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Girl of My Dreams
By Peter Davis
Open Road DistributionCopyright © 2014 Peter Davis
All rights reserved.
Joey Ankles the Lot
Picture a time when left was right and right was wrong.
Picture this, a man who looks like a boy perched on a motorcycle at the top of a palisade above the ocean, his face empty as if he doesn't quite know what he is supposed to do next.
This is what happened when I was in my twenties in the Thirties, a story of wilting bloom. We came, we wished, we dined out on promise. Seeing that tumultuous dawn break over us like a great wave, who could know if we'd be borne on it toward a gleaming new world or drowned in its foaming fury? Compared to Joan Crawford or Marlene Dietrich, Palmyra Millevoix was a fresh breeze rippling through aspens. Compared to the Big Strike in San Francisco, Hollywood's guild wars were milkshakes. Compared to the Communist Party, Jubilee Pictures was anarchy itself. Compared to the Depression, our salaries were not merely astronomical but pornographic. Let's turn one of those around: compared to Palmyra Millevoix—Pammy, which she disdained but accepted—Greta Garbo was a fraud. Into the dungeon wild dropped our Pammy, sorceress of undisclosed fantasies, while I, slave to regard, was shackled to the keep's lowest rung.
Here comes Palmyra's brother-in-law, the stuntman Joey Jouet, only to be yanked off, a reminder of what could happen in that time and the cause of my being funneled into his sister-in-law's sphere. He serves, too, as a warning of Mossy's carelessness. Yes, I knew Amos Zangwill, knew him before the war. He was different then.
In those days Mossy kept a lackey he used as a hatchet wielder. Dunster Clapp was the reptile, a remittance man from the east eager to bulge his trust fund by enrolling as a toady at Jubilee. It was a fetish with him to take orders from the strong and pass them along to the weak and dependent. You could see it in his face: pampered, dishonest, cold but also scared. He was gleeful when carrying out orders.
Cutting costs, on Saturday afternoon Clapp had told Joey Jouet, a Jubilee employee and therefore supplicant in these hard times, that he was having too many accidents and had to get off the lot. Clapp fired half a dozen other studio workers that day. When Jouet was summoned he was at Victorville on location in a costume epic where he was mortally wounded in several sword duels and a fall from a castle parapet. He performed these stunts flawlessly. He had expected to be in Victorville another ten days. Stunned, he didn't feel he could go straight home with this news. He picked up his Ariel motorcycle at the studio and drove it to a motor court in Hollywood. What could he tell his wife, unable to design and decorate sets because she was home now taking care of their two small daughters? Could he go to Mossy Zangwill? What a joke!
Joey Jouet was the kind of Hollywood worker who loved every minute of his job. Loved perfecting a leap into thin air, a dueling technique, a plunge through a window so the star wouldn't be the one to get hurt. He was enthralled at the way a plot sprang to life as real actors and fake buildings were thrust into service to the story. Joey studied other jobs on the set besides his own—the grip, the gaffer, the decorator. It wasn't a matter of aspiration; remarkably for Hollywood, Joey had very little actual ambition. What this curly-haired eager young man had was love of how movies were made.
He had run off from his bad home in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, not to Hollywood but to Ringling Brothers. He joined the circus at fifteen and by paying attention to the performers when he wasn't cleaning lion and elephant cages, Joey was able to become an acrobat in three years. He was too careful to be a great acrobat, and he was also not particularly theatrical. He enjoyed the sensation of floating—just being free of his childhood home was a form of weightlessness—but he wasn't fond of repeating the same act again and again. He saw too much cruelty to the animals and too much among the people, the man who dove fifty feet into the shallow pool whipping the unicycle rider with a chain, the lion tamer running off with the wife of the fire-eater. In those days numberless kids were beaten by numberless fathers, and Joey had had his fill of brutality in Shawnee Mission. Nor was applause, which the clowns and other acrobats gulped, important to Joey. The winter he turned twenty, when the circus headed back to Sarasota, Joey went in the other direction. He found his true home and vocation in pictures.
By the time he was twenty-five, Joey was every assistant director's favorite stunt double. When I knew him he was thirty or so, regularly working with cameramen to design his own stunts. His curls were naturally blond, those of an innocent five-year-old, but he was often wigged depending on whom he had to absorb a sock in the jaw for. While Mossy Zangwill was pushing, dragging, ordaining Jubilee's rise from a Poverty Row studio to the status of what Variety called a Minor-Major, Joey Jouet was taking falls in some of Mossy's big action pictures. He'd done such a good job in Fugitives from Folsom they let Joey keep the Ariel motorcycle he'd ridden.
I saw him a few times keenly combing a set where I, a junior writer, had been dispatched to help with a few lines of dialogue. The rest comes from the police record. And Pammy.
Ever eager to please, with innocent boyish features to mock his thin mustache of a stock villain, Joey Jouet, taker of falls for everyone from Doug Fairbanks (Sr. and Jr.) to Trent Amberlyn to Jimmy Cagney, paused his Ariel on the hill at the top of Chautauqua Boulevard that bright Sunday in the spring of 1934. I suppose he readied himself. Surveyed the scene, panning in effect from the Santa Monica mountains around and down over the ocean and out to where Catalina Island lay, visible in those smogless days. I wait for him at the bottom of the hill, as if Jouet's destiny were in the future, still to be played out. As if Mossy Zangwill could change course, or Pammy Millevoix could.
Of all human faculties memory is the most insistent yet also the most fallible. Since I am not among the legions of the formerly famous, I have neither scores to settle nor apologies to pour like syrup over the damage I caused in bygone days. Oh, I may have changed a few names of people whose grandchildren now run things and could want me for a quick rewrite. But essentially this is what happened, my stupendous renegade recollection. Let my chronicles of mortification stand. Hooray for Hollywood.
Unable to believe at first that Jubilee Pictures would let him go, Joey had called another of Mossy Zangwill's henchmen, the production chief Seaton Hackley, from the motor court where he spent Saturday night after coming in from Victorville. Hackley was known as a troubleshooter; sometimes he could modify decisions even if he couldn't reverse them, cushion blows even if he couldn't prevent them. "This must be a mistake, what Dunster Clapp told me," Joey said to Seaton Hackley. "Can't you fix it?"
"No can do, Joey," said Hackley, hanging up.
Joey fitted the goggles over his eyes, adjusted the strap around his curls and started rolling, then hurtling, down Chautauqua, a steep grade. He might have been an aviator. When he slowed at the bottom of the incline, after looking up the coast toward Malibu, he turned down toward the Pier a mile away. He was on the winding beach road, already a narrow thoroughfare that people rushed along in their roadsters, a slender hint of its later proclamation as the Pacific Coast Highway. Joey halted quickly. By the side of the road he knew someone. Mervyn Galant's Hispano Suiza had a puncture!
Joey asked the washed-up silents director if he needed help. As always, Galant hid his shame beneath a stream of words. "Bet your life I do, gave the chauffeur the day off, say I know you, didn't you handle a chariot for Freddy Niblo in Ben Hur, you worked in one of my pictures too, did a wingwalk for me in Maisie Flies Over the Moon, didn't you." It wasn't a question and by this time Joey had the Hispano Suiza jacked up. In five minutes he had replaced the wire-spoked flat tire with the spare and heard Galant—as the old has been himself later reported—offer him a job. "Son, no question there's work for you on my next picture. Where you serving now, Metro?"
A loud report made Joey jump, a passing car's backfire. "No," Joey said, "I've been at Jubilee." "Jubilee?" Galant arched his famous hedgerow brows. "Heap of work on that lot, isn't there?" "Yesterday," Joey said, "was my last day." "Sorry to hear it, son. Zangwill's a viper, all right." "Yes, Mr. Galant," Joey allowed before he was off again.
In seconds he covered the mile to the Santa Monica Pier and passed under the half-moon sign offering sportfishing. I suspect Mervyn Galant's job offer was ironic to Joey but not bitterly so. I suspect he was thinking about his ten-thousand-dollar life insurance policy. Jubilee would hire someone's cheaper nephew or cousin who was agile and had been laid off by a carnival or circus. The Depression was closing marginal circuses that were unable to do enough business to feed the animals, dumping acrobats onto the tight stuntman market.
Once, on a set between takes, Joey saw a woman drawing a kitchen with two stoves. Shyly, he asked why two. She told him if he looked at the script he'd see it called for two stoves for the different dishes the cavalry would be fed when they paused at the outpost. Why not forget the stoves and have two large pots sitting over the fire in the fireplace the carpenters have already built, he suggested. The set designer took this to the producer since no one consulted directors on program Westerns, and the producer was pleased to save the money. Within days the saucy designer-decorator Elise Millevoix and the modest Joey Jouet were a sweet item on the set of Cheyenne Sharpshooters. Though a set designer was a number of rungs above a stuntman on the studio ladder, and Elise Millevoix had a star for a sister, Joey added a glow to any space he occupied.
No one on the Pier was disturbed when Joey rode his motorcycle the length of it, careful to dodge the Sunday strollers who came out from downtown on streetcars. A few of the vendors waved, recognizing the stuntman who had leaped from piers in several movies. "Hey Joey," the dwarf who ran the bumper cars shouted, "King Vidor send you down here to get ready for a cop chase?" The man who sold cotton candy told his customer, "They darken Joey Jouet's hair he can look like Walter Huston, Bruce Cabot, anybody, if he's going fast enough. Probably practicing for a New York shot at Coney Island. His wife does something too. Her sister's Palmyra Millevoix. Connections."
Joey pulled up at the end of the Pier as if he were reining in a horse. The cotton candy man said he saw Jouet placing something on the railing at the end of the Pier. On the cycle, Joey returned as far as the carousel, and it looked as though he were leaving the Pier. He spun around, racing the Ariel's engine before he roared out toward the end, vigilant about avoiding so many parents with their small children.
STUDIO DAREDEVIL IN FINAL STUNT was the headline in Hearst's Examiner. The story said that Joey Jouet, brother-in-law of Jubilee Pictures's brightest star, Palmyra Millevoix, had put up a ramp out of planks used to repair the floor of the Santa Monica Pier, then launched himself as though from a ski lift far out into the ocean, which swallowed him and his motorcycle so fast the stuntman could never have heard the throngs on the Pier begin to scream. Jouet had been driven to suicide, the Examiner went on to declare, by the Reds, who wouldn't let him alone after he briefly joined and then quit the Party. The Los Angeles Times, sounding its own alarm, claimed that Joey, newly unemployed due to belt-tightening at Jubilee Pictures, was a casualty of the Depression Franklin D. Roosevelt was making even worse with his socialistic policies. Variety wrote that Joseph Cayson Jouet, champion of stuntmen, was a shining example of the truism that the good die young. "A victim of Hollywood," the reporter wrote, "where 1934 is proving you're up one day and sunk low the next, Joey Jouet perished, paradoxically, mimicking one of his masterful stunts, driven into the Pacific by no one's screenplay but his own. The whole town sends sympathies to his widow and toddlers."
That was when Pammy called me. Would I compose (she used that word, as if she were asking for a song) a few lines about Joey for her to say at the funeral? We had met twice, once at a writers' cocktail party. She had listened attentively to the host; writers love that. She said now she needed to be with her sister and nieces all day and night, and she was too overcome to think. "Poor Joey, poor Elise, poor little girls never to know their generous adoring father." Shocked, I said it would be an honor to do anything to help. Was she favoring me by asking a favor because she'd heard I'd been assigned to A Doll's House? "You're such a consummate dear, Owen," she said, "I am so désolée." And so I went off those planks, too. The surf that covered Joey Jouet soaked us all.
The funeral was held on Jubilee's Stage Three, a red rose garland the size of a wheelbarrow decked in front of the casket. With a few exceptions, nobody who was anybody was there: a stuntman after all. Stuntmen themselves, technicians, and set designers were scattered in folding chairs; a sprinkling of assistant producers showed up. Mossy Zangwill gave the eulogy, blunting criticism of the studio for having laid off Joey the day before his death. He called Joey Jubilee's own daring young man on the flying trapeze. "We couldn't exist without men like Joey," he said. "You can't make pictures without excitement. You can't have excitement without stunts, and stunts can't happen without stuntmen. Joe was the best, and we'll miss him more than he'll ever know."
No one even whispered—why, if he was the best, was Joey Jouet fired?
In the front row, her tears flowing freely, Joey's widow, Elise Millevoix Jouet, held both her small daughters in her lap. The daughters dazed, the mother inconsolable. I didn't know yet how inconsolable. Palmyra was too upset to say the sentences I'd written and went right to music. Her voice cracked on the word "wretch" in Amazing Grace. It took less than twenty minutes to turn Stage Three back into the set for Prelude to Murder, for which I'd written a couple of scenes, changing the killer from the conductor to the flutist but keeping the victim in place beneath the cribbage table.
Mossy left alone everyone with the rank of assistant producer or above; all technical workers who attended Joey's funeral were docked a half day's pay.CHAPTER 2
The Palmyra Millevoix Booster
Years earlier, on seeing Pammy's first test, Sam Goldwyn said she couldn't act, wasn't beautiful enough, and would make people nervous. "God's sake, I've seen happier statues. Never blinks. Who the hell she think she is, Queen Victoria?" (Which Goldwyn pronounced Bictodia.) He also thought Pammy's features were too fine and too collected, like Jimmy Cagney's, toward the center of her face. Passable in Cagney, impossible in a woman. An MGM cameraman came to her rescue, discerning it was only her regal forehead that made Pammy's features seem low, and he knew how to deal with that. Actresses, especially those past thirty, like to be shot from above so audiences can't see neck wrinkles or any hint of jowls. Palmyra, still in her twenties when she first came out to be tested, was actually in need of the opposite treatment since she had no wrinkles at all. The MGM cameraman suggested, just before what was to be her second and last test, that she be shot to indulge her features from slightly below her chinline, less like a heroine, more like a goddess. In person, even with several Hollywood years behind her, Palmyra was still so unscathed by makeup and miscasting that eyes flew naturally to her as if she were a nest and the rest of us lost sparrows looking for home.
One afternoon in 1933, Mossy had called me to his office to order press releases on Pammy, the first singing star who was both composer and actress. He didn't like the valentines that Jubilee's publicity department was churning out so he'd see what a junior screenwriter might come up with. When I met Miss Millevoix she wasn't in the negligee female stars affected in their bungalows. She wore a dowdy polkadot housedress and was playing checkers with her six-year-old daughter Millicent. Millie's first look at me was a scowl. Her mother glanced up and smiled.
"Three games of checkers, Millie!" Palmyra said. "You'll be beating me by the time you're, well, eight, no nine, when you're nine you'll be three kings up on me before I get one. You know you will." A reluctant grin sneaked onto Millie's face. "Costanza?" Palmyra summoned, and a tidy Filipina emerged from the next room. "Time to take Millie home." The frown that returned to Millie outlasted her mother's hug and almost became tears when Costanza had her out the door. She stuck her tongue out at me.
Excerpted from Girl of My Dreams by Peter Davis. Copyright © 2014 Peter Davis. Excerpted by permission of Open Road Distribution.
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