The Building of a Bombshell

They don’t make ’em like they used to.  In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Dream Factory took in hopeful actresses and turned them into big screen bombshells.  In the March 2002 issue of Movieline, the magazine deconstructed the building of five cinematic sirens.

Rita Hayworth

Smiling with languid seductiveness and tossing back her lustrous mane in such ’40s movies as Cover Girl and Gilda, Rita Hayworth was impossibly gorgeous, so much so that Howard Hawks said of Hayworth, whom he directed in Only Angels Have Wings, “At her best [Rita] was slightly unreal. She belonged in some kind of fairy-tale story–she had that kind of beauty.” Much like that other fairy-tale goddess, Cinderella, she needed intercession from a fairy godmother before she was ready for the ball. Naturally dark-haired and heavy-browed, Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino) played up her Latin appeal while performing in her fathers Spanish dance troupe as a teen and when starring in Fox’s Dante’s Inferno in 1934. But back then, the dark ethnic look wasn’t mainstream enough to catapult a beauty into movie stardom. When Hayworth moved to Columbia Pictures, a cameraman who was shooting a test of her had a suggestion: lighten her hair. Studio hairstylist Helen Hunt then streaked the front of Hayworth’s locks, which became a national trend after the actress debuted the ‘do in Girls Can Play. When the executives were still not convinced that she had reached her potential as a stunner, Hunt suggested electrolysis for the hairline. She marked up stills of Hayworth as a guide to hair technicians who, for $15 a session, would individually remove each hair, then zap the follicle with electricity. The process was probably even more painful than it sounds, yet Hayworth submitted to it for two years. After her hair was perfected, the focus shifted to the rest of Hayworth. Weight loss helped show off her cheekbones and whenever she was in front of a camera, she was covered with bronze body makeup, which gave her a healthy glow. Her face makeup was also drastically changed–instead of dramatic red lips and heavy black eyeliner she wore honey beiges. This made her come off as sun-kissed rather than south-of-the-border. By the late ’30s, Hayworth was winning better roles in There’s Always a Woman and The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt. Her, popularity grew so huge, Hawks cast her alongside Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings. She worked steadily thereafter, and somehow the more successful she became, the better she looked.

Jean Harlow

Before Jean Harlow, Hollywood tended to equate light locks with virginal purity. Harlow, whom nobody could mistake for a virgin, was a different breed–a diamond-hard, blowtorch blonde minted for the grinding realities of the Great Depression. After moving to L.A. from Chicago at age 17, Harlean Carpenter changed her name to Jean Harlow, dyed her honey locks light blonde and found work as an extra in films. Two years later, when comments arose that she had a “puffy, somewhat sulky little face” in an early screen test, she dieted and exercised religiously. Soon after, in 1929, she won her first break when millionaire-turned-moviemaker Howard Hughes cast her in his aerial epic Hell’s Angels – the movie got hyped for its airborne action sequences, but what caused a stir was Harlow, a fast-talking knockout with billowy tresses. Publicists quickly dubbed her The Platinum Blonde, and while there were numerous other blondes working the screen, ’20s beauties Marion Davies and Blanche Sweet come to mind–none had gone so far as to dye her hair almost completely white. Every Sunday Harlow dutifully trekked to Jim’s beauty parlor in L.A., where she’d have her hair freshly peroxided (back then, showing roots was far from acceptable). When MGM scooped up Harlow from Hughes, the studio tried to smooth out her rougher edges. Her white hair was toned down by the studio’s master coiffeur, Sydney Guilaroff, her makeup became subtler, her clothes slinkier and her slightly bulbous nose and receding chin got the strategic lighting they required. What’s more, the studio had her eyebrows completely shaved off and new ones penciled on to bring out her eyes. By the time she made 1933s Dinner at Eight, Harlow was a new woman–just two years prior, she looked like a sailor’s easy lay; now she looked like a Park Avenue lay. The star died tragically at 26 from kidney disease, but while she was at her peak, made up like an alabaster goddess, she was incomparable.

Jayne Mansfield

Jayne Mansfield spent the better part of her life trying to reinvent herself. Even as a young wife living in Augusta, Georgia, she dyed her mousy brown hair black and scraped together money for singing lessons. When she hit Hollywood at 21, publicist Jim Byron took her under his wing and borrowed liberally from other stars to re-create Mansfield’s image. Perhaps because Kim Novak had eked so much press out of the lavender tint of her hair and wardrobe, Mansfield chose pink as her signature color. And in the Hollywood tradition of adopting signature titles such as The “It Girl” (Clara Bow), Mansfield declared herself The Bombshell Star. Without a major studio to foot the bills for her glamming-up, she had to become more inventive, begging for loaners at top gown emporium Emeson’s in Studio City. All her hard work paid off when Warner Bros, put her under contract and cast her in the 1955 crime melodrama Illegal, but her follow-up offers weren’t as impressive. Dissatisfied, Mansfield went to Broadway and made a splash as a sexy comedienne in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, a mini-triumph that led to a contract with 20th Century Fox and two movies–The Girl Cant Help It and the movie version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? While at Fox, Ben Nye softened her strident makeup, Helen Turpin brassed up her locks and Charles Le Maire accented her Mae West-style proportions with fitted frocks. Mansfield achieved a come-hither look, yet she almost seemed computer-generated. As evidence of her ascendancy, Fox paired her with Cary Grant in Kiss Them for Me, but it tanked, and her career headed south. It didn’t help matters that she constantly trolled for press. When Fox threw a party in 1957 to welcome Sophia Loren to Hollywood, Mansfield tried to upstage the Italian import by crashing the soiree in a super low-cut gown. Soon after, the fading star could only find work in low-rent European movies. When she died at 34, in a horrific car accident, she was nearly broke.

Lana Turner

She was a brown-haired, baby-faced, slightly pudgy, indolent-eyed 15-year-old named Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner when she was discovered in the mid-’30s at the Top Hat Cafe in Hollywood (not Schwab’s drugstore, as is popularly believed). By the time director Mervyn LeRoy was through overseeing her makeover for his 1937 drama They Won’t Forget, the teenager was renamed Lana Turner, her eyebrows were plucked to a thin arch, her clothes were fitted to perfection and she was told to wear a lined silk bra with no uplift to allow her breasts to move freely. She caused such a sensation as a fetching student who bops about in a tight sweater in the mini-classic that the press dubbed her The Sweater Girl. When MGM snapped her up, the little Lolita was built up as a nice girl in such films as Love Finds Andy Hardy. When Turner graduated from her teens, though, her sex appeal was cranked up a notch–the studio bleached her hair blonde and she started wearing heavier makeup–to play one of Clark Gable’s chorus girls in Idiots Delight, which she ended up not doing. By the time she was finally paired with Gable in Honky Tonk, Turner was a white-hot goddess who always seemed as if she had just experienced a raucous toss in the sheets. Then she went through yet another change–her image was cheapened a bit to come off like a sizzling blue-plate special at a roadside diner. This was accomplished by making her hair look like liquid platinum (some of hair expert Sydney Guilaroff’s finest work) and by applying glossier makeup that caused her to look less inhibited (craftily done by the studio’s elite cadre of maquillage mavens, including old pro Jack Dawn). The greatest change in her appearance, however, was brought on by Turner herself. Her love for the bottle and lust for life (not to mention strapping young men, such as Tyrone Power) added years to her face, which turned the twentysomething doll into a tougher-looking dame. The va-vooming of Turner reached its apex in the 1946 film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of her signature hot-to- trot roles, in which her wardrobe–hot pants, bathing suits, tight dresses–was almost completely white. Special lighting was used to make her appear like an impossibly sexy firefly. Remember how white-hot Sharon Stone looked in Basic Instinct? The influence is pure Turner, crossed with Kim Novak in Vertigo and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief.

Marilyn Monroe

Around 1945, when she was a struggling young thing named Norma Jeane Dougherty, the girl who would one day become Marilyn Monroe was described as “a photographer’s dream” with “chestnut-colored hair.” Today, it is almost impossible to imagine her as anything but a photographer’s dream. But wasn’t she always a sexy blonde? The facts reveal otherwise. Even before she went on to become the preeminent sex symbol of the ’50s, Monroe used any trick to burnish her allure. As a 21-year-old, she would pack tissue in her bra to gain attention, which it did–soon after, Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn offered her a $125-a-week contract, but only if she drastically altered her appearance. Within days, Monroe’s hairline was reshaped by electrolysis and her hair was bleached. According to some, Monroe’s baby-fine roots caused her agony because they didn’t take platinum dye well. Notice the lock of hair that falls so casually over her forehead in certain movies; it often has to do with disguising the black roots. Orthodontia corrected Monroe’s over-bite, and she was fitted for a retainer and had her teeth whitened. Perhaps conscious that she revealed too much gumline when she talked, Monroe adopted a style of speaking that pushed her top lip down. Surgeons reset her jaw and bobbed the tip of her nose. And rumors still persist that she had her breasts enlarged. When she moved to Fox, Allan Snyder devised a makeup style for Monroe that reportedly took three hours to apply, and always included red, Vaselined lips. In the late ’50s, Monroe was at her peak and movie studios relentlessly promoted her siren image to sell tickets for The Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop and Some Like It Hot, but she was beginning to spiral out of control. Rumors spread that she was on drugs, and it didn’t help that she was gaining weight and being labeled “difficult.” When she slimmed down for 1962’s Something’s Got to Give, Monroe looked like a mature but still sexy seductress. Sadly, she died of a drug overdose shortly after filming began.


Posted on March 21, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Very interesting post! It is incredible and also sad how much control the studios had over reshaping the looks of these amazing women.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is pretty amazing (and sad) to think about. People get nostalgic over the bygone glamour of Old Hollywood, but there was definitely a dark side to it. There were plenty of hopefuls who were subjected to horrible abuse and didn’t even get the fame they were seeking.

      I do wonder how many of these actresses, if they had the chance to do it over again, would do things differently.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I leave the making of bombshells to the military, and, although I like this list when it comes to the names, the lengths these performers had to go to please studio heads sounds rather unpleasant.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: