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Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players, and Stand-Ins Hardcover – September 5, 2012
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From the Inside Flap
The untold tale of bit players, doubles, Central Casting, and extras in American film
About the Author
Anthony Slide is an independent scholar who has published seventy-five books on popular entertainment. He has been a specialist appraiser of entertainment memorabilia for more than thirty years, an associate archivist for the American Film Institute, and the resident film historian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
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Specific examples from this book are as follows: One star of the silent era sympathetic to the plight of the extras was actor John Barrymore. It is reported that he walked off the set in the middle of the day, leaving a couple of hundred extras with nothing to do. He was not particularly tired, but he was aware that making a living was difficult for extras. By deserting the set, Barrymore guaranteed them another day's work.
Director Michael Curtiz, who was as cavalier loved to work with mobs. But he was abusive, and his violent confrontation with extras took place during the filming of Noah's Ark (1929) at Warner Bros. Both Curtiz and director Cecil DeMille had executive power, and they were autocratic with a mass of anonymous extras. Two Cecil B. DeMille productions of the 1920s made extensive use of extras, including many of the Jewish faith. On location in the sand dunes of Santa Maria, California, where much of The Ten Commandments (1923) was shot, more than two hundred Orthodox Jews added verisimilitude to the portrayal of Israeli slaves. King of Kings (1927) employed a large undisclosed number of Jewish men, supporting a cast that included prominent Jewish actors, Rudolph Schildkraut as Caiaphas, and Joseph Schildkraut as Judas, who were father and son. Their presence was of no account when the film garnered a storm of controversy from the Jewish community over its presentation of events immediately preceding the Crucifixion, strongly implying that Jews murdered Jesus Christ. More than ten years earlier, D. W Griffith had faced the same criticism with regard to his filming of the same sequences in intolerance (1916). And like DeMille, Griffith had hired "all the orthodox Hebrews with long whiskers to appear as extras in the lead up to the Crucifixion. Later, Griffith supposedly burnt that portion of the negative showing Jews crucifying Christ and re-filmed the scenes with Roman soldiers nailing Christ to the cross. The Warner Bros. production of Noah's Ark, directed by Michael Curtiz, released in November 1928 also claimed that some five thousand extras were hired for the film, with the casting department interviewing at least six thousand. Wardrobe, dressing, and makeup tents were pitched on the studio lot, which contemporary reports compared to an army camp. Military service was probably far less unpleasant because the extras were light-skinned, they did not resemble the dark-skinned tribes of the Middle East. As a result, the extras were ordered to strip, marshaled into line, and marched to enclosures, where some eighty makeup men and women sprayed them with a quick-drying, liquid brown solution. Once suitably darkened, the extras were ordered to costume themselves in robes, wigs, and beards. In 1929, director Raoul Walsh shot the most ambitious sound film to date, a historical Western epic titled The Big Trail, starring John Wayne, in the desert near Yuma, Arizona. It included numerous extras and filming included dangerous scenes. One extra, Pete Morrison saved three women from death by stopping the six oxen pulling the wagon in which they were seated from going over into a canyon. About four hundred Native Americans were gathered from Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. They were separately housed in a native village and represented tribes included members of the Arapaho, Crow, Bannock, and Northern Cheyenne nations.
One of the worst reported cases of physical abuse of extras took place on the set of MGM's Riffraff in October 1935. Forty women were called to the MGM set at 5:30 P.M. In the rain scene, they were soaked and hurled down by the full force of water from three fire hoses, backed by wind machines. Driven water, cold and sharp as icicles, blinded them and flung them about. Many were skinned from ankles to thighs. One woman was knocked unconscious, and another was paralyzed for hours. No drying equipment was provided. Working from 5:30 P.M. To 5:30 A.M, each woman got $11.25.
One director who was much liked by extras was W S. Van Dyke whose credits include, The Thin Man (1934) and San Francisco (1936). He was known as "one take Van Dyke” with time for niceties. Years later, Minta Durfee, a silent actress turned extra recalled, “He always showed great personal concern for the extras.'' Actress Mary Pickford was also concerned with the mistakes extras were doing by taking great risks in their lives. She cautioned them in 1923 that "Success cannot be governed by set rules or bound by conventions. While hard work will help immeasurably to achieve it, it is in no sense a guarantee.”
The book also tells the stories, briefly, of young women who were physically attacked, which include Ginger Wyatt at MGM Studios, Patricia Douglass at one of the Culver City Studios, and Virginia Rappe. I enjoyed reading this book and it is highly recommended to readers interested in the history of Hollywood, silent movie era, and the Golden age.
The author manages to convey the vibe of the film industry wonderfully well, fills it up with well researched accounts and surprising tid-bits, all spruced up with photos showing extras at work. Granting detailed insights into what happened behind the scenes as much as in front of the camera, Slide does not shy away from accentuating the dark side of the industry either, broaching subjects such as sexual exploitation or racial issues. I found this book mesmerizing and disillusioning at the same time.
I admit, particularly the small details made this read so engaging for me, eg how casting telephone operators adopted a form of abbreviated speech and the most depressing one syllable you could hear was "Nerk" signifying "no work". Or how about extras needing to own certain outfits to even stand a chance to get a part. You mightn't need talent, but certainly the right wardrobe.
An amazing portrait of those nameless faces lost in the crowds. Film buffs, you'll need to read this one!
In short: An utter delight for all film aficionados!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.