Pity the poor purveyor of mere entertainment in today’s world.
He can’t afford to offend a soul, yet must have a villain.
Twenty-five years ago Cyril Bezdek and E. Carter Dorwin would have met in a private railway car belonging to one of them. They might even have met in a private train. At any rate they would have met in absolute privacy. But it being the present, they had to be content with a series of adjoining rooms taking up less than one half of a car on the
Super-Sachem, fastest coast-to-coast train in the country.
Their meeting in private was very important. Upon its results hinged the future of Gigantic Studios, one of Hollywood’s big three production companies.
Dorwin was the powerful plenipotentiary of the Consolidated Trust
Company of Manhattan and backer of Gigantic’s multimillion-dollar productions. He was on his way West to make sure that the interests of his bank were being adequately served by the studio.
Bezdek was Gigantic’s supreme production boss. Former office boy, writer, prop man, assistant-director, director, producer, and story editor, he was the works--unless Dorwin decided otherwise during this meeting and pulled the props out from under him. He had thought Dorwin’s trip sufficiently important to fly to Kansas City and get aboard the
Super-Sachem to be with the banker during the remainder of his trip.
They had dined in the privacy of Dorwin’s suite--Bezdek as befitted his tortured duodenum on yogurt and Melba toast--Dorwin on caviar, consommé, a thick steak with full trimmings, and a golden baked Alaska accompanied by Armagnac.
“How do you manage to keep thin?” Bezdek asked him, honestly envious.
“Polo, tennis? Golf would never do it.”
“I haven’t exercised in ten years,” said the banker, biting off the end of a Havana Perfecto. He studied the little movie-maker over the flame of his lighter. Outside, the flat expanse of Kansas rushed past through the night at close to a hundred miles an hour.
“Some people are lucky,” said Bezdek, adjusting the broad knot of his hand-painted Windsor tie. He was remarshaling his thoughts and ideas. It was very important that he and Dorwin be in perfect accord before they reached Hollywood.
The banker, who was new to the movie-making branch of his business, spoke first. “I presume,” he said finally, “that you’re aware of the current feeling in our New York office?”
The movie magnate gestured carelessly with a Saxony gun-club sleeve, revealing a platinum wristwatch strap. “We hear rumors now and again,” he said. “It’s about our science fiction films.” Bezdek avoided making it a question. He was far too shrewd for that.
The banker, finding himself thus at a disadvantage, said amicably, “It’s not that the fantasy series isn’t making money, understand.” He paused, looking faintly distressed. “It’s just that, frankly, we feel they’re getting too far away from reality. Trips to Mars and Venus--strange creatures ... It’s not real--it’s not dignified. Frankly, we question whether an institution like ours can afford to be connected with anything so--so ephemeral. After all...”
He paused as sounds of a scuffle in the corridor penetrated the room and something or somebody was banged hard against the door. Bezdek, frowning, jumped up nervously and went to the door, opened it, looked out.
“What’s going on out there?” he inquired tartly. “Ty!“
“Sorry, Mr. Bezdek,” said Ty Falter, the mogul’s private secretary, bodyguard and constant companion. He was leaning against the far wall of the corridor, mopping a cut lower lip with a bloody handkerchief. He was a tall, deceptively sleepy-looking young man who virtually never slept.
At the end of the corridor two lesser aides were half-dragging a tall figure between them. Bezdek frowned as he caught a glimpse of a nodding head in half profile--a near-perfect profile which showed no sign of a bruise.
“How did that creep get in here?” he snapped. “That’s the same character who tried to nail me at the K.C. airport.”
“Yes, sir,” said Ty Falter apologetically. He glanced at his skinned knuckles. “It was like hitting a brick,” he said. He shook his head, added, “Sorry, Mr. Bezdek. I don’t know how he got in here.”
“Your job is to keep crackpots like that away from me,” said the mogul.
He turned and went back inside the compartment. Dorwin was still sitting as before.
“Eavesdroppers?” the banker inquired with unruffled poise.
“Not likely,” said Bezdek, dropping into his seat. “Probably a movie-crazy kid trying to chisel a screen test.”
The incident had brought back his heartburn. He wanted to take a couple of his pills but not in front of Dorwin. The banker might think he was cracking up. These damned New Yorkers had no idea of the pressure under which he labored. He sipped a glass of flat soda water.
“Where were we?” Dorwin said quietly. Somehow to Bezdek he gave the impression of remorseless rationality. “Oh, yes, these fantasy movies--we’re a little worried about them.”
“I thought you might be,” said Bezdek, leaning forward and using the full magnetism of his personality. Now that the issue was out in the open his discomfort was eased. “Actually we don’t think of our interplanetary cycle as fantasy, Dorwin. We think of them as forecasts of the future, as prophecy.”
“They’re still a far cry from reality, or even the usual escapism,” said the banker. “Confidentially, I happen to know that it will be years--perhaps decades--before we make any live contact with the other planets. Our national interests demand that we prevent atomic power from superseding older methods before investments have realized on their holdings to the fullest extent. And it is upon development of atomic power that space-flight hinges at present.”
“Certainly I understand that--sound business,” said Bezdek with his one-sided smile. “I hope they wait for many years.”
Dorwin looked faintly astonished. “From these pictures of yours I must confess I had derived a totally different impression of your theories,” he said slowly, flicking two inches of pale grey ash into the silver tray at his elbow.
“Listen to me,” said the movie-maker, again leaning toward his vis-à-vis. “We’re making these pictures now because when the first man or men come back from other planets our science fiction cycle is finished. It will cease to be escape. We will then be faced with the reality of what they really find--and that’s bound to be a great deal different from the sort of thing we’re feeding them now.”
“It’s a point I hadn’t considered,” said the banker, reaching for the brandy. He nodded to himself as he poured it, then looked up at Bezdek and asked, “But why this--space opera is the colloquial term, I believe?
Why not stick closer to real life?”
Bezdek sat back and the slanting smile creased his features again.
“Minorities,” he said. “That’s why. Crackpot minorities object loudly at being portrayed in films they don’t like. We don’t want to tread on anybody’s toes--there’s trouble enough in the world as it is. People want villains. But unless we make our villains--even minor villains--people from nowhere we get boycotted somewhere by somebody.
And that costs us money.”
“Yes, of course,” said the banker, “but I fail to see--”
“It’s simple.” Bezdek was in full cry now and interrupted openly.
“People like conflict in their movies. If it’s a Western they want their heroes to fight Indians or Mexicans or rustlers. The Indians and
Mexicans object to being the villains and they’ve got big sympathetic followings. Okay, so we use rustlers or renegade white men and we still make Westerns--but not many. No plot variety.”
He sipped more soda water. “It’s the same with everything else. Unless we’re in a war with a legitimate enemy to hate we can’t use villains.
It’s almost enough to make a man wish--”
“Not with the H-bomb, Bezdek,” said Dorwin frigidly.
“Of course not--I was only speaking figuratively,” said the movie-maker hastily. “I’m as much against war as anyone. But that’s what makes these interplanetary movies great stuff. We can run in all the villains we want--make them just as bad as we want. Audiences really like to have someone they can hate.”
“I see,” said Dorwin. He permitted himself to look faintly pleased.
“After all, a Martian can hardly protest what we do with him. I see your point now.”
“You’ve got it,” said Bezdek, beaming now. He leaned forward and added,
“Furthermore, we’ve got four new pictures in the works for the space cycle that are really going to--”
He broke off, interrupted by a knock at the door. He stared at the banker, seeking someone to share his annoyance, found Dorwin staring out the window, frowning.
“The train seems to have stopped,” said the banker.
Bezdek turned to the window. It was true. The night was clouded and dark but he could make out a single tree in faint silhouette and it was not moving. The knock on the stateroom door came again.
“I’d better see who it is,” said Bezdek, rising. “Maybe something is wrong.”
He opened the door quickly--all but fell back into his seat. The tall young man with the too-perfect features--the man who had tried in vain to speak to him at the Kansas City airport, who had been forcibly evicted earlier from the car--stood there!
The young man smiled and it was much too cold to be ingratiating if that was its intent. He said, looking down on both men, “I think you will wish to talk to me now.”