In the days before social media, selfies, online baby photo albums and website competitions, there were still plenty of ways to engage with audiences keen to see themselves and their peers on screen. A popular component of early cinema screenings were competition films.
From the 1920s to the early 1940s, canny filmmakers would travel the country running ‘screen tests’ for beautiful women, aspiring actors, cute babies and new styles of haircut. These contests would appear alongside newsreels at the start of a screening of a feature or a series of shorts at the local cinema. Locals, or their infants, would appear on screen: audiences would vote for their favourites. Voting papers would be collected in ballot boxes and the winners awarded prizes. Blenheim’s Most Popular Child urges audiences to ‘Vote for your fancy, but do vote!’
The prizes for these competitions must have been a major attraction. The winner of one ‘Buster’ haircut competition could select a frock to the value of £15 from Hamilton’s House and Laking, Ltd. The prize for the 1940 Centennial St. John Ambulance Baby Contest was a remarkable £500. The pull of seeing oneself or one’s friends on-screen would also help attract a large paying audience, benefiting the cinema owner and the filmmaker, who would soon move on to the next ‘screen test’ somewhere else.
Of the films in our collection that fit the ‘competition film’ category, women are well catered to. Alongside bathing suit contests, a haircut competition sought entries for modern 1920s hairstyles the ‘shingle’ and the ‘Buster’. Though there seem to have been fewer competitions for men, in the same period community comedies offered them a similar opportunity to be stars for a day.
‘Screen tests’ were another variety of competition that sought out potential screen stars. Who’s For Hollywood? was a competition for participants in the 1927 Miss New Zealand competition. The winner was Dale Austen who claimed the £900 prize and a three-month contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After this period, Austen returned to New Zealand where she starred in Rudall Hayward’s The Bush Cinderella and A Daughter of Dunedin.
Motion Picture Bathing Beauty Contest, also from Hayward, included Nola Casselli – who was chosen to star in Rewi’s Last Stand. An experienced filmmaker, it seemed Hayward was keenly aware of the lure of competitions and the chance to audition talent on-screen.
Haircuts, cute babies and bathing suits– what kind of competition would you run in your town? And who would you vote for?