Classic Hollywood Actors Discuss Women, Beauty & Femininity with Arlene Dahl


You can catch Arlene Dahl in a number of films airing on TCM in July:

Arlene Dahl was a stunning redhead and a capable actress who I’ve enjoyed watching in a number of films including REIGN OF TERROR (1949), SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949), WOMAN’S WORLD (1954) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959). However, her most successful career was in the multibillion-dollar beauty industry where she started as a syndicated columnist offering advice on dieting, plastic surgery, make-up, fashion and the latest hairstyling trends. By 1954 she was managing her own line of lingerie and cosmetics under the Arlene Dahl Enterprises banner and in 1965 she published her first of many books titled Always Ask a Man: The Key to Femininity. Dahl’s book capitalized on her Hollywood credentials and dished out beauty tips along with suggestions on how women could best attract and keep their men.

With the women’s movement on the rise and the sexual revolution bubbling loudly under the surface of polite society, the mid-sixties was a challenging time. Especially for women like Arlene Dahl who had accepted her place, no matter how begrudgingly, in a society that often treated her like a second-class citizen. And although she had admirably managed to create a successful business for herself at a time when American women still weren’t allowed to get an Ivy League education, Dahl makes it clear in Always Ask a Man that she was no bra burning radical. Her antiquated ideas about womanhood are supported, and in some cases weakened, by a surprising number of male actors who are quoted throughout her book. These beloved film figures, including Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Bob Hope, Richard Burton and Burt Lancaster, freely offered their thoughts on femininity and beauty to Arlene Dahl, which she undoubtedly hoped would help sell her book and boost her arguments. 50-years-later, many of the actor’s casual comments are cringe-inducing reminders of a bygone era while others are more thoughtful and enduring. As history, particularly Hollywood history, their observations on women in 1965 makes for fascinating reading so I decided to collect some of the more provocative quotes and share them here.

To set the appropriate mood and give readers an idea of what Arlene Dahl’s book was aiming to achieve here’s a blurb from the back of Always Ask a Man: The Key to Femininity:

“It’s a man’s world. Don’t fight it–the key to happiness and success is femininity! You may be healthy, attractive, intelligent, witty, athletic, personable, and rich but it just isn’t enough–for that man–if you’re not feminine!”

Ouch! In addition, here’s an eyebrow-raising book quote from the screen siren herself:

“Enlarge your mental horizons by taking up new interests, new hobbies, new challenges. But never let your own interests override your husband’s. Let his job, his hobbies, his interests come first. There should be nothing that takes precedence in your day’s schedule over making yourself attractive and appealing for the man in your life. Service groups, bridge clubs, children’s activities, social events are all a part of the demands made upon a wife and mother, but nothing, nothing is more important than keeping your husband happy, interested and in love with you.”

adbookIt’s important to point out that the 40-year-old actress, who had just ended her third widely publicized marriage, was facing middle age in Hollywood alone with two kids in tow when the book was published. She must have had her own agenda for writing Always Ask a Man and her survival in the City of Angels was probably paramount on her mind. In that regard, Dahl’s book reads somewhat like a desperate plea to a dying world that was rapidly slipping through her elegant fingers. Hollywood has always been hard on middle-aged women and not a lot has changed in the last 50-years. Observations aside, what fascinates me about the book is how the men Arlene Dahl queried openly responded to her probing questions. We don’t exactly know what her questions were but we get surprisingly candid responses from some of the most influential and interesting men working in Hollywood at the time. While researching this piece I also discovered that many of the actors Dahl quoted were later asked to be guest writers for her beauty column where they bloviate even further.

What follows is a selection of quotes by various actors borrowed from Arlene Dahl’s Always Ask a Man: The Key to Femininity as well as her popular long running newspaper column Beauty Hints.


On Defining Beauty:

George Hamilton: “To my mind, there are no unattractive women; only those who haven’t been awakened by love . . . A woman is often like a strip of film–obliterated, insignificant–until a man puts the light behind her.”

Robert Taylor: “A woman just has to have someone to be beautiful for.”

Louis Jourdan: “A truly feminine woman should always retain a little air of mystery.”

Glenn Ford: “Once physical beauty is gone there must be something more to take its place . . . ‘To thine ownself be true’ is a rule to live by in Hollywood, especially. There’s a strong undercurrent of conformity in the movie colony that one must fight all the time. I think this especially true when it comes to fashion, beauty and grooming.”


What They Like:

Marlon Brando: “I value each woman for what she has to offer whether it be charm–beauty–wit–intelligence or humor but warmth is the quality I value most.”

James Mason: “Beauty of expression is more valuable than beautiful features and expensive clothes.”

David Niven: “As any man, I, of course, have certain preferences. Being a Scot by birth, I’m inclined to favor those with a well-scrubbed look and a hint of color in their cheeks–put there by an early walk in the chill air rather than by rouge. The smell of soap on a woman’s skin or the hint of shampoo in her hair is perfume enough for me . . . Humor is important. The most beautiful woman in the world is a bore without that.”

Richard Burton: “I like curves and poise and clothes and good carriage that show them off. Clothes should fit the outline of a body not disguise it . . . I adore all women of all shape and size but they must be completely feminine and slightly giggly.”

Kirk Douglas: “The first thing I look for in a woman is warmth–femininity. It’s got nothing to do with a pretty face.”

Burt Lancaster: “I admire honesty and straightforwardness combined with true femininity.”

Dean Martin: “The thing I notice first about a woman is her walk. A beautiful woman is like a race horse–slim, sleek and with a beautiful carriage.”

Joey Bishop: “There are many things that I find attractive about a woman. Foremost to me, of course, would be a sense of humor–but that doesn’t come in a bottle.”

Yul Brynner: “She should be a good listener. Have a style of her own. Be interested in others. Have common sense. Have a sense of humor.”

Laurence Harvey: “I like a woman who has both maturity and ingenuity. This comes under the heading of femininity.”

Bob Hope: “Perfume acts as an anesthetic. By the time she floats a little your way, you’ll promise her anything.”

Adam West: “One of the first things I look for in a woman I meet is a sense of humor, a sort of light acceptance of the world and the people who live in it.”


What They Don’t Like:

Cary Grant: “I can’t bear to hear a woman talk baby talk.”

Pat Boone: “A girl should never disguise the fact that she’s a girl. It’s a lot easier to convince a man that you’re a fascinating female if you look the part.”

Kirk Douglas: “I’m glad they gave women the right to vote, but sometimes I’m sorry they have the right to smoke. Most women are messy about it, particularly about their lipstick. I don’t mind wiping lipstick off myself, but I hate seeing it on cigarettes, napkins and coffee cups! I don’t like women with all their beauty machinery showing–curlers, cold cream, mascara brushes. I’d even prefer to not see a woman touch up her lipstick, but I guess that’s expecting too much.”

Robert Stack: “If she replaces her eyebrows with a Machiavellian triangle, paints her fingernails blue, and dyes her hair some color you’d see in a comic book it’s not too attractive to me–because it’s too familiar. Extremes aren’t necessary. Even ‘high fashion’ frightens most men. When I have to wait in the dentist’s office, I sometimes look at fashion magazines. To me, most of the models look like they have rickets or scoliosis of the spine. They look less like woman than caricatures.”

Montgomery Clift: “The thing that bugs me is the average woman’s complete ignorance of the functional purpose of cosmetics, which is to supplement, not conceal.”

Ray Milland: “I hate imitation jewelry, dark lipstick and most of all a shrill voice. This has spoiled many a picture of feminine loveliness.”

Peter Ustinov: “Artificial glamor–false eyelashes, that sort of thing–usually is put on to hide a vacuum. The most beautiful face can only look vacuous if it masks an empty head.”

Danny Kaye: “Some woman are more interested in what they look like than what they are. If they more interested in what they are, they would look better.”

Yul Brynner: “Simple femininity is the most important thing about a woman, and it is a quality a great many women are in jeopardy of losing. Women are being emancipated out of their femininity in this modern age.”

Rod Taylor: “The sweet smell of success is no perfume for a woman. Say it’s old-fashioned, say it’s corny, but, as far as I can see, a girl who wears a ‘business scent’ is not attractive. A woman who flaunts her career as if it was a new hat is not beautiful.”

Tony Curtis: “Women are beginning to lose their identity. They have jumped with teeth clenched, fists braced and eyes aglow, into the competitive man’s world. They’re losing the vibrant quality of femininity, the aura of mystery.”

George Hamilton: “A woman beautiful facially can negate all her beauty by no longer being feminine.”

13 Responses Classic Hollywood Actors Discuss Women, Beauty & Femininity with Arlene Dahl
Posted By LD : June 25, 2015 8:39 pm

This was a very interesting post. It surprised me that so many of the male actors were actually making responses acceptable by the standards of today. Jordan, Brando, Mason, Bishop, West and especially, Ustinov appreciated women beyond their “face value”. A toast to the men (or women) who realize that women are to be appreciated for their intellect, talent, and yes, their beauty, regardless of age.

Posted By Steve Burrus : June 25, 2015 8:52 pm

Ya “ouch” is right : “It’s a man’s world. Don’t fight it – the key to happiness and success is femininity! You may be healthy, attractive, intelligent, witty, athletic, personable, and rich but it just isn’t enough–for that man–if you’re not feminine!”

Was she one of the “Stepford Wives” and we just didn’t recognize her? Maybe she modified her attitude after that comment [I hope so] but it was for her all about the Man. Sad.

Posted By Qalice : June 25, 2015 9:26 pm

I’m reminded of Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?” I mean, it couldn’t be respect. It couldn’t be affection. It must be femininity!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 25, 2015 10:21 pm

Glad people are enjoying the post. It is really strange how they all keep tossing around the word “femininity.” Like “masculinity” it’s a word that’s open to interpretation now but back in 1965 there was a lot of confusion about both terms and how they were changing.

Posted By Emgee : June 26, 2015 8:05 pm

Glenn Ford: “Once physical beauty is gone there must be something more to take its place .”So he married 4 times.

Posted By Emgee : June 26, 2015 8:08 pm

Pat Boone: “A girl should never disguise the fact that she’s a girl.” What, by wearing trousers?

Posted By John Fickes : June 27, 2015 8:03 pm

None of the answers is bad — given the era and not knowing the actual question. Essentially they say “be yourself.” That can’t be surprising, coming from men who earn their fame and fortune by acting.

Posted By Mary Sanchez : July 2, 2015 7:43 am

I liked what most of the men had to say. Some of the things they said were a little off, but they were just voicing their thoughts at the time! I especially liked what Robert Stack said, it was very much in line with what has been said lately about the projected image of women in fashion and advertising! We can’t all be one size, that’s not realistic! I liked what Danny Kaye said also! I even liked some of the things that Arlene Dahl said, although they were rather shortsighted!

Posted By robbushblog : July 2, 2015 4:50 pm

The most teeth-clinching statement was that made by Arlene Dahl, the sole woman quoted. The statements from the men varied, but were generally acceptable, for the most part. I wonder how she feels about beauty and femininity now.

Posted By Steve Burrus : July 2, 2015 5:03 pm

I was w ondering if Arlene Dahl is still alive. I went to the IMDB website and it said that she is, born on August 25, 1925 in Minneapolis MN.

Posted By swac44 : July 13, 2015 11:32 am

No surprise that David Niven turns out to be the classiest man of the bunch.

Posted By Steve Burrus : July 13, 2015 4:30 pm

“…..David Niven turns out to be the classiest man of the bunch.” Oh I don’t know about that. Cary Grant and Burt Lancaster could give him a “run for his money” on being classy.

Posted By swac44 : July 13, 2015 4:36 pm

I was thinking in the instance of these quotes, although I agree with you that Cary and Burt come off pretty well here too. Thankfully “baby talk” seems to have gone by the wayside, although we’ve had Valley Girl (which I’m not personally finding fault with), upspeak and “vocal fry” as later alternatives.

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