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Old Hollywood Stars Who Found Fame in Unusual Ways

Old Hollywood refers to the period in the film industry that lasted from the 1930s to the 1950s. It was a time when they played up its inherent glitz and glamour as much as possible.

Several stars that came out of this period are still remembered today, from musical icons like Fred Astaire and Judy Garland to beauties like Lana Turner and Greta Garbo.

It’s unimaginable to us today that anyone would reject these memorable names but, at the beginning of their careers, this was often what happened. They had to resort to unorthodox methods or just get lucky to achieve their showbiz dreams.

Like and subscribe for more on the world of classic films. Watch our video to learn about the many Old Hollywood stars who found fame in unusual ways.

Lana Turner

Lana Turner was born in Wallace, Idaho on February 8, 1921.

Her father was murdered when she was young, and her mother moved the family to Los Angeles.

Lana was discovered while she was in high school. A publisher for the Holywood Reporter saw her drinking soda at a local cafe. He introduced her to Zeppo Marx who brought her to MGM’s Mervyn LeRoy, and the rest was history.

Lana was cast in the 1937 film They Won’t Forget and eventually got a permanent contract. Her first role was small, but her beauty and tight-fitting outfits attracted plenty of fans. She eventually became a major sex symbol and pin-up girl.

Lana Turner died at the age of 74 on June 29, 1995. Watch our video to learn about the many Old Hollywood stars who found fame in unusual ways.

Ava Gardner

Ava Gardner was born on December 24, 1922, in Smithfield, North Carolina.

She had a brother-in-law who was a photographer and sent her photo to MGM when she was 18. Ava was studying to become a secretary at the time but changed her plans when the studio offered her a screen test in 1941. She had no acting experience but got a 7-year contract because of her beauty.

Ava took speech classes to lose her southern drawl and acting classes to get some experience. She was too nervous to take on large parts at first but eventually grew more and more confident. Her breakout role was in the 1946 film The Killers.

Ava Gardner died in the United Kingdom at the age of 68 on January 25, 1990.

Clark Gable

Clark Gable was born in Cadiz, Ohio on February 1, 1901.

He was a worker at a tire factory in Akron, Ohio in his early years. He eventually saw a play that sparked his dream of becoming an actor.

Clark joined a traveling theater that eventually left him bankrupt and without a home in Montana. He hitchhiked to Oregon where he met theater manager Josephine Dillon who he eventually married.

The couple moved to Hollywood to find roles in films. Casting agents initially rejected Clark because of his large ears.

His first speaking role was in the 1931 film The Painted Desert. His stellar performance landed him a contract, and he eventually went on to star alongside actresses like Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow.

Clark Gable died at the age of 59 on November 16, 1960. Watch our video to learn about the many Old Hollywood stars who found fame in unusual ways.

Audrey Hepburn

She was born in Brussels, Belgium on May 4, 1929.

Audrey visited Holland with her mother and got trapped there when Nazi soldiers invaded. Her family moved to London after the war where she studied ballet and worked as a model.

Audrey was approached by the author of Gigi in 1951. She thought the future actress would be perfect for the lead in a stage adaptation of her novel.

Audrey agreed to the role. Her Broadway performance was so entrancing that it almost immediately earned her a part in the 1953 film Roman Holiday. She earned an Oscar for that role, and it helped launch her to stardom.

Audrey Hepburn died at the age of 64 on January 20, 1993. Watch our video to learn about the many Old Hollywood stars who found fame in unusual ways.

Cary Grant

Archie Leach was born on January 18, 1904, in Horfield in the United Kingdom. He had an early love of performing and joined a troupe of acrobats at the age of 14.

The group moved to New York, and he decided to stay with them. He appeared on Broadway and was a professional stilt walker until his dreams eventually led him to Hollywood.

He failed his first screen test but refused to give up. His second screen test led to a contract with Paramount, but the studio insisted that he change his name.

Cary starred in over 20 movies in the late 1930s. He found major success and became one of the most recognizable Old Hollywood stars of all time.

Cary Grant died at the age of 82 on November 28, 1986.

Vivien Leigh

Vivian Leigh was born in Darjeeling, India on November 5, 1913.

She changed the spelling of her first name and used her husband’s first name as a surname. Her first stage role came in the London theater scene in 1935. She performed in a range of Shakespeare plays there and met Laurence Olivier. They began an affair and traveled to America where he toured with a stage production crew.

Vivien’s first film role came when George Cukor, the casting director of Gone with the Wind, met and became impressed with her. He gave her the lead in the now-famous film.

George received backlash for casting an unknown actress instead of more famous ones like Bette Davis, but most would say today that he made the right choice. Vivien earned an Oscar for the part and became a massive film star.

Vivien Leigh died at the age of 54 on July 8, 1967.

Like and subscribe for more. Keep watching for more on how the most memorable names in Old Hollywood got discovered, including its blushing beauties and dashing leading men. Watch our video to learn about the many Old Hollywood stars who found fame in unusual ways.

Greta Garbo

She was born in Stocholm, Sweden on September 18, 1905.

Greta studied at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater where she was spotted by silent film director Mauritz Stiller in 1924. He offered her the lead in The Saga of Gosta Berling. This breakout role made her famous throughout Germany and Sweden.

She changed her last name at Mauritz’s behest. Louis B. Mayer of MGM hired him to travel to America and direct a movie. He agreed on the condition that Greta, who was 19 at the time, could come with him.

The contract with MGM eventually fell apart, but the film they created, 1926’s The Torrent, was a major hit. It allowed Greta to become one of the most glamorous Old Hollywood stars. 

Greta Garbo died at the age of 85 on April 15, 1990. Watch our video to learn about the many Old Hollywood stars who found fame in unusual ways.

James Cagney

James Cagney was born in New York City on July 17, 1899. He grew up on the streets of Manhattan, fighting and working odd jobs to survive. He wrapped packages and waited tables before finally finding a job in the realm of entertainment.

James taught himself how to dance by watching vaudeville girls and eventually got a chance to go up on stage (in drag).

He continued to get small roles as a dancer and eventually got a role in the play Penny Arcade in 1930. Warner Brothers Studios was impressed and asked him to play the role again in a film called Sinner’s Holiday.

James gave a stellar performance that won him several other supporting roles. He even managed to play the lead in the 1931 film The Public Enemy.

James Cagney died at the age of 87 on March 30, 1986.

Rita Hayworth

Margarita Carmen Cansino was born in New York City on October 17, 1918.

She became a professional dancer at the tender age of 12. Her family moved to LA, and she performed with her father at local clubs.

Rita was spotted by a Fox executive at the age of 16. He saw her dancing and immediately offered her a contract.

Rita’s first film role was in 1935. After that, she changed her name, dyed her hair, and negotiated a better contract. One of her most memorable roles was in the 1939 film Only Angels Have Wings.

Rita Hayworth died at the age of 69 on May 14, 1987. Watch our video to learn about the many Old Hollywood stars who found fame in unusual ways.

Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire was born in Nebraska, Omaha on May 10, 1899.

He and his sister formed a dance team when they were young. They managed to perform in various vaudeville acts and Broadway shows.

He tried his luck at acting, but casting directors had nothing positive to say after his first screen tests. They claimed that he could “dance a little” but couldn’t sing or act and was slightly balding.

Fred gave up on the idea of acting until years later when his sister left their dance act to get married. He earned a small role in Dancing Lady and a contract with RKO in 1933. He also earned a part in Flying Down to Rio that same year, and his expert dancing in that film propelled him to stardom.

Fred Astaire died at the age of 88 on June 22, 1987.

Judy Garland

Frances Ethel Gumm was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota on June 10, 1922.

She began performing before she was 3 years old under the stage name Baby Gumm. She joined a stage act with her two older sisters, and the whole family moved to California. Her mother was a former vaudeville performer and became their agent.

She adopted the stage name Judy Garland at the age of 13 and began to develop her own career. She began singing on the radio, and it earned her enough fame to get a contract with MGM.

Her first roles were small, but she became popular after working with Mickey Rooney in 1938. That led to her undeniably most famous role in The Wizard of Oz. Her short life was filled with fame only as much as it was marred by tragedy.

Judy Garland died at the age of 47 on June 22, 1969.

Bette Davis

Bette Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on April 5, 1908.

She began to pursue acting as a teenager but struggled in the beginning. Her application to a New York acting school was rejected, so she briefly joined a stock company instead.

She landed roles in several popular Broadway productions and was eventually asked by Universal Studios to come in for a screen test. She traveled with her mother to Los Angeles, and the executives reluctantly signed her. 

Unlike many Old Hollywood stars, Bette stood up for herself and refused to change her name or appearance. Her first few movies were flops, and the studio dropped her. That didn’t bring an end to her career because she found a breakout role in The Man Who Played God in 1932.

Bette Davis died at the age of 81 on October 6, 1989.

Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey Bogart was born in New York City on December 25, 1899.

His early life involved being expelled from boarding school due to poor grades and honorably discharged from the navy. His interest in acting began when he took a job as a company manager on a touring stage production of The Ruined Lady. He was instantly hooked on acting and wanted to get as many roles as possible.

Humphrey’s first stage role was in 1921 where he had a single line. He later played the villain in The Petrified Forest and was hired for the 1936 film adaptation.

Humphrey’s career included other villainous characters, but he also shone as a detective in several productions.

Humphrey Bogart died at the age of 58 on January 14, 1957.

Which of these Old Hollywood stars’ stories did you connect with the most? Let us know in the comments below. Like and subscribe for more on the stories behind your favorite classic films.

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