excerpts from the book
Arabian Nights of 1934
Sections 34 to 35, and Sections 91 to 96
The book “Arabian Nights of 1934” draws on American films made between the advent of sound in the late 1920s and the full enforcement of the Production Code which went into effect in 1934. Elements from these films — storylines, situations, images, and lines of dialogue — are freely recombined in the book’s episodes. Below are some extracts from the book.
— Geoffrey O’Brien.
In one night in one nightclub twelve different life dramas played out. Step back from people’s lives and it looked like a network of interlocking cylinders. Or the type of kaleidoscope that the girls in the floor show made in their finale number, where they clustered together and blossomed like flowers. No telling who was going to get what handed out to him. One died and another got married. One ended up in a townhouse on Park and the other in a rickety tropical hotel where the rain never quit, downriver from where they loaded the manganese ore on the barges. One sucker even got cut down by the ricochets of the ambush he set up for someone else. The smartest operator in town fell backwards one afternoon into a vat of acid and not a soul would ever know where he disappeared to. Nick took a powder I guess. No end to the weird wrong turns. Decent men with families to support got caught in a bind with no way out but to steal and cheat. Knowingly signing their names to doctored invoices. A home town kid who stepped over the line on his first night away from home got corrupted in ways nobody ever warned him about. Steered the wrong way with no return ticket. The nicest guy anybody ever met, just getting set up in life, and with his wife expecting, found out he’d been roped in to be the cat’s paw of mobsters peddling counterfeit pharmaceuticals. A well-fed little boy unwrapped his birthday presents, ripping away the glittering ribbons with childish impatience, while kidnappers peered through the half-open window. Later that day they tracked him to the park where he was sailing his toy boat in happy unawareness. His babysitter was in on it. It wasn’t her fault if the guy she loved had no heart.
Anyway it was just a story. Told so fast that by the time you remembered all the details it took longer to tell than to happen. Forgot to mention about the babies switched because of the mistake with the tags at the clinic — and the planted evidence — the orderly conked on the head so a stool pigeon could take his place — the brother who came back unannounced from a South American rubber plantation just in time to be mistaken for his twin — and get plugged by a jealous girlfriend who was tired of being given the air — while the getaway van faked up as a furniture truck sat parked in front of the tenement at the exact moment that made it look like somebody ratted out a pal when really he didn’t — and that the boss’s cutie to make things even stickier had an afternoon rendezvous when she was supposed to be having tea with an old school chum who inconveniently for her alibi had been spotted leaving town on the daybreak express. Tried to tell him it didn’t really happen the way it ended up looking — somebody must have pulled a fast one with the steamer trunks so that the one the cops jimmied open would turn out to have a day-old stiff in it — but some things you couldn’t talk your way out of. That was always the way of it. Nothing but bad breaks all down the line. Get away with one thing and then they give it to you in the neck for the job somebody else pulled. A spin of the wheel. A pawn ticket slipped in the wrong pocket. Boys turn into killers. Girls turn into whores. Father loses his memory after a bad fall in the mining camp and never makes it home. Mother waves goodbye. Cut to tombstone. Children on monkey bars in a playground. Cut to line-up of convicts in a prison yard. Listen, kid. We’re in a fast game. It doesn’t last long. Why can’t we have a little fun before it’s over?
More and more it seemed like people went to see movies about people who went to see movies. In every other movie there was a girl who wanted to be in the movies. Meanwhile at just that moment there were a bunch of producers sitting around looking for the right face for their new picture. She had to be something really unusual because by now folks had seen it all. You can’t put over anything anymore. But that wouldn’t stop a determined small town girl from getting on the next train for Los Angeles. It didn’t take long to get discouraged. When she had to take a job modeling swimwear after all the casting offices told her there was nothing going just now, she had no way of realizing that the good-looking guy smoking a cigar on the settee was a top executive of Modern Age Productions. The minute he meets a girl he starts feeling her ribs and talking about screen tests. The next thing you knew her name was in lights. But she let it go to her head and found out the hard way how it really worked out here. In this business when you’re over 32 you’re older than those hills out there. Here today gone tomorrow was the way it went. By then the producers had already found their next big star only they were still in the same room yelling at each other — they didn’t know what it was like to be satisfied — trying to come up with an idea for the vehicle that would be right for her. In the movies the people who made movies never seemed to know what they were doing. They were always stumped for a fresh thought, drumming their fingers on the conference table, mopping their brows until someone — some Western Union messenger who’d been writing plays since he was in the fourth grade just waiting for his big chance — made a golden suggestion while they were signing for the telegram. Maybe what people really want is a little silliness. Said it with such a big heartfelt grin that it came across like pure genius. They hadn’t kept their eye on the ball, the executives had to admit it, making a bunch of serious pictures that were about as entertaining as a cargo manifest. What was fun when you came down to it? Not having to think, letting your mind pop out of its channels. They don’t want a night at the symphony, they want a day at the beach. That was why Mickey Mouse was wiping up the floor with them. People are looking for some mental relief. They don’t go to the movies to find out what’s going on in the world.
He was the hottest young playwright in the country and he didn’t care who knew it. His play about mental breakdown in wartime won all the prizes and a studio snapped it up. Back in New York somebody who knew the score had told him: If you act like an artist they’ll treat you like an artist. These Hollywood types wouldn’t know an intellectual concept if it bit them in the rear. This is the land of make-believe. Everybody is makin’ believe. Now in the corner of a cocktail party he was holding a small circle of listeners spellbound with his enthusiasm for the untapped cultural potential of the movies. The photoplay is America’s authentic folk drama! Why it’s nothing less than modernism for the millions! Where the Bauhaus meets the Bronx! Imagism for the underdogs! The slightly cockeyed blonde didn’t understand a word he was saying but it sounded pretty she told him. Later he tried to explain how the patter in gangster pictures was the blank verse of the twentieth century. It’s language made aerodynamic. If Christopher Marlowe were still around he’d be writing for Warners.
Writers had to pay attention to everything. They took notes while drunks were spinning yarns in saloons. If there was a hustler making with a line of gab in the next barber chair they didn’t miss a word. They scanned the crime pages just like everybody else looking for a good murder. They eavesdropped on back porch gossip, thought nothing of reading other people’s mail, and when they were stuck in a waiting room they monitored the secretary’s phone call as she told her friend about all the things that happened to her on her vacation. They told and retold the stories they heard, flipped them, shuffled them, capped them, topped them, turned them inside out. You might even dream a good one, or steal it from somebody else’s dream if you heard them talking about it. Everybody was listening in on everybody else, that was the hell of it, on the lookout for a situation or a set-up to get the juices flowing. Will it make a movie? Or if you couldn’t invent it — everybody knew all the stories had already been told — there were only 26 plots in the entire history of literature — find a new variation somewhere. Get a line on an unproduced untranslated Hungarian play that would be a natural for Garbo. Are you kidding? They’ll eat it up! Option the rights for a song and who knows, it might pack them in for twelve weeks at the Roxy. That made for another story, the story of how the story was found. The stories kept them alive and finally they got so percolated they could improvise a pitch out loud and then forget what it was all about five minutes after they sold it. Finally they were coming up with stories about people as hungry as they were for a new angle, writers scheming to come up with stories made up out of anything at all before someone had the chance to say Here we go again, an altercation at the cigar counter next to the elevator, the design on the necktie of the producer sitting across the table. Just don’t pause for breath and don’t lose eye contact. Grab hold of the ghost of a notion and twist it into something quick, slick, and as disposable as an empty pack of chewing gum.
Words were needed like never before. They picked them up wherever they happened to find them. The whole nation was vibrating to the rhythms of talk. It was like being a telephone operator who could surreptitiously listen in on all the lines. They found something they could use in headlines and comic strips and gossip columns and pulp mysteries and heartthrob romances. Heard it on the street, heard it on the radio, heard it in a nightclub torch song, heard it in a dirty joke that just needed to be cleaned up a little, heard it onstage at the Morosco enunciated by Britain’s most beloved music hall star, heard it at the front desk of a fleapit hotel, through the wall of the adjacent phone booth, murmured in whorehouses or muttered on the El train, screamed from the bleachers or the ringside. Then if they swiveled the dial a bit they could pick up on the farther-off drone of high-toned palaver from pulpits and podiums, words about social order, the advancement of civilization, the perfectibility of the race. From behind the footlights like some particularly refined perfume came courtesies of elegant wooing and laments for unrequited love, heartbreaking stuff that had the smart Alecs in the back row cackling and making up their own dirty-minded comebacks. All kidding aside you could make a lot of hay with scripts that had been drifting around among back country rep companies whose seasons stretched on forever with scenes of madness and mistaken identity and last-act redemption. Crook plays about purloined wills and the power of mesmerism and houses where the lights were always going out in thunderstorms. This was the hokum primeval. It was still good for turning on the faucet — a mother sacrificing everything for kids who didn’t care, a daughter going up singlehanded against the political machine to clear her father’s name — and when you couldn’t wrench any more tears out of it you could go for a laugh. By the time they were through, their fingers sometimes bled from banging the keyboard all night. They’d raked over every last bit of chitchat and backtalk salvaged from a lifetime of eavesdropping on other tables. And if they hadn’t been listening so good they could always steal from someone who had. If you just kept tuning in to all the revue sketches and burlesque skits, all the moss-covered puns and spoofs handed down from one trouper to another in the great interlocking system of small-time theatrical enterprise, and all the words gushing out of radios, the news bulletins and interviews and tear-jerking playlets, the spots for toothpaste and laxatives and sprays to kill garden pests, the ad libs barked out by announcers desperate to avoid even a half-second of dead air, all the words of all the songs, all the scores of all the ballgames, every last bulletin about the soaking showers that were on their way later in the afternoon, would there be anything that could possibly have been left unsaid? Would there be enough time left over for even one moment of absolute unadulterated silence?
A wise man once said that as long as you’ve got two eyes and two ears you could never run out of material. Everything was already out there ready to be chopped up into bite-size bits as needed. A phrase a professor might use, or a cabdriver, or an out-of-work factory hand with his head full of Socialism, or a daffy debutante just back from Monte Carlo, or an architect with a plan for the world’s most efficient escalator. Take a snippet from the Sunday Book Supplement, some gem of wisdom from George Santayana or Dale Carnegie. The so-called modern world by now was nothing but a row of typewriters endlessly pounding out copy, Richard Halliburton on the high road to adventure, William Beebe on the ocean floor, Will James on the lone prairie, the story of philosophy, the art of contract bridge, the latest bestselling novels on the intimate side of life at the court of Louis the Fifteenth or in the tobacco fields of old Virginia. From under the counter of hole-in-the-wall bookstores came secrets of dream interpretation and hypnotism, marital guides for the uninformed of tender age or French imports in plain brown wrappers set in the fleshpots of ancient Alexandria or the music halls of Paris — if not comics diagramming the unspeakable debaucheries of Popeye the Sailor or Minnie Mouse, or personal true-life memoirs of correctional spanking. Steal a joke or two from Judge or Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, a word-painting of the Amazon or the Gobi Desert from National Geographic, the latest on tailored frocks from Vogue or the layouts of today’s most forward-looking interior decorators from American Home. You didn’t have to look far for words. The trick would be to find a spot where you could get away from them, a place without even a label or a title or a slogan. You’d have to hike pretty deep into the desert or the mountains not to look at a billboard or a discarded candy wrapper. The remotest small town paper swarmed with brain-teasers and poems and inspirational filler and Ask the Expert columns (How old is the expression “dead as a doornail”? Do mosquitoes breed in damp places?) and serialized novelettes about racketeers and flappers and helpful advice about the relief of neuralgia and full-page fine-print ads that themselves were like novelettes about socially undesirable recluses and weaklings who finally turned the table with the help of deodorant sprays or piano lessons. The print got smaller and smaller until you felt you needed one of those X-ray binoculars they were selling just to read them, as you made your way past specifications of special ingredients and one-time offers into the back page ads in the pulps, the ones promising hours of fun and unlimited popularity and wedded happiness.
Newsstands spilled over with a solid wall of magazine covers. There was no end to cowboys and aviators and detectives, to girls just waiting to be swept off their feet by a Royal Mountie or champion golfer. They were all lined up for inspection, waiting for a customer to pick one out of that crowd. No end either to space monsters or hooded horrors or half-naked houris delivered to the cruel pleasures of a throned warlord with pincer-like fingernails. There was no end to anything. Whatever you wanted there was more of it. More romance, more wonder, more contraptions you could build in your own basement. It was the age of paper abundance. But even from a distance what cut through all the rest were the rows of beautiful faces, the floral display of sparkling eyes, luxuriant hair, gleaming teeth, pouting lips, winsome smiles, mysterious irresistible glamour: the faces on the covers of Photoplay and Motion Picture Classic and Screenbook and Modern Screen. They shone like beacons in a murky underworld. The cover lines promised the answer to every question: Why Movie Stars Can’t Stay in Love — Clark Gable’s Battle Against Death — How I Make Love to Mae West by Cary Grant. Here was the bait that every hard-luck Hollywood extra would end up cursing as she sat alone all day in a tiny rented bungalow waiting for the phone call from Central Casting that never came. Kids threw their lives away because they had caught a glimpse of Karen Morley or Wallace Ford on the cover of Screenland. Somebody told her she looked just like Madge Evans. The way he lit a girl’s cigarette for her, Franchot Tone couldn’t have done it any better. They made their way down Hollywood Boulevard under the big print of billboards, feeling crushed by the unescapable language of neon signs and wall posters and marquees.