Gwen Zetter

Gwen Zetter

Most of the girls I profile on this page were in fact extras with no speaking parts. Gwen Zetter is an excellent example of how an extra lived and worked in Hollywood. She is literary the other side of the medal – what about not just the stars and the character actors, but those who were never credited and often graced a large number of movies? Let’s learn more about her! 

EARLY LIFE

Grunhild Ingrid Zettergren was born on June 22, 1910, in Wada, Sweden. I could not find any information on the identity of her parents. The family moved to Stockholm not long after her birth. Gwen grew up in Stockholm and attended school there. In the late 1920s, after finishing high school, decided to go to America and seek her fortune there. 

After Gwen landed in the US, she became fashion model first in Chicago and then in New York. It was via the modeling route that she landed in Hollywood in 1932, and her career started! 

CAREER

Gwen allegedly appeared in a large number of movies as an extra, but IMDB lists only 11 of them. With no further adue, let’s go into it! 

Gwen’s first movie on the last is She Wanted a Millionaire, which what we today consider a totally cliche story, of a pretty girl who wants a millionaire, gets one but then gets more than she bargains for when the guy ends up not quiet what she expected and murder ensures! this is worth watching for the leads – Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, and nothing else more or less. Those two had great chemistry and really worked well together! Coming up next was Sinners in the Sun, a similar 1930s romcom, about a girl who wants a rich man and thus ends her relationship with a loving but poor man. It’s not the sory, it’s the actors once again, with Carole Lombard and 

And then the The Kid from Spain! Whoa, this movie has been mentioned here for more than 10 times, so I won’t write about ti any more. Next: The Woman Accused seems like an interesting pre-code crime drama, with Nancy Carroll playing just engaged young women who John Halliday tries to coerce into admitting her guilt over the death of her former boyfriend (Louis Calhern). And imagine who plays Nancy’s new fiancee? None other than Cary Grant! While not written well enough to be a very good film, it’s still well plotted, tight and has some interesting moments. And seeing Cary on the screen is always a plus! 

Gwen Zetter 2

And then we have The Warrior’s Husband, and what a movie this is! A story about Theseus and the Amazons (let’s brush up on our greek mythology), but in reality a story about the complicated gender roles and perhaps a reversal of those same norms? While I would have loved to see Katherine Hepburn in the leading role (she played it in the theater), another actress I like, Elissa Landi, makes an appearance, so it’s all fine and dandy! Another delightful precode comedy was  International House, a kind of a pastiche of various zany people trying to buy a patent for a peculiar TV station (and all of this is set in China). W.C. Fields, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Stuart Irwin (the male lead, but actually the most ), The story may be thin, but there is plenty of 1930s pizzaz, absurd skits and colorful characters that it just works! Plus it’s precode, always a plus IMHO. 

Gwen then appeared in Morning Glory, a okay movie about the lives of actresses. While it’s a minor classic today, mostly thanx to Katherine Hepburn’s Oscar win, I didn’t find it particularly exalting, but it’s a solid piece of film making and there are plenty of nice roles for ladies in it, also always a plus in my book. Gwen then appeared as a chorus girl in two 1930s musicals, Footlight Parade and Roman Scandals. We know the old blueprint – no story, plenty of scantly clad ladies, some comedy, some song and dance, interesting costumes! 

Gwens last movie was Vagabond Lady, a cute romantic comedy with Robert Young and Evelyn Venable – Evie is engaged to Bob’s older, stuffy brother, but when Bon enters the picture, things change dramatically! While no work of art, it’s a breezy, nice lil movie and quite enjoyable to watch! 

That’s it from Gwen! 

PRIVATE LIFE

Gwen was a blue-eyed blond and quite tall, five feet, eight Inches in height and weighted 123 pounds. Gwen had a particular flair for white; and kept her figure with an old-fashioned diet of milk cheese and fresh green food. 

In 1935, after being in Hollywood for several years and in the US for about six, Gwen received final papers as United States citizen. Here is a short newspaper bit about it: 

Forswearing allegiance to the King of Sweden, Miss Grunhild In grid Zettergren, known on the stage and screen as” Gwen Zetter, yesterday appeared before United States District Judge McCormick and was awarded her final papers as a citi zen of the United States. The actress was one of a class of 180 per sons seeking citizenship, a majority of them former British subjects. Miss Zetter, who resides at 1075 North St. Andrews Place, has lived here for about five years, during which she has been engaged In motion picture work. She said her parents repeatedly have urged her to return to Sweden, but that she had decided she “would rather live here than any other place in the world.” “Sweden is a grand country,” she said, “but greater opportunities exist here for people of my profession and I am delighted to become American citizen.” The actress was accompanied to court by Dorothy Compton, film actress

Gwen seemed to have a brand – the “successful” extra. If she ever got any newspaper coverage, it was because she was a working gal and Hollywood extra. If you can believe the newspapers, according to the records of Central Casting, Gwen was the top money extra In the business. She averaged about $60 a week, more than a stenographer or a saleslady. Here is a very exhaustive article about her lifestyle, and more of less the reason I decided to profile her here – this is very interesting reading! 

“I want to interview the most successful extra in Hollywood,” I told Campbell McCollough, the new chief of Central Casting. He gave me the telephone, number and address of Gwen Zetter. Having made an appointment, I visited her in her home. She is a girl of whom the motion picture industry may well be proud, and I am frank to say, after talking with her for an hour, that I am puzzled to find her an extra, while so many others, decidedly inferior to her in both beauty and intelligence, have reached stardom. I have heard thousands of extras bewail their lot. The officials of Central Casting repeatedly have told me that they are unable to supply enough work to keep their thousands of registrants in food and clothing and shelter. But from Gwen Zetter I heard the other side of the story. Her success deserves the more applause because it has been won in the face of tremendous odds — but it does not mean that the average girl can earn a living as an extra. Gwen Zetter is not an average girl. I EARN my living by working as a motion picture extra. I don’t pretend to be an “actress,” and don’t profess to have “talent.” I’m just an extra — but I’m one by choice, and I wouldn’t trade jobs with any one of the salesgirls, stenographers or secretaries whom I know. Too many tears have been shed about our lot. Too many articles have pointed out “the pitfalls that lurk in Hollywood for the extra girl.”

Too many writers have exercised their flair for melodrama by picturing us as the despised victims of mistreatment on the studio sets. Of course, with so much smoke, there must be a fire. I know that I have been unusually lucky. I know that for every extra who earns a decent living, there are many who barely exist. Our “business,” like all others, is desperately overcrowded. There are nearly ten thousand of us, all registered with Central Casting, all absolutely dependent upon our work before the cameras, and all competing for employment which would be insufficient for half of our number. Naturally, the majority must fail in the competition — and Central Casting, realizing the conditions, not only refuses to register new applicants for extra work, but is systematically trying to weed out the least suited just as fast as employment can be found for them in other fields. Yet the fact remains that the girls who are best suited for extra work — Who have the best physical assets and the best mental attitudes — all earn good “living wages.”

I have been an extra for the past three years — notoriously lean ones in Hollywood — and I have not only lived very comfortably, but I have also managed to save money. I have had a great amount of leisure between jobs and I have gone to school. I consider the three years well spent Certainly, I have gained much more than I did during the three preceding years, when I worked steadily, at good salary, as a modiste’s model. But I have been unusually lucky! Before telling of my own experiences, it is necessary to explain a few facts about “the extra game.” All who are registered with Central Casting are classified as either “atmosphere people” or “extras.” The former, who need not be entirely dependent upon studio work for a livelihood, receive a minimum wage of five dollars per day; the latter, who are defined by the Motion Picture Industry Code as “Those who by experience or ability are known to be competent to play group or individual business parts and otherwise to appear in a motion picture in other than atmospheric background or crowd work,” receive a minimum daily wage of seven dollars and fifty cents.

Extras are further classified as “ordinary extras” and “dress extras” — and there lies the margin of difference between a fair living and a bare existence, for dress extras, who must maintain at their own expense a complete wardrobe, suitable for every modern setting, receive a minimum of fifteen dollars a day. Obviously, it is good business to be a dress extra — for they not only get top pay but also receive more “calls.” Frequently they are given “lines” to speak, and, in that case, they receive twenty- five dollars or more per day. Don’t think, however, that an extra works every day. We never know today whether we will work tomorrow, or next week, or a month from today. We live from day to day. If we average one and one-half days a week we are lucky; if we average three days a week, we are almost unbelievably fortunate. Central tries to spread employment as fairly as possible — and until the total number of registered extras is greatly reduced, there isn’t enough work to go around. The few of us who receive top wages fare well, the others suffer.

Thanks to my previous work as a model and to an inborn passion for clothes, I came to Hollywood already equipped with a much better than aver- age wardrobe. And, as soon as I discovered that only the dress extras can hope to earn good livelihoods, I determined to have a complete wardrobe. I skimped and scraped, and sewed and shopped, until I knew that I could accept any call. Those were hard times, and if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to have a small amount of money, saved from my previous employment, I know I could never have survived the first few months. Since then I have averaged three days’ work a week. On rare occasions I have been selected to speak a line or two of dialogue. During the last two years my average income has been at least fifty dollars a week. WITHOUT considering the fact that I have a tremendous amount of leisure, what employment can a girl in her early twenties, without any special training or talent, find that will pay her better wages? I live by myself, in a well-furnished cottage. I drive my own inexpensive car, purchased new and paid for out of my earnings. I deny myself nothing that I want in the way of food.

Contrasting my lot with that of most working girls, I believe I have a distinct advantage. But, I repeat, I have been very lucky! During my first six months as an extra I earned considerably less than I do now and I had to be extremely economical to meet my living expenses. I had been accustomed to a weekly salary and it was terribly difficult for me to budget correctly on an uncertain, spasmodic income. Whenever I had worked for several days in succession and found myself suddenly “flush,” I was tempted to go on a spending spree, forgetting that weeks might pass before I would work again. Finally, by keeping an exact record of my earnings over a sufficient time, I struck an average and made it the basis of an iron-clad budget. Since then I have fared very well. Out of every pay check I set aside a certain percentage for rent, for wardrobe, for food, for transportation and for all of the other items on my budget. And I refuse to contract debts. I honestly believe that more girls fail in the “extra game” through poor management than ever fail because of insufficient earnings.

The cost of living is remarkably low in Los Angeles, and any girl should be able to get along here on twenty-five dollars a week. Few dress extras average less. I have heard dress extras complain that it costs them every cent they earn to maintain their wardrobes. When I first reported for extra work, I was warned that it would cost me at least $2,000 to acquire a satisfactory ward- robe. Perhaps it would have cost that much if I had bought with the same reckless extravagance which most extras display. I design my own clothes. I watch the sales and I buy material in advance of my needs in order to get it at real bargain prices. I do most of my own sewing — and, whenever I lack the time to sew, I take my material and my patterns to a very capable dressmaker whose shop is in a nearby small town and whose prices are very reasonable. The net result is that I pay twenty dollars or less for an evening gown which would cost at least four times that much if purchased ready-made in one of the fashionable shops. And I have discovered that a little ingenuity, exercised in making over old things, will show a saving of several hundred dollars each year. Twenty-five to thirty dollars a month is ample to cover all of my wardrobe needs.

MOST of the extra girls whom I know have their hair dressed before each appearance on the set. So do I — but “I dress my own” instead of submitting to the prices charged by Hollywood’s most fashionable hair- dressers. When I discovered how imperative it is for a dress extra to be perfectly coiffured, I took a course in hair-dressing. It has paid for itself a hundred times. Too many extras have “star complexes.” Instead of frankly admitting that they are extras and living accordingly, they are apologetic for their status and live far beyond their means to uphold their pretensions. They are too conscious of the caste system in Holly- wood, which places a wide gulf between the extra player and the so-called featured actor. I see no reason for being ashamed of being an extra. My work is important to the finished picture; I receive a fair wage for it and I try to do it to the best of my ability. And certainly there is no cause for shame in living within one’s means. I’d much rather be a capable extra than to step beyond my abilities and be an incapable actress. I’m like most girls; I would like to be a screen star with all the fame and money that goes with it — but there’s no use in kidding myself. I’m an extra and the best thing for me to do is to stick to my own job until I have earned something better. People continually ask me about the way extra girls are treated on the sets.

I always answer that we are given exactly the treatment which we, as individuals, invite. And I think that answer is the exact truth. Girls who show by their actions that they respect themselves are seldom treated with disrespect. In three years I have never received a single “insult.” It is no more difficult to remain moral as an extra girl than it is to remain moral in any other business. It is up to the girl, herself, to determine her way of living. Several years ago, I understand, extras often were treated with lack of consideration — especially by the smaller studios. Sometimes they were required to work under conditions which were not only disagreeable but actually dangerous to their safety. But that is all changed now. If any extra meets with unfair treatment on the set, he has recourse by filing a formal complaint with Central Casting — and Central, which is a branch of the powerful Motion Picture Producers’ Association, immediately takes action. My work is interesting. I like to study people and, on the sets, I have had a chance to meet and study some of the most interesting people in the world. I have worked with almost every star and every famous director. Probably they were unaware of my existence. but I enjoyed watching them at work. I’m like all the rest of you — a dyed-in- the-wool fan. I have played in pictures laid in China, in Paris, in London, in Rome — in short, in every locale on earth. And since Hollywood’s technicians conscientiously try to make every picture a truthful reflection of its setting, I feel that I have learned more than I could have learned from a round-the-world cruise.

My education was limited and I deeply appreciate the general infor- mation that I have received on the sets. I have learned to speak better English, for I have had the opportunity, day after day, to hear the dialogue written by famous authors. And I have made the most of the opportunity, for I am Swedish and I spoke broken English when I came to Hollywood. Another thing — and this touches my one great ambition — I have been able to study the clothes designed by some of the greatest artists in the world. Eventually I want to be a designer, a modiste, and where could I possibly receive better instruction than on the motion picture sets, studying the work of Hollywood’s Travis Bantons and Adrians? The point that I have tried to make is this: being an extra is not vastly dif- ferent from being a worker in any other business. The girls who approach extra work with the proper equipment and a businesslike attitude can make it pay them satisfactory wages. It is not necessary to be beautiful, it is not necessary to have acting ability, it is not necessary to have “personality.”

It is necessary to have common sense and clothes sense. One must know what to wear and how to wear it, and one must know how to live sanely and economically. EXTRA work is the poorest of stepping-stones to screen success, for the very qualities which make a girl suitable for stardom actually handicap her as an extra. It is not best to stand out from the crowd if you wish to work regularly as an extra. If you are too noticeable in one sequence of a picture, often you are automatically barred from work in another sequence. Certainly I would not advise the av- erage girl to work extra for a living. The very fact that Central Casting now refuses to register a new applicant, no matter how suitable he or she may be for the work, is sufficient proof that the great majority of already registered extras are unable to work often enough to earn living wages. Depression and unemployment have overcrowded our ranks. And I know that the luck which has stuck with me for three years may turn against me to morrow. Still — I wouldn’t trade jobs with any one of the girls I know.

This is an nice article, and Gwen seems like a very level headed woman, although a bit naive (yeah, it’s enough not to be difficult to make it in Hollywood – very often not! There are some systematical prejudices at work, but to be kind and friendly to everyone should be everyone’s goal.)

Gwen’s parents still lived in Sweden, and she often took summer vacation to the old continent. I wonder if the came to the US after the war started, but could not find any information.

But unlike Bess Flowers, the extra who appeared in hundreds of movies and whose career lasted for decades (and is considered a legendary figure today), by 1940 Gwen was out of Hollywood. How and why? Have no idea. Here the information becomes sketchy and little is known about what Gwen did afterwards. However, we do know that she married a Harold Rymer between 1941 and 1944. The couple lived in California and it seems they did not have any children.

Ingrid Rymer died on in Moonpark, California on January 29, 1995.

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