Posted by Susan Doll on September 24, 2012
Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the movie fan magazine, a milestone that came and went with little fanfare. The lack of attention is not surprising as the movie magazine really belongs to another time and another place—the Golden Age of Hollywood. Publications like Photoplay, Movieland, and Motion Picture Story existed to promote the studios’ contract stars, offering stories, photos, and gossip to support and expand the stars’ images.
Unlike the gossip rags of later years and the scandal-based websites of today, the original fan magazines sought to further the stars’ careers—not find joy in tarnishing or ending them. Gossip columnists of the past may have admonished celebrities for their indiscretions and stepped on some toes for that all-important exclusive scoop, but the articles in the magazines offered tales of hard-working folk who exhibited humility and strong moral fiber even while they were tempted by the bright lights of Hollywood and the lures of extramarital affairs. Like the studios’ publicity departments, the movie magazines propagated a positive image of stars, which elevated them in the eyes of fans and guaranteed their loyalty. Today’s combination of stalking paparazzi, star bashing, and relentless prying has tainted the reputations of capable actors and charismatic movie stars, creating generations of movie-goers who scoff at the star system, ignorant of its relationship to Hollywood movie-making.
Not surprisingly, the evolution of the movie magazine paralleled the development of the Hollywood star system. In 1911, J. Stuart Blackton and Eugene V. Brewster founded the first movie fan magazine, The Motion Picture Story Magazine, to relate the plotlines of the movies playing in the nickelodeons and theaters. But, as the star system rapidly evolved during the 1910s, and audiences clamored to know about the glamorous faces on the silver screen, the focus of Motion Picture Story Magazine and other fanzines shifted. A mix of gossip columns, feature articles, candid photos of the stars, and reviews of new releases remained the mainstay of movie magazines from the mid-1910s until the early 1950s.
The studios did not publish, manage, or edit the fanzines, but the two participated in a mutually beneficial relationship. The studios controlled their stars’ careers, constructing images for them through careful film selection and specific publicity; the fanzines propagated those images with their columns and articles. Studios also provided the magazines with photos, access to the stars, and background material. This relationship worked well until the contract system faded in the 1950s, and studios could no longer afford long-term contracts with actors. It’s no coincidence that gossip rags and the paparazzi proliferated during the 1950s. By that time, the studios had far fewer stars under contract, no longer groomed their careers, and stopped protecting them from their indiscretions and foibles. Because audiences still wanted to know about the personal lives of their idols, scandal-based magazines stepped in to fill the void while movie magazines adopted a more sensationalized tone.
Though never intended to be literature for the ages, movie magazines still fascinate. Most of the articles were written or ghost-written by women for women. Female viewers may have swooned at the handsome heroes and irresistible cads on the big screen, but they wanted to read about women stars. They sought advice from actresses on health, beauty, and romance; they related to stories about the trials and tribulations of the female stars’ family lives and romances. If male stars were featured, the articles revolved around their broken hearts, their search for the idea wife, or related female-oriented topics. For proof of the magazines’ female-centric agenda, you need only look through the ads of movie magazines. Aside from the many women’s products that are advertised, most of the ads present a woman’s perspective, and many show female movie stars touting products from makeup to soap to cigarettes.
Fanzine articles from the Golden Age were often done in first-person voice, which meant that women writers occasionally assumed the guises of prominent stars, even male stars. The most famous female writer was Adela Rogers St. John, a bona fide journalist who also reported on the biggest stories of the day for legitimate newspapers. Rogers may have been the most respected, but Gladys Hall was the most prolific. Hall was dubbed “the Grand Old Dame of the Fannies” because she averaged about six movie-magazine articles per month. By the end of their glory days in the early 1950s, movie magazines paid about $100 for a feature article, with Movie Stars Parade offering $125. In general, the articles were briskly written with a consistent tone and style. In the early days, writers like H.L. Mencken and theater critic Burns Mantle provided the film reviews.
Movie magazines tend to reveal the social issues, news stories, and cultural trends of the era—an irresistible lure for anyone interested in history. Last week, I detailed the contents of a couple of movie magazines published during World War II, and the material revealed a lot about life on the home front. For this week, I perused an issue of Movie Stars Parade from May 1948, which offered a window into the postwar era. A variety of magazines during the postwar period urged women to quit their jobs to return home and become good wives and mothers. They also featured ads that showed the latest appliances to make housework much easier. In this issue of Movie Stars Parade, Betty Grable’s “good friend” writes about Betty’s happiness in her new life as wife to Harry James and mother to a young daughter. In 1948, Grable was depicted as homebody; in 1944, she was the glamorous star out on the town with George Raft or Harry James.
When I first picked up the issue, I went straight to the gossip columns, where I learned that Jane Wyman had her lawyer serve Ronald Reagan with divorce papers right on the lot at Warner Bros. studios. Seems like she was angry about something. Perhaps it was because he was giving horses to starlet Lois Maxwell. Doris Day was dating newcomer Jim Davis, who would later play patriarch Jock Ewing on Dallas during the 1970s, while Deanna Durbin was dating Vincent Price. I am still reeling over news of the latter. Another Hollywood couple that surprised me was classy Vera-Ellen and outdoorsy Rory Calhoun. Audrey Totter, who costarred in one of Hollywood’s most interesting cinematic experiments, Lady in the Lake, was carrying a torch over Lew Ayres, who was stepping out with another actress from that movie, Jayne Meadows. The big news was that 26-year-old Lana Turner had just married Henry J. Topping, who was her third husband (though it was her fourth marriage), leaving Turhan Bey with a broken heart. Bey was rebounding with an actress who looked so much like Turner that the columnist dubbed her Lana’s double. The actress was Lila Leeds, who in a few short weeks would be arrested with Robert Mitchumfor possession of marijuana.
Rita Hayworth was still riding high from her starring role as Gilda, a film that cemented her image as a sexy party girl who loved the night life. A photo spread of Hayworth featured her out on the town with various servicemen, while the captions listed her slew of nicknames since the release of Gilda. Soldiers had named her Miss Dynamite, Miss Superstructure, and the Girl We Would Most Like To Be in the Same Boat With. She was also named Most Languorous in a Negligee and Glamour Glove Girl of 1946 (because of the “Put the Blame on Mame Number” in Gilda). In Italy she was called Il Bel Petto, which translated as The Beautiful Chest. Years later, Hayworth lamented the impact Gilda had had on her career and her personal life, noting, “Every man I’ve ever known has fallen in love with Gilda and awakened with me.” Still, I wonder if she got a kick out of the graduating class of the Santa Claus School of Albion, New York, who voted her The Person Best Able To Fill a Stocking.
One of my favorite movies, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, was given a feature story, which revealed the ordeal of making Ann Blyth’s mermaid costume. First, she was taped into a bra and panties. Then, her body was coated with oil before Ern Westmore (a member of the legendary Westmore makeup dynasty) made a clay model of her figure. A mixture of plaster, water, salt, and excelsior was slapped over her torso. When the back mold was completed, she turned over, and the process was repeated for the front. Exact measurements for the mermaid costume were taken from the mold, because ordinary tape measurements were not accurate enough for the body-hugging fit of the planned mermaid costume. The final $20,000 costume was made of latex lined with satin, with 20 pounds of buckshot in the tail to give it heft. The costume was so tight that two grips were required to yank it up over her torso. A tough job but somebody had to do it. It was then laced up the back and glued in place. Whenever in costume, Blyth had to be carried around the set. At one point, someone suggested that an outboard motor be added to the costume to propel her in the water, so it would look like she was swimming in it, but, much to Blyth’s relief, that idea was abandoned.
In other articles, Elizabeth Taylor looked incredibly mature as a stunningly beautiful 16-year-old whose beau at the time was Marshall Thompson. Thompson later played Dr. Marsh Tracy on one of my favorite childhood television shows, Daktari. Who would have thought? Roy Rogers and Dale Evans had just gotten married and were stepping out on the town. A caption noted that Rogers was beginning to wear western-style clothing all of the time, even when he was off camera. “For Girls Only” offered beauty advice from the stars: Janet Leigh advocated dresses with petticoats, while Marguerite Chapman demonstrated her pre-makeup regimen so that her foundation lasted all day.
My favorite article was a brief recollection by “Errol Flynn” waxing nostalgic about his first screen kiss, which was with Olivia de Havilland on Captain Blood. Though Flynn no more wrote this feature than I did, the writer who did played on the actor’s reputation as a ladies’ man as she composed the reminiscence. “It will not come as a shock to you, I trust, that I felt adequate to manage the love scenes. I am not without a certain—hmm—fame in that respect, ” the article notes with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “My First Screen Kiss” goes on to humorously recount the difficulties Flynn experienced in shooting that first love scene, from missing his marks to getting his buttons caught on de Havilland’s lace collar. By recalling the trials and tribulations of filming the scene, the writer took the titillation out of the idea of Flynn’s “first kiss,” subverting Flynn’s reputation as Hollywood’s most irresistible lover while also referring to it. I can’t help but think that that was a woman’s touch.
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