Don't forget to refer to my Contents page for a more convenient reference to past articles.

For More L.A. La Land, visit my writing/art/film appreciation site on Facebook at Quoth the Maven and follow me on Twitter @ Blahlaland. :)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: And the Winner Is...

Olive Thomas and her perfect profile.

While researching this month's muse, I couldn't help but make connections between Ms. Olive Thomas and a plethora of other notable stars whose shot a fame was predicated on a random contest win. Just as Olive was given a leg up in the industry by winning Harold Chandler Christy's search for the "Most Beautiful Girl in New York" in 1914, so too would other fame-hungry hopefuls enter themselves into a hatful of names and faces for the chance of a lifetime. Winning these press gags would at the very least get them publicity, as well as assorted other prizes, but sometimes the victory too would buy them a straight ticket to Hollywood. Olive's path was less direct-- winning Christy's contest led to modeling for Harrison Fisher, which led to performing for Florenz Ziegfeld, which led to acting for Thomas Ince. For others, before the days of reality television and YouTube-- when any and everyone can become a star-- these press contests gave unknowns their time in the spotlight and also allowed already established stars the opportunity to keep their names shining. The following are those who had the gumption to take such opportunities to further their careers and eventually wind up as some of the biggest people in the biz. 

Ironically, another Hollywood beauty would have some help from HC Christy in obtaining stardom. Little, sixteen-year-old Clara Bow considered herself the least likely to succeed in anything. Growing up in Brooklyn, she somehow survived the shaky ground of an impoverished childhood, a mentally unstable mother, and an abusive father. Her release from this trauma was the movies. Her idol was Mary Pickford, and she constantly mimicked America's Sweetheart's every expression in the mirror when she came home from the latest flick. Imagine her excitement when her favorite movie magazine, Motion Picture Classic, announced Brewster Publications' "Fame and Fortune Contest" of 1921. On the hunt for the next great screen beauty, young female contestants were asked to send in two photographs of themselves, which would be judged by the artists Christy, Fisher, and Neysa McMein, along with Mary Pickford herself! Clara didn't have the money to get the photos taken, and her alcoholic father, Robert, performed perhaps the only kind act of his life in giving her the dough to get some taken. Clara wasn't happy with the results, but dropped them off at the contest manager's office anyway. He was immediately impressed, and left a note on her photos to the higher-ups that she had stopped by in person and was quite a looker. (The left publicity photo of Clara would appear in Motion Picture Classic to replace her cheaper entry pics).

Before Clara knew it, she was in the top dozen finalists and was called to Eugene Brewster's home for a screen test. Among the other girls, Clara was out of place. With her dismal wardrobe and third class upbringing, she immediately felt  like an outsider. The other gals confidently strutted before the camera and played out a scene in which they had to pretend to talk on the telephone; the shy Clara silently stood back and watched. Finally, her turn came. Instead of putting on airs, she decided to play the scene as herself-- not as an act, but as she would really do it. Her natural energy transferred, and she made it into the top two slots! She finally got up the nerve to tell her mother, Sarah-- who promptly fainted and then told her that she was going straight to Hell. Yet, in three days time, Clara received the call that she had won! Her picture appeared in Motion Picture Classic in Jan. 1922, and she was promptly summoned to Hollywood for her first film: Beyond the Rainbow. Her career should have ended there, but her innate charisma and gift at relaying honest emotion eventually made her Hollywood's "It" girl. (Clara rolls in "it," right).

1921 was clearly a busy year for talent scouts. At the same time Clara was answering the "Fame and Fortune" ad, Samuel Goldwyn was hosting his own "New Faces" hunt. (Ironically, almost as soon as the contest ended, Goldwyn was booted from his own company, but that's another story...). In the meantime, scout and former vaudeville star Bijou Fernandez was put in command of finding the newest male and female stars. The usual process followed, and a motley assortment of youths sent their photos for consideration. If attractive enough, they were called for a screen test, and eventually were signed to contracts at Goldwyn. It was a prime opportunity for any kid, especially someone like the wiseacre William Haines-- who had a zest for life but no specific ambitions. Legend has it that he was walking down Broadway when Bijou serendipitously spotted him and said, "I like your face" (see why, left). Billy responded in kind: "So do I, but it ain't mine." At her insistence, he entered the contest, having photos taken in probably the only nice suit he owned, and eventually wound up winning! His female counterpart was, unlike Billy, already an actress and a very driven one at that. Eleanor Boardman was a lovely, hard-working model when she saw this chance at a career boost. Naturally ambitious and talented, there are legends about her too, (such as the one involving her performing in the show The National Anthem, only to lose her voice half way through, and still pull off her performance completely in pantomime). After she and Billy made their screen tests, they were awarded contracts at the studio, and they rode out to Hollywood on a train together in March of 1922. They became fast friends and remained so for the rest of their lives. As two young hopefuls, they would both surpass and expand upon their own dreams. How could Eleanor have known that she would soon be Mrs. King Vidor, nor Billy that he would be soon be named Hollywood's Number One star?

Eleanor Boardman: gifted, glamorous, gorgeous.

The contests continued in 1922, but this time for different reasons. By now, Cecil B. DeMille (right) was one of the biggest directors in Hollywood-- big in professional stature, big in story, big in budget. Yet, after the success of The Squaw Man, Why Change Your Wife?, and Manslaughter, he was ready to top himself. In addition, he wanted to find out what the public was really in the mood for. So, on October 8, he ran an ad in the Los Angeles Times asking movie fans to write in ideas for his next film. The winner of the most creative story would receive $1000. In addition to keeping his name in the papers, Cecil used this cash reward press trick to both endear his audiences to him and keep his finger on the pulse of the nation. While reading through the multiple entries, he came across a letter from Mr. F.C. Nelson of Lansing, MI who wrote: "You cannot break the Ten Commandments-- they will break you." Finally, a worthy challenge! A religious man, Cecil was naturally drawn to the idea of exploring this Biblical moment, not just for the moral message, but because he already had dazzling images, set designs, and multiple taudry scenes dancing through his head. Mr. Nelson had hit the nail on the head; Cecil had his winner. However, he felt bad for the seven other people who, it turned out, had also sent in the Ten Commandments as a suggestion. To be fair, he sent all seven of them $1000 checks as well-- as always, a spendthrift. The Ten Commandments would be released the following year, and it remains just as startling and brilliant. For its time, and even today, the parting of the Red Sea is nothing to sniff at (thanks to the special effects of Roy Pomeroy, some gelatin, and gas jets).In effect, the contest spawned another contest-- one between Cecil and Cecil-- for he would decide to top even himself when he remade his own classic with Charlton Heston in 1956.

Jumping forward to the 1930s-- movie contests remained in full swing. This time, Clara Bow's home studio Paramount was about to feature another star-maker competition. Ironically, another Clara would win. Clara Lou Sheridan had absolutely no interest in acting. In fact, she was something of a tom boy who preferred working on cars to shopping. Nonetheless, her beautiful visage and curvaceous body made her a reluctant candidate for modeling-- despite the gap in her two front teeth, which she refused to fix. Her sister noticed that Paramount was featuring a "Search for Beauty Contest," the winner of which would receive a contract and a role in a major motion picture. Clara's picture was forthwith placed in the mail with the other contestants. Rumor has it that the deciding judge, flooded with so many photos, was having some trouble making up his mind on the winner, so he started throwing the pictures up into the air. Clara Lou's continued to appear face up when it hit the floor, and because she was a looker, she won the big prize. Signed to a one year contract, much to her chagrin, Clara Lou started making the rounds in B-pictures that showcased her beauty. After the year was up, she transferred over to Warner Bros, who made much better use of her earthiness by making her one of their many sexy-dames-with-an-edge. Cynical and direct, the newly named "Ann" Sheridan fit the Warner roster like a hand in a glove. Soon, she had gained enough popularity to earn the nickname she too would loathe: The "Oomph" Girl (see left). Maintaining her down-to-earth demeanor, the Texan girl always had a sense of humor about her random career change and the whole Hollywood biz. When asked later about the photo toss that won her her contract, Ann quipped, "Yeah, and I've been on my back ever since!"  

Lucille LeSueur would not achieve fame through a contest win; she got where she was going with a pinch of luck and a whole lot of grit and determination. However, a magazine contest too affected her life. Lucille had always had an inner drive and wanted nothing more than to distance herself from her turbulent relationship with her mother and her depressing childhood. Getting notice at a young age for her good looks, she got early work on the stage as a dancer, and she traveled around quite a bit in various shows. In time, she was discovered by a scout and subsequently landed a contract at the illustrious movie factory, MGM. It was here that she became pals with William Haines, who by now had taken to his new career path and was a huge screen star. Having mastered the art of film acting, Billy took Lucille under his wing and taught her how to play the part of the star on and off camera. After some minor roles and extra work, it was time for Lucille to renew her contract, but LB Mayer had a stipulation: he wanted her to change her name. He thought LeSueur sounded too much like Le-Sewer. At first, Lucille wanted to go by Billie Cassan, the name of the step-father who had shown her her only childhood warmth and whose vaudeville career had also introduced her to acting. In fact, all of Lucille's close friends already called her "Billie." However, Mayer didn't like it. Instead, to boost her public appeal and find an answer to the name question, he had the publicity department start a competition to find her a new one. On August 18, 1925, she received her new moniker: Joan Crawford (right). She was not happy. "It sounds just like Crawfish!" she complained to Billy. "Oh well," he quipped back. "They might have called you cranberry and served you every Thanksgiving with the turkey." (In the end, the contest got the new Joan Crawford two new names: thereafter, Billy always called her "cranberry"). Her first role as JC was with another JC, Jackie Coogan, in Old Clothes. Her new name soon became old hat, and twenty years later Joan Crawford would make the ultimate win, becoming an Academy Award winner for Mildred Pierce in 1946.


  1. Meredith , wonderful story as always. I love me some Clara Lou from Denton Texas. Joan and Billy remained close friends throughout their lives. Too bad LB wouldn't let her be Billie. Such a great name . Dontcha think? Thanks

  2. Hahaha, I concur on all counts! I love Ann Sheridan. I wish I knew more about her. And Billie is definitely more interesting than Joan, but oh well... :)

  3. Great post, Meredith. Fascinating subjects all - I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  4. Yay! So glad. Thanks as always for reading :)