Thursday, August 2, 2007

Old Hollywood Styles

efore there was plastic surgery and photoshop, the stars kept up an illusion of glamorous perfection without resorting to knives, needles, or software. How did they do it? The answer is the Big Five: RKO, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, MGM, and Paramount Pictures.

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the studio system owned the stars, who were literally created and exploited to suit a studio's needs. Actors and actresses were contract players bound up in 5-7 year contracts to a single studio, and could be loaned out to other film companies at any time. It wasn't even until 1945 that stars gained a legal right to freelance. (Quick: who was the last contract player signed? Jamie Lee Curtis in 1977!)

A star or starlet was literally a construct; a studio controlled the minutiae of stars' images in and out of pictures with their mammoth in-house publicity departments. There was nothing candid about it. What you saw was what you were meant to see.

For instance, in 1945 when a blotto Clark Gable wrapped his Duesenberg around a large eucalyptus, MGM notified the police and the press, floating the myth that Gable's car was forced over the curb by a wrong-way driver. Unlike Lindsay Lohan, the drunken escapade was not witnessed by paparazzi-- they didn't exist! (The term was coined by Federico Fellini in his 1960 film La dolce vita.) And no publicized rehab stint: Gable's alcoholism was 'treated' with a 3-day drying-out in the hospital while he "recovered" from his cuts.

In 1939, Judy Garland headlined in The Wizard of Oz, an international star at just 16 years of age. Her contract stipulated that her physical appearance not change, so MGM's studio physician prescribed "diet pills" and barbiturates to sleep. If you look closely, you'll see amphetamine shakes in one Oz film scene.

Other forms of "moral turpitude" were concealed from the public. William Mann's recent biography of Katharine Hepburn points out what Hollywood knew but didn't tell: the gate swung both ways...but mostly away from her leading men. The gossip columnists and fan magazines led a symbiotic life with the studios and revealing some truths just wasn't mutually beneficial.

Most of the iconic black and white stills that we remember from old Hollywood made the most of dramatic directional lighting and makeup techniques that would be laughable in color. Look closely at the most striking photos of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, or Audrey Hepburn. Their lips and brows are often heavily over-painted. A fan once told Hepburn: "You have the most beautiful eyes in the world!" Hepburn retorted: "The most beautiful eye makeup, maybe."

In fact, Polish-born Max Factor was probably the one individual most responsible for the silver screen image. He was the man who invented movie makeup, even coining the term itself. When Joan Crawford wanted bigger lips she went to Max, not the needle. He ran a straight line of color across Crawford's natural lip contours and it became her trademark: 'the smear.'

In the mid-30s, Clairol Hair Color was born. The studios soon realized how great peroxide blondes looked in their black and white films and conceived Mae West and, quick to follow, Jean Harlow. Not enough hair? Transplants wouldn't come about for decades and follicular unit hair transplants became popularized only in the 1990s. Instead, wigs and hair pieces were the order of the day.Everything from Billy Burke's Good Witch Glinda curls to
Lucille Ball's bright red wig came from Max Factor. According to Shirley MacLaine, Dietrich only wore wigs because she had thin hair.

Max Factor began his career at the turn of the century as an apprentice to a wig maker. He was also the supplier of choice to actors like Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Henry Fonda, Gene Kelly, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and George Burns. Factor's toupées were carefully made from imported Italian, German and Balkan peasant hair and almost invisible, each strand sewed in place on a piece of fine flesh-colored lace. On occasion you can buy a famous one, like Frank's MGM model at left.

Max Factor also created false eyelashes in 1919. They did for the eye, what photoshop now does: made them larger. You can't name a silver screen icon who didn't wear them (most still do). Carol Channing made a career on them and at one point had to paint lashes on her lids after developing an allergy to the adhesive.

And breasts? Hollywood has always been famous for sex and breast is best. While it's now one of the most common cosmetic surgery procedures performed in the US, it wasn't that way before the 1960s.There was no silicone in Jane Russell's sweater. When Howard Hughes designed a steel underwire projection bra for her to wear in The Outlaw (she refused), the film's release marked the beginning of the end of film censorship.

Marlene Dietrich once referred to Elizabeth Taylor as "that British tart with the big tits." In those days on-screen nudity wasn't part of the equation; for those who were less endowed it was addressed with padding and costume design. Bette Davis once remarked about Joan Crawford's falsies: "I keep running into them, like the Hollywood Hills." When director Alfred Hitchcock insisted that Grace Kelly reshoot the Rear Window scene with falsies inside her negligee, acclaimed designer Edith Head instead surreptitiously hiked up the straps, told the distraught (disgusted?) actress to stand up straighter, and sent her back out. Hitchcock was fooled.

And the men? It was widely rumored that Frank Sinatra—all 120 pounds of him—stuffed his back pockets with handkerchiefs for the movie On the Town. Costarring opposite Gene Kelly's dancer's derrière is a lot of competition.

Feeling chubby? There was no lipodissolve or liposuction to cure that tight-fit. Instead, actors and actresses dieted, exercised, purged and generally put up with more curves than anyone tolerates in Hollywood today.

Joan Crawford was a perpetual dieter, lunching on black coffee and soda crackers (spread with mustard). She was also a jogger before the word was even invented. On the way to work in the morning she would run for a mile or so with her limousine trailing her. Orson Welles described Audrey Hepburn as "the patron saint of the anorexics." Enemas offered quick temporary weight loss through dehydration and many actresses like Marilyn Monroe chronically indulged in them (she died in 1962 when she was given an enema containing Nembutal). Even at her "happy birthday Mr. President" best, Marilyn was full-figured by today's standards. Elizabeth Hurley’s opinion: "I'd kill myself if I was as fat as Marilyn Monroe."

And it wasn't just women. Male actors dealt with their waistlines by wearing corsets long before Tim Curry thought about it. Rock Hudson said, "I did a movie with Duke Wayne and was very surprised to find out he had small feet, wore lifts, and a corset. Hollywood is seldom what it seems." (Speaking of not being who he seems...)

And the alternative to today's ubiquitous Hollywood facelift? Old age. Yes, boys and girls, the stars just got old. But as Bette Davis said: "I will not retire while I've still got my legs and my make-up box."

Hear Anne live on the Kevyn Burger show 10:00 to 11:00am Thursdays featuring Knifestyles of the Rich & Famous.


Courtney said...

Absolutely fascinating!

ANNE said...

Enjoy! If you were listening to the live FM107.1 broadcast, you heard the rest of Shirley MacLaine's tale from a 1956 filmset: "Marlene Dietrich became my friend and mentor. She taught me many things about lighting myself on camera - key light low and camera high for us girls, with just the opposite for men. Marlene only wore wigs because she had thin hair. She owned a thin gold chain that was an instant face lift. Sidney Gillaroff, the great artist of hair, used to make real tight pin curls. Marlene's gold chain had a hook on it and Sidney would loop in a hairpin, taking one end of the chain and pull it real tight to the other side. The results were the tightening of the facial muscles and skin. That's why everyone thought she was one of the first to use cosmetic surgery - but, it was the gold chain. An au natural face lift. Of course, those of us who tried the gold chain, all had terrible headaches by lunch."

Anonymous said...

What an interesting and well-written article.

martha said...

i'm a garland fan board "friend" of the scarlet olive hosts, so have just listened to your fascinating conversation with them about the history of plastic surgery in general, and in hollywood specifically. have learned a lot! so thanks.

a note on your inclusion of the mann biography "revelations" about hepburn in the column above -- well, let's just say that he crafted an argument and presented a perspective on hepburn's romantic and personal life that other biographers have challenged. not sure his assertions were common knowledge = truth as your summer above suggests. but hey, i have strong opinions too.

fascinating reading, all of this!

ANNE said...

"The gate swings both ways" was actually related to me by a contemporary of Katharine Hepburn, the then-wife of a studio executive. Within those intimate circles, Hepburn's sexual orientation was privately acknowledged to be pretty much as Mann describes.

I'm so glad you enjoy the blog!