Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Movie Queens of the Forties
We’ve always been ardent movie fans. I’m going to guess that, between theater showings and TV reruns, I’ve seen about 5,000 movies in my life. Movies provide us with culturally meaningful depictions of the world, and, in doing so, they incorporate subtle and not-so-subtle messages about how societal members should and should not think and behave. Over the years, I’ve become convinced that the most pervasive themes in movies have to do with gender roles and relationships. Movies teach children and adults constant lessons about what women and men “ought to be like” in terms of cultural norms. By and large, most Hollywood creations draw upon and reinforce traditional stereotypes and, by contemporary standards, are blatantly sexist. Thus, when we think of legendary male movie stars over the years (e.g., Brando, Cagney, Clark Gable, Bogart, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood), we think of characters who embody so-called “masculine” traits of power, independence, courage, capacity for aggression, and emotional control. In particular, men spend a lot of time killing one another. Female actors are more likely to play subordinate roles as love and/or sexual objects for the male hero. For the most part, legendary cinema actresses (e.g., Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren) were physically beautiful, sexually appealing, and played romantic partners to their dominant male counterparts. It’s hard to over-estimate the impact of these media images on our ways of viewing the world. I’m often struck that I’ve spent more time over the years, at least symbolically, with Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, John McEnroe, Elizabeth Taylor, etc., than with most friends or family members. We can still see plenty of traditional gender roles when we go to the Cineplex in 2015, but stereotypes were more blatant in Hollywood pictures in my youth in the 1940’s. I do have to admit that my heart still speeds up when I see a photo of Lana Turner or Rita Hayworth. Here are some of the most popular Hollywood actresses from those bygone days. They led extraordinary and often tragic lives.
Lana Turner (nee Julia Jean Turner) was born in Idaho in 1921 to an Alabama miner and his 16-year-old wife. Her father was murdered after a craps game when she was 9, and her mother worked 80 hours a week as a beautician in L.A. to support them. According to legend, Turner was discovered at age 16 when she skipped her Hollywood High School typing class to get a coke at the Top Hat Malt Shop on Sunset Boulevard. She soon became a glamorous star in teen-oriented films. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) provided Turner’s breakthrough role, and she followed it with big successes in Homecoming (1948), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Merry Widow (1952), Peyton Place (1957), and Imitation of Life (1959). Lana Turner was married 8 times to 7 different husbands, including bandleader Artie Shaw and actor Lex Barker (Tarzan). She had a long struggle with alcoholism. She became lovers with L.A. gangster Johnny Stompanato in 1957, and her 14-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane killed Stompanato with a kitchen knife during a violent argument between the couple. Turner died of throat cancer in 1995, leaving the majority of her estate to her long-time maid and companion, Carmen Lopez Cruz.
Rita Hayworth (Margarita Carmen Cansino) was born in Brooklyn in 1918. Her paternal grandfather and her father were Spanish dancers, and her mother performed with the Ziegfeld Follies. Rita was seen dancing in her father's stage act at age 12 by a Fox executive which led to her film debut at 16. Following a series of minor roles, her dancing with Fred Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich (1941) made her a star. Gilda in 1946, which featured Hayworth's legendary one-glove strip tease, made her a superstar and, along with Betty Grable, one of Hollywood's most popular actresses and "pin-up girls" of the war years. Hayworth appeared on the cover of Life Magazine five times, and an image of her face and the name Gilda were glued onto an atomic bomb dropped on the Bikini Atoll during a test in 1946. Hayward married and divorced five times, her spouses including Orson Welles, Prince Aly Khan, and singer Dick Haymes. Having struggled with alcohol throughout her life, Hayworth died from Alzheimer's disease in 1987.
Elizabeth Ruth Grable was born in St. Louis in 1916. Her mother, determined to make her daughter a star, enrolled her in dancing school at age 3 and moved with her to Hollywood when Betty was 13. Lying about her daughter’s age, the mother obtained minor movie roles for her in 1929 and 1930, but it wasn't until Down Argentine Way (1940), Sweet Rosie O’Grady (1943), and Coney Island (1943) that Betty Grable became a star. She was the most famous pinup girl of World War II, as well as the highest paid movie star in America at $300,000 a year. Her famous pinup pose, in a bathing suit with her back to the camera, was taken that way because she was pregnant. Her legs were insured with Lloyds of London for a million dollars. Grable divorced band leader Harry James in 1965 after 22 years of marriage. Reflecting on her career, Gable said, "I'm a song-and-dance girl. I can act enough to get by. But that's the limit of my talents." Centered on her family, her life was devoid of the scandals that plagued many Hollywood stars of the times, and she died of lung cancer in 1973.
Dorothy Lamour (nee Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton) was born in New Orleans in 1914. Lamour quit school at 14 and worked as a secretary to support her mother and herself. After winning a beauty contest as Miss New Orleans in 1931, she moved to Chicago to become a professional singer. After a stint as a department store elevator operator, she joined Herbie Kay's band as a vocalist and also performed with Rudy Vallee and Eddie Duchin. Moving to Hollywood in 1936, Lamour played a couple of minor roles before gaining stardom in The Jungle Princess (1936). Her wrap-around sarong was a big hit, and she repeated it in the highly successful Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "Road" comedies for Paramount (e.g., Road to Singapore, 1940). A highly popular pinup girl during the war, Lamour earned the nickname "The Bombshell of Bombs" because of her success in selling U.S. government war bonds to the public. Lamour sang in many of her films and introduced numerous standards, including "The Moon of Manakoora" and "I Remember You." She was married to Herbie Kay and later to advertising executive William Ross Howard III. She reportedly had a brief affair with J. Edgar Hoover. Lamour’s last film was Creepshow in 1987, and she died in L.A. in 1996.
Gene Tierney was born in Brooklyn in 1920, the daughter of a very successful insurance broker and a former teacher. She had a lavish childhood, was educated at the finest schools on the East Coast, and her father set up a corporation to promote her theatrical pursuits. Performing on Broadway by age 18, Darryl F. Zanuck spotted her in a stage performance and signed Tierney to a contract with 20th Century Fox. She was nominated for a Best Actress Ocar for her role in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and she followed that with an outstanding performance in The Razor's Edge (1946). Her best-known role was as murder victim Laura Hunt in Otto Preminger's Laura (1944). The pressures of a failed marriage, the birth of a mentally retarded child, and several failed love affairs, including liaisons with John F. Kennedy and Prince Aly Khan, resulted in Tierney being hospitalized for depression and receiving extensive electric shock treatment. She was talked down from jumping from a building ledge on Xmas Day in 1957. Having begun smoking to lower her voice in her early career, she died of emphysema in Houston in 1991.
Veronica Lake (nee Constance Frances Marie Ockelman) was born in Brooklyn in 1922. Her father, an oil company ship worker, was killed in an explosion when she was 10. Her mother and stepfather moved to Beverly Hills in 1938, enrolling her in an acting school, and Lake had a bit part in her first movie, Sorority House, in 1939. Lake's breakthrough film was I Wanted Wings in 1941, and by 1942 she had top billing as Ellen Graham in This Gun for Hire. Paired with Alan Ladd because they were both short, the two made four films together. A World War II pinup queen, her "peek a boo" hairstyle became highly popular (though she changed it because the style endangered the hair of female workers in the wartime armaments industry). Paramount miscast Lake in a series of weak movies in the mid-1940’s. By the late 40's she was drinking heavily and residing in Skid Row hotels. She was found working as a bartender in an old hotel in 1962. Married and divorced four times, Lake died of hepatitis on July 7, 1973, at age 50 in Burlington, VT.
Linda Darnell, one of five children of a postal clerk and his wife, was born in Dallas in 1923. Beautiful as a child, she began modeling at age 11, claiming to be 16, and was acting in local theater at 13. She became the youngest leading lady in Hollywood history at age 16 with Hotel for Women (1939), followed by starring roles with Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Blood and Sand (1941). Other leading men included Jack Oakie, Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, and Cornel Wilde. Critics praised her work in Forever Amber (1947), Unfaithfully Yours (1948), and A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Darnell suffered from alcoholism throughout her career and was married and divorced three times. She died at age 41 in a house fire in a Chicago suburb shortly after watching one of her earliest films, Star Dust, on TV.
Susan Hayward (nee Edythe Marrenner) was born in Brooklyn in 1917. Growing up in poverty, she graduated from a commercial high school and intended to become a secretary, but her work as a part-time model in NYC led to a Hollywood screen test and a bit part in 1937. She started receiving roles of more substance in the early 1940's and went on to receive five Academy Award nominations for Smash-Up (1947), My Foolish Heart (1949), With a Song in My Heart (1952), I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), and her Oscar winner, I Want to Live! (1958). Many experts regard the latter as one of the finest film performances of all time. Hayward loved sport fishing and owned three ocean-going boats. Her first marriage was turbulent, and she attempted suicide after divorcing. She then married a former federal agent and lived with him in rural Alabama. A two pack a day smoker with an alcohol habit, she died from brain cancer at age 57 in Hollywood.
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1913 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, the only child of assimilated Jewish parents. Her father was a successful bank director, and her mother was a pianist. She began her career in Czech and German films, causing an international sensation when she appeared nude and simulated orgasm in Ecstasy (1933). Married to a munitions manufacturer with ties to Hitler and Mussolini, Lamarr reportedly disguised herself as her own maid and fled to Paris. Because of her notoriety, Louis B. Mayer cast her in a series of exotic adventure epics. Many critics regard her as the most beautiful actress to ever appear in films. Lamarr's biggest success was as the temptress in Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949). Lamarr was also a talented mathematician who co-invented an early technique for spread spectrum communications, a key to forms of wireless communication up to the present day. After starring with Bob Hope in My Favorite Spy (1951), Lamarr's career went into decline. She married and divorced six times. She retired to Florida where she died on Jan. 19, 2000.
POSTSCRIPT: This has been only a partial list. Other prominent movie actresses of the 1940s included Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, Vivien Leigh, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Ginger Rogers, Jennifer Jones, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Landis, Lucille Ball, Ann Sheridan, Olivia de Havilland, Judy Garland, Jane Wyman, Ella Raines, Teresa Wright, Barbara Stanwyck, Margaret Sullivan, Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Joan Crawford, Maureen O’Hara, Loretta Young, Joan Leslie, Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert, and Jean Arthur.
SOURCES: Wikipedia; IMDb (Internet Movie Data Base); www.movieactors.com