Holywood Unknowns: A history of movie extras and bit players
In Hollywood Unknowns (University Press of Mississippi), film historian Anthony Slide delves into a rarely discussed side of Hollywood moviemaking: the aspirations and travails of those invariably nameless, usually voiceless, and oftentimes faceless contributors to the art and success of motion pictures everywhere — the movie extras and bit players (in addition to "side" chapters on stand-ins and stunt doubles). (Image: Anthony Slide’s Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players and Stand-Ins cover, with possibly MGM’s short filmmaker Pete Smith next to the dog looking for extra work.)
Hollywood Unknowns covers the history of the Hollywood extras from the early days of filmmaking — when, say, Florence Lawrence could be the star of one film and mere "atmosphere" in another — to the current crop of movie extras.
Among the topics found in Slide’s book are the history of Central Casting, which was officially created to help the extras get work (though unofficially it also worked as a studio tool); union battles involving the Screen Actors Guild, the Screen Extras Guild, and splinter groups; and a look at former silent film stars, among them Clara Kimball Young, King Baggott, and William Farnum, who ended their professional days as Hollywood extras.
So, next time you watch Michel Hazanavicius’ Oscar-winning The Artist, bear in mind that Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin was lucky he could tap dance. Many top silent film performers, especially those from the 1910s, weren’t nearly as fortunate.
Author Anthony Slide has kindly agreed to answer a few questions (via e-mail) about Hollywood Unknowns. See below.
Movie extras on the set of John Cromwell’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Photo taken by former extra David Niven.
First of all, what made you decide to write a book about the history of Hollywood extras — in addition to chapters on stand-ins and stunt doubles?
I had some interest in the work of extras as a result of being hired some years ago by the Screen Actors Guild to conduct interviews with its earliest surviving members in connection with SAG’s 50th anniversary. Among these were Paul Bradley (who had been stand-in for Ronald Colman on Lost Horizon), Lila Finn (Dorothy Lamour’s stand-in in The Hurricane) and Santa Puailoa (a Polynesian who worked as an extra, sometimes performing a knife dance, in a lot of Hawaiian-set movies). I had also known well Bess Flowers, who was always described as Hollywood’s Best Dressed Extra because of the considerable quantity and quality of her wardrobe.
What served ultimately as a catalyst, I suppose, was a meeting with a 98-year-old former extra named Pauline Wagner. She’s still alive at 102. And she was so intelligent, so well-spoken and had so many fascinating stories that I was almost compelled to document her work and the work of many other extras. And by extras, I also mean to include their peers: stand-ins, doubles and "bit" players.
While reading Hollywood Unknowns, I kept wondering: How did those thousands and thousands of extras make ends meet when their daily (and yearly) wages were for decades so unbelievably low even when taking inflation into account? Why bother with what seemed like arduous, haphazard, poorly compensated work?
Most extras did not make ends meet. They had to take on other jobs between studio assignments that were often few and far between. Most of them I sincerely believe enjoyed the work and considered it a vocation. They enjoyed the camaraderie. I don’t honestly believe that many wanted to become stars or featured players. They were happy with their lot, while perhaps hoping that they might make a little more money.
["Anthony Slide Hollywood Unknowns: The History of Hollywood Extras" continues on the next page. See link below.]
Anthony Slide’s Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players and Stand-Ins, movie extras on the set of John Cromwell’s The Prisoner of Zendaimages: Courtesy of Anthony Slide.
"Anthony Slide HOLLYWOOD UNKNOWNS: The History of Hollywood Extras" *ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED*: Feb 16, 2013