Posted by Susan Doll on September 17, 2012
I recently rediscovered a small stash of 1940s movie magazines, which I had bought for a song at an antique store a few years ago. As I leafed through the pages, I got caught up in gazing at the candid photos and reading through the articles. I am always searching for old Hollywood, and reading Photoplay and Movieland was like stepping back in time to another era. While nothing can compare to perusing the actual magazines, I thought I would share my discovery by reporting on the era’s hottest news, gossip, and advice from the stars. This week and next, prepare to time-travel to the Golden Age when stars mingled at the Trocadero and the Mocambo, and gossip columnists worked overtime for the next big juicy scoop.
The August 1943 issue of Photoplay and the June 1944 issue of Movieland offer more than a glimpse of old Hollywood, however. They are also a window into life on the home front during WWII. The magazines whole-heartily promoted the war effort directly and indirectly, just like the stars who sold war bonds and the studios that boosted morale through their films. Glancing at the ads in Photoplay, I see that using Listerine will brighten my smile for the soldiers, while Ball Canning Jars is urging me to can my own vegetables because “home-canned foods are not rationed.” A Beech-Nut Gum ad shows a soldier passing out chewing gum to Chinese kids, while it implores readers to: “Use your free time this summer to serve your country. Volunteer on farms to save America’s crops.” An ad for Blue Jay Foot Powder did not mention the war at all, but it did reflect an aspect of the war forgotten today. It seems Blue Jay Powder was perfect for keeping feet from sticking to shoes when girls went without stockings. Nylon was in short supply during the war so nylon stockings were hard to come by.
An ad for Pepsodent shows Bob Hope standing in his Victory Garden. Victory Gardens were vegetable and herb gardens planted by everyday folks in their backyards or in public parks in order to reduce the pressure on the food supply. The gardens also helped Americans feel united in making sacrifices for the war effort. Glamorous stars did their part to promote the idea of growing food at home. According to Photoplay, Janet Gaynor had the most elaborate garden, because she owned a farm. Everything on her table came from her farm, including the milk, which came from her goats. Gaynor’s garden may have been extensive, but Deanna Durbin’s beets were so big she had “to dig them up with a shovel.” On the other end of the spectrum, Ann Sothern knew little about living on a farm or gardening. She planted her corn in a single row, which meant it did not cross-pollinate. As a result, there were no ears on her corn.
Articles related to the war effort pull at the heart strings. “A War Work Every Woman Can Do” was attributed to Merle Oberon, though it was likely ghost-written by one of the contributing writers for Movieland. The article is a touching story about Oberon’s visit to a hospital where she spoke to a soldier who had burns over most of his body. Perhaps the star did visit the hospital and speak to the soldier, but it was standard for contributing writers and editors to ghost-write stories and to invent conversations that likely never occurred. The article encouraged women to visit the wounded as a show of support.
Gossip columnist Cal York listed the latest stars to join the service, which included everyone from Bruce Cabot to Tyrone Power to Henry Fonda. Some enlisted under their real names: Don Castle joined the army under his real name Marion Goodman; Billy de Wolfe entered the navy as a musician second class using his real name William A. Jones; and Robert Preston signed up for the army as Robert Preston Messervey. Considering the controversy it caused, I was surprised to read about Lew Ayres in York’s column. Ayres’s decision to be a conscientious objector shook up a patriotic Hollywood that had dedicated itself to the war effort in conjunction with the U.S. military. My guess is that press agents were eager to spin Ayres’s story so that his career did not suffer. According to York, Ayres entered a conscientious objectors’ camp in Oregon and was then released to join the medical corps as a private before becoming a sergeant in a Texas camp. York also gave special mention to Craig Reynolds, a second lead for Warner Bros. during the 1930s, who was still recuperating from being wounded at Guadalcanal. Later, he would receive the Purple Heart, but, after the war, he could not get his career back on track. He died in 1949 following a motorcycle accident.
Not all of the articles and columns in the magazines were related to the war. In true gossip-columnist fashion, York tattled about Mickey Rooney’s latest romantic conquest, which he was trying to keep under wraps. Rooney fabricated a ruse in which he arranged to bump into a friend and the friend’s girl at a Hollywood hot spot. The trio chatted for a brief time, and then Rooney left by the back door. A few minutes later, the friend and the girl strolled out the same exit. Outside in the alley, the girl—a 19-year-old model and MGM contract player named Frances Ward—climbed into Rooney’s car, and the two sped away.
Photoplay seemed to have it in for actor George Raft because he was a rabid skirt-chaser. According to Cal York’s column, Raft’s wife, Grace Mulrooney, was refusing to divorce him, though Raft was involved with various actresses. York accused him of “biding his time” between Virginia Maples and Joan Thorsen. And, this was after a red-hot, high-profile affair with Betty Grable. Though the two had just broken up, Raft gave her a sable coat to stay in her good graces. In addition, an article titled “What About Betty Grable and Harry James?” touted Betty’s new romance with the big-band leader. According the article, Raft had led on Betty with unspoken hints that he was divorcing his wife. When Grable realized that he would never divorce his wife to marry her, she broke it off and began dating Harry James.
More big-star heartbreak was revealed in “Breakup: The Truth About Rita Hayworth and Victor Mature.” While Mature was serving in the Coast Guard in another part of the country, Hayworth was “being seen here, there and everywhere” in Hollywood on the arm of Orson Welles. The story recreated the $75 long-distance phone conversation that Mature supposedly had with Hayworth when they broke up over the phone. Hayworth was depicted as selfish and highly untrustworthy, while Mature came off like a gentlemen, supposedly telling his former girlfriend that he was glad she had chosen someone creative like Welles if she had to replace him. I had no idea that Mature and Hayworth had ever been romantically involved, though I can’t see any relationship ending in such a civilized manner.
My favorite articles were those that promoted the war effort while still offering gossipy accounts of celebrity love affairs, such as Photoplay’s “How Loyal Are Hollywood’s Women?” This article exploited the wartime separations between married or engaged stars. It seems many female stars were succumbing to temptations while their famous partners were in the military. Unnamed actresses who were stepping out on their loved ones were condemned, while female stars who had changed their behavior because of the war were saluted. “There’s Olivia de Havilland, for instance. In the old days, she was rumored as being in love with one man after another and certainly, Olivia, with frankness that was a bit bewildering, gave every indication she intended to play the field. Then came the war—and the standards it imposed changed Olivia more, perhaps, than any woman in town. Today her heart belongs to one man, Captain John Huston, and to him she is loyal and steadfast.” The article goes on to praise MGM musical star Kathryn Grayson, who was about to divorce husband John Shelton. However, she changed her mind after he joined the military. Too bad Photoplaycouldn’t see into the future, because Grayson and Shelton divorced in 1946.
If Olivia and Kathryn are lauded for their devotion, then Ann Sheridan is lambasted for her floozy ways. Apparently, the Oomph Girl left her husband of one year, George Brent, after he had joined the Civilian Air Corps, in order to have a fling with Errol Flynn during the production of Edge of Darkness. The ever- noble Brent then joined the Coast Guard, while Sheridan drifted into another romance in Mexico with an unnamed man.
Have a personal problem but no one to talk to about it? Then write to Bette Davis in care of Photoplay or Bonita Granville at Movieland. In a column titled “What Should I Do,” Davis supposedly answered letters from women who needed advice on everything from love affairs to health issues. One young girl was concerned that her arms and back were too hairy and that she would never find a boyfriend. Bette suggested a visit to her family doctor was in order to make sure everything was okay and then reassured her that the right boy would not notice a bit of extra hair. In “Your Problem and Mine” in Movieland, Bonita Granville offered sage advice to readers, though I am betting that this column—like Davis’s—was handled by a contributing editor. Granville scolded a 16-year-old who confessed to necking with a lot of boys by telling her, “Save your kisses for your nice future husband. . . .”
Finally, Photoplay added a special advice column for young women confused by the wartime trend for rapid courtship. The editors solicited the advice of major female stars regarding this trend. Bonita Granville, who seemed to have the answers to many issues, noted, “It seems to me the emotional stress brought out by teen-age girls by the war has given them a false notion as to what their duty is to men in service.” Claudette Colbert confessed, “I’m strictly of the old school. I think the bad taste some girls flaunt by their intimate confidences is even worse than indiscriminate love-making.” Dorothy Lamour really laid it on the line, “I think necking is dangerous.. . . What’s more , necking can become a habit so that it doesn’t matter who the man is.” Only Ellen Drea admits to having a little fun, “Love-making is fun—with the right person—but I feel it should never reach the place where it can have far-reaching and unhappy complications.”
Next Week: Part 2, Movie magazines after the war.
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