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‘Hollywood Unknowns’ gives due to cinema’s nameless extras

Dennis King Published: February 16, 2013

In every movie – bustling in the background, occupying the margins of each scene, surrounding the stars – there is a nameless ghost population of actors. They’re the un-credited populace, the human wallpaper that make movie scenes seem to pulse with real life. They are the anonymous players profiled in “Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players, and Stand-Ins” (University Press of Mississippi, $40).

Film scholar Anthony Slide, an associate archivist for the American Film Institute, and the resident film historian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, astutely chronicles this history of these unsung players from the earliest days of the silent era on through the heyday of the Hollywood studio system.

Extras (those people that populate the background in scenes) and stand-ins (people selected for a vague resemblance to a star and used in shots when the star isn’t needed) have been a necessary aspect of movies since the beginning.

Using archival information, contemporary interviews and loads of still photos, Slide paints a vivid portrait of the lives of extras and examines a studio system that allowed many to earn a living while remaining forever in the background.

In fact, though unsung and unnamed, Slide notes, extras have often played crucial roles in developing plotlines and in helping the name actors assume the spotlight. The experienced extras, along with stand-ins, stuntmen and bit players, knew well how to play their parts without upstaging or outshining the stars.

Slide offers up long, academic lists of names – extras with the greatest number of credits, extras from all walks of life – and relates tales about poor working conditions, low wages and sexual harassment (the proverbial casting couch).

One informative chapter covers the history of the Hollywood Studio Club, for many decades the chaperoned dormitory for young movie hopefuls. Others focus on Central Casting, which doled out coveted work, the role of extras in popular literature and the Screen Actors Guild efforts to unionize extras in the 1930s.

Popular myth (see the tale told in the Oscar-winning “The Artist”) holds that working as an extra was the dreamer’s idealistic a path to stardom. But Slide debunks that myth and maintains that from the legions of extras only David Niven emerged into the spotlight of stardom.

Mostly, Slide paints the work as hard, thankless but utterly compelling to those who labored at it for a lifetime, perhaps only for some small proximity to the glamour. The author notes that several stars of the silent ere sadly ended their careers as mere extras, including Drew Barrymore’s great-grandfather, Maurice Costello.

Which may account for one telling anecdote that Slide relates about star John Barrymore walking off the set of a movie one day so that the extras could earn another day’s wages.

Despite some colorful tales such as that, and loads of historical information and photos, “Hollywood Unknowns” is largely an academic work – admirable in its thoroughness, but not as glossy, sexy and entertaining as most star biographies.

- Dennis King


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