Hacks

(This is a short story I wrote for a publication that was looking for cliche themed submissions. My submission was turned down, but I decided to give it a second life here on my site after a quick rewrite. For the theme I wrote about two old Hollywood hack screenwriters who are busily writing hackneyed stories while trying to avoid the use of cliches. Don’t know if I succeeded, but it was fun to write. Word count is 1,939.)

Herman and Nathanael paced around pensively in a movie studio writer’s room.

“I’ve got it!” Nathanael exclaimed. He quickly sat at his desk and started punching away at the keys on his Underwood No. 5. “Small town girl comes to the big city to realize her dreams, but making it turns out to be harder than she ever imagined.”

Herman leaned over Nathanael’s shoulder and looked at the paper in the typewriter. “I’m with you so far.”

“She wants to move back home,” Nathanael continued, “but grandma needs emergency surgery, so the family tells her to stay in the big city because of better job opportunities even though it’s hard on her.”

“How does she get out of that fix?”

Nathanael spun around in his wooden swivel chair and looked at Herman excitedly. “She gets some friends together…and they rob an armored car!”

Herman pondered. “A bit cliché-ish.”

Nathanael’s smile disappeared. “You think so?”

Herman struck a match, lit an Old Gold, and exhaled a jet of smoke. “Small town girl chasing a dream, unforgiving big city, desperate relatives, armed robbery…pretty much the storyline of half the B pictures out there,” he explained as he pointed with his lit cigarette in the air for emphasis. “You remember Mr. Mayer’s orders; new and original stories, and no more clichés.”

“He sure is demanding.”

“The man is a dynamo.”

“Don’t know how he does it,” Nathanael said as he pulled out a bottle of Benzedrine from his vest pocket. “Care for a pick me up?”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

Nathanael popped the lid off, slid a white tablet into his palm then slid another into Herman’s outstretched hand. They swallowed the tablets and chased them with coffee.

“Yowza!” exclaimed Herman.

“Hoo boy!” Nathanael agreed as he put the bottle back into his pocket. “And I think this coffee is stronger than usual.”

Herman leaned back on the edge of his desk with arms folded. “Now let’s if we can gin up some new ideas.”

They pondered.

“I’ve got it!” Nathanael called out. “A boxing movie,” he revealed as he spread his hands like opening curtains.

“An audience favorite,” Herman said, “but have you got a new angle?”

“Have I ever!”

“Well don’t keep me in suspense, spill it.”

Nathanael leaned forward intently. “Picture if you will, a blind boxer.”

Herman looked askance. “A blind boxer? Are you daft?”

“But all his other senses have been heightened,” Nathanael went on, “so when he’s in the ring he can hear and smell where his opponent is!”

“Hmm, interesting,” Herman said as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “But what’s the twist?”

“A spectator in the crowd is wearing the same cologne the boxer’s father used to wear, a father he hasn’t seen in years.”

“Is it his father?”

Nathanael sank in thought. “Still trying to figure out that detail.”

“Well I only see two options,” Herman offered. “First, it his father and he wants to reconcile after leaving his family to go work in the salt mines of Utah. Second, a shady bookie discovers the boxer’s weakness, and has one of his thugs go the match doused in that particular brand of cologne to throw the boxer off his game.”

“I was actually thinking of a third option,” Nathanael said. “His girl goes to medical school to become some fancy eye doctor so she can operate on him and restore his sight, but in order to pay for the operation, he needs to fight one more match…against a deaf mute!”

“I like it!” Herman said. “But are dames allowed to go to medical school?”

“I think so. I’ll find out.”

“Good, because the other thing Mr. Mayer wants is believability,” Herman reminded, “so our mission is clear.”

“Yes, believability,” Nathanael repeated, then he snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it!”

“Yes?”

“Another talking mule movie!”

Herman looked at Nathanael with an arched eyebrow. “What did I just say?”

“I know, realism,” Nathanael agreed reluctantly. “I should’ve remembered that mules can’t talk.”

“That’s right.” Herman sat at his desk by Nathanael’s desk. “But don’t feel so bad, I’m betting that you were inspired by my idea for a Western about a horse who takes revenge on the desperadoes who killed the man that used to ride him.”

Nathanael scratched his head. “But isn’t that basically the same thing?”

“Not in the least,” Herman defended. “First of all, my horse doesn’t talk, that would be stupid. Instead he uses his horseshoes like boomerangs to take out the bad guys, then he smothers Mr. Big with an oat bag after kicking all his henchmen to death.”

“Yeah, I suppose that is different,” Nathanael admitted.

“See? Take it from an old pro.”

“Coming up with an original idea is sure harder than I thought.”

“So back to the grind.”

They sat at their desks in thought.

“Well we’re not going to come up with anything by just sitting here,” Herman decided.

“You’re right.”

They stood back up and paced around the office again.

“I’ve got it!” Herman said suddenly. “A hard boiled private I murder mystery!”

“Yes! With lots of low key lighting!”

“Not our department. Now here’s the lowdown. Cynical, laconic private I takes on a hard luck case, a nervous woman who thinks her husband is cheating on her.”

“Well is he?” Nathanael asked.

“Whole thing is a ruse. He wants her to think he’s cheating on her because he’s doing something much worse.”

“Subway flashing?”

“Worse.”

“Oh no! What?”

“He’s a spy!”

“The scoundrel! Nazis or Reds?”

“Neither, he’s spying for a secret Albanian cabal looking to get their own nuclear weapon.”

Nathanael looked skeptical. “But could the average American find Albania on a map? I know I couldn’t.”

“Who cares, as long as it sounds ominous and foreign.”

“Okay, but feels like it needs more realism and relevance for today.”

“Got a suggestion?”

“I do,” Nathanael said. “Communist space aliens!”

“Okay, we’ll revisit,” Herman said.

“But as long as we’re going for contemporary issues, how about a disturbed youth movie?” Nathanael proposed.

“Hmm, I’m normally leery of movies that star young people because of my dislike of children, but we are living in a time of disaffected youth that may be looking for something topical and identifiable. What’s the pitch?”

“Hmm, let me think,” Nathanael said, then his eyes widened. “I’ve got it! Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland meet each other at a reform school for wayward youth, but it’s about to be closed down by the board of education, so they put on a talent show to save the school!”

Herman’s jaw dropped open, and his cigarette fell out of his mouth. “My god, everything about that is a walking cliché.”

“Could it be made…un-cliché-ish?” Nathanael asked hopefully.

“Could the Hindenburg be saved? Please,” Herman admonished as he picked up his cigarette, took one last drag, and crushed it in the nearest ash tray. “Besides, the two of them combined have been married at least five times. We’ve got to be more with it.”

“So a younger star?”

“Now you’re talking, like that kid Montgomery Clift.”

“Monty!” Nathanael said as he gazed fantasy like.

“Uh, Nate,” Herman asked with concern. “This ain’t Maxwell’s.”

“Oh, of course,” Nathanael said as he snapped back into reality.

“Don’t forget your morals clause. Now let me take a crack at it. Young disgruntled man; he’s rejected by the military for flat feet, can’t go to college because he has no money, and can’t keep a job because no one wants to work with him on account of his antisocial personality.”

Nathanael fell back into his old wooden swivel chair. “Oh no. What’s he going to do?”

Herman sat in his chair opposite Nathanael. “His one hope, a skid row bum who’s the only person that believes in him.”

“Does the bum have special powers?” Herman asked.

“Remember, believability and realism.”

“So he’s just an ordinary bum? Where does the story go from there?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“He has a lamp with a genie inside?”

“No.”

“Oh, I know. A charmed amulet.”

“Absurd!”

“Magic carpet?”

“Seriously?”

“I’ve got it! Mob connections!”

Herman shook his head.

“Then what?” Nathanael asked.

“How can you not see it? Obviously he’s an eccentric millionaire who likes sleeping in alleys.”

Nathanael frowned a little as he struggled to comprehend the scenario. “Okay, I think I see it. Does he use his secret wealth to help our young hero?”

“Our hero can not be bought,” Herman determined.

“So what happens?”

“He teaches him the way of a most wise individual.”

“Really? Who?”

“The organization man.”

Nathanael appeared further confused. “How does that help the young man become less disgruntled?”

“The millionaire sees something in the young man, and hires him to do a job only a misanthropic social outcast like him can do.”

“What’s that?”

“Corporate ax man. Once our hero starts firing people he realizes his true calling. In no time he blossoms into an organization man by finding his rightful place as a bearer of bad news, and then he starts making real money. He buys a brand new Oldsmobile, moves to an affluent neighborhood, marries the boss’ daughter, joins a restricted country club, and at long last he achieves the American dream of conforming into society!”

“Brilliant!” Nathanael exclaimed. “You know, I once got shown the door by the RKO ax man after I tried to shake hands with Howard Hughes.”

“See? It’s a situation most people can identify with.”

“Well if the board doesn’t green light that idea, then they have bats in their belfry.”

“Sadly most of them are not visionaries who respect us wordsmiths,” Herman lamented.

A junior studio executive walked by the writer’s room, then stopped and looked inside. “What’s going on in here?”

“What does it look like?” Herman said. “Crafting the next box office hit.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Nathanael backed up. “Who wants to know?”

The junior executive looked around the office. “Rolltop desks, manual typewriters, candlestick telephones…is this some sort of time capsule?”

“This is where the tinsel town dream factory begins, kid,” Herman informed.

“I’m thirty four,” the junior executive replied.

“Ha! Listen to this rube,” Nathanael joked.

“I call everyone who’s younger than me kid,” Herman informed. “It’s my trademark.”

“Could you two just tell me what this is all about?” the junior executive pressed.

“Doing our part in the Hollywood assembly line,” Herman said

“Yeah, why are you questioning our process?” Nathanael accused.

“Process?” the junior executive replied in disbelief. “You’re in an office full of antique furniture, you refer to women as ‘dames’ and ‘broads,’ and is that cigarette smoke I smell?”

“Actually I’ve been smoking reefers,” Nathanael pointed out.

“Either way, smoking has been long prohibited in this building. Also, I’ve been hearing other language that’s not socially acceptable anymore. Which reminds me, do not use the word Oriental again unless you’re talking about a rug.”

“But we’re aiming for realism,” Herman emphasized.

“Yeah, hard, gritty realism,” Nathanael added, “just like Mr. Mayer said.”

The junior executive looked puzzled. “Are you referring to Louis B. Mayer?”

“Of course, who else?” Herman said.

“Yeah, isn’t he still the big man?” Nathanael asked.

“He died back in 1957.”

Herman was dumbstruck. “Well that changes things.”

“So what do we do now?” Nathanael asked.

The junior executive thought for a moment. “I think I’ve got an idea,” he began. “How about a movie about two hack writers who rely on archaic story ideas, outdated stereotypes, and ridiculously unbelievable situations as they work on obsolete office equipment and incompetently recycle every lame, overused cliché?”

Herman and Nathanael looked at each other excitedly. “Genius!”

©2021 Robert Kirkendall

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