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.

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