“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?… They are neither the mortar nor the bricks; instead, they provide that unknown quality that is always part of the moviegoing experience and of the movemaking program… they may be more accurately described as “atmosphere.”
And Anthony Slide, an established writer on film and the resident film historian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, does an outstanding job of revealing in his upcoming release, Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players, and Stand-Ins (University Press of Mississippi), just how much these unknown actors and actress- of various sizes, backgrounds, and nationalities-added “atmosphere” to motion pictures since they began.
Slide’s work is a must for the film aficionado as well as those who enjoy a historical account of one segment of American History – in this case the motion picture industry. And he does so as he threads the issue of race and gender of those days into his narrative to provide a fuller account.
The time frame for this book is roughly rooted in the period of the 1920’s-1950’s with acknowledgment given to the 1910’s but focused more on the early “talkie” era and into the 30’s. It is well researched (the bibliography is over ten pages in length) and is filled with names and situations and some wonderful photography of the sets and personnel of the movie industry who contributed to the growth and development of the industry and to the establishment of the role of the extra, bit player, and stand-in.
Featured, along with many other people, in Slide’s work are:
- “Dad” Taylor who, because of his “long, flowing beard and long, flowing hair” was an extra at age 101. With only one screen credit, at around age 91, he died at age 104. However, as Slide notes, “Hollywood had already found an extra to take his place in the person of John Mouster a mere one hundred years of age.”
- Pauline Wagner, whose physical likeness, including her legs, to a well-known Hollywood star, got her to be a stand in to film one of the legendary scenes of the movies. (You’ll have to read the book to find out what movie and what actress.)
But Slide also spends a great deal of print developing the story of the extra and how they were employed in the business. As he does, the reader gets an idea of the development of the industry as a whole. Key to Slide’s tale is the chapter on Central Casting, the organization that would refine how extras (and for this review my use of “extra” include bit players and stand-ins) and their roles were identified (type of extra), number, studio, and the like to a highly refined process over the years.
What I liked about this book is that it is simply a fascinating portrait of another side of the motion picture industry that few get to know and even experience. Slide does a wonderful job of telling the story of extras who have brought “atmosphere” to the big screen.
I give this book an ‘outstanding’ rating.
Note: While I was not required to write a review of this book, I chose to do so.