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The Sound Tests: Hollywood 1928

 


On a wet and windy night in January 1928, Clara Bow and Gary Cooper make a belated entrance at the Brown Derby on Wiltshire Boulevard. The movie revolution is underway and history is in the making. The unexpected box office triumph of 'The Jazz Singer' has sent tremors of fear ripping through the industry and expedited at breakneck speed a reluctant transition from silent to talking pictures. Careers are at stake; fortunes are being made and lost; sound tests are in and many big time stars are on the way out.

 

The restaurant is packed to capacity and the atmosphere is highly charged as the head waiter approaches Clara Bow. The 'It' girl carelessly drops her sable wrap to the floor and pauses to review the tightly knit spread of tables...


-          Your automobile is blocking the entrance Miss Bow.

-          My, just about everyone in town is here for dinner tonight.

-          Agog for news on the sound tests Miss Bow.

-          Sad little people.

-          Your automobile is blocking the entrance Miss Bow.

-          You want the keys?

-          Thank you Miss Bow.

-          Go shift it then if it worries you so.

 

Tables 1-6: The Actors

 

-          Hey guys, Richard Arlen is coming over to our table.

-          How did you go Dick?

-          I didn't, something wrong with the sound equipment.

-          Were you re-scheduled?

-          Tomorrow afternoon.

-          Did Buddy Rogers pass okay?

-          He's gotta take lessons from some fruit called Horton.

-          Edward Everett Horton?

-          That's him, I guess.

-          He's the best voice coach in Hollywood.

-          How about Coop over there posing with 'It'?

-          Has he taken the test yet?

-          Yup.

-          Did he fail?

-          Nope.

-          Strolled through it, eh?

-          Don't know why they even bothered to test him.

-          Yeah, he never says much, in or out of the studio.

 

-          William Powell had to test out twice.

-          Guess who got through first time.

-          Who?

-          Gustav Von Seyffertitz.

-          What?

-          That old ham can't even pronounce his own blamed name.

-          Neither can anyone else.

-          Yeah, but Von Shitface is a kosher ham.

-          It helps in Hollywood right now.

-          There ain't no justice.

-          If it's justice you're looking for, go back on the stage.

-          What, and starve to death?

 

-          Look who just walked in…you ain't heard nothin' yet, he says already.

-          The world's greatest entertainer.

-          Jolson, with a floosie on either arm.

-          And a spare in tow for emergencies.

-          I'd love to wipe the smug look off the bum's face.

-          Someone should do a hit job on the schmuck.

-          Like with a ten-ton truck.

-          Let's take up a collection.

-          Put me down for a ten spot.

 

-          Did you pass?

-          No.

-          Voice let you down?

-          No, not really.

-          What then?

-          Projection.

-          Projection?

-          He said I don't walk right for the talkies.

-          What walking got to do with talking?

-          I said that.

-          You walked okay in 36 silent pictures.

-          I said that too.

-          Then what happened?

-          I busted the snotty kid's nose.

-          Who was he?

-          Carl Laemmle Jr.

-          Oh boy.

 

Table 7: William Haines and his agent

 

-          I should spit in his eye.

-          Don't take on so Bill.

-          You think I'm overreacting?

-          Of course not, my star of stars. I'm your agent.

-          Then support me.

-          What's really bugging you honey?

-          That strumpet, over me in the sound test.

-          But you passed.

-          He got higher marks, the lousy queen.

-          So what's to worry about that?

-          His questionable sexual orientation, that's what.

-          Calm down.

-          Me, William Haines, females begging for my body.

-          He does have deep masculine tones.

-     So I sound effeminate, is that what you're saying?

-          No, no, no.

-          I'll show him who wears the pants at MGM.

-          What?

-          I'll rip off his corset on the set.

-          Oh don't, precious.

-          I'll expose him in our first talkie together.

-          What's it called?

-          Roughnecks Go Berserk

 

Table 8: Douglas Fairbanks Junior and friend

 

-          I dread the reviews for The Barker.

-          Talkie?

-          Part.

-          You get to speak?

-          Yeah, and to die.

-          That's always good for the sympathy vote.

-          No, I mean to die as in all washed up.

-          You're putting me on.

-          My voice sounds like it's coming out of my ass.

-          You always did talk a load of shit.

-          Go take a sound test.

-          I did.

-          And?

-          I failed.

 

Table 9: Johnny Arthur and friend

 

-          Hey Johnny Arthur, what do you know?

-          Ooooh, I'm exhausted darling.

-          Is it a wrap on the Desert Song?

-          Not yet but I’ll be relieved when it's over.

-          Rough?

-          You'd think Warners would have it cracked by now.

-          Sound problems?

-          Honey, it's like being back in the theatre.

-          That bad?

-          The technology is so primitive.

-          Yeah, they say the sound stages at Fox are better.

-          You can't move when you speak or sing.

-          And I hear the sound blows your balls off on screen.

-          Ooooh, I can't wait to see the rushes.

 

Table 10: John Barrymore and studio executive

 

-          Mayer wants me, John Barrymore, to test for sound?

-          Yes sir.

-          Has he taken leave of his senses?

-          I shouldn't think so.

-          Doesn't he know I'm the world's leading thespian?

-          The test is purely for technical assessment.

-          I don’t care if it’s for the 1928 Academy Awards.

-          Bur sir…

-          Tell the old buzzard that Barrymore tests for no man.

-          We'll lay on a case of Jack Daniels.

-          Ah…

-          And a couple of blondes.

-          I'll do the soliloquy from Hamlet.

-          No sir, just what's on the prepared script.

-          Read me the top line.

-          The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.

-          Young man, I'm an actor, not a freaking parrot.

 

Tables 11-16: The Bitches a.k.a. sundry character actresses

 

-          When did Clara Bow take her test?

-          Last Friday.

-          She’s as nasal as a Bronx bookmaker.

-          And you babe got a Bowery burr.

-          Go power your pussy.

-          She's not the 'It' girl any more.

-          She's out.

-          You mean she failed?

-          You're putting me on.

-          They'd pass her with plums in her mouth.

-          She makes big bucks for Paramount.

-          When she's sober.

-          Which is rare …

-          When she's not shooting up.

-          Which is never…

-          When she's not in jail.

-          Which ain't that often nowadays.

-          Yeah, but they're so short on broads over at Paramount.

-          So short they hand out leads to a female dwarf.

-          Poison dwarf at that.

-          Look who's talking…

 

-          Has Lucille Le Sueur tested out yet?

-          Who?

-          She screams out loud if anyone calls her that.

-          It's Joan Crawford now.

-          Oh her, she'll be okay.

-          Yeah, she does all her testing lying flat on her back.

-          She and Navarro talk a bit in MGM's Across The Singapore.

-          Are Ramon and Joan an item?

-          You must be kidding.

-          Don't you know?

-          He's a swish.

 

-          Did you hear about Louise Brooks?

-          No, what?

-          She refused to dub her voice for The Canary Murder Case.

-          Why?

-          She doesn't like the talkies.

-          Get her.

-          Anyway she's over in Germany working for some kraut.

-          Who?

-          Pabst, he's big in Europe.

-          Paramount will can her.

-          They've already done so.

-          She's blacklisted.

-          She's dead meat.

-          She's yesterday's news.

-          She never amounted to much anyway.

 

-          Sue Carol passed her test.

-          Who's Sue Carol?

-          Joe Schenck's latest shiksa.

-          Aren't we all?

-          What have they cast her in?

-          Why Leave Home?

-          She don't need to leave home, her folks are loaded.

-          Yeah, her old man owns the Bronx.

-          And most of Upper Manhattan.

-          Not to mention Joe Schenck.

 

-          Surprise, surprise.

-          Surprise me already.

-          Mary Pickford clinched the deal on her first talkie.

-          Don't tell me. United Artists?

-          Good guess.

-          Her old man owns it.

-          What's the pic?

-          Coquette.

-          Good title.

-          Good casting.

-          She plays a southern belle.

-          Well, shut mah mouth.

-          She leads a young schlemiel astray.

-          Doesn't she always?

-          Tell that to Douglas Fairbanks Senior.

-          Tell that to Junior.

-          Who's the schlemiel?

-          Johnny Mack Brown.

-          Is she laying him?

-          Dunno.

-          Well, I sure am.

-          You too?

-          And me.

-          Well, shut my mouth real tight.

 

-          I've been cast for a talkie over at Fox.

-          Does it have a title yet?

-          This Cock-Eyed World.

-          Sounds dirty.

-          I get to play a harlot.

-          Gee honey, you're in character.

-          Blow it out your ass.

-          It's nice when a girl's reputation pays off.

-          Go screw an extra.

-          Who are the leads?

-          Lili Damita, Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe.

-          McLaglen? He's English, right?

-          Irish.

-          Whatever.

-          I get to sing.

-          Yeah?

-          You're the Cream in My Coffee.

-          To whom?

-          Edmund Lowe.

-          Poor you. That guy's breath is putrid.

-          I'd rather make whoopee with Rin Tin Tin.

-          Well, you would, wouldn't you?

-          What?

-          You're a dog.

-          Go fuck a duck.

 

Table 17 – 21: The Bit Players

 

-     So why do I gotta test for sound, I say. Because you gotta, he says. Why, I say. Because you might be asked to speak, he says. I'm speakin' right now, ain't I, I say. But not in a talkie, he says. Go play wid yourself, I say. How's that for level, he shouts in my ear. Swell, some other guy yells back. What gives, I say. You're in, he says.

 

-          Why did they fail you?

-          Becaush I got a problem with my shixes and shevens.

-          Oh, I know.

-          Have you got a problem with your shixes and shevens?

-          No, but I can't pwonounce woom and bwoom.

-          They'll fail you.

-          No they won't.

-          They will.

-          They will not.

-          How can you be sho shure?

-          Becaush, because I only play deaf mutes.

 

-          The engineer said I got a great voice for animals.

-          Animals already?

-          Yeah.

-          What will that get you?

-          My first job in the talkies.

-          Doing what?

-          The roar of Leo the Lion in the MGM sound logo.

-          You'll be typecast.

-          Yeah, for the next hundred years if I'm lucky.

 

-          They say I can't talk.

-          Too bad.

-          But they say I can sing.

-          That's good.

-          I'm to be in the chorus of Sunny Side Up over at Fox.

-          Is that a musical?

-          Well, if it's not, I'm in deep shit.

 

Table 22: The Producers

 

-          The girl in the picture.

-          Yeah, what about her?

-          I want you to cast her as the maid in Applause.

-          Can she talk?

-          Of course she can fucking talk.

-          No, I mean, has she tested out yet?

-          How the hell would I know?

-          Then I won't use her.

-          It's an order.

-          Get lost.

-          What?

-          I don't wet nurse other people's shiksas.

-          Then I get myself a new director.

-          The maid you say, right?

 

-          I gotta ask you something George Cukor.

-          What, Mr Sheldon?

-          Why have you cast a fruit as Glinka in The Virtuous Sin?

-          Grady Sutton is not a fruit, Mr Sheldon.

-          Like Glinka ain't a hairy beast.

-          Mr Sutton is an accomplished character actor.

-          Has he taken the test yet?

-          Yes. He is already lined up for several talkie shorts.

-          Like what?

-          Laurel and Hardy one-reelers.

-          Jeez.

-          His diction is perfect.

-          Oh, I get it - you're both fruits, right?

 

Table 23-28: The Technicians

 

-          Did you catch the rushes for His Glorious Night?

-          Poor Jack, he's finished, washed up.

-          Yeah, his voice comes out like a strangled duck on heat.

-          How come?

-          If you don't know, you'll never guess.

-          John Gilbert had stage experience before the movies.

-          I always understood he's got a great voice.

-          He did okay on his sound test.

-          Haven't you heard?

-          Heard what?

-          They reckon someone at MGM doctored the sound track.

-          Why?

-          To make Jack sound like a prick.

-          Now, who would do a thing like that?

-          Some say old man Mayer himself.

-          But why would he want to ruin one of his biggest assets?

-          It doesn't make sense.

-          You want to ask LB about that.

-          Anyway, he's got his eye on some new kid to replace Jack.

-          What new kid?

-          Cable, Grable, Gable, something like that.

-          Yeah, that boy is looking good on Broadway right now.

 

-          I've just finished working on a part-talkie over at UA.

-          What's it called?

-          Alibi.

-          Oh, for that screwball Roland West?

-          He's a frigging freak.

-          And he only shoots at night.

-          Yeah, he's too busy during the daytime.

-          Shtupping Thelma Todd.

-          He got this actor doing a lachrymose death scene.

-          The shot lasts eight minutes, I'm told.

-          Some say RW's a sadist.

-          I wouldn't know about that.

-          He sure as hell is sad though.

 

-          You're just off the Twentieth Century, right?

-          Check.

-          Out of Grand Central, right?

-          Check.

-          Astoria Studios on Long Island?

-          Check and double check.

-          Doing what?

-          Working on the Marx Brothers first talkie The Cocoanuts.

-          How was it?

-          Terrible.

-          Sound problems?

-          The equipment is so sensitive.

-          I hear tell.

-          Those damn mikes pick up everything.

-          Like someone farting in the back lot?

-          You bet.

-          How did the boys do?

-          Nervous, real nervous, kept fluffing their lines.

-          That's to worry.

-          Some of the gaffs show up on the final print.

-          Wow-ee!

-          And then there's Harpo's flaming red wig.

-          What about it?

-          It comes out jet black on film.

 

-          How's life at Columbia these days?

-          Scary.

-          I heard they're having problems with sound.

-          Big problems.

-          The equipment?

-          Nobody knows how to use it yet.

-          Didn't you work on a part-talkie over there?

-          Yeah, The Bachelor Girl.

-          It got the hiss at the preview.

-          Isn't Thelma Todd the ingénue?

-          Yeah, she's good with sound.

-          Yeah?

-          She knows how to blend movement with talk.

-          That's important, I guess.

-          As a few high fliers are about to find out.

-          That new guy Rouben Mamoulian over at Paramount.

-          What about him?

-          He knows about sound.

-          And he's good with the camera.

-          Yeah, considering it's bolted to the frigging floor.

 

Table 29: Paramount Studio Head Winfield Sheehan and executive

 

-          You want to do what?

-          Sign her up to a three-picture deal.

-          Over my dead body.

-          But we gotta act fast on the switch.

-          Which switch?

-          Her transition from silence to sound.

-          She stinks in the rushes for The Wild Party.

-          It's her first talkie.

-          You only get one first crack at anything.

-          She's still under contract.

-          Then break it.

-          How?

-          Get her on the morality clause.

-          What?

-          God knows you got plenty to play around with there.

-          But -

-          Look, I don't want that crazy broad near my studio.

-          She's a nice kid.

-          She's as nutty as a fruitcake.

-          She was named America's Favorite Actress for 1927.

-          She's a flapper and flappers are out.

-          She hits the headlines.

-          And for all the wrong reasons.

-          She's promised to reform.

-          Clara Bow is out, out, out!

 

Table 30: William Fox and studio executive

 

-          We'll leave Warners at the starting gate.

-          But Mr Fox they're through the gate and running.

-          So they got lucky with some washed-out vaudevillian.

-          Jolson is making them millions.

-          We'll do musicals.

-          Warners do musicals.

-          Everyone's doing musicals.

-          MGM does them better.

-          We got the best sound equipment.

-          Yeah, for Movietone News.

-          We're developing this new wide screen technique.

-          It'll bankrupt us Mr Fox.

 

Table 31: Louis B Mayer and studio executive

 

-          Mr Mayer, you're over-egging the vendetta.

-          What vendetta?

-          You and John Gilbert.

-          Don't ever mention that bum's name in my presence.

-          We're paying him big bucks to sit on his ass.

-          Stop paying him.

-          What?

-          Tear up his contract.

-          It'll cost a fortune.

-          Then fire him.

-          He'll sue.

-          Do you want to go back to running the mailroom?

-          No sir.

-          Then figure out a way to dump the schmuck.

 

Table 32: Carl Laemmle Senior and Junior

 

-          You'll clear the movie theatres with that schlock.

-          No dad, horror will make Universal Studios famous.

-          Musicals are what make money.

-          The public will soon tire of song and dance schmaltz.

-          Sunny Side Up will gross millions for Fox.

-          Dracula will gross even more.

-          Who the hell wants to be scared to death?

 

Table 33: Harry and Jack Cohn

 

-          I want that schlimazel out of my studio.

-          Your studio already?

-          Jack, you’re my brother, I love you.

-          But?

-          I run the joint.

-          Since when? I'm the president.

-          And I'm the studio chief.

-          But Harry -

-          No one calls Harry Cohn a dickhead.

-          But he's been my business partner for over 30 years.

-          Go find yourself another.

 

Table 34: RKO/FBO studio heads

 

-          Gentlemen, I have an announcement.

-          What?

-          RCA have moved in on us.

-          What do you mean moved in?

-          They already own half the stock.

-          Yeah, so what are they planning now?

-          As if we don't have enough problems with sound.

-          RCA are merging FBO with another outfit.

-          With whom?

-          With what?

-          The Keith-Albee-Orpheum theatre chain.

-          You're putting us on.

-          What the fuck is that going to produce?

-          RKO Studios.

-          What?

-          Who's heading us up now?

-          David Sarnoff, Chairman of RCA.

-          I'm out of here.

-          Maybe I'll go back to the rag trade.

-          Anyone got Jesse Lasky's phone number?

-          I wonder if they're still hiring at Warners.

 

Table 35: Pathe studio heads

 

-          We'll hang on in there for another year.

-          If we do RKO will snap us up for peanuts.

-          So what's so great about RKO?

-          RCA, that's what.

 

Table 36: Jack Warner and studio executive

 

-          Jolson is asking a million bucks a picture.

-          He's asking what?

-          One million dollars, Mr Warner.

-          Tell him we'll negotiate.

-          Say, $750,000?

-          Not with the shit I've got lined up for him.

 

Table 37: Poverty Row studio heads

 

- You wanna stay with the silents?

- Audiences don’t wanna hear actors talk.

- Ain’t you heard about Jolson? They can’t get enough of him.

- Schmuck.

- Wall Street is pouring millions into sound.

- Goys, what do they know about the industry?

- Every studio in town is building sound stages.

- We don’t, we save a buck.

 

Table 38: The Wall Street Moguls

 

-          We'll get Fox for nix.

-          I hate to see the guy lose his studio.

-          So what's with you?

-          William Fox worked hard to build it.

-          He's blowing it with this new wide screen shit.

-          We could bail him out.

-          We'll gobble him up for zilch in two years time.

 

Table 39: Clara Bow & Gary Cooper

 

-          My agent's just given me good news Gary.

-          Yup?

-          He's arranging a seven-talkie deal with Paramount.

-          Yup?

-          Let's go hit the town.

-          Nope.

-          Why not?

-          We start shooting The Virginian tomorrow.

-          So?

-          It may be my one and only shot at the talkies.

-          Well, I guess, with ‘yup’ and ‘nope’ as a vocabulary…

 

 

- ENDS -

 

What you have just read is the outline I created to develop a 30 minute radio drama, which has been accepted by a major broadcasting network for late night scheduling in 2006.

 

© Jim Green 2005   All Rights Reserved World

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