Alberto Vargas in Hollywood

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Vargas in his Hollywood studio. The photo was taken sometime during the 1930s.

If you love vintage pin-up art as much as I do you’ll probably recognize Alberto Vargas’s name. Between 1920 and 1975 the Peruvian artist created some of the most celebrated and recognizable pin-up art in America while working for the Ziegfeld Follies as well as Esquire magazine and Playboy. His paintings of ridiculously long-legged, thin-waisted and big-busted beauties known as “Vargas Girls” (or “Varga Girls”) also graced calendars and were favorites among enlisted men during WW2. GIs hung “Vargas Girls” on their lockers and in their barracks, copied them onto the sides of bomber planes and had them tattooed on their bodies.

What classic movie fans might not know is that Alberto Vargas also had a brief but lucrative career in Hollywood painting celebrity portraits, working for film industry magazines and creating movie posters. I enjoy playing detective so I decided to dig through various archives and books in search of Vargas’s film related work and what I found surprised me. The Latin artist made a much bigger impact on Hollywood than I’d previously been led to believe.

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A Walk Through Time: Hollywood 1948

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.

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A Walk Through Time: Hollywood 1944

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.

BOB HOPE AND HIS VICTORY GARDEN AS REPRESENTED BY PEPSODENT

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