Francelia Billington Who Can Play Both Ends of a Camera Against the Middle
By Katherine Synon
Versatility is one of the primary requisites of a motion picture actress. The girl who can't ride, and swim, and row, and dive, and run a motor car isn't half ready for the profession of posing for the film dramas. There is not a film star in the United States who hasn't deserved medals for her excellence in lines of accomplishment outside those of histrionic art; but it has remained for Francelia Billington of the Mutual studios to set a record by her ability to do, not only many things, but several things at once.
Miss Billington can ride. She learned that in Texas, where she was born and raised on a ranch outside Dallas. She can swim, and row, and dive, having learned those sports in New Orleans, where she went to live when she was ten years old. She can run a motor car, having driven one around Los Angeles before she was even interested in motion pictures. She can act, having had her first experiences in the plays of a Texas convent and having proved up later in the pictures of the Reliance and Majestic studios. She is proud of all these accomplishments, but it is no one of them that sets her distinctly apart from a score of other leading women. But she can also operate a motion picture camera, even for the plays in which she is appearing, and she is as proud of this achievement as is the vaudeville cartoonist who draws caricatures of the orchestra leader he dislikes or of the delinquent paymaster.
Out at the Reliance and Majestic studios of the Mutual company in Los Angeles, Francelia Billington has plenty of opportunity to try out her skill in her double role of actress and camera operator, for W. C. Cabanne, director of the companies, has found her assistance in the staging of plays of more than casual value. Almost any day at the studios it is possible to see a brown- haired, gray-eyed, olive-skinned girl of remarkable grace and extreme prettiness standing back of one of the big cameras, turning a crank as she keeps close watch on the scene that a group of players are enacting. Sometimes Cabanne, the director, turns to her with a question concerning the placing of some player. Usually her criticism is accepted, for the director has found that Francelia Billington has an exceptionally quick eye for picture effects and as a result he is permitting her to develop her talent in this line as well as in her own posing for the films.
She herself prefers camera work to posing, in spite of the success that her pictures have won. As she stood back of the big machine the other day, waiting for a setting to be changed before she went on to take her own role, she talked of both phases of her work with enthusiastic eagerness. Her voice lost its habitual southern drawl and took on the crisper inflections of the West as she spoke of her double connection with the film pictures. Francelia Billington is a girl whose force of character makes her personality most vivid and gives impetus to her words.
"I'm so accustomed to operating the machine now that I forget that there is anything unusual in it," she explained, "but I suppose that it is still a novelty to see a girl more interested in a mechanical problem than in make-up. No, it isn't because of any advanced idea of woman's work that I'm interested in this," she laughed, "at least, from none that I feel consciously. But I've always had an obsession of interest in cameras. My father gave me a small camera almost as soon as I was able to hold it, so keen was my desire to own a 'clicker,' as I used to call it. I was a camera fiend before I was ten years old.
"You see, a child out on a ranch is so dependent upon her own resources for amusement that she learns to notice things that city children usually pass over. I photographed everything on that ranch that I could level the camera at. I had to find details for pictures unless I kept on taking range pictures forever.
"You'd think, wouldn't you, that I'd have outgrown the fad when I left the ranch? I didn't, though. Even when I was at school I took pictures with the faithfulness of an aspirant for prizes. When I finished school I fitted up a dark room where I could develop and print the pictures. It was better and cheaper. And the first thing I bought with the money I earned in my acting was a press camera. I worked two months to learn its operation, but I beat that mechanism. Now I've graduated to a moving picture camera, and Mr. Cabanne promises me an operator's job if I ever go on a strike from acting."
"Are you contemplating a strike?"
"Hardly," she said. "As long as I can do two things at once, I want to keep on doing them. I've heard of people who could take their own photographs. I've done a few of myself, in fact, but I've been wondering if I couldn't take a moving picture of myself. I'd really like to do that." Her eyes glowed with enthusiasm at the idea.
"Did you come into the movies by way of the camera interest?"
"Not at all," she said. "In spite of my interest in photography, I hadn't taken much interest in the movies. I'd hardly ever been to see motion pictures and the idea of posing for them, in fact of going on the stage at all, never entered my thoughts. We were living out here in Los Angeles, though, and Mr. and Mrs. George Melford were our friends. We'd never talked, however, of any possible connection that I might have with this business until one night when Mr. Melford asked me if I would not like to be a motion picture actress. I laughed at him, but he insisted. I thought it might be something of a joke, and went to the Kalem studios next day.
"He gave me a lead part to take the place of Alice Joyce who had just left Los Angeles. The work wasn't so hard, but the other girls at the studio were awfully nasty to me--" Miss Billington's eyes flashed-- "and that first day was one of ostracism for little me. But I stayed right on the job. I was there a year, then I came to the Majestic."
At the Majestic Miss Billington was one of the few players retained by D. W. Griffith when he became director-general of the Mutual companies. She has played in Ruy Blas, The Lover's Plight, The Peach Brand, The Intruder, and various other dramas. She is one of the most popular players of the western companies, and it seems likely that, even though she prefers the operation of a motion picture camera to posing before one, her beauty and her ability make it unlikely that any director will ever let her drop a role for a roll.
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© William M. Drew
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