At 18, Gardner was studying to become a secretary. During that time, she sat to have photos taken by her brother-in-law, Larry Tarr. He was so pleased with the results that he displayed them in the window of his shop. A talent scout supposedly representing MGM noticed the photo and, with the suggestion from the scout, Tarr sent in the photos to MGM for consideration.
Gardner’s striking features convinced MGM to offer her a screen test. She flew out to New York, where the Al Altman, head of MGM’s New York talent department, administered the screen test. The process, at least on paper, seemed easy enough: She was asked to walk towards the camera and back, which would be a simple movement test. Altman, however, did not ask her to speak on camera, as he found her Carolina accent difficult to understand.
From the footage, Altman and MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer determined the young woman lacked refinement on camera. It seemed like Gardner’s future as an actress was dead in the water. Fortunately, for Gardner, Mayer’s standards for consideration were low. As Mayer so eloquently put it to Altman regarding Gardner: “She can’t act. She can’t talk. She’s terrific. Sign her.”