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The
Keystone Kid

Tales of Early Hollywood

By Coy Watson Jr.

 

cover

BOOK REVIEW

The Keystone Kid: Tales of Early Hollywood
By Coy Watson Jr.

Santa Monica Press : Santa Monica, California : 2001
ISBN 1-8916-6121-3 (978-1-8916-6121-1) : 311 pages : trade paperback edition : $24.95

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
Coy Watson Jr. lived a fantasy childhood. This account of the early years of Hollywood filmmaking is surrounded by a recollection of an ideal, fun and loving childhood, all in a small town that blossoms into a busy industry center in a very few years. The Watson family lived next door to the motion picture studio of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in Edendale, California, and only a few blocks away from Selig’s southern California studio. Coy, his friends, and his siblings regularly played around and on the grounds of these busy film studios, who might cast the neighborhood’s young children as supporting players at a moment’s notice.

Proximity to the studios was one advantage for these accidental thespians but Coy’s father, Coy Watson Sr., was one of the earliest players, stuntmen and special effects coordinators employed at the fledgling film companies and had an ‘in’ with the studios that made the Watson family, with their reputation for film-savvy acting, one of the first calls for casting. Watson Sr., married young and settled in a small house at 2211 Berkeley Avenue in Edendale that, on at least one occasion, became a location film set. The Watsons had several children over the years, beginning with Coy Jr., born in November 1912. Coy’s film debut came at nine months old, and his early career continued with incidental toddler and young child appearances in the earliest Keystone films.

With Coy turning only two years old at the end of Charles Chaplin’s tenure at the Keystone studio, there are only insubstantial and passing references to him and no memories of his work in Edendale, despite the hopes of this reviewer. The Triangle years at Keystone are far better documented, with Coy living and playing as a young child in this unusual but normal neighborhood, where residents might regularly see kinetic Keystone Kops racing along their streets followed by a camera car.

The Keystone players and crew were Watson family friends. Coy includes a touching story of his family’s celebration of Louise Fazenda’s birthday. Another memory relates the time young Gloria Swanson came into the Watson home, while working in a nearby location shoot, to press a rumpled costume. Coy was even taught to swim in the Keystone studio tank by actor Robert Young’s brother, Joe.

Watson does a fine job, with his anecdotal stories, of giving the reader an vivid impression of what life was like for a young child growing up in a loving family, in a small (sometimes) sleepy town, around an early Hollywood film studio. I believe that many of us that are interested in the workings of an early film studio fail to have a sense of what happens beyond the fences of the lot. Here, that fuzzy periphery begins to take shape and become real. Coy recalls for us the time a Keystone casting call went out for cats and his efforts to capture neighborhood felines for their unwilling film debuts. Another memory has Mack Sennett stopping to play at making films with the neighborhood children, directing Coy and the others from behind a make-believe camera. Watson’s memoir helps readers visualize not only the lifestyle of the studio’s neighborhood and neighbors, but also to gives us an indication of the real lives of the studio players and crew.

Watson incorrectly recounts appearing as an infant actor with Dorothy Phillips and Lon Chaney in the Selig film, The Price of Silence (1913). Phillips and Chaney appeared in The Price of Silence (1916), produced in California by Bluebird. Pathé Frères Films also produced a The Price of Silence (1913), and Kalem produced a The Price of Silence (1914). While it is likely that Selig produced a The Price of Silence film in 1913, Watson is only in error as to the stars and the director of the film.

While there are several documentations of early Hollywood studio practices in the book, I am slightly disappointed that even more information about Coy Watson Jr.’s actual work on individual films isn’t recounted. There are brief synopses of and commentary on Coy’s films of the twenties in the back of the book, beginning with A Nick-of-Time Hero (1921). And, as a friendly suggestion, the book could have also benefited from the inclusion of a couple of simple maps for readers unfamiliar with the studios and the neighborhood of Edendale, and its proximity to Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. A welcome amount of information on Coy Watson Sr.’s film is present, however. Not only was Coy Sr. a busy film community member as a player, stuntman cowboy, assistant director and casting director, he pioneered the piano wire special effects that were so stunning in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Black Pirate (1926), and that continue to be utilized in modern films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

The book is liberally illustrated with photographs and frame enlargements that are a historian’s dream. Many of the photos capture the Edendale neighborhood of the 1910s, when large empty lots sprinkled with a few houses were the norm. The Keystone and Selig studios are well represented, including shots of the Sennett panorama, a rotating background that faciliated comic chases to be filmed without leaving the studio lot.

Coy Watson Jr.’s book is a valuable addition to the documentation of early Hollywood’s rise, early film production methods, and the everyday lives of a few of the many people who crafted the early films. It was a time that Coy Watson Sr. astutely noted (with the arrival of sound films) as the passing of an era. He told Coy Jr., “Sound is going to make a big difference in the way moving pictures are made from now on. Making silent pictures was fun and easy. Making sound pictures is going to be all work and little fun. It will be more exacting, more precise, causing actors to be tense as they concentrate to read their lines. Talkies will be more interesting to see and will tell stories in more detail, with sounds and music in the background. I believe we have seen the happiest days of the making of motion pictures.”

In 1932, now a young adult and a professional news photographer, Coy photo-documented the destruction by a raging windstorm of the dilapitated and abandoned Sennett studio buildings. Their sad and unceremonious end was yet another symbol of the finality of an era’s irrevocable passage and the forward march of time and progress.

We highly recommend this fine memoir of Coy Watson Jr.’s, with its valuable photographs, its documentation of early Hollywood, and its happy and loving recollection of family, friends and neighbors.

 
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