The Grove Book of Hollywoodby Christopher Silvester
“For anyone who enjoys the rich folklore, strange tribal rites, and tarnished idols of the celluloid jungles, the book is a feast.” –Entertainment Weekly
The Grove Book of Hollywood is a richly entertaining anthology that brings Hollywood to life, in the words of the people who helped make it the city we know today. Movie moguls, embittered screenwriters, bemused outsiders such as P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, and others all have their say. Organized in a chronological, decade-by-decade fashion, the pieces are fascinating not just in their own right, but also for the way they re-create the history of Hollywood and the film industry.
We encounter the first people to move to Hollywood, when it was a dusty village on the outskirts of Los Angeles, as well as the key players during the heyday of the studio system in the 1930s. We hear from victims of the blacklist and from the contemporary players who operate in an industry dominated by agents. Coming from a wide variety of sources, the personal recollections range from the affectionate to the scathing, from the cynical to the grandiose, and they offer a textured, multifaceted portrait of the city from its humble origins to the height of glamour.
Indeed, the book’s scope is nothing short of astonishing. Here are John Huston on his drunken fistfight with Errol Flynn, Cecil B. DeMille on the challenges of filming The Ten Commandments, Frank Capra on working as a young man in the chaotic studio of the great comedic producer Mark Sennett, William Goldman on the strange behavior of Hollywood executives in meetings, and many more delightful selections. Perfect for browsing or reading straight through, The Grove Book of Hollywood is a must for anyone interested in Hollywood and the film industry.
“For anyone who enjoys the rich folklore, strange tribal rites, and tarnished idols of the celluloid jungles, the book is a feast.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Opening up Christopher Silvester’s anthology The Grove Book of Hollywood is like discovering a hitherto unknown used-book store. You anticipate not just an afternoon browse now, but many visits in the future. . . . Enchanting . . . Have you gone out to buy this book yet? . . . Time and again, I marveled at the resourcefulness of this volume, digging up things I half recalled and finding others I’d never heard of. . . . If you know people who take movies too seriously, they must be given this anthology. As for the rest of us, already helpless, delighted victims of the illness, this is our book.”—David Thomson, Bookforum
“Guns, goons, dope, and debauchery, as well as many exceedingly savvy comments on the nutty process of making movies . . . [The Grove Book of Hollywood is] astute and entertaining.”—Wendy Smith, Variety
“A superb anthology. . . . A feast for both those who love Hollywood and those who hate it.”—J.G
. Ballard, The Observer (London)
“Christopher Silvester has found the very best writing about movies from the past nine decades. . . . Hollywood’s funniest and most sophisticated observers relate how the town works, from its most unintentionally hilarious to its most venal. Although it’s tempting to thumb immediately to the trenchant commentaries of such contemporary writers as John Gregory Dunne, Marie Brenner and William Goldman, readers will be richly rewarded by the uncannily timeless recollections of Frances Marion, Charles Bickford, Ben Hecht, David Niven, J.B. Priestly, and Richard Brooks.”—Ann Hornaday, Baltimore Sun
“[A] fascinating glimpse at the history of an industry, culled largely from sources you’d never track down on your own . . . There are countless priceless anecdotes and revelations to be found.”—Chris Herrington, The Memphis Flyer
“Undoubtedly the best book I’ve ever read about Hollywood. . . . Silvester has created a rich tapestry to immortalize the mad, bad, wild and extravagant ways of the Babylon of the film industry.”—Vincent Banville, Irish Times
“Highly entertaining and informative. . . . This kaleidoscope of memories, reflections, paybacks and honors is both a great read and a good popular introduction to Hollywood history.”—Publishers Weekly
“A rich anthology of Cinema City.”—Orlando Sentinel
“The joys of this book are endless. . . . A masterly, magnificent anthology.”—Sheridan Morley, Literary Review (London)
“A delightful collection, full of surprises.”—Sean Macaulay, Mail on Sunday (London)
Eluding the Patent Agents
Fred J. Balshoferfrom Fred J. Balshofer and Arthur C. Miller, One Reel a Week (1976)
Fred J. Balshofer was a stereoscopic-slide photographer who joined the Lubin Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia in 1905. He subsequendy became a producer and found himself on the receiving end of a lawsuit from the Edison-led trust, the Motion Picture Patents Company. In 1908 he founded the Crescent Film Company and thereafter was joined by Adam Kessel, an ex-bookmaker, and Charles O. Bauman, a former streetcar conductor, in the New York Picture Company, which set up the subsidiary companies Bison and Keystone. He retired from film production soon after sound came in.
After a long weary ride of four nights and five days our small company, consisting of Evelyn Graham, Charles French and his wife, Charles Inslee, J. Barney Sherry, Young Deer and his wife Red Wing, Bill Edwards (the prop man), Maxwell Smith, who came in Arthur Miller’s place, and I, arrived in Los Angeles the day after Thanksgiving, November, 1909.
We were among the first of the moving picture companies to begin building a moving picture center in California. Los Angeles at that time was a sprawling city of approximately 250,000 residents, many of whom were Spanish-speaking. Their customs and gentle way of life immediately won my admiration and friendship.
In 1909, there was darn little paper money to be had. It was so scarce, in fact, that when I went to the Security Bank on Spring Street, in the heart of the city, and deposited two thousand dollars in twenty, fifty, and one hundred-dollar bills to the account of the New York Motion Picture Company, the clerks eyed me as though I had held up a train. When I asked the teller to change a twenty-dollar bill for ones, he handed me “cartwheels.” “Bills,” I said. He shook his head but managed to find five one-dollar bills, and I was obliged to take the remainder in silver dollars.
Just about the first to come to California to make movies, I believe, was Colonel William (Bill) Selig, who sent Francis Boggs, his ace director, and a few actors to Los Angeles in the fall of 1907 to establish a studio of sorts in a former Chinese laundry on Olive Street not far from the center of the city. In January, 1910, the Biograph company sent a unit headed by D. W. Griffith with Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, and Billy Bitzer, to name a few, out to Los Angeles. They established a studio in a vacant carbarn at Georgia and Pico streets, on the southwest side of the city. Gilbert M. Anderson (real name Aaronson), a six-foot rugged individual of about thirty-five, who made the character of Bronco Billy famous, was George K. Spoor’s partner in the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company and was making western pictures starring himself in Niles, California, nearly four hundred and fifty miles north of Los Angeles.
Like the Biograph, we intended to return to New York in the spring, so we set up a temporary studio in a former grocery and feed store that had a large barn and some old shacks on a fenced-in plot of ground on Alessandro Street, which was a hilly, sparsely settled section some three miles west of Los Angeles. We converted the store and shacks into dressing-rooms for our players and put up a small outdoor stage where we could shoot our interiors. The rented property included a small house across the street that I used as an office and as a place to lock up the camera equipment. There also was enough space for a small laboratory to develop the daily negatives, which I had to do myself until I trained a former cook from the Alexandria Hotel.
I would cut the negative scene by scene, leaving about six inches extra at each end, and number them, starting with scene one, two, and so on; the main, sub-, and spoken titles I wrote and sent with the developed picture negative to be photographed in our laboratory in Brooklyn. In those days, the negative of a complete reel or picture was not joined in one roll for printing; certain scenes were selected to be toned or tinted different colors, so these scenes had to be printed in separate rolls and handled on separate drums. The girls who assembled the positive prints worked at a bench on which there was a row of numbered wooden pegs. The joiners, as they were called, cut the individual scenes from each roll, and the number of a particular scene was placed on the corresponding numbered peg. On the rewinder a piece of the leader was put first, then the main and subtitle, followed by scene one, two, and so on, including the descriptive and spoken titles. The finished reel or picture had a splice at the beginning and end of each scene and title. As there were no machines or even guides to make splices, the accuracy of the splice depended upon the skill of the joiner. The above seems fantastic compared with modern film processing. Today the full reel of a picture has hardly a splice.
Col. William Selig had come to Los Angeles to avoid the wintry blasts of Chicago and had intended to return in the spring. Instead, he decided to stay. Selig was a short, heavyset man about forty who had been a traveling salesman and magician before he organized his moving picture company in Chicago in 1897. Judging by the looks of his new studio in California it was obvious that he was making money hand over fist. His studio in Edendale covered a city block on Alessandro Street and was half a block or more wide, surrounded by a high, vine-clad wall. Huge wrought-iron gates of Spanish design formed the entrance to the studio, and just beyond the gates was a lush tropical garden.
It was here that such coming stars as Tom Santschi, Hobart Bosworth, William Farnum, and Robert Leonard, among others, played in his pictures. Late in the summer of 1910 Francis Boggs, top director for Selig, was shot to death in the studio garden by a Japanese gardener who went berserk. When Selig attempted to take the gun away from the gardener, he was shot in the arm. Selig might have been fatally wounded had not others arrived in time to overpower the gun-brandishing Japanese, who, for no apparent reason, was all for killing Selig too.
As far as I know, there is no actual record of who was the first to photograph a movie scene in Hollywood. Dave Horsley has the distinction of being the first person to establish a studio when he took over a former tavern on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street in the fall of 1911. As early as January, 1910, however, we photographed scenes around Hollywood, riding our horses from the studio in Edendale to the picturesque hills over the winding roads. There were some adobe buildings on a fair-sized ranch just west of LaBrea Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard where we photographed many horse chases, gun battles, stagecoach holdups and other similar scenes for our Bison pictures before we discovered Griffith Park. Griffith Park was a beautiful place with tree-covered hills, ideal for western pictures. It was only a few miles from our studio, and many times we set up an Indian village and left it there for days at a time in the section now known as Griffith Park golf course.
We were doing fine in California and hadn’t yet seen McCoy or any of his henchmen so we decided to stay. We began to convert our temporary studio into a permanent one. Our stock company of actors and actresses had grown to include Jewell Darrell, Marguerite Favar, Marin (named for Marin County where she was born) Sais, George Gebhardt, Art Acord, Jack Conway, Art Ortega, Roy Purden, Frank Montgomery, Howard Davies, Princess Mona Darkfeather, Ann (Anna) Little, Jess McGaugh, Tex Cooper, Charlie Avery and several others. We also had Bebe Daniels, a child actress, and her mother, Phyllis, who acted as my secretary and bookkeeper.
I had bought several horses to use in our western pictures, some of them from a Mexican fellow. The day he delivered them he was mounted on the most magnificent white stallion I had ever seen. The minute I saw that horse all I could think of was what a valuable addition it would be to our Bison pictures. I tried every argument I could think of to convince the Mexican to sell us the horse, but he simply wouldn’t listen. However, I was able to make a deal to rent the horse for one picture. We had just started the film and were shooting some scenes at the old wooden bridge that used to be on Los Feliz Road near the entrance to Griffith Park when Jack Conway came thundering across the bridge on the white stallion. A plank loosened and the edge struck the horse a severe blow across his forelegs causing him to fall. Conway was sent sprawling but fortunately was not hurt. One of the cowboys ran to put his weight on the horse’s head to prevent him from getting up, while others did what they could to quiet the animal. It appeared as though he had broken his leg.
Jess McGaugh, who was in charge of our horses, took over and did a fine job on the foreleg which turned out to be severely lacerated but not broken. The Mexican owner became quite excited over the incident. He had no idea what the injury amounted to and could well wonder about the soundness of the horse after taking such a spill, even if the stallion hadn’t suffered a broken leg. McGaugh estimated the veterinary charges at seventy-five dollars, and if the Mexican insisted on being paid for rental of the horse during the time it was out of action, it seemed better to buy the horse as it was. McGaugh thought that the owner, under the present circumstances, might be willing to sell, so I talked it over with him. The result was that I bought the beautiful white stallion for a hundred dollars on the strength of McGaugh’s opinion that he would be as good as new in a month or so.
What a bargain this proved to be! While the horse was healing, I made plans to feature him in one of our Bison pictures. I chose the obvious name of Snowball for him as he was snow white without a mark on him. In his first picture, I took advantage of every opportunity to insert his name in the spoken titles. When the picture was shipped East and my partners saw it, they wired me to “Buy that horse called Snowball even if you have to pay a thousand dollars.” It delighted me to be able to wire back, “We own Snowball. Bought him for $100.” Snowball became well known to movie audiences throughout the country; bags of mail were received asking for more pictures with Snowball in them. With our famous horse and Inslee in his naked Indian hero roles, our Bison pictures were outselling most of the pictures made by members of the trust. This was a bitter pill for them to swallow.
Not long after that, Kessel and Bauman, who had been visiting in California for a few weeks and were about ready to go back East, and I were sitting in the lobby of the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles enjoying an after-dinner smoke. I noticed a man sitting across from us. What drew my attention to him was that he was holding the newspaper he was pretending to read upside down. The top of his head, which was all that showed above the newspaper, looked familiar. I kept watching him, and sure enough, it was the old snooper himself, Al McCoy, the Patents Company detective. I nudged Kessel, pointed and whispered, “Al McCoy.” Kessel studied him awhile and told me I was imagining things. He insisted and said, “I’ll bet you a five-dollar gold piece that’s not McCoy.” I replied, “I’ll take your bet.” Kessel smiled and wanted to know how I could prove it. I said I’d go over and talk to him. I stood up and walked over to where the man was sitting and stood looking down at him. “Hello, Slim,” I said, smiling. “What are you doing way out here?” I honestly felt sorry for McCoy at that moment. He looked up at me like the cat that swallowed the canary. “It’s my job, Fred,” he said in an apologetic manner. Calling me Fred sounded like he wanted to be on a sort of friendly basis. “I’d hate to see you get hurt,” I answered in a pleasant tone, “but you’re out West now and the cowboys here are a real tough bunch. They carry six-shooters, and I don’t think they want to be interfered with.” I really put it on and could see that it was having an effect. I continued, “I’m giving you a friendly tip. Don’t start anything here or you’re going to run into trouble. I’ll keep quiet about your being here and the rest is up to you.” With that I left him, walked back to Addie Kessel, and collected the five-dollar gold piece. I didn’t think we would have any trouble with McCoy and told Kessel and Bauman they could leave as planned and not to worry.
McCoy took my advice and kept himself pretty scarce, but every now and then I would see him standing on a rise watching us through field glasses. I never told anyone who he was, as some of the scare talk I had handed him at the hotel wasn’t without basis. Whenever I spotted him, I’d send one of the cowboys riding in his direction with instructions just to inquire who he was, but McCoy always disappeared before the rider reached him. A couple of weeks went by without my seeing him so I thought he had become discouraged and departed. This proved to be a poor guess. It wasn’t long before I learned I had made a mistake.
One Saturday night I went up to visit George Gebhardt, who lived on the hill overlooking our studio in Edendale. During the course of the evening, his wife, Madeline, went to the back porch to get something and noticed a light in my office. She thought it was unusual at that hour so she told me about it. Gebhardt got out his forty-five gun, and he and I started down the hill to investigate. We arrived at the office just as the lights went out. It was mighty dark on the porch, but Gebhardt had his gun ready for anything that might happen. In spite of the dark, we could make out the figure of a man tiptoeing his way out the side door. Gebhardt jammed the gun in the man’s back and barked “Hands up.” A package dropped to the porch floor with a thump as he made haste to comply. ‘don’t shoot,” he cried. “It’s me.” You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather when I discovered it was Maxwell Smith, my camera boy and the only other person I trusted with a key to the place. He blabbered out a confession that he had made sketches and used the office lights and our 5×7 still camera in an effort to make photographs for McCoy of the inside movement of my Path” movie camera. I found the plate holders where he had dropped them on the porch floor and smashed them. Smith nearly had succeeded in his plan but almost lost his life for a few measly dollars. As a matter of fact, he did lose his life from a shotgun blast a short time later while on a hunting trip with his uncle who accidentally shot him in the stomach.
This incident with Smith made me more cautious than ever, and I never left the camera in the office after that. I took it home with me every evening and brought it back the next morning. Weekends and between pictures, I wrapped the Path” in a Navajo blanket and stored it in a large safety box I had rented for the purpose in the Commercial Bank in downtown Los Angeles, where we had our bank account. Although I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of McCoy since I fired Smith, I often wondered what his next move would be.
Late in 1910 Charlie French made other connections, which meant that I had to take over the entire directing job. It was impossible to get any kind of a cameraman in Los Angeles then, so I had to operate the camera as well as direct our pictures for the next several months. Then I broke in Robert Newhard, a hard-working youth I had hired after the Smith fiasco.
To add to my troubles, I was subpoenaed by the Patents Company to be examined at a deposition hearing in Los Angeles, as they were preparing an infringement suit against us in New York. Kessel and Bauman came out to California post-haste when I wired them the bad news. When they arrived, they too, were subpoenaed to be examined. Our patent attorneys, Lyon and Lyon, together with our regular attorney, Frank Graham, got them out of appearing by pleading that Kessel and Bauman were nonresidents. On the advice of all our lawyers, they went back to New York, leaving me to face the situation alone. The attorneys for the Patents Company knew their subject well, and it wasn’t very long before they had me hanging by a thin thread with their questions as to what kind of a camera I was using.
“What make is it? Describe it. Can you make a sketch of it, and the movement?” I shook my head. “I don’t know how to draw,” I said, and then gave them a run-around story by describing another French camera that I well remembered and that was not an infringement of the Edison patents. They were well aware that I was telling them a fish story, but they had to prove it. They brought up the fact that I had rented a safety deposit box at the Commercial Bank, which I had to admit. How the lawyers found this out I don’t know, but I began to sweat. Luckily, lunch recess was called moments later. “What about that safety deposit box? Is the camera in it?”, Graham asked when he and I were alone on our way to lunch. When I nodded “Yes,” he told me the opposing attorneys would seek a court order to examine it. I had no time for lunch; the most important thing was to get the camera out of the safety deposit box immediately.
Buster Edmonds, one of our actors who also drove for me sometimes, was sitting behind the wheel of my car where he had parked when he drove me down to the hearing. He was the only other person who knew about the camera being in the safety deposit box. Or was he? I was in a spot, and I put the question to him. Edmonds swore he had never told anyone, not even his wife, about it. We rushed over to the bank. Edmonds stayed in the car while I hurried in, took the camera out of the box, and made sure that the Navajo blanket covered it completely before I passed the vault clerk. I hustled out of the bank, put the camera in the car with Edmonds, and told him to get going. “Take it home and keep it until I want it again, but above all keep mum,” were my instructions.
Sure enough, the Patents Company’s attorneys obtained a court order to examine the safety deposit box, and, headed by a deputy sheriff, we all marched over to the bank where I was identified by the vault clerk. I then led them to the safety deposit box where I produced my key. Lyon and Lyon didn’t know what to expect and looked grave, as did Graham, while the opposing attorneys were quite cocky. So sure of themselves were they, in fact, that when the box was opened and found to be empty they just stood there and gaped in utter disbelief. Graham grinned with satisfaction and shrugged his shoulders, and that was that.
A Barn in a Place Called Hollywood
Jesse L. Lasky, I Blow My Own Horn (1957)
Jesse L. Lasky (1880–1958) was born in San Francisco, California, and in 1913 he formed the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company in New York with his brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) and Cecil B. DeMille. Lasky’s company merged with Adolph Zukor in 1916 to create the studio later called Paramount. He was ousted from Paramount in 1932 and became an independent producer. His son, Jesse Jr, was a successful screenwriter.
After lunch we walked down Forty-fourth Street to The Lambs’ club, and there destiny took a hand in shaping not our ends but our beginnings, as far as the motion-picture business was concerned. We ran into Dustin Farnum, a matinee idol who had scored a triumph on Broadway in The Virginian and shared honors with his brother William and a child actress named Mary Miles Minter in The Littlest Rebel.
We asked Farnum if he would like to star in a long picture we wanted to make. He looked around the room and spotted Edwin Milton Royle, author of The Squaw Man. That play, which curiously combined London drawing-room settings with Wild West scenery, had been a tour de force for William Faversham, and I suspect Farnum may have coveted the role and lost it to his rival. At any rate he said, “You get Royle to sell you The Squaw Man and I might agree to join you.”
Sounding out Royle, we found him vulnerable to an offer, so I called Sam Goldfish and told him we were in business.
The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company was organized with myself president, Sam general manager, and Cecil director-general. We each held a quarter of the stock and Farnum agreed to accept the other quarter in lieu of salary for his acting stint. We had only $20,000 capital and had agreed to pay $15,000 for the play.
At first we planned to make the picture across the Hudson River at Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a good many one-reel Westerns and other short subjects were being filmed. But I didn’t think a two-mile trip would satisfy Cecil’s thirst for adventure, so I recklessly tossed in the suggestion that an Indian picture ought to be made in real Indian country – like Flagstaff, Arizona. I remembered seeing some Indians in Flagstaff while traveling with Hermann the Great.
Cecil was delighted with the proposal, as I had anticipated, but Dustin Farnum balked. He said he didn’t mind being paid off with stock as long as he could live at home and work across the river, but he insisted on having his $5,000 in spot cash before going West. The whole project threatened to collapse – until I talked Bessie’s uncle and brother into buying Farnum’s stock. If he had hung on to his piece of paper for eight years, he could have sold it for nearly $2,000,000. But Farnum didn’t do badly, even so, as the picture put him in the vanguard of early screen heroes, where he maintained a worshipful following for many years.
We hired a cameraman who owned a crank-handled movie camera, and Oscar Apfel, a director with experience on one- and two-reelers, to help Cecil get started. When it was time to leave for Flagstaff, I backed out. I had no great personal faith in the project and I couldn’t see myself wasting time in Arizona when I had business to look after in the East. So I said good-by to the rest of them at the train and promised Cecil I’d come out if he needed me.
In the meantime Salesman Sam had learned enough about how pictures were booked to start selling states’ rights for our initial production. A print was sold for a flat sum to service a specified territory and could be rerun in its assigned region till it wore out. A small state got only one print, a large state two, and a block like New England four or five. Sam sold New York state rights for several thousand dollars, New England’s for much more, then Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Pacific coast. Before long we had nearly $60,000 worth of contracts. Sam was a master merchandiser, whether he was pushing a consignment of gloves or a motion picture not yet made by men who had never made one.
While these orders and advance payments were piling up, Cecil seemed to have disappeared. We hadn’t heard a word from him for two weeks and we were worried. Finally a telegram arrived – but it wasn’t from Flagstaff. It said: “FLAGSTAFF NO GOOD FOR OUR PURPOSE. HAVE PROCEEDED TO CALIFORNIA. WANT AUTHORITY TO RENT BARN IN PLACE CALLED HOLLYWOOD FOR $75 A MONTH. REGARDS TO SAM. CECIL.”
Sam hit the ceiling. I insisted that Cecil must know what he was doing, although I really didn’t feel too sure of it. When you’re president of a company you assume is located in Flagstaff, Arizona, it’s very disconcerting to have it turn up in a place you’ve never even heard of. Sam was all for calling the company back where we could keep an eye on it. We argued for hours. At last we agreed to let them stay and wired Cecil: “AUTHORIZE YOU TO RENT BARN BUT ON MONTH-TO-MONTH BASIS. DOn’t MAKE ANY LONG COMMITMENT. REGARDS. JESSE AND SAM.”
The reason for that cautious proviso was that we didn’t have any definite plans beyond The Squaw Man. Sam may have convinced the states’ rights buyers of our corporate soundness, but he himself was still hanging on to his job with the glove company, and I still had my fingers crossed.
Cecil had passed up Flagstaff as our shooting locale because the weather was bad when he stepped off the train in Arizona, and he suddenly realized there would be no facilities for processing the film there. But he knew there must be film laboratories in California, because, while no one had yet made a feature picture in the West, a few companies making one-reelers had moved there from the East to take advantage of cheaper land, labor, and materials and to benefit from the milder climate and more dependable sunlight. The latter was a potent economic factor in as much as artificial lighting was still unknown to motion pictures. (Sunlight didn’t go out of style even after kliegs came in, because the early carbon-arc lamps had the intensity of an acetylene torch, making temporary blindness an occupational hazard for actors. After a scene the players would poultice their burning orbs with cooling slices of raw potatoes.)
The barn he rented at Selma and Vine streets had excellent accommodations for the cast of our horse opera, save for the human actors. Stalls were turned into offices, dressing-rooms, and a projection room. One end of the barn was used as a storeroom. In a clearing made among the acres of orange and lemon trees that went with the barn a small wooden platform was built as an open stage. Production started on The Squaw Man on December 29,1913. Before it was finished a few weeks later, Cecil had inveigled me into making a trip to the Coast, contending that my duty as president of the company was to be at my desk, which he had installed in the stall next to his.
I arrived at the old Santa Fe Depot in Los Angeles, called a taxi, and told the driver I wanted to go to Hollywood. He gave me a puzzled look but said, “Get in, boss – we’ll find it.”
He drove to the Alexandria, then the city’s leading hotel, and had a conference with some other taxi drivers, who set his course out of the city over dirt roads, past endless orchards and an occasional farmhouse. We found Hollywood by the lone landmark that antedated even the movies, a sedate rest haven way out in the country, where city dwellers could get away from it all and relax in perfect tranquillity – the Hollywood Hotel – now the bustling site of three modern buildings. The taxi driver suggested that I make inquiries inside the hotel about where I wanted to go.
I told the clerk my name and explained that I was president of the Lasky Feature Play Company. “This is my first trip here and I’m not sure where our studio is located,” I added. “Would you please direct me?”
“I’m sorry,” said the clerk, “I never heard of it.”
“Perhaps I should have told you that the director-general of the company is Cecil B. DeMille,” I stated impressively.
“Never heard of him,” the clerk said crisply.
Considerably crestfallen, I was starting toward the door when he called me back. “Tell you who might help you,” he said. ‘drive down this main road till you come to Vine Street. You can’t miss it – it’s a dirt road with a row of pepper trees right down the middle. Follow the pepper trees for about two blocks till you see an old barn. There’s some movie folks working there that might know where your company is.”
When I heard “barn,” I knew I was on the right track. Sure enough, a sign identified the barn as the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company.
My reception committee was waiting for me at the hitching posts in front of the barn – a dozen horses and a little boy stationed there to direct me inside. He led me to my stall, where I found a fresh bouquet on the desk, and then out the barn through the orange orchard to the stage, which had a clumsy arrangement of canvas diffusers over the top. These worked something like window shades to control the sunlight. It looked like a big raft with a tattered canvas canopy.
After the reluctant and conditional permission Sam and I gave for his rental of the barn Cecil had withheld an accounting of other expenditures, undoubtedly with the admirable motive of keeping our blood pressure down. Among other things he had rented a two-ton Ford truck. It was standing now in front of the stage, with “Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company” emblazoned prominently on its side. When he saw me coming, he ran out, grabbed my hand, summoned the company, made a speech of welcome, pushed me against the truck, and signaled the photographer. He knew I would automatically smile for a snapshot, and I think he wanted to send Sam photographic evidence of what would appear to be my happy endorsement of his extravagance in renting the truck.
I guess it was the first picture ever taken of a movie mogul’s arrival in Hollywood.
I stayed that night at Cecil’s very modest rented house in Cahuenga Canyon, but I don’t think I slept much. I had never heard coyotes howling before.
The next morning his wife Constance gave us each a lunch pail which we carried to the studio, and at noon we had our sandwiches with coffee made on a little kerosene stove by the secretary. Her name was Ethel Wales, and she later became well known as a character actress.
Work stopped on the open stage as soon as the sun went behind a cloud. If it was a big cloud, the cast dispersed to dressing-rooms or to the lunch wagon across the street, to come rushing back the minute the sun was out again. Picture actors of those days were often referred to as “The Sun Worshipers.” It was a ritual for them to go to the window and appraise the weather as soon as they awoke in the morning. On a very cloudy day the cast didn’t even show up, knowing there would be no shooting. But we took full advantage of the sunshine when we had it – there were no unions to frown on sixteen-hour days. If it looked like rain, the set was quickly covered with huge tarpaulins to protect the props.
Cold weather brought a special plague of problems. It caused tiny flashes of static electricity inside the cameras which ruined the film. We never knew until a batch had been developed whether it would have to be shot over. On a chilly day a group of drawing-room sophisticates in cutaways and low evening gowns might feature goose pimples, chattering teeth, and congealed breath. The only way we could have heated our bower in the orange grove was with smudge pots, and that would have blocked out the sun. The actors sometimes had to mouth their dialogue while holding back their breath so as not to give the impression that London drawing rooms were even colder than they notably were.
This was in January. By the following July we were making arctic scenes for The Call of the North (using salt for snow) at a temperature of 100 degrees, Robert Edeson and the other players cocooned in heavy clothing and parkas, with melting make-up running in rivulets down their faces.
Location trips were very simply arranged. Today a location man goes out weeks in advance to scout and contract for the use of sites, and the company is transported to the selected locations on a co-ordinated schedule. But in those days, when we wanted to show a country church, say, the whole company set out in search of it. Cecil and I sometimes rode ahead on horseback, with the crew and cast following in two cars. When we found what we wanted, we stopped and shot a scene, then went on to the next setting we needed. No one ever objected to our trespassing or charged us for the use of his property. The scenery was always fresh and stimulating. Now it’s all but impossible to find locations near Hollywood that aren’t tedious and repetitious to the regular movie-goer. In order to give a modern audience the vicarious thrill of discovery it is necessary to take a company on location to Maine or Oregon or Ireland or Venice, and indeed today’s film-makers are prospecting the whole world for novel and exotic backgrounds to fill their widened screens.
We reveled in the outdoor life of picture-pioneering and dressed the part in boots, jeans, and lumberjack shirts, not to mention Cecil’s pistol. Ten-gallon hats were not a part of the Western outfits we affected, because they would have been awkward while sighting into a camera. Instead, directors wore caps turned backward, and adopted leather leggings for the convenience of location scouting on horseback and as protection against cactus and rattlesnakes in the desert regions. Making a picture was outdoor work on or off location, since interiors were shot on the open stage and sets had no ceilings. But the directors clung to their riding breeches and reversed caps as a badge of their profession long after such garb ceased to serve a useful purpose. Cecil continued to dress for a steeplechase even while putting clotheshorses through their paces in the marble and gold sanctuaries of his famous bathtub scenes many years later.
Some accounts have it that Hollywood became the picture capital because bootleg films could be made there with illegal cameras far from the scrutiny of the highhanded Eastern patent monopoly with the Mexican border handy for emergencies. I know that spies from the patent companies were circulating in Hollywood when we arrived. We had an approved camera, but, even so, we were afraid of trouble because we were daring to make a six-reel picture which would run sixty minutes. The monopoly discouraged any deviations from the status quo, which called for one- and two-reelers only. They were making easy money with little effort on short pictures and were afraid longer films would ruin the whole business by driving patrons out of the theaters with eyestrain and boredom – or, worse still, the public might get to like long pictures and force the film-makers to worry about heavier financing and genuine creative talent.
Cecil was apprehensive enough to carry a gun at all times. He was actually shot at on one occasion while carrying the film home at night, which I am sure made him feel that revolutionizing motion pictures wasn’t such a bad substitute for a Mexican revolution.