They Don’t Make Stars Like. . . Well, You Know the Rest

THE LOVE GODDESSES, from left: Marilyn Monroe, Carole Lombard, 1965

Recently, I re-visited the extraordinary stars of the past by viewing The Love Goddesses (1965), a documentary streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck. Directed by Saul J. Turell, this little-known documentary traces the popularity of female stars as a barometer of America’s attitude toward sex and romance throughout the decades. Though I found the connections between the stars and America’s sexual mores too reductive, the clips of the famous, the not-so famous and the infamous were irresistible.

The documentary begins with the birth of motion pictures when inventors like Edison and his right-hand man, W.K.L. Dickson, captured the era’s celebrities on celluloid. I have come across a lot of Dickson’s 60-second movies for Edison and then for American Mutoscope and Biograph, but I have never seen the one of belly dancer Little Egypt that appears briefly in The Love Goddesses. She gyrates and rotates in a way that puts modern-day twerkers to shame. At the time, there were at least three dancers dubbed Little Egypt, as the exotic (in this case Orientalism) proved fashionable in popular culture at the turn of the 20th century. It is likely that the Little Egypt in the clip is Fatima Djemille, who danced in the Egyptian exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition. Another Little Egypt, Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos, who also danced at the Exposition, was filmed under the name Fatima. I have seen Fatima, who was photographed by Dickson for Edison. The narrator in The Love Goddesses claims that Mark Twain was so taken with the Little Egypt we see in the documentary that he had a heart attack while watching her perform. However, I believe Turell is mistaken. I think Twain was watching Spyropoulos at the time, not Djemille.

I am passionate about movie stars—that is, the real movie stars who considered their stardom to be their profession, not just their art. They accepted the fact that stardom was dependent on playing an archetype that was consistent from film to film, and that a key to this system was maintaining a version of that persona offscreen as well. The female stars of the silent era perfected the profession of movie star. Many embraced their manufactured identities until they became the women they portrayed on the big screen. Some of them were fearless in that pursuit, even flirting with onscreen nudity.

Everyone has seen the famous publicity still of Theda Bara, the original vamp, in her skimpy costume in which her almost-bare breasts are encircled only by metal snakes. Bara’s star image and studio bio were completely manufactured, right down to her name, which was an anagram for “Arab Death.” Vamp is short for vampire, of course, but the word and concept originally came from a poem by Rudyard Kipling called “A Fool There Was.” Though risqué, Theda’s serpent breastware was technically a costume; by the mid-1920s, it was not uncommon to see topless actresses in biblical and historical epics.

LOVE GODDESSES, THE (1965)

A new sophistication regarding sex and relationships entered popular movies after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. In Woman of the World (1925), Polish actress Pola Negri plays an alluring countess stuck in small-town America where a crusading D.A. berates her for smoking in public. Of course, their adversarial relationship leads to passion. At the end, she strides into a town meeting with a whip and begins to lash him with a fierce intensity; this inspires him to grab her and kiss her passionately. I was born and raised in a small town, but I don’t recall any council meetings disrupted by whip-carrying countesses.

Lya De Putti, originally from Hungary, had a similar star image to Negri, but she did not enjoy the latter’s success. Both were frequently cast as sophisticated women who entice men via their worldly ways. In a little-known D.W. Griffith film called Sorrows of Satan (1926) De Putti plays a Russian princess who lures a writer away from his true love. De Putti twirls her cigarette between her fingers, exuding the essence of evil. The film was released in both American and European versions, but the latter featured scenes in which De Putti was topless. The documentary shows a conversation scene between De Putti and two male characters. In the Hollywood version, she is fully clothed; in the European version, she is topless as she listens attentively to the two men. The effect is startling. I was equally surprised by a scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s Manslaughter (1922), a melodrama about a rich party girl who causes the death of a motorcycle cop. DeMille compares the Roaring Twenties to the last days of Rome: In the dream-like Roman-orgy scene, there is not only partial nudity but a lesbian couple casually make out in the background.

The silent era was known for extravagant and titillating bathroom scenes, in which leading ladies were shown in the bath. In some instances, it was clear the actresses were indeed nude under all those bubbles. The trend was credited to Male and Female (1919) directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who shot Gloria Swanson in an elaborate bathtub that big-name designers would envy. An informal competition developed among directors and their studios as to who could devise the most exotic bath scene. In Orphans of the Storm (1921), Griffith depicted a scene in which wine was used instead of water, and a man drinks wine out of glass held between the toes of a bare-legged girl. Hedy Lamarr was shown entirely in the buff after her bathing scene in a pond in the infamous Ecstasy (1933). But, the prize still goes to DeMille for the scene in The Sign of the Cross (1934) in which Claudette Colbert’s character bathes in asses’ milk. The descriptions of these scenes might make the films seem exploitive or even ridiculous; instead, the star power of the actresses and the imaginative set design compel the viewer to escape into those fantasy worlds.

The Love Goddesses tracks the depiction of sex and romance into the early 1960s, covering the leading ladies of romantic comedies, the “Amazons” of the 1950s, and the waif archetype made popular by Audrey Hepburn. I enjoyed the clips from the silent and pre-Code eras the most, because the films are not widely known. I always marvel at the extravagant set design and imaginative costuming in movies from the silent era as well as the frank depiction of sex and relationships. Most of all, I enjoyed watching the stars of another time and place. Larger than life, and more fantasy than fact, they easily eclipse what passes for a movie star in our own time.

Susan Doll

8 Responses They Don’t Make Stars Like. . . Well, You Know the Rest
Posted By swac44 : December 19, 2016 7:36 am

As an accompaniment to this post, it’s worth listening to the episode of the You Must Remember This podcast on Theda Bara.

It seems like so little is known about the silent screen vamp, and it doesn’t help that the bulk of her screen work has vanished, but as host Karina Longworth points out in her notes, there were two biographies about her published in 1996. I’d love to know more, especially since I recently discovered that she and her husband had a vacation home on the Bay of Fundy, not far from where I live (and even closer to where my father grew up).

Posted By AL : December 19, 2016 7:00 pm

RITA HAYWORTH–timeless, classic Beauty–perfection…
At the peak of her incredible beauty ELIZABETH TAYLOR said “People keep referring to me as ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Woman’. I’m not. It’s AVA GARDNER.”

Posted By La Otra : December 21, 2016 11:53 am

I always look forward to your posts, Ms. Doll. This is one documentary I will watch.
I do believe that Claudette Colbert’s milk bath was from “Sign of the Cross”, as Poppaea, “the wickedest woman in history”. Looking forward to your next post.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 21, 2016 3:45 pm

La Otra: You are correct. The title is SIGN OF THE CROSS. Thank you for noticing the error. I appreciate the help of my readers and their vast knowledge.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 21, 2016 3:48 pm

Al: One of my new favorite classic stars is Ava Gardner. I showed THE KILLERS in one of my classes last semester, and the students were stunned by her. Made me appreciate her all over again.

Posted By AL : December 21, 2016 6:09 pm

AVA was spectacular. period. hi, Susan

Posted By Susan Doll : December 26, 2016 1:32 pm

Merry Christmas Al, and to all of my readers. I truly appreciate all of you.

Posted By AL : December 26, 2016 6:29 pm

You’re terrific! Whatta gal…Even though I’m a confirmed Bahumbug, I sincerely wish you Happy Holidaze. luvAL

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

As of November 1, 2017 FilmStruck’s blog, StreamLine, has moved to Tumblr.

Please visit us there!

http://filmstruck.tumblr.com/tagged/streamline-blog

 Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.