Thefirst feature film that Buster Keaton directed, Three Ages, is not perhaps as familiar as it should be. A comic history of love in prehistoric, Roman and modern times, it has Keaton fighting his rival, Wallace Beery, over a girl and winning her against the odds each time. Allegedly parodying Intolerance, it is really three sketches strung together rather than a true feature, but it is still highly amusing (especially in the Stone Age sequence) and boasts some breathtaking stunts. The actress playing the girl is Margaret Leahy, and it was her only film. While researching the history of a British newsreel, I came across the extraordinary events which led this Brixton shop
girl to be Keaton's co-star.

Film star competitions were a particular feature of the silent era; that is, competitions run by newspapers or film magazines for which the prize was to appear in pictures yourself. There were standard beauty competitions where the winner sometimes ended up with a film contract, there were cinema beauty competitions where the contestants were filmed and then judged by the audience, but competitions that offered directly for the winner to become a film star were more specialised. In such competitions, newspapers, fan magazines and film companies exploited audience dreams of film stardom with promises of screen tests or parts in forthcoming films. The film companies found this useful publicity for forthcoming productions and may have even hoped to find some future star in this way.

In America, such contests were sufficiently common for them to be made the subject of at least two major feature films. In The Extra Girl (1923), Mabel Normand played a competition winner who finds that her prize of a job in the movies actually means working in the wardrobe department; in Ella Cinders (1926), Colleen Moore is a down-trodden Cinderella figure who wins a competition and ends up in Hollywood. Both, needless to say, after some trials and tribulations, find themselves becoming true film stars. The dream for Cinderella could, in any case, sometimes come true. By far the best known winner of any film star competition is Clara Bow, began her career with a bit part as the prize for winning a fan magazine beauty competition. Bow was blessed with a talent significantly lacking in most other film star competition winners, most of whom returned swiftly to obscurity.

In Britain film star competitions sprang up in the immediate post-war period. In 1919 the Sunday Express newspaper, in association with the Stoll Film Company, organised a nation-wide contest, won by Miss Tommy Sinclair, who it was said would be found a “suitable part in a Stoll production”, though if this were so it was only a bit part. In the same year a more widely publicised contest was organised by the Daily Mirror newspaper and the Samuelson film company, won by Miriam Sabbage, whose picture was featured prominently in advertising for the feature film in which she got third billing, The Bridal Chair. The trade paper The Bioscope in reviewing the film noted accurately that “it may be questioned whether, from a strictly artistic point of view, prize-winning beauty is in itself a sufficient qualification for the creation of a new film star, but there can be no doubt that it is a sound commercial proposition. Everyone will want to see the beautiful Miss Sabbage, and she will be found in ‘The Bridal Chair’ large as life”. Her on-screen career was to progress no further, but off-screen she did marry the cinematographer.

Pathé held a ‘Screen Beauty Competition’ in 1920, and in 1921 Gaumont organised a contest they called ‘The Golden Apple Challenge’, for which a reported 26,700 contestants entered for a prize of £500 and a promised film contract, with the most promising contestants featured in a ‘women-only’ serial set in a detective agency. Winifred Nelson, the eventual winner, did get to appear in minor roles in two Gaumont features. Stoll Film Studios returned to beauty competitions in 1925 with its ‘Starlings of the Screen’ contest. This was won by Sybil Rhoda, who appeared in three subsequent feature films, including a creditable performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Downhill. And just at the end of the silent era, Molly Lamont became a minor star in British and American films for twenty years after winning a competition in 1930 in a South African newspaper.

Constance Talmadge, from Motion Picture Story Magazine, c. 1916. From the collection of Victoria Sainte-Claire. Used by permission.

But minor parts in British feature films were no match for a starring role in a major Hollywood film, which is what was offered by the Daily Sketch newspaper in 1922, when they organised the grandest and most widely publicised film star competition of them all. The genesis of the idea came from the American company First National Pictures, with their two leading stars, the immensely popular Norma and Constance Talmadge. Joe Schenck, chairman of First National and Norma Talmadge's husband, probably proposed the idea, but at the encouragement of Sir Edward Hulton, a British newspaper owner with interests in the cinema. Hulton ran a newsreel, the Topical Budget, and the film distributors Film Booking Offices (F.B.O., not to be confused with the American distributor of the same name), as well as the popular newspapers the Daily Sketch and the Evening Standard. F.B.O. handled major American features in Britain (e.g. Broken Blossoms, Blind Husbands), and the impetus for a competition to find a British film star probably came from Hulton's contacts and interests, since the Talmadges might have welcomed, but hardly needed such a publicity stunt.

The competition was to find a British actress to play second lead in Norma Talmadge's forthcoming film Within The Law. Beauty competitions would organised on a regional basis, with entrants and winners featured regularly in the Daily Sketch and the Topical Budget. The final one hundred contestants would then be screen-tested and Norma and Constance Talmadge themselves would come to Stoll Film Studios (where the screen tests were to be made) and select the winner. First National would also have the latest Constance Talmadge film, East Is West, on release that week. The winner would then be taken to Hollywood to appear in Within The Law, and would be groomed as a British film star. It was marvellous publicity for the Talmadges, First National and Hulton, the hapless British film industry would be only too happy to co-operate in creating such a ‘star’, and audiences would flock to Within The Law and all the star's subsequent films. Initially at least, it all went perfectly according to plan. The competition was first announced in the Daily Sketch on 11 September 1922. A letter from Norma Talmadge announced that she was looking for a British film star:

Dear Sir - I have always said those who argue the British girls are not as good film actresses as American girls are wrong. I want to prove that I am right. Will you, with your splendid Daily Sketch, find for me a young girl in England, Ireland, or Scotland - a true, typical British girl, who would like to become a really great heroine of the films?
Norma Talmadge, from Motion Picture Story Magazine, c. 1916. From the collection of Victoria Sainte-Claire. Used by permission.

She was not looking for beauty necessarily, but for talent, an appetite for hard work and character. Hopeful unknowns (no established actresses were wanted) were to send in a photograph and a short description of themselves. Contestants were to apply to one of 21 districts nationwide: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Blackpool, Manchester, Liverpool, York, Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bristol, Brighton, Norwich, Belfast, Dublin, and for London, Marble Arch, Whitechapel, Holloway, Lewisham and Clapham. Committees were to be setup for each center, from which the 100 finalists would be selected for the screen tests. The closing date was October 21st. Although the competition was planned on a grand scale, they must still have been overwhelmed by the response; 80,000 would-be British film stars entered.

Norma Talmadge's Smilin' Through was released, conveniently, at the same time, and for their side of the bargain the Americans certainly got a great deal with very little effort. The success of the promotion and competition was all due to Hulton's remarkable press campaign, which engrossed the whole country for two months. Every issue of the Daily Sketch featured photographs and details of the entrants, accounts of the deliberations of the regional committees (generally composed of the local mayor, mayoress and other dignitaries), and letters of advice from Norma Talmadge, detailing what she was looking for in her British film star:

Norma Talmadge, her early days at Vitagraph, from Motion Picture Story Magazine, c. 1914. From the collection of Victoria Sainte-Claire. Used by permission.

“A will to work, tireless energies, temperament, but a character that will prevent her from becoming spoiled by prosperity and success. Sufficient education to enable her to study and fathom the emotions of the characters she is called upon to portray. Ambition, but willingness to profit in the wisdom of others. Her eyes should be large and well shaped. Blue eyes are a detriment, but they may be `managed' if all other features are good, and if the girl develops a strong personality. The nose should be straight. The lips should be well marked, but the mouth must not be too large. The lower part of the face must not be too heavy, or broad. Teeth are important - and must be regular and good. They show clearly, and in great detail, when the camera catches a smile. She should be under, rather than over, average weight; her ankles must be trim and her wrists neat. Her hands and feet not too large. She must have inherent grace of action - must know how or be capable of learning how, for example, to walk across the room properly in front of the camera. This may become a matter of teaching, but the girl without some inherent grace often finds it most difficult to learn.

Despite such an intimidating list of requirements, the photographs flooded in. With most of them the poses bore strong resemblance to stars of the day, Mary Pickford and Norma Talamdge herself being particular favorites. The anxious wrote in to the Daily Sketch with fears about their noses, eye color, glasses and ankles. Some, of course, appealed to Norma Talmadge directly:

“Dear Miss Talmadge - I read of your splendid offer in the Daily Sketch, and writing to ask you to help me. I have always been ambitious to become a kinema actress. Please, will you help me? If only you knew how I pine for a career! Oh, please help me. I am a typical English girl, and if I am chosen I will work hard to be a credit to England and you, and also strive to surprise America.

“My parents have told me that I may go with you if you would take me. They would trust me in your care. Oh, Miss Talmadge, if you only knew my hoping, wishing, and longing you would not pass me by, I am sure. My age is 16, and ever since I was ten years old the screen has been my hope. I am praying day and night for you to choose me. I am aware that it is selfish of me to ask of you an especial favour, but I know you will forgive. But, please, help me. Please, do help me. Only Heaven and myself know of the ambitious hope with which I send this letter and my photograph.”

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