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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Rollin' in the Dough

Ginger Rogers, head to toe in gold, in Gold Diggers of 1933.

Movie Stars and Money. Moolah. Bread. Gravy. Greenback... Whatever you want to call it, it always seems like celebrities have it. And lots of it. While many of us have to count every penny before going on an edited shopping spree to the ever glorious Target (Tar-jay to the upper crust), the exorbitant expenditures of modern entertainers with their private jets, sprawling mansions, and golf-ball sized engagement rings makes one both a) fiscally insulted and b) green (as cash) with envy. But whatever new car Diddy's rolling in or whatever designer gown is draped over the elegant Ms. Kidman at the latest awards show, today's divas have nothing on silent film spenders. Even in those early days, it was all about the Benjamins. Moreso, it wasn't the size of the bank account, but how one used it to advertise his or her own fame and stature. The early flood of cha-cha-ching and the resulting birth of American royalty created the still present trend of glorious, outrageous, unapologetic, economic narcissism. Here are a few of the earliest examples:

Cecil B. directs yet another lavish scene in Cleopatra
(Claudette Colbert stands center stage).

It should come as no surprise that Cecil B. DeMille be counted as one of the Kings of Coin. His films themselves were so lavishly produced and luscious to the eyes that one can only imagine the coronary Adolph Zukor must have had each time he looked at a budget estimate. In fact, despite the money that CB's movies earned at the box-office, most of them were still considered failures because they couldn't recoup the production costs. But with an eye for detail and an unwavering loyalty to (exaggerated) authenticity, DeMille spared no expense when it came to his films. He wanted what he wanted, believing that his audiences deserved the best, and that is what he gave them. In The Affairs of Anatol, for example, Wallace Reid had the distinct pleasure of filming a scene wherein he got to destroy $30,000 worth of furniture, including original Louis XVI chairs and a grand piano. CB wouldn't accept cheap props; it had to be the real deal. He also added strange, costly mandates to his productions. Anne Baxter would recall that Cecil had all of her necklaces specially "heated" before they were placed on her skin during The Ten Commandments (left). This was not a stipulation she required, but one that Cecil saw to on her behalf-- he wanted her treated like a Queen since she was playing one. Between Gloria Swanson's submergence into an expensive tub in Male and Female and Claudette Colbert's illustrious milk bath in The Sign of the Cross, CB too started a craze for opulent bathrooms. However, his own house guests were often disappointed to find that his private bathroom was rather plain.

Anne Baxter in one of her temperature controlled necklaces 
in The Ten Commandments.

But CB was not always modest in his private life. Granted, he was not as extravagant off screen as he was on, preferring to spend his down time at his vacation home, Paradise, where he could hike and feed the animals. But he did have a few flashy quirks to show off just how wealthy a man he really was. For example, male guests to Paradise would be offered color-coded silk shirts-- red for a regular Joe, white for producers, and purple for directors, corporate big-wigs, or government officials. The gents also received Gold or silver chains to spice up their look. CB also enjoyed splurging on jewelry, offering women whom he was pleased with in some way a choice of his own private collection of gems. In addition, female guests were given Cecil B. DeMille's own concoction of "Paradise" perfume. For all this, Cecil still lived fairly simple compared to some of his contemporaries. Sure he had a yacht and several real estate investments around town, but his monetary swagger was tactical more than anything else. While it could be said that he enjoyed spreading the wealth and bringing a little beauty into life, he committed grand financial acts more to stake his claim as one of Hollywood's major hitters, so people would know who was boss. It worked, for "DeMille" and "Decadent" remain pretty much synonymous.

But Cecil wasn't the only power player with cash to burn-- literally. With money comes power and thus the ability to pay for pretty much whatever you want. It naturally followed that certain celebrities were able to produce custom made products or add their own special innovations on different every day merchandise. The tiniest thing would require some specific attention in order to differentiate one's belongings from every one else's. Thus, star vanity even lead to the creation of custom made cigarettes. For his part, ill-fated director William Desmond Taylor smoked only his personally designed black cigarettes with golden tips-- that's genuine gold, folks. Actor and Mr. Muscles himself, Francis X. Bushman (right), also insisted on creating his own stock of lavender colored ciggies.

Bushman let this innovation follow him over into the realm of automobiles. When driving around town in his fancy Rolls Royce, also lavender, it wasn't enough for people to merely notice his expensive wheels. He wanted them to know that it was he who was behind the wheel. Thus, he had a special light affixed into the interior, so that at night, a bright aura would shine over his face and people would know that the famous star of Ben-Hur had just sped by. Cowboy star Tom Mix (left) followed suit. For his car, he specified that the tires be produced with his own personal "crest," which was essentially the compilation of a "T" and an "M." When his car rolled down the then dirt roads of Hollywood, his insignia could be seen in the tracks. He basically left his initials all over town, an effective way of saying "Tom  Mix was here, yeehaw!!!" Gloria Swanson too had a dream car. In fact, her earliest ambition as an actress, or as anything, was to be able to afford a heretofore unseen orchid-colored automobile. People told her she was crazy and that such a thing didn't even exist. But once she became the grande dame of silent cinema, she got her fantasy car-- and then some!

The Tom Mix Bar Brand, also present on his tires.

Or course, in these days, many celebrities were chauffeured around town in their glamorous automobiles. After all, in the caste/cash system, a higher echelon personality was going to make his or her status known. Thus, wealthy vixens like Pola Negri provided extra jobs to various servants who would accentuate their prestige. Pola (right) had a chauffeur who drove her everywhere in her white, velvet upholstered Rolls, but there was an added stipulation: he was to wear white on sunny days and black on rainy days. She too had servants who were in charge of cascading rose petals into her path so that her precious feet-- adorned with toe nail polish, which was not yet popularly worn-- would never be sullied by making direct contact with the floor. Just to add a little more oomph, she too paraded around town with her pet tiger, who often accompanied her on jaunts down Sunset Boulevard. Why, who knows? She did it simply because she could, and Pola was a definitely a drama queen on and off camera.

But perhaps the most well known example of Hollywood grandeur is that of Pickfair. The fairy tale wedding of the swashbuckling hero Douglas Fairbanks to the Golden Goddess of the Screen Mary Pickford captured the attention and affection of the American people when they were united on March 28, 1920-- despite the fact that they had essentially ditched their other spouses to make such a dream come true. It didn't matter. To the general public, they had escaped unhappy lives to reach the unbelievable culmination of true love, fame, and fortune. Of course, in order to rule on high in their fantastical splendor, they needed a Kingdom, which they dubbed "Pickfair." Situated in the hills on Summit Drive above Benedict Canyon, Mary and Doug lived in what appeared to be an oversized cottage. Its ornamentation wasn't overly glamorous, but its amenities were: a seashell shaped swimming pool, big enough to fit a canoe and complete with a slide, a tennis court, and stables. Their life together at this mansion on a hill was the ultimate American Dream. Of course, one must always wake from even the best of dreams, but while Mary and Doug's marriage may have hit the skids, the memory of their plush palace remains forever entrenched in our memories.

Doug and Mary take a row in their oyster pool.

These early celebrities didn't live in a world of "what could have been," they created worlds that were. Worlds that were as outlandish, flamboyant, unrestrained, and yet impossibly possible. When America entered into the economic crisis of the Great Depression and the film world was engulfed but the crisis of the new talkie era, the fawning awe of celebrity expenditure would give way to the public's love/hate relationship with their stars. No more would we find it completely palatable for these cinematic souls to throw cash around so nonchalantly; we would let them get away with it only if they seemed like one of us-- coming up the hard way. But, for a brief moment in time, we adored our movie stars for being larger than life, or perhaps even larger than larger than life. While their splendor may make one wrinkle his nose or perhaps erupt only in a cynical guffaw today, at the time, it was all in day's work. At least, in Hollywood...


  1. Dear Meredith, I'd like to offer you the (Brazilian) stamp "Blogger Friend". I love the way you write and the subjects you pick. You deserve it!

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    Kisses. See you soon!

  2. Wow, Danielle! Thank you so much! I truly appreciate your compliments and am glad that you enjoy my articles. I wish you all of my best in return. :)

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