“My Lives Among the Stars” is an excerpt from Lawrence Sutin’s novel-in-progress, a loving and whimsical look at the salad days of Hollywood in the form of the garrulous and comically self-important reminiscences of one Matheson Maysin, a lifelong Hollywood extra, as dictated to a paid hack, Reg Ahem, who is expected to produce a book from their nightly talks. In the following section, Matheson waxes nostalgic about his inconsequential (but not to him) role in the real 1934 Frederic March/Constance Bennett comedy The Affairs of Cellini. Fay Wray played Angela in the movie, and off the set, according to Matheson, took his youthful virginity. I love this line “… I was there to stay and the best way to do that is to get so lost that you couldn’t possibly find your way out, which I never did.” And the rhythms and sentiments of this: “Then she kissed me on the forehead to say that is enough, is it not, be happy boy and I was.”
Lawrence Sutin is an old friend and colleague from Vermont College of Fine Arts where he is a renowned and gifted lecturer (oh, the miles I have driven without noticing the time go by, listening to Larry talk about writing on car radio).
So I appeared in my first movie, Reg. There is nothing else like that in your life, not even losing your virginity, and I’ll soon get to how I lost mine. The movie was The Affairs of Cellini, and by the time it was released in August 1934 I had been in twelve more films in uncredited or extra roles of some sort. But The Affairs of Cellini was the perfect entrance for me into Hollywood. Have you seen it, Reg? You haven’t. You had better fucking well find a copy and watch it. You watch especially hard for the final scene in the court of the Duke of Florence when Benvenuto Cellini, do you know who he was, Reg? You had better fucking Google him before you try to write up my goddamn debut. The great Cellini creates a stir by openly flirting with the married Duchess. Look over the left shoulder of the cape of Frederic March just as he’s giving Constance Bennett one of those I-know-you-want-me looks, especially while he’s in tights and doublet and codpiece and blouse and puffy cap, he’s the type to make costumes look nicely tight, he’s pretending to drink wine from a goblet, it’s colored water, and he thinks he looks like he believes that he’s at a Renaissance banquet and that makes him an actor in the long trail of twentieth-century celluloid that spanned the world but kept its beating heart in Hollywood, he’s drinking to the long life of the provider of his wine, the soon-to-be cuckolded Duke played by Frank Morgan, who later nabbed the title role in a little pitchah (as we used to like to say it in the thirties) called The Wizard of Oz. But it was for his identical dithering performance as the Duke in The Affairs of Cellini that Frank was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. No one on the set would have said they had seen that coming. There was a whole lot more to look at than Frank Morgan. For me there sure was.
It was the Depression and the theory was that what the people wanted was opulence, to indulge their eyes on the riches and beauties they could not smell or eat or wear or so much as touch. The theory makes sense to me because the first time I walked on the set that was sure what I wanted to see. But what struck me, beyond the glamour, was how organized it all was. The director was Gregory La Cava, a name no one much knows these days which doesn’t much matter to La Cava because he’s dead. While he was alive and in his prime he knew how to keep things moving on budget on time on a set, which kept him working. La Cava and I never talked, I was pushed into place for the crowd scenes by his dutiful assistants, but I watched him and he was pulling the strings of his stars, March and Bennett, at least while they were on camera, and as for the crew, he was the walking-talking brain that directed their movements. La Cava was no great director, but he knew that directing depends upon power, perhaps even more so than upon artistry. You must make people obey you. I would find that tiresome. I like to charm people, I did charm people, but the charm of charm for me was that I won their consent, not their obedience.
Don’t obey me, Reg, fuck don’t bother ever to see the film. Just believe me when I say that the costumes of even the extras were fluffed and finely stitched and convincingly something like what audience members who can’t spell or pronounce “Renaissance” imagine that period was like. It’s what I imagine it was like and why shouldn’t I, I was there, like I told you, I was acting, when I was bowing or sipping or clapping or conveying surprise by pretending to gasp I believed that I was there, I lost myself in it. You may say that being an extra is little enough to lose yourself in, and if you said that, I mean the reader, I know you wouldn’t, Reg, you’ve been around the business yourself, but if some reader thought it whom I shall never meet, I would say in response, first, that extras give long days of their lives laboring on sets, being costumed and made-up, learning their movements and gestures, preparing themselves to be ready when the call of “Action” breaks the pre-scene silence, ready for the sake of their careers each and every take, because if a star like March or Bennett screws up La Cava pats them on the shoulder, tells them a joke, gives them an easy little tip like pretend you are breathing into his or her ear from afar, which would contribute nothing to their performance but would distract them from dwelling on their mistake. Neither March nor Bennett did their best work in that film. March merely struck vigorous poses, Bennett draped herself in gowns and slid through scenes with her swept blonde hair and bedazzling almost succeeding in distracting from her bored monotone delivery even of passionate lines. Yet La Cava found no real fault with either of them ever. But if one of the extras walked in or out of the camera out of sync or raised their goblet before the toast had been finished, then the whole take was ruined and La Cava made sure he got his casting director to explain to him how that extra had ever been allowed on the set. So I lost myself in it, reader, out of necessity and because I was there to stay and the best way to do that is to get so lost that you couldn’t possibly find your way out, which I never did.
My virginity. Fay Raye. The greatest assonantal Hollywood name. She played the secondary female role in the film, a beautiful peasant too simple of heart to fall deeply for the conniving Cellini. Fay Raye, you, Reg, know as the blonde beauty who killed the beast as the final line in King Kong has it. Fay was wearing a blonde wig for that role. In our film together she was back to her natural brunette hair. I thought she looked wonderful in either color. Her eyebrows were her most striking feature to me—they far outspanned her eyes, which were all the more lovely under those delicate and protective angel wings. Her nose was turned up just a bit, but she could look down it if the part called for hauteur. Her lips, they were delicate and sweet and that was why she was most often the good girl in her films. When I met her on the set she was at first kind to me in passing, no more. I was eleven years younger and a nothing extra, I wouldn’t have dared to talk to her, but she started talking to me. She said that she could see that I loved being on a movie set just like she did, and that I should continue to love it no matter how many cynics I met, and I could believe her because, and her voice became sad for the only time that I heard it become sad during the shooting, she wasn’t sure how many more movies she would get to make, Constance Bennett was the star of this one, she, Fay, was the second, the third choice for so many parts, soon she would be the last and she hadn’t even hit thirty. But then she went back to smiling at me, admiring my courtly costume and joking about her own peasant dress and then she wondered, no longer joking, if I would help her rehearse her lines for a scene to come with Frederic March. In her dressing room. It was a love scene, March was declaring his passion to her and Fay was too pure to say yes just yet. It was the exact opposite of the situation between us, which was that Fay wanted to enjoy herself on the movie set in all the ways that one could and I was not yet aware that such things were done. Speaking March’s lines I began to feel them and once I began to feel them Fay dropped the pretence of practicing her lines and smiled in such away that I felt her lips kiss me before they touched me which they did oh so quickly afterwards. I will not give any more details, Reg. Just this. We both loved being on a movie set, we both understood that anything can happen in the movies, Fay had been held in the massive hand of King Kong atop the Empire State Building, we knew too that the movies are not just what is shown on the screen but everything that goes into the making of them while they last, which in some senses is not very long, a few weeks and the cast and crew wander off to different sets, different studios, return to their marriages as Fay would. But in some senses it is forever, people who see movies and people who make movies both believe that movies will last forever somehow, transmuted from technology to technology, recolored, redimensioned, but still movies. Fay whispered to me on the final day of shooting that her scenes with March would always be for me no matter what else became of our lives. Then she kissed me on the forehead to say that is enough, is it not, be happy boy and I was.
— Excerpt from the novel My Lives Among Stars, by Lawrence Sutin, Copyright 2012
Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West. In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com. He teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.