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 The Pierce-Arrow Stalled, and ...
a short story by Kim Newman

...rolled a dozen yards, then settled into dusty ruts. North of San Luis Obispo, the coast road was primitive, many sections still unpaved. As the wheel wrenched in his hands, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle felt the engine under the sleek hood choke and die. Long as a truck, the Pierce-Arrow was newly-delivered, a $25,000 custom-built toy with full bar and solid silver accessories. 'Of course the car's four times the size of anyone else's,' he'd explained, 'I'm four times as big as the average guy.'

The jolt woke up Lowell Sherman. In jauntily rude tones, the actor said, 'These special jobs are less reliable than factory models. All the attention to fripperies means essentials, like wheels and engines, get neglected.'

The motor strangled again. 'She won't turn over,' he complained.

Fischbach, the other passenger, slumped gloomily against thousand-dollar upholstery. The director, a last-minute addition to the expedition, had been fidgety ever since they left Los Angeles.

'There are no coyotes out here, are there?' Fischbach asked.

For a minute, they just sat. After four hours, the leather seats were hot and greasy as fresh-fried bacon. Roscoe felt a layer of gritty sweat between his bulk and his clothes; fat was his fortune, but it literally weighed him down. He tried again, turning the key with deliberate smoothness. The engine didn't even choke.

They were many miles from the nearest town. Here, where the desert met the sea, there was nothing. They hadn't seen another automobile for nearly an hour.

He opened his door and squeezed out. His belly hung like an anvil from his spine, pulling him towards the dirt as he bent over the hood. Fishbach and Sherman stood around. The metal catch seared his fat fingers. As the hood sprang up, bad-tasting smoke belched. If this were one of his features, his face would be blacked like a minstrel's.

'Looks like we won't be making the party in San Francisco,' said Sherman. Roscoe had to agree.

Fischbach muttered, as if he'd known the trip would end in disaster.

By 1921, Hollywood was generally conceded to be Sodom and Gomorrah re-erected among orange groves. Now America was dry, the attention of the professionally moral was drawn to the last bastion of sin, motion pictures. There was confusion in pulpit and editorial as to whether the vociferously condemned immorality was found on the screen in the heated embraces of Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres in The Sheik, or at wild parties hosted by the stars, where passions were reputed to be even more heated. The true cause of censorious ire was indeed the off-screen activities of young men and women who, thanks to a new-made art, were the idols of youth. But, short of reviving the ducking-stool and public stocks, little could be done to regulate the behaviour of private citizens in private pools and palaces. Thus the voice of anger was raised against the movies themselves; sermon and column inch insisted Hollywood must clean up its act. However sixty million Americans liked their pictures just the way they were.

To the rapt masses, who violated the Volstead Act as regularly as they purchased picture show tickets, Nita Naldi could display as many inches of above-the-knee skin as she wished; Mr Hyde could be as horrible as it was possible for John Barrymore to make him; and Cecil B. DeMille would be remiss were his camera to stay outside the doors of the bedrooms and bathrooms where the most interesting moments of his films invariably took place. But even those who paid rapt attention to sheets slipping from the shoulders of the Talmadge sisters tutted over each fresh scandal: the suicide (in Paris!) of starlet Olive Thomas, reputedly in despair over her husband's devotion to cocaine; the marriage of Charlie Chaplin to a pregnant sixteen-year-old; the quickie divorce of Mary Pickford and her hasty remarriage to a more important leading man, Douglas Fairbanks. In 1917, Los Angeles passed an ordinance providing for the censorship of motion pictures according to the whims of a council appointed by the city's political machine. Though never enforced, this precedent raised the spectre, deeply feared by studio heads who knew outside regulation would hurt their wallets, of a national body constituted by federal government to pass judgment on the content of films. Costly scenes would have to be reshot, exciting storylines would have to be toned down, expensive footage would have to be jettisoned.

In the summer of 1921, Adolph Zukor, president of Paramount Pictures, convened a meeting attended by Jesse L. Lasky, Lewis Selznick, Louis B. Mayer, Marcus Loew, William Fox and Samuel Goldwyn. It was decided the solution was that the industry itself fund and operate a self-regulatory body with an unimpeachably moral figurehead. Through attorney Charles Pettijohn, the moguls approached Will H. Hays, Postmaster General in the Administration of President Warren Gamaliel Harding, offering him upwards of $115,000 per annum to head an office which would oversee the output of all studios, insisting on rigid standards of on-screen morality. Pettijohn suggested Hays should serve as a 20th Century Savonarola and preside over a bonfire of the vanities fuelled by the prints of corrupt films. The studio bosses did not understand his remark but, experienced with inflammable film stock, conceded such an event would provide a spectacular blaze. Hays declined the position, allowing that citizens' groups protesting immoral pictures had a legitimate concern but that 'all problems are of such a degree as to warrant no outside interference'. Privately, Hays told Pettijohn he would only take up the offer if there were one case, with nation-wide publicity, calling attention to the situation in Hollywood, prompting the public, who at the moment felt nothing either way, to call for censorship. The lawyer took Hays' refusal back to the moguls and, wrapped up in their endless byzantine plotting against each other, they quietly dropped the issue.

Catriona Kaye, Libido in America: A Social History of Hollywood (1953)

'You said there'd be a party,' she complained.

Semnacher was fed up. If Virgie didn't pan out soon, he'd drop her from his roster. He'd been around show folk from the vaudeville days and knew a lot of 'saints', but she took the biscuit. Only a day ago, she was on an operating table getting rid of a baby. Now she wanted to go to a party and spree on bathtub hootch. In her twenty-five years, she had put out for at least a thousand men. If it were possible to sleep her way to stardom, she would manage it. Only she wouldn't.

She pouted, nickel-size red dots on her china doll cheeks. Her full lower lip was out. Semnacher looked about the lobby of the St Francis. Mr Arbuckle was expected, he'd been told, but had not yet arrived. He was overdue. The agent suspected the Labor Day party was off. Virgie, who'd painted herself to impress the big shots, was going to be disappointed. She'd celebrate by going out and giving somebody gonorrhea. Probably get knocked up and be back at the Wakefield Sanatorium. She was getting to be a regular client of the best known - if not the best, to judge by the look of Virgie - abortionist in San Francisco.

'Let's skedaddle to a speak,' she said. 'This is the dregs.'

She turned to stomp off, just in time to collide with a bellhop's cart. Semnacher heard his client go 'oof' as a brass-cornered trunk sunk into her abdomen. He didn't reach her in time to keep her on her feet. Blood spotted her dress over the crotch. She clamped her teeth in pain. The hop goggled, trying to apologise. There was no need, it wasn't his fault. Semnacher told the kid to go get a doctor.

A week later, Virginia Rappé was dead. Dr Melville Rumwell, her attending physician, listed cause of death as complications from a ruptured bladder, notably peritonitis. He omitted to report the true cause was most likely a botched abortion which he had himself performed.

Garbo is The Temptress (1926).

In a minor panic over the smoke-trails of scandal that escaped after the mysterious, and little-reported, death of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922, Zukor again entreated Pettijohn to approach his old friend. Will H. Hays had other concerns and definitively refused the renewed offer. Besieged by the successive breaking waves of the Teapot Dome Affair, President Harding was asked if he could point to anyone in his cabinet whose reputation was spotless. Wearily, he singled out his Postmaster. Hays was not as pure as the press believed; he had accepted a $75,000 'gift' and a $185,000 'loan' from oilman Harry Sinclair, the architect of Teapot Dome, as a reward for chairing the Republican National Committee that had secured the nomination for Harding. Nevertheless Hays emerged as the 'clean man' of the Administration; he can be credited with persuading Harding to serve out his term quietly, and regulating his colleagues by serving as Hatchet Man in the Anti-Trust Drive of '23. In 1924, Hays became Vice-President, serving under the almost silent Calvin Coolidge for four years; in his every spare moment, he conspired to put himself in the White House. He barely had time to go to the movies, much less consider going to Hollywood to take up a dead-end sinecure.

Catriona Kaye, Libido in America: A Social History of Hollywood (1953)

Garbo in Love (1927).

At the 1928 Republican Convention, Hays bid successfully for the nomination and gracefully accepted the defeated Herbert Hoover onto his ticket. The election was fought on a single issue, whether or not to repeal the Volstead Act. So public a moralist as Will H. Hays could not conceivably come out in favour of drink. The Democratic candidate, inescapably wet, thus garnered the liquid vote, forcefully arguing that a law which made criminals of nine tenths of the population should not remain in force.

The candidate and Gloria Swanson (with whom he was never linked in the Hearst press lest Pulitzer papers link William Randolph Hearst with Marion Davies) hosted a lavish pre-election party at which bootleg booze flowed so freely even the lax Los Angeles police had to take note. Hays tried to make capital of the candidate's arrest, but the public noted that, along with the jovial Boston Irishman, charges were levelled against all their favourite screen personalities: Douglas Fairbanks, Richard Barthelmess, Mary Miles Minter, Lon Chaney, Buster Keaton, 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Mae Murray. When the case came to trial, the distinguished defendants, many of whom engaged in pleasant banter with starstruck officers of the court, were each fined the sum of one dollar and dismissed.

After a third recount, Hays conceded the election. Joseph Patrick Kennedy was duly sworn in as the thirty-first President of the United States of America.

Catriona Kaye, Libido in America: A Social History of Hollywood (1953)

Garbo Talks! Anna Christie (1930).

During the second half of the '20s and well into the talkie era, there was considerable competition among female stars in regard to nudity. The game seemed to be who could get naked soonest, stay naked longest. Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, Barbara La Marr and Clara Bow were regularly in states that made Theda Bara, sex siren of the 'teens, blanch. The true contest was between directors; fans followed the bitter feud of Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim as each pushed back the limits of what was acceptable. While DeMille presided over a succession of screen-filling orgies, intent on cramming more naked people into one huge set than were ever assembled in the most depraved potentate's harem, von Stroheim would constantly one-up his rival by staging bedroom scenes of startling intimacy and conviction. DeMille was obsessed with mere scale, the martinet genius sneered, but was a provincial with no imagination. With a curl of the lip, Von Stroheim conceded the only director worthy of sharing his podium as the Master of Sin was Ernst Lubitsch, of the famed 'touch that means so much'.

During von Stroheim's Salammbô, audiences were unable to believe Valentino and Swanson were not actually engaged in vigorous intercourse. Justine and Juliette, von Stroheim's first talking picture, offered Janet Gaynor as Justine and Louise Brooks as Juliette, with George Arliss as the Marquis de Sade and von Stroheim as Satan. It would have been banned in nineteen states were it not for a federal ruling overturning the power of local authorities to 'suppress works of proven artistic merit'. Despite Kennedy's much-resented intervention on behalf of his pet industry, which led to the burning of movie palaces in Boston and Birmingham, Justine and Juliette became the most successful film of all time, breaking the fifteen-year-old record of Birth of a Nation. It swept the third Academy Awards ceremony, taking Oscar statuettes for the production, direction, Arliss, Gaynor and Brooks (sharing Best Actress), Interior Decoration and Sound Recording. When Great Britain and Germany banned the import of Justine and Juliette and other 'immoral' pictures, there were protests by intellectuals angered at the silencing of a voice as great as von Stroheim's and by film fans infuriated by the loss of a chance to see a fabled 'hot' movie. In both countries the film was shown by special license; a print was later discovered in Hermann Göring's personal archive.

For all the attention garnered by the erect nipples of Mae Clarke in Waterloo Bridge and the lush posterior of Miriam Hopkins in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, not to mention an oiled Myrna Loy horse-whipping a victim to ecstasy in Mask of Fu Manchu and Charles Laughton kissing Jackie Cooper on the mouth in Sign of the Cross, there were still limits. The areas of the human anatomy observable in movies were as rigidly defined and patrolled as the frontiers laid down by a Balkan peace treaty. However, as history had shown, frontiers were always on the move and, in time of emergency, liable to disappear entirely. 1932, the movies' most licentious year, saw the President's federal aid programs in collapse, a second Wall Street crash and the growth of William Dudley Pelley's Silver Shirts. Unthinkably, movie attendances were falling. Many people stayed at home and listened to talking boxes.

It was time for the last taboo to be tested, and in King Kong the fig-leaves finally came off. In the jungles of Skull Island, Kong clutched the heroine in his huge paw and, delicately as a smaller character might peel a grape, divested her of her already-tattered dress. Then, in the most often-reproduced image in '30s cinema, the hairy fist opened, presenting on a palm-platter the totally naked girl, legs slightly apart, eyes wide in surprised ecstasy.

Catriona Kaye, Libido in America: A Social History of Hollywood (1953)

Garbo Strips! The Painted Veil (1934).

Melvin Purvis stood at the back of the auditorium, by the main exit. DA William Powell was prosecuting gambler Clark Gable. The girl who had slept with both of them and probably the court ushers besides was pretty upset about things. Movies were dumber than ever.

The G-Man concentrated on the audience, not the picture. Dillinger was in the crowd somewhere. And with him Anna Sage, a Roumanian madame who'd agreed to finger him in return for leniency in her deportation hearing. Also Polly Hamilton, a waitress rumoured to be Johnny's girl of the week.

Sage was wearing a red dress. As the show let out, she would pass Purvis. Then he was supposed to light a cigar to signal the agents staking out the Biograph. In a precise move which would give that fairy J. Edgar a hard-on, the G-Men would close on their man and take him down. If Johnny wanted to shoot it out, Purvis would oblige. None of the men on the Dillinger Squad expected the outlaw to face trial. Purvis also reckoned the Sage deal was phony; Hoover would have her packed her off to Cluj before she could blab her part in the downfall of Public Enemy Number One. This was a Bureau pinch, credit would not be shared. There was a war on between Hoover's Bureau of Investigation and Ness's FSF; and since Ness, the President's blue-eyed Mr Law, brought in Capone, Hoover, lagging behind, wanted to claim this score for himself.

Gable was in prison, prowling behind bars, spitting defiance. Powell knew the homicide for which Gable was convicted was justified, but he was obliged to call for the chair. Any DA that pally with a mobster was dirty, Purvis knew. A few years back, the movie would have hushed it up, but an earlier scene had shown Powell taking a bribe from his friend, fixing a concealed weapon beef.

The movie was nearly through. Although clocked at 93 minutes, Manhattan Melodrama seemed to run longer than the Ring Cycle. The con threatened Powell, promising to spill the dirt in a last-minute confession. The DA took out a phial and poured it down Gable's throat. He called for guards, claiming the hood was trying to kill himself with acid. Gable wouldn't be singing now, his vocal cords were eaten out. Purvis was impressed: the curl of smoke from the dripping ruin that had been a mouth was authentic. He'd once seen a frail acid-sloshed by Charlie Floyd; the movie effect was identical. The warders dragged Gable down the Last Mile to the Death House.

All around, people were readying to leave, gathering coats and hats. Purvis's hand was in his jacket, fingering the cigar. A girl, complaining that this movie was too rough, pushed out early, bewildered date in tow.

The finish was a kicker, Gable's eyeballs cooking as they hit him with the juice. He jittered against the straps, moustache aflame. A scream scratched and Gable's head exploded in a shower of gray sludge. Purvis had never seen anyone get the chair, but guessed this was an exaggeration.

The end title rolled and the house lights went up. His hands were sweat-slick. The next minutes would make him the most famous lawman in America after J. Edgar Fruitbowl and the Gang-Busting Ness Monster. He stepped into the foyer, surveying the emerging crowds. Women were shaken, the men nervously laughing. Finally a red dress appeared, with Anna Sage inside it. She was alone, face a study in conflicting agonies.

'It vas Polly,' she explained, 'she vas upset ... by the thing vith the acid ... she valk out ... she drag Johnny out ...'

Purvis wheeled about, pulling his automatic. All around, agents did the same. In the crowds, they could not see the Public Enemy. People scattered in panic. A lot of G-Men would be posted to Alaska.

'Johnny,' Sage whined, 'he is gone, no ... ?'

Purvis took his cigar, bit it, and spat out the end, spattering wet tobacco over a poster. A brown stain obliterated Gable's grin.

Following King Kong, complete nudity and bizarre sex were linked with a certain genre, a cross-breed of pulp adventure, monster fantasy, primitive eroticism and dark poetry. The first male member in mainstream movies belonged to Johnny Weissmuller, who removed his loincloth for a healthy underwater embrace in Tarzan and His Mate. Among the highlights of the 'Jungle Jiggle' cycle were Victor Fleming's Red Dust, with Gable joined in a muddy monsoon threesome by Harlow and Mary Astor; James Whale's She, with Louise Brooks, greatest star of the age, as the ancient princess whose embrace reduces Randolph Scott to a smoking skeleton; and von Sternberg's The Rape of Helen, with Marlene Dietrich extensively abused by Ronald Colman at the outset but slowly emasculating him into her self-destructive slave. When Harry Cohn insisted Frank Capra shoot scenes of the tantric rites of Shangri-La for Lost Horizon, James Hilton unsuccessfully sued Columbia for besmirching his novel. A consequence of the popularity of these pictures was a polarisation of public taste. More sophisticated audiences responded less to the films than to satire at the expense of their absurdities in Busby Berkeley's Roman Scandals, Dinosaur Dames and Ziegfeld Cavegirl. In 1939 Hal Roach produced One Million B.C., the most elaborate of its genre since King Kong. He neglected to provide much in the way of special effects monsters, knowing fans would mainly be attracted by an artistic recreation of the times before clothes were invented, with superb specimens Victor Mature and Carole Landis demonstrating the rough-and-tumble love-making of Piltdown Man. While receipts for Roach's movie in the cities were slightly disappointing, the appetite for exotica held up in suburban and rural theatres, prompting the much-quoted Variety headline 'Nabes Crave Cave Babes'.

Catriona Kaye, Libido in America: A Social History of Hollywood (1953)

After shooting the President, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an unemployed carpenter who'd recently broken with the Silver Shirts, took refuge in a New Jersey picture house. Jack Warner was perversely proud the assassin chose a double bill of Warners reissues, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Wild Boys of the Road. Warner deemed his studio's output a force for change and debate, on a par with the New York and Washington press.

Orson Welles listened to the sales pitch. Warner strolled about his office, which was the size of the Union Station Men's Room and smelled about the same, pausing under framed posters for notable releases, commenting on each like a Long Island host introducing his ancestors to a social-climbing guest.

'After Fugitive, Robert Burns was granted an unconditional pardon and chain gangs were abolished throughout the South. After Little Caesar and Public Enemy, the President - God rest him, the sonofabitch - appointed Elliot Ness head of the Federal Strike Force. That means Capone got nailed because we made a picture. After Waiting For Lefty, membership of the American Federation of Labor almost doubled ...'

That might be true but Warner would rather cut his throat than let a union get real power on his lot. An ex-bootlegger who knew the underworld score, Kennedy had helped keep IATSE off the moguls' necks by having Ness indict Benjamin Siegel and the other mugs who tried to muscle in. Some said that was why the President had been knocked off. That was what Howard Hawks was rumoured to be alleging in JPK, the hush-hush project he and Howard Hughes had shooting at RKO, with Cary Grant as Ness and Karloff as Hauptmann.

'President Coughlin has personally asked us to make a picture about the way they're treating priests in Mexico,' Warner declared. 'We've got Curtiz on it, with Muni as the pastor shot by Pancho Villa. If we go to war, movies will take us there.'

Welles wondered if that was a good idea, but the thought of a medium with such power was intoxicating.

'Writers fight to work here, ever since we let Fitzgerald make Tender is Night the way he wanted. All them books they said couldn't be done, we did: Sun Also Rises, Lady Chatterley, Postman Always Dings Twice. And we didn't clean 'em up neither. We got the full set: Bill Faulkner, Ben Hecht, Cliff Odets. We let Fonda make that picture about hoboes on motor-cycles with all the crazy music and the weird ending the kids went wild for. Let the rest of the town serve up tits and ass, we're the studio with balls.'

Welles was intrigued. Broadway was sewed up by old farts who thought Arthur Wing Pinero a dangerous radical, and even radio was too small for what he wanted to do. Hollywood hadn't really changed; the studios still stumbled in the dark for something that would sell. Even the greats weren't immune: von Stroheim couldn't get a job since Cimarron, the epic Western that lost more money than any other movie since Intolerance. But the potential was there. Hawks showed that, and Jack Ford and a couple of others. And it was a hell of a train set.

'So, Boy Wonder, what do you want to make? Name any book, and I'll buy it. Name a star, I'll get him. Name anything.'

He was tempted to suggest Dr Faustus, using split-screen to play both Faustus and Mephistopheles. Then, he pondered Heart of Darkness. No, there was only one choice. Like everyone else, he'd read it that year.

'What'll it be?' Warner asked. 'What's your dream movie?'

'Gone With the Wind, Jack.'

Warner stuck out his hand and flexed his fingers for the shake.


The institution in 1937, at the insistence of President Charles Coughlin, of a Ratings Board was intended to curb an industry even advocates insisted had got wildly out of hand. Actually the Board served to sanction even more excess: pictures awarded an 'A' certificate, which barred children under sixteen, were effectively allowed, under the constitutional right to freedom of speech, to represent anything short of real-life murder and bestiality. Those who had gone as far as they thought possible went further; in Technicolor and on giant screens, Hollywood productions were able to show what had hitherto only been seen in 8 mm at firehouse smokers. The most celebrated scene of the late '30s came in Michael Curtiz and William Keighley's The Adventures of Casanova when Mae West demonstrated her throat capacity by swallowing to the root Errol Flynn's justly legendary attribute.

Catriona Kaye, Libido in America: A Social History of Hollywood (1953)

'Are you really Dillinger?' the kid asked.

Johnny nodded, 'the same.'

'And you've been hiding out here for ... how long?'

'Since before everybody got the same idea, son.'

The kid beamed and shook his head. He was a handsome pug, this long-legged hobo. He'd have done good in the movies before they went to hell. Not really a kid, either. His name was Jimmy Stewart.

They were up around the fire that burned most nights in the middle of Agry. It'd been a ghost town five years ago, when Johnny came to get away from the G-Men. Now its population was up to gold rush numbers.

As American servicemen were poured into the so-called Holy War in Mexico, more and more kids drifted in. Inverting W.C. Fields' catch-phrase, the draft-protestors cried 'give this fucker an even break'. Nearly a million young men disappeared from the record books. They aped Henry Fonda and Woody Guthrie in Blowin' Down This Road, gathering in abandoned railroad sidings and backwoods towns. Several states had chosen to tolerate these shadow communities, but there were still Sheriff's Deputies with baseball bats.

'Don't you want to be a soldier-boy, son?'

'Not in this war, Mr Dillinger. I don't mind what Cárdenas does in his own country. It's not the fight I care for. That one's in Europe and the Pacific.'

Most Americans felt that way. The war was Coughlin's crusade and plenty, of all political persuasions, wanted out of it. The President was just a jumped-up radio preacher filling the shoes of a martyr. Some wanted America to tend its own garden and win back its lost children; some thought it'd need all its armies for the big war that seemed more likely every day.

In the firelight, Stewart's face was set. Johnny thought he looked a little like a hero. Hollywood had missed something.

Garbo Fucks! Ninotchka (1939).

The climax couldn't top the scene where Rhett laid Scarlett down on the red stairs, ripped open her clothes and rutted with her for a full five minutes. The King reputedly wanted his crown back and insisted he be allowed to go better than Flynn. Since that steamy interlude, the audience had been getting restless as tragedy piled upon tragedy. The plantation burned as the Jayhawkers encroached. The guerillas were played by Hollywood Mexicans.

It boiled down to whether you were interested in the love or the war, Roscoe supposed. The love stuff was over in the plot, but the war went on. It was supposed to be the Civil War but he knew better. When a city burned or a wounded soldier limped, he thought not of Atlanta in 1864 but Tijuana in 1940. This was the movie that summed it up, the feelings of a whole generation. A new generation.

Roscoe, a jolly relic from an innocent age, was bewildered, and a little blue. His films had been for children; even the grown-ups of 1922 were children next to the hard-eyed youngsters scattered through the auditorium of Grauman's Chinese.

Orson Welles was the new von Stroheim, Keaton claimed. As powerfully as he felt assaulted by Gone With the Wind, Roscoe agreed. On his best days, he had never been one-fourth the director this kid - another fatty, they said - was. If he grew a heart as he got older, he might be better than Griffith, than Chaplin.

Tears welled in Leigh's eyes and the music swelled. She was too thin to be really beautiful. Her face was expressive and angular rather than plumply lovely the way Mabel Normand or Mary Miles Minter had been. Still, she was radiant. And she had a voice. Roscoe felt uninvited tears in his own eyes.

Gable strode away from Tara, orange skies outlining him. Movies were in colour now, too. They roared and they blazed. Roscoe missed Nickelodeons, gingham dresses, candy canes. He missed being young and a star too.

'How shall I fight on without you?' Leigh asked, 'what about the War?'

Turning, flashing the famous grin, Gable said, 'frankly my dear, I don't give a fuck.'

All around, the audience cheered. The commotion was so loud that the closing narration was inaudible. Roscoe, skilled from years in silent pictures, tried to read Leigh's lips, but the camera pulled away and she turned into a black silhouette.


I write about film for the same reason Arthur C. Clarke writes about space exploration: as a writer of non-fiction, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about the cinema, and ideas just come along by association. I've also written quite a few alternate histories; and, dealing with 20th Century America, the cinema often comes to mind. This story throws a small pebble into the past and watches ripples spread ...

In the real world, Roscoe made it to that party, Virgie died the same way upstairs rather than in the lobby, blame was unjustly accorded though a jury later acquitted Arbuckle, Hays took the job as 'Czar of the Rushes', Shirley Temple replaced Mae West as a Top Box Office attraction in 1933, John Dillinger (probably) saw the end of Manhattan Melodrama, Father Coughlin's call for War with Mexico was ignored, Jimmy Stewart got work in the movies, Hauptmann was executed for other crimes, Welles' dream project was Citizen Kane and David O. Selznick made Gone with the Wind. The Arbuckle case affected the evolution of an art form and entertainment industry, though the real clamp-down did not come until nearly ten years afterwards.

The Hays Code, and the mindset that created and enforced it, was not an unambiguously bad thing, as scores of outstanding films made under its strictures show, but there was a notable hobbling of certain types of movie. Compare the freshness and sensuality of a pre-code film like the 1932 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with the stifling obfuscations of the 1941 remake, which would desperately like to be steamily sophisticated but just comes across as stodgy and silly. There certainly were personalities (Louise Brooks is a good example) for whom there was no space for in thirties films; I'd exchange the entire filmography of Marie Dressler (a major star at the time) for just one more Brooks vehicle on a par with Pandora's Box. Imagine Apocalypse Now redone in accordance with the Hays Code ('Saigon, heck!'), but balance that by wondering how To Have and Have Not could be any better freed from censor restrictions (when they turned down the ending of Hemingway's novel, Howard Hawks asked the censors to suggest a finish they would approve of). If Roscoe had missed the party, movies might not have been better but they would have been different.

© Kim Newman 1995, 1998.

"The Pierce-Arrow Stalled, and ..." first appeared in Kim's collection Famous Monsters.

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