Hollywood and Beyond the Infinite
As soon as Johnny clicked the last leg of the card table into place, Ed stepped up and reverently laid the typewriter on its surface. Then they both drew back and gazed solemnly upon it. At long last, the place looked like home again.
They both felt very fortunate to have gotten their old bungalow back. The tenants who had rented their apartment had turned out to be fly-by-nights and snuck off just days after Ed and Johnny’s reunion. The stars must have been favoring the boys just then, for the very next afternoon they dropped by the Hollo-Palm for a jar of pig knuckles and caught wind of this fortuitous turn of events from Louie, who in turn had gotten the skinny from Suzette, and they rushed to the Edna before they’d even paid Louie for the knuckles. They’d spent the previous three nights sleeping in the Nash, and to be able to stretch out on the floor of their old home made them positively giddy.
When they’d busted up Johnny had saved their one good chair and Ed their typewriter. Miriam gave them a toaster for a housewarming present, the Beaumonts a set of dishes, and the McCoys a percolator. Today, a week after moving back in, they’d finally saved up enough to buy a card table and a straight-backed chair at a church sale. Soon they hoped to be able to buy beds and an icebox and thus complete their furnishings. But for the moment they were content to wait. Their operations center was up and running again, and they had plenty of things to hock in a pinch.
“Now we can finally do some real work,” Johnny said.
“Amen, brother!” Ed crowed.
So far they hadn’t done much real work. Typing in the Nash had been all but impossible. And since they’d gotten their old apartment back Ed had had to type either sitting with the typewriter on his lap or lying flat on his stomach on the floor. His back hadn’t hurt so much since they’d picked peaches.
Eager as they were to get to their real work, sadly, a different sort of work intervened. Edna’s cousin Sophie, ever watchful and eager to spread abundance, had found Ed a job at her husband’s brother’s doughnut stand and Johnny one at her sister’s husband’s Pep Boys store. So off to work they went (Edna waving goodbye as proudly as if they were marching to war), but scarcely a minute after getting home that evening Ed planted himself before the typewriter and Johnny began pacing and a new scene from their latest masterwork, Three Men and a Shark, started flying. They nibbled on Spam sandwiches as they worked. Cold Spam sandwiches, as the Muse was calling too insistently for them to waste time frying meat.
After a couple of dozen pages, however, their passion began to wane. They told themselves that they were just tired. After all, draining oil pans and frying French crullers all day was hard work, and they needed their sleep. So they tossed the pages on the stack of other recent inspirations they’d begun and not finished and headed for their rooms.
“No more all-night writing sessions for these boys,” Ed said.
“Not ‘til we score some geetus and quit these lousy jobs,” Johnny said.
“You said it,” Ed said. And with a smile he entered his bedroom. But there was a sadness to his smile, as there was a hollowness to Johnny’s promises of geetus. For neither of them believed that they had any more chance of selling Three Men and a Shark—or Bareback Hump or any of their scripts—than they had of flying to the moon. They tried to make a point of honor of it. “Hell, nobody in this town’s ever gonna have the vision to buy this idea!” one would say. “To hell with ‘em,” the other would say, “we’re writing for the love of writing!” So every night they would write for the love of writing, but somehow every night the fatigue came on a little earlier and the stack of finished pages was a little shorter.
Their one hope of income that did not involve oil, either cooking or motor, was assignment work from the studios. No sooner had they come back together than they’d begun calling around, spreading the word that Movieland’s fastest rewrite team was back in business. Neither of them, in his heart of hearts, was particularly optimistic, but they reassured each other that if the news were to spread half as quickly and ubiquitously as had the rumors of their demise, then sooner or later something must surely come down the pike. And just a few mornings later, their efforts were rewarded.
It was Paulie Affirmato who once again brought the summons. D.F. still needed a rewrite—they’d brought in Larry Hazard of all people, but the bum had completely botched the damn thing—and word that the boys were back together had finally reached Paulie’s ears. He was careful, however, not to mention that D.F. was now positively desperate for the rewrite.
“How long do we have?” Ed said.
“Three days,” Paulie said.
“Impossible,” Johnny said.
Paulie started to walk away.
“Hokay, already!” Ed cried. “We’ll go without sleep but we’ll get it done. Just don’t say Guild minimum again!”
Paulie had turned back toward them as Ed begun to talk, but as Ed concluded, he spun away.
“Jesus, Joseph, and Mary,” Johnny snapped. “Guild minimum it is!”
Paulie turned toward them again, but having gone halfway to his car he didn’t bother retracing his steps.
“But we get a pitch meeting with D.F., right?” Johnny said.
Paulie laughed. The boys had never heard Paulie laugh before. It wasn’t pretty.
“Listen, you fatheads,” he finally said. “This town may have a short memory, but not that short.”
* * *
Before heading out to the Fox lot, the boys insisted upon stopping by their workplaces in order to tender their resignations. It was a glorious moment for each. Ed even snatched a cruller off the cooling rack and popped it in his mouth as he left, silently daring his employer to make a scene. They were still euphoric when Paulie ejected them at the Writers Building, and not even the sight of their old office could quell their spirits. Johnny donned the Tyrolean hat that always greeted them there and Ed pretended to play the rusting accordion.
Then their eyes met, and for just a moment their spirits wavered. Because this time they knew that there would no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Only yes-men in fancy cars and rewrites for lousy musicals set in South America and drunken novelists about to blow deadlines and greenhorns from back East needing someone to show them the ropes and Tyrolean hats and broken accordions. But still, it was writing, and it was money, and there wasn’t a cruller in sight. Ed sat down at the typewriter. Johnny picked up the script. And off they were.
* * *
Two days later, having finished the rewrite a day ahead of time, Johnny came home from a date with Miriam and found Ed reading the Hollywood Reporter.
“Get this,” Ed said, and proceeded to read off some of the nominees for the upcoming Academy Awards.
“Did you say Charles Brackett?” Johnny cried. “They nominated that bum again?”
“That’s nothing. Hecht and Chandler are up again, too! Is that game rigged, or what?”
“I tell you,” Johnny said, shaking his head in disgust. “I’ve about reached the point where if I ever do get nominated I’m liable to spit in their pans.”
“No fooling,” Ed said. “They’ve cheapened the damn thing to the point where it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
A knock sounded at the door.
They froze, but only for an instant. The grime that had yet to scrub off Johnny’s nails and the odor of stale lard that still clung to Ed no matter how often he bathed reminded them that they’d recently been employed and were still financially solvent. Johnny threw open the door and there stood Pop Minsky.
“Ed! Chonny! How good to see my favorite boys!”
The boys thought it was good, too. They shook Pop’s hand and patted his back, careful not to crumple his frail bones. Junior, as usual, had stayed outside in the Pierce-Arrow.
“So,” Pop said when they’d seated him in their one good chair, “I am so happy to hear the rumors were only rumors! My boys are together again!”
“You said it, Pop!” Ed thundered.
“What’s this I see? The Reporter?”
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “We were just reading about the no-account bums the Academy nominated.”
Pop was beaming. “So, my boys feel passionately about the Academy Awards, nu?”
“Hell nu,” Johnny said. “If you ask me, they oughtta do away with the whole thing!”
“Absolutely,” Ed said. “It’s immoral for artists to compete, anyway. How do you qualify art?”
“Yeah!” Johnny said. “Who’s to say Hecht is better than Chandler?”
“I see,” Pop said. “And who’s to say Brackett is better than Ed and Chonny, yes?”
“You got it, Pop!” the boys cried in unison.
“Oh, well, that’s too bad,” Pop said, reaching into this vest and producing a pair of pasteboard rectangles. “Because for the ceremony on Thursday I have extra tickets, and I thought my favorite boys might want to come with. Ann, Tor, and Hugh will all be there, and we’ll miss you. But if you feel so strongly about it…”
“Say, wait a minute,” Johnny said hastily. “We didn’t mean we don’t respect the Academy.”
“Why shoor!” Ed cried. “Just because we occasionally—and I stress the word occasionally—disagree with their selections doesn’t mean we don’t have the utmost respect for those birds.”
“Wonderful! Then Junior and I will pick you up Thursday at five?”
The boys looked at each other. “Are we doing anything else Thursday night?” Ed asked.
“I don’t think so,” Johnny said. “And I hate to make Pop waste his ducats.”
“You’ll also want tickets for your ladyfriends, nu?” Pop asked with a wink.
“Yes!” Johnny yelled.
Ed gave a doleful laugh. Then he said, “Oh, what the hell. I’ll take Suzette. Maybe I can introduce her to some famous make-up artists.”
“Or some famous whores,” Johnny cracked.
Ed snorted. “For that I could introduce her to anybody.”
“But Pop,” Johnny said, “how in hell did you get all these chits to the hottest show in town?”
“When you’ve been around as long as Pop, you get to know a lot of people,” he said. “And sometimes that pays, nu?”
“Calling in a favor you did for somebody in nineteen-ought-three, eh?” Ed grinned.
“Something like that,” Pop said with a wink. He turned to the door, keening, “Thursday at five, boys!” Then he paused and looked back thoughtfully. “You know, boys, our Minsky brought in some pretty nice gelt. Someday, God willing, we should maybe make another one?”
“Sure, you bet, Pop,” Johnny said.
“I can’t see why not,” Ed said.
Then Pop was gone and Johnny said, “You weren’t serious, were you?”
“Hell no!” Ed said. “After what the first Minsky did to our lives, you can even ask?”
“Just making sure you haven’t gone screwy again,” Johnny said. “Damn. Four months ago who’d’ve thought we’d be passing up a chance to make an original?”
“A lot can happen in four months,” Ed said ruefully. “And this Academy Award business. We’re only doing that to be nice to Pop, right?”
“Hell, yeah. I just hope I don’t start snoring during the damn thing.”
“And I hope I don’t laugh too loud when Brackett or Hecht goes up to collect his ugly little statue!”
And they spent the rest of the night deriding the puffed-up Academy and everyone who was fool enough to care about its opinions.
* * *
Ed and Johnny were accustomed to rubbing elbows with the biggest names in Hollywood, but tonight was different. Tonight those names sported their finest finery, their most extravagant coiffures, their most magnificent jewels, their most overpowering perfumes. Cameras reeled and flashbulbs popped. Searchlights crisscrossed the heavens. Newshawks scuttled about, sticking their microphones in unwary faces. People spoke in unnaturally loud voices and the laughter could have issued from a kennel. Ed and Johnny, given the opportunity to reflect, might have felt intimidated for one of the few times in their lives.
But they weren’t given the opportunity. From the moment they arrived in front of the Shrine Auditorium, scrunched into the Pierce-Arrow with Miriam and Suzette and Pop and Junior, they had drawn too much attention. Not from the newspaper and radio hounds, who didn’t come near them, but from actor after actor and director after director and writer after writer. And there was one question on every set of lips: “What are you doing here?” Some asked it politely, some with a sneer, most in simple incredulity (and of course there were those who asked it in a Swedish accent).
At last, after practically everybody who was anybody (and many who weren’t) had asked the same question, the boys found themselves being ushered into the auditorium lobby and toward a small knot of familiar faces. Tor Johnson loomed over them, waving his entire arm vigorously in greeting. Ed and Johnny were stepping up to shake hands with Hugh and Kate when they froze, for they found Ann Savage and her husband fixing their eyes upon them. Then Ann’s face melted into a warm smile and she extended her hand.
“You’re not mad?” Johnny asked.
“At the director who got me to the Academy Awards?” Ann said. “Hell, I’m an actress, aren’t I?”
Now Junior led them up the aisle to their seats. Feeling his spirits rising, Johnny decided to make an impression on Miriam, and whipped her briefly out of the group to meet a barrel-chested man with a mustache and a tight jaw.
“D. F.!” he called. “I guess you loved that rewrite me and Ed just did for you!”
“It was good enough,” Zanuck said guardedly. “But what the hell are you doing here?”
“What a kidder!” Johnny grinned. “I just wanted you to meet Miriam Greenberg, a great gal. Miriam, if I ever said anything against studio executives, D. F. here puts the lie to it all. He’s a swell guy—and a swell Jew!”
Zanuck’s eyes bugged out, but Johnny didn’t notice. Miriam giggled and shook D. F.’s rigid hand, and then they hurried back to catch up to the group, whom they found in a row of seats remarkably close to the stage.
“Wow,” Suzette was saying. “Not bad, for a bunch of nobodies!”
“Speak for yourself,” Ed said, but he chuckled.
“What a screwy mob,” Johnny said as he looked around. “You ever see so many dogs being put on in one place in your life?”
“Like Versailles in the days of Louis Napoleon,” Ed said.
Johnny nudged Miriam and pointed at Harold Russell, sitting just a few rows ahead. “Look at that joker,” he whispered. “Can you believe that ham?”
“Oh!” she said. “That’s the man from The Best Years of Our Lives!” Like nearly everyone else, Miriam had been deeply touched by Russell’s portrayal of a veteran who’d lost his hands in combat and had to learn to live with mechanical hooks in their places. As she watched, he was using those very hooks to help his wife remove her stole. “But why do you think he’s a ham?”
“Look at him,” Johnny snorted. “Who else would come to the Academy Awards in costume?”
He looked around the hall for other targets. Miriam quickly started up a conversation with Greta Johnson.
“Say,” Suzette said. “Isn’t that Errol Flynn?”
Ed tried vainly to make himself smaller.
At last, the ceremony began. Jack Benny cracked wise for a while. Then the awards were given for best film editing, best sound recording, and best writing of an original screenplay, while everybody tried to dissimulate their yawns. Ed entertained himself by trying spot the flashy dames. He spotted Ava and Veronica. He picked out Lana and Claudette and Rita. He waggled his fingers at Myrna and Joan. Johnny pointed out assorted stuffed shirts to Miriam. Tor farted. Ann rolled her eyes. Hugh discreetly breathed through his mouth. Pop beamed. Then they trotted out Hoagy Carmichael to sing Ole Buttermilk Sky. Benny cracked wise some more. Then they awarded the first two of the Special Awards, to Olivier for bringing Henry V to the screen (at which point Johnny asked Ed what happened to the first four installments), and to the kid from The Yearling for outstanding child actor. The little snot made a speech that went on forever and proved to be the only moment of the entire ceremony that succeeded in wiping the grin from Pop’s face. The grin came back when Tom and Jerry won for best cartoon. Jane Russell presented the award for best special effects and her décolletage brought the house down. Then two more Special Awards were given, to Ernst Lubitsch for not having died yet and to Harold Russell for not having hands. Then things became a blur to the boys. This won and that won. Ho hum. They woke up long enough to sneer when Bob Sherwood won for best screenplay. Then their minds drifted again. Finally, Louis Mayer came out.
Mayer stood there for a moment holding a script in front of his barrel-shaped torso, wearing his wire-rimmed glasses and perpetual smirk, looking more self-important than they’d ever seen him. Johnny turned to Ed and stuck the tip of his tongue between his lips in a mute raspberry.
Slowly and portentously, the master of wholesome entertainment began to read. “In our rush to a prosperous tomorrow we must not forget those in the past who have made it possible for us to participate in this wonderful industry we call the movies. Tonight, we honor one of those forefathers.”
“Oh, swell,” Johnny whispered with a roll of his eyes. “I’d rather get thrown off the old fart’s back lot than have to listen to him droning on.”
“I’ve got my eye on the exit, brother,” Ed muttered.
Pop leaned forward in his seat to wink at the boys.
“This pioneer, however,” L.B. continued, “is not one who has been content to rest upon his laurels and gaze into the sunset of days long ago. For this great impresario of the dawning days of this fabled place we know as Hollywood stirred from his rocking chair this past year to produce a new motion picture.”
Johnny mimed falling asleep, but Ed didn’t play along. Ed, in fact, was now sitting bolt upright in his seat.
“Although this unique picture was not widely distributed throughout the nation, I know that many of you in this auditorium tonight have been fortunate enough to see it.”
A ripple of half-suppressed laughter rolled through the hall. Now Johnny sat up just as rigidly as Ed.
“Tonight,” Mayer intoned, lifting an Oscar, “we present a special Academy Award to a man who deserves all our gratitude for his contributions of the past and inspires us all to look forward to the future. Pop Minsky!”
From the orchestra rose the schmaltzy strains of It’s Been a Long, Long Time, and from his seat rose Pop. Slowly he picked his way down the aisle and toward the stage. So slowly did he progress, in fact, that the orchestra completed its song and had to strike up an encore. To Ed and Johnny, the songs seemed to go on forever. They waited for the hall to fill with laughter or jeers, and although they heard nothing but polite applause they found themselves incapable of exhaling. At last Pop reached the dais and took the glittering Oscar from L.B.’s hands. The music ended, the applause died down, and Pop began to speak.
“You are too nice to an old man,” he said. “I’m sorry I have not been able to meet so many of you nice young people, but I’m so happy that you are all doing so well. I want to thank you for this wonderful present, but, you know, this isn’t really for me to do. This Minsky last year, I said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and I paid a little gelt, but who really made it? Pop? Feh! I want you should honor the boys who really brought Pop back from the old days!”
“No,” Ed hissed.
“No no no,” Johnny hissed.
“Come down here, boys!” Pop called in their direction. “This is your moment too, nu?”
A terrible silence settled over the hall. The boys gripped the seats beneath them with whitened fingers. Suzette and Miriam began nudging them. Hugh, Kate, Tor, Greta, Ann, and Bert leaned forward in the seats, gesturing toward them to get up. Faces throughout the auditorium were turning in their direction. But Ed and Johnny would not move.
“These boys of mine, they’re so shy,” Pop said. “Ed! Chonny! Don’t just sit there! Get down here!”
The great fist of Tor Johnson reached across Suzette, twisted itself in Ed’s shirt, and lifted him to his feet. Miriam pushed up hard on Johnny’s arm and he rose to stand beside his partner. The boys waited for the laughs. They waited for the Swedish accents. But what they heard was far more agonizing: silence. The audience sat absolutely still in incredulity and anticipation. No one moved but the orchestra leader at the foot of the stage, conferring hastily with his musicians. Then Miriam pushed Johnny toward the aisle, and he tripped over Tor’s feet and found himself stumbling toward the stage. Miriam started applauding, then Suzette and Tor and Hugh and the rest of their group. Johnny froze and thought of bolting for the exit. But then Ed appeared beside him, and in his eyes was a look that said, “To hell with them. Let’s do this.”
And as they began striding toward the stage, the orchestra began to play Fools Rush In. People laughed. They began to applaud. Then Ed saw something that nearly stopped him in his tracks. Errol Flynn sat on the aisle in a row ahead of him, and he was glaring back savagely. Ed made himself keep walking. Suddenly, Flynn bounded from his seat and made a gesture like a rapier thrust at Ed’s chest. Ed jumped back, nearly knocking Johnny to the floor. But Flynn was grinning. And as Ed walked past him, Flynn gave him a thumbs-up.
Now more people began laughing, but the laughter was nearly drowned out by the mounting applause. Johnny had to help Ed up the stairs, so wobbly were his legs. From the stage, they looked out at the auditorium and saw that most in the audience were grinning, some laughing outright, some looking a bit embarrassed. But still. They were applauding. Everyone was applauding. Even when Preston Sturges cupped his hand around his mouth and yelled, “They have returned!” in a pronounced Swedish accent, the applause never wavered.
“They don’t hate us!” Johnny said.
“They really don’t hate us!” Ed said.
Pop held the Oscar out to them, and Johnny took it. A few feet away, Louis Mayer was doing his best not to blow a blood vessel.
“Twenty years ago I drove your old ass out of this business,” he hissed to Pop. “I should’ve driven it further.”
“Well, for the next few minutes, Louis,” Pop said, “you’ve got to kiss this old ass—and my boys’ too!”
Johnny stood at the dais with the gold statue in his hands and turned to the crowd. He opened his mouth, and the applause quickly subsided. “Criminy,” he said. “I keep expecting this to turn out to be some kind of joke. Like that script me and Ed wrote where the goony girl thinks she’s been made queen of the prom but they dump pig blood on her head!”
Laughter rolled through the crowd. “Tell us another one, Johnny!” someone yelled. Another voice called, “Give us the switcheroo, Ed!”
Ed muscled Johnny out of the way and took the Oscar. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he boomed. “Members of the Academy and motion picture lovers of America. There were those who doubted us when we undertook the making of this film. But even in the darkest hours, we…”
Suddenly he felt hands pressing into his back and realized Mayer was pushing him away from the microphone. The orchestra swung into My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time. Pop took Ed’s sleeve and gently tugged him toward the wings, and Johnny followed.
“Geez, Pop,” Johnny said. “I wish you’d told us about this before!”
“And what would you have thought if Pop did?”
Ed frowned. “I’d have said you were senile and stayed home.”
“Ha!” Johnny laughed. “I hope Horses was listening to this on the radio!”
“I’ll bet that mug wishes he’d directed this movie now!” Ed grinned.
“So, I’m glad my boys had such a nice time,” Pop said. “Now I think maybe we should be back to our friends?”
“I guess so,” Johnny said. “But boy, I don’t know if I can sit still!”
“You head on out, Pop,” Ed said. “We’ll catch up to you in a few minutes!”
“I’ll tell you who wins the big awards,” Pop said.
“Yeah, I can’t wait to hear if The Best Years of Our Lives wins Best Picture,” Johnny said, and blew a raspberry.
After Pop left, Ed realized he was still holding the Oscar. “I guess we should give this back to Pop,” he said sadly.
“Aw, he won’t miss it for a few minutes.”
They’d wandered to a fire exit, and Ed threw the door open. They stepped out onto the fire escape, looking out at the searchlights that still swung back and forth and beyond them the lights of houses and streets and the tall buildings of downtown Los Angeles in the distance. And beyond them the stars. Ed set the statuette on the railing to admire it, then Johnny picked it up and lifted it into the sky, making rocket noises with his mouth.
“You know, I was thinking,” Ed said. “Maybe making another Minsky wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.”
“After all this publicity, I’ll bet Pop could scrape up a little more geetus for production values,” Johnny said.
“Why shoor,” Ed said. “We could do a sequel. My Nightcap with the Exterminator, we could call it. And we could get in a lot more fancy shots. Like Tor could turn to water and flow under a door.”
“To hell with sequels!” Johnny said, looking up into the starry sky. “We can shoot the moon! We can do something like we’ve never even imagined before!”
“Yeah! We can really make our subject man, like Saroyan said!” Ed roared. “We can…”
But he broke off. He’d seen the look on Johnny’s face. The parted lips, the glazed eyes, the odd tilt to his head. And he knew it was time to shut his trap and get out of the way.
“Men!” Johnny cried. “But not just any men. Cave men! They find this big thing, see, like a giant rock…"
“And it’s putting out these screwy sounds, see, and all of a sudden they evolve and it’s the future and these space ships are whirling toward the moon!”
“And long-hair music is playing! Waltzes! By Levi Strauss!”
“And they fly to Jupiter where there’s another one of these things, and they’re going so fast that the stars look like blurry lights! The fastest speed in the universe!”
“The speed of sound!”
“But we don’t hire Shorty for the lights.”
“Hell no. Or Chinaski to make the spaceships.”
“Hell no! We hire real artists! Union members!”
“And at the end we see…what do we see, Johnny? I see something, but I don’t know what I see!”
Johnny gazed into the heavens. Ed gazed with him. Then, very softly, Johnny said, “An egg.”
“An egg!” Ed cried. “Floating through space! It’s the mystery of the ages!”
Johnny raised the Oscar aloft. “It’s the greatest movie of all time! It’s where our careers were meant to go!”
Ed snatched the Oscar out of his hand. He spread his arms as if to encompass the entire city and sky before them. “To the infinite!” he boomed. “And beyond!”