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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 14. Punch Verses Prestige
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Jean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 14. Punch Verses Prestige Post by :CharlesWest Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1219

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Jean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 14. Punch Verses Prestige

CHAPTER XIV. PUNCH VERSES PRESTIGE

It seems to be a popular belief among those who are unfamiliar with the business of making motion pictures that all dangerous or difficult feats are merely tricks of the camera, and that the actors themselves take no risks whatever. The truth is that they take a good many more risks than the camera ever records; and that directors who worship what they call "punch" in their scenes are frequently as tender of the physical safety of their actors as was Napoleon or any other great warrior who measured results rather than wounds.

Robert Grant Burns had discovered that he had at least two persons in his company who were perfectly willing to do anything he asked them to do. He had set tasks before Jean Douglas that many a man would have refused without losing his self-respect, and Jean had performed those tasks with enthusiasm. She had let herself down over a nasty bit of the rim-rock whose broken line extended half around the coulee bluff, with only her rope between herself and broken bones, and with her blond wig properly tousled and her face turned always towards the rock wall, lest the camera should reveal the fact that she was not Muriel Gay. She had climbed that same rock-rim, with the aid of that same rope, and with her face hidden as usual from the camera. She had been bound and gagged and flung across Gil Huntley's saddle and carried away at a sharp gallop, and she had afterwards freed herself from her bonds in the semi-darkness of a hut that half concealed her features, and had stolen the knife from Gil Huntley's belt while he slept, and crept away to where the horses were picketed. In the revealing light of a very fine moon-effect, which was a triumph of Pete's skill, she slashed a rope that held a high-strung "mustang" (so called in the scenario), and had leaped upon his bare back and gone hurtling out of that scene and into another, where she was riding furiously over dangerously rough ground, the whole outlaw band in pursuit and silhouetted against the skyline and the moon (which was another photographic triumph of Pete Lowry).

Gil Huntley had also done many things that were risky. Jean had shot at him with real bullets so many times that her nervousness on this particular day was rather unaccountable to him. Jean had lassoed him and dragged him behind Pard through brush. She had pulled him from a quicksand bed,--made of cement that showed a strong tendency to "set" about his form before she could rescue him,--and she had fought with him on the edge of a cliff and had thrown him over; and his director, anxious for the "punch" that was his fetish, had insisted on a panorama of the fall, so that there was no chance for Gil to save himself the bruises he got. Gil Huntley's part it was always to die a violent death, or to be captured spectacularly, because he was the villain whose horrible example must bear a moral to youthful brains.

Since Jean had become one of the company, he nearly always died at her hands or was captured by her. This left Muriel Gay unruffled and unhurt, so that she could weep and accept the love of Lee Milligan in the artistic ending of which Robert Grant Burns was so fond.

Jean had never before considered it necessary to warn Gil and implore him not to be nervous, and Gil took her solicitude as an encouraging sign and was visibly cheered thereby. He knew little of guns and fine marksmanship, and he did not know that it is extremely difficult to shoot a revolver accurately and instantaneously; whereas Jean knew very well that Gil Huntley might be thrown off ledges every day in the week without taking the risk he would take that day.

The scene was to close a full reel of desperate attempts upon the part of Gil Huntley to win Muriel; such desperate attempts, indeed, that Muriel Gay spent most of the time sitting at ease in the shade, talking with Lee Milligan, who was two thirds in love with her and had half his love returned, while Jean played her part for her. Sometimes Muriel would be called upon to assume the exact pose which Jean had assumed in a previous scene, for "close-up" that would reveal to audiences Muriel's well-known prettiness and help to carry along the deception. Each morning the two stood side by side and were carefully inspected by Robert Grant Burns, to make sure that hair and costumes were exactly alike in the smallest detail. This also helped to carry on the deception--to those who were not aware of Muriel's limitations. Their faces were not at all alike; and that is why Jean's face must never be seen in a picture.

This shooting scene was a fitting climax to a long and desperate chase over a difficult trail; so difficult that Pard stumbled and fell,--supposedly with a broken leg,--and Jean must run on and on afoot, and climb over rocks and spring across dangerous crevices. She was not supposed to know where her flight was taking her. Sometimes the camera caught her silhouetted against the sky (Burns was partial to skyline silhouettes), and sometimes it showed her quite close,--in which case it would be Muriel instead of Jean,--clinging desperately to the face of a ledge (ledges were also favorite scenes), and seeking with hands or feet for a hold upon the rough face of the rock. During the last two or three scenes Gil Huntley had been shown gaining upon her.

So they came to the location where the shooting scene was to be made that morning. Burns, with the camera and Pete and Muriel and her mother and Lee Milligan, drove to the place in the machine. Jean and Gil Huntley found them comfortably disposed in the shade, out of range of the camera which Pete was setting up somewhat closer than usual, under the direction of Burns.

"There won't be any rehearsal of this," Burns stated at last, stepping back. "When it's done, if you don't bungle the scene, it'll be done. You stand here, Jean, and kind of lean against the rock as if you're all in from that chase. You hear Gil coming, and you start forward and listen, and look,--how far can she turn, Pete; without showing too much of her face?"

Pete squinted into the finder and gave the information.

"Well, Gil, you come from behind that bush. She'll be looking toward you then without turning too much. You grin, and come up with that eager, I-got-you-now look. Don't hurry too much; we'll give this scene plenty of time. This is the feature scene. Jean, you're at the end of your rope. You couldn't run another step if you wanted to, and you're cornered anyway, so you can't get away; get me? You're scared. Did you ever get scared in your life?"

"Yes," said Jean simply, remembering last night when she had pulled the blanket over her head.

"Well, you think of that time you were scared. And you make yourself think that you're going to shoot the thing that scared you. You don't put in half the punch when you shoot blanks; I've noticed that all along. So that's why you shoot a bullet. See? And you come as close to Gil as you can and not hit him. Gil, when you're shot, you go down all in a heap; you know what I mean. And Jean, when he falls, you start and lean forward, looking at him,--remember and keep your face away from the camera!--and then you start toward him kind of horrified. The scene stops right there, just as you start towards him. Then Gay takes it up and does the remorse and horror stuff because she's killed a man. That will be a close-up.

"All right, now; take your places. Sure your gun is loose so you can pull it quick? That's the feature of this scene, remember. You want to get it across BIG! And make it real,--the scare, and all that. Hey, you women get behind the camera! Bullets glance, sometimes, and play the very mischief." He looked all around to make sure that everything was as it should be, faced Jean again, and raised his hand.

"All ready? Start your action! Camera!"

Jean had never before been given so much dramatic work to do, and Burns watched her anxiously, wishing that he dared cut the scene in two and give Muriel that tense interval when Gil Huntley came creeping into the scene from behind the bush. But after the first few seconds his strained expression relaxed; anxiety gave place to something like surprise.

Jean stood leaning heavily against the rock, panting from the flight of the day before,--for so must emotion be carried over into the next day when photo-players work at their profession. Her face was dropped upon her arms flung up against the rock in an attitude of complete exhaustion and despair. Burns involuntarily nodded his head approvingly; the girl had the idea, all right, even if she never had been trained to act a part.

"Come into the scene, Gil!" he commanded, when Jean made a move as though she was tempted to drop down upon the ground and sob hysterically. "Jean, register that you hear him coming."

Jean's head came up and she listened, every muscle stiffening with fear. She turned her face toward Gil, who stopped and looked at her most villainously. Gil, you must know, had come from "legitimate" and was a clever actor. Jean recoiled a little before the leering face of him; pressed her shoulder hard against the ledge that had trapped her, and watched him in an agony of fear. One felt that she did, though one could not see her face. Gil spoke a few words and came on with a certain tigerish assurance of his power, but Jean did not move a muscle. She had backed as far away from him as she could get. She was not the kind to weep and plead with him. She just waited; and one felt that she was keyed up to the supreme moment of her life.

Gil came closer and closer, and there was a look in his eyes that almost frightened Jean, accustomed as she had become to his acting a part; there was an intensity of purpose which she instinctively felt was real. She did not know what it was he had in mind, but whatever it was, she knew what it meant. He was almost within reach, so close that one saw Jean shrink a little from his nearness. He stopped and gathered himself for a quick, forward lunge--

The two women screamed, though they had been expecting that swift drawing of Jean's gun and the shot that seemed to sound the instant her hand dropped. Gil stiffened, and his hand flew up to his temple. His eyes became two staring questions that bored into the soul of Jean. His hand dropped to his side, and his head sagged forward. He lurched, tried to steady himself and then went down limply.

Jean dropped her gun and darted toward him, her face like chalk, as she turned it for one horrified instant toward Burns. She went down on her knees and lifted Gil's head, looking at the red blotch on his temple and the trickle that ran down his cheek. She laid his head down with a gentleness wholly unconscious, and looked again at Burns. "I've killed him," she said in a small, dry, flat voice. She put out her hands gropingly and fell forward across Gil's inert body. It was the first time in her life that Jean had ever fainted.

"Stop the camera!" Burns croaked tardily, and Pete stopped turning. Pete had that little, twisted grin on his face, and he was perfectly calm and self-possessed.

"You sure got the punch that time, Burns," he remarked unfeelingly, while he held his palm over the lens and gave the crank another turn or two to divide that scene from the next.

"She's fainted! She's hit him!" cried Burns, and waddled over to where the two of them lay. The two women drew farther away, clinging to each other with excited exclamations.

And then Gil Huntley lifted himself carefully so as not to push Jean upon the ground, and when he was sitting up, he took her in his arms with some remorse and a good deal of tenderness.

"How was that for a punch?" he inquired of his director. "I didn't tell her I was going to furnish the blood-sponge; I thought it might rattle her. I never thought she'd take it so hard--"

Robert Grant Burns stopped and looked at him in heavy silence. "Good Lord!" he snapped out at last. "I dunno whether to fire you off the job--or raise your salary! You got the punch, all right. And the chances are you've ruined her nerve for shooting, into the bargain." He stood looking down perturbedly at Gil, who was smoothing Jean's hair back from her forehead after the manner of men who feel tenderly toward the woman who cries or faints in their presence. "I'm after the punch every time," Burns went on ruefully, "but there's no use being a hog about it. Where's that water-bag, Lee? Go get it out of the machine. Say! Can't you women do something besides stand there and howl? Nobody's hurt, or going to be."

While Muriel and Gil Huntley did what they could to bring Jean back to consciousness and composure, Robert Grant Burns paced up and down and debated within himself a subject which might have been called "punch versus prestige." Should he let that scene stand, or should he order a "re-take" because Jean had, after all, done the dramatic part, the "remorse stuff"? Of course, when Pete sent the film in, the trimmers could cut the scene; they probably would cut the scene just where Gil went down in a decidedly realistic heap. But it hurt the professional soul of Robert Grant Burns to retake a scene so compellingly dramatic, because it had been so absolutely real.

Jean was sitting up with her back against the ledge looking rather pale and feeling exceedingly foolish, while Gil Huntley explained to her about the "blood-sponge" and how he had held it concealed in his hand until the right moment, and had used it in the interest of realism and not to frighten her, as she might have reason to suspect. Gil Huntley was showing a marked tendency to repeat himself. He had three times assured her earnestly that he did not mean to scare her so, when the voice of the chief reminded him that this was merely an episode in the day's work. He jumped up and gave his attention to Burns.

"Gil, take that same position you had when you fell. Put a little more blood on your face; you wiped most of it off. That right leg is sprawled out too far. Draw it up a little. Throw out your left arm a little more. Whoa-- Enough is plenty. Now, Gay, you take Jean's gun and hold it down by your side, where her hand dropped right after she fired. You stand right about here, where her tracks are. Get INTO her tracks! We're picking up the scene right where Gil fell. She looked straight into the camera and spoiled the rest, or I'd let it go in. Some acting, if you ask me, seeing it wasn't acting at all." He sent one of his slant-eyed glances toward Jean, who bit her lips and looked away.

"Lean forward a little, and hold that gun like you knew what it was made for, anyway!" He regarded Muriel glumly. "Say! that ain't a stick of candy you're trying to hide in your skirt," he pointed out, with an exasperated, rising inflection at the end of the sentence. "John Jimpson! If I could take you two girls to pieces and make one out of the two of you, I'd have an actress that could play Western leads, maybe!

"Oh, well--thunder! All you can do is put over the action so they'll forget the gun. Say, you drop it the second the camera starts. You pick up the action where Jean dropped the gun and started for Gil. See if you can put it over the way she did. She really thought she'd killed him, remember. You saw the real, honest-to-John, horror-dope that time. Now see how close you can copy it.

"All ready? START your ACTION!" he barked. "Camera!"

Brutally absorbed in his work he might be; callous to the tragedy in Jean's eyes at what might have happened; unfeeling in his greedy seizure of her horror as good "stuff" for Muriel Gay to mimic. Yet the man's energy was dynamic; his callousness was born of his passion for the making of good pictures. He swept even Jean out of the emotional whirlpool and into the calm, steady current of the work they had to do.

He instructed Pete to count as spoiled those fifteen feet of film which recorded Jean's swift horror. But Pete Lowry did not always follow slavishly his instructions. He sent the film in as it was, without comment. Then he and Gil Huntley counted on their fingers the number of days that would probably elapse before they might hope to hear the result, and exchanged knowing glances now and then when Robert Grant Burns seemed especially careful that Jean's face should not be seen by the recording eye of the camera. And they waited; and after awhile they began to show a marked interest in the mail from the west.

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