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. Most of the movies were produced 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 I 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.
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 U.S. citizenship.
The Man of 1000 Faces
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 the 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.
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 moniker. And you’re right. But not until Cecil gifted his pal with the title years later.
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.
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 LA 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.
Welcome to MGM
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. And Holland was signed to an acting contract by one-year-old MGM.
Simultaneously, and much more significantly, Cecil was hired by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer to form a permanent make-up department, the first to exist at a major motion picture studio. MGM 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 MGM 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 and not so famous faces (MGM, 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-plus films and shorts a year.
With those kinds of responsibilities (think of tending to those famous MGM 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 their 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. 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 that led to a secret barroom (the influence of Prohibition on interior design?).