An ad for “Fascinating Youth.”
How do you make a movie star? Can you mold virgin and unproven talent into respected and popular screen performers, or is stardom just a result of some undefinable yet unique charm, personality, or appeal that just pops off the screen? Jesse Lasky and Famous Players-Lasky founded the Paramount School of Acting in 1925 to train talented and photogenic youngsters into new film personalities capable of drawing huge crowds to movie theatres.
In the 1920s, Studios focused on finding attractive, talented new talent to help fill out casts, increase box office coffers, replace fading stars, and decrease payroll allocation. Young, inexperienced hires received lower salaries and less benefits, always a plus for industries looking to make more profits for their owners and stockholders.
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“Fascinating Youth”: “Peppy, gay and youthful!”
Famous Players-Lasky proudly announced on March 31,1925 the formation of a Paramount Pictures School to be based at their Astoria, New York studio, at which young men and women would be trained for film acting. As Lasky stated in a studio press release trumpeting the new institution, “Up to the present time, the acquisition of playing material has been left more or less to chance: any search for artists has been haphazard, and, for the most part, ineffectual. The establishment of the Paramount Picture School, Inc., is the first step toward putting on a practical basis the motion-picture industry’s effort to augment its number of artists.” The school would help the industry, and “…it also forms a doorway by which the thousands of eager young men and women who seek a career on the screen can enter their chosen profession. It is our hope that by means of this school the young men and women of real talent may win their opportunity in pictures without the heartaches, the privations and the defeats which face the beginner under the present conditions.”
Lasky claimed that one of the studio’s lofty goals for the classes would be that the students would “become imbued with a lofty conception of the screen artist’s opportunities and responsibilities,” that is, not make waves, not create notorious headlines, but live a clean and admirable life. They would learn what it meant to appear larger than life on movie screens around the country and the responsibility of right living as a public figure, as well as exposure to the pitfalls surrounding the entertainment industry. They would “be taught those principles of right living and right thinking that will make him worthy to be a part of the greatest force for enlightenment and recreation the world has ever known.”
Sam Wood with Iris Grey and Greg Blackton.
The New York Times announced that Attorney F. J. Knorr on behalf of Paramount incorporated their School of Acting March 18, 1925 in Albany, New York with Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky and Jopseh Hergensheimer listed as owners of the 100 shares of stock. The March 25, 1925 Variety printed the New York incorporation notice for the concept, which read “school for instruction in preparing performers for the production of pictures, also to engage in general theatrical business.” The state of New York granted the charter on March 21, with the following individuals listed as the Board of Directors: Adolph Zukor, Jesse lasky, Daniel Frohman, Thomas Meighan, John Emerson, D. W. Griffith, Gilbert Miller, and Joseph Hergensheimer.
The April 1, 1925 issue of Daily Variety reported that the school would charge each student $500 tuition for the six month term, with students paying their own $25 a week expenses. They would be housed in separate New York City hotels, with Mrs. J. Walter Taylor, a painter’s widow, serving as the girls’ chaperone. An executive committee composed of Lasky, Walter Wanger, Claud Mitchell, John W. Butler, Edwin C. King, Tom Terriss, Bijou Fernandez, and Charles McCarthy would manage the institution, which would train young men 18-30 and girls 16-25 in physical, cultural, and social classes. Students would attend lectures on acting, expression, speech, fashion and costume, makeup application, pose, etiquette, deportment, and physical culture classes including dance, movement, fencing, swimming, horseback riding, driving a car, and the like.
Dorothy Nourse and Irving Hartley in “Fascinating Youth.”
The studio would accept applications from young people at thirty branches across the country. These applications would consist of a written form plus three photographs showing front and side portraits and a full body shot, and representatives would whittle down the thousands of entries to 150 and then 75-100. Branches recommended 105 people be interviewed to enter the school, 50 women and 45 men, for the “standpoint of personality, beauty, photographic qualities and desirable background,” per the June 17, 1925 Variety.
Cameramen would visit the branches to shoot film tests of these promising pupils, before selecting 50 prospective students, 25 men and 25 women, to be interviewed by people like Lasky. Fiteen would be sent to New York for interviews, 15 to Los Angeles, and 15 to Chicago, with a select few chosen from connections or special sightings for interviews. A panel of judges would determine the winning twenty students, 10 male and 10 female, who would compose the first class, starting work July 30, 1925 and finishing December 9 of that year, with graduation scheduled for December 23. The school in effect would be one giant screen and personality test all rolled into one.
Upon graduating, students would receive a contract with Paramount Pictures earning then $75 for the first six month term, going up $25 each six month term for seven years. They would gain much free publicity during the school before beginning work in small film and serial parts. These could be parlayed into more money and better parts as they progressed.
Tom Terriss, head of the acting school.
Director/Producer Tom Terriss was announced as the Paramount School of Acting’s first director and dean of the school when it opened on July 20 with 19 students, one having dropped out before classes began. Faculty included George Currie teaching pantomime, H. M. K. Smith, modern attire, Hal Clarendon, period makeup and costume; Morgia Lytton, period costumes; Virginia Terhune Van de Water, etiquette; Leo Tover, photography/camerawork; John G. Toomey, physical movement and training; and Randolph Rogers, business manager.
Grand festivities celebrated the opening, with speeches by Lasky, Zukor, Walter Wanger, Edwin C. King, Dr. John Haynes Holmes, and Terriss. Lasky told the students, “I am going to show you the other side of that great shining light which we call public favor. The public is lavish to its favorites. But while it smiles, it also demands the strictest obedience to its laws, and disobedience brings punishment that is as swift as it is terrible.”
The October 14 issue of Daily Variety reported that enrollment dropped to 16 by October 14, because New York life proved “a little too alluring” for two women and one man. Even with a chaperone, a romance blossomed between Todd and Robert Andrews before it collapsed. Terriss resigned by October 21 of that year as well, leaving after interference from several department heads, supposedly heading for a directing job and replaced by director Sam Wood.
The October 18, 1925 Variety announced the names of the 16 students with a little biographical material on them.They consisted of: Mona Palma, Marian Ivy Harris, Josephine Dunn, Iris Grey, Ethelda Kenvin, Thelma Todd, Harriet Krauth, Dorothy Nourse, Robert Andrews, Charles Brokaw, Charles Rogers, Walter Goss, Greg Blackton, Jack Luden, Claud Buchanan, and Irving Hartley.
Sam Wood with Walter Goss and Josephine Dunn.
While a few like Luden, nephew of the cough lozenge king, and Josephine Dunn, chorine in Broadway’s “Kid Boots,” possessed a little film or theatrical experience, most were newcomers to the field. Miss Kenyon had served as Miss Brooklyn in the 1923 Miss America Contest, while Miss Palma modeled for Howard Chandler Christy and James Montgomery Flagg. Rogers had attended journalism classes at the University of Kansas, while Todd was a schoolteacher and former Miss Massachusetts. With little entertainment background but huge charisma and personality, Charles “Buddy” Rogers quickly became the person seen as the most likely to succeed in motion pictures.
Throughout the term, students posed for photographs promoting the school and sat for press interviews while they performed acting scenes and learned screen techniques. Many of these practice scenes were filmed by Leo Tover as a way to show the students both their failures and successes in order to make self-corrections.
Students’ final school project consisted of acting in the feature film “Fascinating Youth” written by screenwriter Byron Morgan. As historian J. B. Kaufman relates in his excellent 1990 Film History article, the movie began production under the name “Glorious Youth” as the first attempt by a studio to create a brand new stock company. Filming of interiors began November 23, 1925 before finishing December 24. On December 28, the company traveled for location work in Lake Placid, New York. Cameos by such stars as Richard Dix, Lila Lee, Clara Bow, Adolph Menjou, Percy Marmont, Thomas Meighan, and Lois Wilson added box office draws to the cast. Buddy Rogers was cast as the male star of the film, while Dunn and Todd played small parts.
Thelma Todd, with very long hair.
The class graduated with a large, fancy banquet at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York City on March 2, 1926, with each student receiving a diploma with a contract offer from Paramount. Lasky and others spoke before a screening of “Fascinating Youth, followed by screen tests of the students. The film received mixed reviews across the country, with half of the critics praising the new acting prospects for their work, while others virtually trashed the film for lackluster performances and chemistry by the new graduates.
Upon school completion, most of the new graduates made appearances with “Fascinating Youth” at theatres where it appeared around the country. The Junior Stars would often appear in a parade, make local appearances, and perform in a musical revue called “Alice in Movieland” created by great stage director John Murray Anderson. From these appearances, it soon became obvious which young people possessed just the right charm and effervescence to appear in films. Many saw their contracts expire at the end of the first six months, while the more successful ones found themselves cast in small or extra parts, especially Josephine Dunn and Thelma Todd. They eventually gained starring roles and public attention. Rogers’ magnetism led to major roles immediately, and he quickly gained renown as one of the young pilots in Paramount’s epic “Wings.”
While the studio announced in the April 12, 1927 Los Angeles Times that they intended to establish another class of the School of Acting, none ever came to fruition, ending the school after only one term. Lasky and his fellow Paramount executives realized that no amount of acting or training could create a bonafide star, only great magnetism and personality captured the hearts and minds of film audiences. Stars with what writer Elinor Glyn called “it” thrived and became successful, while those more subdued and withdrawn saw their careers unravel. The camera loves those who sparkle, and that dictum holds true even today.
Very interesting. Later Paramount had the Golden Circle with potential stars. 1939 and again in 1951.