interest there was is killed off in the first act by the murder of the young hero.

We let M’selle go and moved into a canyon shack even smaller than the first one we had rented. There was a fair sized living room, the tiniest of bedrooms, and a sleeping porch. It was the sleeping porch that decided us on the place. How wonderful, we thought, that the baby can have her crib there and sleep practically out of doors.

As the studios would have nothing to do with us, we worked frantically on original stories, perhaps too frantically. Nothing sold. And we didn’t even get friendly rejections. With a mental numbness that the word “despair” doesn’t even describe, we watched our bank account dwindle. Soon there wasn’t even enough money to cover the coming hospital bills.

We couldn’t ask from help from Mama. Our lawyer had finally jugged Papa in the “alimony club” wing of the old Tombs prison. After two or three weeks, Papa had decided it was worth paying Mama a little money to get out. Still, the $40 a week he sent her—and that not too regularly—was barely enough for her and Izzy to get by on.

Frank wrote to Quincy asking if he could borrow a thousand from the “In Old Kentucky” trust fund. The “eminent banker” Frank had engaged to manage the account answered that this money was sacred to Frank’s parents. As one of the trust’s guardians, he would never consent to any withdrawals.

In those days, when you were poor, you were really poor. There was no unemployment insurance, Social Security, not even the Motion Picture Relief Fund. Being broke was the dark horror of a molten asphalt pit. Once you were in it and the darkness closed over your head, you were irretrievably gone. I suppose Frank and I might have appealed to the churches or to friends. But no church, however charitable, and no friend, however staunch, could take on the permanent burden of a family. Oh, it is easy to say that Frank, even with no mechanical skills, might have found a job as day laborer. But back then day laborers were paid closer to a dollar a day than the dollar an hour they get these days. And a dollar a day wouldn’t have helped much with a child and a wife who was going to have another.

One day, about two months before the baby was due, Frank heard that Arthur Jacobs had come out from the East to produce pictures with B. P. Schulberg. Arthur had been a partner with Harry Rapf in the production of Frank’s first big picture, “The Flower of Faith.” We rushed to see him. Arthur said he didn’t need any scenario writers, but if we could turn out an original story like ”The Flower of Faith,” he might be interested. This was a straw, and we snatched at it. In three weeks the yarn was finished. I knew it was imitation stuff, and therefore phony. Arthur like it. His partner, B.P. Schulberg, definitely didn’t.

After we got our “No,” Frank and I lingered in the office, trying to cover our panic with happy, kidding talk. Just to make conversation, Frank told about the months and months he’d spent trying in vain to get a story for his title, “Rich Men’s Wives.” At the mention of this, both producers sat up straight in their chairs, and went for that title like the pelicans on our beach went for a fish.

“Give us a story outline, as soon as you can,” said Jacobs.

We headed back to Santa Monica and grinding work. The plot we concocted was sophisticated and smart. We both loved it. Hope was bouncing high when we proudly bore it to the studio, and read it aloud to the producers and their director, Louis Gasnier.

What followed was a great deal of argument. Gasnier, a Frenchman, thought our story was clever. But Arthur and Ben shook their heads. It was too daring, they said, for the first effort of a new company. However, as we were leaving, Schulberg called after us: “Kids, I still like the title. Why don’t you try again, with a sentimental angle?”

“Yes,” said Jacobs, “Give us tears. That’s what audiences want. Tears!”

It’s not easy to write any motion picture story. But to write one twice is torture, especially when there’s no certainty that you’ll be paid for it. But Jacobs and Schulberg were our last claw-hold on the picture industry. Nobody else believed in us anymore. We started to work.

I’ve already told how happy we were that little Ruth could have the benefit of sleeping practically oudoors on our porch. Now, as our story began to develop, so did our baby’s little cough. By some miracle, Jerome Beatty, an old Thanhouser pal, dropped in on us with his wife one Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Beatty, who had two children herself, took a long look at Ruth Margaret. “If I were you,” she said, “I’d get that child indoors.” We quickly carried the crib into our bedroom. It took up so much space that you had to walk sideways to get through the door. The next morning, when we woke, I didn’t hear the baby’s usual happy chirpings from the crib.

“She’s gone so quiet,” I whispered to Frank, and hurried to look at her.

Ruth lay on her back, her eyes dulled, her cheeks flushed, her mouth black with fever. Frantically, we called a doctor. He made a house call and gave a grave verdict: “Pneumonia. And serious.”

Hardly had he left than there was a phone call from Arthur Jacobs. He said Shulberg was getting restless and wanted the company’s schedule set. If our story was to be considered, it must be in the next day, and before noon.

That night, as the doctor had warned might happen, Ruth Margaret had convulsions. Following instructions, we plunged her into a tub of warm water with mustard added. Then Frank and I would take turns trying to keep her warm, letting her quivering little body rest across our stomachs. While one of us soothed Ruth, the other would work on the story. The tap tap tap of the typewriter went on against the sound of the baby’s dry, hacking cough.

Blue daylight came, full of little chirping bird sounds. Frank tiptoed out of the bedroom. I didn’t dare look at his face.

(Editor’s note: The chapter ends abruptly here, with at least a paragraph missing. However, as is apparent in the next chapter, both the script and the baby survived.)

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