Wednesday, 25 May 2011

1930s’ screen sirens - don’t fancy yours much!

Ask contemporary women if they fancy any major male movie stars who emerged in the Thirties and I bet most of them would come up with a few names (for instance, someone with whom I am on terms of some intimacy just mentioned Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and, very definitely, James Stewart).

Ask contemporary males about major female stars of that time and I bet most heterosexuals would be hard pressed to single one out. (If any man tells you he simply adores Greta Garbo’s cheekbones, by the way, he’s gay. Very.

Louise Brooks
The Silent Era produced some very cute, round-faced girls (Louise Brooks and Clara Bow, for instance) and the Forties were crammed with stunningly attractive women: I realise it’s hard to apply objective standards in this area, but I reckon most red-blooded males would have found themselves attracted to several, if not all, of the following: Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Joan Fontaine, Lana Turner, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Susan Hayward or Veronica Lake, to name just a few.

Sophia Loren

Leslie Caron

Brigitte Bardot

Silvana Mangano

The Fifties, of course, gave us Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Silvana Mangano and Sophia Loren! I mean, caramba!

Please move along, sir!

I just don't get it!

But, chaps, can any of you put hand on heart and tell me you get all hot and bothered watching Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ruby Keeler, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck or Carole Lombard? I’m not saying there aren’t some great actresses in there (and some pretty rotten ones as well) or that some of them don’t display vibrant onscreen personas, but do they have your tongues hanging out? Really? To be fair, there are a few sirens of the era I can imagine garnering the odd “hubba! hubba!” these days – Fay Wray, Myrna Loy and Merle Oberon, for instance, but none of them were really big stars.

Many things might account for the absence of the phwoarrh! factor amongst leading ladies. First, the Hayes Code - introduced in 1930 in response to official disapproval of the lewdness of some Silent Era films and a series of steamy Hollywood sex scandals – might have prevented studios from hiring the sort of sexy little wenches who had enlivened the previous decade. 

Then there were the voices - maybe pretty girls tended to have squeaky, high-pitched ones back then.

Then there’s the fact that many of the women I’ve cited were genuine actresses - they could turn their hand to a whole range of parts, rather than just hang around looking decorous. 

Perhaps female picture-goers were more important to the success of movies during the Depression – if the Twenties were about Sex (which would, one presumes, have appealed mainly to men), the Thirties seem to have been more about Glamour, which is of more interest to women. (Interestingly, the most overtly sexual star of the 1930s was Mae West, who reduced sex appeal to pure comedy.)

What seemed to define the most popular actresses at the time was strength rather than girlish softness – character and making the best of whichever physical assets you possessed, no matter how evidently limited, was definitely in. Perhaps, with so many men out of work, women were being thrown back more on their own resources. (This is wild conjecture, I’ll admit.)

Then again, could it just be that the 1930s were a time when men’s tastes were very different from what they had been, and would later become? After all, taste in these matters does seem to change markedly with each decade. But I really doubt there was ever a time when many male heterosexuals would have genuinely fancied Greta Garbo or Joan Crawford – it’s no accident that they both turned into gay icons. Garbo is a female fantasy of feminine allure, all languid and sleepy-eyed and exotic without actually being in the least bit sexy - and Joan Crawford generally played the sort of ruthless, nut-cracking, manipulative schemer most of us boys would run a mile from.
The main exception to all this, I suppose, was Jean Harlow. While she looks too much like a sulky Essex shopgirl for my tastes, she seems to have been a throw-back to the fun-loving ‘20s. I bet she got 1930s blokes in a lather while leaving women cold. 

Claudette Colbert

But surely, Scott, I hear you ask, you must fancy someone from that decade.  Well, yes, I do – Claudette Colbert, who you’ll remember as Clark Gable’s sparring partner in It Happened One Night (see above). She had a pretty face (which could only be photographed from one side, apparently). As for Glamour – my favourite is that supremely talented, long-legged tap-dancer, Eleanor Powell, who was at her glittering best here, in Broadway Melody of 1936. She wasn’t particularly beautiful, but, goodness, she lit up the screen!

Eleanor Powell
In case you didn’t grow up in a movie-mad household or are simply too young to know who the hell I’m talking about, most of the actresses I mention are to be found at this website. The only one to whom I have a genuine aversion - to the extent that I’ve only ever been able to watch one of her films all the way through (the superb Ninotchka, with a sparkling screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder) - is Greta Garbo, and for that I blame Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who did a wonderful hatchet job on the whole Garbo mystique in Not Only But Also.


  1. Two suggested additions to the gallery, neither of them relieving the 1930s drought:

    1. Back in the days of the lachrymose Jeremy Isaacs when watching Channel 4 was like attending one of the better universities, I forced myself to stay up late one night in the interests of fundamental research to watch a dissertation on the history of cinema pornography. Controversy raged in that dry way academics have as to whether Theda Barra was or was not the first woman to be filmed having an orgasm. It rages still and we owe it to ourselves to screen the footage more often if we want to uphold our claim genuinely to be children of the Enlightenment, avid always and only to establish the truth. A lot of clingy, diaphonous material, if I remember correctly, "gossamer" is probably the word I'm after, actually not a lot, just a very little bit, in fact, ...

    Here's Theda Barra,

    And here's Marylin Monroe as Theda Barra, Tiger!

    2. Have you ever wondered what the frequency hopping spread spectrum is? Of course you have and it's all Hedy Lamarr's fault, the most beautiful woman in the world,

    Before going to the US, she was married to a Romanian arms dealer. Not dumb, she learned a lot about the arms industry in particular and business in general.

    Like most studio contractors, she took a keen interest during the war in radio-controlled torpedo guidance systems and particularly the obvious problem that will have occurred to you immediately, viz. if you can control the torpedo with radio waves, radio being what it is, so can the enemy -- bad news.

    What you need, she reasoned, is a way of encrypting the radio signal so that the enemy don't know what's going on. Hmmm ... but how?

    So she's sitting with her répétiteur one day, and he keeps changing the key of the song to suit her mood and her voice. Changing the key ... encryption ... changing the key ...

    You got it! Well, maybe not, but she did. What she suggested was that you should choose a particular bandwidth, and spread your control signals throughout that bit of the radio spectrum. Choose a dozen or so frequencies to broadcast at, and then, following a sequence known only to you (and the torpedo) hop between the frequencies, breaking your control instructions into little bits that only the torpedo can receive because it knows the sequence, the enemy don't know which frequencies to monitor, they will just hear the odd bit of noise.

    She patented the technology and then gave the patent to the US nation.

    The same technology is used today not only in the military but also in WiFi and mobile phone telecommunications. What a girl.
    Thursday, May 26, 2011 - 01:36 PM

  2. Fascinating post. Also, thanks DM for your information on Hedy Lamarr. [I knew that she had invented something important, but I have never discovered what. Ditto George Sanders. They appeared together in "Solomon and Sheba" I think I have already quoted her joke about Victor Mature].

    Marlene Dietrich. A difficult one. After Madeline Kahn's song "Tired. I am so fwigging tired" in Blazing Saddles I gave up on her, but the other day I saw "Shanghai Express" [1932] and am having a re-think [BS also featured the confusingly named "Hedley Lamarr"].

    Garbo. In Stockholm there is an excellent restaurant built on her birth-site and full of memorabilia. The house speciality is " Garbobollern" [Garboballs]. I had forgotten the "Not Only But Also" sketch. I had 4 Garbo titles lined up on my LoveFilm list which I have now ben forced to delete. So thank you. I had forgotten about John "Green" Gilbert in Queen Christina

    You do not mention the sexiest and most accomplished actress that Hollywood ever produced - Gloria Grahame. Bit of an odd-ball. She was the Demetar Berbatov of the Silver Screen. Highly underappreciated.
    Saturday, May 28, 2011 - 07:49 AM

  3. I left Theda Barra off the list on the basis that she looked sweet, but “about as fatale as an after-dinner mint”, and that her eye make-up made it appear she’d been up late studying for her GCSEs. Are you sure that’s Marilyn Monroe? Wow! Looks incredibly modern. MM was a much better at modelling than acting – at which she was atrocious.

    Heddy Lamarr certainly belongs in the list of Forties’ corkers. How anyone this beautiful and super-intelligent ended up being arrested for shoplifting in LA in 1965 is a mystery. According to Wikipedia her autobiography begins like this: "On a recent evening, sitting home alone suffering and brooding about my treatment at the police station because of an incident in a department store, and being replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor in a motion picture (imagine how that pleased the ego!) I figured out that I had made—and spent—some thirty million dollars. Yet earlier that day I had been unable to pay for a sandwich at Schwab's drug-store." It also informs us that the expression her arms manufacturer husband so objected to in her 1933 film, “Ecstasy” (in which she appeared in longshots running naked) was, she claimecd, achieved by the director poking her bottom with a safety pin. She is reputed to have escaped from her husband wearing all her jewels, having drugged him. In 2000, her son spread her ashes, at her request, in the Wienerwald Forest in Austria.Surprised there hasn’t been a screen biog!

    SDG, Madeleine Kahn also spoiled any chance of me taking Dietrich seriously – “Who can satisfy their lustful habit? I’m not a wabbit – I need some west” etc.

    I thought about including the great Gloria Grahame, but, while she was great in many pictures, she never carried a truly mainstream picture – only reason for her exclusion.

    As for poor old Berbatov, I doubt very much he’ll be at United next season, which seems a bit rough after enduing the season as their top goal-scorer. Personally, I blame the hair-do.
    Monday, May 30, 2011 - 11:55 AM