We’ve often heard stories of how classic Hollywood stars from the yesteryears preferred to stay aloof and unknowable, but have you ever wondered what made them stars in the first place? Or why this complicated notion of glamor was so appealing? Basically, this attitude was largely a means to sell off products, or pitch brands.
Those Aesthetically Appealing Portraits
Okay, picture this. In a September 1932 issue of the Modern Screen, actress Loretta Young was shown in a full-page portrait avatar. There she posed artistically, seated on a chair, her long dress with soft cuffs complementing her graceful self and a semi-sheer top that only allowed one to see those delicate shoulders. She stared far away from the camera with a cigarette in one hand and created a comfortable distance between her and the reader. The appeal is there, yet you wouldn’t really know the real her but wish you could.
Standing in contrast to this is another portrait of hers in a 1936 issue of Movie Classic. Here, however, she’s all smiling in a white shirt, long coat, pants, and elegant boots. One hand is firmly kept inside her pockets and the other is wrapped around two large, but docile dogs. She doesn’t look into the camera here, but strangely you don’t feel like knowing her. Probably, because you sense as you do already know her.
The Illusion Of Being Too Far Yet To Close
Both the portraits beautifully encapsulate the peculiar notion associated with glitz and glamor in classic Hollywood. Stars were meant to look captivating, fetching, and pose in a manner that would make them feel like they don’t belong to this real world. At the same time, they were supposed to be humble, grounded homebodies, and provide an air of being the girl or boy next door.
Even if it meant that they lived in palatial buildings or sprawling penthouses and mansions, the modest attitude shouldn’t disappear! The basic idea was to showcase that glamor seemed both attainable and impossibly out of reach for any average fan. The sense of mystery is a must and you can probably claim only a minuscule portion of it - just like you lay your hands on the correct lipstick from the much-coveted brand that’s advertised in magazines, tabloids, or over TV, but there’s no way you had a chance of having it all.
Glamor Could Be 'Molded'
Cinema scholar, Patrick Keating had brilliantly essayed an article for Film History where his argument on glamor being a concept that could be molded when required stood out. 1930s Hollywood was all about a new approach to lighting, composition, and printing - an attempt at replacing the soft sentimentalism of the 1920s with a harder, modern look.
To substantiate his points, he supplemented the works of magazine writers like Katherine Albert, who largely pictured glamor as a basic trait of a certain character or a star, synonymous to the sophisticated and mysterious woman - and not merely a fad.
Garbo, Dietrich And The Others
Surprisingly, Garbo and Dietrich considered this so-called unknowable glamor specifically vital. Both of them were specialists as sirens who knew how to lure and seduce men into wicked acts! It became a trait that was often linked to foreign women. Garbo belonged to Spain, and Dietrich had a German origin. Both of them were famous for retaining their mysterious selves.
If you see the portraits of Thief of Baghdad star Anna May Wong carefully, her Chinese-American star appeal was utilized to the fullest and even exoticized to something more extreme. Not even Garbo or Dietrich could match that. A photo of 1932 printed in the New Movie Magazine showed how Wong, decked in a pristine white dress with long gaping sleeves and pearls as accessories, was standing tall. She leaned a bit but didn’t stoop down. One of her arms was outstretched and there was no smile on her face. Similarly, another portrait of 1934 from Photoplay showed her standing amidst the shadows, where her hair was tied immaculately and the arms, curled in the huge dragon tapestry, were kept behind her.
Surely these sound interesting, but if one is inaccessible for the most part, then what’s the point? To sell the idea of glamor better, stars also spoke at length about their hobbies, families, and every other detail, like common people which actually went in their favor.