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Their Disastrous First Screen Tests

Not all stars were welcomed into Hollywood at first. Some stars who have entertained us experienced almost disastrous results when it came to screen-testing their talents for the studios that would make them into stars.

In 1937, a thirty-three year old vaudevillian performer did a screen test for RKO Pictures. The studio response wase: “Can’t sing. Can’t Act. Balding. Also dances.” It is reported that the associate producer of MGM Studios, Johnny Considine remarked, “You can get dancers like this for $75 dollars a week!” Nevertheless, the dancer would be signed with RKO Pictures by David O. Selznick, and the rest is history. The performer was legendary dancer, Fred Astaire. His screen test may be lost forever, but he proved many wrong with the success he attained.

“The custom then was to use flat lighting — to throw a great deal of light from all directions, in order to kill all shadows that might be caused by wrinkles or blemishes. But the strong lights placed on either side of my face made my blue eyes look almost white, and by nearly eliminating my nose, made me seem cross-eyed. The result was hideous.” This is how actress Norma Shearer described her first screen test. The screen test was so poor it necessitated another be made. The second one was a bit more favorable. Shearer was cast in the lead role as “Myra Hastings in “The Wanters” (1923). Director John M. Stahl, however, did not see her in the leading role. Stahl wanted Marie Prevost instead. Shearer was finally cast as the supporting character of “Marjorie.” And her career steadily grew from there.

At the tender age of twenty-two, an aspiring actress, named Ruth Elizabeth “Bette” Davis, came to Hollywood by train in hopes of a career. There was supposed be a representative from Universal Pictures to meet her. But when she stepped down from the train, no one was there. Apparently, the studio representative had left, claiming no one who disembarked from the train looked like a movie star. Bette Davis arrived at Universal Pictures anyway and did a screen test. She was present at the viewing of it and thought it was so bad she screamed and ran out of the projection room. Universal Pictures did not like the screen test either but used her to help screen test other actors. In an interview with Dick Cavett, Davis recalled being the female stand-in for up-and-coming male actors who would kiss her for their screen test. The screen test process would be one of the many struggles Davis would have to overcome in her career. No wonder she was called “The First Lady of Film.” "If Hollywood didn’t work out, I was prepared to be the best secretary in the world,” Davis once commented.

Certainly, these stories, and many others, are a testament to the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

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