In the 1924 film Sherlock Jr ., Buster Keaton stars as a movie theater projectionist who, after falling asleep, dreams he walks into the image illuminated on the screen and becomes a part of the action. His character enters the world of cinema, witnessed by the local audience that has been watching the film-with-a-film.
On one level, this element of Sherlock Jr . offers a glimpse at what many audience members hope for: to become stars themselves. It is a picture that we can easily sketch: small town viewers hopping trains or buses to make their way to Hollywood. From there, it is either the fantasy of a Lana Turner becoming "discovered" at Schwab's, or the nightmare of a Peg Entwistle, who committing suicide by throwing herself on the thirteenth letter of the "HOLLYWOODLAND" sign after her career failed. Somewhere in between these polar opposites are tales of wolves and casting couches, unemployment and prostitution, and the disgrace of returning back to the small town.
But on second reflection, the Sherlock Jr. moment is much more than merely suggesting the familiar narrative of an everyday person becoming a film actor. Sherlock Jr. shows a character entering his own local screen, with a local audience watching. It is a local audience who hypothetically goes to that same theater repeatedly; it is a local audience who presumably either know Keaton's projectionist character or at least knows that a projectionist does work in their theater. And it is Keaton's character that literally moves across the fourth wall of the stage and traverses into the world of celluloid. He has become a part of Hollywood film, but not by going to Hollywood. This is not mass media taking a former small town citizen and disbursing his/her image as a star across the country. His screen venture happens on a local level.
Even within Keaton's fictional film, of course, the character must be dreaming in order to allow passage through the fourth wall and to be seen by his fellow citizens on the screen. But in less fanciful ways this kind of process had actually happened even before Keaton made his movie. For example, Anthony Slide's The Cinema and Ireland (McFarland, 1988) reports that when Henry Fitzgibbon's film O'Neil of the Glens was first shown at the Bohemian Theater in Dublin in late July 1916, a cameraman from the Film Company of Ireland photographed audience members as they walked into the theater. The footage was then screened as an addition to the film at subsequent screenings, presumably as a way to inspire repeat business in the same viewers. If they did return, they saw themselves illuminated on the screen, as did anyone else in the local community who went to that theater.
Instances of a similar type show up in the United States as well. Along with newsreel images of individual city stories that the same cities projected, quite specific and localized film footage appeared on screens as well. For example, the Chicago Daily Tribune in February 1930 ran an article entitled "Scouts to See Selves at Talkie in City Theaters," in which readers learned that local Boy Scouts would appear onscreen at six area theaters. "The film will show Chicago Scouts leaving for summer camp, their arrival, making ready their new home, and camp activities." The filmed scouts did see themselves cross the fourth wall, as did others in the community who attended the screenings.
But here we can see something a bit more specific than in the case of the Bohemian screening of O'Neil of the Glens . Rather than being merely part of a fragmentary coalition called "audience," the scouts in Chicago were a more clearly defined group that had been filmed. And as a particular group their screen time received local publicity. In a modest and momentary fashion, those scouts achieved a minor degree of local celebrity for passing into the two-dimensionality of the cinema.
Perhaps the most crystallized moment of this moving through the fourth wall, obtaining local celebrity as a result of the local use of a mass media form, occurred in the summer of 1932. In an attempt to generate publicity during what was perhaps the worst year of the Great Depression, Paramount Studios announced a national contest for the woman who would portray the mysterious "Panther Woman" in their upcoming horror film Island of Lost Souls . Initial word of the plan appeared in publications during July 1932. What qualifications did a potential female contestant have to possess? Few specific details were given, beyond falling into the required age range of 17 and 30 years old. While talent was being sought, descriptions of criteria suggested little beyond what would amount to a beauty contest. Indications were also given that judges would make an initial cut after examining entrant photographs.
The manner in which the contest would unfold intersects with the earlier mention of Sherlock Jr., O'Neil of the Glens , and the Chicago Boy Scouts. Theaters in many cities across the nation would run the contest, and--perhaps after eliminating a portion of the contestants--take screen tests of local finalists. Then, after choosing one as the winner, the screen tests:
... will be forwarded to Paramount studios in Hollywood. There they will screened by a committee of studio judges including directors Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, Rouben Mamoulian, and Norman Taurog, who will select the girl to be catapulted to screen fame as the Panther Woman.
Before sending them, however, some theaters projected the screen tests to the local community. Winners and even finalists emerged briefly as local celebrities.
In many ways the idea of a Hollywood studio-sponsored contest was not at all new. Hollywood had run contests of various kinds for many years. In 1915, for example, Clara Kimball Young's newly formed film company offered a prize to the film fan who supplied the best title to her upcoming movie. In the case of the Panther Woman, Paramount seemingly merged a tradition of contests with the world of beauty pageants.
It had been in the 1920s that beauty contests first become popular in the US. The first "Miss America" pageant happened in 1921 in Atlantic City, with winner Margaret Gorman noted for her similarity to screen star Mary Pickford. As the decade went on, the number of pageants increased greatly. Beauty contests also crossed paths with the cinema; for example, Rudolph Valentino famously acted as a judge of some that decade. But despite their popularity, the Atlantic City "Miss America" was suspended between 1929 and 1932 due to the Depression. In 1932, Wildwood, New Jersey held a "Miss America" contest for one year before Atlantic City resumed its contest in 1933.
Beauty pageants no doubt influenced the Panther Woman search. And like pageants, the Paramount contest would create celebrities of some contestants simply because of the potential to move from local to national fame. An article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune described at length the luxury awaiting the national winner, suggesting that:
There is a new vacancy in 'dressing room row' at the Paramount Studios in Hollywood. The unoccupied suite is in the famous building that houses the dressing rooms of such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Miriam Hopkins, Sylvia Sydney, and others. ...
Paramount's set dressing is busy with the final interior decoration of the Panther Woman suite. The rooms are extremely feminine in appointments and color scheme. Windows are draped with green and cream hangings and the glass curtains are ruffled cream net. The floors are covered with a mauve carpet, a hue that is repeated in the glazed chintz covering of two deeply comfortable chairs.
Against one wall a long divan is covered with the same material that drapes the windows. A yellow secretary offers an incentive to write letters. All the lamps in the room are white and are placed on small yellow and green tables. The dressing room displays a large electric-illuminated make up table, long mirrors in the doors, a huge wardrobe press, and several small green chintz chairs."
A subsequent article in Times-Picayune wrote that even greater pleasure and importance would be levied on the winner:
She will have 400 servants, inconspicuous except when needed, at her beck and call. Expert chefs from Switzerland, France, and Germany will prepare her foods. ... Her luxurious suite will be kept cozy and clean by maids from Sweden, Scotland, and Holland, and other countries noted for their cleanliness. ... She will be assisted to and from her motor car by a grandiose liveried doorman on her arrival and departure for the Paramount Studio. In the lobby of the Ambassador [Hotel] she will mingle with the throng of celebrities from all parts of the world who reside at the hotel during their visits to Southern California. Five weeks of such living await the 'Panther Woman.'
The newspaper, avidly involved in the New Orleans branch of the contest, explained why such possible movie star lavishness mattered to its local readers when they added that " ...possibly some New Orleans girl who has entered the Saenger theater screen opportunity contest will be sent to Hollywood...."
In part, it was the potential for national fame in the mass media of film that would result for some in hometown fame. And regardless of the national outcome, the New Orleans winner and two runners up were going to be crowned as local celebrities. The third runner up would take home a hope chest, the second runner up a diamond ring, and the winner a "complete fall outfit, including a fur coat, walking suit, hat, shoes, gloves, and lingerie."
After the Saenger's contest was over, New Orleans resident Becky Williams emerged as the winner. Her screen test played to local audiences in the theater, and she was soon the talk of the town. Ads in the Times-Picayune invited everyone to "Meet the Panther Woman at the Doré Beauty Shop" over a two-day period. Williams of course was not finally selected for the film part, but her victory made her the New Orleans Panther Woman. That was more than enough for brief local fame; she had, after all, been projected on the Saenger screen.
In Salt Lake City, semi-finalists appeared live on stage at two different theaters: the Capitol and Paramount. Special ads publicizing their appearance did not even mention the feature film being screened; the emphasis that week was clearly on the local women. Like Becky Williams in New Orleans, the live appearances gave audiences a chance to mingle with the newborn local celebrities. Perhaps some in the audience were friends and family of the contestants; others were simply residents of Salt Lake City, hoping to see and perhaps meet women who had been filmed .
In Kansas City, it seems fairly clear that local audiences actually saw the filming take place. Though the Kansas City Star published almost no text on the contest, it did carry ads from the Newman Theater. In them, the theater told readers "Motion pictures of contestants will be taken on Newman stage daily at 9PM starting next Friday." Given that the several evenings of filming occurred during times that the same ads indicated the theater was open, viewers of the film must have not only seen the contestants on stage (as in Salt Lake City) but also saw them as the cameras rolled .
The very day after the tests were concluded, Newman ads advised readers that "pictures of all entrants will be shown on screen." A Kansas City film critic wrote that the "Panther Woman tests present some of the city's most decorative girls." The same writer was less impressed with a "comedian who works hard but never is quite sure of himself." Though nothing else was said, apparently the critic meant that a live vaudeville comedian was providing running audio commentary to the projected tests.
Despite the national sponsorship of Paramount Studios, the local flavor of the contests clearly varied from city to city. Contestant Verna Hillie--who went on to be one of the four national finalists--described the course of action in her hometown of Detroit to film historian Gregory William Mank:
I'm a blonde, and they put a black wig on me for the test, which had nothing to do with the Island of Lost Souls script. We just showed off 'dramatic skills'--happy, angry, sad, happy. Then I appeared at three different theaters in Detroit on three succeeding Saturday nights, as one of the twelve finalists; each week they would knock off a few of us. I'd walk across the stage in a bathing suit (and without the black wig!) and they'd show the test--it took the place of vaudeville, which played most of the big movie houses in those days. The movie house audience voted, and put their ballot in when they left.
Hillie also recalled that by the end of the Detroit process, she was one of four remaining finalists when she was selected as the local winner.
Even the selection process itself seems to have been inconsistent between cities. In Dallas, Texas, eighteen finalists (seemingly chosen by movie audiences) all made "talkie" screen tests. From these, a group of judges (rather than audiences at large) chose the winning local Panther Woman. Before that time, all eighteen screen tests were shown to Palace audiences, who not only saw their local contestants but Palace Theater itself; the tests had been filmed on the same theater stage. As in the case of Detroit, the tests took the place of vaudeville acts and were seen in conjunction with a feature film, in this case Guilty as Hell (1932).
The Dallas newspapers quickly splashed photos of Anita Thompson, the local winner, into their pages. She was a 17-year-old high school graduate already somewhat known for her dance work in the city, as well as for having studied ballet in New York City and in California. Newfound celebrity from the contest meant that audiences wanted to see the winning screen test again, so the Palace ran it alongside the feature film Devil and the Deep (1932).
Though its difficult to understand whether it became a contest aberration or the norm, the Dallas Morning News also clearly indicated the two copies of Thompson's screen test existed. One copy was forwarded to Hollywood, but the other stayed in Dallas. Perhaps it was screened even more times than the newpaper mentioned, perhaps even at other venues.
In terms of the screen tests themselves, Paramount Studios believed audiences were so interested in seeing their hometown talent at local movie theaters that, "the increased attendance more than paid [for the cost of filming the contestants], leaving each theater an immediate net profit in addition to the accumulated advertising for the picture to be shown at a later date." They added that in the end some 60,000 women had participated in the contest; most of these presumably were cut in the initial photograph stage and only a relatively small number--perhaps in the several hundreds--filmed.
Paramount did finally decide on the national winner out of what eventually became four remaining finalists. She was Kathleen Burke, and one "Screen Oddities" cartoon printed in a variety of newspapers across the nation stressed her local status in telling readers that the "picture which won the 'panther woman' contest was made and printed in her home by her fiancé and entered the night the contest closed." Other publicity suggested a different version of events, but still stressed her local environment. In the article "Panther Woman Laps Up Blood? No, Malted Milks," the Los Angeles Times claimed:
Miss Burke, who ordinarily writes advertising copy for a Chicago company, was vacationing at 'The Dunes,' a resort near her home, when the producers started their feverish search ... Consequently, she learned nothing of [the contest] until she dropped in on a friend who was connected with Balaban and Katz, the big Paramount men of Chicago. The friend was no end delighted. 'Kathleen,' he said, 'you're a cinch for the Panther Woman.
The Times continued to announce that beating the other two key competitors in Chicago had been easy for her, and that despite the movie contract she was a normal woman, one who clearly like "malted milks" and "spinach." Burke would move from Island of Lost Souls into the horror film Murders in the Zoo (1933) and then a string of small, undistinguished roles for another five of so years. The last half of her life she lived in a kind of anonymity, far removed from both Hollywood and the Panther Woman.
Other Panther Woman entrants were signed to contracts as well, including Detroit's Verna Hillie and -according to the Los Angeles Times --"two other contestants who were finalists. They took dramatic training at the studio and all three received rewards besides Miss Burke, Miss Hillie being the last to be signed." Hillie went on to perform in such films as House of Mystery (1934), as well as a string of uncredited performances in films like Duck Soup (1933). One of the finalists, Lona Andre, also went on to a seventeen-year film career, although generally in small, often unbilled roles.
In a way, probably the most successful winner of was actually Gail Patrick of Birmingham, Alabama. She was "given a long-term contract by Paramount" in September 1932. One newspaper account suggested "The signing of Miss Patrick has no bearing whatever on the selection of the Panther Woman, as she continues to be one of eight remaining candidates for the role." Though she of course lost the contest to Burke, Patrick had the more successful film career. She appeared in over 60 films from 1932 to 1948 (including Paramount's Murders in the Zoo  with Kathleen Burke), and later served as a producer on the Perry Mason TV show. In one interview, she opined, "The best thing that ever happened to me was not winning as the Panther Woman."
Though Patrick didn't win, she had been part of a highly successful contest. In terms of selling the released film Island of Lost Souls , Motion Picture Herald suggested that not only should audiences be told that this was "essentially adult entertainment" needing a "terror inspiring campaign," but that the "interest that accrued to Paramount's search for 'The Panther Woman' ought to be revived." To be sure, the Panther Woman became the key factor in advertising the film. Ads in newspapers likes the San Francisco Chronicle and in industry trades like Motion Picture Herald gave "The Panther Woman" billing in larger letters than stars Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, and Bela Lugosi. In general, these ads did not use Kathleen Burke's name either. Billing spoke only of the "Panther Woman," presumably to force a connection to the contest and the many shortly-lived local celebrities it created.
How much did the local newspapers reconnect the film's release to the early screen tests? Its difficult to tell surveying a small number of city newspapers, but its very clear that Chicago made a push for audiences to "Meet Chicago's Own Kathleen Burke" in newspaper ads like the one that ran on Christmas day, 1932, in the Chicago Sunday Tribune . Burke wasn't physically in attendance; "meeting her" simply meant witnessing her on the screen, as so many audiences had previously "met" their own city's finalists in seeing screen tests.
One other example of renewed interest in the screen tests came in Rochester, Minnesota. Catherine Witte, one of the key entrants in that town, received a letter from winner Kathleen Burke. City manager and Lawler Theater owner Ray Niles had Witte keep the correspondence quiet until Island of Lost Souls was released, at which time the local press showed her holding Burke's letter and offered yet another article about the now six-month old contest.
By the time The Film Daily Yearbook for Motion Pictures of 1933 was published, Arthur L. Mayer, Paramount's Director of Advertising, Publicity, and Exploitation, wrote that the search for the Panther Woman had proven to be the studio's best publicity scheme of 1932. It was a successful enough scheme that in January of 1933, Carl "Junior" Laemmle announced that the need for new film stars, particularly actresses, might require a small town search along the lines of the Panther Woman contest. Sam Goldwyn made a similar remark, suggesting he would be questing for 75 beautiful new faces for the movies. And though it didn't receive anything close to the same publicity, Majestic Studios announced in August 1933 that it would sponsor a "nationwide 'vamp' contest to pick a newcomer for the title role in A Laughing Woman ."
These subsequent attempts scarcely generated publicity, certainly not on the order of both national and local journalism and discussion of the Panther Woman. The Panther Woman had indeed been a successful combination of beauty pageantry and potential film stardom that created fleeting fame for a number of women in their local communities. It seems unlikely that any of their screen tests exist today; however, for a brief moment they did step like Sherlock Jr. into the frame of film at their local theaters, with their transformation into an illuminated two-dimensional image enough to make them briefly the talk of their town. Filmmaking, fame, and anonymity quickly ensued, much like the trajectory of stardom itself, but on a local scale.
"Newman--The First Year." Kansas City Star 31 July 1932. [Given that the date of this review mentioning projected screen tests is at odd with ads for the Newman theater, which suggest at this point that screen tests were still being filmed, I am left to wonder if screen tests were being shown from prior evenings as new ones were being filmed.]