Great Uncle Charlie could spare no adjectives when describing his favorite Hollywood vamp, Theda Bara. A generation later, good ol’ Dad’s eyes would light up like Fourth of July sparklers whenever he spoke of actresses Jane Russell, Alice Faye and Marilyn Monroe.
These sexy ladies of tinsel town, though different in looks and style, had one thing in common: They all had “it.” No one could accurately describe what “it” was, but when actresses had it, everybody knew instantly.
During the past century, Hollywood “it” girls have arrived in various styles, shapes and packaging, but each always possessed that one, intangible, provocative quality that suddenly made her the most desirable woman in the world.
Silent screen legend, Theda Bara, had her share of “it.” Her fans didn’t hear her speak, but what the post-WWI male audiences saw was enough to catapult her to the status of Hollywood’s leading vamp. Vamp, short for vampire, is a word created by movie fans to describe a silent-screen seductress who could literally drain the life from a man.
In 1927, red-haired Clara Bow played a charmingly naughty flapper in a film called It and established herself as America’s first “it” girl. The word became a synonym for sex appeal.
The most photogenic face in Hollywood’s 1920s pantheon of glamour goddesses belonged to Greta Garbo, a Swedish import who came to Hollywood as Greta Gustofson.
The influx of European actresses who possessed “it” reached epic proportions by the 1930s. Among them was a diminutive actress by the name of Maria Magdalene Von Losch, who, after some good advice from her agent, became the seductive Marlene Dietrich. The epitome of the seductive cabaret singer, Dietrich’s “it” reached more than four generations of moviegoers. As one of Hollywood’s most enduring and imitated stars, Dietrich was once asked whether she objected to being imitated by younger starlets. Her sultry reply, “Only if they do it badly, darling.”
During Hollywood’s golden heyday, hundreds of female stars with “it” were discovered, covered and uncovered. Some were flash-in-the-pan starlets, easily forgotten, while others, the very special ones, went on to become Hollywood’s immortals. They were a legendary lot, these sex sirens of the silver screen: Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, May West, Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth to name a few.
When WWII came along, the American GI had only one definition for the word “it” and her name was Betty Grable. What Esther Williams did for the bathing suit, Grable did for nylons. It was Grable’s famous figure, in a white bathing suit, that decorated the bulkheads over the bunks on merchant tankers, battleships and submarines. And it was Grable’s curvy image, painted on the sides of their bomber planes that American fighter pilots took with them into battle. The curvaceous star came to symbolize home and hope to the American GI.
Having “it” had nothing to do with an actresses’ acting ability, but rather a magical force that captured the audience through the camera lens and touched it in a unique and titillating way. However, possessing “it” didn’t always guarantee the actress a long life at the box office, as stars like Brigette Bardot, Kim Novak, Jane Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren and Anita Ekberg discovered.
On the other hand, one of those blonde bombshells would establish herself as a true Hollywood immortal. Marilyn Monroe was a Hollywood starlet with a desire to succeed and more than her share of “it” to help her achieve that goal. She had a natural knack for projecting her sexuality. In films like The Seven Year Itch and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she instituted herself as a genuine sex symbol and a good actress.
Once in a while, sex appeal and good acting combined to produce a movie queen who possessed that rare combination of “it” and talent. Elizabeth Taylor was one of these stars. She earned two Academy Awards for her work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf andButterfield 8. Italian import Sophia Loren was another screen siren who had sex appeal and acting talent. Her ability to act was no deterrent to her screen goddess image.
By the 1960s, the legendary screen siren began to fade from the American movie scene, the public’s doting enthusiasm begun to wane, along with fishtailed cars, patriotism, Mom and apple pie. Movie houses were closing because audiences had found themselves other leisure pursuits and other idols. TV also became the top banana in family entertainment. Hollywood’s glory days were over, studios were going broke, and MGM sold off all its props from 2,500 films. Hollywood began releasing half of the films it did in 1946. TV had taken the spotlight and the golden era of the “movie queen” vanished.
These superstars of the golden era possessed something more than talent, something greater than looks. They possessed a certain something seen only by the camera’s eye and felt only by the viewing audience. It’s something unique and intangible, it’s something my generation called “it.”