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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Vintage: Stars of the Future

We're always on the lookout for the next hot new star. As if there were a shortage. But it's human nature to seek more than we have. Has Catherine Zeta-Jones ever been more fun than in her breakout role opposite Zorro? Are teenaged girls screaming over Orlando Bloom as loudly since he ditched the pointed ears? Will Smith is as entertaining now as he ever was, but wasn't he more exciting when he was lighting up the movie screen the first couple times, when we weren't quite as familiar with him?

Some stars endure, while others fall out of favor. One thing is sure: nothing can distract the moviegoing public from keeping an eye out for the next big thing. Even those of us who aren't interested so much in public sensations are probably still intrigued by the possibility of a new talent emerging from nowhere that can show us something great we've never seen before. Speaking for myself, what interests me most about the movie Babel, which has had a mixed reception, are the critical raves over supporting performances by unknown-to-me Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza.

It was ever thus. Starting as early as 1922, an organization called WAMPAS (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) published an annual list of the 13 most promising new actresses, called the WAMPAS Baby Stars list. They stopped after 1934, apparently bowing to pressure from the studios, which disliked an independent entity having such a strong media influence over the promotion of their contract players.

Today, we can look back and see who lived up to the promise of stardom.

The image to the left lists the picks for 1922-1928. Recognize many of those names? Most are new to me. (Including, incidentally, the canine star in the ad on the lower half of the page, whose short films aren't even listed in the IMDb, but I digress.)

Some of the unknown names might have become hugely popular at the time and simply been forgotten since. But I think it's fair to say that the majority of these "promising" new stars just ultimately didn't attain the predicted stardom. To be fair, I'm not sure there are thirteen new actresses of 2006 that will ultimately build great careers and still be remembered in 2086. We'll be lucky if there's one.

Most stars rise and fall overnight. People will get excited over the emergence of some new star, justifiably or not, and for whatever reason, they just don't catch on. Sometimes an unknown lands a great role and does a great job with it and just never finds the right role again. Sometimes hype is manufactured through publicity, and once it's time to put up or shut up, the work doesn't hold.

Of all the lists, the 1926 list shows the most foresight by far. Joan Crawford would become an absolutely huge star, thanks in large part to her strong-willed personality. She was arguably the only actress of her generation that could hold her own opposite Bette Davis, which is perhaps why What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) is such a popular cult thriller: it takes these two forces of nature and pits them against each other in a dark scenery-chewing contest.

But there are more that would forge enduring careers for themselves: Mary Astor's star peaked in the late 30s and early 40s with great films like The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and The Maltese Falcon (1941), and she won an Oscar for The Great Lie (1941). She made some 123 films and several television appearances before her retirement in 1964.

Janet Gaynor, meanwhile, landed two roles of a lifetime in Sunrise (1927) and Seventh Heaven (1927), which jointly earned her the first ever Best Actress Oscar. Later, A Star Is Born (1937) reignited her career in the sound era.

Dolores del Rio is probably an unfamiliar name to us today. If you think you've seen it before, maybe you remember the tangential mention of her from this vintage post. But Del Rio had a very intriguing career. After her first film in 1925, she became the first internationally famous Mexican star. Her career dried up, as many did, by the arrival of the sound era but recovered as late as 1943 when she went back to Mexico and started making movies there, in Spanish, at the age of 37. She continued to act, mostly in Mexico but occasionally in Hollywood productions, until 1967, and she came out of retirement to make one final film in 1978.

But if there's one name from the 1926 list you recognize, perhaps it's Fay Wray, the original scream queen, from King Kong (1933). Most people know her only from that, but the IMDb puts 116 credits to her name, the last being in 1980. Some are quite remarkable, including The Wedding March (1928), by Erich von Stroheim, which made her the star WAMPAS predicted she'd be.

Clara Bow, on the 1924 list, is certainly worth mentioning. She was the definitive flapper girl and became known as "The It Girl," both because her breakout role was in a movie called It (1927) and also because, well, "She's got It." Her most famous role was probably in the Best Picture winner Wings (1927).

Jean Arthur, from the 1929 list, was among those who actually benefited from the advent of sound, as it was her voice that was the centerpiece of her talent and set her apart from other pretty faces. Her noteworthy credits are too numerous to list here, but they include Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and Shane (1953), and she's a favorite of mine from the era.

Loretta Young went on to a smashing career in film and television that got her an Oscar and three Emmys.

Incredibly, Anita Page, whose best remembered work was in the Best Picture winner The Broadway Melody (1929), is still acting, after a 60-year retirement begun in 1936. Her most recent role was in Bob's Night Out (2004), made by American Mutoscope and Biograph, a company that last made a movie 80 years prior. It's the oldest movie-related company still in existence today.

The rest of the WAMPAS Baby Stars lists can be found on its Wikipedia entry. The picks from the sound era are maybe a little more familiar on average, but not as much as I would have thought. Probably the biggest name of the bunch is Ginger Rogers, picked in 1932 and launched to stardom the following year with Gold Diggers of 1933. Of course she would go on to make ten absolutely wonderful musicals with Fred Astaire and win an Oscar for a dramatic turn in Kitty Foyle (1940).

On the same list, Gloria Stuart is remarkable for how long it took her to land her most famous role. Despite a starring role in The Invisible Man (1933), her career never really took off like it was supposed to -- and then a little film called Titanic (1997) came along and got her her only Oscar nomination.

So what happened to everybody else on these lists? Some, as I say, had successful careers that just didn't endure. Others just never lived up to their original promise. The Wikipedia page linked above is a good place to jump to pages about many of the other actresses, and there's also a great group photograph of the 1932 picks.

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