It’s the first time millionairess Ellen Andrews has ever travelled by bus, but she’s running away from her millionaire father (who disapproves of her millionaire fiancé) and it’s the only form of transport on which she can be sure that her father’s detectives won’t think of looking for her. Everyone else on the bus, including Peter Warne, an out-of-work newspaper reporter with whom Ellen is about to fall in love, is riding the bus because they’re broke.
Frank Capra probably didn’t know it but, when he framed this shot in It Happened One Night (1934), he just happened to include in the foreground a man who had experience of both extremes of wealth. By the middle of the 1930s, Sol Simon, the slumbering extra in the bottom right of the frame, would have been lucky to earn around $10 a day for jobs like this one, but he’d started the century as rich as anyone in Ellen Andrews' family.
Sol was born in Sacramento, in 1864, to a couple of Vaudeville actors. When he was a child, he joined his parents’ act and toured the country. In his teens, he joined a circus and then took up acting, ending up as a junior player in the company of Lawrence Barrett and Edwin Booth, two of the greatest actors of the late 19th century.
At some point in the 1890s, however, he quit performing and enrolled in the Colorado school of mines, where he learned to prospect for oil. He took himself to Death Valley and elsewhere in California, where he struck oil again and again, eventually setting up several oil companies on the Kern fields – later in his life, he claimed to have discovered the fields, but that appears to have been a romantic embellishment – and a company to sell fullers earth from a mine that he owned.
When he was 40, Sol sold his mine for $2 million – around $25 million in today’s money – and took a year-long trip around the world with his wife. Not long after his return, however, the Taft administration decided that the smaller companies on the California fields hadn’t been developing their holdings quickly enough, and took away most of their land. The Government compensated Sol for his loss, but not by as much as he'd have made if he'd been allowed to keep his business.
Sol went back to prospecting, but he couldn’t repeat whatever he’d been able to do on the Kern fields. He fixed on Monterey county as the place where he would be able to start in business again, and spent a decade emptying his bank accounts into speculative oil wells there. He found nothing, but was convinced there was a big field waiting somewhere beneath the Monterey soil. He liquidated his assets – his cannery, his factories, his fleet of fishing boats – and threw that money after the rest of his fortune, but to no effect.
By the mid-1920s, Sol was bust. He’d failed as a prospector, he’d failed as a businessman and he was almost 60 years old. But he wasn’t done yet. He’d acted before – it was the last thing at which he hadn’t failed – so why couldn’t he act again? Hollywood had plenty of jobs for men with hard-earned, weather-beaten faces like Sol’s. He might not get rich again, but he and his wife wouldn’t starve.
Sol became an extra and bit-player, appearing mostly as townsmen, bartenders and homesteaders in low-budget westerns like Oklahoma Cyclone (1930)
and The Big Stampede (1932)
Later, Capra used him in bit parts a few times, starting with the sleeping bus passenger in It Happened One Night and ending with a vagrant in a police station in You Can’t Take it With You (1938):
He appears to have got a contract with Columbia around 1934, which was the year he gave an interview to a Hollywood press agent in which he revealed his illustrious past and subsequent hard times. In the interview – the only one he ever gave, it seems – Sol expressed no regrets. “I’m not kicking,” he said. “I’ve made my pile and I’ve lost it and now I’m getting old. I get along all right – and I can look back and say I’ve gotten more out of life than most men.”
Sol died in April, 1940. Several papers carried news of his death in their “News in Brief” columns, under the headline, “$10 Day Film Extra Dies; Was Once Fabulously Rich”.
Sources: Still from The Big Stampede courtesy of Fabian Cepeda; Main interview with Sol, Albuquerque Journal, Sep 12, 1934.