Bess Flowers was born in Sherman, Texas, on November 23, 1898. While growing up, her father was extremely strict. When Bess dated boys, her father would always bawl them out, much to Bess's consternation. She finally grew tired of her dad's boorish behavior, and "borrowing" the extra money her mother kept stashed in the family sugar bowl, she decided to leave home and head for New York. "I was going to New York because I wanted to be an actress," she was to recall.
But at the train station, Bess spotted a poster with oranges on it, advertising another destination. "What the devil," she impulsively decided, "I'll go to California and get into pictures." Little did she know that not only would she "get into pictures," she would become the most prolific actress (or actor, for that matter) in the history of motion pictures.
Bess actually could never remember the name of the first movie she appeared in, but she did recall it was at Metro in 1922. "I got a job the first day I went on an interview," she remembered. In 1923, Bess made her first known and documented movie appearance, as an un-credited extra in the silent film Hollywood. She appeared in two more films in 1923, then took the next two years off (for whatever unknown reason) before beginning her amazing career as an extra in earnest.
For the next 38 years, beginning in 1926, Bess Flowers was to be an "uncredited extra" in over 350 feature films, not counting many comedy shorts. She is generally accepted by most sources as the performer who appeared in the most movies.
Bess appeared in five Best Picture Academy Award-winning films- It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take It With You (1938), All About Eve (1950), The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). She holds the record for appearing in the most Oscar-nominated Best Pictures- an incredible total of 23. Bess worked in many classic films, many average films, as well as countless completely forgotten ones.
Who did she work with? Uh, pretty much everybody. A full list of Bess's extra film credits boggles any movie fan's or film lover's mind. Bess Flowers' resume reads like a who's who of movie history.
A sampling of the list includes A Woman of Paris with Charlie Chaplin (1923), Meet John Doe with Gary Cooper (1941), Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray (1944), Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford (1945), The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (1946), A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift (1951), and The Manchurian Candidate with Frank Sinatra (1962).
Want a few more? Okay, Life Begins for Andy Hardy with Mickey Rooney (1941), Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds (1952) Big Jim McLain with John Wayne (1952), Don't Bother to Knock (1952) with Marilyn Monroe, Giant with James Dean (1956), and Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis (1957). Sound eclectic?
Let's throw in a few more- Monkey Business with the Marx Brothers (1931), Anthony Adverse with Fredric March (1936), My Friend Irma with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1949), Blues Busters with the Bowery Boys (1950), The Young Philadelphians with Paul Newman (1959), GI Blues with Elvis Presley (1960), and Who's Minding the Store? with Jerry Lewis (1963).
Bess was in Laurel and Hardy's 1928 short We Faw Down. She has the proud record of having appeared in 25 shorts with the Three Stooges.
Bess was a great favorite of directors Gregory La Cava, Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock. They often asked for her to appear as an extra in their films- yes, requesting her by name. (She was to recall Gregory La Cava, Frank Capra and Joseph L. Mankiewicz as the three directors she most admired.)
As if the above credits aren't enough, Bess found time to also make scores of television appearances in the '50s and '60s. Bess was an extra in I Love Lucy, The Jack Benny Show, 77 Sunset Strip, The Abbott and Costello Show, The Lucy Show, My Three Sons, Thriller, Leave It to Beaver, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to name a few. She made 13 appearances as an extra on Perry Mason. Bess was even featured in Chevrolet commercials.
Bess, rightly, became know as "the queen of the extras." More specifically, she was also dubbed "the queen of the dress extras" (a dress extra is an extra who brings their own costume or wardrobe, thus saving the studio time and money). Over the years, Bess amassed an astounding collection of ball gowns, jewelry, furs, cocktail dresses, and other feminine finery.
Bess was 5' 8" in height and presented a stately, rather regal, presence. She was usually featured as an upper class lady in scenes at classy dinner or cocktail parties, or scenes at the theater. She could often be seen greeting someone or simply sashaying forth. Once in while, she was even given a line or two.
In her personal life, Bess was married twice and had a daughter. Both her marriages were short-lived and, sadly, her daughter died several years before her, at the age of 48. Bess helped found and establish the Screen Extras Guild in the mid-1940's and worked as both a vice-president and traveling secretary there.
Although it would appear that Bess accepted any job offered because of the sheer quantity of her credits, this was not the case. A proud woman with dignity intact, Bess never hesitated to stand up for herself. She recalled "Once, I rushed out to go to an interview at some studio and the man had his feet up on the desk. Well, I walked out- I wouldn't even stay and talk to him, because I don't approve of a man meeting with a woman with his feet up on the desk. I have principles and ethics for myself and I don't cut them one damn bit to work."
In summing up her incredible and unique life and career, Bess said: "I made a good living. I'm lazy, from the South, I never took anything that was hard. I was always good to Bess." Interestingly, Bess, the greatest movie extra of all-time, was to tell an interviewer in her later years, " i wanted to be an individual always, never one of the horde."
Bess Flowers, "the queen of the extras," died on July 28, 1984 in Los Angeles, California. She was 85. Her last film extra job was in 1964's Good Neighbor Sam with Jack Lemmon.