The Day of the Locust, directed by John Schlesinger from Nathanael West's novel has its London premiere next month. The climactic scene of the film portrays an imaginary Hollywood premiere of 35 years ago. For this, 850 extras were employed - some impersonating real-life stars, others their ravening fans. All were drawn from that exotic sub-world which is the theme of both the book and the film. Report by Valerie Wade; photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.
John Schlesinger with extras impersonating stars who might have attended a 1939 premiere. Left to right: ‘Merle Oberon’, ‘Janet Gaynor’, ‘Ginger Rogers’, ‘Dolores Del Rio’, Schlesinger, ‘Marlene Dietrich’, ‘Ruby Keeler’, ‘Katherine Hepburn’
Sherry and Carla, two of the non-union members for whom the usual regulations were waived.
Kelly Harmon, a professional extra and union member, plays a locust in The Day of the Locust
Karen Black, a star of the film, with her mother, Elsie Ziegler, who has a small part.
Mrs. Lorry Altenbach with her daughter Julia –both extras. Lorry used to work in the costume department for De Mille.
The premiere scene –Donald Sutherland at the mercy of the crowd.
Extras (known as ‘locusts’) began asking ‘look-alikes’ for autographs. Jim Dunsford (left) with Nadajan –a very famous extra who died shortly after the film was made and was given a very lavish Hollywood funeral.
Virginia Young, a non-union member and Hollywood character, used as an extra to portray a Hollywood character like herself.
Jan Bennett is the ‘look-alike’ for Lana Turner, though she thinks she’s more like Pola Negri. When the ‘locusts’ asked her for her autograph, she would sign ‘Linda Lovelace’.
Bill Baldwin (see here with ‘Dolores Del Rio’) plays himself in the film as radio announcer at the Hollywood premiere.
“It's just like the old days" was the inevitable phrase I kept hearing. For two weeks, 850 people had been working as extras on the film adaptation of The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West's novel about Hollywood in the late 1930s.
John Schlesinger had almost completed directing the toughest film of his career. He was not only shooting a film about Hollywood on Hollywood's own doorstep, but had also decided that what little reality Hollywood had to offer was not as good as a studio set of the same thing. For the apocalyptic climax of the story, he had rebuilt one of the town's few, landmarks on the backlot of Paramount studio less than a mile from the original.
Richard MacDonald, the British set designer, had reconstructed Grauman's Chinese Theatre, the famous green and vermilion dragon-guarded pagoda that still immortalises the sacred prints of movie stars' feet in the cement of its Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk. Across the street, at the carbon-copy intersection of Orange Drive, a magazine stand was stacked with 1939 copies of Life and The Saturday Evening Post and liquorice cost a penny a yard.
West's novel is a relentless vision of doom, seen through the eyes of Tod Hackett. Tod (played by Bill Atherton) is an artist who moves to Los Angeles to work as a film designer in order to research his secret passion: a vast super-realist painting entitled The Burning of Los Angeles.
His world soon revolves around three characters: Harry Greener (Burgess Meredith), a broken-down vaudeville artist; his daughter Faye (Karen Black), a film extra with dreams of celluloid glory; and Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), a pathetic Mid-Western bookkeeper. Their lives eventually culminate and disintegrate at a huge Hollywood film premiere.
Tim Wallace (left) and Jerry Schumaker, for many years the stand-ins for Robert Mitchum and Spencer Tracy.
Movita, beautiful star of the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, is the ex-wife both of Jack Doyle and Marlon Brando.
“The Duke of Catalina” has been an extra since 1930. Between pictures he’s a lifeguard on Catalina beach.
Yeta Kurtz, film extra and artist’s model, came to Hollywood in 1932, has been collecting autographs ever since.
Rita Graeff (right) comes from a large and famous family of extras, but her companion in the crowd was unidentified.
May Bravo with a nude picture of herself. An ex-stripper, she claims to have been on the Andrea Doria when it sank.
Anita Vallabos and Gregory Spenser are in the film as the ‘look-alike’ of Dolores Del Rio and Tyrone Power.
Nancee Lafayette, who was chosen for her resemblance to Ginger Rogers, secretly thinks she’s more like Doris Day.
Celia Day (‘Merle Oberon’ in the film) writes, produces and directs gay-porno movies in between acting jobs.
Elizabeth Auyeluye worked as a costume historian for Max Reihardt in Germany, came to Hollywood in 1934.
Dick Powell Jr is an exact 'look-alike' for his father. His mother, June Allyson, came on the set to watch him.
Lelita Krisaan says: “First they wanted me to be Veronica Lake but I knew I was more like Dietrich’.
On Sound Stages 31, 32 and 33 it is March 9, 1939: World Premiere time at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
Above the entrance to the theatre a 50-foot long electric sign heralds The Buccaneer, a new Cecil B. De Mille extravaganza. Hollywood Boulevard is choked with taxi cabs, limousines and immaculate period Rolls-Royces that will deposit the stars, studio executives and their wives on to the blood red carpet in front of the cinema. The crowd (in West's words)"made of the people who came to California to die; the cultists of all sorts, economic as well as religious - all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence… A great united front of screwballs and screwboxes to purify the land…” is seated on benches at either side of the theatre, and straining against the velvet ropes that curb the Boulevard. The stars alight from their chariots to walk - as nonchalantly as possible - past the newsreel cameras, paparazzi flashlights and screaming fans, to their seats. Some extras are dressed as Grauman's ushers, with pigtails, silk skull caps, vests, high necked shirts and wide legged pyjama trousers. Others are pirates, with eye patches and kerchiefs around their heads, and still others are police in khaki riding-breeches and boots. The stars and executives' wives are clad in the finery expected of Hollywood during the Golden Era, and the unsilent majority are wearing cheap shabby clothes as dull as the lives they lead.
In his selection and direction of the crowd, Schlesinger remained faithful to the book. According to West:
"It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity seekers. They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so boredom and disappointment.”
The 'order' was for them to look as dowdy and drab as possible, and attention to detail was as meticulous as in every aspect of the film: 'No man or boy slipped by with short-back-and-sides a fraction longer than the period allowed, and any girl hoping for a little Bonnie and Clyde glamour in her clothes was out of luck. With premiere at it height an incident provoked by a demented Homer Simpson excites the crowd, which then transforms itself into a demonic lynch mob. The ensuing holocaust turns Hollywood Boulevard into a nightmare and Ted Hackett realises that he is witnessing his unfinished masterpiece, The Burning of Los Angeles, in three dimensions, right before his eyes.
Almost every member of SEG (Screen Extras Guild) worked in at least one segment of The Day of the Locust; the rest of the extras were 'waivers', amateurs for whom guild regulations had been set aside. Employment agencies were alerted and a film assistant roamed the streets looking for appropriate 'locusts'. It is unlikely be had to search much farther than Hollywood Boulevard itself. This street, almost 40 years after West knew it, is still a seven-day-a-week parade of fake cowboys clowns, religious fanatics, freaks, failures and hustlers with nowhere to go.
Many of the extra were the 1974 counterparts of the 'locusts' West described; some were the very same people 35 years older. When I hear "just like the old days" I was never sure whether they were referring to the Hollywood premiere; to the way the present film was being made; or, turning the clock back 35 years, to the original Buccaneer premiere. One enthusiastic old woman, who improvised her own particular way of autograph hounding, said she remembered doing exactly the same at a Grauman's First Night 40 years before.
In general, the professional extras' attitude towards the filming was blasé; they were "just doing a day's work", although those who had been around in the Thirties did compare the tone and scale of the production with the way Cecil B. De Mile would have gone about things.
The ‘waivers', on the other hand, who were getting $25 a day, compared to the SEG members' $45, seemed to be working more for the love of movies than for money.
In order to find 'movie stars’ who could have attended the 1939 Buccaneer premiere, a 'look-alike' advertisement was placed in Variety. 'A' 'Merle Oberon', 'Ginger Rogers', 'Marlene Dietrich', 'Tyrone Power', 'Ruby Keeler', 'Janet Gaynor', 'Lana Turner', 'Dolores Del Rio' and 'Dick Powell' (played by Dick Powell Jr) passed the Polaroid test.
As shooting progressed, the insidious star system that operates at every level of Hollywood life gradually took over. 'Locusts' began asking ‘look-alikes' for their autographs. Just as West's crowd was representative of Hollywood then, so the assortment of people at Paramount studios represented much of Hollywood today.
Among the 'locusts', the religious fanatics banded together and tut-tutted over the Swedish woman who insisted on showing nude pictures from her former (thinner) stripper days. A beautiful young Jesus-freak would not be separated from her Bible. A woman who had been given a life-like baby doll to hold sat rocking it to sleep between takes. Spiritualist and faith healers swapped psychic experiences. Stage mothers, resigned to their own fruitless careers, pushed their "doesn't she look like Bette Davis?" daughters under the director's nose, and a 'positive thinking girl (convinced she would win an Oscar by the age of 25) told everyone the ephemeral colour of their 'aura'.
Twenty women were working to donate their earnings to Haven House, a home helping their alcoholic husbands. Spencer Tracy's stand-in exchanged stories with Robert Mitchum's stand-in. Los Angeles is full of 'failed' bone structures and extraordinary eyes; haunting faces that were told "You should be in movies" all their lives; and never made it past the sidelines.
Today the offspring of these perfect features want their chance at the limelight but the days for regular faces and classical good locks are over in Hollywood. Even if Tyrone Powers’ 'look-alike' was not handicapped by his extraordinary resemblance to the original, he is too conventionally good-looking for an era that can make Dustin Hoffman a heart-throb.
Among the 'look-alikes', 'Ginger Rogers’ was hostess at Universal studios and an executive's wife turned out to be Movita, who was once married to Marlon Brando. Another SEG member was the former Mrs. Busby Berkeley, and a Grauman’s pigtailed usher used to play ‘Pineapple’ in the popular Our Gang comedies of the Thirties.
Even the stars had a message to pass on anyone interested. Karen Black practises Scientology; Bill Atherton owes everything to aesthetic realism and Donald Sutherland who recently delivered his son, is now an advocate of Dr. Bradley's natural childbirth method.
When, the moment came for the crowd to turn violent, they needed little prompting. Harry Hollins, who has specialised in playing cop for over 20 years, and plays yet another in this film, thought it got "pretty rough". He accused the non-professionals (the 'waivers') of getting "carried away. I've got two skinned knees, a bruised rib and a sprained wrist." An old-time stunt man added "The trouble is, they're forgetting “it’s a movie”.