From the Books

Here’s a new occasional thing I’ll be doing here: sharing passages I particularly enjoy from books I read. Other people do this, and darn it, I’m as good as other people, right? Am I right? You bet! Thus, a new series is born: “From the Books”. This will be a sporadic series, as opposed to my other, non-sporadic series. Hmmmm….anyway.

Ummm…anyway, I read Hollywood by Garson Kanin recently, after the book was cited by Sheila O’Malley on her blog. It’s a personal memoir about the days of the Hollywood studio system, and it’s a terrific read; it struck me, in a way, as a precursor to the wonderful William Goldman books Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?, although with more anecdotal focus than the “Inside Baseball” kind of stuff. I’ve come to greatly prefer, for reading purposes, personal memoir over straightforward histories, even taking into account the biases inherent in personal memoir. The story of Hollywood is filled with all manner of salaciousness and fun and backstabbing and glory and people loving one another and people loathing one another and all the contradictory things about people tied into one industry that is at once monolithic and intimate. It’s not for nothing that Kanin’s book is subtitled Star and Starlets, Tycoons and Flesh-Peddlers, Moviemakers and Money makers, Frauds and Geniuses, Hopefuls and Has-Beens, Great Lovers and Sex Symbols.

Anyhow, early in the book Kanin relates his experiences directing John Barrymore, the great John Barrymore, the acting legend John Barrymore, in a movie. Barrymore turns out to be, like all great actors and stars, a quite idiosyncratic figure, and one of his particular quirks is that he insists on having a guy on the set at all times, lurking outside the shot, holding up a series of blackboards on which the guy has carefully written Barrymore’s lines. Large blackboards for long speeches, smaller ones for shorter ones, and so on. Barrymore claims that at his age he doesn’t want to bother actually learning his lines anymore, to which Kanin responds, “I think you know your lines and they’re just a bad habit you’ve fallen into.” Barrymore’s reply? “Of course I know my lines!” He then says that they’re his safety net, just like the net at the circus, even though no one ever sees the high wire performers actually fall.

That sets up the following story, which made me laugh quite loudly when I read it:

One morning, as we were about to begin, my cutter came onto the set and asked if, for his convenience, I would make one small additional shot. It was simply an entrance to tie in two scenes. The whole shot would consist of a medium angle on an empty door. A woman comes in and knocks. The door is opened by Barrymore. She asks, “Are you Gregory Vance?” He replies, “Yes.” Whereupon she enters. That would be all.

We set up the scene and I went off to get a cup of coffee. All at once I heard a furious row from the vicinity of the camera. As a rule, these flare-ups died out as swiftly as they began but this one continued. I went over to see what the trouble was.

Henry, Barrymore’s blackboard man, was engaged in a violent shoving match with the principal gaffer. The assistant director was attempting to intercede, but was being threatened by the gaffer’s assistant. A free-for-all was imminent. It was only a question of who was going to throw the first punch. I heard myself yelling.

“All right! That’s enough! Hold it! Shut up everybody! Now cut it out!”

I succeeded in bringing about a temporary abatement.

“What is all this?” I asked.

The gaffer spoke. “Listen. I’ve put up with this goddam pest every day since we started, but enough is enough. He doesn’t have to be in here with that goddam sliver. I need this spot for my key light and I want him the hell out of here.”

Henry, a dignified old gentleman, said, “I know my job and I’m going to do it and no one’s going to prevent my from doing it. My job.”

I was confused. “What job? What do you mean ‘sliver’?”

Henry held up a blackboard the size of a child’s slate. On it was written the word “Yes”.

“All right, Henry,” I said. “Just relax.”

I went over to Barrymore, who sat in his chair smoking and smiling.

“Could I have you in the scene, Mr. Barrymore, for just a moment?”

“Of course. Of course,” he said, and joined me near the camera.

“We have a little problem,” I explained. “You know the scene. We’re outside here with the camera. Miss Alexander knocks on the door. You open it. She says, ‘Are you Gregory Vance?’ You say, ‘Yes’. She walks in and that’s it.”

“Fine,” said Barrymore. “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well,” I explained, “Henry here seems to feel that he has to be standing here with this little slate that says ‘Yes’.”

“Oh, by all means!” said Barrymore.

I did not grasp his meaning at once. “You mean it’s all right for him not to be here. Is that it?”

“No, no,” said Barrymore. “I’d like to have him there. With his slate.”

I was losing patience, struggling for control. “But let’s be reasonable, Mr. Barrymore. All she asks is, ‘Are you Gregory Vance?’ And you are, so what else could you possibly say?”

Barrymore thought for a long moment, then looked at me and said, “Well, I could say ‘No’, and then where would you be?”

We found a spot for Henry and his slate.

There’s just something terribly funny about an unreasonably demanding star nevertheless using withering logic to get his way.

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