Did you know that stand-ins have had films made about them? That’s the case in Stand-In, a hilarious and entertaining film released all the way back in 1937!
Stand-In is a fantastic look not only inside the world of stand-ins but also into the movie business of old. Here are some insights the film provides about stand-in work.
About the Film
Stand-In is based upon a 1937 serial story from the Saturday Evening Post of the same name — and perhaps, as the opening credits suggest, a novel — by Clarence Budington Kelland.
The film stars Leslie Howard as “Atterbury Dodd,” an accountant, and Joan Blondell as “Lester Plum” a film stand-in. The movie also features Humphrey Bogart in an important supporting role.
The film is currently hosted on YouTube:
Plot of Stand-In
Stand-In tells the story of a disciplined, all-business New York City accountant, Atterbury Dodd, faced with proving to stockholders the value he sees in his company’s film studio.
Charged the authority of studio head, the accountant goes to Hollywood to learn about the film business, to see why the film studio is losing money and to correct it. Upon arrival, he coincidentally shares a car with one of the film studio’s stand-ins, Lester Plum. The accountant learns that no expense is spared in the company’s current production Sex and Satan, even for the most ridiculous, most outrageous, and most fantastic demand. Why? “That’s the picture business,” he’s told. But it’s really several key artists at the studio conspiring with the pending new owner who are motivating the excess spending.
The accountant determines that a film’s potential should be reason for funding a film’s expenses, not artists’ demands. He hires the star actress’s stand-in as his secretary — after learning she has an impeccable memory for dictation from her experience as a former child star. Not before long, the stand-in becomes fond of the accountant, and she tries to get the numbers-oriented mathematician to experience real human emotions and feelings for her. He is deaf to her lessons and affections.
The accountant eventually learns Sex and Satan will be a certifiable dud if released in its current form. Faced with agreeing to sell the film company at low cost because of the abysmal production, the accountant outrages the film’s stand-in, lecturing the accountant on the three thousand workers he’ll disemploy and livelihoods he’ll destroy by such a decision. The stand-in’s lecture seems to affect the accountant.
As a means for gaining final cut from the film’s lead actress and saving crew members’ jobs, the accountant concocts a plan to seduce the actress in an effort to terminate her contract on terms of moral turpitude. He succeeds, but the ensuing scandal devastates the smitten stand-in, who believes the scandalous romance as true. Meanwhile, the film company’s owner agrees to sell the company, and immediately the accountant is fired. Moments later the pending new owner of the company bribes the accountant with a $75,000 job (i.e., $1.2 million adjusted for inflation).
The accountant does not immediately accept the tempting offer, and instead strolls the studio lot, encountering the frustrated, unemployed film crew who harass him. Fresh from encountering real people with raw emotion and not simply “units,” the accountant finally understands the value of people. He concocts a plan to incite the crew to block the handover of the film company.
As he tries to enact the plan, he discovers the film crew leaving the lot en masse. The accountant is forced with making an impassioned plea for them to return to work on Sex and Satan for forty-eight hours — unpaid — in an effort to save the film company and their jobs. The plea is convincing, and as the crew returns to the studio to work, the accountant calls out the pending new owner for conspiracy and for bribing him to prevent him from dissolving the sale. The film crew gets ahold of the pending new owner and throws him out of the lot.
Having seen a new, passionate side to the accountant in his fearless stand for workers, the stand-in’s affection for the accountant is rekindled. The film ends with the accountant discovering his own affection for the stand-in.
Stand-Ins as Portrayed in Stand-In
Stand-ins are represented both literally and figuratively in the film Stand-In.
In the literal sense, Lester Plum is a film stand-in, and her work in many ways seems little different than the work of stand-ins today. Her feet hurt from standing in high heels all day. She helps with lining up the camera, sweats under the lights, and rehearses the scene in place of the principal actor.
In the figurative sense, Atterbury Dodd is a stand-in in that he is standing in for the head of the studio during his trip to Hollywood. He is not a studio head by trade but, rather, an accountant. He is only charged with the responsibility of studio head so that he can prove his point that the film studio is undervalued.
The title of the film is more about the accountant as stand-in than about the film stand-in. But in linking the accountant and the film stand-in romantically, the production obviously plays with the ambiguity of the title “Stand-In.”
In a way, the film shows how important the work of a film stand-in can be to the survival of a film studio. In the story, the film stand-in shows the studio’s accountant how to value human beings, and it is that appreciation that motivates the accountant’s actions that save the studio.
Stand-Ins Who Worked on Stand-In
As reported in Anthony Slide’s book Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players, and Stand-Ins, stand-ins even worked on the film Stand-In.
Notable Dialogue about Stand-Ins
There is a sizable amount of dialogue that explains what film stand-ins do, presumably to help not just the characters understand but also the audience.
The following exchange happens between accountant Atterbury and stand-in Lester starting at 11:47 into the film, when they both meet coincidentally inside Atterbury’s car. Throughout the exchange, Lester rubs her tired feet after having already stood in for a long day on set:
Atterbury: Are you an actress?
Lester: I’m a stand-in for Thelma Cheri.
Atterbury: Pardon my inquiring, but would you mind telling me: Who is Thelma Cheri, and what is a stand-in?
Lester: I’d go without pie for a week if Thelma could hear you say that. But you do know what a star is, don’t you?
Atterbury: Well, vaguely, yes.
Lester: How you must get around. Well, Thelma Cheri’s a star. Like most stars, she’s a pretty fragile kind of snake. She mustn’t be fatigued or mussed. And above all, she would never be so vulgar to perspire. Hence the stand-in does her sweating for her.
Atterbury: I see. Sorry, I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.
Lester: Now, look: You wouldn’t expect a star to endure the heat of the lights while they’re setting up the cameras and microphone, would you?
Atterbury: No, I suppose not.
Lester: No! So they dig up a gal — that’s me — to stand in for her while all this torture goes on.
Lester: And then when everything’s set, the star, cool and immaculate, puts her dainty little feet in the chalk marks, and the stand-in, worn and wilted, fades out of the spotlight, and business goes on as usual.
Atterbury: I see.
Atterbury’s car drops Lester off at a boarding house, where she lives. According to Anthony Slide’s book Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players, and Stand-Ins, it was pretty common for actresses at the time to stay at boarding houses.
And it later turns out that Lester is indeed an actress, not “just” a stand-in. Or, more truthfully, she was an actress — she is a former child star who has found adult work as a stand-in. Many actors of the time who worked as extras and stand-ins had acting careers earlier in their lives or as youths.
At the boarding house are other actors seeking work in the business, including an actress named Naomi and her Method-actor companion, who apparently is living and breathing a future role as Abraham Lincoln. At 18:10, the two actors have this comic exchange, which starts with Naomi on the phone with someone responsible for casting a film. The exchange highlights the conflict actors had — even then — between holding out for higher-paying acting work and making no money or resigning to make lower income from extra work. It also represents the ego battle some actors had in working as extras:
Naomi: [on the phone] Extra work? But I starred in that picture in the silent days. There must be some little part. […] I see. Well, thanks, anyway. [hangs up]
Lincoln: What news from the battle front, Naomi?
Naomi: They offered me extra work!
Lincoln: Don’t take it, Naomi! Fight it out on this line if it takes all summer. That’s what I’m doing. I’m with the Battle of Gettysburg, scheduled for a remake. They’ll have to come to me! And I’m ready for them!
At 27:57, we see a behind-the-scenes look at stand-in work, with Lester walking up an inclined treadmill to help in the lighting and camera rehearsal of a simulated blizzard for the film Sex and Satan. Lester is “roasting” as she stands in, presumably from the hot lights coupled with the exertion. Then she’s subjected to a large fan that blows fake snow into her as she walks “uphill” on the treadmill.
Here we also see glimpses of ways production might recreate a blizzard on a soundstage, and we hear how the crew barks orders to set up the shot. The crew speaks in a jargon unique to the filmmaking industry, with some expressions perhaps more period than contemporary. We also hear “First position!” “Second position!” Modern stand-ins know these terms well, as they signify the first and second places the actor and/or camera are in for a shot.
At 30:30, we get the sense that stand-ins might not always be treated well by their respective actors. While the star is entertaining the accountant, the assistant director comes to her dressing room:
AD: All set, Miss Cheri. Better hurry or your stand-in’ll fry.
Thelma: Well let her fry.
Stand-In is a hilarious and entertaining film in its own right, with some moments that are still truly “laugh outloud.” But aside from its entertainment value, the film provides history, imagery, and insight into the past work of film stand-ins. Furthermore, the film does a solid job in promoting the unseen and uncredited people whose work sometimes is truly herculean.
Did you watch the film Stand-In? What other films about stand-ins in old Hollywood do you know? Share below!