Buck Parvin and the Movies/Man-Afraid-of-His-Wardrobe
MR. BUCHANAN PARVIN, moving-picture Westerner by profession and extra man by force of circumstance, dropped his heavy rifle, shifted his blanket roll and haversack, removed his ancient fatigue cap and offered a perspiring brow to the cooling breeze.
"Nothing to it!" said Buck querulously. "Uncle Billy Sherman sure knew something when he called the turn on the war business. The real thing was bad enough, I reckon; but it wasn't a patch on this moving-picture Civil War stuff. In Uncle Billy's time if a man was winged he could lay down and take a rest, or else go to a hospital and have a pretty nurse hold his hand; if he was killed he was through for the day. There's some sense to that kind of a war, but this bushwhacking that we're doing ain't got no beginning or no end.
"Take me, for instance. I've been killed on every steep hill in Los Angeles County and wounded every little while reg'lar; and I'm still packing this confounded blunderbuss around. I've helped to capture more cannons than Napoleon ever saw. I've crawled miles and miles on my stomach, collecting red ants and wood-ticks that I couldn't scratch because the camera was looking at me. I've charged till I was black in the face. I'm a veteran of Bull Run, Antietam, Lookout Mountain, Shiloh, the Wilderness, Gettysburg—and I held Grant's hawss at Appomattox and loaned him the makings of a cigarette. I've been in Libby Prison twice.
"Phil Sherman and me is pals. I showed him how to make that ride and rehearsed the hawss four times. I fought under Grant, Lee, Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, Bragg, McClellan, Hooker, Ben Butler, Jim Montague—and a-many more that I disremember right now. I'm a Yank one day and a Johnny Reb the next; I get it on both sides, so to speak; and what Uncle Billy said about this business goes double for me. I ought to have about a million dollars comin'—in pensions—but I'd swap the whole works for a nice cool scuttle of beer. What fool started this here war anyhow?"
The camera had run out of film and, while the photographer was reloading, the Union troops rested and cursed history. A portly gentleman in gray wig and beard and the uniform of an infantry colonel grinned at Buck from the ground where he had thrown himself.
"Cheer up, old horse!" said the colonel—behind his beard he was Charlie Jennings, a retired stock actor and assistant to James Montague, the producing director—"Cheer up! This will be the last of the war pictures for a couple of months. We're going back to the wild and woolly in a day or two."
"Western stuff?" asked Buck. "Good news! Who told you so?"
"Jimmy Montague," replied Jennings. "He got word this morning to fix up a lot of Western scenarios quick. The boss in New York has signed A. Lester Hale to work in ten pictures—special Western leads. Ever hear of him—A. Lester Hale?"
"Sure!" said Buck. "He's the stage cow-puncher, ain't he? Since when has he been in the movies?"
"This is his first experience," said Jennings; "and what I can't understand is how the boss came to hook him. Hale is a tremendous success on the stage. Years ago he made a hit as a cowpuncher, and he hasn't played anything but cowpunchers since. Mighty good at it too. He's been starring with his own company for the last six seasons. His name on the billboards will make these Western pictures go like a house afire. The women are simply crazy about him. They think he's the only actor in the world."
"Huh! They do, eh? What do the men think about him?"
"Well," said Jennings slowly, "I guess Hale's all right. I played with him once in summer stock in Denver; and, though he ain't the sort of man that would ever really hate himself to death, he may be a good fellow at that. I never got close enough to him to get a real line, because he was always a little bit upstage. Most stars are that way, Buck. But the women—he certainly is an ace with them!"
"Uh-huh!" said Buck, rolling a brown-paper cigarette. "I'll do my level darndest not to let that prejudice me agin him. Never take a woman's judgment about any man but yourself, Charlie. Ten times out of nine they're wrong. If they like your hair or your teeth they're liable to overlook a heap of dark spots in your character. Now when I was down in the Pecos country I knew a feller named Pete McCaskey.
"Mac was a right nice quiet sort of a guy until he got about seven or fifteen drinks under his belt, and, then he'd go home and lick his wife. Not because he didn't like her, you understand, but just because it was a kind of habit with him. Whenever I'm tanked right I get a craving to whale a street-car conductor. I don't know why—it's just a fool notion I get. Mac, he used to pike for home when he got about so much and give his wife a dressing down. Great big fat woman she was, with blue eyes. He called her Birdie.
"By and by Mac couldn't get enough action with his fists, so he took to using the furniture; and old Doc Bowen would have to go over and patch Birdie up. One night Mac got familiar with a new brand of booze and went after Birdie with a bed slat. Doc Bowen told me that woman's back looked like one of them old-fashioned crazy quilts—black and blue and green and yellow. The doc, he fixed her up the best he could, and then he handed her some advice.
"'Look here, Mrs. McCaskey,' he says. 'Why don't you tell Pete this rough stuff has got to stop? These parties he's giving you are comin' too regular. Last week he nearly broke your arm; week before that it was your leg. Now he's got your back all marked up like a zebra. You tell Pete he's got to behave or you'll quit him.'
"'Why, doc,' says Birdie, beginnin' to bawl, 'you don't understand Pete. You don't know what a good feller he is. In lots of ways he's the most considerate man in the world!'
" 'Considerate!' says the doc. 'Your back looks like he was considerate, ma'am! It'll be black and blue for a month. I wish you could see it.'
" 'I know it will,' says Birdie, snuffling and wiping her eyes. 'I know it will, doc; but, even when Pete's drinking and roughest with me, he's awful thoughtful in some ways. Believe it or not, in all the years we've been married he ain't never yet so far forgot himself as to put a mark on me where anybody could see it!'
"And that's the way a woman figures," concluded Buck. "Their bein' strong for Hale don't make him real, you know. I got to see the bird before I make up my mind.... Come on, you noble heroes! The camera guy has got the box threaded up and ready for business. I'll bet anybody three to one we have to make that last charge all over again."
James Montague, producing director for the Titan Company and a person of considerable importance in the moving-picture world—which is rather a larger world than most people think—put on kid gloves and a stiff hat and went downtown to call upon A. Lester Hale as soon as he was advised that the star had arrived from New York. Jimmy was the sort of a man who would go barehanded before kings and emperors; but he felt it necessary to put on gloves for one who was to receive ten thousand dollars for working in ten moving pictures.
After some delay he was ushered into a three-room suite in the most expensive hotel in Los Angeles, where he discovered a tall, handsome young man in smoking jacket and furred Russian slippers, who found it too great an exertion to rise or shake hands, but waved a gold-tipped Cairo cigarette in languid welcome.
"You'll excuse me, mister—mister—I believe I've mislaid your card—but the newspaper men were just here and, of course, I had to get rid of them. Awful bore to be interviewed every time one turns round, isn't it! And they positively cost me a fortune in photographs."
"You've got a few left, I see," said Montague, looking about him. No less than eight different poses of the great stage Westerner were displayed in various parts of the room. "If the newspaper men hunt you it's better than hiring a press agent to hunt them."
"I dare say," remarked Hale carelessly. "It's a nuisance, though. Reporters run in at all times; they seem to have no respect for privacy, no finer feelings, no——"
A thin, sad young man came in from the other room and waited at Hale's elbow.
"Well, James, what is it now?"
"Beg pardon, sir, I telephoned all the newspapers, sir. Three of them wouldn't send reporters, but said they might print the photographs if——"
"That will do, James!" said Hale sternly. "You may go."
"Yes, sir," said the valet, disappearing noiselessly.
"Stupid fellow!" fumed Hale. "I don't know where he got that idea—oh, may I offer you a drink?"
Montague grinned at the clumsy attempt to cover up an unfortunate situation.
"Not so early in the morning," said he.
"Ah—perhaps I can do something for you?"
"No, I guess not. You see, I'm the producing director for most of the Western stuff that we put out—sort of a stage manager; and I dropped in to get acquainted and talk over the kind of work that will show you to the best advantage."
"Oh, yes," said Hale. "A very good idea. Perhaps, though, Mister——"
"Montague," said Jimmy.
"Perhaps, Mr. Montague, it would be better if I should have a chat with your—dramatist, do you call him? I might suggest to him a few ideas and——"
"I'm the dramatist," said Jimmy cheerfully. "I dope out most of the pictures."
"Indeed!" said Hale, elevating his eyebrows. "I presume the things you are about to produce will be written round my impersonation of the Westerner—the cowpuncher type, you know. Of course you are familiar with the parts I play?"
"No," said Montague. "I may have seen you somewhere, but I don't remember it." If not actually turning, the worm was twisting slightly. "Can you ride a horse?"
Mr. A. Lester Hale flicked the ash from his cigarette with a gesture that dismissed the subject utterly.
"Anything that wears a bridle," said he.
"Fine! What sort of an outfit did you bring with you?"
"My stage costumes, " said Hale. "I brought my own saddle and rope, and all that sort of thing."
"You handle a rope, then?" Montague was interested.
"Oh, yes," said Hale. "I had to use one in my play two seasons ago. I thought it might come in handy, so I brought it along."
"Bully!" said the director. "I can write a whole picture round a roping scene. We have twenty or thirty steers out at the farm that we use in Western pictures—Texas longhorns—and you can rope one of them."
"Of course I've never done any range work," said Hale—"not with real cattle, you understand; but the principle of the thing is the same."
"Ever had any experience with movie stuff—watched pictures being made, I mean?"
"Oh, dear, no!" said the actor. "This is my first offense, I assure you. I had some open time this summer; I wanted to see the West, and—here I am. It's a nice way to make expenses during the dull season, isn't it? I presume, on the whole, moving-picture work is much simpler than acting—no strain on the voice."
"Yes," said Jimmy Montague, "it's dead easy when you get the hang of it. Here is the address of the studio. If you will be there to-morrow at nine and bring all your things with you——"
"Nine!" exclaimed Hale. "Isn't that very early?"
"Not for moving-picture people. The light is better then. I'll bid you good-morning."
Jimmy Montague rolled back to the studio in one of the company's automobiles, talking to himself.
"And that's the fellow that plays cowpuncher parts!" he soliloquized. "Ten thousand dollars in real money for ten pictures—expenses during the dull season! It's a high price for cheese."
The next morning A. Lester Hale, bag, baggage and valet, arrived at the Titan studio. Jimmy Montague, in a dirty slouch hat, disreputable chaps and high-heeled boots, welcomed him cheerfully.
"I play the heavies in the "Western pictures," said Montague in explanation. "That's why I'm made up. This will be your dressing-room, Mr. Hale." It was the one the director had just vacated, consequently the best allotted to the men. "Get on your cowpuncher togs and don't make your face up very much."
The star looked about him and sniffed.
"This dressing-room is too small," said he. "Have you nothing larger?"
"Miss Manners has the largest dressing-room," said Montague. "She is our leading woman."
A. Lester Hale sat down on one of his trunks and fumbled with a gold cigarette case. He had the air of one who prepares to stand a long siege.
"Simply out of the question!" said he. "I should stifle in a coop of that size. Why, there isn't room enough for me to hang np my things! And then I have my man!"
So Miss Manners was turned out of her dressing-room, a process involving a great deal of hard work for a young woman without a maid. Hale took possession at once, and forgot to thank her.
"Jimmy," whispered that very angry little lady, "your new leading man may know how to act, but if you cast him for a gentleman you'll have to rehearse every scene with him."
"I'm awfully sorry, Myrtle," apologized the director, "but you see how it is. He's got the theater idea about the star dressing-room and he thinks he's entitled to it here. Wait till I get him out on a location somewhere when there ain't any women round—and I'll make him change his clothes in a bunch of cactus or behind a horse!"
"Pass out your saddle, Mr. Hale," called Montague. "I'll have one of the boys put it on Teddy. He's the best-looking horse we've got. We're going to make the outdoor stuff first, while the carpenters get the interiors ready. We'll go into the hills and make some runs."
Buck Parvin was the man who did the saddling. His eyes opened wide as he inspected Hale's equipment.
"I've dreamed about saddles like this," said Buck, "but doggone me if I ever thought I'd hold one in my hands! Look at her, Jim! Ain't she a humdinger? Hand-stamped leather, bucking rolls, Visalia tree, and—holy Moses, Jim, d'you reckon that plate on the cantleboard is gold? 'To A. Lester Hale from admiring friends.' Gee! No champion broncho-twister even won a hull like this!... Braided-hair bridle, single loop; headstall and cheekstraps all covered with silver dewdads—and A. L. H. on every one of 'em! Wowie!... Spanish spade bit! Reckon I better loosen up the chinstrap or he'll bust Teddy's jaw.... Bearskin saddle-pockets, with silver name-plates on 'em. That's poor, I s'pose; yes, perfectly miserable!... And feel of these blankets! Navajo, Jim, and as soft as silk!
"Why, say, you could cinch this saddle on to me and I'd be proud to have anybody ride me plumb downtown! The only thing that looks bad about the outfit is this braided-leather rope. She's a beauty, but she's been hangin' in the tiestraps for so long that she's 'most cracked in two from lack of use. Yes, sir—that rope is sure lashed permanent. If he ever made a cast with it and took a dally or two round the horn, zing!—good night, rope! Just wait till I show all this class to that Teddy hawss, and he'll be so puffed up he won't never look at the rest of them ordinary plugs!"
The favorable impression created by Hale's saddle was sustained and strengthened by his appearance as he stepped out of his dressing room. His legs were cased in white angora chaps, which had been curried and brushed until each long silky hair was in its place. His trousers were of whipcord and the boots of soft leather with Mexican heels. His spurs were of silver, with an eight-inch shank and a two-inch rowel; and the chains dragged full six inches behind his heels as he walked.
About his slender waist was strapped a heavy cartridge belt, from which swung a stamped-leather holster, sheltering a pearl-handled and gold-plated forty-five caliber revolver—the same that had barked death to many a villain in the last act, and caused thousands of matinée girls to cover their ears and squeak with pleasurable fright.
His light-blue shirt was of silk, with a large embroidered monogram on the pocket. His crimson bandanna was also of silk, and the ends were passed through an immense gold ring, in which a two-carat diamond sparkled. His sombrero was of the softest gray beaver, eighteen inches across the brim, with a twelve-inch crowm—price, thirty-five dollars. The band was of gold filigree, studded with tourmalines. His quirt was stiff with gold cord.
Buck Parvin took one long look and went out behind the developing room to express his feelings.
"Don't cuss like that, Buck," said Ben Leslie, the property man. "You won't catch no fish."
"Look at me!" said Buck tragically. "I used to be the niftiest thing on the Coast in the cow-puncher line, didn't I? I had 'em all breakin' their necks to rubber when I went by. Folks used to say: 'There goes the real thing! Considerable class to that!' It was a mistake. I ain't real, Ben. I'm a bum negative—that's what I am. I'm full of pinholes, fogged on both ends, and light-struck in the middle. They wouldn't run me in a five-cent house—not even for a chaser. These clothes of mine looked pretty good an hour ago, but now I'm just sort of lingering round, waiting for the garbage wagon to come along—and then I'm going to climb aboard and say: 'Home, James!'... Don't laugh—doggone you! Can't you see your Uncle Buck's heart is cracked plumb in two?"
"What cracked it?" asked Leslie, a man of few words but keen perceptions. "Got a new lookin'-glass in the extry men's dressing room?"
"I've seen the difference between a phony and the real thing," said Buck. "So will you when you get a flash at that new leadin' man. Chaps lined with kid—hair on 'em a foot long; solid gold smoke-pole; Kansas City boots; silver spurs that weigh a couple of pounds apiece; diamonds all over him, like a pawnbroker's bride. Why, say, Ben, if I could steal them clothes and wear 'em just once at the Cheyenne Frontier Day—if I could put 'em on and kind of stroll down and stand in front of the Interocean Hotel along about train time and let the boys look me over—I'd be ashamed to ask to go to Heaven when I die I It would be stretching the luck too far. Yes, sir—this guy has got the richest and the best what is, and all what is, I reckon; and if he ever throws that hatband away ole Buck will jump after it if it's a thousand feet straight down!"
"Well," remarked Ben Leslie "handsome is as handsome does."
"Like hell it is!" said Buck savagely. "I sprung that chestnut on a cross-eyed woman once, figuring to comfort her a little bit."
"Did it work?" asked Ben.
"Got action on it right away quick!" said Buck. "She grabbed a skillet off the stove and just flattened it on my face. Folks that has to take second money get sore when you remind 'em of it."
It was late in the afternoon when the moving-picture Westerners returned to the studio. The new leading man dismounted stiffly and hobbled toward his dressing-room, looking neither to the right nor the left. There was in his stride a mixture of lofty reserve, wounded dignity and saddle soreness that caused Ben Leslie to grin as he sat in the doorway of the property room, checking off a list of props with a carpenter's pencil.
After Buck's horse was in the barn he sought out Leslie and borrowed a generous portion of fine-cut tobacco, a sure sign that he had a tale to unfold. Ben assisted him with a casual remark.
"Solomon-in-all-his-glory just got back," said he. "At first I thought it was a stepladder getting off the horse; but I looked again and I see it was your friend with the dude buckaroo clothes."
"I guess he walked kind of lame, did he?" chuckled Buck.
"Lame! He went to his dressing-room like a tragedy queen with the spring-halt. Struck me as funny, because I heard him telling Charlie Jennings that he could ride anything with hair on it."
"Ride!" said Buck. "Say, Ben, that guy couldn't ride a hair mattress. He couldn't ride in a box car with the door shut. All he's got is the clothes. No more real Western ability than a canary bird. I got his number as soon as we started out this morning. I had Teddy all saddled up for him, but Mister Four Flush wouldn't ride to the location with the rest of us. Huh-uh! He went out in the automobile with Montague and the camera man; and he took that dough-faced valet of his along. One of the boys had to lead his hawss. That was where he tipped his mitt to me."
"How did he make out?" asked Ben.
"He didn't make out at all," said Buck. "Don't rush me, son. I got to tell this slow or I'Il spill it. This is too good to be told without music. The first run we made was down a little pitch in the road and off into the brush. We was chasin' a hawss thief—that Mexican extry man. Well, sir, Mister Four Flush takes a look at the hill we had to come down and begins to holler. He said it was too steep. After that he had to know whether Teddy was surefooted. That was a warm one to pull on the best stunt hawss in the movie business, hey?
"Well, Jim finally got him ribbed up to make the run. There wasn't no rehearsal—didn't need none, for it was just straight riding stuff. All we had to do was follow the Mex on the keen jump, whirl our hawsses where he whirled his, and take up the side of the hill through the brush and weeds. We'd be out of the picture as soon as we got off the road.
"Four Flush, he was to lead the posse, of course. The first time Jim yelled for us to come on, he didn't get started and we like to run over him. There was a fine mix-up, and the Mex had to come back and do it over, and Charlie Dupree had thirty or forty feet of wasted film on his hands. The next time Jim hollered I was right close to Four Flush and I nicked Teddy with the spur. Away goes Mister Good Clothes, pulling leather with both hands and yelling Whoa! Whoa! When he got close to the camera he mighty nigh bent Teddy double, and the way he jounced round in that gold-plated saddle was pitiful to see!
"It's a darned good thing for him that I left that chin-strap loose, or else he'd have yanked Teddy over backward and most likely got a broken neck for it. He some close to falling off at the place where we had to take to the woods; but Teddy handled him nice, and into the brush he went, the rest of us stringing along behind.
"I was on the tail-end of the run, making one of them Snapper Garrison finishes and a-fannin' ole Pieface between the ears for all there was in it; and just as he was making the turn, hangin' on by one spur, out of the brush comes Four Flush—on foot, mind you—yelling like he was snake-bit! He goes for Montague, square into the picture, of course, and spoiled the whole run—and you'd never guess what ailed him, Ben."
"Somebody rode into him from behind and bumped him?"
"No," said Buck. "The poor unfortunate feller had gone through cockleburs and got some in his chaps!"
"Now see here," said Ben reproachfully, "I like a liar, and always did, but there's times, Buck, when you suit me too well."
"Cross my heart and hope to die! I wouldn't have believed it, either, if I hadn't seen it. 'Get back!' Jim yells at him. 'Can't you see you're spoilin' this picture?'
" 'What do I care for your darned ole picture?' howls Four Flush. 'You told me to ride through them weeds and I done it. Now look at these chaps! They're a solid mass of stickers.'
" 'That's what chaps are for,' says Jim. 'Don't you know that film costs money? And you ought to have waited until the run was over!'
"Well, they had it hot and heavy; but there wasn't nothing to it. Percy wouldn't make the run again until we scouted out a place without burs, and Dupree had to shift his camera and establish new lines. What he said about Harold would have blistered a horny toad; and, with Jim Montague helpin' him with suggestions now and then, there wasn't much language left when they got through. Honest, I was afraid Jim was going to bust an artery or something. Little Casino, the valet, he had a swell job following Four Flush round and gathering a quart or so of cockleburs whenever he got a chance!
" 'I can never wear 'em on the stage again!' says Harold.
"Well, when noon came we dug out our lunches, but Four Flush didn't have none—nobody had told him to bring one. Jim did the right thing—he offered him his own lunch; but Four Flush wouldn't touch it, and, while the rest of us was eating, him and Little Casino had a party all to themselves. They was off under a tree gatherin' another mess of burs out of them angora chaps.
"In the afternoon we made one run through water—shallow water at that. Four Flush balked again.
" 'But I'll get wet!' he says. 'I might catch cold. I got to protect my voice. Why can't you stop the camera just as I get to the bank and leave something to the imagination?'
"Montague had been getting sorer and sorer; and he turned loose in that quiet, raspy way of his that kind of makes a fellow feel as if he'd been touched up with the hot end of a bull whip.
" 'Mr. Hale," he says, 'please remember that in this business we don't leave nothing to the imagination. This ain't the stage,' he says. 'This is real scenery and real water. We don't have no canvas rivers in the movies. When we go into the water we get wet. I've had my whole company overboard in the Pacific Ocean. This creek is only three feet deep and I guess you can stand it. We'll make the run now, if you please.'
"Well, Four Flush wasn't the least mite tickled, but he saw he was up against it; so he climbs down off his hawss and begins to peel his chaps.
" 'Whatever happens,' he says, 'I ain't going to have these all sopped up! I couldn't ever wear 'em on the stage again.'
"It took Jim half an hour to explain that he'd already established them chaps in the other runs—and, water or no water, he had to wear 'em.
" 'But that's only a detail,' says Four Flush, sulkylike.
" 'You'll find there's a whole lot of details to this business,' says Jim.
"He went into the water at last, but he was about as tickled over it as a sick hen. He held both feet up as high as he could and kept looking down to see how his chaps was getting along. that'll give a film the real Western flavor, I reckon. While he was kicking about getting wet the auto started back for the studio with the first load. Being some damp he couldn't wait, so he tore out on hawssback. He come home standing up in the stirrups, because it pained him to set down. What do you know about that? And him the hero of all them Western plays!"
"Why, he won't do at all, will he?" asked Ben.
"Hush, man! Don't make me laugh. The poor sucker can't even set still on a hawss without worryin' all over his face. What would he do in some of them real tough runs and chases that Jim Montague frames up for us—lickety-split down the side of a cañon! They get my goat once in a while, them runs do; and what chance would this feller stand? Suppose Jim asked him to pull a fall? He'd break his back sure! And he was telling Jennings he could ride, hey? I wonder what sort of a hawss he's used to."
"I know," said Ben. "I worked one of them Western shows once that had an awful lot of riding in it. The horses they used can he bought at any fruit stand. A couple of cocoanut shells and a board out in the wings—Tunk-a-tunk! Tunk-a-tunk! Then the actor hollers Who-o-a! and goes stampin' on to the stage, brushing the dust off his clothes or hitting his pants-legs with a whip. That's the sort of a rough rider Hale is."
"You sure spoke an armful then!" said Buck. "Montague usually figures on twenty or twenty-five runs a day. This Clarence guy fooled round so much that we only did five—one down the hill, one through water, and three dinky little gallops on level ground, 'most as exciting as a female riding school out for the afternoon. A whole day's work wasted—all them extry men to pay; and it's my bet that we'll get make-overs on the entire bunch."
"Didn't he show up pretty good in the other stuff?" asked Ben.
"Good and rotten!" said Buck. "We made one scene, dismounted, after we'd ketched the hawss thief and was about to string him up. Four Flush was to pull his gun and prevent the lynching. I wish you could 'a' seen the way he went after that forty-five—by slow freight! When he finally got it out of the holster he shoved it at us full arm-length instead of whipping it up from the hip for a quick cover. Honest, I could have loaded a cannon single-handed and shot him full of holes while he was getting that gun into action! It was awful! And all the time he was jimmy-in' round so he could look straight into the camera. I've seen some extry men that was pretty tol'able anxious to take a pretty picture, but he skinned 'em all! Jim had to keep bawling him out for that every few seconds, and we had to make the scene five times before he could forget there was a camera round."
"The boss will lose a lot of money on him," said Ben.
"It ain't the firm's bankroll that worries me," said Buck; "but whenever I think of them elegant clothes—wasted—just naturally squandered on a guy like that, I get kind of sore at Providence. Hale's got as much use for them things as Baldy Bradley had for the presents his sister sent him from Boston after he had the fever that time. Baldy had quite a long spell o' sickness, and it left him without a hair on his head and stone deaf."
"What did he get!" asked Ben.
"A phonograph and a pair of silver hair-brushes!" said Buck.
A few days later two men sat in the darkened projecting room, the tiny theater where moving pictures make their first and often their last appearance upon a screen. As soon as a scene is photographed the film goes to the developing room, and when the negative is dry it is flashed upon a screen and scrutinised for defects. At times the action of the players is at fault or the camera man has erred, but more often the condition of the film itself presents a reason for rejection. Pinholes; tiny electric flashes generated inside the camera, known and bitterly cursed under the name of static; blisters upon the emulsion side of the film; and the queer perpendicular scratches called rainstorms—these are only a few of the unavoidable things that cost moving-picture concerns small fortunes in makeovers.
One man passes upon all the film turned out by the various directors, and his word is final. A shake of the head may cancel days of hard work and entail additional expense of hundreds of dollars. On this particular day Bill Cartwright, projecting-room expert and also the Western representative of the Titan Company, had summoned Jimmy Montague to the theater of judgment, there to witness, in a completed and assembled picture, the initial appearance of A. Lester Hale as a movie star.
"Jim, I want you to look at this stuff," said the expert. "The negatives are good, but the picture itself is hopeless. Your runs and chases haven't got any life in 'em. You're away over on your footage, and this fellow Hale is impossible. Yes—worse than that! Even in the studio stuff he kills half the scenes he gets into. What's the matter with him? Can't you beat anything into his conceited head?"
Jimmy Montague sighed and took a fresh grip upon his cigar. The criticism was not unexpected.
"I've bawled him out until my throat is sore," said he wearily. "Of course the runs are dead! Why wouldn't they be? Hale has to set the pace, and I can't make him ride fast. I rehearse the studio scenes a dozen times with him and he's all right in the rehearsals; but the minute the camera man begins to turn Hale starts to look pretty and pose, and works with one eye on the box. Give him a chance in the middle of the stage on a 'close-up' and he'll eat a mile of film; and that's why I'm over on the footage. I don't know what to do about it, Bill."
"Pictures like these," said Cartwright, "will hurt the company's reputation if we put 'em out. The boss certainly made a fine bloomer when he gave this false alarm a contract!"
"I might write some scenarios that wouldn't call for much but studio work on his part," suggested Montague.
"We couldn't get away with it," said the expert. "It's action that people want, Jim. And don't forget that this fellow's stage reputation will make 'em expect to see him do the wild and woolly. A few years ago we faked the Western stuff and got by with it, but nowadays audiences are too well educated and too wise. They've been brought up on the real thing and they won't stand for the hunk. Every company out here has got real riders and ropers, and everybody will be looking for Hale to do the same sort of stuff—and he can't! By the way, have you had any more trouble with him lately?"
"Not since day before yesterday," chuckled Jimmy. "He won't speak to me! You remember the fight I had with him in the bunkhouse set? He'd been beefing and kicking all day, insulting everybody right and left; and he finally got me sore. When we rehearsed the fight I pulled my punches the same as we always do; but when we made the picture I let one go through—hang on his chin. It was the only way I had of getting back at him. He walked of the side lines and it took me a long time to explain to him that once in a while a man had to take a real punch in order to register it on the film.
"He said he was an actor and not a pugilist, and I had to promise to go easy in the fight scene. I did, and he had the nerve to start a haymaker for my jaw. I clinched and tore the shirt off his back."
"And well I know it!" growled Cartwright. "He put in a bill for ten dollars. I could buy a lot of shirts for that. We're up against it, Jim! He's got us on that contract and, unless he breaks it himself, I see a big loss in time and money."
A long, thoughtful silence followed that remark.
"Well," said Montague at length, "stranger things than that have happened."
"Than what?" demanded Cartwright.
"Never mind," said Montague. "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies. Now, as I understand it, you regard this Hale person as a total loss to the concern. Eh?"
"Ab-so-lute-ly!" said Cartwright dismally. "He's a ten-thousand~dollar joke, but you and we won't do any of the laughing. You can add to that all it costs to keep the company going, because these pictures won't have any sale after they're out of the release houses. They're so much dead film."
"If he should see fit to quit us," hazarded Montague, "could he get action on his contract? Sue us for damages—or anything like that?"
"Not if he quits of his own accord," said Cartwright
"Uh-huh!" grunted Montague thoughtfully. "Bill, I think I'll go and do some authoring. I've got an idea that I might write a stunt picture—oh, a lot of stunts, one in every scene. It ought to be a money-saver if it works. How much will you stand for?"
"If you're thinking about what I'm thinking about," said the Western representative, "you can go as far as you like, and the company will he behind you in anything but murder in the first degree. Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money."
"So I've been told," remarked Jimmy, "and it seems to me that a man who saves it ought to be entitled to salvage." He took his departure, chewing earnestly on an unlighted cigar.
Jimmy Montague did not go authoring; he went motoring instead, which, for a moving picture director, is much the same thing. All the world is truly a stage for those who ransack it for the scenery round which the flickering dramas are built.
There are seasons of the year when deep running water is scarce in Southern California, hut Jimmy Montague knew where to look; and in a rugged cañon miles from Los Angeles he discovered a promising series of locations.
That same evening Buck Parvin received sealed orders.
"Buck," said Montague, "do you remember where we made that Indian picture last spring—the place where the horses had to swim?"
"I reckon I'll never forget it. I can feel that cold water yet?"
"Meet me there at one o'clock to-morrow afternoon. Put an old saddle on Teddy and lead him. Wear old clothes and take a change along—because you might get wet."
"Oho!" said Buck. "Lead Teddy, hey? Is Man-Afraid-of-His-Wardrobe going to be in this?"
"Speaking as one human being to another and in strict confidence," said the director, "he is. Away over his head!" Montague looked steadily at Buck for several seconds and then he winked—a slow, deliberate closing of the left eye. "Yes, Mr. Hale is going to be in it. For a starter he'll swim the creek on Teddy and get shot off his back in about ten feet of ice water—with his boots and chaps on. Then he'll do a jump from the top of that great big rock. More ice water. Then we'll make a close-up of him, stranded on a sandbar with only the end of his nose sticking out. Still more ice water. And then——"
"Say, hold on!" interrupted Buck. "Are you trying to kid me or are you kidding yourself? You know Percy ain't got no use for ice water—except on the side, as you might say; and this time of the year, with that snow up above and beginning to melt, a man might just as well be froze to death as chucked into that creek. He won't go through with it."
"And then," continued Montague—"if he lasts that far—he'll do some fancy riding down the side of the cañon. After that we can think up something else. Right offhand, I'd say that to-morrow is going to be his busy day."
"I wish you'd put the cards on the table," said Buck. "Do you want to drownd this bird, or what? Because I'm a guy that can be trusted to go along way for a friend."
"Buck," said Montague in his professional tone, "I knew a man once—about your size and complexion-who got a steady job with a director because he saw a lot of things and forgot about 'em afterward. Are you on?"
"If that's a promise," said Buck, "you can depend upon a loss of memory complete. You said something about this bird being shot off his hawss. As a favor to me I'd like to make that gunplay."
"I thought I'd do it myself."
"Please let me," urged Buck. "I ain't never shot a leadin' man yet—and then there's other reasons. Remember yesterday—when I got my hand between his face and the camera for about a second, and how he beefed to you about it? When we got off the scene he tore into me again. Jim, that big hunk of uselessness called me a confounded, impertinent, insignificant, bowlegged supe! Yes—and worse than that. I may not look it, Jim, but I'm terrible sensitive. My feelings are easy hurt and my hot Southern blood boils mighty quick. I'd like to see myself in a picture shooting this Jasper."
"Oh, very well!" said Montague. "And if you're five minutes late, I'll fine you a day's pay—understand?"
"Huh! I'll be there with my hair in a braid!" said Buck.
As the big studio touring car bummed swiftly along the foothill road Jimmy Montague, in the tonneau with A. Lester Hale, his valet and two suitcases, maintained a cheerful flow of conversation, apparently unmindful of the somewhat sulky silence of his star.
"There is really not the slightest danger in the world," said Montague. "In the first place the horse can swim like a——"
"But I understood you to say the water wasn't deep!" interrupted Hale.
"Six or eight feet—a mere trifle!" said Jimmy. "You swim, of course?"
"Not for several years," said Hale uncomfortably. "Why wouldn't it be better merely to suggest that scene without making the horse swim?"
"We suggested too many things in the first picture," said Montague, "and that was why Cartwright turned it down. Suggestion is all right on the stage, but in the movies people expect realism. They won't stand for anything else. We've got to pull some stunts in order to make this next picture stand up. This swimming stuff is easy. You know how a horse acts when he gets beyond his depth, don't you?"
"Not—not exactly," said Hale.
"Well, it practically amounts to the same thing as walking on his hind legs. He's feeling for bottom—see?—and kind of treading water. Soon as you feel him going out from under you take hold of the pommel with one hand and let him tow you. Then, when you're almost across, Buck jumps out of the willows and fires once. That's your cue to let go, throw up your hands and sink."
"Sink!" ejaculated Hale.
"Just bob under for a second," said Montague reassuringly.
"But why is it necessary for me to go under at all?" objected Hale. "Why wouldn't it be much more effective for me to fall forward on the horse's neck and let him bring me out—wounded?"
"Because it would crab the next scene," said Jimmy glibly. "That shows you washed up on a sandbank, unconscious."
"But I don't like the idea of going into the water with all these heavy clothes on," persisted the leading man.
"Of course they'll get wet; but you can change right away," said Montague. "That's one reason why I loaned you my old chaps. They've been wet so many times that it won't hurt 'em."
"I'm not worrying about your ratty old togs," said Hale with a scornful glance downward. "As a boy I was subject to cramps."
"My dear fellow," said Montague with acid sweetness, "surely you know I wouldn't ask you to do anything I haven't done myself. This is a very simple moving-picture stunt. You go under water for a second and the scene ends there. Buck throws you a rope and we pull you out. Why, when we put on the pirate picture I walked the plank blindfolded and dropped forty feet into the ocean.
"In another water picture I went head first off the yardarm of a vessel. They tossed me off the San Pedro Breakwater tied up in a sack, and I had to cut my way out before I could begin to swim. This thing I'm asking you to do is dead easy."
"Easy for you, maybe," said Hale with a sneer. "I'm not a swimmer or a high diver."
Jimmy Montague's face slightly reddened, but he replied quietly enough, and his very calmness would have carried a threat to a less self-centered and egotistical individual. "In the movies," said he, "a man has to do almost everything—well."
By this time the automobile was climbing the cañon road. On each side were towering walls, flecked with patches of brush. Below, in the willows, a swift mountain stream hurled itself over its rocky bed, swirling into deep green pools and racing over pebbly shallows. A cold wind ripped down the narrow canon, bringing a chilling hint of melting snow in the heights above. Hale shivered and drew his coat closer about him.
As the road dipped away toward a ford Montague signaled to the chauffeur.
"We'll get out here," said he.
It was a lonely spot, deep in the cañon. There was no sound save the rushing cluck of the water and the thresh of the willows whipped by the keen breeze. Montague, carrying the tripod, led the way up the bank of the stream. Charlie Dupree, the camera man, came next, with his box and paraphernalia. Hale and his valet lagged in the rear. The chauffeur, to whom stunt pictures were no novelty, elected to take a nap in the tonneau. At times Jimmy Montague, crashing through the brush, caught snatches of conversation behind him and smiled grimly.
"It's not legitimate work!... Confounded slapstick effects!... Too cold!... An artist is entitled to some consideration, even in moving pictures."
Evidently Hale was pouring his troubles into a sympathetic ear, as attested by a low commiserating mumble from the faithful James. In a bend of the stream the party halted, and Buck Parvin, sitting upon a rock and examining his battered forty-five-caliber revolver, gave them a noisy and cheerful greeting.
"Quite some swimming pool we've got here," said he. "I was just thinking if you didn't show up pretty soon I'd take a dive for luck."
At the bend the stream was perhaps seventy-five feet wide. Shallow at the other bank, it sloped away into deep water, where the current was scarcely perceptible. Hale looked down into the pool, dipped his fingers into the water and promptly entered a vigorous protest.
"It's too cold!" said he.
"Nonsense!" said Montague. "You'll only be in the water a few seconds."
"Couldn't you double me in this scene?" he asked anxiously.
"Impossible! I can only double you in scenes where your face does not show clearly. You are so well known that any audience would spot the double in a second.... Charlie"—this to the camera man—"set your camera here. I want that stretch of sand on the other side. Shoot low, because I want as much water as I can get. It's a clear day; so don't open your lens too wide. Use your light meter for your aperture and time your shutter to it."
"Well," said Hale, "If you are really going to insist on this foolishness I suppose I must go through with it. You are responsible if anything happens. James, get my dry things out of the suitcases. You are a witness that I do this under protest."
"Yes, sir," said James. "I am."
"Your horse is over there in the willows," said Montague. "The water above is shallow—so you can cross there. When I give the word ride through that break in the brush on the other side and come into the water between the two white stones. You can leave the rest to Teddy—he'll swim straight for the camera. Don't try to stay in the saddle after you get into deep water. Trail along and let Teddy tow you—and when Buck shoots let go. All I want you to do is to go under water if only for a second; and you'll be so close to the bank that we can have you out in a jiffy. No mistakes on this—unless you want to make it over."
"But we always make a scene twice!" said Charlie Dupree, and paused suddenly as Montague's heel descended upon his toes.
Charlie was an experienced camera man and he had seen many strange things in his time. He subsided, muttering:
"What is this—a joke?" he growled as he fiddled with the shutter.
Plainly it was no joke to A. Lester Hale, gingerly splashing across the shallow ford above the pool. Neither was it a joke to James, shaking out bath towels and fresh underwear with the troubled manner of one upon whom a great responsibility had been laid. It was evident that James, like his master, feared the worst.
Jimmy Montague and Buck Parvin, conferring in whispers, grinned at each other.
"It's no josh about that water being cold!" said Buck. "You ought to brought an oil-stove along to thaw him out afterward."
"I don't know how this will end," said the director; "but back me up in anything I start."
"Sure!" said Buck. "I'm after that steady job you was talking about."
The first time Montague gave the word Hale rode slowly down to the bank of the stream and stopped his horse to remind all present that he was working under strong protest. The second time he asked for additional instructions; but the third time he entered the water.
"Come on, Teddy!" yelled Montague. "Good horse! Come on!"
He produced an apple. Teddy saw it and headed straight for the director, entirely disregarding a strong nervous pull on the bit. Not for nothing had the horse played star parts in dozens of film dramas. Hale's face whitened as the icy water swirled about his knees.
"Oo-o-h!" he gasped. "I—I can't do it! I can't! Tell the horse to go back! It's —it's too cold!"
"Come on with him, Teddy!" called Montague; and Teddy having seen the apple, came on.
Suddenly Hale felt the saddle sinking under him and the water rose to his shoulders. With a howl of fright, he threw himself forward, clutching blindly at the only portion of the horse still above water. One hand found Teddy's left ear and fastened upon it with a desperate grip. The other one was tangled in the mane.
"What are you trying to do?" yelled Buck. "Want to drownd that hawss? Leggo his ear, you fool, and give him a chance to swim!"
Advice and insult went unheeded. Hale's eyes popped out and his chin receded until it was all but invisible. His face froze into a perfect mask of terror. For once in his life he forgot he was being photographed.
"Help!" he cried. "Help!"
"Let go!" roared Montague.
That was the last thing Hale meant to do, however. He tried to pull himself forward upon the horse's head, and Teddy's fore legs beat the air wildly as his nose disappeared under the water.
"Rope him!" shouted Montague to Buck. "He's drowning Teddy!"
"I got something better than that," replied Parvin; and whipping his revolver from the holster he leveled it and fired. At the crashing report Hale's hands went high over his head, and with a bloodcurdling scream he sank from view.
"He's murdered! You've killed him!" shouted James, the faithful, jumping up and down on the bank.
"Murdered your grandmother!" snarled Buck. "The wad must have hit him, that's all."
"Don't let that fool flunky get into the picture!" yelled Dupree, making a fine photograph of a swimming horse and a few bubbles behind him.
Jimmy Montague was the first to appreciate the gravity of the situation. With a reproachful look at Buck Parvin, the director stripped off his coat and plunged into the pool. After what seemed a long time he reappeared, his fingers twined in Hale's long hair.
"The rope—quick!" gasped Montague. "He's hurt!"
Buck drew them both to shore, and on a level stretch of sand Jimmy Montague applied first aid to the drowning. As he pumped vigorously at Hale's arms he shot a question at Parvin.
"What was in that gun—rock salt?"
"Nah!" said Buck. "Just a little candlewax on the wad. Look here!" He ripped open the silk shirt and laid his finger on a small red mark upon the chest. "That's some shooting!" he whispered. "I nailed him when he was trying to climb up between Teddy's ears. He ain't hurt, Jim. He's stalling with you."
"Not on your life he ain't stalling!" said Montague. "He's on the level with it. You scared him almost to death!"
After a time Hale began to moan and toss his head from side to side. Jimmy Montague drew a relieved breath.
"He's all right now," said he to the frightened James. "It was the shock that got him, and he didn't swallow much water."
The leading man opened his eyes and stared about him wildly. Then he clutched his breast and groaned.
"I'm shot through and through!" he sobbed. "Get a doctor—quick!"
"oh, rats!" said the unfeeling Montague. "It was only the wad from the blank cartridge that hit you."
"But I—I felt it. I feel it yet!" said Hale.
"Never even put a hole in your shirt," said Buck consolingly. "Look and see."
It took twenty minutes to convince Hale that he was in no danger of immediate death; when assured upon this point he consented to sit up, resting his head upon the shoulder of the faithful James. It was then that Jimmy Montague had an inspiration.
"Take it easy for a while," said he, "and then we'll make the scene over. Your valet jumped into the picture and cloaked the action. Tough luck!"
"W-what?" Hale forgot himself to such an extent that he sat up without support.
"You'll have to do it again," said Montague. "Your valet here lost his head and——"
"I'm to go into that water again?" Hale's voice rose shrill with hysteria. "Risk my life for your fool picture? Not for anything in the world!"
"But your contract calls for——"
"What do I care about a contract?" sputtered Hale. "You can't hold me to it! I quit! I quit now! I've got a witness here!"
"Yes, sir," said James. "You have."
"Well," said Buck Parvin, thumbing the cylinder of his forty-five, "I don't know's I blame you a darned bit. Too much is plenty!"
"Jim," said Bill Cartwright, "you're the eighth wonder of the world! He says we can sue him if we want to, but he'll never fill that contract. How did you do it?"
"Easy!" said Montague. "It's a poor director that can't dig up a scenario to fit an emergency, Bill. But if you're shy a stage cow-puncher you might give a real Westerner a job. I've put Buck on the payroll."