Extras line up for a job in Meet John Doe (1941)
Spotting familiar “extras” is fascinating to classic film buffs, and is something we can’t help doing even while enjoying the screen time of our favorite stars. They may have a minute or two on camera, a single line or none at all, but they contribute immeasurably to the look and tone of a movie.
Last week we discussed Beverly Washburn’s accepting work as a television extra as an older adult despite her early career of starring and supporting roles on film and TV in the 1950s. Once in a great while, an unknown extra became a star—John Wayne was perhaps the most famous former-extra. Sometimes they became stand-ins and then graduated to starring roles: Joel McCrea was a stand-in for Valentino and for Wallace Reid in the 1920s. Gilbert Roland once served as a stand-in for Ramon Novarro, and Ann Dvorak for Joan Crawford.
The plight of most extras, though, was far from hopeful and could be heartbreaking. Gone Hollywood, an interesting book of classic film trivia by Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz notes that Central Casting, an employment registry for studio extras, came about in the 1920s as a response to the hordes of young people heading for Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. There were more hopefuls than there were jobs, and the lucky ones sometimes snagged a role through nefarious means, including bribes and sexual favors. Will Hayes, of Production Code fame, set up Central Casting to circumvent feared scandal when it appeared that a fair number of prospective starlets were actually prostituting themselves for work.
Central Casting established a pool of extras and a more appropriate and professional way for them to acquire work from the studios. Hundreds were assigned jobs on films every day, but with as many as 15,000 on the rolls, there still weren’t enough roles. It was also a factor of their employment that they supply their own costumes—street clothes, sport clothes or evening dress for scenes that required them. The authors of Gone Hollywood reference a 1934 Photoplay magazine article about extras pooling their meager resources and living five and six to a room to share costumes and expenses, and that others were living in Hoovervilles around Los Angeles
They would usually earn an average of $5 per day and overtime, if called for. The authors report that in 1936, only 58 out of 5,500 men and only 20 out of 6,500 women averaged three or more days of work per week. One could earn a little more if they were willing to take roles which required them to get wet or fall off a horse. Certain physical impairments might also be on demand for a particular film, and often there was a demand for extras based on ethnicity or race.
It is harrowing to recall that, according to the authors, the average yearly income for an extra in the mid 1930s was only $131.36. Think of this the next crowd scene you see. Their plight, especially for older extras, was sometimes met with sympathy by some directors and producers, who would throw work their way whenever possible. MGM casting director Billy Grady organized the Casting Directors Ball to raise money for extras who were ill or in need.
Perhaps the most famous of these not famous actors was Bess Flowers, who we’ve mentioned on this blog from time to time, known as The Queen of the Hollywood Extras. She worked in the background from the early 1920s through the early 1960s, in more than 350 films, as well as television. She was one of the founders of the Screen Extras Guild.
Gone Hollywood. Finch, Christopher and Linda Rosenkrantz (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.) 1979.
I appreciate the faces that populate the background scenes in our favourite movies. Each one with a dream. So many stories.
However, I can't help but think of that old gag that ends with the punchline "What? And leave show business."
Love the gag line.
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