Throughout Central Casting’s more than 90-year history, many successful people have come through our doors. Some were Background Actors who turned into Hollywood legends, like John Wayne and Jean Harlow, and others worked on the other side of the phone lines, like extras casting pioneer Marian L. Mel.
Here’s the story of how Mel impacted the creation of Central Casting and how she helped find work for thousands of women in the 1920s and 1930s.
Thousands of people flocked to Los Angeles in the early 1920s with hopes of becoming the next Hollywood star. Many saw extra work as the easiest and most accessible way to get their foot in the door. In the early 1920s, there were two main ways to find jobs: by going to the studios or joining a private casting firm.
Neither provided hopefuls with much work or compensation and often led to the exploitation of extras. As stories of these exploitations spread, Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) President Will Hays hired Mary van Kleek of the Russell Sage Foundation to research the conditions of the industry. After finishing a brief study, van Kleek concluded that the working conditions in Hollywood warranted a more in-depth study of the employment issues that plagued the industry.
Marian L. Mel, a secretary at the Industrial Welfare Commission of California, was sent to Los Angeles to survey extras in the industry and presented her findings to the Welfare Commission and the MPPDA. After seeing her work on the study, Central Casting President Frederick W. Beeson hired Mel to run the women’s and children’s divisions at the newly formed extras casting company.
Mel was born in Santa Cruz County, California and grew up dreaming of being a writer. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and later graduated from business college. Before joining the Welfare Commission, she worked as a volunteer social worker and research secretary.
During her days as an extras Casting Director, Mel interviewed up to 150 women a day. When the list of registered extras grew too large for the amount of jobs available, Central Casting would close its doors to new registrants. To register during these times, extras either had to have a special skill that was not represented in the current ranks or their level of skill had to far exceed those already registered. If Mel decided to register an applicant, she would create their registration card and introduce them to the Casting Assistants who were responsible for answering the hundreds of calls that came in every day.
Out of the 17,000 registered extras in the late 1920s, around 6,000 of them were women and 1,200 were children. Central Casting averaged around 700 placements a day, with 200 of them being women Mel cast. Placements for children were sporadic, but became more common in the 1930s.
“It was the girl, fired by ambition for fame and fortune, or unhappy at home, who first blazoned the way [for extras],” Mel said in a 1930 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Soon every girl who had strayed away from home, was, in the public eye, headed for Hollywood.”
Mel cast many women who would go on to have successful acting careers, including, Janet Gaynor, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Ann Dvorak, and Sally Eilers.
Marian Mel was not only known for her work as a Casting Director, but for her ongoing effort to ensure productions complied with working condition standards. She was often invited to speak at the Women’s Club of Hollywood luncheons and at the International Policewomen’s Association conferences. Her topics would range from employment of children as extras to the strides made by women in the entertainment industry.
In addition to her connections at the Welfare Commission, Mel worked closely with the State Administration and the Los Angeles School Board to ensure the women and children she employed were treated fairly.
“The commission did not touch the moving-picture industry until violation of the eight-hour law for women was called to its attention,” Mel told the Los Angeles Times in 1927. “Many unjust conditions were remedied by the commission and the lot of the extra woman in pictures is much better.”
Want to learn more about Central Casting’s history? Check out our articles Central Casting’s First African American Extras Casting Director and 5 Legends Who Started as Extras at Central Casting.
Categories: Hollywood History