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Throughout the early 1920s when Hollywood was born it not only produced iconic motion pictures, but also created iconic film stars who rose to fame, building an extensive fan base. Due to the birth of popular press, film stars had to maintain their reputation off-screen as well as on-screen which put pressure on them and caused Hollywood to become a byword for glamour. In the 1950 American film ‘Sunset Boulevard’ character Norma Desmond remarks: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces”, translating to the fact that a women’s beauty and appearance sells. This essay explores whether the fame that came with Hollywood in the 1920s was toxic, forcing the actresses to portray themselves at unrealistic and heightened personas in order to impress a fan-based audience.

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The successful film studio that we know nowadays as Paramount Pictures was formed in 1912 by Adolph Zukor, however it was under the name of ‘Famous Players in Famous Plays’. Using fame in the title of the company speaks for itself. Fame had started to become recognised and celebrated, with fan-groups forming for each successful film star, therefore Zukor used the idea of fame to promote the motion pictures due to the fact that a familiar name to a film would attract a larger audience than if the film were to star someone people would not recognise.

Iconic actress Mary Pickford rose to fame in the 1910s, however it was her hair that was favoured; she was recognised as the “girl with the golden curls” and “blondilocks”. The talent that she was enriched with was not overlooked, yet it is interesting how ones beauty can play such an iconic part in their career. In 1914 the silent film ‘Hearts Adrift’ became an instant success and due to Pickford’s fame, it was the first time in which her name was written in white, bold font above the title of the film in the promotional content. This shows how a name can become a brand and a selling point. Fans adored going to the movies where they could watch ‘America’s Sweetheart’, which is the name she was given by the press due to the bouncy and golden curls that gave her a very youthful look that promoted innocence. The curls were seen as a female virtue, where the standards were set high to look very feminine and charming. Her sweet appearance enabled her to play the roles of a young girl, that were fans were affixed with. At age twenty-seven she played the role of a twelve year old girl, despite the large age difference. This created a shocking over-sexualisation of a young girl, since a grown woman’s body image was being used to promote an unrealistic and illy-thought out representation of a minor. In the 1930s, Hollywood actress Bette Davis stated: “From the moment I was six, I felt sexy. And let me tell you it was hell, sheer hell, waiting to do something about it”. It is clear that youth was greatly celebrated and the charm of a young, fresh-face was encouraged.

In 1928, American novelist Anne Wetzell Armstrong wrote in The Saturday Evening Post: “There never was a time in history when age, as in age, was paid so little respect. The business world is not exempt from the general trend of the time. Once which hair was respected simply because it was white. Today older men and women in business, as everywhere else, must show specific reasons why they should be respected”. The same year that Armstrong composed that statement, Pickford cut her hair into a short bob following the death of her mother. The dramatic change from the iconic curls to a short, mature hairstyle shocked the audience, therefore it made front page news in papers such as The New York Times and Photoplay in which her audience struggled to accept the modification. The drastic change altered her entire look but also her career, since she was no longer able to play the roles of the little girls; a bob was immediately more sophisticated than a sweet, young hairstyle. The public overlooked her right as an adult to made independent lifestyle choices, and renounced her new mature portrayal. Anne Wetzell Armstrong’s statement is true – age was paid very little respect. Author Heather Addison explored early Hollywood’s cult of youth and wrote in 2006: “the Industrial Age and the nascent consumer culture it catalysed devalued maturity and experience and exalted young adulthood”. Addison’s statement is one which I agree with, since the popularity of young Hollywood actresses and their success proves how praised they were. The rejection of Mary Pickford’s short, grown-up hair is a prime example of just how much Hollywood discouraged older actresses. 

Mary Pickford launched her own line of cosmetics in 1935, where her aspirations for the brand were for it to be accessible and affordable for all. Using a photograph of the iconic film star on the advertisement acts as a branding tool, in the same way that an audience would recognise a logo, the fans were to recognise her face from her very successful motion picture career in early Hollywood. The launch campaign advertisement featured a letter that was shown to be written by Pickford herself, which was the method in which the cosmetic line was introduced. This mimics a personal dialogue aimed at her fans, encouraging a personal relationship and loyalty where the audience connect with her; the personal touch on this advertisement causes fans to continue their devotion to the actress. Throughout the letter, a very interesting array of words are presented to the audience. In early Hollywood, referring to cosmetics as a ‘beauty aid’ appears to have negative connotations of beauty. The word ‘aid’ translates as helping or supporting something; in this context, it has a negative connotation of appearance due to the fact that the products are there to help women, rather than enhancing and celebrating their natural features. Examining the language used in this advertisement shows how something so discreet in a campaign actually denotes as the extreme and heightened pressure put on women in Hollywood and society to look good.

Professor Marsha Orgeron composed a journal segment on the topic of consumer culture within Hollywood, in which she stated: “…many stars of the decade whose extraordinary – and often highly editorialised – life became a market commodity, sold by both the movie and fan magazine that purported to disclose every aspect of stars’ lives”.  The word ‘disclose’ translates as confess, leak and publish; there was an excitement about exposing a celebrity and it sought to become somewhat scandalous. Due to the fact that the fans did not have a direct contact or relationship with the elite celebrities, I think that there was a thrill around the idea that the audience could somewhat relate to those they adored – whether that was by using the same cosmetics the film stars had claimed to use, or by stylising their look to match the identity of the idol figure. Marsha Orgeron continues to write: “…by the 1920s, curiosity had been institutionalised and in effect normalised, at least in relation to the movie industry, whose studios and fan magazines fed the public information (however fabricated) about stars’ lives. But this legitimisation of gossip came at a substantial price: those celebrities who participated in the publicity machine often found themselves possessed of a permanently public life, so much so that maintaining truly private lives became untenable”. A very interesting point that Orgeron makes it that curiosity and the obsession with celebrity figures had become normalised; the question of whether the fame that came with Hollywood was toxic or not is truly raised here. When has it ever been deemed as healthy to be obsessed and fixated with someone else’s life? 

In the early 1940s, another famous actress named Veronica Lake showcased a hairstyle in the film ‘I Wanted Wings’, that soon became her signature look that many other women aspired to imitate. Lake’s blonde hair was long, with one side swept over her eye. The popular press and her devoted fans promoted the hairstyle as “The Lake Look”. Companies such as ‘The Fuller Brush Company’ used her to promote their products, claiming that the actress used their products. In the same concept as Adolph Zukor, the company knew that ones fame would attract a larger audience than if the company were to use someone who was not a familiar face. When it comes to advertisements, there is always an argument of how genuine they are. Fans who are devoted to a certain celebrity figure are more likely to be brainwashed into purchasing products from a brand that they think the celebrity uses, since they put their trust into the portrayal of the person.

With World War II, women started to work in factories where health and safety was important due to the machinery. ‘The Lake Look’ hairstyle soon became a hazard since women who copied the look found their hair in the way of their work. Due to this, the government approached Veronica Lake requesting that she altered her hair so that her fans would do so also. ‘U.S News Review’ released a ‘Safety Styles’ video in which Lake promoted her transitional hairstyle – a tied back bun. It is comical how yet again, something so small such as a women hair can be so iconic and empowering when it comes to beauty.

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