John Wayne, Richard Cromwell, Lewis Ayres — 3 Boys Who Won (1932) 🇺🇸

January 11, 2022

John Wayne, Richard Cromwell and Lewis Ayres all had a tough time getting their first screen opportunities.

by Harry N. Blair

Every once in a while comes a breathless announcement from Hollywood that a new discovery has been made from the studio ranks. A little extra girl is propelled from poverty and obscurity to wealth, fame and power. A property boy is noticed on the set and given the leading role in a big feature. With each announcement of this kind, hundreds of screen-struck boys and girls pack their best duds and set out for the Hollywood gold coast, each confident of being discovered and set on the road to fame. That the chances are one in a million has often been publicized.

The bald truth is that most of these so-called discoveries (high-powered publicity men to the contrary), didn’t just happen. The real facts, so often clouded, usually reveal careful planning, an abundance of patience and not a little of that decided asset, known so tersely as “pull.”

John Wayne, picked by Raoul Walsh for the leading role in The Big Trail, is by no means the callow and inexperienced youth the press stories would have you believe. He was formerly a member of the University of Southern California football team and, as such, had numerous chances to play in college pictures, at the various studios. Under the name of Duke Morrison (his real moniker) he doubled for Francis X. Bushman, Jr., in Brown of Harvard. That was more than five years ago and since then he has taken part in practically every football picture of any consequence. In all that time he came under the direct notice of dozens of directors and yet was never given so much as an opportunity to prove his ability as an actor, despite his striking appearance!

For two of those five years Wayne did extra work only during Summer vacation, but when his father lost a lot of money in business and he was obliged to find a job, he again turned to the studios. He first found work as an electrician’s helper and later as prop boy, meanwhile taking any part that came along. While working in the property room on the Fox lot he gained the friendship of Edmund Grainger, Fox supervisor and youthful son of J. R. Grainger, sales head of the Fox organization. It was at Grainger’s suggestion that Raoul Walsh gave Wayne the test which resulted in his big chance. He happened to measure up physically besides showing the necessary amount of acting ability. with the result that he was given the leading role in The Big Trail. When you see him on the screen in that picture, remember that it took him five long years of plugging and the friendly interest of an important executive to get where he is.

When Columbia Pictures announced that they had bought the talkie rights to Tol’able David, half of the young actors in Hollywood immediately saw themselves in the choice title role. Besides being a grand acting part, it was sure to center attention upon any one who played it.. Hadn’t the silent version of Tol’able David set Dick Barthelmess on the road to fame? At any rate, hundreds of tests were made, but none seemed to be the exact type for which they were searching. Among those tried out was a young actor named Harry Ellerbe, who had appeared with the Stuart Walker Players in stock. Walker at that time being connected with Columbia, Ellerbe was given every opportunity, even to special coaching. Finally it was decided that he was a bit too mature for the part.

While the search was at its height, Ellerbe was invited by friends to visit a young artist who had turned out some interesting masks of Helen Hayes, Bee Lillie, and other stars. Ellerbe accepted and shortly found himself being introduced to a rather profound boy of twenty who was eking out an existence as a commercial artist, while working on his masks. It transpired that the boy’s name was Roy Radabaugh and that he had lived in the vicinity of Los Angeles all his life. When one of the group happened to mention that Ellerbe had tried out for the role of Tol’able David, the young artist appeared greatly excited. He, too, had an eye on the part but, being totally lacking in experience, didn’t know how to go about it. Ellerbe, in a burst of generosity, agreed to help. Certainly young Radabaugh suggested David in both looks and manner. Perhaps, to the disappointed actor there seemed some measure of satisfaction in putting the boy over.

Ellerbe’s first step was to enlist the co-operation of Stuart Walker, so that unwitting tool of destiny was induced to visit Radabaugh’s studio on the pretext of looking over the masks. During the entire visit nothing was said about the part, this being all part of the youngster’s strategy. When, on the way home. Walker mentioned that the young artist was a good type and might do for one of the smaller roles in the picture, Ellerbe knew that his “hunch” had been a good one. He thereupon insisted that Radabaugh was the one boy in the whole world to play the title role and finally brought Walker around to the point where he was also sold on the idea. Immediately a plan of campaign was laid out by the two conspirators.

While Ellerbe spent many hours teaching Radabaugh how to put over the part, Walker set about the task of getting Columbia to agree to a test. Knowing that “The Big House” was playing to packed houses in Los Angeles and that Chester Morris was the sensation of the day, Walker hit on a bright idea. In submitting Radabaugh’s photographs to a conference of production officials he commented, with much enthusiasm, “Now this boy is a young Chester Morris. He has the same qualities that Morris exhibited when he came to me ten years ago. I was foolish enough to let him get away. Don’t let’s make the same mistake in this case.” This argument, backed by an imaginary period in stock, won Radabaugh his coveted test. The fact that he got the part is now history but the weeks of study and strategy leading up to his big chance have never before been told. Looks and talent were not enough to win him his chance. It took a lot of luck and someone with sufficient influence, to put him over. Radabaugh’s name is now Richard Cromwell.

Take the much publicized case of Lew Ayres, who jumped from obscurity to fame in one amazing bound by his performance in All Quiet on the Western Front. When Ayres quit his job as banjo player to become a screen actor, he started out on the hardest and most difficult year of his life. For one whole week of that time he had to exist on an exclusive diet of peanuts! In spite of the fact that one of the most influential and best-thought-of directors of Hollywood was personally interested in his career and did all he could to advance Ayres, it took constant plugging and many discouraging experiences before Lew even had a chance to show what he could do. As most everyone knows, the director is Paul Bern and, to his efforts, much of Ayres’ success is due. Bern first tried to sell Lew to M.-G.-M., but they couldn’t see him at all. This was partly due to the fact that Bern was then in the midst of a dispute with M.-G.-M. executives. Besides, talkies were then coming in and Lew had no stage experience, whatever.

When Bern left Metro to accept a supervisory post with Pathé, one of his first acts was to secure Ayres a six months’ contract. This apparent stroke of luck proved of little value as Pathe officials could see no promise in the boy. The result was that Lew was let out after playing one bit in an Eddie Quillan picture. Meanwhile, things had become adjusted between Bern and Metro and he returned to that studio. Accordingly, Ayres was given the juvenile lead opposite Greta Garbo in “The Kiss,” his first big break in pictures. He did well enough but nothing startling, they thought, so he was again let out— a failure with two of the biggest companies.

Ayres would have probably given up at this time, save for the encouragement of Bern, who was persuaded that the ex-banjo player really had talent of a rare kind. Universal then being on a hunt for the boy in All Quiet, which they were preparing to film, Bern suggested his young friend to Lewis Milestone, the director. Milestone asked to have Ayres call on him but when the boy did so, forgot all about his conversation with Bern and was so abrupt that he frightened Lew away. Still determined, Ayres somehow succeeded in getting a test. Milestone since has said the test was nothing out of the ordinary, just a medium shot, but that when he saw it flashed on the screen, he knew that the search was ended. It was one of the last tests to be unreeled and Milestone was about ready to give in to Universal’s choice of Johnny Harron for the role. Then through the dark projection room, the appeal of Lew Ayres reached out and struck the exact note of mingled courage and pathos which Milestone wanted. It wasn’t until the picture was well under way that he discovered in Ayres the boy his friend, Paul Bern, had recommended to his notice a short time before.

Richard Cromwell, below: As Roy Radabaugh, he was an artist living in Los Angeles when screen opportunity knocked at his door.

Lewis Ayres, above: He quit his job as a banjo player in an orchestra to try his luck as a screen actor in Hollywood.

John Wayne, above: Formerly a star football player and for five years a Hollywood extra waiting his big chance to come along.

NEW MOVIE Tells You of the Screen Folk You Want to Know About.

Next Month NEW MOVIE offers a colorful story of Lew Ayres.

Coming, too, is an absorbing story of Chester Morris.

Collection: The New Movie MagazineFebruary 1932