Grover Jones and the Birth of Hollywood, Part Two

Grover and his mother, ca. 1915


Motion pictures had been made sporadically in Hollywood since 1908.  Its good weather helped spark a movement west by filmmakers and the area would soon transplant New York as the movie industry capitol.  One person drawn to Hollywood area was Carl Laemmle, a Jewish immigrant from Germany who gave up the clothing business and became a theater owner after seeing the profit potential of nickelodeons.  Disgusted, like many theater owners, at having to pay fees to the near-monopoly operated by the Motion Picture Trust (their control was based on being backed by Edison who owned patents on various equipment), Laemmle decided to make his own films.

He formed a motion picture company with partners in 1911.  Initially based in New York, Laemmle had made the move to California by 1913, bought out his partners, and firmly planted the Universal Film Company out west.  He purchased over 200 acres near Hollywood and set up his “film factory.” Universal was to become the first (and oldest continuing) major film company.  And Laemmle was to become the first Hollywood mogul. 

Into this new world came Grover Jones.

As he stepped from the train in LA the 20 year-old (he claimed he was down to .50 in his pocket), the film-loving Hoosier must have felt drawn to Universal as if by a magnet. 

His first few months in Hollywood were rocky ones.  If indeed Laemmle had invited Grover out (something the mogul would have immediately forgotten, as was his habit with such spur of the moment invitations), and if Grover thought it was to be a writer, he was disappointed.  His early days were a struggle (inceville).  His first job at Universal appears to have been living on the lot and tending the studio’s chickens. Probably not the glamorous life that he had envisioned.  After all, he could have stayed in West Terre Haute and done that.

To insinuate himself into the Hollywood scene Grover also took extra or day player jobs.  He was most often cast as an Indian in the westerns that were being churned out daily.  With the aid of a makeup called bolemania he would darken his skin in order to receive the free lunch and $1.00 a day given to extras.  But he soon decided acting was not his calling and took a job as a painter on the Universal lot for $15.00 a week.

Initially he was a “paint-pumper” whose job was to pump paint into a sprayer.  The paint shop adjoined a barn that housed Charlie the elephant and beyond was a veritable menagerie of camels, lions, bears, and other animals used in the movies.  Grover could always tell when it was nearing 4:00 when various roars went up from the “zoo” in anticipation of feeding time.  Charlie the elephant could be especially vexatious as he had a tendency to go berserk when penned in his barn (rumor had it that he had already killed two men).  He could only be calmed down by his trainer, a man named Dynamite.  Grover observed that Dynamite could actually make Charlie cry, merely by talking to him as a parent would a miscreant child.

He painted whatever was assigned to him: sets, dressing room, offices. In the fall of 1914 he was absentmindedly painting a number on a dressing room when the door was pulled open.  There appeared a grotesque face that scared the bejeezus out of Grover, causing him to fall back.  Trying to recover his dignity he realized it was only Lon Chaney (Sr.) in another of his fantastic makeup transformations that made him famous on his way to the set.  Jones rightly believed that Chaney was one of the real geniuses in Hollywood and the incident began a lifelong friendship between the two.  Painting seemed to allow Grover’s mind to wander and another time while trimmimg a window he unthinkingly opened it to have a look inside.  In doing so he became an unwitting—and unwanted– part of a pie-throwing scene being shot.  Not only did he ruin the scene, but the canvas set had to be repainted and the scene re-shot. Of course he caught hell and had to slink away.

Grover celebrated his 21st birthday by looking back at his year in Hollywood and sending money home to his folks.  He missed them and wanted desperately to get his dad out of the mines.  The money, he hoped, would enable them to follow him to California.

At first he missed being around the “stars.” But as he took on more responsibility as a painter, the job allowed him to roam the studio and observe all aspects of the business, getting a feel for motion picture making, the work of the stars and directors.  It allowed the boy from West Terre Haute to closely observe the birth and evolution of Hollywood and the studio system.

Ever curious, he was always observing, always asking questions about the studio and how it worked, although he felt few people took him seriously because he was “just a painter.”  But some did recognize that the “hick kid” had promise.  Actors Max Asher and Fritzi Brunette (both stars of their days) took him seriously.  Another was an assistant to director Allen Curtis (he directed nearly 300 silents) who, when he learned of Grover’s interest in writing gave him a copy of a script to study (even though he thought writers were “clucks”).  Grover studied the screenplay and borrowed a typewriter.  At first he merely copied the script to get the feel of how screenplays were organized, etc.

No matter what his position, Grover was always thinking ahead.  One senses that he had an enormous inner drive to succeed, to elevate himself above his meager origins and the claustrophobia of the dark mines.  While riding the interurban to work one day he was seized by an idea.  Films of the day contained many technical or continuity mistakes, some of which were caught by sharp-eyed moviegoers.  His idea was to play off this by purposely making films with mistakes imbedded within them.  Then theaters could hold contests with the audience member who caught the most errors winning a prize.  When he mentioned his idea to several colleagues they scoffed at the idea.  But he sent his scheme to Laemmle anyway.  The kid was a striver.

But even strivers have roadblocks put in their way.  The studio, like other “factories,” sometimes laid off staff when cost cutting was necessary.  Grover was among those furloughed.  Had he had baseball talent this might not have happened.  The studios baseball team was very important to many.  So much so, that Grover and others noticed that those who played on the team were never laid off.

But his year ended on an up note.  On December 30, 1914 his parents, brother Bill and a family friend named Jersey Irwin arrived in California.  They settled into a home Grover had rented on Sunset Boulevard.  At last they were together again, though Grover dared not tell them it was costing him $30.00 a week to rent.  They could have built the grandest house in West Terre Haute for that.

More good news with the new year.  It was a letter from Carl Laemmle saying that the studio liked his idea about mistakes movies and enclosed a $25.00 check with the encouraging word that “In all probability we will be able to work out this idea.”  Soon Grover was back at work on the Universal lot in his old role as a painter.  The lot was so large that Laemmle shrewdly petitioned to have it declared a city in its own right.  Laemmle, who was affectionately known as “Uncle Carl,” was described by Grover as “about the size of a tree squirrel, but he’s all four fingers and a thumb.”

Grover and old friend Earl Sibley were among the hundreds of staff preparing the lot for the big weekend when it was made a city.  Laemmle combined the new status with a charity event for the Hollywood Children’s Hospital.  It was to be a spectacular event with animal acts, shows, and an exhibition of stunt flying.  Pilot Frank Stites was a friend of Grover’s.  Needing a cap, he borrowed Grover’s. He told Stites that if he got grease on it there would be hell to pay.

The opening day on March 15, 1915 was a success.  Large crowds mobbed the lot (presaging Universal becoming the first studio to fully embrace studio tours for the curious public.  Day two, however, brought tragedy.  Stites was do do a stunt with a fake plane attached to his plane.  Stite’s real plan was a “rattle-trap” and he was always visity the paint shop to get glue to patch it up.  Just before he took off, Grover leaned out to shout “Don’t forget where you got that cap, you louse.”  Stites replied, “What goes up must come down.”  Within a few minutes the fake plane exploded beneath Stites.  Grover described him coolly loosening the straps that held him in the plane.  He jumped.  He landed in front of Grover and a friend.  His broken body was rushed to the hospital but he did not survive.  A shaken Grover noted in his diary, “My cap was ruined alright, but it was blood and not grease.”

Putting the tragedy behind him, Grover was still determined to move forward.  Once again he focused on his future, anxious to become a screenwriter.  He told a co-worker he was getting nowhere as painter and wanted to get into the “writing racket” even if he had to lay someone.  He was told he could make it as many on the lot thought him a clever lad, but Grover felt most viewed him as a smart mouthed kid who popped off too much.

Anxious to write something, he decided to start a newspaper about goings on at the studio called the Photmaniac.  By now, his father was also working at the studio (he would go on to be an electrician at several studios), as was family friend Jersey Irwin.  Both were menaced one day when a lion escaped, but Grover’s father, Bill, took it all in stride.  In April posted the first issue of the Photomaniac.  He hoped that some producers would read it and give him a writing job.

In his wanderings around the lot, Grover encountered many people.  One of those he admired was director Francis Ford, whom he thought was smart and creative.  Not so Ford’s younger brother Jack, whom he described as “not know[ing] what its all about,” although he thought him a nice kid.  Jack was working as a prop man for his brother.  He was a cocky kid also.  When Grover asked him what he wanted out of the business, Jack answered, “If I get the breaks I’ll own the studio, and if I do you’re fired.”  He indeed did get his breaks in the business, becoming legendary director John Ford.

Grover, too, got a break.  In May he was named as assistant to the head craft services.  Now wearing a suit and tie, Grover was in charge of the painters, grips, carpenters and stage hands.  It was a job right up his alley as he noted.  His years of roaming the studio had made it all familiar ground to him.  Although his boss was not happy that Grover was not a baseball player, as the team had lost it star second baseman to the minor leagues.

Unfortunately Grover’s diary ends there. He continued to work at Universal.  As his photo album shows he also had time for fun.  It is filled with photos of family outings around California.  He was also a part of the Terre Haute expatriate community in Los Angeles.  The group hosted annual picnics and he sent photos back to the Terre Haute papers. He kept in contact with the Terre Haute papers, writing witty accounts of his adventures.  On at least one occasion he indulged his finely tuned sense of leg-pulling by sending them a photo of the West Terre Haute soccer football team, with the caption, “Sure! They are all ugly but they all know how to play football.”  Only later did the paper learn he had sent them a photo of a California team.

Over the next few years he left Universal and worked for several other studios.  He later jokingly said he had been fired from every studio in Hollywood, even those that were not painted.  He once was interviewed by C.B. deMille, who was looking for a secretary.  DeMille described him as “a former sign painter, then employed then at the studio as a kind of assistant to all the assistants.”  Ho noted that Grover did not know shorthand so was not hired.

But Grover’s ambition and striving eventually paid off.  By 1920 he had received his first writing and director credit for a short he wrote called “The Snip.”  Over the next twenty years he would write over 100 screenplays and direct 31 films.  Present at the birth of Hollywood and the studio system he would grow with it, and relish its heyday.

(For an overview of Jones’ later career, see my earlier blog From West T. to Hollywood, Redux)

There is an interesting postscript to Grover’s story that shows that his iconoclastic character was passed down to his family.  His daughter Sally Sue was only three when her father died.  Her most frequent playmate was a young Jane Fonda.  Sue was introduced to horses and polo by her parents.  For twenty years she disguised herself as a man (initially using mascara to draw a moustache on her face) so she could invade the exclusive male enclave that was big time polo.  Her secret became an open one eventually and in 1972 she became the first woman admitted to the United States Polo association.

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3 Comments on “Grover Jones and the Birth of Hollywood, Part Two”

  1. Stephen P. Brown says:

    Hi, I just wanted to commend you for this fascinating blog project, and this story in particular. Even though I consider myself an avid movie fan, I had never heard of Grover Jones. According to Wikipedia, he was a co-writer on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film Trouble in Paradise, which is one of my favorite films from that era. It’s pretty amazing that a guy from West T helped write such sophisticated dialogue.

    Have you come across any interesting stories about organized labor activity when the coal mines were at peak production?

    • tcrumrin says:

      There was continuing labor unrest in the area, including the kidnapping of a labor organizer. I am just getting into research on that area, but will be blogging on that in future.

  2. tcrumrin says:

    Stephen, I finally got around to writing a blog about union/labor activities. Check it out.


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