As far back as the 1920s, newspapers and magazines were running articles on the plight of Hollywood extras, describing them as people who “at first … have individuality, personal pride in their appearance. But after a little while they seem weighed down by the realization that they will never progress. When that spark goes, they are hopeless….”
So it's no surprise that an undercurrent of pathos, humiliation and failed ambitions threads its way through veteran film historian Anthony Slide's new book, Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players and Stand-Ins (University Press of Mississippi).
The book starts out with a fittingly melancholy epigraph, taken from a 1925 movie fan magazine, titled “The Extra Girl's Lament”: “You get a tip from one of your pals / The Chaplin Lot wants boys and gals. / You walk because you haven't a car / With a job in view it don't seem far. / But there he stands, the man at the gate / And his greeting is, 'Sorry, too late.' ”
Despite the leitmotif of sadness, Hollywood Unknowns is both fascinating and amusing (“The lure of free food has always been a factor in employment as an extra,” Slide writes).
It's filled with tidbits about what it took to survive as a member of the more-or-less unappreciated army of the faceless: “Extras learned … to avoid close-ups. Once an extra's face was registered in a close-up, he or she would not be wanted again in the film for fear of audience recognition. It was not for the extra to behave like a character actor … a 'film hog' or a 'lens louse,' monikers given those too cozy with the camera.”
Less comical are the stories of full-on abuse, like the “surprise” unleashing of tons of water on a gigantic crowd of extras during the filming of Noah's Ark (1928) by director Michael Curtiz.
Slide's book covers every category of movie-lot also-ran and down-and-outer, including perhaps the saddest bunch of all: onetime stars and directors who lost their way and/or talent, and were themselves reduced to extra work (“The number of silent stars appearing as extras in DeMille productions of the 1930s and 1940s is staggering,” he writes, and quotes a fallen star named Barbara Tennant as saying, “Today … I am — an extra … I love it all so … I can't leave it”).
A chapter on “Ethnic Extras” recounts a general strike by black extras in 1936, and egregious incidents like the piggish treatment of adorable young black actress Theresa Harris, who starred in a 1933 film with Ginger Rogers yet received no billing at all.
You can't often say a new book is the first of its kind. Yet Slide, the author of more than 70 (!) books on the movies, has given the faceless crowd its first real monument, while proving that the rich field of Hollywood history remains far from exhausted, even now.