CURTAIN OPENS ON: THE OFFICE-- LATER
A blonde stands at the desk, on the phone, waving her cigarette a la Bette Davis. She wears an Angora sweater, skirt, heels, faces away from audience.
ED/SHIRLEY: Hello, connect me to the business office. Thanks, you’re sweet. (She turns, and we realize it is Ed in full drag, lipstick, mascara, earrings, etc.) Hello? This is Shirley, secretary at Wood-Gordon Productions. We sent a check out last week, I can’t imagine -- (sighs) -- Prospect 6, 9221. (sweetly) Really, by the end of the day? I don’t see why we should pay twice. (beat). Fifty? Mr. Wood won’t be happy, but we all have our jobs to do, don’t we. You’re so helpful.. (He hangs up gently -- then glares at the phone.) Thanks a heap, ya shitbird. (He taps the desk top… then dials another number.) Hello, is Mary there? Thank you. (beat; as ED) Hey, Mary, I hope you’re not still-- (holds the phone away from his ear) Darling, your panties, I explained-- (beat) Perversion? No, I told you, I was just writing a female role in the script, and wearing your clothes got my creative juices flowing. (beat) No, no, my imagination. (He pulls the framed photo of Karloff from the drawer.) We’re meeting with Boris Karloff, I’m -- no, really. (angry) Real job? You think this is pretend? I’m serious, I need you to read the script with us, the female lead. (phone in hand, he crosses to the front door and replaces the Buck Jones photo with Karloff, beside Lugosi’s picture). Nobody can do this role except you! (listens) Well, no, I’ll be directing. And, listen, can I borrow fifty bucks? You can take it out of your first week’s-- hello? Mary? (He sits, quickly dials another number, and turns from the door.)
ED/SHIRLEY (on phone, as Ed): Conrad? It’s Shirley. Hm? Yes, of course, Eddie, but I’m Shirley right now. Don’t ask, I needed to calm down and this is the only way -- just never mind. You got fifty bucks till next week? (The door opens and BORIS KARLOFF enters, uncertainly. Karloff is in tweeds, walks with a bandy-legged limp. With his back to the door, Ed doesn’t notice.)
BORIS: Excuse me. I beg your pardon.
ED/SHIRLEY (on phone, as Ed): OK, twenty then? Whew. I’ll stop by later.
BORIS: Miss? I’m looking for the office of Mr. Gordon and Mr. Wood.
ED /SHIRLEY (on phone, as Ed): Yeah, I’m-- (He turns-- and sees Karloff. His voice goes into a husky whisper) Delighted to meet you, Mr. Karloff. This is so… unexpected.
BORIS: Perhaps I’m mistaken about the address.
ED /SHIRLEY: No, I’m Mr. Wood-- Wood’s secretary. Shirley.
BORIS: Lovely. I’m a bit early, I thought I’d pick up a script, look it over first. (Setting the receiver down, Ed/Shirley minces over to Boris with a script.)
ED /SHIRLEY: Yes, Eddie asked me to give this to you, the second revised rewrite version... he made sure you have more lines than Mr. Lugosi.
BORIS: Well, that’s no problem. Goodness, I didn’t say a word in Frankenstein.
ED/SHIRLEY: I thought… I mean, Mr. Wood was told… well, anyway… your copy…this is your initial, isn’t it?
BORIS: Appears to be. I’ll just pop down to the coffee shop, be back at noon.
ED/SHIRLEY: I’ll tell Mr. Wood you stopped by. He’s such a big Karloff fan. (Boris exits. Ed struts back to the desk and picks up the receiver.)
ED (as Ed): Conrad! Guess who just walked in! Boris Karloff! What? No, he didn’t bat an eye, why should he? The illusion is complete. (adjusts his falsies) Shave? Yeah, this morning. Why? (rubs his mustache) My God. He’s early and I’m Shirley! (He hangs up, removes his wig and throws it into a desk drawer. With a Kleenex, he quickly smears off his lipstick, and pulls off his Angora sweater, grabs his shirt and tie from the coat rack and buttons it, looping the necktie -already knotted- around his collar.) Confidence. Ability. Nothing’s going wrong. (He looks at his watch. He dabs away his mascara-- a bit more composed now.) Oh, Edward, relax. He said he’s not coming back until noon. (Alex opens the door)
ALEX: Ed! Guess who I ran into in the stairwell?! (Alex gulps, seeing Ed half-transformed, still in his skirt. He motions for Ed to sit.) No, no, don’t get up! It’s Boris Karloff! (Alex backs in ahead of Boris, keeping between him and Ed, blocking his view.) Excuse the mess-- production, don’t you know.
BORIS: That’s fine. These posters are for your pictures you’ve made?
ALEX: Yes, me or Eddie-- Ed, this is Boris Karloff. (Remaining seated, Ed shakes Karloff’s hand.)
BORIS: Mr. Wood, my pleasure. Have we met?
ED: No! But I’ve seen you. In the Pacific, in the war, in Arsenic and Old Lace.
BORIS: Really! Boys in uniform were the best audiences we ever had. (looks around) I met the most extraordinary creature here a few moments ago--
ED: Oh-- yes-- a beautiful blonde?
BORIS: Well… a blonde at any rate. Your --?
ALEX: His… sister! Shirley. His sister.
BORIS: Well, she told me she was your secretary.
ALEX: Oh. Yes. Our secretary… is…his sister.
ED: Yes. We look a little alike, don’t we?
BORIS: Oh, I don’t know… slight family resemblance. (Alex steers Karloff to the (upstage) poster/photo wall; Ed kicks off his high heels.)
ALEX: I’ve seen you a lot on TV lately, but not much in the movies. We say --
BORIS: That’s out of choice. The scripts I’m offered are the same old thing. And TV is like theater, live, with that awful sense of immediacy. No telling what might happen.
ALEX: You’re telling me. (Ed pulls his pants out of a drawer.)
BORIS: If your fly’s undone, best zip it up and carry on, there’s no second take. (sees photo on wall) I say, this is Bela, isn’t it? He looks so very gaunt.
ALEX: Well, he is playing a vampire part.
BORIS: Even so, the old boy seems to be about two quarts low.
ALEX: My brother and I arranged the film for him in England, “Vampire Over London” with Old Mother Riley, the famous music hall act.
BORIS: Drag act, yes, I believe may have seen her.
ED: Almost ready. (Boris turns-- Alex turns him gently back the other way, glances over at Ed.)
ALEX: Almost ready to-- to make this movie. We’re delighted to work with you.
BORIS: We shall see. I’m always delighted to be working at all. I plodded along for twenty years before I had steady employment.
ALEX: Oh, you mean on stage, but in movies, you--
BORIS: No, I’d done pictures for ten years. Nobody noticed except me and my landlady. Then along came Frankenstein, and the Monster’s kept me working ever since. I’m very grateful to the old fellow. You boys made this one? (He gestures to the “Jail Bait” poster dubiously. Ed slips his shoes on.)
ALEX: Yes, Eddie and I wrote it, he directed. Bela was set to play the plastic surgeon, but he got ill, so at the last minute I hired Herbert Rawlinson.
BORIS: Herb Rawlinson, the stage actor?
ALEX: Yes, he was pretty much retired--
BORIS: Actors don’t retire, they are retired, there’s a difference. God, I worked with Rawlinson a half-dozen times in silent pictures. Big star. How is he?
ALEX: Well... dead.
BORIS: Oh. (Ed walks over to join them. He’s still wearing both his earrings.)
ED: He had lung cancer or something. He wasn’t breathing well. Rasping. (Karloff eyes the poster; Alex tugs at his earlobe. Ed cocks his head. Charades?) ED: Sounds like… rasping? Gasping? Hasping? (Alex quickly pulls one of Ed’s earrings off, hands it to him.)
ALEX: We shot all night, into the morning. Everybody got paid overtime, of course, it was a union film, one hundred percent all the way.
BORIS (looking at the poster): That’s the only way. (Finally catching on, Ed removes the other earring and pockets them both.)
ALEX: We were all dog tired. He finished his scenes, went home and … died.
BORIS: He wasn’t much older than me. Still, that's the way to go out, an old horse in harness. Incidentally, you are Guild signatories, aren’t you?
ALEX: We filed with the Screen Actors Guild last week. I know you’re concerned, since we’re an independent company, so--
BORIS: Big studios are just as insensitive. On Frankenstein, Universal worked me twenty-five hours at a stretch -- all the time in costume, twenty pound boots, rod strapped up my spine. Is it any wonder I’ve had three back surgeries?
ED: Oh, not that money’s a problem. Speaking of which, I wonder if you’d--
BORIS: There are a great many scoundrels out there, Mr. Wood. More than once I was stranded at some train station, commiserating with fellow actors about what may’ve happened to the stage manager and last night’s box office receipts.
ED: Oh, we’d never do that to an actor. You, and Bela, and guys like Rawlinson, or Ken Maynard, or Tom Tyler-- you're my childhood.
BORIS: That’s very gracious of you, young man.
ED: Oh, not at all, Mr. Karloff. (beat) Did you ever happen to run across paths with another actor named... Bu-u-uck Jon-n-nes?
BORIS: Buck Jones, the cowboy?
ED: Yeah, I didn't think it was a likely event.
BORIS: We met several times, dear me, yes. I used to make westerns, y'know, with Rex Lease, Hoot Gibson and the rest of them. In silent pictures, it didn't matter what kind of accent you had. The myriad dialects would've made the United Nations envious!
ED (in awe): Buck Jones...
BORIS: Never did a picture with him. He was a big star, I was just a bit player.
ED: Wow. When I was little, we’d play cowboys, and we all wanted to be Buck Jones. I got in a fight with a friend once, and I said, “I’ll be Buck Jones. You be Buck Smith.”
BORIS: Never let success go to his head. Like Chaney, very down to earth.
ED: You knew Buck Jones…
ALEX: Sad about his death, too. The fire at that nightclub, the Coconut Grove.
ED: I read that when I was overseas, in the newspaper.
BORIS: You were in the newspaper…?
ED: No, in the Marines.
BORIS: Oh. Yes, a brave man, dashing in time and again to save total strangers. Now what was it you were going to ask?
ED: Ask. Oh-- if you like rehearsing? I don’t suppose you --
BORIS: I love it. It’s a luxury on pictures, one read-through and you’re doing a take.
ED: ’Cause Bela mentioned he’d loved rehearsals. I’m glad you both agree on that… and radio? I mean, reading from a script, standing there, just your voice?
BORIS: Radio and recordings offer lovely opportunities. Why do you ask? (Bela enters through the front door.)
BELA: It is going to rain, and I forgot my hat. Oh. (An awkward moment of silence. Boris recovers first, extends his hand.)
BORIS: Hello, Bela. You look… fit.
BELA: And you, Boris. Working?
BORIS: Oh, try to keep busy, you know.
BELA (points to poster): The boys have a good project for us.
BORIS: Yes, well, we look awfully young there… heavens, we haven't worked together now since -- The Body Snatcher, nearly ten years already. Bela and I had a nice little scene. I got to asphyxiate him by fire light. I'm always murdering him, poor fellow.
BELA: But in Dr. Voodoo, for a change, I get to kill Boris... for the last... time!
BORIS: Unless of course we do Son of Dr. Voodoo... then we'll have to do the whole goddamned picture all over again! (Ed, Alex and Boris chuckle. As it subsides:)
BELA: For the last... time...
ED: When you perform in front of people… do you guys ever get stage fright?
BORIS (over Bela): All the time!
BELA (over Boris): Never!
BORIS: Well, you had your classical training. Budapest, wasn’t it?
BELA: Yes, the National Theater. Best for the actor. You played all kind of roles, dramatic, comedy, romantic. All kinds.
BORIS: It was catch as catch can for me. Fly-by-night troupes up in Canada, Oregon. Some rugged audiences and some awful acting! It's a wonder we weren't lynched.
BELA: In the theater, it is the actor who sustains the performance. The audience comes not to see camera tricks, but to see you.
BORIS: God forbid! What a horrid thought! When they asked me to do Arsenic and Old Lace, I hadn't been on stage in ten years. Never on Broadway. It was sheer torture!
BELA: Dracula ran a year on Broadway. There is nothing like a Broadway audience.
BORIS: Nothing so intimidating! All through rehearsals I was stuttering, vomiting. I was petrified! I went to Lindsay and Crouse and said, you’ve obviously made a mistake even asking me, you’d best get someone else.
ALEX: But they wrote it for you, didn’t they?
BORIS: Heavens, no. They took a serious play about little old ladies and made a comedy out of it. When they added the Jonathan role, they said, "Let’s ask Karloff."
ED: Then how come they used Raymond Massey playing your part in the movie on film?
BORIS: They released everybody to do the film except me. I felt obliged to stay with the touring company, I couldn’t let them down. Massey was fine … got nice notices.
BELA: A bitter pill, to see another actor succeed in a part you could have had.
ED: The funniest line, where the plastic surgeon who cut the guy’s face together says--
BORIS: “Why did you have to kill him, Johnny?” Yes, that one line always got a laugh.
BELA: I did Arsenic and Old Lace, on tour, and the notices were excellent. One critic wrote that I was even better than the actor in the Broadway original.
BORIS: I'm sure you were splendid. Von Stroheim had a go. Schildkraut. That line must've brought down the house with you saying it. (heavy) "I killed him because he said I looked like Boris Karloff."
BELA: Yes... but we change the line in a rewrite. Instead, I say, "I killed him because he said I looked like Bela Lugosi!"
ED: Might’ve been even funnier the other way it was written. So… it must’ve been a lot easier than the stage, when you guys started making movies.
BORIS: Not really. At least in the theater you had Actors Equity for some sort of protection. Movie producers would work you to death if they had the chance.
ED: You mean Rawlinson? Well, that was an unavoidable accident. We--
BORIS: No, nothing personal. We needed a union and we stuck together. My membership card, number 6, is still my proudest possession. Bela was there. Number twenty-three, I think, very early indeed.
BELA: But not so much visible at first. Once burned, twice shy. You know, I help establish the first union of actors in Hungary, after the World War.
BELA: Yes-- War One. Then came the revolution. We won democracy, but the Fascists returned to power… I found myself on the wrong side. My first wife’s family did not so much like a son-in-law actor with a price on his head. She left. I lost everything. I came here, where you can talk without being put on a death list.
BORIS: No… just a black list …
BELA: So when we form Screen Actors Guild twenty years ago, it was deja vu.
ED: But all that was when socialism had a stranglehold on workers in America.
BELA: Even in the Depression, studios remained highly profitable. They decide to increase profits by paying to everyone half-salary.
ED: Yeah, yeah, okay, but you were making the big bucks.
BELA: By chance. But everyone was hit, writers, electricians, truck drivers. And this was when most actors were lucky to make ten dollars a day, plus maybe a sandwich.
BORIS: The few of us who were making good money said “It stops now.” It wasn’t a popular stand. Got a few pretty disturbing phone calls, too.
ALEX: I guess you were lucky to have that visibility playing the Monster.
BORIS: Extremely lucky! Like I said, I owe a lot to the old boy.
BELA: I tell you how that occurred. After Dracula, the studio offered to me another mystery part-- Frankenstein. Good dramatic role. A little romance. (Boris pulls out his tobacco and fills his pipe, listening patiently. He’s heard it.)
ED: The Monster had a girl friend?
BELA: No-- Frankenstein, who made a monster. The Laemmles-- Carl Laemmle and his sons and daughters and uncles and dogs and cats-- the studio was all Laemmles-- said, "We change our minds. Now we want for Lugosi to play the monster.”
ALEX: They wanted to make you into Lon Chaney.
BELA: But Chaney was a character man, I was a leading man. I made a screen test but it was dumb, no dialogue! Just grunting like a-- a gorilla! (Ed’s head lolls on his shoulder. Lighting his pipe, Boris looks up.)
ALEX: Well, he was up all night--
BELA (snaps his fingers): Eddie, wake up.
ED (awake again): But you turned it down anyway…
BELA: Sure. Any half-wit extra could do that part. I said get Boris Karloff. (Ed and Alex look at Boris, who puffs his pipe contemplatively.)
ALEX: So Bela acted sort of like your agent, or-- ?
BORIS: I hadn’t met Mr. Lugosi, actually. Jimmy Whale, the director, sat with me in a commissary and said he was looking for someone to play a great awful monster. I was not flattered, but I was in no position to turn down a job.
ALEX: So Mr. Lugosi didn’t get you the job…?
BORIS: We did make the Monster far more sympathetic than when Bela made his test. The writers changed the script a great deal. Speaking of which-- (pulls out his script) I noticed this line -- Mr. Wood, I’m sorry, do you mind altering the dialogue?
ED: It’s not written in stone, just paper.
BORIS (reading): “When I heard we bombed those dirty Nips, my heart leaped for joy. Atomized to bits, every one of ’em, the filthy scum.” I mean, really.
ED: Oh, yeah, okay. How about… “little yellow bastards”?
BORIS: I just think it’s un-called for.
ED: Fine. Fine. Then I’ll give the line to Bela.
BELA: I would also not be happy with that line. And it is not in character.
BORIS: I mean, the idea. Japan was on the verge of collapse. It was reprehensible.
BELA: It was like in my old pictures, except when I do it, I was insane.
ED: Maybe the Japs shoulda thought of that before they bombed Pearl Harbor.
BORIS: And the imperial powers should’ve thought twice when they imposed trade restrictions on Japan for ten years. No nation, no human being has the right to dominate another, exploit them, treat them as less than human.
ED: You were in the Pacific, Mr. Karloff. Ever hear of Tarawa?
BORIS: Yes, of course. An island. A bloody one.
ED: A shitty little rock that meant nothing to anybody. (points to his teeth) The Veteran’s Hospital gives me free dental care the rest of my life. A Nip soldier knocked my teeth down my throat with his rifle butt. I killed him. I killed a lot of them. Three thousand men hit the beach. Four hundred of us came back. (The group goes uncomfortably silent). What I mean … I’m determined. Whatever it takes…
ALEX: Eddie… let me talk to you outside…(Alex takes him out the back. A FLASH. THUNDER. Boris goes to the window.)
BELA: Right on cue. Most apropos.
BORIS: I love the beauty of the rain. Just wish it didn’t make my arthritis flair up.
BELA: You’re lucky to afford medicine.
BORIS: We fought to get our Guild coverage, didn’t we? And now, in our dotage--
BELA: I have no medical insurance. Lapsed. Too long since I make a union picture.
BORIS: That must be a mistake. You’ve been a member since the Guild was born. (Bela crosses to the desk and pulls open a drawer. He pulls out the framed photo of Karloff replaces the cowboy photo with it. He knew all the time.)
BELA: If I am not working, my union apparently does not consider I am an actor. (He crosses to the poster for Glen or Glenda.)
BELA: That picture. Cheap. I don’t understand it, transvestites or… I don’t know. They pay me a thousand dollars for one day. Cash. (to the point) Non-union. I had to do it. You know what that did to me? (avoiding) So, your family is… okay?
BORIS: Yes, Evelyn’s the best thing that ever came into my life. Most sensible.
BELA: And your daughter, I remember, was born when we make together Son of Frankenstein. Born on your birthday.
BORIS: Yes, Sara Jane. She was so tiny.
BELA: Of course, you celebrate birthdays together.
BORIS: No, not for… well, she’s lived with her mother for several years, we don’t often… (avoiding) She’s 16. Your boy’s about the same, no?
BELA: Bela Junior is 17. High school. He now calls himself Bill. He is very American. He… also lives with his mother.
BORIS: Oh. I see. I'm sorry.
BELA: It is the old story. I have-- had a wife thirty years younger than I... who maybe didn't want so much to be chained down to an old man.
BORIS: I wouldn't say that.
BELA: She would. So, I am again a bachelor, seventy years old, looking for work.
BORIS (crosses to Dr. Voodoo poster): We did good work together. But… I’ll be honest, I’m not keen on this. I always enjoyed working with you, we bring out elements in each other that spark--
BELA: I see. You don’t want to lower yourself to my level. Ever since Frankenstein, you are now a much bigger star.
BORIS: Oh, please, you can’t say “bigger.” You’re a wonderful technician.
BELA: Technician. You make it sound like a plumber.
BORIS: I don’t mean it in a bad way. Your craft is exemplary, I’ve always said that. It’s just … you never quite lost your accent, did you? (Bela stares at him) After all, we make our bread and butter in English… I think that may have… handicapped you.
BELA: Such an ironic observation from an actor world-famous for a speech impediment.
BORIS: I beg your pardon?
BELA: You lisp.
BORIS: I what? Lisp?
BELA: Of course. You know that… ( realizing) … don’t you…?
BORIS: I think someone would’ve mentioned it in forty years of theatrical experience.
BELA: No. Then you never realized it?
BORIS: Well, no, because… because I don’t lisp.
BELA: You do it again, when you say the word “lisp.”
BORIS (testing): Lisp? Lisp? No-- that’s not a lisp. Oh, I’ll admit some sibilance with my S’s, that’s my teeth, but a lisp? Bela, there’s no need to be insulting.
BELA: I am not trying to be insulting, Boris, I am stating the obvious. You have the most famous lisp since Daffy Duck.
BORIS: Oh, I don’t -- no, I don’t pronounce my S’s as “t-h,” like-- like Pinky Lee or Sylvester the Cat, that’s a lisp! No, I’m just slightly sibilant.
BELA: Ah! Have it your way. The old story, always. (stares out the window).
BORIS: Oh, Bela, let’s stop this nonsense. We’re not rivals-- at least I’ve never felt that way. And we’re both far too old to play games.
BELA: Yes. It’s too late to play games … So you decline to be in the picture.
BORIS: Maybe on some other project… anyway, you could star in it yourself.
BELA: No. Without you, there is no picture, no money. It’s over. Everything.
BORIS (moves to desk, aback): Oh. I hadn’t realized that. I’m sorry… look… I won’t say no… I’ll have to read the script, of course… and I can’t promise anything.
BELA: We’re too old to play games, Boris.
LIGHTS FADE; CURTAIN