April 5th is a way cool birthday—Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Melvyn Douglas, Gregory Peck, Walter Huston, Lord Buckley, Frank Gorshin, Roger Corman, a bunch of other people, and me. It’s a way cool death day too—Douglas MacArthur, Chiang Kai-shek, Howard Hughes, Brian Donlevy, Alan Ginsberg, Charlton Heston, Kurt Cobain, Saul Bellow, a bunch of other people and not me. Yet, anyway.
As I fell asleep Wallace Beery was yelling and when I woke up Bette Davis was yelling and now I can’t fall asleep again. So I tried looking for a photo of them together, to see the loathing. No luck. But I found a picture of Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford, and she hated the both of them, Wallace and Bette. Hollywood was a minefield then. Everyone hating and sniping and drinking and fucking.
We live in an old Spanish style duplex on an old street in and old neighborhood in Silver Lake. That’s next door to Hollywood. They lived here, those movie people. There was no Beverly Hills then. There’s old studio buildings everywhere around us. Silent movie studios full of silent ghosts. What to you are old movies to us might have been drunken arguments right outside. Parties spilling out into the street, singing and laughing and fighting. Shut up, we’d yell. We’re trying to sleep. Irene Dunne lived down the street. Her place is surrounded by an immense wall. If the parties spilled outside her house they’d wind smack up against that wall, trapped. Servants would come and sort things out. People would get home eventually and all would grow quiet again, interrupted only by the mockingbirds. There are nuns there now in Irene Dunne’s place. No parties. Just prayers and reflection. I wonder if they watch TCM and imagine Irene’s fabulous bashes.Those old Hollywood mansions have kitchens like medieval castles. Vast feasts were prepared there. You stand at the stove frying your eggs now and feel small.
I look out our bay windows and reality ripples, the glass is so old. Glass is a liquid and flows with gravity at a very slow speed*. It shatters in our time, but oozes downward through the centuries. The people who looked through that window unrippled are long dead now, probably buried in Forest Lawn over the river there, between rows of movie stars. Wallace Beery is over there. So is Bette Davis. Jean Harlow is too. Not Joan Crawford, though. She’s back east somewhere, New York, I think. Not the city, but outside, White Plains or something. I don’t know if that is sad or not, but you’d think that if any movie star ought to be buried in Hollywood it’d be Joan Crawford. But then this piece wasn’t about her, was it? It’s not even about Jean Harlow, sweet Jean Harlow, and William Powell placing flowers on her fresh grave. No, this post is about Wallace Beery, or at least the title is.
It’s funny, you say Wallace Beery in this town and the first thing people will tell you is what a jerk he was. They don’t like him, Wallace Beery. Even if they love the movies he’s in, they can’t get themselves to admit he was good in them. Not even Robert Osborne and he loves everybody. No, not Wallace Beery, that unlovable brute. No, not him. Like Wallace Beery would have given a fuck what they thought. Shut up, he’d say. Shut up, shut up, shut up.
No, you shut up, Jean Harlow yelled. Everyone yelled. Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, both Barrymores. Joan Crawford yelled. Greta Garbo swooned, but Billie Burke yelled, and Billy Burke never yelled at anybody. Bette Davis yelled, and she wasn’t even in the movie. Or movies. It was a Wallace Beery film festival and they’re all mixed up. As am I. So I’m going back to sleep, and hopefully no one will be yelling at anybody. Not even movie stars.
* Alas, I’ve been informed, this is a myth. Glass does not flow. But it is such a pretty couple lines I’ll leave it in. Literary license.
The sexiest of all signs is Merging Buses Ahead. There was such a sign, too, on the Hollywood Freeway. I noticed the sign one night a zillion years ago when my bass player, stoned out of his mind, was driving us to a gig. Looking for a shortcut he suddenly pulled into the bus lane. We whizzed past the mystified people waiting at the bus stop and gunned our way back into the slow lane, saving maybe three seconds. As he was holding at least a quarter ounce, was ripped, had an expired driver’s license and an unpaid traffic ticket or two I thought his act showed unusual verve. Had I known the car was unregistered I would have awarded him even more verve. He always was a lucky bastard, though, and those three seconds seemed important. His luck later ran out when be blew a tire while tripping on acid at the Grand Canyon. Without a spare, he stood staring into the vast and infinite beauty of the canyon. Dusk was falling and the sandstones glowed a brilliant red and the whole universe seemed full of color. A park ranger stopped to help, discovered his DMV rap sheet and cuffed him. A drag, of course, though with all that blotter it seemed at the time rather groovy. Like I said, he was a bass player. Anyway, as we zipped past the people waiting for the bus and muscled our way back onto the freeway I noticed the sign on the left. Merging Buses Ahead. It seemed tremendously funny at the time. It became my sign. Some hippie or lady at work would ask me my sign. I’d say Merging Buses Ahead. It had just the right mixture of randomness and disdain. Made a lot of sense in the punk rock eighties. I’d never explain. They’d usually walk away, or change the subject. I was big and mean looking, wore huge steel toed army boots and had developed quite a glower I’d use when annoyed. If asked my sign and I said Merging Buses Ahead and my wife was there she’d explain. He thinks that’s funny, she’d say, he’s an Aries. Oh you’re an Aries…no wonder you said Merging Buses Ahead. I don’t know my wife’s sign–after 34 years I still can’t remember but it’s either Gemini, Scorpio, Aquarius or maybe another–but she knew mine. She doesn’t believe in astrology of course, not a whit (she’s into astronomy and the two can’t mix…she doesn’t believe in UFO’s either) but at least she knows the signs. But then I’m an Aries. You can always tell an Aries because we don’t believe in astrology. We’re arrogant and stubborn and skeptical and confrontational. Lively, though. Fun.
Somewhere in middle age telling people I’m a Merging Buses Ahead lost its zing. It doesn’t seem to come up much anyway. Recently, though, someone asked me my birthday. I told her. Then I told her all the cool people that have been born on my birthday. A whole bunch: Spencer Tracy and Gregory Peck and Bette Davis and Lord Buckley and on and on. Her eyes lit up. Then I told her it was a cool death day too and ran off Howard Hughes and Chiang Kai-shek and Douglas MacArthur and Kurt Cobain and Allen Ginsberg and Saul Bellow and Charlton Heston…. She looked appalled. You know who died on your birthday? Well, yeah, famous people die on your birthday and it’s in the news and it’s easy. She gave me a look–it’s the people who are born on your birthday that matter. The dead, well that’s just sick. She walked away. Wow. I’d just been dissed by an astrology freak. I didn’t even think that was possible.
I suppose it was too late to say Merging Buses Ahead..