Friday, September 2, 2011

The Fabulous Forties

The ideal American beauty, circa 1941

The great screen beauties of the 1940's are a peculiar bunch: for the most part, their stardom (which, in some cases, was extraordinary) failed to outlast the decade. The wartime sirens didn't become warhorse troupers, unlike those whose fame came to the fore in the 1930's, chief among them, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, and Olivia de Havilland -- all of whom continued their careers with their stardom undimmed well into the future decades. And even the newer stars that followed in the 1950's, as television encroached and the studio system crumbled, seemed to have greater staying power: witness the longevity of Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Sophia Loren.

Timeless faces, top to bottom: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn

The number one box office attraction of the 1940's, Betty Grable, despite remaining a beloved star and icon of her time, was washed up in pictures by 1953. The decade's reigning musical star, Judy Garland, became an even greater legend by the 1950's and 1960's, but largely on the basis of her concert performances and personal triumphs and tragedies -- Garland only acted in four more films after 1950. Only Lana Turner emerged from the 1940's with her movie stardom intact -- and even that was badly waning throughout the entire 1950's, until a potentially damning scandal gave the former Sweater Girl such notoriety that her box office appeal suddenly went into a third act revival.

Lana Turner, a legend in three acts: superstar (1947), on the skids (1950), resurrection (1959)

Most of the celluloid goddesses of the 1940's are frozen in amber, forever shrouded in the shadows of film noir, or enshrined in the nobility of wartime pluck and determination. Unlike their supercharged 1930's predecessors, their glamour wasn't a fantastical illusion, but somehow more realistic -- while still more remote, moody and less approachable than those who inherited the mantle in the 1950's. Over the next few weeks, we shall showcase some of our favorites from the fabulous, fleeting, Forties. Most made films before and after, but the basis of their stardom is contained in that one unique decade. We inaugurate this series with the Most Beautiful Girl in the World...


  1. Exciting! I'm looking forward to this series!

  2. When I think of pure 1940's stars, I think of Lauren Bacall--wouldn't we say she outlived the decade though? Your thesis is an interesting one theory is that it was the (terrible) fashions (along with makeup, hair, and attitude, i.e. the "look") that made these stars seem instantly dated come the 1950s. But then fashion is my theory for everything.

  3. Looking forward to more entries in this series -- the Hedy piece is wonderful as always.

    Hope you'll give us your take on one of my 40's faves, Jeanne Crain, even though it could be argued that her major fame lasted into the 50's (and she continued working till the early 70's).

    The stars who jump most immediately to mind when I consider your criteria are Paulette Goddard and (though I never saw her do anything remotely interesting on the screen) Veronica Lake.

  4. Todd, I didn't know how or where to leave this anyplace else and I thought you'd find it interesting. Go to 9:00 on this clip!

  5. Ann Sheridan was the greatest actress of the forties because she was the most eclettic and all-purpose big star: lead actress in dramas, comedies, musicals, westerns, noirs, war films. And besides, she was glamorous and so sexy!!!