by Joe Blitman

"Can I have your autograph?"

The streets of Hollywood have teemed with autograph hunters for a century now.  Brandishing an autograph book or scrap of paper, these collectors good-naturedly accost stars wherever they find them - on the street, in restaurants, at the super-
market, at gas stations, in elevators, in their cars when stopped at red lights, and even in restrooms.

I'm not an autograph collector.  Well, I wasn't until several years ago, when I bought a collection of movie star autographs at a Hollywood auction. 

There are nearly 400 of them in all, including Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, William Powell, Jean Harlow, John Barrymore, Janet Gaynor, Leslie Howard, Bing Crosby, Mary Pickford, Paul Muni, Gloria Swanson,  Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor, Ralph Bellamy, Irene Dunne, Spencer Tracy, Alice Faye, Jack Benny, Sonja Henie, Will Rogers, Loretta Young, Lon Chaney, Helen Hayes, Pat O'Brien, Joan Blondell, Jeanette MacDonald, Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Wallace Beery, Myrna Loy, Jackie Cooper, Marie Dressler, Eddie Cantor,  Shirley Temple (printed, not written - she was only 6 at the time), Jimmy Durante, Frank Morgan, Mary Astor, Robert Young, Constance Bennett, Charles Boyer, Nelson Eddy, Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, Fay Wray, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Walter Pidgeon, Billie Burke, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Mickey Rooney.  That's star power.

Bing Crosby

Paul Muni

Ralph Bellamy

Irene Dunne

Spencer Tracy

Loretta Young

Pat O'Brien

Robert Montgomery

Wallace Beery

Marie Dressler

Robert Young

Walter Pidgeon

Robert Taylor

The collection is unusual in that all of the signatures are on one vintage Stetson cowboy hat - on the crown, on the brim, and even under the brim.  The signatures, executed by fountain pens (this was before the days of ballpoints), virtually all date from the 1928-1936 time period.  I immediately thought of it as "The Hollywood Hat."

This was an interesting era in Hollywood history.  In the late 20's, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded, Grauman's Chinese Theater started collecting foot and handprints, WAMPAS Baby Stars were all the rage and movies went from silent to "talkies."  As I researched the names on the hat, I came to realize how the switch to talking pictures affected many of the hat's signers.  Like fictional George Valentin in "The Artist," lots of big-time careers crashed with the advent of sound, including these hat signers - Eleanor Boardman, Norman Kerry, Pauline Starke, Antonio Moreno, Victor Varconi, Aileen Pringle, and most famously, John Gilbert.

John Gilbert

Eleanor Boardman

Antonio Moreno


But the first question on my mind was "Whose hat was this?"  I came up with what we can call Theory #1.

Theory #1:  The Stetson hat was worn by one very dedicated autograph collector who spent years haunting Hollywood Boulevard.  The doorman at the Brown Derby probably knew him on sight.  And what a great gimmick.  Rather than shoving pen and paper at a movie star, ask them to sign a ten gallon cowboy hat.  Who could resist?  Judging by the sheer number of signatures, no one.

As I made a list of every name on the hat, it slowly dawned on me that quite a few of the signers were contract players at M-G-M and, to a lesser extent, at Fox, the two studios on the West Side of Los Angeles.  There's hardly anyone from Warner Brothers, Paramount or RKO, all located on the other side of town.

I decided to vote Theory #1 off the island, and developed Theory #2.

Theory #2:   The dedicated autograph collector hung out at the front gates of M-G-M and Fox, which are conveniently connected by a winding street called Motor Avenue.  Local lore is that Motor Avenue was built to cut down on the commute time between the two studios; it only takes about 10 minutes to toodle up or down Motor Avenue.

Motor Avenue connects M-G-M and 20th-Century Fox

But then I started spotting autographs of directors (unless they're Spielberg or Hitchcock, who the hell asks a director for his autograph?) - King Vidor, W.S. Van Dyke, Roy Del Ruth, Robert Z. Leonard, Thornton Friedland, Alfred E. Green, Archie Mayo, Eddie Buzzell.  And I thought, okay, it's time to tool up Theory #3.

King Vidor

W. S. Van Dyke

Theory #3:  This hat belonged to an insider - someone who had frequent access to the two studios.  Maybe they were an extra or maybe the hat belonged to a movie crew member. The only thing working against Theory #3 is an immutable law of Hollywood once behind the studio walls - don't bother the stars.

The hat is a crazy quilt of signatures, and I kept seeing new names.  On the underbrim, I was stopped cold by the signature of British playwright G. Bernard Shaw.  What on earth is the signature of George Bernard Shaw doing on this hat?  I know Shaw visited Hollywood in his lifetime.  Once.  In 1933.  For just three hours.

George Bernard Shaw

I asked myself again:  Whose hat was this?

Over 90 per cent of the names on the Stetson were actors and actresses plus the aforementioned directors as well as a gaggle of World Heavyweight Boxing Champions (more about them later).  And then, in the midst of all this celebrated celebrity, there were the "John Hancocks" of four men who worked in studio make-up departments.  No set designers.  No costume designers.   No sound recorders or music arrangers.  Just four make-up men.  Curious.

Theory #4:  The hat belonged to someone in the make-up department at M-G-M or Fox.  Make-up people would have daily access to stars at their most relaxed and vulnerable, when they're just sitting there with nothing better to do than autograph a cowboy hat.  

The four make-up artists who signed the hat were:  Jack Dawn, who led M-G-M's Make-Up Department from 1935 to 1950, and who is best known for his ground-breaking work on "The Wizard of Oz";  Ward Hamilton with a raft of credits for Errol Flynn movies at Warner Brothers; Blagoe "Bob" Stephanoff, who worked on such Samuel Goldwyn classics as "Wuthering Heights" and "The Best Years of Our Lives";  and Cecil Holland, a silent screen character actor who started the first big studio make-up department in 1925 at newly-formed M-G-M.  Unfortunately, there's no chance to ask them if they remember signing the hat; all four men passed on many decades ago.

Jack Dawn

Ward Hamilton

Bob Stephanoff

Cecil Holland

An Eyebrow is Born - Testing eyebrows -- and the "Crawford Smear" --
on Janet Gaynor in 1937's "A Star is Born."  One of the best movie make-up department scenes -- ever.

Janet Gaynor

So, I've got a hat filled with autographs from the 1928-1936 time period, which was originally situated (maybe) in the M-G-M and Fox make-up departments.  Only three people who signed the hat are still alive - Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Jackie Cooper.

Shirley Temple

Mickey Rooney

Jackie Cooper


As I'm pondering how to proceed in unlocking the provenance of the hat, I read in the LA Times that Jackie Cooper just died.  Oops.  Make that two people still alive.  And honestly, Mickey and Shirley must have had seriously wackadoodle childhoods.  Rooney, born in 1920, had been in movies since the age of 6, racking up over 40 screen credits by the time he was 10.  As for Temple, an actor once told me of being on the Fox lot in the 1930s and as he walked by Shirley's bungalow, he could see her outside, marching in a circle repeating to herself:  "I am Jesus.  I am Jesus."  I'm not accusing Shirley of a son-of-god-like ego (by all accounts, she grew up to be grounded and "normal"); it's likely that she was just repeating something an adult said in her presence (probably with a cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth):  "The kid is as big as Jesus!"    Like I said - wackadoodle childhoods.  Temple was the number one box office star from 1935-1938; Rooney was number one from 1939 to 1941.  Autographing a cowboy hat wouldn't be in either Mickey's or Shirley's top 100 memories during their kid stardom.  (I wrote to Temple and Rooney, but never got a reply.)

I did some research on early studio make-up departments.  And I found out… almost nothing.  Hardly any movies have make-up credits during the 20's and 30's and the bios I find of Dawn, Hamilton, Stephanoff and Holland are brief.  There is a mention that Holland had a daughter, Margaret, born in 1927, who excelled as a portrait artist.  I find out, amazingly, she's still active with a website.  Just before I left for a vacation in Italy, I emailed her an inquiry in the slimmest, off-chance, Hail-Mary-pass kind of way, asking if she remembered going to her Dad's "office" when she was a very little girl and seeing a beige cowboy hat covered with movie star signatures somewhere in the M-G-M Make-up Department.  We all have odd memories from our childhoods, and I hoped the hat was one of hers.  Several days later, I'm in an internet cafe in Rome plowing through some business emails when I see Ms. Sargent has replied.  I open up the email and read:

"Dear Mr. Blitman,

I was delighted to receive your email with a request for information about the
cowboy hat.  You have reached the right person for its background.  It was my father, Cecil Holland, who got all those signatures from the actors who sat in his makeup chair… many of whom later became friends …  It was his pride and joy."

Bingo.  Eureka.  Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.  Cecil Holland didn't just sign the hat.  He owned the hat.  Suddenly, just like that, there's divine provenance.

How do you say "I'm doing the happy dance" in Italian?  I have no idea, but I do know I spent the day exploring the Colosseum with my thoughts binging and boinging like a pinball machine with alternating visions of Christians, gladiators, and lions and Joan Crawford being made up for "Our Dancing Daughters."


Los Angeles has always attracted certain men and women whose dreams and abilities are on steroids, and to whom no 9-to-5 job can do justice.  These people are larger-than-life in some respects, and need to exist outside the box in order to flourish.  They carry bazookas of ambition and talent, while the rest of us are armed with water pistols.  I think of them as "characters," not in the Damon Runyon kind of way, but as one-offs, unique in what they add to the world.  Cecil Holland was this kind of "character."

Cecil Holland in 1925, photographed by Clarence Bull.

Of medium stature with even features, thin lips and impossibly thick and wavy hair, Cecil was an accomplished actor, engraver, etcher, photographer, painter, jewelry maker, sculptor, wood carver and most importantly, a dedicated and deeply talented make-up artist.  He was simultaneously admired, respected and liked by co-workers.  As a mentor and teacher to a generation of other make-up artists, Holland was more than well-regarded and remembered with great fondness as the "Father of Movie Make-Up."  

Cecil Holland was born in very comfortable circumstances in the Victorian era on May 29, 1887 in Gravesend-on-Thames, not that far outside London, England.  The location was key, as Cecil was descended from a long line of ship's captains licensed to pilot on the Thames River.  Although he was fascinated with painting and sculpting as a child, Cecil was expected to continue the family tradition, and, at 15, dutifully or excitedly, or both, he apprenticed on a three-masted barque, "The Harold of London,"  making a round-the-world voyage.

As 1902 predates the opening of the Panama Canal by a dozen years, the westward-bound ship went all the way around South America, through legendarily rough waters, and then up the west coast of North America.  After six months of being seasick every day (giving a new meaning to the term:  "Heave, Ho"), Cecil had had enough, and bid farewell to his "destiny."  He jumped ship in Vancouver, Canada.

Holland made his way to Seattle, where, in 1904, he joined the first of several traveling theatrical road shows.  While wending and winding through the west over the next decade, he learned acting, graduating from "member of the crowd" to speaking parts.  Because he wasn't the leading man type, he absorbed all he could about make-up, having determined that versatility in one's appearance was the way to succeed as a character actor. 

Cecil finally wound up in Los Angeles in 1913, at the very dawn of the motion picture business, when film production companies were springing up everywhere.  He briefly worked as a stuntman in Westerns for three bucks a day and sometimes found himself the target of live ammunition (because films were silent, directors needed the visual "ping" of flying dirt and nothing could do that as well as real bullets).  With self-preservation as motivation, Cecil successfully promoted himself as a very castable character actor, broadcasting his ability to transform himself - through make-up - into a vast variety of character types and ethnicities.  He got his first verifiable screen acting credit in 1914 in "The Mystery of the Seven Chests."

He simultaneously publicized himself as a make-up expert.  In the September, 1916 issue of "Picture-Play," a trade magazine, Holland wrote an article called "Making Myself Miserable,"  in which he describes, in detail, some of his transformations-thru-make-up including that of "Death" itself in "Man With an Iron Heart" (you start with a pound of putty to turn the face into a skull).   Holland claimed that creating facial features that express a character's thoughts "is the greatest joy I have ever known."   Sounds like someone has found his metier.

Holland's article "Making Myself Miserable"
appeared in this issue of "Picture-Play Magazine.
That's Norma Talmadge on the cover.

Cecil Holland made up as Death
in "Man With An Iron Heart."

A gifted make-up man like Holland was a golden asset to any film production.  Actors were responsible for doing their own make-up and many of them were inept or wildly inconsistent from day to day.  It was not uncommon to have to throw out a day's worth of film because of how bad some make-up looked on screen.  If you hired Holland to act, you also had him to work on the other actors' make-up.  He thrived on these challenges.

From 1913-1917 Cecil made at least 22 movies, most with melodramatic titles like "The White Light of Publicity,"  "The Sacred Tiger of Agra" and "The Lad and the Lion."  Some of the movies were produced by Fox and Paramount, but mostly they were made by Selig Polyscope, where Holland was a contract stock player.  It is very likely Holland made far more than 22 movies during this period.  Unlike today, where listing the cast and craftsmen who worked on a film can take an endless 7 or 8 minutes to scroll out, Hollywood was very stingy with credits in those days, and usually just a handful of the actors appearing in a movie got screen credit.  And since a huge majority of the films made during the Teens are lost, it is, a century later, an era cloaked in some mystery.  Cecil's early years in Hollywood wear that same cloak.

When the U.S. entered World War 1 in 1917,  Cecil very quickly enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 316th Engineers, Company C, 91st Division.  After training for more than a year, Holland arrived in France in August of 1918, just in time for fierce and ceaseless fighting in the Argonne region.  The 316th Engineers' job partly involved repairing roads, bridges, and train tracks to speed the advance of the U.S. troops.  This was often front line work, and highly dangerous.  Unlike dodging bullets as a stuntman, this was the real thing.  

Cecil Holland, dressed for combat, in Europe in 1918

Sometime before the armistice in November, Cecil, now a Sergeant, joined a theatrical troupe of enlistees to provide entertainment for soldiers - an early version of a USO show.  This performance tour continued into 1919 and earned him a government commendation.  And his service in the U.S. Army earned him US citizenship.


Holland returned to Hollywood by early 1920.  Given that a three-year absence in Hollywood is like a 50 year absence anywhere else, it's a testament to Holland's talents that he was back in business almost immediately,  transforming well-known wrestler Bull Montana into a gorilla for a melodrama, "Go and Get It."  To help publicize that he was back in town, Cecil wrote a series of articles on movie make-up for "Camera" magazine, a motion picture trade publication, and was the solo performer in a widely-distributed "Camera"-produced short called "The Mind of Man."  In it, Holland plays all five very different-looking characters, and at the end of the short, shows the viewer how he did it through the magic of make-up.  

Mary Pickford

In 1921, Cecil did make-up for the Mary Pickford films  "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "The Love Light,"  as well as a Jackie Coogan starrer, "My Boy."  At the time, Mary Pickford was inarguably the most famous woman in the world and Coogan, fresh off Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid," was the hottest child star in Hollywood.  Holland was most definitely "A-List."   Cecil also performed in a pair of Paramount pix called "The Great Impersonation" and "A Wise Fool." Cecil promoted himself as "The Man of 1000 Faces."  I know.  You think this was Lon Chaney's monicker.  And you're right.  But not until Cecil gifted his pal with the title years later.

Lon Chaney

1922 brought roles in four more movies, with Holland playing dual characters in the best known of them, the Rudolph Valentino vehicle "Moran of the Lady Letty."  This is the only Cecil Holland silent movie I was able to locate on DVD, and I can report he was quite a good actor, with an expressive face and considerable "presence."  And his dual make-up concoctions made it virtually impossible to tell it was the same actor playing the parts - a Mexican bandit and an old seaman who shanghais Valentino.

 Cecil Holland (left) and Rudolph Valentino in yachting cap (center)
in "Moran of the Lady Letty."

Also in 1922,  the 35 year old Holland eloped with Norma Taylor, 11 years his junior.  To top off the year, Cecil signed a two-year contract with Samuel Goldwyn Pictures as a stock player, while continuing freelance make-up work all over town.

The media started paying attention to Cecil Holland.  There are headlines from this era in the "Los Angeles Times" entertainment pages like "Wrinkles in Norma [Shearer]'s Face His Doings" and "Holland to Hand Jack [Dempsey] Black Eye."  It's clear that if the LA Times had speed dial in those days, Holland's name and number would have been next to the entry for "story on movie make-up."


1925 was a watershed year for Holland.   He started off by transforming Bull Montana into an apeman - again - but this time for "The Lost World," one of the best remembered of all silent movies. 

Famous wrestler Bull Montana as an apeman in "The Lost World."

Cecil making up Bull Montana for "The Lost World."

Bull Montana

And Holland was then signed to an acting contract by one-year old M-G-M.  Simultaneously, and much more significantly, Cecil was hired by M-G-M chief Louis B. Mayer to form a permanent make-up department, the first to exist at a major motion picture studio.   M-G-M was a factory with films rolling off the assembly line about once a week.  Having a make-up department that produced consistent, reliable, and even inspired make-up was an indispensable part of the mass-production process.

It is likely that one of Holland's first assignments at M-G-M was the gargantuan epic "Ben-Hur".  Over 3,000 extras for the legendary chariot race sequence were tended to by a small army of make-up artists using Max Factor body paint (at 600 gallons, it was Factor's largest order to date).  And in addition to working his magic on famous faces and not so famous faces (M-G-M, like all studios, was constantly making screen tests of potential contract players), Holland had considerable administrative challenges - setting up a permanent make-up facility, hiring and training other make-up artists, not to mention analyzing the make-up needs of 50+ films and shorts a year.

With those kinds of responsibilities (think of tending to those famous M-G-M stars - Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Marion Davies, Renee Adoree, Mae Murray, Ramon Novarro!  Norma Desmond was right; they really did have faces then), it's not surprising that Cecil only had time to appear in small roles in two films during 1925 and 1926.  There was "The Show," a goulash about a Hungarian carnival troupe directed by Tod Browning and "The Blackbird," starring Holland's good friend Lon Chaney (one can just imagine their conversations about make-up).

A 1927 MGM advertisement featuring some of their stars, almost-stars
and supporting players.  Cecil is in the upper right corner.
With some naked ladies around the border, this was probably created for exhibitors,
not the general public.

In 1927, Holland's wife gave birth to their daughter, Margaret, joining a son, Richard, who'd arrived a few years earlier, and by then they were residing, with a live-in servant, in a hillside house with a pool up on Hazen Drive in the Coldwater Canyon section of Beverly Hills.  The house had a tunnel into the mountain which led to a secret barroom (the influence of Prohibition on interior design?).  

Richard, Cecil and Norma Holland at home.
Check out those spats Cecil is wearing.

The Holland house was filled with mementos picked up on Cecil's world travels.

Cecil Holland, circa 1926, thanks to an M-G-M publicity still.
The house is quintessential 1920's - filled with velvet furniture, dark walls,
and heavy curtains to keep out the California sunlight.


This was also the year when Cecil decided to capitalize on his official M-G-M title - Director of Make-Up.  
We all know "self-promotion" is the lifeblood of Los Angeles.  It must be something in the water out here.  Cecil had a plan to open a school for aspiring make-up artists.  And to make himself known to those wannabes beyond the small world of Hollywood, he wrote the very first book on movie make-up, a slim hardcover volume of not much more than 100 pages called The Art of Make-Up for Stage & Screen.  

Cecil Holland wrote the first book ever written on the art of movie make-up.

The book's first pages are devoted to lengthy testimonials, swearing to Holland's prodigious talents, signed by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Shearer and John Gilbert, among others.  To top that, there's an erudite preface written by Lon Chaney that stresses Holland's quarter of a century experience as an actor; Chaney assures the reader that Cecil knows his stuff.  The fact that Cecil is the Director of Make-Up at M-G-M is mentioned frequently.  Holland understood the concept of "branding" before there was a name for it.

The book is jam-packed with the "how-to" for everything from "straightening" a nose through make-up to the skinny on beards, wrinkles, harelips and looking Asian (a Holland specialty).  By way of illustration, the book is peppered with full-page portraits of Holland in a dozen disguises - The Fisherman, The Drunkard, The Pirate, The Clown, The Witch, the Chinaman, the Sheik, and, most startlingly, as Jesus backlit with a heavenly halo -- many of which were used in his M-G-M composite picture.

All nine of the characters in this 1925 M-G-M composite are Cecil Holland,
the original "Man of 1,000 Faces."

Cecil Holland as You Know Who

There are lots of little tricks revealed, one of the most surprising being that to replicate the look of a blind man with milky white where the eyeball should be, cover the actor's eyeball with the translucent inner skin of an eggshell.  Holland had used this trick on an actor named Raymond Bloomer back in "The Love Light" in 1921, and Lon Chaney reputedly used it in "The Road to Mandalay" in 1926.

The Art of Make-up ends with a list of Max Factor products every make-up artist should have, including Grease Paint Tubes and Liquid Body Make-Up in many shades including Mikado (I'm guessing this is an artful euphemism for Asian).  There's also a glossary of non-cosmetic products a make-up artist needs to keep in his "toolbox" for transforming facial features - mortician's Plasto wax, flexible and non-flexible Collodion (used for "new skin" and "scarred skin"), guttapercha (dentist's used this for temporary fillings), fish skin (a medical product useful for pulling the skin and making Caucasian eyes look Asian).  I asked make-up artist Roy Helland (who's won an Oscar and an Emmy doing hair and make-up for Meryl Streep for 30 years, so he knows a thing or two hundred about transformative make-up) if, 85 years later, these were non-cosmetic products you could still find today, and he said "Yes.  In a museum."


I can't find any record of Cecil's School of Make-Up opening, so it  may have been a time-management casualty of the arrival of Talkies.  The upheaval caused by going from silent pictures to sound pictures wasn't just about which star had a mellifluous voice; it also greatly affected the technical aspects of filmmaking, including movie make-up.  Silents were shot with noisy carbon lights. Adding microphones to a movie set necessitated a switch to quiet tungsten lights.  But, the orthochromatic film that had been used since the early Teens wasn't sensitive enough to clearly record images with the new lighting.  An industry-wide change to panchromatic film occurred.  Panchromatic film required much more light -- "end-of-the-world-with-a-bang" kind of light, to be precise.  And more light required a new approach to make-up and make-up application - different make-up, less make-up, different shades and much more thinly applied. 

Replacing the actors who didn't make the switch to sound were a raft of new M-G-M stars - Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow!  And, during this transition period, Cecil made his final appearance in a film - a cameo, if you will - in his one and only talkie - "Mata Hari," filmed in 1931.  The script called for Greta Garbo to ask a question of a blinded WWI soldier during a hospital visit to her lover, Ramon Novarro.  Cecil, using the old egg shell skin trick, played the part himself. 

Hello, Greta.  Goodbye, Silver Screen.
Cecil Holland's last film role is a blind soldier
who has a brief encounter with Greta Garbo in 1931's "Mata Hari."

Holland is very affecting in the "Mata Hari" scene, exhibiting a serene and still demeanor and speaking in a tenor-ish voice with a mid-Atlantic accent.  From his years on stage, he was very adept at accents, so there's no way of knowing if this was his off-screen voice, too.  And if you have a swan song in moving pictures, there are worse ways to do it than playing a scene with Greta Garbo in her prime.

Around this same time, Cecil was developing extensive make-up for Helen Hayes in "The Sin of Madelon Claudet," the hoariest story of mother love ever put on the screen (it makes "Stella Dallas" and "Madame X" look like episodes of "Modern Family.")  Hayes has to age over 30 years in this saga of a sweet young thing who is abandoned by her fiancee, gives birth out of wedlock, is thrown out by her father, marries an older man who turns out to be a jewel thief, is sentenced to 10 years in prison although she's committed no crime, and then turns to prostitution and petty thievery to not only survive but pay for her estranged son's medical school studies.  Are you seeing all of the amazing make-up opportunities here?  Holland did, and gave Hayes a half dozen realistic looks as she inexorably slid down the rungs of the social ladder.  Of course the film was a huge hit and won Hayes the Best Actress Oscar for 1931-32.  Cecil helped her win that Academy Award in the same way the creator of the Virginia Woolf nose helped Nicole Kidman win her Oscar for "The Hours."

A week or so after the film's premiere, Hayes wrote Holland:

Dear Cecil Holland
Our nightmare of last summer has turned out to be a triumphant picture here in New York.  I have received great praise for my masterful makeup.  It makes me feel guilty, so I hereby forward that praise to you, where it belongs.  I'm ever so grateful for your patience and artistry.
God bless and good luck.
Helen Hayes

Helen Hayes

A feature on Hollywood make-up appeared in "Chums," a British magazine for boys,
in 1932 with two pictures on the right of Holland at work.

Pictures by such eminent M-G-M staff photographers as Clarence Bull had been taken of Cecil at work as early as his first year at the studio.  There are photos memorializing him finishing out an eyebrow for Joan Crawford in 1928's "Our Dancing Daughters" (the silent film that rocketed her to stardom); of drawing the circle around the eye of Pete the dog from the Our Gang comedies; of examining his creation of the grenade-caused scars on the right side of Lewis Stone's face in "Grand Hotel"; and of making Boris Karloff look sinister and Asian for the 1932 "The Mask of Fu Manchu."  (Karloff lived next door to Holland, and his co-star, Myrna Loy, moved in just around the corner several years later -- Who says Hollywood isn't a small town?)  In all of the photographs, Cecil expertly plays the part of the focused and serious make-up artist, allowing the "star" to be the true center of attention.

Cecil Holland working his magic on the eyes of Joan Crawford
for 1928's "Our Dancing Daughters."

Joan Crawford

Drawing the circle around the eye of Pete the dog for the "Our Gang" films.

Applying final touches to the war wounds on the face of Lewis Stone for "Grand Hotel,"
under the watchful eye of director Edmund Goulding.

Lewis Stone, remembered best for playing Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy series
of films, also uttered one of the best-remembered closing lines in a movie:
"Grand Hotel.  People come.  People go.  Nothing ever happens."
Stone was a contract player at M-G-M from its inception in 1924 until
his death in 1953 -- the longest-known uninterrupted association of an actor and a studio.

Lewis Stone


Turning Boris Karloff Asian (and sinister) for "The Mask of Fu Manchu."

Boris Karloff

Also from 1932 is a picture of Holland using a magnifying loupe to check out the just-finished maquillage of Jean Harlow at her most "platinum," while she sits in a barber's chair dressed in a polka dot wrapper and Spring-o-later-style pumps.  I love this picture.  It's set in what is clearly Cecil's "office."  On the wall is a picture of him with wife Norma and their son, a copy of Holland's 1925 composite pic and a bevy of framed portraits of him in character make-up.  Center stage is the photograph of Holland as Jesus, which is flanked by smaller pictures of Cecil's parents (I wouldn't touch the symbolism of that with a 10 foot long tube of lipstick).  But, all of the reminders of his former career don't seem like a desperate attempt at hanging on to the glory days.  They were visual substitutes for Holland saying to those who sat in his make-up chair:  "Hey.  Relax.  I'm just like you.  I understand what it's like to be an actor.  So, sit back and don't worry;  I'll make you look your best."

Jean Harlow under the Master's gaze.


As mentioned earlier, one of the most stunning discoveries while deciphering the names on the hat was that of George Bernard Shaw.  In 1933, world-renowned playwright and Nobel laureate Shaw visited the United States for the only time in his life.  Accompanied by his wife, Charlotte, Shaw was on a year long cruise around the world and got off his ship, The Empress of Britain, in San Francisco and went down the coast to spend a night at William Randolph Hearst's fabled estate, San Simeon.  On the morning of March 28,  Hearst instructed his pilot to fly the Shaws down to the Santa Monica airport in Hearst's private plane.  The pilot was bedeviled by thick, low coastal fog, and knowing that he'd never find the airport, made an emergency landing on the sands of Malibu beach.  Unperturbed, the Shaws hitchhiked a ride from a passing UCLA student who dropped them off at the airport, where they were met by Louis B. Mayer and a phalanx of his underlings.

George Bernard Shaw with Marion Davies, Louis B. Mayer and Clark Gable.
Why is nobody having a good time at this lunch?

Once at M-G-M in nearby Culver City, the Shaws were given an exuberant tour of the lot by Cecil Holland.  Louis B. Mayer chose Holland because, like Shaw, he was a Brit, and he assumed the regional connection would make for a smooth hour.  The hour must have been just fine, because Shaw did sign "the Hollywood Hat."  But the rest of the three hour visit seems to have gone south.  Shaw insulted many of those he encountered -- reporters, actors and, judging by the dour expressions in the picture above, most, if not all, of his companions at lunch. The luncheon was hosted by Marion Davies in her 16 room "bungalow" dressing room. The guest list included Mayer, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and John Barrymore, to whom Shaw refused an autograph.  Shaw was definitely Mr. Nastypants that day before heading back to his ship.  For the next week, the Los Angeles newspapers' chatter and gossip columns were filled with civic umbrage and the provincial equivalent of "who does he think he is?"  Shaw certainly knew how to make an impression.

Marion Davies

John Barrymore


After a decade at M-G-M, Holland was ready for a change.  He was almost 50 (do I hear the phrase "mid-life crisis" in the house?) and almost certainly tired of all of the administrative duties that came with being the head of the Make-Up Department.  Cecil loved doing make-up and teaching make-up, not filling out forms about make-up.  M-G-M's success was also Holland's success.  He stood at the absolute pinnacle of his profession, and decided to cash in while giving himself new challenges.  Cecil did what almost no one in the film business did in 1935; he gave up a sure-thing contract in the middle of The Great Depression and went on to free-lance with a series of short-term, and no doubt lucrative assignments.  

In 1935, Holland first went to newly-formed 20th Century Fox, the hottest studio in town, and unpacked his make-up box.  Among the stars he worked on was Shirley Temple, then the biggest draw in the movies.  And, while there, he got lots more signatures on "The Hollywood Hat" from folks who sat in his chair - among them, Alice Faye, Will Rogers, Sonja Henie, and Cesar Romero.

Will Rogers

Alice Faye

Sonja Henie

This appears to be where the hat was finally "filled up."  You can tell because many of the signatures he only could have gotten at 20th are small and appear in those leftover areas of the hat between big signatures.  The penultimate addition to the hat -- at least four years later -- is actor George Montgomery, who signed the hat twice, including once where the hatband used to be.  Born George Montgomery Letz, he didn't go by "George Montgomery" until 1940, when he was put under contract by Fox.  Both Montgomery and Holland shared painting and sculpting as hobbies, and I suspect they bonded over these mutual interests, enough for Holland to pull the hat out of the closet and have George sign it.

George Montgomery

When M-G-M started "The Good Earth" in 1936, Jack Dawn, now the head of M-G-M's Make-Up Department, hired back Cecil for his expertise to transform decidedly Caucasian Luise Rainer into Asian O-lan, the female lead character.  Dawn worked on the male lead, Paul Muni.   Why not cast Asians and save a lot of trouble?  Well, with a $2 million dollar budget (six or seven times the typical M-G-M budget at this time), the film's producer, Irving Thalberg, insisted on box office names.  And there simply were no Asian box office names in 1936.

Transforming Luise Rainer into the Chinese farmer's wife, O-lan,

for "The Good Earth" in 1936.

Production took up much of 1936, and Holland and Rainer had one colossal disagreement.  Luise wanted her fingernails manicured.  Cecil not only wanted them unpolished, he wanted to put dirt underneath the nails.  After all, she was a farmer's wife, not a shopgirl in a Peking emporium.  Cecil won this battle in the name of authenticity, and Rainer won her second consecutive Oscar for Best Actress.

In March, 1937, Holland interrupted his free-lancing and agreed to head up the Make-Up Department at the Hal Roach Studios. It was at this exact point in time that Roach switched the studio's emphasis from comedy shorts to A-List features, such as "Topper" with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett.  It was also in 1937 that a decade-long quest of Holland's finally ended.  In the late 1920's, Holland, along with other noted make-up artists and hair stylists, formed the "Hollywood Motion Picture Make-Up Artists Association" as a first attempt to unionize their profession and affiliate with organized labor.  It took them five years to find a home, and it was first with the painters' union; the logic being that both groups' workers used brushes.  Finally, in 1937, IATSE, which controlled most of the unions in Hollywood, relented and gave a charter to the make-up artists and hair stylists; Local 706 was born.

Cecil didn't stay at Roach very long; in the summer of 1938, he was called again by Dawn at M-G-M with a irresistible offer to work on the much anticipated "The Wizard of Oz" (talk about character make-up) and he finished out the 1930's on the Yellow Brick Road. "The Wizard of Oz" was such a huge make-up and hair operation that the prep area filled an entire soundstage.

Frank Morgan

Billie Burke

The 1940's was a period of active free-lancing for Holland with stints at 20th and Warner Brothers, among others.  For most of the decade, there are no credits for Holland that I can find (and Local 706 no longer has work records from this period).  The practice during the 40's was to give the head of the Make-Up Department the screen credit, if the credit was mentioned at all.  An individual who worked in the Department, whether under contract or as a free-lancer, was invisible.  Holland started a sideline business doing oil portraits, and one of his commissions was painting the pet of Betty Grable and bandleader Harry James.  I'm not sure if this happened because of knowing Grable at 20th or from Betty and Harry being Cecil's nearby neighbors. 

Cecil appears to have finished out his career mostly working at Republic Pictures.  Holland got screen credit for the make-up on 1949's "The Fighting Kentuckian" starring John Wayne, and then "Borderline" in 1950, a "tense" drama with Fred MacMurray and Claire Trevor.

1951 saw Cecil's last notable (though uncredited) achievement in movie make-up.  This came about via Lee Greenway, one of his former interns when both were at 20th in the 1930s.  Greenway is most famous for creating the alien monster make-up worn by James Arness in "The Thing From Another World," produced by Howard Hawks at R-K-O.  Greenway didn't have the hours each day to apply Arness' make-up, so he hired "Teach" for the task.  Undoubtedly, Holland and Arness became close during the weeks of filming.  James Arness was the last person to sign "The Hollywood Hat."

James Arness

Having reached what may have been mandatory retirement age in 1953, Holland left make-up work for good and turned his attention to his other artistic pursuits.

In 1965, at the age of 78, Cecil suffered a paralytic stroke.  After extensive therapy, he still had trouble with speech.  Apparently, when the ability to express the right words failed him, Cecil reverted back 50 years, and, as in his silent movies, he would act out what he wanted to say.  In 1973, he was beset by another stroke, complicated by pneumonia.  This proved to be too much for him, and Cecil Holland died in Sherman Oaks on June 29, just one month after his 86th birthday.

Cecil left a 40 year legacy of dozens of films in which he acted and hundreds of films for which he created the make-up.  More importantly, for four decades, he had generously and eagerly shared his vast knowledge with other make-up artists, training countless individuals in the complex and fine art of creating make-up illusions and beauty (come to think of it, sometimes beauty IS a make-up illusion.)

And Cecil left behind "The Hollywood Hat." 


For me, the hat is a series of windows into Hollywood and all those who signed it when the movies first talked.  But it was much more than that for Holland.  His daughter, Meg, says it was his "pride and joy."  That's a good start.  By the time Cecil got to M-G-M, he'd been to the fair and he'd been around the block (hell, he'd been around Cape Horn in stormy seas).  It's a certainty that he recognized that being the Director of Make-Up at the biggest, richest, most glamourous and successful studio in Hollywood was "It."  These were the best years of his professional life, and he loved most every minute of it.  What better way to memorialize the daily joy than to get autographs of everyone meaningful to sit in his make-up chair, and to have all the signatures in one place - on the hat?  It's not that different than a high school yearbook where your best friends pick up a pen and leave a little piece of themselves for you to remember them by.

Studios are just like small towns -- with couples who are married, like Charles Boyer and actress Pat Paterson ...

Charles Boyer and wife Pat Paterson on board the French luxury liner Normandie in the
late 1930's.  After 44 years of marriage, Pat died.  Boyer, unable to face life without her,
committed suicide two days later.

Charles Boyer

Pat Paterson

George Burns and Gracie Allen ...

When George Burns and Gracie Allen started their vaudeville act in the early 1920's,
George played the illogical character and Gracie was the "straight man."  Her signature
may have faded on the hat, but thank goodness the memory of her whimsical comedy hasn't.

George Burns

Gracie Allen

and couples the public thought should be married, like William Powell and Myrna Loy ...

William Powell and Myrna Loy made a whopping 14 movies together.
During the time they made these movies, they were married to others a total of 5 times,
but never to each other.  Asta, played by a wire-haired fox terrier named Skippy,
was their co-star in the popular "The Thin Man" series.  Alas, Skippy didn't make
a paw print on the hat.

William Powell

Myrna Loy

and Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

If Nelson Eddy had his way, he and Jeanette MacDonald would have been married in real life.
During much of the time they were teamed on 8 musicals, the two had an on-again,
off-again romance, with Eddy pressuring MacDonald to marry him and give up her career.

Jeanette MacDonald

Nelson Eddy


There are two great publicity photographs M-G-M took of Holland in 1932.  One is of Cecil and Clark Gable on the staircase in the back of the dressing room building.  Gable has the hat with his hand holding a pen at precisely the place on the hat where he signed it.  M-G-M's caption says there are over 2,000 signatures on the hat which is typical Hollywood hyperbole; there were probably no more than 250 at the time.  Gable is looking at Holland, but Holland is looking at the hat.

Clark Gable autographing the hat.
Provenance doesn't get any better than this.

Clark Gable

The other photograph is of Cecil alone, wearing the hat, with a vast expanse of the underbrim still to be filled in.  The camera catches him with a Cheshire cat smile.   He is clearly proud to be wearing this hat.  (And, on an interesting sartorial note, he's wearing a collar pin, a tie tac and a tiebar.)

Cecil Holland sporting his "pride & joy," October 1932.

Once "complete," the hat was stored in Cecil's foyer closet on Hazen Drive.  His family says that Holland would often take it out of the closet and show it off to company.  Although it wasn't yet a dazzling historical pop culture artifact, I'm sure it sparkled plenty when the names were still current.

By the way, Holland wasn't the only make-up artist to have an unusual way of collecting autographs.  Clay Campbell, who spent 33 years as a make-up artist, most of those years heading Columbia Pictures' Make-Up Department, had over two thousand of the actresses he beautified put their fresh lip imprints on pieces of paper and then sign them.

Hollywood Lip Prints
Sheldon O'Connell's book about Clay Campbell's collection of 2,000 lip prints

George Westmore, the patriarch of multi-generations of make-up artists (his sons, at one time or another, ran practically every major studio make-up department) also collected about 100 autographs in a small leather-bound album.  It was available in the December, 2011 Debbie Reynolds auction, and, even in terrible condition - water damage, loose pages, etc. - it sold for more than $3,000.  An interesting piece of trivia is that when M-G-M sent Cecil Holland to England on studio business for a few months in 1929, George Westmore was his temporary replacement as the Director of Make-Up at M-G-M.

And the hat wasn't Cecil's only experience with autographs.  During World War I, he'd been contacted by a British women's service organization, requesting signed movie star pictures to cheer up wounded veterans.  He assembled over 100 of them and shipped them off to England.  And, a few years ago, a hardbound copy of "The Wizard of Oz" came up for auction in England.  It had been signed by all the principal cast members of the 1939 movie, and the auction catalog noted that the book had been a gift to the consigner's great-grandfather, a friend of Cecil Holland, who had the book signed during production of the film.  The book sold for the equivalent of $10,000.

Cecil had the cast sign this copy of "The Wizard of Oz" as a gift for a friend,
which, 70 years later, sold at auction for $10,000.


The "demographics" of the hat tell us a lot about Holland, too.  80% of the signers are men and only 20% of the signers are woman.  It's not that Cecil couldn't do beauty and glamour (Gloria Swanson, Jeanette MacDonald, Joan Crawford - and they weren't playing stay-at-home Moms in housecoats and curlers), but he found working on actors more rewarding.  Walter Huston once inscribed a photo to Cecil which called him "God's gift to character actors."  Such were Holland's talents at painting character on a face that I think that's where he spent most of his time.  The hat is filled with the names of dozens and dozens of character actors.   The names might not be familiar, but the moment you see their picture, the response is "Oh, that guy.  I've seen him in a hundred movies."

It's also interesting to realize who, among the M-G-M stars Cecil worked on, didn't sign the hat.  For one, there's Greta Garbo, which isn't a shock.  Garbo famously signed almost nothing but checks and contracts.  In the 1995 book "Garbo" by Barry Paris, he relates Greta's response to the thousands of fan letters that arrived every week at M-G-M, and which were burned, unread:  "Who are all these people who write?  I don't know them.  They don't know me.  What have we to write each other about?  Why do they want my picture?  I'm not their relative."  A hilarious response.  And astute.  And very practical.

Lionel Barrymore as Rasputin in "Rasputin and the Empress."
Make-up by Cecil Holland.  Barrymore did the etching himself
and gave it to Holland at the end of the shoot. For whatever reason,
Lionel Barrymore never signed the hat.

Eight years is a long time to collect autographs and Cecil mistakenly had some sign the hat twice, including character actors Walter Huston, Lee Tracy, Conrad Nagel, C. Aubrey Smith, and Roland Young, as well as the platinum bombshell herself, Jean Harlow.  The Harlow signatures may be the rarest on the hat.  She was very shy around her fans and rarely signed in-person autographs.  And it is well-known in the autograph community that virtually all of the signed photographs of Harlow now floating around were actually signed by her mother, Mama Jean.

Walter Huston 1

Walter Huston 2

C. Aubrey Smith 1

C. Aubrey Smith 2

Jean Harlow 1

Jean Harlow 2


The "demographics" of fame as represented by the names who signed the hat are fascinating.  "Lasting fame" is measured in different ways in Hollywood.  Foremost is earning an Oscar nomination or, better yet, the statuette itself.  Every Oscar winner knows that the lead sentence in his or her obituary will read something like this: 

"Tonight,  Oscar winner ________________ died in ___________________ (choose one: Cedars Sinai Hospital/St. John's Hospital/at home) after a ___________________(choose one: long battle/short battle) with _________________ (choose one: cancer/substance abuse/Jeffrey Katzenberg)." 

The Academy Award is simply the universal emblem of achievement in the film business.  Nothing else comes close.

Among the signers of the hat, there are 60 individuals who were nominated for an Oscar 134 times.  And there are 31 winners of Oscars (reaping a total of 41 Academy Awards), including the cranky George Bernard Shaw (screenplay for "Pygmalion," 1938).  Shaw publicly pooh-poohed the award, but kept his Oscar prominently displayed on his mantel for the remainder of his life.

Even more exclusive than the Oscars is the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, filled with the hand and foot prints of Hollywood immortals.  A couple of thousand Oscars have been handed out, but there are only about 250 stars represented at Grauman's.  (I'd give you an exact number, but do you count or not count R2D2, C3PO and Roy Rogers' horse Trigger?)  There are a variety of stories of how the footprints ceremonies began, but most agree Norma Talmadge was the first to get cement on her hands and shoes in 1927.  Since then, there have only been an average of three stars added each year.  Like I said, exclusive.

Four lady hat signers at one of Marion Davies' many costume parties:
Gloria Swanson, Marion Davies, Constance Bennett and Jean Harlow.
The three dressed in "Heidi" gear also have their foot and hand prints
at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Gloria Swanson

Constance Bennett

Married couple Dick Powell and Joan Blondell jointly leave their hand and foot prints at Grauman's
Chinese theater in February, 1937.  The man assisting them is Jean Klossner, who created the
extra-durable concrete used in the forecourt and who supervised the footprint ceremonies
from 1927-1957.  He was known as "Mr. Footprints."

Dick Powell

Joan Blondell

Eddie Cantor was an enormously popular film star in the early 1930's and is shown here,
putting his Best Foot Forward at Grauman's in 1932.

Eddie Cantor

Jack Benny's cement block at Grauman's Chinese Theater.
He wrote so much verbiage there was no room for hand prints.

Jack Benny

Of those 250 stars, how many of them autographed "The Hollywood Hat"?

A whopping 39.   Or almost one out of every six. 

Starting in 1932, Quigley Publications, a reputable motion picture trade publisher, annually polls theater owners for a list of which ten stars' movies brought in the most customers.  It's not the most scientific way to judge box office success, but the list is always generally credible and it's endured for over 80 years.  Inclusion on the list is also often mentioned in a star's obituary.  

From 1932 to 1939, thirty-three stars appeared on the Top Ten Box Office Stars list (clearly lots of repeats from year to year).  Of those, twenty-one autographed "The Hollywood Hat."  That's more than 60%.

Joan Crawford was a mainstay of the Top Ten Box Office Stars List in its first years.
An amazing number
of hat signers appeared in Crawford movies, including her first two husbands,
shown here with Joan in
Fancy Dress Ball costumes.
On the left, husband #1, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
On the right, husband #2,
Franchot Tone.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Franchot Tone


Then there's the Hollywood Walk of Fame, represented by all those glittery pink stars lining Hollywood Boulevard.  When Hollywood (the neighborhood) started to decline in the early 1950's, E. M. Stuart, a civic booster, came up with the idea of installing the sidewalk stars as a way to goose tourism.  Four committees were formed to create lists of those worthy of a star in any of four areas - films, television, radio and records/music.  People could be awarded more than one star if they had excelled in more than one medium.

Ultimately, 1550 stars were initially awarded.  The list was not without controversy.  Charlie Chaplin's son unsuccessfully sued the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce for $400,000 for the omission of his father's name.  Apparently, to some, in the tail end of the McCarthy era, Chaplin's leftish worldview was more meaningful than the fact that Charlie Chaplin, the actor, had done more to popularize movies than anyone else in history (ps: he finally got a star in 1972).

Charlie Chaplin

By 1961, the original stars had been installed, and starting in 1968, other stars were added to the Walk.  About two dozen, more or less, have been added each year, until the total is now close to 2500 stars.  In 1984, a 5th category was added - Theatre/Live Appearances.  It's also evolved into an honor with a price tag; the chosen star (or an entity acting on the star's behalf) needs to fork up some serious dough (currently about $30,000) to underwrite the cost of the installation, ceremony and future maintenance.  It's not unlike buying a plot in a cemetery.  Both offer eternal remembrance, if not salvation.

These three very different leading men --
Leslie Howard, Gary Cooper, and Charles Farrell --
all have sidewalk stars.

Leslie Howard

Gary Cooper

Charles Farrell

So how did the hat signers do with the Hollywood Walk of Fame?  154 of them (that's about 40% of those who signed the hat) are represented on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with 198 stars.  That's a lot of sidewalk sparkle.

Comedy Stars -- and Sidewalk Stars --
Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton, Oliver Hardy and Jimmy Durante
all at M-G-M in the early 1930's.

Stan Laurel

Oliver Hardy

Buster Keaton

Jimmy Durante


It might be tempting to put the Golden Globes on this list as a measurement of lasting fame, but the Globes only started in 1943, a decade after the era of "The Hollywood Hat."  But, there was something in the 20's and 30's as artificial and manufactured as the Golden Globes.  It was called WAMPAS Baby Stars.

WAMPAS stands for Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers, a trade group of film publicists and advertisers.  Starting in 1922, the group would annually identify 13 young actresses who were on the cusp of stardom.  They didn't call them starlets then; they nicknamed them "Baby Stars."   Given that publicists created this thing, there was a huge amount of media attention given to the announcements - newspaper articles, newsreel footage, personal appearances - and being a WAMPAS Baby Star turned out to be a big deal at that time.

The WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926.  From left to right: Dolores Costello,
Vera Reynolds,
Mary Astor, Marceline Day, Edna Marion, Mary Bryan,
Fay Wray, Janet Gaynor, Sally Long, Joyce Compton, Dolores Del Rio,
Sally O'Neil, and last, but certainly not least, Joan Crawford.

Fay Wray

Mary Astor

The WAMPAS group had a pretty good track record of predicting stardom.  Among their picks were Clara Bow, Bessie Love, Colleen Moore, Dolores Del Rio, Jean Arthur, Loretta Young and Ginger Rogers.  Twelve of the ladies who autographed "The Hollywood Hat" were WAMPAS Baby Stars including 5 from 1926 alone - Mary Astor, Marceline Day, Janet Gaynor, Fay Wray and the biggest Baby Star of all, Joan Crawford.  The awards ended after the 1934 announcements due to studio pressure; the moguls didn't want anybody else telling them who should be a star.  The crust of those publicists.

Cecil turns glamour girl and 1928 WAMPAS Baby Star Gwen Lee into
a Halloween version of Pippi Longstocking.

It's always the silly season in Hollywood --
even for WAMPAS Baby Stars like Joan Marsh,
shown here adorned with necklaces, a bracelet,
and a ring hand-painted onto her skin by Cecil.

A fascinating aspect of the hat is how it conjures up the pop culture zeitgeist of the time.  It wasn't just actors who signed the hat.  M-G-M and other studios were constantly doing "stunt casting" - taking someone in the public eye and putting them in the movies.  A great example is 1933's "The Prizefighter and the Lady."  For their appearances in this film, four future, present and past World Heavyweight Boxing Champions - Max Baer, Primo Carnera, Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard - sat in Cecil's chair and signed the hat for him.

Max Baer

Primo Carnera

Jack Dempsey

Jess Willard

Max Baer is the Prizefighter.  Myrna Loy is the Lady.

Max Baer, Jack Dempsey and Primo Carnera in
the ring in "The Prizefighter and the Lady."

The film, a romantic drama, stars Myrna Loy opposite Max Baer as a boxer who fights Primo Carnera (playing himself) in a quest to be the next World's Heavyweight Champion.  This clairvoyant casting mirrored Baer's and Carnera's professional status in the world of boxing.  Shortly after this movie was made, Baer actually defeated reigning champion Primo Carnera for the Heavyweight title.   Myrna Loy once remarked that Baer carefully studied Carnera's boxing technique during filming and used what he learned to best Carnera.

The fifth boxing champ to autograph Cecil's Stetson was James J. Corbett, popularly known as Gentleman Jim and known to be the "father of modern boxing."  Corbett won his title in 1892, knocking out famed boxer John L. Sullivan.   Errol Flynn starred as Corbett in the 1942 Warner Brothers biopic - "Gentleman Jim."

James Corbett

Gentleman Jim Corbett in 1897.

Cecil also got the autographs of those famous folks of the time who must have just been passing thru the M-G-M Make-Up Department.  "Red" Grange, the most celebrated college football player of perhaps all time, signed.

Red Grange

Artist Charles  Dana Gibson, the creator of "The Gibson Girl" and for whom the Gibson Martini may well have been named, signed too.

Charles Dana Gibson

As did Rex Beach, an adventure novelist once as famous as Clive Cussler or Robert Ludlum.

Rex Beach

As well as Roscoe Turner, a pilot and champion air racer who wound up on the cover of Time in 1934.  What an appropriately aerodynamic signature.

Roscoe Turner


Except among make-up historians who see him as the "Father of Movie Make-Up," Cecil Holland has been forgotten.  Which is sad and unfair, but it isn't surprising.  A lot of people who were once famous have been forgotten.  Let me give you a list of people who signed the hat and you guess what they all have in common:

Richard Dix

Louise Dresser

Alfred Lunt

Grace Moore

May Robson

Lawrence Tibbett

H. B. Warner

Diana Wynyard

Did you guess or do you give up?  

They were all nominated for a Best Actor or Best Actress Oscar in the first decade of the Academy Awards.    Granted, there wasn't quite the hoopla and ballyhoo about the Oscars back then as there is now, but in their time, they were all household names and wildly famous.

Want to try another list of hat signers?  This one will be easier for some of you.

Warner Baxter

Alice Brady

Victor McLaglen

Ready for the answer?

They all won acting Oscars in the first 10 years of the Academy Awards.  (Although in the case of Brady, it wasn't an Oscar statuette, it was a plaque.  This distinguished a supporting award from a lead award.  Sheez.  Hollywood.)

A plaque, not a statuette.

The prosaic point being:  fame can evaporate faster than water in the Mojave.  In fact, it almost always does.  Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" shone a klieg light on how utterly forgotten film pioneer Georges Melies was less than 20 years after making hundreds of ground-breaking films.   And, that's normal, although there are rare exceptions.  The eternal fame of a Gable or a Crawford can be traced to the fact that people still avidly watch their films because their personas  - against all odds - still resonate with movie watchers.  The fame of a Chaplin or a Pickford is more interesting.  People know of them as historical characters, just like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, not necessarily because they sit down and enjoy the pictures they made.  

But for most of those who autographed "The Hollywood Hat," fame had an expiration date.  When the movies went from silent to talkies, lots of big-time careers did crash.  Sometimes, it was because of their thick foreign or regional accents and sometimes it was because their style of acting, perfectly appropriate for the "silent" era, seemed overwrought, florid, and, to be blunt, too clunky for talkies.  Dialogue totally undercut their mojo.

It doesn't have to be something as catastrophic as a technical revolution to send a career off the tracks.  There comes a time in most stars' careers when the public is tired of them, when what they have to offer no longer matches up to current manias, tastes and styles.  When that happens, some, like Garbo or Shearer, retire and never look back.  For all the others, it must have been quite painful when we, the public, muscled them aside and just moved on.  Darwinism works in pop culture the same way it works elsewhere.

"The Hollywood Hat" sprang to life in an era when all of this drama was first transpiring. I've lived in Los Angeles for years now, and when I drive around town, I see the studios, large and small, that are still standing and I see the 1920's Spanish-style mansions on the windy roads of the hills and canyons, and often think:  what was it like back then, when all this was fresh and new and happening for the first time?  Why can't Woody Allen do "Midnight in Hollywood" and send a chauffeured Duesenberg to take me back 85 or 95 years?

After reading about all of the rollercoaster lives of the hundreds of people who signed the hat and how they, like Cecil Holland, serendipitously came to participate in the creation of an entire industry and art form, it certainly seems like it was more exciting back then.
And if I could meet Cecil Holland, the first thing I'd say to him is "thanks for creating the hat, Cecil.  It's been quite an education."   And, then I'd let him do the rest of the talking.

© 2012 Joe Blitman