Chapter 28: The Stars Align at MGM

Marion Davies and Agnes Christine Johnston

Summary: Aggie negotiates a $1,000-a-week salary with MGM, which provides enough income to purchase a home. Bubonic plague pops up in Los Angeles, giving the city a case of nerves. When the scare dies down, Aggie is chosen to write a script for Marion Davies. She and Frank begin to socialize with Marion and William Randolph Hearst.


When I marched into Harry Rapf’s MGM office, I was wearing the very latest style: a silk print dress crawling with roses and butterflies with a waistline at my hips and a pleated skirt that reached to just above my knees. The pot-shaped felt cloche covered my “wind blown bob” except for scraggly bangs. Looking such a fashion plate, I felt very sure of myself.

Perched on the edge of a big leather chair as if poised for flight, I murmured coolly, “Harry, I’ve decided I’m really not at all interested in tying myself up with a contract. I can make more money freelancing.”

“Now, Aggie,” said Harry, “we’ve known each other too long to waste time sparring. How much do you want?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t sign with any studio for less than $1,000 a week.”

Harry almost jumped out of his chair. “A thousand a week! You’re crazy! Why, you’re only a kid!”

“I’m a married woman with two children,” I reminded him, my chin tilted in hurt dignity.

On Harry’s desk was a large box with a grilled front. It was for intercommunication between the various executives’ offices, and a fairly new invention. Just as Harry was grumbling, “We’d never pay you anything like that,” this box began to grumble, too. Then the words came out crystal clear: “Harry, sign up Agnes Christine Johnston no matter what you have to pay her.”

Harry leaped at the box, shouting, “For God’s sakes, Irving, shut up! Aggie’s right here in the office.” Then he looked at me, his smile sheepish, and I’m afraid the expression on my face was smug. He splayed out his hands in defeat, and barked into the box, ”You’d better come in here and finish this yourself.”

A few moments later, Irving Thalberg walked in. I’d seen him before at a distance, but I hadn’t realized how vibrantly boyish he was. He must have been around 25 at the time, and he’d managed great studios ever since he was 21. The strain hadn’t left a mark on him, and he hadn’t lost his zest for a joke either. His face was stretched in a big grin at the mix-up with the intercommunication box.

“Aggie wants $1,000 a week,” Harry said with a groan.

“She does?” Irving shrugged and smiled. “All right. We’ll give it to her.”

As easy as that! I went home and told Frank. He couldn’t believe it any more than I could. A thousand dollars a week for a whole year! Why, at the end of my contract we ought to have enough saved up to be independent for the rest of our lives.

What with the money from the Lubitsch job and my earlier MGM engagement, we’d rented a really nice house, a well-mannered house with rich Chinese rugs and fine imported wallpaper. I guess all children go through the scribbling-on-walls phase. It was our luck that first Ruth Margaret, then Mitch, should suffer attacks in this elegant home. Ruth disfigured all one side of her bedroom with penciled diagrams. Mitch favored the living room, and drew what he thought were facsimiles of airplanes all over one wall. We went to the stationery store and bought the finest and softest erasers to be had. We worked for hours on those walls, but I’m afraid the results were not good. Our well-mannered house had a well-mannered landlady who paid us well-mannered visits of inspection every week or so. The memory of her well-mannered “Tch! Tch!” as she gazed on those disfigured walls is a horror to me still.

The morning after I signed my new contract, I sent Frank house hunting. It was high time we had a home of our own, and he found it. Green Gables! It was big and rambling, with plenty of room and plenty of baths. I loved it from the first moment Frank drove me past it. The fact that the house was somewhat neglected and the lawn unkempt didn’t faze me a bit. It was a home children could grow up in and scribble on the walls if they wanted to. The place had belonged to the grandson of a very rich oilman. This youth hadn’t gotten along too well with his young wife. There was still a small hole in one windowpane from a revolver bullet he’d fired at her. Not unnaturally, she’d left him. Litigation had dragged on, which was why the house and grounds had run down from disuse.

The very afternoon Frank and I signed the papers that made Green Gables ours, we rushed up and watered the yellowing lawn. When all sprinklers had been turned on, we made a room-by-room, closet-by-closet tour of the house. What a warm and sensuous glow we felt owning our first home! A part of Mother Earth. A shelter from the world. Hand in hand, hearts singing, we made our grand tour. Finally, in the servants’ quarters, we came upon a narrow iron bed left by the former owners. On this we collapsed in fervent embrace.

About two weeks after we’d moved in, while the place was still disheveled, young Arthur Train, Jr., a friend with whom Frank rode horseback, dropped by. He was pale, and his hands were shaking. “I want a drink,” he said, “And I want it quick.”

We asked what was wrong, and over two highballs he told us how he’d just been talking with an old newspaper friend of his famous father’s. From the newsman had come a story, not one word of which had so far been allowed to appear in the papers. There had been a funeral in the Mexican section of Los Angeles, a rather humble funeral with only 17 mourners. It had only merited one line in the obituaries, but 48 hours later the priest who had conducted the service and every one of the 17 mourners were dead. Even the driver of the ambulance that had taken the priest to General Hospital was dead. It was the Bubonic Plague, the “Black Death” that had killed over half the people of Europe during the 13th century, somehow brought to Los Angeles from the Orient.

“The newspapers have been playing hush-hush about it, so as not to frighten away tourists,” young Train said bitterly. “But if this thing spreads, we’re in for trouble.”

The plague did spread, and soon the newspapers could no longer ignore it. Each day they’d announce to a terrified city how many new cases had developed and where. An armed cordon was established around the entire Mexican section. I passed by it once on my way to the Santa Fe station. Grim-faced men were stationed ten yards apart, each with a shotgun on his shoulder.

Of course, panic gripped the Dazey family. The children were forbidden to leave the yard, and we asked the cook and the nurse not to go out even on their days off. Every cent we had and all we could borrow from the bank had been put into the down payment on the house. Even if we survived, wouldn’t this plague make our home worthless? And how about the “disaster clause” in my contract? Surely the studio would have a right to invoke it and cut off my salary.

One night, young Train brought the news that it had been decided to quarantine all of Los Angeles—seal it off entirely from the rest of the country. However, frantic businessmen managed to have this edict postponed for 48 hours. In the meantime, the epidemic began to die down. Soon it vanished as quickly as it had sprung up. Except for occasional mention in medical journals, it is now forgotten. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce—and the Dazeys—could not have been more thankful!

At the studio, I was given a fine, bright, double office, and assigned a secretary and, for some time, no work at all. My secretary, Sophie Bogan, an apple-cheeked, eager young girl, had a slight stutter. One afternoon, she bounded into my office, looking flustered.

“G-g-guess who’s here?” she whispered. “M-M-Marion D-D-Davies! M-M-Mr. Hearst!”

“Well, tell ‘em to come in.”

“C-c-can’t. C-c-can’t talk to ‘em. She st-st-stutters, too. M-m-might think I’m m-m-mocking her.”

I went to the front office myself. There was Marion. She looked like a schoolgirl in a simple little navy blue suit with a round felt sailor cap perched on her blond bob—a very, very pretty schoolgirl. With her was a huge man with a kindly smile and the saddest eyes I’d ever seen. It was the first time I’d ever met William Randolph Hearst, and when he spoke I was surprised that such a high, thin voice should come from so large a man.

“So you’re Agnes Christine Johnston,” he said. As I ushered them into my office, the embarrassed Sophie slunk out past them.

“We w-w-want you to d-d-d-do B-b-b-b-b-b-“ Marion’s cute face contorted into a perfect agony of effort.

Mr. Hearst finished for her. “’Beverly of Graustark.’ Irving says you’ll be just right for the script.”

“Oh, I read all the Graustark books years ago,” I said. “And they’re wonderful.”

“This is Marion’s first picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and we want it to be a knockout,” said Mr. Hearst.

“Oh, it will be,” I promised.

”Well, g-g-goodbye,” said Marion. “Please tell your secretary I d-d-don’t b-b-bite.”

Although the studio had bought the George Barr McCutcheon book, for some reason they didn’t have a copy of it. I phoned Frank to get it for me at the public library. I read it in bed that night. What a blow! I may have thought it “peachy,” when I’d mooned over it at thirteen, but now I realized it was pure corn, mildewed with age.

For a week I was in misery. I’d lie on my office couch for hours at a time, not even going near my typewriter. No writing is easy, but not writing—especially at $1,000 a week—is agony. Marion had had great success with her own productions, “When Knighthood was in Flower” and “Little Old New York,” and here I was responsible for her first with my generous company. I saw Irving hating me. Harry Rapf sorry he’d ever let me on the lot. And Hearst—well, meek though his manner was, I’d been told that when he did break into a rage it was truly Jovian. I felt too low to face people in the studio lunchroom and sneaked out to eat at a vile little café down the block. At home, I was cross with Frank and mean to the children.

Finally, to buck myself up, I tried to think back and remember every picture I’d written that had turned out well. I came to my very first, “Tried for his Own Murder.” How had I done that? By asking myself what was the wildest idea conceivable about a murder? I dragged myself to the typewriter, and put down all the wildest things that could happen to insipid Beverly. I came on a stunner. She could turn into a boy, that’s what she could do!

A male impersonation was always good comedy. And Marion Davies—she’d sure look darling in royal uniforms. The Prince of Wales, now the Duke of Windsor, was the idol of Europe and America at the time. Trim-figured, boyish-faced, and blond, his pictures were everywhere. With her hair cut in the new boyish bob, Marion would be almost his twin. Audiences would eat it up. My typewriter hummed. In a few days, I took a plot outline in to Irving. He grinned as he read it.

“This will work, Aggie. I wondered what you were going to do with that tripe.”

“Oh, thanks, Irving,” I cried. “A lot of producers would throw me out of the office for thinking up such a crazy angle, but you, oh, it’s so marvelous to work for somebody who appreciates original ideas…” He stopped my gushing. “Of course, you’ll have to get an okay from your director.”

“Who’s he?”

Sidney Franklin. You better take this right over to him.”

I hurried out, hoping Irving hadn’t noticed the panic and anger on my face. Ever since Sidney Franklin had had me fired from the Pickford Studio, I’d hated his very name. And, if he hadn’t liked my work then, what would he think of it now?

I’m afraid I was curt with his secretary when I asked to be shown into his office. As I opened the door, I saw him tilted back in his chair, skinny legs on his desk. His pointed face seemed fox-like, his grin a leer. Without taking his legs off the desk, he said, “Irving phoned you were coming. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

I plunked the outline down on the desk, and waited stone-faced while he leafed through the pages. Before he even finished, he looked up. “This stuff is bad. Rotten!” All the anger against him I’d had in the past flared up. I got to my feet and let loose on him.

“Now see here, Mr. Franklin! I’ve had as many successes as a writer as you’ve had as a director. You can say you don’t like what I’ve written, but you have no right to say it’s rotten.”

He looked at me, eyes popped in amazement. A writer seldom defies a director that way. Then, suddenly, he lay back in his chair and laughed and laughed. “Okay, Aggie,” he finally managed to say. “Your stuff isn’t rotten. I just don’t like it.”

From then on, we were friends. I found him as intelligent a director as I’d ever worked with, though a difficult one. Sometimes he’d have me in tears, criticizing a scene I’d written. And the next moment, he’d be almost shouting with delight at something he liked. My male impersonation angle was used all right, and the whole story built around it. But, as with Lubitsch, everything had to be sifted through Sidney’s personality. And what a perfectionist! Description of action that wouldn’t show on the screen had to be written with exactly the right words to convey the mood. For instance, he wouldn’t let you write just “she enters.” It had to be “she dances in” or “glides” or “slouches” or “swaggers.”

I’ve never minded hard work, and I’m something of a perfectionist myself. Before the scenario was finished, Sidney and I were very fond of each other. In fact, I had quite a “studio crush” on him. Sidney always puts a tender, humorous charm into every picture he directs or produces. From “Mrs. Miniver” to “The White Cliffs of Dover” to “The Yearling” and “Command Decision,” he has lost none of his cunning though the years.

However, the course of a good picture never runs smoothly. When Sidney and I had finished the “Beverly” script and were feeling smug and happy about it, word came that Mr. Hearst didn’t think he wanted Marion to appear in men’s clothes. I wept. Sidney fumed. But Irving was not in the least perturbed. “I’ll handle this, kids,” he said.

Mr. Hearst was called east. While he was gone, Irving sent Marion to the best men’s tailor in town. Brilliant, dashing uniforms evolved. Marion looked adorable in them, and she knew it. When Mr. Hearst returned from New York, no more was heard about his objection to a male impersonation.

Soon after “Beverly” started shooting, an invitation came for Frank and me to go to a small dinner party Marion was giving for Mr. Hearst. I told Frank about it and his face hardened.

“I won’t go,” he said. “I’m against everything the Hearst papers stand for. I don’t want to get mixed up with him.”

“But I can’t snub the star I’m working for,” I wailed. This, of course, was just an excuse. It would never occur to Marion to feel “snubbed.” I was dying to go to my star’s party. Finally, Frank was persuaded. And he promised not to sound off his hate against the Hearst papers—that is, unless he was drawn into any discussion. Then he was going to say exactly what he thought.

I was nervous all through that dinner. There were important people. Charlie Chaplin and then wife, Lita Gray. Arthur Brisbane, and Mr. and Mrs. Mayer. Frank had been put at Mr. Hearst’s left hand. From the end of the table where I sat, I could see them conversing earnestly. Fearful of an explosion, I only picked at my food.

While the liquors were being served in the drawing room, I had a chance to whisper to Frank. He said that Mr. Hearst had been a most charming host, but that no discussion of politics had come up. In all the years that we knew Mr. Hearst, it never did.




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