Sunday, June 29, 2003

[6/29/2011] Perelman Tonight: Hooray for Hollywood -- Part 4 of "The Swiss Family Perelman" (continued)


"Winging over the Tehachapi Range, I prepared myself for the psychological climate of Los Angeles with a cursory inspection of its newspapers. It was reassuring to discover that the inmates assayed as high a percentage of helium as ever."
-- from tonight's installment of "Low Bridge -- Everybody Down"

The Swiss Family Perelman

Chapter 2, Low Bridge -- Everybody Down
Part 2 of 3

With the Western Pacific, at Salt Lake, the picture altered for the better. Personnel and equipment were no longer medieval, and it was agreeable again to be treated as a traveler instead of a deportee. The Vista Dome car used on this system, incidentally, was a fairly unique experience. As one lolled in its rooftop observation blister, vacuously listening to Muzak recordings of Amy Woodford Finden in the intense sunlight, the effect was indistinguishable from a California cultist funeral. On the occasion I did so, I was privileged to overhear an elderly couple, who obviously had just met, absorbedly discussing their internal functions. "I always keep regular with psyllium seed," she was saying. "It gives you the bland bulk without any of the harsh abrasives." "Ye-e-es, that's so," the old gentleman conceded magnanimously, "but for day-in, day-out performance, for real dependability, I like syrup of figs, with a good alophen tablet in case of blockage." How fundamental, so to speak, and how real, I reflected, as we whizzed along the glorious Feather River Route at a mile a minute. Here were two kinsprits, all passion spent, meeting at last on a plane of perfect understanding. Overcome with emotion, I swayed blindly downstairs to the club car for a fast aperient.

No band of Polish immigrants setting foot in the New World could have displayed quite so creamy a mélange of sullenness, martyrdom, and disillusion as my little troupe that winter morning aboard the Oakland ferry. Shivering in an icy rain amid our myriad traps, the ranee and the lambkins glowered at San Francisco and filed a long, sorrowful beef. "He said there were gonna be coconuts," ran the chant. "I wanna ride in a rickshaw. I feel like a frump in these clothes. I wanna ride in a pagoda. I wanna see a fight between a cobra. You deliberately made me buy all the wrong clothes so I'd look ridiculous. I wanna mango -- he said there were gonna be mangoes. I wanna coke. I wanna hamburger. I wanna see Alcatraz."

"You'll see it soon enough," I promised, grinding my teeth to keep them warm. "Now look, where did you put those baggage checks they gave me in New York?"

"Why, in your trunk," my wife replied loftily. "You said to put them in a safe place."

"I know, angel," I said, opening a flange in my skull to allow the steam to escape, "but don't you see, if the checks are inside, the treeple won't give us the punk -- I mean, the trunkle won't give us the peep ----"

"Loosen his collar," I heard a faraway voice saying. "Stand back there -- give him room!" The buzzing subsided and I found myself looking up into a circle of anxious faces. Within a half hour, thanks to my unusual restorative powers, I was coherent enough to intimate to my wife that since the trunks had been shipped directly to the S. S. President Cleveland, it would be difficult to gain access to them before leaving for Hollywood.

"Hollywood?" she demanded. "What do we have to go to Hollywood for? Is the ship sailing from there?" I slowly counted up to seventy-five to forestall a syncope and explained that inasmuch as the steamer was not scheduled to depart for Hong Kong for ten days, I thought the sprouts ought to get a hinge at the dream factory. Mollified by my assurances that she could spend money there as freely as in San Francisco, she grumbled assent and we made for the airport.

Winging over the Tehachapi Range, I prepared myself for the psychological climate of Los Angeles with a cursory inspection of its newspapers. It was reassuring to discover that the inmates assayed as high a percentage of helium as ever. The current suspect in the Black Dahlia case, a peccadillo which involved a lady of the evening being sawed into stove lengths, was described as studying to be a midget auto racer. An inventor in Palos Verdes had constructed a machine duplicating all the functions of the human brain. When not compounding interest or daydreaming about Billie Dove's shape, the mechanism lay by his fireside and purred like a cat. A group of taxpayers domiciled near a small training field in Burbank were up in arms. It appeared that the runway was adjacent to a disused cemetery and that when student pilots failed to become airborne fast enough, their planes plowed through the sepulchers, sending up a shower of knee-caps and femurs. Spurred on, no doubt, by the Southland's continual preoccupation with mortality, a local travel agency was advertising its facilities under the terse admonition, "See the World Before You Leave It."

Our entry into Los Angeles was fortuitously timed; the choking layer of smog which has earned the community the sobriquet of "The Pittsburgh of the West" was nowhere in evidence. However, the city was digging itself out of a snowfall that had attained a depth of three-quarters of an inch at some points, and emergency crews equipped with hot Sanka and soy-bean poultices were being rushed to the stricken area. Moving with its customary energy, the Chamber of Commerce issued a statement declaring the outrage to be Communist-inspired and posted a reward of ten thousand figs for the apprehension of the ringleaders. Nevertheless, it was not until Major Jack Warner had consulted a geomancer on Pico Boulevard and sacrificed three scenario writers to appease the elements that public confidence was finally restored.

As the parents of two passionate admirers of Lassie, the wonder collie, it was naturally our obligation to arrange a rendezvous with all possible speed. The meeting took place several days later on a sound stage at MGM, where the dog (who, parenthetically, is not a dog at all but a cunning simulacrum animated by two dwarf actors) was making a film about sheep-stealing in Scotland. Aquiver with anticipation, the children waited outside their idol's dressing room until he concluded a conference with his agent, business manager, and lawyer. At length the animal appeared, clad in smoking jacket and yellow Ascot muffler and puffing an imported shell briar. His manner, though cordial, was a whit abstracted; it was plain to see that he was dissatisfied with the script and felt that the writers had let him down. At a command from his handler, Lassie extended a languid, manicured paw to us all, wiped it fastidiously with a Kleenex, and strolled off. I inquired of the handler whether it was true as reported that his charge possessed almost human intelligence.

"He's the equal of any producer on this lot," he replied ambiguously. "Excuse me, but I have to go and see a dog about a man." On a near-by stage, a company was engaged in shooting Madame Bovary, Flaubert's classic, and we were permitted to watch Jennifer Jones acting the title role, an experience American moviegoers would be denied for many months to come. Appetites sharpened to the vanishing point, we now betook ourselves to the commissary, passing en route the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Building, which houses most of the studio's executives and creative sparkplugs. It was in this noble structure, familiarly known as "The Iron Lung," that the memsahib and I had languished throughout a good part of the Thirties, and as our step quickened, we caught again the infallible fetor of balderdash, fatuity, and self-abasement that rises when the mountain labors to bring forth a scenario.

TOMORROW NIGHT IN THE CONCLUSION OF "LOW BRIDGE -- EVERYBODY DOWN": "Move over, Asia" -- the flight back to San Francisco and, finally!, embarkation on the S.S. President Cleveland


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