CHAPTER 27: Aggie Goes to Hollywood—Alone.

Summary: Aggie returns to Hollywood and makes the rounds of the studios looking for work. More than a month later, she finally lands a job with Paramount Pictures writing “Forbidden Paradise” starring Pola Negri. With the success of the film, both Paramount and MGM want to sign her up. The prospect of more work boosts her confidence, and she sends for Frank and the children. Together, they agree that a one-year contract with MGM is too good to pass up. 

***********

In Hollywood, I took a room at an expensive hotel. I told myself this was to keep up appearances and make the picture people thank Agnes Christine Johnston was “in the chips.” I’m afraid it was really because I longed for hotel luxury and comfort after the bleak months of housework and taking care of babies in the cold Holly Tree House.

Before leaving New York, I’d made a wonderful discovery. Actresses and debutantes, not wanting to be seen too many times in the same outfit, sold their clothes to a small shop on 48th Street. Expensive tailored suits and imported gowns that had originally cost in the hundreds and showed little sign of wear could be bought for a song. I’d found an adorable navy blue suit for $15. I assailed the studios in that suit and a hat I’d contrived by cutting off the top of an old green felt and trimming it with straw braid and a feather. The worry of the past months had made me lose weight, and I felt I looked my old girlish self.

Executives and producers paid me compliments. “Aggie, you haven’t changed a bit. “ “Same little girl.” “Who would believe you’ve had two children.” Then invariably would come the question, “How’s Frank?” To this I would lower my head and say, “Oh, Frank? He stayed in the East.” The sad hint of marital break would bring smiles. Sometimes a laugh. “Well, honey, that’s the way things go. Keep your chin up. I’m sure we’ll have something for you soon.” And I’d be ushered from the office with a friendly pat on the shoulder.

After thee weeks of fruitless job hunting, I’d had to leave my nice hotel room and, for economy’s sake, rent a room in one of the most depressing sections of Los Angeles. In Sawtelle, the cheap frame rooming house was surrounded by box-like homes of pensioned Spanish War veterans and Japanese gardeners. There was also a shack that belonged to an Italian peanut vendor who often woke me in the morning with the whine of his roasting machine.

Of course, I didn’t dare let anybody at the studios know about my peanut-vendor surroundings, so I arranged with the hotel switchboard girl to take any messages that came in for me. One day, calling for them, I found a friend of the old Studio Club days had phoned. She was an actress of bit parts, now being expensively kept by a married producer. I’m not, and never have been, prudish about such things, though sometimes it annoys me when a girl whom I’ve entertained in her déclassé days, marries and then cuts the Dazeys off her list as “too bohemian” or perhaps as remembering too much. This girl, whom I’ll call “Miss Kept,” when she finally married her producer, did exactly that. But for her kindness at this time I’ll always be grateful.

When I phoned her, she said she was going to be alone over the weekend, and couldn’t I spend it with her? Also, she had two tickets for a picture premier that evening, and wouldn’t it be fun to go together? A premier! A chance to bump into producers! I accepted with enthusiasm. Miss Kept said she’d send her chauffeur to pick me up at the hotel. But, alas, my only evening frock was in my shabby room that neither Miss Kept nor anyone else remotely connected with pictures must know about.

“Oh, darling,” I cooed over the phone. “I’ve discovered the most divine little sewing woman in Sawtelle. She’s making alterations on a new dress I brought from New York. Could your chauffeur pick me up there?” The chauffeur arrived, and my Spanish War veterans and Japanese gardener neighbors gaped in surprise as I was handed into the luxurious town car wearing peach satin and a swishy evening cape. I’m sure they thought it was the Cinderella legend being acted out right before their eyes.

In a way, they were correct. I didn’t bump into any producers at the premier, but I did meet an old writer friend, Bertram Millhauser. “Milly” looked over my swank Paris import, bought from the New York secondhand shop for $11, and remarked, “You must be filthy with money, Aggie,” On an impulse, I told him the truth, and also about my little deception of Miss Kept. He had a nice sense of humor. He laughed and laughed. Then he said, “I think perhaps I can help you get a job. Call me at the studio on Monday.”

I did, and Milly had an interview all set for me the next morning with an important Paramount executive. In the afternoon came a letter from Frank. He was very lonely, he said, and poor little Mitchell was sick with some kind of stomach trouble the doctor couldn’t diagnose. It wasn’t until the shrill wail of the peanut-roasting machine struck up at dawn that I dropped off to sleep.

The executive Milly had me see was a flashingly handsome young man, reputedly of many amours. At that time, the gossip columns said his third divorce was brewing. I’d met him before at a party, and his greeting was cordial. After some preliminary chatter, he remarked, cheerful, “I hear you and Frank aren’t hitting it off so well.”

“Oh, please, please,” I begged, looking at him soulfully and trying to squeeze out a tear, “I’d rather not talk bout it.”

“Now don’t let it get you, sweetheart,” he said. “These things happen to everybody. And often it’s for the best.” He went on with a hard bright gleam in his eye, saying “You know the saying: ‘He travels fastest who travels alone.’” I nodded in grateful agreement, and a few minutes later I was given a job.

Ernst Lubitsch, fresh from cinema triumphs in Germany, had been signed as a director by Paramount. His first picture was to be “The Czarina” with Pola Negri. My assignment was to do Lubitsch’s scenario. The great director turned out to be a plumpish little man with shining black eyes. His first words puzzled me.

“Miss Johnston,” he said solemnly, “in this scenario, I want no incidences or exidences.” At that time, Lubitsch could speak little English, and what German I’d learned at Packer had been long since forgotten. It took me a whole day to figure out that he didn’t want any “coincidences” in the story. As I’d always hated them myself, this was fine with me.

After a few days, I flattered myself that things were going swimmingly. And then one morning I came to the office to find Ernst clutching his head and moaning, “Mein Gott, Aggie, I am full of dope.” Oh dear, I thought, is this darling director a drug fiend? Of course, he was trying to say that he had some “doubt” about a certain sequence.

Lubitsch insisted on having a long office at the studio. He couldn’t think, he said, unless he walked. After a while, Hanns Kraly, who’d worked with Lubitsch in Germany, was called in to collaborate with me. All day long, we three would pound at the story, Lubitsch pacing up and down, up and down. One twist to the situation wasn’t enough for Ernst. He demanded two, and if he could add a third fillip, he’d break into a wide grin and fairly hop, skip and dance across the floor. It was exacting work, but fascinating. I learned oddments from Lubitsch that have been of help to me ever since.

Several years later, another great director, Clarence Brown, told me, “I can give you Lubitsch’s secret in one sentence. He’s a ‘door director’.” Watch his next picture and see how many sequences begin or end with the opening or closing of a door.” This was certainly true in the “Czarina” picture. For instance, in one scene Pola Negri lured the love-smitten young cavalry officer up a long flight of stairs, and then slammed the door of her royal bedroom in his face. It ended with the young man planting himself against a pillar, staring lovelorn and yearning at the closed gates of his paradise. The next scene was morning and began with the same door opening. Pola emerged with a warm “cat that ate the canary” smile on her face that plainly showed the door had not remained barred all through the night. Intriguing but censor proof. Lubitsch was the great master of “indirection.”

When the picture, retitled “Forbidden Paradise,” finally went before the cameras, I used to wander out to the set whenever possible. There, scenes occurred more dramatic than any written into the script. Pola was a typhoon of emotion, Lubitsch a hurricane of artistic temperament and integrity. When Hurricane blasted against Typhoon, the air fairly churned with words. Fortunately, they were German words, and many of them on the sultry side. Usually Hurricane overrode Typhoon.

But once I went to the set to find Pola just getting out of her canopied king-sized bed. She looked lovely in form-fitting white satin, with her fine legs set off by white kid riding boots. Riding boots in bed! I was so moved by her beauty the incongruity hadn’t struck me at all. But Herr Lubitsch exploded. Henry Blanke, his young assistant, whispered to me that Lubitsch and Pola had been fighting about the boots all morning. Though Pola might bow to Ernst in matters of direction, her legs were her own. When I left the set, cameras were grinding as Pola pushed her lovely booted legs from beneath the covers.

Harry Rapf had joined the newly formed company of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. When “Forbidden Paradise” was finished, he sent for me, and gave me a picture assignment. I wired Frank to come join me in Hollywood with the children. Harry Rapf was Frank’s friend. I didn’t have to pretend any more that I was separated from my husband.

Before the Rapf script was finished, word went around that “Forbidden Paradise” would be a smashing success. My worldly executive friend at Paramount phoned and offered me another assignment. I assured him I was dying to work for him again, but stalled on a direct answer. Then I went right back and told Harry Rapf about the offer. “Paramount has no business trying to steal you from us,” he said. “We’re planning to offer you a year’s contract.” Just two short months ago, I hadn’t been able to get a job. Now rival studios were actually fighting over me. A delightful situation!

The night before my appointment to discuss terms with Harry, Frank and I took a long walk. We discussed what the security of a contract would mean for our families and us. We could stand a little of that. While we’d been East, Izzy had done some picture work. But it hadn’t gone too well, and she was not far from a nervous breakdown. However, English studios were said to be eager for American writers, and I’d been told that the frenzied sadism that American executives often vented on their writers was not practiced in genteel England. It would be wonderful to be able to finance a European expedition for Izzy and Mamma.

As for Frank’s family, their financial situation had deteriorated. While he’d been in Quincy, he’d gone to thank the banker for his help in setting up the “Kentucky” trust fund. The banker had accepted Frank’s thanks genially enough, but a secretary in the room had given Frank a look that caused him to wonder. Somehow the words “danger” and “beware” almost shrieked from her face. A couple of days later, when the banker was out of the city, Frank went down and demanded an accounting of the trust. This same secretary eagerly brought forward a portfolio containing the Dazey securities. In it were three or four fairly safe $1,000 bonds. The rest were ornate stock certificates of a small radio corporation never heard of before or since. Somehow, the banker had managed to unload them on Frank’s father, absolutely illegally, of course. The provision of the trust that all purchases must be approved by Frank’s mother had been completely ignored. There was basis for a lawsuit, but that would have humiliated Frank’s father and cost much money. So Frank had let the thing drop. During the Depression, this banker managed the feat of having his bank fail not only once but twice. He is long since dead, but Frank says he hopes he’s still “banking” —hot coals.

“A contract—money we could be sure of—coming in every week for a whole year, would sure be marvelous for everybody right now,” I said to Frank as we strolled through the moonlight in the balmy, salt-scented air of the Santa Monica beach. “But how about our writing together? I need your help.”

“The producers don’t think so,” Frank said grimly. “That’s pretty clear.”

“MGM wants me, but if I told them that I wouldn’t sign unless they took you too…”

“I don’t want you to push me down their throats, “ Frank said. “Don’t worry about me. With a contract there won’t be this awful strain, and I’ll pull myself together and write another stage play.”

“Oh, I know you’ll do that, Frank!” I cried. “I’ll tell Harry I’ll sign.”

“But remember, on a contract, they never pay a writer as much as they do when he’s freelancing,” Frank said. “Since you’re getting $500 now, you better not ask for more than $300 or $400 a week. Otherwise, you might sour the deal.”

I pretended to agree, but I had other ideas. Through the years, I’ve always made it a habit to ask Frank’s advice about business deals—and then do exactly the opposite. Mostly, it has worked.

***

 

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