One of the strangest consequences of silence was that it destroyed consequences. A thing might be seen to happen, but no logical aftereffects necessarily flowed from it. Not only could a clown land on his head after a spectacular two storey dive and get up whole, but a comedian could be shot in the seat of the pants and never be wounded. The comedian taking the shot presumably felt it; he jumped. But we did not feel him feeling the shot; we simply laughed and asked no questions when he came down intact and begging for more. The fantasy of silence suspended our obligation to feel, whenever we wished to suspend it.
(Walter Kerr: The Silent Clowns. New York 1975.)
Max is falling from a roof when he sees her. The two events aren't connected. It's his job to fall of roofs at this point; he's working as a stuntman, allowed to show his face sometimes in front of the camera as well, not least because Mack Sennett is too cheap to hire two people for the same job if he can avoid it. It's not what Max dreamed off when emigrating to America, but it's a living, and besides, he is starting to find movies fascinating. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, making something out of nothing, like the shows in the suburbs of Vienna but not.
He falls from a roof and is instantly replaced by Fatty Arbuckle, who gets up and runs after a bunch of girls. The girls are all wearing bathing suits, and why they should when they're crossing the road is a mystery, but you don't look for logic in a Mack Sennett movie. Well, Chaplin did, but Chaplin, amazingly going from being some English music hall comedian to being an American film attraction within a year, has just departed Keystone for Essenay or Mutual, Max can't remember which one. He tries very hard not to be eaten up with envy. He came to America years before Chaplin did, he's willing to work tirelessly, and yes, he has some ideas about how to make all those run and chase flickers more interesting, because how could you not want to. But when he tries to talk about said ideas to someone, they pretend not to understand his accent. When Chaplin did, he got a better contract from a rival production company.
Still, there are perks. The girls in their bathing suits, for one thing. They're led by Mabel, who is the heroine, about to encounter Fatty as the unlikely hero, trying to replace Chaplin, and they're, fitting with Sennett's tastes, long legged, with full breasts. It's a sunny day, Max is dusting himself off watching the girls and Fatty Arbuckle, who wears identical clothes but doesn't have cushions to remove as Max does, and it's impossible to feel too bad about the world right then. This is far better than a factory at home anyway.
One of the girls stands out because she's smaller than the others, and also ridiculously young, with the baby fat not quite gone from her cheeks and knees. But she holds her head high instead of giggling bashfully like the others. Maybe she wants to stand out. Well, she'll learn that she's not here for standing out, that's what Mabel does, she's hear to provide some nice background.
Watching her run, unembarrassed about the fact she's wearing a bathing suit on a dusty road, Max suddenly wishes the film they're shooting would change. It would be something, seeing her run for longer. Towards the camera, from the camera. On a beach, maybe, a proper one, not some shovels of sand on the backlot. And then see her swim. Because of the effect of water on skin, yes, but also because of the contrast; those waves of the sea against the human figure. Not that Sennett will ever be making something out of that.
The quick chase scene is done, Fatty has fallen into Mabel's arms, and it's time for the next take, which doesn't require the girls or a stuntman. Max, having removed everything that makes his figure look like Fatty Arbuckle's, saunters over to introduce himself.
"Max von Mayerling," he says, so used by now to the lie that it comes out like a self evident truth. You can impress Americans so easily with a title, they think Europeans are default aristocrats anyway, and besides, people called Max Mayer are as common as sand in these parts. He needs people to remember him.
One of the girls laughs, another widens her eyes. The one he's been focused on looks him up and down and asks frankly: "Are you really?"
Against his will, he finds himself smiling.
"Why shouldn't I be?"
"Because you look like a Mayerling von Max," she says with a grin, elbows the girl next to her and runs away with her friend, laughing. She must be even younger than he had originally assumed. Fifteen, sixteen at most. Maybe she took this job as a lark. He shrugs and decides schoolgirls aren't to his taste anyway.
Later, when he shows up in the office to get paid, he sees the girl again. She's wiping her mouth while she rises from the floor and is shaking while one of Sennett's flunkies is zipping his trousers up. When she notices Max, the girl's disturbed expression becomes blank. She raises her head again, and leaves the room with a straight back. Her mouth is swollen. Max isn't sure whether he feels indignant, disgusted, oddly excited or all of the above.
"Won't her parents give you trouble?" he asks when she's closed the door.
"Nah," the flunky says cheerfully. "No parents, I asked, and it could even be true. She really wanted the job, that one. And if they have mothers, the mothers show up to ask for the cash first, so..."
It's not the first time Max has come across the trading of sex for jobs in this business, far from it. But part of him wants to punch the man right now. The other part has an idea.
"Speaking of cash..."
"Jeez, enough already, you'll get yours."
"Tell you what," Max says, glad he's so fluent in English by now he sometimes dreams in the language, because he really wants to get his point across. "You can save money. If you let me direct tomorrow, you won't have to pay more for today, and I don't want extra money tomorrow, either."
He repeats his suggestion, speaking very precisely. The accent by now is part affectation anyway, to make the aristocrat believable. Sennett's assistant looks confused, but intrigued at the notion of saving money.
"And you think you can do it?"
Max thinks he's watched often enough, and that if Mack Sennett, who doesn't care if Mabel is wearing a red skirt in one scene and a white one in the next, can be a director, he can, too, but what he says out loud is that he has learned from the great Max Reinhardt himself in the old country.
"I thought you were some count, pal."
"After my family lost the castle and the money," Max says with a stony face.
"And this Reinhardt is a director?"
"The greatest in Europe," Max asserts, not mentioning the fact that this applies for the stage and that he doubts Reinhardt regards the flickers as more than a curious novelty.
"Hell, why not. It's just Mabel getting pie in her face, you can't fuck that up, I guess," the assistant decides. "I'll talk to Mack."
The next day, Max is earlier at Keystone than anyone else. He makes sure every new arrival knows that today, he is in charge, and that there will be no accidental crossings of the road or bored cigarette lightings in the background. "But it's about a pie battle," protests one of the Keystone regulars, "nobody in the audience will notice anything but that. They won't care if someone in the background smokes."
"Mr. Sennett cares, and he is paying your salary."
"He cares since when?"
"Since today," Max says, and finds the mutterings about Prussian sadists somewhere between satisfying and amusing, given he's Austrian. He's long given up explaining to Americans that you might as well call a Texan a Canadian, and vice versa. But it is important they respect him and listen to him, and it seems they do; maybe just in order to get it over with, but they listen and take position. Even Mabel Normand, who is the star and the producer's lover, though she has a slight frown on her face when he explains he has an additional scene in mind before the great pie battle, that trademark of Keystone anarchy, can commence.
"We need one of the girls for that," Max says, pretends to be unsure, and then points at the girl he has had in mind all along. He'd been curious as to whether she would show up with a grim face this morning, but no; she'd been all smiles and laughter with the other girls again, as if he'd never seen her getting up from the floor, trying to wipe the results of a blow job from her mouth. It's remarkable.
"You! Come here."
She comes closer, and her smile flickers a bit, then steadies itself again. Only her eyes, which are widened, betray she might be uneasy or afraid instead of all early morning cheer, her eyes and the fact she holds her hands behind her back so he can't see them.
"We are in a store," Max says, "and Mabel is shopping for her wedding when the pie battle starts. But before that, she will try on her hat. Only she will not be standing in front of a mirror. It will be an empty frame, and another girl will be on the other side, with the same hat. Both coming closer, thinking they see their reflection."
"She doesn't look much like me," Mabel Normand interrupts while the girl forgets to smile and to look relentlessly cheerful and instead starts to look intrigued. "She is a brunette, for starters."
"You haven't washed your hear today and so it will photograph darker anyway," Max retorts; he has an eye for details, and not much consideration for Mabel Normand's feelings. "But you," he continues, addressing the girl, "you will have to imitate Miss Normand's movements precisely. Can you do that?"
"Yes, I can," she says, all youthful eagerness and determination. He hopes so. The gag depends on it. He makes them practice, Mabel Normand and the girl, once, twice, three times, and Mabel is starting to look indignant, muttering something about this not being bloody Broadway. It's not that they aren't good at executing his idea, she and the girl, but there is something in him that wants more, more than good, even for a brief gag in the latest Keystone film which no one will notice beyond a short laugh: he wants perfection. It is a miraculous and incredibly satisfying feeling, having the tools to demand it, even if it's just for a day.
The girl knows better than to complain, but he notices she watches him between practices, watches him carefully and with the kind of blank face she showed when exiting the office yesterday. It's such a startling contrast to the way she mirrors Mabel down to the slight sulkiness of her mouth when playing the mirror scene, when her expression is just as vivid as it should be. At last, he pronounces them ready, and the camera rolls.
They play out the mirror scene exactly as instructed, the girl and Mabel, until the end, when they're supposed to bump their noses and fall backwards. Instead, the girl leans forward ever so lightly and kisses Mabel on the mouth. Mabel is surprised enough to fall on her backside anyway, and the girl does the same. When he orders a cut and a new position of the camera so it can close in on Mabel, the girl turns and winks at him.
"I thought that was a better ending," she says innocently.
"We'll see," Max says, and gets on with the business of staging the big pie battle. At some point, it suddenly occurs to him that if he'd stayed in Austria, he would be busy fighting real battles right now, would be bleeding in the trenches. He shivers, dismisses the thought and is engulfed in the present again. By the end of the day, he finds the girl waiting for him when the others, glad to be finally done, have rushed home already.
"Thanks for giving me a scene," the girl says. "That was really nice of you."
"Mr. Sennett can still cut it if he doesn't like it," Max replies, taking in that she's without any adult escorts or any of her friends, but doesn't come across as flirtatious, either. On the contrary: no sooner has he finished speaking that she flares up in indignation.
"No, he can't!" she protests. "I was really good in it!"
"How old are you?" he asks, and she replies quickly, too quickly, that she's seventeen. Max raises an eyebrow, and she relents.
He suspects it might be more like fifteen and a half, but he doesn't press further.
"Then you are too young to know better," he says. "Sometimes being good isn't enough."
"Like you're that old," she mutters. "And it is, too. If - if you give me another scene, you'll see. He won't cut that, either. Will you give me another?"
"I am not sure I will get to direct again," Max returns, and sees her indignation for the second time in a short while.
"But you were good at it," the girl says. "Better than Himself yesterday. You really knew what everyone should do. You have to do it again!"
This whole time, he's not been sure what he wants from her, other than a short experiment to see whether he could make that fluid grace end up on screen somehow; whether he wants her on her knees, as that flunky had her yesterday, or as a sweetheart, like the girls of his half faded adolescent dreams where you courted them with flowers and weekend trips to the Prater. But right now, it seems she offers something else. She's seen him, as he has seen her. Seen that he can be more than a stuntman. He has not expected that; it's one thing to believe yourself capable of so much more, and another to hear from a stranger that you are.
From a girl not yet grown up. He's in his mid twenties, aware that he has to exercise constantly to remain muscular instead of stocky, and already balding. But looking into her eyes, he has to think of mirrors again, and that Mabel today isn't the only one this girl is able to reflect.
"What is your name?"
"Norma Desmond," she returns, and he can't resist, he has to ask: "Are you really?"
She smiles at him, not with the relentless cheerfulness she cloaked herself in this morning, but with the delighted grin of a fellow conspirator.
"Yes," she says firmly. "Mr. von Mayerling, Sir, I absolutely am."