I was a fool expecting a primitive like him to manage such a leap of the imagination. He didn't even understand what Ince's movie was about. Greek tragedy? Huh? And differences of vision aside, I should have known he'd never be able to see Carlos as I did. They were brothers, after all. A prophet in his own land, et cetera. Impossible.
We shouldn't have been friends. When I'm not talking or writing, I doubt my life. Perfecto is a warrior, a gardener who's content to let his muscles speak for him. Did you catch the Bulls game last night, compadre? What? Eh?
We have to be friends. I knew that when I turned my back on him in 1919. I knew it seventy-five years later when I began hearing the voices of our canyon. I knew it in 1985 when, failed at the business of making a living, my children grown and my wife dead, I decided to make a life and sat down beside Perfecto Padilla on this very bench. We just started talking. We hadn't talked since 1919! Imagine that.
For the next ten years we sat here every afternoon, at four o'clock when the weather was warm, breathing as best we could, resigned by now to the stew of poison rolling back from the cliffs over traffic gridlocked on the Coast Highway. Behind us the afternoon parade of spandexed cyclists, roller-bladers and joggers, the teen-age surfers whizzing by on skateboards to catch their evening wave. We sat here, both of us waiting for something we were afraid to speak of. Until Monday, June 6th, 1994.
Our bench (ours till June 6th, ours because we carry walking sticks) faces Santa Monica Bay. It's situated on the edge of the sea-walk that runs from Venice to Temescal Canyon. That's a half mile south of where Thomas Ince built his city above the staircase in 1916. Cement bunkers housing condos flank Sunset Boulevard there now as it dumps more commuters onto the Coast Highway, a Jack-in-the-Box urban slum.
Never mind, I can see it all just as it was the day we rode to Inceville. Ice plants galloping down the dunes spewing yellow and pink flowers sticky with crystal come. The air scrubbed by a spring rain and on every patch of bare earth the new grass tender as hair sprung up for the mountain's newborn. Green. The exact shade old Corot envisioned for the skies of heaven. I've never seen grass so green in all the years since.
"Look up there, boys," Carlos said, reining in his stallion beside the Colossus of Rhodes, his hand lifting mine (his sleeve shining from Dona Florentina's charcoal iron).
And there it was, on the highest ridge of the seven hills, crowning Mr. Ince's staircase, a dome of gold gleaming under a sun just risen like a pearl behind the scarf of night fog still wrapped around the cliffs of High Topanga. You catch the morning's mood, the emotions that overwhelm me remembering that day.
"Are you out of your mind, compadre?"
Perfecto said that first in 1919, three years after we did the staircase scene. Tormented by memories of recent events in France, I'd mentioned to him dreams I was having about his brother Carlos at Inceville. Then he added, unforgivably, given my poetic and philosophical intent:
"You were out cold when they shot that scene, Webb."
I just walked away then, for sixty-six years. Things got messier when he said it again on June 6th, 1994. The day started out like any other since we'd declared peace in 1985 (as a result of my overtures). Perfecto and I live a block apart, five minutes' walk from the beach (but we take forty). I walked over as usual to the cottage off Canyon Drive where he lives with his daughter Elena. Coffee and doughnuts, a pee. We spent our usual quarter hour patrolling the crosswalk at Mesa Drive, using our walking sticks to discipline speeding commuters. We chatted for five minutes with the Sweeper, a seven-foot Hercules of color who resides in the pedestrian tunnel under Pacific Coast Highway.
We often saw the Sweeper disappearing down the sea-walk, on his knees, broom and pan in hand. His mind gone, his work known, he greets the glassy stares of beachgoers with the smile of a saint. Perfecto says he's trying to sweep the world. At home in his tunnel, our Sweeper seems oblivious to the stink of dog shit that drives us on.
We were sitting on this very bench last June 6th when Santa Monica staged a D-Day tribute to some local heroes. News to us. It began with three warships anchored offshore shooting blanks from cannons. Perfecto was diving for the pavement when a jogger explained. Next we had to witness four old fools fake a landing in a Harbor Patrol boat done up as an LCT. They weren't actors - these were the sole survivors of an entire battalion long since relieved of duty under the stones of Normandy.
"The survivors are the heroes?" I hadn't been waiting here ten years to watch the celebration of another war.
"Not my war," Perfecto mumbled.
I should have realized he was upset. Remembering our history, I should have shut up then. I should have known better, talking to a veteran the way I did. But Perfecto just got a little pale and rigid, so I risked another shot at those dreams I'd had about Carlos, trying in a quiet and reasonable manner to explain my point of view.
Perfecto sat there like a rock till I was done, then he said it again, "You were out cold when they shot that scene, Webb."
He angered me, of course, but given our history, I would have dropped the matter if he hadn't said, "It was Wild Bill Hart and Pinto Ben on the staircase, compadre. My brother Carlos wasn't riding any horse that afternoon." Tonally, this remark was more offensive than the words might suggest. Then he brought up that damned old man in his white robes again, and he laughed. I am not a violent man by nature, but we both carry walking sticks.
So, here we are. I mean here I am, and there he is a quarter of a mile down the sea-walk. Peace. As in Requiescat in pace. Odd, but I suspect he's waiting too. What else does he have to do anymore?
"Webster, don't you dare get out of Carlos's sight!" My mother said that on April 11, 1916, as good a place as any to begin looking at how all this started. Mother was worried because 25,000 extras would be on the staircase with us.
"And you behave, Perfecto Padilla," she said, hoisting me up into Carlos's arms. Perfecto was already aboard, bitching because his big brother made him sit on Rojo's rump (where he'd get the shaking up he usually deserved).
"Hang on to the saddle horn, dear!"
"What, Mom?" I had lain awake until 4 A.M. listening for Rojo. You couldn't mistake his hoof-beats, especially in a canyon where every sound reverberates. Carlos's horse, a roan stallion, weighed nearly half a ton. People in Santa Rosalia spoke his name with awe in crisis situations, knowing Carlos was close.
It's dawn. I'm nine years old and Perfecto is thirteen, already a hulk (though you wouldn't notice it next to his brother). "Hang on, son!" Huh? I can't wake up. Carlos holds me tight against his chest with one arm. I feel the play of muscle in his rein arm, hardly a twitch even when he jumps Rojo over a fallen sycamore in the creek bed. What a horse. I'm awake now.
At the mouth of our canyon, we headed north. There was no sea-walk then. Mostly sand ribboning the coastline all the way to San Francisco, a dirt road as far as you dared drive. Twenty miles north at the Rindge Ranch - become Malibu today - range riders took pot shots at you.
Carlos was dressed in his Sunday finest. I suppose he was hoping Mary Ellen Sundance would smile at him on the set. He smelled of mothballs and the sweet red onions his father grew on the Padillas' little mesa. Perfecto complained about the stink of Bay Rum he'd slathered on too, but I didn't mind. The air tasted of iodine and salt.
Rojo trotted neatly around starfish and the snaky nests of brown kelp beached by an ebbing tide. It was a blue light still, almost dark under the Huntington Cliffs, which were furrowed then, collapsed in deluges and earthquakes since. Dunes rolling eastward (gone now too) were studded with yellow coreopsis trees and white spears of yucca in full flower.
Passing the ruins of Long Wharf south of the Japanese Village, Carlos waved to one of Mr. Ince's stars, Senor Sessue Hayakawa, doing his morning t'ai chi chuan in a circle of gulls. Then he said, "Hold onto your socks, boys," and gave Rojo his head. The white water in front of us was all frilled in silver by the fins of big Corbina fish rooting for sand crabs. Rojo didn't exactly shy at them, just waltzed it up a bit, with a couple of swerves and bounces which inspired some profanity from Perfecto in his rear seat. Well, it was a pleasure being aboard that big horse dancing north all the way to Inceville!
Inceville (the actual studio, that is, not to be confused with the set Mr. Ince built) was the prototype for MGM and the mammoth movie factories to follow. To get to its central complex of offices and editing rooms, you turned right at Santa Ynez Canyon, just past the set for the Palace of Versailles. The creek running by the dirt road was gorged from last night's rain and Rojo didn't like it much when the banks kept collapsing inches from his hooves. Spooked by a rented elephant staked in front of the Taj Mahal set, he nearly shook me off. You could still hear the surf behind us and the cation wrens were making a sweet racket wishing us good morning.
We were the first extras to arrive, though a goodly portion of the local population was already at breakfast inside the commissary. This population, for the interest of movie buffs not read up on Inceville, included (in addition to the usual laborers, carpenters, and technicians) the 110 performers of the 101 Wild West Show, several Keystone Kops, ninety-seven horses in a stable that could house 200 animals, and a herd of cattle.
The commissary, which could feed 300 extras at a clip, was a wood frame building like all the rest. I clearly recall a wren's nest in the porch rafters, a cup of moss and spiders' webs holding five white eggs dotted red on a lining of feathers. Inside, men laughing and shouting, the banging of silver and dishware. It didn't seem to bother the wrens.
Hitching up Rojo in front of the commissary, Carlos said, "Listen, Webster, you too hermanito tonto, my stupid little brother..." (no one else in Santa Rosalia dared speak like that to Perfecto, even at thirteen, but Carlos was a giant), "they'll pay you one silver dollar and the lunch is free, so behave, get me? I'll set you up at the foot of the stairs, and you just sit tight until you hear ACTION. I'll be busy, see?" (It seems odd now to realize that Carlos's speech patterns in everyday life - unlike crisis situations - remind me of a later star, James Cagney).
Of course Perfecto and I suspected Carlos had come up here just to see Chief Sundance's daughter, Mary Ellen. (Should heroes risk love? This question lingers too.) Mary Ellen lived with her father in the Sioux encampment and I'm pretty sure Carlos was over there during the shooting, but I've never admitted that to Perfecto. It was close enough, especially for a man on a horse. Just past the dressing rooms that bordered the five main stages, next door to the sets for the English village and the Sphinx, below the stables and the Mesopotamian Temple, right under the brow of the hill where Mr. Ince built his staircase.
Carlos had no sooner finished his speech than there was a rumble, a backfire that made us jump, and Mr. Ince pulled up in his black Hupmobile convertible (the one they used in the Mack Sennett movies). Who did we face? What is left of this great man besides his almost forgotten movies? A black homburg on his head, a cigar in a brown blunt face. A broad-chested stump of a man straining at the seams of a single-breasted, pinstriped suit.
Being human, of course, Mr. Ince saw nothing but Carlos, and I could tell the great man was thinking what we all knew: star material. Until, as if exhausted by so much splendor, his gaze dropped and he saw me, the runt beside the hero.
"Good," he said, and his lips pulled back from his tobacco-stained teeth in a smile of great sweetness. "Good boy, you'll remember this."
Then he turned again to Carlos, who was grooming Rojo (his mind on Mary Ellen Sundance, not stardom). "Son," Mr. Ince said, "that's a smashing horse you've got there. I'd like you to ride him in the staircase scene today. See Kit Carson over at casting." He meant Kit Carson Junior, you understand.
Mr. Ince flicked a wooden match with his thumbnail to re-light his cigar, one of those black Italian twists as I recall. "And son, come by tomorrow, will you? I can always use a good man on a horse."
"At your service, sir," Carlos replied.
Sad to tell, Carlos Padilla would soon be in the service of an employer with intentions more subtle than Mr. Ince's. To see this in proper context, to help you understand what service in the United States Military must have meant to him, I have to tell another story. Fade Out, if you will, Fade In.
It's one month earlier, a March morning in 1916, and I ask you to imagine a snarl of tawny hide and nerves trembling in dappled shade, an arroyo surrounded by trees bowed overhead to the memory of water. Two fierce golden eyes spiked by sunlight glaring down at you from the limb of a sycamore; baying dogs already bloody making fools of themselves, two dead, the rest trying to climb the tree - tumbling down, snapping at each other - as Lico Pena and Leo Carrillo show up with rifles.
"Webster Hanford Hayden, Perfecto Padilla!" Mother cries, "Oh damn fool boys get away from there!"
Wounded, the lion will make a run for it, possibly killing more than dogs this time (to read in a mother's mind what's unthinkable to two immortal boys). Standing in a creek bed, rocks underfoot haired in weeds still slippery from winter floods, we're as likely as the sycamores to pull out of here quick.
After a swat at Perfecto (she always blamed him when I got in trouble, everyone did), Mother holds me so close I can feel her heart pounding. I look up into a rain of bobby pins, a mass of dark blonde hair shaken loose from its bun. Overhead a clerestory of sycamore leaves shaped like green hands reaches down. Then Lico Pena fires the first shot and misses.
"Oh," Mother cries as the big cat poises to spring, "Where in heaven's name is Carlos?"
It was like that, you see. Every good woman in Santa Rosalia Canyon, Anglo or Mexican (known equally as housewives in those days), turned to Carlos in crisis situations. There was something about him that said to the world: Here I am, use me.
Mother's words are no sooner out of her mouth than I feel the rocks jump under my boots and somewhere downstream there's a thrashing in the water willows and bracken fern. Mother turns toward the west, knowing before we do that Carlos will be riding up from the Padillas' barn. The first thing I see galloping straight at me is the white blaze on Rojo's muzzle, his great anvil of a brow thrust out from 1000 pounds of horse. A humming sound, a mother's cries of relief (and remember, mountain lions have been mistaken for a woman screaming, they do not roar like MGM's Leo). All this cut by a steaming volley of Spanish that sends Leo Carrillo and Lico into retreat with their rifles.
Then Carlos speaks to us in English, using the deep round tones (think of a bronze bell) he saves for crises. "Tie up those dogs, you crazy kids," all the while circling the tree, reins in one hand, the loop of his reata whirling in the other. Bareback! He took no time for a saddle when he got Mother's message.
I should add, for otherwise this scene might seem incredible, that Carlos had recently been training Rojo to rope cattle for a round-up north of Topanga Canyon. Even we, his witnesses, couldn't believe our eyes, imagine his intentions. Except perhaps for Mother whose faith in Carlos was boundless. "Oh dear," she said (quite calmly, though she did pinch my ear), "he's dressed for church."
Carlos wore a low-crowned black hat tilted to one side (by fashion, not budged by his gallop), with the baraquejo - chin strap - just below his lower lip. Twenty-dollar gold pieces were set onto his silver spurs as rosettes. Leo Carrillo, who wrote a book when he became famous, remembered Carlos as wearing a blue broadcloth jacket over a white shirt, and snug pantaloons with a bell at the bottom to accommodate his small boots. Leo always insisted that Carlos, though a giant, had small feet. That boy was so seldom off his horse, Leo said, why would he need big feet?
Still, all this splendor might be forgotten if Carlos Padilla had been dealing with just one treed lion. Our canyon suffered that year from a plague of lions. Its sponsor was Gandolph Smith, a squatter on the Padillas' land grant currently suing them for ownership rights (Perfecto's father, Don Guillermo, confessed during this episode that his family were flawed Americans, careless with their land and generous with their neighbors).
Gandolph Smith had a single source of income: two slaughter houses up in Santa Monica had contracted to dump their offal in an arroyo behind his ranch - this after beach riots were set off in 1915 by a stew of rotten skulls and guts contaminating local waters (pollution was less subtle in those days). It was to Gandolph's arroyo that the lions came to feed. Many soon grew too lazy to hunt for living prey, though a few dogs disappeared, and coyotes following the lions bit the tails off three calves.
When Don Guillermo and my father led a deputation to voice a protest, Gandolph's response was lofty. "This," he pronounced, "is how I make my living." (This a half century before developers and real-estate salesmen swarmed into Santa Rosalia Canyon.)
However, except for the stink that sometimes wafted up the canyon on sea breezes, many of our neighbors were able to ignore this embarrassment. Some even celebrated it and held barbecue-watches for the condors that began commuting down from Ventura to gorge on the mess in Gandolph's arroyo, an awesome sight: black wings nine feet across, talons the size of gaffing hooks.
Then, one Sunday when my father was out of town on location with D.W. Griffith, our neighbor Mr. Machado heard a bawling from his barn that was not a milking call. He found two of his finest Herefords gutted (whether this was the work of a rogue lion yearning for something warmer than carrion, a bear, or marauding coyotes, no one ever knew).
Simultaneously, my own mother, sitting on our kitchen porch while editing one of Dad's screenplays, found herself facing a lion. He was crouched on our backyard fence, licking his paws, and he stank from his last meal in Gandolph's arroyo. He must have looked magnificent wreathed in the flowers of Mother's favorite cup-of-goldvine. At least my little brother thought so.
Clarence Eugene, playing in his sandbox under the fence, had just reached up to stroke this beauty when Mother, using language never heard before by him - she was Viennese - ran without hesitation (as Clarence remembers it) straight at the beast, a broomstick her lance.
It was no contest. The slatboard fence toppled over. The lion fled. Mother, foolishly, set our three dogs loose (two were dead minutes later) and with Clarence in her arms ran for the Padillas' barn where Carlos would be grooming Rojo to ride in the Sunday parade at Saint Monica's church. On the way she spotted me (out of earshot, or pretending to be) following Perfecto who was, classically, following the dogs. Sighting Incensia, Carlos's sister, Mother handed her Clarence and a message for Carlos, then hurried on to deliver the Oh fool boys aria with which I introduced her.
Now, most of us, boys or not, would have simply shot that lion if we'd had a gun like Leo Carrillo and Lico Pena. Even Mother, I suspect, if brooms came equipped with triggers. Carlos Padilla, however, while he owned a rifle, only wielded a lasso on that Sunday morning. Had his sister misunderstood Mother's message? Could it have had something to do with his falling in love with Mary Ellen Sundance at Mass the week before? Or did he already have a plan to rid us of Gandolph? I wish I'd been prescient enough to ask. These questions linger three-quarters of a century later.
I didn't count, but again credibility demands that Carlos must have missed the lion at least three times. Shadows were beginning to deepen in the glade when his reata looped past batting paws and snapping fangs to close on the beast's throat. How did it get to be night in the morning? Night, I can see it. Now, landing a lion in the dark on a short rope might be compared to hooking a shark with your feet in water. The thought still makes me shudder.
Coolness prevailed. Eluding clawed swipes which could have gutted him, and guided by Carlos in some language private to heroes, Rojo towed that lion screaming and spitting down the creek bed. Where? Where else?
Dusk, screams, and caterwauling, beastly and human, thumps and the bang of slammed doors splintering. No witnesses except to sounds, but the voices of our canyon speak to me: Rojo's hooves make quick work of the front door and the lion, guided by Carlos, is delivered to Gandolph Smith. I doubt that Carlos said, "Here is your lion, Senor Smith, now make a living," but I savor the notion.
No one was killed. Carlos always exerted absolute control in crisis situations. Carrion deliveries from the slaughter houses ceased the next week, and not long afterward Gandolph was seen heading east in his buckboard.
Asked how he'd used a lion to rid us of a plague, then finished off the lion without a gun, Carlos just smiled. Never mind, I can see eighty years ago far clearer than the print in this morning's Times. Carlos leads that roped lion tame as a chastened hound up Rustic Canyon where the springs run fresh year round, up to the mountain where the old people used to worship, to a wilderness he knows. I see a lion freed from Gandolph's carrion. I see a tall boy on a red horse, saddleless, his Sunday clothes immaculate, riding home.
A month later, surrounded by 25,000 extras, Perfecto and I stood at the base of Mr. Ince's staircase. Carlos had pointed out two cameras set up in mobile wooden towers; a third was somewhere under the steps focused on our feet. Perfecto swears Mr. Ince was taking long shots with a Bell and Howell from the gondola of a hot air balloon, but I doubt that. With electrically-run cameras not yet in common use, most were either hand-cranked or run by some sort of wind-up mechanism. All were large and heavy by modern standards, not something you'd casually tuck into a balloon.
Primitive toys? Hardly. Mr. Ince - and David Griffith not far away over in Hollywood - were using the lenses of these behemoths to catch the leaps of time, the ironies and tragedies of history. Without sound. In silence. Imagine that if you can in 1996. The silence. The relief of that, the possibilities.
Carlos had told us to start running when someone shouted ACTION through a bullhorn - megaphones, they were called then. "Run where?" I was scared to death. I'd never been in a mob scene before. "Where's Carlos?" I said.
"Guess," Perfecto said.
"Run where?" I said.
"Up the stairs, dummy," Perfecto said, "To the city."
Even I, a nine-year-old boy, could see the capital dome through all those extras - a blaze of gold limning thousands of butts and backs. I remember that much clearly.
Then someone shouted ACTION.
The images flicker. No sound but the breathing of the actors until that shout, a sort of voice-over effect, nothing the audience in a darkened theater would experience, not in the movie - anyway, this was long before talkies. Maybe it was one of the directors (four of them, Perfecto says), but my best guess is Mr. Ince or God because I could swear that shout came from above our heads.
I never told my parents what happened to me on Mr. Ince's staircase. To begin with it would have been disloyal to Mother. As much as Dad admired Carlos, he understood the vicissitudes of the business, and would never have allowed his son to become involved in a mob scene. Mother had granted me permission, exhausted by my whining on the day Carlos rebuilt our backyard fence (the one the lion knocked down). She never dreamed Carlos might fail her. Well, no one knew yet that Carlos was in love.
A few lapses follow. Seventy-eight years have passed since our day at Inceville, and circumstances then make it necessary to rely for some details on the questionable memory of Perfecto Padilla. For example, while declaring me non compos when I mention a winged horse, Perfecto insists he saw a bearded old man in white robes standing at the top of Mr. Ince's staircase.
Later, my own mother actually saw Mr. Ince's movie and she never sighted any old man. So, if we accept Perfecto's version, this character must have ended up on the cutting room floor, as they say. I wish I knew, I wish I could talk to Mr. Ince again, because if that old man was really in Mr. Ince's script, it changes the whole story.
Long ago I read something by a Frenchman named de Goncourt whose conceit it was to view our earth as a museum; I seem to recall he declared a sort of Armageddon would befall us if ever we achieved the perfection envisioned by Mr. Ince in his movie. De Goncourt's museum had a caretaker, a bearded patriarch, who on the earth's final day stood by the exit doors declaring to one and all:
"It's closing time."
Absurd, except when I imagine de Goncourt's caretaker as a dead ringer for the old man Perfecto saw. Never mind, these French always take the dark view, and of this much I'm certain: Mr. Ince was American to the core.
As you may recall, Perfecto also claimed William S. Hart took Carlos's part on the staircase (for young readers not up on film history, William Hart and his horse Pinto Ben were the first big cowboy stars). Doubting Perfecto or not, I have to confess Perfecto's reporting must have had an effect, because even before his big brother left for France, I couldn't see Carlos on that staircase anymore (my dreams about the winged horse came later).
Instead, there was this weathered, whip-thin type, different but not much different from the heroes of all the Western ballets to follow - Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood (white as snow under their leather chaps, of course, unlike Leo Carrillo who got all the comedy parts). Try as I might, all I could see was William Hart thundering up our staircase; and always the mob (or the Masses as I suspect Mr. Ince named us in his script) parting before him.
Carlos lost to me for almost eighty years! It hurts to be reminded of things like that. And so my small war started again on June 6th. Perfecto just wouldn't let up, insisting his damned old man was at the top of our staircase. But the situation didn't really escalate until he laughed again at my dreams about Carlos on a winged horse, and that's when I whacked Perfecto Padilla with my walking stick.
Back in 1916 some people said Mr. Ince's set was as big as the one going up for D.W. Griffith's epic film, Intolerance. My father laughed at that. "The only thing Ince's got as big as David Llewelyn Wark Griffith, Sonny, is an ego." Ego? A new word to me. It seems Dad, some dreams still intact, had been reading Sigmund Freud on the recommendation of an old pal from the Provincetown Players, the great American playwright, Eugene O'Neill.
Dad, a starving playwright himself once, had come west to be a writer for D.W. Griffith and the studios that buried him. He became a good father and provider, unlike his friend O'Neill who lived a messy life - one son a suicide, I believe before receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936. In any case, big cannot be argued - the set for Mr. Griffith's Intolerance, the walls of ancient Babylon, currently towered over cottages along Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
However, this is history too: the set that William Ince built above the staircase took sixty carpenters three months to build, and materials alone cost $80,000, far from peanuts in those days. All for a sequence that lasted one minute and three-quarters, 100 feet of film.
But if for no other reason than the number of bodies Mr. Ince put into motion, I'm convinced he couldn't have failed to capture an enormity of energy, chutzpah, and hope on that staircase he built. Guesswork again I've never been able to watch the movie, and I've grown to hate its title.
When he got past big, Dad (employed by Mr. Griffith in 1916) insisted Mr. Ince's movie was sure to be a flop. "Sonny," he said, "You're too young to understand such things yet, but for the record, Ince's montage techniques his cross-cutting, the close-ups, everything - is monkey-see-monkey-do stolen from Griffith. Even so, most of his pictures are filmed like stage plays. No action, sonny."
"Doesn't Mack Sennett work for Mr. Ince, Dad?" Just the week before Perfecto and I had watched a black Hupmobile convertible rocking on the cliff edge above Bundy Bath House. "A blonde lady in a white dress and four Keystone Kops were hanging on for dear life, Dad, while a gang of crooks took potshots at them, and then. . ."
"Exceptions don't make the rule, son."
It's my pleasure to report that even Dad's imagination was finally struck by what Mr. Ince built. One day, scouting locations for Mr. Griffith, he took me with him to the top of Griffith Park (not, sadly, named for the great director, but a homicidal millionaire, Colonel Griffiths Jenkins Griffiths, who after shooting his wife almost dead, gave the land to the city).
From there, from Griffith Park - eighteen miles away - even Dad could see William Ince's set on the bluff above the seven hills (where it lasted, endured awhile - alas, did not prevail - before being destroyed by fire, by looting, by the times). "Why," Dad said, "that's not a set, sonny, it's architecture."
And so we looked at it together, my father and I, from that great distance-the gold dome of the capitol building and the towers of the city Mr. Ince built to celebrate his theme - a splendor set against the sea which rose like a shining dam on that spring day to hold back the sky. Mr. Ince's movie was in release by then and he'd been invited to the White House by President Wilson, another advocate for peace.
"Well," my father said, "well, well." His boss, Mr. Griffith, was still shooting Intolerance over in Hollywood and running out of money. Dad wasn't worried. Peace was all the rage that year. In a little village south and east of Mr. Ince's set, they would even name a street for peace, Via de La Paz. You can drive down it to this day, but be careful at its dead end - the cliffs are sliding.
It's hard to go on, to confess my naivete, as I sit here alone on my concrete bench. But I want to remind you that no one else arrived on horseback that day at Inceville, and no one else arrived so very early, excepting Mr. Ince. Minor actors, the common run of extras, if they weren't locals, all took the red trolley line to the ruins of the Long Wharf just north of Santa Monica Canyon, where buckboards awaited them.
"Good." Mr. Ince said to me that morning, "Good boy, you'll remember this." Could it be that he sensed I'd try some day to write this story about his set? Of course, Perfecto swears Mr. Ince was looking at him, not me, as a possible recruit for stardom.
No question that Carlos was too busy thinking about Mary Ellen Sundance to pay much attention to Mr. Ince's offer; he never showed up for work the next day. I take that, however, to be evidence of character, not slackness - stardom of the sort Mr. Ince offered just wasn't Carlos's style.
As for Carlos's absence during the staircase scene, a disappointment to me, what can I say, finally? Perfection is elusive. Maybe heroes should be flawed, should fall in love and fumble on occasion, so we can know them as human, like us, so we can bear some responsibility too. Who of us would want to be as perfect, as lonely as God? I don't know, though I suspect some of us need our dreams of heroes, to live by.
The truth is, as Perfecto reminded me on June 6th, I can't claim to be a witness anyway. Just after somebody shouted ACTION to 25,000 extras, I fell down. Luckily the staircase was made of wood painted to look like marble, a relatively soft landing. Still, I'm lucky to be alive to tell what I do know. Perfecto didn't see my fall, and the cameras kept rolling.
The next thing I remember is the beach whizzing by, Carlos's arms around me, and Perfecto complaining as usual on Rojo's rump. We had to make up a story for Mother on the way - I had a black eye.
Thomas Ince's movie was very popular for awhile. In 1916 it helped get President Wilson reelected on the peace platform.
In 1917, as you know, President Wilson declared war on Germany. The effect on Mr. Ince's box office receipts was disastrous, and Mr. Griffith's Intolerance fared even worse. From what I've read, this marked the beginning of the end for these great filmmakers, though like Perfecto in his final years of boxing, they stayed in the ring. Bravo.
William Hart, the cowboy star, left with Mr. Ince's luck, along with Mack Sennett and his Keystone Kops, the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and the Sioux Indian tribe - some to Paramount, others to the Army. Perfecto, lying about his age, followed his big brother to "the France" (as he calls it), but suffered no ill effects from his first war except grief and a lifelong passion for boxing.
Carlos? As you'd expect, he was among the first to enlist (he always is), but only after President Wilson made it clear to him that this was the Great War to End Wars. A War for Peace, as they say. In the cavalry, of course, though Rojo was declared too skittish for military duty. And Carlos was not among the chosen who rode. For a time he polished the boots of white men in fashionable Squadron A of New York City, until the Army declared horses obsolete and Carlos was issued a machine gun.
What happened to him overseas? I don't know, the voices of our canyon fail me here. May I guess that by now his unstained heart was broken, as they say? May I guess that without a horse, his finger on the trigger, Carlos lost it, as they say? That crawling across treeless plains plowed deep in the blood of his brothers, dreams of Rojo winged for battle exhausted Carlos Padilla and made him stupid, a careless warrior whose feet were too small. But no bullet could touch him. The rest is history, not a guess. In 1918, during a mustard gas attack at Chateau-Thierry, Private Carlos Padilla removed his mask. The Army diagnosed it as an act of panic. In 1919 Carlos died in his sleep. Mary Ellen did not wait for him.
To this day I remained troubled by that old man Perfecto claims was standing at the top of Mr. Ince's staircase. Was he really in the great man's script? Our local historian, Betty Lou Young, reassures me. In her perception, the Masses in Mr. Ince's movie would not have stood still for exit lines pronounced by some "Caretaker."
She declares Mr. Ince's plot and theme to be Grecian, that its final scene followed a battle for a new world, led by a secret society of "crazed women" (you understand I'm quoting Betty Lou) who have pledged themselves to bear no more "cannon fodder" - that's how people talked in those days. Where we all came in, Betty Lou says, eternal peace had been proclaimed and was being celebrated by the Masses - our scene, our moment, us - rushing up Mr. Ince's staircase to the capital of Civilization. That's what Mr. Ince called his movie.
I regret nothing! Admittedly, I was the one who declared war. Maybe if someone with the talents of our current Secretary of State, Mr. Christopher, were in charge of public affairs locally, he'd advise me to make another overture. But what's the use? I know what Perfecto would say. I know what I'd do. And this time he might kill me. Look at those hands, hams! Eighty men decked in Ocean Park Arena, the fifty years since spent hauling the roots of Padilla Grass out of rich men's gardens.
Sometimes, sitting here looking out over Santa Monica Bay, my thoughts wander as they often do lately, and I see that cowboy star, what's-his-name, on our staircase, and I edit him as Mr. Ince might, as I edit Perfecto's damned old man. Sometimes, I hear a humming overhead where Mr. Ince or God shouted ACTION long ago, and looking up to the top of our staircase, I see a dark prince armed only with a reata, astride a Pegasus trained to rope lions in air untainted by carrion.
I think thoughts like that, while Perfecto sits on his bench a quarter of a mile away, watching the roller-bladers in their tights and discussing the Word Cup soccer scores with some other old fool. I think of last June 6th, watching the celebration of another war, trying to talk to that man about Mr. Ince's staircase and his brother Carlos and a horse with wings, but what's the use?
Where was I? Did I say Mr. Ince alone braved the drive from Culver City each morning in his Hupmobile convertible, early, bright and early, rain or shine? He was an up-and-at-'em sort of fellow with an eye for the open road and an eye for the story. Not much to slow the great man down in April but arroyos and canyons (though in winter rains even he might have chosen a horse, faced by flooded roads of gumbo mud). He passes truck farms on some flat stretches, but it's mostly desert still before we steal the Owens Valley water. Each March, rolling seas of green and gold and purple stretch as far as the eye can see around the little islands of Culver City, Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills - lupine, poppies, the lavender spires of wild turnips tangled in spinning fields of yellow mustard seeded by Father Serra in 1779.
And as Mr. Ince drives on into autumn, his nostrils sprung wide by the bite of roadside sage crushed beneath his tires, this gorgeous sea becomes a plain all gray and umber, torch dry before he reaches winter and. . . Where was I?
Oh yes, the fires. Fires on the plain, fires on the mountain, until at night it seems as if the sun has risen. The fires continue to plague us, as you know, in the city too now, while Perfecto and I sit here waiting for the messengers of God.
"Carlos." The word catches in his throat. Old men grow wary of speaking aloud the names of their ghosts. "It was Carlos on the staircase, Webb."
I feel something the size of a small ham patting my knee, not lightly - clenched, it once decked seventy-eight contenders in the Ocean Park Arena. The gesture is swift, the diplomacy heavy. We're an old couple, shy in tenderness. But I think we'll be able to talk again, two old men who sometimes hear each other. We'll talk, glad to be here for another sunset in peace or war. Friendship, the last romance.