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The Corpse That Played Dead

By A. Boyd Correll

Murder Closes Down on a Hollywood Lot When a Pompous Actor
Gives Up the Ghost in the Midst of a Machine-Gun Melodrama

WHEN Emil Friml, who had jumped from burlesque to become a big-time Hollywood movie producer in the short course of two years, phoned and said somebody was trying to murder Ronald Edwards, I thought he had a touch of the sun. I nestled the receiver closer to my ear and said:

"Listen, Mr. Friml. I'm a detective, supposed to think the worst. But why should anybody hold anything against Edwards? His fans, yes! His pictures smell to high heaven. But fans don't get into studios—not in wartime, anyhow."

I heard Friml sputtering. "Listen, Jimmy Lee." Everybody calls me Jimmy Lee. "Yesterday he climbed a wall and somebody dropped sandbags at his head. Today we shot a scene of flame-throwers and they threw real flames at him! I tell you, you've got to come out here and look into it. And remember, no publicity!"

I said I would be out. Panamint Studios, who paid Friml a salary that was so big it was difficult to write it all on one check, had me on their call list to take care of disagreeable things like blackmail, inside petty thefts, and other unpleasantries that by rights should go to the police, but would be bad publicity for Panamint.

The studio was near Santa Monica, off Wilshire Boulevard.

As I cruised the coupe toward the setting sun, I thought about Ronald Edwards.

Edwards had appeared from nowhere into star roles in a new series of war pictures Panamint was producing. Friml was head of the unit shooting them.

However, the films had been so corny and full of hokum that they never made the first-run houses except as added attractions.

Yet Edwards, who wrote his own scripts, continued to be publicized as though he were a million-dollar draw. I wondered what he had done to the brass hats in the front office to get such a gravy train. Probably hypnotized them, or knew where the body was buried.

At the studio gates the cop was expecting me. He hopped on the running board and directed me to a parking space, then said Friml had left word I was to meet him on Sound Stage Four.

I cut across the parking lot to the huge building that housed the sound stages. I expected to find a couple of hundred extras, dressed as Commandos, snaking across scenery made to look like enemy territory. Instead of that, I found a small camera crew setting up in a boarded-off portion of the otherwise deserted stage. Friml was not around.

ART MABRY, the director and right- hand man to Friml, was bouncing around, supervising the lighting effects and the background scenery. He was a huge man with a sharp face and prematurely gray hair that stood up in a short, startled pompadour. He stopped his bouncing long enough to tell me that Friml was in Edwards' dressing room.

I glanced toward that room, a portable affair about fifty feet away in the shadows of the stage. Then I settled down on a stack of scenery flats. Jane Mathis, a script girl whom I had met on a previous job for Panamint, waved. I motioned her over.

"Hi, beautiful!" I said. "What's Mabry shooting?"

Jane sat down beside me. She pushed back her wavy brown hair.

"Just tying in some scenes and sound effects. Mostly retakes."

She peeled a piece of gum and stuck it into her rosebud mouth. I studied her. Her chin had a tilt that suggested she could take care of herself, yet her lips made a man unconsciously lean toward her when she faced him. There was nothing wrong with her figure either, which was draped with a pair of tailored slacks and a tightly- knitted sweater. She flipped the gum wrapper at a passing workman.

"Friml, as usual, is not satisfied," she continued. "This story's edited and in the can, but he took part of it back to the cutting room and demands retakes. Edwards is the hero who plays dead after a burst of machinegun fire and lets the dirty Nazis advance over his beautiful body. Then he ups and blows the blazes out of them from the rear.

"The same old corn he's been doing for the past year. However, Friml wasn't satisfied with the shots of him playing dead while the shooting goes on, so here we are, still doing retakes. Lou says they've already spent more on raw film than the picture will gross."

I grinned. Lou Mathis was her brother. A handsome kid, whom I had spotted back of the camera when I came in. He had been something of a prodigy in the movie world and had had chances to go East and direct big-time shows on the legitimate stage. However, he liked photography, and had never left his native California. At twenty-one, he was one of Hollywood's top-rank cameramen.

"It's all dough in Lou's pocket," I said. "I could do with his salary."

"Yeah," said Jane. "But he told me if it wasn't for the fact that he's going into the Army next month and will need the money, he'd tell 'em where they could send the Ronald Edwards pictures. He said his name on the credit titles did him more harm than good." She yawned and glanced over her shoulder. "Here comes Romeo now."

I looked toward the dressing room. Ronald Edwards, in a dusty uniform, was talking with Mabry.

Edwards was a good-looking guy in a sleek sort of way. His hair was black and full of tight waves. His uniform looked good on him, what with the padded shoulders Wardrobe had furnished and the snazzy Sam Browne belt around his middle.

Mabry said something to him, and he walked toward a bridge which had been placed by the property men in a set made to look like a blasted waterfront village. The bridge was about seventy-five feet from camera.

Edwards stretched out on the ground, arranged his hair in careful disorder, and got his profile just right. Mabry stood over him.

"Okay, Ronny," I heard Mabry say. "You're dead, see? We're shooting around the mob scene. Thank the gods F...

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