John Stambaugh — From the Dust of Defeat (1930) 🇺🇸

John Stambaugh — From the Dust of Defeat (1930) |

June 27, 2023

Faith springs eternal, even in the jaundiced minds of those who live close to the motion-picture industry.

by Helen Klumph

And so it happened that many of us really believed that ten young contest-winners, brought to Hollywood with contracts in their pockets, were to be given a chance in pictures. At last, we figured, a royal carpet is being laid down for a chosen few, so that they may skip lightly over the struggles and preliminaries of a career. Yeah? Well, the royal carpet proved, on closer inspection, to be hiding a treadmill that returned its plodders gradually to the point from which they started.

It happened like this.

About two years ago First National sent scouts to leading American universities to find young men who looked like promising star material. They found some four hundred that were considered potential actors, and out of their ranks forty were chosen for detailed photographic tests. These tests were shown to the First National salesmen, who reduced the choice down to ten — and these ten were given contracts and brought to Hollywood, with a great fanfare of publicity.

To hear the promoters of the contest tell it, they were going to introduce a superior type of young man to the screen; they were going to supplant with their importations the reigning Novarros (Ramon Novarro) and Lowes (Edmund Lowe) and Barthelmesses (Richard Barthelmess). In fact, they were going to knock Hollywood cold. Well, somebody was knocked cold all right, but I think it was nine of the ten young hopefuls who were selected to work in pictures. About all that the promises netted them was a flood of publicity, and a few days of extra work. When they were no longer news, they were told to run along and not bother busy men.

Only one of the ten refused to believe that after going to a lot of trouble to find him, Hollywood didn't want him. And judging by reviews of recent pictures, he was right.

In almost every press notice of She Goes to War one found something like this. "Acting honors go to the unknown extra who appears briefly as a dying soldier in the scene where Alma Rubens sings the theme song." Likewise reviewers singled out an extra in The Black Watch who catapulted over a fence to his doom. It was the same young man. Through many a poignant bit that calls for death struggles, blindness, or danger to his person, he has careened, his name known only to the casting offices. But it is high time for him to emerge from obscurity. Permit me to introduce John Stambaugh, one of the most charming and ambitious young men in Hollywood, and the sole survivor in pictures of the ten collegiates. Now if you think that such achievement is slight reward for two years of labor, after the flying start of a big publicity campaign, you don't know your Hollywood statistics. It is estimated that out of every ten thousand people who try to storm the gates of the Central Casting Bureau, possibly only one hundred ever get a single day's work. Out of that hundred, possibly ten get more than a few days' work. And out of twenty who rise from the ranks of extras, or who start in pictures with a contract, only one, as a rule, ever gets to the point where he receives screen credit.

So Johnny, you see, has done a little better than slip into the groove of cold, dry statistics. The boy will get somewhere. In fact, he already has. Even now he is attracting attention in The Cock-Eyed World as a soldier who lost both arms. And he proved his ability to speak right out by playing in The Ghost Train in a Hollywood theater.

But to go back for a moment to that little band of ten who came out to Hollywood so hopefully. On the train bearing them westward they studied each other carefully and speculated on those most likely to succeed.

All agreed that John Westwood, of Princeton, was the one who would reach fame and fortune. Little did they know that in the two months of his contract Johnny would do only glorified extra work in two pictures — placed so far from the camera that it is doubtful if his own mother could find him. Of them all, only Westwood and Stambaugh were given short renewals on their contracts.

Cassidy, of Georgia, was ideal material for Westerns, but no one came forward with a good contract for him, and he was too eager to get back to his own environment to stand the long struggle of breaking in. Wilcox, of Michigan, went home when his contract expired, but came back for a while to struggle along as an extra. Glendenning, of California, got a job for a while in the wardrobe department of First National, but he, too, gave up and went home. Knox, of Yale, worked for three months as a reader in the scenario department, but now he is running a gas station. Only Stambaugh remains on the books of the casting offices.

Maybe you would like to know how he did it. He had no more encouragement than the others, to be sure. He was no more handsome; I doubt if he was much more talented. But he had a stubborn pride that made him refuse to admit he was beaten.

For a while after his contract expired he was seriously ill, and had to go home. But he came back — and by that time the college-boy contest was as stale as any news of yesterday. He got a part in a stage play that ran eight weeks, but this was before Movietone and Vitaphone days, and stage players were not grabbed up as eagerly as they are now.

By sheer persistence he induced studios to make tests of him, but they reposed on a laboratory shelf, and he could never find an executive who had taken a look at them. He read parts for every stage play that went into production. Usually the stage manager was enthusiastic over his reading, but inevitably before the last week of rehearsals began, some one in authority would decide that they couldn't afford to take a chance on an inexperienced actor who might forget his lines.

Finally his nerves got to the breaking point from the strain of inactivity. He was still determined to get into pictures, but he needed something to occupy him while he waited for that much-heralded knock of Opportunity. By some lucky chance he met Harry Wurtzel, an agent, who was wise or sympathetic enough to know that the boy needed a friend. Wurtzel couldn't ease him into any acting jobs, but he could, and did, put him to work in his office handling stories. This gave Johnny an entry into studios, and an opportunity to get acquainted. It wasn't long before the people who didn't want to buy his stories did want him for a part.

Johnny is a well set up, poised, and vigorous young man, but since his first part was that of a blind man, he will probably go on and on playing cripples and defectives, until he sees a chance to work toward his cherished ambition, which is to direct. But he doesn't care what they ask him to play, so long as they ask him. Johnny has got by where many others have failed.

John Stambaugh, center, plays a striking bit in The Cock-Eyed World, with Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe.

Johnny as Hollywood first saw him.

Collection: Picture Play Magazine, January 1930