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?