Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Great Baby Scandal of 1932, and the Feral Child of Poverty Row

One of the sadder chapters from the great depression happened in Hollywood, in 1932, at the poverty row studio, Savoy-Univex Pictures. With the 1929 collapse of Wall Street, and the loss of up to one third of American jobs, many parents found themselves unable to care for their young children. With little choice, many of these young victims of the great financial collapse were left at what were then known as foundling homes. Overwhelmed with so many new mouths to feed, the Los Angeles city orphanage decided to defray costs by providing infants to the Hollywood movie industry.

In 1932, the producers at Savoy-Univex launched a new production, Babies Over Broadway. The plot was the standard boy meets girl, they put on a show, and make a great success. Babies Over Broadway would be a bit different, however. An all infant cast, with adult voices over dubbed, would be used. Cute babies, snappy dialogue, and hits sung by whatever out of work crooner could be found, spelled success. Perhaps, it was hoped by the producers, even enough success to lift Savoy-Univex from poverty row fixture to elite studio status.

At first filming went well. The children were placed on a sound stage, they were filmed moving around, as voice over artists were cast to provide the actual dialogue and songs that would seem to come out of the baby's mouths. But as anyone who has ever been a parent can attest, it can be awfully difficult keeping track of one crawling baby, let alone fifty.

It was two weeks into the production schedule. The buses carrying the babies, and their handlers returned to the Los Angeles Foundling Home, a count was taken, and it was found that one baby had been lost. Baby Ezra, last name unknown, had crawled away, and had become lost in the massive sound stage. An immediate search was launched. The sound stage was gone over from floor to ceiling. Despite the massive search that involved almost every studio employee from production chief Max Korwin to the back lot janitors, no trace of Baby Ezra could be found. Korwin was sure that his studio would be destroyed if word ever got out that a baby had been lost at savoy-Univex. But then, a faint crying could be heard. Baby Ezra's tiny voice was coming from behind the insulation placed on the inner walls of the sound stage. The irony was that the insulation was meant to keep outside noise from interfering with the recording of sound.

Yes, Baby Ezra had been found, sort of. It was clear that the child must have crawled through one of the bare spots in the sound proof insulation. The problem was how to get him out. Ripping apart the walls was rejected by studio brass. Maybe they cared about the baby's life, maybe they didn't. But they certainly cared about the $100,000 bill to replace the sound proofing. Instead it was decided to lure baby Ezra out of his hiding place with food. For weeks, the child's favorite treats were left out on the sound stage floor, and for weeks the child was able to get his sustenance and still crawl back into his hiding place before being captured. Eventually, it was decided that food and blankets should be left out, and if anyone could grab him so be it, and if not, the child, at least, wouldn't starve to death, or die from the cold.

And so things continued for five long years. The Los Angeles Foundling Home, quietly suspended it's practice of leasing out infants to the movie industry, while doing it's best to suppress what would have been a major scandal. Things went along as if nothing had happened, and then the situation changed. Baby Ezra became too big to fit into his hiding places in the walls of the sound stage. When it became known that a feral child was found in Los Angeles, dirty, and clothed in only an old blanket, an investigation was mounted. Savoy-Univex and it's chief Max Korwin might have got away with it, if Ezra had not spoken. The child couldn't answer questions, but he could recite pages and pages of movie dialogue, all of it from Savoy-Univex releases. It didn't take long for the Los Angeles police department to put two and two together, and realize that the studio was somehow involved with the feral child of poverty row. An investigation, and the panicked confessions of some of the studio employees, who feared prosecution, resulted in the indictment of Korwin and the former head of the orphanage.

Ezra never learned to verbalize anything that he hadn't heard in a movie. He was institutionalized for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Little Bobby Larsen and the Larsen Laws

A forgotten figure in Hollywood history, Little Bobby Larsen played an important part in the establishment of work place safety rules for both human performers and their animal costars. At first, a marginal figure in the Hollywood community, Larsen began his short lived career in the silent film era, primarily as a background actor, with the occasional featured bit in two reel comedies. His life took a dramatic turn in 1924 when he auditioned for the part of The Kid in a two reeler titled Scraps and the Kid. Larsen was in fact several years too old for the part as written, but he was small for his age and, as one critic wrote, "He had an angelic face that reminded every American mother of her ideal son." Cast in the lead, it was only a matter of choosing the equally important performer, Scraps, a dog of the streets.

Like most two reel shorts of the time, the plot of Scraps and the Kid was simple and straight forward. The Kid, rescues Scraps from a dog fighting ring and they become best friends, living on the streets of an unnamed American city. Finding a dog that had the look of a fighter proved to be a difficult one. After a search of city pounds for an ideal candidate, director Fred Spardo chose a mutt that had taken to following around crew members at busy Red Eagle Studios. To make the new Scraps look the part, the poor animals ears were shredded with razor blades and his skin was scarred with lit matches. Scraps and the Kid was a hit. In a long established Hollywood tradition, plans were quickly launched for a series of two reel sequels, but with one important difference; Bobby Larsen was to be established as the star of the series, and each subsequent film would begin with the words, "Little Bobby."

Over the next two years, Little Bobby Larsen and Scraps the Dog would make eight more Little Bobby movies. The series might have gone on for several more years, since Larsen didn't seem to be growing any taller, but an ugly incident would end both the series and Larsen's career as a child movie star of the silent era. Larsen was in his early teens when the first movie in the series was made, and like most teen boys of that age, he was a somewhat surly young fellow. Scraps was, understandably, a mean and vicious dog. On the set of Little Bobby and the Sewer Rat Gang, a bored Bobby Larsen amused himself by teasing Scraps. And then the tragedy happened; Scraps turned on Little Bobby and in less than five seconds ripped most of the young actor's face off. Rushed to the hospital Bobby Larsen's life was saved, but he was also permanently disfigured. In reaction to the attack on Bobby Larsen, California state assemblyman Homer Kutler introduced a bill making it illegal to mutilate animals for the movies as well as requiring that all animals used in films be under the supervision of a certified animal trainer. It was too late for Scraps and Bobby, but in the future there would be, almost, no other such incident, thanks to what became known as the Larsen laws.

Bobby Larsen made a brief comeback in the mid 1950's in four science fiction horror movies. He was billed as the "Monster Without Makeup." All four films were made at famed B-movie studio, Terrific Pictures. None of the films made much more than their investment, ending Larsen's return to the silver screen. Bobby Larsen was an early experimenter with the drug, LSD. In 1962, at the age of 51, Little Bobby Larsen died of a massive heart attack. He was on an LSD "acid" trip at the time. Witnesses report that he looked in the mirror while under the influence, saw his own mutilated face, and died of fright.

The Little Bobby Larsen films were, 1. Scraps and the Kid, 2. Little Bobby and the Burglars, 3. Little Bobby Warns the Town, 4. Little Bobby and the Italian Anarchist, 5. Little Bobby and the Stolen Diamonds, 6. Little Bobby and the Runaway Circus Elephant, 7. Little Bobby and the Bolshevik Plot, 8. Little Bobby and the Sinking Ship, and the last in the series, finished with a photo double, 9. Little Bobby and the Sewer Rat Gang.

His last four films were, 1. Invasion of the Fluoride Monster, 2. The Atomic Brain Eater, 3. The A-Bomb Mutant, and 4. The Lung Snatcher