The next phase. Most trying of all film jobs ; the casting director’s task fully explained.
• by Nathalie Bucknall
DURING the assembling of the cast for Ramon Novarro’s Son of India, the producer, Director Jacques Feyder, Novarro, and the others who were gathered “ in conference,” were faced with one role that it seemed impossible to fill. While Feyder was new to Hollywood, the others felt that they knew everyone who had ever appeared on the screen—and they could think of no one.
The role was of an Hindu ascetic, one of the most important parts in the picture. He must look the part physically without too obvious a make-up. He must have a recognizably spiritual quality to his face, manner and voice. He must look very frail, but must be actually physically strong. And, above all, he must have had both stage and screen experience. For the role was extremely important and he would be called upon to express subtle nuances in both pantomime and with spoken word.
So desperate did the situation become that there was some talk of rewriting the role to make it less exacting. Before doing this, however, one of the casting directors was called in as a final resort.
On the spot, and from memory, he gave them the name of the very man they wanted (Nigel de Brulier, famous for his “ Richelieu ” in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Three Musketeers) though that actor had not appeared in a single picture in the last five years !
And the average casting director in the average studio performs a feat comparable to that about one hundred times a day ! Instantly, from memory, he can give you the names of two thousand people, physical descriptions of each and at least two pictures in which each has appeared ! If he could not—he would not hold his job !
That is no exaggeration. Though he has a most extensive filing system, listing some ten to fifteen thousand persons available for work in pictures, the pressure and speed required are such that it would take him at least a week to do a day’s work if he should consult his files for each request.
In the first place, the calls are not spread evenly through the day. Usually, a director does not know until the late afternoon what his requirements will be for the next day’s work. The great majority of the calls, therefore, bunch themselves in the last hours of the day. *
At a quarter to five, let us say, an assistant-director will telephone that such-and-such a director expects to reach the accident sequence tomorrow, and will require : "Fifty* walk-throughs,’New York slums, hot
afternoon ”; “ policeman, big Irishman, good-natured and able to get a laugh ” ; “ toothless hag to shake fist at car ” ; “ a couple of Italian and Jewish vendor types ” ; “ ambulance doctor, young student type, keen, scientific, good actor, and able to speak lines.”
Except for the fifty “ walk-throughs,” who will simply pass back and forth through the background and who must be well mixed in age and type, the casting director must suggest, from memory, at least two people (in case one is working at another studio) for each of the other parts. And, in addition to giving a short physical description of each one, he is expected to name two or more pictures in which this actor has„ appeared, so that the assistant-director can refresh his memory.
In other words, the casting director is supposed to present his wares in such a manner that the assistant can approve or veto each one in the course of that one telephone conversation !
And many times, of course, the requests are far more difficult than that. Quite apart from the ” freak ” calls for snake-charmers, human skeletons, bearded ladies, men who can imitate a coyote, yodellers, “ man with experience as hind legs of imitation lion,” and so on, there are everyday requests for particularly mixed groups for ballroom scenes, where each one of the actors or actresses will have to speak a line or do a bit of “ business ” ; or a typical group of soldiers, who can drill and know the manual of arms ; or aviators, horsemen, chauffeurs, barbers, swimmers, and the like.
Calls that are by no means in the “ freak ” class, but everyday occurrences, include such unexpected requests as : “A pretty blonde with a high baby voice who can get a laugh ” ; “a cross-eyed woman, must be six feet tall ” ; "an ex-convict, who knows how to sing ” ; “a tall brunette, good at polo ” ; “ big, mild-mannered man with a squeaky voice ” ; “ female impersonator, experienced at parachute jumping ”— and so on, through an endless list, each one of which seems almost impossible at first glance.
Yet—except for the instant placing of the individual in the memory —it is really not quite as difficult as it might appear. For it veritably seems that every condition and class of person has come to Hollywood with the fond dream of making a success in pictures. Nor is it only the beautiful who are hopeful. The moral that can be read from the success of such players as Polly Moran and the late Louis Wolheim has not been wasted. There is, therefore, a tremendous reservoir of assorted humanity from which the casting director can choose almost any conceivable type he wants.
He is the liaison between the outside world of aspirants and the inside world of studio requirements. As such, he is often looked upon as a miracle-worker. If only one can ” get on the good side of him,” as the saying is, is he not in a position to clear one’s road to stardom and electric lights ? ,
He is not! ,
And therein lies the greatest hardship of his work. He is in the position of a famine-relief worker who has food for thousands where millions are in want. But for drastic restrictions brought about by the studios themselves, there would be in Hollywood something between half a million
and a million hopeful actors continually struggling for seven hundred jobs ! As it is, with only one applicant in twenty registered by the Central Casting Bureau (a sort of “ clearing house " of humanity, maintained jointly by all the studios), there are seventeen thousand people for those seven hundred jobs.
Admittedly, times are worse now than they have ever been. But even in the “ boom ” year of 1929, only five hundred and forty-five of those seventeen thousand extras averaged one day or more of work a week. Which means that if they had to depend on their movie income they would have to live on a weekly wage of less than two pounds—pitifully inadequate' in such a high-priced city as Hollywood.
And they are the fortunate three per cent ! The aristocrats of the profession ! Of the remaining sixteen thousand five hundred, some work as infrequently as once or twice a year !
In normal times, that is.
In 1931, for which the latest statistics are available, it was even worse. Only four hundred and one persons averaged two days' work a week or more. And of these, only one hundred and fifty-five doubled the one-day ration, only fifty-five made three days a week, seven worked four, and only one achieved the full five-day week which most of labour looks forward to as an ideal minimum !
Nor is this the full tale of woe, from the standpoint of the “ regular." For in the last year many “ outsiders" have taken up the scramble for the stray crumbs from the movie banquet. These, usually, fall into one of two major classes. Paupers, whose cases are pressed by one or other of the charitable organizations of the city ; and unemployed studio technicians, who must be kept alive somehow until such time as they are needed again in their regular positions. In most studios, these last are given first preference for all work that does not require actual acting ability.
With such conditions, it is obvious that the pressure brought to bear on a casting director to show favouritism is tremendous. Yet he is not in a position to do so. The actual choice is almost invariably made by the director or his assistant. Except in the case of those who simply walk through the background, the casting department has little leeway.
Yet the competition for even these, the meanest of all jobs in picture work, is incredibly keen.
The average casting department receives more than a hundred letters a day—begging, threatening, and pleading for work. One will tell a heartrending tale (perhaps true, perhaps not) of a mother on her deathbed who could be saved by some operation. Another will argue that he cannot answer calls when needed if he does not get enough work to buy new tyres for his automobile. Another will recall the time when he was an assistant-director and did a favour for the casting man. Many of the arguments and pleas are extremely ingenious, some are amusing—and not a few are tragic. And the hardest part of all for the human being who holds the job is the fact that he knows almost all these people personally !
There is also, of course, a reverse side of the same shield. Accusations
of favouritism are as numerous as pleas for it; and fully as extreme in the lengths to which they will go. One studio casting department was raided by government agents recently as the suspected headquarters of a narcotic smuggling ring! When the suspicion was discovered to be utterly unfounded, further investigation revealed that the charge had been made by a disgruntled extra who felt that he had been badly treated.
There are times, almost, when a casting director is almost in danger of losing his life !
Yes, there is a seamy side to Hollywood, and no one deplores it more, nor fights more strongly to eradicate it than those who are in authority.
Cross Section of Humanity.
But to return to the more usual work of this department. It is a fascinating pastime to run through the files. One gets, as it were, a cross-section of the whole of humanity, unexpected glimpses of human characteristics, filed away on cards like so many items in a merchant's stock.
Of the five thousand extras who work most frequently, eighty per cent belong to one or other of forty-two major groupings, which are as follows : Dress Men (those who can furnish their own clothes for almost anything but actual “ costume ” pictures), Juveniles, Bell Boys, Bald Men, Comics, Police, Collegians, Butlers, Freaks, Tall Men, Short Men, Fat Men, ‘‘ Stunt ” Men (who will do anything from parachute jumping to running through a burning building), Horsemen, “ Beards " (a classification that is selfexplanatory), Narcotic Addicts, Military Men, Character Men (men with distinctive individuality), Ruffians, Judges, Dress Women, Pretty Girls, Ugly Girls, Stenographers, Tall Women, Short Women, Fat Women, Women Comics, Hags, Underworld Women, Stunt Women, Maids, Character Women, Horsewomen, Dowagers, Negroes, Hawaiians, Orientals, Latins, Nordics and Slavs.
Each of these classes is divided into sub-classes, such as: “ Pretty Girl —blue-eyed blonde " ; and each card carries information regarding name, address, telephone, weekly wage, age, height, appearance, eyes, carriage, wardrobe, experience, pictures worked in, colouring, special abilities (such as riding or swimming), and photographs (See plate 62).
But the most interesting items of all are the comments that are sometimes added. Under “ Beards,” for instance, we come upon the card of “ W. Norman—beard grows very fast, can develop a heavy stubble overnight.” Under “ Character Woman,” Mary Gordon is tagged as “ very Scotch .” Mildred Hardy, fifty, five feet seven inches, weight eleven stone eight pounds, is listed as an excellent “ mother or landlady.” Emmet Bock is an expert as a “drunkard”; Alex Melesh as a ‘‘bald Russian waiter”; and Jimmy Phillips has been most successful as a “thief.” After Tom Kerrigan’s name appears the one significant word “ bumps,” which means that Mr. Kerrigan is gifted with the ability to take rough falls without getting hurt.
One could spend not hours, but days, going through one of these files, and could find a fresh interest to the last.
It is not so surprising, after all, that a movie studio is able to get any kind of person it wants for any part. With a ‘‘ cross-section of the
world ” to draw from, they should not experience difficulties until they attempt to make a story laid in Mars. But even then something will be invented ; some mechanical, robot-like creature, as was done during the filming of the Mysterious Island by when the casting director
had to produce (or invent) under-water creatures, and when it was done by having all available dwarfs wear marvellously constructed, fantastic rubber garments, with curiously shaped helmets. They certainly looked the part of strange, lilliputian, under-sea inhabitants. Isn’t it said that “ necessity is the mother of invention ” ?
But, in addition to actors, the casting director is often called upon to furnish other people needed in one way or another for picture-making. Except for the regular employees in the regular departments, most of the people required for any purpose are secured through the casting office. A motor-cycle policeman may be needed, for instance, to hold back the spectators who invariably gather around while a company is “ on location.” Or, again, a call was made for “ thirty experienced gowboys and packers ” to act in that capacity with the company that planned to penetrate the Grand Canyon on horseback. Or, instead of human beings, the call may be for animals or birds.
One of the standard needs is for people resembling some star in general physical build to “ double ” for him in dangerous scenes. When one remembers that in one picture the star may have to jump from an aeroplane, in the next fall off a horse, and in the third swim for shore from a capsized boat, it is readily seen that several such doubles may be needed for each star. It is the duty of the casting office to have always on hand at least one who knows how to “ lick ” any situation that a writer can imagine. The reason for “ doubles,” incidentally, is not because of any cowardice on the part of the featured players. In the old days, many stars insisted that they play all scenes themselves. The resultant time spent in hospitals, however, was too costly, and the studios put an end to it. Nowadays, you can be pretty sure that a “ double ” plays any realty dangerous scene, regardless of anjr publicity to the contrary.
All in all, a casting director must be a sort of miner of human beings. He must be able to “ dig up ” an actor to fill any part that is within the realm of imagination. And, most important of all, according to his own testimony, is the “ psychological ” aspect of the work. For it is not enough simply to get the almost impossible human being to whom has been given the added ability to act. You must be sure that he is temperamentally fitted to work well with the particular director and assistant to whom he will be assigned. Many actors will give fine work for one director, mediocre for another, and downright bad for a third. A steadygoing, dependable actor will not go well, for instance, with a director who is known to go ‘‘off the handle.” A highly-strung, brilliant actress, ©n the other hand, is quite apt to have a fit of temperainent if she is assigned to a director of a more phlegmatic turn. In no instance is it the fault of any of them. But in every instance it keeps the casting director busy.
The world film encyclopedia, 1933
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