What is the first image that comes to your mind upon hearing the term “sex symbol”? Could it perhaps be the famous image of Marilyn Monroe and her billowing white skirt? Could it perhaps be a provocative album cover of Madonna--or even a sensual smirk and devilish eyes on the face of Elizabeth Taylor? What if I told you that sex symbols existed even before some of your grandparents were born; would you have any trouble buying that? Well, get this, in 1885 an infant, with the name Theodosia Burr Goodman was born. An infant who would grow to be so hauntingly beautiful that a simple glance at a vintage photograph of her could stare at and bury itself into the deepest recesses of your very soul. This woman is none other than Theda Bara: one of America’s most prolific silent film actresses--one of cinema’s first sex symbols.
Coffee and croissant in hand at sunrise, pearls, a beehive up-do topped-off with a sparkling tiara, over-sized sunglasses—the reflection of a woman in the glass of a jewelry store. A young girl sprawled out on a tree branch over-looking a party she’s not privy to, an off-duty princess taking a rogue scooter disruptively through a town. All of these simple moments are from films that star the iconic Audrey Hepburn. The percentage and likelihood that you have seen her image next to a cheesy inspirational quote or her face on a poster of a college age woman’s dorm room wall is absolutely certain, whether you have seen any film she is in or not. Maybe the quote was an actual quote she coined, maybe not. It is undebatable that Hepburn’s image, stardom, and influence has far outlived her life.
Time can permit legends to eclipse the reality of someone’s life, particularly in Hollywood. Some are unjustly lionized and some greatly disparaged but in the history of film few have been as mischaracterized as Marion Davies. She was a success on stage and screen but her long term relationship with a wealthy, married man and her portrayal in a film loosely based on his life is all that is remembered now. Born into a wealthy Brooklyn family, Marion started out as a model and then a chorus girl on Broadway. She was then featured in the “Ziegfeld Follies’ which was a hugely popular musical revue that launched many careers at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As she rose in fame as a stage comedienne, the new medium of the “flickers,” or silent film, beckoned.
In this day and age female screenwriters still face barriers within the film industry. In fact, a study conducted in 2017 found that women represented just 11 per cent of the writers on the United States’ top 250 films. They fared a little better in the world of Television, where they made up 33 per cent of television writers during the States’ 2016-17 season. One has to wonder what the great screenwriter Frances Marion would have to say about these figures. There's a high chance that you haven't heard of Marion, but her screenwriting attributes have had a long-lasting impact on cinema and helped shaped the language of storytelling on the big screen. She wrote the stories and scenarios for over three hundred films in a career that spans from early days of cinema and into the sound era. Her work earned her two Academy Awards for screenwriting.
Lucille Fay LeSueur started as a dancer for a variety of travelling shows, elevating her way to chorus girl, and would go by LeSueur until her time with MGM, where Joan Crawford would emerge as a prominent force on the Hollywood scene. One of the ‘symbols’ of the studio gals, with the likes of Judy Garland or Claudette Colbert, Crawford would make her first ‘debut’ in ‘Lady of The Night’ (1925) as a body double, her breakout alongside Horror legend Lon Chaney in the 1927 horror film ‘The Unknown’ and her film final appearance in a British sci-fi film entitled ‘Trog’ (1970), a bizarre climax to a turbulent career.
Olive Thomas died at twenty-five years of age, thanks to the accidental ingestion of mercury bichloride. She had acted in approximately twenty films over four years, but sadly, her career ended as quickly as it had begun. While Thomas’ death essentially created the first Hollywood scandal ever, I feel that she should be remembered for her expressiveness and liveliness that she brought to her acting. Olive Thomas won the “Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest in 1914, launching her modelling career. She joined the Ziegfeld Follies shortly thereafter and remained with the Follies until 1916. That year, she signed with the International Film Company, and her acting debut was in an episode of “Beatrice Fairfax,” called “Playball.”
Greta Garbo started her career in Swedish cinema (her first notable role being the 1924 film “The Saga of Gösta Berling”), which brought her to the attention of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio, leading her to her first Hollywood role in “Torrent” (1926). From here on followed a suite of successful silent films and Garbo’s conquest of international acclaim began.
In her life, she witnessed the Jazz Age, two World Wars and the Civil Rights Movement to which she devoted so much of her formidable energy. Lena Horne was fierce in her self-respect when it was not socially recognized that people of colour should receive any at all. Ahead of her time, she lived her life on her terms even when it could prove dangerous to do so. Born into a performing family, Lena was raised mostly by her grandparents until she dropped out of high school to be a dancer at the Cotton Club, the famous jazz night club in Harlem, New York. From there she just kept working on her career, eventually touring with various big bands around the country. This was not as glamorous as it sounds since African Americans were denied access to most restaurants and hotels in the 1930’s. Lena would see first-hand the hardships endured on the road by her fellow musicians due to prejudice and segregation.
It was 1941 and American soldiers were away from home only weeks after Pearl Harbor. On Christmas Day they heard a song written by a Russian Jewish immigrant that spoke of all their longing for home and the comforts of the holiday sung by Bing Crosby on the radio. Seventy-eight years later, “White Christmas’ by Irving Berlin has lost none of its poignancy and the film that shares its title is just as cherished. “White Christmas” is a remarkable film, especially for the two fantastic leading ladies it is lucky to claim.