When Douglas Fairbanks (left in The Three Musketeers)came out to Hollywood in 1915, the established thespian was placed in very prestigious company. Now working with The Triangle Film Corporation, he was in the prime position of being directed by D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, and Thomas Ince. However, the first filmmaker, who was working out of his Fine Arts Studio at 4500 Sunset Blvd, was less than thrilled to be dealing with the overly energetic actor. Griffith would say of Doug: "He's got a head like a cantaloupe and can't act." Now, Doug was never referred to as classically handsome, but his manic charisma endeared fans to him nonetheless, and he went on to star in some of the most epic and technically accomplished films of the silent era. Griffith must have changed his mind about Mr. Pep, whom he later teamed up with to form the independent studio United Artists (along with Chaplin and Mary Pickford).
Fred Astaire received a similar response from a studio executive. When trying to pave his way in the film industry, Astaire struggled. Despite his extreme talent, he was slight of frame and did not possess those typical, leading man looks. No one saw his potential. After an early screen test, the jury was in: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances." The money men were looking so hard for stars that they failed to see one in their midst! No matter, Freddy would do all right. What he lacked in stature, he made up for with indescribable, incalculable presence... And moves!
Some of the handsomest men of their day were also originally flooded with negative feedback. Clark Gable (barely recognizable in the left photo) is still referred to as the "King of Hollywood." Even today, women find themselves falling in love with him. During his hey-day, he could and did have nearly any woman that he wanted, but no one would have predicted that when he first started out. An awkward, Ohio boy, he was a bit of a physical anomaly. "Attractive" wasn't the first word used to describe him, especially with his two gold-plated front teeth, which he constantly had to paint white! When making a screen test for Little Caesar, Darryl F. Zanuck was underwhelmed: "His ears are too big. He looks like an ape." With a little help from the miracle workers at MGM, who fixed Clark's teeth, gave him polish, and cut his hair to hide his protruding ears, Clark would have the last laugh.
Even Rudolph Valentino was shunned when he first arrived on the scene, and today he is revered as one of the most powerful sex symbols of all time. Rudy's problem was a little more complex. Due to the bias against different immigrant groups, including the Irish, Chinese, and Italian, Rudy of Castellaneta was not the prototypical American dreamboat. Italians for the most part, with their darker skin and features, were seen as untrustworthy, even insidious. This made it hard for Rudy to break into the pictures, and he was originally cast in villainous, unsavory roles-- thieves, con artists, and charlatans. No one expected much from him, including (once agan) D.W. Griffith, who said: "He's too foreign looking. The girls will never like him." Seems like D.W. should have stuck to making stars of his women; his taste in men couldn't have been more off! It was exactly Rudy's "foreign-ness" that would make him a huge, dangerously sexual superstar.
The women had a lot to put up with in regard to their appearances, of course-- probably much more than men. In addition to being sized up by studio moguls, who were more concerned about going to bed with an ingenue than casting her in a movie, young women in Hollywood were pinched, powdered, bleached, stuffed, and pushed in front of the cameras with scanty wardrobe. Many were completely made over once the star system was in full effect, becoming unrecognizable transformations of their former selves. There were some sassy ladies that resisted it though, including the following:
Jean Arthur was never comfortable with her appearance. When sizing herself up with other leading ladies of the day like Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich, she felt she didn't quite measure up. Perhaps this was one of the reasons she began dyeing her naturally brunette hair blonde. Studio magnate Harry Cohn was inclined to agree with her reservations, declaring: "D'ja see her face? Half of its angel, and the other half horse." Thankfully, the horse-side must have been invisible to the camera, because audiences never saw it, nor did David O. Selznick, who was madly in love with Jean for quite some time. Despite her insecurity, Jean dug in her heels and decided to prove that she was just as much of a woman as the next hot body. Not only did she refuse to go to bed with the notoriously lustful Cohn, but she made him eat his words. Jean's earthy, soft, and natural beauty became part of her eternal appeal.
Another feisty lady that refused to be bullied was the Irish spitfire, Maureen O'Hara. When first landing in Hollywood after having some success in London, there were a lot of grumblings from the higher-ups. It may come as a shock, since Maureen seems like such a classic beauty, but at the time a lot of argument circled around her nose, which was considered too big. It was delicately suggested that she get a nose-job to make her face more palatable to the movie camera, and thus the movie-going public. This time, it was Maureen who would have the last say: "My nose comes with me. I've got a big square face, and I need my big nose. If you don't like it, I'll go back where I came from." With that kind of passion and strength, it is no wonder that her hot-tempered Mary Kate Danaher of The Quiet Man was so believable. The nose stayed with Maureen, and Maureen stayed in Hollywood, thank Heaven!
The prey of the Hollywood racket seems to come in three categories: the Pawns, the Players, and the Rebels. The metamorphosis of Norma Jean Baker to Marilyn Monroe, both body and soul, still raises the question, "What Price Fame?" Marilyn was sadly a pawn. When Norma Shearer was refused the lead in The Divorcee by her own husband, because she wasn't "sexy" enough, she proved her sensuality by having sultry photos taken. Irving Thalberg readily recanted his refusal, and Norma got the role and the Academy Award as a result! Norma was a player, and she loved the game. As for the rebel category: one actress arrived in Hollywood with a gap between her two front teeth, which she refused to fix. It was part of her and who she was. Instead, she wore a cap in her mouth for all of her films and publicity photos. This was her way of showing that while the cameras rolled, she was Ann Sheridan of Hollywood, but on her own time, she was plain ol' Clara Lou from Texas.
At the end of the day, it didn't matter how gorgeous a person was or how many categories they hit on the list of Movie Star Must-Haves. The "X-factor" wasn't found in a face, it was found buried within-- that uncanny quality that radiated from certain blessed individuals and reached out to their audiences. This is why, while people may have wanted to shun Valentino, Fairbanks, or O'Hara at first, they were forced to bow down in humility when the public showed them their error with box-office receipts. Jean Harlow was more than her luscious curves; Gary Cooper was more than a pretty face. Clara Bow may have risen to fame by winning a magazine beauty contest, but she wouldn't have maintained her status if not for having "It." It is only in believing in the long-shots and the unique individuals that true gold is found. People want to be shown something they've never seen before. I mean, you've seen one Barbie Doll, you've seen them all. But Clark Gables? They don't come around every day...