'The Old Star'

by Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— Stephanie 'Stevie' Garroch, 32, and Kelly Humber, 30, are lovers and actors contracted to Redoubtable Films Inc, a 'B' film Poverty Row movie studio located in Hollywood and New York in the 1930's. A veteran silent film actor proves to have life in him yet.

Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2018 to the author. All characters, film companies, and film titles, in this story are fictional; and any resemblance to real companies, or real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Caution:— There is some swearing in this story.

—O—

"—'Parade's End', by Ford Madox Ford? It'd cost at least a cool million, Buddie, probably more; or haven't ya figured that out yet?" Stevie Garroch calling it like it is, in the Hollywood office of Redoubtable's producer, Buddie Brannigan. "What's the largest amount we ever spent on any of our serials, or single films? No, don't interrupt, I know; near $400,000, for those two Range War movies set in the 1880's; and they was a flop that dam' near bankrupted us."

"And we'd need at least one big star." Kelly Humber, co-actor and Stevie's love interest, put her red cent's-worth in, because she was like that. "I mean, someone the public knows an' loves, loaned from one of the major Studios. Stevie an' me couldn't carry a major film like 'Parade's End'; we ain't got the chutzpah; or the hold on the Public that'd bring 'em in to hit the seats, in the numbers we'd need to turn a profit."

"Probably two, maybe even three, big names." Stevie twisting the knife, as was her wont. "Someone like Mary Pickford, or Douglas Fairbanks, or Victor McLaglen; they'd be people the Public'd react to."

"They'd cost a hundred thousand each, as ya dam' well know." Buddie, chomping on one of his famously foul cigars as he sat behind his desk. "Over an' above everything else. D'ya know, I sort'a mentioned this idea t'Morgan—ya know Harry Morgan, the head of the Stage-Worker's Union?; he works as a carpenter here. Well, without mentioning any names, I sort'a brought the subject up, an' right off he stood back an' started talkin' about special rates."

"Special rates? How, where, when?" Kelly, simpering gently, just to annoy.

"Don't come the innocent with me, young lady." Buddie, rising as ever to the bait. "When was the last time anyone called you innocent, anyway? Twenty year ago, if not more."

"Hey, cut it with the personalities, if ya don't want me t'up an' get hotter'n a Valkyrie on the rampage." Stevie, protecting her own. "An' who was your last girlfriend, may I ask, Buddie? A Gibson Girl?"

"Ho, very funny." Buddie chomped some more, looking daggers; but, as the women well knew from long experience, these were always blunt and inoffensive. "T'return t'the subject at hand—Morgan more or less said that fer a flick of this level—ostentatious, in fact, was the word he used, right t'my face,—he'd need the whole work-crew on pretty near double wages fer the whole run o'production."

"Jee-sas." From Kelly, dumbstruck.

"Jey-suus, b-gg-r that." From a more forthright Stevie, taking no prisoners.

"Yeah, well, so ya can both forget Ford Madox fer the foreseeable future." Buddie, having demolished his cigar, paused to eject the remains into a rubbish bin by his left foot. "So, y'll both be on tenterhooks t'know what our next block-buster's gon'na be?"

The quiet pause initiated by this idiotic remark lasted all of two seconds, before Kelly got her breath back enough to reply.

"Har, Redoubtable's never had a blockbuster in it's entire history, as ya well know, clever-clogs."

"Yeah," Stevie coming to the aid of her inamorata. "We churn out second-rate pulp; serials fer the children's Saturday mornin' matinee's; an' Westerns an' gangster movies made on such a thin shoestring Kelly an' I are forever scared o'coming a cropper with every dam' film we make."

Buddie meanwhile, as this diatribe poisoned the air in his office, had been fiddling idly with two files, easily recognisable to his visitors as typewritten film scripts. These he now pushed across his desk, with a flourish.

"There they are, scripts of the next production—'Pollyanna's New Doll's House'."

"What!" Kelly, absolutely stunned.

"What!" Stevie, following in her partner's astonished wake.

"Ha, jest jokin', gals." Buddie, wreathed in a wide grin at the success of his little ploy. "Keep yer boots on; it's actually 'Jim Holden; The 'Roscoe' Kid'. As fine a gangster flick as has ever been made. I've read the script, an' I like the script; probably turn out better'n that piece o'Cagney's, 'The Public Enemy'."

"In your dreams." Stevie, never impressed by the level of scripts produced by the Company. "Who wrote the dam' thing?"

"The Writer's Office, over on North Curson." Buddie, having the politeness to look slightly ashamed. "Well, it's good, anyways."

"Nuthin' Redoubtable ever gets is good, as good goes." Kelly putting into words the reality of Life.

Redoubtable Studios embraced the rather dubious position of being what was described as a Poverty Row studio; meaning that it produced small films, on small budgets, with small stars. In fact the studio production standards were so cheap and low they looked the fact on screen; the budgets allocated to each film only just covered production and salaries, at rock-bottom rates; and the stars were hardly ever stars as such, merely jobbing second-rate actors who had never made it to the big-time; or were former big names now proceeding in the other direction, after their hey-day was over.

Stevie Garroch and her lover Kelly Humber were in a slightly better position than other Poverty Row actors because they actually owned a large percentage of the studio's shares, and could therefore make their own rules, within reason. But still it was a cheap studio, making cheap movies, as by necessity bound.

"So, who've ya penciled in fer the major part?" Stevie being sarcastic, a bad habit she had never yet been able to break. "I takin' it as said y'ain't gon'na put me or Kel in the limelight?"

"Ha-ha."

Buddie, a long-time friend of both—though it wouldn't have been noticeable from their everyday conversation—knew perfectly well about the two women's romantic partnership. These things were never mentioned publicly in Hollywood, but were recognized as facts by all those in the know, nonetheless. All that was required was that a low profile be kept in public, and they could go about their lives more or less unhampered. Buddie Brannigan, going against the sound and fury of his own bravado and braggadocio, was open-minded and accepting of these kinds of moral standpoints; taking the women as they were, privately proud to be called a real friend by both.

"Waal, first, I thought Henry Vanbarry would be good—"

"He's a top-class actor; what made ya think he'd moonlight fer Redoubtable?" Kelly curling a disdainful lip. "I'm losing faith in yer ability by the second, Buddie. Vanbarry wouldn't ever lower himself this far."

"Hey, don't make our show seem like it's a run-down carnival." Stevie having pride in her work.

"Sorry."

"Doesn't matter, anyways." Buddie waxing philosophical. "I was jest about t'put my request in writing t'him, when I read 'Variety' an' found Classic had corraled him fer this new pirate film they're doin'."

"Huh."

"So, then I picked over the idee of grabbing Duke Donnegan—"

"Donnegan?" Kelly couldn't keep her opposition quiet to this suggestion. "Wasn't it Florrie Gatehead, the critic, in 'Film Digest', who famously compared him to a six-foot block of teak, an' decided the teak had greater personality an' acting capability?"

"Yeah," Stevie putting her two-cents in with relish. "he may make tens o'thousands in salaries, an' even bigger profits, fer each film he does; but no-one'd ever say he could actually act—not act, as such, within the meanin' o'the term."

"Easy, gals," Buddie sneering in his turn. "Don't get your undergarments in a twist; Association Productions grabbed him out from under me, t'do some tear-jerker drama about life down at the docks in NY. So he's out."

"Wiil ya just cut the crap, an' tell us who the hell's in, Buddie?" Kelly rapidly losing the will to live. "Time's awastin', an' I at least have fans I wan'na impress with my stunning performances in the future."

"Yeah, if y'ever get around t'makin' this dam' film, who's it gon'na star?" Stevie coldly sneering down her nose, as near Garbo's style as she could manage at short notice. "Suppose Kel an' I are on the usual percentage an' straight salary? How much are ya thinkin' o'shellin' out fer whoever makes the bad choice o'acceptin' yer advances?"

"Thirty-five thousand dollars is my top line; wild horses havin' no chance o'changin' my mind on that score." When it came to the low-down in flinging money around Buddie knew when to stop. "Not that I mean t'spit that line out first time. No, I aims t'charm him first-off with twenty-thousand, an' see if the dope grabs that. Oh, Lonnie Williams, by the way."

There was a long pause, as both Stevie and Kelly ran the list of available actors over in their minds. Kelly being first to admit defeat.

"Williams? Never heard o'him." She scratched her chin, looking to her partner for help. "You heard o'him, dear? What was his last film?"

"—'Barnstormers at Sea', it was a silent comedy, made in nineteen twenty-four." Buddie gazing fixedly at the two women sitting across his desk, fearing the worst—and he wasn't wrong to do so.

"A silent?" Stevie could hardly believe her ears, sitting bolt upright. "A silent? Eleven years ago—that bein', what, the Stone Age? What's the jerk done since?"

"Yeah, dam' the silents, what's he been in where we can hear him speak?" Kelly suddenly harbouring strange doubts. "He ain't got one o'those thin squeaky voices, has he? Make him sound like an early phonograph record? Come on, spit it out."

Sighing deeply, but facing up to the task like a general in front of his troops, Buddie bit the bullet and came out with it.

"Well, to be truthful, he ain't made a film since then." He chewed morosely on the remnants of his cigar, unlit. "I did try'n grab several other names, y'know. But the trouble with names is, they got ego's, an' what they likes t'refer to, all snarky the while, as principles an' a wish t'carry on their actin' careers—Redoubtable, it seems, not bein' a step in the right direction fer 'em, thataways, apparently."

"Bunch o'Boston c-ck—s-ckers." Kelly, being real mean, showing her white fangs as she did so.

"Ttch, ttch." Buddie not really shocked, he having known Kelly for nearly fifteen years. "Anyways, in the end, I trawled round the usual suspects, but they'd all gone on holiday, were workin' already, or declined t'answer the door or phone when called on. End result, I was sittin' eatin' lunch at the Magnificent-Goldberry-Michaelson commissary a few days ago, an' who did I spot, havin' a light salad over in a dark corner? Lonnie Williams, by all that's Holy. Lonnie havin' been a childhood hero o'mine, if'n ye must know. He was great in Cowboys; he was wonderful in Thrillers; he was splendid in Police Dramas; he filled the bill in Comedies; Hell, he was jest great."

Another pause wafted through the office, like the Dust of Ages actually making a personal appearance and giving of its best the whiles.

"That was then, Buddie, this is now; tenth o'July, nineteen thirty-five." Stevie sighing sadly, exactly like the Lady of Shalot. "Silents was silents; they was, er, silent, y'realise? No sound, no talkin', gun-bangs nor car noises or explosions—; silent, as in the grave t'which they've all since bin unlovingly consigned, if'n y'aready hadn't realised the same. Any o'them still around? Can we corral a copy o'one from somewhere, some film vault, somewhere's? Jest t'run on our own account, an' get an idee o'what like he was?"

From the Producers glum expression it was glaringly obvious before he opened his mouth what the answer was going to be, and the women weren't disappointed.

"I tried, dam' I tried." He flung his battered cigar in the bin by his left leg. "I tried the Studio he'd made most o'them fer; but it went West in the Crash o'Twenty-nine. I tried the Studio he'd made his last efforts fer, but they too had gone bust; seems their stock, all silents, was gathered up, an' taken t'the nearest dump. Then I tried several other Studios, more or less at random, t'see if anybody had a copy o'any o'them; hidden out'ta sight by mistake, y'understand? But nuthin'; far as I can make out every dam' one o'his films is hors-de-combat, no longer available, gone t'the great film vault in the sky, in short extinct. An' he made, conservatively, aroun' seventy-five; gets me, where the dam' they all disappeared to—they can't all'a bin destroyed, every copy, stands ter reason; but where they might be hidin's more'n I can tell."

"What fer ya took him on, then?" Kelly looking at the realistic aspect, rather coldly. "An old used-up actor, who made his last movie eleven years ago, when the good old silents ruled? What makes ya think he'll be any good in a modern sound movie?"

"Say, how old's this relic from the past, Buddie?" Stevie running with something that had just occurred to her. "Seventy? Eighty? Does he get about in a wheelchair, or what?"

"Ooh, that ain't nice, gal," Buddie really offended. "have a heart; he ain't no older than me. Well, he is actually, but that ain't the point. The point is he's got some of a reputation, an' a known career in the movies—"

"Silents aren't the movies; silents were the movies—now they're jest history." Kelly, covering valiantly for Stevie's unconsidered remark, tried another tack. "Who'd come t'see him in a modern-day drama? Where's his audience pull comin' from? Frankly, who'll remember him?"

"Well, I did, fer one." Buddie standing up for himself and his hero.

"One doesn't make an audience, Buddie." Stevie coming back with a bang. "I think ye'll find all the accountants are as one in that view. Your fifty cents at the box-office ain't gon'na swing the movie in'ta profit."

"Hah, very sarcastic." Buddie beginning to get riled for real. "In his time he was famous; more famous than either o'you two have managed so far, may I say. He was an A-grade star in his time. People went to his movies, silent though they were. He had pulling-power; and as far as I'm concerned he's still viable. Anyways, the contract was signed yesterday, if you must know. Am I Producer fer this here Company, or ain't I?"

Faced with this fait accompli Stevie and Kelly exchanged glances, shrugged their shoulders in unison, then returned their, rather sad, gaze to the man across the desk; who, present circumstances notwithstanding, they did trust completely.

"Buddie, Buddie," Stevie sighing yet again. "When's the cameras gon'na roll, then? Suppose Kel an' I can fiddle our schedules an' make a short appearance on the set, jest t'show willing."

"Dam' straight, leddy." The Producer taking no lip from the mere actors, as was only duly right and proper. "Remember, I got your contracts, too. Everything starts fallin' apart next Monday; so be there in all yer frills, ready t'trip the light fantastic, like always."

The women got up from their chairs, determined to go out fighting.

"That's nice, considerin' Kel n' I own a third o'the shares in this heap o'dust an' collapsin' scenery that calls itself a Film Studio." Kelly turning up a nose which already had a certain quaint perkiness to it. "Got the, ha-ha, scripts fer us?"

"Mean, mean; bitin' the hand that feeds yer both—or somethin'." Buddie grabbed a couple of files on his desk and passed them over. "There they be, an' a better movie ye'll have t'walk t'New York t'find, if I says so myself. It'll be the making of you both. The Big Time'll beckon after this, mark my words. Probably be a resurrection fer Lonnie, too, all things considered. Y'both leavin' now? Is resurrection quite the right word, by the way?"

"Retaliation, more like." Stevie still suffering under a dark cloud.

"Probably renaissance, is what yer mind's scrabbling after, old timer." Kelly being sardonic because she felt like it.

"There's the door, leddies, y'both know how t'use a door-knob now, don't yer?"

While Kelly performed this intricate action Stevie made a pithy remark over her shoulder, as the women left the exalted presence.

"Oooh, that was real mean." Buddie pausing to snigger to himself in the latest silence to envelop him and his office. "Gods, lady actors, why ain't there a Law a'ginst sich?"

—O—

The Redoubtable Studio stages and offices were located on the outskirts of Hollywood, California; though they had a smaller establishment in New York, too. Most of the studio's Western serials and films, as well as gangster films, were made in California, while the police procedurals and true-life dramas were made in New York. Stevie and Kelly having a small two-seater bi-plane of their own, they could fly between the two locations much more easily than by road, train, or regular air-travel. At the moment they were in Hollywood, doing a number of episodes of a serial and a couple of free-standing films, of which the latest was 'The Roscoe Kid'; its title having been shortened in a general tightening of the script over the three days the ladies had cognisance of such.

What Buddie had given them was Script A; what they received by special messenger the next afternoon was script B; what they were given, by a harassed drone of the Studio the morning following was script C; what they received on arrival at Redoubtable Studios' main gate in their shared car on the first day of shooting was script D; the first thing they saw on entering the main stage on the lot being a group of sweating writers, huddled like mice in a dark corner, obviously going over the script, preparatory to revealing script E. At this final hurdle Kelly lost what little remained of her cool.

"No chance o'learnin' our dam' lines, as usual, Stevie." She shaking her head in disgust as they penetrated further into the dark shadowy noisy warehouse of a building. "Where's the Director? Who is the dam' Director, by the way, dear? Forgot t'ask."

"Charlie Englehart,—did that drama with Claudette Colbert jest under a year since." Stevie always having these esoteric details to hand.

"Huh, what's he doin' workin' fer us for, then?" Kelly, trying to sneer like a prima-donna, and failing. "Come down in the world, has he? Lost all his money in a stock market crash nobody told me about, or what?"

"Jest earning pocket-money, is all; friend o'Buddie's, it seems. Probably use a pseudonym fer his on-screen credit, like they do." Stevie put a hand on her paramour's shoulder to steer her past a pile of loose electrical cable lying across the concrete floor. "Mind yer step, some o'these bloody cables is definitely plugged inter the juice, yer know. Don't want our best star fried t'a crisp, do we?"

Reaching the set, a large hall-like room apparently half-paneled in wood with castle-like arches for room-doors, they met both the Director and the main star standing talking while mayhem went on around them—the usual state of a film-set in preparation.

"Hi'ya, boys, here we are then. Mr Englehart, Mr Williams." Stevie doing the introductions. "This here's my partner an' pal Kelly Humber—I'm Stevie Garroch."

"Nice t'meet ya both, ladies." Charles Englehart stood five feet eleven in his socks; was lithe of build, lean of face, with a thick head of dark hair and an engaging smile. "What d'ya think of the script, then? A pretty good film'll come of it, I fancy."

"Don't know, do we, Mr Englehart." Kelly making her position plain from the start. "None of us've actually seen the bloody final script yet, have we?"

The fact that both women were carrying the latest previous edition in their hands as Kelly spoke, and the fact that Englehart's even earlier copy lay on a collapsible canvas chair a few feet away, threw him for a moment; then he caught the drift of Kelly's humour.

"Ah, yeah, ah, well." He looked about, as if hoping to conjure one of the errant writers out of the flickering shadows all round. "These things are never quite, er, quite, are they? But it'll be another coupl'a hours yet before we actually get down t'filming; so plenty o'time for them to come up trumps. Your seats is over there, beyond the sound recorders; meb'be you an' Lonnie can get t'know each other in the, er, interim; afore ya get dressed-up. Someone'll let you know when we're ready."

With this he strode off, to be quickly lost sight of on the dark stage, obviously going about some arcane Directorial business of his own. Stevie, meantime, waving Lonnie Williams to accompany her and Kelly to the provided corner where they could sit in relative safety away from the main comings and goings.

"Buddie told me about you a coupl'a days since, Mr Williams." Stevie started off the conversation as they all settled on the uncomfortable seats. "But neither Kel here, not I, has any real idee of your, ah, career."

"Meanin' you've never heard o'me before?" Lonnie seemed not much put out by this remark. "Why would you have, t'tell the truth. Last picture I starred in was back in 'twenty-four; a comedy that sank without trace, even before the demise of the silents as a whole."

Kelly ran her sharp eye over the man as she sat beside him. What she saw was someone around sixty years of age, but carrying it well. He was not overweight in any way, a couple of inches shorter than Englehart; with more rounded features, and a laid-back easy come, easy go kind of manner.

"Buddie said you apparently had, er, a great following, in your day?" She blushed a little, glad the darkness all round hid this. "Made some fine movies, I'm told?"

"But you ain't seen any o'them," Lonnie nodded his head with a rueful smile. "because they was all silents; and as such, is now harder t'find or see than a unicorn's horn. Talkies didn't just kill the silents, they annihilated 'em, like the prehistoric monsters of olden days. Y'know, I'm a close friend of Theda Bara, yet I ain't seen one of her films in years, because they just ain't available anymore. I've never understood why both, silent an' talkie, can't simply exist t'gether, beside each other?"

"Progress, Mr Williams." Stevie hit the mark first time. "Got'ta keep forgin' ahead in this great country of our'n. Keepin' the silents would be jest standin' still, don't ya see? Cain't have that; no Progress in jest idly standin' on the street corner watchin' the traffic go by."

Kelly, noticing the hunched shoulders and gloomy expression of someone lost in memories, took up the reins of the argument.

"So, what d'ya think o'steppin' in front of the cameras in a sound movie?" She glanced around at the confusion surrounding the trio in the echoing warehouse-like stage. "If you want any advice I'd say, jest don't shout your lines; the microphones is pretty good these days."

"An' don't worry about the fishing-rod things that soar over yer head during each scene, holding said microphones." Stevie nodded knowingly. "They can't be seen in the finished product—or, at least, not most o'the time."

"The which's a'movin' along, as it is." Kelly taking notice of reality. "Better get t'our dressing-rooms, an' get togged up fer the dance, eh? See ya on set, Mr Williams."

"Call me Lonnie, please." Williams smiled as they all rose to their feet. "And may I call you Stevie and Kelly?"

"In 'course, Lonnie."

"Charmed, I'm sure, Lonnie."

—O—

The action on the set of Redoubtable's 'The Roscoe Kid' progressed on its way in the same manner as any higher class movie, from one of the larger Studios, would; namely, an hour and a half's preparation, followed by ten minutes filming; then another long wait till the next set-up was ready: the director and main camera-man being happy if each day supplied six or eight usable minutes of film—though several reels of back-up scenes or worthless bloopers would also have made their usual appearance. And the hours were long, there not being any Union for film-actors strong enough to oppose the Front Offices of the major concerns, or the little, come to that. So a working day could often last from nine in the morning till at least the same in the evening; making films being a very tiring business indeed, for all concerned. And those who weren't passing out from exhaustion in front of the cameras, were quietly developing ulcers from anxiety and stress behind the devilish machines; the death rate for Producers and Directors being an ever-continuing blot on the film industry's scutcheon; not to mention the poor writers—but, then again, nobody ever did mention or take much concern over such a low form of Life.

Redoubtable, though, had the benefit of a well-oiled permanent team working together like a military unit. Through years of producing genre movies each technician knew exactly what was required, and when. So things tended to go rather more smoothly, and faster, than one might expect. A good Director, who could control and organise the breathing semi-tame creature that was a film-stage, keeping things moving, was also an advantage; and Charles Englehart was just this sort of Being.

He made his philosophy public around an hour after the stage had sprung to life, when Stevie and Kelly had returned to the set in costume ready for the first scene.

"OK, people, listen up." His voice had just that level of tenor sharpness which echoed like a ship's foghorn in an enclosed space. "What we got in our sticky mitts presently is the sixth, dammit, draft of the dam' script. An' I'm here t'tell ya all this is the last dam' draft. I've told the bloody writers t'b-gg-r off back t'the commissary, an' not dare t'show their heads agin till the dam' flick's through. So, Stevie, Kelly, Lonnie, what y'have now's the finished script; try'n learn at least some o'it; an' if that's too difficult, jest make it up as y'go along—no-one'll notice, t'any great extent. OK, positions, lights, sound, let's get this show on the road."

—O—

"Aatchoo."

The first warning sign of problems to come.

Englehart, early in the afternoon of the first day's shoot, paused to wipe his nose with a violently red and green striped handkerchief; shook his head thoroughly; put out a hand to steady himself against a packing-case top beside him; looked around the dim shadowy stage as if searching for something; then put his head down and got back to business.

"Set-up ready?"

"Yeah, boss."

"Sound? Sound, dammit?"

"Yea—er, yeah, boss, speed."

"Cameras?"

"Rollin'."

"OK,—Action."

And Kelly uttered the first words of Scene Four—

"Listen Holden, ya dimwit, what's the—"

"Aatchoo." Englehart seemingly as surprised as anyone at the interruption. "Keep rollin', dammit. Keep goin' Kelly."

A brief pause while Kelly retraced her steps to her starting position, then—

"Listen, Holden, ya dimwit, what's the meanin' o'comin' stampedin' in here, like a herd o'cattle? I thin—"

"Aatchoo." Englehart threw down his script in a rage. "What in hell's wrong with me. Cut; cut, fer Chr-st's sake. Sorry, Kelly, I feel sor—aatchoo. Oh, sh-t."

Bringing his large handkerchief back into action, waving it in front of his face like a surrender flag in a war zone, Englehart blew his nose like a battleship firing its main armament; then sat down in his canvas chair, puffing slightly as if just having finished a two mile race.

"Jeez, I feel as weak as a kitten. Someone get me a dose o'salts, or somethin'."

—O—

"Influenza?"

"Yep."

"Jee-sus."

"That about covers it, yeah."

A reverberating silence echoed in the small office, like a multi-storey building collapsing in the centre of a city.

"Influenza?"

"Listen, Buddie, this's where me an' my gal here came in." Stevie took control of the rapidly deteriorating situation. "Yeah, influenza; ya know, a bad cold."

"Bad cold be dammed." Brannigan was up for this pathetic attempt to smooth over the bumps. "Doc Carter sez it's full-blown Spanish 'Flu; dam' miracle Englehart ain't infected anyone else, apparently—at least as far as Carter can tell, yet. You feelin' quite the thing, today, Stevie-Kel? Lonnie?"

"Jeez, we're all fine, stop grouchin'." Kelly pooh-poohing this worry in its cradle. "Englehart ain't, though; he's dam' well near Death's door, I'm told by Carter."

"So, he's off the picture, is what yer sayin'?" Buddie facing the worst scenario like a hero. "We got'ta get ourselves another Director, an' fast?"

"That's the whole thing in a nutshell, Buddie." Stevie lowering the corners of her mouth as they all considered this problem. "Got anyone t'hand?"

"Just off the phone with Foster Whitelock's agent—nuthin' doin'; he's over on the Continent, doin' an adventure flick with Georgia Morgan."

"How's about Mike Durham?" This helpful suggestion from Kelly.

"Broke his leg ski-ing in Aspen, six weeks since."

"Ski-ing?" Stevie made a rude noise. "It's the middle o'Summer?"

"That was his story." Buddie's tone giving his feelings away. "Who'm I t'argue?"

"Can't y'get Al Farnham?" Kelly searching in the dark recesses of memory for Directors she'd worked with previously. "He's a good general man."

"He would be, if anyone in Hollywood could find the sun-uva-b-tch." Buddie snarling like a serval that had just missed the bus. "Can anyone find him, I ask's yer? No, no-one cain't, includin' me."

"Think he's heard o'the tragic news a'ready? "Stevie nodding understandingly. "An' as a result, is lying low till the heat's off?"

"Dam' straight." Brannigan nodding in his turn, disgusted with Director's who had better things to do than work for Redoubtable. "Sun-uva-b-tch."

"Maybe I could lend a hand?" Lonnie Williams, sitting on the third chair in the office, elbowing into the conversation for the first time. "I've done a bit of Directin' myself."

The empty pause succeeding this announcement exceeded all others before it; Stevie afterwards opining she could actually hear Time grinding on its natural courses, and the true Music of the Spheres in their several orbits: though, of course, Kelly never gave this idiot opinion any credit.

"You've directed?" Buddie dropping the unlit cigar from his dry lips in astonishment. "Y'have? What? Where? When? An', who?"

Lonnie laughed gently, looking at the amazement etched on the faces of all three of his companions.

"Yeah, I've been behind the lens on several occasions." He ran a finger over his chin, sorting out his repertoire in order. "The last three Andy Harris movies, I was Second-Director on 'em. You know, filming the outside shots; the cars drivin' along the country roads; some o'the stunts, an' that sort'a thing. Coupl'a years ago I was Second on Henry King's 'Golden Warrior'—"

"Jeez, that got a Oscar." Kelly, mighty impressed.

"Yeah; then I more or less ghost-directed 'Moonlight Voyage', with Bettie Marsden. Cal Jennings comin' down with a nasty case o'the screamin' heebie-jeebies, y'know, three days in'ta filming. Rotgut moonshine doin' that t'a fellow, eventual, y'see."

Brannigan, Kelly, and Stevie sat looking on the old-time actor with a new respect; almost with that same wonder stout Cortez had stared at the Pacific, on that famous peak in Darien. Brannigan was first to find his voice once more.

"You've been hidin' your light under a bushel, haven't ya, buster? I never knew anythin' o'this."

"How come we've never seen your name in lights, in the credits?" Kelly lifting an enquiring eyebrow.

"Hah." Williams none put out. "Whenever did ya ever see a Second-Director's name in lights?"

"That's true." Stevie bravely facing reality.

"All in all I've been enjoyin' a fair career, lately." Lonnie smiling quietly at the impression he'd made. "Steady work behind the cameras; not much publicity, true, but quite well known to a certain coterie, all the same. Lots o'work thataway; I just took this actin' job in a quiet period, an' t'help Buddie here. If you wants, I could take over the Directin' reins o'this movie, an' see it through till you find another Director? Wouldn't be any trouble, an' I think I can safely promise good results."

Brannigan, though slow to make a judgement, all the same knew which side his bread was buttered.

"T'hell with another Director; you're it, fer the duration." Buddie reached an arm across his desk to grip the hand of the old actor. "Seems like we can take you at your word; you're the main Dirctor for the film, as of now. I'll bring in Chester Garrat t'take your place as main character; he's free at the moment, an' a dam' good actor t'boot: he's been in several of our films, previous. Go to it, Lonnie, an' good luck."

"Does this mean his name's gon'na be up in lights, Buddie?" Stevie pin-pointing the important aspect.

"Sure does, on all the billboards, an' at the start of the picture, too." Buddie now happily back in Producer mode, where he belonged. "So, what in hell's keepin' y'all yappin' here? There's a picture waitin' t'be made, out at the sound stage; get over there an' get movin; yer losin' the light as it is. I guarantee t'have Chester on set in, oh, an hour an' a half, tops."

"Sure thing, Buddie." Stevie bright as a spark.

"Rein it in there, Buddie, we're on our way." Kelly grinning like a Cheshire cat.

"Thanks, Buddie." Lonnie smiling happily.

—O—

'The Roscoe Kid's premier, as with all Poverty Row studios, didn't happen as such: it just went out on circuit hugger-mugger as always. But those in the know spotted its potential, and general superiority over most of its class-mates, immediately. Within a week of its first showing in New York, Washington, the Virginias' and Carolinas', its impact reverberated around Redoubtable Studios' East Coast main lot, just outside the NY city limits. And a few days later, after showing in Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon, Buddie Brannigan's telephone began ringing wholesale; so much so he had to borrow another secretary from Front Office to keep up with the flow.

Kelly and Stevie naturally dropped in later that day to chew the cud, and find out how their latest effort was doing in Main Street, Everywhere-County, USA.

"What?" From an astounded Stevie.

"You got'ta be jokin'?" Kelly simply unbelieving.

"Yep, sure as peanuts." Buddie savouring the happiest day of his Producing career. "Twenty-seven theatre's, so far, have rung in beggin' t'let 'em extend the movie's run fer another coupl'a weeks, meb'be longer."

"Well, I'll be dammed." Stevie, now as awestruck as her partner.

"That ain't all." Buddie grinning from ear to ear as he sprang his big surprise. "I've been havin' my ears busted by Producers from all corners; they're all after Lonnie Willams. Seems his directin' style's hit it big with the filmin' community. Cahenga-Jullienne are askin' t'buy his contract at a price that'll knock yer both in'ta the middle o'next week, fer one."

Kelly, having an accounting kind of a mind, couldn't restrain herself.

"How much is much, laddie? Come on, make me cry."

So Buddie told her, and she dam' near did.

—O—

The next few days were some of the most hectic of Brannigan's career; several Producers from respectable Studios were hot on the trail of the latest whizz-kid of the lens', offering all sorts of deals to grab him for themselves. In the end it came down to three major studios and Brannigan called a meeting of the main shareholders to discuss tactics. These shareholders being, of course, Stevie and Kelly, as well as himself. The Bank of Western California, holding a fair handful of shares also, was represented by a balding small weak-looking individual who could best be described as an accountant, Henry Casillis by name.

"Well, ladies an' gent, we got ourselves a real nice picnic t'feast on, here." Buddie revelling in it, as was his due right. "This here's Mr Henry Casillis, from the Bank, ladies, by the way."

Stevie and Kelly gave the ineffectual-looking man a wary nod in greeting; well knowing how powerful a grasp the Bank obtained over Redoubtable Studios daily activity, which lay almost all in the future credit system. Then Buddie got down to brass tacks.

"What we have here is a plethora of choices." He loving to wax lyrical when opportunity offered. "We have, in fact, got the legendary Golden Goose in our hot little hands—in the shape of Lonnie Williams, if you'll all excuse the crass description."

"Williams, never heard o'the guy." Mr Casillis showing for the first time he was a force to be reckoned with. "Who is he? How'd he come t'helm one of our films, an' what qualifications does he have?"

Neither the ladies nor Buddie quite relishing the accountant taking personal credit for the films of the company so easily Buddie went on the attack.

"He's a long established movie actor, Mr Casillis." He affected a faint note of irony, dangerous as he knew such to be with a Bank Front Office sap. "A long list of fine films behind him. Lately he's been making a name for himself in contemporary films; we here at Redoubtable, in fact, have been mighty lucky to put him under contract for the next year—which is how his contract stands at the present time. But that's what we have to discuss; who to sell his contract to, and whether that'd be the best policy, fer us. Any questions?"

"Who're the main players?" Kelly coming to the nitty-gritty without shame or hesitation.

"First there's Cahenga-Jullienne, they got in first, but their preliminary offers' bin overtaken by events since." Buddie shuffling through several loose typewritten sheets on his desk. "Then there's Magnificent-Goldberry-Michaelson; they've offered a very respectable amount—see here."

He passed a couple of sheets of paper over to the women and Casillis, all of whom studied the figures intently. Stevie finally whistling loudly, as showing her astonishment at the totals.

"Jeez, they really want the guy an' no mistake, don't they?"

"Seems that way, Stevie, yeah." Buddie chomped some more on his unlit cigar, happy as a lark. "Reg'lar gold-mine, in fact. Did ya all see what Cariola-Comprehensive are laying on the line fer Williams' favours? That there bein' a mighty significant amount o'dollars in anybody's eye, I'm thinkin',—eh, Mr Casillis?"

Exhorted thus to give an opinion Casillis first attempted his usual accountants' grim neutrality—but finding his three spectators' lips were beginning to quiver in a decidely ironic manner, he gave up the pretence and came down to an almost human level.

"Yes, that is, indeed, a very fine total." He essayed what was probably meant to be a smile but which, with so little practice over the years, only appeared like a crack in a plaster wall after an earthquake. "If I was asked I'd say Comprehensive's offer was the best all round. My decision, er, bending in their direction."

As everyone else's opinion paralleled his the meeting quickly broke up, after various documents had been signed, in a very satisfactory manner indeed.

"So, what's to do meanwhile?" Kelly asking this after Casillis had left, leaving them in triumphant occupation of Buddies' office by themselves. "You gon'na get on the phone an' give Williams the good news from Ghent?"

"Yeah, I'll do that right now." Buddie still revelling in his good fortune. "Y'both realise the money Comprehensive are offering'll set Redoubtable up in movies fer the next year? Almost as if we'd be makin' them all fer free, then raking in the profits afterwards fer no up-front payment. Profit all the way, y'might say."

"That salient fact had not escaped me nor Kel here." Stevie accepting the future financial foundation of the Studio with a light heart. "Maybe it'll allow of your spreading yourself an' giving some productions enough expences t'actually make something artistic fer a change?"

"Jeez," Buddie seeing which way the wind blew like the next guy. "Ye're not back on that 'Parade's End' clip again, are you? Oh, God."

"Why not?" Kelly backing her lover like a trooper. "Good book; good author; big kudus fer the Studio that makes the dam' movie; where's t'go wrong? All it'll need is a good script, a good Director, good actors; an', oh, suppose we can find a good Producer somewhere's if'n we search hard enough."

"Oh, very funny." Buddie sneered with intent. "Mighty fine o'ye t'ignore me so, ha-ha, comprehensively—hee-hee."

Both Stevie and Kelly paused to snigger at this witticism from the growling victim of their gentle mockery.

"That was a great joke, Buddie." Kelly coming in ahead of her lover in the repartee stakes. "Almost on a level with the Marx Brothers; y'gon'na corral them fer our next Comedy? Can Stevie an' I co-star? I've always wanted t'work with Groucho, an' I know Stevie harbours a secret passion fer Harpo."

From long experience Buddie was up for this back and forth with the best.

"Listen, you dolls, Redoubtable's got it made fer the next upcomin' fiscal year at least." He always having an eye on the accounts. "We ain't never been in better shape. In fact, I wouldn't say as something along the lines o' 'Parade's End' wasn't on the books—but ya can cut the Marx Brothers, I know my limits."

"Oh, phooey." From Kelly, her girlish hopes dashed.

"Probably fer the best; I got'ta feelin' workin' with the Marx Brothers'd turn out something like workin' in a madhouse." Stevie facing reality unflinchingly. "So, if ya decide t'come up with the moidores fer a good film, who're ya goin' t'helm it with? Englehart's still on his beam ends with the flu."

"But Williams ain't." Buddie springing his surprise hidden artillery. "He's bounding around like a six year old colt. You both seem to have forgotten we have him under contract for the next year; and even if we come to an agreement with Cariola-Comprehensive it'll still be some three or four months or so before we have t'let him go. See what I'm gettin' at?"

And, indeed, the ladies did see.

"Whee-hee, Balenciaga here I come." Kelly visualising her perfect dream outfit.

"Duesenburg fer me, doll. Red an' cream, I thinks." Stevie giving free rein to up-scaling her car needs.

"Jee-sus, an' the main contracts ain't been signed, yet. Jeez." Buddie utterly overwhelmed by such determined spending desires.

The End

—O—

The next 'Redoubtable Studios' story will be along shortly.

—OOO—