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A Silent Screen Test for 20th Century Fox Studios

Aria had an old friend who’d been an agent for many years. Irving Smith was working for a small agency and she called him. His office was in West Hollywood near Schwab’s drugstore adjoining the Sunset Strip. We took the redline trolley to see him. He said that we ought to visit the major studios and see what might happen. Irv had a car, so we headed for Columbia and Paramount, both located in Hollywood. Aria waited in the car, and we were back from each in about fifteen minutes. They weren’t interested. Next stop, 20th Century Fox. I had told Irv about Leonard Goldstein and Universal so we passed them up.

At Fox, a former silent and early talkies star named Ben Lyon, who was married to a former silent star named Bebe Daniels, was head of the talent department. Lyon and Daniels were among the crême de la crême of the film colony and noted for their lavish dinners and parties. In his office he looked at me, but after the introductions he talked only to Irv. A silent test (black and white) was arranged. Irv was delighted. As we left the office, I wanted to know what a "silent test" was.

"A piece of cake," was all I could get from him.

Makeup for the Screen Test

The next morning, he picked me up and we drove to the studio. It was the first time someone besides me had put my makeup on.

It was quite different. I sat in a barber’s chair in front of a huge lighted mirror while Irv sat at the rear of the room. With a sponge, the makeup man applied a very light color of grease paint from a wide-mouthed stick tube. I’d never heard of using a sponge before; in theater you dotted from a tube all over your face, then spread it around with your hands and fingers.

"What’s that for?" I asked.

"It’s beard cover," he answered patiently.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because you have a very dark beard," he said.

"But I just shaved, an hour ago."

"They don’t like to see beards on screen," he said and that completed the subject of beard cover. Then he went over the whole face with another small sponge and a darker grease.

It was true, my beard line had disappeared.

Next, he drew a very fine line at the edge of my eyelids with a pointed dark grease pencil, remarked that my long black eyelashes didn’t require mascara, then powdered me down and lightly shadowed the skin from below my eyebrows to my upper eyelid. A little dry rouge brushed lightly on, some very light lip color, and away I went.

Irving escorted me to a sound stage, instructing me how not to stumble over heavy cables lying all over the place like thick spaghetti. These monsters made TV cables look like pieces of string. We entered into a small set where men, lights, and a camera were waiting, like a small island surrounded by a huge sea of quiet darkness. A nice looking young lady sat on a canvas chair next to the camera (I was to find out they were called director’s chairs and that she was a script supervisor).

Irving faded into the background and a slightly officious man in a sleeveless sweater motioned for me to join him in the center of the set. Lights went on: four or five on the floor, two big ones above me on either side, and one gigantic one above me and slightly off to the side. Later I learned this was called my key light, and with a little practice and plenty of application, I was able to walk onto any set and find my key just by the heat it gave off.

I was planted by another man who held a light meter alongside my face while a short guy walked to my eyes trailing a tape measure from the camera lens. He walked away as he wound the tape up and called a number to another fellow to the right side of the camera who set the focus. I was fascinated with the whole procedure and the smoothness with which these people did their jobs, like bees in a hive.

A guy in a fedora and sport jacket walked up to me and introduced himself. He was the director. Had I ever done a test before? No? Well, don’t worry, just listen to him and do as he says. I nodded. In ten minutes, everyone was ready.

I’d been ready for years.

Somebody shouted, "Quiet! Roll ‘em." Why they yelled, "Quiet" for a silent test, I’ve never been able to figure out.

Then, somebody jumped next to me, held up a big black rectangle (that’s what it looked liked from my side), lifted a black-and-white striped section of wood from a hinged edge at the top of the rectangle, and snapped it right in my face. I reflexed a half step back. "Cut! Hey, kid, get back on your mark" (someone had put a piece of tape on the floor at my toes) "and don’t do that again. You’re stepping out of focus."

"I thought he was going for my nose," I said, for want of anything else.

Finally we got rolling, I didn’t jump again at the clapper, and the director said, "Okay, look into the lens. Now look off to the right. Now turn to your left for a profile. Turn to your right for a profile. Turn around so we can see the back of your head. Good. Now turn back to me. Good. Cut! Print!"

Suddenly the lights went out and everybody was gone. Irving walked up to me. "Let’s get some lunch," he said.

That was my first visit to a studio commissary. It was a gigantic, high-ceilinged room cum restaurant, the walls covered by a huge mural of movie cameras, present and former stars, Darryl Zanuck (head of production at the studio), and a whole mish-mash that thrilled the hell out of me. We sat in a section with a tablecloth (I noticed there was a section nearby with bare, plastic-topped tables) and a counter with seats that were jammed. There must have been five hundred people in that hall. Irv waved to people he knew and they waved back and we had a nice lunch.

Next: How I Turned Down a 20th-Century Fox Acting Contract

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