The other day during the press screening of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, I happened to notice that Jackson made a cameo appearance in the movie. Aptly enough, he showed up as a customer in a camera shop playing around with a movie camera. This isn’t the first time, Jackson’s put himself in one of his movies. In fact, he’s popped in just about everything he’s made except for Meet the Feebles (1989)—perhaps most notably as the spectacularly inept embalmer in Dead Alive (1992). Such things are, of course, a fairly common practice—not just with directors, but with actors turning up or walking through movies made by their actor or director pals.
It’s a fun aspect of film history that isn’t always appreciated by very serious-minded folks—unless it’s used for a humorous purpose in a comedy. It does have the downside of sometimes causing a ripple of audience whispering. I freely admit to having leaned over to Marcianne Miller during The Lovely Bones and pointed out my Jackson sighting. The critic Stanley Kauffmann wrote about this effect years ago, noting that when audiences recognized Donald Pleasence in the virtually all-guest-star Bible epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), it sounded like snakes had gotten loose in the theater. He then expressed a preference for them noting the presence of John Wayne, which he likened to the sound of a dinosaur giving birth. I hadn’t realized Kauffmann was that old, but I understood his point.
I’m not at all sure where the practice of guest bits and cameos started. Originally, of course, the early studios were not keen to give actors credit of any kind, fearing that this might cause those upstarts to want more money if their popularity could be gauged. (Silly, paranoid studios.) The first actual instance I can find of this particular kind of cameo is in Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923) which he directed, but didn’t star in. Chaplin—being Chaplin—couldn’t stand not being in the movie somewhere, so he showed up briefly as a porter in a train station. You couldn’t prove it by me based on the evidence of the film (see photo off to the side), but I’m willing to accept it. Certainly he showed up in his other non-starring film, A Countess from Hong Kong (1962), where he had a bit as a seasick steward. His best cameo, however, was probably in King Vidor’s 1928 film Show People (Vidor and roughly half of MGM’s payroll showed up as well).
As far as directors appearing in their own movies goes the most famous is Alfred Hitchcock, though the idea that he had a walk-on in every film he ever made is strictly a myth. At that, it’s sometimes hard to tell because many of his appearances are very fleeting indeed. I’d owned a 16mm print of The 39 Steps (1935) for some years and despite numerous viewings never spotted him. I ran it for a friend, who caught sight of him at once. Hitch merely walks past the camera in a scene where Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim get on a bus. The only thing that even draws attention to him is that he throws away a piece of paper as he walks past.
Spotting directors is a kind of tricky proposition unless the director is well known in a physical sense, so there’s a great chance that there a lot of director cameos we just don’t catch. That said, I’ve never identified any number of directors—Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, James Whale, Josef von Sternberg—who I’m very familiar with. Even the far-from-camera-shy Cecil B. DeMille stayed out of his own movies—except as a voice. He did the voice of a radio announcer at least once—Madame Satan (1930)—and, of course, he was the voice of God in The Ten Commandments (1956), a role I feel certain he felt quite comfortable with. It took other people to get him actually onscreen. Most famously, he played himself—pleasantly hammy—in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). But a couple years later he let himself be used as a throwaway gag in Frank Tashlin’s Bob Hope comedy Son of Paleface where he showed up as a photographer (“Now watch the little birdie”) taking Hope’s picture.
Paramount’s wonder man of the 1940s, Preston Sturges showed up in his second directorial work Christmas in July (1940) as a nattily-dressed gent at a shoeshine stand listening to hear the winner of the Maxford House coffee slogan contest on the radio. He also played a director in Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Almost as if to get at Sturges, Paramount’s other major director of the time, Mitchell Leisen played the fictional Paramount director Dwight Saxon to whom Charles Boyer tells his story in Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn (1941). (The two were cool toward each other, since Sturges had been rather vocal about his disatisfaction with Leisen’s direction of some of his screenplays.) However, Leisen had already done cameros as an orchestra leader in two of his earlier films, Murder at the Vanities (1934) and Four Hours to Kill! (1935), so this was perhaps just an elaborate extension.
Around this same time, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby got into the cameo act. Having become established as a screen team thanks to Road to Singapore (1940), Road to Zanzibar (1941) and Road to Morocco (1942), it seemed perfectly natural that Bing would show up in Sidney Lanfield’s Hope solo film MyFavorite Blonde (1942). It’s actual an odd little scene—not particularly funny in itself—that only registers thanks to Hope’s look of recognition and disbelief after it’s over. This, however, opened a floodgate of cameos from Bing—The Princess and the Pirate (1944), Where There’s Life (1947), My Favorite Brunette (1947), Son of Paleface and Alias Jesse James (1959). The cleverest may be Crosby’s “appearance” on a poster for Blue Skies (1946) in Where There’s Life, which afforded Hope the chance to dismiss him as “a singer before your time” to leading lady Signe Hasso.
The boys weren’t adverse to having other stars pop up in their “Road” pictures either. Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother) shows up in Road to Bali (1952), as does Humphrey Bogart. In Bogie’s case, however, it’s just a clip from The African Queen (1951), though I guess we can assume that he was really there, since they find his Oscar. The strangest cameo, though, comes in the form an apparently erotic dream Dorothy Lamour has—that seems to involve Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis kissing. Well, why not? Bing and Bob returned the favor—minus the kissing—by showing up for the climactic gag in George Marshall’s Martin and Lewis film Scared Stiff the next year. Oddly enough, this was Marshall’s remake of his own The Ghost Breakers (1940), which had starred Hope.
This sort of thing never went away. Just look at those guest bits for Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre in Beach Party movies—which were probably less done as favors than because they were at American Interntional and owed the studio a day from some other shoot that had run short.
Directors kept “doing that Hitchcock thing” right along. Though he’s hardly immediately recognizable to most people, Richard Lester inserted himself into his 1965 film The Knack…and How to Get It. The film—one of his best—was sandwiched in between A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). That’s to say it was made at a time when Lester could do just about anything he wanted, so it’s not terribly surprising that he’d show up onscreen. After all, Lester was one of several people to attain the accolade of being “the fifth Beatle” at that point—even if most of the world had no idea what he looked like.
One of the strangest—in every sense of the word—guest appearances has to be Peter O’Toole showing up as part of James Bond’s (Peter Sellers) “torture of the mind” by Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) in Casino Royale. Not only is the sequence—which climaxes with Sellers giving O’Toole’s sporran a pull, eliciting a “Bless you, sir,” from O’Toole just plain weird, but it’s predicated on the idea that the viewer saw Sellers and O’Toole in Clive Donner’s What’s New, Pussycat? from the previous year. The dialogue is drawn directly from a scene the pair had in a bar in the earlier movie. Somehow that strikes just the right tone for this film.
Some of what we saw happening in the 1960s and 70s had much to do with the combination of the director becoming as big a selling point as the stars—or in some cases bigger—and the more rough-and-ready approach to the process of filmmaking that came about with the collapse of the studio system. Filmmakers were more apt to cast friends over and over again, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to assemble veritable stock companies of actors. There’s an irony here in that what was partly a reaction to the studio system caused filmmakers to create something very like it with this. Where once the studio offered a specific pool of contract actors and technicians, the filmmakers instead made their own such pools of talent.
In many cases, the often reduced budgets had some bearing on directors appearing in their own movies—and if they didn’t, their families were sometimes pressed into service. Since it’s someone whose career I’m very familiar with, I immediately think of the progression of Ken Russell as an onscreen presence. When this started—especially in his days making films for the BBC—it was something of an economy. Need another body—someone to play a chauffeur or a gangster or a priest or a symphony conductor (Russell did all four—well, step into the role yourself. As long as it wasn’t a speaking part, no one was going to bring in a union complaint.
But there was more to it than that as became obvious when Russell moved to feature films and he started making deliberate cameos. The first such I noticed—chronologically—was in The Music Lovers (1970) and it was a voice guest appearance. You might not notice it, but to the trained ear it’s abundanly obvious just who is doing those voice overs in the scene where onlookers at a display of a camera obscura express shock over the antics of a courting couple caught by the camera. An apparently involved onscreen guest bit was shot for Savage Messiah (1972), but all that remains in the finished film is a quick glimpse of Russell getting off a train. On the other hand, he made it into Tommy (1975) twice—once as a camera operator (which he actually was) in the “Pinball Wizard” sequence (you can spot him when Keith Moon kicks over his drums), and again as a Tommy follower in a wheelchair at the beginning of “Welcome.”
This changed somewhat dramatically with Valentino (1977) where Russell took over for an “indisposed” (read intoxicated) actor who’d been hired to play silent filmmaker Rex Ingram on the set of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Here he had tackled a small speaking part—and that required smoothing things out with Actors Equity. Since then, he’s taken on more small roles—including a few in other people’s pictures—proving what a lot of us suspected all along: There’s a touch of the genial ham about Russell. (This is probably true of most directors when you get down to it.) In all fairness, it should be noted that there’s not a trace of ham in his sensitive portrayal of Sir Arnold Bax in his TV film The Secret Life of Arnold Bax (1992).
At the same time, it’s clear that this is part and parcel of an aesthetic that celebrates the fun of film and filmmaking. You also see it in the guest bits of actors who have made up Russell’s stock company. The most obvious of these are Glenda Jackson’s extended guest appearance in The Boy Friend (1971), Oliver Reed’s single close-up as a train conductor in Mahler (1974) and his slightly larger bit as the Russian servant who leads Roger Daltrey into Princess Carolyn’s fumigation chamber in Lisztomania (1975). But there are even more guest shots from his supporting players—the kind of thing prized by fans.
The players—and the directors—change, but the process goes on. He doesn’t appear onscreen (well, neither does anyone else), but Wes Anderson provides one of the voices in Fantastic Mr. Fox. However, he’s yet to take to the screen itself—unless you count his American Express commercial. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him make the crossover. The stars from Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005)—Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Foss—all have cameos in The Brothers Bloom. Director Stephan Elliott has a bit as a partygoer in his Easy Virtue (2009). And so on.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. Even now, I’m thinking of omissions, but there are so many instances of cameos and guest bits that I never intended this to be anything like authoritative,. Surely readers have some favorites of their own to throw into the mix.