PART 2 - Between Silence and Sound: Greek Actors of the Early Hollywood Era
BETWEEN SILENCE AND SOUND:
GREEK ACTORS AND ACTRESSES OF HOLLYWOOD
By Steve Frangos
Published in The National Herald, July 21, 2012
I am excited that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group.
The era of silent film can be roughly marked between 1894 and 1927. During that period Greeks in Hollywood often enjoyed a privileged position. From the early 1900s to the Great Depression, Alexander Pantages owned and operated the largest independent chain of vaudeville and movie theaters in North America.
Pantages was a born showman and so his name and actions were often in the nation's press promoting one of his ventures or another. Two of Pantages’ children, Lloyd and Carmen, were often covered by what today is called the celebrity press. Given their father’s prominence, Carmen seems to have associated with the Hollywood stars and studio personnel, and Lloyd took on an even more active role.
Lloyd Pantages (1907-1987) appeared on stage as first a dancer and singer. Official records only cite one movie in which Lloyd appeared Dante's Inferno (1935), where he played an uncredited role as a drunk in the ship's cafe. Nevertheless, various newspaper accounts and columnists from much earlier report on Lloyd's beginnings in Hollywood film. The features were not always complimentary, such as: “Another millionaire movie extra! Lloyd Pantages, son of the famous Alex of vaudeville fame, is working at the De Mille Studios." The June 24, 1925, edition of the Kingsport Times in Kingsport, TN wrote: “Lloyd Pantages, son of Alexander Pantages, owner of the Pantages vaudeville circuit, is seeking fame in the movies. Lloyd is very dark, has dramatic ability and is a dandy dancer. He makes his debut with Rod LaRocque in The Coming of Amos.''
Lloyd’s role in this 1925 film must have been practically insignificant, as no mention of his name appears in official descriptions. But young Lloyd must have tried to make a go of a film career. An example would be a 1927 review of The Last Trail, a film adapted from a Zane Gray Western novel. Tom Mix (1880-1940) describes that Lloyd had a “prominent role” in the film (Lima News March 5, 1927). But it seemed clear to everyone that Lloyd's appearance in films was more a gimmick than an attribute to his acting abilities.
Olive Borden (1906-1947) was a noted starlet of silent films and early talking movies. Borden was nicknamed “The Joy Girl,” and much was made of her jet-black hair and overall beauty. At the height of her career, Borden was paid $1,500 a week appearing in eleven films for Fox Studios while working with such directors as John Ford and Howard Hawks. One wire service story that circulated around the country under the headline, “Olive Has High Priced Support,” states: “Directors seem to be getting rather particular about the 'atmosphere' they put on their sets. An anonymous background for a bit of Olive Borden's acting the other day included Cissy Fitzgerald, one of the first actresses who ever faced a motion picture camera; Queenie Vassar, the former musical comedy star; Lloyd Pantages, son of the vaudeville magnate; Geno Carrago, the Nebuchadnezzar of Biblical film fame, and Carolynne Snowden, leader of a cabaret review. Seventy-five dollars a day instead of the customary $7.50 was what the ‘extras’ were getting.” (Sandusky Register June 5, 1927)
To be sure, Lloyd Pantages’ socializing with Hollywood and Broadway stars was seen regularly in newspaper stories and in photographic layouts throughout the early 1900s and 1920s again with the leading actors, actresses, and entertainment promoters of the day. It is difficult from this distance in time to really judge how his contemporaries understood him. Given that Lloyd did appear in various silent films and in early sound movies, however, he must be included in any survey of early Greeks in Hollywood film. Perhaps, in the future, a more profitable study of his impact will emerge from how individuals living in Kingsport, Lima, OH or Sandusky, OH responded to those and other news accounts of rich Greeks living in America in the 1900s through the 1920s.
An extremely popular Greek immigrant character actor was George Kotsonaros. Known as “Kots” by his movie and wrestling fans. He appeared in 18 films from 1926 to 1931. Kotsonaros had achieved great popularity in wrestling long before his debut in Hollywood films. Physically unattractive very astute business-wise, Kotsonaros made a highly successful career out of wrestling. Various news articles about successful professional wrestlers always cited Kotsonaros as among those who had quite literally become millionaires. While the 1929 stock market crash had forced Kotsonaros back into a heavy wrestling schedule, he was far from a poor man even after the financial disaster.
In 1926, the year Kotsonaros got into Hollywood films, he first established annual pattern: He would spent most of the year wrestling on a large loop around the country, and then in the winter months he made movies in California. Unlike many other of the Greek silent to sound actors, Kotsonaros' movie roles are well documented. He first appeared in 1926 in the silent films: Vanishing Millions, Cupid's Knockout, and While London Sleeps. Then in 1927, and it is unclear how many of these films were actually sound films (aka “talkies”), in : When a Man Loves, The Tender Hour, CatchAs-Catch-Can, The King of the Jungle, The Wizard, The Private Life of Helen of Troy, and The Love Market. Kotsonaros made four films in 1928: The FiftyFifty Girl, Street of Sin, Beggars Life, and the Laurel and Hardy short film – still unavailable on DVD – We Faw Down. Then, only two films in 1929: The Shakedown and The Body Punch. Next in 1930 and 1931, Kotsonaros only made one film each, Dangerous Paradise and Honeymoon Lane, respectively.
Given Kotsonaros' physical appearance. he mostly portrayed characters such as boxers, convicts, wrestlers, henchmen, and even a gorilla. He often told reporters that he once played the part of a monkey without using any make-up! Kotsonaros also played Hector in the 1927 film The Private Life of Helen of Troy, probably the first Greek immigrant to play a classical Greek figure in a Hollywood movie. Once Kotsonaros began to appear in motion pictures he was not above promoting them while he was touring the country and speaking with reporters in all the various hamlets, villages, towns, and cities in which he wrestled. Those interviews did not go unnoticed in Hollywood.
Various remastered DVDs of Kotsonaros’ films are readily available nowadays, such as While London Sleeps, The Wizard, The King of the Jungle, We Faw Down, and others.
Perhaps there is no better way to appreciate the history of those early Hollywood Greek actors than to watch these films. Meanwhile, expect to read even more about them in a future installment of this column.