As soon as the gunfire started, Callie Carmichael hitched up her ball gown and ran like hell. Grateful she’d thought to wear her trusty work boots beneath the floor length skirt, she skidded around a crowd waiting to storm the Bastille and nearly collided with a vampire.
Jaunty marching music filled the hot, dusty air, clashing with a melancholic violin being played somewhere just out of sight. A group of young women dressed as circus acrobats hummed the latest jazz tune as they Charlestoned on the lawn in front of the studio building. A jalopy careened out of control up and down the main thoroughfare; a second, open topped car driving alongside it carrying a man perched precariously on the hood steadily cranking a camera as two young boys held onto his legs and a director hollered instructions through a megaphone.
It was a typical day in a film factory in 1919.
Callie had been waiting outside the studio gates in the hot sun since dawn, waiting for her chance. Each day the line of hopefuls formed long before sunrise, and every hour or so, an assistant director would stroll through the gates sto pick out an extra or two and usher them through the hallowed gates, steadfastly ignoring the desperation etched on the faces of those left behind. It was well known in the movie colony that extras who came prepared in full costume and makeup had the best chance of being chosen. The problem was, those not employed by a studio had little chance of knowing what sort of pictures would be shot that week, and so had to dress in their best guess.
The line was therefore a dizzying array of resplendent evening dress, Roman togas, vagabond rags. One young woman was even clad shockingly in a bathing suit cut well above her knee, her hair tucked under a cap adorned with a large flower. She defensively claimed to have heard that RLP Studios was considering a swimming picture to rival Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties. Several times, she reminded anybody who would listen that she had won many swimming competitions back home in Omaha.
Sometime the previous evening, a rumour had zipped around the bars and hostels of West Hollywood that RLP Studios would be starting work on an Alaskan gold mining picture, and so several of the men were decked from head to toe in thick furs. Around noon, one of them collapsed in the scorching sun. Everybody exchanged concerned looks but nobody wanted to risk their place in the line to help him. Finally, a couple of cowboys from a nearby ranch who had wondered by in the hope of picking up a day’s stunt riding had hauled the fallen man over their shoulders and carried him away.
The black gown Callie wore wasn’t quite as uncomfortable as a fur, but it was of a heavy fabric and adorned with sequins, and it had seemed to increase in weight steadily throughout the day. At least her head and neck weren’t as hot as they could have been. Three weeks previously, Callie had finally found a barber willing to give her the daring and mannish Castle bob (every woman’s hairdressers she tried had refused her, one even claiming that their shears were designed solely to trim long tresses).
She was the first of her friends to take the plunge and every time she glanced in a mirror she felt a little sliver of excitement at the modern woman who stared back at her. That woman was going places, she would think. She was afraid of nothing. Even if she still had Callie’s upturned nose and freckles that were determined to undermine her every attempt at sophistication.
Now, as the vampire stepped aside with a flourish to let Callie pass, she flashed him a grateful smile and dashed on, swerving around some sword-fighting actors and a young man dangling from a tree by his ankles. He held a mirrored board to the sun to cast light on an actress’s face.
‘Archie Tanner — has anyone seen him? He was supposed to be here hours ago.’
A flustered assistant director wrung his hands as he marched past, peering into corners as though the actor would magically appear in a tree or under a pile of costumes. Given that Callie herself had walked in on the reigning King of Hollywood entertaining young extra girls in the makeup shed at least three times (and happened to know that he had not only wronged one of them but refused to pay for her consequent visit to that doctor on South Hoover Street), she could have offered a few guesses as to where the beleaguered assistant director might find his star. She had no time to be helpful now, though: she had nearly made it.
Though the old cowshed she was headed for had been converted into offices at least two years previously, Callie was convinced that the scent of sawdust and manure lingered, and the idea that the smell was drawing her home made her giggle even as her heart pounded. As she stepped into the cool, shady office, she almost felt a lump in her throat at its familiarity. There was her typewriter. Her coffee mug. Her best hat in a soft velvet of midnight blue which she had left behind in her haste.
‘What are you doing here?’ growled a familiar voice and Callie looked up to see Buddy Armstrong, head of the story department, glaring at her from the shadows of his inner office. ‘Didn’t I fire you?’