Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Lowest Entry-Level Job In Hollywood, Part Two

I Should Have Stayed Home by Horace McCoy. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938.

I Should Have Stayed Home is one of the great, if largely unknown, Hollywood novels. Written by Horace McCoy (1897-1955), author of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1933), it is the tale of young Ralph Carson, a wanna-be from Georgia who comes to Hollywood to be discovered. The title of the book sums up the results of his effort. It’s a message that should be plastered on all Hollywood city limit signs, in L.A. bus depots, train stations and airports.

Ralph and his girl, Mona, another hopeful, wind up working as extras, a job generally considered to be the lowest entry level job in Hollywood. They are clearly, and definitively, losers, and they know it.

Nobody working studio labor considered themselves losers. Nobody doing studio labor considered it a stepping stone to greater, “above-the-line,” Hollywood glory. It was a job, hard physical work, that fed families or fueled young, single life, and nothing to be ashamed of.

The youngest guys, though, pretty much figured it as something to do until something else came along, and it was understood, with no little degree of anxiety, that if you were still doing it after three years, you’d be doing it for thirty and wind up a broken, prematurely old man; evidence abounded. I certainly felt that way, and the word “loser” would often pop into my head like a neon sign flashing on and off into a darkened room in a film-noir while the depressed protagonist, me, lay in bed, anxiously pondering a future I could not see.

Some of the guys whose youth was fading would show up for work at 6AM with booze breath.

Leon did, from time to time.

I committed myself to read his poetry and I was in his home. Now he brings out his notebooks. The gun is on the table. I’m on the spot.

I painfully suspect what I’m about to read and my dread blossoms as I begin.

“They don’t know me, don’t know me at all. They step on me, day by day, they want to grind me down but I won't let them! I’m a sensitive man among small animals who don’t care. Nobody cares! No. Body. Cares. Sometimes I want to kill them all, these puny excuses for humanity, who bite and bite and bite and are still hungry. I feel too much, my cells are screaming. They want me to swim in their shit but I’ll show them all!”

You get the idea: the inked ravings of a very disturbed individual. Who has a loaded gun on the table and is anxious for my review. In those days, I was making a habit of hanging out with disturbed individuals; they made me feel a lot better about myself. But now I may die as the result of my self-help therapy.

"So, what'ya think?"

“Well, it’s intense. Vibrant. Alive. You have a gift for getting your thoughts down on paper and the discipline to do so. It’s bit rough, though.”

“What’ya mean, ‘rough’?”

“Uh, well, you need to work on it, smooth out the writing a little, maybe tone down the venom.”

“I like the venom.”

“What can I say? You’re the poet! Go with your instinct.”

“Good advice. Thanks. I really appreciate it. Let’s shoot something.”

“What about the police?” I casually asked in an anxious fit of good sense.

“Don’t worry. They know me.”

Of course.

We went into his yard and dinged some cans. I got out of there as soon as I could. Too much poetry for one night.

Reckless Hollywood by Haynes Lubou (pseud.). Amour Press, 1932
Reckless Hollywood (1932), by the pseudonymous Haynes Lubou, is another Hollywood novel involving extras. “This is a rather sordid and explicit romantic novel about the life of a Hollywood extra, Petty Love...The story follows Love as she discovers the reality of life for a Hollywood extra - next day’s work is contingent upon sleeping with the the assistant director tonight”* (Slide).

No such problem for studio laborers!

Yet around this time I started dating the eldest daughter of a popular film and television comedian of the 1940s-50s. The manly-guy thing was a turn-on for her. She loved that I was a manual laborer. Even more, she enjoyed the fact that I was a filthy mess after work and never wanted me to shower before we got messy together. Apparently, there's b.o. and then there's B.O.

Like Petty Love, I was a pawn of Hollywood tyranny: I wanted to get out of the studio labor racket but it excited my Hollywood scion, and I was trapped in a sordid and explicit struggle between ambition and desire! I suspect, however, that I enjoyed it more than Petty Love.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the weirdest, strangest, bizarre-est Hollywood novel ever penned. It ain’t in Slide’s essential reference, The Hollywood Novel, that’s for sure. The reason it is unknown is that it was originally written as a clandestine erotic manuscript and not openly published until 1969 by a pornographer in a cheap n’ cheesily produced edition.

Hollywood in India by A. de Granamour (Paul Hugo Little).
City of Industry: Collectors Publications (Marvin Miller), 1969

Hollywood in India by A. de Granamour (Paul Hugo Little) is a mammoth, 695-page magnum opus de porn originally written, c. early 1940s, in multi-parts for a private collector. Within, an Indian rajah kidnaps a gaggle of Hollywood’s hottest female stars of the 1930s and 1940s and turns them into his sex-slaves. In the original manuscript, the stars were explicitly identified. In the above volume, its only open edition, their last names were dropped at the suggestion of the dealer who sold the publisher the original manuscript and wisely counseled restraint; many of these ladies were still alive, old, and likely to be more litigious than lascivious.

As a result, it’s fairly easy to ID the slaves in this sub-continental sadist's Delhi dungeon: Paulette Goddard, Evelyn Keyes, Mary Astor, Miriam Hopkins, Ella Raines, Ann Dvorak, etc., including one movie star who would later gain notoriety for her sadistic treatment of her daughter. Yes, there’s something rather piquant, just, and delightfully satisfying about Joan Crawford getting a taste of the lash.

The thrill of dead-end manual labor at the studio was wearing thin. It was time to move on. I had worked with the propmakers, the studio carpenters responsible for constructing virtually everything at the studios not involving masonry, and become friendly with one of the foremen. He was kind to cue me when work was available, I went down to Local 44, I.A.T.S.E., registered, and got a permit to work until I earned my thirty days.

Earthquake, Universal's salute to the entertaining aspects of plate tectonics in a serious snit, was being released very soon, and we were in overdrive to get the speaker systems ready for delivery to the selected theaters across the country that would feature the Sensurround effect of feeling a real trembler while sitting in your seat. We propmakers were responsible for the building the cabinetry for the speakers and electronics.

The Sensurround speaker systems were, essentially, sub-sub woofers the size of double-doored industrial refrigerators. The effect was genuine; these babies shook your bones. After assembly, each speaker had to be tested.

The specs for optimum experience had the viewer dead-center, around four to five feet in front of the speakers. It was pretty intense. But there's intensity and then there's Intensity, and when the intense are intensely seeking intensity, are in their early 'twenties, and just happen to work at a place that is reinventing movie intensity, very intense opportunities come their way.

And so, taking turns, a few of us decided to see just what would happen if we stood directly in front of one of these things, two feet, when it was cranked up to test.

Medina's ears bled. Leon's nose bled. Terry threw up. I, on the other hand, experienced a deep massage - I'm talkin' mitochondria-deep massage - that very soon, within seconds, turned into a mosh-pit party for the sub-atomic particles I call my own. If you'd placed a skeleton in front of the speaker it would have danced a jig before crumbling to dust. I sensed a similar fate for myself and so got the hell out of the way and across the stage. And immediately to a bathroom. Constipation an issue? Get yourself one of these non-ingestible, family-size, insta-evacuation laxatives. That's how I spell relief.

There were 5000 members of Local 44. After four months with only twenty-one days of work, my crack team of financial advisors (my mother, my father) suggested that I seek alternative employment, and loathe though I was to respect their opinion, I shared it: single dollar bills were fleeing my bank account in fear of certain, solitary confinement if they stayed and none of ‘em wanted to be the last dollar remaining, forlorn and alone.

But I learned an enormous amount about carpentry and picked up basic and not so basic skills. I can, for instance, build you a house. As long as you don't have to live in it, the wind doesn't exceed 25 miles an hour, it never rains, and you don't need basic utilities. In short, the illusion of a house.

Fitting, because, at the time I began at the studio, I was an illusion of a man, seeking substance. Hollywood is not the go-to place to find substance but studio manual labor possesses weight, it is real, and there is never any doubt that you've earned your pay. There is no bullshit. I was proud of the way I handled myself and earned respect. And I have never slept better than when I would come home after a very hard, physical day on the backlot or on location and collapse into bed, exhausted, without any inner chatter whatsoever to oppress me.

A few years later, when I began to work on the inside as a development executive and, later, story editor, I found that my head was still in Local 724, Studio Labor. At least once a day, I'd have the strong impulse to slap some ass in a suit upside the head to keep the BS off of me, and assert, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." These guys think they're tough. Pleeeze...

Part One.

* Reckless Hollywood is a rather startling novel in one specific sense. It is the first novel to make explicit references to homosexuality in Hollywood. Even more shocking at the time, the book acknowledges a certain star's need for frequent abortions.

I Should Have Stayed Home image courtesy Kobek

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