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Hollywood Unknowns

A History of Extras, Bit Players, and Stand-Ins

Anthony Slide

Publication Year: 2012

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 in Hollywood Unknowns, the first history devoted to extras from the silent era through the present.

Hollywood Unknowns discusses 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. And Hollywood Unknowns does 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 as Cleopatra. Through personal interviews, oral histories, and the use of newly available archival material, Slide reveals in Hollywood Unknowns the story of the men, women, and even animals that completed the scenes on the silver screen.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-x

The impetus for this book was a meeting in 2010 with a lady named Pauline “Polly” Wagner, who was at the time almost one hundred years old, and who was introduced to me by her friend, Steve Vilarino, as Hollywood’s oldest extra. To my astonishment, not only was Polly a very personable lady, she ...

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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 ...

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Chapter One: The Extra in the Early Silent Years

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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 ...

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Chapter Two: The 1920s

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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 ...

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Chapter Three: The Hollywood Studio Club

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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 ...

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Chapter Four: Central Casting

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pp. 62-81

In October 1925, the Los Angeles Record reported 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

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Chapter Five: The Port of Missing Girls

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pp. 82-97

In the March 1927 issue of Photoplay, 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, ...

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Chapter Six: The Coming of Sound

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pp. 98-116

The sound era is generally defined as beginning with The Jazz Singer in 1927, despite this not being the first sound film or even the first sound featurelength production. Because of its star, Al Jolson, and because of interest in the film, producer Warner Bros. had little difficulty in finding extras for ...

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Chapter Seven: The Stand-In

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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 the Saturday Evening Post from February 13 through March 20, ...

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Chapter Eight: Celebrity Extras

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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 ...

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Chapter Nine: The Silent Star as Extra

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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, Variety published a front-page, headline story headed “‘Has Beens’ Can’t Come Back.” The unfriendly ...

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Chapter Ten: Ethnic Extras

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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 ...

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Chapter Eleven: The 1940s, Unionization, and Beyond

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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 ...

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Chapter Twelve: “Extras, Extras, Read All about ’Em”

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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 ...


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pp. 231-243


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pp. 244-255


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pp. 255-268

E-ISBN-13: 9781621037033
E-ISBN-10: 1617034746
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617034749

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 78 b&w
Publication Year: 2012