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, Se├▒orita,’” 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
whore?”

“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.



For Chapter Two click on Older Posts...

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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