As soon as the gunfire started, Callie Carmichael hitched up her ball gown and ran like hell. Grateful she’d thought to wear her trusty work boots beneath the floor length skirt, she skidded around a crowd waiting to storm the Bastille and nearly collided with a vampire.
Jaunty marching music filled the hot, dusty air, clashing with a melancholic violin being played somewhere just out of sight. A group of young women dressed as circus acrobats hummed the latest jazz tune as they Charlestoned on the lawn in front of the studio building. A jalopy careened out of control up and down the main thoroughfare; a second, open topped car driving alongside it carrying a man perched precariously on the hood steadily cranking a camera as two young boys held onto his legs and a director hollered instructions through a megaphone.
It was a typical day in a film factory in 1919.
Callie had been waiting outside the studio gates in the hot sun since dawn, waiting for her chance. Each day the line of hopefuls formed long before sunrise, and every hour or so, an assistant director would stroll through the gates sto pick out an extra or two and usher them through the hallowed gates, steadfastly ignoring the desperation etched on the faces of those left behind. It was well known in the movie colony that extras who came prepared in full costume and makeup had the best chance of being chosen. The problem was, those not employed by a studio had little chance of knowing what sort of pictures would be shot that week, and so had to dress in their best guess.
The line was therefore invariably a dizzying array of resplendent evening dress, Roman togas, vagabond rags. One young woman was even clad shockingly in a bathing suit cut well above her knee, her hair tucked under a cap adorned with a large flower. She defensively claimed to have heard that RLP Studios was considering a swimming picture to rival Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties. Several times, she reminded anybody who would listen that she had won many swimming competitions back home in Omaha.
Sometime the previous evening, a rumour had zipped around the bars and hostels of West Hollywood that RLP Studios would be starting work on an Alaskan gold mining picture, and so several of the men were decked from head to toe in thick furs. Around noon, one of them collapsed in the scorching sun. Callie hadn’t known until then that men could faint. A couple of cowboys from a nearby ranch who had wondered by in the hope of picking up a day’s stunt riding hauled the fallen man over their shoulders and carried him away.
The black gown Callie wore wasn’t quite as uncomfortable as a fur, but it was of a heavy fabric and adorned with sequins, and it had seemed to increase in weight steadily throughout the day. At least her head and neck weren’t as hot as they could have been. Three weeks previously, Callie had finally found a barber willing to give her the daring and mannish Castle bob (every woman’s hairdressers she tried had refused her, one even claiming that their shears were designed solely to trim long tresses). She had then persuaded her current beau Fred to purchase on her behalf a bottle of Brilliantine from the drugstore with which to smooth her mousy brown waves into something resembling submission.
She was the first of her friends to take the plunge and every time she glanced in a mirror she felt a little sliver of excitement at the modern woman who stared back at her. That woman was going places, she would think. She was afraid of nothing. Even if she still had Callie’s upturned nose and the freckles of a pickpocketing urchin that were determined to undermine her every attempt at sophistication.
Several woman’s magazines had warned of headaches and other ailments that would be caused by the female neck’s sudden exposure to cool breezes, but that day Callie was more than grateful for the light chill. She owned a second evening gown, which was made of a light, pale grey satin which would have provided a little relief from the heat. However, it had a straight skirt that clung around the legs (Fred had helpfully pointed out it made her look rather like a mermaid), and Callie needed to be prepared to run.
Now, as the vampire stepped aside with a flourish to let Callie pass, she flashed him a grateful smile and dashed on, swerving around some sword-fighting actors and a young man dangling from a tree by his ankles. He held a mirrored board to the sun to cast light on an actress’s face.
Shots and angry yells rang out from the far end of the lot — so she was safe so far, she thought jubilantly, slowing slightly to wipe sweat from her brow. She passed a Confederate soldier collapsing into the arms of his weeping friend whilst a woman in a long skirt and high-necked ruffled blouse shouted directions at him through a megaphone. The muscled gladiators playing cards on a rickety bench didn’t even glance up as Callie zipped by, nor did the grand dame in a long white nightgown who leapt up from her death bed to demand a cigarette.
Rounding a corner she came face to face with Caspar Gabor and thought that her heart would cease to function on the spot. An enormous bear of a man with a shattered nose and cauliflower ears. Gabor was ostensibly head of production at RLP Studios, but everyone knew that his true role was as studio head Wallace H Macmillan’s eyes and years. His position — and rumoured extremely generous salary — was in view of the fact that — so it was said — he had saved Macmillan’s life in a brawl in New York many years previously. They had been a team ever since and had travelled out west together in 1909, amongst the first film pioneers to flee Thomas Edison’s draconian patents and establish a sleepy ranching community in California as the centre of the picture industry.
Heart hammering, Callie ducked behind a couple of workmen carrying a beautifully painted backdrop of Ancient Rome then was forced to march in step with them, shielded by the backdrop, all the way to the workshop behind the white clapboard mansion that dominated the studio lot.
As soon as Gabor and his security minions disappeared around a corner, Callie peered out of the workshop and carefully scanned the bustling crowd. The coast was clear. She spied the old converted cowshed that was her destination, took a deep breath, and sprinted.
Inside the shed it was dark and gloomy, but mercifully cool. Callie fancied there was still a sense of sawdust and hay in the air, even though the shed had been turned into offices at least three years ago. Several desks were crammed into the space, all empty — everyone must have dashed out to watch the shooting commotion. A wave of longing crashed over Callie as she caught a scent of typewriter ink, saw piles of neatly typed pages sitting on each desk, wire bound notebooks filled with notes and scribbles.
To sit at one of these desks day after day, tasked with dreaming up stories for movies! To arrive each morning, in a smart business suit — navy, she thought, with a pleated skirt and red tie, cinched at the waist — hang her hat on the stand over there and shout to one of the secretaries for coffee because she was on deadline and hadn’t a moment to waste. ‘Miss Swanson is waiting in makeup,’ she would call over her shoulder. ‘I need to get this story to her or she won’t know what to do when the cameras roll!’
Callie gave a happy sigh then jumped a mile as her daydream was shattered.
‘Who the hell are you?’ growled a voice from the shadows. ‘And what are you doing in my office?’
Buddy Armstrong, nephew of Wallace H Macmillan and head of the story department, sat at his desk in the inner office, glaring at Callie. He was tall and thin, with a mournful face that made him seem much older than his middle forties. In a a black three piece suit and a monocle tucked into the vest pocket, he looked like Honest Abe reincarnated. The only thing missing was the top hat.
‘Williams and Cassidy are fighting again,’ Callie blurted. ‘Shots were just fired.’
Buddy Armstrong leapt from his desk chair to peer out the window and Callie held her breath, barely able to believe her luck.
It was Fred who had given her the scoop on the best time to slip unseen back onto the lot. Last night, Fred had taken Callie to watch the spectacle of a motorcar race through Santa Monica, followed by steak and French-fried potatoes at Breaker’s Restaurant on the Five Million Dollar Pier. Over dinner, he had given her the scoop on the feud between two of the hottest directors on the RLP lot, Edward Williams and Hank Cassidy.
Williams demanded complete silence with which to shoot his romance picture, while Cassidy was making a Western which naturally involved a lot of gunfire — Fred was a stunt rider on that picture, hence his being in the know. Williams claimed that his actors could hardly concentrate on making love when they were interrupted by gunfire every two minutes, while Cassidy insisted that his picture required the realism of real gunfire — despite the fact that audiences wouldn’t hear a single shot, of course.
The other day the two directors had come to blows and had had to be separated by Caspar Gabor. According to Fred, Gabor had held Hank Cassidy in a headlock for so long that Cassidy had gone quite white before finally conceding to compromise. The compromise called for the Western to shoot scenes that did not involve guns until 3pm, at which time the other picture would break for the day. It was hardly ideal given that Macmillan demanded that every director in his employ provide him with a full picture every two weeks so they really needed every available moment to shoot. Further, Cassidy was sore about having been bested in a fight with a dandyish Englishman, so he had decided to start the gunfire no later than a quarter to three, in hopes of inciting a rematch.
‘All you need to do is wait for the guns,’ Fred had grinned as he motored up into the Hollywood Hills to their favourite spot, his hand already resting promisingly on Callie’s knee. ‘Then Gabor and all the guys who guard the gates will go to break it up, and the coast will be clear.’
Callie belatedly remembered that she had promised to sew a button onto Fred’s shirt in thanks. In all the excitement she had rather forgotten to inform him that she had no idea how to sew.
‘I’ve got a story,’ she said now.
Buddy continued to stare out the window even though he couldn’t see the Western set from here. ‘Everyone’s got a story.’
‘But this is a million dollar idea, I’m telling you. It would be a perfect vehicle for Gloria Swanson. Don’t tell me Mr Macmillan isn’t negotiating to bring her company over to RLP?’
‘You don’t know anything about that.’
Callie chose to ignore the warning note in Buddy’s voice.
‘Okay, well I’m just saying, if you were looking for something for Gloria Swanson, this would be it. She’s a young secretary working in New York, you see, both her parents are dead and she must raise her young siblings —’
‘But wait, you haven’t heard —’
‘Plucky girl saves her family, that’s a story for Mary Pickford.’
‘Or Esme Holt.’
Esme Holt was RLP’s major star. When Macmillan established the studio, it had been a great coup for him to tempt her over from Metro, and it was said that Louis B Mayer had sworn revenge.
‘Esme Holt is much too old to play the jeune fille — unlike Mrs Pickford, Miss Holt looks her age.’
‘Okay, I have another, about a vamp —’
‘Vamp pictures are out too. It’s almost 1920, you know, women can vote now. They don’t need to fight men any more.’
‘What about a sex comedy, now this one would be perfect for Miss Swanson or Miss Holt — it’s about a housewife who believes her husband is cheating on her so she sets out to exact revenge, but what she doesn’t know is —’
Buddy sighed, shook his head. ‘If you’re that desperate, I could let you be the participating writer on the Edward Williams picture that starts next week —’
Cassie’s heart fell. A participating writer was the lowest of the low, sitting for hours in the hot sun as the picture was shot, expected to come up with new scenes and twists on the spot as the action progressed. For one thing, a participating writer was only required when the story was weak in the first place – all too many film scenarios were sold by fast-talking college men from the East, who span fantastical and ludicrous tales in the offices of inexperienced and easily-impressed story editors. They were, Callie believed, the very bane of the picture industry. They poured off trains from the East, rattled their way around every story department then hopped back on the train with a pocket full of cheques.
One even confessed to Callie that he promptly forgot everything he had said the moment the cheque was cleared. Those stories, therefore, invariably fell apart under the scrutiny of production, as actors questioned why their character was to murder someone had made love to just seen before, and set designers pointed out that the action would require time travel to get from one scene to the next. Then someone like Callie would be dispatched to frantically improvise something that made some kind of sense, while apoplectic directors ranted and raved at her, actresses threatened to faint under the scorching sun, and actors got so drunk it would take them twenty takes just a light a cigarette by mid-afternoon.
‘I’m sitting pretty for this month, thank you,’ she said primly, though her heart was hammering with disappointment and fear. ‘I sold an original scenario to Universal just last week as it happens. I only wanted to give you the chance at my new material.’
‘Well, good,’ Buddy said. ‘Could ya close the door on the way out?’