We know about the lives of the female actresses by reading the same magazines read by the fans. The juicy stories usually appeared in each and every feature about the person. Every time a new film appeared, the press office of the studio flooded the magazines and newspapers with stories on the movie and the players, a practice still in effect today.
While studios served as a major supplier of information about their “properties,” magazine reporters also sought out the most popular stars for interviews. Gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons supplied readers with inside scoops as well. Collectively, these sources created a rich variety of gossip, rumor, and partial truth, material that was avidly consumed by the magazine buyers. The validity of the stories mattered less than the vitality of the news.
Even more important than Hollywood’s influence on clothes was the way in which the movies popularized cosmetics. In the 18th century and earlier, powder and paint had been freely worn, but for most of the 19th century makeup had been taboo for respectable women.
In the European capitals and American cities women had started to wear visible makeup again before World War I. In the 1930s cosmetic ranges proliferated for all classes of women, together with the more subtle and wider range of film-star types.
The movie stars of the 1930s generation came from a variety of class and family backgrounds. Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Elizabeth Taylor, for example, all came from upper-middle-class families; they were raised to believe in their own worth and to stand up for their own opinion. Hepburn and Russell, especially, had fathers who encouraged them as did their mothers. Hepburn spoke admiringly of her mother, who was a suffragist and birth control advocate, and her father, who was a physician; both parents contributed to her sense of self assurance.
Hepburn’s image, in all interviews, was that of a self-confident person, someone who would succeed in whatever profession she chose. In 1950 she told a reporter, “I have to be a person, not a piece in a pattern.”
The pioneers of the beauty products that grew into huge business empires – Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein being two of the best known – certainly did not regard their products as tainted with immorality. Nor were cosmetics any longer seen as hostile to female emancipation; on the contrary, lipstick, like the cigarette, was a badge of liberation. The use of cosmetics even became a symbol of democracy and class equality, evidence that the culture of consumptian gave every woman not only a right to good looks but access to the improvement or even the dramatic transformatian of her appearance.
Along with the powders, lipstick and increasingly, the eye shadows and mascaras, came creams and lotions that were promoted as preserving youth and beauty, so that the industry latched on to powerful magical fantasies of unconscious origin: a pot of cream from Yardley or Max Factor became the elixir of eternal youth.
These developments were part of a move away from the idea of equality far women, which had lasted through the 1920s; the return of romanticism seemed to signal a retreat for women into more restrieted roles. Max Factor, a Hollywood firm, made much of its connections with the film industry, and the use of film stars in promotions pushed further the idea of distinet types of female beauty.
Joan Crawford ran a contest in one movie magazine in which she rewarded fans who sent in the best pieces of acting advice to her. The constant support of the fans was obviously essential to the success of a movie star, and she, and the public relations department of her studio, used many different techniques to achieve and then to maintain her popularity.
The best proof, of course, of the fans’ loyalty was their attendance at all of the movies starring their favorite actress. Despite the critics, in the 1930s and 1940s, audiences followed the stars, whatever the plot or the quality of the movie. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall lamented this fact in his review of Crawford 1934 movie, Sadie McKee, when after panning the movie, he noted that Sadie “is acted by Joan Crawford which probably accounts for the throngs attracted to the Capitol yesterday.”
It was no longer simply a case of being a blonde, a brunette ar a redhead; qualities of character such as passion, class or independence came to be assoeiated with different types of looks, so that the popular consciousness was peopled with stereotypes of dumb blonde, wicked brunette or fiery redhead. “Dress to your type” became a new command to the ordinary woman, and typologies of various kinds were reproduced in magazines, encouraging women to think of themselves as sporty, fluffy, sultry, artistic, and so on.
The increasing romanticism of thirties’ fashion was brutally interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939. Far the second time in less than thirty years women were conscripted into the war effort. Their being at risk, like their menfolk at the front, encouraged a renewed belief in women’s equality, but the idea that women achieved equality in wartime and were then pushed back into the home afterward is oversimplified.
Elizabeth Taylor arrived in Hollywood from England at the age of seven and went from being a child star to adult star successfully. She has observed how schooling at MGM, a traumatic experience for many child stars, amused her. Even the formidable head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, failed to intimidate her. Taylor’s family provided her with emotional support. Biographer Dick Sheppard defined her strength and endurance as based on four things: “a sound family foundation and a consequent inner assurance which has never failed her; the mutual love and devotion of those closest to her; a bond with the public which transitory crises could never sever; and a professional knowledge of the crafts of film acting second to none.”
Though her mother had some of the characteristics of a pushy stage mother, she also acted as a refuge for Taylor. In 1950, at the age of 17, Elizabeth Taylor told interviewers that she was a traditional girl and very concerned with her mother’s opinion of her. “I’m being painted as a goodtime girl,” she told Louella Parsons, “who stays out all hours of the night. That is hard to take. If you could see how my mother cries, you’d know what I mean.”
Women did men’s jobs “for the duration”, but they did not achieve equal pay. Many women with children spent the war in quiet isolation.Rationing, queues, shortages and the constant anxiety about absent lovers, husbands, brothers and fathers – and the real danger to themselves and their families and friends because of air raids – must challenge the popular view of World War II as a period of glamor and freedom for women. Glamor there was, however, despite the hardship.
Paradoxically, women’s increased participation in the life of the factory, the forces and the office seemed to lead to a greater emphasis on femininity in moments of leisure, even though fashions certainly adapted to the exigeneies of the time. In spite of all the difficulties it seemed more impotant than ever to look nice in order to keep up morale, so there was a greater emphasis than ever before on face and hairstyle.
With occupied Paris no longer the source of new fashions, the war was the American industry’s great chance, but in spite of same highly original designers they did not achieve styIistic dominance of the market, partly because the fashions of the war years were relatively static.
The tight-waisted, full-skirted styles that were on their way back in 1938-39 were modified by rationing and the lack of materials. The influence of uniforms led to the widespread popularity of the tailored suit, with broad padded shoulders, revers, and a short narrow skirt. This fashion, which was popularized in films by Joan Crawford, symboIized the career woman. Sensible country fashions such as tweed coats, boots, ankle socks and headscarves came into vogue, while more casual trousers – often called slacks – finally became acceptable.
Many actresses described in movie magazines came from one-parent families where the mother became the positive model of independence for the daughter to emulate. Bette Davis’s parents, for example, divorced when she was eight years old, an unusual phenomenon in 1916. Her mother, Ruthie, had to earn a living to support Bette and her younger sister, Bobbie. Attorney Mr. Davis failed to support his family. Thus, Bette Davis saw a mother work at various jobs until she learned photography and became moderately successful at it. In high school, Davis decided to become an actress and after graduating spent some time at the Robert Milton-John Murray Anderson School of the Theater in New York. By 1930, at the age of 22, she was on her way to Hollywood under contract to Universal Studios. Once in Hollywood, the path was stormy but Davis’s determination kept her going.
Next Page: Word Jazz