An Extra in Hollywood
MOTION pictures are no longer a stunt, an optical juggling act to divert the crowd; they are an art — the most difficult and nerve-racking of all the arts to practise, but one of the most complete and satisfactory modes of human expression yet found. King Vidor’s ‘The Big Parade,’ Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh,’ Von Stroheim’s ‘Greed,’ Victor Seastrom’s ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ Edwin Carewe’s ’Resurrection,’ are all of them serious works of art, and some of them masterpieces.
One reason that the movies have been so long unrecognized as an art is that we cannot think of a work of art except as produced by the brain and heart of an artist. And who is the artist who makes a moving picture? A moving picture, like an opera, is a coöperative production, but the really responsible artist is the director. Richard Wagner was considered a superman because he wrote his dramas, composed the music for a hundred voices human and orchestral, drew all these elements together in the creation of tremendous human emotion, and finally conducted the stage presentation. Yet his work is almost child’s play compared to that of a picture director.
For a long time men have toyed with the idea of creating life; R.U.R. and other recent plays and books deal again with this theme. We speak of characters created by an author or a dramatist, but the moving picture more than any other art, makes characters and emotions live and grow before our very eyes. It is not uncommon to see people in a picture theatre cry, start in terror, or shrink back in fear and loathing; and the creation of such emotion in the hard-headed modern crowd is effected by the director through such herculean labors as the layman would scarcely believe.
Most artists conceive an idea, visualize or oralize it, work it out, and reduce it to paper, canvas, notes, stone, or whatever they happen to work in. The picture director goes further. After his idea is visualized and reduced to paper, he proceeds to give it life in its actual materials of men, horses, deserts, oceans, and so forth, and finally reduces it a second time, to the medium of film. It is as if an artist were to paint a picture, after which all the characters came to life and began to argue with the painter. Saint Peter, not liking his rough beard, would trim it to a pointed Vandyke. There would be endless discussions as to costume; the back-row angels would try to work themselves into the front; and, after waiting three months for Saint Peter’s beard to grow again, it would develop that the Christ Child had grown too big for the space allotted to him, and another child would have to be procured. Finally all the characters would group themselves more or less as before, and by some magic art, as difficult in technique as the original painting, they would be eternally fixed, yet living, within their frame. What artist under such conditions would not go raving mad? And the director is no less temperamental, no less artistic or passionate in his creative urge, than the artist of the palette.
For some unknown reason journalists have described directors as casual creatures, running round in ‘plus fours’ of impossible design, ’working’ from ten to three, golfing, bathing, and drinking the rest of the time. But I will let you into the secret. The average director has to have and employ the faculties of an army general, a sewer digger, a tight-rope walker, a tropical and arctic explorer, a schoolmaster, a shyster lawyer, an East Side bargain hunter, an ambassador, a heartless Moloch, and an emotional woman. He probably gets up at seven and drives to the studio about eight.
Say he has to go on location that day. He is ‘shooting’ some scenes at an out-of-the-way house where the hero is hiding. The townspeople are approaching the house, threatening to lynch the hero, who has publicly stated some unpleasant truths about them.
The director sees his three or four hundred extras comfortably seated in buses, the props, cameras, box lunches, and drinks stowed away, the horses packed in trailers. His assistants, property boys, and camera men report to him that everything is O. K. and off they go. Arrived at the house, the director has to turn a mass of joking men and women into an angry, menacing crowd. He shouts at them through his megaphone, he insults them, exhorts them, cajoles them. He is by turns an army mule driver and an evangelist. He gesticulates, prances, screams. He sends his assistants rushing hither and thither. Long ago he took off his coat, rolled up his shirt sleeves, and threw his tie away. (The tie is rescued from the woodpile by a prop boy who will later be held accountable for the article.) At last the crowd is inspired by the spirit of one man. It sways a little, begins to surge forward as one mass. The cameras are set on the porch of the house where the hero is hiding. The director looks all over carefully. The cameras wait. The assistants cower. The director has decided that the size and menace of the crowd are not shown well enough from such a low angle. The cameras must be moved to the roof of the house. There is no trapdoor to the roof. Well, where is a ladder? There is no ladder. What! That idiot of a prop boy did not bring a couple of ladders in his pocket! The prop boy hastily rigs up a rope and pulley and hauls camera men and director to the roof.
The poor prop boy, by the way, besides bringing with him everything that he is told to bring, is expected to anticipate all possible needs. Naturally he carries black thread, wire, iodine, police badges, false money, prop blood, handcuffs, guns, and rubber knives. Once, out at sea on a small steamer, the director suddenly turned to the prop boy and demanded, ‘Where’s that piano?’ It was the first mention of a piano, but the prop boy never quailed. A packing case and a piece of black velvet photographed like the finest Steinway.
But to return to our director on the housetop. No sooner does he take a look through the lens than he decides they must move still higher, and he commands the prop boy to shift the outfit to the roof of the barn. This does not at all faze the prop boy, who has already foreseen such a move and called up the local fire department. The brigade is quite pleased to send its hook and ladder — for a consideration— to help out the pictures. Finally, sitting astride the ridgepole, the cameras precariously balanced on the sloping shingles, the director, straining his voice to the limit, inspires a mob at long distance and the scene is begun. Once more the crowd grows menacing, surges forward, is about to break. At the critical moment a small boy sitting on a fence alongside sights a neighbor across the field and runs over to him, straight through the centre of the scene. Curses! Damnation! The crowd stumbles in its stride. The whole thing has to be done over again, and probably again, and again. Nerveracking grind and tension the whole day long.
Those recently popular pictures laid in or around a steel mill were particularly torturous to make. A steel mill cannot stop even for the movies. All day and all night it roars. The redhot metal is poured into moulds which are swung on huge derricks across the mill and plunged into tanks of water to cool. Clouds of steam hiss up from these tanks, obscuring the vision. Where to place a camera so as to take all these things and yet be out of the way of the derricks and workmen? A movable platform was constructed on the rafters under the roof, and this was shifted over whatever part of the mill was to be photographed. One of the men of the picture company fell from the platform and was so badly burned that he died in a few hours. There was no cessation of work. Only ten days were allotted to shoot the mill scenes and the company was already behind schedule. But the danger, the incessant noise, and the memory of their comrade’s terrible death preyed on the minds of the other members of the company. It was the duty of the director to keep up their morale, and how could he do this when they sometimes worked for twenty-four hours straight?
Picture people are mostly of the soft-white-collar, city-bred type. Their struggles have been almost entirely with poverty, and they have lived usually by their wits. They are suddenly called upon to face in person the dangers of the pioneers, of the sea, every kind of physical hardship, demanding strength and courage. One sweet young actress who recently carried off a beauty prize and a fat contract was at one time making a jungle picture. Jungle pictures are made in arenas surrounded by high fences hidden with bamboos, palms, and tropical vegetation. The scenes with the animals are usually taken first, with only the trainers in the arena, and later the actors come in and do their bits. For those scenes in which it is essential that actors and animals appear together, naturally every kind of precaution is taken. But certain of the animals are fairly tame and are allowed to wander in the arena even while the actors are present. The actors are instructed how to treat the animals — above all not to run away. This particular young actress entered the arena late — she had been having a little flirtation with her leading man — and was unaware that Patsy, a tame young lioness, was wandering at large. The actress seated herself by a clump of bamboo and proceeded to have her palm read by her (for the moment) devoted admirer, when Patsy sprang out of the bushes and landed in — or rather on — her lap, purring and wagging her tail and expecting to have her head nicely scratched. Fortunately the actress was too terrified to move, and Patsy immediately went to her trainer when she was called. But it is a distinct shock to any civilized young lady suddenly to find a lion in her lap. It is one of those situations we are not taught how to meet, which make unlimited demands on nervous control and courage.
In the same picture Mary, the chimpanzee, a really dangerous animal always held safely by a wire leash, took a strange fancy to the production manager. After a scene she would run up to him and poke her skinny black hand in his face. ‘Kiss it!’ the trainer shouted. ‘Kiss it, and, whatever you do, don’t movel!’ The manager had to kiss the ape’s hand half a dozen times before she was satisfied and consented to return to her work.
It is not only danger and physical difficulty which try the director’s nerves. There is the tedious, agonizing grind of getting a close-up just right. Recently a director was taking a famous star as she picked up a cup of tea, laughed slyly over the edge as she drank it, and set it down again. He shot this scene steadily for four days. The cup must be picked up gracefully — held at a particular angle so that the curve of the cup and the curve of the cheek would make an harmonious picture. The smile must be just perfect — not too much of it showing and not too little. For four days star and director labored. Then the company went out on location for a week to shoot some outdoor scenes. On their return to the studio they proceeded with the same cup and smile. I did not happen to be in at the finish and cannot say how long their efforts continued.
Bearing in mind that a good director must of necessity have something of the ‘artistic temperament,’ it is easy for one to see that the extreme difficulty of handling his medium of expression is apt to drive him to excesses even more than is the case with other artists. And there is certainly no denying that Hollywood indulges in excesses. Still these excesses are not so terrible or so unusual as the world makes out. After you practise, for hours daily, kissing at your most becoming angle, a kiss really does not mean much to you; and a girl gets so used to having a man’s arms around her that they mean little more to her than the arms of a chair. It is not so much the life you live as what it means to you that affects your character, and most of the picture people are generous, natural, kind-hearted folk. If their social eccentricities seem greater than other people’s, it is because they do not try to hide them or hush them up — publicity is good business for them.
But to return to the director and his struggle to produce a work of art out of the most stubborn of all materials: men, women, and the world at large. In a majority of pictures there is some tremendous outdoor elemental scene — a flood, fire, shipwreck, earthquake, or volcanic eruption — that is used as a dramatic background to heighten and repeat the human emotion, exactly as it is used in other arts. But here the director has actually to handle the elements. He cannot merely mention that a storm is raging outside. He must show it. Apart from all the clever and ingenious ways of faking elemental drama, in very many cases the director is absolutely at the mercy of the elements as much as any fisherman or farmer.
Take the simplest kind of scene. The girl perhaps walks down to the seashore in the evening. She stands for a second on a rock and looks into the water, thinking. This involves a number of different shots. First the girl is seen walking toward the beach. Then she climbs the rock. Perhaps a close-up of the slippery weed as she mounts. She is outlined against the sky. She looks down. A shot of the water she is looking at. She looks round at the wide horizon. A shot of birds wheeling, a distant ship or headland. She looks down again at the water. A shot of the man she is thinking of, half seen through the ripples of the water. She leaves the rock and walks down the beach as it grows dark. Now for each of these dozen shots the cameras must be moved, set up, focused. The reflectors must be arranged to throw a beautiful light that will also be becoming to the star. This scene is supposed to be in the evening. It will probably take at least three or four hours to make all the necessary shots. By the time the last one is ready to be taken the shadows are much longer and the tide much higher than when the first one was made. Yet the whole thing will take only a few seconds on the screen, and it is impossible to show the tide at different heights on the rock. Some of the shots, therefore, must be postponed till next day. Next day there happens to be a wind, the sea is rough, and the rock is drenched with spray, whereas the previous evening the water was merely rippling. The day following there is a storm. The fourth day conditions are right, but the tide is at the right height four hours later than it was on the first day and the shadows are all wrong. It may take a week to complete the scene. Of course something else is done in the meanwhile.
This is merely one of the smallest ways in which the elements retard and hinder the director. Sometimes there is real difficulty, as for instance in making ‘The Blood Ship,’ when the ship, with half the actors aboard, drifted from its mooring in a fog and was lost at sea. It was an old-time hulk with no wireless aboard. Aeroplanes were sent out to find it, but were unable to do anything on account of the fog. The ship was finally discovered the next day.
The stars also add their quota to the director’s difficulties. Imagine the director to whom Wallace Reid was not Wallace Reid at all, but a distraught young man about to commit a crime for love. The director prepares everything for the great scene. Lovingly he supervises the lights, the angle of the cameras, the shadow of a spray which shows on the wall against which the distraught young man is to lean, glassyeyed, wild, nerveless. He turns to put his demoralized hero into the centre of the carefully prepared picture — to find that the young man has started a fierce argument on bacteria with one of the extras, and is at that moment leaping into his car with his friend, intent on going to his private laboratory and proving that he is right. No director on earth can dissuade him — are not bacteria more important than any director? They could make or unmake directors in a single day.
Or consider John Barrymore, who walked off the set in the middle of the day, leaving a couple of hundred extras at $7.50 apiece per day — not because he was tired especially, but because he knew it had been hard times and the extras needed another day’s work. And all this is counted against the poor director. He is supposed to manage the stars, the elements, the company’s nerves, and his own temperament so as to save money for the producer and yet make a splendid picture.
Picture making is a coöperative art. What the director intends must be carried out by actors, camera men, and the cutter. Naturally these are all subject to the director, but it is pretty difficult to subdue all their personalities entirely to the director’s, unless the director is an extraordinarily strong and determined character. Here is a very simple instance of how a cutter can change a picture. The hero smiles pleasantly and embraces the lady of his choice, after which the doorbell rings and they separate, annoyed at being disturbed. But suppose the cutter cuts it like this: the lovers embrace, the door bell rings, the hero smiles and leaves the lady. Of course you conclude that the hero is a villain and has purposely arranged for someone to disturb them at that time.
Von Stroheim’s ‘Greed,’ perhaps the finest picture he ever made, was forty reels, or eight miles, long when it was finally cut to suit his ideas. It took eight hours to run, and did not seem too long to those who saw it. And indeed there is no reason why one should not have a film festival ■— like the Wagnerian festivals at Bayreuth during which long and beautiful films would be shown throughout the day. They could be as thrilling as any opera and probably would appeal to far more people. But naturally eight hours was too long to expect the average crowd to sit. Consequently the picture was cut to seventeen reels, and later to twelve. Imagine the director, heartbroken at seeing his work so cut to pieces and yet trying to preserve some of the essence of his original idea and inspiration.
But here is the greatest obstacle of all in the way of a director’s producing a real work of art. Other artists — writers, painters, musicians — are left more or less free to create as they will. Their difficulties begin when they try to market their art. Then they come into contact with all the petty jealousies and politics which Remain Rolland has described so well in Jean Christophe, and which seem to exist in every realm of ‘art.’ But imagine an artist who must actually do his work in these inhospitable surroundings — who must go through endless ridiculous intrigue before he is even permitted to begin. For of course as soon as the director begins his picture he is speculating in enormous sums of money.
The cheapest home-talent two-reel film can scarcely be made for less than $800. And the most ordinarily good five-reeler will cost at least from $10,000 to $15,000. This immediately puts the making of pictures into the realm of business rather than of art, and in pictures we see an extraordinary struggle between these two proverbial enemies — extraordinary because it so often ends in favor of art rather than of business.
A big studio, like any other big business, is a nest of politics and intrigue. And while it is doubtless true that it is talent and ability which count in the end, in the beginning it is largely influence and pull. And these are not easy to get in any ordinary manner, as the applicants for movie jobs are legion. Every fool seems to think he is capable of directing a picture, and every boy or girl who comes to Hollywood is convinced that he or she is a genius. They do not hesitate to attack directors shooting in the street with requests for jobs — promising to work for nothing if only they are given a chance. Naturally this gets them nowhere. They must at least have a little pull with someone. One director I know holds his present job because of a broken rib his wife sustained in the too hearty embrace of the studio manager. He is a very poor director and will not last long, but at present he is keeping a good man out of work.
Although a director is naturally preferred if he is economical, it is surprising how free a hand is given to those whom the companies believe to be capable artists. Von Stroheim, for instance, is allowed to shoot sequences, taking several weeks, purely for his own artistic pleasure — since it is evident the censor will never permit them to be shown on the screen. Murnau, in making his recent picture, ‘Sunrise,’ was given an entirely free hand. No one was even allowed on the lot to see what he was doing, and he permitted no one to see his ‘dailies’ (the print of the scenes taken each day) but himself. Whatever he asked for was given him, whether it was a peculiar kind of lens, an elephant, or an earthquake. Practically anything a good director desires in the way of props, sets, or locations is arranged almost without question. There is a tremendous amount of waste and graft in renting articles to the picture companies, as few have anything approaching efficiency methods. One company, for instance, paid a jeweler $25 for the rent of a wrist watch which could have been bought for $14, and such examples could be multiplied endlessly. Naturally all this intrigue, political nonsense, and business grafting distracts and depresses the artistic director, but he has to go through with it to get and hold his job, and perhaps it adds a touch of realism and irony to his pictures which in no way detracts from their merit.
If I have given some idea of the difficulty of employing moving pictures as an art medium, of the double translation of ideas, first into script, then into film, of the nerve-racking physical labor, the interference of the elements, the problem of managing the stars, the peculiar coöperation necessary between director and cutter, and the incessant political intrigue, you will readily see that it is not only the consideration of the box office which prevents so many pictures from being works of art. And perhaps you will have some realization of King Vidor’s achievement in ‘The Big Parade’when he works successfully up to the tremendous scene where the soldiers leave and Renée Adorée tries to cling to her lover — to his boot — to the chain on the truck — to the very wheel tracks in the mud. Perhaps you will also appreciate better the exquisite tenderness of that scene in ‘Resurrection’ where Edwin Carewe shows Dolores del Rio dreaming of her unborn fatherless child. She stands before the picture of the Virgin and mechanically begins to rock the blanket she is putting away, crooning a little as she sways. And that scene in ‘Greed’ where Gowland is handcuffed to a corpse in the midst of the desert, the gold he so ardently desired useless at his feet; and that last tremendous long shot which recedes from him and all his crime and passion — recedes — recedes — till we see him and his terrible drama as they perhaps appear to the Creator: a meaningless black speck in an eternal voiceless solitude.
No other art in the world is so difficult to practise, so compounded of antagonistic, inartistic elements. But it has its compensations. The close-up, invented by D. W. Griffith, and the long shot with the wide-angle lens, can throw the audience into the bottom of the grand canyon or bring up before it the veined petals of a wild flower. No other art can create at once with the power and the delicacy of the moving picture; and I can imagine no more satisfying medium for the ambitious artist, who is after all a creator — part archangel, tearing apart and creating worlds with his trump of doom, part monk, embellishing a single letter of the alphabet with all the happy detail of a rich imagination.