Punch Verses Prestige
From: Jean Of The Lazy A
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.
Next: A Leading Lady They Would Make Of Jean
Previous: Pictures And Plans And Mysterious Footsteps