It breaks my heart to see girls and women setting their sights on one particular beauty ideal, and believing that they're ugly if they don't live up to it. So many of them pick one that it would be physically impossible for them to match -- I don't know if it's some self-destructive impulse that strikes teenage girls, some social forces that apparently pass me by, or just grass-is-greener-ism.

I never ran into that. For whatever reason -- I like to think it was some measure of sense, but it was probably coincidence or stupid luck -- the people I wanted to look like when I grew up happen to be people that I do look like now that I am theoretically an adult. I've always been a big fan of dramatic contrast in photographs, so well-done black and whites fascinate me, particularly silent films and very early pieces of the "snapshot" era. There is certainly such a thing as a well-done piece of Technicolor (I have BPL Faneuil's copy of Robin Hood right now; I firmly believe there is no such thing as a bad time for Errol Flynn in green tights), but silent films are evocative in a different fashion. Intertitles are few and far between, so interpretation rests almost entirely on the ability of the performers to 'speak' the symbolic language of pantomime well enough to tell a story.

Since I have a casting call tomorrow, I thought I'd take a moment to remind myself why I am doing such ludicrous things as printing off zillions of pictures of me when I already have a perfectly good mirror, and hauling three different outfits plus supplies across Cambridge to impress people who might not even look at me twice.

Theda Bara was the original vamp. The studios made most of her pictures by working out to three decimal places precisely how naked they could make her before theaters started refusing to show the film, making her slightly more naked than that, and then drowning her in jewelry. A hundred years ago, this was the woman that men would sell their houses, gamble away their businesses, and volunteer to part with a vital organ to be named later, just to get her attention.

Here she is in Cleopatra. I think this is the most clothing I've ever seen her wear.

You want Theda Bara? I can do Theda Bara. Give me a lot of kohl, some gauze, and my weight in Art Deco beads, and you can take as many pictures as you want.

Clara Bow was known as "the 'it' girl". Dorothy Parker once quipped, "'It', hell; she has 'Those'." Given Dorothy Parker, there are a number of things she could have meant by that, each more off-color than the last; the politest explanation I've heard was that 'it' was supposed to be 'sex-appeal'.

Bow was one of the original spitfire jazz babies, and one of her standard schticks on film was that she would haul off and deck anybody who managed to make her mad enough. This is not and never was genteel ladylike behavior -- she was apparently not dissimilar off-screen. There was less punching people and more drunken dancing on tables while she was a movie star, but as a young girl, she was a dedicated tomboy. When she wasn't holed up in the theater watching flickies, she was running around with the neighborhood troublemakers.

Clara Bow was famed for her vivid red hair, which the studio chose to show off in one of its first Technicolor films. She got it by more or less soaking her head in henna. The mound of fluffy curls got her picked on when she was little, but cropping it short on purpose and refusing to do any kind of hair-wrangling if she didn't absolutely have to, she personally kicked off a fashion trend.

Jean Harlow was one of those deeply unhappy people who I think would have been much happier if they'd never been famous. She had a pushy stage-mama who was trying to live vicariously through "Baby", as the family called her, but her movie career was more or less an accident -- she drove a friend to the studio for auditions and one of the Casting people cornered her to give her a letter of recommendation and begged her to come back for an open call. She only did it because she was dared to. Of course, as soon as her mother got wind of it, it was push, push, push again.

Harlow died unfortunately young. She was always prone to taking ill, having had terrible luck with things like dentistry and even horrid sunburns, so when she begged off for "flu" and delayed yet another picture, nobody took much notice at first. She ultimately died of what was then untreatable renal failure, probably brought on by undetected heart damage from a childhood illness.

Mae West made her first picture when she was 38. The studio didn't tell anybody this, of course; they were still giving leading roles to teenagers. West was too busy being scandalously funny for anyone to guess. She was annoyed at her first role, considering it much too small. I have no idea what she did -- she either made someone's life very very pleasant or very very difficult, I would guess -- but apparently they got her to stop bitching by letting her rewrite her lines.

West was just about the Censor Board's least favorite person ever. She was American, so they couldn't threaten to deport her for making absolutely everything as prurient as possible, and she was a woman, so they were reluctant to have her clapped in irons.

West is suspiciously un-bendy in the middle in a lot of her photos, so I'm guessing most of her really spectacular dresses were heavily corseted. No matter -- a lot of photo poses are actually easier to hold if you're constricted. Less trying to keep yourself from falling over while trying not to look like you're trying to keep yourself from falling over.

Marlene Dietrich, who shot to fame on the strength of her performance as a cabaret single in Der Blaue Engel, had her low, throaty voice insured for $1 million. Her calling cards might as well have been a German accent and a pair of eight-mile-long legs. She had a lifelong string of lovers, male and female, all taken openly and apparently with the permission of her one and only husband, Rudolph Sieber, to whom she was happily married from 1923 until his death in 1976. She pissed off a great many people in her day -- her record was quite possibly 'the entire German nation', when during WWII she sided with the Allies. She went on quite a few USO tours, during which she apparently had quite a time with General Patton, among other people.

Dietrich also had a well-known penchant for menswear. She was fond of mens' casual suits and formal dress, on-screen and off, as can be seen in many photos. She wasn't quite in drag; in this particularly infamous scene from Morocco, where she does her entire song in white tie and then steals a kiss from a woman at the end, you can see that her tux has the wide palazzo pants fashionable for women at the time, and the shirt front fits her very well. It was unusual for the time, very much her thing and therefore very fashionable starting from when she got very fashionable. I really have to thank her for it, because God knows tailoring and pinstripes are my friends.

Comments

  1. All good examples. I might also suggest Rita Hayworth, if you were ever inclined to emulate her loose-wavy hairstyle (which I just learned thru Google was called the "middy" apparently, and still big with the vintage/burlesque crowd). Not a natural redhead, as I've also just learned, and quite the dramatic life as well: thehairpin.com/2011/12/scandals-of-classic-hollywood-rita-hayworth-tragic-princess/

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