"The Brink of Fame" by Irene Fleming
Minotaur, 248 pp., $26.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James
It's 1914-- women are still almost a decade away from having the vote.
Nevertheless, Los Angeles already has a state-of-the-art electric-trolley-line system connecting it to the soon-to-be capital of film art (well, at least, commerce), Hollywood.
(Gee, whatever happened to that great trolley system???)
Emily Daggett, 30, wife of Melpomene Pictures chief Adam Weiss, finds herself on the dusty sidewalks of Flagstaff, Arizona, where her husband is allegedly scouting locations and seeking camels to appear in his latest production, a desert-set opus.
However, the Weisses aren't headed from Hollywood; they're headed toward it.
Their film company is headquartered in Fort Lee, New Jersey, but the movie industry is migrating from East Coast to West.
The weather's better, the sun shines brighter and most of the year, the orange groves perfume the air, and there's cheap real estate and lots of it.
However, when Emily steps off the California Limited onto the station platform in Flagstaff, she isn't exactly singing a Judy Garland chorus to the joys of riding the (Atchison, Topeka, and) the Santa Fe line.
Rather, she quickly discovers that husband Adam has lost Melpomene Pictures in a poker game and has taken a powder with the leading lady of his proposed sandy scenario.
As fate would have it, Emily flops in a room with three worldly chorus girls from a touring theatrical production (keep your eyes peeled on these up-and-comers) and bumps into acquaintance Holbert Bruns, late of the Pinkerton detective agency, now planning to hang out his P.I. shingle in Hollywood.
Indeed, he's investigating a case for the head of Universal Pictures. Their leading man has also taken a powder, and it's going on four weeks now, with an unfinished movie to put in the can.
Bruns has been searching for the star-on-the-slip, and he enlists Emily's assistance. After all, she only has a buck-ninety-eight to her name. Plus, he likes her. Also, a woman can get to people and into places that he cannot.
As an additional carrot to Emily, Universal offers her a chance to direct one of their movies, "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines." (Yes, he feeds his horse good corn and beans.)
What's the punch line?
What she really wants to do is direct.
In this follow-up to her "The Edge of Ruin," author Irene Fleming taps (like Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell) into a myriad of Tinseltown legends and cliches, along with some actual history, to produce a highly readable, largely amusing look back at Hollywood in its infancy.
And what a naughty little baby it was! Already into drink, drugs, New Age religion, and illicit affairs of every spot and stripe. As one of the chorus girls comments: "[He] chases everything. Women, men, sheep, watermelons-- I know the type."
A bit of murder thickens the plot.
Murder? In Hollywood? Picture that.
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