The Golden Age of Hollywood
By the last two decades of the twentieth century, Hollywood had shed many of the trappings of glamour that had characterized it in the 1930s and 1940s. Only on select occasions, such as Oscar Night, does the modern-day movie industry seek to dazzle its public with a glittering gathering of stars dressed to the height of elegance. If Sharon Stone is sometimes referred to as the only current star of the old type, it is largely because she made it her business from the 1990s always to present herself as elegantly groomed, perfectly coiffed and sexually alluring. Yet the image of the stars of the past and their lifestyles is still strongly evident in contemporary commercial culture. Perhaps more than anything else, the Hollywood golden age constitutes the benchmark for what today is understood as alluring and glamorous. On numerous occasions fashion magazines feature models made up and photographed in black and white as Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich or Ava Gardner. Moreover, in recent times, Pretty Polly tights has deployed in advertisements images of Rita Hayworth, while Mercedes and World of Leather have used Marilyn Monroe, Elena Miro Ava Gardner, Luciano Soprani fragrances Hedy Lamarr and Gap Steve McQueen. All these images refer back to the period between the 1930s and the 1950s, when Hollywood cinema conquered the world and shaped the collective imagination with its stories, style and stars.
The 'glamour of Hollywood' was precisely an image that was constructed through a variety of media: the films themselves, still photographs and portraits, publicity material and press and radio coverage of the lives and loves of the stars. In reflecting on this image, two elements deserve particular attention. Sex appeal on the one hand and luxury on the other constituted the cornerstone of Hollywood's strategy to capture and hold mass interest.
On screen, all direct references to sexual intimacy inside and outside of marriage were strictly taboo following the adoption of the Hays Code in 1932. By introducing this element of self-regulation, the American movie industry hoped to pacify respectable opinion and win recognition as a mainstream component of American society. Yet sex appeal was always important in Hollywood movies. In 1950, anthropologist Hortense Powder-maker observed in her study of America's 'dream factory' that the physical presence of actors was vital to the films' appeal.15 Heroes were always virile he-men, she noted, while heroines exuded an obvious sex appeal. The immediate and unambiguous attraction between the two protagonists (even if at first disguised by a comedy of hatred) was part of the theme of most
15. Powdermaker, Hortense, Hollywood: The Dream Factory, Boston: Little, Brown, 1950, p. 207.
movies. Hollywood, she argued, stressed the 'look at me', 'look at my body' type. Close-ups emphasized the intimate details of the physical being of actors. They were also known by parts of their bodies, that which was deemed most worthy of attention. Thus a husky voice, beautiful breasts, or a dimple in the chin came to sum up the entire persona of a star. The reduction to parts affected women more than men, although Powdermaker did reveal that one (unnamed) male star was known as 'the penis'. Newcomers to Hollywood were obliged to perform a long apprenticeship, part of which involved them in revealing as much flesh as possible for 'cheesecake' and 'beefcake' shots. As Edgar Morin remarked, 'stars reveal their spirits, starlets exhibit their bodies'.16
Prior to the Hays Code, many films featured a more obvious sexuality and laid considerable stress on experience. In the 1920s and early 1930s, stars like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich played world-weary women who had seen everything and were shocked by nothing. Frequently, as in Garbo's Susan Lennox and Dietrich's Shanghai Express, they played women who had been abandoned by lovers and had turned to prostitution. As Lea Jacobs has shown, 'fallen women' movies exercised a great appeal during the Depression years because they legitimated the use of sexuality as a means by which women could escape poverty and hardship.17 These images also drew on the theatrical tradition of the femme fatale that had been established in the nineteenth century by writers like Théophile Gautier and actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt. Garbo and Dietrich were both enigmatic, even exotic, European women whose allure was enhanced by costumiers like Adrian at MGM and Travis Banton at Paramount, as well as the art of the best cinematographers in Hollywood.
The movie capital sometimes liked to give the impression that the seductiveness and beauty of its stars was a natural phenomenon. All the industry had to do was discover the star quality and present it unalloyed to the public. One example of this can be seen in The Barefoot Contessa. In an evening scene, Humphrey Bogart tells Ava Gardner (playing a simple Spanish singer, Maria Vargas) that the moon illuminates her face just like a key light, revealing her potential for movie stardom. Of course, Gardner was already a star and the 'moon' was in fact a key light. The fiction of naturalness served to disguise the fact that the beauty and photogenic qualities of the stars were in reality highly constructed. To turn Margherita Cansino, a simple girl of Spanish-Mexican origin, into the all-American glamour girl Rita
16. Morin, Edgar, Les Stars, Paris: Seuil, 1972, p. 53.
17. Jacobs, Lea, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film 1928-1942, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Hayworth required considerable art and expertise, and the same talents moulded Norma Jean Baker into Marilyn Monroe. Even Garbo and Dietrich were very ordinary, rather gauche women before being thoroughly reshaped by the studios. The sex appeal of the stars was not an intrinsic feature, although 'personality' was a quality the industry regarded as vital to star creation; on the contrary it was a manufactured, artificial phenomenon that the studios conferred on their proteges.
The inventor of sex appeal in American cinema was the English novelist Elinor Glyn, who arrived in Hollywood at the invitation of Jesse Lansky in 1920 and subsequently worked for MGM. Glyn, author of the scandalous novel Three Weeks and the short story It, believed that sex should be disguised as romance. She also believed in the creation of an aura of mystery to arouse public interest.18 Working with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, she taught them poise, elegance and seductive techniques (such as Valentino kissing the palm rather than the back of a woman's hand) which fuelled the atmosphere of sensuality. In the course of the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood set design and costume applied the lesson of deflected or displaced sexuality by incorporating the exotic or the sensual (shimmering fabrics, shiny surfaces) into the structure of film-making. Actors were also moulded through cosmetic surgery, cosmetics and flattering lighting.
Perhaps the most extraordinary and enduring examples of Hollywood glamour are provided by the stills of great studio photographers like George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull. These portraits, for which the stars often posed reluctantly at the end of a day on the set, are today gathered in numerous volumes. Moreover, when an occasion presents itself, contemporary actors are more than willing to allow themselves to be photographed in the studio manner of the 1940s because they know that the allure of those images is unrivalled.19 In the sultry black and white photographs of the past, actors were turned into icons. They appeared almost as gods and certainly as archetypes, their individuality giving way to a generalized image of seduction. The perfection of the images did not derive from the beauty of the subject but rather from the invention of the photographer.
Speaking in the 1980s, Hurrell said that he regarded glamour as a synonym for 'giving a sexier attitude' or creating a 'bedroom look'. 'You know, glamour to me was nothing more than just an excuse for saying sexy pictures. In
18. See Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream, London: Peter Owen, 1973, pp. 117-20 and Glyn, Anthony, Elinor Glyn, London: Hutchinson, 1955, chapter six.
19. See, for example, the 'old Hollywood' portraits of present-day actors in Prince, Len, About Glamour, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
other words my interpretation was entirely one of saying "Come on, we're going to take some sexy pictures".'20 To achieve this effect, he employed light, floating materials, posed his subjects lying on their backs or wet, or bathed them in light and shade. Each of the images was heavily worked over and blemishes were eliminated through retouching. Although the typical shots involved women, men were given the same treatment. Lead was put on the negative, sometimes on both sides, or images were improved through dyes and brush work. Hurrell claimed that his job was easier if the actor already had a sensual quality or attitude, but where this was absent sex appeal could be conferred as a total invention.
As far as luxury was concerned, this became a hallmark of Hollywood with Cecil B. De Mille, who believed that opulent scenes and fabulous costumes would make people stop and gasp. Several of the moguls had begun their working lives in the garment industry and were alert to the importance of fine clothing in weaving an image that audiences would find seductive. With the aid of Glyn and a few other style advisors, Hollywood conferred on itself an upper-class image of wealth and elegance. The widespread use of eye-catching wardrobes including furs, feathers and jewellery roused some contemporary critics to anger. It was felt that, by covering 'fallen women' with the trappings of luxury in tales of irregular social mobility, a direct exchange between sex and money was being suggested. The accusation that Hollywood was condoning prostitution and offending moral standards was a key factor in the adoption of the Hays Code. However, the emphasis on luxury in the films of larger studios like MGM and Paramount did not diminish. Even by today's standards, the opulence of the upper-class settings of many movies of that era is breathtaking.
What was the reason for this emphasis? First, it should be remembered that Hollywood before the Second World War was not respectable. The moguls who had founded and run the studios were typically Jewish immigrants who were social outsiders. For all his power, Louis B. Mayer of MGM could not join the Los Angeles Country Club because Jews were not allowed. Given this situation, it is not surprising that Hollywood shared the emphasis on exterior appearance that marked immigrant behaviour in early twentieth-century America. Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen have spoken of an impulse to finery in immigrant communities, in which marginalized individuals struggled to fit in by emulating their 'betters'.21 Even among the poor, self-hood could
20. Kobal, John (ed.), George Hurrell: Hollywood Glamour Portraits, London: Schirmer Art Books, 1993, p. 11.
21. Ewen, Stuart and Ewen, Elizabeth, Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp. 154-8.
be achieved through the construction of an appearance that contained no outsider traits. Given the American ethic of success and social mobility, the upper-class look of those whom Veblen described as the 'leisure class' stood as the maximum aspiration.22
A second, connected, reason for the sumptuousness of Hollywood films concerns the rapid development of consumerism in America in the 1920s. In this decade, the Ewens argue, consumption became central to Americanism.23 The message was communicated particularly strongly to immigrants that by purchasing goods they could transform themselves and become fully-fledged citizens. As Hollywood was developing and becoming a national and international industry at precisely this time, it naturally evolved in tandem with the consumer society. Indeed, even more than advertisements, the movies offered a compelling, enticing image of capitalism. Hollywood's linkages to consumerism were numerous but perhaps the most striking involved the stars. Because the stars were conceived as marketing devices for films, they could also be used to market a range of other products, and these secondary advertisements or endorsements could drum up further business for given films. In an important essay, Charles Eckert examined how tie-ins became a key part of the way stars were presented to the public.24 Industry found that sex appeal generated excitement which could assist in the sale even of the most demure products.
Stars were the perfect consumers. They were new men and women who were upwardly mobile and rich. They, more than anyone else, were obliged to consume and to display their wealth in order to prove their status; their lifestyles acted as a focus for the aspirations of the masses. However, their explicit association with the material culture of consumerism was not felt by all to be positive. Producer David O. Selznick, for example, thought that tie-ins undermined the mystique that the studios had built up. He also disapproved the free endorsements that actresses gave to Max Factor and Lux soap. Morin, by contrast, sees no contradiction between the star as goddess (star-deese) and the star as product (star-merchandise). It may be suggested that the growing links between the film industry and consumerism did in fact herald a change in the nature of stars. As Morin himself notes, stars of the sound era were less exotic and exceptional and more projections of the typical. In this context they became themselves industrial products,
22. Veblen, Thorstein, Theory of the Leisure Class, New York: A.M. Kelley, 1899.
23. Ewen, Stuart and Ewen, Elizabeth, Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, chapter three.
24. Eckert, Charles, 'The Carol Lombard in Macy's Window' in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Stardom: Industry of Desire, London: Routledge, 1991.
manufactured in series like Ford cars. Sometimes, the objectification of the star, especially where the personality was weak and the elements of 'type' strong, resulted in a sense that the objects had taken over. For example, there are some photographs of Lana Turner taken in the 1940s which depict her coiffed, made up and adorned in every conceivable fashion accessory: hat, gloves, fur stole, brooch, earrings.25 The human element appears to have disappeared almost completely.
There is something standardized about all the icons of glamour produced during the Hollywood golden age. Like shop mannequins and the fashion models of more recent times, their blankness and apparent hollowness leaves a space which enables people to 'buy into' them and project themselves and their aspirations on to them. While upper-class and established middle-class people regarded Hollywood as vulgar, brash and impossibly nouveau, lower-class people viewed it as the epitome of refinement. Certainly, it was a great educator, with its stories of physical and social mobility, its encouragements to self-transformation and its mail order catalogue aesthetics. Yet, Elizabeth Wilson has pointed out that star images are frequently characterized by an air of the haunting and the unnatural.26 So still and lifeless are the composed images that their subjects appear almost embalmed and laid to rest.
The capacity of capitalism for reification, for turning everything, even people, into things was first noted by Gyorgy Lukacs in 1923.27 It can be argued that the de-humanized, dead look that marks glamour proves its intrinsic link to urban, industrial society. Divorced from nature, this society poses the transcendence of nature as an objective. For the first time, abundance was configured as a real possibility by industry. 'Consumerism posed nature as an inhospitable force, a hopeless anachronism,' write the Ewens. 'Industrial production and enterprising imaginations claimed for themselves the rights and powers of creation.'28 Because these forces were developed most fully in the United States, so too is glamour a phenomenon that in its purest form can be analysed through the prism of Americanism. The level of abstraction required could be developed most easily in the context of a country that was itself invented and unburdened by the weight of the past. Within the context of America, Hollywood was the maximum expression of the artificial, a community created in the middle of nowhere and dedicated to fiction. The lives of the stars, no less than the backlot, was a staged reality,
25. See Fahey, David, and Rich, Linda (eds), Masters of Starlight: Photographers in Hollywood, New York: Ballantine, 1987, p. 159.
26. Wilson, Elizabeth, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, London: Virago, 1985.
27. Lukacs, Gyorgy, History and Class Consciousness, London: Merlin, 1977.
28. Ewen, Stuart and Ewen, Elizabeth, Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, p. 47.
a theatrical construct designed to entice an audience. Consequently, it offered the most powerful and seductive form of glamour and the Hollywood film star became the most glamorous figure to have existed.