If you ever ran into me on Hollywood Boulevard in my John the Baptist outfit, brandishing a fifth of Christian Brothers Brandy, howling at you to repent and squirting holy water at you with a plastic squirt gun, you probably wouldn’t suspect that I once worked with some of the greatest directors in Hollywood. D.W. Griffith, Erich Von Stroheim and Cecil B. DeMille were my mentors and colleagues, although not one of the bastards deigned to mention me in their memoirs. What precipitated my free fall from the heights of Hollywood to my new calling you might wonder?
My career in film began very inauspiciously. While hitchhiking through California as a college student in the summer of 1915, I stopped at a bar in Hollywood for a beer one sweltering afternoon. There, I struck up a conversation with a tall, striking Southerner, who having had a few drinks, spoke passionately of of the spatial and temporal fragmentation of the reality continuum to create the illusion of multiple parallel action in film. As I tried to absorb this concept, he suddenly shifted gears and began fulminating about how the South had been betrayed after the Civil War and how it would ultimately rise again. At the peak of his tirade, he gestured wildly, spilling the better part of his mint julep on my shirt.
Mortified, he apologized profusely, then cordially introduced himself as D.W. Griffith, the director. To make up for his rudeness, he insisted that I take a job as a grip on his current production, Birth of a Nation, a Civil War epic originally titled The Strom Thurmond Story. Although I had no aspirations for a career in film at the time, I decided to give it a shot. Griffith said I could start right away as one of his current grips had been inadvertently skewered by a Yankee bayonet and was distracting the rest of the crew with his incessant demands for medical attention.
A couple of drinks later we drove straight to the set and I was astonished to see Confederate soldiers facing off against a plucky battalion of Russian Cossacks. Griffith cursed at the Cossacks and drove them off, explaining that they had probably drifted in from the set of Battleship Potemkin. We spotted the Union Army some distance off, flirting with Lillian Gish, but Griffith had it back in place in no time. Griffith worked feverishly and without a script. Nobody in the cast knew exactly what they were filming, and some were convinced we were actually filming Battleship Potemkin.
My first efforts as a grip were crude but showed promise. While setting up a rack of lights for the famous surrender at Appomattox scene, I somehow managed to ensnare the actor playing General Robert E. Lee with a faulty electrical cord. Although the scene did not call for him to thrash wildly while signing the surrender document, the sudden infusion of four thousand volts into his nervous system sent the otherwise dignified general into a spasmodic, sedentary fandango that Griffith insisted detracted from the somber tone of the scene. Griffith had been having problems with the actor, however, and his temporary loss of motor skills allowed the director to replace him with a minimum of difficulty.
Though Griffith was secretly grateful to me, he temporarily reassigned me to laundering the costumes for all the cast members and extras. I managed the awesome task handily for several days, but Griffith was furious when I mixed Clansmen’s robes with Union Army uniforms, tinting the robes a garish aqua blue. At this point, we mutually agreed that our professional association had ceased to be productive, and Griffith had me tarred and feathered and thrown off the set.
Disappointing as my first experience in film production had been, I made some important contacts, including the young Erich Von Stroheim, who made a brief appearance in Birth of a Nation. Von Stroheim was impressed with my starching methods and thought I might have the makings of a cinematographer.
I ran into him years later at a Hollywood costume party where he was dressed as McTeague, the towering, moronic dentist from Frank Norris’ classic novel, complete with pliers and ether dispenser. When I mentioned my idea of doing a film based on the book from the perspective of McTeague’s giant golden molar sign, Von Stroheim showed interest, but thought imbuing an enormous, artificial tooth with human consciousness might be an artistic roll of the dice. As I began to elaborate on the concept, he pivoted suddenly and etherized me, and I awoke hours later in the arms of Russian Cossack.
Freeing myself on the pretext of getting more vodka, I woozily wended my way through the colorful revelers, looking for the exit. Just as I spotted it, a powerful, resonant voice called out “You!” and stopped me dead in my tracks. I turned around slowly to see a fiery, bearded, Old Testament Jehovah pointing a gnarled finger at me. Fearing that perhaps my host had seen me pocketing his Faberge egg earlier in the evening, I bolted for the door, but was seized by a pair of young bucks dressed like Hebrew slaves who responded to Jehovah’s commands with the alacrity of police dogs. They dragged me back to their master, and I quivered under his stony gaze.
“Barabbas,” he said coolly, looking me up and down. When I asked in amazement how he had identified the Biblical character my costume was intended to represent, he replied, “The ‘Born to Lose’ tattoo clinched it for me.” My host then introduced himself as Cecil B. DeMille and told me that he was preparing to shoot The King of Kings soon. He thought I might be perfect for the part of Barabbas and intimated that he might give me a screen test if I returned his Faberge egg.
My screen test went extremely well, although DeMille thought my malevolent grinning needed work. Within a few weeks I found myself on the spectacular set, standing before hundreds of rowdy Hebrews, all screaming in unison, “Free Barabbas, free Barabbas!” I must admit the excitement went to my head a little, and DeMille accused me of overacting when I started to do the Charleston in response to the mob.
Cecil had coached me to play Barabbas as a callous murderer, but I saw him as the brutal product of a brutal society who had the soul of a poet but the instincts of a jackal. Or maybe the soul of a jackal and the instincts of a poet. Accordingly, on the final take, I recited a poem, interspersing jackal-like howls between each line, undeterred by the fact that it was a silent film. Just as I was really beginning to connect with the character, a large rock connected with my forehead, and as I lost consciousness, the last thing I remember seeing was the actor playing Christ scrambling to pick up some rocks.
I was thrown onto a Paramount back lot, and while I lay unconscious, I had a harrowing, surreal nightmare that anticipated the work of Busby Berkeley. I was later stumbled upon by a kindly script girl, who stripped me only of my cash and gold fillings. Wardrobe came and reclaimed my Barabbas costume. Naked, battered and senseless, I was fast approaching the nadir of my film career. What final indignity could the celluloid gods inflict on me? But as I lay awaiting the coup de grace, they apparently tired of tormenting me and turned their attention elsewhere.
Oh did they? When I regained consciousness, I found myself on an antique divan in the splendidly appointed living room of a Hollywood mansion, a compress on my forehead. An eccentric-looking woman with large, hypnotic orbs, wearing a leopard-skin turbin was leaning over me and asking, “Are you all right, Joe?” In my delirium, I took her for Gloria Swanson and immediately asked for her autograph.
Fuming, she rose abruptly, then introduced herself with a grandiose flair as Norma Desmond, the silent film star. I took the opportunity to inform her that my name was not Joe but rather…nothing came into my mind. Maybe I was Joe. She continued to refer to me as such throughout the remainder of our brief but tragic acquaintance in any case, and owing to the number of rocks to the head I had taken earlier, I could not be sure that I was not, in fact, Joe. Further conversations yielded the troubling revelation that it was now 1950, silent films had given way to “talkies,” and I couldn’t account for the last twenty-three years.
Somehow, she got the idea that I was a screenwriter, and she proposed that I stay with her and help her complete a script she was working on about Salome that she called Salome. The film was to be a vehicle for her triumphant comeback in Hollywood. As I could no longer recall who I was or how I made my living, I agreed, hoping that in the next few days details about my past life would drift back into the fog of my consciousness.
I threw myself into working on the script, and spent many hours a day poring over the Bible to research the story of Salome. One morning around 2AM, as I was working and polishing off an enormous snifter of aged brandy, it suddenly came to me who I was: John the Baptist.
I remembered everything: living in the desert, wearing the caveman suit, delivering the fiery jeremiads to cringing Hebrews, baptizing Christ (he asked, “Does it count if I plug my nose?”) and having my head served on a platter to Salome. Then the image of myself baptizing lost souls on Hollywood Boulevard flashed into my mind with such dazzling clarity that I wet myself. I downed the last drop of brandy to brace myself, then rambled down the steps, wondering where I might find a fur loincloth at 2AM in Hollywood.
As I raced out the front door, I heard Norma calling after me desperately. “Don’t leave me, Joe,” she cried. Looking back I saw that she was pointing a revolver at me with a look on her face that made some of Bette Davis’ expressions in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” seem lucid by comparison. I felt the hot lead bite my flesh and then I heard the report. I stumbled toward the pool, just managing to fasten a Styrofoam egg around my waist before I fell in. I felt myself enveloped in the gentle coolness and I prepared to meet the Lord once more.
But my eyes opened later not on the ethereal white light of heaven but rather the sterile light of a hospital ward. Oddly, neither the oxygen deprivation I had suffered while in the pool nor the morphine they had administered to me helped to clarify my mind on the issue of my identity. Even my tenuous status as John the Baptist had dissolved like cornflakes in battery acid.
When I saw my nurse, who looked like Jake LaMotta in a white dress, coming at me with a hypodermic needle the size of a calking gun, I panicked. I leapt from my bed, juked LaMotta, spun out of the room, and galloped down the corridor. I looked back, and to my surpise, LaMotta was closing on me with speed that would have impressed an NFL scout. Her tackling wasn’t bad either, and after a brief scuffle on the floor in which she got in a couple of solid blows to the head, I was again convinced I was John the Baptist. Determined to begin my mission, I grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall, and it proved sufficient to subdue her.
I fled the hospital, and headed toward Hollywood Boulevard, a churning engine of salvation for the human race. On the way, I found a second hand store and filched a fur loin cloth that had supposedly been used in one of those teenage caveman movies. A nearby liquor store run by a half-blind codger obliged me with a complimentary bottle of Christian Brothers. I chanced across a kid’s plastic squirt gun on somebody’s front lawn, and I knew what God wanted me to do. Since then I’ve baptized thousands, mostly against their will, but people don’t always want what’s good for them. Oh, sure, sometimes I regret that my film career was not more successful, but then I just save another soul and have another shot of brandy.