Uncle Manny, my grandfather’s youngest brother, was the only member of our family who was in show business, if you don’t count my Uncle Milton, who played base fiddle in a string quartet, and fairly or unfairly, I don’t.
I wrote about my Uncle Manny earlier (“Commercial Success” – May 28). At the age of thirteen, Uncle Manny ran away from home and quickly became “Doctor Emmanuel Brown.” I don’t know about you, but I’d have to be really sick to go to a thirteen year-old doctor.
Fortunately, Uncle Manny was a "Doctor of Philosophy" – also rather suspect at thirteen. I believe Socrates was considerably older.
What Uncle Manny did was to come onstage during the showing of a silent movie, invariably involving an innocent farm girl who’d gone to the Big City and gotten into “trouble”. Armed with a mustache and a pointer, Uncle Manny would galvanize the movie-going audience with a cautionary discourse on “The Price of Shame”, the message of his declamation:
Uncle Manny was surprisingly effective, I was told, his fiery orations delivered with a wisdom and persuasiveness well beyond his thirteen actual years.
In later years, Uncle Manny toiled in the “Distribution” area of the movie business, first as a Paramount employee and later, when the studios were required to divest themselves of theater ownership, as a consultant, helping the inexperienced, new theater owners decide which movies to acquire.
As I mentioned earlier, Uncle Manny had a sure-fire formula for picking the hits. “You can never go wrong with ‘F and F’ pictures,” he’d proclaim. “F and F” pictures were those movies that included heavy doses of fighting and, as he delicately phrased it when ladies were in the vicinity, “Foolin’ around.”
Check your movie listings. Uncle Manny’s still “on the money.”
Just once, did Uncle Manny venture into production himself. In the early days of Hollywood, “cheapies” were shot in a couple of weeks, on very small budgets. It didn’t seem like you had to be an expert. Glove salesmen were running entire studios. How hard could it be to produce one movie?
Uncle Manny decided to make a “jungle” picture, with a “shoe-string” budget and a ten-day shooting schedule. After that, the money would be run out and the actors would move on to other projects. It was imperative that they finish on schedule.
Uncle Manny was banking on the movie’s central character – a puma. At the high point of the story, the “killer puma” would spring from an overhanging branch onto the Leading Man, and a “struggle to the death” would ensue, the Leading Man emerging triumphant. The movie’s fate hung on this climactic scene. This was the adrenaline jolt Uncle Manny needed for his picture to succeed.
The production proceeded smoothly – on budget and on schedule. There’s just one scene left to shoot, the “Man-Versus-Puma-Fight-To-The-Finish.” The camera’s ready, the actors on their “marks” – the Leading Man and Lady under the tree, the puma overhead, ready to pounce.
The director calls, “Action!”
The dialogue plays out. The couple has narrowly escaped the Magumbi tribe.
“Everything’s going to be all right from now on.”
This is the cue for the puma to jump.
The signal is given.
The puma doesn’t jump.
The signal’s given again. They can “tighten” the moment in editing. But there’s nothing to edit. The puma doesn’t move a muscle.
The signal’s repeated a third time. And a fourth. And a fifth. The puma continues lolling lazily on the branch. It appears to be dozing.
Concern evolves into panic. They need the puma to jump. And the puma doesn’t seem interested.
Every effort is made to get the puma to pounce – pushing, prodding, smearing meat on the Leading Man’s head. Nothing works. Panic turns to desperation. If the puma doesn’t jump soon, they’re finished.
Uncle Manny belatedly learns that the puma rented for the picture is in “heat.” And when pumas are in “heat”, they’re apparently not biologically programmed to pounce. This is not good news when that’s exactly what you need it to do!
Desperate, Uncle Manny fires the puma, and replaces it with a giant dog, disguising it with a hastily rigged “puma mask.” Unfortunately, the mask freaks the dog out, and he keeps pouncing at the wrong time.
The clock inevitably runs out. The production closes down, the actors move on, and Uncle Manny, his producing career cut tragically short, returns to “Distribution.”
All because of a puma who refused to jump.