The Ballad of Bayonets was a period piece about the Revolutionary War. The script was based on a novel written by a macho writer Laura had heard of, but never read—a writer her father loved. Irving and Louis Gardner were betting on the audience’s desire to see an earlier war, one that was well-resolved and in the past. Men around the studio were starting to enlist—several dolly grips and best boys, several actors, even some big names. Johnny made a big show of telling the press he would enlist if he could, but he had flat feet and a bad ear.
Her character was a woman named Nellie Smith, and she fell in love with a wounded soldier she was nursing back to health after the loss of his right leg. Three days into the film, the actor playing Laura’s love interest fell ill with appendicitis and had to be taken to the hospital. (“Isn’t that the point?” Ginger had joked. “That he’s supposed to be sick, and you’re supposed to take care of him?”) It was Irving’s idea to replace him with Gordon.
“Gordon Pitts?” Laura asked. “My Gordon?”
“He’s not your Gordon anymore,” Irving said, already holding the telephone. His voice was hard, definite. There was no argument Laura could make that would sway him, she knew, but she tried anyway. She knew as well as Irving did that Gordon played broken better than anyone else on the lot.
“What about Johnny?” She knew it was a long shot. Johnny’d been out of Gardner Brothers’ favor as of late, thanks to a gambling problem he’d acquired while filming Las Vegas Is for Lovers.
Irving held up a finger. Someone was on the other line. “Get me Gordon Pitts,” he said. “I don’t care what kind of hole you have to go down to find him.”
And that was that. Laura stood in the doorway as Irving called the director and wardrobe. Everything would need to be taken in.
“There,” he said when he was through. “That should make it more interesting.”
Gordon was late to the set every single morning. More than half the scenes were just the two of them, which meant that more often than not, Laura would arrive, get dressed, have her makeup done, and then sit in a canvas folding chair for an hour, watching grips carry things back and forth across the set.
The first day of shooting, when Gordon finally arrived a half hour late, he ambled over to the director, J.J. Rush, and began to apologize. J.J. wasn’t known for his patience, and Laura couldn’t help watching as Gordon’s already stooped shoulders seemed to lower several more inches to the ground when J.J. laid into him. All the extras stomped on their cigarettes and scurried off to their proper places.
When Gordon turned, his eyes swept over Laura and onto the rest of the set, only to backtrack. Was it really her? When he realized he had seen his former wife, Gordon stopped moving. Laura tried to stifle a smile when Gordon clomped up to her.
“What did you do to yourself?” Gordon pointed at Laura’s head, in case she couldn’t tell what he was blabbering on about.
“Don’t you like it?” Laura put a hand under her hair, which the girls had curled into what she was fairly certain were historically inaccurate ringlets.
“You sure look different,” Gordon said. He narrowed his eyes, taking her in as if for the first time. The whites of Gordon’s eyes looked yellow. Laura had to resist the urge to back away. “Thank you,” Laura said, though she was sure he hadn’t meant it as a compliment.
The first scene took place in Nellie’s farmhouse, somewhere in Virginia. Laura sat on the bed until there was a knock on the door. Gordon’s wounded soldier was on the other side, and she helped him in. They both still needed lines every so often, Gordon more often than Laura. The script girl moved so that she was closer to him. If necessary, J.J. said, they’d write all his dialogue out on cards. It had been done before.
Laura wished that Gordon would pull it together. He was a good actor; she believed that. She never would have married a bad actor. When they had acted together in Door County, Gordon had had something better than average, a darker bloodline that ran much closer to the bone than most of the summertime boys. It wasn’t so different than it was for her, Laura imagined, watching Gordon murmur his lines to himself in between takes. There was a part of Gordon, buried deep inside his body, that he was trying to reach.
The only real question Laura had was whether Gordon could stay close to the good part of himself, the actorly part, when this other, larger beast was trying to take over. Gordon coughed, and kept putting all his weight on the leg that was supposed to be shot and broken and infected. Everyone turned away and waited for him to finish.
“Sorry, J.J., I’m sorry,” he said, still hacking away. “There must be something caught in my throat.” When the script girl started rolling her eyes, Laura knew he was in trouble. Gordon coughed something up and spit it into his handkerchief.
The bonnet itched. The shoes were flat and square, like something her mother would have worn. Laura was nervous that everything she thought showed on her face. The camera got so much closer than it ever had before. When it was her and Ginger in their matching dresses, the camera was never less than 10 feet away, skimming over the surface of their youthful exuberance. Now the lens hovered over her like a lover, its open, round eye coming ever closer.
“Is Irving here?” They were in between shots, and Laura couldn’t breathe. There were too many layers of clothing, and Edna, the assistant costume designer, had wound too many ribbons around her neck, which began to feel as if it were being strangled. She started tugging at them, and wandered off the set, out of the three walls of the farmhouse, and onto the concrete floor of the soundstage. Several voices shouted at once, and the quick feet of grips and assistant cameramen ran off to find him.
Laura stared at the ground, unable to move. A strand of her hair had fallen out and clung to her sleeve. She picked it up by its end like a worm in the garden and tried to fling it off, but it wouldn’t go. “Can someone call Irving Green, please?”
Edna hurried over, her legs moving as quickly as her narrow skirt suit would allow. There were pins sticking out of the hem of her skirt, and a little cushion strapped to the back of her hand. She knelt down next to Laura and loosened several items at once, her tiny, birdlike hands moving furiously. Laura moved onto her hands and knees, as though she were playing with her daughters on her own rug at home and not surrounded by grown-up people who might think ill of her if she began to vomit.
Her neck, it was her neck. She should have remembered to tell them she couldn’t have anything on it. She should have told them that her neck was off-limits, non-negotiable, no matter what the costume designer said.