George Sumner was not simply a body to be herded onto a freeway then funneled into an office. Inside himself, secreted away from the base animal operations of daily life, selected moments were framed, queued and spliced together, then collected onto reels behind his eyes. The moments lurched forward, gaining speed, until the eye was tricked and the day assumed a nobler cast—a properly edited version. He did his best, turned in good work, but pinned hope tightly to his projector.
Each morning he pulled a polo over tightly cut blonde hair and drove to work, blinking slowly awake in the Oklahoma City dawn. Today, a Tuesday, was like any other. George would corral words, with deadlines jostling for position in his mind. The paper never slept, not really, and he was spurred and energized by that nudge, that cycle.
He was second in the office today behind Shelly, who was subbing for his vacationing editor Paul. He got coffee, then balanced an armload of paper against his chest as he headed for his desk.
“Morning,” Shelly said across the room in distraction. “Shakespeare Fest and Fun Run?”
“Filed and in-progress.”
“’Kay.” She wasn’t really here yet. He flipped through his stack between sips, then paused at an AP story. His brow knit in first disbelief then delight as he read the piece through and then looked toward his boss’s desk.
“Shelly, I haven’t been on assignment in a while.” She nodded, eyes never leaving the planner in front of her.
“No one has.” Two interns entered with galleys and chose desks. He’d need to pitch quickly and well, and so drew in a decent mouthful of coffee.
“There’s a film festival in Santa Fe. Part of it’s for the discovery of a print of a famously bad movie—” God, a terrible start. No way to sell a story. “There are a lot of potential angles here, lots of interested readers.” Worse still. “I can do it as a feature.” He received the expected response.
There had to be another way.
“I haven’t touched my vacation in forever. Can I do it that way?” She looked up, finally, with a quizzical expression.
“For a bad movie.” One of the interns looked up and said, “Tell her about Plan 9,” in a hopeful tone.
“I’ve seen Plan 9,” Shelly said. “So this is a nuts director, horrible film. Well, those have their fans.”
“That they do,” said George, nodding sagely. He was close.
“Take it as vacation, but wait…the Kandinsky opening is Wednesday night.” She saw a flicker of panic cross his face and nodded, eyes clenched shut.
“Omigod, I’ll pick it up,” she said.
“Shelly, as if it needs to be said…I owe you.”
It took his lunch hour and those of the next two days, but he cobbled his plan together. With names and numbers listed, appended, circled and struck through on a legal pad, he blocked out the trip, day by day, got a motel and even a press pass. Incredibly, Shelly even relented and gave him a per diem, payable through a post-trip expense report. She wanted a little something, however, and caught George in the hall.
“We need a piece on the new Batman movie. Nothing crazy in-depth, but we need about 400 words.”
“Ah…when’s it open?”
“Thursday, midnight showing. Sorry. Take a late morning next week if you want.” She ducked into the restroom, precluding any response.
The deadline for the Ashton piece (if it was to run in the customary fashion, as it should), was two weeks away. It would be tight but manageable. He’d have to be a little flexible. On Thursday he fought the multiplex crowds, actually enjoyed the movie, and got the piece in:
KEATON, NICHOLSON SHINE IN NEW TAKE ON OLD FRANCHISE
She wants 400 words; here, have five. It could be cut down if need be.
Never let it be said that he couldn’t handle his business.
He set out a little late Sunday, his Civic overpacked, perhaps, but it was better to have something than to need it. Interstate 40 traveled along Route 66, and George thought of the things he intended to see someday: the Cadillac Ranch, The Blue Swallow Motel, things written about repeatedly, but not yet unto exhaustion. He thought of his per diem, and idly ticked though plates of pasta, Mexican treats, towering burgers. What was he in the mood for?
The radio couldn’t seem to quite latch onto anything, so he switched it off. His eyes settled onto the road, an impassive black companion for eight more hours, and he smiled inside. Who seriously still cared about this stuff? How many of him could there be? Who, indeed, cared about Stephen Ashton?
George counted it lucky for a print to have surfaced at all: it was the director’s last effort, and came on the heels of a final flurry of other dogs. There was a horror outing (Dark Terrace), a political quickie (Dark Candidate), and a Western, awful even by Ashton standards (My Friend, My Remington). Then Intrepid Enemies opened on a handful of Midwestern screens and quickly vanished, along with the director’s assets and holdings. It was just as well, in a country that had no use for a rudderless auteur. Monsters and space creatures carried the day then, and Stephen Ashton was reduced to being a trivia question few could answer.
George Sumner could answer it, though.
He got to the motel late. He opened the door onto an ochre gloom that was only slightly abated when he turned on the overhead light. The bed was a wide, squat affair with two small pillows and a dark turquoise spread. Two armchairs, a dresser and a staid Sylvania completed the furnishings. The bathroom was spare enough for a Soviet army barracks, and the discolored lining of the leaden drapes seemed to indicate that his room—perhaps even recently—had been a smoker.
No matter. He was here. There’d be no tasty fare at this hour, however. One quick trip outside and down the road a bit yielded a gas-station burger and six-pack of Bud Light.
He ate, cracked a beer and then opened his briefcase. He pulled out and gingerly opened a clipping from the Cleveland Plain Dealer of Sunday, Aug 9, 1953. There, in the “Movie Morsels” column written by Clancy Clugh, was the only notice of the film that Sumner had ever seen in print, and it had cost him. He read:
“The last installment from the recently departed Stephen Ashton is—like most of his movies—unlikely to convert many to his cause. It’s set during the War, and an Army officer (Hal Needham as General Jones) is assigned to protect a team of top atom scientists, in the desert to monitor Bomb research, as well as a spy team from Washington. An enemy attack force brings tensions to the surface in this actioner, leading to a desperate bid to save the secrets, and survive. It’s less cloak and dagger, more shoot-‘em-up.”
Rialto Twin, thru September
The adrenaline lessening, he felt his eyelids closing. Tomorrow, it began.
He’d first meet Martin Bell, whose address he had gotten from an old newsletter, and who was one of two of the film’s principals that had agreed to attend the festival. George walked across the motel lobby upon seeing the rangy, red-haired Bell, the two inside against the slight bite of the morning breeze.
“You were the young lieutenant in charge of the troops?” George began as they sat.
“Yes, I was Lieutenant Jameson. My division was out there keeping an eye on a lab, I guess they were working on the Bomb. Guys in lab coats. And then,” he fixed George with a glint of mirth, “there’s a group of government agents keeping an eye on the whole thing. One of ‘em, Kit Hasty…she was gorgeous.” George, pad on his knee, jotted and made thoughtful noises.
“We’ve just wrapped some conversation or other, and Ashton wants to get the invaders breaking through into the office. It’s fighting for real, here it is. Except I’m still in fatigues, smoking a pipe, thinking about lunch. Ashton didn’t care, he just barks ‘Action!’” Bell slapped his knee, his belly rolling under sharp jolts of laughter. “The guy was unbelievable. We don’t even have a decent set for this HQ, whatever-it was…we had an old horse barn, about a hundred years old.
“So the idea then becomes that the General’s HQ is in an abandoned farmhouse! For props we had a desk, coat-rack, wastepaper basket. Maybe something on the walls. Telephone on the desk with no juice.” Both men shook their heads at the image. “There was one scene where I was supposed to have been in battle, just moments before. I’m all smeared with mud and I’m reporting to a General!”
“Mud. In the desert.” George was now set for a spectacle.
That night the film opened at a tired three-screener called The Caribou Theatre. After sizing up the crowd and enjoying the preshow buzz a bit George walked in, eager. He sat midway back, drink and Junior Mints at the ready. The crowd’s chatter rose and fell, and then the place went black and the screen erupted in anxious trumpets. There, in an arc across the screen, in bold, drop-shadowed letters, it was: INTREPID ENEMIES. The horns lowered their pitch over the images of the cast, and then the scene cut, abruptly, to a panning shot of a desert with a distant, mountainous background. As the camera rotated fully around to observe a lone figure, an Army officer stern and worried, George settled in for a treat.
Later, bursting, he wrote:
The 1950s were a curious time for American cinema, lodged as they were between the formula product of the studios’ ‘40s heyday and the bracing independent forays of the ‘60s. Stephen Ashton was one of a number of colorful, driven characters creating films during this period, and his very particular—
He wrote, and bits of him broke free and flowed through the pen. Blue ballpoint into spiral notebook, with the whole business solid and real under the diffused glow of the room’s light.
He rose the following morning and prepared for his second contact. He’d arranged to meet the film’s producer, Perry Dansk, around noon for lunch and an interview. He cut himself off from coffee at eleven, and was at a patio table when Dansk arrived shortly after twelve, looking the part in a navy blazer set off with a silk cravat. George stood and shook Dansk’s bearlike hand and took him in.
If George was athletic, this man was imposing, yet he had a genuine and welcoming smile under a head of unruly white hair. His cravat swept away the poor and the tentative. Questions of quality aside, he clearly relished the dozen movies he’d helmed with Ashton, and those made with others and greater. He made his own calls. He determined his own comportment.
“You’re George!” he beamed.
“Yes sir, and you’re Mr. Dansk!”
“Nah, just Perry is fine. Say, some turnout, eh?” The two sat, then ordered as the waitress made her way over, thankful for a moment under the table’s spreading umbrella. The recorder, lifeless for a long and terrible moment, returned to operation after George clicked a battery tightly back into its slot. Dansk reconstructed the premise, and the arrival of two buses and an ancient flatbed truck onto the blasted earth of Black Rock.
“Stephen, he was the livin’ end. Hey, you wanna hear a funny?” George leaned in, popped the last bite of his sandwich into his mouth, and nodded.
“We’ve got this old compound, which we can make a lab out of. Now, we can fake it in the General’s office, but a lab? You gotta have lights, computer stuff, printouts…all that needs electricity, lighting. Richard Widmark’s shooting a picture about two miles away. The Navy gets mixed up with Mongols, can ya believe it? Made about as much sense as ours, I guess…” He paused for a drink but his tea was now empty.
“Ashton asks the director for equipment and a grip—guy gives ‘em to him—Ashton keeps the grip and the rig for the rest of the shoot!” Both leaned back, laughing in delight. Dansk was priceless.
“Perry, it seems like Ashton didn’t work from a strict…” What was the best way to put it?”
“George,” Dansk began, recharged with memory, “Stephen Ashton took an idea and a script and set out to shoot. He burned though film stock, he got so much material…that’s where I came in.” George hadn’t considered this aspect of Dansk’s role, and the realization was fantastic.
“You—you shaped the movies. I’d even say…they’re yours.” Dansk ran a hand through his hair and gave a slight shrug.
“I took his vision, you could say, and we both got it onto the reel.” George scribbled some impression or other, nodding slowly.
“You’re not gonna try to talk to his kid are ya? I don’t think he talks to anybody. Anybody give ya that idea,” he opened his palms in sympathy, “you been had.”
That night he watched the movie again, Dansk chuckling beside him and pointing out little moments of interest, and he even treated himself to Plan 9 From Outer Space and Horror of Party Beach. It was then back to the hotel, to the chair and the pad and silence. At the outset of a larger piece (especially one on which he was at all invested), anxiety often enfolded him and disordered his thoughts and dammed his energy.
The story was pent, raw, largely obscured. But then, once the flow began…the fear drew back and lay before an almost haughty, pleased fulfillment. This he felt now. George was fully present, and understood that he was actively pursuing that which he needed to pursue. This was it: this was how it should be.
He withdrew another prize from the briefcase. It was a single sheet of paper in a plastic sleeve: a page of an actual working script, and thirty bucks through a fanzine auction:
ENEMIES 3/53 ASHTON p 44
JAMESON – “Sir, it doesn’t make any sense ! We have patrols, scouts…there’s no way the Terror Squad could’ve moved in without our knowing!”
JONES – “That’s exactly the case!” [lights pipe, begins to pace floor. Jameson stares straight ahead, nervous].
JAMESON – “I…I don’t know what happened…”
JONES – “What happened? Ha, what happened. I’ll tell you what happened! That girl agent grabbed the bull by the horns and saved your bacon!” [slams fist on desk].
JAMESON – “General, sir, we’ll do better. They won’t catch us off guard…”
JONES – “You’ll have to do better! [walks over to the window, looking back over shoulder once. Cracks blinds, peeks through]. “Lieutenant, it’s now a game of cat and mouse. And if you haven’t figured it out yet – [pauses, draws on pipe] we’re the mouse.”
It was happening, as his message that afternoon for Paul had relayed. Determination hung in the room, some vital store.
He rose early on Wednesday and stood, two rolls of quarters resting on the edge of the phone booth’s enclosure, and dialed Terence Ashton’s home, an hour away in Albuquerque. After several minutes of fencing with the housekeeper (maybe Dansk was right: George tried to buck up for the prospect of losing the interview), Stephen Ashton’s son came to the phone and confirmed the meeting. George, casually pleasant, hung up and was in his car and gone within ten minutes.
Tierra Green Way was a gated marvel, a development too new for rough edges or sun-fatigued fences. It wound through rock gardens and palms and even a topiary, splitting off twice to form an intriguing and altogether exclusive enclave.
Terence himself met him at the end of the drive, with no apparent need for ceremony. George pulled in and parked next to a stand of cactus.
“Mr. Sumner.” Terence Ashton, comfortably elegant in a linen suit and huaraches, extended a hand in greeting. George, still taking in the place, shook warmly. He looked markedly like his father, identifiable even from the few remaining images of the director.
“Mr. Ashton. Sincere thanks for taking the time to chat a bit.”
“A pleasure. Care for a drink while we talk?” The two walked through a stone arch then a breezeway, beyond which lay a tidy lawn furnished at one end with a bar and several chaise lounges. He couldn’t avoid the thought: This guy needs a pool and some starlets.
“Whiskey and soda, thanks,” smiled George. He half expected the pleasantly bronzed man to offer cigars, but the two merely settled onto lounges. George took a couple of sips and produced the recorder. Terence fell into chitchat, blessedly belying Dansk’s dire warning, and George managed to keep the conversation moving—now to the headaches of a shoot, now the difficulties of filmmaking then versus now, and so forth.
His host had noticed the writer’s periodic glances around the grounds, and surmised that George was trying to draw a trajectory from a penniless father to a son who now lolled in warmth and leisure. He drained his glass.
“Mr. Sumner, my father failed quite frequently in his calling,” he began, “Sometimes incredibly so. He never stopped working, though, and he instilled that discipline in me as well.” He picked up the glass and turned it up for an ice cube. “Whatever his lapses in judgement, he didn’t starve. We didn’t starve. For my part, I’m an accountant, and a damned good one.” George now dispatched his drink in two studied swallows and nodded. There was more here.
“I see, sir, that this appears to be the sixth existing copy of one of your father’s films to turn up. The others—”
“The others,” Ashton cut in, “were scrapped. They were mostly crap. Comedies of manners.” He looked out over the lawn, not having thought of these years in a great while. “Here’s one thing to note,” he continued, “Early on, he watched the Mayers and the Selznicks and that crowd, and he sought to emulate them.” Now a laugh, full and catching. “The control—the actors roped into contracts, all that—it seemed to make sense to him!” George nodded, calibrating his smile to the rhythm of the story.
“He fought the majors for distribution. He and my mother kept moving eastward until they were able to get screens.” George, in relaxation and delight, heard the click of the recorder and quickly turned over the cassette.
“Ah, your mother,” he said, keeping the valve open, “It seems like she was a source of strength for him.” Ashton jabbed an index finger at him in confirmation.
“She told him, finally, to make the films he wanted to make.”
They talked for a while longer, then George graciously declined dinner so as not to overstay his welcome. Head light with gratitude, he headed back to Santa Fe with the waning sun at his back.
He arrived at the motel a little wired, as he’d swerved several times on the highway by dictating excitedly into the recorder, and was further distracted by the Civic’s increasingly tepid air. It was late afternoon when he arrived. The festival organizer sat at a patio table, and George walked over for a few quotes. No more viewing that evening, though.
He was in critic mode, and the room and the chair beckoned. He opened his last beer and settled in to write.
Day Four, and he was checked out and homebound. He’d been unable to share one last piece from his collection. It was the Spring 1974 issue of FilmFan, and it featured the only known interview with Toshiro Tanaka, who’d played the Terror Squad’s second-in-command. Tanaka was still a young man when the magazine’s editor had tracked him down in Vancouver. Here was another segment of George’s tale, preserved from the yellowed past. Tanaka had proven especially talkative:
FF: How’d you come to be cast in the movie?
TT: I was at Arizona State. Ashton needed some, you know, ‘Orientals,’ so he posted a notice up around campus. No colleges in Nevada then. He got four Japanese, including me, three Koreans. The rest were local, Nevada, mostly Mexican. Longshots and makeup! [laughs]. We got ten bucks a day, for two days. There’s your Japanese Army.”
FF: Was the shoot organized? How many takes did Ashton get per scene?
TT: Ashton had a long piece of tape. He stood us on it, end to end. Faced up, guns forward, you know…ready to attack. He shot us from a tight close-up, then panned out…or zoomed in tight on one guy’s face. He shot wipes, he shot us six ways from Sunday. And then charging, whatever, the whole bit.
FF: Aston had a reputation for being a little—
TT: Whatever you’ve heard, it’s true. I mean: the only one of us who spoke decent Japanese was this shrimp, this little Biology major, and here he is barking orders into the field phone. General, commander, whatever, and he’s a shrimp! [laughs].
FF: How well was the cast apprised of the plot?
TT: Plot? Oh boy. So we’ve advanced, we’re closing in, we’re beginning to shoot some hand-to-hand stuff. Then we just thought hey, what now? We were defeated, I guess it was assumed. [laughs]. I’ve seen some guys pull something out of their ass, but this…this was something else…
FF: It led to other work, though…
TT: Oh, don’t get me wrong. It led to a lot of work. I’ve gotta give credit. Ashton, though—he did it his own way.
Half an hour into the trip, the Civic began a labored wheeze, and with a slight sigh, issued one last gust of cool air. George cracked his window a bit to create an outward pull against the instant warmth, but his mood was unchanged.
He thought of the movie’s last scene, of Hal Needham looking out at the mountains of Nevada and promising in a voice tired but defiant, “They might be back, oh yes, they might. But we’ll be ready!” He’d been ready to cheer the moment—to cheer the film, the experience, the interviews and of course, the story that waited—but he settled for joining in the modest ripple of applause as the lights went up and the chatter resumed.
He was at the office early on Friday, anticipating Paul’s arrival.
They walked in together, and George asked about the boss’s vacation. It had been decent, nothing spectacular. The two got coffee, then sat.
“I didn’t expect the story I finally got,” enthused George. “For film buffs it’ll be a treat, hell, it’ll be a shock!” He rocked forward a bit in the chair, and his hands were poised for dramatic emphasis.
“Okay: you ready?” Paul gave a nod. “Now—it’s tough to find good film writing anymore, at least in a daily newspaper. Capsule this, profile that. This, what I’m thinking, is an ongoing series with some depth, right? Nothing crazy, we’re not made of money—”
“Right, right,” his editor agreed, and the look on his face had set somewhere between indulgence and sympathy. George noticed this, now, as if the two had only just sat down.
“Ah, look…” he began uncomfortably, then exhaled slowly, clearly troubled.
“We can’t run the piece. We’re cutting back on Arts & Leisure,” he said at the end of a sigh even slower and deeper. George’s movement, indeed his breath, was slowed to stopping.
“Cutting back on Arts & Leisure.” Paul nodded once, twice, desperately needing to get the morning underway.
“Am I still there? Or where am I now?” George asked finally.
“Metro.” The boss got up, and for lack of anything else to say, left.
Back in his car after a day spent in a fog, George scrolled through the week’s adventure.
He thought of Dansk and that man’s easy aplomb, of the affable Martin Bell, ready with a story and a laugh; of Ashton the Younger, beautiful for the sake of beauty, his pedigree secure and integrity immutable, and workaday world be damned.
He’d sought ghosts.
Tracked them down, sat in close concert with them, noted and recorded their words. What need was there for ghosts, however, and especially in these crass, knowing days?
Here he sat, then. A producer of column inches, of small words finely boned and dry, of newsprint good for little but staining hands, and if he’d admit it—a ghost himself.
The lot attendant had motioned once, twice, and finally managed to catch his attention…was everything okay? George noted the man’s little shack, rabbit ears dimly visible through one dirty window. He was doing all right. No need for a projector.
He threw up a circled thumb-and-forefinger and a wan smile in confirmation.
Everything was okay.
He started the car and headed home.