While at MGM growing up on the studio lot, on the sets, in offices, in the lunch room commissary, and backlots, basically wherever I would observe these people working, I quickly learned the term “A BIT OF BUSINESS.”
This “Bit of Business”, when the camera was rolling, was the scratch of the nose, a touch of the head or neck, pushing the hat up and forward, taking the hat off and itching the head while holding the hat, wiping the forehead with the back of the hand, taking the right hand across the body and itching your left back shoulder, rolling up your shirt sleeves, pulling and adjusting your shirt in and out of your pants, a cough or clearing your throat, adjusting your glasses and frowning, pulling your mouth to the side, biting your lip, chewing on a piece of straw, the angle and positioning of your eyebrows, the movements and glances and most important the “direction of your eyes.” That would be your understanding and knowing the positioning and movement of the camera. Sometimes, you can see vestiges of the bit of business in old Hollywood memorabilia, which we offer on this website.
That “Bit of Business” that the character actor did during the shooting of the scene could literally take that scene away and steal it from the star. I observed this many, many times to the annoyance of the lead actor. Sometimes, to the point of the actor halting the scene and demanding that the scene be done all over. Our old Hollywood memorabilia comes from some of the best films Hollywood had to offer.
At Warner Bros. studios, I watched Alan Hale Sr. purposely do a bit of business while doing a scene with Errol Flynn. Errol may not have noticed or let it be known to the crew and the director what Alan was doing because they were friends and he let him get away with it. They probably discussed it privately off the set later, however. I don’t have any direct proof of that, but I do have some old Hollywood memorabilia that may make you take a second look yourself.
I watched the same thing at Warner Bros. Studios on another film with Hume Cronyn, stealing a scene with Henry Fonda. I saw Burgess Merideth annoying and stealing a scene from Kirk Douglas. Growing up, several times I noticed Gabby Hays doing the same things in scenes with his cowboy star and pal, Roy Rogers. I surmised Andy Divine doing his bit of business with Duncan Ronaldo. “The Cisco Kid,” Leo Cario, did this with Gene Autry; and, the bad boy actor Grant Withers gave a bad time to Bill Elliot “Wild Bill Hickock”. Some of these famous actors feature prominently in our site’s old Hollywood memorabilia.
A bit of business became an essential part for actors to portray and set themselves apart and established them as a known and recognized character. As I grew up over the years in the industry, I found myself taking advantage of and doing skillfully my own bit of business in every day conversations, in my school classes, and working professionally within the film business.
We all can learn and observe a bit of business that we see in each other. Most of the time, it can be for fun. It sets your own personal character apart from the other guy. Then, you can take advantage of doing it and being successful in your own business. When you do it, you can check your own success in that performance, even keep score, which causes you to perfect your own abilities, which I have done, and seen in my own accomplishments. So you may not see any value in a character actor’s bit of business, but I have seen and observed it work very successfully. You might be surprised when you try it yourself.
Visit throughout the site to look for old Hollywood memorabilia and great, old-time Hollywood stories. I’m glad to share my memorabilia and my insights with you.by Marta Mac