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Jane Russell, on set.
Photo: Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth-Century Fox Archive

How Old Hollywood Manufactured Its Beauty

Behind-the-scenes images of classic stars being made into the icons we recognize aren’t always pretty.

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For the gargantuan glamour factories of Hollywood’s golden age — the movie studios — the process of making a movie star required equal amounts of whimsy and pragmatism. There’s always an unknown quantity; a mystifying onscreen charm that’s utterly unique to that person, from Garbo to Dean to Monroe. But in truth, that much-touted onscreen magic was a hard-gained and meticulously organized effort. In a new photo book, Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth-Century Fox Archive, authors Angela Cartwright and Tom McLaren reveal the messy reality of living up to a star persona.

Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth-Century Fox Archive.
Photo: Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth-Century Fox Archive

Their book pulls back the curtain on studio-lot routine from the 1930s until the late 1960s, offering a collection of previously unseen “continuity photos” shot on sets over the years. These were taken to capture the wardrobe, makeup, and general look of an on-set star so that no stray hairs or missing buttons would interrupt the consistency of their onscreen appearance. Styling the Stars’ collection of candid pictures — never intended for public viewing — offer a glimpse into the real process of moviemaking during that era, and its exacting organization.

As Cartwright (herself a child actor, appearing in The Sound of Music, among other films) recalls, a constant stream of studio-contracted seamstresses, hairstylists, and manicurists were on hand around the clock. Photos were developed at the in-house darkroom and sent to the various departments on the 108-acre lot for reference.

20th Century Fox — along with MGM — was one of the largest and wealthiest of the major movie studios, producing throughout its tenure Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Miracle on 34th Street, Cleopatra, and The Sound of Music. Each of these are given their share of behind-the-scenes images in Styling the Stars, ripe with compelling glimpses at the quotidian side of the Hollywood image. Audrey Hepburn fixes her hat; Marilyn Monroe dons a rejected costume; Henry Fonda has a quick shave. There are old-time swashbucklers carefully adjusting their masks, starlets hiding their tan lines, and actors in repose on slanted boards to relieve the weight of their period costumes.

Audrey Hepburn on the set of Two for the Road.
Photo: Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth-Century Fox Archive

What’s clear from the photos is that it takes a village. There are countless worker bees holding clapboards and coffee, alongside dedicated wardrobe and makeup assistants who apply tissue to necklines and pancake to well-structured faces. The photos are occasionally picture-perfect (Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield are unwaveringly beautiful), but the reader can also find slightly puffy, tired faces; stars occasionally look mildly aggrieved or distracted. Well aware that these photos were for internal use, the stiffened smiles and good deportment of publicity shots are mostly absent; heads loll to the side in boredom. The imperfection of these snaps is what’s most striking.

It’s often forgotten just how many resources a studio like Fox had at its disposal to disguise those imperfections. There was a veritable army of designers, makeup artists, hairdressers, and the like, who — through gargantuan efforts — helped to conjure the appearance of effortless glamour. At neighboring MGM, the makeup department alone housed 52 people, with a cornucopia of creams, fake mustaches, false teeth, putty, and gelatin for facial contouring. If a pretty up-and-comer needed wider eyes, a fuller mouth, or a few porcelain caps on her teeth, this was her first stop. Violet-ray skin peels to remove freckles were also common. Hollywood makeup tips, according to historian Jeanine Basinger, were widespread in fan magazines of the time — eyebrow-shaping techniques, the proper application of Max Factor’s Pan-Cake makeup, or how to apply Vaseline around the eyes for a movie-star glow.

Marlon Brando, giggling.
Photo: Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth-Century Fox Archive

In these photos, Styling the Stars evidences what Hollywood history buffs know well. Becoming a star was one of the most elaborate processes of the golden-age studio, but maintaining and inhabiting that stardom was another full-time job. It reveals that tension by showing us what we rarely see from this era: off-duty, sometimes unflattering shots of unassuming megastars. Marlon Brando giggles over something, covered in mud and fake blood for a scene; bombshell Jane Russell looks with exasperation at the cameraman.

Fox publicity departments went to great lengths to sculpt public image for stars — far beyond the looser machinations of modern celebrity PR. The exclusive seven-year contract that was the norm in Hollywood during those years meant that any new star was closely examined by studio execs and instructed by any number of dietitians, singing coaches, or posture experts before they made it to the big time.

It was the studio’s job to vet, streamline, and perfect their stars. Lisps, squints, freckles, difficult accents, flat chests, long noses — all could be fixed, lifted, or otherwise hidden. Through a clever mixture of lighting, makeup, and special costuming, any flaws could be minimized. Costumes were padded at the bust or designed to conceal perceived imperfections — narrow shoulders, thick thighs, and so on. Even the preternaturally beautiful were not spared from this harsh makeover treatment. One studio head brutally told a peroxide-blonde Carole Lombard that she had to darken her hair because she “looked like a whore.” Even Clark Gable was plucked, tanned, and bulked up before his screen debut.

Sixties actress Ann-Margret (of Bye Bye Birdie fame) reveals a fairly typical Hollywood transition in the book. In her 1962 snaps for State Fair, she’s pretty but not yet a bombshell, looking a little ruffled and youthful for her sophisticated clothing. Her come-hither eyes are unmistakable, but it’s not until two years later — in her continuity snaps for The Pleasure Seekers — that her full “potential” has been realized, complete with heavy eye makeup and a confident pout.

Jayne Mansfield in test shots.
Photo: Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth-Century Fox Archive

More often than not, these identity-shifting transitions were subtle, but other times less so. Hollywood was an early adopter of state-of-the-art plastic surgery and dental work, and as early as the 1920s, noses were being bobbed and faces lifted. Sometimes these changes were along the lines of white beauty ideals, as with Rita Hayworth — who, famously, was made to have painful electrolysis to raise her hairline so that she would look “less Latina.”

Weight gain was forbidden in many contracts, and there was occasionally a “morality clause” written into employment agreements prohibiting a star from debauchery or bad behavior. Living up to the image that a studio created for you could be a life’s work in and of itself.

In Styling the Stars, Clark Gable appears in his careworn, rugged older years, every ounce the man’s man his reputation suggests, but this was not always the case. Gable was actually taught rifle shooting, fishing, and hunting by studio-hired teachers. His stardom was an exercise in how studios shaped more than just faces — they offered lessons in any subject that would help to enhance their star’s “personality.” You could become your own image — maybe slip into it entirely. There was ample evidence of a certain cognitive dissonance suffered by the biggest stars, who had long ago shed real names or biographical details. You can find it in quotes like “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant,” or Rita Hayworth’s rueful crack about her most famous film role: “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda... and woke up with me.”

Gregory Peck gets a hand.
Photo: Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth-Century Fox Archive

In the age of full-pelt celebrity tabloids, the dress-rehearsal-style snapshots in Styling the Stars may seem quaint. But the suffocating level of control that an old-time studio like 20th Century Fox exerted over its stars make these photos unique. This is maybe the greatest distinction between classic Hollywood stars and the celebrities of today: We never saw Joan Crawford, makeup-free, on her way to grab a flat white. ‘‘Stars — They’re Just Like Us” wouldn’t have been an appropriate phrase for this era. Audrey Hepburn, with her miles of legs and giant doe eyes, was not “just like us” in the slightest. In spite of fan mag confessionals complete with home recipes, those manicured and perfectly lit creatures belonged to another world entirely. Their radiance and charisma set them apart, and no one wanted to see them taking out the trash.

That’s why it’s interesting when a book of photos comes along that spotlights the throng of professionals who helped create and maintain the glamorous illusion. It’s a testament to the power of the old studio system that the illusion is still seductive, even when viewed from behind the curtain. And it’s worth bearing in mind that not everything is smoke and mirrors. Even when she’s mid-lipstick application, Marilyn Monroe never looks anything less than stunning.

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