Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Russians of the Flats of Boyle Heights Go to the Movies, Part Four

We continue with part four of the series by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez on Russian Molokans from the Flats and their use as extras in the Hollywood film industry.

On March 21, 1928, the day of a melee outside its gates, Paramount Studios arranged to have a busload of Russian extras brought in from the “Boyle Heights Russian colony” for their expensive new film with the working title, High Treason. Directed by future highly acclaimed director Ernst Lubitsch and based on the 1801 assassination of Tsar Paul I of Russia, the film was released later that year as, The Patriot. 

Except for a couple of articles, what happened that day outside the studio’s gate went largely under reported by the local press. This might have been attributed to the newspapers desire to avoid local stories about labor unrest and/or their ongoing focus on the aftermath of the St. Francis Dam tragedy that occurred in the Santa Clarita Valley the week before on March 12, 1928.

An article in Variety on March 28, 1928 provided most of the details, though Paramount Studios likely, and self-servingly, provided most of them. The story claims Nicolas Kobliansky, the technical advisor to the film, convinced Paramount executives they could cut costs if they by-passed Central Casting and hired the needed extras directly from the east side’s Russian neighborhood, requesting that the extras bring their own “costumes.” With the assistance of two local Russian Flats “go-betweens,” John Nasiedkin and Walter Creger, Paramount approved the hiring of 289 people. Each was to be given a special studio work pass and then transported from Boyle Heights to the studio in Hollywood in two sightseeing buses Paramount would provide. 

According to the article, “Creger took it upon himself to employ about 250 more people,” and then, supposedly disregarding the requirement for mandatory passes, everyone made a “grand rush to pile into the busses.” When those without work passes were not allowed beyond the studio gates, the crowd quickly became angry, and, according to Variety, “the near revolution started, and the police arrived at the studio gates to disperse the wild mob.” Exaggerating the size of the protesters, several articles, including one by the Los Angeles Evening Herald, proclaimed, “Paramount Studio was the target of a stoning bee last week by 1,000 Russian extras.” 

A two-page advertisement for Sold for Marriage, starring Lillian Gish, from Motion Picture News, 22 April 1916.  The film used a considerable number of extras from the Russian Molokan community living in Boyle Heights.  Click on any image to see them expanded in a separate window.
Nevertheless, given the supposed total number of people that reported to the two waiting buses, and the vehicles own space constraints, the size of the crowd would barely be half that size. Surprisingly, no arrests or injuries were reported.

However, the next day a number of the protesting Russian immigrants appeared in front of a hastily convened Labor Commission hearing to investigate the circumstances of the disturbance. Those who attended claimed they were all summoned for guaranteed work, but many, including those with work passes, were ultimately turned away without the legally mandated compensation for transportation fare or minimum pay for their time and were then demanding the labor board ensure they receive just compensation.

According to the L. A. Evening Herald, “studio officials denied the extras were called and blamed an actors’ agent. When only a few of the extras were chosen, the others started throwing stones and police were called.” Of the two local agents involved in procuring the extras for the studio, only Walter Creger was present at the hearing.

A description of a Russian funeral in the Flats of Boyle Heights from Film Spectator magazine,, 17 November 1928.  Note the description of Mexicans in the neighborhood as "a laughing, happy throng of Felipes and Juanitas, playing blithely and oblivious in the sunshine."
As reported in Variety, Chief Deputy Commissioner Thomas Barker, who conducted the hearing, was unable to arrive at a ruling due to “inconsistent statements made and nearly all of the Russians were bearded or wore moustaches and could hardly talk English.”  At the conclusion of the hearing, Baker claimed he was withholding his decision for further evidence and more witnesses. However, beyond the initial news reports on this protest, there were no follow-up stories, and records or transcripts in the city or state labor archives could not be found. Any archived written police reports, are inaccessible, if they exist at all.    

However, problems continued on the High Treason/The Patriot set involving Russian extras.  With the headline, “Russian Extras ‘Rebel on Lot,’” the Port Arthur News reported on April 1, 1928 about a large group of Russian extras working on a studio set covered with artificial snow and lit with a number of powerful Klieg lights. The lights made the artificial snow blindingly bright, and many of the extras began complaining that after several hours on the set, it began affecting their eyes.  According to the article, “just before the final scenes were taken, the Russian extras began rioting and the Hollywood police were called. The disturbance was quelled, with several persons slightly injured,” but, again, with no arrests reported.            

As for the fate of the film itself, The Patriot was considered a “bomb” at the box office. It was the last silent film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in the silent film era, as that chapter of film making was quickly coming to an end.
However, the report about the protest melee at the gates of Paramount Studios did raise some interest about immigrant Russians employed as extras in Hollywood films. On November 7, 1928, “a special dispatch” to the Montana Standard and the North American Newspaper Alliance described a reporter’s visit to a Hollywood studio set to observe a group of Russian extras from Boyle Heights.

A brief description about the 1917 film, The Legion of Death, and how "Russian women were secured for the scenes [of a capture of Germans by Russian women in a battle] from the local Russian colony," meaning the Flats.
According to the article, “the Russian group live in a shabby part of town called Boyle Heights. They contribute atmosphere to the innumerable Russian stories, which have been the vogue these last few years. From Boyle Heights come the tremendous and tortured faces that flash across the camera eye now and again. I watched a group of Boyle Heights atmosphere players reacting to the congenial influence of a warm meal, the studio lights, the gayety which numbers engenders in the sturdy middle and lower middle class.”  

With the Russian extras wearing their traditional native dress and in a festive mood, “a man with an accordion strikes a tune” as they gather in a circle and begin to dance and clap.  At the director’s signal, the lights are turned on and the cameraman begins to film the impromptu dance. As soon as the Russians realize they are being filmed, they become “camera shy” and slowly stop as the director attempts to encourage them to “Keep at it!” The Russians continue to dance in a more subdued pace, “with a circle of Boyle Heights men and women spiritlessly clapping along. Finally, the director with a weary gesture orders them to cut. Another few hundred feet of film destined for the wastebasket.” 

Come back next week to read the fifth and final entry in the series . . .

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