In this clip from The Blue Dahlia (1946), Alan Ladd picks up a suitcase and walks off screen, leaving the foreground of the shot clear for only a second before a villainous henchman enters from the left. In those few clear frames, half a dozen extras do their bits. At the right of the frame, a bus driver stands ready to help women disembark; in the middle ground, a sailor and a soldier cross from right to left; and, in the back left of the shot, a soldier and a WAC collect a case from the pile of unloaded luggage.
We're interested in that last soldier, the one on the left of this still:
It’s usually impossible to find out the names of extras in roles of that size – if they appear at all on the studio's cast list, they'll be credited as "soldier" or even simply "extra" – but, strangely, the IMDB cast list happens to include a specific credit for "Soldier picking up suitcase in bus station", and tells us that the actor is Eddie Hall. It even provides a studio portrait of him:
Eddie's IMDB filmography is remarkably full, and tells us that he had one hundred and seventy-five roles between 1937 and 1947, almost entirely of the most minor sort. To that extent, Eddie’s career history is similar to those of countless extras who made their living mostly by appearing in crowd scenes. However, unlike them, his IMDB page includes detailed descriptions of those appearances—each description obviously added by someone who clearly wants us to know who Eddie was; someone who wants to record the fact that Eddie played “Man winning slot machine payout” in The Road to Rio (1938); “Creditor Swatting Applauding Stockholder With His Hat” in Argentine Nights (1940); “First Father Handing Out Cigars” in Oh, Baby! (1944); “Man walking down gangplank with woman” in Zombies on Broadway (1945); and dozens of other tiny roles like the mechanic in the background of this still from Detour (1945):
These are the smallest of roles but, thanks to the obsessively detailed filmography, we'd be able to make Eddie out quite easily if we were to happen upon one of those films.
Eddie spent ten years in the movies as a stuntman, stand-in and bit-part actor. He quit in 1948, and became a used-car salesman. Ten more years passed before he married an ex-dancer and bit-part player named Flower Parry (who had been married to Jackie Coogan for a few years in the early forties) and had a child. When he died of a heart attack in 1963, at the age of 51, he hadn’t been in a film in thirteen years.
So, how do we know so much about Eddie’s career? Who has been so diligently detailing his every screen appearance in an effort to ensure that posterity does not forget that, for example, it is none other than Eddie Hall who sits quietly behind Richard Lane in a scene in Youth Will be Served (1944)?
It turns out that it's Eddie's son, Parry Hall. I wrote to Parry to ask some questions about his father and, in the e-mail exchange that followed, it emerged that Parry has spent the past twenty-five years researching his father’s career and collecting any old films and ephemera that might feature him.
Eddie died when Parry was five, and Parry doesn’t remember much about him. He says, “I have only a vague memory of sitting in my dad’s lap in the kitchen, looking out of the window at something. My memories are not too clear at all. The loss was overwhelming for this five-year old.”
As a child, Parry had no interest in his father’s film work. He knew that Eddie had been a stuntman, and took pride in that, but it never occurred to him that he might be in the old movies he watched on television. “I watched Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo many, many times as a boy,” he says, “never realising that my dad has a bit part at the fifteen-minute mark.” Eddie plays the officer in this scene who brings news of Jimmy Doolittle’s arrival in camp:
Of course, Parry’s mother told him stories about his father, but it took him many years to find them at all interesting. “I remember my mother telling me that dad had danced with Ginger Rogers. As a young boy, I didn’t care, but later I realised that she meant the scene in I’ll Be Seeing You where he cuts in on Joseph Cotten at a new year’s dance. It’s probably the greatest bit part he had in his career.”
Here’s the clip:
Years later, Parry met Cotten at a book signing and asked if he remembered Eddie. He said he didn’t, but offered to sign any memorabilia featuring him. Parry sent him some bits and pieces, which came back inscribed with Cotten’s signature and the message, “I remember Eddie Hall as a fine actor”.
Over the years, Parry has tracked down and talked to other old colleagues of his father. In the late thirties, Eddie was a stand-in and stunt double for Tom Brown, whom Parry met in 1987 in a Toluca Lake coffee shop. He remembered Eddie with great affection, as did Huntz Hall, formerly of the Dead End Kids, whom Parry met a few years later, in the same coffee shop. Everyone who has spoken to Parry about his father remembers Eddie fondly, including Noel Neill – Lois Lane in the Superman serials, who was an old flame of Eddie’s – but none has given him any detailed information. Still, he says, he’s enjoyed meeting them.
Parry’s mother had had a son with her first husband, Jackie Coogan. He was much older than Parry, and knew Eddie well. He would entertain Parry with stories about Eddie, such as this one, which Parry relates:
“Once, in the late fifties, early sixties, Eddie went to pick up my brother Anthony from high school. Anthony was to wait in a Winchell’s coffee shop – a haunt most prevalent in those days. Dad pulled up in his ’53 Cadillac – red with a black interior, or was it the other way around? Before he got out, dad revved the engine before turning it off. He got out and sauntered with confidence toward the doughnut house. As he walked, he was addressed by one of three punks loitering outside the haunt, who said, ‘Well, look at the tough guy’. Dad, being raised in lower south side Chicago, had a typical and expected response: ‘Which one of you assholes is leader of this outfit?’ The vocal one answered, ‘I am.’ Dad casually walked over and dropped him. As he stepped over him, he looked at the two remaining guys and asked, ‘Okay, which one of you is next?’ They scattered. My favourite story.”
Parry’s search for his father’s films began in the mid-eighties. At that point, he only had a copy of Club Havana (1945), which featured Eddie's biggest role (which was still, of course, quite small). This scene, in which Marc Lawrence contracts Eddie (on the right, smoking) to perform a hit, is his most substantial:
Parry notes, “I met Marc Lawrence in 1989 in his home in Marina Del Rey, when he was almost eighty years old. We watched Club Havana together. Afterwards, Mr Lawrence posed for endless pictures and signed many items. He was so gracious. He obviously didn’t remember my dad, but was willing to greet and meet a fellow actor’s son. So kind.”
Parry used his father’s social security records to discover which films he was likely to have worked on and set out to track down copies of as many as he could. “I used Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee,” he says, “a famous haunt for collectors. I simply rented dozens of tapes at a time and filled weekends with fast-forwarding through titles looking for my dad. I wore out two VHS machines doing that, but I’d find an average of two appearances per batch.”
Some of the finds were of comparitively prominent roles, such as the pipe-smoking sailor behind Gene Kelly (the one who says “Dames have been known to wander”) in this scene from Anchors Aweigh (1945):
Other finds were of smaller parts, such as the photographer on the left in this short clip from Pittsburgh (1942):
and the first man out of the stage door in this clip from Little Tough Guy (1938):
The best years of Eddie’s career were undoubtedly during world war two. He was classified 4-F, and consequently spent the war in Hollywood. He was best friends with Tom Neal, who was becoming a successful supporting actor in tough-guy roles. They shared a bachelor apartment where they held high-spirited parties that were often mentioned in the gossip columns, which also kept the public informed of which starlets had been seen stepping out with the boys lately. Eddie got a contract for work as an extra with Paramount, and Tom Neal was able to use his influence to get him a few slightly more prominent parts in B-pictures. In 1944, the boys celebrated the end of their bachelor years with a double wedding in Las Vegas – Tom Neal married a young extra, Vicky Lane (whom Eddie had previously dated), and Eddie married a girl called Pat Stengall or Stengle, about whom we know nothing. Neither marriage lasted more than a few years. Eddie’s wife was granted a divorce in 1947 on the grounds that Eddie insisted on having his boxer dog, Dynamite, sleep in the marital bed, underneath the covers.
It was around that time that Eddie stopped appearing in films. Parry doesn’t know why; all he has from the period is a card stamped with the date of Eddie’s withdrawal from the Screen Actors Guild, October 1948. “The end of my dad’s career is vague,” he says. “I know that he wrote and submitted screenplays, but none were made. I know that he hated Warner Brothers, and his work there substantiates that – almost nothing; not one speaking bit.” Parry remarks that, ironically, Eddie is buried on a hill in Forest Lawn cemetery in Hollywood, literally facing the Warner Brothers studio.
As a young man, Parry considered following his parents into showbusiness. He did some stage acting and improv and took acting classes in Hollywood, but he never got any work in the movies. “I had a small career in voice-overs,” he told me, “but never caught fire. Almost.”
Parry started looking for his father in the background of old, half-forgotten movies in 1985, and he hasn't stopped since. It's not the kind of job that ever finishes. Any time Parry happens to see an old Hollywood movie, he knows that he might catch a glimpse of Eddie; that any scene might contain a few frames of the father he can barely remember. Of course, Eddie appeared in only so many films, and Parry also knows that each time he finds his father again on the screen, there’s a chance that it will be the last time he ever does. However, it's unlikely that Parry will ever stop looking, ever stop scanning the crowds of extras, scrutinising the faces of all those long-gone men who passed briefly before a camera sixty or seventy years ago or ever stop peering at fuzzy black and white freeze-frames and asking, Dad? Is that you?
Sources: Modesto Bee, April 17, 1943; Lowell Sun, July 8, 1943, October 8, 1943, March 9, 1944 and May 8, 1944; Salt Lake Tribune, Dec 13, 1943 and Jan 29, 1947; Winnipeg Free Press, Dec 22, 1943; Morning Herald (Uniontown) Feb 2, 1944; Fresno Bee, Jan 16, 1944; El Paso Herald-Post, Jan 29, 1947; and e-mail exchange with Parry Hall.