|EARLY MOVIE MAKING IN EDENDALE (1918)
Life in Edendale was truly exciting. Mack Sennett needed to produce a two-reel comedy every week which was 12 to 15 minutes long. These were the original slapstick, belly-laugh-a-minute flickers. They made the world laugh as the dignified were made to look ridiculous. The best-dressed folks got hit in the face with the biggest pies. Fat ladies sat down on break-away chairs or fell on the funniest, littlest guy on the set.
We kids watched them shoot the first fast-moving chases with horses and wagons, automobiles, fire engines, bicycles and baby buggies running wild all over Edendale and into Echo Park Lake. The Keystone Cops rode in their little police patrol wagon skidding on the soaped streets. Dressed in ill-fitting New York policemen’s uniforms, they hit fruit stands, popcorn wagons, telephone poles and chicken coops. They took pratfalls and lifted their knees high as they ran and took corners on one foot, waving their billy clubs over their heads. They were always called to restore law and order to some impossible, funny scene hurriedly created by the quick wit of Hollywood’s first comedy gagmen. The director had the story line in mind, but the gags came from everywhere as the shooting progressed. When the crew learned the themes of the story, each one was encouraged to come up with a funny thought or idea that might suggest an additional gag to help the picture get yet another laugh. Each idea gave birth to another one. Those early comedy idea men set the formula for the way movies, radio and television comedy would be written for years to come. Edendale became one great big background set for comedy. Folks there watched how it was done right in their own backyards. Early film makers didn’t build street sets. To save money, they just used the actual stores, shop buildings and neighborhood homes.
With the necessity of making a film a week, Sennett had as many as seven directors with crews, each grinding out a two-reeler somewhere in the neighborhood. A crew consisted of a director, assistant director, cameraman and the prop-man who set up the reflectors; and of course, the picture’s featured comedians.
There was always an interested gathering of neighbors, young and old, standing on the sidelines watching another new and different comical scene acted out. Laughter from the bystanders encouraged the actors. The directors liked to joke with the onlookers. Often as we stood by watching, the director would ask us to be in a scene. Some good “hams” were discovered when a group of onlookers was selected to chase a pig into the corner drugstore or to run out of a meat market, chasing after a dog with a prop leg of lamb in his mouth. Director Dick Jones had fun with four women volunteers who were to make eyes at a couple of cops for a scene in front of the barbershop. However, they couldn’t keep from laughing. To play the part without laughing was the mark of a good comedian.
A technique originated by the early movie makers to put more action onto the screen was to use camera cars to photograph running chases. It was interesting to watch a crew at work driving up and down the streets shooting scenes on the move. A camera was set up in the back of a World War I Dodge touring car with its top down. The director and the cameraman stood in the back of the car with the prop-man in the front. The driver moved them about 20 miles per hour, along the street beside a moving car, a bicycle, a motorcycle or a baby buggy, to photograph the action in the moving vehicle. As the camera was cranked, the director called cues through his megaphone. The prop-man held a reflector—a three-foot square board, covered with tinfoil—to reflect sunlight onto shaded faces under wide-brimmed hats.
We kids got a kick out of running along behind the camera car trying to keep up with the shooting. We watched the action as the director yelled his cues to the actors. A chase scene of eight or ten of the always disorganized Keystone Cops riding in their silly, little, overloaded police patrol wagon always got big laughs. The cops wore crepe hair mustaches and eyebrows with heavy make-up and carried billy clubs. Whenever the wagon turned a corner, the cops leaned with it to one side and the bystanders held their breaths expecting the wagon to turn over. Sometimes the streets were sprayed with soapsuds, causing the wagon to skid and spin.
Sometimes the entire neighborhood would turn out standing around watching. The director would talk to women on the porch of a house and ask them to wave when “the fat man on the motorcycle” went past. Others he’d ask to come running out of a house and wave. He’d give all the people watching a little action to do as the comedians drove by. He might ask a man seated on his porch in a rocking chair to stand up and scratch his head. It didn’t matter what it was, a runaway motorcycle or a runaway horse dragging a wagon without wheels. Most of the folks got a big kick out of acting in scenes and laughing at each other. A week later they’d be down at the theater on Sunset Boulevard to see the finished picture, hoping to see themselves on the screen.
There was never any special costuming. They just wore what they had on. In those days, even the actors and actresses put on their own make-up. I don’t remember any make-up men at Sennett’s. I don’t remember anybody making up Gloria Swanson, Mabel Normand, and Louise Fazenda or checking their hair between scenes. The players took care of their own make-up, hair and wardrobes.
One day, Hampton Del Ruth’s company was shooting scenes near our barn on the Sennett lot next door to our house. Gloria Swanson was the star and while waiting between scenes, Gloria’s dress became wrinkled. Dad told her to see Mom. She knocked at our back door and asked, “Goldie, can I press my skirt?”
“Sure Gloria, come in.” Mom set up the ironing board and Gloria pressed her own skirt with a two-pound iron heated on the stove top. Gloria knew my Mom, and of course my Dad, who was a prop-man on many of Gloria’s pictures in her earliest days. All the movie people in Edendale knew and helped each other. It was that close-knit relationship that helped start the movie business. Like family, they worked together.DAD’S MAGIC WIREWORK (1924)
In 1924, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the biggest name in the business, hired Dad to produce many of the magic tricks for his mystical Arabian Nights picture, The Thief of Bagdad.
It became one of the biggest productions of its time and included many firsts for unbelievable sets and scenes. The entire picture was one bit of movie magic after another. With his years of experience and imagination, Dad and the cameramen created the unreal for the picture.
Dad rigged and directed the operation of the amazing magic rope, made of old witches’ hair that uncoiled and rose to stand straight up in the air. For an underwater scene, he suspended a man on wires laced inside a huge spider outfit. Hanging from a carriage rolling on the track overhead, the man gave action to the spider’s legs and head. Dad maneuvered the poisonous spider’s body from the track above. It fought Doug to its death, while attempting to protect the ancient treasure chest at the bottom of the sea. A man with flapping wings was an ugly flying bat. It, too, was also swung on wires. As it swooped down on the mysterious, haunted forest, it was also killed by “the Thief.”
Another trick Dad performed during the making of The Thief of Bagdad was when a horse Doug was riding near the palace garden was frightened by a buzzing bee. The horse started bucking and threw the aspiring prince from the saddle into the significant rose tree. To get this scene, Doug put one of Dad’s wire belts under his costume. Two piano wires were attached, one on each side, and run through a specially designed pulley overhead. While the camera turned, Dad watched closely. When the horse bucked hard enough, he cued the three men holding the wires to pull on them. This lifted Doug off the horse about 12 feet into the air, swung him over and dropped him down into the center of the rose tree.
Dad always appreciated the confidence that Doug and he had for each other. A mishap during the taking of such a scene could have meant serious injuries to a man Dad had come to know and regard as a dear friend. The athlete and gymnast in Doug often came out between scenes when he was hung up on wires. He liked to clown, pretending to fly and do impossible gymnastic tricks as he swung himself through the air. This caused Dad concern and he often had to remind Doug that he was not rigged to do circus stunts and he was playing without a net below!
Dad said, “Doug’s trust in my work sometimes worried me. I never knew what he’d do next.”
Near the end of the picture, to escape the cheering palace folks with his princess in tow, the newly-crowned prince dons the invisible cloak. Photographically he was made invisible, but his new princess was not unseen. Dad had to rig a seat hung on wires to simulate Doug’s arms carrying her. For safety, under her clothes, she had her wear one of his wire belts. Hanging by wires from above, tied to a carriage and rolled along a track, she floated up the stairs, as if in Doug’s arms.
In a following scene, the princess was lowered to the center of the flying carpet, which was laid out on the floor. The prince removed the invisible cloak and again appeared on the screen. Then, with more wires rigged from the flying carpet to the rolling carriage on a track above, at the waved command of the prince, Dad made the carpet take off from the floor and fly out of the palace and over the city.
The carpet was a three-quarter-inch flat piece of steel, five feet by eight feet in size and covered with a Persian carpet with an eight-inch fringe hanging down around the edges. Flying the magic carpet over the city of Bagdad was the greatest challenge of Dad’s career. It was the last scene in the picture, the toughest to set up and the most dangerous to perform.
Piano wires, the size of pencil lead, were carefully tied to special fittings in six places on the carpet’s steel frame. Then sixteen wires from the frame were tied to the top end of a lowered one hundred foot construction crane. With the leading lady, Julianne Johnson, seated and the star, Douglas Fairbanks standing, the crane lifted the carpet and its riders to a height of 35 feet above the solid concrete street of Bagdad!
Eighteen cameras were placed and ready to shoot long shots and medium shots from all angles as the carpet made its one pass over the city. A special camera platform for a manned camera was mounted on the underside of the crane, about 15 feet above the carpet. All was ready.
The “Camera, action” cue was signaled and two thousand extras in costume on the street of the mythical city of Bagdad began to cheer. The crane operator started his 180-degree, half-circle turn to carry the carpet a distance of 400 feet over the heads of the waving throng. All cameras turned to photograph one of the most spectacular scenes ever created for a moving picture.
The camera on the crane, shooting down, got a most convincing medium shot of the prince and princess waving to the crowd, seen below them, calling wishes for happiness ever after. The fade-out on the picture was done in miniature and showed the couple on the carpet flying over a desert scene, across an Arabian Night sky glittering with stars that spelled out the moral of the story, “Happiness Must Be Earned.” Doug told Dad he had surely earned that. By all standards, the picture is a classic for all time!©2001 Coy Watson, Jr.
The author of The Keystone Kid made his motion picture debut in 1913 when he was nine months old. Before he could walk or talk, Watson had appeared in several of Mack Sennett’s popular “Keystone Cop” comedies, earning him the nickname, “The Keystone Kid,” and establishing him as Hollywood’s first child star.
“What a wonderful slice of Hollywood history! It’s high time the story of the Watson clan was put into book form.”
—LEONARD MALTIN, Film Critic and Historian
“Watson’s memories of early Hollywood’s mad scramble to invent an art form on the run are a delightful treat. His stories have the ring of truth, and his storytelling, the wide-eyed wonder of youth.”
—BOB MONDELLO, National Public Radio
“A charming memoir which gives Coy Watson, Sr. a well-deserved place in film history. The photos alone are worth the price of the book.”
—KEVIN BROWNLOW, Director and Film Historian
“I read The Keystone Kid cover to cover and LOVED IT! The stories were told with simplicity, detail and warmth. This is a historically important book that takes one back to the early days of Hollywood. A beautiful reminiscence that is extremely satisfying and entertaining.”
—JOHN BURKE, Host, American Movie Classics
“It’s great that the story of Hollywood’s “First Family” is finally in print. You’ll never get a more vivid description of what went on behind the studio walls in those early days in Edendale than in this wonderful word-portrait by Coy Watson, Jr. How intriguing it must have been to be participants in this exciting new industry that actually grew up around their home. You will love The Keystone Kid.
—JOHNNY GRANT, The Honorary Mayor of Hollywood
“We highly recommend this fine memoir, with its valuable photographs, its documentation of early Hollywood, and its happy and loving recollection of family, friends and neighbors.”
—CARL BENNETT, Silent Film Historian, Silentera.Com