This is an excerpt from my third novel, The Glass Character, which features the legendary silent film comedian Harold Lloyd and his complex, decades-long relationship with an actress/writer named Muriel Ashford. In this scene, Harold is making his first venture into talkies in what he calls the "circus picture" and is experimenting with clown makeup, with surprising consequences for Muriel.
When he turned around, I felt a literal thrill run through me: he had painted on a new face, a clown mask both classic and modern, designed along the lines of his own features but with a tinge of exaggeration that brought out a slightly wicked quality I had never seen in him before.
This was the Harold that wouldn’t, couldn’t be bested, the Harold who had to win. The curve of the mouth was almost sensual, the eyes a little fierce. But it was a clown face nevertheless: and how could we ever be afraid of such jollity, such crazy eagerness to take a pratfall? This was yet another incarnation of the Glass Character, Harold at the Big Top, pushed down again and again, discouraged, despairing, until that magic moment when his never-say-die courage makes him leap to his feet and win the day.
I was absorbing all this (and by his expression, he was obviously pleased) when he did a suprising thing.
“So, Muriel. It’s your turn now.”
“Of course. Can I paint your face? It’s such a lovely face, I’m sure you’ll make a very pretty clown.”
In his long history of strange behaviour, this was the strangest thing yet. Here was this slightly menacing Pierrot with a paintbrush, asking to turn me into a different person. His artistry was obvious, but I was a little uneasy about the results.
But I succumbed, sitting in the makeup chair which he turned away from the mirror. I began blushing almost instantly as he pulled my hair back and tied it, then laid down a base coat of cold cream. First came the clown white, which he spread on with deft fingers (using both his left and his right hand, which he had learned to use with surprising dexterity). Then he began to work on me: his concentrated expression was fascinating to watch, as this was an area of mastery for him, a talent that even predated his movie career.
As he drew lines and smudged them, touched my lips with carmine, created false lashes and brows, I could not help but respond to the sensuality of being painted. I wanted to believe it was an act of love, but I knew I was fooling myself: this was just another area in which Harold shone, in which he was the best because he had to be. Nor had he ever had any instruction: as with everything else in his life, he had figured it out for himself.
He carefully applied a beauty mark, looked me over one last time, smiled. “Ready, Muriel?”
“I suppose so.”
“Behold!” He turned me around so rapidly my head spun.
Shock! Harold had found me out – had looked inside my cringeing, vulnerable, childish soul, found all my mooning romanticism and false courage, my hopeless ambition and desperate loneliness – and somehow, he had painted it all over my face.
My eyes looked huge in the dead-white skin, full of fear and a strange kind of awe. They were pretty eyes, almost doe-like, yet not timid. Somehow they had the glassy, faceted look of a dolly with blinking eyelids. He restrained himself from painting on a single tear, but the effect was the same. And yet, there was also a heartbreaking hope in them, a willingness to go back for yet another round of pain and rejection.
Ye gods, Muriel: and you thought Harold didn’t understand you? The problem is, he understands you all too well!
“Look at us. Are we a pair?” he asked with an antic grin.
“I suppose so. But I look pretty serious for a clown.”
“Sad clowns remind us how precious happiness is.”
“And happy clowns?”
He looked a bit confused. “You’re a touch beyond me, as usual, Muriel. I’m a simple soul, just offer what I have and go home. I leave the analysis to others.”
The strange thing was, it was largely true. Harold was a roll-up-your-sleeves type, and not easily daunted. He didn’t sit up at night agonizing about his art. He wanted to make people laugh because that was his job, and he was very good at it. Just lately he had been faltering, and it terrified him, though he was not about to admit it. There was nothing for it but to try again. There had to be a way – another way – it was just that hadn’t found it yet.
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