Femmes framed by old stereotypes

Variety rarely showed females same attention as males

By 1930 the lot of women in showbiz had only modestly improved, though Variety was arguably taking them more seriously as professionals. The belittling epithets used to describe “the dear little things” were not so prevalent as they were, say, in 1910 or 1920.

Prudery had also given way to pouting suggestiveness in the paper’s photos and ad copy, though most of the come-ons were demure or coy rather than sexually explicit.

The business dealings of the top female stars were duly covered, though rarely on page one and rarely with the same attention devoted to their male counterparts. After all, the femmes generally made less money, and their careers were generally shorter.

Readers of the fair sex were apparently considered to have different interests and competencies than their male counterparts. Variety devoted several pages to what it called “women’s matters” — reports that generally came right after the “Burlesque” page and focused largely on fashion and frippery.

Thus, there were long lists of who wore what in whichever movie or to whatever party; there wasn’t much of a point, beyond suggesting that the clothes somehow bespoke the person — or didn’t.

Take this from the long-running column The Skirt, in which informal film reviews penned by an anonymous columnist focused almost exclusively on sartorial rather than cinematic elements.

” ‘The Untamed Lady’ is Gloria Swanson’s poorest picture,” said one such piece in 1928. “It is surprising so talented a writer as Fannie Hurst didn’t shove it right into the wastepaper basket where it belongs.” The “review” went on to comment on the star’s dozen costume changes, from a silk bathing suit, to riding breeches, to a white suit with ermine collar. And so it went for myriad movies over two decades of the column.

Perhaps more indicative of just how hard the lot of showbiz women still was in the ’30s is “Wisdom for the Woeful,” a column introduced in the late 1920s. The confidential letters to Miss Nellie Revell were full of complaints.

“My husband is a musician on the road with a musical show and his letters are getting colder, shorter and fewer.”

It got worse in the Depression years. Take this bit, from one Amy in 1934:

“My husband, a motion picture actor, makes money enough to keep a maid. Yet he expects me to do the housework. He denies himself nothing, belongs to several clubs and entertains lavishly, but insists it’s a woman’s duty to do the housework.”

Miss Revell’s advice: “If your husband wanted a chambermaid, he should have married one.”

By 1938 the women’s pages had faded, giving way to more systematic coverage of radio, screen, legit, music and occasionally burlesque, vaudeville, circuses and outdoor arenas.

Still, there was the occasional item tossed on the back pages that suggested that crises still afflicted women in the profession, even those who had once been stars.

Mary McIvor, a silent screen star, was found “suffering from exposure” in the streets of Los Angeles in April 1939. She was the wife of actor William Desmond and it was their 20th wedding anniversary that year.

Still, there was some good news for female performers that year.

A piece in early 1939 — “Girl Chirpers’ Bull Market” — suggested that female crooners were in big demand; band leaders Sammy Kaye, Jack Teagarden and Gary Gordon were all looking for “lady singers.”

Marlene Dietrich (Paramount), Joan Crawford (MGM), Joan Blondell (Warners) and Katherine Hepburn (RKO) were pulling in sizeable salaries, per a rundown of 1937 showbiz paydays the paper published.

Even Sally Rand, she of the famous fan dance, was raking it in. The sexy stripper got page-one billing in Variety in March 1939 as the top draw at the San Francisco Expo. Her act — dubbed the D(N)ude Ranch — lassoed a then-stunning $40,000 in eight days during the Fair.

(Part two of a series on the depiction of women in the pages of Variety. To read other columns in the “A Look Back” series, see Variety100.com.)