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Laugh as You Die
28 March, 2005
When the oldish man reached a shaking hand towards the ringing telephone which rested on the bedside table, somewhere, in a dim corner of his fuddled mind, another bell rang a shrill warning.
He nestled the receiver against a throbbing ear, and through a barrier of buzzing noises, echoing as though in an empty skull, a sharp voice spoke - a voice so familiar, that it roused once more all his doubts about the sanity of human relations. His eyes began to blink, as they darted around the hotel room, in the corners of which reeked the obscene odorous of his failure as a man, and as a writer. Weakly, he grunted: “Yes?”
“Hello, Al,” the voice rasped, “hawse it feel this morning? Mind quite dead? Or kicking a little still, like a dying mule? Or maybe the morn in russet mantle clad is gleaming over the tops of yon high eastern bottles? Shakespeare. Who says I’m uneducated? But Al, Al, you promised, you son-of-a-bitch! You said you were going to lay off for good. You said there’s no place like home. Where is it, Al, where is it? The boys are singing your hymns, and only I’m left to sing your dirge. Come on, Al , strike a few chords on that typewriter - or are you too flat? Wake up, you lousy bastard, and put your teeth in, and shake those skinny buttocks into dressing. I want you at the office in an hour, before I blow the candle out. Othello. Who says I’m uneducated?” The telephone went dead, almost as dead as the man on the bed, who picked a bottle off the floor and drank the first part of his breakfast.
Thirty minutes later Albert Mortimer was reasonably dressed. The last gulp of whisky had added magic to his fingers and his tie was perfectly knotted. His brain was now alert. He knew he was going to the electric chair, but he was determined to sit with a flourish. He stopped the taxi outside a favourite bar, and after two Dutch drinks, directed the driver to the Studio.
Al sat in the over-decored office of his tormentor, and could not muster a single literary thought with which to boost his morale. Something of Milton struggled to scan in his mind, but it sounded like Latin, and Al was right out of Latin at that moment.
Sol berg looked at his fingers; gnarled and grubby, the square nails highly polished. His double chins overflowed a tight white collar, his lower lip hung limply, as if trying to escape from his pursuing nose.
“We’ve loved you for a long time, Al. We’ve given you the milk of human kindness, boy, but that’s not the kind of milk you like! Oh no! You must suck on Bourbon bottles, like the sweet little baby you are. And baby must have his morning bottle, and his afternoon feed, and just before going beddy-byes, his last little bottle to rub against his cheek, through the long, dreary night. You’re making the manufacturers of America’s booze rich, buddy, but you’re making me poor!”
Al stirred in his electric chair. A nerve twitched in his left temple, and his hands were clammy. He rubbed the palms against his trousers, and decided that he must make a final effort. He looked up, and met with a twinge of fear, a steady gaze from those hooded eyes, behind which he sensed the gloomy silence of an empty synagogue, the temple now of his appeal.
“Mr Berg, I’ve tried my best to give you what you wanted. I wrote the screenplay from a novel for a film which you produced, and it got an Oscar nomination. You once said I was an original screenplay writer. You said all I needed was one great chance to prove myself. You said-”
Mr Berg interrupted, a wet smile parting his thick lips. “Yeah, like the one in which this Lootenant gets fixed with a Japanese girl in Manila, only she really comes from Macao. Actually she’s a refugee from Hong Kong. Only that the Lootenant has been drafted, but he’s a writer after all, and The New York Times gets him out of the army, so that he can become a foreign correspondent and get killed in Vietnam. And when we get into first conference, it turns out you had been to see Love is a Many Splendoured Thing, only you were too damned drunk to notice!”
“No, no, no,” Mortimer protested, “this is the real thing. It’s truly great. It’ll make a grand movie. I haven’t worked out all the angles yet, but give me time, Mr Berg, please give me time. It’ll have everything!”
He waited. It came.
“Everything, Al, except you. Listen, I wanted a script for a sweet, smelly movie, and you’ve played the dirty on me. Me, your Boss, your Sugar Daddy! Look, Mickey Mouse made animated cartoons just to show up Walt Disney as a phony ham, trying to be funny about ducks and mice. You’re trying to do the same to me! Why? I’ve worked hard to make the worst movies in the business, and they’ve paid, boy, they’ve paid. When I took over this Studio it was a barn, Look at it now!”
Mortimer looked at it inwardly and shuddered. Forty years of Old Sol Berg,, the Wonder kid. 30 movies. 3 Oscars. Wow!
“Now you won’t help me keep up the standard,” the Wonder Kid continued. “Why, lover? Haven’t I done everything in my power to destroy any talent you might have had, before you hit Hollywood, and Hollywood hit back, and make a rich screen-writer out of you? Now you’re trying to destroy me. Is this gratitude?”
Mortimer rose and went to the bar, poured himself a stiff whisky, and drained the glass in two gulps.
“Gee, Al, that was great. What have they put inside you for lining, asbestos?”
Mortimer returned to his chair, which suddenly felt less electric. He was relaxed now, and ready for anything. He knew Mr Berg would probably fire him. Perhaps he already had. Perhaps, as he picked up his hat in the cloakroom downstairs, he would also pick up his last cheque at the front office. He was being retained at Five Thousand Dollars a month, and for three months past - nothing, not even the ghost of an idea. Three months spent cozily in his nest of loving bottles. And poor Thelma, doing bit parts for Television. But twenty years ago, in The Dark Moon, and with Van Johnson in Tomorrow is Good-bye, she had been right on top of the bill. Oh Thelma, Thelma, I could write then, and baby, you could act anyone off the screen! Bette had said - “I consider Thelma Norton the versatile actress of the day, really tragic, in tragic roles”. And then, Thelma, what happened? To you? I suppose the affair with Bill Duke. To me? Well, just Baby and Me, and Johnny Walker makes three, we’re going to my - Blue Hell!
“Look, Mr Berg, I’ve never asked you for favours, but I’m asking you now. Give me a last chance - Please?”
Mr Berg looked at the big square diamond on one of his fat fingers. It reminded him of the uselessness of all his possessions: Third wife, Third house, Third car, Third ulcer, and, Al Mortimer. He was being implored, he was in a tight corner. he couldn’t let Mortimer go now, not yet. He considered his victim’s plight, and there rumbled from his stomach a gentle, rich, belch.
”Now Al, haven’t I done you favours in the past?”
“Mr Berg, please. Must we go over all that again?”
“Let me refresh your faded memory with one little incident. One tiny indiscretion - the movie house episode, which was, to use a British word, sordid. You put your baby-drunk hand up her dress, fine. It’s the only way to see a lousy movie. But you did it with the usher’s torch on both of you. The Torch of Liberty, as you later quipped, exposing a libertine. And it was a movie you had written. And when the manager arrived on the scene, you stood up, fell flat, stood up again, and declaimed: “I’m Al Mortimer. I wrote this ghastly film for Sol Berg, the Iceberg, and I wish to get the hell outta here!” Don’t make me laugh, Al. Just because Hedda Hopper likes you, don’t make me laugh!”
Now Al was alert. His time had almost come. Nothing mattered any more except to hit back, just once, at this great big slob, who had used him over the years, and was now prepared to throw him into the ash-can.
“Listen, you, you,” he spluttered. Mr Berg held up a warning arm, and the fingers of his hand were clenched. “Hold it, Al, hold it.” The words had formed in his mind and were almost on his lips - Get out, you’re fired! But he checked himself. Mortimer’s tortured sense of suffering communicated something to him. He felt submerged in an ocean of time. Thousands and thousands of years on which he floated, always in fear of being sucked down. He heard the wailing of his ancestors, going back to Abraham. His hooded eyes became moist, and his nose drooped, in obeisance to the superiority of his race. Shall I put this man too on a cross? he thought.
Before Mr Berg could make up his mind, a sleek executive slid nervously into the room, his moribund eyes pathetic behind large horn-rime glasses, his thin lips parted in a professional smile, his body rigid in its close-fitting expensive suit, his whole bearing explicit of One Who Failed a Screen Test, and slept his way to the Executive Suite. His whisky-sour look, and Dior cologne, revealed the revels of the previous night, spent with a fiftyish, grasping, deodorized, freckled, panting, faded actress, who solicited reluctant orgasms, at so many dollars a time.
“Big B,” the executive effused, holding a sheaf of telegrams in a dramatic hand, “it’s a hit, we’ve made it, it’s a wow! Listen to this from New York”. He began to read, in precise diction, recalling his failed screen test:
“LAUGH AS YOU DIE HAILED BY CRITICS THIS MORNING AS A MOVIE WITH A DEFERENCE STOP SAM MINKELHEIMER RANKS DIRECTOR SPOTSKY WITH EARLY KAZAN STOP SPECIAL KUDOS FOR WRITER MORTIMER DESCRIBED BY MORNING COMET AS AMONG TOP HOLLYWOOD SCREENWRITERS STOP BOOKING AGENTS CLAMORING FOR BOOKINGS STOP ON THE WAY TO MUSIC HALL STOP PREPARE FULL TREATMENT PUBLICITY FOR EAST COAST STOP FEELING JUST GREAT.”
“Have you ever heard Karl explode like this?”
Mr Berg unclenched his fist, and looked at Al Mortimer across the table, wearing his what-are-the-glories-of-this-world? expression.
“You see, Al,” Mr Berg began, contemplating again his fat fingers, “as I was saying, - life has a way of coming up with surprises. Laugh as You Die had all the qualities of a money making B movie. But you had to go and inject a Social Message into it. And Clearance here reports it’s a hit. O.K. Social Messages and Mortimer are in. Old Sol Berg and his Box of Tricks are out! But I shall still strut and fret my hour upon the stage Shakespeare. O.K. Now run along Al, and celebrate. We need you son, we need you real bad. Call on Accounts, Al, and take an advance. I’m just going to tell them to change your financial standing and status in this goddammed Studio. I’m going to make it good Al, real good.”
When Al reached the Silver Moon Bar, he was glowing with the happiness which comes to a man who has a thousand dollars to spend until oblivion overtakes him. He telephoned Thelma and told her the good news. Then he telephoned for yellow roses to be delivered to her apartment. Then he sent out for the newspapers, and settled himself in a corner with a bottle of the best Scotch.
It was past six in the evening when Al walked unsteadily out of the Silver Moon Bar. He hesitated on the pavement. Thelma was waiting. She would be special at dinner - like the good old days. They would play their new roles perfectly professionally, and make plans for a future which was not to be. No, Al would never make that dinner with Thelma Norton. Laugh as You Die was the end of the line. Perhaps he realized this. Perhaps he had begun to laugh, quietly, alcoholically, when he stepped off the curb, and was sent spinning across the street by a speeding taxicab.
He was not to know, as he lay unconscious in the hospital, a few moments before the lights went low, and life, like an old silent movie, flickered out, that Sol Berg cried like a baby, and had to be given a tranquilizer.