“There’s No Free Lunch in Hollywood”: Alexander Voloshin and the Plight of Russian Extras

Back by popular demand is Alexander Voloshin! Today’s excerpt from his mock epic of Russian Hollywood, On the Tracks and at Crossroads, introduces us to the crowds of émigrés who sought, if not stardom, then at least a little pocket money on the sets of Paramount, Universal, and other studios around town. Among them was Voloshin himself, and the tale he has to tell is a cautionary one. Reading this passage, I can’t help but think of the opening scenes of Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928), in which Emil Jannings appears as an exiled White General on his uppers, scraping together a living as an extra in films.

Jannings’s character is based loosely on a real Hollywood émigré, Theodore Lodijensky (1876-1947), who appeared in films under the name Theodore Lodi. You can learn more about Lodi — as well as his Russian Eagle café — in an old essay of mine. But you’ll get a good sense of the texture of his days from the lines below.

Just about half the émigrés
are in the movies, where they “play”
jigits and knights, both noblemen
and jolly serfs who work the land,
soldiers and officers and sailors,
both men of means and simple tailors,
both courtly ladies and their maids…
Early each morning, at the gates
of studios, “our crowd” amasses —
mothers and fathers, lads and lasses —
a proper family affair…

Friends, I won’t lie: you’ll find me there —
not very often, no, but still…
Why be ashamed? What’s the big deal?
I earn a little “pocket money,”
which keeps my disposition sunny…

Not many Russians “break through,” though.
Believe me, it’s a thorny road
that leads up to the starry skies…
You’ll need some “pull” here, otherwise
you’ll have to squirm and beg and wail,
hold on to someone else’s tail,
keep beating down producers’ doors,
give gifts on holidays, and more…
You’ll have to “sweeten” every pot
or you won’t even have a shot.
Those who don’t give, who play it straight,
are asked to wait… and wait… and wait…
The sad thing is, they’ll never get it,
poor fools — they might as well forget it…

Reader, it’s time you understood:
there’s no free lunch in Hollywood!…

Ну а примерно половина
Колонии – «играет» в кино:
Джигитов, рыцарей, дворян,
Весёлых русских поселян,
Солдат, матросов, офицеров,
Галантных, светских кавалеров,
Торговок, баб, придворных дам…
И ежедневно, по утрам,
У студий можно видеть «наших», –
Тут и мамаши и папаши,
И дети – словом – вся семья…
Бываю там, друзья, и я.

Не очень часто, но – бываю …
А впрочем – я не унываю:
Хватает «мелочи» прожить,
Так значит – нечего тужить!…

Из русских «выплыло» немного, –
Весьма тернистая дорога
Ведёт на «звёздные пути»…
Необходимо «пул» найти,
Просить, канючить, унижаться,
За хвостик чей-нибудь держаться,
Пороги студий обивать,
Подарки к праздникам давать…
«Борзых щенков» здесь очень любят,
Без них – безжалостно погубят,
И если кто не хочет «дать»,
Так будет «ждать»… и «ждать»… и «ждать»…
И драма в том, что – не дождётся, –
Напрасно мучится и бьётся…

Да… Не легко, читатель, тут, –
Жестокий город Холливуд!…

17 thoughts on ““There’s No Free Lunch in Hollywood”: Alexander Voloshin and the Plight of Russian Extras

    1. Yes, I agree! That’s precisely what keeps drawing me back to the book: Voloshin’s rendering of the daily surprises and disappointments, which I recognize so well from my own childhood, as well as the touch of melancholy humor he applies to that rendering.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you for delighting your and Voloshin’s fans, Boris! Such immediacy, and the line of exploration about Janning is fascinating and moving. The literary honesty here results in lines that can resonate for any of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinatingly informative as always Boris! I look forward to the publication of “My Hollywood and Other Poems” next year!

    On a sidenote: Has anyone ever tried to compile footage of the various emigres’ appearances in Hollywood films? Or would it just amount to a few broken, momentary, fragments and assumptions of ‘that’s them, we assume, playing background extra #8’? The task would probably prove to be more effort than it’s worth, I imagine, despite the novelty and interest it holds for the select few to preserve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for this kind comment and brilliant question/proposal! I actually think it would be fairly easy to compile an hour’s worth of footage of the better known bit players and extras — Alex Akimoff, Mischa Auer, Leonid Kinskey, all the way down to Voloshin. The result would be something like Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself or, if it took a more surreal direction, Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart. There are many resources one could use to locate the films and identify the actors, including an excellent book by Harlow Robinson, Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians (2007).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome Boris! Ah, yes, that’s true – I was concerned about the earliest films in particular as I’ve heard so many stories of film stock of that era being prone to severe damage, deterioration or even ignition due to poor storage. From the names you provided I can see that they appeared in notable works I know have received significant archival work and remastering so at least their legacy is assured.

        I like your idea of how such a compilation could be presented as I was imagining something along the lines of an Adam Curtis documentary with expository narration discussing the émigré, as individuals and a community, over selected sequences. (Perhaps even, in a separate work, being discussed in parallel, or contrast, with their Soviet contemporaries as both industries were producing landmark works. However, that also brings to mind Eisenstein’s brief frustrating experience with the Hollywood studio system in 1930 during an apparent career low). A Rose Hobart like piece would be very entertaining to see! I will have to check out the book eventually.

        Liked by 1 person

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