will rogers' first movie -- 8/28/20

Today's selection -- from Will Rogers in Hollywood by Bryan B. Sterling (author), et al. Will Rogers, the cowboy humorist who became one of the biggest stars of theater and motion pictures, describes his first experience in the movie business:

'Now about this movie business and how I got my start. The way I figure things, a fellow has to be a success before he goes lecturing and crowing about himself. Out in Hollywood, they say you're not a success unless you owe fifty thousand dollars to somebody, have five cars, can develop temperament without notice or reason at all, and have been mixed up in four divorce cases and two breach-of-promise cases. Well, as a success in Hollywood, I'm a rank failure, and I guess I am too old to be taught new tricks, and besides I'm pretty well off domestically speaking and ain't yearning for a change. I hold only two distinctions in the movie business: ugliest fellow in 'em, and I still have the same wife I started out with.

"Now about how I actually got started. Well, one day Mrs. Beach, Rex Beach's wife, drove out to our place -- we'd rented Fred Stone's home out on Long Island -- and asked me would I consider going into pictures. I told her I didn't know anything about the blamed thing. I thought pictures were made up of just three people: Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks.

Film's promotion in Variety, August 1918

"She said: 'That's all right, you can learn. I want you to play Rex's "Laughing" Bill Hyde.' Mrs. Beach had seen my little act in the Follies, so she decided that I was the one to do naturally this crook.

"She left the book with me to read, which I did, and I liked the story, so I asked my wife, you know, should I try it and she said: 'Yes, the money'd come in kind of handy.'

"So it was Mrs. Rex Beach that really was the one who helped me get started by selling the idea to Sam Goldwyn that he ought to star me in the movies. Anyway, Sam signed me up, and I starred in a series of six-reel comedies for him during 1920 and 1921.

"I was playing that summer in the Follies. We made Laughing Bill Hyde while I was working in the show. It was made at the old Fort Lee studios in New Jersey, just across the river from New York City. They used to make an awful lot of pictures there.

"Anyhow, I took a flyer. Now, I had been on the stage a few years, but I never yet had any of that makeup junk on my face. I was told I would photograph black if I didn't make up. I asked to make it a blackface part; then I could play it straight.

"Well, they had to put a hitch on my upper lip to get me to smear paint all over my contour. Even that could not disguise this old, homely pan of mine. They said the day of the pretty actor is gone. You are so ugly, you are a novelty.

"We then went into, what they call, the studio. It's a big, glassed-in place like those up in the Bronx Park, where they stable those big South American palm trees.

"It was a bad day outside, and it had hazed all those companies under cover. You couldn't move around without stepping on a five-or six-thousand-dollar-a-week star. And moving cameras were thicker around there than Army Commission hunters in Washington. I got lost from my director and started to take a near cut across when some guy bawled me out. It sounded like a Teddy Roosevelt speech. I was only between Mabel Normand and three cameras, and them all cranking on her most particular scene in a picture called A Perfect 36.

"So I had really gone into movies quicker than I had figured on. Imagine me, a principal in A Perfect 36. When they all got through cussing me, a fellow said:

"'What company are you working for?' I told him, Goldwyn! He said: 'It's all Goldwyn! I mean, who is your director?'

"Miss Normand was looking at me and I couldn't think of that guy's name to save my life. This bird says: 'He must be in Madge Kennedy's company, they are taking a Bowery lodging house scene!' I got pretty sore at that and walked away.

"Now you wouldn't think a fellow could pull the same bonehead thing twice, but leave it to an old country boy to horn in wrong. I was feeling my way around among scenery and sets, trying to locate my man, when a big burly nabbed me by the coattail and yanked me back, and said: 'You poor boob! I saved your life. That's Miss Geraldine Farrar taking close-ups for The Hell Cat.' I heard what she did to Caruso one time, and I thanked him. I watched her awhile in hopes she would sing, but I tell you what she did have, she had an orchestra playing appropriate music in all her scenes.

"This man said he would show me where I belonged, so we passed through an Irish farmhouse of Tom Moore's, stopped to see Mae Marsh's propaganda picture of choking the kaiser, passed through the Metropolitan Opera House and Cheyenne Joe's saloon, on the way to my gang. By the time I got there they thought I had given up the picture and gone home. It was now ten-thirty, and I thought I was late. We took the first scene at exactly three-forty-five in the afternoon.

"The director says, 'Now, Will, we are going to take the scene where your old pal dies. You have broken out of jail, and he gets hurt and you are bringing him into the doctor's office at night to get him treated, and he dies. It's the dramatic scene of the whole opera.'

"I says, 'But I haven't got out of jail yet!'

"He says, 'No, you won't for a couple of weeks yet. Besides, the jail is not built yet.'

"That's the first time I learned that they just hop around any old way. Once we took a scene that was the start of a fellow and I fighting outdoors, and then a lot of rainy weather come, and a week later he knocked me down in the same fight.

"They get me confused taking scenes here and there. One day I escaped from prison, and three days later I'm back behind bars doing a scene that takes place before the other one. I only hope they know how to put the thing together.

"I thought I'd kid our director, Hobart Henley, the other day, and I said to him, 'They aren't really going to release this thing, are they?' Henley looked aghast. 'Are you kidding, Will?'

"'Do I look as if I was kidding?' says I.

"'Of course they're going to release it! What did you think they'd do with it?'

"'Oh, I don't know-throw it away?'

"You see, I've been working four weeks in a studio now, and naturally, I know all about the business from A to Z. Already I have decided to do away with close-ups. I just hate 'em. I ain't never going to get used to standing quivering all over with a camera three inches from my nose. Don't you think it is distracting when you see a picture, for the camera to suddenly switch from a whole scene to the hero's beaded eyelashes, magnified so that they look like Zeppelins? The other day we were on location and near us another company was working. They were taking long shots. So I told Henley: 'I am going over to work for them; they got the right idea.'

"And another thing. I've been trying to find out why they call it Laughing Bill Hyde. So far I've had a doleful career, with jail escapes, death of pals, funerals, and so on. I said to Henley yesterday: 'Say, Hen, when am I going to laugh?'

"You know I met a theatrical manager once who told me: 'Will, if you are going to try the movies, sign up for one picture, get all you can for it, and then never answer the telephones after it appears.' That's what I am going to do when Laughing Bill Hyde comes out. Say, I went down in the projection room once to see the first pieces of the picture. Whew! Never again! They keep asking me to come down, but I know better. As far as I can see, the first scene I've done is one in which I grab a man. You can see the man in the film and just see my hand appear as it seizes his shirt. That's my best piece of acting.

"The director said: 'I am not going to tell you how to act.'

"I said to him: 'Why, these correspondence schools do that.'

"He instructed me as follows: 'Now, thought photographs. If you are thinking a thing, the camera will show it!'

"So I told him I would try and keep my thoughts as clean as possible."


by Bryan B. Sterling (author), et al.


Will Rogers in Hollywood


Crown Publishers, Inc.


Copyright 1984


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