Bit Players — You Know Their Faces But Not Their Names (1934) 🇺🇸
An overdue tribute to the unsung players who are the real backbone of the screen.
by Malcolm Phillips
Film stars are like women and omnibuses; if you lose one there is always another along in a minute.
At least there always has been another up to the present.
One can, consequently, view without serious misgivings the reported current shortage of what are known in the inner councils of the picture industry as “new personalities to stimulate the box-office.”
One can even contemplate dry-eyed the anguish of the movie kings in the travail of producing spectacular, fresh names to save the last few million dollars in their old oak chests.
I think we can safely leave them to their birth pangs for this week, take a holiday from star-gazing and pay a long-overdue tribute to the people who are the real atmosphere and backbone of the movies.
They earn no million-dollar salaries. Hollywood’s publicity flood passes them by. Their love lives never reach the front pages or their names the electric lights.
Indeed, you probably do not know their names at all, although their faces are as well known to you as those of your friends.
They are the “bit” players.
The life of most of them, unsung by the ballyhoo factories, is the life of the average professional or business man who lives in “the suburbs.”
The financial rewards of most of them are on about the same scale. They earn anything from £5 a day to £100 a week — when they are working. Some of them are kept busy.
They live in modest little suburban villas within easy access to the studios, to which they drive in modest little cars when they are employed on a picture.
Their evenings off are spent by their own firesides, the home of friends, a theatre and, yes, even “the pictures.”
For most of them employment is regular enough for them to live this steady, comfortable, pleasant existence amid the clamour and glamour of the great Hollywood show, although only very few are put on contract by the studios.
Sometimes some of them rise to the dignity and security of fixed agreements or even to featured billing and minor stardom, as
Even so, short a time ago as “The Crooner” I saw Kibbee playing the bittiest of “bits” as a “drunk” in a short cabaret sequence.
But most of them are content with their lot. They have brought the best traditions of the theatre to the making of films. They are proud to be known merely as “actors.”
Some of them have been on the screens almost as long as I can remember.
Little Arthur Hoyt for instance. Don’t tell me you don’t know Arthur Hoyt because even if you are an irregular picturegoer you must have seen him on the screen dozens of times.
There is a picture of him here. Arthur is the actor with the spectacles and insignificant moustache who is sent for whenever a casting director wants a timid, apologetic little clerk, a henpecked husband or a diffident, indecisive official — “any blasted weak little shrimp,” as he himself puts it — but mostly the hen-pecked husband.
Let me tell you something about Arthur. The screen’s most hen-pecked husband is not married! He has never married. He lives a bachelor existence at the Hollywood Athletic Club. He does not earn a spectacular fortune, but he makes about as much as if he had achieved success in another profession.
Off the screen he is a very different person to his usual screen characterisation. Before he went on the stage, round about 1901, he followed the he-man occupation of mining. He went to Hollywood by accident in 1915 and has been there ever since.
Everybody must know lovable old DeWitt Jennings. DeWitt has been acting for forty years, of which he has been in Hollywood for fourteen. Now he plays mostly big-hearted detectives, police chiefs and prison wardens. His life to-day is very much like yours and mine. He lives in an unpretentious but cosy bungalow in what the estate agents would describe as a “ quiet residential district,” attends lodge meetings once a week, belongs to committees, plays golf or tennis at the week-ends and takes “mother” to the movies.
Great stars from Marie Dressler downwards are happy to call him friend.
Jennings only just missed great fame. He turned in a performance in “Beggars on Horseback” that, had he been favoured by fortune, must have won him the recognition he deserved. But Lady Luck was looking the other way. “Beggar on Horseback,” a fine picture, achieved no sensational popularity and DeWitt went back to his “bits.”
But he is satisfied. The “bit” players are the happiest people in Hollywood. Extras yearn for fame, the stars who have it find disillusionment and worry. The bit players have their acting, their smoothly running lives — they alone are content.
Most of them can, if given the opportunity, turn in a first-class acting performance any day of the week. Take J. Farrell MacDonald, for instance. He was educated at Yale and he, too, has been acting for something over forty years. He has probably appeared in as many pictures as anybody in the game to-day.
Usually he does little bits as a police official, a small-time politician or a boxer’s manager. A few years ago Universal made a lavish football epic called, I think, “The Spirit of Notre Dame.” It was to feature Knute Rockne, America’s most famous coach, and it was a big part. Rockne met a tragic death in an airplane crash while on the way to Hollywood. MacDonald was rushed into the role and gave one of the finest performances I have seen since talkies.
He did very well in another sizeable part as Marion Davies’ father in “Peg o’ My Heart.”
There are two artistes who, no matter what their roles, have only to step on to the screen to “pet a laugh” in almost any picture house in the country.
They are ZaSu Pitts and Henry Armetta. Henry excels in the portrayal of the excitable, gesticulating foreigner or the explosive Italian small shopkeeper with the heart of gold. Comedy or pathos, he can give us both.
Armetta is, in point of fact, an Italian. He arrived in America as a stowaway and practically his first glimpse of the New World was through the bars of the cell to which the unsympathetic authorities consigned him. He still, he once told me, has an inferiority complex about policemen.
Subsequently odd jobs led him to the Lambs’ Club in New York (America’s best known theatrical club) in the capacity of “pants presser extraordinary.” William Farnum, then a big star, took a fancy to him and after he had had some stage experience took him to Hollywood and gave him a part in his new picture.
Armetta’s “trade mark” is that quaint, purposeful waddling walk. He suggested it to a director one day as a bit of “business” to brighten up a dull scene and it has stuck to him ever since.
Then there is Charles Middleton, one of the most interesting of all the small-parters.
You will recognise him when you see his picture on the opposite page. He plays bigoted reformers, incorruptible district attorneys or religious mystics. (You may remember him as Peter the Hermit in “Hell’s Highway” with Richard Dix.)
Middleton has a distinguished stage record. It has, incidentally, always been a matter of regret to me that Lewis Milestone did not take a gamble and give him the role of the missionary in “Rain” which proved so unsuitable for Walter Huston.
He is also more wealthy than many of the stars. He struck oil on some land he owned in Venice, California.
But be carries on — “playing bits.” Like the others, he is in love with bis job.
Miss Patterson is a veteran stage trouper. She has scored triumphs in Shakespeare on Broadway.
Now she plays bits of varying sizes and devotes her spare time to her hobby of collecting antique furniture.
Others that come to mind easily are dear old Clara Blandick, who has been in films for twenty-five years (she played Walter Huston’s wife in “The Wet Parade”), Blanche Friderici, who portrays society “dragons” and granite-faced mothers-in-law, Emma Dunn and one or two others. Not all the “bit” players are old troupers, either.
One day some producer is going to wake up to the possibilities of Sterling Holloway.
Holloway is the awkward, lanky, ginger-haired youth with the long, mournful countenance and voice who usually plays younger brothers (he performed that function for Joe E. Brown in “Elmer the Great”) or the butt of the party generally. He will probably best be remembered by the fans for his moving portrayal as the sailor trapped in the submarine in “Hell Below.”
He has been acting in films since he left school, which is several years ago.
Holloway may never be a really great star, but I expect to see him achieve at least the eminence of featured players like Stuart Erwin in the comedy field.
He has, incidentally, a delightful “bit” as an author going through the agony of having his play “pruned” by the producer in “Dancing Lady.”
No list of the “backbone” artistes of Hollywood would be complete without mention of the negro actors who as porters, liftmen and servants contribute so much to the humour of the Californian product. One of the best known of them is Clarence Muse.
Clarence has never achieved the popularity earned by Stepin Fetchit (now, by the way, essaying a come-back), but he is one of the most versatile artistes in his line.
He drifted to films from vaudeville, musical comedy and stock in 1928 and the studios have kept him busy since.
You will know his face instantly when you see it on page 14, but so little publicity has been given him that very few people know that he composed When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, one of the most popular songs of recent years. Yes, Clarence is not so dumb as he looks on the screen.
Oscar Apfel usually plays toughs, chuckers-out, broken-down pugilists and gangsters. He was the man Warren William punched on the jaw in the big court scene in “The Mouthpiece.” He was also the bullying chain-gang camp warder in “Hell’s Highway.”
Apfel was once one of the ace directors of the old Edison company. Before that he was well known on the American stage as a producer. Another familiar portrayer of toughs is Matt McHugh, in real life a Varsity man.
One of the finest actors on the screen to-day is Sidney Bracy, but with the exception of one or two of the Poverty Row studios nobody gives him a chance to play anything but butlers. I have seen him turn in some brilliant acting performances in the Hollywood quickies.
Bracy is one of the tragedies of the star system. He lacks that indefinable quality known as “box-office personality.” He has been in films for nearly a quarter of a century. Before that he learnt bis job on the stage in drama, musical comedy and even Gilbert and Sullivan.
Now, because he was born in Australia, they think he should portray English butlers!
Another Briton in exile among the “bit” players is Eric Mayne, whose dignified figure and bearded, distinguished features are often seen in doctor and lawyer roles. Mayne started as a star from the English stage. Now he lingers on in Hollywood in the smell-part ranks. His wife is dead, he lost his son in the war. “There’s nothing to go back to England for,” he says. “I may as well stay here.”
I wanted to write, too, had I space, of Berton Churchill, the distinguished-looking American who can lend dignity to the portrayal of great statesmen and soldiers and be equally as good as the smug, hypocritical business man as he was in “The Little Giant” and “Private Jones,” Robert McWade, Paul Porcasi (what will he do now that there will be no more movie speakeasies to run?), Allen Jenkins, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Clarence Wilson (he always plays villains), Charles Sellon, August Tollaire (who plays French mayors and washes his magnificent white beard in milk every night) and many others whose names give me as much pleasure on a cast list as those of the major stars...
They share little of the glory or glamour, but they are the happiest people in Hollywood. Thev are satisfied to be “actors.”
Clarence Muse. He plays “bits” — and he composes bestseller songs.
DeWitt Jennings — the kindly police captain or prison warden of a score of talkies.
Oscar Apfel, one of the most popular of screen “toughs.”
Charles Middleton — wealthiest of the “bit” players.
J. Farrell MacDonald, who can turn in a good performance any day of the week.
Allen Jenkins, who sometimes steals the honours from the stars.
Arthur Hoyt, the screen’s most hen-pecked husband, is not married in real life.
Everybody knows the features of Henry Armetta.
The Story of “Little Women“
EVERYBODY Is talking about “Little Women” — the picture which has proved the sensation of the new screen season.
Picturegoer has secured for its readers the exclusive “Story of the Film.”
Make sure you do not miss the first instalment next week.
Source: Picturegoer Magazine, January 1934