Today is my first guest post and it comes from a dear friend, Elena Parker. Ms. Parker is respected in the Old Hollywood community for her tireless work for Gene Tierney as well as her expertise in all things Old Hollywood. I’ll be the first to bow to someone who is more knowledgeable than me and Ms. Parker definitely is. Here’s her take on the 50’s blondes:
Marilyn Monroe & Her Groupies
Over 50 years after her death at the age of 36, Marilyn Monroe remains an icon to the public. Upheld as a faultless goddess by some and disparaged by others for her sexuality, Marilyn endures as a phenomenon created by premature celebrity death. Today, she is regarded as the ideal of a vintage woman, a superstar who ruled Hollywood throughout her career. While she enjoyed success unknown to hundreds of others in the glamour capital, she was not the lone blonde in the 1950s film landscape, nor was she the first to personify the ‘blonde bombshell’ image.
So why is it that other blondes of the era’s film industry continue to be vilified as copycats or wannabes, riding on Marilyn’s coattails to success? Many of her blonde contemporaries began their careers at the same time or even before her. The blonde bombshell was not a new concept, dating back to the originals of the 1930s, Jean Harlow and Mae West, and delving into the ‘40s with Betty Grable, Gloria Grahame, and Lana Turner.
A key problem in the separation between Marilyn and her contemporaries is that she already holds a leg-up in her legend status. The perception of a blonde bombshell is different today than it was in these women’s era; Marilyn is the archetype now, the one who epitomizes sex and perhaps a touch of ditziness. Because of that, those who took a different take on the blonde image, such as Grace Kelly, are not subjected to comparison. This, however, is 2018’s view. It is impossible for many to hold another. Because of Marilyn’s early death, the rumors that followed her passing, and her resurgence of popularity in the 1970s and ‘80s, she is the one thought for “blonde.” But there were so many others.
“People say I have the propensities of Marilyn Monroe, but I wouldn’t want to be a second anything. If I could be as successful as Jean, I’d be happy. No one has touched her.”
Lubbok Morning Avalanche
May 15, 1956
(Thanks to April VeVea for quote sourcing.)
Jayne came to Hollywood in 1951, with an intention to do the dark, ethnic parts. She didn’t sign a contract then, but came back in 1954, signed with Warner Brothers, and started her career. She was a natural brunette, but Paramount Pictures informed her before her Warner signing that she would never make it unless she turned blonde. Jayne’s debut film and first starring role with 20th Century Fox, The Girl Can’t Help It, made more in profits than Gentlemen Prefer Blondes did. Nowadays, Jayne is remembered as Rita Marlowe, her role in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which was an indirect parody of Marilyn’s image and current popularity. The role was the same no matter who played it, and the remainder of her filmography shows a diverse performer who could play outside of the dumb blonde image if needed. Later, Jayne was being offered and paid $35k and $25k a week for nightclub appearances. Marilyn was offered $5k a week for a nightclub act. Jayne’s popularity waned a bit in the US after Promises! Promises!, but she remained popular overseas until her passing in 1967.
“And therefore I don’t want to sort of be a carbon copy of Marilyn. I want to be England’s Diana Dors, which I am at home.”
Interview with Mike Wallace
November 9, 1957
In perhaps one of the silliest comparisons that rear its head all too frequently, we have English bombshell Diana. She made her film debut in 1947 with a small speaking part in The Shop at Sly Corner and subsequently rose to the position of England’s presiding sex symbol. She signed a three-picture contract with RKO in 1956 and came to Hollywood. Interestingly enough, Marilyn was called the Diana Dors of America for a period. Diana’s fame preceded Marilyn’s, and while her Hollywood stay did not go well, largely due to a negative publicity incident that was not her fault. Again, as with Jayne, Diana did not begin or model her career based on Marilyn’s image or career. The dumb blonde or blonde bombshell image had been around long before. Diana’s later career petered off into supporting roles, but she started herself on her own.
Mamie Van Doren
“The comparison to Marilyn was okay at the beginning of my career. The publicity helped draw attention to me. But now I don’t want to be the answer to anybody. I want to stand on my own two feet.”
The Evening Sun
January 30, 1954
Mamie started out with bit parts, again before Marilyn’s rise to fame, in 1951. After a series of walk-ons, one-liners, and a brief stint on the stage, she was signed by Universal Pictures and groomed into a blonde bombshell image. Mamie embraced the dumb blonde image, exaggerated the sexual aspects of it, and made a name for herself doing it. While she would eventually wish to break out of that stereotype, she had no more wish than any other actress to be a Marilyn copycat. She, Jayne, and Marilyn were titled ‘The Three Ms’ for a time in publicity. While Mamie may never have achieved the level of success others did, she used the time old blonde bombshell image for herself, putting her own twist on it. She made a different style of films than her peers, going for young rock’n’roll films and exploitation comedies. Same as her blonde contemporaries, she no more stole the image from Marilyn than Marilyn stole it from Jean Harlow.
“Let’s not kid. Marilyn’s an institution like Coca-Cola and who’s gonna replace that?”
March 21, 1955
Sheree was explicitly hired by 20th Century Fox as an alternative to Marilyn. It was 1954, and Marilyn had already turned down The Girl in the Pink Tights. She refused to report for work on the film, and Fox suspended her. Simply put, the studio saw her as a burgeoning problem child, and they were more than willing to replace her if needed. Sheree was in the right place at the right time, and she was the one chosen to sign as that backup replacement. She had been in film since 1951 though, making her film debut that year, and clocking in a few more film, television, and stage appearances. And guess what? She was already blonde. Fox groomed Sheree in Marilyn’s image, purposely giving her similar clothing, hair, and makeup, but as the above quote shows, she was not there to replace Marilyn and ride her coattails. She had been offered a four-year contract, and any starlet would undoubtedly have taken that deal. When Marilyn returned from suspension, Fox lost interest in Sheree and more or less kicked her to the curb. She did continue to appear in films for the studio, due to her contract, but when it concluded in 1958, she would not appear in another film for nearly a decade. Fox had failed to give her the publicity needed to jumpstart her career, through no fault of her own.
These are just four of the era blondes typically compared to Marilyn. A common thread is that, whether a studio was intending to use them as a backup or not, none of these women were out to copy Marilyn. None of them wanted to ride her coattails to success. None of them certainly stole the blonde bombshell image from her, which was alive and well long before she or any of her fellow blondes got ahold of it. Many actresses today criticized as Marilyn copycats were told to go blonde to get work. Guess what? Marilyn was told the same thing when she was starting out. Blonde = parts was not a singularity brought about just by Marilyn. Both Jean Harlow and Mae West had exhibited tremendous success with it nearly two decades prior, and that success was hoped for throughout the following years as the bombshell image thrived. Granted, Jean and Mae took different tacks with it; Jean went with a sassy, slightly ditzy take typically, while Mae went with a hard as nails, been-around-the-block-more-than-once gal. Both did deviate from those constraints sometimes, just as the blondes of the ‘50s did. Just because a woman had blonde hair on her head and a good figure didn’t mean they all copied each other, an endless line of clones marching in ranks. None of them would have gotten work if that was the case. Each put their own spin on the stereotype.
This piece is not meant to tear down Marilyn in any way. She had great success in Hollywood and is well remembered today. But she was not always universally well-liked, nor did she constantly enjoy success as many are happy to believe. Others, such as Jayne, put out films that made more in profits than some of Marilyn’s did. True, not all blondes ever broke out of B movies or became a reigning star of Hollywood. But they have all earned their equal spot in film history, and it is unfair to disparage one over another due to circumstances that they may have had no control over, such as weak scripts or faulty publicity campaigns. Either way, these women would not be content in delegation as a Marilyn copycat. It was not their intention nor career, and each of them, Marilyn included, made their own achievements and mark on the entertainment world. It’s time we recognized that.
4 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Elena Parker on Blondes”
Harlow and West certainly weren’t similar. Mae was considerably older than Jean and first gained her fame writing and/or starring in controversial plays in New York. Harlow tried her hand at films in the late 1920s, and like later friend Carole Lombard (a blonde who for some reason rarely is put in the “bombshell” category despite her considerable beauty and obvious sex appeal), found some success in silent two-reelers, although Carole had far more of a presence with Mack Sennett than Jean did with Hal Roach. Fortunately for Harlow, she escaped her “Kell’s Angels” persona, gradually evolving into a smart, funny, occasionally tough actress.
Harlow and West certainly weren’t similar. Mae was considerably older and gained fame starring and/or writing controversial plays in New York in the 1920s. Jean was more along the lines of contemporary and friend Carole Lombard in that she honed her skills in silent two-reelers — although Lombard made far more of an impression for Mack Sennett than Harlow did for Hal Roach. (For some reason Carole rarely figures into debate about “bombshells,” despite her considerable beauty and obvious sex appeal.) Jean eventually overcame her “Hell’s Angels” image, evolving into a smart, likable and tough comic actress.
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I thought this was one of the finest articles I have ever read on this subject! And I am 68 so I have read a lot. I am a big fan of Kim Novak, Jayne Mansfield and her amazing daughter Mariska Hargitay.
Thank you Elena Parker. 🙂
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Well said Elena!
I’ve researched the life and career of three other fifties blondes; Barbara “ Brooklyn’s MM” Nichols, Joi “TV’s MM” Lansing and Cleo “The Confederate’s answer to MM” Moore. All three were tagged as Marilyn-wanna be’s. All started around the same time as Marilyn. Being blonde and curvy was an asset for their career, but limited them at the same time.