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How Central Casting Found "Racial Types" For Classical Hollywood Films

imitation_of_life_1934_header.jpg
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Union Bank is a proud sponsor of Lost LA.  

“Now, practically everyone within a radius of ten miles of Hollywood has registered his photograph, at one time or another, for extra work in the films,” wrote Anita Loos in 1931. “Some as a means of making a living, some to pick up a bit of spending money, some (such as high school boys and girls) in a spirit of fun, some (such as pampered society folk) out of boredom, and some because of a physical peculiarity which might make them valuable as ‘types.’”[1]

For Teachers: Lesson Plan

While Loos might be talking about types such as “giants, dwarfs, twins, triplets…” there is one type she overlooks: racial types, who were frequently called upon by Central Casting to fill roles in Hollywood’s backgrounds.

To hire extras, studios and productions would place requests for extras with Central Casting to find the types needed on set. Casting agents at Central would then search for the right fit from a roster of available extras, who were catalogued by type, physical features, and skills. (Some examples: “Blonde”; “Beautiful”; “Jewish”; “Latin”; “Nurses”; “Swimmers”; “Toothless”.)  A studio could make a call for any kind of person or group of people,­ including calls “specifically for “Orientals, Negroes, or other ‘racials.’”[2]

When calls were needed for “racial types,” Central Casting relied on a “runner” system:  delegates acted as intermediaries between Hollywood productions and the often-segregated minority populations across Los Angeles whom the studios wanted to bring into the backgrounds. A 1934 article in Variety listed Tom Gubbins, “an Englishman who formerly lived in China,” as the man who “handles all the Chinese talent used in pictures and acts as interpreter for the directors”; while “Hawaiians and Filipinos are hustled by Alessandro Gambo”; “Mexicans report for work to John Eiberts”; and “Jamiel Hasson handles nothing but Arabs. He doesn’t work often, but when he does he usually breaks up a half dozen tumbling acts to get his countrymen in pictures” and a former army officer was responsible for casting ex-service men.[3]

"For African-Americans, being employed in white Hollywood meant being employed as an extra."

In 1920s Hollywood, African-American actors fought for roles of substance on film, and sought out parts that weren’t demeaning or stereotyping. But film historian Charlene Regester notes that African-Americans were “not cast in redeeming roles and occupied a degrading range of gradations in employment,” such as roles as “domestics” and “mammies.” In large part, she writes, “for African-Americans, being employed in white Hollywood meant being employed as an extra.”[4]

Film historian Thomas Cripps, in his book "Slow Fade to Black," writes about what he calls the “Studio Negroes,” who worked for the studios and were dispatched to find black actors when needed:[5]

The two most famous were Oscar Smith of Paramount and Harold Garrison of MGM. Both were nominally bootblacks, but they also ran elevators, hustled errands, fingered mail, and delivered messages. Sometimes they cadged small roles, as did Smith in the 1928 version of “The Canary Murder Case.” Smith came to the studio just after the World War as a valet to Wallace Reid, whose will provided that he be given a shoeshine stand in perpetuity. Garrison was known to blacks as an assistant director, but to whites he was “Kid Slickem,” the bootblack. Both Smith and Garrison held flimsy power over blacks because of their modest influence among whites. But, like everything black in Hollywood,  their power was quickly eroded at the end of the 1920s when the studios turned to the new Central Casting Corporation and their black agent, Charles Butler, for players.

In 1927, Central Casting established a branch specifically for casting African-American extras. To lead it, Fred Beetson, the head of Central Casting, appointed Charles Butler “head of all Negro employment.”[6] Butler had been a former office manager for the Cinema Auxiliary, “filmland’s colored casting bureau,” and with Jimmie Smith, who had worked previously at the Lincoln Company, Butler ran the Cinema Exchange, a private casting agency operating out of an office at 12th St. and Central Ave.

S2 E4: Dream Factory

At Central Casting, Butler’s job involved maintaining his presence on Central Avenue and fostering relations with potential extras – whether for all-black casts like King Vidor’s “Hallelujah!” (1929), for which Butler drew on area churches to cast 340 black extras for reshoots[7], or “Imitation of Life,” for which Butler was summoned to order 550 extras to report for work on an hour’s notice. In 1929, the black press celebrated his earning $89,000 “for local colored citizens during the past year” and issuing 11,000 engagements in nine months.[8]  In 1936, Harry Levette reported that Butler had 1,900 extras registered within Central Casting under his charge.[9]

 “He is the sole race man among a young army,” wrote Levette. [10] The Atlanta Daily World wrote in 1934 that he was “more responsible for the placing of all colored talent in pictures for the last eight years than anyone else.”[11]

Imitation of Life 1934 still wide shot
A still from "Imitation of Life" (1934)
Imitation of Life 1934 still
African-American background actors in a still from "Imitation of Life" (1934)

Some interviews in the UCLA Library’s Central Avenue Sounds Oral History Collection, which documents the Los Angeles jazz scene along Central Avenue, recall Hollywood types who came to recruit background players. Musician, vocalist, producer, publisher, and radio station owner Leroy Hurte even got his start when he met Butler on the job:

He would take his walk every day down Central Avenue looking for people to perform, because the studios had asked him to find blacks who could perform in various movies and that sort of thing. So our manager got in touch with him, and he got us a couple of jobs at some of the studios. That got us started.

Albert J. McNeil – choral conductor, ethnomusicologist, author, and founder of the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers – also recalled Butler and added to the record that his mother, Rodia Desdemonia McNeil, was employed by Central Casting to scout for talent in Watts:

“I'd come home from school sometimes, and the front yard would be filled with all these people. ‘What are these people doing here?!’ She said, ‘Well, I'm interviewing this one and this one and this one.’ ‘For what?!’ Well, for an African film or for a New York film, extra people in the street. Yeah, she made extra money that way.”

The success of those who brought black extras into the backgrounds is, of course, a highly dubious one. At the time, the widespread employment of African-American extras was applauded with “guarded praise” by the black press.[12] Cripps writes that the columns of black writers such as Harry Levette covering the movie colony “had a kind of pathetic quality because of the need to puff up even the smallest jobs as gratification both to the struggling actors and their black fans,”[13] and he calls Charles Butler’s Central Casting a “Jim Crow” department. “All roles were counted equally as ‘progress,’”[14] writes Cripps, and “stardom was for whites only.” [15]

"Tarzan" Lobby Card
Lobby card for "Tarzan Finds a Son" (1939)

More Info

Hollywood studios founded the Central Casting Bureau in 1925 as a way to regularize the casting of extras in Hollywood. Extras – largely unseen background actors, by definition exiled from close-ups, speaking parts, or screen credit – had become an unwieldy population in Los Angeles. Many aspiring actors flocked to California with hopes of walking onto the silver screen, but studio heads and producers quickly realized that far too many contenders were vying to occupy the space behind the stars. The studios urged the population applying for parts as “human furniture” to avoid relying on extra work for a full-time livelihood, and in fact, encouraged their surplus army of young white women, who sought employment with and were regularly exploited by casting agents, to leave show business behind. Marian L. Mel, director of the Women’s Division at Central Casting in the 1920s, would deliver the following message to potential registrants: “Think over your life and recall the thing you do best. Then go home and do it. Hollywood doesn’t need or want you. Go home.”

Note

Hollywood studios founded the Central Casting Bureau in 1925 as a way to regularize the casting of extras in Hollywood. Extras – largely unseen background actors, by definition exiled from close-ups, speaking parts, or screen credit – had become an unwieldy population in Los Angeles. Many aspiring actors flocked to California with hopes of walking onto the silver screen, but studio heads and producers quickly realized that far too many contenders were vying to occupy the space behind the stars. The studios urged the population applying for parts as “human furniture” to avoid relying on extra work for a full-time livelihood, and in fact, encouraged their surplus army of young white women, who sought employment with and were regularly exploited by casting agents, to leave show business behind. Marian L. Mel, director of the Women’s Division at Central Casting in the 1920s, would deliver the following message to potential registrants: “Think over your life and recall the thing you do best. Then go home and do it. Hollywood doesn’t need or want you. Go home.”

Further Reading

Cripps, Thomas.  Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film 1900-1942.  New York: Oxford University Press, [1977] 1933.

Regester, Charlene.  “African American Extras in Hollywood during the 1920s and 1930s.”  Film History 9.1 (1997): 95-115.

Ross, Murray.  Stars and Strikes: Unionization of Hollywood.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1941.

Slide, Anthony.  Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players, and Stand-Ins.  Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2012. 


[1] Loos, A. (1931). There, little girl, don't cry. Nash's Pall Mall Magazine, 86(453), 58-104.

[2] Ross 69.

[3] “Racial Casters Corner Types,” Variety Mar 8 1932, 6.

[4] Regester 96; Levette, Harry “Reporter Finds Films' 'Forgotten Man'." The Chicago Defender (National Edition)1 Feb 1936, 9.

[5] Cripps, 103-4

[6] Perry, George. “Will Hay’s Organization Employs Colored Manager” Philadlephia Tribune, October 13 1927 p. 6

[7] Regester 100.

[8] March 9 1929, New Journal and Guide, Norfolk VA, p 1

[9] Levette, 1936.

[10] Levette, 1936.

[11] “Charles Butler is making History,” Atlanta Daily World, April 1, 1934, p. 7.

[12] Regester 96.

[13] Cripps 153.

[14] Ibid. 106.

[15] Ibid. 153.

This article was originally published Feb. 26, 2016. It has been re-published in conjunction with the broadcast of Lost LA's "Dream Factory" episode.

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