Macking on Mamie Van Doren

Celebration today of nonagenarian sex symbol Mamie Van Doren (Joan Lucille Olander, b. 1931). She shares a birthday with Zsa Zsa Gabor!

Van Doren is best remembered for being third in rank among the “3 Ms” of blonde Hollywood sex bombs, behind Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. To borrow a metaphor from one of her first films, Howard HughesJet Pilot, one wonders if she didn’t outlast the other two because she flew at a lower altitude, where there was less risk of crashing and burning. There is greater consistency in Van Doren’s body of work; one is is able to easily wrap ones arms around the type of film she starred in. Of the three, Monroe had the greatest prospect (and greatest ambition) of escaping the trap of being a sex object, and at least a portion of her career resembles that of other desirable starlets (e.g. Kim Novak, Janet Leigh) who managed to transcend those trappings and gain some respect as actresses. There were others besides the three Ms in that boat, of course, Another is the British version, Diana Dors (“Double D”, ha!) with she shared a “Dor” in her surname, since we seem to grouping actresses by consonant sounds.

The similarity of “Mamie” to “mammary” causes me to half-wonder if her screen name wasn’t cooked up by subliminal psychologists in the employ of studio P.R. departments. But the reality seems to have been that she took the first half of her name from President Eisenhower’s wife, who was quite the opposite of a sex pot. The back half also sounds like satire of some sort, being the same surname of a famous family of intellectuals, including Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Carl, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mark, his wife Dorothy, also a successful writer and editor, and their ne’er-do-well son Charles, most famous for being at the center of the 1959 Quiz Show Scandal. The context is lost today, but the name “Mamie Van Doren” for a personality like this one is almost like something you’d come up with for a blackout burlesque sketch, in fact, would have been a perfect name for her character in Sex Kittens Go to College (1960).

Though born in South Dakota, Van Doren moved with her family to the Los Angeles area when she was about 11. As a teenager, she worked as an usherette at the Pantages Theatre, sang with Ted Fio Rito’s band, and won a string of beauty contests. Pin-up artist Alberto Vargas immortalized her in a VERY sexy painting when she was about 20. Around this time, she began dating the likes of Jack Dempsey and Howard Hughes, the latter of whom gave her some bit parts in RKO films. At the same time, she studied serious acting, appeared in plays, and also performed in night clubs.

Following a short stint as an eye-catching supporting player at Universal, Van Doren found her niche in the mid ’50s as a star of juvenile delinquent exploitation pictures, rock and roll musicals, low budget horror, and science fiction. The titles tell the story: Running Wild (1955); Untamed Youth (1957); The Girl in Black Stockings (1957); High School Confidential (1958); Born Reckless (1958); Guns, Girls and Gangsters (1959), The Beat Generation (1959); The Beautiful Legs of Sabrina (1959); Girls Town (1959); Vice Raid (1960); College Confidential (1960), The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960); Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) and The Blonde from Buenos Aires (1961).

It is interesting to trace the threads that connect the three Ms. George Axelrod was a major one. His The Seven Year Itch (1955) had starred Monroe. Van Doren was then approached to star in the stage versions of his follow-up Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? but she turned it down, handing the part over to Mansfield, making her a sensation. After Monroe’s death in 1962, the competition was down to Mansfield and Van Doren, but somehow with Monroe out of the picture, all the glamor and excitement went out and it became a race to the bottom between them. Van Doren turned down the chance to appear in Promises! Promises! (1963) with Tommy Noonan, which required toplessness; Mansfield again snatched up the role, and got some notoriety out of it. Van Doren then starred in its sequel 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt (1964). (Noonan had played Monroe’s boyfriend in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, another connection). Both Mansfield and Van Doren appeared in The Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966), their stars having fallen so far that it took two of them to generate any marquee value by this stage, and this in a production that resembles a home movie. By the mid ’60s, all of the exciting Hollywood sex symbols were being imported from Europe. Van Doren was down to things like The Navy vs. The Night Monsters (1966), and Voyage of the Prehistoric Women (1968). The latter had the benefit of being Peter Bogdanovich’s first movie, but it availeth nothing for Van Doren’s career. In the Philippine comedy The Arizona Kid (1970) she played the love interest to a Little Person called Chiquito. This was essentially the end of her original film career, although she did star in Matt Cimber’s unreleased That Girl from Boston in 1975.Which brings us full circle to Mansfield (he was her last husband).

Naturally an attention hound like Van Doren didn’t retire. Throughout the 70s and beyond she starred in campy regional theatre productions, performed a night club act in Las Vegas, and even released some record albums. She did guest shots on Vega$ and Fantasy Island. She appeared in a few more low budget films in the ’80s and ’90s. Later figures like Anna Nicole Smith, Pamela Anderson, Angelyne, and Erika Jayne are often compared to Monroe, probably because she is the most famous of the big 3, but in reality I think they are much closer in spirit to the career of Van Doren. “It’s the pictures that got small,” quoth Norma Desmond. At a certain point, it somehow became about stardom with no pictures at all.

Now that Van Doren, in her ninth decade, is still presenting herself as a sex symbol, comparisons to another classic Hollywood blonde bombshell unavoidably spring to mind: Mae West in her Sextette period. Would you have it any other way? I sure as hell wouldn’t!

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.