Alternate title: The Depression ... Politics ...
Hollywood ... unions ... and movie cowboys. Oh My!
|Special thanks to May Bopp, actor Bob Burns' daughter, for several images of the Riding Actors Association of Hollywood. May's uncles were Fred Burns and Edward Burns. All three brothers were prolific movie performers in silents and talkies. Sad to report that May passed away October 24, 2019.|
Thanks also to Jack Lawrence Jones for the photo of his Mom and Dad with the flag for the Riding Actors Association of Hollywood. Jack's father was actor and stunt man Jack Jones, and he performed with several of the 1930s western musical groups that appeared in the ol' B western.
In the early 1930s, trade publications reported that about seventeen thousand men, women and children were trying to earn a living as movie extras. But the work was not easy or glamorous, and employment and paydays were spotty and uncertain. Folks were constantly looking for their next job, and this included a check of the daily casting call sheets that were posted at the studios, and later, at Central Casting. Most worked as "day players", which meant they labored (and were paid) on a day-at-a-time basis. For example, they might toil at Fox or Universal for a single day. For their next payday, they'd report on the set of a low-budget western which was being churned out by one of the many independent, "Poverty Row" production outfits that flourished at the time.
Most of the work assignments were passive, nondescript "face in the crowd" roles such as a wagon train member, barfly, townsman, storekeeper, college kid, courtroom juror, etc.
Seventeen thousand people is a hefty number. In reality, less than one thousand were needed to fill daily jobs ... which meant that most couldn't eke out a livelihood doing this type of film work.
Among the frequently employed were many that specialized in westerns, action features, and serials. They were riding experts, wagon drivers, performed stunts, and portrayed henchmen, lawmen, cowhands, and such.
Tinseltown had discovered that the western United States was the ideal place to find talented people who could wrangle hosses, drive stages and wagons ... and ride a horse at breakneck speed. And real cowboys, farmers, teamsters, and others discovered they could make more money in films vs. laboring for low wages on a farm, ranch, or stable. Some developed showmanship skills on the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Show or Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Some performed on the rodeo circuit. In summary, they migrated to Hollywood for better pay and a better life ... and their expertise in riding and driving stages and wagons paid off.
Diana Serra Cary wrote about "real cowboys employed in movies" on pages 38-44 in her book The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1975). Diana was "Baby Peggy", the silent screen youngster that starred in over a hundred comedy shorts in the 1920s. Her father was B western actor and stuntman Jack Montgomery. A brief summary from her book:
Out of money and looking for work, old friends Jack Montgomery and Hank Bell had a meetup circa 1920 in Los Angeles. They connected with pals 'Slim' Whitaker, Bill Gillis, Shorty Miller and Ed Hendershot, and all wound up at the Waterhole bar in Hollywood. The boys told Hank and Jack about how they found steady employment as "riding extras in pictures". A day or so later, Whitaker took the pair out to Mixville or another Edendale movie company in Los Angeles. And they were hired as riders for $5.00 a day ... and the studio even provided them with a box lunch.
But making westerns and action films was hard and dangerous work. Shooting schedules were difficult and ran from sunrise to sunset ... or later. Sometimes Central Casting Corporation - as well as studio casting offices - chose amateurs or inexperienced personnel as horsemen and for stunts. And their lack of expertise often caused production delays as well as accidents ... or worse. And there were A and B grade film producers and directors who were happy paying meager wages, yet always demanded more from the riders and stuntmen.
In this piece, we'll concentrate on a group of 500 or so individuals who did hazardous duties including stunts, driving a four or six-horse team, and riding a horse in a chase scene. In late 1933, they unionized as the "Riding Actors Association, Inc. of Hollwood".
The Depression and economic recovery,
The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal,
The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and National Recovery Administration (NRA).
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932. To overcome the effects of the Great Depression and kick-start the economy, Roosevelt established a program called the "New Deal". And integral to the New Deal was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) which was signed into law in June, 1933.
The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was an off-shoot of NIRA and was put in place by Executive order. All business and industry - including Hollywood - were urged to comply with the NRA and establish "codes of fair competition" which defined work rules, pay schedules, maximum work hours per week, more.
The National Recovery Administration (NRA) included Compliance Boards, Arbitration Boards, Grievance Boards, etc., and the NRA logo was a blue eagle. Patriotic Americans were encouraged to buy only from "Blue Eagle" businesses.
|Charles T. Coiner (1898-1989), an acclaimed painter and art director for advertising agency A.W. Ayer and Son, developed the blue eagle poster image for the NRA.|
More on Charles T. Coiner is available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_T._Coiner
Hollywood was an NRA supporter. The initial NRA code on the film industry was approved by President Roosevelt in November, 1933, and applied to production, distribution and exhibition (the theaters) as well as various work groups and functions (such as theater printers, studio security/police, negative cutters, chorus, agents, writers, actors, independent producers, independent theater owners, lots of other groups and functions).
The establishment and implementation of the NRA codes was fraught with turf wars and power struggles. There were battles between the major production companies vs. the independents ... the players vs. the Casting Bureau ... and various Hollywood individuals and groups vs. the NRA bureaucracy in Washington, D. C.
To provide some perspective on the initial NRA code for Hollywood, below are several pieces from the Code of Fair Competition for the Motion Picture Industry which was approved on November 27, 1933 by President Roosevelt. There's a link at the bottom of this webpage if you wish to view the full document (which is about a 50 page pdf file). Pay particular attention to the job classifications below - there are "Extras", "Extra Players", "Atmosphere people", "Crowds", "Class A 'dress' people", "bit player". If you read the full document, you'll find all kinds of rules and restrictions on producers, distributors and exhibitors, and minimum wage rates are listed for jobs such as grip, gaffer, negative cutter, etc. However, there is nothing about riding extras, stunts, stunt people, pay for hazardous duty, etc.
|Below - clip from the opening description / rationale for the Code of Fair Competition for the Motion Picture Industry which was approved on November 27, 1933 by President Roosevelt.|
Below are pages describing extras, etc. There was no section or description that covered riding extras, cowboys, stunts, stunt people, pay for hazardous duty, etc. A push to get those functions added to the NRA code was championed by the newly formed Riding Actors Association, Inc. of Hollywood.
The NRA and the movie extras,
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS),
1933 and the beginnings of the Screen Actors Guild,
New unions were created for the extras,
Enter the Riding Actors Association, Inc. of Hollywood.
The thousands of extras, bit players, et al had to be covered under the NRA. Selected to represent the extras in the establishment of NRA codes were Alan/Allan/Allen Garcia, actor and associate/friend of Charlie Chaplin, along with silent screen writer and director Frank E. Woods, one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Woods was chairman of the Motion Picture Academy's committee on extras.
In late 1933 - and under the backdrop of the NRA - a group of about 500 (mostly) western movie stunt men and "riding extras" formed a union named the "Riding Actors Association, Inc. of Hollywood". Their goals were simple - better pay, safer working conditions, and having some direct involvement/oversight in the planning and filming of dangerous and complex scenes and stunts. The membership included heroes, directors, writers, English riders, rodeo champions, cowboys, jockeys, and folks who portrayed Indians, Mexican vaqueros, cossacks, Canadian mounties, cavalry troopers, more. The Riding Actors also developed a suggested price list for stunts and action sequences.
Trade publications and newspapers from 1933-1935 had extensive coverage. Below are a few tidbits relating to those performers, the NRA, and the Riding Actors Association:
Excerpt from February 11, 1933 of Hollywood Filmograph: "There are 17,000 extras registered and only 1000 per day are used by the studios."
From the October 28, 1933 Hollywood Filmograph on the establishment of two new unions: "The Hollywood Picture Players Association has been organized ... to bring together the supporting cast players and extra players into a mutual cooperative association so as to give them an authoritative voice in the councils of the industry." Also in that October 28, 1933 Hollywood Filmograph issue was an announcement from the Screen Actors' Guild: "At a meeting of the board of directors last night, the Screen Actors' Guild held out open arms to the extras in the motion picture business. It was the unanimous sentiment of the board that these players are as much a part of the motion picture business as the high-salaried players, and that the Guild, to be of real service to ALL actors, must meet the problems of this group. For this purpose, the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors' Guild has created the Junior Screen Actors' Guild ..."
The November 14, 1933 Variety had news on the formation of the Riding Actors - article headline was: "COWBOY FILM ACTOR'S LAST ROUNDUP STAND" ; "... the cowboys working in pictures have banded together for mutual protection as the Riding Actors' Association. Corral thespians feel that they have been done wrong by major studios and are out to have the wrong righted through organization."
Early December, 1933 newspapers noted the new organization: "Hollywood's cowboys have formed a union and demand recognition under the movie code. They name themselves the Riding Actors' Association of Hollywood ..."
From the January 20, 1934 Motion Picture Daily: "Riding actors, comprising 95 per cent of the cowboy actors, want an individual code to meet their special, unique work, which, they claim, differs much from the general extras' work."
February, 1934 issues of the Hollywood Reporter and Hollywood Filmograph had news about a possible merger of the Riding Actors with other unions. But there was concern about the safety of their members. At the time, folks who did stunts, bit parts, background roles, and such could be members of one or several organizations. The headline of a February 14, 1934 Hollywood Reporter article read "EXTRAS MAY BURY AXE AND COMBINE ALL FORCES", and four groups/unions were mentioned:
Supporting and Extra Players Association
Hollywood Picture Players Assocation (one of the new unions formed in late 1933)
Junior Screen Actors Guild (one of the new unions formed in late 1933)
Riding Actors Assocation (also formed in late 1933)
A week later, the Hollywood Reporter published the response from Riding Actors president Fred Burns and Secretary-Treasurer Orie O. Robertson, and following is my summary of their reply: they disagreed with any merger plans, noting that many of the 400+ members of the Riding Actors Association were also members of the other groups. The main concern was that the Riding Actors Association were the only organization representing those involved in stunt work and hazardous duty, and mergers may hinder their safety goals.
Bit players and extras were covered by the recently formed Junior Screen Actors Guild. From the February 24, 1934 Motion Picture Herald: "Lee Phelps has been elected president of the Junior Actors' Guild ..."
From the August 18, 1934 Motion Picture Daily: "Los Angeles, Aug. 17 - Stunt men today petitioned the extras' standing committee for more pay for dangerous assignments."
October, 1934 newspapers reported that Riding Actors Association president Fred Burns blasted NRA Administrator Sol A. Rosenblatt for inaction and a runaround to the Riding Actors' request for a hearing and inclusion in the NRA codes.
Fred Burns' criticisms got a response - from the December 31, 1934 Motion Picture Daily: "Extras Ask New Rate" was the headline, and the brief article read: "The extras standing committee has recommended to Washington that a minimum of $10 a day be set for riding actors and that this clause be inserted in the code."
The November 20, 1933 Film Daily carried a blurb on the Riding Actors submitting job classifications to be added to the NRA code.
Announcement of the NRA code group for movie extras from the January 12, 1934 Film Daily. Fred D. Burns is actor Frederick Dana Burns, and he was the first president of the Riding Actors Association of Hollywood.
May, 1935 - Supreme Court overturns NIRA and the NRA codes,
May, 1937 - new Screen Actors Guild (SAG) contract is approved,
SAG contract includes many pay rate changes including $35 per day minimum for stunt men.
In May, 1935, the U.S. Supreme Court found that much of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) - and all of the NRA codes - were unconstitutional.
The replacement for NIRA was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 - AKA the Wagner Act - and was signed into law by President Roosevelt on July 5, 1935.
The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists website notes that the first SAG contract was approved in 1937. Quote: "President Montgomery declares Guild recognition 'the victory of an ideal'. Thirteen producers sign first SAG Contract, pay minimum $25 per day; $35 for stunts, $5.50 for extras, and portions of the 1935 contract of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences become part of the new SAG contract." (President Montgomery was actor Robert Montgomery and he was president of SAG from 1935-1938.)
The new SAG contract generated lots of trade publication articles - example: from the January 5, 1938 issue of Variety: "Pay for stunt men was fixed at $35 per day ..."
More on the Riding Actors Association, Inc. of Hollywood:
The first president of the Riding Actors Association was Fred Burns for 1934, and he was elected in December, 1933 to that post. And Burns was re-elected president for 1935. Actor Buck Moulton served as president in 1936; director Cliff Smith in 1937; and actor Ben Corbett in 1938.
In 1934, the Riding Actors supported the formation of the (short-lived) Association of Film Equestriennes, a group of cowgirls and female rodeo performers that did occasional movie work. Rodeo stars Mabel Strickland and Vera McGinnis were directors of the Film Equestriennes and members included Bonnie Gray and Bertha Blancett.
August 12, 1936 Variety: "Hollywood, Aug. 11 (1936). Riding Actors' Association is now official. Outfit got its incorporation papers last week from Sacramento. Officers include: Buck Moulton, prez; Buck Bucko, vice prexy; Harry Axe, secretary, and Len Sowards, treasurer."
There were a few articles on the Riding Actors in various 1930s newspapers, and you'll find links at the bottom of this webpage with some additional newspaper blurbs. Following are a few highlights:
Article on the Hoppy movie TEXAS TRAIL (Paramount, 1937): "Some of the greatest riders in the nation, members of the Riding Actors' association, will be seen in the dashing action in 'Texas Trail,' latest in the series of Hopalong Cassidy ..."
I chuckled when reading a late 1937 newspaper article about the filming of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Warners, 1938) with Errol Flynn. Quote: "It's interesting to hear the conversations of Prince John's mounted men-at-arms and knights. These Norman warriors speak with Texas drawls. They're mostly ex-cowpunchers, now members of the Hollywood Riding Actors Association."
A lengthy, syndicated January, 1938 newspaper article authored by Paul Harrison was titled "Horse Operas are Back in Style". He writes about Autry, Bob Baker, musical westerns, big budget oaters, low budget B westerns, more. One particular paragraph aptly describes the life of the "riding extras": "Most of the outdoor shooting is the chase. A few cowboys, members of the Riding Actors Association, which is allied with the Screen Actors Guild, are hired for one day at the inflexible rate of $11.25 each. They are told to bring jackets and hats. For half the day they are photographed as the posse, wearing coats and hats and riding hell-for-leather and shooting ahead of them. A like number of shots are made of them, hatless and coatless, galloping over the same terrain and shooting behind them. This time they are the outlaws."
The Riding Actors Association was still functioning in the late 1930s and Benny Corbett was their 1938 president. Circa 1939, the organization faded away into Hollywood history. I found no mention of the group in newspapers or trade publications dated 1940 and later, and their demise was most likely caused by that 1937 SAG contract and pay scale. Several years later, many familiar faces from the B western and serial wound up in the Screen Extras Guild which was formed in 1945 (and that organization merged into the Screen Actors Guild in 1992).
(Courtesy of Jack Jones)
|In the photo left are Jack Jones and wife Katharine (Kitty) Jones.|
The original Riding Actors Association banner/flag was made by them in late 1933.
In silents and early 1930s films, Jack Jones was a stunt man, actor, and also did tunes with several western musical groups including the Arizona Wranglers.
Jack's movie career ended when he almost lost a leg in an wagon accident during the filming of a 1935 John Wayne Lone Star / Monogram oater.
Presidents of the Riding Actors Association of Hollywood, Inc.
Fred Burns was the first president of the Riding Actors Association and he was elected in December, 1933 to that 1934 post.
And Burns was re-elected as president the following year (for 1935).
Edwin 'Buck' Moulton was the 1936 president.
Director Cliff Smith was the Riding Actors president in 1937.
Clifford Smith (1894 - 1937) was an actor, second unit director and director in both silents and talkies. His later directing credits include the ACE DRUMMOND, RADIO PATROL, and JUNGLE JIM serials at Universal. He passed away at a Los Angeles hospital in September, 1937 due to complications from surgery for a ruptured appendix. After Smith's death, Benny Corbett took over as president of the Riding Actors.
Benny Corbett was elected president for 1938.
Riding Actors Association officers for 1937.
(Courtesy of May Bopp, Bob Burns' daughter)
Top row left to right: George Sowards, Buck Bucko, Tommy Coats, Bud Rae, Henry Morris, Joe Balch and Bob Burns.
Bottom row left to right: Lem Sowards (Treasurer), Cliff Smith (President), Ed Clay (Vice President) and John Judd (Secretary).
George and Lem/Len Sowards were brothers. Below is a crop/blowup with a closer view of their faces.
|The Riding Actors did special benefits for members as well as shows and rodeo type events. Couple of examples below.|
The above article is from the December 16, 1933 issue of Hollywood Filmograph magazine. This was a benefit for "Skeeter" Bill Robbins' wife Dorothy. Tall, lanky Bill Robbins turned up in several of Hoot Gibson's 1930s films - in real life, he was the foreman on Hoot's ranch. Robbins passed away from injuries suffered in a multi-car accident in late November, 1933. Can't remember him? Click HERE and a separate window/tab will open with a lobby card showing heroine Marceline Day, Hoot Gibson, and Bill Robbins from Hoot's THE FIGHTING PARSON (Allied, 1933).
The July 2, 1938 issue of Billboard had a report on the funeral of Sarah Grant Agee, wife of Johnny Agee, equestrian director of the Tom Mix Circus. Participants at the funeral service were Riding Actors' chaplain Buck Connors and "the Riding Actors Association trio of Chuck Baldra, Jack Kirk, and Charles Sargent, sang two hymns."
April 10, 1937 Billboard had news on the Frontier Hippodrome event: "President Cliff Smith is ... handling association business .. in preparation for a big show to be held April 11 (1937) at Victor McLaglen's Stadium. Show is being presented to raise funds to build a clubhouse for association. ... Sam Garrett, Lloyd Saunders and John Judd in charge of arranging the program. Intention is to feature circus and Wild West."
(Courtesy of May Bopp, Bob Burns' daughter)
Links with more on the Riding Actors Association of Hollywood. Most of these links will open in a separate window / tab:
October, 1934 newspapers reported that Riding Actors Association president Fred Burns blasted NRA Administrator Sol A. Rosenblatt for inaction and a runaround to the Riding Actors' request for a hearing and inclusion in the NRA codes: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/89013938/los-angeles-evening-citizen-news/
The Google newspaper archive has some free newspaper articles from 1933-1939 which describes the Riding Actors Association and their goals, including prices for various stunts and action sequences:
Circa 1930 - 1931, a fraternity/common interest group called the "Chuck Wagon Trailers" was formed, and membership required you to be a real cowboy who rode the "Hollywood range". Many B-western players and stunt people were members. In the Old Corral sections on Herman Hack, Smiley Burnette, Ralph 'Buck' Bucko, Silver Tip Baker, and Glenn Strange, there are some 1950s - 1960s photos from the annual Chuck Wagon Trailers barbeques and round-ups. The Chuck Wagon Trailers still exist: http://www.chuckwagontrailers.com/
More on the NRA and the plight of the movie extras:
For those who want to read all the gory (oftentimes, confusing) details, the Internet Archive has the full text of the Code of Fair Competition for the Motion Picture Industry : as approved on November 27, 1933 by President Roosevelt. There are all kinds of restrictions and requirements for producers, distributors and exhibitors, and minimum wage rates are listed for all movie jobs such as grip, gaffer and negative cutter. To view or download a pdf file of the Motion Picture Code, go to: https://archive.org/details/codeoffaircompet5440unit/page/n0
The NRA codes covered lots more than just Motion Pictures and Hollywood. You can read more on the codes for the Car Advertising Trade, Windows Glass Manufacturers, Blue Print and Photo Print Industry, more at: https://archive.org/details/codesoffaircompe19unit/page/n15
May 26, 1937 issue of Variety has the full text of the 1937 Screen Actors Guild - Producer Contract: https://archive.org/details/variety126-1937-05/page/n205
The Internet Archive has many tradepapers and fan magazines with more info on the NIRA, NRA and the plight of the movie extras. Below are some links for your reading pleasure. These are pdf files which you can view online or download:
The November, 1934 issue of Photoplay magazine has an article titled "The Tragedy of 15,000 Extras" by Sara Hamilton: https://archive.org/details/photo47chic/page/n543
The October, 1933 issue of Motion Picture magazine has an article titled "Hollywood - The Last Frontier of the Cowboys" by Helen Dale: https://archive.org/details/motionpicture46moti/page/n223
The Internet Archive and YouTube have several videos on the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and National Recovery Administration (NRA):
Three minute promotional video on the NRA which was filmed in 1933 by MGM and features Jimmy Durante singing "Give a Man a Job": https://archive.org/details/National1933
Newsreel footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xjosM-KEvk
More about the National Industrial Recovery Act which went into effect on June 16, 1933 ... and ended May, 1935, when the Supreme Court court found that much of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and NRA codes were unconstitutional:
The replacement for National Industrial Recovery Act was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, AKA the Wagner Act, and was signed into law by President Roosevelt on July 5, 1935: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wagner_Act
As noted above, there were several individuals who were selected or elected to represent the extras in the establishment of rules and codes that were required under the NRA. The two names most often mentioned in issues of Film Daily and Hollywood Filmograph were Alan Garcia/Allan Garcia, an associate/friend of Charlie Chaplin, and silent screen writer and director Frank E. Woods, one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS):
Al Ernest Garcia (1887-1938): https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0305087/
Frank E. Woods (1860-1939): https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0940604/
The SAG-AFTRA website has more on the formation of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933: https://www.sagaftra.org/about/our-history/1930s
(Courtesy of May Bopp, Bob Burns' daughter)
Above is a 1937 letter and membership list from Riding Actors Association president Cliff Smith.
There are over 500 names on the listing. Honorary members included Gary Cooper, Ken Maynard, Harry Carey, Rex Bell, Buck Jones, Steele, Wayne, Autry, Foran, Reb Russell, lots more. The Riding Actors office was at 6472 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.
Want a better view of the names? Click HERE for a much larger version of this listing.