"So there's Claudette Colbert sitting on top of this incredible palanquin 10 or 15 feet high, she's nervous, and the leopard is behind her on a huge round cushion doused with perfume to keep it drowsy. And it's about the 10th take and all of a sudden the leopard wakes up and there's this great big roar -- 'meeOOWWWWWRRR!' -- and then . . ."
Finley Peter Dunne Jr. is 82 now, living in Washington quietly with his wife Evelyn and more or less retired after a world-spanning career in international education. He founded the American Graduate School of International Management, headed the International Schools Foundation and later worked with the Society of Development and Peace in Geneva. There was also the career in ecumenical religion, the magazine editing career, the very first career, just after Harvard, as assistant drama critic for the New York World.
But in the '30s, Dunne was a script writer for Cecil B. De Mille.
His first job was supplying dialogue for "Cleopatra," the 1934 spectacular with a cast of thousands, sets as big as cities and the usual De Mille menagerie, including Arabian horses that kept running into the crowd and injuring people.
And the leopard.
"It was on a long chain, and its trainer, a lady named Olga, was walking behind it between the guys carrying the poles of the palanquin. Olga had forearms as big as this. All covered with scars. They had her wear a black Egyptian wig. Well, when the leopard went off, the rear pole carriers took to their heels. Olga grabbed both poles and held the whole thing up. 'What's the matter with them,' she said, 'they superstitious?' "
Like many old-time directors from the silents, De Mille paid little attention to dialogue. In the early days, dialogue would be written after the shooting and inserted on titles. So even though he had a half-dozen writers to cobble up the story line from Shakespeare and Shaw, he hired Dunne to sit under the camera and think up things for the actors to actually say.
"I'd make three or four suggestions before I got something the actors were comfortable with. We'd do take after take because De Mille had to run a scene all the way through without cutting. Cost him an awful lot of money. He was a terrible tyrant with the extras -- he'd bawl the heck out of them, strutting around in those silly riding boots.
" 'You up there with the horn-rim glasses!' he'd yell. 'You with the wristwatch! Look here, now, we're kind enough to give you $10 a day' and so forth. I recognized any number of old silent stars in that crowd. It was pitiful. One of my duties was to keep the extras informed of what was going on and give them something to say, like 'Walla walla walla.' "
For one opulent scene De Mille had a black-wigged Egyptian dancer writhing sinuously on the back of an ox with gilded horns. After an exhausting day of endlessly repeated takes, Dunne saw the woman outside the studio.
"It was raining and she had a terrible cold. She had frizzy blond hair and galoshes. I tried to offer her a ride home. 'Oh, you were on the set, weren't you?' she said. 'With my horrible Uncle Cecil.' It was Agnes de Mille."
The future dance pioneer turned out to be a modest, gentle, unassuming person, he added, "a far greater figure than Cecil."
Dunne had followed his younger brother Philip to Hollywood. Philip had come west in 1930 for the sake of his sinuses, had sold Paramount a story treatment about the fabled Sam Zemurray, Sam the Banana Man, called "Green Gold." Paramount paid $5,000 but used only the title, tacking it onto a completely different story. It was enough to start him off, however, and he went on to become a major writer, director and producer with credits ranging from "The Rains Came" to "The Agony and the Ecstasy."
Finley Peter Dunne Jr. and his famous father, creator of the folk-philosopher Mr. Dooley, arrived from New York three years later.
"I left Evelyn and the two children in Larchmont," he said. "I had a pair of rubbers with me, and my father ribbed the heck out of me. 'You're going to California, boy!' We arrived on New Year's Eve in the worst flood they ever had -- 190 people drowned in downtown L.A."
For a while he drove his brother to work at Paramount, where he was writing for Jesse Lasky, but eventually the newcomer ran into a Broadway playwright, Bayard Veiller, whose last play Dunne had ripped to shreds in the World. Veiller, by then a movie producer, gave him a scenario to write.
It was a golden time in Hollywood. Writers from the East were swarming in to make their fortune. "Nunnally Johnson had been working for the Brooklyn Eagle, and he went out and caught on immediately. We were making $70 a week in New York, which wasn't bad for those days, but you could make $2,500 a week as a scriptwriter. Some top reporters like Oliver H.P. Garrett and Dudley Nichols went west and did well. A lot of others didn't. I wasn't really a success, but I lasted five years, which was longer than most."
Dunne was making $300 a week at 20th Century-Fox as one of director John Stahl's 18 writers for "Magnificent Obsession" and "Imitation of Life."
"Stahl was another tyrant. I wrote one scene for him, and he thought it was great and shot it and said, 'Now go home and write another scene just as good as that one. Parts of it stink.' "
The studios were in their heyday then. Four major studios turned out close to 300 pictures a year among them under a system of units, each headed by a producer who found the stories, hired directors and actors, and handled the budget. Some producers worked independently, like the celebrated malaprop Sam Goldwyn.
"I have an authentic Goldwyn story: He was offered a script about the OGPU, the Soviet secret police. He read it and said, 'Say, this is great. I always wanted to do a picture about those guys, the GOP.' "
Beneath the producers, directors and actors were the writers, who still rated low in a Hollywood where directors had traditionally made up their own stories as they went along. Writers had no residual rights, only their salaries. In this sharply stratified world, the Dunnes knew mostly other writers -- including William Faulkner and John O'Hara. But they became close friends with Frank Morgan, Margaret Sullavan and some other stars.
"Jean Harlow I knew as a very cute, sweet little girl who used to come to our swimming and tennis club, the most unassuming person you could imagine. She died soon after."
Before he left for the Boston Herald and later a commission with the Army Air Corps ("In action? I certainly was -- I was stationed in Texas and had to eat grits"), Dunne did sell one original script. It was a William Powell-Myrna Loy vehicle set at Williams College. The producer shifted it to Stanford and gave the lead to Walter Abel. It was this sort of formula thinking that broke many a screen writer's heart.
"My brother and I wrote a fine script on Benedict Arnold. It was the anatomy of a treason. We showed the turning point in Arnold's life, when the man who was perhaps the greatest Revolutionary War hero became a traitor. It was when he met Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia belle who had fallen in love with Major John Andre', the British intelligence chief. Arnold married her, and we made it the end of Act 2. The denouement was what happened at West Point."
Arnold gave the plans of the West Point fort to Andre' and was exposed as a turncoat.
"The producer said, 'Look, you can't have the boy marry the girl halfway through. When the boy marries the girl the picture's over.'
"We never did sell the script."