The Nudest Jayne Mansfield: The Story of Jayne, Mamie, and Promises, Promises.

1963 was to be a big year for Hollywood. Two of Hollywood’s leading blondes, Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren, were set to do a nudie film together, Promise Her Anything (later retitled Promises, Promises), directed by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ Tommy Noonan.

The ladies signed for the film in January to play the roles of Sandy Brooks (Mansfield) and Claire Banner (Van Doren). The official announcement took place on January 12th:

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The honeymoon was short lived. Just a week later, on January 19th, papers announced Van Doren had quit:

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The most likely situation at play was Van Doren’s hopes of earning the same amount as Mansfield (who would eventually make a deal with Noonan for a percentage of the profits in addition to her $50,000 salary), but Van Doren was underestimating her powers of persuasion without the backing of a studio. If Van Doren wasn’t willing to take the scraps thrown her way, someone else was; therefore, on February 4th, Noonan announced Van Doren’s replacement, Marie “The Body” McDonald:

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On February 13th, the mutual admiration of Mansfield and Van Doren officially ended:

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Promises, Promises would go on to gross an estimated $3 million dollars, with Mansfield happily raking in money for brief, on-screen nudity that one would be hard-pressed to find offensive today. Mansfield was the first American A-lister to appear nude on-screen in an American-made, mainstream picture (yes, that’s a mouthful) although the title may have gone to Marilyn Monroe if her nude scenes for Something’s Got to Give had been kept in the film (which is doubtful).

Mansfield wouldn’t appear nude on-screen again after receiving considerable criticism for her appearance in Noonan’s film and the accompanying Playboy pictorial (which famously landed Hugh Hefner in jail for obscenity charges). Van Doren, likely realizing she had missed the financial mark by withdrawing from Promises, Promises, agreed to star in Noonan’s 1964 picture, Three Nuts in Search of a Bolt. Three Nuts wasn’t as successful as Promises, Promises (it features a weaker storyline and a questionable living arrangement with Van Doren playing a stripper) but Van Doren received her own Playboy cover in June of 1964. Van Doren and Mansfield would eventually film 1966’s The Las Vegas Hillbillies together, but the set was fraught with tension. Mansfield had just given birth to her fifth child, Tony Cimber, and was visibly heavier than the lithe Van Doren. The pair has one scene together, accomplished by the use of voice-overs and body doubles being neither woman wanted to be on set together.

I’m one of the few people who enjoys Promises, Promises. It’s not an amazing contribution to the history of cinema, but most assuredly has its place for what is shown on film as well as being enjoyable fluff. McDonald fully owned the role of Claire Banner and, even though McDonald was a blonde, Jayne was right when she insisted she was “enough” for the film.

Evolution of the Fifties Blondes, Part 3, 1959.

We’re finally at the end of our saga. To recap, Jayne and Mamie have hit their career peaks of the decade, Doris has solidified herself as everyone’s family-friendly blonde, Anita is in an odd transition between the 50s and 60s (although one can argue they all were), and Marilyn is about to rule the decade.

1959

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Mansfield must have realized her star was fading when she was sent to work on Too Hot to Handle and  The Challenge. Both films are low-budget, British thrillers relying on Mansfield’s sizable proportions to make up for weak plot points. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mansfield and  Too Hot to Handle is one of my favorite films, but Mansfield was far from the Hollywood studios she had dreamed of since she was a child. The American press was still touting Man-Oh-Man-Oh-Mansfield, but her antics were making headlines over anything she was producing. The Sherriff of Fractured Jaw was released in the US (which I covered in 1958 to coincide with it’s British release year) but Mansfield was out of the public’s mind as an actress and more akin to today’s reality stars.

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Van Doren found herself in a string of B-pictures through major studios such as MGM (The Beat Generation, The Big Operator, Girls Town) and United Artists (Guns, Girls, and Gangsters). Her turn in Teacher’s Pet hadn’t helped her star rise in the same way it may have helped others in her position and Mamie was still typecast as the 50s tough girl (my grandma would probably refer to her as “hard”). Mamie would continue to consistently work throughout the 60s but found stardom always just out of her reach.

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Day only had Pillow Talk as her primary release for the year but the film would kick off her frequent collaborations with Rock Hudson. The duo was considered box-office gold as viewers watched their romantic exploits. Again, Day was virginal but could hold her own against “Hunky Hudson.” The pair formed a close bond off-screen as well, which helped Hudson hide his sexuality.

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Ekberg’s sole contribution to her filmography, Sheba and the Gladiator, drew in few patrons – earning a little over $1,000,000. An Italian sand and sandals epic, Sheba did little to improve Ekberg’s box office appeal. Ekberg’s last great hit had been War and Peace, but Ekberg wasn’t phased. While 1959 seemed to be closing with a sputter, 1960’s La Dolce Vita would lead to international acclaim for Ekberg.

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Monroe also contributed one entry in 1959 – Some Like it Hot (SLIH). The cultural significance of Monroe’s turn as Sugar Kane cannot be understated. Considered the greatest comedic film ever made by AFI, SLIH earned roughly $11 million dollars at the box office. Monroe was applauded for her performance, although near daily set reports followed her behavior. While Tony Curtis said kissing her was like kissing Hitler, the public couldn’t get enough of Monroe. Marilyn had begun the 50s as a forecasted Lana Turner look-a-like and morphed into the comedic, blonde queen of the decade.

Conclusion

I chose to divide this article into three parts for a multitude of reasons (primarily, who wants to read something that’s 2700 words in one sitting?) but wanted to focus on how everything moved in parts. Monroe definitely opened the door for more sexualized blondes to make films in the 50s but saying they were imitators would be incorrect. North was in the same vein as Betty Grable, Mansfield wanted to create a more sexualized blonde, Van Doren was the bad blonde of the decade, Ekberg brought an international sophistication to American films, and Day was the penultimate girl-next-door who had worked in the trenches for just as long as Monroe. As Richard Koper explains in Affectionately, Jayne Mansfield, there was Marilyn then there were those who came after. Day wouldn’t fit in this category but I have chosen to include her in this article sue to her popularity in comedies, not unlike Monroe. Monroe remains the symbol of the decade but her contemporaries’ work deserves to be viewed as well.

The Evolution of the Fifties Blondes, 1957-1958, Part 2.

When we last let off, we had introduced Monroe, Day, Mansfield, Van Doren, Ekberg, and North. Again, this piece shouldn’t be considered a definitive, academic study on the 50s Blondes but instead should be viewed as a quick primer. If you want to know more about the blondes of the decade, I highly recommend Richard Koper’s Fifties Blondes – an easily digestible encyclopedia on the women of the decade.

1957

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Monroe saw the release of The Prince and the Showgirl but instead of working on another film project, spent the year focusing on her marriage with Arthur Miller. This is when the press began to become a little less-supporting of Monroe (in part because of Miller’s trial with the House of Un-American Activities Committee for supposed communist leanings). Those who had been in Monroe’s corner, such as columnist Walter Winchell, turned their backs on Monroe and attempted to sway public opinion. The Prince and the Showgirl was not as successful as Monroe’s previous pictures, appealing more to European audiences. Monroe’s Showgirl character, Elsie, was understated, intelligent, and dressed much more conservatively than what American audiences were used to.

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Day also released a single film in 1957, The Pajama Game, and solidified herself as a family-friendly comedienne. Pajama led Day down a path she could never veer away from without fear of failure – one where characters were virginal and sweet while still being intelligent, a rare feat in the era. Day would not make another dramatic picture until 1960’s Midnight Lace.

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1957 saw Mansfield reach her stardom’s peak. She was considered the most publicized woman of 1957 and Fox intended to cash in on her by releasing  The Wayward Bus, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter and Kiss Them For Me. Unfortunately for Mansfield, her publicity didn’t spell box-office popularity. While The Girl Can’t Help It grossed more than Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it seemed to have been a fluke. Wayward and Rock Hunter both profited but Kiss was the only Cary Grant movie to lose money – which was blamed on Mansfield. Mansfield’s sexualized comedies, punctuated with near-constant squealing and cooing, were more successful with younger viewers than families, leading to a caricature that followed her until her death.

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Van Doren was featured in Untamed Youth, becoming the first American actress to sing a rock-n-roll song and The Girl in Black Stockings. It was during this time Van Doren realized her contract with Universal wasn’t going to provide her with the stardom she craved. Van Doren was the bad girl of the era but her talents tended to be relegated to B-pictures, frequently being the second picture on a joint program.

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Ekberg’s releases were Interpol and Valerie. Both films were relatively ho-hum releases but Ekberg’s star would rise with her exploits in both America and Europe. Her dresses were known to pop or split open and she threatened to sue an artist for a painting he created of her supposed nude form. She started feuds by bluntly telling the press who she didn’t like. Her overripe figure may have sold magazines but it was yet to be seen whether or not her stardom was a fluke or sprung from a genuine appreciation of her image on screen.

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North’s star was quickly fading but Fox made one last push for their contract player. North starred in No Down Payment and The Way to the Gold but neither film was an overt success. North’s public appeal lay with musicals but they were quickly becoming passé. If North had been allowed to grow as a supporting player in the same fashion as Monroe, she may have been able to have a more fulfilling film career; however, North was forced upon the public, which never seems to take to spoon-feeding who they should like.

1958

This year saw a last-minute push for those who came after 1955 to secure some foothold in the public’s attention spans. Monroe started filming Some Like It Hot – over a year since her last picture’s release. North was placed in two supporting roles but ended up being dropped. Because of these factors, I have opted not to cover either woman in detail. That’s not to say nothing interesting happened, it certainly did, but both Monroe and North weren’t in the public conscious for their work as much as their personal lives – at least in regards to Monroe.

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Day was featured in both Teacher’s Pet and The Tunnel of Love. Both were light comedies with happy endings – the kind of mindless fluff everyone seemed to enjoy (and forbearers to today’s chick flicks). Day’s success still relied on being the nearly 40-year-old virgin but it surprisingly worked in a midst of women who oozed sex with each wiggle and coo.

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Mansfield married and had a child by the end of the year and saw one film released, The Sheriff of Fractured JawSheriff was a western filmed in the hills of Spain with Mansfield playing Kate, a hard-as-nails saloon owner with a soft side. Mansfield relied less on her physical charms and showed an ability to act – if not lip-sync – but found a lukewarm reception in the United States. Her European fans were more receptive and the film was a solid moneymaker for Fox but was quickly overshadowed by Monroe’s 1959 blockbuster, Some Like It Hot. Jayne would never make an A-picture again with the exception of two cameos in the 1960s.

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Van Doren was given one last push for stardom in Teacher’s Pet, Highschool Confidential and Born Reckless. All were loan outs due to Universal having no suitable projects for their resident blonde. Again, one sees Van Doren playing the tough cookie, sometimes with a heart of gold and sometimes too hardened to the world to have one. Teacher’s Pet was her biggest picture but Van Doren was relegated to the role of a thinly-veiled stripper. If Van Doren had proper backing from the start of her career, she may have been able to break free of the bonds thrust upon her by the era. Instead, she was forced to play cheap caricatures of Lana Turner mixed with Elvis Presley.

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Ekberg didn’t fare much better. While she starred with Bob Hope in Paris Holiday and Gypsy Rose Lee in Screaming Mimi, Ekberg’s allure for American audiences was starting to fade. Her stunts didn’t hold the same appeal as Mansfield’s (who had run thin with the public by ’57) and she was accused of being downright bitchy. Ekberg was the only sensual blonde of the 50s to be fully embraced by the 60s.

The Evolution of the Fifties Blonde – Part 1, 1950-1956.

My focus on the 50s Blondes has festered for over a decade now. I’ve written a multitude of articles – and two books – on the blonde women who seemingly ruled the decade but find a heap of misinformation on their evolution from singing-and-dancing marionettes to halo-haired sex comediennes. While this piece cannot claim to be a definitive study, it is a quick primer for those looking for a brief overview.

Please note, the primary focus of this article series is 1950s starring roles. If I were to delve into smaller roles or those from the 40s, this would become academic in length. Instead, I briefly touch on small roles when they are necessary.

1950-1952

1950 used the same tropes seen in the 1940s; blondes were either joyously dancing in-between their tough-as-nails with a heart of gold plotlines ala Betty Grable or sensually slithering around their male victims as the ultimate femme fatales ala Lana Turner. Marilyn Monroe came onto the scene as the latter in 1950’s Asphalt Jungle.  Marilyn received praise for her performances as Angela in Asphalt and Miss Casswell in All About Eve but her first starring role wouldn’t come until 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock. Knock saw Monroe perform as a deranged babysitter with plenty of sex appeal thrown in for good measure.

On the flipside, continuing in the Grable archetype, Doris Day made waves in films like 1951’s Lullaby of Broadway and 1952’s April in Paris. Day also ventured into dramatics, notably 1951’s Storm Warning, but was billed as a more family-friendly entertainer with parred-down sex appeal. Other women were starting their careers during this time as well, such as Mamie Van Doren and Cleo Moore, but Monroe and Day were the two breakout performers of the time period.

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Betty Grable in Wabash Avenue, 1950.
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Lana Turner for A Life of Her Own, 1950.
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Marilyn Monroe for The Asphalt Jungle, 1950.
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Doris Day, 1951.

1953-1956

This period was a hey-day for some and the beginning for others. Monroe was firmly planted in the public’s mind and was looking to make her artistic ambitions a reality while Day, Mansfield, and Van Doren’s peaks were still ahead. This shouldn’t be misconstrued as an insult to Monroe – one can argue Some Like It Hot was the peak of her comedic talent – but instead should be viewed as Monroe carving her own niche well before the other women we will discuss.

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Marilyn Monroe at the premiere of How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953.

1953 saw the release of Monroe’s Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire. Monroe was a household name who was combining the singing and dancing exploits of Grable with her own dumb, comedic, sexually-suggestive character; the latter would seemingly rule the decade, or 20th Century Fox. Monroe would continue this characterization in River of No Return, There’s No Business like Show Business and The Seven Year Itch. In 1955, Monroe formed Marilyn Monroe Productions and finished her negotiations with Fox, agreeing to star in Bus Stop as part of her new Fox contract. Bus Stop was a swift departure from Monroe’s usual comedic fare but still relied on Monroe’s sex appeal to carry the watered down storyline of the hit Broadway play.

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Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me, 1953.

Day continued to experience box office success, starring in  Calamity Jane, Young at Heart, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Unlike Monroe, Day’s career peak had yet to come (although one could argue her film quality was never higher). While Monroe was touted as the sexual ideal of every American man, Day was the girl you brought home to your mother.

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Mamie Van Doren in Untamed Youth, 1957.

Mamie Van Doren signed with Universal in 1952 and made a splash in 1953’s All American followed by starring roles in Running Wild and Star in the Dust. Van Doren had signed to Universal in 1952 (although her acting career started in 1949) but would soon find there was no real work for her with Universal besides window-dressing parts or loan outs. Her persona tended to lean towards tough-girl parts with plenty of low-cut dresses and tight skirts. While Van Doren tends to be labeled a Monroe imitator, her roles were tailored more towards appealing to a younger audience and dealt with the seedier sides of life.

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Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It, 1956.

Jayne Mansfield signed a contract with Warner Brothers in January of 1955 but failed to garner much interest with her home studio and failed to have her option picked up in July. She would go on to star in Will Success Spoil A Rock Hunter, a Broadway assassination on the film industry, before being signed by Fox in March of 1956. Fox agreed to buy out Mansfield’s contract and she returned to Hollywood on September 16, 1956 and quick rushed into filming  The Girl Can’t Help It. Much has been written on Mansfield being little more than a Monroe impersonator but looking at the context of the time, Mansfield was simply a new incarnation of the blonde sex bomb Monroe was desperate to leave in the past. Mansfield’s character was dumber, blonder, and bigger. Mansfield blatantly shoved sex into her films, with the help of director Frank Tashlin, but lacked the innocent appeal of Monroe.

Actress Sheree North in 1955.
Sheree North in a publicity photo for Life magazine, 1955.

Sheree North signed with Fox in 1954 with the hopes of keeping Monroe in line (for those who don’t know, Monroe spent part of 1954 suspended and almost all of 1955). North was closer to the Grable archetype: toned down sex appeal with an emphasis on North being a “good girl,” as seen in How to be Very, Very Popular and The Lieutenant Wore Tights. By 1956, North was relegated to fourth billing in The Best Things in Life are Free.

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Anita Ekberg, 1956.

Anita Ekberg was signed to John Wayne’s Batjac Productions in 1955 but solidified her stardom in 1956’s War and Peace. Contrary to what has been written, I’ve never found anything to support Ekberg signing with Paramount. Instead, newspapers claim Batjac loaned Ekberg out to Paramount, Warwick, and RKO. This is supported by Ekberg’s filmography, where one can see Ekberg only made a handful of pictures with select studios – akin to freelancing. Ekberg brought an international eroticism to American pictures. While the press focused on her bust size, Ekberg derided American men for childlike attitudes towards sex and women. 

Best Classic Hollywood Books of 2019

Best Old Hollywood Books of 2019

Best Biography:

This is a tough one being there have been some great biographies released this year. I’m excluding the 50s blondes from this category being I already know I’m going to have a bias towards them. My vote is for Dutch Girl.

1

Dutch Girl (which I received an advance copy of but was unable to review in a timely manner due to a personal emergency) is by esteemed author Robert Matzen. Matzen expertly traces and tells the story of Audrey Hepburn’s young life with a major focus on the WWII years. Hepburn’s life has been done to death, but this book provides new insights on the making of an icon.

Best Monroe Biography:

2

Private Life of a Public Icon’s title basically says it all. Casillo attempts to shed the light on Monroe as a person, not an actress. While I don’t always agree with Casillo’s conclusions, the book is a must have for any Monroe book collector.

Best Blondes Biography:

3

When a Girl’s Beautiful by Richard Koper examines the life of a woman who has sadly been forgotten with time. Lansing never quite made it but she sure as hell tried. One thing I really enjoy about Koper’s work is how he continuously focuses on women who were always on the brink of stardom but continuously watched it slip out of their hands.

Best Picture Book:

This one is a tie being the books are so different from one another, I couldn’t pick just one.

4

John O’ Dowd is still attempting to give Barbara Payton the recognition she deserves, and this book is one for the ages. Containing over 1,000 photos, we see Payton’s rise and fall from superstardom. I recommend reading this book after his first Payton venture, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story. You’ll need both to fully understand Payton both as a person and a performer.

5

Vieira has partnered with TCM to give us this lovely coffee table book focusing on the Pre-Code Era. Full of pictures, tidbits, and a keen selection of films to showcase when sin ruled the movies, Vieira gives the reader an illustrated film history in a large, lovely package.

Best Film Retrospective:

6

Jean Harlow’s films have not been properly evaluated in book-form since The Films of Jean Harlow in 1969. As much as I appreciate the Films of series, they have nothing on what Neibaur has presented us. Harlow’s tempestuous personal life frequently overshadows her professional accomplishments but Neibaur has righted this wrong in his excellent retrospective of the original Blonde Bombshell’s work.