Hollywood, 1954 and the unnamed protagonist of Ray Bradbury’s Death is a Lonely Business (which I reviewed here) is back. When we saw him last he was a struggling pulp writer living in Venice (California) – since then has moved up a bit in the world to work at Maximus Films. This reflects Bradbury’s own shift into screenwriting at Universal (It Came from Outer Space) and Warner Bros (John Huston’s Moby Dick, an experience ‘fictionalised’ in Bradbury’s 1992 memoir, Green Shadows, White Whale). It also touches on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which was based on ‘The Fog Horn’ and made by effects genius, Ray Harryhausen, the author’s lifelong friend who appears here as ‘Roy Holdstrom’.
Today Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog is celebrating the work of Ray Bradbury. You should head over there to check out some of the many other reviews of the great man’s work on offer.
“But I was afraid to yell so long after midnight.”
It is the night of Halloween and our protagonist is invited to a midnight rendezvous in the cemetery that connects to the back of the studio lot (as does that of Paramount Studios in real life). Right away we are told that this will be a tale of two cities, the opening paragraphs even echoing Dickens’ celebrated novel as we are introduced to the worlds of the living and the dead that here co-exist side by side. For this is a novel about the halcyon days of the movie capital, which were sputtering to a close by 1954. Indeed, at the appointed place, at the top of a ladder propped up on the dividing wall, we find the body of James Charles (J.C.) Arbuthnot, the beloved ex-head of the studio – except it can’t be because he has been dead for the last 20 years. Being a hired hand to write a monster movie has not prepared our sensitive and innocent hero for this, so he runs away. When he goes back the next day, the body is gone (in time-honoured mystery fiction fashion). Another invitation arrives, this time addressed to Roy, who is on the lot to create the ‘Beast’ to feature in our hero’s script. This time the body is there, stuffed inside a coffin appropriately enough – and it turns out to be a papier-mache simulacra – but other have been invited too, including the stressed out current head of the studio, Manny Leiber. Roy absconds with the ‘body’, curious to know who has been setting this up.
“Roy and I had been called in to blueprint and build beasts, to make meteors fall from outer space and humanoid critters rise from dark lagoons, dripping clichés of tar from dime-store teeth.”
In the meantime they receive another ‘invitation’ to go to the famed Brown Derby, where, hidden behind a screen that momentarily falls, they spy the inspiration for their ‘beast’ – a man whose face is hideously scarred but whose eyes show deep wells of emotion. They try to track him down but he proves elusive, after arguing with Clarence, a stills and autograph hunter of old that our hero knew as a child. Roy creates a model based on the man’s face, but when Leiber sees it he is instantly fires him. That night Roy’s workshop is destroyed and the narrator finds his friend hanging from the ceiling, apparently a suicide. He cannot believe his friend would kill himself but has to duck out before getting too close a look at the body as the nefarious studio doctor turns up to clean everything away.
“Friends don’t forgive. They forget”
Is Roy really dead? Who is the ‘beast’? Who is sending the ‘invitations’ to set up out hero up as the patsy? The narrator tries to find out while continuing to work at the studio and makes friends with Fritz Wong, a tyrannical and monocled German director, a character explicitly named for Fritz Lang and cinematographer James Wong Howe but who is also quite closely modeled on Josef Von Sternberg and Erich Von Stroheim. He is assigned to salvage Wong’s current project, a life of Jesus (much as Bradbury did at MGM on Nicholas Ray’s 1961 movie, King of King) in which the son of God is to be played by a self-styled Jesus Christ known as JC (like the head of the studio …), who has spent the best part of his life pretending to be the genuine article, with occasionally flowing stigmata to prove it. It turns out that JC may know what links the ‘beast’ to the possible deaths of both Roy (who may however be alive abd merely hiding out in the studio) and Clarence, who is shortly afterwards found in his apartment buried under a mountain of the glossy photos he so jealously guarded. Our hero is not up to the task of solving this alone and turns to a couple of friends to help find out what is really going on at the studio. He first gets hold of detective and budding writer (and surrogate father) Elmo Crumley and free-spirited silent movie queen (and surrogate mother) Constance Rattigan, both of whom appeared in the previous volume, Death is a Lonely Business. As they get closer to finding out who the ‘Fiend’ really is, death’s breath can be felt ever more on the next of our heroes. Will they make it and will our cherubic narrator maintain his innocence and love of the mysterious and the marvelous in the face of real-life horrors?
“Remember, you’re the blank spaces between each slot-click of the projector.”
Bradbury smartly sets the story at the time of great transition for the Hollywood studios. The era of the contract artist was over, killed by the onset of television and the anti-trust laws passed at the end of the previous decade that stopped the studios’ block- and blind-booking practices after they were made to divest themselves of their theatre chains. What thus emerges is a paen to the lost studio era with a plot that, while a bit ramshackle and overloaded with religious symbolism (and weirdly resembling the 1974 Jack Cassidy TV-movie, The Phantom of Hollywood) brims with affection and tenderness – and weirdness.
In many ways Graveyard improves on the book that preceded it (though they are much of a muchness in their dreamlike atmosphere and air of lost innocence), especially for the delightful and affectionate fictional rendering of Ray Harryhausen. In addition it is loaded with movie lore aimed squarely at film buffs, with references to several productions that are now sadly missing but which here still exist in the private collection of Margaret Botwin, the film editor clearly based on MGM’s Margaret Booth (who supervised the post-production on King of Kings) and who here is given the full uncut version of Greed, the last remaining print of Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight and many other now sadly lost treasures. If only this were true …
“Late at night a motion picture studio talks to itself”
Bradbury would continue the adventures of his unnamed alter ego, after Death is a Lonely Business (1985) and A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990), with Let’s All Kill Constance (2002) set in 1960, which again reunited out narrator with Crumley, now a private eye. The three have also been published as an omnibus volume entitled, Where Everything Ends.