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Thursday, January 27, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: A Star by Any Other Name...

Theda Bara, the original "Vamp."

Our relationships with our celebrities has changed over the past century and a quarter. Perhaps due to the fact that celebrities are so accessible today, we don't have the awe and wonder of them that we used to. There is no need to humanize them, because the jig is up: we know that they're human. The rag mags tell us alllllll about it. At best, we respect, but we don't admire. But it wasn't always so. Before, movie stars were mythic creatures that lived in the mystical world called La La Land, where they literally cavorted on Mt. Olympus. They were impenetrable beauties, trickster figures, and heroes-- real life cowboys, passionate vixens, and knights in shining armor. We looked upon them just like children, engaging in make believe, pasting their pictures to our walls, and dreaming the dreams that the movies taught us were safe. So deep was our love for them that we crafted nicknames (with studio help) after they'd worked their way into our hearts. This represented, if nothing else, how they had endeared themselves to the American public. As we celebrate our final week with Mr. Haines, I thought it would be a little fun to play the nick-name flick-game. Enjoy!


Billy won his moniker for two reasons, the first of which should be obvious: he was a smart-ass. For every lame statement, he had a quick-as-a-whip retort, often running mental circles around those who dared to engage in conversation with him. His onscreen persona reflected this perfectly, for when his characters were faced with challenges, he merely laughed them off-- his wit used as a protective armor against responsibility. The youth of the roaring twenties responded to this rebellion with relish, especially when it seemed that Billy's personality off screen was not very different. In interviews with fan magazine reporters, Billy always deflected personal questions by making a joke of it, often turning the tables on the interviewer who suddenly found himself the interviewee. But too, his "wisecracker" status symbolized something else, for this was a code word often used to label men as homosexual. Thus, when people would say, "Billy Haines? Oh yeah... He's a real wisecracker," they were telling a double truth. As it stands in history, however, it seems that up until the emergence of the smart aleck Groucho Marx, Billy remained the king of zingers, taking the self-important divas he often found himself surrounded by down a peg or two. Or three.


One of Billy's best friends (with supposed occasional benefits) in his early Hollywood days was Barbara La Marr. With dark hair and large hypnotic eyes that often appeared almost violet (a la Liz Taylor), she remains remembered most for her stunning physical presence and the looks that seemed to almost coin the phrase "knock-out." But, as many Hollywood ladies could certainly attest, beauty can be a burden, and since in the silent era Barbara held her position at the top post of "lookers," it comes as no surprise that the attention she received often worked against her. Perhaps there is such a thing as being too beautiful-- both too beautiful for words, and too beautiful for life. She earned her nickname in juvenile court, of all places, when she was spotted by writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, who gasped at the sight of her-- who is that gorgeous girl?! Barbara, then Reatha Watson, was allegedly brought in when found in the company of an older man. As a single young woman living in the city,  Reatha often fell prey to "friendly" gentlemen who wanted to help her out. Of course, the unspoken rule of quid pro quo often came into play. Standing before the judge, the youthful and tender La Marr was too lovely to punish. Indeed, Judge Monroe offered only the statement: "You are too beautiful to be allowed alone in a big city." Poor, poor pretty little thing. She made the papers the next morning, already named the "too-beautiful girl."


This one needs no explanation. Not only was Roscoe's birth name quickly replaced with an insulting adjective, making him "Fatty"-- a nickname he hated-- but his size was furthermore emphasized when, as the reigning silent film comedian, he was dubbed the Prince of blubbery mammals with a wicked pun. He took it in stride, despite the fact that he had been sensitive about his size his whole life. Ironically, he ate relatively little. Even in his youth, when his family fed on a meager to invisible food supply, he was always a "big boy." Much larger than his waistline, however, was his personality. Possessing a huge heart and an energy that could light up a room, Fatty was surprisingly light on his feet and inescapable in his optimism. Audiences adored him for his at times smiling/at time befuddled mug that got into and escaped trouble to the soundtrack of uncontrollable laughter. Remembered today only for the crime of which he was innocently accused and rightly exonerated, Fatty deserves his throne back.


Another man known for his enthusiasm was the seemingly irrepressible "Doug." Not only did he burst off the screen with his intoxicating positivity, exciting viewers with his heroic acrobatics and daring-do, but behind the scenes he worked with the same impassioned vim and vigor. Committed to creating and performing his own stunts, Doug was diligent about pushing the envelope and giving audiences the enthralling and inspirational stories they deserved. This demanded that he push himself to the physical limit, and today when one watches him in films like The Thief of Baghdad, his body remains something to behold. Yowzah! He was simply unstoppable, a manic maniac, who would rather run a hundred-yard dash than sit down to discuss politics or the recent findings of Freud. He was a force to be reckoned with. He even penned inspirational pieces of literature that his fans gobbled up: "Keep your chin up!" "Keep fighting the good fight!" "Reach for the stars," etc. He made anything seem possible, and when he spoke, people listened. Starring in war propaganda shorts during WWI and traveling around the country selling bonds, he united a country both in and out of the theater. We have yet to see another like him.


Oh, the illustrious Barrymore clan... So much talent, so much tragedy. The leader of the pack was always John, who ironically was the baby of the infamous acting trio, which too included Lionel and Ethel. John earned a commendable reputation as an actor with guts and gusto for his chilling and powerful performances on the stage, where he brought new depths to some of the most classic characters in literary history. His Hamlet was said to be profound, gut-wrenching, and provocative. When he entered the movies, his cinematic career followed suit. But despite his reputation for his acting gifts, it was his face that earned him his title. The startling beauty of his features, particularly as seen from the side, sent more than one woman's heart aflutter. Though his machismo was probably offended at his objectification-- which for once put a man on a woman's side of the fence-- he also embraced it. Being the sexual creature that he was, he certainly put his good looks and charismatic personality to use and wooed many an unsuspecting but willing lady into his bed. If ya' got it, flaunt it.


Lana was pegged with her nickname from almost the moment she set foot in front of the camera. She was noticed not for her gorgeous face or dripping sensuality, but for the way her sweater fit over her... parts. One of the many successful makeovers concocted by MGM, Lana went from being a brunette to a blond, from an average girl to a sex-kitten. Studios often had a way of shopping their latest ingenues around in bit parts, seeing if the public would latch onto them. When Lana strutted down the street in They Won't Forget, they didn't, and she caught more than one drooling male fan in her trap. People began writing into the studio asking for more of "the sweater girl." This was a specific ploy of the studio, who completely altered Lana's more modest costume to reveal her best assets. Thus, her original bonnet and polka-dot dress were exchanged for a sweater and that infamous walk to fame. While it was Lana's bosom that garnered her initial attention, the feisty minx's natural gifts before the camera were more than physical. Thus, she was able to stake her claim in Hollywood as a bona fide movie star and a lasting leading lady. But that damn sweater always haunted her, no matter how legitimately she strove to prove herself.


Try as you may have to stop her, Mabel Normand was pretty much going to do whatever the Hell she wanted. Her rebellious and fearless nature was reflected in some of her earliest films, wherein she was known as "The Diving Girl", the bathing beauty who nonchalantly dove into the water-- backwards, forwards, you name it-- from daunting heights. Rising to fame with the aid of boyfriend Mack Sennett, Mabel attacked her comedic film roles with the same naive courage, hurtling in head first, never caring if she came off looking like a damned fool. She ignored her god-given beauty and mugged it up, enjoying a free-spirited nature completely devoid of vanity. She willingly took a pie in the face, fell on her bottom, rolled in the mud, whatever the situation called for. Unfortunately, this same lack of caution got her into trouble in her private life. She indulged in a love affair with drugs and alcohol in a foolish attempt to live in the moment. She just never considered the consequences, which would eventually destroy her. All the while, despite the rumor and folly that was to come, during her day in the sun, she reigned supreme as the first screwball queen, whose fun-loving, no-holds-barred persona won the respect of heavyweights like Charlie Chaplin, whom she could more than hold her own with. It was perhaps her joke of a husband, Lew Cody, who described her best: "She was just a little girl who neglected to look before crossing the street." But that's why they loved her.


"Baby" is a name used far too often. Lovers use it to refer to each other, certain men (who seemingly hid in a cave during the feminist movement) may still use it to refer to any and all members of the opposite sex... But there is one lady whom everyone referred to as "Baby," and she didn't mind at all: Jean Harlow. For several years, Harlean Carpenter didn't even know her true name, because everyone in her family called her "baby." Warm and loving as she was, and adorable to boot, the name suited her and she carried it with her wherever she went. When she hit Hollywood, friends still referred to her as Baby, which she preferred to her stage name, Jean Harlow. Indeed, when she passed away suddenly at the age of 26, it was "Our Baby" that graced the face of her tomb. However, during her life, her fans more commonly knew her as "The Blonde Bombshell," the first of her kind, whose atomic arrival on the silver screen sent shock waves throughout the nation and changed the image of the sex symbol for all time. 


Surprisingly, there are times that certain names have proven themselves to be recycled. Here are some examples of this equally fascinating phenomenon:

Most people are certainly familiar with the reference to Lon Chaney (right) as "The Man of a Thousand Faces." Never was there a more accurate description, for not only was this renegade actor able to flesh out countless and varied interpretations of characters in his stellar cinematic resume, but he also devised intriguing, shocking, and sometimes frightening makeups to further distinguish one creation from the other. His martyred stance for his craft communicated that his performances were not about him, but about the people he was playing, and thus people in general. But before Lon, the first movie star-- Florence Lawrence-- had already been pegged as "The Girl of a Thousand Faces." While Flo probably applied her own makeup, as many did in those early days, she never went quite as extreme as Mr. Chaney. However, her gift at relaying every shade of every emotion still won her the same title. She was given this lengthy handle due to the fact that her audiences did not know her true name, as at the time studios kept this under wraps. Afraid of resulting bloated egos and power struggles within the system, moguls tried to keep their guinea pig actors anonymous and spinning on the reels that kept the money coming in. In addition, Flo was referred to as "The Biograph Girl" and later "The IMP Girl" as she transitioned to different studios. Ironically, one of these names would also be usurped. After she left Biograph for IMP, a new ingenue stepped in and became the latest mystery face people were falling in love with. Thus, Mary Pickford became the new "Biograph Girl," though after she too became a phenomenon, she was also referred to as "The Girl with the Golden Curls."

Florence, with her happy face on.

Mary and her token curls.

There was also a steady competition going for various translations of "The Great Lover," "The Screen's Most Perfect Lover," etc. At various times in their careers, Wallace Reid, Rudolph Valentino, and John Gilbert all had titles of this sort bestowed upon them, which is interesting since they were all such different men. Wally (right) was the baby-faced, lovable cad of Carmen and The Roaring Road fame. In addition to finding him handsome, older women were often infatuated with him, taking a maternal stance. He was the all-American son they adored, who-- when he was naughty-- they couldn't help but forgive. He just had one of those faces. Valentino was distinctly different. He represented the opposite of Americana: a tantalizing and seductive foreigner, who was just as enticing as he was dangerous. Women veered from the more wholesome appeal of Wally to the powerful allure of the man who wouldn't take "no" for an answer. The desire to be dominated thus overruled the desire to be loved, though when Valentino got romantic he also sang to the emotional nature of the female heart. To see such a masculine powerhouse in a vulnerable moment again awoke feminine sympathy, and the duality of Valentino's complex nature made him irresistible. Unlike Wally, however, Rudy caught a lot of flack from members of his own sex, who despite his he-man roles in films like The Sheik and more particularly Son of the Sheik labeled him as a "sissy." Jealousy, anyone?

Rudy, alert and on the prowl.

Falling in between these two heartthrobs was John Gilbert, whose star had started soaring right when Rudy sadly passed away. John was left carrying the torch, providing a mixture of the heroic lover and the sensitive romantic. More concerned with being a true actor, John took on vastly different roles in vastly different films, sometimes playing the war hero (The Big Parade), sometimes the vengeful lover (Monte Cristo), and sometimes a downright villain (Downstairs), but always he carried off his performances with class and sophistication. And his movies with Greta (left in A Woman of Affairs)... oh my! The way he looked at her was the way every woman dreamed of being looked upon. John had a way of portraying both uncontrollable desire and undying love-- both animal and emotional-- presenting the perfect package. He could be boyish and lovable, but his dark features also relayed a warning to ladies, who were powerless to his charms. With John, the art of love was an art-- not the bashful, "ah shucks" of Wally or the domineering and savage embraces of Valentino. John offered poetry. In the end, a woman's favorite said a lot more about her than it did about the man. Choices, choices... How awful our plight.

Kim Novak: The Lavender Girl

The list could go on and on, but since you all have lives, I'll stop here, and let you ruminate about the others I've unfortunately left out-- The Great Stone Face, Old Blue Eyes, The It Girl... Though there are occasional nicknames given to our celebs today, usually referring to action heroes (The Muscles from Brussels or The Italian Stallion), for the most part, our camaraderie with our celebs is at a stalemate. And I'm sorry, but giving yourself a nickname doesn't count-- I'm looking at you "JLo"/"Jenny from the block," whatever. I think it is indicative of a disease in our culture when we remain more enamored of the stars of the past than the present. Perhaps it's just nostalgia, but I think it's a little bit more. Maybe even that lil' sum sum we all refer to as Magic.


  1. After reading through the post, name after name, giants, icons and legends all, I come across the name J-Lo, and laughed. And laughed. Uncontrollably.

    That old saying, "Giants used to walk these streets", never sounded more true to me.

  2. Ha ha ha, mission accomplished! So, so true. ;)

  3. Your blog is wonderful. Congratulations.
    Come and see mine.

  4. Thanks, Anotnio! I just checked out your as well. Bravo :)

  5. I loved reading this post. Meredith, I have a sneaking suspicion that this posting contains some of your favorite stars. Mine too. ) Thanks

  6. Hahaha, yes. Too true! It's always easy to tell who I favor, because they have a tendency to show up a lot! Glad you enjoyed. :)