FIVE SUMMER STORIES : The Veterinarian’s Daughter
IN THE SUMMER OF 1947, THE WEEKS BEFORE CARla’s movie began shooting were the last days she had before she began her lifetime of work. Because she remembered those days the best, she later came to think of them as her childhood, an interlude before the cameras rolled and before she became famous. Her face and form were still tiny, but an older, knowing creature lurked not far from the surface. She seemed perfectly formed, but in miniature, like a pony, or a bonsai tree. Her personality was still passive and serene, as if she were biding her time, gathering her power. She was 7--an age when a child tends to take the world as she finds it, but also to assume that the world will always be as it is.
For Carla, the MGM lot in Culver City was a school, but for the adults, it was a workplace that looked more like a college campus than the factory to which the newspapers frequently compared it. The studio was populated with beautiful young people looking to take their youth and attractiveness to market and powerful older ones who could help them get what they sought. It gave the place a lubricious air, thick with hormones and availability. Rapaciousness was always there, hanging in the air as permanently as the heat. The studio was an erotic countinghouse and Carla would grow up in it, absorbing its customs and values through her pores. The studio would make her, and it would do the job before she could know it or judge it.
In preparation for what was to be the first of many Dr. George movies, in which Carla would play the veterinarian’s daughter, Metro installed a barnyard menagerie. Carla was encouraged to get to know the horses, cows, ducks, chickens and pigs. She was also enrolled in Metro’s Little Red School House, which was neither little nor red, but a white stucco bungalow with a tiled roof and Spanish arches.
When Carla started at the school, the other contract players her age were Sarah Milliken and Bobby Dryer. Sarah, an exquisite blonde, had been in several musicals and was considered the child with the brightest future. Bobby had the child actor’s gift of looking younger than his age. He was tolerated by Sarah only because he was a contract player. Sarah always brought a hamster named Nibbles to class. Although Sarah had a cage for him, Nibbles was usually perched on her shoulder. Carla tried to listen in class, but most of the time she watched Nibbles as he climbed all over Sarah’s back.
On Carla’s first morning at the school, Miss Darrington, the principal, introduced her to the other students and then turned the elementary schoolchildren over to Mr. Danzig, their instructor. Sarah whispered, “We’re the only girls.” Carla could plainly see there were other girls--some were older, teen-agers in other classes, but some were grade-school age as well. As Carla was puzzling it through, Mr. Danzig, whom Sarah and Bobby called Skeeter, told the children to divide into groups. The day players broke into three groups while Sarah, Carla and Bobby stayed together, apart from the others. Sarah smiled at Carla, as if to say, “We’re the ones who count.” Carla knew to appear unassuming and to treat Sarah deferentially, as a wise, older sister. She knew by instinct that Sarah would be a valuable ally only as long as she didn’t feel threatened. Carla listened to Sarah and then asked if she could pet Nibbles.
“He bites,” Sarah said, turning down the request.
“Not me,” Carla said, touching the jumpy hamster. “Hi, Nibbles. Want to play at the barn?”
“Not allowed,” Sarah said, putting him in his cage.
After their morning class of reading and arithmetic, from 9 till noon, the children went to lunch at the commissary. They would march across the lot, accompanied by Skeeter Danzig, past Stages 21 and 5, left past the prop shop and the camera building. Then Skeeter would lead the children into the commissary, all green and chrome. On her first day, Carla saw a tattooed man eating a hamburger. He wore a robe to protect his costume, but ketchup was oozing down his face, dripping onto the purple image of a dragon whose claws crawled up the man’s neck. “Not real tattoos, only from makeup,” Sarah said dismissively. Carla nodded, but she wasn’t sure about the difference between real tattoos and ones from makeup.
The children ate in a special alcove known as the romper room. It was a safe distance from the raucous, lewd jokes at the writers’ table or the sometimes gamy gossip of the publicity table and far from the exclusive precincts of the directors’ table, which was in a screened porch off the main room and where actors and producers as well as directors might be found, laughing and making bets on anything from East Coast football games to who might come through the door next. Within the romper room, Sarah had asked for and gotten a special table for contract players only; day children were not allowed to sit there.
Carla ignored the commissary food--the steaks, chops, sandwiches and ice cream sundaes that everyone else ate. She usually had a few spoonfuls of Mr. Mayer’s famous chicken soup and part of a fruit salad. She stuffed her pockets with sugar lumps from the bowl and carrot curls and apple slices from her salad, and pieces of matzo, a box of which sat on every table. After lunch, when Sarah and Bobby went off to the sound stages or their locations, Carla went to visit her animals. No child was supposed to go anywhere unattended, so a studio car, a Packard limousine, waited for her outside the commissary. As she rode through the studio streets, she sat up on her knees so she could watch out the back window for actors in costume. Sometimes she saw a few, but usually it was only grips on bicycles and a few young actors preening for one another and taking the sun.
The barn, the part of the MGM lot Carla liked the most, was actually a Quonset hut with stalls and pens, installed on Lot 3, far from the Little Red School House. The director of animal services, the head wrangler, was Norman Katano, and he had been told to encourage Carla to play with the animals every day. Norman usually dressed in denim overalls with baggy, grass-stained knees. Even though the studio kept a large crew of greensmen, Norman was frequently on his knees with a hand-spade, turning over Mr. Mayer’s earth, or pruning Mr. Mayer’s rosebushes. It had been Norman’s idea to have Carla name the animals. Ever since her own name had been changed from Karen Teitel, she had been interested in names. She had given most of the animals human names--there was a duck named Mary Anne and a rooster named Bob; a cow had been named Elsie, after the Borden trademark.
In the last weeks of pre-production, the studio acquired a horse, a sweet looking 5-year-old roan that Carla was to ride in the picture. Carla had planned to call him Dobbin, a name her mother had suggested, but when she saw him with his reddish flanks, heavy coat and deep, sad eyes, she blurted out, “Hi, Lewis, want a cracker?” She held out a matzo that Lewis nibbled. He then lapped up the crumbs in her palm with his gritty tongue.
“He likes you,” Norman said, relieved. “That’s what you call him? Lewis?”
“And he calls me Carla.”
“Want to ride him?” Despite the fact that Carla turned a little shy at the prospect, Norman could see she very much wanted to ride him. He brought an apple box for a step, and helped her up onto Lewis’ back. He led horse and rider out of the Quonset hut to the barnyard. Norman walked Lewis in widening circles while Carla sat atop her new friend, her legs spread wide across his flanks. She leaned forward and dropped her arms around Lewis’ neck and lay her head against his mane. Norman watched as Carla rubbed herself against Lewis, letting the horse’s warmth become part of her. Had she been a little older it might have made her self-conscious; any younger and she might not have felt the pull and physical sensation of the horse.
“You like horses or you just like Lewis?” Norman asked. Carla was too involved with the feeling of Lewis’ muscles against her legs and chest to hear the question. For that moment, she wanted to melt her own body into Lewis’. Since that wasn’t possible, she was happy to squeeze him with her legs, hug his neck and push her tiny face into his mane.
Carla was frequently called away from her afternoons with Lewis for makeup and wardrobe tests and occasionally for screen tests with candidates to play her father. Although Maury Kelman’s script still wasn’t finished, one scene--Dr. George and his daughter in their living room--was declared ready enough for tests. With Maury’s help, Carla learned the dialogue and then shot six versions of it in one day.
Each of the actors was experienced, so the purpose of the test wasn’t to see if they could act, but how they looked and interacted with Carla. Only Brandon Holt, a character man who had been around Hollywood since the silent days, stood out. Holt was 50, which was old for the role, but it seemed to give him additional wisdom. If he and Carla had what Fred Nugent, the Metro executive who had hired Carla, called “chemistry,” Brandon Holt would be Dr. George. Brandon looked good because he had improvised a moment in the middle of the test. Even Maury Kelman, who had a screenwriter’s distaste for improvisation, liked it. In the scene, after Carla told her father she didn’t know where his medical bag was, Brandon walked over to Dr. George’s old upright piano, making the camera follow him, and played “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and sang the words known by every piano student:
Papa Haydn’s dead and gone , but his melody lingers on
It made Carla laugh, and for a brief moment the scene came alive.
Fred Nugent asked Claire Berger, Carla’s agent, to assess Carla’s feelings. “She doesn’t have veto power or anything,” he told her. “But find out if she likes the guy. If you think they’ll get along.”
The next day, after lunch, Claire went to the barn, and while Carla was riding Lewis, she walked along next to them, holding the reins.
“Was it fun to make the tests?” she asked.
“Not as much fun as making a movie, though. Is it?”
“Is Lewis going to be in the movie?”
“Absolutely. You like Lewis, don’t you?”
“Hi, Lewis,” Carla said, leaning down and speaking directly into the horse’s ear. It made Lewis shake his mane.
“Do you remember the last test you did?”
“With Brandon Holt. For your father. Do you remember?”
“It was the scene in the house. Where he can’t find his bag and he thinks you know where it is.”
“That’s the one we do all the time.”
“But the last time you did it was with Brandon Holt. The tall man who played the piano.”
“He was nice.”
“Would you like to be in the movie with him?”
“It’s a big decision, Carla. Are you sure?”
“I don’t know. Ask my dad.”
“I’m asking you.”
“Is he going to get the part?”
“Possibly. It’s important to know if you’re comfortable with him.”
“Are we going to start pretty soon?”
“Just as soon as we cast Dr. George. What do you think?”
“I have to ask Lewis.” She leaned over again into the horse’s mane and said, “Is the piano guy OK to be Dr. George?” Lewis shook his mane again, reacting to her breath in his ear. Carla sat back up on the horse and smiled. “Lewis says OK.”
And so Brandon Holt, after two decades of character work, became a star.
WHEN MAURY KELMAN’S SCRIPT WAS FINALLY APPROVED and put through the typing pool, a reading with the cast was arranged. The director was Bill Brady, a studio staff man who had worked on other movies with Maury and the technicians assigned to the film.
They sat at a long table set up on Stage 8, where the movie’s main interior had been built. It was Dr. George’s living room, with beamed ceilings, a vast stone fireplace and bookshelves filled with leather-bound classics and books about animals. A painting of Dr. George’s late wife--serene and saintly, a gentle-looking woman who had been given Carla’s features--hung above the fireplace, keeping a benign eye on her family. Bill Brady sat at the head of the table with Maury on his left. Carla sat next to Brandon Holt, and the other actors arranged themselves around the table. Doughnuts, fruit and an urn of coffee had been provided by the commissary.
Claire hadn’t told Milton, Carla’s father, about the reading in order to keep him away. As far as Claire was concerned, Milton had become a real pain, and the less anybody at the studio saw of him, the better things would be. Carla didn’t seem concerned that her parents weren’t there, which was just fine with Claire. The only thing Carla asked about was if Lewis the horse was going to be at the reading. When one of the other actors laughed, Carla said, “He has a bigger part than you.” No one else laughed at Lewis.
Carla could read well enough for her age, but she had always learned her lines with her mother’s help. This time she turned to Brandon Holt, who was glad to assist her. At first, when she stumbled, Bill Brady looked nervous, so Claire intervened. “Say it for her, then she’ll repeat it.” Bill nodded, and when Carla had difficulty, she’d listen to Brandon, then repeat what he had said. When she had to figure out the words, she spoke in the same sing-song voice that all children use when they’re learning to read. It terrified the adults until she put down the script and repeated what she had just read in the voice of the veterinarian’s daughter. As long as she didn’t have to struggle with the reading, her voice was simple and unaffected, direct and always clear. By the third time she had done it, Maury Kelman muttered, “Damndest thing I ever saw.”
The story Maury had contrived had to be a tale that was interesting and compelling on its own and one that could also serve as the basis for a continuing series. Dr. George was a rural veterinarian, a recent widower, with a little daughter named Georgine. Dr. George had always wanted a son, and now that there were just the two of them, little Georgine had to prove to her dad that she was just as good as a boy. In the first story and all the others that would follow, father and daughter would argue about Georgine’s ability to assist Dr. George on his rounds of the farms in their area. Each time, little Georgine would prove her mettle as father and daughter worked to help birth a calf or mend a broken wing. At the end of every movie, Dr. George regretted that he ever doubted her.
It always seemed to be summer in the Dr. George movies; the sun always shone over the meadow, and the brook always ran clear. No one ever said where the farms were, exactly, and the neighboring farmers, the ones with the never-ending supply of sick animals, spoke in a mixture of accents. Some seemed to be from New England, flinty Vermonters, maybe; others had soft, tidewater accents, Virginia gentlemen. Everyone was white and Gentile; every woman was a mom who spent her days making supper and wiping her hands on her apron. Dr. George drove a pickup truck, but in an emergency, when little Georgine had to find her dad, she always rode Lewis the horse.
Unlike most character actors of his era, Brandon Holt had never worked on Broadway or in the West End. Brandon was a man of the movies, his sense of acting purely behavioral. He had never played to a second balcony. Any exaggeration was a mistake to Brandon. Since that style was only a more developed version of Carla’s instinctive mode, they played well together. Brandon had a ranch out at the western end of the San Fernando Valley where he kept horses. He had a natural feel for the animals, and when he was cast as Dr. George, he began seriously learning about veterinary medicine.
Brandon knew as well as anyone at the studio that in the end, the success of the movie would come down to two things: the quality of Maury Kelman’s script and the chemistry between Carla and himself. The script seemed right to him, and he knew he could count on Metro to provide good technical support. He had no children of his own, and although he usually got along with those he met, little Carla was a mystery to him. He would look at her, so tiny and opaque with those exquisite features, and think how difficult the movie business was. He tried not to dwell on it, but it was hard to keep it out of his mind: His career, and as Brandon saw it, the rest of his life, depended on his ability to get along with a 7-year-old. He had been with her a few times, and she seemed to respond best when he was most genuine. Claire Berger had told him she was crazy about her horse and he hoped that would be the way he would win her heart. During the last week of pre-production, when Brandon was at the studio every day for wardrobe and lighting tests and conferences with Bill Brady, he went to the barnyard after lunch, when he knew Carla would be there. He took it very slowly, just watching as Carla rode Lewis. She seemed to like Norman Katano, the wrangler, so Brandon did his best to be friendly. By the time Brandon began coming to the barnyard, Carla could ride Lewis without Norman holding the reins. She wasn’t allowed to canter, but simply to move at a pace that Lewis found comfortable. As Brandon watched, waiting for an opening, Carla waved and brought the horse over to where he was standing. “Hi, Daddy,” she said.
“Hello, Georgine,” he answered, feeling a little shiver go down his back when she called him Daddy. “How’s Lewis today?”
“Hi, Lewis,” Brandon said, speaking softly to the horse and offering a carrot from his pocket. Lewis chewed the carrot, then nuzzled Brandon, sniffing him.
“He likes you,” Carla said, delightedly.
“Well, I certainly like him,” Brandon said, keeping his eyes on Carla, hoping she would understand they were talking about themselves as much as the horse. “Could we ride him together?”
“Lewis,” Brandon said, cooing to the animal, stroking his flanks, “Can I ride with Carla? Is that OK?” Lewis shook his head and whinnied.
“OK. He said yes,” Carla said. Norman brought the apple box and Brandon mounted easily, sitting behind Carla. She leaned back against him as Brandon spoke to the horse, urging him to move a little faster.
As they cantered around the barnyard, Brandon leaned forward for a look at Carla’s face. Her eyes were shining. “Shall we go for a real ride?” he asked. Unsure of the proper response, Carla said nothing, but Brandon pulled the reins to the right and sent Lewis out of the barnyard onto the lot. “We won’t be long,” he called to Norman, who didn’t look pleased with this turn of events.
“Are we going to Lot 4?” Carla asked, assuming they were headed for meadows and open fields.
“Nope. We’re going to show him the studio.” As Carla realized what he meant, she began to smile. Brandon fanned out his fingers, which almost covered Carla’s chest and stomach, and drew her to him. She leaned back, astride Lewis, resting against Dr. George, content and comforted.
They trotted back toward Lot 1, where the main business of the studio was conducted. Each time Lewis started to slow or let his head dip, Brandon tugged on the reins, making him stand upright. “Come on, Lewis, move like a champion.” He was speaking to the horse, but whispering in Carla’s ear.
As they rode past, people on the street stopped to look and point or wave. Benny Raskin, the unit publicist assigned to the picture, saw them and yelled, “Wait, wait. I gotta get a camera.” They ignored him and kept going as Benny ran back toward his office, visions of photo spreads in his head.
At the school, Carla shouted, “Hey, Skeeter, come here. Come on.” The loudness and joy in her voice made Lewis whinny again, and as he did, Skeeter, followed by Sarah Milliken and Bobby Dryer, came outside. Skeeter laughed and waved to her. “You look great!” he shouted.
Bobby said, “Holy cow!” Sarah just stared and didn’t say anything.
“Let’s show him our house,” Carla said. Brandon laughed and brought Lewis about and set off for Stage 8. Bobby Dryer ran after them, enchanted. Even when Skeeter called to him, Bobby wouldn’t come back.
At the sound stage, Brandon drove Lewis straight through the overhead loading door into the cavernous stage. The painting crew finishing the set for Georgine’s bedroom stopped working and looked up; even the guard, who was not paid to have a sense of humor, called out, “Did you change it to a Western?”
They waved and trotted over to the living-room set, where Brandon brought Lewis to a gentle halt. “Tell him what this is,” he said to Carla.
“This is our house, Lewis. See? You can come in. Just today, because it’s special.”
“Yes, it is,” Brandon said softly, thinking he had set out to woo this child and instead had himself been seduced, entirely. Behind them, standing in the door, Bobby Dryer watched, excited, dancing about, calling, “Hey Carla. Over here. Hey.” But she paid no attention to him, happy to be lost with her horse in her new house with her new father.