One of the real characters I use in my Roaring Twenties mysteries is Gary Cooper, because I learned that he was in Hollywood during my time period, 1925. He was new to the business, having come south from his hometown of Helena, Montana at the age of 24. (Here’s what he looked like at that age.) Coincidentally, he grew up across the street from Myrna Loy, although she was several years younger so they didn’t play together as children. In later years, he and Myrna liked to joke that they had grown up on Fifth Avenue—then add that it was Fifth Avenue in Helena, not New York’s famous street.

“Coop,” as he was called even then, had some artistic talent and tried to make a living as an editorial cartoonist, to no avail. Reasoning that he “would rather starve where it was warm than to starve and freeze too,” he moved to Hollywood to try his luck in newspapers there. Instead, he went into “pictures.”

His good looks and ability to ride a horse landed him roles as an extra in a couple Westerns. At the time of my story, he has just changed his name from Frank Cooper to Gary Cooper, on the advice of an agent who felt that Gary had a rough, tough sound to it, like Gary, Indiana.

Here’s Coop in one of those 1925 silent roles—don’t blink, or you’ll miss it! He’s the man who meets the young lady at the train station, and again a minute later driving the car.

Published in: on September 18, 2010 at 9:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Name Game

       Silent film actors often gave themselves a new name, something more memorable, more alliterative, more modern than the one bestowed upon them by their parents. For example, one casting director advised a handsome young extra named Frank Cooper to change to a first name that sounded tougher. She suggested Gary after her rough-and-tumble hometown of Gary, Indiana. “Coop” took her advice. When little Gladys Smith got her first part in a David Belasco play, the famous New York director insisted she change her humdrum name. Together they settled on Mary Pickford. She became one of the country’s most famous film actresses, known all over the world as “Little Mary” or “Our Mary.” Her siblings were all too happy to piggyback on Big Sis’s fame. They change their names as well, from the almost comically boring John Smith to Jack Pickford, and from Charlotte Smith to Lottie Pickford.

       Foreign-born actors needed something less—well, less foreign, so that American audiences could pronounce and remember their names. So Greta Lovisa Gustafsson became Greta Garbo, the famous vamp. Wong Liu Tsong became Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American film star. My favorite? Get a load of this: Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi who became Rudolph Valentino, the Latin Lover.  Here are a few more silent movie name changes:

 Mary Astor – Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

Joan Crawford – Lucille Lesueur

Lon Chaney – Leonidas Chaney

Douglas Fairbanks – Douglas Elton Ullman

W. C. Fields – William Claude Dunkinfield

Buster Keaton – Joseph Frank Keaton

Stan Laurel – Arthur Stanley Jefferson