Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky studied mad science in high school, but only got an honorable mention at the science fair for his death ray laser.
"The young electrical wizard! Thought you were smart enough to fool me, huh?"—Zolok (William "Stage" Boyd) to Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond)
"Mr. Krellberg, Mr. Boyd is here to see you."
Sherman Krellberg chewed thoughtfully on his cigar for a minute, then pulled it dramatically from his mouth. There was no one in the room to see the gesture, but it seemed appropriately theatrical to him. He pushed the blunt tip into the ashtray, then pounded on the intercom button. "Send him in, Shirley," he growled.
Boyd entered the room. The old stage hound was looking frail. Krellberg knew he probably had one or two more films in him. He used to be a decent guy, even a good actor. But now, he was cheap.
"Stage? Good to see you. Got a proposition for you." Krellberg leaned forward and offered Boyd a cursory hand. The hand was tinged with brown from the cigar and smelled of sweat and ink. Boyd looked it over, unsure if it would bite him.
"Stage, buddy, sit down. I won't waste your time. Here's the pitch." This came out in one breath. Time is money, after all. And money was at stake. "I've got to roll on this thing in two days. The guys across the street are trying to get their Gene Autry serial done by the end of the month. They call it…" Krellberg waved his hand across the room as if lighting a marquee. "…The Phantom Empire! It'll be big, and I want a piece of that. So we're going to beat them to the punch with…"
Boyd coughed gently.
"…The Lost City! Twelve chapters of thrills and action. Cast of five hundred. I can even borrow the electrical whatsamajiggers from the Frankenstein set for the mad scientist lab."
Boyd spoke for the first time. "Mad. Scientist. Lab." He felt an oppressive weight on his head. There was a twinge in his side. My liver, he thought. I should have stopped at eight last night, not finished off that bottle. It was too hard to stop though. Work could always distract him, but it was hard to get good theater work these days. The movie studios weren't calling so much. Not since it happened. He chuckled, covering it with another cough. Everybody thought it was the other Bill Boyd—that bastard Hopalong Cassidy—but it was him. "Stage" Boyd, as his agent insisted he tell people. Figured. In Hollywood, you couldn't even get credit for your mistakes, much less your successes.
He heard Krellberg's growl rise faintly to the surface of his mind. "Yeah, yeah—mad scientist. You'll play [another flourish of the hand] Dr. Zolok. That sounds Russian enough, right? But you don't need to use an accent. Just be yourself. You'll be the evil emperor of the mysterious land of, um, wait." Krellberg shuffled through a stack of papers on his desk. "The Lost City!" he pointed triumphantly.
"Lost City," repeated Boyd, wondering where Krellberg hid that bottle of Scotch he'd heard about.
Krellberg was in full pitch mode, lost in a world of popping flashbulbs and applause. Nothing could stop him.
"Ok, here's the story—there's terrible electrical storms all over the world. Ocean liners are sinking. Cities are threatened. Nobody knows where it's coming from. A brash young scientist hero, Bruce Gordon, has used his super-science to trace the disasters to the heart of darkest Africa, where no white man has ever been."
"Wait. Which scientist am I?"
"You're Zolok. I haven't gotten there yet. No, I got a hot new kid to play Gordon. Kane Richmond. You remember him? He did those boxing two-reelers a couple years ago, the Leather Pushers pictures. Kid's got a future as an action star."
Boyd understood what that meant. He's got a future. Right.
"Anyway. We go to Africa—well, backlot stuff of course, with some loincloths and such. We meet a Great White Hunter named Butterfield. I got George Hayes for that. I hear they're grooming him as Hopalong Cassidy's sidekick." Boyd winced. Krellberg continued, "Gordon and his crew go to the Magnetic Mountain, where legend says a race of giants lives. But the giants are really natives turned into living dead-men through super-science—by you." Krellberg thrust his finger dramatically toward Boyd. The actor stared at it. He was starting to get nervous. He took the script from the desk and started thumbing through it. There were coffee stains on several pages, and somebody had scribbled something unreadable in the margins in pencil. Probably the director.
"You are Zolok, leader of the Lost City! You are keeping a kindly old scientist and his beautiful daughter prisoner to do your bidding! Gordon is trying to stop you, but you set traps to stop him. There's fierce natives! And Arab slave traders! There's a tiger!"
"Uh, you said this was in Africa. There are no tigers in Africa."
"There are tigers in Tarzan pictures. Tarzan pictures are in Africa. There are tigers in Africa."
Boyd blinked slowly. There was no point.
Krellberg rattled on, "We've got thrills galore. We put the kindly old scientist under a torture stone. I'd like to torture the girl more—kids love that—but we got to watch those Code violations. We almost throw her in a pit of lions though. I got a whole sequence where the African natives fight the Arabs. Then there's this giant spider—totally realistic! Kids'll wet their pants!"
Boyd held up his hand. He took a deep breath. "Sherm, this is garbage. You know it. Years from now, people are going to be laughing at me and this movie. Twelve episodes of bad acting, cardboard sets, and completely unbelievable action. I mean, look at this script. There's whole episodes where people are standing around talking or getting tied up every five minutes. I can't even follow this plot. First, they are all chasing this scientist, Manyus, around the jungle. Then the Arab traders show up, and more people are getting tied up. And then a tiger shows up for no reason to chase the girl around. Most of the plot is everybody chasing down Manyus, who keeps doing scientific experiments for no reason, even though he keeps telling people he is a good guy. It probably won't even look like the jungle—you'll shoot it cheap in the woods out behind this building, right? You've got a whole episode about turning the African natives into white guys. That is just—just—well, I don't know what it is. Most of this is about African tribes all fighting each other. The whole taking-over-the-world thing gets forgotten. I'm not even in half the episodes, and it looks from this script like Hayes is the main villain most of the time. Anyway, I don't have any real motivation as a villain. It says here that I'm the last of my race, but I have this underground city and an army of minions. I spend most of the time yelling at minions through a microphone. And—I have a hunchback sidekick named Gorzo. Is that supposed to be scary?"
"I got Billy Bletcher for that. He does cartoon voices."
"That's what I'm talking about. This is ridiculous. I mean, this is 1935. Little kids might buy this stuff on Saturday afternoon, but—Sherman, this serial is an embarrassment. I need the money and all, but…"
Krellberg set his mouth in a line. The enthusiasm was gone. Here was the businessman, the producer. Boyd had never seen him like this, and it was a little frightening. "Stage. Listen. This is not art. This is a programmer. We run the twelve chapters, then reedit the thing into two or three features. Nobody is going to come to the theater to see this thing, but it will fill out a bill with cowboy pictures or something—whatever the kids like to see. We can keep recycling it for years, long after the print is worn out. It's like a money machine."
"So you don't care that people are going to laugh at this?"
Krellberg opened his drawer and removed a cigar. He bit off the end, then reached back into the drawer for the box of matches. He said flatly, "As long as they are buying a ticket, who the hell cares if they're laughing."
William "Stage" Boyd looked at the end of the cigar as it glowed and belched smoke. A clock beat like a metronome, faintly in the background. He felt dry. He wondered again about that Scotch.
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Scales of Justice
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