The Talkies

By Kaitlynn McShea

November, 1927: Hollywood

Colleen Adams grew up believing in nothing. From Santa Claus to God, she knew falsities better than a con artist. The one truth she held to her chest from the time she could speak was that she would be a star. The only problem was her wide, blue eyes and her babydoll blonde curls. When she realized that bobbing her hair and drawing her eyebrows made her look more vampiric than sensual, she leaned into her own version of womanhood. She wouldn’t woo men on screen or off. Rather, she would be a clinging vine, growing slowly into her relationships, both personal and professional. She did this until the poor men who thought they were in charge were stuck. And thus her career was pigeon-holed: waif and invalid and orphan. But she didn’t mind. Her current target was her director, Buster Griffith. 

Colleen sat in the makeup chair, allowing one of the backstage girls to press powder onto her face one more time. Closing her eyes, she recalled going to dinner with Buster the night before. He had picked her up. The restaurant was a fancy Italian joint with low lighting and tea candles. They took their gelato to the restaurant’s winding garden paths, and kissed until the moon rose high in the sky. It was magical, especially when her eyes weren’t open. Colleen figured that she had two, three more dinners tops before he was hers. And when he was, she would be starring in his next vitaphone short, a talkie revue. 

This current film was her fourth gig, and hopefully her last silent film. Talkies were the way of the future, and Colleen intended on making them hers. When the makeup girl cleared her throat to announce that she was finished, Colleen stood and threw her fur wrap over her shoulder. She made sure not to look at the venomous Clara Swanson. That woman had been angling for all of her parts over the years, trailing her with secondary roles in all of her films. Colleen had no patience for her, especially not at that moment. Clara was a gossiping, conniving snake. Colleen poufed her bob and sashayed to the stage, enjoying the double-take of men around her. No–she never received outright gawkings like the other silent stars known for their hooded eyes and swooping mouths. But that’s why ensnaring them was so much more satisfying.

As her heels clacked onto the set, she nodded to Buster. She preferred to start her scenes in complete silence instead of making pleasantries with the other actors, and as the director and her current beau, he was well aware of this. Over the last few years, her rise to fame had been gradual but satisfying. At first, she was always ‘too.’ Too young, too fat, too little, too gamine. That was before she learned how to use her innocence as a poison against every man around her. 

This film was called “The Flapper.” It was a perfect transitional part to talkies: she was a vapid but gold-digging flapper who turned a con-man straight. From the director’s chair, Buster counted down first aloud, and then on his hands. When he reached zero, the light of the cameras flashed, blinding her. She reached toward her male star, Mark Gish. He was handsome enough, but too immature for Colleen’s tastes. He gestured back, pounding closed fists into the empty air. They were fighting in this scene–arguing about something trivial. Colleen clutched her gaunt cheeks and sunk to the floor. Tears ticked down her cheeks like clockwork while Mark rushed to her, arms outstretched in apologies. 

The director–Buster–called it a cut. Colleen stood, waiting for the scene to reconvene. They moved from the dining room set to the kitchen. As Buster counted down, a flash of pink drew Colleen’s eyes to stage left. Clara Swanson, that damn popinjay, was making her way to Buster. Buster once again pointed to Colleen and Mark; the cameras tilted, the lights angled. Colleen did her best to stay in the scene. Mark’s character was telling her that he loved her, but also loved another. She turned away from him, knocking a chair over, a little too hard. 

Buster yelled cut and turned to Clara while they reset for the next part of the scene. Clara’s pink dress hugged her curves. Her mouth was painted a matching pink. If Colleen recalled correctly, Clara wasn’t even supposed to be on set today. 

When the next scene started, Colleen got distracted enough to forget the choreography of their argument. When Buster yelled cut this time, it was edged in annoyance. 

Colleen shook her head and committed herself to the scene. Clara was a worthless dotties man–she was selfish beyond measure. This time, when Buster called for the scene to end, he seemed satisfied with the result.

They moved through the house set, alternating between talking and arguing. All the while, Clara cozied up to Buster and was now whispering in his ear. 

They were nearing the end of this act. Her final scene was sublime: it ended with a face-clenching scene. After dinner with Buster, she had practiced her facial expressions in her vanity mirror for hours.

Mark’s character charged at Colleen. He stopped short, letting his arms fall to his sides. In the absence of words, she knew that the screen would show him fully explaining his feelings, as well as his adoration for Clara’s character.

Colleen readied herself for her big moment. It was the turning point of her career; she knew it. Between this and the dinners with Buster, she would be set for life.

Just as she brought her hands to her face, though, she caught Clara and Buster shaking hands off-screen. It lacked any pretense of sensuality; she knew it was a business deal. Her talkies business deal.

A beat too early, she clutched her face, letting a bloodcurdling scream slam through the lights and cameras.

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