Men Behind the Stars — Robert Z. Leonard (1937) 🇺🇸

January 15, 2022

No list of the real pioneers of motion pictures is complete without the name of Robert Z. Leonard. Twenty-five years ago, Leonard was a young man seeking a career and the business of making photoplays was in its swaddling clothes.

Now the fifth largest industry in the world, it was then a field where piracy — much the same as cattle-rustling — was rampant. Incredible as this may seem to the present generation of movie-goers, Bob Leonard can attest to its truth through personal experience as a victim of “scene thieves.”

Leonard was, at the time, playing in Westerns. One of his duties, aside from playing roles, was to “ride the range” armed with a loaded rifle to prevent rival film producers from stealing his company’s scenes. Picture stealing first came about when several large companies combined to prevent independent producing companies from obtaining film. To aggravate matters, rival companies sprang up and established a racket to steal other company’s pictures by actually photographing them.

It became a guerilla warfare. Leonard was with the Selig Company, and to hold his job as an actor found himself required also to engage in mounted patrol duty. In those days, of course, motion picture scenes were mostly “exteriors,” or locations, as they were and are still called. It was no uncommon thing for one film company, with scores of actors, to be working on location, shooting action scenes, while some outsider secreted himself in a thicket or treetop to steal the scene with his own camera.

One of the safeguards employed was the posting of one’s company trade mark on a conspicuous tree within camera range in every one of the outdoor scenes. This was done so that it might be used as evidence of theft in court. It is fortunate that no blood ever was spilled in these battles.

One day, Leonard found and routed a bootleg cameraman who had hidden in some bushes. The bootlegger managed to escape, but accidentally smashed his own camera in doing so. This state of affairs existed until Carl Laemmle broke up the monopoly of film and cameras by forming another combination.

Robert Z. Leonard was born in Chicago, the son of a railroad executive. Incidentally, Lillian Russell was a second cousin. Young Bob thought he would like mining engineering and to this end studied at the University of Colorado. Shortly before his entrance into college, however, he had, because of his unusually fine tenor voice, made an appearance as a member of the quartette. It may have been this that instilled the “show bug” in him. At any rate, shortly following his graduation, he wandered into musical comedy. For three or four years he was featured in road shows by the Shuberts and by Oliver Morosco.

It was during this period, too, that he made his first acquaintance with the then new field of the photoplay. In 1910, when he was in Los Angeles, as the featured comedian in the Ferris-Hartman musical comedy company, he was induced to go over to Selig and he made his cinema debut in “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” in the role of John Alden. Then he was starred in a long series of comedies, until, in 1917, he decided to enter the field of directing.

From the very first Leonard became known as a consistently successful director. Not only were his pictures good, but they fared excellently at the box office. Leonard was a keen student of the screen. He knew talent and he knew story construction. It makes no difference to Bob Leonard whether he is directing a serious drama like “Strange Interlude,” a college comedy like “Piccadilly Jim,” a super musical like “The Great Ziegfeld.” Leonard has never been typed. He can tackle any kind of story and do a grand job. He has an amazingly smooth and even manner of drawing emotions from a player. His success lies in his extremely engaging disposition and the ability to see a thing and do it. 

Robert Z. Leonard used to be in front of the cameras himself, but here you see him in back, directing Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in “Maytime”.

Source: Motion Picture, June 1937