For two decades from 1930 to 1950 before the movie industry adopted the pained expression of art and turned the lens on itself to reveal truths that become neither more or less significant in the re-telling, Hollywood gloried in the production of entertainment pure and simple that saw it attain heights of unparalleled success.
Ranging from screwball comedies and musical spectaculars to racy thrillers, gangster movies, and hard-boiled film noir the movie industry distracted a people beset by the nightmare of economic recession and the trauma of war drawing them into a world of dreams, aspiration, and unimaginable glamour.
But things weren’t always quite as they seemed:
This is the story of four women:
“I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”
She was born Lucille Fay LeSeur in San Antonio, Texas, on 23 March 1905, the daughter of a laundry man who abandoned the family whilst she was still in the womb. Not that she ever permitted her humble origins to intrude upon her later grandeur.
The young Lucille had two ambitions in life to achieve good grades at school that would permit her to attend college and to dance.
Whilst she was still a very young girl her mother married Henry Cassin, suggesting that Lucille had been born out of wedlock.
Cassin soon moved the family to the town of Lawton in Oklahoma where he ran a small local theatre. This was a dream come true for Lucille who was now able to practice her dancing whenever she liked and for as long as she liked, and she became very fond of the man that for many years she believed was her father until her brother one day somewhat bluntly told her that this wasn’t the case.
Lucille’s grades at school were modest at best but she nonetheless managed to enrol at college but once there found little time to study instead having to work long hours scrubbing floors and washing dishes to make ends meet.
Aware that she would never achieve academically she now focused her attention entirely on her dancing and decided to pursue a career in the theatre.
When she was eighteen and following the death of her step-father she moved to New York where she found work on Broadway as a member of the Chorus Line.
Her obvious love of dancing, despite being amongst the poorest paid and most put upon member of any stage production, and the energy and vibrancy she put into every performance made her stand out from the rest of the cast, and in 1924 she was offered a contract of $75 a week by M.G.M Studios.
It was an opportunity that she was not about to let pass her by even if she had to borrow the money for the journey to California.
By the end of the year she was picking up roles in minor low-budget movies, though it has since been rumoured that some of these films were not necessarily intended for the local cinema and pushed the bounds of public decency, but there is little evidence for this other than hearsay.
Her ability as a dancer saw her cast in many of her only roles as a Flapper, or the free-spirited girl without a care in the world, and she soon became a familiar and popular figure in the candy floss, boy meets girl shorts that preceded the main feature.
At this time she was appearing under her own name but was told to change it when it was pointed out that LeSeur could be misinterpreted when spoken aloud as The Sewer.
The studio decided that her change of name should be decided upon by her fans and they opted for Joan Arden but there was already an actress by this name and so Joan Crawford was chosen instead.
Lucille liked neither of the names and was resentful that she’d had to change it at all.
The newly named Joan wasn’t just becoming a familiar face on the silver screen she was also a regular at the many Hollywood parties. Indeed, there rarely seemed to be one that she didn’t attend even when they ran simultaneously, and it was at one of these parties that she met fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Seen out together regularly it seemed that Fairbanks was just another one the many men that Joan was dating around this time but the relationship was more serious than it had first appeared and on 3 June, 1929, they wed.
It was a marriage made in heaven, at least as far as Joan’s career was concerned.
Her new in-laws were the legendary silent screen stars Douglas Fairbanks Sr and Mary Pickford. It was as close to Hollywood Royalty it was possible to get, and even though the marriage itself was to last only four years and end in a great deal of recrimination the impact it had on her career was far deeper and far more significant.
For much of the next decade Joan was to establish her reputation as one of Hollywood’s leading ladies in a series of ever meatier roles that invariably cast her as the gritty and determined All American Girl struggling in adversity to provide for herself and her family but always coming out on top in the end.
Indeed, she became the personification of hope in harsh economic times.
In times of war however people seek escapism and not Joan’s character as the spiky I will survive woman in kitchen-sink melodramas. She seemed out of place and out of time, especially to the many millions of American men serving in the armed forces who sought their distractions in the more obvious sexual allure of Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable.
It seemed as if Joan’s career had hit the skids and was in irreversible decline.
Following a series of flops where it seemed that you couldn’t pay people to see a Joan Crawford movie the roles stopped coming – she had become box office poison.
In public Joan appeared unconcerned about the decline in her fortunes remaining the glamorous must see movie star but in private she was riddled with self-doubt. And for more than five years her career remained on hold as new younger stars drew the crowds to the cinema.
But all this was to change in 1945 with the release of the melodrama Mildred Pierce for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress and which was in many respects to be eerily autobiographical.
Milldred Pierce was to be the pinnacle of her career and she never attained such heights again but she was to remain an in-demand actress for the rest of her life and the movie star par excellence.
Joan was to continue to make movies throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s and late in her career made the smooth transition to television despite her increasingly heavy drinking making some doubt that she could adapt to its demands, but for all the turning up late if at all, the forgetting of her lines, and the hissy-fits on set it was rare for Joan not to produce the goods when required and to impress with her undoubted talents still as a dancer as well as an actress.
Joan’s private life was often as melodramatic as the characters she played on screen. She was to marry a further three times after her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks Jr with varying degrees of success and her relationship with her children is well documented.
She was in fact to disinherit two of them and Joan is perhaps as famous now for her long-running feud with Bette Davis and the 1982 film Mommie Dearest based on the best -selling memoir of her daughter Christina which portrayed her as a self-obsessed, paranoid, and hysterical mother who demanded affection and inflicted mental torture on her children, which either served to damage or enhance her reputation depending on your point of view.
Joan Crawford died of a heart attack on 10 May 1977, aged 72 having earlier returned to the Christian Science of her childhood.
She was voted the tenth greatest movie actress of all time by the American Film Institute, though there has probably never been a greater movie star.
Bette Davis was voted the second greatest movie actress, something which would have irked her.
“You should never say bad things about the dead, you should say only good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good!”
Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known as Bette, was born on 25 October 1909, in Lowell, Massachusetts and was the opposite of her great rival Joan Crawford in almost every way.
With her father a successful Attorney-at-Law she was from a cushioned and privileged background which saw her never feel the need to adopt airs-and-graces or to placate those she offended or disagreed with.
Bette received an excellent education attending Boarding School but was never drawn to academia or a career in the professions but was instead drawn to acting by her love of the movies spending many hours watching her childhood hero Rudolf Valentino.
Eager to follow in her heroes footsteps she attended Theatre School in New York where she was taught to dance by the legendary choreographer Martha Graham, and by her early twenties she was appearing in small roles on Broadway where her acting abilities were spotted by a talent scout and she was invited to do a screen test for Universal Studios in Hollywood.
It was a tribute to Bette’s stage presence for she was neither blessed with the obvious beauty and glamour that was considered the prerequisite for any young actress wanting to make her way in the movies.
Unlike Joan, Bette had no need to borrow the money for the journey to California and was accompanied on the trip by her mother.
Upon their arrival they were shocked to discover that there was no one from the Studio present to greet them, although the Studio was to claim that someone had been sent but he did not see anyone leave the train who, looked at all like a prospective movie star.
Bette was to fail her subsequent screen test but was used in others for budding actors where she apparently made more of an impression.
Much later she described her feelings:
“I was the most Yankee, the most modest virgin who ever walked the earth. I lay on the couch and tested fifteen men. They all lay on top of me and kissed me passionately. Oh I thought I would die. I would just die!”
Following her performance as the modest virgin, Bette was offered a second screen test which she again failed and it seemed as if her fledgling career in the movies had stalled at the first hurdle, and it was only the intervention of the actor George Arliis, who had been impressed by her charm and insisted that she appear in his next movie that prevented her from returning home.
It was an intervention for which Bette was to express her eternal gratitude.
Within a few years Bette was one of the most admired actresses in Hollywood and had a reputation as someone who was willing to take on those roles that others turned down fearing it would be detrimental to their careers.
Even so, her film roles rarely matched her talent.
In 1935 however she was cast to play alongside Franchot Tone (who would later be married to Joan Crawford) in what now appears an overly-sentimental and humdrum movie entitled Dangerous.
Despite the failings of the movie itself Bette’s performance stood out even if it cannot be considered to be one of her finest.
Nonetheless she won the Oscar for Best Actress and it was to be the turning point of her career.
Three years later she won again for a towering performance in the Civil War drama Jezebel.
Bette believed that her Oscar winning performance as the Southern Belle Julie Marsden made her a shoe-in for the forthcoming role of Scarlett O’Hara in the Civil War epic Gone With the Wind but along with other established stars who auditioned for the role such as Tallulah Bankhead, Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur, and Lana Turner she was overlooked for the little known English actress Vivien Leigh.
Despite this disappointment the 1940’s were to be the highpoint of Bette’s career with her appearance in box office smashes such as Dark Victory, All About Eve, and Now Voyager.
Throughout this period Bette and Joan continued to cross paths as well as swords. The role of Mildred Pierce for which Joan Crawford had won her Oscar had originally been turned down by Bette. Four years later she had to withdraw from the movie Possessed because she was pregnant. Joan Crawford took her place and as a result received her second Oscar nomination.
No one knows for sure origins of the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but one can imagine.
Bette despised Joan’s pretensions and believed she used them to disguise her humble background, something that she of course had no need to do. Once when answering a question regarding her own career she remarked:
“Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I am not a bitch. Maybe that’s why Joan Crawford always plays ladies”.
But there may have been more to it than this.
Joan was promiscuous no doubt, and had a fondness for both sexes and it is rumoured that early in her career Joan made advances to Bette that she not only rejected but greatly offended her. She also believed that aware of her deep affection for Franchot Tone, Joan seduced and married him not out of love but in an act of malice.
Bette wasn’t joking when she said:
“She was the good time had by all”.
And everyone knew who she was talking about even if she did not reference Joan Crawford by name.
During the 1950’s Bette continued to make movies but only with varying degrees of success and though she remained an actress in demand she was no longer a box office draw and she became as notorious for her hard-drinking, chain-smoking, straight talking off-screen persona as any on-screen performance.
In 1962 she made the psychological drama Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Co-starring alongside, Joan Crawford. The news that they were to appear on-screen together for the first time caused a great stir but also concerned the production team.
They needn’t have worried and there was very little friction on set with the movies Director Robert Aldrich remarking:
“It is true to say that they really detested each other but they both behaved impeccably”.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Was to be the last great movie success for both women and Bette Davis was to receive her tenth and final Oscar nomination, a record at the time.
She wasn’t to win and later accused Joan Crawford of actively campaigning to undermine her nomination, something she denied.
It was true however that she had contacted the other nominees and told them that if they were unable to attend the ceremony for any reason then she would gladly accept the award on their behalf.
Bette made the transition from the silver screen to television and continued to work right up to the end of her life but like her old nemesis Joan Crawford she too was to be the victim of a warts-and-all book by her daughter that portrayed her as an abusive drunk.
The accusations hurt her deeply despite her friends rallying around to defend her.
Long suffering from ill-health Bette Davis died in France on 6 October 1989, aged 81.
“Every man I knew went to be with Gilda, and woke up with me”.
Margarita Carmen Cansino, or Rita Hayworth was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 17 October 1918.
Her parents were both professional dancers and her mother had performed with the Ziegfield Follies so there was an inevitability that Rita would follow in their footsteps, not that she was given much choice by her parents.
By the age of three she was taking dance lessons, and by the age of six she had already given her first performance.
In 1927 her father moved the family to Hollywood where he set up a dance studio with some initial success and he could count some major stars amongst his clients but the Wall Street Crash of 1929 hit America hard which not only saw his investments fail but paying for dance lessons become superfluous.
He had little choice but to start performing again and so he formed the Dancing Cansino’s to play the local theatres and nightclubs and the eleven year old Rita was an integral part of the troupe.
She was however too young under California law to appear in nightclubs but this didn’t provide her with any respite from a grueling schedule as her father took her across the border into Mexico to do so.
In 1934 Rita’s dancing was noticed by the head of Fox Studios and she was signed on a short-term contract making her movie debut aged sixteen. Her contract wasn’t renewed but a local promoter Edward Judson, whom Rita would marry two years later, arranged for her to have a screen test with Columbia Pictures which the strikingly beautiful Rita passed almost at first glance.
Beautiful though she was with her rich auburn hair and dark brown eyes it limited her opportunities. She was simply too exotic and too Latin, and there were only so many Arabian Princesses and Mexican Senoritas you could play, and the competition was also great with established stars such as Dolores del Rio and Carmen Miranda taking the best roles for themselves.
So she was told to change her image and become more ‘American.’
Rita did as she was told, she always did as she was told, something she would later regret.
She died her hair a deep red, began to use a paler foundation, emphasised her lips rather than her eyes, and changed her name from Cansino to her mother’s maiden name, Hayworth.
The head of Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn was delighted with her compliance and now took her under his wing controlling every aspect of career and her life, obsessively so according to Rita who later described him as a monster.
In 1939 he got her a small role in the Howard Hughes production Only Angels Have Wings and despite only a short time on screen upon its release it wasn’t the movies stars Cary Grant and Jean Arthur that received the sackfuls of fan mail but Rita Hayworth.
Harry Cohn realised he had a star on his hands.
The roles now came thick and fast and in 1941 she appeared alongside James Cagney in The Strawberry Blonde. It was a great success and so was Rita Hayworth.
She was now hot property and her image was everywhere including appearing numerous times on the front cover of Life Magazine and throughout the war years she was a forces sweetheart receiving thousands of letters from lovelorn soldiers serving overseas.
The movies she appeared in continued to be box office hits but she received few accolades for her acting. It was her beauty that struck a chord with the public and her bankability with Columbia Pictures. The critics seemed to care little either way – she was neither good nor was she bad.
She was just Rita Hayworth.
The Studio had been keen to maximise her talents as a dancer and she was one of the few actress to appear alongside both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, even though both had expressed their concerns that at 5’6” she was a little tall.
In 1942, Rita divorced her husband and the following year married the new enfant terrible of American cinema Orson Welles, but her movies, though hugely popular, remained largely forgettable.
In 1946 however she was cast to play Gilda in the movie of the same name.
A classic of its genre it was to be the greatest role of Hayworth’s career and the one with which she will always be associated.
Upon its release the film caused outrage with its portrayal of the irresistible siren leading men to their destruction and with its provocative if not exactly revealing striptease scene, Gilda was the femme-fatale that launched a thousand imitators – sultry, seductive, and dangerous she changed Rita Hayworth from a mere actress into a cultural icon.
The role created a new Rita Hayworth, though in time she was to consider it more of a curse than a blessing.
Orson Welles now decided to cast her in a similar role in his movie The Lady from Shanghai but this time he had her hair cropped and dyed platinum blonde.
This was not however the sumptuously gorgeous redhead with the shoulder length hair that the nation had taken to its hearts and the movie flopped.
Sadly so did Rita’s marriage and she and Orson Welles were divorced the following year.
Rita had never been ambitious to be a dancer and a performer, she had been born to it, and she was to repeat on numerous occasions:
“All I wanted was just what everybody else wants, you know, to be loved”.
Simply admired for a beauty that did not stare back at her from the mirror the stress and the strain of it all was proving too much, and Rita, who had long been a heavy drinker was doing so more than ever.
In 1948 she scandalised America by marrying the future Aga Khan at a time when inter-racial relationships were frowned upon and her popularity dipped so alarmingly that she was forced to take her first ever real break from performing.
The playboy Prince however had no real intention of settling and subjected Rita to what the divorce papers sited as severe mental and emotional abuse.
They also clashed over religion with Rita, a Roman Catholic, refusing to raise their daughter Yasmin as a Muslim despite being offered a million dollars to do so.
Just months after her divorce from the Prince, Rita married for the fourth time to the singer, Dick Haymes who was appearing in Las Vegas at the time on a lucrative contract paying him $5,000 a week.
Unknown to her however he was heavily in debt to the Inland Revenue Service who took almost all of his money and the burden for maintaining their glamorous lifestyle fell almost entirely upon Rita.
The marriage was never a happy one and in 1955 he struck her so hard in public that she later went into shock and was forced to take to her bed, but only after she had packed her bags never to return.
Despite her personal traumas the 1950’s were to be the most successful period of her career and she appeared in such films as Salome, Separate Tables, and The Fire Down Below but it was noticed how the old flirtatious self-confidence had gone.
By now her heavy drinking had tipped over into alcoholism and it was taking its toll.
Whilst making The Fire Down Below she was in makeup when she was told to hurry up because no amount of time could make her look young.
The following year she was signing autographs on the set of the movie Pal Joey when she heard a fan remark – “But she looks so old”.
She was in fact 38.
In 1958 she married the film producer James Hill.
The actor Charlton Heston recalled an occasion when he and his wife were invited to dine with them at a local restaurant:
“Hill heaped the most obscene abuse on Hayworth until she was reduced to a flood of tears, her face in her hands.”
He goes on to describe how humiliating it was and how tempted he was to strike Hill, instead he and his wife, who was also in tears, got up from the table and left. He later wrote:
“I’m ashamed of walking away from Miss Hayworth’s humiliation. I never saw her again.”
Over the next two decades Rita Hayworth made fewer and fewer movies as her alcoholism became more profound and her behaviour increasingly erratic.
She had never received much critical acclaim and now frequently drunk and unable to remember her lines she merely became a famous name on the cast list.
She died on 14 May 1987, aged 68, from Alzheimer’s Disease which had gone undiagnosed for many years and may have been mistaken at times for drunkenness.
Rita Hayworth was only ever nominated for one Golden Globe which she didn’t win.
Even so she was voted nineteenth greatest ever actress by the American Film Institute, one behind Shirley Temple.
“You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision”.
The girl with the peek-a-boo hair was born Constance Frances Ockelman in Brooklyn, New York on 14 November, 1922.
Her father who worked for an oil company was killed in an industrial accident when she was aged ten, but her mother was soon married again to the newspaper artist Anthony Keene and not long after Frances was sent to attend Catholic Boarding School in Montreal.
Constance had a troubled childhood, she could be stubborn, suffered from severe mood swings, and displayed signs of emotional instability. She was often uncontrollable and her erratic behaviour was to see her expelled from her expensive Boarding School.
Following Constance’s expulsion her step-father moved the family to Miami before in 1938 his work took him to Beverly Hills.
The very pretty sixteen year old Constance enrolled at Theatre School and the family’s close proximity to the big Hollywood Studios and their contacts within the business soon found her being cast in minor roles in small budget movies for RKO but she displayed no great talent and Hollywood was replete with pretty young girls and the work soon dried up.
She was talent scouted by Paramount Studio’s however who were intrigued by the way her long blonde hair would fall over her right eye giving her an aura of mystique.
She was signed on a contract and provided with a new name –Veronica Lake.
It was thought that the name Veronica had class and that Lake matched her bright blue eyes.
In 1941 she was cast in the wartime drama I Wanted Wings which was a success if not a box office smash but she soon followed this up with the more popular comedy Sullivan’s Travels. But there were early indications that Veronica’s career path would not be a smooth one.
Her co-star in Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McCrae turned down the opportunity to make another film with her saying:
“Life’s too short to do another film with Veronica Lake”.
She had a complex and unpredictable personality and was proving a difficult person to either get to know or to work with. One of her other co-stars Eddie Bracken put it more succinctly:
“She was known as The Bitch and she deserved the title.”
In late 1941 she made This Gun for Hire, the first of the series of gritty film-noirs in which she was to make her name.
She had only been cast in the role however because at 4’11” she was the only actress the Studio had who was significantly shorter than the movies male lead, the 5’5” Alan Ladd.
She believed that she had just got lucky.
The movie was a great success and in the photos distributed to publicise its release Veronica was shown with her hair falling provocatively over her right eye.
It started a craze known as peek-a-boo, and having a Veronica Lake became the must have hair-do of its day.
For the next five years Veronica was to be one the best paid actresses in Hollywood but it was always a faltering career. Her frequently erratic behaviour was made worse by her liking for hard liquor and the quality of her work suffered.
It also seemed to some that if she had any talent at all it was for making enemies.
The Studio tried to maintain the momentum of her career by casting her in light-hearted dramas but she displayed little talent for comedy and she was accused of acting with her hair, something she appeared to delight in.
In 1946 her career once more took off with the classic film-noir The Blue Dahlia again alongside Alan Ladd and it was a huge box office smash and was to set the standard for hundreds of such-like films to come.
But again Veronica had been difficult on the set, so much so that she was referred to outside of her hearing somewhat unkindly as Moronica Lake.
Following the success of the Blue Dahlia it seemed that every young American woman now wanted to be Veronica Lake but within two years of its release Paramount Studios had cancelled her contract.
Though she continued to make films of increasingly poor quality and appear on stage and television Veronica’s career never recovered from the Studio’s rejection of her.
Her later years were blighted by alcoholism and mental health issues and she became as famous for her arrests for being drunk in public as she was for her movies.
In 1960 she was discovered by a newspaper journalist working as a waitress in a hotel.
People who worked closely with her were to say that she was a gifted young woman but that she couldn’t see it, and that you couldn’t tell her.
She died on 17 July 1973, aged 50, from kidney failure.
She had earlier been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia something that her mother claimed to have known since her childhood.
Veronica Lake created a look and an image that has iconic status and is still imitated to this day. Indeed, it is believed that the character of Jessica Rabbit was based on her.
She also made a series of films that are a classic of their type and have stood the test of time.
What more do you need to be a star?
But she won no awards and does not appear on the American Film Institute’s list of great actresses.
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