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.
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 Hitchcocks 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.
Talmadge, from Motion Picture Story Magazine, c.
1916. From the collection of Victoria Sainte-Claire. Used
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.
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:
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?
Talmadge, from Motion Picture Story Magazine, c. 1916.
From the collection of Victoria Sainte-Claire. Used by permission.
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
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:
Talmadge, her early days at Vitagraph, from Motion
Picture Story Magazine, c. 1914. From the collection of Victoria
Sainte-Claire. Used by permission.
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
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
The anxious wrote in to the Daily Sketch with fears about their noses,
eye color, glasses and ankles. Some, of course, appealed to Norma
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.
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.