"Bright Boy" by Jeanne Karr
Modern Screen - December 1944
"Bob Walker was having
dinner with some gal at the Beverly Tropics.
The talk was small and impersonal, which is how he likes to keep it.
All about Robert Nathan's "Portrait of Jennie" that they were both
reading a bit belatedly, and the good steak, and Bob's sprawling
house out in Mandeville Canyon. Then she went and spoiled everything
by verbally feeling sorry for him. Nothing drives him crazier. He
had enough of it when he was a kid -- from the family, the guys, even
"'You poor baby,' she
said, 'how do you stand it out there in the
bush by yourself. Cooking and points and laundry and stuff?'"
"'Look,' he said, his
nice voice a little strained. 'I'm not exactly
a dope. I've got a cook-book that does everything but digest for
me. Not only that, but I've got a Chinese laundryman who thinks he's
my mother. You'd be surprised,' he added, squelching her maddening
implication that only a woman can cope with life' major problems, 'a
bright boy can get along.'"
"And don't think this
bright one doesn't. He's come a long way from
the bony problem kid of a few years back. The kid who played hooky
too much and teased the little girls and put tacks on teacher's
chair, and who for this and more of the same was taken out of Salt
Lake City schools and exiled to military school in San Diego."
"You wouldn't have liked
him very much if you'd known him then. He
was sullen and lazy, with a chip on his shoulder that you couldn't
knock off. School bored him stiff, and to make it easy for himself
he'd signed up for a 'gut' course -- dramatics. He'd planned to
sleep through all the lectures and cram like mad at the end to get
through, but from the very first day the stuff sent him. He used to
hang around the teacher after school to learn more. They became
close friends, Bob and Mrs. Atkinson, and he found he could tell her
things and that she'd understand as no one ever had before."
"'I've never been good
at anything,' he told her one day. 'Not at
school or sports, and I'm too skinny even to be all right looking.'
He stopped a minute to see if she was listening. She was, and he
went on. 'All my brothers are hotshots, but the only time anyone
ever notices me is when I'm bad. Gosh, do you think I could ever act
worth a damn?'"
"'You could try, couldn't
you?.' There was no pity in her voice,
just friendliness and a sort of unspoken faith in him."
"A few months later
he was playing the leading part in the school's
big play, 'Just Till Morning,' in which he was cast as a well-
meaning, ill-starred boy who finds himself in jail the night his
young wife is in the hospital having their baby. It was a tough
role, but Bob was magnificant. He underplayed the whole thing and
when it was over, even the head of the school came backstage to
"That night Bob sat
on the edge of the bed in his room and realized
with an almost unbearable stab of joy that at last his life had some
meaning. The Pasadena Community Playhouse offered him a scholarship,
and at the same time his Aunt Tenny (Hortense Odlum, the president of
Bonwit Teller) presented him with the tuition to the Academy of
Dramatic Arts in New York. Things were looking up, and they kept on
doing it. He chose the Academy, and it was there that ran into his
sweet-faced Phyllis, now Jennifer Jones."
"It was one of those
intense romances of the very young. Love and a
dime. All that. They ate frankfurters in those stand-up joints,
discovered New York from the top of a Fifth Avenue bus, held hands in
the last row at the movies. Nobody thought it would last, but in
1939 -- on the strength of a radio contract in Phyllis' home town of
Tulsa, they were married. When the contract ended, they took a whack
at Hollywood, made not even one wee dent, and came back East to
starve in familiar territory. They were poor, and life in their $16-
a-month tenement in Greenwich Village should have been sordid and
sad. Funny thing, it was heaven. They loved that crumby apartment
with its silly enormous kitchen and closet-size bedroom. They even
loved the millions of steps that led up to it."
"Bob used to come home
from his job-hunting feeling down, but on the
way up those stairs he'd begin to feel secure again, wanted and
needed again. By the time he'd reached the top he was okay."
"And then one night,
still unemployed, he climbed the stairs, and she
was waiting for him, her eyes big and dark."
"'What's the pitch,
Phyl?' he asked her. 'You look like Theda Bara or
"'We're going to have
a baby,' she told him, and her voice was hoarse
from crying. He looked at her, Phyl, small and solemn-faced, who
used to carry laughter like a banner."
"'He-ey!' he said, and
then he led her to a chair. 'Gosh, Phyl -- '
he said it the way you'd say 'I love you.'"
"'You're glad, too,'
she told him softly, wonderingly. 'I didn't
think you would be. I thought -- oh, I don't know what I thought.'"
"'I'm so glad,' Bob said."
"And she said, 'I am, too. Darling, we must be crazy.'"
"The first baby was
Bobby, and then there was Michael, and don't ask
Bob how they afforded them. He had jobs intermittently, but it
wasn't until 1942, when Bob got the leading role in the radio
serial 'Yesterday's Children,' that they saw much of the green
stuff. But all along it was fun. They had 'Tinker,' the black
cocker, and a parrot called, unoriginally, Poll. They had the kids
and themselves, and when they were poor, they ate hamburger, and when
they were rich, there was porterhouse."
"When the children were
old enough to be left with a 'sitter,' Phyl
went back to acting, and suddenly, out of the blue, her agent had her
screen-tested for 'Song of Bernadette'. As you know, she got the
part and moved out to Hollywood with the youngsters. Soon
afterwards, Bob's agent arranged a screen test for 'Bataan'. And
quick as a wink he was West Coast-bound, too. After that, as far as
the public's concerned, there's a complete blackout with regard to
their marriage. They lived together for a while in the darling
Colonial house in Bel-Air, but within a few months, Bob moved out.
There have been all sorts of conjectures, but no one still quite
"They've been through
so much together, Bob and Phyl. Their marriage
was built on rock, not on sand. Maybe they married too young. Maybe
they've outgrown each other. Perhaps this is an exaggerated,
overdrawn lovers' quarrel. Nobody knows but themselves, and they say
nothing. They go their separate ways, Bob on occasional dates with
Judy Garland, Gloria de Haven, non-professionals; Jennifer with
Watson Webb, David Selznick, other guys."
"They get together for
big events -- the sneak preview
of 'Bernadette', the premiere of 'Since You Went Away'. For
Hallowe'en and Christmas and the boys' birthdays. And between times,
they go through the motions of being happy. It's hard to tell
what'll happen, but for the sake of those darling kids, for their own
sakes, we can dream, can't we?"
"Bob has a standing
date with his two boys Sunday mornings. They
begin looking for him around seven A.M., and around nine he shows
up. The youngsters pounce on him."
"'Double hi. How are you and where'll we go?'"
"The answer never varies.
'Down to La Cienega.' The park on La
Cienega Boulevard is the small fry's dream of heaven. It has slides
and swings, merry-go-rounds and ponies. It has popsicles, peanuts
"'Okay.' They pile into
Bob's 1940 Buick (which, incidentally, is
the only thing in this world he's sentimental about. He and Jennifer
drove from Hollywood to New York in it back in 1940), and in due time
they reach the park. The kids want to ride on everything at once, of
course, but because they love them best, they always want to save the
ponies for last. Finally, exhausted from sliding, swinging, eating,
Bobby, who is four, demands the biggest, wildest pony they've got.
Mike, who is three and who cannot bear to be outdone, seconds it."
"'The bigges' wildes'
one,' he shouts. Bob watches the two brave
little men ride off on their fiery mounts with a funny tight feeling
around his heart. He's so crazy about those kids and so proud of
them. He's making sure that neither of them will be misfits the way
he was for so long. He wants them to excel at many things, to be
afraid of nothing, to be the healthiest, strappingest youngsters that
good food and care and sunshine can make them. So far, his dreams
for them are coming true. They're great husky lugs, and Mike -- who
got the benefit of the California sunshine before Bobby -- is the
same height and weight as his brother. They aren't afraid of the
ocean or the dark or big dogs, the way so many children are. They
weren't even afraid of the Old Witch in the movie, 'Snow White.'"
"Bob prepared them for
her for weeks before they went to see
it. 'She's awfully ugly, kids,' he said. 'Terrible-looking old
thing. Some of the children will probably yell when they see her,
but you two won't because you'll know she's only make-belive.' They
made big eyes at each other and didn't say anything, and Bob wondered
if the whole thing was going to be too much for them. When the movie
eventually reached their little neighborhood theater, Jennifer's
parents took them, sitting tense for the moment when the witch would
first appear. She did, at last, and she was so grotesque that she
even gave Grandma a cold chill."
"The children didn't
bat an eye although elsewhere little ones were
shrieking. After a while Bobby nudged his grandfather. 'Is that the
old witch?' he asked incredulous, disappointed."
"Bobby relayed the information
along to Mike. 'That's the ole
witch,' he whispered. 'I thought Pop said she was ugly.'"
"'I think she's awfully pretty,' Mike hissed back."
"When Bob's mother and
father-in-law told him about it, he roared.
Then he stopped abruptly and did a double-take. 'I'm laughing,' he
said. 'Some daughters-in-law these two'll bring into the family.'
Since then, however, his doubts concerning Bobby's eyes for a slick
chick have had reason to fade. He can't vouch for Mike, but it seems
that Bobby really knows a good thing when he sees it."
"Bob took the youngster
back to Salt Lake City for a while to visit
his other grandparents. They went by train, and the entire
expedition fascinated Bobby, especially the dining car. He couldn't
wait to get into it, yet once he was ensconced there, he hardly ate a
bite. Bob couldn't figure it out, but as it's not his policy to
force the kids to eat, he skipped it. At last curiosity got him."
"'What cooks?' he asked
him. 'You're so nuts to get in here, and
then you just sit and stare into space.'"
"'It's her,' he said
tossing grammer to the winds. Bob looked
around, and there was this queen winking and smiling at his son. Not
just a kindergartener, either. Nineteenish and nifty. He turned
"'I see what you mean,' he said."
"'Every time we come in, she's there,' Bobby went on dreamily."
"The trip didn't do
much for the child, food-wise, but it did restore
his pa's faith in the possibility of an un-witchlike daughter-in-law."
"When Bob brought Bobby
back home after that trip, there was all
sorts of red tape to be taken care of in the nursery. You see, their
nurse, Miss Currie, operates on a system of stars. Blue stars for
clean hands at mealtime, red stars for nice, long naps, gold stars
for eating everything on their plates. Mike's chart was all up to
date, and Bobby's had to be, too, or else at the end of the month
when the stars were counted, Mike would get lots of fancy privileges,
and his big brother would be doing time."
"'How did he sleep,
Mr. Walker?' quizzed Miss Currie, box of stars in
"'Oh fine. Very well.'"
"'Spick 'n' span,' said Bob."
"'And did he eat well?'"
"Bob hesitated a fraction
of a second, remembering the hunger strike
on the train. Bobby looked at the floor, his round cheeks red with
"'Yes, he did,' fibbed
his father, and the look the kid gave him was
enough to cancel out the stretch he'd do in purgatory for that white
lie. It was a look that said, 'Thanks and gee, you're a good joe,
and I'll eat like a horse from now on.' It was the kind of look Bob
had hoped he'd give him, in anticipation of which he'd risked the
"Back in his own quiet
house after a binge with the kids, there's
always a kind of let-down feeling. A restlessness that makes him
wander around the house, picking up a book and laying it down again,
taking a bite of cake and then realizing he's not a bit hungry. He
drags out a script, starts studying, and after a while the mood
passes. So he only has half a loaf? So what? He's still the
luckiest guy in the world."
"Around eight almost
any night the phone'll ring, and it's Charlie
Trezona, his business manager."
"'Want to come out and stir up some trouble?' he'll say."
"'Using what for dough?'"
"'What,' counters Charlie,
'did you do with all the money I gave you
"'Blew it in on the horses,' he says."
"'No, La Cienega. Those kids must have had a thousand pony rides.'"
"'Well,' says Charlie,
'it's against all my principles, but I'll
advance you a couple of bucks. Come on ice-skating.'"
"It's the same routine
night after night practically. Charlie and
his wife and Bob. Sometimes Bob'll take a date, but usually he
doesn't. They'll go night-spotting, bowling, to the fights. They're
a thoroughly congenial trio, and Bob doesn't know what he'd do
without them. He counts on Charlie for advice on money-matters, on
women, on clothes."
"'Listen, Walker,' Charlie
will say, 'you could use a new suit,
boy.' They go downtown, pick out some good-looking tweed and order
the suit made up. It costs a little more, but they've discovered
it's worth it. When left to his own devices, Bob will go down to the
store, any store, and let the salesman talk him into the most
godawful color combinations you've ever laid your eyes on. Greens
and orangey browns. Stuffs you couldn't give away."
"'Who do you think you
are, Crosby?' Charlie used to razz him. 'But
at least his fit.' You've seen cartoons where the salesman is
pulling the suit coat in in back so that the customer thinks it's a
perfect fit. That, they've decided, is what they do to Walker. When
he gets them home, without benefit of salesman, the things just hang
keeps close tabs on Bob. He gives him an
adequate but not splashy allowance and invests the rest of his money
for him, mostly in War Bonds. Bob isn't really extravagant. In
fact, he's so used to being poor that he hardly knows what to do with
his relative wealth. When he has to order himself some food, the
only thing he can think of is hamburger. Women aren't one of his big
expenses, although now and then he'll go out on the town and dance
till the small hours. He doesn't know one band from another, but he
likes music in a vague sort of way, and he's crazy about dancing.
Ask the local gals if he's any good at it, and you get, 'Whee, he's
got a rumba and a half!' And that's good."
"Where the money really
goes is on books. They are his great love,
and his hobby is collecting autographed editions. He has a signed
copy of Charles Jackson's 'The Lost Weekend.' And Ketti Frings has
written in his copy of 'God's Front Porch,' 'To Bob Walker, Pinky to
a T, without the freckles.' It's his big regret that his complete
works of Shakespeare must go forever unautographed, but if the old
boy were up and around, the inscription might go something like
this, 'Say, bud, if you ever get bored with the movies, I've got a
play I'd like you to read.'"
"He'd be picking a good man, too."
Copyright Modern Screen