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Old Hollywood Book Reviews: Hollywood Unknowns

If you read my review of the book Hollywood Movie Stills you should know I enjoy reading about aspects of the film industry that aren’t front and center.  Where Stills told about film photography, author Anthony Slide details the world of the film extra/stuntman/stand-ins of the early era of films.  If you’ve watched any movie you know the difference between an extra (those people standing in the background) from a stand-in (a person who vaguely resembles a star used when a star isn’t acting but is needed).  Hollywood Unknowns looks at the early industry of the extra from the silents to roughly the 1940s with emphasis on the 1920s.  The book can be a taste dry at times with an emphasis on rattling off names, but that’s few and far between when you learn that the world of the extra could be a harsh one.

Anthony Slide appears to be an expert in the field he’s writing on.  I’m not a huge fan of the silent era and thus didn’t know many of the films or players he references but he does an excellent job of placing the reader firmly in the time period and detailing why these people are so important.  At 256 pages there’s a lot of information to process and a beautiful assortment of pictures embedded throughout the pages.  The book’s key element is showing how the extras came to be such a crucial part of the Hollywood industry, how their roles have changed and expanded with stuntmen and stand-ins, and how the extra is appreciated now.

I always assumed the extra was someone, or a group, pulled off the street to fill a crowd but that’s not the case.  Hollywood Unknowns details the life of the person who dreams of stardom.  To many being an extra was simply one step of climbing the ladder to fame.  The book looks at the ways Hollywood tried to dissuade people from coming to Hollywood only to be crushed.  There are references to the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle case as a prime example of Hollywood dreams shattered (although Slide never mentions the Black Dahlia which is odd).  The book also looks at the various communities established in the 20s for those who did decide to join the career path of an extra.  I had no idea how based in truth the film Stage Door is but Slide devotes an entire chapter to the various boarding houses that sprang up for extras.  The sense of community, people waiting by the phone for a call for work and alerting others, is something you don’t see here.

Although there is a dark side.  The book discusses a lot of the wage disputes and how extra work wasn’t meant to be a career.  In fact the book says that the idea extras were turned into actors is a myth.  The only extra who actually jumped to becoming a name actor is David Niven, who Slide mentions albeit briefly.  There are big sections of the book devoted to naming the most prolific extras.  This is where Slide falters as he has a bad habit of throwing out names and a little back story but nothing else.  It almost feels like he wants to give everyone a voice but decides to settle on naming them.  None of them have compelling back stories either so it makes some chapter feel more lengthy than expected.

The chapter on stand-ins is also fascinating and where the pictures pay off the most.  There’s a ton of photos of stars next to their stand-ins allowing you to see how exact, or in many cases, how slight the resemblance to the star was.  This chapter is the most readable and fun as it discusses how being a stand-in was probably more detrimental to a burgeoning star than anything.  There’s many anecdotes about an extra who was prevented from working because of a strong resemblance to a famous actor (sometimes not the one they were standing in for!).  Producers were afraid audiences would become confused.

The last few chapters detail the changing world of the extra with the advent of unionization and the war.  It’s interesting to see how politics eventually took over the world of the extras as Slide details the various unions fighting for control of the extras before the Screen Actors Guild won out.  Today extras are marginalized in favor of digital effects and on-location extras.  Many of the perks of being an extra in the 20s, including being able to play 2-3 roles in the production, have all been obliterated under labor laws and union rules.

Hollywood Unknowns is one of the definitive texts if you’re interested in the world of the extra, specifically during its heyday.  The book can feel a tad wordy with all the names thrown out there but it’s Anthony Slide shows how exhaustively he’s researched his topic. The book hits shelves October 2nd!  Thanks to University Press of Mississippi for allowing me to read it!  Ordering information can be found here.

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

2 thoughts on “Old Hollywood Book Reviews: Hollywood Unknowns Leave a comment

  1. Thank you for reviewing this book and bringing it to my attention. I have been in a process of trying to learn more about the industry than what we get with the “star biographies”, and a few of the books I have been reading about the Oscars made references to the way extras could help swing the votes in the early days. So I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this book when it is released.

    • That’s true, I forgot the swing factor of the extras. There’s even a brief discussion in this book about the attempts to recognize extras with awards. The “star biographies” are definitely limited in scope, obviously, I too prefer more expansive works about the industry as a whole. Thanks for reading!

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