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A Thoroughly Stupid Thing

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“Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.”
- Oscar Wilde

The sun has just set when they arrive at the Brown Derby. In the lingering blue glow, the restaurant looks like an exotic clay tomb, its dark rounded walls slanting up into darkness. The three of them are squeezed into the backseat of Don’s brand new Ford Model A, and as usual, Cosmo exits first, ready to prime the waiting crowd with a little jig and a wave. A few camera flashes follow, enough to dazzle and blind him a bit while he answers one or two questions about Singin’ In The Rain from a small-time reporter who obviously didn’t stick around for the end of the flick earlier tonight – too eager for a prime interview spot, no doubt.

“Why, if it isn’t Cosmo Brown, producer extraordinaire!” the reporter says, with a level of enthusiasm he’s never seen before. Usually these people are so eager to talk to Don that they barely acknowledge his existence. “Cosmo, after the smashing success of Singin’ In the Rain, the world is positively holding its breath to see what you’ll come up with next! What can you tell us about the next picture you’re producing?”

“Well, it’s about two schoolteachers – Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden, of course. He teaches at night, and she –“

“And they fall in love?!” the reporter interrupts. “How wonderful!” She uses her pen to fluff a curl of her hair before jotting down a few words in her notebook.

“Uh, isn’t it?” Cosmo says. He casts a wide-eyed glare in the general direction of the car, where Don and Kathy remain, chatting lazily.

“Speaking of romance, how’s your love life going? Is there a special lady in your life?” The reporter purses her bright red lips while awaiting the answer.

“Not a one,” Cosmo says with a shrug. “Sorry to disappoint.”

“Well I just don’t understand –”

Don finally emerges, to the delight of the small but vocal crowd, successfully distracting Cosmo’s new friend long enough for him to come to his senses and escape. Don pauses to grin into the flurry of camera flashes before leaning back into the car to help Kathy manage her dress.

“Thank you all so much for your support,” Don says to the whole group of reporters, fending off individual questions expertly as they march quickly up the sidewalk to where Cosmo holds the door.

“Good night!” Kathy calls behind her. “Great to see you all!”

The cameras frantically attempt to capture a quick snap, but she’s inside within seconds, the two boys right behind her. The maître d’hôte shows them to a cozy round booth where a selection of canapés is already waiting, steam wafting from the tray.

“Thank heavens! I’m absolutely starving,” Kathy says, and scoops a half-dozen onto a small plate. She burns her mouth on the first bite and puffs her cheeks out in a panic while Don watches, equally amused and entranced.

Cosmo blows onto a cheese puff before popping into his mouth. “Love,” he mutters, his mouth full. “What a bunch of baloney.”

“Hey!” Don objects, making a show of continuing to gaze at Kathy while waving his fist blindly behind him in the general direction of Cosmo. “Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.”

“Oh, I knock plenty,” Cosmo says, dropping his chin heavily into his cupped hand. “It’s just the wrong people keep answering the door.”

**

He gets around all right, of course. He spent some time with the fellow hired to maintain the chlorine level of Don’s swimming pool last summer – Skip was his name, a broad-chested, deeply tanned boy with a quiet demeanor. Sadly, “skip” also illustrated quite well the quick and cheery way he departed when a more prestigious client with a similar inclination came calling.

He saw Sergio for a while: tall dark and handsome, an upcoming executive at MGM with a budding stomach ulcer He would only meet Cosmo in secret. They drove in different cars to a series of small coastal towns. It had to be a different town every time, so they wouldn’t be seen separately entering the same hotel twice. It was exhausting, and it made Cosmo feel twitchier than usual, so when they ran out of places within a four-hour drive, Cosmo decided to call off the affair for practical reasons.

He did have a wonderful two weeks with a ballet dancer flown in from Russia to appear in Zelda Zanders’ first Monumental talkie, a slightly melodramatic musical entitled Russian Dolls. Cosmo’s connection with Feodor transcended language barriers, which was handy, since neither could understand a thing the other said. This allowed several misunderstandings to lurk, unknown, between them, the biggest of which, Feodor’s wife Anna waiting back in Obninsk, came to light only hours before the dancer was set to leave the country, and Cosmo, forever.

Before that, there was Fred, a very talented trumpet player and surprisingly disappointing lover; Joe, who smoked far too many cigars; and Jimmy, a perfectly nice fellow who still lived with his mother. Cosmo liked Jimmy just fine, but his wallet quickly tired of wining and dining the mother along with the son.

The men he knew before he and Don arrived in Hollywood are just a nameless blur of lumpy hats and frayed trouser ends – ancient history, something he can never go back to, and wouldn’t want to.

**

He meets Charlie at Joan Crawford’s post-wedding party, which is suspiciously devoid of any husband of Joan’s, but features the new husband’s swimming pool quite prominently. Kathy invites herself along and spends the evening gawking at everything, from the chandelier to the couples on the dance floor to the flawlessly spotlit debauchery happening out by the pool to the brand new Mrs. Fairbanks, Jr. herself.

“Who’s that?” Kathy says, pointing none-too-subtly with her chin in the direction of a dewy-eyed blonde beauty with a crooked smile and a red satin bathing suit.

“Norma Grant,” Cosmo says. “A ‘special friend’ of our hostess, and you absolutely must know what I mean by that, considering the guest list.”

“But I thought – What about Mr. Fairbanks? How could she marry him if she, uhn... prefers the company of women?”

“She prefers the company of anyone who’s nearby and breathing,” Cosmo says. “And come to think of it, I’ve never had the opportunity to test that second part.”

A sudden snort of laughter makes them both jump. On the other side of a large stone dog with a crystal ashtray balanced on its head stands a tall, clear-eyed young man with a stern-looking jaw line. A paper lantern hangs just above his head, giving him the look of someone who’s just had a fantastic idea. And he’s laughing, which is a very good start.

**

Charles Hunt works in food services and catering, for a company currently under contract to Paramount Studios. He loves to cook – in fact, he seems unable to stop himself from cooking anytime he passes a kitchen, which makes him a very popular and regular houseguest at Don and Kathy’s house.

They become a frequent foursome, appearing at restaurant openings and film premieres together, as well as just popping up at various hash houses, eateries and hotspots whenever one or the other of them gets a hankering for a night out on the town.

For the first three or four months, Cosmo plays it cool, keeping a careful lookout for the fatal flaw that will bring their connection to its inevitable end. A girl or a boy waiting back in Wichita, or an outstanding arrest warrant lurking in Charlie’s past, or something so awful he hasn’t even imagined it yet.

Around Thanksgiving, Don takes him aside and pours them both Scotch neat, a highly unusual practice, since Don tends to be quite miserly with his good liquor. Prohibition might be on its last legs, according to the papers, but it’s still not a simple thing for a well-known movie star to refill the stores without alerting the press.

“Here,” Don says, and forces the glass into Cosmo’s hand. “Now, talk to me. What are you doing?”

“Drinking, apparently,” Cosmo says, and takes his first, hard swallow.

Charlie and Kathy are in the kitchen doing something with walnuts, and the occasional thunk of a knife echoes through the house, along with their muted voices. Cosmo climbs up the steps from the sunken sitting area, and pauses to toast Don’s ridiculous suit of armor before taking another drink.

“My liege,” he says giving it a flowery bow. It just stands there, staring straight ahead.

“Leave Filbert alone,” Don says.

“He’s a little shy.”

He hears Don's footsteps stop behind him, and knows their half-hearted little skit has come to an end.

“You’re being an unforgiveable heel, pal.”

“No need to sugarcoat it,” Cosmo says.

“Face it, that kid has been nothing but sweet to you, and you’re treating him like dirt. He’s like a lit stick of dynamite and you’re looking for a safe place to toss him before he blows.”

Cosmo strolls further into the strange little medieval cul-de-sac next to the staircase and takes a seat on the carved wooden bench there, spreading his arms wide along the scalloped top edge.

“I’m goofy for the guy,” he says, sighing, like it’s a burden.

“Then act like it,” Don says. He’s looking as imposing as Don gets, leaning one hand on the wall and blocking Cosmo’s only exit. “Or you’re apt to live to a lonely, miserable old age. In my guest house. Using all my good towels.”

“That happened once,” Cosmo says. “And there’ve been very few incidents since.”

“Once was enough,” Don says, and shakes his head woefully, like stepping out of the shower to find the towel rack empty was the worst thing that ever happened to him. It’s been a few years, but Cosmo’s still getting used to this new, pampered movie star version of his friend.

Charlie appears behind Don, catching Cosmo’s eye and pausing to share a quiet moment before making his presence known.

“Dinner’s ready,” he says. “Please, both of you, I’m nothing without your approval.”

“And I helped not at all,” Kathy calls from the kitchen doorway. “So you don’t have to worry about poisoning or choking, or the meat coming back to life and attacking you.”

“She’s not even kidding,” Don says. He spins on his heels and skips off to the dining room, leaving Cosmo and Charlie alone.

“Why do I get the feeling you’ve been scolded?” Charlie says. Before Cosmo can make room for him, he squeezes onto the bench, leaning into the corner and wincing as a carved wooden spike pokes him in the shoulder.

“Please,” Cosmo says. “I’m an important man. A successful producer! An up-and-coming supporting actor! A mediocre composer! Men like me don’t get scolded, we’re… advised.”

“Advised? Well, that’s much classier.”

Cosmo runs a hand along the seams of his waistcoat, the silk making a soft whooshing sound against his fingernails. “You know it.”

“Anything I should know?” Charlie says, his voice wary but steady.

“Just that I’m the luckiest bastard in a town full of lucky bastards,” Cosmo says. “And that I think Don might have a little crush on you.”

“I heard that!” comes Don’s reply, accompanied by the clinking of cutlery. “It’s only a little bit true.”

“I’m a one-man guy,” Charlie says, his gaze intent on Cosmo. “Sorry to disappoint.”

“He’ll live,” says Kathy, and they can practically hear her eyes rolling like a couple of loose marbles.

For Cosmo, life is pretty much open heart and full stomach from then on.

**

In 1930, Cosmo produces 5 pictures. Four of them are light Don and Kathy comedies, and the fifth is an outdoorsy coming-of-age drama by a first-time director who needs a little bit of cheerleading, which Cosmo is happy to provide. He also acts in three films, two of the Lockwood-Selden vehicles and a Monumental Pictures melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck as a blind woman who encourages the man she loves to marry her younger sister. In each one of these, Cosmo plays essentially the same role, that of the silly but ultimately practical wisecracking best friend. It’s not much of a stretch for him. In one of the Don and Kathy pictures he actually gets his own musical number, a tapdance he choreographs himself.

Charlie puts in long hours in food services, the first half of the year. The big-D Depression means budget cuts, which means fewer mouths to feed at the studios and fewer hands to do the feeding on the other side of the counter. Things are rough, but they manage, and in summer Monumental’s in-house catering contract comes up for renewal, so Cosmo puts in a little cigar time with R.F. and does what he does best - talk.

As for Charlie, he swears up and down that the folks at Monumental have far healthier appetites than the Paramount crowd. Little by little, the company finds a bit more footing, and Charlie’s hours go back to reasonable.

**

1931 brings more changes. They move in together that spring, both of them into an entirely new place. It’s modest by Hollywood standards, but it’s clean and new and close to friends. They get a dog, a little Italian Greyhound named Antonio, and walk it past Don’s house every chance they get.

In the studios, the Motion Picture Production Code begins to loom over production. Anyone asked will tell you it’s a joke, just a piece of writing designed to appease the Puritan masses and impossible to enforce in the established studio system. Still, every gangster picture that wraps that year is rushed to distribution overnight, just in case good old Hays finally decides to start paying attention.

That year, Cosmo produces six pictures, branching out into new directions (he somehow ends up involved in a gothic tale and a gangster picture, one after the other). He also lands his first starring role, as fun-loving wisecracker who goes from rags to riches and eventually learns to use his wealth for good. It’s a big hit with audiences, and Photoplay runs an article on him as the nation’s new loveable leading man. The interview includes a mention of his and Charlie’s shared home, though it doesn’t reveal the nature of their relationship. There’s also a photo of the three of them in the foyer, with Cosmo taunting Antionio with a ball while Charlie sits back and laughs.

That fall, Charlie starts his own event catering business on the side. In just a few months, his company, Hunt Private Events, grows to the point that he needs to hire staff in order to keep up with demands for his services, especially around Christmastime. He quits his job with the larger food service firm to dedicate himself entirely to his own business.

**

They’re about to roll on a complicated shot of Cosmo hiding under a restaurant table while the film’s ingénue frantically searches for her lost bracelet, when one of the studio’s runners bursts onto the soundstage and gets Roscoe’s attention. They exchange a few words and then Roscoe waves Cosmo over. He complies, dusting off his knees.

“R. F. wants a word with you,” Roscoe says. “So I guess the rest of us can just go stuff ourselves for the time being.”

“Sounds like fun,” Cosmo says. “Sorry I’ll miss it.” He follows the runner out toward the production offices. The runner’s name is Betty, an energetic, bespectacled girl who started at the studio around the same time he and Don did. But things have changed, and although the two should be comfortably chatting as they head over to R.F.’s office, Betty seems shy and overly courteous today. He can’t get more than one or two words out of her at a time. She seems preoccupied, and angry.

R. F. is waiting behind his desk, a cigar burning itself out on the rim of the freestanding ashtray next to him. His initials are stamped in the pure white sand of the ashtray. There’s a girl Cosmo’s never seen before, sitting on the chaise in the far corner of the room, her hands folded in a fluff of blue organza from her ample dress. Cosmo doffs his hat when he notices her there, and she nods a bit in response, eyes downcast.

“Cosmo, this is Barbara Bowers. Barbara’s very excited to meet you.”

“Pleasure,” Cosmo says.

“I saw Good Fortune twice,” Barbara says, and grins. Her teeth are straight and long, and very white. “I’m an admirer of your work.”

“I’m so sorry,” he says, frowning deeply, and she laughs.

“Barbara’s got a promising career ahead of her at Monumental,” R. F. says. “She’s a very talented young woman.”

“Well, if you need any advice about the place…” Cosmo begins. He trails off when he notices the serious look on her face. She stands, and remains very still.

“But Barbara has a secret,” R. F. continues. “And so do you, isn’t that right?”

Cosmo feels his heart drop into his shoes. For a second he just gapes at R. F., at the man who gave him his first shot, his first ever raise, the man who considered him a visionary just a handful of years ago when they were still trying to figure out how to mic for sound, how to go about mixing it, and how the screen could contain a conversation and amplify its meaning.

“You know I have no secrets from you, sir,” Cosmo says, and he watches R. F.’s eyebrows droop sadly.

Barbara speaks up, tentative. “He says you’re a three-letter man, is that true?”

Cosmo shrugs, shoves his hands deep into his pockets, nods. “I prefer confirmed bachelor,” he jokes weakly.

“Mr. Simpson says we could help each other out. Keep the other respectable, you see? I’m… inverted, is what they call it where I come from. Anyway, it wouldn’t be a real marriage, just a way to –“

“I’m already married,” Cosmo says.

“You are?” Barbara says. “Photoplay didn’t say anything about –“

“To Charles,” he says. “I’m married to Charlie Hunt in every way that matters.”

Barbara sinks back down onto the chaise, deflated. R. F. just shakes his head a little sadly.

“Cosmo, this is bigger than the magazines,” he says. “This is the Production Code. Comes straight from the government boys. They won’t have you out there where the public can see you unless they can control what the public sees, do you understand?”

He does. He understands very well, in fact. There won’t be any more tap dancing, and no more smooching leading ladies under boiling hot movie lights. No more premieres, and parties. No more movies, that’s all. He’ll survive.

“If you value your career,” R. F. says. “You’ll consider this offer.”

That’s when Don bursts into the office, huffing and puffing. He stops short when he sees the look on Cosmo’s face. Somehow, Don seems to know what just took place here. He turns and faces the studio head. R. F.’s cigar has migrated to his hand, but he’s still not smoking the thing.

“Cosmo Brown is the heart and soul of this studio,” Don begins, gasping for air between every other word. “Betty Stoller came by and told me what was going on in here. I ran all the way from the payroll office to tell you that if Cosmo’s out, I’m out. Kathy, too.”

“Now, now, Kathy’s not even here. She’s got her own contract, you know!” R. F. says.

“We’ve discussed it,” Don says. “It’s all three or nothing.”

“You've discussed this?” Cosmo says. He’s completely perplexed. Sure, he sees Don all the time, but they are both busy men now with important jobs. They’re not as close as they were, and probably won't ever be that close again.

“We have,” Don says.

“The world is changing,” R. F. says. “There are some things I’m just not allowed to decide anymore.”

Then Kathy’s in the office, too, briefly acknowledging Barbara with a rueful smile. “Did you tell them?” she says. “All or nothing?” She hooks her arm into Cosmo’s and squeezes with unsettling strength.

“I did,” Don says, and all three turn to glare in unison at R. F. Simpson.

The cigar slowly climbs to R. F.’s mouth, and he takes a long, miserable puff.

“All for one and one for all, is it?” he says. He heaves a great sigh. “I can’t promise anything.” He reaches for the stout black telephone on his desk and begins to spin the dial, then stops, and looks back up at the full office. “Well, what are you waiting for?” he says. “You’re all dismissed. Run along, kids. You too, Barbara.”

The young woman follows the three actors out of the office, and Cosmo hangs back to speak to her.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sure you’re very nice. I just…”

“It’s all right,” she says. “Sort of a relief, actually.”

Cosmo wishes he could feel the same. He can’t shake the impression that today’s victory will be short-lived, that he’ll be forced to make a choice before too long. He knows what he’ll choose, when they force him.

The fool will choose love every time.