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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hollywood Unknowns by Anthony Slide

In 1928 hundreds of extras were ordered to strip, marshalled into line and sprayed brown for the movie, Noah's Ark.  This was not all that they suffered.  Many were badly injured when tons of water were unleashed over them for the flood scenes.

Bess Flowers, "Queen of the Extras"
This is just one example of the ill-treatment of extras.  Their tale is mostly a sad one of poverty, bad treatment and even scandals.  Thousands of hopefuls flocked to Hollywood looking for stardom and glamour.  Forty thousand extras were registered in Hollywood in the 1920's.  They were vying for four thousand jobs. If they were lucky enough to get a job, they usually ended up working twelve-hour days for low wages.  One small group even set up a shanty town near Universal City. Many extras slept in rooms of five or six people and shared their clothes when jobs came up.  However, extras who were working were provided with meals.

Anthony Slide's fascinating and thoroughly researched book, Hollywood Unknowns, is full of such anecdotes.  This isn't just an unremitting story of misery and struggle for better conditions, however, although this is well-covered.  Slide also writes about the many interesting characters who played extras.  These included a handsome Swede who spoke five languages and fenced with Ralph Valentino each morning, a Russian princess and the daughter of the Los Angeles Grain Exchange who was tired of the society life. Sometimes army troops and even motorcycle gangs were employed as extras.

I found the saddest part of the book concerned the former silent screen stars who were often happy to find any work in the industry at all.  These included former directors and famous stars.

All lovers of Hollywood history will enjoy this book.

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