Saturday, April 08, 2017

Hollywood Bingo-With Primo Detective Fiction Writer Dashiell Hammett In Mind

Hollywood Bingo-With Primo Detective Fiction Writer Dashiell Hammett In Mind

By Zack James

Matt Dolan was a “fixer” man. No, not the drug-dealer fixer man famous, or infamous, in mean streets lore or in the hard-edged short stories of addiction, mostly heroin (horse, H, boy) by the crusty writer Nelson Algren who had that scene down in an earlier age, an age when such addictions were sidebars and not front page headlines like today. Matt Dolan, called Mack for some reason buried so far back in childhood that nobody, including Matt knows how he came by that moniker, was a writer, is a writer who comes in an fixes up some film, some “picture” as they say in the trade when it is going off the wheels for any number of a hundred reasons that a script, even if the scriptwriter is the guy or gal who wrote the thing that the studio paid all that money for but was getting dragged down because somewhere after production had started the thing started turning in on itself and the studio, or more likely the producer of the particular film would call Mack in to bail the film out, bail the director and everybody who worked the sets who saw their wages ending if the damn thing was not  “fixed” by guys and gals like Mack.

Sure there are a million writers, some good, some bad who write anything from multi-week best sellers on some publications lists to stinkpots (pardon the old-fashioned word but it applies to some of the thousands of writings Mack had run through in his time). Sure there are a million screenwriters, or it seems like it when they roll the credits, mostly good or were at one time good and were either protected by the Guild or by somebody in management who owed them something. But there were, are surprisingly few “fixers” in the whole of the film industry and so they command high wages (really these days some fixed amount usually in the six figures agreed to in advance and signed on the dotted line as per Guild agreement which covers fixers as well as all the other categories of writers and musicians). Mack was, is among the best and has been since the 1950s when he broke into the industry and after a few false starts, and disappointments, got his reputation cemented when he saved the “stinker” High School Confidential. 

Mack came up with the very bright idea that that worthless cautionary tale about high school kids succumbing to the lure of heroin provided by evil nightclub owners and other denizens of the back alleys was going nowhere. The way Mack saw it no kid in his or her right mind was going to sit through their precious Saturday afternoon double-feature at the local Majestic Theater to be told stuff they got at home every day for free, and endlessly too. So Mack, a little younger then than the average screenwriter on the Hollywood scene and savvy to the role that music, specifically rock and roll music after Elvis and others broke the ground, came up with the idea of putting the then “hot” rock and roll mad monk saint Jerry Lee Lewis on the back of a flatbed truck with his piano and his sidemen and have the truck tooling toward the high school as he played his flame-throwing song High School Confidential. The film grossed a ton of money off of a shoestring budget because all the kids cared about was that scene and then they could go back to whatever boy-girl thing they were doing the in the dark upstairs balconies. Mack could name his price after that, usually. All the studios wanted him after that.          

But the supply and demand stresses of being a fixer put a lot of pressure on Mack, especially when he was working on some play or screenplay of his own which he was looking to have produced. One night Mack, who besides being a fixer man loved the ladies, loved the young ones especially even as he got older, said they kept him young, or whatever reason older guys give these days for chasing young skirts (or for older gay guys and lesbian women these days when the great secret of Hollywood same sex lives had become passe what the object of their affections might be wearing), was telling Jack Curran, an executive at Excelsior Films, the company that he had the closest ties to over the previous  twenty years or over drinks at his favorite watering hole, The Dirty Duck, off of Vine Street, about how he got his first contract to fix a “stinker” at Excelsior.

At that time maybe the summer of 1972 Max Stein called him up when he was up in Big Sur trying to work out some kinks in a screenplay that would later be produced under the title Love In The Park (and which made that studio, the now defunct Blue Blaze Films, a ton of money but not enough to keep the wolves away when they produced a big series of flops, real stinkers, none of which they saw the wisdom of bringing him or any fixer in on) and told him that the latest film he was producing, Hurry, My Sweet, was losing steam, needed a fixer man and he had heard through Harry Swann at Delta Films that Mack was the man he needed. Mack pleaded prior commitment but Max threw up a number that Mack couldn’t refuse and so he committed to a two week stint back down at La Jolla where the film was shot to try to work something out of the air once again. Max sent him along with the contract a copy of the screenplay as it was then being worked on.

What the script was about was an old-time kind of detective story, a genre that was making a comeback on the screen, after a long absence since the time of the great black and white film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s. The plotline involved as those type films always did some nefarious murder (or murders depending on how grizzly the producer and director though they could take the thing and not have irate parents banning their kids from spending their dough to see it) to be solved by a resourceful detective. One hook here was that the hard-boiled female detective, they always had to be hard-boiled whatever their gender since the days of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler switched things up back in the 1920s and 1930s, Patty Lane, being played by veteran screen actress Mara Whiting.

Another hook was that the bad guy was a bad gal, Laura Devine, played by the beautiful Gina Saint-Germain, who had wasted her drug-dealing lover, Gary Lawlor, played by rising star Sam Lawrence, after he had turned Laura’s sister, Sarah, played by new comer Sissy Moore, on to drugs and to the streets doing tricks for short money to feed her habit. The big hook though is that Sarah, after Laura wasted Gary, was holding five kilos of pure high grade Columbian cocaine which she intended to sell to the highest bidder, Laura or anybody else, so she could get off the streets and feed her own habit in the comfort of some high-end bungalow. Laura putting pure greed over sisterly love sent some of her boys (and a girl sharpshooter as well) out to find the sister, find the dope really. Hard-pressed Sarah looks up in the Los Angeles telephone directory for a detective to help her out, for protection really, and to broker a deal if necessary and comes up with Patty who she thinks is a guy because the listing of the agency was Pat Lane and Associates. Pretty standard stuff but Mack could see where Max was a little panicky because even if the theme reflected more contemporary times and concerns it was still a “stinker” as far as he was concerned.                         

When Mack got to the set down in La Jolla not far from the university and close to the rock-strewn ocean that was playing a nice visual backdrop to the action he told the director, Josh Lannon, well-known for working B films on short money, and short storyline filling out the meek dialogue with plenty of action, the thing was a stinker, no question and no amount of action was going to cover-up a beaten down storyline. Of course Josh took umbrage at that statement saying that he was given the thing for short money by Max and if Mack could bring it around well fine, if not then that was that. Mack was used to that kind of reaction and knowing he had money-man Max’s backing let it ride, let the ill-tempered director blow off steam.  

Of course Mack also knew that once production was started, once the actors had committed to their parts as best they could that all the interpersonal problems that face any collective effort, egos, bruised feelings, hostility, make-shift love, and desire for bigger roles in the film-and in future films if an actor showed promise, especially in a stinker came into play. That is where Mack’s fixer skills and love of younger women got a serious work-out.

About an hour and a half after Mack got on the set while sitting in an off-stage cubicle trying to figure out a new hook to make the audience interested enough in any character to take a chance and see the movie Sissy Moore came into his space. No question she was a good-looking young woman and as soon as she entered he had ideas, knowing she had ideas. Tall, slender, red-hair, long legs, not beautiful, not Gina Saint-Germaine beautiful for even a Hollywood novice knew, knows that you cannot have two beautiful women on one screen because they will not stand for it, and the audience won’t either even the women, but the kind of woman that once the film is over you think about, think about to the exclusion of the serious beauty.          

Sissy had heard that morning that the famous Mack Dolan was coming to fix the script and while she was only a new-comer people around the set and around Hollywood said with some proper training and proper roles she could be somebody. That was all she needed to know to get her small-town girl (Lima, Ohio) wanting habits on. She took dead aim at Mack, despite the fact that at the time she was maybe twenty years younger than him, and he had due to that huge alcohol and lately drug consumption not aged gracefully, and coming right up to him so he could smell that gardenia perfume she was wearing mixed with thoughts of hard sex ahead she laid it on the line (she, as she told Mack after they had hit the satin sheets over at the Biltmore a few times, knew through the usually very reliable starlet grapevine that he had a thing for younger women, with or without the gardenia perfume).

Sissy wanted her part built up, thought bad ass bad girl Laura in the story, meaning really Gina, after she wasted Gary was nothing to the whole plot, that she should be seen more, have more lines around her ability to evade the bad boys Laura sent after her, played more of a role helping Patty take the heat off of her. In return Mack could have, as she rather coyly put it, given what she was offering, could have anything he wanted from her, anything she had to give.

Now, as Mack told Jack that night the Dirty Duck, there are more urban legends about how famous stars, male and female, yes, males in the then male-dominated management end, worked their way up the cinematic food chain by “offering anything somebody in power wanted, anything they had to give” and a fair amount was just that-urban legend. But even then back in 1972 there was plenty of sex being traded for stardom, or hopes of stardom, or better somebody in power taking advantage of some youngster’s hopes of stardom before being shunted back to Topeka, Toledo, or Boise. So Mack made his pact with Sissy, made it tight, and for the length of his time on the set he got his ashes and whatever else he wanted hauled by her. This time, unlike a few times before when he was a guy in power himself playing on some young thing’s hope for stardom, his agreement to get Sissy more screen time, more to say, was based on what he had seen in the rushes, had seen that star quality, maybe not the top but she would not have to sit by the midnight phone hoping for work.    

Naturally the increase of one actor’s role at the expense of another, here Gina, caused an uproar on the set, caused Gina to say she would not perform at her usual high level. Mack knew he had Max’s okay, since he had called him after the pact with Sissy was consummated the first time so he was able to ride it out. Here’s how: Mack determined that what the film needed with so many good-looking females was more sex, or in those days when it was still dicey to get too graphic in sex scenes, was the allure of sex. Now it wasn’t going to be Patty as the crusading detective ready to save an errant young woman and Gina flat out refused to do any sex scenes but Sissy, well, Sissy really was up for anything that would get her up the food chain, especially after Mack put the bug in her ear that such efforts would enhance her career opportunities. There wasn’t much that Mack could do with the script with what was already in the can but that is when he came up with the idea that would save the damn thing.

Sarah, Sissy's now beefed up role, early on as she got more addicted to the drugs Gary was feeding her and was out doing tricks on the streets got into a situation where some guys Gary knew propositioned her to come to a poker party with them. She agreed once Gary said he would “make her well.” So the scene got set up in a smoky hotel room, cards out, chips out, cigarettes out, drinks out on the table and then Sissy dressed scantily like a Playboy bunny, popular at the time, without saying a word starts going provocatively under the table. Nothing on film showing what is happening but obviously Sissy is going down to “play the flute” on the guys as Mack put it euphemistically in his stage directions. That B film made a ton of money for Excelsior because all the kids cared about was that scene once they heard about it and then they could go back to whatever boy-girl thing they were doing the in the dark upstairs balconies, go back with a vengeance. Made Sissy a “hot” property (and forced Gina in a later film to do a “play the flute” scene more graphically shown than anything Sissy had done although among the gossips of the town your average red-blooded males out in the hinterlands Sissy was almost always thereafter called “the flutist” and nobody had to ask twice who that was or what it meant). Brilliance, pure brilliance.

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