The story of Ava Gardner’s journey from small-town girl and Hollywood starlet is fascinating in itself and for the insight it gives into how the movie studios worked during the 1940s.
In one sense it’s a fairytale – the dream peddled by the studios and which persists to this day – of Cinderella capturing the heart of Prince Charming and metamorphosing into a princess (in Ava’s case the transformation of a North Carolina hillbilly into a Hollywood superstar). But it’s also an revealing account of the mechanics and drudgery that went on behind the scenes.
So let’s start by sketching out Cinderella.
A turbulent childhood
Ava is born on Christmas Eve, 1922 in Smithfield, North Carolina, the youngest of seven children. Her parents are sharecroppers who lose their property (it has no electricity, running water or indoor bathroom) when Ava is still young. As an aside, to get an impression of what the life of a sharecropper was like at the time of the Depression, look no further than the photos of Walker Evans, commissioned by the Farm Security Administration. Ava moves to Virginia with her family, then back to North Carolina as they eke out a living. Ava’s father dies when she is 15 years old.
These photos are incredibly rare and precious. They come from Ava’s personal collection and in most cases may be the only originals in existence.
Ava gets noticed
Fast forward to 1941 and Ava is visiting her eldest sister, Bappie (nickname for Beatrice), in New York. Bappie is married to Larry Tarr, a professional photographer. He offers to take Ava’s portrait and is so pleased with the result that he puts the photo in the front window of his studio on Fifth Avenue.
The photo catches the eye of Bernard Duhan, a clerk at Loews Theatres. He calls the studio pretending to be the head talent scout at MGM (a Loews subsidiary) with the aim of getting Ava’s phone number. The phone is answered by Larry who, spotting an opportunity for his sister-in-law, asks Bernard whether he’d like her to come up from North Carolina for an interview. Bernard responds by asking him to “just send some photos of her for my attention.”
The photos find their way to Al Altman, head of MGM’s New York talent department. Soon after, the 18-year-old Ava returns to New York to be interviewed by him. With cameras rolling, he directs her to walk towards the camera, turn and walk away, then rearrange some flowers in a vase. He does not try to record her voice because her Southern accent is so thick it’s impossible to understand. The die is cast.
Ava goes to Hollywood
Ava is accompanied to Hollywood by Bappie and Milton Weiss, a young man from MGM’s publicity department in New York who spends much of his working life escorting young beauties to Tinseltown (must be a tough job). At Grand Central, they board the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago, where they change to the Super Chief. To entertain themselves, they play endless rounds of the card game, Pinochle. From the station, they take a taxi to MGM Studios, an empire in its own right presided over by Louis B Mayer.
Ava gets a makeover
Here’s what happens on Ava’s arrival, as described (with light editing by myself) in Ava, A Biography…
Ava Gardner is immediately whisked off to a small studio, made up, squeezed into a long black strapless evening dress supplied by the Wardrobe Department, and given a screen test. She has come to Metro on the strength of an earlier silent test which she had made in New York. Now she is required to speak. Aside from walking along a chalk line on the ground, sitting and standing, she answers off-camera questions about her family and her childhood in North Carolina. So thick is her Tarheel accent that should could be speaking a foreign language. But she is luck in one important respect: Lee Grames, the brilliant cameraman, happens to have been assigned to film the test and he makes the most of her dark beauty.
A few hours later, Games’s black-and-white test is being shown in the executive screen room for Louis B Mayer himself. Mayer has the final word on perspective new additions to Metro’s “talent” list. It is Mayer who determines, on the basis of his famous intuition, how much time and effort Metro should invest in advancing the career of a starlet.
Mayer is not personally attracted to the new girl on the screen. His own taste runs to either Dresden Dolls or Refined Ladies. Though she moves awkwardly, and he cannot understand her, he is quick to note her lazy feline grace and her physical magnetism. “She can’t act, she can’t talk, but she’s terrific,” he tells George Sidney, who has the job of selecting new talent for the studio. “Give her to Gertrude [Vogeler, the studio voice coach] and Lillian [Burns, the dramatic coach] and let her have a year’s training. Then test her again.”
Soon after her arrival, Ava has her first interview with Benny Thau, the executive with overall charge of Metro talent. Thau is a small man who speaks so softly that you have to lean close to his mouth to understand what he is saying. He is also one of the studio’s most persistent girl chasers, with a button on his desk which automatically locks the door of his office. Unlike Mayer, he is stirred by Ava and, when she is on the point of terminating their interview, lunges forward to embrace her. She pushes him away sharply, but it is the string of colorful language she spits out that sends him reeling.
The routine for a Metro starlet’s first week would have done justice to boot camp. Together with Donna Reed and Kathryn Grayson, Ava is expected to arrive at 6:30 AM and report to Makeup. Under the supervision of Jack Dawn, the beauty wizard, her eyebrows are shaped, her cheekbones accentuated and the dimple in her cleft chin toned down. A hair-wave set is used to turn up her lashes.
Then Sydney Guilaroff takes over. The best-known hairdresser in the industry, he sets her hair off her face to show off the good bone structure and the high sweep of her forehead, topping it with a wave. The whole coiffure is lacquered firmly into pace.
The point of the beautification process is that starlets are on constant call as walk-ons and bit-part players in current productions. Indeed, these appearances are regarded a useful experience and good exposure.
The only cameras that Ava faces in those early days are the ones in the “Shooting Gallery,” the dingy studio where she poses, in various stages of undress, for top-class still photographers such as Clarence Bull. “Cheesecake” stills (more discreetly known as “leg art”) are a Hollywood institution and soon Metro is sending out half a dozen Ava Gardner pictures to the rotogravure press every week. Clarence Bull says “C’mon, Ava, let’s steam up the lens,” and she slips naturally into a series of sexy poses.
And here are some early results.
Within 24 hours of arriving in Hollywood, Ava meets Mickey Rooney.
I can remember that first meeting with Mick very clearly – probably because he was wearing a bowl of fruit on his head. At least that’s what it looked like. He was playing this Carmen Miranda character – do you remember Carmen Miranda? You probably don’t. She had a brief fame in the forties. She was a Brazilian dancer, a hot little number while she lasted. Mickey was playing her, complete with false eyelashes, false boobs, his mouth smothered with lipstick.
It was my first day in Hollywood. I was being hauled around the sets to be photographed with the stars. He came over to me and said, ‘Hi, I’m Mickey Rooney.’. He did a little soft-shoe shuffle kind of dance, and bowed to me. God, I was embarrassed. I don’t think I said a word. I might have said ‘Hello’ or something. I was overwhelmed. His Andy Hardy pictures made the studio millions and cost peanuts. So did his Micky and Judy [Garland] pictures. I wanted to ask for his autograph but I could barely open my mouth.
He [the MGM publicist who was escorting Ava] said, ‘Mickey, this is Ava Gardner, one of our new contract players.’. Mick did another quick soft-shoe shuffle and bowed even more elaborately, like a courtier or something. He loved an audience, of course. He was always at his best when he was in the spotlight.I just wanted the ground to open and swallow me up.
And the following year, Mickey and Ava get married. It will be another six years until Ava makes her breakthrough in The Killers. But that’s another story.
Want to know more about Ava Gardner?
Apart from the annotations and captions on the photos themselves, books have been my main sources here:
- Ava A Biography by Roland Flamini
- Ava Gardner Her Life and Loves by Jane Ellen Wayne
- Ava Gardner “Love Is Nothing” by Lee Server
- Ava My Story by Ava Gardner
- Ava Gardner The Secret Conversations by Ava Gardner and Peter Evans