Almost all of the stars from the golden age of Hollywood, the 1930s, 40s and 50s, had years of apprenticeship in films before they “broke through” with one film which catapulted them to “overnight” stardom.
There were a few exceptions, of course, but even those who started at the top often still had to wait until one film struck that particular chord with movie audiences.
Hello, everybody. Mr. Joe Morella and Mr. Frank Segers here. MRS. Norman Maine, was as we all know, an overnight star, but the majority of actors of her era worked in dozens of films before their “breakthrough.”
Let’s just look at 4 of the top stars of all time, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe.
Davis had been around for years, first at Universal, then at Warners and made a dozen films before Warners lent her out to RKO for the 1934 melodrama, Of Human Bondage, based on a Somerset Maugham story. Her performance as a slatternly waitress opposite upright medical student Leslie Howard propelled her to stardom.
Bogart, too, was under contract to Warners and had kicked around for almost a decade. They’d tried him in leading roles, supporting roles and — after he repeated his Broadway success in 1936’s The Petrified Forest (reuniting Davis and Howard) as ‘Duke Mantee’ — in gangster roles.
But it wasn’t until director Raoul Walsh’s 1941 crime drama, High Sierra, that Bogart registered with the public as a leading man. And of course his next picture, director-writer John Huston’s noir classic The Maltese Falcon, cemented his star status.
John Wayne had an even longer apprenticeship than Davis or Bogart. He started as a stuntman and extra in silents. After a promising lead role in 1930’s The Big Trail, instead of going up, he fell back, into B movies, mostly westerns, until his old buddy John Ford resurrected his career by giving him a featured role in the marvelous 1939 ensemble piece, Stagecoach.
Wayne got second billing to female star of the film, Claire Trevor (as Bogart had gotten second billing to High Sierra star, Ida Lupino.)
Of all the stars from the golden age Marilyn Monroe has remained the most popular. People who read about her today and see the images undoubtedly think she burst into stardom. That’s not the case.
She had kicked around for several years as a model and extra. She was under contract to 20th Century Fox, then beginning in 1949, to Columbia.
The inexperienced actress earned $175 a week at Columbia and the skepticism of studio boss Harry Cohn, who doubted she had star potential. In the six-month period of her contract, Monroe appeared in a few small films. Then the ax fell. The girl can’t act, declared Cohn, a miscalculation that studio boss was not allowed to forget.
She was groomed with a walk on in Love Happy and small but good roles back at Fox in the early 50s. She began being noticed with parts in All About Eve, Monkey Business, Clash By Night and Asphalt Jungle, but it wasn’t until Fox boss Darryl Zanuck gave her the lead in director Henry Hathaway’s 1953 location drama, Niagara, that she really was fully launched.
Her career took off.