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Hollywood Unknowns

Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players, and Stand-Ins

Anthony Slide
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Hollywood Unknowns
    Book Description:

    Extras, bit players, and stand-ins have been a part of the film industry almost from its conception. On a personal and a professional level, their stories are told inHollywood Unknowns, the first history devoted to extras from the silent era through the present.

    Hollywood Unknownsdiscusses the relationship of the extra to the star, the lowly position in which extras were held, the poor working conditions and wages, and the sexual exploitation of many of the hardworking women striving for a place in Hollywood society. Though mainly anonymous, many are identified by name and, for perhaps the first time, receive equal billing with the stars. AndHollywood Unknownsdoes not forget the bit players, stand-ins, and doubles, who work alongside the extras facing many of the same privations. Celebrity extras, silent stars who ended their days as extras, or members of various ethnic groups--all gain a deserved luster in acclaimed film writer Anthony Slide's prose. Chapters document the lives and work of extras from the 1890s to the present. Slide also treats such subjects as the Hollywood Studio Club, Central Casting, the extras in popular literature, and the efforts at unionization through the Screen Actors Guild from the 1930s onwards.Slide chronicles events such as John Barrymore's walking off set in the middle of the day so the extras could earn another day's wages, and Cecil B. DeMille's masterful organizing of casts of thousands in films such asCleopatra. Through personal interviews, oral histories, and the use of newly available archival material, Slide reveals inHollywood Unknownsthe story of the men, women, and even animals that completed the scenes on the silver screen.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-703-3
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-17)

    “We are the mortar between the bricks,” said legendary character actress Beulah Bondi, describing her work and that of her colleagues on screen.¹ If the character player is the mortar and the stars are the bricks, how then may we explain the purpose of extras, “bit” players, and stand-ins? Their performances and their contributions to the films in which they appear—or more rightly the films in which they serve—are seamless. They are the unknown performers, without whom many a project might remain unrealized, but who, with few exceptions, are irrelevant in terms of their names and qualifications. They...

    (pp. 18-33)

    The extras on screen have their antecedents in the extras on the stage, the “supernumeraries” or “supers,” as they were commonly known. In the 1800s, these supers earned fifty cents a performance.¹ Supernumerary has a meaning of surplus, in excess of the number needed (here to put on a play). These were “types”—anything from a Roman citizen to a member of high society—hired locally by touring companies specifically and only for the roles they were assigned. The screen extra, however, is in many ways not comparable to stage supers. On the New York stage or as members of...

  6. Chapter Two THE 1920s
    (pp. 34-51)

    It would be nice to think that as the motion picture developed and came to be regarded as something of an art form, the industry began to treat its lowly employees somewhat better. Sadly, this is far from an accurate assessment. If anything, the 1920s saw a diminution in respect for extras. There were simply too many of them, with more arriving by the bus- and trainload. They were as much a glut for the movie market as an over-harvest of apples might be for supermarket chains. America became movie crazy, with some twenty thousand theatres showing the best that...

    (pp. 52-61)

    The exploitation of young women in Hollywood, particularly those seeking work as extras, was a regular and familiar topic with fan magazine writers and others. The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) had been founded in 1866 to provide accommodation and assistance for single women in major industrial centers. With the influx into Hollywood of so many determined to be future movie stars, the film community might well be considered such a hub, and in 1916, the YWCA, with the help of local businessmen, was able to acquire a building at 6129 Carlos Avenue, which could house some twenty women. The...

  8. Chapter Four CENTRAL CASTING
    (pp. 62-81)

    In October 1925, theLos Angeles Recordreported that the forty producers active in Hollywood had available to them some forty thousand extras. Of the latter, only four thousand could be guaranteed regular work. As Murray Ross has written, “This enormous oversupply of both professionals and amateurs who were determined to ‘break into the movies’ presented a social, moral and economic hazard.”¹

    Two organizations were concerned about the situation, one part of California state government and the other very much a representative of the film industry. When the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was formed in 1922,...

    (pp. 82-97)

    In the March 1927 issue ofPhotoplay, Adela Rogers St. Johns published the first of six short stories bearing the overall title “The Port of Missing Girls.”¹ Each story features a different girl with a dream of a Hollywood career, to which all are attracted “like flies drawn to a honey pot.”² The first, Greta, is a farm girl who comes to Hollywood, becomes pregnant by a married man, and loses the child at its birth. The weight she gains during pregnancy makes it difficult to obtain work as an extra, but she is hired as a member of a...

  10. Chapter Six THE COMING OF SOUND
    (pp. 98-116)

    The sound era is generally defined as beginning withThe Jazz Singerin 1927, despite this not being the first sound film or even the first sound feature-length production. Because of its star, Al Jolson, and because of interest in the film, producer Warner Bros. had little difficulty in finding extras for some of the sequences. The studio brought one hundred from Hollywood for the filming of scenes at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre on June 26, 1927, during which Jolson was to exit the stage door. However, between 7:30 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., several thousand New Yorkers assembled on...

  11. Chapter Seven THE STAND-IN
    (pp. 117-140)

    Audience familiarity with the role and purpose of the stand-in is evidenced by the 1937 Walter Wanger production titled, appropriately enough,Stand-In. Based on a story of the same name by Clarence Budington Kelland (published in theSaturday Evening Postfrom February 13 through March 20, 1937) and directed by Tay Garnett,Stand-Infeatures Leslie Howard as a Wall Street financier who comes to Hollywood to investigate what is wrong with a film company in which his firm is heavily invested. He meets Lester Plum, played by Joan Blondell, a former child actress who is the stand-in for star Thelma...

  12. Chapter Eight CELEBRITY EXTRAS
    (pp. 141-155)

    It is true that a handful of stand-ins gained celebrity status—very much passing fame—as a result of articles in the fan magazines, although the emphasis was as much on the star for whom they worked as on the stand-in. Fan magazines also displayed an interest in extras with unusual backgrounds, unusual wardrobes, or unusual stories.

    An extra who literally steals the entire show is J. Jiquel Lanoe, who appeared in more than one hundred American Biograph films between 1910 and 1913. He was never the subject of any news story, and made no impact, except inJudith of...

    (pp. 156-186)

    Ironically, just as many stars of the silent screen began their Hollywood careers as extras, they ended their careers in the same capacity a decade or so later out of necessity rather than choice. In June 1927,Varietypublished a front-page, headline story headed “‘Has Beens’ Can’t Come Back.” The unfriendly heading was followed by a listing of former “stars” who were no longer active in major screen roles, with the trade paper noting that that an extra had a better chance at screen popularity than a faded “name” player. None of the listed players was reduced at this point...

  14. Chapter Ten ETHNIC EXTRAS
    (pp. 187-204)

    In 1917, one fan magazine reported that Los Angeles was a city with a population of over five hundred thousand cinematic souls, “to say nothing of a number of Mexicans.” The magazine article goes on to say that the film industry employed seven thousand as actors—“and every Mexican.”¹ There can be little dispute that if all those Mexicans really were working in the movies, they did so in only one capacity—as extras.

    Rob Wagner, writing in 1918, identified one extra as “half Indian, half Mex., and half Chink.” Because he possessed long, black hair, the extra would often...

  15. Chapter Eleven THE 1940S, UNIONIZATION, AND BEYOND
    (pp. 205-223)

    Even before America’s entry into World War II, Hollywood had a problem finding youthful, able-bodied young men among the ranks of the extras. Many had already joined the military. Many lacked the physical characteristics and capabilities necessary for the roles they were to assume. As early as May 1938, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) had rounded up five hundred extras, the majority of them male, to determine their swimming ability for a production requiring three hundred extras to jump into the ocean from a burning movie barge fourteen miles off shore. The extras were ordered to participate in a 600-yard...

  16. Chapter Twelve “EXTRAS, EXTRAS, READ ALL ABOUT ’EM”
    (pp. 224-230)

    “Extras, Extras, Read All about ’Em” is a phrase—often used as the title of an article—that has seemed to crop up a great deal in more recent years. Perhaps the increased frequency of its use indicates a modern approach to the role of the extra. Gone are the stories of sexual harassment and of men and women eking out a pathetic existence against all odds. Gone are the stories of star-struck girls heading to Hollywood and becoming extras on the first step of the ladder to stardom. Instead, the work of the extra, en masse or individually, provides...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 231-243)
    (pp. 244-254)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 255-268)