Women Movie Stars as Role Models

The movie stars became role models to their female fans in many senses: the fans demonstrated their admiration and loyalty by attending all of their favorite stars' movies and buying whatever product they endorsed. Peroxide sales went up when Jean Harlow became a blonde; fashions, especially by designer Adrian who dressed Joan Crawford in all of her films, were copied for the masses. Further, though impossible to document fully, it is also conceivable to imagine that people identified with the suffering of their favorite star and connected it to their own travails. The actresses, in this sense, provided a constructive model of how to survive adversity, how to develop self-confidence, and how to take control of one's life.

We know about the lives of the female actresses by reading the same magazines read by the fans. The juicy stories usually appeared in each and every feature about the person. Every time a new film appeared, the press office of the studio flooded the magazines and newspapers with stories on the movie and the players, a practice still in effect today. While studios served as a major supplier of information about their "properties," magazine reporters also sought out the most popular stars for interviews. Gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons supplied readers with inside scoops as well. Collectively, these sources created a rich variety of gossip, rumor, and partial truth, material that was avidly consumed by the magazine buyers. The validity of the stories mattered less than the vitality of the news.

Often, the actresses contributed to the excitement by doing unusual or outrageous things. Magazine readers delighted in learning that Rosalind Russell greased her hair with vaseline in preparation for her meeting with studio chief Carl Laemmele in the early 1930s. Russell had wanted to end her contract with Universal Studios and decided to appear as unglamorous as possible at the renewal meeting. She succeeded. Russell's reputation as a shrewd businesswoman, on and off the screen, became well known and prompted one Hollywood reporter to write, "In Hollywood, Rosalind Russell is regarded as the one star who has done more to make women with brains popular." Carole Lombard staged innumerable comic antics, swore like a sailor, which even surprised some veteran Hollywood types, and lived her own iconoclastic life. Katharine Hepburn told reporters whatever outrageous story entered her head and shut up one particularly nosy reporter in 1934 by telling him that yes, she had two children, and they were both black.

Joan Crawford ran a contest in one movie magazine in which she rewarded fans who sent in the best pieces of acting advice to her. The constant support of the fans was obviously essential to the success of a movie star, and she, and the public relations department of her studio, used many different techniques to achieve and then to maintain her popularity. The best proof, of course, of the fans' loyalty was their attendance at all of the movies starring their favorite actress. Despite the critics, in the 1930s and 1940s, audiences followed the stars, whatever the plot or the quality of the movie. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall lamented this fact in his review of Crawford 1934 movie, Sadie McKee, when after panning the movie, he noted that Sadie "is acted by Joan Crawford which probably accounts for the throngs attracted to the Capitol yesterday."

The movie stars of the 1930s generation came from a variety of class and family backgrounds. Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Elizabeth Taylor, for example, all came from upper-middle-class families; they were raised to believe in their own worth and to stand up for their own opinion. Hepburn and Russell, especially, had fathers who encouraged them as did their mothers. Hepburn spoke admiringly of her mother, who was a suffragist and birth control advocate, and her father, who was a physician; both parents contributed to her sense of self assurance.

Hepburn's image, in all interviews, was that of a self-confident person, someone who would succeed in whatever profession she chose. In 1950 she told a reporter, "I have to be a person, not a piece in a pattern."

Rosalind Russell's father was a lawyer, and her mother was an editor at Vogue magazine. She recalled how her loud voice annoyed her mother at the dinner table, while her father assured her that, since she wanted to be heard, it was a useful instrument. She took her father's advice and always projected her voice well beyond the third row of the theater. Russell considered herself a tomboy who played football and pool, knew how to fix a carburetor, and learned at the age of six, she later said, that "males are not as hot stuff and as omnipotent as they think they are." Strongly influenced by both her parents, she continuously exhibited high spirits. American magazine complimented her in 1941 by saying that her distinctive quality was that "she dared to be herself."

Elizabeth Taylor arrived in Hollywood from England at the age of seven and went from being a child star to adult star successfully. She has observed how schooling at MGM, a traumatic experience for many child stars, amused her. Even the formidable head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, failed to intimidate her. Taylor's family provided her with emotional support. Biographer Dick Sheppard defined her strength and endurance as based on four things: "a sound family foundation and a consequent inner assurance which has never failed her; the mutual love and devotion of those closest to her; a bond with the public which transitory crises could never sever; and a professional knowledge of the crafts of film acting second to none."

Though her mother had some of the characteristics of a pushy stage mother, she also acted as a refuge for Taylor. In 1950, at the age of 17, Elizabeth Taylor told interviewers that she was a traditional girl and very concerned with her mother's opinion of her. "I'm being painted as a goodtime girl," she told Louella Parsons, "who stays out all hours of the night. That is hard to take. If you could see how my mother cries, you'd know what I mean."

Many actresses described in movie magazines came from one-parent families where the mother became the positive model of independence for the daughter to emulate. Bette Davis's parents, for example, divorced when she was eight years old, an unusual phenomenon in 1916. Her mother, Ruthie, had to earn a living to support Bette and her younger sister, Bobbie. Attorney Mr. Davis failed to support his family. Thus, Bette Davis saw a mother work at various jobs until she learned photography and became moderately successful at it. In high school, Davis decided to become an actress and after graduating spent some time at the Robert Milton-John Murray Anderson School of the Theater in New York. By 1930, at the age of 22, she was on her way to Hollywood under contract to Universal Studios. Once in Hollywood, the path was stormy but Davis's determination kept her going.

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