We finally broke out of the hedgerows and trudged into farmland, meeting the crossings of dirt roads, and coming upon the occasional demolished village. Such brave souls Hitler’s troops were, exploding hapless farmers and shopkeepers! The people greeted us as liberators, gathering by the side of the road and cheering, waving handkerchiefs, offering us bread or wine. We were ordered to refuse all gifts, as the Army provided for us and these people were also struggling, but a man stepped out of a shelled cinema and spoke to one of the officers. They spoke to other officers, including Blixbey. “We’ll stay here for the night,” our captain told us. “We’ve met up with some British troops and a local wants to show us a movie.”
“Oh, good!” blared Raymond.
“Don’t get your hopes up, Ray,” I warned him. “They’re not going to have a copy of Sherlock Holmes in Washington out here.” It irritated me, how the isolationist Congress in America had investigated Hollywood for allegedly pro-interventionist sympathies, “drugging the reason of the American people” in the words of Senator Gerald Nye. Henry Ford was named by Hitler as an inspiration, and Charles Lindbergh had almost moved his family to Berlin in 1938 because he was so impressed by the Third Reich. Then came Pearl Harbor, and suddenly the United States had always been at war with Nazi Germany. At least Lindbergh was now one of us, reportedly flying combat missions over the Pacific.
Raymond gave me a disgusted look. “I want a movie with dames! Anything with Chili Williams!”
“Good luck with that,” I said, smirking. “And I know a Parisian who looks better in a polka-dot bikini and she’s not chilly at all.”
I said that just so Martinelli would jump in. He and Ray were always quarreling over the Polka-Dot Girl. “Her name is Chili like the hot stuff! And she is.”
“Her name is Marian Sorenson,” I gloated. “Your little Danish is from Minneapolis, Minnesota. The land of Lutefisk.” I still could not believe it; one of our men had insisted that Scandinavian-Americans in the Midwest still ate a mushy, preserved fish rendered defunct by modern refrigeration.
“So what? And you don’t even know where that is,” Raymond barked at me. “I’m from there! It has the highest population of Germans in the U.S.”
“Same thing, Sauerkraut,” tossed Raymond, sounding so much like Desnos then.
Martinelli declared, “I don’t care where Chili’s from, I care where she is, right now.”
“Well, she ain’t here and she’s not going to be in the film, either,” I returned.
Some man from another squad yelled at us. “Oh, shut up, you three! Fighting over a woman who doesn’t even know you exist. The only chili you gonna get is the battery acid they serve us.” There was a general outburst of laughter all around. Relief to be in the open air swept palpably through us.
“Oh, no, no,” groaned a voice. A thin man in a captain’s uniform was walking our way. Eagerly I turned to him. “Weidmann, Weidmann! What the hell are you doing here? Did you lose your tourist map, private?”
Captain Dawson stepped in my path like a jealous husband between me and his wife. He looked so angry it startled me. “It’s lieutenant, now,” I mumbled, forgetting to salute.
“‘It’s lieutenant, now,’” he mocked, turning and smiling at Blixbey. “Well, it’s still captain for me, you deserter.” Belatedly I saluted him, and then I wondered if an American soldier recognized a British officer. Blixbey stood ironically by, making no effort to guide me. “Did I frighten you, Kraut-Wanker-Yank?” teased Dawson.
“You forgot ‘Frog,’” I said. “I’m a French citizen now.”
“‘I’m a French citizen now.’ God help us. Well, there’s an American woman asking over the radio for you, you spit-smart Hun.”
“Your wife?” I returned, and my men burst into shocked laughter.
Captain Dawson smiled. Whenever he smiled he looked like the most unctuous, weedy, moustache-twirling (although he didn’t have a moustache) villain. His grey eyes only came up to my breastbone. “A lady correspondent for Vogue magazine, Lee Miller. She’s just landed at Normandy and sent word to let you know you’re safe now she’s in France.”
“Lee!” I exclaimed, and the men burst out laughing again. “Tell her you’ve got me tied to the Paris rail line and I need her help.”
“Damn,” said Dawson, now including Blixbey in our conversation, “women correspondents. Never thought I’d see the day, but all the men are deployed and as it turns out, female magazines are the new front at the home front. Ladies don’t care about fashion when everything’s rationed. And they want to see for themselves what the men go through.”
“This war has changed everything,” agreed Blixbey.
Raymond burst in. “Even the dames Geoff knows are tough! Last night I had a dream that Nusch babe swung on a trapeze and dropped grenades on the heads of the S.S.” He made me laugh. Becoming quite the Surrealist art-teests themselves, my men were.
“Who’s Nusch?” asked Dawson.
“French girl. Ran away from the circus to join the Surrealists,” quipped Blixbey.
Raymond, earlier defensive about Chili, extolled Nusch’s charms now. “She’s an aerialist! And a model! Gorgeous. More than a match for the Nazis! Geoff knows her, and I’m gonna meet her.”
Dawson jabbed his thumb at me. “I wouldn’t believe a word this private says. He’s a disgusting name-dropper. Next, he’ll be saying Supreme Commander Eisenhower took him from me.” Affectionately he waved me off and stalked back to his jeep.
“Don’t you mean, took him off your hands?” joked Blixbey.
Dawson turned around and walked backward. “He belongs in the brig, not being promoted! Lieutenant.” He imitated my belated salute, and Blixbey reached out and yanked on my uniform.
We sat on the ground and swallowed our cold rations, and there we remained while Blixbey and a few soldiers helped the cinema-owner string up a sheet. Curious, I got up and greeted the man. He was not tall but thin, a tanned man like a whip, and he told me he used to work as an usher at that cinema on Boulevard Raspail before the war. “I don’t have a great selection,” he whispered to me, glancing sidelong at the anticipatory faces of the Yanks. “Since the war I have not received anything.”
“Show me what you do have,” I urged, and he led me to the only intact room of the building, where he kept the film canisters. Because I was so curious he opened a small closet to show me the ones that were deteriorating. These smelled of vinegar. I glanced at the titles but did not touch them.
“I can’t quite part with them,” said the man as he shut the door against the smell. “They have invented safety-stock. Now that we’re behind the lines I hope to have at least part of them saved. Even with ‘vinegar syndrome’ preservationists take one piece of footage from a canister here, one from there, et cetera, transfer it to stable film and reconstruct the original as closely as possible.” We sorted through the canisters and I sighed with disappointment. They were all cheap silent films, not classics, not remarkable. The only one I could recommend, Sparrows with Lilian Gish, was reeking of vinegar in that closet. The man was holding a canister entitled Graziella. I looked at it, trying to remember where I had heard it from. Then I took it, but there was no cast information on the label. “It’s a reissue,” the man said.
“No, just a music track. Cinemas can’t afford orchestras any more, and most don’t have a piano player these days.”
“I remember this title, I think,” I said. “A friend of mine might be in it! Let’s show this one.”
“A friend of yours?”
He loaded the film in the projector and made a short announcement, introducing this melodrama about a poor Italian girl betrothed to her rich cousin but in love with a handsome stranger, a poet. The men whistled and cheered appreciatively as at a burlesque show. There would be a pretty girl in the film and any diversion was a party. In lieu of cartoons, several of the men stood up and improvised silly scenes or told jokes, and were good-naturedly booed. “Get off the stage. And down in front! I can’t see. Bring on the dame! The dame!” yelled Raymond, and the soldier standing before the sheet stopped his Bob Hope impression and obligingly pulled up his pant leg to show off his hairy calf, twisting his leg on his toe and putting a coy finger to the side of his mouth. “Auggh! Up in front! I can see! Get rid of the dame!” Raymond bellowed, and raucous laughter combined with the facetious whistles and wolf woops.
Finally, we settled down and the screen blinked into darkness, the beginning of the reel before the opening credits. The title cards did not include the cast; these were named as each character appeared, and so then I had no idea if Artaud was in it after all. But “Geoff’s friend is in this!” blared Martinelli in his foghorn voice, even though I had warned him I couldn’t be certain. Heads turned to me as first the leading man, Alphonse de Lamartine as the poet and lover, appeared onscreen reading from a book, and then as his sidekick—who did look a bit like Artaud—talked with de Lamartine by the ocean. “Not him…not him…” I had to keep saying, feeling disappointed as more characters were introduced. I also had to translate the French intertitles for everyone. The actress Nina Vanna who played Graziella was very appealing with long, wavy brown hair and almond eyes, and the audience clapped appreciatively and whistled. Her beauty did not touch me and now I was in a bad mood for having made a mistake. “Not him,” I said too when the grandmother appeared with her haggard, sun-worked face. That won me a few laughs but I sagged, annoyed. The film was slow, boring, and I wondered what made me remember it at all. However, it was nice to have an appropriate soundtrack tied to the images, rather than pure silence or a banging piano.
Graziella, after bathing children and engaging in chit-chat with the grandmother, an unnecessary scene which merely established her as the Good Poor Girl, suddenly shaded her eyes. A figure approached her through the apple grove. Thin as a scarecrow, a man ambled toward her between the rows of trees with a stiff-legged, splay-footed walk, not moving his shoulders naturally with his body. A hat covered his head and he waved both arms in greeting. My heart leaped, and I hit Raymond’s arm. “It’s him!”