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 Two. Strictly from Know Nothin'

Sunday night found Ed and Johnny, as did every Sunday night, playing poker with a couple of their fellow residents at the Garden of Edna, Hugh Beaumont and Horace McCoy.

Hugh was a hard-working actor in his thirties. He’d been in dozens of films, mostly as an uncredited extra, a fate with which the boys could fully relate. He’d recently landed a few meatier roles, but all in Poverty Row quickies, usually playing rather unsavory characters. Ed was bemused that Hugh should be cast in such roles. The guy just dripped amiability and solid American goodness, and Ed could easily see him as the subject of one of those homey Rockwell Kent covers on The Saturday Evening Post. In fact, Ed was sure that Hugh’s days of playing muddy GIs and mad-dog killers were numbered, and he would soon find his niche playing the kindly uncle or the wise dad in heartwarming family pictures.

Horace was nearly fifty, and he’d already put in a full life as a war hero, sports reporter, bouncer, and actor before he’d settled on writing. Ed and Johnny felt a special kinship with him, for he too had served a literary apprenticeship in the pulp magazines, although Horace had actually gone on to write novels, whereas the boys had continued to hone their craft on true-crime rags, Big Little Books, Believe-It-Or-Not columns, and Tijuana bibles. None of Horace’s three novels had sold very well (a fact that brought Ed some comfort, as his rationale for never having finished his own novel was that “there’s no money in the things”), except in France where they were reputedly revered. But Hollywood had heard of him somehow, and because one of his books had the word “horses” in the title, he was usually put to work writing scenarios for westerns. Horace often groused that he didn’t like Hollywood, and that he should have stayed home. But the easy money, combined with the wife and child in Beverly Hills from whom he was currently split, kept him imprisoned. He was a wily poker player, a decent amateur aviator, and an indefatigable dancer.

The game was being played at Horace’s bungalow tonight, and after the first hour of play the host was by far the biggest winner, having racked up forty-eight cents. As play became routine, conversation turned to other matters. Hugh remembered that the boys had been invited to a party at Preston Sturges’s place a couple of nights before and asked how it had gone.

“Oh, brother!” Ed grinned.

“And how!” Johnny grinned.

“Now don’t leave us hanging,” Horace said, adding a couple of chips to the pile. “Raise.”

“Look boys,” Ed said, “I just don’t know how to talk about last night without sounding like a blowhard.”

“You can’t say ‘hello’ without sounding like a blowhard,” Johnny smirked. “But what the man’s about to say will be shockingly close to the truth. See ya and raise.”

“Well, now!” Hugh said, rubbing his hand vigorously. “This sounds promising!”

“I tell you,” Ed said, “even I didn’t realize how popular we were in this town. We couldn’t take two steps without a new knot of admirers forming around us. We had them hanging on our every word. And the dolls! Mother of mercy! Tell ‘em, Johnny.”

“You tell it better than me, Ed.”

“Well, you know it was Betty Grable who pleaded with us to go,” Ed said with a forced look of regret, “but if she thought she was going to have us to herself, the poor lass must have been brokenhearted. We were being monopolized by every dame in the place. And if you boys have never seen Ava or Rita in the flesh…then brother, you ain’t seen flesh!”

“Alice Faye sure seems like a regular gal,” Johnny said.

“And that Rhonda Fleming! For a minute there I thought she was going to sit on my lap!” He threw his cards on the table. “Fold.”

Without looking up from his cards, Horace said, “So to what exactly would you attribute this fascination for Ed and Johnny?”

“Our ideas!” Ed boomed. “Everybody wants to hear our latest can’t-miss story ideas!”

Hugh threw his hand in and said, “Now you boys ought to be a little more careful about airing your ideas in public. There are a lot of unscrupulous people in this town, you know. It’s sad but true.”

“Oh, I don’t know if they need worry too much,” Horace said with a little smile. He tossed five more chips in the pile and said, “Raise.”

Johnny slapped his cards on the table. “You’re damn right, Horses! Why the hell should we worry?” He’d lost his smile now and sat back with a scowl. “Why would they heist one of our ideas unless they wanted D.F. Zanuck’s wingtip in their ass?”

“Which one did you pitch him, again?” Horace asked. “The one about the cab driver shooting Elizabeth Taylor’s pimp, wasn’t it?”

“That’s the one,” Johnny said. “And he acted like we were a couple of hop-heads or something.”

“Imagine that,” Horace said.

“Well, Sturges himself was riveted by every damned idea I told him,” Ed said. “And you know he’s a partner in a production company now!”

“But did he offer to pay two lousy bits for any one of those ideas?” Johnny snorted.

“Well, I understand he’s been having some disagreements with his current partner,” Hugh said, “so maybe he’s leery about taking on anything new.”

“That’s right!” Ed said. “Howard Hawks, right? Well, he was pretty damned riveted too, when I told him our idea about…”

“Hughes,” Horace said. “His partner’s Howard Hughes.”

“I don’t care if his partner’s Jesus of Nazareth,” Johnny said. “What is it with this burg, anyway? How come the dumbest people get to be the big shots? Even the guards can’t wait to hear our latest idea. But the guys with the cabbage? They’re strictly from know-nothin’!” He threw his cards on the tabletop with a loud slap.

Horace raked up the chips and said, “Well…”

Hugh caught his eye and shook his head.

“What was that?” Ed demanded.

“What was what?” Horace said.

“I saw Hugh shake his head. What were you about to say?”

Horace gazed at Hugh, as if in appeal, but Hugh wasn’t having any. He refused to lift his eyes from his cards. Horace finally sighed and said, “Look boys. There’s really no mystery at all. People like to hear your ideas because they’re…well, flamboyant.”

Johnny looked at Ed.

“It means fiery,” Ed said. “From the French flambeau, meaning torch. As in Cherries Flambeau.”

“What the hell do cherries have to do with our ideas?” Johnny snapped.

“I mean flamboyant in the sense of....” Horace groped for a word.

“Colorful,” Hugh said. “Unusual.”

“Hell, we know that!” Johnny said. “Is that supposed to be a bad thing?”

“No, no,” Horace said. “In fact, it’s a good thing. To a point. But an actor or a director or a studio guard is free just to like an idea. But it’s different with executives and producers. They’re the ones who have to put their money on the line. From their perspective, colorful and unusual means risky. And one thing this town doesn’t like is risk.”

“What’s so risky about a cabbie shooting a twelve-year-old hooker’s pimp?” Johnny asked.

“He’s got you there, McCoy!” Ed chortled. “They could have filmed that one on a shoestring.”

“I’m not talking about...Hugh, help me on this. Don’t leave me hanging here.”

Hugh carefully set down his hand. “I think what Horace is trying to say, boys, is that you might have more luck if you pitched ideas that feel more time-tested. That remind the moguls of pictures that have done well for them in the past.”

“Haven’t we already done that?” Ed said. “Didn’t we pitch L.B. Mayer a perfect sentimental vehicle for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly?”

“Buddies looking out for each other through thick and thin,” Johnny said. “Just the kind of heartwarming jive Metro’s always cranking out.”

“Was that the one,” Horace asked, “where Astaire’s a crippled Bowery bum and Kelly’s a male hooker who dresses like a cowboy?”

“Exactly,” Ed said. “And the way L.B. reacted....” A shudder ran through his body. “Hell, I don’t even like to think about the way L.B. reacted.”

“I think what Horace and I are suggesting,” Hugh said, “is that you come up with ideas about more familiar types of people. Situations the audience might be more familiar with.”

Ed turned to Johnny.

“Don’t look at me,” Johnny said. “Ideas just come to me. If they come to me fiery and colorful, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Well, I’ll bet if you look over your backlog of ideas, you’ll find something that fits,” Hugh said, with a smile that seemed slightly too wide. “Heck, you boys have come up with more ideas than any ten writers I know!”

Johnny thought for a moment. “Well, there’s the one about the businessmen who go on a canoe trip down a river and get lost.”

“Good, good,” Horace said. “A wilderness adventure.”

“They get separated, see,” Johnny said with a grin, “and they’ve gotta make it through the forest past all these dangers...”

“There you go,” Hugh said. “And do they come up against any wild animals, say?”

“No animals,” Ed said. “But they do get sodomized by a bunch of hillbillies.”

Horace threw up his hands. He’d forgotten he was still holding his cards, and they bounced off the ceiling. He took two deep breaths to calm himself. Then he said, “Look, I’ll make you two a bet. I’ll give you an idea for a movie, and next time you get the chance you pitch it, and pitch it for real. If whoever you’re pitching to rejects it, I’ll give you each fifty bucks. If they buy it, all you gotta do is admit it’s my idea, but that you liked it so much that you wanted to do me a favor. Deal?”

Ed narrowed his eyes. “Let’s hear it,” he said.

Horace told them.

“Oh, my God,” Johnny said when Horace had finished. “That one’s got whiskers on it!”

“Did you just make it up off the top of your head?”

“Actually, it’s an idea for a novel I’ve been kicking around.”

“A novel?” Johnny said. “Boy, that hundred clams is as good as ours!”

“Probably,” Horace said. “But I can guarantee you that you won’t end up with a wingtip up your asses just for pitching an idea.”

“But that’s not the bet, right?” Ed said. “We win even if we get the most courteous rejection ever, right?” “Right,” Horace said.

“You’re on!” Ed boomed.

Hugh had been studying Horace intently. “The little woman’s going to kill me if I don’t leave in a minute,” he said, “but first I’ve got to know something. What’s behind this wager, Horace?”

“I just want these dinks to know what it’s like to pitch a real idea,” Horace said. “Maybe they’ll actually learn something.”

He shot a glance at the boys, but they just sat there chortling.

* * *

Ed was still chortling as they strolled back to their own bungalow. The stroll was longer than it had to be, for although Horace’s bungalow sat only two doors from their own, the boys had developed the habit of following a circuitous route in order to avoid passing in front of the door of the neighbor between them, the Reverend Jeroboam Clapp. The Reverend led a small congregation called the Temple of the Blazing Klieg Lights of God that currently held its services in a car wash on Pico Boulevard that lay half-completed thanks to some city mix-up about water supplies, and he was known to sit behind his screen door and wait to catch any unwary fellow tenant who might be trapped into listening to a sermon about the evils of show business. The route required them to loop around the fountain at the center of the Garden of Edna and gave them time to enjoy the glory of a California spring night. It also took them past the front porch of Suzette O’Shea, the most pleasantly outfitted of the Edna’s fa├žades, with its lace curtains and tinted lights and fragrant blossoms (for Suzette was a practitioner of a profession older and kinder than that of the religious zealot).

Ed looked up at the six or seven stars visible in the Los Angeles sky, took a deep breath, and lit a smoke. He offered one to Johnny, but Johnny just shook his head.

“What’s eating you?” Ed asked.

“I’m just thinking,” Johnny said.

Ed laughed. “Haven’t I broken you of that habit yet?”

Johnny summoned his strength and started again. “I’m just thinking. What if Horace is right about our ideas being too risky for these moguls?”

Ed issued a great sigh. It had always been his burden to see the value of their creations when Johnny slipped into one of his inexplicable funks of self-doubt, starting from the first day they had spoken to one another at that slaughterhouse in Chicago. Ed had been sixteen at the time. In fact, that had been his father’s sixteenth birthday present to him. A job at the slaughterhouse. Even now he could remember clearly how Johnny had stood out the instant he showed up for work. Among all those Polacks, Bohunks, Dagos, Micks, and Coloreds, that straw-haired hayseed fresh from a Missouri farm was almost exotic. But what really set him apart from the rest was his quietness.

Of course, the work they did on the conveyor belt was not conducive to lively conversation—their job was to reach into every steer carcass that trundled past, pull out the kidneys, and drop them down a chute—but every other man offered up his share of grunts and obscenities. The hayseed moved in his own world, hands working as if they did not feel the blood and mucus that squished between his fingers, eyes usually unfocused. Sometimes he seemed to be listening acutely to what was being said around him, but other times he’d have his head cocked oddly to the side, as if hearing something from another realm.

Then one day, on their lunch break, the hayseed suddenly spoke to him. Ed had just sat down with his book (a lousy novel by Lloyd C. Douglas he’d picked up at a swap meet), and no sooner had he found his place than Johnny sat next to him and demanded, “You like to read them books?”

“Sometimes,” Ed said. He tensed up a little, as his fondness for books had occasionally inspired the violent disapproval of the other young men in his tenement, but he sensed immediately that the farmboy intended no harm. “You don’t?”

“Not so much,” Johnny said, and unwrapped what looked like a butter and mayonnaise sandwich.

“So why do you ask?”

Johnny shrugged. “I was just wondering how a fella might get a book made out of his idea.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve got an idea for a book.”

“Maybe. I get a lot of ideas.”

“Oh, you do, eh?” Ed said.

“Ever since I can remember. Ideas just come to me. I used to just walk around the farm getting ideas. Sometimes I’d get so full of ideas I’d forget to do my chores and get beat.” Johnny frowned and chewed his sandwich. “My dad says we might not’ve lost the farm if I’d kept my head where it was supposed to be.”

“You don’t say. And what kind of ideas?”

“Uh-uh,” Johnny said, and shook his head. “Everybody laughs at ‘em.”

“You can tell me,” Ed said. “I’m a writer myself.”

Johnny narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You look like a kidney scooper to me.”

“Not for long!” Ed snapped. “I’ve been forging a novel these past few months, and it’s my ticket straight out of this carnal pit. So tell me these ideas. I’m interested. Sincerely.” And he was sincerely interested, not only out of perverse curiosity but because it occurred to him that he might be able to use a little outside inspiration for his novel. After having perfected the elaborate opening description of his noble, cultured, but tragically misunderstood hero, he hadn’t yet been able to figure out what would happen on page three. “Hokay,” Johnny said, and his eyes took on a strange cast. “Here’s one I just got today. There’s this half-wit, see.”

“A half-wit,” Ed said.

“Yeah. A dummy. A real cretin. Only…he says things that kind of inspire people.”

Ed nodded. “Sure, I can see that. Like simple wisdom. One of your eternal varieties.”

“And he runs real fast.”

“Runs fast?” Ed said. “Sure, sure. He could even inspire people with his fleetness of foot.”

“Yeah!” Johnny said. “That too! And every time there’s a big to-do in the world, like a political what-not, he’s right there in the middle of it.”

“What’s that got to do with running?” Ed asked.

“I don’t know,” Johnny said, with a trace of annoyance. “It’s part of the idea, that’s all. I guess you think it’s stupid.”

“Oh, contraire! In fact, I was just thinking it would make a great comic strip!”

“You think so?”

“Or even better!” Ed jumped to his feet, letting Lloyd C. Douglas drop into a puddle of offal. “A radio serial! One of those daytime ones that the little ladies listen to!”

“Do they pay cash money for those?” Johnny asked.

“Do they! Of course, you’ll need to work with someone who understands the intricacies of plot and dialogue.”

“The what?”

“And for an idea like this you’ll need an authority on history.”

Johnny looked around glumly at his blood-spattered coworkers. “And where am I gonna find one of those?”

“Son,” Ed said, slapping his back, “you happen to be looking at a man who’s perused the entirety of Henry Van Dyke Loon’s Story of Mankind!”

“You mean…you want to help me?”

“Well, I figure it won’t hurt to earn a bit of fame as a radio playwright before I unleash my magnum opus.” Johnny now regarded Ed with a glow in his eyes. “And you can spell?”

“Just try me,” Ed said, and squared his shoulders like a boxer before the bell. “But not now! We’ve gotta start writing these ideas down.” He was digging out the scraps of butcher paper and the stubby pencil that he always kept in his overalls when he noticed the long face on his new friend. “What’s wrong with you all of a sudden?”

“But what if folks don’t like it?” Johnny moaned. “You don’t know the kinda trouble I get into because folks don’t like my…”

“Will you just trust me?” Ed said. “I know the world’s full of ignoramuses. But I also know when I’m right!”

Then the whistle blew commanding them to return to their posts. But this time it was with a grin upon his face that Johnny bellied up to the clanking conveyor belt and turned to greet the great corpses that began trundling toward him.

Now here they were, a dozen years later, working in an industry built on a far lovelier sort of flesh, breathing air scented not by blood and urine but by oranges and jasmine, and yet Ed’s burden had not changed.

“The only thing McCoy is right about,” he said slowly, “is that he’s going to grace each of our palms with a crisp new portrait of Ulysses X. Grant.”

“So how come none of our ideas has hit the jackpot yet?” Johnny said. “If we couldn’t make it big with the pulpwood editors, or the radio station managers, or the USO organizers...”

“Precisely!” Ed barked, and took a long drag on his cigarette.

Johnny narrowed his eyes at him. “Precisely what?”

“Precisely why I insisted we launch a beachhead in Tinseltown, that’s what. The fact that all those small-timers couldn’t see our brilliance only proves that we’ve got to shoot for the top! These are big-league ideas, chum, and we’re finally playing in a big-league park!”

Johnny thought about that for a moment. “I guess you’re right,” he said at last.

Ed threw a bearlike arm around his partner’s shoulders and shook him as if to dislodge his gloom. “Your Uncle Ed is always right,” he said. “And our McCoy of little faith has a hundred bucks to prove it!”

* * *

Their chance to earn those hundred bucks came a week later. Cagney Productions needed someone to track down a missing actor, a young war hero they’d hired on a whim after seeing his picture in Life magazine. Unfortunately, not only could the kid not act worth a damn, he’d developed an annoying habit of disappearing for days at a time. Ed and Johnny, well known in the movie colony for their willingness to take on nearly any task that might bring them closer to a writing gig, promised to find him for half what it cost to pay a licensed gumshoe. Sure enough, two days later they found the AWOL contractee sleeping on the floor of a gym owned by a fellow ex-GI.

Two days after that, they found themselves sitting before William Cagney, the brother of the famous actor. He didn’t look too happy to see them, and the boys figured that Mickey, the young assistant they’d bribed to get them the pitch, must have had a hell of a time convincing his boss to meet with them. He so closely resembled his brother that Ed and Johnny were afraid he’d whip out a gat and ventilate them if he didn’t like Horace’s idea.

“I appreciate you finding the Murphy kid,” Cagney said.

“If I were you, W.C., I wouldn’t waste a simoleon on that sad sack,” Ed said, hoping to lessen the tension in the room.

“Shell shock,” Johnny said. “You see it all the time with these hero types.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Cagney said. “I’ve been trying to talk my brother into selling his contract.” There was an awkward pause as Cagney just looked at them. Then he said, “Okay, then! Next time I need something done, I’ll know who to call!”

Ed and Johnny grinned but didn’t get up from their seats. Cagney grinned back at them for a moment. Then he gave up the pretense. “Oh, right,” he said. “I forgot. You were going to pitch a story.”

“Hang on to your hat, W.C.!” Ed said.

“There’s this gangster, see,” Johnny said. “But he’s no ordinary gangster. He’s real educated, see. Smart as a whip.”

“A veritable road scholar,” Ed put in.

“But he’s evil, see. One mean hombre.”

“And he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants. Which is lucre and more lucre.”

“But then he meets a high class society dame, see, the daughter of a governor.”

“And boy, do the sparks start to fly, W.C.!”

From almost the first word, Cagney had started to slump in his seat. His eyes had fallen to the desk top and stayed there throughout. He wasn’t turning red with apoplexy, which was the usual reaction the boys inspired with their pitches, but it was clear he wasn’t at all excited with the idea. Ed shot Johnny a look that said “What did I tell you?” Johnny grinned back. He was already adding up what he could buy with fifty smackeroos.

“My brother is sick to death of playing gangsters,” Cagney said.

“Oh?” Ed said, laboring mightily not to start shouting in triumph.

“He’s not going to be happy to hear about this.”

“No?” Johnny said, driving his nails into the palms of his hands to keep himself from breaking into peals of joyous laughter.

“Not at first, he won’t. But if I don’t miss my guess, he’ll love it when I’ve spelled it all out. Boys, from what I’ve heard, I didn’t think you had it in you—but I’d say you’ve got a real winner on your hands!”

Like a light switch being thrown, the radiance went out of the boys’ faces.

“Yes, sir,” Cagney said. “A gangster with a Phi Beta Kappa key. Jim’s going to love it!”

It took a while, but Ed was the first to recover. If the boob was this easy, he and Johnny would be fools to miss a golden opportunity like this. “And that’s not the only winner we’ve got, W.C.!”

“Hell, no!” Johnny said, picking up on Ed’s cue. “We’ve got a million of them. There’s these two people locked in a room with a saw, see, and…”

“Not now, boys,” Cagney said, holding up a hand. “This is a small company, and we can only take on one project at a time. Right now we’re committed to filming a Saroyan play, and after that we’ll want to get to work on your gangster picture. Mickey, bring me a contract, will you?”

The boys sat like wooden Indians as the kid walked to the filing cabinets, but their eyes followed his every move. They watched him whip a blank contract out of a cabinet. They watched him walk over and gently lay it on Cagney’s desk. They watched Cagney take up a pen and wave it with a flourish. They’d imagined this scene a million times, and here it was unreeling before their eyes. Only not exactly as they’d expected it to.

“So what are your full names?” Cagney asked.

Ed hesitated for a long moment. Then Johnny shot him a look, and Ed closed his eyes and said, “Horace McCoy.”

“Huh?” Cagney asked.

And, with voice shaking, Ed came out with the truth.

* * *

Horace didn’t laugh at them or try to rub it in. He thanked them for selling his idea, offered to take them for a steak dinner at Chasen’s when he got the check, and finally said, “So can I give you a little advice on how you could make your ideas more palatable to the studios?"

“We’re listening,” Ed said.

And he proceeded to tell them how they could fix numerous of their story ideas and greatly improve their chances of selling them. The canoeing businessmen should tangle with a gang of escaped convicts. The taxi driver could rescue the twelve-year-old girl from a crooked foster father who’s only after her money. The unemployed steel workers who become male strippers could open an orphanage instead. And on and on it went.

The boys were downcast when they returned to their apartment. Johnny went into the kitchen and returned with a bottle of rye and two shot glasses.

“Poor guy,” Ed said, slamming back a shot.

“How do you figure?” Johnny asked.

“He’s been in this racket too long without a big score,” Ed said. “He’s lost his nerve.”

“But W.C. said...”

“Why do you think he bit on that tired old gangster yarn?” Ed growled. “Because of our pitch!”

Johnny swished the rye in his mouth and ruminated on that. “Sure,” he said. “Hell, if Horses had pitched it himself...”

“That story would never be anything but another novel nobody outside gay Paree ever hears of.”

“I was wondering why the mug would go back to writing novels after breaking into pictures,” Johnny said. “He must know he’s losing it.”

“We kept his career alive, that’s what we did.”

“Yeah. And chiseled ourselves out of a century note.”

They sat drinking silently for a while, then Ed shook his head pityingly. “Imagine trying to pitch the canoe movie without the one scene everybody’ll be talking about.”

“Poor guy,” Johnny said. “I’m just glad we could throw him a bone.”

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