Blonde Ambition

Some are born blonde, while others have blondness thrust upon them.  For the last 70 years, the moviegoing public has had a parade of foxy actresses’ blondness thrust upon them.  (Not to mention the thrusting of their other attributes.)  Whether they were born fair-haired or acquired their platinum locks somewhere along the way, these screen sirens have bewitched, bothered and even bewildered us with an arcane, sometimes lethal mixture of promised sexuality and presumed innocence that makes strong men weak, and weak men saps.  (And invariably has women making a beeline to the nearest peroxide.)

Of course their popularity has much to do with what’s going on south of those yellow tresses.  Blonde bombshells (BBs) do not come in all sizes and colors.  Basically, they come in one color — the blonder the better — and one size:  va-va-va-voom.  Though Mae and Marilyn’s ilk are sometimes considered a tad too luscious in this new, Kate Moss-addled era, for red-blooded folks who like their females strictly fe-male, ample hips and bosoms are de rigeur.

Although the sexy blonde and the erotic fantasies she spawns are staples of Western popular media, blonde didn’t always equal sexy.  In the early part of the last century, blonde locks were firmly rooted in the popular imagination as symbolizing virginal innocence.  Wholesome storybook heroines were almost always blonde, including pre-Disney Snow Whites.  Mary Pickford’s blonde curls told audiences, here was a girl you could bring home to mother.  Meanwhile, in 1914, when Theda Bara ushered in the age of the vamp, her raven mane clued folks in that her intentions were as dark as her hair.  Most early screen seductresses — Bara, Pola Negri, Barbara La Marr — were brunettes.  Blondes typically won the hero’s hand by being the prize to be won.  Seldom did a blonde work her wiles — she just stood around looking like she needed protecting.

All this hanging around looking demure might work for awhile, but when the Great Depression hit, hard times called for hard women.  That’s where Jean Harlow comes in.  Harlow, with her white, “platinum” hair and braless exuberance, had a savvy sexuality that single-handedly demolished forever the “blonde means virgin” equation.

In her early films, Harlow played what can most delicately be described as tramps.  She typically leads the hero astray with some strategic lounging and a brilliant deployment of her untethered breasts.  her nipples caused ripples, and despite her strange acting and even stranger pronunciation, Jean was given a contract at M-G-M, which promptly groomed her into a dame with a sharp line but a soft heart.

Take Red Dust (1932):  Harlow plays Vantine, the kind of girl who wears a lot of beads and bangles as she traipses around Vietnam’s swampy rubber plantations.  Straight out of the Sadie Thompson school of goodtime girl, Vantine falls for rugged rubber maven Clark Gable.  (And who can blame her?)  It takes awhile for Clark to come around, despite jean’s breezy sensuality that stretches to include a nude bath in the compound’s water supply.  Harlow and Gable generate a lot of superstar heat, and Jean’s good-natured sexiness is all the more remarkable when you consider her groom of a few months committed a scandalous buck-naked suicide, making Harlow a widow during filming.  In the aptly titled Blonde Bombshell (1933), Harlow essentially plays herself, a sexy movie queen saddled with a parasitic family and the tribulations that attend screen stardom.  (By now a terrific comedienne, Harlow’s rapid-fire tirade as she heads off to the studio never fails to get moviehouse applause.)

In many ways, however, Harlow’s funniest performance is her first comedic turn, in the Anita Loos-penned Red-Headed Woman (1932).  Though atypically Titian-haired in this gem, everything about Jean’s character screams blonde ambition.  She climbs the social ladder man by man, and they’re all such dopes you can’t fault her for shooting these horny fish in a barrel.  Shockingly (by Production Code standards) Harlow not only gets away with everything (philandering, gunplay, you know), she absolutely triumphs in the end.

Having uttered the famed screen line, “Excuse me while I slip into something more comfortable,” what made Jean a standout was the easy, nonchalant attitude she appeared to take toward her own hubba hubbaness.  Loping about in satin, sans underwear (she reportedly only wore underwear once, when she met Eleanor Roosevelt), Harlow seemed totally at ease, even bemused, by her sexiness.  That’s where Mae West picks up the ball and runs with it.

West was aware of the power of sexuality, but unlike the silent era’s vamps, she wasn’t all that interested in destroying the poor guys who found themselves on the business end of all the oomph.  (Although men did somehow end up demolished, it was no skin off her nose.)  While she loved the diamonds her allure could bring, she also very clearly also liked sex for sex’s sake.  Sex wasn’t just a tools to manipulate men, it was fun.  And in Mae’s hands, it was funny too.  A true pioneer, West wrote her own screen plays and created her own characters.  (Or character — let’s face it, she was always Mae West.)  Mae West was Mae’s brand; she understood it, and her audience, perfectly.  Her persona was that of the wised-up sex queen who sauntered slowly across the screen so you could get a good look, and a good laugh.  Unlike the dizzy blondes that came later, West wasn’t the joke, she made the jokes.  (She even wrote the jokes.)  You didn’t laugh at Mae’s persona, you laughed with her.

In her second starring vehicle, I’m No Angel (1934), West plays a hoochie dancer, who becomes a lion tamer, who becomes the toast of high society.  The movie is full of jazzy one-liners (“It’s not the men in your life, it’s the life in your men”), and has her mesmerizing a string of gents, including a young pre-stardom Cary Grant.  It ends with Mae’s day in court where she gives all the jerks who done her wrong what for.  When you consider that West’s escapades single-handedly saved Paramount from bankruptcy during the Depression, that she became a screen goddess and sex symbol in the truest sense of the word — all while already in her forties — it’s clear that Mae has earned a special status in the pantheon of BBs.

The years following the Depression were good ones for blondes in Hollywood.  There was “sweater girl” Lana Turner, who always looked like she had just had rough sex.  Though she usually played a good girl who loves bad men, the initially red-headed Turner was never blonder, physically or spiritually, than in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).  In M-G-M’s sparkly version of a film noir, Turner plays Cora, a cool customer in white hot pants ripe for white-hot romance.  Of course, Cora is inexplicably married to old and clueless roadside diner owner, Nick.  Of course when drifter John Garfield comes along, lust and tension abound.  Of course they end up killing Nick.  Of course they become suspicious of each other and things end very very badly.  But hey, it was sexy while it lasted.

Some actresses were only occasionally blonde, notably when the plot called for some major bombshell shenanigans.  In another James Cain adaptation, Double Indemnity (1944) as Lola Dietrichson (an homage to blonde cinema legend Marlene Ditetrich’s breakout performance), Barbara Stanwyck dons a blonde wig and the requisite bad-assness that goes with it.  Of course she has an illicit affair.  Of course she murders her husband.  They she really gets mean.  But hey, it was sexy while it lasted.

Tellingly, Stanwyck was also “blonde by mane, blonde by nature” in the earlier Babyface (1933).  Infamous as the pre-codiest of the pre-codes, Babs escapes her pimp wannabe dad (he conveniently burns up in a fire), makes it to New York, then proceeds to make it with a steady succession of men until she’s practically ruling the world.  yes, there’s a murder and suicide along the way, but hey, did I mention she was blonde?

While Stanwyck wielded her blondeness like a weapon, the most famous blonde seemed unaware of the fallout of her appeal.  No celluloid bombshell had the nuclear impact of the Atomic Age’s own Marilyn Monroe.  (Ah, Marilyn.  You can almost hear the angels sighing.)  Some might argue that her persona’s obliviousness was in itself a strategy.  She certainly used her quivering lips and fascinating behind to advantage in movies like Some Like It Hot (1959), The Seven Year Itch (1955), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), and Bus Stop (1956).  In these films, Monroe’s childlike quality is almost a throwback to the innocent blondes of yore.  She’s the ultimate fantasy — sexy, yet completely non-threatening — and for many, the ultimate blonde bombshell.

Marilyn Monroe’s power was never more in evidence than in the quintessential BB flick, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).  As Lorelei Lee, Monroe plays a golddigging headturner with a serious jewelry jones.Best friend with the equally bosomy Dorothy (Jane Russell), Lorelei’s magical blondeness gets her attention, her own way, and baubles galore.  While in her other films she is engagingly (and utterly unrealistically) oblivious to her charms, singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Lorelei clearly knows blonde good looks aren’t to shabby either.  (Thats how you get the diamonds, silly!)

Take away Marylin’s fragility, amp up her cup size, and you get Jayne Mansfield.  (“If for any reason Miss Monroe cannot fulfill her duties as the reigning Blonde Bombshell, Jayne will fill in!”)  Mansfield gets big props for actually setting her sights on being nothing more (and nothing less) than a BB.  A shrewd self-promoter, Mansfield jutted her way into stardom in the tellingly titled, The Girl Can’t Help It (1956).  Even more so than in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Jayne’s awe-inspiring physicality and blinding blondness is the central plot point of The Girl Can’t Help It.  Can our double D double B help it if she walks by and ice melts and eyes pop?  Her BB-ness is such that neither a lack of talent nor lack of interest on her part can keep her from the glare of the limelight.

Since Mansfield, many an actress has set her (frosting) cap on blonde superstardom.  The most successful modern day BBs — Madonna, Sharon Stone — embrace that Jayne-ish over-the-top, pop power of bombshellness.  Others, like Drew Barrymore, go the tousled, free-spirit route.  Their patron saint is French femme fatale Brigitte Bardot.  In her breakout hit And God Created Woman (1956), Bardot is surly to everyone but children and seniors, and is poutingly unconcerned with the reaction her bouncy barefoot swagger gets from the opposite sex.  Making petulance and overbites arousing, Brigitte’s amoral ways almost provoke the same body count as amoral “Babyfaces” of yore — and she’s not even trying!  The last of the old-school bombshells, Bardot had the iconic impact and the turbulent personal life the public came to expect of its beloved BBs.

There you have it, blonde bombshells from B to shining B.  Had space permitted, we might wax rhapsodic about Veronica Lake, Gloria Grahame, and Marlene Dietrich as well.  And yet, all three would have been just as effective without the blonde tresses.  As a brunette Veronica would still give us a bang; Gloria would smolder in any hue, and Marlene — well, she’d be unstoppable bald.

For the true blonde bombshell, their blondness is an indispensable part of their screen persona.  It’s a part of their feminine arsenal deployed with wit, cunning, and an appreciation for the interplay between men and women.  Their BBness is such that their bombshell status is almost the cornerstone of the films they graced, often tipping its hand in the movies’ very titles.

So to those broads, dames, nymphets, and goddesses who thrust their blondness upon the screen and into our hearts, we say, “You go, girls!”


(This article originally appeared in ATOMIC Magazine, Spring 2001. Hence the Sharon Stone reference, etc.) 


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