Chapter 25: “We’ve Got a Hit, Honey!”

Summary: Frank’s play “Peter Weston” is a hit in San Francisco and Chicago. Back in Santa Monica, both Frank and Aggie return to studio work, Frank for the new Warner Brothers firm and Aggie for Thomas Ince, who agrees to pay her $1,000 a week. The money rolls in, but at home tensions rise and tempers flare.

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On an off chance, Frank sent the much-rejected script of “Peter Weston” to Frank Keenan. Keenan hadn’t been active on the stage for a couple of years, but Frank remembered his “Jack Rance” in Belasco’s “Girl of the Golden West,” while I’d thought him grim and terrible as the father in Charles Ray’s first picture, “The Coward.”

Two days after we mailed the manuscript to Keenan’s Hollywood address came a phone call. Frank answered, but I could hear Mr. Keenan’s resonant voice crackle from the receiver. “I like your play, my boy.” Almost immediately Keenan arranged a tryout performance at the famous old Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco.

Around any playhouse, there is always a group of wiseacres, office boys, publicists and so forth, who know all about the theatre. This group prophesied unanimously that “Peter Weston” couldn’t possibly be a success. Their objections were just what Frank Reicher had warned us to expect from commercial showmen. With an old-man lead, practically no love interest, and the young hero killed off early, the play had “no box office appeal, “ they said. “None at all.” However, after the play opened and received the finest notices San Francisco had seen in years, this same group proclaimed that success had been inevitable, and with precisely the same pontifical manner in which they had foredoomed its failure.

After this, Keenan was our idol. It was arranged that the play would have its Eastern production sometime after Christmas. In the five months that intervened, Frank and I saw Mr. and Mrs. Keenan almost every day. During a long, long marriage, Mrs. Keenan had been absolutely loyal to her husband, and Mr. Keenan, though unfaithful at every opportunity, had a deep affection for his wife. He made no pretense of concealing his little amours. At the San Francisco tryout, he boasted to Frank of an affair he was having with a newspaperwoman that began when she came to interview him.

“A virile man who is also a genius,” Mr. Keenan told Frank, “must never be bound by bourgeois morality. He owes it to himself to have every possible experience.” Rather heady advice for a young husband! If Frank had told me about it at the time, I don’t think I’d have been so crazy about Keenan. On the other hand, Mrs. Keenan, devoted as she was to her actor-husband, was somewhat cynical and bitter. And who could blame her?

“The best of men are selfish and arrogant,” Mrs. Keenan told me. “No matter how much you give a man, sooner or later he’ll let you down.” I’d heard the same sentiments from Mama. I began to regard Frank critically. I loved him, but did he really love me? Would I someday be as abused and put upon as poor Mrs. Keenan? It was wonderful having Keenan star in Frank’s play, but between him and his wife they darned near broke up our marriage. And, along with a roving eye, Keenan had another weakness that we would discover before long.

A producer friend engaged us for a picture with that fine director Frank Borzage. Borzage’s father had emigrated from Italy and became a coal miner, and Frank had started working in the mines at age 14. But he didn’t stay underground long. After a terrific row with his father, he left home at 16 to go on his own. He joined up with a company of traveling actors and then went on to Hollywood as an extra, a leading man and, before long, a director. He was a truly great director of “Humoresque,” ”Seventh Heaven, and “A Farewell to Arms”—winning two Academy Awards.

Working with him was a joy. Perhaps because of his own rough youth, Borzage had great compassion for all unhappiness. When we’d talk over a tragic scene—and no matter how many times we talked it over—tears would always come to his clear, blue eyes. He loved all sports and he and Frank took to each other at once, and we were frequent guests at his house. Any family quarrels were long since forgotten, and he brought his mother, father, and two brothers to Hollywood. He secured fine jobs at the studios for his brothers, and saw to it that his mother and father had every comfort possible. All were dark and rather frail Italians, but Frank Borzage, blond with an athlete’s physique, must have been a throwback to some old Roman conqueror.

After our first picture with Borzaga, we made an oral agreement with our producer friend to do another. I told Frank, “Even if ‘Peter Weston’ isn’t a success, this will give us a nice financial backlog.” Frank thought differently.

“Aggie, this new story just won’t do,” he said. “And, what’s more, if we work our heart’s blood out over it, the results will still be punk. We’re going to bow out.”

”Okay,” I said, “if you don’t want all that money.”

But it wasn’t easy to resign. Our producer friend was concrete-set both on the story and having us write the scenario. Frank was as obstinate as he can be about stories. Finally, the producer attempted to convince Frank he didn’t know what he was talking about by arranging a meeting with the general manager of the studio, the story editor, the publicity chief, and a lawyer. The conference was at 8:30 p.m. in what was then the luxury hotel of Los Angeles. When Frank and I arrived, we were led with not a little mystery to the rear of the hotel and ushered into a freight elevator. This stopped after three or four stories and let us out into an ornate, overly plush salon. The room was large, with velvet drapes and twenty great tapestry chairs. Years later, a famous demimondaine published a book “Call House Madam.” Apparently, a thriving bordello was operated for a long time in this same hotel. Our meeting must have been in that “parlor. ” But why a story conference in a whorehouse? And why would a big producer and the others bombard two poor authors for hours with arguments that a bad story was really a work of genius? I could have told the whole lot they never had a chance of convincing Frank in the first place.

With the picture deal out, all our hopes were pinned on the production of ”Peter Weston. ” Frank and Mr. Keenan went to New York. A fine cast was assembled without difficulty with one exception—the leading lady. No known actress in the city would satisfy Keenan. Then suddenly he made a find—by telephone. Frank was in Keenan’s room when it happened. The phone jingled. Keenan answered, and held the receiver for a long while. Occasionally, he asked questions. Over his shoulder he told Frank, “It’s a girl who wants a part in the play.” Then into the phone, “Go on! Go on!” And finally, “Come right over, dear.” He hung up and turned to Frank. “We’ve got our girl.”

“Who is she?” What experience has she had? What does she look like?” Frank fired questions.

“I haven’t the damndest idea what she looks like, but I can tell what she is by her voice,” said Keenan.

“Well,” Frank said dubiously, “what’s her name?”

“Don’t even know that,” said Keenan. “I was so busy listening to her, I didn’t pay much attention to what she was saying.”

The young actress’s name was Judith Anderson. Fresh from Australia, she had never appeared on the American stage. But Keenan, that eccentric genius, was absolutely right about her. As “Jessie Weston,” her performance was magnificent as has been every performance she’s given since: “Strange Interlude,” “The Cobra,” “Medea,” and all her other triumphs.

Before opening in Chicago, “Peter Weston” played half weeks in Toledo and Dayton. Business was terrible. Keenan arrogantly blamed this on the cities themselves.

”You couldn’t draw in these dumps,” he wired Sam Harris, the producer, “if you put on ‘The Last Supper’ with the original cast.

Chicago was different. Frank saw the opening night, then left on the first morning train. He’d had time to read the morning reviews though, and wired me, “We’ve got a hit, honey, a gorgeous beautiful booming hit.”

While in the East, Frank had run into Harry Rapf. Harry had signed on with the Warner Brothers, a new firm, and he made an arrangement for Frank to be his Western story editor at $350 a week. As soon as Frank got to the coast, he started his new job. The firm had sunk most of its money in a lavish production of “Main Street.” Frank thought the picture was good, but that with certain cuts and new subtitles, it could be better. I guess he made his criticisms of their prize baby untactfully, for he made few friends at the studio. Only young Sam Warner was sympathetic. Frank liked Sam, and thought he was certain to be a great figure in pictures. He died only a few years later. A plaque of him is now in all the Warner Brothers’ theaters. A loyal family, the Warners. In the early years they had their ups and downs, but it was the loyalty and love of brother for brother that carried them through.

Meanwhile the news from Chicago was delicious. “’Peter Weston’ remains Town Smash,” screamed a Variety headline. Shepherd Butler, drama editor of the great Chicago Tribune, ran a poll of his readers for the best play of the year. Some very fine pieces had been in Chicago that season–“R.U.R.,” “the first Year,” “The Circle” –but “Peter Weston” won the poll by a wide margin.

One day, Tom Ince’s secretary phoned and asked if I could come out to the studio. I went and found Ince as affable as ever. “Hello, Aggie, how’s the baby?” he asked.

“Babies,” I corrected proudly, “and they’re both fine.”

He laughed. “Well, Aggie, your worst fault was that you always over-wrote a bit. And now…”

“I’m not overdoing things at all,” I interrupted. “I love being a mother.”

“How would you like to be a writer again? I’ve a script, ‘Barbara Frietchie,’ that needs just your touch.”

“Oh, Mr. Ince, I just love working for you, but…”

“But Frank’s got a job and his play’s a hit,” cut in Mr. Ince–the exact words I’d meant to say. “All right, Mrs. Rich, I’ll offer you a thousand a week.” I knew our baby nurse wasn’t very good and that Frank needed solace in his Warner Brothers work, but I’m afraid these thoughts never crossed my mind. I just took the job.

What with my Ince money, royalties from the play, and Frank’s salary at Warners, our income was well over $2,000 a week. Frank was just 31, I a few years younger. By rights we should have been a proud and happy couple. In reality, those golden weeks were among the most miserable of our lives. It was the same old trouble as that dreadful time when Frank, Izzy, and I were simultaneously batting stories around. Now there were only two studio problems, but there were household cares and the children.

I told Frank that since his job was in Hollywood while mine was in Culver City, he should take a noon hour off, go to a good downtown agency, and hire a new nurse.

”What the hell do I know about nurses?” he growled. “Say, couldn’t you take an afternoon off and run ‘Main Street’ with me? I want to ask your advice.”

“With Ince paying me a $1,000 a week, I certainly couldn’t,” I snapped.

And that’s the way it went on, nag after nag, spat after spat. We didn’t fire the old nurse but hired a “tweeny” to help her and the cook, and also, as I told her privately, to spy on the two of them and see that the children were well fed and unneglected while Frank and I were at the studio. I’m sure our “tweeny” promptly told Nurse and Cook of her espionage duties. The atmosphere of the house became baleful. I was sure all three of our servants regarded us with black-hearted hate. And Frank—what a brute he was to put all the burden of house and children on my shoulders when I was making $1,000 a week!

How many Hollywood marriages have broken up because of a situation like this! Lots of money. Too much money. But two careers, two separate interests, two hells of nervous entanglement. Brawny and likeable John Payne and dainty Gloria DeHaven. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Joan Crawford. Yes, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and the screen’s queen, Mary Pickford. Katherine Grayson and Johnny Johnston. Shirley Temple and John Agar. Dick Powell and Joan Blondell. Through the years Frank and I have known most of these people. And, believe us, you scorners of Hollywood, they are right people. In most cases no tertium quid was involved. Just overpressure, over publicity, over anxiety–doubled. I have only the deepest sympathy for these happy and glamorous couples who were parted by Hollywood.

Frank I are “just writers,” but if our dual jobs had gone on too long, I am certain we would have “busted.” Fortunately, they didn’t. My “Barbara Fritchie” script wasn’t very good. Frank couldn’t put over any of his ideas on story construction at Warners. But one good result came out of this tumultuous time. One night after we’d sent the children to bed, we opened a bottle of champagne and, clasping hands, swore in solemn oath that never, never again, as far as the Dazeys were concerned, would there be two studio jobs in one family.

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