The Building of a Bombshell

No one packaged mass seduction like old-time Hollywood, but getting actresses to look the part was hardly an overnight achievement.


Rita Hayworth

Smiling with languid seductiveness and tossing back her lustrous mane in such '40s movies as Cover Girl and Gilda, Rita Hayworth was impossibly gorgeous, so much so that Howard Hawks said of Hayworth, whom he directed in Only Angels Have Wings, "At her best [Rita] was slightly unreal. She belonged in some kind of fairy-tale story--she had that kind of beauty." Much like that other fairy-tale goddess, Cinderella, she needed intercession from a fairy godmother before she was ready for the ball. Naturally dark-haired and heavy-browed, Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino) played up her Latin appeal while performing in her fathers Spanish dance troupe as a teen and when starring in Fox's Dante's Inferno in 1934. But back then, the dark ethnic look wasn't mainstream enough to catapult a beauty into movie stardom. When Hayworth moved to Columbia Pictures, a cameraman who was shooting a test of her had a suggestion: lighten her hair. Studio hairstylist Helen Hunt then streaked the front of Hayworth's locks, which became a national trend after the actress debuted the 'do in Girls Can Play. When the executives were still not convinced that she had reached her potential as a stunner, Hunt suggested electrolysis for the hairline. She marked up stills of Hayworth as a guide to hair technicians who, for $15 a session, would individually remove each hair, then zap the follicle with electricity. The process was probably even more painful than it sounds, yet Hayworth submitted to it for two years. After her hair was perfected, the focus shifted to the rest of Hayworth. Weight loss helped show off her cheekbones and whenever she was in front of a camera, she was covered with bronze body makeup, which gave her a healthy glow. Her face makeup was also drastically changed--instead of dramatic red lips and heavy black eyeliner she wore honey beiges. This made her come off as sun-kissed rather than south-of-the-border. By the late '30s, Hayworth was winning better roles in There's Always a Woman and The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt. Her, popularity grew so huge, Hawks cast her alongside Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings. She worked steadily thereafter, and somehow the more successful she became, the better she looked.

Jean Harlow

Before Jean Harlow, Hollywood tended to equate light locks with virginal purity. Harlow, whom nobody could mistake for a virgin, was a different breed--a diamond-hard, blowtorch blonde minted for the grinding realities of the Great Depression. After moving to L.A. from Chicago at age 17, Harlean Carpenter changed her name to Jean Harlow, dyed her honey locks light blonde and found work as an extra in films. Two years later, when comments arose that she had a "puffy, somewhat sulky little face" in an early screen test, she dieted and exercised religiously. Soon after, in 1929, she won her first break when millionaire-turned-moviemaker Howard Hughes cast her in his aerial epic Hell's Angelsthe movie got hyped for its airborne action sequences, but what caused a stir was Harlow, a fast-talking knockout with billowy tresses. Publicists quickly dubbed her The Platinum Blonde, and while there were numerous other blondes working the screen'20s beauties Marion Davies and Blanche Sweet come to mind--none had gone so far as to dye her hair almost completely white. Every Sunday Harlow dutifully trekked to Jim's beauty parlor in L.A., where she'd have her hair freshly peroxided (back then, showing roots was far from acceptable). When MGM scooped up Harlow from Hughes, the studio tried to smooth out her rougher edges. Her white hair was toned down by the studio's master coiffeur, Sydney Guilaroff, her makeup became subtler, her clothes slinkier and her slightly bulbous nose and receding chin got the strategic lighting they required. What's more, the studio had her eyebrows completely shaved off and new ones penciled on to bring out her eyes. By the time she made 1933s Dinner at Eight, Harlow was a new woman--just two years prior, she looked like a sailor's easy lay; now she looked like a Park Avenue lay. The star died tragically at 26 from kidney disease, but while she was at her peak, made up like an alabaster goddess, she was incomparable.

Jayne Mansfield

Jayne Mansfield spent the better part of her life trying to reinvent herself. Even as a young wife living in Augusta, Georgia, she dyed her mousy brown hair black and scraped together money for singing lessons. When she hit Hollywood at 21, publicist Jim Byron took her under his wing and borrowed liberally from other stars to re-create Mansfield's image. Perhaps because Kim Novak had eked so much press out of the lavender tint of her hair and wardrobe, Mansfield chose pink as her signature color. And in the Hollywood tradition of adopting signature titles such as The "It Girl" (Clara Bow), Mansfield declared herself The Bombshell Star. Without a major studio to foot the bills for her glamming-up, she had to become more inventive, begging for loaners at top gown emporium Emeson's in Studio City. All her hard work paid off when Warner Bros, put her under contract and cast her in the 1955 crime melodrama Illegal, but her follow-up offers weren't as impressive. Dissatisfied, Mansfield went to Broadway and made a splash as a sexy comedienne in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, a mini-triumph that led to a contract with 20th Century Fox and two movies--_The Girl Cant Help It_ and the movie version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? While at Fox, Ben Nye softened her strident makeup, Helen Turpin brassed up her locks and Charles Le Maire accented her Mae West-style proportions with fitted frocks. Mansfield achieved a come-hither look, yet she almost seemed computer-generated. As evidence of her ascendancy, Fox paired her with Cary Grant in Kiss Them for Me, but it tanked, and her career headed south. It didn't help matters that she constantly trolled for press. When Fox threw a party in 1957 to welcome Sophia Loren to Hollywood, Mansfield tried to upstage the Italian import by crashing the soiree in a super low-cut gown. Soon after, the fading star could only find work in low-rent European movies. When she died at 34, in a horrific car accident, she was nearly broke.

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