An Extra’s Story…

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One day as a screen star

An extra tells of rise to fame in twenty-four hours for $5 on lot with Doug in “Thief of Bagdad”

By G. A. E. Panter, 1923

We are all potential screen stars! At 9 a.m.  we saw the following “ad” in the morning paper: “For Douglas Fairbanks company, 2,500 men, 25-50.” Let’s go! We Went! At 10 a.m. we lined up with some 500 other aspirants for screen fame, in the rear of an old building. An hour later we emerged, the proud possessor of a ticket entitling us to a day’s work — salary $5, less 35 cents commission and 10 cents car fare. Also informing us that we had to be at the depot at 4 a.m. the following day.

We work nights. So, after two hours’ sleep and a good breakfast at 3 a.m., we hiked into town and found the crowd already assembling. A small cafe adjoining was literally swamped, but an enterprising, if unduly optimistic, newsboy did not meet with such success.

ON OUR WAY

Finally, after much jostling, accompanied by such remarks as: “Let me get my own hands in my pockets!” we achieved standing room in one of the cars provided. After a ride of twenty minutes we arrived at the studios, outside which, on a vacant lot, the earlier arrivals had kindled fires.

About 6 a.m. we commenced to file into the sacred inclosure, where we were allotted to Co. Z and filed past a window labeled “White Soldiers,” where we each drew a black and white striped helmet surmounted by a crescent and spike, a webbing collarette and belt covered with tin disks the size of a dollar, a pair of very baggy trousers and moccasins.

With these we repaired to a tent where we dressed, rather undressed, and emerged shivering into the raw morning air. We were then formed up in file behind a leader who carried a board bearing our company letter and marshaled by a guide wearing a black gown similar to those worn by university graduates. We proceeded to draw our weapons, consisting of a long bow and wooden quiver of arrows, then on to the set.

 

Aerial view of The Thief of Bagdad set

ON THE SET

A truly magnificent representation of old Bagdad with gateways, turrets, domes and minarets, quaint balconies and embrasures hung with rugs and bannerets. Company after company was marched up, dismissed and told to mingle with the crowd, forming a glittering, kaleidoscopic mass.

In front was a contrivance which aroused much curious comment. It resembled a long, slender girder of steel lattice work, one end being pivoted to a platform and at the other end were attached two small wodden structures. The girder was soon raised like the arm of a crane. The small wooden structures held the director and cameramen and slung from the top was the magic carpet, which appeared to be floating in the air over our heads. It was supported by a number of practically invisible steel wires.

Doug and his leading lady took their places on the the carpet and were hoisted into the air on a level with the cameras. The beam then swung out over our heads and the crowd “went mad” in the most approved style, incited thereto by numerous assistant directors armed with megaphones.

The idea of movement was greatly enhanced by a draught from two wind machines which fluttered the pennons and bannerets attached to the pikes.

 

Fairbanks on the set

 

MUCH BADINAGE

In the intervals of waiting between shots, Doug and his assistants were subjected to a crossfire of badinage by the crowd, all of which was taken in good part, although the directors had difficulty in making themselves heard. Every vantage point on the buildings forming the background was filled with men and women wearing gorgeous eastern robes.

The sun was now well up, despite the season hot enough to scorch the skin. How comic the other fellow looked. Fortunately no mirrors were provided, so we all kept the illusion that we were sheiks and the ladies on the balconies our dark-eyed fatima’s.

That the crowd was getting hungry was evinced by shouts of “When do we eat?” About 12:30 p.m. we were given a box lunch consisting of sandwiches, cake, chip potatoes, pie, fruit and bottle of milk. If the crowd was a trifle lethargic afterward — well the lunch was fine.

 

Our extra, Mr. Panter, is one of the soldiers at the top of this photo

 

After lunch, the white soldiers, after being painted terra cotta, were marched and countermarched through cheering throngs that, perhaps, had a trifle the best of the bargain! Finally, Doug, on a gaily caparisoned charger, headed the troops in a final triumphant march through cheering throngs right up to the cameramen, who, after showing the NG sign a few times, finally gave the O.K. and the day’s work was finished.

At 4 p.m., having handed in our costumes and accouterments, and obtained the final signature on our checks, we found ourselves once more outside the magic circle and free to return to our homes and  a much-needed bath.

I once played opposite Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad. Yes, we earned that five.

— Source: Los Angeles Times, November 25, 1923

 

The Thief of Bagdad premiere at the Egyptian theater

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One Response to “An Extra’s Story…”

  1. Melissa says:

    And now for something different….this was utterly charming!

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