The adventures of Ed & Johnny—

a pair of screenwriters shooting for the big time in '40s Hollywood, armed only with inexhaustible energy and a very strange set of ideas.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Chapter One. Ed and Johnny Pitch the Goods

Darryl F. Zanuck tossed the screenplay on his desk and growled, “It stinks.”

His yes-man said, “Yes, D.F..”

“When does shooting start?”

“Monday, D.F..”

Monday? That’s what…three days from now?”

It was four days from now, but just to be on the safe side the yes man said, “Yes, D.F.”

Zanuck threw up his arms and roared, “Get me Ed and Johnny!”

The man’s skill at saying yes, and at leaping up to do his master’s bidding, had earned for him a glistening silver Buick Phaeton convertible, and shortly that convertible was glistening its way eastward through Beverly Hills and into the wild but prosperous stretch known as the Sunset Strip. At last it came in sight of the Garden of Allah Hotel and Villas, that legendary retreat of Hollywood Bohemia where on any day one might find the poolside festooned with the most daring and brilliant of actors and writers. The Phaeton slowed down at the Garden. Then it turned right and continued down the hill, past cheap houses and empty lots, its driver cursing his quarry the whole time for not owning a phone.

Ed and Johnny lived in an apartment complex that had been modeled after the Garden of Allah but was a fraction of its famous namesake’s size and possessed none of its opulence. Nor did it have a pool, not even a miniature version of the real one. It did have a garden, however, which filled the center of the horseshoe around which the Spanish-style “bungalows” were arrayed, although it had not been tended since the advent of talkies. A dwarf palm provided the centerpiece, around which sprouted, with an abandon comparable to that of the hungover guests at the grand hostel up the hill, an array of exotic weeds.

The builder of the establishment, Sid Nussbaum, now deceased, had faced a conflict when the time came to christen it. Should he name it after the hotel that had inspired him, or after his blushing bride? After much agonizing, he had settled on a compromise and called it The Garden of Edna. A large sign by the gravel driveway announced the name in a florid script of neon-filled tubing, and it was under this sign that the Phaeton hissed to a stop and its driver stepped out and listened.

Just as he’d hoped and expected, the air was rent by a single sound: a typewriter clattering at inhuman speed. Following the racket around the weeds and past the dwarf palm, he closed in on a room in a distant corner, perhaps not accidentally the room furthest from the building office.

* * *

“Brilliant line!” Ed boomed, his fingers flying over the typewriter keys. “How about we follow it with, ‘Then who the heck are you looking at?’”

“Aces!” Johnny crowed, pacing back and forth in front of the card-table on which the typewriter sat and tearing bites from a sandwich. “And later when he’s wearing that crummy jacket we’ll know what he’s up to!”

“An angel of vengeance descending upon the iniquitous,” Ed intoned, between bites of his own sandwich.

“You better not be typing that,” Johnny said.

“You think ol’ Ed doesn’t know when to soar into poesy and when to stick to the vernacular?”

“So you think we got a winner here, chum?”

“Academy Award winner, chum, that’s what we’ve got!” “Better’n that bunkum Brackett and Wilder copped the statue with last week?”

“Brackett and Wilder,” Ed said, in a tone that suggested only pity for those men who had no idea what was about to hit them. Then he added, “God, I’m sick of Spam.”

“It was the only thing Louie’d let me have on credit. What do you want on our budget, a porterhouse?” Between bites of Spam Johnny dictated the next eight lines. Then Ed suggested nine of his own, although suggest might be the wrong word, as his fingers never stopped pounding. As Johnny came back with the next five, a knocking sounded at the door.

“Let’s introduce the hooker now,” Ed said. “Do I hear knocking?”

“Damn, I hope we didn’t wake up Edna again,” Johnny said. “Okay, she’s wearing this big hat at first…”

“So he can’t see her face! Clever,” Ed said, as another knock sounded at the door, this one much louder and emphatic. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Christ. Don’t tell me it’s another bill collector.”

Johnny peered cautiously around the curtain. Then his face lit up. “Hey, it’s Paulie Polidoris from D.F.’s office!” As he threw open the door the typing stopped. In the sudden silence, his ears continued to ring with the staccato hammering. “Hiya, Paulie! How’s tricks?”

Paulie was impassive and wasted not a breath. “D.F.’s got a stinker he needs rewritten in four days. You in?”

“A top to bottom rewrite?” demanded Ed, appearing alongside Johnny. He was no taller than his collaborator, but his presence seemed nearly to dwarf him. The extra fifty pounds accounted for part of that, but mainly it came from his glowering eyes, his forceful bearing, and a voice that had been known to drown out artillery drills and air raid sirens during the war. “In four days?”

“That’s what I said,” said Paulie.

“Well, I hope you left a deck of cards in the office,” said Johnny, “so we can while away the extra time!” He punched Ed in the arm and laughed.

Paulie only stared at them. “Are you in or are you not in?”

“The usual remuneration?” asked Ed.

“Guild minimum.”

“And a pitch meeting with D.F.?”

“That’s extra.”

“Ah, for Christ’s sake, Paulie!” yelled Johnny. “If we do a full rewrite for the mug, we deserve a meeting!”

“If I get you in there and you lay a turd in the middle of his rug, the stink sticks to my shoes. I’ve got to balance the ledger of my career here.”

“Hokay, hokay,” said Ed. “We do the rewrite for Guild scale and then we kick back a quarter of it to you for a pitch meeting with the master.”

By way of an answer, Paulie turned and walked toward the car. Ed and Johnny had learned by experience that this signaled an agreement. Paulie had long ago stopped wasting the word “yes” on anyone but his employer. Had he refused their terms he would first have described them in a manner unacceptable to the Motion Picture Production Code and then turned toward his car. They ducked back inside to shave and change.

Ten minutes later, the Phaeton glistened back to the west with Ed and Johnny in the back seat. Ed secretly wished that he could take the front, as his massive frame fit only with discomfort into the convertible’s modest rear, but he knew that anyone seen riding in the front seat through Beverly Hills would be taken for another studio flunky and not a top-drawer writer being wooed. Johnny was content with any seat, so long as the view was rewarding. Today it was. A young housemaid turning up the steps to Ronald Colman’s house gave him a smile. He smiled right back.

“Fifty thousand dollars,” said Ed in a hushed tone.

“For her?” Johnny yelped. “You’re off your nut!”

“Not her, numbskull,” said Ed. “The mansion. And when we start selling our original scripts, that castle could be ours.”

“Yeah,” said Johnny dreamily. Then he frowned at Ed. “But I thought Ronnie and Benita said they were gonna hang onto the joint for a while.”

Paulie shot them a glance in the rearview mirror but never opened his mouth until they’d left Beverly Hills and the Hillcrest golf course behind and turned in at the Fox studio gate. “Look who I got,” he said to the guard.

“Hi, Ed! Hi, Johnny!” said the guard cheerily. “You got any more great movie ideas?”

“Have we got ideas!” Ed thundered. “An ex-Marine lands in the Big Apple, see, but he can’t stomach the urban debauchery...”

Paulie accelerated abruptly and stopped even more abruptly at the Writers’ Building. He handed them the screenplay, told them what office they were in, and roared off without another word the moment Ed and Johnny had disembarked.

“That chiseler gives me a pain,” Johnny said.

Ed was looking all around with a gleam in his dark eyes. “Ah, but isn’t it fine to be back on the Fox lot?”

Johnny agreed that it was, although he seemed less sure of it by the time they’d found their way through the bowels of the Writers’ Building to their office. He glared at the plain white door, then looked down the corridor at the shingles that hung on every other door, each emblazoned with a name: Dunne, Trotti, Reinhardt, Chodorov, Mankiewicz. “I’d sure like to rate a shingle someday,” he said glumly.

“Partner,” Ed said, “there’s a whole world full of shingles in our future.”

“And a screen credit, too?”

“Above the title, brother!”

A smile spread over Johnny’s face, but it fell abruptly when he opened the door to the office they’d been assigned. Plaster was flaking off the ceiling, the carpet had more cigarette burns than the waiting-room floor in a maternity ward, the sharp bite of mildew assaulted their nostrils. Stepladders, paint cans, a battered accordion, and a dusty Tyrolean hat sans feather were piled in a corner. “Say,” Johnny said, “this is the same dump they gave us last time! I recognize the stupid hat!”

“Nice of them to hold it open for us,” Ed said breezily. “They must’ve known it brings us luck.”
Johnny snorted. “The least they could’ve done was fix us up with a secretary. Did you see the eyeful they gave Furthman?”

“Hell, the dame hasn’t been invented yet who can type half as fast as Ed,” said Ed. “What do you want, a finished script or an eyeful?”

“Did I hear somebody say eyeful?”

They spun around at the voice. Betty Grable was leaning against the doorjamb, swinging a dainty little bag against her thigh. She wore a dark gray skirt that barely covered her knees and a canary yellow cashmere sweater. A black hat about the size of a teacup clung to her golden locks just above the right ear.

“Ah, Miss Rosie O’Grady!” Ed boomed. “Sweeter than ever!”

“Oh, you!” Betty said. She held out both hands and Ed and Johnny each clasped one, too late to hide their frayed cuffs. “It’s so nice to see you both again!”

Ed nodded smugly, as if he expected nothing else. When Johnny gazed into those radiant blue eyes he melted. His eyes softened and a wide, slow grin dimpled his cheeks. With his straw hair and chiseled good looks he resembled Alan Ladd when he grinned, only his teeth were nearer to six feet off the ground than Ladd’s five.

“So how have you been?” Betty asked. “Jeepers, when you two vanish you vanish but good. You naughty boys haven’t even given me your phone number!”

They hadn’t given her their phone number because they hadn’t had one last time she’d asked. Nor a phone to go with it. They still didn’t, but one of their neighbors at the Edna, a struggling actor named Beaumont, had recently offered to let them use his. Ed had started to rattle the number off when Betty said, “Any great new movie ideas, boys?”

“And how!” Johnny said. “Picture this for a meet-cute: this guy’s driving his cab, see, and he’s broken up because some high-hat dame he was chasing just gave him the fingeroo. When suddenly into his cab jumps…”

“Don’t spoil it now, Johnny,” Betty put in. “Are you boys going to Preston Sturges’s party next Friday?”

“We’ve got no choice!” Ed said. “The scallawag wouldn’t take no for an answer!”

“I’ll be dying to hear your ideas then,” Betty said.

“You shall not die in vain!” Ed roared.

“What time should we be there?” Johnny asked, but by then Betty was already sashaying off, tossing a toodle-oo back over her shoulder.

“Well,” Ed said. “It looks as though we’re finally being accorded our due respect in this town!”

“I hope so,” Johnny said.

“You hope so!” Ed sneered. “Doubt that the stars move and that the sun is fire, lad, but don’t doubt that Betty Grable just begged us to make a shindig!”

“Okay, okay,” Johnny said, waving the screenplay in the air. “Now let’s see what we can salvage outta this pile of rags.”

As was their custom, Ed sat with his eyes closed, visualizing the movie as Johnny paced and read it out loud. Halfway through the opening scene, Ed barked, “Stinks! Rewrite!” Johnny had nearly made it to the fade-out of the next scene before Ed again said, “Stinks! Rewrite!” The next section, a brief montage, something with swirling newspapers to show the passage of time, went by without a word from Ed, but Johnny was only two lines into the scene where the boy meets the girl when Ed’s voice filled the room again. “Stinks! Rewrite!”

So it went, until at the end Johnny flipped back through the pages and announced, “That’s forty-two scenes to redo. How much time left ‘til D.F. needs it?”

Ed pulled a pocket watch from his overstretched vest and said, “Eighty hours and thirty-five minutes.”

Johnny did some scribbling on the last page of the script. “That’s an hour and fifty-five minutes per scene.”

“But what about time for sleep?” Ed asked. “We can’t do a good rewrite unless we get enough sleep.”

Johnny looked at him, and for a moment he and Ed held each other’s gazes. Suddenly they both burst into guffaws.

“All right,” Ed said, settling at the typewriter. “It’s a lead-pipe, union-laid cinch. Ready?”

Johnny flipped back to the opening page of the screenplay. “Ready,” he said. And they were off. The typewriter hammered through the evening, when the other writers milled in the corridors and tossed pleasant insults at each other before driving home to their wives and mistresses, through the long night when only they and the security guards remained on the lot, into the hours before dawn when sleep-hungry actresses began arriving to be painted into presentability by their make-up crews. Occasionally the typing would slow as they wrestled with complex narrative decisions.

“This joker who’s trying to get the girl before the guy has the balls to propose,” said Johnny as the sun rose. “He’s got to be oilier. Let’s make him a Nazi.”

“Great,” said Ed. “He went into hiding right before Uncle Adolph traveled to the great beyond.”
“With a ton of stolen Nazi gold,” said Johnny.

“Oh, wait a minute,” said Ed, vigorously rubbing his eyes. “His name’s Pedro and they want him written for Cesar Romero.”

“Crap,” said Johnny. “Were there Nazi Mexicans?”

“There were Spanish fascists.”

“Who the hell knows what a fascist is?” snapped Johnny. “How about since he got out of Berlin he’s been laying low in Mexico or Havana or wherever those people go.”

“Paraguay,” Ed said. “A villa in Montevideo.”

And the typewriter began picking up speed again, roaring through the morning like the Super Chief across the heart of America. Then abruptly, as if a herd of cattle had stampeded across the track, it ground to a halt.

“’Grant me but one kiss, SeƱorita,’” Johnny was dictating. “’For a fleeting taste of your ruby lips I would run roughshod over the….’” He broke off when he realized Ed had stopped typing. “What the hell?”

Ed was shaking the typewriter. “Damned contraption went blooey on me!” he said. “I think it’s jammed!”

“Jammed?” Johnny said, and into that single word the hard edge of desperation had crept.
Ed glanced at his watch. “Come on,” he said, “It’s early enough that we should be able to appropriate another one.”

They ran out of their office and barged through the first door they came to. Unlike the storage closet to which they had been assigned, they found themselves in a vast, opulently appointed office, complete with a secretary with Veronica Lake hair, Lana Turner lips, and a Jane Russell bosom. She sat erectly and very decoratively before a typewriter, taking dictation from Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

“The Klempner novel shows possibilities, but there are just too damned many wives. If we…”
Mankiewicz broke off and turned to regard the intruders, a livid frown on his face. But when he saw who it was the corners of his lips reversed their trajectory and a gleam appeared in his eyes. “Ed! Johnny!” he grinned. “And what makes today my lucky day?”

“Sorry, Mank,” Johnny said. “We need your machine gun, but bad!”

“Then it’s yours,” Mankiewicz said. “I’d never be the man who impedes your genius.”

“Thanks a million,” Ed said, cradling the machine in his arms with barely a glance at the astonished secretary. “You know how impatient Zanuck is.”

“We’re all bees in a beehive,” Mankiewicz said. “But promise me you’re not neglecting your own dazzling ideas.”

Johnny grinned from ear to ear. “We’ve got a honey in the roller right now, Mank! This could be the one that makes us!”

“Something made of music and fire, eh?”

“You said it! The hero’s a real dope, see, but he saves the girl in the last reel…”

“A Preston Sturges sort of thing,” Mankiewicz said.

“Sturges never wrote anything like this!” Ed said.

“I’ll bet not,” Mankiewicz said. “Oh, you know he’s throwing a party next Friday…”

“We know!” Ed yelled as they thundered out of the room. “Betty Grable was just begging us to be there.”

“Then I’ll be there too,” Mankiewicz said, “if you promise to tell me this idea before you’ve won your beachhead on the shores of immortality.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Ed said. And as they hurried off they heard Mankiewicz saying, “Can you take shorthand, honey?”

The typewriter was soon shooting bullets again, but five minutes later they hit another snag. “Oh, crap,” Johnny blurted. “This Pedro’s marrying the number two doll. He’s supposed to be a good guy! How the hell did we miss that before?”

“Let me see that!” Ed said, snatching the script out of Johnny’s hands. He scanned a few pages and his face went white. “Christ. We’ll have to go back and rewrite the earlier stuff. Who ever heard of rewriting a rewrite?”

“The hell with that,” Johnny said. “We just change the finale to show he was really working for some anti-Nazi resistance. He was laying low, see, to protect secrets for Uncle Sam.”

“Brilliant!” Ed said, and his fingers returned to the races.

* * *

At three o’clock Monday afternoon, Paulie Polidoris walked down the corridor to the sound of that same inhumanly fast typing. He took this as a bad sign. Unless Ed and Johnny were deep in the final scene, they were evidently not going to make their deadline. He threw open the door and without formalities asked, “How close are you?”

“Oh, howdy, Paulie,” said Johnny, as Ed kept typing. “I’d say we’re about two-thirds through.”

“Two thirds?!” roared Paulie. “What the hell am I gonna tell D.F.?”

Johnny looked blank for a moment, then he grinned. “Oh, that script! Hell, we polished that off yesterday! We’re working on our new original.”

“On D.F.’s nickel?” said Paulie threateningly.

“When we pitch him this idea he’ll thank us plenty for letting us write it at the Ritz here,” said Johnny, digging the rewrite out from under their new pages. “You haven’t forgotten our deal, have you?”

Paulie took the rewrite and left. Ed never stopped typing.

* * *

Two hours later, Zanuck tossed the pages of the rewrite on his desk. “Good enough,” he said. “Now get those hacks out of here.”

“Well, actually, D.F.,” said Paulie, shifting uncomfortably. “There’s one more thing.”

“What more thing?”

“They’re expecting a pitch meeting with you.”

“Then they’re nuts.”

“Yes, D.F.. But I had to promise it to them. They said they wouldn’t do the rewrite unless it was part of the deal.”

Zanuck rolled his eyes. “Get them in here. Let’s make it quick.”

* * *

Zanuck’s office wasn’t quite as big as the waiting room in Union Station, but to Ed and Johnny it promised journeys to more and better destinations. They took in all the details as Paulie ushered them in. The vast mahogany desk that had seen the negotiating of so many colossal deals. The sumptuous couch that had launched the careers of so many starlets. And Zanuck himself, sawed off, bull-necked, his mustache already twitching with impatience over what Ed and Johnny had not yet said.

“You won’t be sorry you’re seeing us, D.F.,” said Johnny.

“This one’s like nothing you’ve ever heard,” said Ed.

“I can believe that,” Zanuck said. “Get to it.”

Johnny began, “We open in Times Square, see? Lights, crowds, colorful characters…”

“One sentence,” Zanuck said. “Just tell me what the picture’s about in one sentence.”

“A cinch,” Johnny said.

“Hold onto your hat!” Ed said.

“A taxi driver falls in love with a twelve-year-old hooker and shoots her pimp,” Johnny said.

There was a long silence, broken only by the sound of Paulie’s tense, shallow breathing.

“What?” Zanuck said at last.

“Picture Ty Power as the cabbie and George Sanders as the pimp,” Ed said.

“And that little doll from the Lassie movies as the tart,” Johnny added.

Zanuck’s face turned red and his mustache began to do something reminiscent of the shimmy. “Elizabeth Taylor?” he hissed. “You actually think 20th Century Fox is gonna plaster little Elizabeth Taylor all over the movie screens of America as a

“You don’t think Metro will loan her out?” Johnny asked.

“I’ll bet Shirley Temple could still pull it off,” Ed offered eagerly. “Just put her in one of those little pinafores she used to wear.”

Zanuck rose slowly to his feet. “Are you fucking nuts?” he roared. “I could be laughed out of this town just for listening to this idea!”

Ed and Johnny exchanged quick eye contact. As ever, they were thinking on their feet and thinking in harmony.

“That’s it, D.F.!” brayed Johnny.

“Laughs! Comedy!” yelled Ed.

“Don Ameche as the cabbie!”

“Clifton Webb as the pimp!”

“And Jane Withers! How old is Jane Withers now, anyway?”

Zanuck was now addressing Paulie, with an ominous quiet. “Get them out of here.”

“If you’re worried about the Hays Office we could clean it up a little,” Ed ventured.

“Just tack on a new ending,” Johnny said.

“The girl’s really the pimp’s niece from the country, see, and everybody just
thinks she’s a whore. Then after Ameche shoots the pimp…”

“Out of here!” yelled Zanuck.

Ed and Johnny felt Paulie’s hands on their shoulders and knew they had to pitch fast.

“Of course, it could be best suited to a specialized market,” Ed said.

“That’s it!” Johnny cried.

“They’d go crazy for it in Harlem! There’s a grand tradition of pimps and hustlers in Negro humor.”

“Sure!” Johnny said. “Look at the Kingfish!”

“And who are his foils?” Ed asked with a triumphant grin.

“Taxi drivers!” beamed Johnny.

“This is just what Amos and Andy need to get back on the big screen!” crowed Ed.

Then Paulie’s hand tightened on his shoulder.

* * *

For three days they did nothing but drink, sleep, and eat Spam. No typewriter clatter issued from their windows, but only periodic retching and an occasional explosion of verbal bile aimed at Darryl F. Zanuck in particular or the studio system in general. Then, at noon on the fourth day, Johnny found Ed in the kitchen, took the bottle out of his hand, and asked, “You like fist fights?”

“I love fist fights,” Ed said.

Johnny said, “There’s these two friends, see, and they blow off steam by beating each other up. Then one of them gets the idea to start up a club where frustrated guys can whale the tar out of each other for fun!”

“Oh, my God!” Ed roared. “Can you just see John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in that?”

And once again over the Garden of Edna rose the clatter of a typewriter.

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