Archive for sex symbol

How the It Girl Lost It: Clara Bow’s Breakthroughs and Breakdowns

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2017 by travsd

It’s true to say I think that Clara Bow (1905-1965) is one those classic early stars whom much larger numbers of people love for her backstory and offscreen life and image than know her actual pictures. A couple remain pretty well known, especially It and Wings, both made in 1927. In her decade-long career she made 57 movies: 46 silents and 11 talkies. 21 of her films, or over a third, are lost.

Interestingly, there are ways her background is not unlike Chaplin’s. While her parents weren’t in show business like Chaplin’s she did have a mentally ill mother and a father who was frequently absent. There was poverty, hunger, cold in an unheated flat. This morning I learned that she was born and raised not far from my house, so I went to take a look. She was born at 697 Bergen Street in Brooklyn, in a room above a Baptist church. The church is long gone. In its stead now is this:

By the 1920 census, she and her family were living at this address: 33 Prospect Place. She was 15 at this time, and presumably she was still living there at the time when she entered a magazine contest (1921) that launched her movie career, and when she made her first movies in 1922 and 1923, which were shot in New Jersey, Astoria (Queens), and on location in New Bedford, Mass. The house still stands:

Like I say, the mother was mentally ill, subject to seizures and delusions, once fell out a window, and once held a knife to Clara’s throat in response to her budding movie career. The absentee father, on the other hand was generally supportive, and like many similar deadbeats throughout history became all too present in Clara’s life once she began making serious dough.

Like many children from unhappy homes, she was a dreamer and her primary avenue of escape was the movies. With her father’s encouragement, she entered that 1921 magazine contest and won. The prize was a walk-on role in a film called Beyond the Rainbow (her scenes were cut from the finished picture). This led to several small but eye catching roles at east coast film studios in 1922 and 1923, resulting in her being selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1924. Meantime she moved to Hollywood to be a contract player.

Apparently this is actually a picture of Madge Bellamy, but I think I’ll leave it here since it seems to make people crazy

Despite her love for playing tom boys, her feminine sexuality is palpable in just about all moving and still pictures. That might seem contradictory, but if you think about it, it’s pretty common among stars — after all, if you have that quality you’re attractive to EVERYBODY. She was also a natural actress, a dynamo, full of nervous energy. She could shed tears at will. Her first flapper pictures were released in early 1924. She became an instant star and one of the top box office stars in the country from the mid 20s through the end of her career. In fact, she was the number box office star in Hollywood in 1928 and 1929 following hits like Mantrap (1926), It (1927) Wings (1927), Red Hair (1928) and The Wild Party (1929). She weathered the transition to talkies seamlessly, and to watch her talkies is to feel real sadness about all the cool movies we missed, since she dropped out of the business so young.

With Gary Cooper in “Children of Divorce”, 1929

Along the way she was romantically involved with Gary Cooper, Harry Richman, Gilbert Roland, Victor Fleming, Howard Hughes, and if the gossip is to be believed, the entire USC football team. Most of the other Hollywood women shunned her, as did polite society in general. She felt no need to shed her earthy Brooklyn ways, used profanity, and preferred to socialize with her own servants, and the craftspeople and crew off the film sets.

There were two issues that brought about a final crash; and they seem interrelated: mental illness and scandal.  Her behavior had always been erratic. She had always been reckless, heedless, the quintessential Jazz Age party girl. But she was also overworked. The stress of cranking out so many pictures (and making so money for the studio and her own lifestyle), brought about a need to let off steam. A 1929 magazine article referred to bottles of sedatives next to her bed. By 1930 her friend and personal assistant (who’d been her hairdresser on the set of one of her films) Daisy DeVoe stole a bunch of her correspondence and tried to blackmail her about her lifestyle. Bow called the police and a trial ensued where DeVoe kept up her allegations, accusing her of, oh, promiscuity, lesbianism, sex with multiple simultaneous partners, drug and alcohol abuse, and the topper to end all toppers, SEX WITH DOGS. Not joking. That was publicly alleged, and printed. Oh, yes, and this has to be the origin of the “sex with entire football team” rumor. These slurs emerged in print in a magazine called the Coast Reporter in late 1930. She must have been a laughing stock every she went, or imagined that she was one, which amounts to the same thing. By 1931 Bow was approaching a breakdown and had to take a rest cure, dropping out of her final Paramount Picture City Streets.

At this point she married western star Rex Bell and rested and recuperated at their new Nevada ranch for several months before returning to Hollywood to make two moderately successful pictures for Fox in 1932, and then retiring for good. The couple had a child in 1934, briefly opened and closed a cafe in 1937, and then had another kid in 1938.

Then Bow’s mental illness started to flare again. She became extremely withdrawn and wouldn’t go out or see any people. Meanwhile Bell became involved with Nevada’s Republican Party, running for Congress as their candidate in 1944. In response, Bow attempted suicide (ho ho, not because he was a Republican but because she wanted to stay out of the limelight). Bell lost that election but he became the state party leader in 1948. In 1949 Bow complained of insomnia and abdominal pains and checked herself into a facility, where doctors could find no cause, essentially chalking the whole thing up to mental illness, administering shock treatment and other therapies. Bow left her family and moved to a small bungalow in Culver City, near the movie studios, living off her savings in total seclusion for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, Bell became Lieutenant Governor of Nevada in 1954. He continued to take occasional roles in westerns over the years. His last appearance was in The Misfits (1961). He died in 1962. Clara outlived him by three years.

It will probably always be an academic question whether her mental illness was inherited from her mother, or the result of childhood traumas, or brought on by substance abuse, or a breakdown caused by stresses of Hollywood, or all of the above. I do find it interesting and ironic though how someone who wanted to be a movie star SO BADLY abruptly did an about face and then wanted NOT to be a movie star so badly. The common denominator in both cases was escape.

For more on silent film consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

Theda Bara: The Screen’s Premiere Vamp

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2017 by travsd

Aw, man, this late in the day this guy can still be properly fooled.

I had never probed too deeply into the background of silent screen actress Theda Bara (Theodosia Burr Goodman, 1885-1955), whose birthday it is today. Or, if I did, it was a long while back and I’d forgotten about it. I’ve long known the basics, of course. Theda Bara was the quintessential screen vamp, one of Hollywood’s top silent stars, who played all the great wicked sirens of literature and history. And she was extremely influential. Many stage and screen actresses emulated her. In my book and a blogpost I’d used a picture of the young Mae West in full Theda Bara drag early in her career. And there are great cultural bellwethers like this:

What I didn’t know — or perhaps forgot — was the extent of the hoodwink at the center of her career. I’d assumed that, much like, say, Nazimova or Pola Negri, she was an exotic foreign female from Eastern Europe or someplace. But, no. While her father was indeed a Polish Jew, Theda herself was a straight-up American girl from Cincinnati. Naturally, the movie flacks of her day put out quite different, more colorful stories about her background, that she was an Egyptian princess or something, and maybe I subconsciously swallowed that over the years. But, no, she’s much more like one of my favorite vaudevillians, Olga Petrova, a big (huge) delightful, imaginative invention, a projection, a fantasy. I love it so much when the pretend spills out beyond the stage and screen to create another dimension in the real world. Technology makes it harder to accomplish, but I think some occasionally manage.

Bara even had a couple of regular old, quotidian years at the University of Cincinnati! She did some local theatre, then moved to New York, where she appeared in the play The Devil in 1908 using the pseudonym Theodosia De Cappet. She then barnstormed with touring stock companies, returning to the New York area in 1914. That year, she got a part as a gang moll in Frank Powell’s film The Stain, made for Pathe Freres. It was Powell who discovered her and made her a star, casting her as “The Vampire” in his next picture A Fool There Was (1915), made for Fox, which was then based in Fort Lee, NJ. She became a contract player for Fox and their top star. Her screen name was adapted from her childhood nickname + a shortening of her maternal grandfather’s surname. Studio p.r. men, however, have out that it was “Arab Death”, with the letters switched around.

Maybe her best known film and the one that caused Theda Bara to relocate to Hollywood in 1917. Today all but a few seconds of it are lost

One would know more about her today if her career had gone longer and if most of her films hadn’t been destroyed in a horrible fire. Only six of her films survive in their entirety out of approximately 40, and they aren’t necessarily representative ones. Her surviving films are The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), An Unchastened Woman (1926), and two very uncharacteristic comedies for Hal Roach, Madame Mystery (1926), and 45 Minutes from Hollywood (1926). Only two of these are from the meat of her career, the Fox period. Gone forever apparently are such tantalizing titles as The Devil’s Daughter (1915), Sin (1915), Carmen (1915), The Serpent (1916), The Eternal Sapho (1916), The Vixen (1916), Camille (1917), Cleopatra (1917), Madame Du Barry (1917), The Forbidden Path (1918), Salome (1918), When a Woman Sins (1918), The She-Devil (1918), When Men Desire (1919), and The Siren’s Song (1919) — although there are plenty of publicity stills and movie posters to raise our curiosity.

“Romeo and Juliet”. Bara as a virgin?

Periodically, she did try to break out of her typecasting, as when she played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1916), and the title character in an adaptation of Boucicault’s Kathleen Mavourneen (1919), one of her last films for Fox. There was public outcry among Irish-Americans when she essayed the latter — it was considered a profanation to have a wicked woman play a part they considered sacred. Back then, it was common for the wider community to confuse screen actors with the parts they played.

Poli’s was a vaudeville circuit — it looks like they made an exception in this lucrative case

Tired of playing the vamp, Bara broke her contract with Fox, and returned to the stage, starring in the 1920 Broadway play The Blue Flame (in which, ironically she played another femme fatale), which then went on tour. She was trashed by critics, though tickets sold like crazy. Despite the financial success, she cut the tour short unwilling to endure the embarrassment any longer. I’ve read some of the reviews; they were truly mean.

In 1921, she married film director Charles Brabin. She next toured vaudeville for a while, presenting herself as a celebrity as opposed to an actress (i.e., she spoke with audiences about her experiences; she didn’t risk acting in a play). In the mid 20’s she attempted a very brief cinematic comeback, starring in The Unchastened Woman for Chadwick Pictures in 1925, and then the two comedy shorts for Hal Roach. It’s not the craziest development in the world. For example, Mae Busch had also been one of the screen’s greatest vamps, and then in middle age she wound up being one of Roach’s most dependable comedy actresses.

After this she retired for the most part, although she did do an art theatre revival of Bella Donna in 1934 (presumably in the Nazimova part), and a few isolated but high profile radio appearances. She died of stomach cancer at age 70.

For more on vaudeville including performers like Theda Bara and Mae West see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold, and for more on silent film consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

The Ups and Downs of Lina Basquette

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Child Stars, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

Lina Basquette (Lena Copeland Baskette) was born on April 19, 1907. Basquette was a star of stage and screen through several different phases, but is perhaps best remembered today for her eight marriages, most notably the first one, to Sam Warner of Warner Brothers, with much ensuing personal drama.

Basquette was the child of an ambitious stage mother. Her life took a sharp turn at the tender age of eight when she was spotted dancing in her father’s drug store by a rep from RCA Victor, who hired her to dance in the company’s exhibit at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. This led to a film contract with Universal Pictures, and she began starring (at age nine) in a series of films called Lena Baskette Featurettes. Her mother embraced the new life; the father did not. He committed suicide and her mother married choreographer and dance director Ernest Belcher. (Dancer/choreographer Marge Champion is the daughter of Belcher and Gladys Baskette and the half-sister of Lina Basquette).

Film work seemed to dry up an the end of the decade, so her dance skills were put to use on Broadway in a succession of shows. She appeared in John Murray Anderson’s Jack and Jill (1923), Charles Dillingham’s Nifties of 1923, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1924 and 1925, and Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927).

Meanwhile in 1925, she had married movie mogul Sam Warner, who famously died on the eve of the opening of his seminal project The Jazz Singer (1927). There followed a bizarre custody battle between Basquette and the Warner family over her daughter (whom the Warners wanted to raise as one of their own in the Jewish faith, and probably by someone who wasn’t a famous Siren) which lasted many years.

The Godless Girl, 1929

In 1927, Basquette returned to films. In 1928 she was voted one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars. The biggest hit of this period (and her career) was Cecil B. DeMille’s semi-talkie The Godless Girl (1929). Her film career lasted until 1943, but her battles with the Warners resulted in a loss of star billing in the talkie era. Her parts got much smaller, sometimes even bit roles, and often in B movies. At the same time, she was making live appearances in night clubs.

In 1943, she was raped and robbed by an off-duty soldier whom she had picked up while hitchhiking. This traumatic event seems to have prompted a major life change for her. She took her savings, bought a farm in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, and reinvented herself as one of the nation’s top breeders of Great Danes! In addition to raising and breeding purebred dogs, she wrote books on the subject and judged shows with the American Kennel Club, an involvement that lasted until the end of her life.

In 1991, she released her memoir Lina: DeMille’s Godless Girl, and emerged from retirement after 48 years to appear in the film Paradise Park. She passed away in 1994.

To find out more about show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

NITA NALDI: A VAMP FROM VAUDEVILLE

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2016 by travsd

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NITA NALDI: A VAMP FROM VAUDEVILLE

Today is the birthday of Nita Naldi (Mary Dooley, 1894-1961).

Naldi was the child of working class Irish parents in New York City. When her (then single) mother died in 1915, she was forced to care for her two younger siblings. Fortunately her extraordinary beauty made it easier than it might have been. She worked as an artists’ model and then broke into a vaudeville in a two-act with her brother Frank. This led to chorus parts in Follow the Girl (1918), The Passing Show of 1918 and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918 and 1919. This in turn lead to acting roles in plays, the biggest of which was aptly named Opportunity (1920).

From here she went into films, essentially starting out at the top, opposite John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). She was to become of Hollywood’s top silent era vamps, starring in such notable films as Blood and Sand (1922), The Ten Commandments (1923), Cobra (1924), and Alfred Hitchcock’s second film The Mountain Eagle (1926). She was a frequent co-star of Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova.

It was during this heyday that she she sat for this famous illustration by Alberto Vargas:

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Starting in the late 20s she spent several years in Europe and married her longtime lover the millionaire J. Searle Barclay. By 1931 this had fizzled out. The pair separated, she came home, filed for bankruptcy and starred in two short-lived Broadway shows Firebird (1932) and Queer People (1934). At this stage, it was widely held that she was no longer a beauty; she had gained weight since her film stardom. But she continued to perform. She appeared in an off-Broadway revue with Mae Murray in 1942, had a role in the 1952 Broadway show In Any Language, and coached Carol Channing for The Vamp (1955).

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Carmel Meyers

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Carmel Myers (1899-1980). The beautiful Myers was the daughter of a San Francisco rabbi. The family moved to Los Angeles when she was in her teens. The lore is that her father was one of the advisors on the Biblical scenes in Intolerance (1916) and that was how she broke into pictures, as she is a harem dancer in the film. But she has several film credits preceding Intolerance, though it is still possible that her well-connect father helped provide the entree (although her good looks didn’t hurt any).

From "Ben Hur" -- well, Ben and Jesus won't play with me...I guess I'll just have to make love to this leopard!'

From “Ben Hur” — “Well, Ben and Jesus won’t play with me…I guess I’ll just have to make love to this leopard!”

For all her religious beginnings, she became one of Hollywood’s most famous vamps in the teens and twenties. The titles of many of her films tell the story: The Love Gambler, Slave of Desire, The Dancer of the Nile, The Love Pirate, Poisoned Paradise: The Forbidden Story of Monte Carlo, The Devil’s Circus, The Gay Deceiver. Her stock went even higher when she played the vamp in Ben Hur (1925), attempting to seduce both Jesus and Ben Hur — and let me tell you, those gentlemen must have had ice water in their veins. Her transition to sound was initially successful; she had good parts in Svengali (1931) and The Mad Genius (1931). among many others.  After the mid-30s work was more sporadic, but she did act sporadically through the mid 1970s.

But we mention her today in the context of vaudeville. In 1929 she was one of many top movie stars who trod the stage of the Palace Theatre, singing songs from musicals she had appeared in.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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A Great New Book About Lili St. Cyr

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Burlesk, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2015 by travsd

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Burlesque being what it is, there aren’t many dancers who came up through its ranks during the classical era who broke through to mainstream fame. Lili St. Cyr was one of the few who did. I first truly became aware of her from watching Irving Klaw’s old burlesque films from the mid 1950s. But she also had some minor parts in several Hollywood films, was on the cover of magazines and was interviewed on television, wound up in Tin Pan Alley song lyrics, and was well known to all the show biz royalty of her day. While she did perform in New York sometimes, her main bases of operation were Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Montreal — people are apt to know her better in all three of those cities than in New York. So it has been a welcome experience learning more about her, for she was absolutely at the top of her field in the 1940s and 1950s (Gypsy Rose Lee had already moved on from burlesque by those years).

Leslie Zemeckis has written a rip-roaring new biography about this burlesque icon. And while it is expected subject matter from the woman responsible for Behind the Burly Q and Bound by Flesh, there are ways in which it feels like the author has struck out into new territory. Those documentary projects had an academic aspect. And while Zemeckis scored some excellent interviews for the new biography (including St. Cyr’s close relatives, ex-husbands, etc) there are ways in which Goddess of Love Incarnate feels novelistic…like the paperback bodice rippers and Hollywood tell-all books my working class mother use to devour (she would have loved this book). Zemeckis uses the omniscient narrator technique, imagining us privy to Lili’s thoughts and private conversations (but with footnotes so we know she didn’t just pluck these out of the air. They have their basis in truth).

But there is no word for it but juicy. I lost count of the men in her life a few pages after she began adulthood. Her lovers included Orson Welles, Yul Brynner, Victor Mature and several other famous gents. She married and divorced a half dozen times. None of her relationships lasted more than about three years. A workaholic, she seemed to give the men in her life something less than second place as a priority. They were around for comfort and company, but ultimately they were replaceable conveniences, no different from the maid who helped her change into her costume. This reflects the shifting nature of her childhood background, which contains some bombshells I won’t spoil for you by revealing here. Two of her sisters were also in burlesque; one of them married Harold Minsky. She and another sister were discovered by nightclub impresario Nils Granlund. (That’s always one of the questions, right? “How did you get into burlesque?” A common answer turns out to be: be beautiful, and some guy will spot you…and ask you to be in burlesque). And burlesque dancers — there’s lots in here about how she developed her classic routines.

And…as a major thread running through the whole book, the sad end we all know is coming: old age, the loss of her looks, poverty, obscurity, and drug addiction.

Speaking of addiction, I plowed straight through this baby like the show biz junkie I am. (I know that was an insensitive transition. I’m sorry, Lili). And I’m probably not the first person to suggest this — the story would make an excellent movie. Buy it now! You know you want to!

Gaby Deslys

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Frenchy, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Gaby Deslys (Marie Elise Gabrielle Claire, 1881-1920). Originally from Marseilles, she became the toast of the cabarets and musical halls of Paris in the early years of the 20th century, and one of the world’s first sex symbols. Her stage name was initially Gabrielle Des Lys (Gabrille of the Lillies), later shortened to Gaby Deslys. In 1905, she conquered London as well (largely on the strength of the sensation she caused with her sleeveless gown. In 1909 her notoriety grew when she became the mistress of King Manuel II of Portugal; the scandal resulted in a revolution in his country a few months later.

In 1910, she cut a couple of records in Vienna:

The following year, thanks to the enterprise of Lee Shubert, Deslys conquered America. She appeared in the 1911 Shubert Shows The Revue of Revues and Vera Violetta (with Al Jolson) before undertaking a major vaudeville tour. The balance of her career essentially had her juggling major engagements in the three great show biz capitals of Paris, London and New York. She also had roles in five French and British films between 1914 and 1920. She died in 1920 following surgery for a throat infection.

To learn more about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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