Chapter XXXVI


Making the Movies by Ernest A. Dench
New York, The Macmillan company, published 1915 (now in the Public Domain)

pp. 154-158

Like his brother in real life who has to face death without flinching, the picture soldier is a man we really cannot do without. True enough he is the bane of the director's existence, and there is noting more harassing to him than having to get his men into fighting trim. They are, as a rule, such a motley crew that plenty of patience must be the virtue of the "knight in command."

The producer is as happy as an angel if he can hire his extras from some military force located near-by, for then, since they are already trained, all he has to do is to rehearse the play itself. But, unfortunately for him it is only now and then that he is able to do this. When it is imperative to fall back on the raw material a troublesome time is his lot.

In America most movie soldiers earn five dollars per day. The average extra regards regards the work as secondary, the wage envelope being the first consideration.

A good many, however, do not relish the idea of "dying off" early in the scenes. It is such a tiresome process, especially if you fall down in an awkward pose and badly want to change to a more comfortable one but can't. Even if you feel like retaliating when your brother extras pass over you none too gently in the scrimmage, you mustn't.

A stray shell, though not in the least harmful, may quite possibly deal you a blow. It is recorded that on one occasion a rebellion occurred when a battle drama was put on. A number of "soldiers" frowned on the idea of having to retire early in the encounter, and upon the apportionment of only one or two cartridges which the director had served out to them to this end. The men who had to survive the picture came in for a rather rough time at the hands of their less fortunate brethren, who fought to gain possession of the cartridges. The situation being more than the director could cope with, six policemen were called in to restore order. Eventually the supers were persuaded to carry out the original instructions. When extras are recruited locally it often provides them an opportunity for paying back grudges harbored against some neighbor. Some are so clumsy in wielding their weapons that their fellow players get seriously injured.

Since the European war started producers have had a busy time supplying the demand for battle material. There is a story told of a director in England who sent a hurry call for a squad of picture soldiers. One who had served in the British Army, when told he had to be a "German Officer," asked indignantly: "And what recompense?" On being told it would only amount to a dollar and a quarter he was so offended that he muttered something about not being a German at any price and hastily left the studio. He kept his word, too!

An English coast town street was the scene of another war-time incident. Dressed as an ordinary soldier, an extra passed a real lieutenant, who, finding his inferior (as he thought) did not salute stopped him saying reprovingly: "Are you not aware that you must salute your superior officers? And what company are you in?" The recruit was taken aback for a moment. When he had recovered suffciently, he replied, "The B---- Kinematograph Company."

In rehearsing his men the director delivers his instructions in studio slang and when a portion of explanatory matter has to be inserted in the film, he calls out, "Hold it!" meaning holding back the play for minute or so. One new extra delayed throwing the smoke bomb he held in his hand, for when the "Hold it" command came he was silly enough to act accordingly. It cost him several weeks in the hospital with no pay.

Even in filmland the practical joker is abroad. In one picture some casks of "gunpowder" had to be gathered, supposedly to explode a mine. Before rehearsals one extra, smoking a pipe, calmly sat on one of the barrels, which incident was observed by the witty one.

"Hey! Bill, you're smoking on a cask of gunpowder," he shouted. This naturally caused the extras close at hand to make a bee line for safety, but Bill continued to sit on the barrel and smoke.

"Put out your pipe, man. You'll blow us all up," said one. At this, Bill grinned and everybody was horrified to see him knock the ashes from his pipe on to the top of the barrel. "It's all right," he said cheerfully, "it's only a cask of beer."

For all his faults, the movie soldier certainly makes us sit up and take notice when we see his work on the magic screen.

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