The Englishman’s Boyby Guy Vanderhaeghe
“The Englishman’s Boy . . . [is] outstanding. . . . A complex, finely written story of deception, dreams, survival, and greed.” —Sybil Downing, The Denver Post
Originally published in 1996, The Englishman’s Boy is the first in a Guy Vanderhaeghe trilogy that includes the nationally best-selling novel The Last Crossing. By far his most successful book in his native Canada, The Englishman’s Boy expertly depicts an American West where greed and deception act side by side with honor and strength. In 1920s Hollywood, elusive movie studio owner Damon Ira Chance is obsessed with making pictures rooted in American history and experience, with the poetry of fact. So when he discovers that one of the most popular bit players in the Westerns is a real-life tin god—the last buffalo of the old West, Shorty McAdoo—he commissions an ambitious young screenwriter named Harry Vincent to hunt Shorty down and retell his story. Richly textured and evocative, this is an unforgettable story about power, greed, and the pull of dreams. At once an intensely original character study and a hugely entertaining page-turner, The Englishman’s Boy is a gritty, resonant novel of timeless beauty and insight.
“The Englishman’s Boy . . . [is] outstanding. . . . A complex, finely written story of deception, dreams, survival, and greed.” —Sybil Downing, The Denver Post
“Guy Vanderhaeghe is simply a wonderful writer. The Englishman’s Boy, spanning as it does two countries, two centuries, two views of story—the Canadian Wild West as ‘imagined’ by Hollywood—is a great accomplishment. Readers, I think, will find this book irresistible.” —Richard Ford
Even from such a distance Fine Man could smell their camp, the fried-pig stink of white men. He took up a pinch of dirt, placed it under his tongue, and made a prayer. Keep me close, Mother Earth, hide me, Mother Earth. It was light as day, the moon’s bright face a trader’s steel mirror, the grey leaves of the sage and wolf willow shining silver, as if coated with hoarfrost. Under a full moon, it was dangerous to steal horses—even from foolish white men.
One of the wolfers rose from his blanket and stepped away from the fire. The one with the ugly hair, red like a fox’s, he stood making his water and talking over his shoulder. A noisy man lacking in dignity. It must be a poor thing to be a wolf-poisoner, to be ugly, to eat pork, to hate silence. There was nothing to envy these people for, except their guns and horses.
The red-haired one rolled himself back up in his blanket and lay like a log beside the fire.
“Say goodnight to Jesus,” said one of the other men wrapped in blankets. They all laughed. More noise.
Fine Man felt Broken Horn’s body relax beside him and knew Horn had been covering Red Hair with the “fukes,” a sawed-off Hudson’s Bay musket, the only gun they carried between them. Broken Horn was edgy. Fine Man sensed Horn no longer believed in the promises and the truth of his dream.
In his dream, there was heavy snow, biting cold. Many starving, shivering horses, coats white with frost, had come stumbling through the high drifts to crowd the entrance of Fine Man’s lodge. There the grass of spring pushed up sweet green blades through the crust of the snow, tenderness piercing ice, and gave itself to strengthen the horses, even though it was the black months of winter. Fine Man read this as a power sign that somewhere there were horses wishing to belong to the Assiniboine. But Broken Horn did not trust Fine Man’s sign any more, and Fine Man did not trust Horn with a gun in his hand.
Suddenly the white men’s horses began to mill about, hopping in their hobbles like jack-rabbits. Powdery dust rose like mist, to hang swirling and shaking in the moonlight. Fine Man shifted his eyes to the fire. But none of the lumps under the greasy grey blankets raised a head, their ears were deaf. How did white men distinguish their corpses from those who had only gone to sleep?
The herd broke apart, horses turning and spinning, bumping one another like pans of ice in the grip of a swift current. A moment of complete confusion, rumps and heads bucking above the dust, then the strong current found a shape and stood alone, a big blue roan, broken hobbles dangling from its forelegs, teeth bared, ears laid back.
Lit by the moon, the roan was stained a faint blue, the colour of late-winter-afternoon shadows on crusted snow. Coat smooth as ice, chest and haunches hard as ice, eyes cold as ice, a Nez Perce horse from beyond the mountains which wore snow on their heads all the year round, a horse from behind the Backbone of the World.
When he saw him, Fine Man knew the promise of the dream was true and he rose from behind the juniper bush to show himself plain to the winter horse. Broken Horn’s sharp intake of breath through the teeth was a warning, but Fine Man gave no indication he heard him, his ears were stopped to any sound except the singing inside him, the power chanting in him. He stood upright in the moonlight, upright in his Thunderbird moccasins with the beaded Bird green on each foot, upright in the breechclout his Sits-Beside-Him wife had cut from the striped Hudson’s Bay blanket. He gazed down at his hands, at the skin of his muscled thighs, at his belly, and understood. White moonlight was his blizzard, a blizzard to blind the eyes of his enemies who lay frozen to the ground in the grip of his medicine-dream, drifted over by the heavy snow of sleep.
He edged toward the horse, addressing him in a soft voice, politely. Fifty yards to his left, the fire was rustling, hot embers cracking like nuts, spitting like fat. Behind him, Horn lifted himself to one knee, swiftly spiking three arrows in the ground near where his bow lay, and aimed the fukes at the sleeping body of a wolfer.
“Little Cousin,” said Fine Man in a soothing voice, “Little Cousin, do not be afraid. Don’t you recognize me? I am the man you dreamed, the man with the lodge of plenty. I am the man you led your brothers to.” He stopped for a moment. “Take a good look at me. There is no harm in my hands,” he murmured, displaying empty palms to the roan. Turning and pointing to Broken Horn, crouched with his musket levelled at the sleeping white man, he said, “That man there came with me to find you. Some of your brothers may choose to live with him—if they so decide. It is for them to choose.” He stepped forward lightly, words rustling lightly. “Cousin, you are a beautiful being. I do not say this to flatter you. The white man rides you with steel spurs and a steel bit in your mouth. This is not how to sit upon a beautiful being—with cruelty.” They were face to face now, he and the blue roan. He removed his left moccasin, the moccasin of the heart side. “Feel, Cousin, there is no harm upon my feet,” he said, reaching up carefully to gently stroke the roan’s nose with the moccasin. He pursed his lips and blew softly into the left nostril of the horse, who snorted Fine Man’s breath back in surprise, shaking his head from side to side.
“Now you know there is no harm in my heart. Now you know that I am the good man who you dreamed. Tell your brothers,” Fine Man coaxed.
Broken Horn was signalling him desperately to come now, leave this place, clear out, but Fine Man was making his way carefully and deliberately from horse to horse, showing each his knife before severing the hobbles. When he finished, he returned to the blue roan, stood at its withers, took a fistful of mane and walked it away, his legs matching its forelegs stride for stride. Hesitantly, the other horses followed the man and the blue roan, nineteen horses strung out in a winding procession through buck-brush and sage, black shadows stark on the ground, edges sharp as a knife-cut.
Without haste, they picked their way across the river bottom and to the feet of steep, eroded hills which, washed in the cold light of the moon, became reflections of moon’s own face, old and worn and pocked and bright. Fine Man led the blue horse up the first hump of hill, the others filing behind, hooves daintily ticking on loose stones, gravel cascading loose and running with a dry sigh down the slope. He paused, his hands resting on the blue roan’s withers; the string of horses paused too. Below, Fine Man could see an elbow of the Teton River poking through the cottonwoods and the tongues of the white man’s fire darting, licking the dark. A sudden breeze sprang up and fanned his face, luffing the mane of the blue horse, stroking and ruffling the surface of the water so it flashed and winked in the moonlight like the scales of a leaping fish.
He and the blue horse began their descent then, down into the belly of a narrow coulee twisting through the scarred and crumbling hills. The other horses trickled down the slope after them, filling the coulee as water fills the bed of a river. One by one they dropped from sight, tails switching, heads bobbing, ghostly gleaming horses running back into the earth like shining, strengthening water.
The fire died amid the charred sticks, the moon grew pale. The stream of horses flowed north to Canada.
I typed four names. Damon Ira Chance. Denis Fitzsimmons. Rachel Gold. Shorty McAdoo. I sat and stared at these names for some minutes, then I typed a fifth, my own. Harry Vincent.
I did not know how to continue. It’s true that once I was a writer of a sort, but for thirty years I’ve written nothing longer than a grocery list, a letter. I went to the window. From there I could see the South Saskatchewan River, the frozen jigsaw pieces bumping sluggishly downstream, the cold, black water steaming between them. A month ago, when the ice still held, a stranger to this city would have had no idea which way the river ran. But now the movement of the knotted ice, of the swirling debris, makes it plain.
So begin, I told myself.
History is calling it a day. Roman legionaries tramp the street accompanied by Joseph and Mary, while a hired nurse in cap and uniform totes the Baby Jesus. Ladies-in-waiting from the court of the Virgin Queen trail the Holy Family, tits cinched flat under Elizabethan bodices sheer as the face of a cliff. A flock of parrot-plumed Aztecs are hard on their heels. Last of all, three frostbitten veterans of Valley Forge drag flintlocks on the asphalt roadway.
This is nearly thirty years ago, 1923 to be exact, and I am a young man standing at a second-storey window in the script department of Best Chance Pictures watching extras drift by in a yellow light creeping towards dusk—shooting suspended for the day. I am waiting for a man by the name of Fitzsimmons, waiting anxiously because a visit from Fitzsimmons is not to be taken lightly. Returning from lunch today I found this terse message on my desk.
Dear Mr. Vincent,
Please be so kind as to wait upon Mr. Fitzsimmons at the close of office hours this day.
Yours sincerely, Damon Ira Chance
The office cleared out two hours ago and there is still no sign of Fitzsimmons. Even though I suspect the possibility of a practical joke, I stay put. For one thing, the letterhead (reading “Office of the President and Chairman”) appears genuine. I don’t intend to jeopardize a seventy-five-dollar-a-week job, not with the expense of keeping my mother in the Mount of Olives Rest Home.
History having disappeared from sight, my gaze turns to the jumbled vista of the studio lot, twenty-five acres of offices, workshops, streets of every kind—French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Wild Western. What I can’t see from my window, I know, having walked through it often enough.
All of this make-believe is held in quarantine by a ten-foot fence and a gate which trumpets in black iron scrollwork: Best Chance Pictures. When I first came to work here eighteen months ago the gate trumpeted Zenith Pictures, but then Damon Ira Chance bought it from Mr. Adilman and the name changed, along with a number of other things.
From the beginning, Damon Ira Chance was an enigma. Nobody knew anything about him. People assumed that the surname Chance had been adopted for the sake of the ringing phrase, Best Chance Pictures. If Samuel Goldwyn could steal a name for business reasons, what was stopping anybody else? Then one of the trade papers published a story identifying Damon Ira Chance as the son of Titus Chance. For over forty years Titus Chance’s name had been mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Carnegie, Gould, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Mellon. Although not quite as rich as these plutocrats, his wealth was considerable, very considerable. During the Civil War the family textile mills had made a bundle supplying uniforms to the Federals, and when peace came, Titus Chance shrewdly reinvested war profits in oil, steel, railroads, banking. The old man survived well into the new century and at his death his money had passed to his only child, Damon Ira, an obscure figure, a middle-aged Henry James character who had spent most of his life living abroad in Europe. Unlike a Henry James character, however, Damon Ira Chance promptly took a large part of his inheritance and bought a movie company with it.
It is on this man’s orders that I am waiting for Denis Fitzsimmons in my dog-kennel office. There’s not much to amuse me here, a desk, a typewriter, a coffee can full of pencils, a three-shelf bookcase holding Dreiser, Crane, Norris, London, and back numbers of The Smart Set, which my friend Rachel Gold browbeat me into subscribing to because it is edited by her idol, H.L. Mencken.
Rachel has an office just a short way down the corridor, a much more magnificent office befitting a head writer. In it there is a long table for writing, a six-shelf bookcase, many ashtray stands, a cabinet with a broken lock holding bottles of bathtub gin, and a big sofa for thinking and napping on.
I tell myself five more minutes and then I’ll leave. Five minutes pass and then another five. As it grows dark outside, I see myself in the windowpane, a tall, thin, gangly, big-nosed, big-eared young man nervously smoking and fidgeting with his wire-rimmed spectacles. A very ordinary, common young man whose only uncommon feature can’t be detected in the glass at the moment. My limp.
I sit as minutes become hours, checking my watch, chain-smoking cigarettes. Then, sometime after ten, I hear a car pull up, followed by the creak of the stairs which lead up to the gallery that runs round the offices on the second floor, finally the tread of heavy feet outside my office door. Suddenly, Fitzsimmons is here, looming in the doorway without having bothered to knock. Six feet four, maybe two hundred and seventy pounds, he stands there breathing heavily through an open mouth, all bulging shoulders, barrel chest, tree-trunk legs threatening to burst the stitches on an expensively tailored double-breasted suit. Seen up close, the meaty florid face breaks down into a riverine system of tiny red veins and spidery tributaries, a knob of mashed nose, a large, froggish mouth spiked with the kind of tiny baby teeth that belong to a six-year-old.
He draws a couple of wheezy breaths and says, “I got held up. Business.” Then he takes out a handkerchief and begins to mop his sweating face, his cranium of closely cropped hairs, orangey-red like the pelt of an orangutan. “Some fucking paradise, this California. Never had so many fucking colds in my life.” He blows his nose into the handkerchief.
“Drink orange juice,” I say. “It’s supposed to be good for whatever ails you.”
Fitzsimmons’s eyes scan my office; he doesn’t look at me. “If it isn’t colds, it’s the fucking clap. All these actresses got a dose of the clap. You telling me orange juice will cure the clap?”
I’m not about to tell this man anything.
“If it would fix the clap I’d ship a couple of boxcars back East. I got plenty of friends in New York could make use of it.” He laughs, a strange laugh that grates and pops explosively, like gravel being ground in the jaws of an adamantine mill. He stops all at once, as if he has forgotten why he’s amused. “Let’s go,” he says.
I follow him down the stairs, his bulk rolling like a storm cloud. We get into the waiting Hispano-Suiza and drive off. Aside from the sound of Fitzsimmons sucking his teeth, we wind through deserted streets in silence. Contrary to what you might expect, in the early twenties Hollywood was a ghost town after dark. For the original inhabitants, mostly retirees from the Midwest, a high old time might consist of a game of gin rummy, cranking your own ice-cream maker. The film colony was not much livelier. Most movies were filmed in natural light and that meant rising at dawn and shooting until dusk so as not to waste precious hours of sunshine. Early to bed and early to rise. Even as we pass down Hollywood Boulevard I can see that all the stools at a lunch counter are empty, a lonely waitress staring out the window at our big car as it rolls by.
When I finally summon the courage to ask Fitzsimmons where he is taking me, all he says is, “To see Mr. Chance.”
This is a very big surprise. Nobody, or almost nobody, ever gets an audience with Chance. In the nine months since acquiring Zenith, he has earned the reputation of being a recluse, Photoplay dubbing him the Hermit of Hollywood. At his own studio he is merely a rumoured presence, rarely if ever seen. Now and then someone catches a glimpse of him standing at his office window on the third floor of the administration building, then the Venetian blinds snap shut and he is swallowed up from view. On very special occasions, some of the Hollywood aristocracy, a great star, or important director are summoned to his sanctum sanctorum for tea and cake, a decorous private audience. This is not the usual Hollywood practice; all the rest of the studio bosses are hands-on men, a presence on the lot. At Universal, Carl Laemmle is known as Uncle Carl, a chipper gnome who chats with property men, grips, electricians, stars, and directors alike. Louis B. Mayer is a man incapable of passing a pie without sticking a finger in it. He shows directors how to direct and gives acting lessons to great stars. Fall over and die like this. Roll your eyes like this when you drop. And lemme see the whites. Often he breaks down in tears, moved by the brilliance of his own performance. “The D.W. Griffith of actors” they call him at Metro, but only behind his back because Louis B. Mayer hits people. The illustrious list of people he has socked includes Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin.
But Mayer’s is not Chance’s style. He is aloof, patrician, resented. In nearly a year, the closest I have got to my boss is at his single recorded public appearance, the premiere of his first production. I had been the rewrite man for titles on The Orphan Maid and was vain enough to attend the picture’s opening to see just how much of my work survived final cutting.
I was having a cigarette outside the theatre when the plum Hispano-Suiza I am now riding in drew to the curb and Chance and Fitzsimmons stepped out. Pandemonium broke out. Flashbulbs erupted. Reporters and cameramen began to jostle and shout, “Look this way, Mr. Damon!” “Hey, Hermit!” “Cheese please, Mr. Chance!” There he stood, a bewildered little man, weak eyes blinking, his thinning, wispy hair appearing to stand on end as the camera flashes throbbed epileptically on his starched shirt front and pale, stricken face. With reporters and cameramen nipping at his flanks, he looked like a penguin set upon by savage dogs, panicky, defenceless.
And then Fitzsimmons seized him by the elbow and started to thrust his way through newspapermen, to violently hack a path through the mob to the lobby. There were yelps and curses as the big Irishman shouldered people aside, trampled on their toes. I saw him slap a camera out of someone’s hand, heard it smash on the pavement. In seconds, the two were safe inside. Meanwhile, the disgruntled press swore and milled about on the sidewalk. Who the fuck does that big ape think he is anyway, pushing me? I got a press card. Nobody but a cop pushes a press card around. I’ll put the fix in on this picture. I’ll get his picture a write-up he won’t soon forget.
Damon Ira Chance did not forget. The Orphan Maid would be his last premiere for a very long time.
Nobody can quite figure the relationship between Chance and Fitzsimmons. It is an inexhaustible topic of speculation. Rachel Gold describes them as Jekyll and Hyde; fold their personalities together and you have Louis B. Mayer. It is her theory that Chance is the sentimental Louis B. dreaming pictures in his tower, while Fitzsimmons is the violent and ruthless Louis B. who hits and threatens people. Together, she claims, they might possibly make one successful movie producer.
She may be right. There’s no doubt Fitz frightens people. He is the trouble-shooter, the hands-on man at Best Chance Pictures who relays orders from on high, hustles technicians, reads the riot act to stars and directors. He need only walk onto a set, expensive brogues creaking ominously, and a fearful hush descends. I’ll never forget the day he took the director Bysshe Folkestone aside, one big arm laid across his shoulders like a cross, walking him from the eighteenth-century Devonshire cottage where Folkestone was shooting to a tract of the Sinai on a nearby set. We all stood watching from a distance. It was like a silent movie without subtitles and musical accompaniment. After a few words from Fitz, Bysshe started to wave his arms; his face, in turn, registering outrage, innocence, perplexity, while all around the two of them work continued, trucks dumping sand and workmen with shovels and rakes scrambling frantically to mould desert dunes to recreate ancient Egypt.
Bysshe kept talking and Fitz kept refusing to look at him. Fitz-simmons stood trickling sand from one enormous hand to another, back and forth, back and forth, eyes riveted on the stream sifting down from his fist. And Folkestone ran on too, unwilling to see that the big Irish egg-timer was measuring how long it took for him to cook. After three or four minutes, Folkestone realized Fitz wasn’t listening and began to run down like a wind-up toy. His once emphatic and confident gestures became uncertain and tentative. In the end he shrugged half-heartedly; his arms fell to his sides; he fell silent.
Fitz began to dust the sand from his palms, still without looking at Bysshe, contemptuously, one hand slowly wiping the other. Folkestone stood waiting. The cleaning of the hands went on and on. Even at a distance, from where we stood, you could feel the cold cruelty of this pantomime. Nobody could have stood it for long. The meaning was perfectly clear.
Folkestone broke away and began to stumble out of the desert, sinking to his ankles in the sand. Lurching out of Egypt and into Devonshire he kept going, sand leaking out of his pant cuffs on to the paper turf. We all suddenly became enormously interested in our cameras, our clipboards, our costumes. Fleeing around the corner of the papier-mâché stone cottage, Folkestone groped blindly for some support and brushed a painted canvas backdrop, shaking a slight disturbance into a mild English sky.
The next day a new director was at work.
The powerful Hispano-Suiza is now throatily purring up into hills which have been beset by a recent boom in house construction, a rash of thirty-room haciendas, Italian villas, and Tudor mansions thrown up helter-skelter by Hollywood’s finest in the mad race to outdo their box-office rivals. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks have set the standard with their hunting-lodge home, “Pickfair,” run with a modest staff of fifteen servants. Now everyone else is straining to gain ground on the reigning King and Queen of pictures. Harold Lloyd has bought a sixteen-acre estate, “Greenacres,” with its own golf course and an artificial waterfall spotlit at night with coloured lights. And in the near future, John Barrymore will buy King Vidor’s “Bella Vista,” over the years expanding it into sixteen buildings and forty-five rooms, adding two swimming pools, a trout pond, a skeet-shooting range, an aviary, a library of first editions, and a trophy room housing the only dinosaur egg in private hands. His guests will also have two bars from which to imbibe—one an English tavern, the other a “Western” saloon dismantled and shipped down piece by piece from Alaska.
According to Rachel Gold, this lunacy is not like the inspired lunacy of Buster Keaton, who can frequently be seen driving a thirty-foot bus in an admiral’s hat—a bus expressly built for him by the Fifth Avenue Bus Company and equipped with two drawing rooms, an observation deck, and bunks for six. Keaton, she says, knows how funny bad taste can be; the rest of them don’t.
It is a very strange world into which Fitz is steering the Hispano-Suiza, a world half-wild, half-artificial. Rabbits scutter into the road and flicker in the headlights; coyote eyes glitter and slink in the ditches. Most of the hills are still undeveloped, bald and blank, overlooking nothing, just as the canyons open on nothing. And then the car headlights will suddenly pick out an unexpected expanse of stone wall, your eyes will jerk from the eyes glowing in the ditches to graze the roof of a Norman farmhouse, a turret, a Tudor chimney. Then the impression of Europe dissolves and you are back in a lunar landscape of parched hills where owls glide through swathes of incandescent light. The powerful car bores on, headlights fanning scrub, the dirt track behind us writhing with dust.
Suddenly, the hood swings left, noses through an iron gate, and the Hispano-Suiza rolls up a long drive. Ahead of us lies a Tudor manor, its imitation thatched roof humped like a haystack against the sky, a few of its leaded windows showing light. This is “Mina,” the house which Howard Adilman named for his wife but never finished before Damon Ira Chance bought Zenith and, along with it, accommodations befitting a movie mogul.
Fitz draws up to the front of the house, turns off the motor, and motions me out. He uses a key to let us in the door. There is a long entrance hallway which leads into a barren reception room. Our footsteps echo as Fitz leads me to a staircase curving up to the second floor. As we go up it, over my shoulder I catch a glimpse through an open door of what appears to be a ballroom. It is entirely empty except for a single ladder-backed chair standing precisely in the middle of the marble floor under a huge crystal chandelier. I see no signs of servants, hear no off-stage noises—no phonograph playing, no doors opening or closing, no voices—the whole vast house is silent and still. We pass down a corridor lined with closed doors. The corridor is painted starkly white, just as all the rooms we have passed through have been painted white. So far I have seen no paintings, no rugs, no photographs, no furniture, except for the one lone chair stranded on that vast floor. My heart has begun to beat dully, heavily, and my mouth has gone dry.
Fitzsimmons stops, knocks softly on one of the doors. A voice calls to enter and we do. Chance sits on a sofa with his back to the door, facing a screen hung on the opposite wall. This is the first furnished room I have encountered in my passage through the house. One wall is filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a sliding library ladder; another is covered with maps of the western United States; the last has a huge leaded window looking out on to the night. There is a projector mounted on a trolley standing near the sofa, three armchairs covered in chintz, a gleaming oak floor, and a mahogany liquor cabinet behind whose doors bottles gleam.
Fitz says, “What was it tonight?”
Chance doesn’t bother to turn around when he answers. “Judith of Bethulia.” The voice sounds tired. Then he musters energy. “I want you to make a note, Fitz. In this movie Griffith put Bobby Harron in a tunic. Big mistake. Harron has terrible legs. See to it that none of my directors puts a male lead into a short tunic until you’ve inspected his legs. Nobody else but you.”
“Not a mental note, Fitz. A paper note.”
Fitz takes out a note pad and scribbles. “I brought Vincent,” he announces as he writes.
“Please introduce us,” says Chance, still not bothering to turn around. With Fitz’s hand on my elbow I find myself being steered to the front of the sofa where a man in a three-piece oatmeal tweed suit is sitting. His thinning hair is neatly brushed, the clothes are elegantly cut, his brown brogues are polished to a chocolate richness. He might be a professor at an Ivy League school—a professor of good family and substantial private means. His tailoring, his grooming are all that they should be. Only his grey complexion falls short of the mark, the unhealthy colour of a man who never sees much sun.
“Mr. Vincent,” he says, “how good of you to come and see me on such short notice. Please sit down,” he says, patting the sofa beside him. “Too bad Fitz couldn’t have got you here earlier, you could have joined me in viewing one of Mr. David Wark Griffith’s films—an older one, but then I don’t find that Mr. Griffith ages.”
Fitzsimmons says, “You ought to take a holiday from the Griffith. Look at something different for a change.” Towering over us, he sounds and looks a bit like a disapproving parent. “I want to get preached at, I go to church,” he adds.
“Fitz prefers the Keystone Kops, Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd,” Chance explains cheerfully.
“Fatty Arbuckle, that’s the guy who really makes me laugh.”
“Nobody is laughing at Mr. Arbuckle any more, Fitz. My word, no. The joke’s on Mr. Arbuckle now.”
What Chance is referring to is a sexual scandal that rocked Hollywood only the year before. A starlet, Virginia Rappe, died as a consequence of a drunken party in the comedian’s hotel room in San Francisco. Accusations were made that Arbuckle had raped Miss Rappe with either a Coca-Cola or champagne bottle (some said an icicle) and ruptured her bladder, resulting in peritonitis and death. Much of America stirred with anti-Hollywood hysteria, pulpits rang with denunciations; there were reports of women attacking the screen when Arbuckle comedies were shown and Wyoming cowboys riddling them with bullet holes. Despite Arbuckle’s acquittal in a series of trials, Paramount cancelled the jolly fat man’s three-million-dollar contract and junked three of his pictures already in the can. Suddenly, Fatty Arbuckle had become Starving Arbuckle, a star who couldn’t get work.
“And thanks to Mr. Arbuckle we find ourselves saddled with that insufferable Hays,” says Chance. “Not the man I would have picked for the job, but then Messrs. Zukor, Loew, Goldwyn, Laemmle, Fox, and Selznick did not consult me. I am not part of their cabal.”
His dismissal of Hays takes me aback. Hays, the little man with bat-wing ears and rodent teeth, is uniformly detested by writers, actors, and directors, regarded as a tool of studio heads, a way of disciplining troublesome “creative” people. So it comes as a great surprise to hear a studio head disparage him.
Fearing possible government censorship of the movies in the wake of the Arbuckle scandal, industry leaders quickly hired President Harding’s former postmaster general, Will Hays, to clean up Hollywood’s image. What came to be known as the Hays Office immediately issued dictates prohibiting carnality on-screen or off. Morality clauses were soon a feature of studio contracts; unseemly private behaviour could get you fired, or the vague clause could be used as legal grounds to get rid of people causing other problems.
“I grant you,” says Chance, “that there may be a philosophical justification for censorship. If we claim that Shakespeare and Milton improve the mind, then it is only fair to assume that inferior goods may damage it. But censorship for business reasons is another matter. And if we must have it, I would prefer the censor to be able to distinguish between the good and the bad. Mr. Hays does not set my mind at rest on that point. As owner of my own movie company, I did not expect to be dictated to by a small-town Hoosier whose aesthetics were formed by the Knights of Pythias, the Rotarians, the Kiwanis, the Moose, and the Elks. That is not why I came to Hollywood.”
Before I can stop myself, I ask him the question all of Hollywood has been asking behind his back. “Why did you come to Hollywood, Mr. Chance?”
“Why, to assist Mr. Griffith in his great work, Mr. Vincent. To make American movies.” He pauses, studies my reaction. “The look on your face suggests you are not sure what I mean. You are thinking, Aren’t all movies made in Hollywood American movies? They are not, Mr. Vincent. Think of Mr. Lasky returning from Europe to hold a dockside conference to announce he’s corralled the best writers England can boast—James Barrie, Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells, Compton Mackenzie, E. Temple Thurston, Max Pemberton. How can English writers author American movies? And then Samuel Goldwyn hires Maurice Maeterlinck to write pictures for him because Monsieur Maeterlinck owns a Nobel Prize for Literature. I hear Goldwyn keeps him on hand to introduce to distinguished visitors as, ‘The world’s greatest writer. He works for me.’”
Fitz abruptly says, “Who wants a drink?”
“Denis recalls me to my duties as a host. I have been remiss. As you see, I can get carried away,” Chance apologizes, offering a smile. “We have some very good Scotch that some of Fitz’s friends got us from Canada. Or perhaps you would care for something else?”
“Scotch and water is fine.”
“Soda with mine. As usual, Denis.”
He turns back to me as Fitzsimmons busies himself mixing drinks.
“You see, Harry . . . do you mind if I call you Harry? You see, Harry, I want to make pictures rooted in American history and American experience. Just as Mr. Griffith showed us how to. I’m tired of all these people making movies about Marie Antoinette. Prisoner of Zenda stuff. Chocolate-coated kitsch. Costume dramas, knights and castles, Robin Hood. Why not a film biography of George Washington instead of Henry VIII? Do you see what I mean?”
I nod. Fitz serves the drinks, then retreats to a chair in the corner. All but his shoes and pant legs vanish in shadow.
“That is what I mean when I say I wish to continue Mr. Griffith’s work,” Chance explains with just a touch of smugness.
It is hard to remember that Griffith only died in 1948, five years ago. I don’t suspect the name means much to anyone now, except the most avid film buffs. He died an alcoholic, guiltily ignored by the very business which he pioneered, a neglected, pathetically grandiloquent figure. But for about a decade he dominated movie-making in a way no one has since, or is ever likely to do again. He began to direct when movies were shot with a stationary camera as if they were stage plays, actors and actresses making exits and entrances. It was Griffith and his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, who take the lion’s share of credit for inventing the vocabulary of movies—close-ups (audiences wanted to know what had happened to the actors’ feet), rapid cuts from scene to scene and character to character, the “fade-out,” the “soft focus,” tracking cameras. He even used a variation of colour photography, printing night scenes on blue stock, day scenes on yellow. It was Griffith who first demanded that movies be regarded as art and Griffith who gave some credibility to the claim they could be. He produced some of the first Hollywood spectaculars with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, as well as small, intimate movies like Broken Blossoms. His pictures were a reflection of their maker, a mixture of bombast, hokum, sentiment, and high artistic purpose.
Griffith was an obsessive eccentric and one of his obsessions was history. He employed a large staff to research his period dramas and dunned archaeologists and historians for blurbs to advertise the “accuracy” of his movies. But his obsession with history went further. He argued that the motion-picture camera would end conflicting interpretations of the past. Eventually all significant events would be recorded by movie cameras and film would offer irrefutable proof as to what had really happened. Vast public archives of documentary movies would make history democratic; by viewing the evidence, citizens could check the facts, know the truth for themselves.
In the early years Griffith was always surrounded by admirers; people who never thought to laugh when the great man propounded his naive theories, or wore kooky straw hats with holes cut in them to prevent baldness, or declaimed ornately like a hillbilly Shakespeare. To them he was always Mr. Griffith, the Genius.
This is the man Chance begins to lecture me on in a style sounding a bit like an address to Congress. He says that he has made an intense study of Griffith’s films, pondered them, and drawn conclusions. Griffith is the man who has given America to Americans. America had cried out for bread and received stones until Griffith came along. It was he who had answered the cry for bread with bread, filled America’s spiritual emptiness with a vision of itself. He was able to do this because he was a simple, self-educated man who had never forgotten his roots in backwoods Kentucky, a man with similarities to that other self-made genius, Abraham Lincoln. If it had been Griffith’s misfortune to go to college, some half-baked professor would have made him ashamed of who and what he was, filling his head with Henry James’s traitorous nonsense about the ineffable superiority of Europe. Instead, Griffith had sat at his father’s, the old Colonel’s, knee, absorbing his stories of the Civil War, retelling them in The Birth of a Nation with all the passion of someone who felt he had been present at the great battles, the touching surrender at Appomattox. This primitive, rugged self-confidence had produced an American Iliad, and the American people had responded to it the way the Greeks did to Homer, responding to the poetry of conviction. Chance tells me this with a conviction which seems at odds with the rumours of his life spent abroad, as if a Henry James character were launching an attack on James himself.
He breaks off suddenly, as if embarrassed by his passion and enthusiasm, gives me a sly smile. “And then there is something else Mr. Griffith taught us by example. How to make a profit from fact. No motion picture since has approached the profitability of The Birth of a Nation. It was pure genius on his part to advertise his motion picture as fact. Americans are a practical people, they like facts. Facts are solid, they’re dependable. The average American feels foolish when he enjoys a made-up story, feels sheepish, childish, a mooner, a dreamer. But entertain him with facts and you give him permission to enjoy himself without guilt. He needn’t feel swindled, or hoodwinked, a hick sold a bill of goods by a carnival barker. He prefers to feel virtuous because he’s learned something useful, informed himself, improved himself.
“You mark my words, Harry, there’ll come a day when the public won’t swallow any of our stories unless they believe them to be real. Everybody wants the real thing, or thinks they do. Truth is stranger than fiction, someone said. It may not be, but it’s more satisfying. Facts are the bread America wants to eat. The poetry of facts is the poetry of the American soul.
“Of course,” he qualifies, “the facts in picture-making must be shaped by intuition.” He pauses dramatically. “I learned that at the feet of Bergson. I am a Bergsonian,” he declares, a little like Aimee Semple McPherson might declare she is a Christian.
I haven’t the slightest clue what a Bergsonian is, but it sounds vaguely like Theosophy, or something worse. “A Bergsonian?” I say.
“Before the war I attended his lectures at the Collége de France in Paris. A mesmerizing philosopher. His lectures were packed to the rafters—society ladies, students, writers, artists. Admission was by ticket only. I was one of those privileged to be admitted. Bergson taught that received ideas, habit, routine, turn a man into an automaton, a robot. What distinguishes a man from a robot is not intelligence—presumably a machine might some day be constructed that could outperform a man in the rational faculties—but intuition. The intellect, Bergson says, is designed to apprehend the external world but cannot plumb the inner world of things. It’s the wrong tool, Harry. Intuition has its roots in our deepest being, a being we are scarcely aware of, and because we are scarcely aware of it, it remains our truest, most uncorrupted self. My intuition, my will, is the clue to my hidden self. Through intuition it is possible for me to penetrate whatever shares my fluid and changeable nature—other human beings, all art . . . history. Analysis puts a man outside the thing he studies, while intuition puts him inside. Analysis therefore renders partial knowledge while intuition renders absolute knowledge.”
“Very interesting,” I say.
Chance scrutinizes me with a searching look. “Don’t gainsay intuition, Harry. After all, it led me to you.”
I shift uneasily on the sofa. “How is that, Mr. Chance?”
“I had a feeling about you. I used to watch you crossing the road. There was something about you . . . One day I pointed you out to Fitz and asked, ‘Who is that young man?’ He didn’t know your name. I told him to find out and bring me your file. When I read it, everything fell into place. I learned you were a scriptwriter, that you knew shorthand, that you had worked on a newspaper.”
Chance turns to where Fitz sits in his dark corner. “Denis, bring the bottle and join us in a toast.” The shadows part as Fitz wrenches himself up out of the chair and into the light; the floor groans under him as he makes his way to the sofa and replenishes our glasses. Chance lifts his whisky tumbler. “To the picture I hope Harry is going to help us to make. To the poetry of fact.” Our glasses chime against one another, we drink. I don’t know what it is I’m drinking to and so I feel counterfeit, ridiculous, but it’s good whisky, not to be wasted. Chance stares down into his glass and says, “Fitz has heard rumours about an old man, an extra and bit player in Westerns. It’s said the cowhands regard him as a tin god, the last bull buffalo of the old West. There are a lot of stories afloat about him. If he’s the genuine article he could be the basis for my movie of poetic fact. If Colonel Griffith gave The Birth of a Nation to his son, this old man may give me the picture I want to make. I do not overestimate the potential. Think of Al Jennings,” he says.
I do. Al Jennings was an Oklahoma lawyer who had gone off the rails and taken to robbing trains and banks until captured by United States Marshal Bud Ledbetter in 1897. After his release from the big house, he parlayed a reputation as a rough, tough, and hard to bluff desperado into a career in Hollywood. Riding his new celebrity hellbent for leather he offered himself as a candidate for Attorney General in his native state, running under the confidence-inducing slogan, “I was a good train robber and I’ll be a good Attorney General.” Failing in this campaign, he made a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination where he made a shockingly good showing. Now, his political career on hold, he was back in Hollywood making more movies about—Al Jennings. And he wasn’t the only Western outlaw who had made hay with his notoriety. Emmett Dalton of the Dalton gang starred in Beyond the Law, a picture which in 1920 broke box-office records in New York and Los Angeles. Even the legendary Wyatt Earp had a walk-on in Allan Dwan’s The Half-Breed; but a one-eyed old man didn’t have much future in the acting business. He did, however, temporarily bask in a kind of reflected glory. Among his pallbearers at his 1929 funeral were the Western idols William S. Hart and Tom Mix.
“I see,” I say, “you intend to make this man the next Al Jennings.”
“Better. Al Jennings produced with money. Al Jennings turned into art.”
“All right,” I say, “but what do I have to do with Al Jennings and art?”
“You were a reporter. Reporters are supposed to be good at tracking people down.”
As a reporter on a small-town newspaper like The Sentinel I didn’t have much trouble tracking down the newsmakers. A walk down Main Street got you to the mayor; next door to the mayor was the office of the local constable. They furnished the newspaper with hard news. Nor did it take much digging to discover the woman who had grown the potato with the startling resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt. I don’t say any of this, of course. It would sound flippant.
“I think what you want is a private detective. Not me.”
“No dicks,” Fitz growls. He has been quiet so long that this intervention startles me.
“I concur,” says Chance. “A man who sells information is not entirely trustworthy. He may sell it to somebody else. I would prefer to enlist a man who shares my ideals. Besides, there is more required than simply finding this man.”
“We’ll want his stories taken down. I understand you know shorthand, Harry?”
“Part of your education as a reporter?”
I shrug. “I quit school when I was fourteen—to help my mother out. I went to work clerking in a grocery store. I thought night-school commercial classes were a way to improve my prospects—typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, that sort of thing.”
“Very good. When you find him I want you to interview him; I want every word taken down and delivered to me. And there are other things in which your good judgement and experience would be invaluable. Would he be an asset in a publicity campaign? Would the press and public take a shine to him?” Chance hesitates. “Is he cooperative? Co-operation will be important. You know what I’m saying, don’t you?”
“Good. And don’t forget, if we are successful, at some stage this raw material will need to be shaped into a scenario. Who better qualified to write the scenario than the man who got the story from the horse’s mouth? Up until now you’ve worked only as a title-writer. It would be a great opportunity for you, to write a big picture, wouldn’t it, Harry?”
We both leave that question unanswered because the answer is obvious.
“So who is it that I’m supposed to find? What’s his name?”
Chance raises a cautionary finger. “Don’t take what I’m about to say amiss, Harry. But before I divulge his name I need some assurances from you. A promise that what we have discussed here will remain absolutely confidential. This is a matter for the three of us in this room and no one else. I am aware of what my reputation in this town is. The pampered son of a rich man, dabbling in pictures, a rank amateur. For that reason, I prefer my affairs kept private. If what I’m up to were made public, my enemies would twist it to make me look ridiculous. I won’t be made a laughing stock.”
“I can keep my mouth shut,” I assure him. “But they’ll want to know what I’m up to in the office. It’s impossible to keep anything quiet in the office.”
“This job won’t require you to work in the office. Stay away from the office. At least for the time being.”
“That in itself will raise questions—”
Chance interrupts forcefully. “Fitz will arrange things in the office. None of that need concern you.”
“Fine. Let Mr. Fitzsimmons take care of it. But I still need to know who I’m looking for.”
Chance leans forward, picks up a can of film lying on the floor, waves it at Fitzsimmons. “Denis, put this in the projector for us. There’s a good fellow.” Fitz does what he is told, deftly and efficiently; in moments all is ready. “Out with the lights, Fitz. Let us begin!” Chance cries gaily.
The projector starts to whir, the lamp beside us is extinguished, the film begins to jump and twitch on the screen. What we are looking at seems to me raw, unedited footage of the dime-a-dozen Westerns that every studio in southern California churns out like sausage. None of the title cards have been inserted and this makes the story hard to follow. This is what I make of it.
There is a trial. An ill-favoured fiend is convicted of something on the testimony of a beautiful young girl. A handsome officer of the law embraces her ardently as the villain is carted off to his cell, shrieking imprecations and struggling in the grasp of his jailers. Next, there are shots of a wagon train and of the lovely young woman sitting on a wagon seat, apparently singing, her lovely face tilted up to the sky. Then—a jailbreak! Gunplay, honest citizens shot down like dogs in the street, horses galloping, swarms of dust.
Later, the villain kneeling beside wagon ruts, shaking his fist, presumably swearing revenge to the same sky the heroine serenaded. Followed by night. The wagon train encamped in a circle, a blazing fire, a geyser of sparks, eerily luminous smoke shuddering up into the black sky. Three men saw soundless fiddles, a boy twangs a silent jew’s-harp, a mute concertina snakes back and forth between hands. Men in big boots swing women in calico dresses and poke bonnets.
I can feel Chance stirring on the sofa beside me, his body tense with anticipation. I glance over at him. He is staring at the screen with such intensity that his soft, full face is as rigid as a granite Buddha’s. Suddenly he springs to his feet, gives a sharp, nervous tug to his trouser legs and skips to the screen. The hot white light of the projector glazes his features, giving him the queer, fixed look of a ceramic doll.
The camera cuts to a little dog, jigging on its hind legs. Round and round it hops, tongue lolling. An old man joins in the dog’s dance, capering in a spry, lock-jointed way, waving crooked arms above his head. The dog leaps against his legs, barking and barking, noiselessly.
“Him,” says Chance, holding a finger up to the face on the screen. Seemingly on his command, the camera cuts to a close-up. The old face swells, filling the screen the way a dream fills the mind. A huge, eroded face. He’s laughing now, the old man, the white stubble of his beard standing up like bristles on the back of an enraged hog, the deep eye sockets black and charred-looking, as if they had been burned into the face with a red-hot poker. “Him. His name is Shorty McAdoo. Find him for me, Harry.”
It is after three o’clock in the morning when Fitz and I leave Chance’s house. There are many things to discuss and plan. I am to have a car placed at my disposal. I am to have an expense account. I am to have an increase in salary from seventy-five dollars a week to one hundred and fifty dollars a week. I am to find Shorty McAdoo and get his story. I am to do this without revealing who I am working for.
When he bids me goodbye, Chance says, “My regrets at keeping you so late, Harry. But I do not sleep well. I sometimes forget that others are not accustomed to the same hours.”
“You’d get more sleep if it wasn’t for the speech-making in the middle of the night,” says Fitzsimmons disapprovingly.
“It is not speech-making,” Chance answers sharply. “It is thinking aloud. Thinking aloud, Denis.”
Fitz, reproved, shrugs.
Going down the long white corridor that morning, descending the long curved staircase, I feel the same anxiety I experienced earlier. In the midst of the silence, the starkness, I become too aware of myself. I watch my hand slide along the banister, my foot plant itself on the next step. Out of the corner of my eye I catch the ladder-backed chair isolated on the cold marble floor of the ballroom, the strangeness of its position.