The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel by Peter Davis, GIRL OF MY DREAMS. The narrator is a young screenwriter, Owen Jant, who has just returned to Hollywood from San Francisco where he became caught up in the great waterfront strike of 1934 and was almost killed. He had been sent to San Francisco by the head of Jubilee Pictures, Mossy Zangwill, to do research into the earthquake of 1906 and bring back a screen story, but he was far more attracted by the present-day (i.e. 1934) dock strike. Reporting back to his studio, Owen consults his mentor, the experienced screenwriter Yancey Ballard, who is often referred to as Yeatsman because of his inclination to quote the Irish poet.
“Greatness,” Yeatsman was saying to me, “once resided in the throne, the church, the academy, the sword. Now it lives in the flashbulb. The flashbulb and the movie camera make hostages of us all, destroying identity and replacing it with celebrity. That’s the machine that cranks and hums here, and we’re the oil for it.”
Yancey Ballard was from a family of Alabama dairy farmers who had devised a way to mass produce and preserve butter in the 19th Century. Ballard’s Better Butter began to be sold in Chicago not long after Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lantern in 1871, and Ballard’s soon started its own sales fire. By the time Yancey was born in 1895, the family was as rich as the Alabama plantation owners. The boy grew into lanky southern ease, effortlessly becoming a squash champion in prep school, someone who succeeded too handily, whom others tried hard to emulate, and the too-hard trying was already their failure. He was sent north to college and missed being a classmate of Scott Fitzgerald’s at Princeton only because he enlisted early in the war, going overseas with the Canadians. In 1915 he was in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle when the Canadians were ordered to make a feinting maneuver to draw the attention of the Germans away from the principal battle zone, where the British were attacking.
“That’s always been my trouble,” Yancey drawled, “I’m diversionary, can’t help it, can’t be the main event to save my soul. I was lucky though. Fella next to me was hit in the head by shell, had his brains land next to my feet. Looked like salmon roe. All I had was shrapnel in my shoulder.” That was enough to keep Yancey out of further combat, and he spent the rest of the war writing battle reports for the First Canadian Division. He didn’t come home until 1920.
“I had my Paris,” he told me, “right after the Armistice, and it was angrier and less drunk than it became in the Twenties.” He worked on the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune, and what he fell in love with was not Paris but Yeats. A trip to Ireland was futile, netting him no admission to the poet’s presence but only a dose of gonorrhea in Sligo. When he sailed home, Yeatsman finished his Princeton time and then gravitated to Hollywood in pursuit of an actress he’d met years earlier in Paris. The career choice of Hollywood pretty much cost Yancey Ballard his family, who regarded Jews, along with leprosy, as two of mankind’s incurable afflictions. He sold a story to the newly formed United Artists, assuming it would be a ticket to the actress’ affections. But she had already been in Hollywood a month, which was time enough. “Only the most stupide girls here have a liaison avec l’ecrivain,” she told him, adding dismissively, “Jamais. Pour moi, je cherche le cineaste! Bon chance, mon cher. See you around, as they say.” She helped along Yeatsman’s education.
A decade later, half of it spent at Jubilee, Yeatsman thought of Mossy Zangwill alternately as his champion and his nemesis. “’Some violent and bitter man, some powerful man,’” he told me, echoing his bard, “’Called architect and artist in, that they,/ Bitter and violent men, might rear in stone/ The sweetness that all longed for night and day,/ The gentleness none there had ever known.’ Wasn’t old Ghostie thinking of Mossy and the rest of us when he wrote that?”
“He has his visions,” I said, “and I guess we’re supposed to accommodate them.”
“’I am worn out with dreams,’” Yeatsman quoted, “’and yet, and yet,/ Is this my dream, or the truth?/ O would that we had met/ When I had my burning youth!’”
“Yeatsman, uh Yancey, I need your help.”
“We all need help,” Yeatsman said, warming up. “As we pace the corridor of life, people keep coming out of little doors, and each one hands us a piece of our destiny. Here’s your driver’s license. Here’s your degree. Here’s your first job, oops you’re fired, you’re not ready for this. Here’s your wife, here are your kids, and if you write some scripts that actually get made here’s your next wife, your new kids, your pool, the maid, the houseboy, don’t trust him. Here are your kids as they get older and betray you. Here are your ulcers, a gift from Mossy or some producer. But here’s your mistress. The doors along the corridor keep opening and the faceless people hand you more small portions of your fate. Here are some screen credits, here’s a sweet holiday in Tuscany, here’s your psychoanalyst, here’s your reconciliation, more travel, your retirement, your heart attack, cancer, thrombosis, shingles. Here’s your death, weren’t quite ready were you? Here’s your, forget it because you’re already forgotten.” He took a deep breath, lit a Pall Mall.
All I wanted was to bring him around to suggesting how I could complete my San Francisco assignment so the studio would be pleased. “Meaning Mossy,” he said, and I nodded. I was too much in awe of Yeatsman, but he was tender with me, affectionate in the way of a big brother who cautions you away from the precipice he himself has plunged over even while knowing your momentum is already going to carry you over it as well. Fifteen or so years older than I, with good screen credits – Forgotten Hero, Manhattan Matinee and the first Count of Monte Cristo – he was both a princely paragon and, as he tried to tell me, a warning. A complicated gifted guy, jealous and insecure, demanding and reticent, unafraid of the bosses yet unable to resist their blandishments and raises, squeezing his life into manageable proportions from the wonder of what it might be, all the more admirable to me if not to himself because he had managed to fit snugly into the Jubilee cocoon. I saw him as a marvel of energy and lassitude, inspiration and doggedness. “So what have you got?” he asked.
When I finished telling him I had material on the earthquake but wanted to write the strike story, he sighed. “Forget the earthquake,” he said.
“What do you mean? That’s the whole reason Mossy sent me up there.”
“I mean plot your characters first, not your plot. Forget there ever was an earthquake. When you have the people you want to write about, write them against type. A good man does a bad thing. A fearful fellow does a brave thing. A fallen woman does something virtuous, and so on. Figure those people out, then sneak the earthquake into their lives. Or smash them with the earthquake. Since motion pictures are the medium of the obvious, you’ll be smashing them anyway within half a minute of the first wine glass shattering as it falls off the first table. But before anything, figure out who they are.”
“I feel like breaking the laws of history anyway.”
“Attaboy. Other places you can’t break the law, you can’t rob a person or a bank. In Hollywood we do nothing but rob, we break the law all the time. It’s only the lore here, not the law, you mustn’t break. If you’re a lore breaker we send you back east.”
“You want me to forget the strike too.”
“That’s different. You’ll never get away with a picture about a strike anyway, so it becomes the horse in the bathtub. You don’t mention it, you don’t look for it, don’t even go in the bathroom, which creates problems. But all the time the horse is upstairs in the tub, everyone knows it. You not only have to forget it, you have to drown it.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Okay, but that’s the principle.”
Dutifully, I ordered my Royal to attack 1906. The social classes in San Francisco were much more defined than in Los Angeles, but I rejected the rich boy poor girl obviousness and decided to write about two equally obvious working class families. The seedy family of the nurse doesn’t like the rookie cop’s family because they’re Irish and because they’re cops. The cop’s family says the nurse’s family has never added up to anything but trouble. One of the nurse’s aunts, whom she lives with, runs a house of ill repute and pays off crooked cops. But the two kids love each other and as soon as he gets his patrolman’s badge and she gets her RN they’ll marry.
A member of the cop family arrests a member of the seedy family and a fight breaks out. The young cop and the nurse decide to elope and are on their way to the train station to head for Reno when the street opens up in front of them. They’re nearly crushed in the furious first tremor. Buildings topple. Each knows his duty – the nurse makes her way past scenes of agony to the hospital, while the rookie cop reports to his stationhouse. That night, the after-quake fire begins to spread across the city, and the cop helps firemen save families. Down in the Tenderloin the madam – the nurse’s aunt – is helping her girls and customers escape when she gets a phone call. She can barely speak when she hangs up; she gives her assistant instructions and sinks into a chair, in shock. The cop is all over the city, leading children to safety, carrying old people downstairs into basements. Making his way to the Tenderloin, he goes into the aunt’s brothel to see if he can help customers get away from the fire. Everyone has left except the aunt, who as flames grope the house is simply staring at the wall. He leads her outside, and she tells him her family’s home has been destroyed. No survivors have been found.
The young policeman is undone, but he knows he has to get to his fiancé’s house to see if she is still alive. Reaching a shabby neighborhood, the aunt and the cop see that the entire block is flattened. Only the family’s dog howls his sorrow into the night.
Mad with grief, the policeman rejoins his platoon and in a distracted way helps quake and fire victims where he can. All the policemen fan out to keep order, and our young cop hears cries of pain coming from a man trapped under a part of a collapsed building. As the fire draws closer, the cop tries to pull the man free, almost does, but no one else is around to help, and he can’t do it by himself. When the flames begin to burn the man, he gives his name and address, begs the rookie to shoot him and tell his wife he loved her. After an agonizing soul-search punctuated by screams and pleas from the burning man, the policeman pulls his pistol out and shoots the fire victim. Unlike the true story I was told in San Francisco – realism, I remembered, is fine in movies but hold off on reality – our young cop does not then shoot himself. What happens is almost more unbearable. A patrol wagon pulls up and six policemen jump out. They could have lifted the masonry off the victim and saved him. A patrolman from his own precinct tells the rookie there’s an urgent message for him to go to the makeshift field hospital set up at the Army’s Presidio fort.
At the Presidio, the rookie sees what looks like an acre of cots with wounded victims lying on them, moaning and screaming. It’s reminiscent of a war scene that could have been painted by Goya or photographed by Matthew Brady. Nurses and doctors are doing triage, saving who they can, trying to make the others comfortable. The rookie sees the back of a nurse he recognizes as his girlfriend. Thank God she’s alive and has summoned him! He runs past rows of cots and takes the nurse in his arms. It’s not his fiancé. Her aunt now materializes, also summoned to the Presidio, and the nurse leads them to the cot where the girlfriend lies. Pallid, bandaged, laboring to breathe, she is clearly dying. The duty nurse tells the policeman and aunt that the girlfriend had been pulling victims from a burning building downtown when a beam fell on her. She looks up at her aunt and boyfriend, smiles wanly. She gasps out a question about her family, and before the policeman can say anything the aunt says they’re shaken and hurt but they’ll be all right. She asks how the policeman is, and he takes his cue from the aunt: just another day at the stationhouse, he smiles. He takes his fiancé in his arms, and she dies. A high shot shows the aunt and the policeman walking off together past the acre of cots, heading downtown where each is part of the city that is beautiful and corrupt, vital and decaying, destroyed and ready to be rebuilt. FADE OUT.
Yeatsman grimaced at me, and Comfort O’Hollie, the writers’ group secretary, flatly refused to type the last page. “Look,” I said to them, “that’s life and death in the earthquake of ought-six.”
“Too bloody morbid,” said Comfort, full of Hibernian righteousness now that she had unregretfully packed her impossible Irish revolutionary grandmother off to Vancouver. “I’ll be drawn and quartered before I’ll type the end of this treatment.”
“Not a studio in Hollywood will make that picture,” Yeatsman said, “certainly not one that calls itself Jubilee.”
I changed the ending so the policeman, hugely relieved, finds the nurse at the Presidio as she helps earthquake victims. The policeman’s own father, also a cop, is on one of the cots, a cornice having crushed his spine. The nurse/girlfriend has been tending to him, and the father has changed his mind about her, ready to admit that even a rotten barrel can contain one unspoiled apple if you take it out of the barrel soon enough. The father draws his last breath, and the family will have to be supported now by the rookie himself. In the final scene, the eager young cop and his beloved nurse walk past the acre of cots, heading downtown where each is
“And so on,” said Comfort.
“Slightly more palatable,” said Yeatsman.
The bounding main. The present. A freighter rolls and pitches in late afternoon seas as it plies the Honolulu-San Francisco route. One young deckhand, rangy and handsome, is plainly doing more than his share, helping others lift, swab, handle lines. A nasty captain, barking commands, orders that two squabbling sailors be whipped. Our young deckhand watches the flogging, administered by a hulking seaman with a horsewhip. When one of the two sailors being beaten faints, our handsome deckhand protests. Enough is enough – this is the twentieth century. The captain barks that if the deckhand weren’t engaged to the shipowner’s daughter, he’d be getting his own taste of the lash.
Making port the following day, the captain finds a line of stevedores picketing to prevent his ship from being unloaded. Afraid his cargo of pineapples, mangoes and papayas will spoil, the captain orders his seamen to unload the ship themselves. Led by the young deckhand, they refuse. The shipowner shows up, furious, and when the captain points to the deckhand as the source of the trouble, the owner explodes.
The owner’s daughter comes to plead with her boyfriend to unload the cargo. He says the seamen will stand by longshoremen; her father should settle with his workmen on the dock. Torn, but proud of her boyfriend’s defiance, she invites the deckhand to dinner with her parents, where they can have a reasonable discussion.
Servants, silver trays with cocktail glasses, wall portraits of powerful men greet the deckhand in the shipowner’s Pacific Heights mansion. The young man is something of a catch at the party, and a prosperous guest offers him a job bossing a construction crew. His company has just landed one of the contracts to build the new Golden Gate Bridge. The host is impressed that his daughter’s boyfriend is holding his own. Throwing an arm over the young man’s shoulder, the shipowner admits he hadn’t approved of the relationship between his daughter and one of his deckhands, but he’s come around. How would the young man like to be in the front office as assistant manager of the whole shipping fleet? The daughter is delighted. Flattered, her fiancé promises to think it over.
Next morning, the stevedores on the dock remain adamant. A labor agitator we immediately spot as a crook is egging on the strikers with promises and threats. The deckhand is undecided. An honest union organizer shows up to tell the dockworkers their hopes for a fair shake are to stick with the seamen so they can present the owner with a united front. The deckhand’s girlfriend arrives in a fancy convertible, and the longshoremen jeer him as a traitor when he goes off with her for lunch.
Later, a fresh crew of longshoremen is hired to unload the ship. When the young deckhand returns to the dock, the picketing workers tell him the new stevedores are scabs undercutting their own ability to bargain with the skinflint owner for a decent wage. Police are called to break up a fight between the new hires and the pickets. One of the strikebreakers, a middle aged man, is badly hurt, and the deckhand takes him home. The older man hasn’t had a regular job since hard times started, and as much as he hates to scab it was the only way to put dinner on the table. His daughter thanks the deckhand for bringing her banged-up father home. She’s a no-nonsense department store clerk hoping to go to college, which was why her widowed father was down at the docks in the first place. The deckhand, of course, likes her. She clearly likes him too.
Now he’s really confused. What kind of woman to love, what kind of work to do.
Naïve as well as ambitious, the young man makes the wrong choice and takes the shipowner’s job offer. His delighted fiancée starts planning the wedding. His fellow seamen and the longshoremen are disgusted. When he looks in on the injured widower, the department store girl says she hopes he’s happy with his decision.
The first thing the new assistant manager is told to do is fire the seamen on his old ship and hire a new crew that aren’t troublemakers. Be a man, the shipowner tells him when the former deckhand hesitates, it’s just business. His fiancée tells him not to worry. He does everything he’s told to do, hates it, and is hated by his former shipmates. At a party with his fiancée’s rich friends – scions of Nob Hill – he has an argument with her and stalks out.
Wanting to make up with his fiancée, the young man goes to the department store for a present. He is waited on by the injured worker’s daughter, who helps him pick out a bracelet he could never have afforded before. She tries it on and he sees how beautiful it is on her. He frowns and she thinks it’s because of something she said. No, no, it’s not that, won’t she have a bite with him when she gets off? At a coffee shop, he pours out his troubles with his new job and his girlfriend. The department store girl shares her own worries. Her father may never work again, and she won’t be able to go to college.
Our young man walks her home and – surprise! – they kiss. He insists she take the bracelet he bought for his fiancée.
The rich fiancée phones the former deckhand at work. She forgives him for the spat the other night and tells him he must be at her place right after work to plan the engagement party her father wants to give them. Her tone tells the young man he works not only for her father but for her as well. He sees the crooked labor agitator mumbling privately to his fiancée’s father, begins to put two and two together.
The department store girl shows up at the office and gives him back the bracelet. She doesn’t want to play second fiddle to a Pacific Heights snob.
Down at the dock things are worse than ever. The ship is supposed to leave for Hawaii, but the new seamen don’t want to cross the longshoremen’s picket line either. The crooked agitator throws a brick through the shipowner’s office window. Ordered to fire everyone on the picket line, the young man tells the shipowner what he can do with his job and walks off the dock. The pickets give him a cheer.
His fiancée blows up at him and then, when she sees she’s losing him, tries to be conciliatory. He can get his job back if he apologizes to her father. No dice.
The young man goes to the department store, and the nice girl thinks he has come to get his money back for the bracelet. Miss Pacific Heights won’t have him either, is that it? No, the young man wants her to take the bracelet for herself. He’s finished with the job and with Pacific Heights. How’s he going to eat? she asks. The young man laughs. He wants to go to college too, and meanwhile he knows where he can get a job building a bridge. The department store girl knows where the young man can get at least one free meal this very evening if he doesn’t mind sharing it with her father. How does he feel about meatloaf? He gives her the bracelet as we FADE OUT.
Yeatsman had me add another sequence at sea. He wanted my hero to go out on a big fishing boat for a few days after he quits the shipowner’s desk job and before he breaks up with his rich girlfriend. No one knows where he has gone, and the two girls and even their fathers worry, especially when there’s a storm at sea, but this is where our boy figures out who and what he wants to be. Yeatsman also told me to have the department store girl refuse the bracelet at the end and insist on giving the hero his money back, the signal to the audience she is not thinking like a girlfriend but like a future wife.
“You might just possibly get away with this,” Yeatsman said, “if you keep the labor strife in the background to the love triangle, and it’s okay to have a son of a bitch shipowner with that shithead captain whose part you can beef up, but not a single scene more with the pickets, and cut all speeches about bargaining power or workers’ rights.”
I turned in both treatments and waited.
SCABS TOY WITH MOUNTAIN CONGESTED CARGO STOP CAN’T YOU JUST SMELL IT ROTTING STOP REGARDS QUIN
The laws of nature are simple and beautiful. Here life was imitating my sorry little treatment just as my treatment had been aimed at imitating life. The telegram from Mike Quin, the radical newsman who had appointed himself my San Francisco lookout, was his try at keeping me up to date. All he did was make me feel inferior to reality. Art attempting to imitate life, regardless of how close it comes to its model, is still not life. Is it the opposite? A lie?
“Why are we here?” I asked Yeatsman.
“Because we’re not all there,” he responded tartly.
Peter Davis is a writer and filmmaker who covered the war in Iraq for The Nation. He has written three books of nonfiction, and his film on the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds, received an Academy Award. Girl Of My Dreams is his first novel.