“Shadows” of the Stars (1926) 🇺🇸
They were shooting scenes for Sunny Side Up at the De Mille studio when I wandered out upon the set. I wanted to see little Vera Reynolds working in her first starring vehicle. I expected to find her in a Little Bopeep costume, with white wig and satin slippers, doing a turn in the Broadway musical revue which formed a part of the film.
by A. L. Wooldridge
But something was wrong — Vera wasn’t there. I found all the other members of the company standing around while electricians adjusted lights and reflectors and the camera men tinkered with and settled their machines. But the star was absent. In her place was a girl I had never seen before — a bright-faced, clear-eyed, alert girl, on whom the cameras were being trained.
“Vera Reynolds must have got the gate or the air or the little blue envelope!” I quickly surmised. “But who’s the kid that got her place? Must be one of those Swedish importations!”
I moved over to where Director Donald Crisp sat — thought I’d ask him about the sad details. As I neared his chair he called, “All right, Miss Reynolds. Let’s go!”
And from a near-by dressing room, Vera Reynolds emerged, gorgeous in a costume of silks and lace. She moved swiftly to the center of the stage and took the place of the strange girl, who stepped out of the picture.
I understood. This sort of change happens on dozens of sets in Hollywood almost every day in the year. ‘‘Shadow girls” posing for the stars! They are not “doubles,” who look like the stars and actually act before the camera, but simply girls who take the places of the stars during the waits, when the cameras are not grinding. You have never heard of them? No, one never does.
In the making of every film there are long waits while lights are being arranged to give the best effect. Cameras must be focused to a definite point of perfection. Reflectors must be precisely and accurately placed so that when the “shooting” begins the very ultimate in photography will result. To make all this adjusting accurate, it is necessary that some one stand at the spot where the action is to take place. Were the stars to remain continuously in the glare of the Kleigs and Cooper-Hewitts, their strength would be taxed to the uttermost and the dreaded ogre of “Kleig eyes” would threaten. So, to avoid this, a “shadow” is employed — a person who sits or stands upon the set in the pose which the star is to take when action begins. Then, when all is ready, he or she steps out and the star, fresh from a period of rest and relaxation, comes in and the picture proceeds.
Eleanor Mehnert is the girl who does shadow work for Vera Reynolds. She doesn’t look much like Vera, but she is of the same weight and the same height, and the contour of her face is virtually the same as that of the star. She wears the same-sized shoe, has the same-shaped head and shoulders, and her body measurements are identical. Furthermore, she is what the camera men call “chemically” the same — that is, the pictures of her show the same texture as the pictures of Miss Reynolds. So, when the cameras have been properly trained on Eleanor Mehnert, the shadow, the camera men know they will be properly trained on Miss Reynolds, the star, when she takes her place on the stage.
Nearly all the stars have these shadows. Phyllis Faber is shadow for Bebe Daniels. She was found after a long search among the aspiring girls of Hollywood. Here is what she had to measure:
Height — 5 ft., 3½ in.; waist — 26½ in.; bust — 36¼ in.; hips — 39¼ in.; sleeve — 18½ in.; waist to floor — 43½ in.; shoulder to floor — 59½ in.; shoe — 3 A.
Lois de Lisle, shadow for Marian Nixon, had the most arduous task of her screen career when Spangles, Marian’s circus picture, was being made. On the set with the animals, in the sawdust ring, and during all the action beneath the “big top,” she put in hours relieving Miss Nixon. The two are great friends on the set.
Work as shadows for the stars has opened the door of opportunity to many girls, and the chance to obtain such work is eagerly sought. Vera Reynolds once acted as a shadow herself, and declared it gave her a valuable schooling. Leatrice Joy was shadow for Mary Pickford at one time and, in the casting of players for Priscilla Dean’s The Dice Woman, Edna May Cooper was given a rather important role largely because she had at one time been shadow for Priscilla. The story required a second young woman whose clothing would fit Miss Dean when she sought to make an escape. Miss Cooper was immediately thought of and chosen for the part. Now she does not do shadow work any more, but is making a name for herself on the strength of her own personality and ability. But she got her start as a shadow.
Marion Davies has a shadow. Colleen Moore has a shadow. There are many other players who employ them. However, there are a lot of stars who insist upon doing all their work themselves. Lillian Gish has a tall chair in which she sits while cameras and lights are being arranged. The chair brings the top of her head to the exact point above the floor that it would be if she were standing.
Then there’s Peggy Marie Minnie Helen. You have never seen Peggy Marie. You never will. Not if Corinne Griffith can help it. Peggy Marie is Corinne’s shadow — the most abused, mistreated, manhandled shadow in Hollywood. Peggy Marie sometimes is kicked under the table. Sometimes she is grabbed by the scruff of her neck and dragged bodily from the set. She has had her one lone dress almost torn from her figure, and her face is scratched and scarred from rough treatment. She has never appeared in a picture, has no hope of ever appearing in a picture, and has given up all idea of ever drawing a salary.
Yet Peggy Marie sticks! She goes uncomplainingly miles and miles to location. She waits patiently behind scenes or in dark corners till she can be of use while lights are being arranged. She worked in Classified, Infatuation, Mlle. Modiste, and Into Her Kingdom, and is signed up for Miss Griffith’s next picture. She will do her part, too, unless somebody chucks her into the ash can and forgets she is there.
Peggy Marie Minnie Helen is a dummy. She has the same height as Miss Griffith, the same measurements from the waist up — but she has no legs. Peggy’s basis of understanding is an iron rod fastened to a pedestal.
And Nellie! You’ll never meet Nellie, because she was murdered. Nellie worked as shadow for Mae Murray until that star completed The Merry Widow. Then she was destroyed, at Miss Murray’s orders. Nellie was a dummy, too. Likewise, she was a mistreated dummy. Instead of being gently led or carried off the set, she usually was kicked off, unceremoniously. By the time The Merry Widow was completed, Nellie was a wreck. But as she departed for the happy hunting grounds where faithful dummies eventually go, she might have had the satisfaction of knowing that she had never once batted an eye when facing the hottest Kleig.
Mary Philbin had a dummy shadow during the making of the Marguerite sequences in The Phantom of the Opera. But when that production was completed, the prop man decided that the dummy looked so lifelike that he would appropriate it for work in comedies.
When Rudolph Schildkraut was playing in His People, a dummy was made for his shadow work and he became highly indignant.
“I do not need any such creature to help me!” he said, icily. “Please take it away.”
It was a fearfully hot day and the heat from the Kleigs made the atmosphere fairly sizzle. Schildkraut fainted on the set. But he still refused to use the dummy.
“Selecting a shadow is a rather intricate task,” one director said to me. “Primarily, the height must be identically the same as that of the star. There must be the same poise to the head, the same droop to the shoulders, the same general. measurements. Employment of a shadow affords the star opportunity to refresh herself and be ready to give her best.
“On the other hand it gives the shadow, who is usually a girl trying to get into the movies, an opportunity to get acquainted with directors, to make other friendships which are valuable, and to study actual picture-making on the sets. It is a little bit of technical work that is well worth the while.”
He was not, however, referring to Peggy Marie Minnie Helen or Nellie.
Because she had once been Priscilla Dean’s “shadow,” Edna May Cooper, left, was given a real role in Miss Dean’s The Dice Woman. Priscilla is on the right, and Gustav von Seyffertitz in the center.
Vera Reynolds, who herself started her screen career by being a shadow, now has one of her own — Eleanor Mehnert.
Corinne Griffith’s shadow is one of the most roughly treated in Hollywood — but she’s only a dummy.
Though it’s not necessary for a shadow to look like her star, it just that Phyllis Faber, above, does resemble Bebe Daniels.
Marian Nixon and her shadow, Lois de Lisle, became great pals during the filming of Spangles.
Collection: Picture Play Magazine, January 1927