Some movie stars' hands were simply not elegant enough for close-ups. Some shots required a degree of manual dexterity that was beyond the ability of the actor in the scene. And, sometimes, a star's time was just too valuable to waste appearing in a shot in which their face wouldn't be seen.
In those situations, the studios got in a hand double.
There was decent money to be made in hand double work, and the jobs came far more regularly than general extra roles. In the thirties, a hand double earned $15 a day – double the normal rate – and that could rise to as much as $25 a day if they had excellent penmanship or were particularly skilled at shuffling cards.
Orah Cormack was RKO’s official hand double in the early thirties. A 1934 gossip column wrote, “She’s not a raving beauty and she believes she never will be a screen star, but … Miss Cormack is said to have the loveliest hands in Hollywood”. Her hands doubled for those of Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne (for whom she wore a wedding ring), Ann Harding (on whose behalf she knocked on a door) and others, and were insured by the studio for $100,000.(1)
Margaret Burt was used for handwriting close-ups, and could produce not only fine American script but passable imitations of German gothic writing and Chinese.(2)
Myrtle Flynn, a stenographer from Chicago, came to Hollywood to act but ended up sorting mail for RKO. She worked as a hand double on the side, holding a jewel box for Ann Sothern in The Smartest Girl in Town (1936) and writing a diary for Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp (1935), as seen here:
However, none of those hand doubles ever got any other sort of movie work. It seems that, once a girl was in demand on account of her well-formed hands, she might as well forget any ambition she had to become a proper actress, or even a bit-part player. It never happened.
The stills below are a fair representation of the sort of shots that hand doubles were called in for.
One of the most well established male hand doubles was an Irishman called George Campbell McBride, who specialised in close-up card tricks. This still from Six of a Kind (1934) is almost certainly him:
McBride had been an officer in the British Royal Flying Corps in the first world war. He was shot down over France, and was dragged out of the wreckage of his plane with a broken back.
He lay in a hospital bed for the next two years, and took to amusing himself by practising card tricks. He claimed that, eventually, he got so good that he could read the print on the faces of cards with his fingertips.
After the war, McBride became a sleight-of-hand stage magician and went to America. He continued to use his airforce rank, creating the stage name, Major McBride.
Eventually, he made it to Hollywood, where he made a living teaching actors how to manipulate cards convincingly, and doubling for them in close-up shots of tricks they couldn't manage.(4)
McBride is something of an exception among hand doubles, as he also got work as a dress extra, usually in roles that involved cards in some way. The first time his face was visible in a film, if only for a few seconds, was when he appeared as one of dozens of vaudeville performers crowded into a room in a short, chaotic scene in the George Burns and Gracie Allen comedy, Here Comes Cookie (1935):
Of course, he played a magician practicing card tricks.
The back of his head got some screen time when he played a croupier (bottom right) in Michael Shayne: Private Detective (1940):
And the beginning of McBride's third decade as a hand double and dress extra was marked by a job on Citizen Kane (1941), in which his hands, not those of Orson Welles, create the hand shadow puppet of a rooster on Kane's future wife's apartment wall:
The most interesting hand double of all, however, was a young woman called June DeLong. Her story is the subject of the next Unsung Joe post - coming soon!
Sources: (1)The Pittsburgh Press, 30 June, 1934; (2)Information on Margaret Burt and Myrtle Flynn from the Sandusky Star-Journal, 18 Nov, 1936; (3)Sandusky Star Journal, 13 May, 1940 (4)Ottawa Citizen, 17 May, 1940. And thanks to David Cairns of Shadowplay, the world's best English-language film blog, for the still from Hands Across the Table, and Fabián Cepeda, of the wold's best Spanish-language film website, Hollywood Clasico, for information about Major McBride.