Just a Shop Girl from Brixton Page 2.


OnOctober 2nd Hulton's newsreel Topical Budget announced its part in the ‘Daily Sketch film star competition’, and over the following weeks filmed contestants in Brighton, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle and Sunderland. Under titles such as ‘Thousands of British girls want to be a film star’ and ‘Who will be the new British film star?’, items in the newsreel would, typically, show a group of contestants posed together in a woodland setting, then filmed in close-up individually, slowly turning their heads and smiling. The Daily Sketch ran articles and featured photographs on those entrants who were lucky enough to appear in the newsreel. Chaos ensued when the Pavilion Cinema in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue conducted its own competition to select one of the cleverly named shortlist, the ‘Lovely Hundred’. Traffic was held up by the crowds, and the Topical Budget cameraman could only film the entrants by climbing onto the roof of a taxi. Subsequently they were all able to see themselves portrayed on the Pavilion screen. Other cinemas featured photographs of local contestants in their lobbies. .

The competition grew as time went on. A Grand Committee was announced which would help narrow the final hundred down to twenty; its members would include Lord Ashfield, Lady Diana Cooper, Sir Gerald Du Maurier, Lionel Tennyson, Seymour Hicks and Sir William Jury. It was then announced that, as an additional prize, five contestants would be invited to appear in Diana Cooper's new feature film The Virgin Queen (the celebrated society beauty experimented with a short film career at this time). It also transpired that at least two current British film actresses had entered their names, or someone had entered their name for them, as Edith Bishop claimed rather weakly had happened to her. They were disqualified.

Norma and Constance Talmadge arrived at Dover on November 7th. By now the ‘Lovely Hundred’ had been selected and the photographs of all of them printed in the Daily Sketch. As had happened when Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford came to Britain in 1920, and Charlie Chaplin in 1921, Britain went wild at the sight of Hollywood glamour, and the Talmadges were mobbed by crowds on their arrival in London. But although most of the country had greeted the idea of the contest and a real British film star with enthusiasm, there were some dissenting voices. The Film Renter viewed the whole affair with some amusement, and having described the Talmadge’s arrival at Dover - noting that their entourage included such figures as “Susie, the mulatto maid” and Esmerelda, Norma Talmadge’s pet tortoise - the paper denounced the whole stunt as a “cheap circus affair” and expressed surprise at Hollywood stooping so low:

“It is astonishing to think that First National should have lent their name to such a stupid piece of buffoonery. Surely the day is past when stars need such cheap methods of publicity, and it is not fair to the Talmadge sisters or to Mr. Schenck that they should have been made the victims of circumstances which have certainly made these genuine screen stars look on one or two occasions a little ridiculous.”

The circus rolled on. The Talmadges lunched with the hundred at the Savoy, after which they all went to the fifth ‘Victory Ball’, where Lady Hulton gave a speech. The following day the process of filming the screen tests began at Stoll Film Studios, for which First National had brought their own cameramen. Norma Talmadge, it was said, saw to the make-up of each contestant and was reportedly engrossed in her task. The first screenings took place on November 10th, with more filming in the afternoon, followed by final screenings on the 11th. The Talmadge sisters, Schenck, other representatives of First National, film director Edward Josť, and members of the Grand Committee all sat and watched the one hundred screen tests at a viewing theatre in Oxford Street and whittled down the entrants to twenty-one. After repeated screenings, they had three finalists. Finally, and after much agonised debate, they had one.

Leahy receives her prize.  Photo courtesy Luke McKernan and the British Film Institute.  Used by permission.

On Tuesday 14th the Daily Sketch had a full front-page photograph of the winner. She was Margaret Leahy, an Irish girl aged 20, who worked in London for a Brixton milliner, and lived in the Marble Arch area.

“A perfect film face',” said Norma Talmadge, adding that she had “splendid eyes, a supple body, and convincing expressiveness ... her features are so perfect, and her character so distinctive!”

She had had the greatest difficulty in choosing from her final three, and had almost decided to take the other two, Jean Jay and Irene Coney, to Hollywood as well. But “Bubbles” Leahy it was, whose face immediately appeared in newspaper advertisements for shampoo and toothbrushes. Topical Budget showed Norma Talmadge presenting her with a bouquet, and her appearance at the Marble Arch Pavilion at the premiere of Constance Talmadge's East Is West, where she made a speech to the audience and was introduced to the Duke of York (the future King George VI).

The Daily Sketch printed her life story, such as it was, and the details of her prize. She would first spend a week touring all the major cities of the country, then sail to America, being paid $3100 a week and chaperoned by her mother, when after suitable training she would appear as Aggie Lynch, second lead in Norma Talmadge's new feature film, Within The Law. She would then be given her own starring production.Norma Talmadge presents Margaret Leahy with flowers.  From a newsreel.  Courtesy Luke McKernan.  Used by permission. She would be under Norma Talmadge's special guidance, but if she showed a special talent for comedy, she would be looked after by Constance Talmadge (her specialty was light comedy, Norma being more of an `emotional' actress).

So far the competition had been an outstanding success. The Talmadges were the toast of the town, East Is West was going to be a huge success, and Margaret Leahy was proving to be a very popular winner, going on a rapid tour of the country where she was greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds wherever she went. Having said goodbye to the Talmadges at Southampton, her national tour took in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, Brighton and Southampton. She collapsed three times during the week. On November 25th, having been wished farewell by crowds in London who sang `Auld Lang Syne' to her, she left for Hollywood on the `Aquitania'.

Everyone was anxious to know how she got on. Postcards of her were put on sale, and the Daily Sketch commissioned her to dictate a diary of her experiences. These touching and observant dispatches show something of the character that Norma Talmadge presumably had seen in her. America knew all about the competition and was just as excited by her imminent arrival. It was said she was to be given the “Freedom of New York,” and D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin sent her telegrams of congratulations. She arrived on December 3rd and lights from skyscrapers flashed out a Morse code message of welcome. Amongst the huge crowd on the quayside to greet her were the Talmadges, Louella Parsons, D.W. Griffith, Mae Murray, Marion Davies and (fatefully) Buster Keaton.

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