The Hollywood Serpent

15 Sep

Fred Reinfeld was a veteran actor whom Eric had met when they both worked at the UFA studios in Berlin. The writer listened to his friend in 1943 with rising interest and excitement.

“Rumor has it  that United Artists is going to sign Kurt Linder to direct a monster movie. That is becoming a booming film genre. Do you have any Ungeheuer stories lying around, Eric? If you catch hold of Kurt, he could help you get a job on the scenario. You are quite familiar with his dark, scary style back in Germany before everything changed. His plans have not jelled yet and there is a good chance of selling him a story line he can use. My advice to you is to get in contact him at once.  Talk to him and see what happens,” concluded Fred.

Eric seemed to grow breathless as he listened.

“I will give Kurt a call,” he declared. “Thanks, Fred.”

That evening the writer called from a pay-phone near his apartment.

The answer to the question he posed floored him.

“Yes, I am looking for something new and exciting. Bring whatever you have to my studio office early tomorrow morning. I would like to read anything with unnatural beings of some kind. It would be wonderful if you could give me something to fill the needs of a good monster film like the ones we used to make in Berlin before Hitler and the war.”

The office was a small cubby between a shooting studio and the commissary.

Linder invited the short man with a case full of manuscripts to take a chair opposite his giant maple desk.

“I see you have brought me material to consider. But tell me which one is your own personal favorite. Your judgment means a lot and has deep value. Which script do you yourself like the most?”

Eric was surprised at what he heard from the director. He instantly decided which of the manuscripts deserved to be read first.

“My most original story is the one entitled “The Egyptian Kneph”. I began the outline for it in Germany and finished the work here in California.

“Of course, in English the monster would be called a snake, a serpent…

“It has the face of an ogre-like wild beast that must hunt and scavenge for its food.

“We can see that the monster cobra has been a big hit with the American viewing public. My creature, the Kneph, has a general similarity to it. But it is unique and original as well. The audiences will be excited by something new to them.

“The human host of the monster turns into a wild,maddened killer only once a month. That happens during the nights of the new moon, only then. Its crimes can be transported to the American scene, here in Los Angeles. Searching for food, the kneph stalks and attacks weak-looking victims. It leaves strange, beastly markings on those it kills and eats. The snake exits through the mouth of its host and attacks the victim it has chosen for its holder and itself.

“At the end of the story, a trap is set and the monster and the serpent-holder destroyed.”

An uneasy silence followed as Linder took the script and thumbed through it, reading snatches of dialogue at random.

After several moments, the director looked at the author.

“It seems interesting to me. Let me go through it in detail. Yes, it may fit the bill. The studio chief and my producer want George Bern to play any lead.”

Eric gave a jolt of surprise.

“He played romantic roles in Berlin. Why use an actor like him for this? He might be out of place in such a picture. I did not write a romance at all.”

The director shrugged his broad, heavy shoulders.

“Who can say for certain? Every film is a leap, a gamble of sorts,” said Linder, beginning to think aloud. “Perhaps there is nowhere else to use Bern at present. His English has not been perfected yet. He speaks with a heavy accent and has had to play Nazi villains up to now.

“His foreign accent should make him sound sinister. That is what the studio bosses believe and it is probably true. George is an academically trained actor and may turn out to be hard to handle on the set. I cannot say ahead of time. We will have to see whether he can change or makes himself a problem.”

Eric soon left with elation. His script had been accepted and he was going to work with a director he esteemed most highly.

Linder telephoned the writer the next mornng.

“Your story, moved to the U.S.A., will be the foundation of my film. I want you to be here this afternoon so that each of us can meet with our star, George Bern. Your task will be to help convince him to tone down his emotions and histrionics in order to keep the audience mystified and guessing to the end. You know what I mean. A monster film has to make the viewer imagine much more than he sees. That takes sensitivity and subtlety. The actor has to be a master of small gestures and few words. In this instance, he has to be able to have an artificial snake emerge out of his mouth. An optical illusion must be created for the kneph-carrier.”

“Yes,” nodded Eric. “But how can I help in that?”

“I believe you can prepare George Bern for what the film will require of him. After all, no one knows the story line better than the one who conceived and  wrote it. You must convince him to fulfill the difficult role of the serpent-holder who has a monster inside him.”

Eric cringed inwardly. Can I fulfill such a mission? he wondered.

The director is asking a lot. This is not going to be easy at all.

Eric met the tall, thin, middle-aged actor in the busy, crowded commissary.

The pair had seen each other only a few times since both worked in Berlin. They talked at first about mutual acquaintances in the German colony, avoiding the current project both of them were involved with.

Finally, the writer decided to deal with the role demands in the film.

“It will not be easy to portray this unnatural character. Neither on stage or film has there been anything like what I envision. The need will be to underact rather than overact. The imagination of the public will have to do the work that is usually left to the cast. They have to make sense of what is only hinted at. We cannot do that for them, not at all.

“The words from the mouth of the human form of the creature are limited and enigmatic. Dialogue can only point to, but never explain what is happening, or the genuine nature or essence of the kneph-man.

“When the assault stage arises, speech must end. The monster is a mute. That role is a difficult one, I realize. Action must say all. You will have to apply your skill in pantomine, George. This will resemble the silent films before the coming of sound. You must allow the serpent to become the center of viewer attention.”

Bern seemed to be sneering a little. “I think I know how to handle the mad man,” he asserted with determination.

Eric tried to smile. “An artificial model of the serpent can carry much of the burden,” he said softly. “But the main responsibility will remain yours.”

“I will be fully prepared,” promised the actor.

The two ate a little, then parted.

A tiny slice of crescent new moon shone in the west.

It was a clear evening. A sky packed with stars covered wartime Hollywood.

Traffic was at a minimum. Only a few were on the streets, mostly forgotten souls with limited connections. Nightspots were lighted up for business.

A woman exiting a bar by herself had a noticeable stagger. Her walk was very unsteady. A short stroll would take her home for drunken sleep. So an observer might suppose. But as the female in a short black dress went into a lampless alley that led to the backyard of her apartment building, the unforeseeable happened.

As if out of a void, a yellowish shape jumped out and seized hold of her.

There was no time to scream or call for help.

A rope-like form, then a mouth, went for her windpipe.

Before her brain could register what was happening, her breath came to an end.

The woman’s body fell to the asphalt. Her attacker bent down to take a reward in flesh and blood. But a sudden interruption drew the attention of the killer.

A bright light came from where a cross-street met the alley.

Is that a police car? the kneph-man asked itself.

He raced off rapidly into the shadows.

As two headlights slowly moved closer, the evildoer slunk into the darkness.

By the time a policeman came forward to see what the unmoving form on the asphalt might be, the culprit had escaped and was on its way home.

The following night, a similar crime occurred in Los Angeles.

This victim was an old, disabled male. Large pieces of his flesh had been eaten off. An animal predator? wondered the investigators.

Everyone was totally baffled by this murder.

Speculation grew fantastically wild. No one had memory of anything so beastly.

Next morning’s newspapers frightened the city with the details of this second atrocity.

At United Artists studios, a preparatory conference before filming was held by Director Linder. His screenwriter and leading actor were both present. They sat at a circular table with the German filmmaker.

George Bern, already in an angry mood, began with a caustic comment.

“I find major defects in my part, both sides of it. There must be more explanation of motive. My emotions should be more understandable. How can the audience comprehend how I change into my transformed stage? There must be more self-explanation in my normal stage. Becoming the kneph cannot be left a result of mere chance. There has to be a rational cause for entering the monster period. Otherwise, everyone will be confused. There cannot be any audience satisfaction without logical clarity in both aspects of my character.”

Kurt Linder decided he had to intervene and take command.

“George is right, Eric. The forces driving him into bestiality are too much a mystery. That will not be satisfying to average viewers. You have to put in more personal history for this complicated character. We need his back story, at least its main outline. The earlier life must be mentioned. Just a few extra lines here and there could explain a lot. Show them what makes the man so unhappy. Tell more about his childhood, his adolescence. The audience needs signposts about what goes on, that should be enough.

“How did he come to have an ancient Egyptian serpent inside his body and his mind?”

But there was additional conflict with George Bern, the star of the film.

“I disagree!” he said with fervor. “Why place so much responsibility for explanation upon the original character, who was probably normal? The kneph-man itself must be given some kind of voice. That will help make what he does more understandable. Nothing else will do so. Let the unfortunate being speak for himself.”

“No!” cried out Eric in protest. “That does not make sense at all. Can a monster use language? Can such a mind give rational answers? Of course not. It is the story plot that will fill the need for explanation. A monster cannot provide any exposition of its motives. Not at all. The reptilian form is a thing of actions, never of words. The latter is impossible for it. The audience would laugh at us for trying.”

George and Eric both turned to the director, waiting for him to provide a solution to the disagreement that had surfaced.

Linder took his time, finally pronouncing his judgment.

“I must arrange balances and counterpoints within the film. The human being speaks, the monster does not. That is basic to the whole and has to be preserved. Otherwise, a talking kneph would confuse and disturb people.” He gazed directly at the actor, George Bern. “You shall remain mute in your secondary role. Only as an actual human will you speak words.”

Bern bolted to his feet as if in electric shock.

He looked at Eric, then at Linder.

“We shall see…” he muttered as he ran out of the room.

Late that afternoon, Kurt Linder telephoned his producer and told him that he was not willing to continue with the film. “There are too many serious problems with the script and the cast. Better to end it now than to go on. Nothing can save the thing.”

The decision of the two was to cut losses before more had to be spent.

The director then called Eric and gave him the news.

“Its all the fault of George and his outlandish demands,” said the writer in anger. “It was a mistake to bring him in. He has always been a difficult person to deal with, even back in Berlin,” he grumbled.

Linder apologized, then ended the call.

How to tell George Bern that his monster role were over? Linder feared a very hostile reaction from his fellow refugee.

He phoned the actor, making contact at once. His announcement was short and polite.

“Yes, that was probably inevitable,” muttered Bern. “Perhaps it was the wrong role for me. I will now be free to go on to something else.”

The actor abruptly closed his receiver.

In his inner mind, he was suddenly back in Berlin.

Sitting in a booth at the bar frequented by Germans, Eric told Fred Reinfeld how the monster film had come to a sudden end. When he finished, his friend drew a long breath.

“It makes a lot of sense. I will tell you some strange facts about George Bern. Not many know them, but I do. My ear was always on the ground.

“Did you know that he was a member of an arcane circle of actors in Berlin?”

Eric’s eyes grew large. “No, I never heard that. What were they up to?”

The voice of Fred fell low. “He was part of a secret mesmeric drama group. They hid their activities from all outsiders. Each participant mastered the methods of self-hypnosis. The object was to convince the actor himself thay he was really the character acted out on the stage. Each person in a play had to find a new, imaginary self-identity. The dramatic persona replaced the actor’s own identity, it was claimed. The player,for a time, forgot who he was.”

“That is fantastic!” frowned Eric.

That night the writer learned about the dark side of George Bern, remembered from the old days in Berlin.

The actor soon after departed for work in New York City.

Hollywood and Los Angeles had no more killings by the Egyptian serpent called the kneph.


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