“James Cruze, My Big Brother”

By May Cruze


An audition for silent films

starting at original page 101 (edit#9 page 143)

May is telling the story



The showing of primitive motion-pictures was making headway in Los Angeles. In the short time that the flickering, animated pictures had been in existence, making their bi-weekly appearances at a down-town hole-in-the-wall, Ethel and I had become ardent fans of these unknown people. We wouldn't think of missing a "Biograph." It cost five-cents to pop into the small, dark theater and, unless we wanted to see the picture twice, we would be out again in half an hour. Since nothing was published about these actors, we made up our own names for them and eagerly awaited their next one-reeler. The young ingénue who later became known as Mary Pickford, was our "Bessie."

When there was a lull in the conversation at the supper party, I brought up the subject of moving-pictures and innocently asked, "Are you people acquainted with any of the moving-picture actors?" When I recognized that by revealing my interest in this plebeian medium of entertainment, I had both shocked and disgusted these finished performers,

I knew that I had made a faux-pas. I might as well have asked if they were acquainted with Jack-the-ripper. Lottie and Jimmy patiently explained that picture actors were given little consideration in show-business. While the picture companies were always trying to kidnap people from the legitimate stage, no self-respecting actor would condescend to appear in the flickers. I had been on the verge of asking Jimmy why he didn't try to get into pictures. Instead, I discreetly dropped the subject.

Nevertheless, during the next year, I broached the cinema subject again in one of my letters to my brother. Pictures were flourishing, Some small companies were springing up in California and, even my pet Biograph, sent a company to the coast for the winter, taking advantage of the California climate, since most of the pictures were made outside, and by the light of the sun, I suggested to Jimmy that he could work at his chosen profession and still live in California. He ignored 102 the suggestion when he answered my letter and the months went by. Then one day, I received a letter in which he said, "I guess you will be pleased to know that you will see me shortly in a moving-picture. I was between engagements and you know I never was any good at loafing, so I went out to Pathe and picked up a little extra change. I have the lead in the picture, but I have to share honors with a little boy, by the name of Jack Pickford. There's not much satisfaction acting in pictures, for you do not have any lines to read.

He told me the name of the picture and I haunted the two nickelodeons until I found it. In the meantime, my friend Ethel and I had been invited to a party, where we met Henry Walthall and Arthur Johnson, actors of the visiting Biograph Company. They told us the names of all the players and also informed us that the little boy, Jack Pickford, was the brother of their own ingénue, little Mary.

The next time I saw Jimmy in person, he had occasion, to introduce me to a director by the name of Albert Hale. He was known as Gimp Hale, because he had a slightly paralyzed leg. After Mr. Hale had departed, Jimmy said, "That's the man that hired me for my first job in pictures. I'll never forget it." Breaking into a laugh, he continued, "I was sent out to Pathe and shown into a very small office where Gimp was seated behind a desk. He was all alone in the room. He looked me over and said, 'I understand you're an actor.' I said, 'That's right.'"

"'Well, let's see you act.' At first I thought he was talking ragtime, but when I gave him a closer inspection, I saw that he was perfectly serious so I said, 'Here?' He said, 'Yes. What can you do?'

"I felt like an idiot, but I started to deliver a well-known speech from Hamlet, modulating my voice as if I was facing a theater audience. Hale interrupted me, No, no. You don't talk in pictures. Let's see you act.'

I could hardly keep from laughing out loud but chuckling inside. I gave him the works. I made horrible, ferocious faces, tearing my hair and gesticulating like a maniac. When I leaned over him and shook my fist in his face, he said, 'All right. You’ll do,' and took me inside."

Because Jimmy was generous to a fault, he was never able to save any money. By now, he realized that he would never acquire any substantial wealth with a miserly approach and piggy-bank tactics, even though he was earning far more than the average young man of twenty-seven. Consequently, he was gullible for all get-rich-quick schemes and a pushover for any kind of a gamble.

Speaking of his permanent entry into the picture field, he said, "I was far from being sold on that brand of acting, after my first experience at Pathe, and I guess I would be still taking my chances in New York, if I hadn't gambled at roulette one night at the beginning of summer, and lost every cent I owned. At the time, I had a contract in my pocket to play "King Love" in "Everywoman" on Broadway In the Fall. But I had to live through the Summer. The movies were constantly approaching legitimate actors, trying to induce them to work in this disreputable poor relation of the theater. Thanhouser, who owned a picture company by the same name, needed a hero, so I rather reluctantly took the Job, for what I thought would be two or three months at the very most.

Toward the end of Summer, I found that I was enjoying my work, commuting to New Rochelle at the crack of dawn, I was out of doors a lot and since we had no doubles in those days, I did my own stunts and caught up with a lot of exercise, I had my nights to myself, although I was generally too tired to do anything with them but sleep. Anyway, when they offered me employment for fifty-two weeks, starting at $100 per, I just couldn't turn it down. Incidentally, in a few weeks my salary was doubled."